“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Thinking about visiting Antartica?

You may have seen my photos or heard about my trip, or perhaps you just stumbled upon this page while surfing the internet. Yes, I have been to Antartica and I am not a scientist, famous explorer, biologist, penguinologist, geologist or any other profession most likely to get there. I am a teacher, and yes, I earn a teacher's salary, but it was my dream and so I made it possible.

You can book ahead through any big travel agent, or directly through the specialist companies that run the trips -- Quark is just one.

Or... you can just arrive in the place that most of the boats leave from: Ushuaia, Argentina, and ask around at the travel agencies to pick up a place left on a boat that's leaving in the following few days -- southern hemisphere summer, of course! Ships want to fill their empty berths, so 10 day cruises can go for around US$3500-4000 -- not cheap, of course, but when a balconied super suite can go for up to US$25000 it's a steal in comparison.

And don't ask about the polar bears -- there aren't any!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Seasons Greetings 2012

Seasons Greetings 2012! Hope you had a Merry Christmas and that your new year will be wonderful.

I brought in the new year in Shiraz, Iran, where it was very quiet and subdued, as their new year is in April. While we were in Iran we also went to Persepolis, Bishapur and to Qeshm Island off the coast, which you can read about by clicking on the links! It is such a beautiful, hospitable country. After that, I tried very hard to get an Azeri visa, but was unable to due to the new rules. Instead, I spent the time in Dubai with my parents before returning to Bogota.

I did much more travelling in Colombia this year, going to Villavicencio in Los Llanos (the plains), and the eerie high Andean Chingaza National Park with its unusual tundra-like vegetaion, and in June, off the Caribbean coast where the seven ocean color tones of Isla San Andres and Providencia proved true. During my July holiday, I fulfilled a long-held goal of mine to walk in the Sierra Nevada National Park where I climbed to the Lost City -- an amazing jungle city of the Tayrona people that was ¨lost¨ until 1975 when the grave-robbers´ new stash of gold significantly affected the gold market triggering alarms and then a search. Afterwards, I also spent time in Cartagena, such a gem!
During the Easter holidays, I dived into Peru. Machu Piccu is many a Traveller's dream and I expected to feel underwhelmed, but it lived up to expectations.... an incredible place in a beautiful location. I wanted to do the Inca trail but had hurt my ankle in March, but taking the train and walking all around was plenty! Peru also had many other delights that I had not expected. Lake Titicaca was interesting, but not nearly as good as the Nazca lines, the Huacachina Oasis, or the Colca Canyon gorge. Loved the cities of Arequipa and Cuzco, and Lima had a lot going on, too. I didn't feel like I'd seen hardly any of the country, however: the more I see, the more I discover other things I want to see!

One thing I've wanted to do for years is related to the Darien Gap, which is the one barrier between driving from the top of North America to the bottom of South America, an area so wild there are several rebel groups and paramilitaries that fight over territory. It is near impossible to cross it, but the alternative is to go around it, so I took a yacht from Cartagena da Indias to the San Blas Islands in Panama. It was around 30 hours to cross the strait and then we spent a blissful 5 days in the San Blas islands, before being deposited in Panama City. Was lucky enough for return to Panama with my students for a Model United Nations conference in October, in the middle of the rioting and protests, so several afternoons, including the closing ceremony were cancelled, but we made it to the canal, much to many of my students despair.
I spent the rest of the summer elsewhere in Central America, exploring the ancient Mayan cities of Chichen Itza, Tulum, and Tikal. I love the cenotes (sinkholes), the amazing diving and the gorgeous beaches. One of the highlights was whale encounter #1: whale sharks off of Cancun, where they swim in their hundreds on the surface of the water. The incredible beasts are covered in spots, a fingerprint of uniqueness, and are harmless to humans as they swish past you. Snorkellers are permitted, but touching and diving is not. What an amazing experience! Have wanted to go to Belize for years, and loved diving the Blue Hole and snorkelling to see the sharks and rays even if we didn´t see a manatee, and the caves in the mountain are excellent. Tikal--- an ancient Guatemalan jungle city of awesome proportions! Semac Champey, also in Guatemala, an unusualy rock formation, was followed by a wonderful catch-up with a friend from Burma, Cecile. What a wonderful year it was for Myanmar. It was so special to hear of Barak Obama visiting that place so close to my heart. Anyone who lived there and saw the suffering of the people can only have felt wonder at watching such a historical event take place and hope for the future, despite the short term hardships in transition such as huge inflation, uncertainty, and rapid changes.

For my October break I diverged from the norm and took a solo trip to the island of Gorgona, off the Pacific coast of Colombia. Very isolated and quite difficult to get to, it is a haven for diving and whales. Thus saw whale encounter #2: I swam with humpback whales, a mother and her baby, as they swam south. Up close and in the water with them they are awe-inspiring. The island was a prison at one stage, with some political prisoners held here. Being on Gorgona, I was cut off from civilization for the week in a misty quiet place of reflection: just what I needed. I took on a head of department role in August at my school in Bogota and am finding that my work day is very long and my private time is precious and limited, so the respite was amazing. Incidentally, I have decided to stay another year in Colombia, so will be here until June 2014. Colombia is such an amazing place, under visited, and much much safer than its reputation. There are so many wonders and different places to see and things to do; its very close to North America. Please come and visit before I leave!!

In November I was privileged to visit the Amazon again with my school. In a reversal of typical schools, my school in Colombia has more men than women, so I as one of the only females in upper Bach I was able to go the the Amazon a second time! The Colombian Amazon is small, and in reality we jet across to Peru and into Brazil without ever leaving Colombia officially, but I love the birds, the jungle, the water and was thrilled to see alligators, pink and grey dolphins, spiders, parrots, tucans, monkeys and other amazing things. Returning, my proud moment of the year was two-fold as I became an Aunty to my brother's son Timothy and bought a house in the same week. I have been looking at properties in my hometown, Queenstown for the last couple of years and finally settled on one, but I will be poor for a while!

The delight of my year though has been in anticipation of my Christmas trip: Antarctica! On December 18th a friend and I set sail for a 10-day voyage in the Antarctic peninsula and the islands off its western coast. The voyage of a lifetime: it has been truly fantastic. Asking other passengers on the ship over the heavy dinners, we all agree that seeing the volume of ice in the glaciers and ice caps and in the icebergs that have dotted out path has been a humbling experience. The whales, seals and penguins truly rule down here and our insignificance in nature and the harm humans are so capable of becomes clear - I felt the global warming every day of the trip -- it was practically balmy. I wanted to become a penguinologist and wished I'd studied to be a marine biologist to follow my lovely whales around the world. This, of course, was whale encounter #3. Humpbacks and minke whales breaching, diving under the small zodiac boats,  flashing us their flukes (tails), and spying on us with one eye above the water from the great oceans below. I learned all about krill in ways I would never have imagined... did you know they are a crustacean? Did you know they are the life force of everything in the food chain down there? Watching, hearing and feeling the wave of a glacier or iceberg calving reminds us how small we are.

We started and ended the cruise in Ushuaia, Argentina, which was also a penal colony/prison for many years and the southern-most city in the world. My friend and I will spend the next two weeks circling Argentina, and then back to work again.

For me, this has been the year of the whale: three times, three different places... and perhaps prisons: two times, two places... whales have always been important to me, and this year certainly proves it!

I hope you have all had a wonderful holiday and festive season. Best wishes for 2013 and hope all your dreams come to fruition!

xxoo Natalya

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A new use for an old rice machine...

Some new graffiti - Usaquen

I was going for a walk today and there were some street artists at work on the Septima in Usaquen. Toximonaico had recently finished this new one of a lady photographer, and other arts were finishing their work further down the street. I love the Bogota street art!