Monday, August 26, 2013

WATER, FIRE, AND ICE: A Photo Tour of Iceland, Guest Post by Owen Floody

Puffin on the Latrabjarg Cliffs
In May, our friend Owen Floody went on a photo tour of Iceland.  Owen recently retired from a career of teaching and research at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. He has always been an avid photographer and in his retirement has taken several trips that allow him to pursue his passion. Here is a short reflection on his recent trip to Iceland and a few of his amazing photographs. 

A recent 12-day photo tour (Around Iceland, Iceland Photo Tours, convinces me that Iceland fits the bill for a small, not-too-distant place that offers many and varied great sights. It is an attractive destination whether you're concerned with efficiency or not and regardless of your level of commitment to photography. Our tour took us to the far corners of Iceland, including many sites that most tourists wouldn't know of, couldn't reach, or both.  Most of these attractions were natural in some sense, though functioning or derelict buildings added to the variety.

Glacier Lagoon, Iceland
Our tour ran in late May, which probably corresponds to very late winter or early spring in Iceland.  This timing permitted us to catch the puffins and other birds in their finest breeding colors.  On the other hand, it may also have contributed to some challenging weather conditions, with frequent high winds and rain, even some hail and snow.  But we were all trying to become better photographers, so that maybe this weather constituted just another part of the instruction. 

Hraunfossar Waterfalls
What else did we see?  For the most part, think water, fire and ice.  Given the frequent rain, you may not be surprised to learn that much of our time was spent viewing some of Iceland's many impressive waterfalls.  One of my favorites was Hraunfossar, not far from Reykjavik.  This is a series of "lava waterfalls" that are strung out for some distance and incorporate much variety on their own.  Many of the waterfalls were extremely powerful, though I found myself especially attracted to the smaller falls or rapids, usually a bit downstream of the main falls. 

Lake Myvatn Thermal Area
At this point, I'm sure that you're thinking that all of this water might come in handy if the volcanoes and other thermal areas that Iceland is famous for were to spiral out of control.  Until this happens, however, Iceland's thermal areas enrich the landscape with volcanoes, other unusual landforms, steam, and lots of color.  We made three visits to the Lake Myvatn thermal area and continued to find other parts of it hidden away and offering new attractions.

Black Sand Beach
What do water and thermal activity create when combined?  Well, in Iceland, one of the products is the wonderful black-sand beaches that line part of the coast and which are especially impressive when the sea is stormy.  In a more practical vein, the water and thermal activity provide Iceland with much or all of its electricity, permitting it to avoid many or all of the financial and climatic costs of reliance on fossil fuels.

Finally, ice.  Perhaps my favorite of all Iceland's offerings were the glaciers and their offspring, the icebergs that littered the associated glacier lakes or lagoons.  Collectively, these icebergs were the ultimate chameleons: They varied in size, shape and color, and were wonderful to see in any light or weather.  What can be equally attractive when clear, blue or covered in dirt?  I think that you know the answer.

Derelict House
Though our travels in Iceland were extensive, one would have to visit at several times of the year to (a) access all parts of the island, and (b) see its many attractions under all possible weather and lighting conditions.  I plan to chip away at this on future trips.  The only problem will be that of avoiding immobilization by indecision about when and where to go next!

You can read about some of Owen's other photographic journeys in his posts of May 6, 2013 Tanzania: African Wildlife Up Close; and May 20, 2013 Nepal: Shrines, Temples and Breathtaking Scenery.

Monday, August 19, 2013


Hotel El Meson del Marques, Valladolid, Mexico
On our first night home after our vacation in Mexico the joke was, “Shall we go out for Mexican?” During the week that we spent in the Yucatan we had a range of delicious meals–from home cooked to casual café fare to upscale hotel dinners–and the food bore little resemblance to what we are used to in Mexican restaurants in the U.S.

Sea and Stones restaurant, Cancun
On our first evening, we walked along the beach to the Sea and Stones restaurant at the Westin Resort in Cancun, where we cooked our own dinners on hot flat stones in the middle of a large tray.  I had fish filet in a lime marinade. The novelty factor and the location–in a large open hut next to the beach–made the meal memorable.  By the time we finished the sun was setting and the beach was bathed in golden light.

En route to our next stop, Chichen Itza, we stopped for lunch in Valledolid, a traditional Spanish colonial city, eating at the Hotel el Meson del Marques at tables around an open courtyard.  I ordered chichinitas pibil, a typical Mayan pork dish cooked underground in a banana leaf–juicy and tender, something like Cuban pulled pork.  We also ordered avocado soup and a sample of small tacos Maya style for the table as an appetizer.  Altogether, we had way too much food!

Chiles Rellenos
We stayed overnight at the Mayaland Hotel at Chichen Itza, built in the 1930's and feeling much like a movie set.  We stayed in the Andrew Carnegie wing.  We got up early to see the ruins and returned to the hotel for a swim in the pool and lunch, stopping at a shop on the grounds to buy chocolate with chili peppers–quite delicious!  (Chocolate has its origins in Mexico.)  We ate our lunch under a palapa (grass covered shelter) by the pool and I ordered chiles rellenos, which turned out to be chiles stuffed with meat and spices, not with cheese as they are made in the U.S.. 

The rest of the week we were in a house on the beach near Akumal, where a home cooked meal was provided for us each evening.  The first day, after a morning swim, we went to the Turtle Bakery, a breakfast/lunch café in the center of this small beach community. It is also an ice cream shop. Afterward we walked around the tiny center of Akumal, and visited the ecology center to learn about sea turtles.
El Camello restaurant, Tulum
Another day we drove to Tulum (about 20 minutes away) to see the ruins (Tulum is the only Mayan city built on the ocean) and went to El Camello Jr. restaurant for lunch–a non-fancy open restaurant on the main highway south of town.  Most of us ordered ceviche, which was excellent–and way too much.  We brought home the extra and enjoyed it again the next day.

Dragon fruit
Other food highlights included buying ice cream (frozen ice pops) and a fruit smoothie at a heladeria in Tulum, lunch at Casa Cenote, a beach hotel in Tankh Tres, cutting open and eating fresh coconuts from the tree in front of our house, and shopping in the huge supermarket (Chedraui) in Tulum where we bought a dragonfruit on advice from some other tourists who told us that it was not very sweet, but tasty.  It was.
On our way back to Cancun and the airport, we stopped for lunch at Pummarola, a pizza restaurant in the center of Playa del Carmen, where we had excellent Neapolitan style pizza topped with fresh seafood. Altogether, we ate well in Mexico.

Monday, August 12, 2013

PAMUKKALE and Turkey's Ancient Greek City of HIERAPOLIS

The hot springs at Pamukkale have been used as a spa since the 2nd century BC
A year ago in May I was in Turkey, first in Istanbul, and then for a short tour in southern Turkey. Our tour base was Selkuk, the modern city at the ancient site of Ephesus.  On our first day, we visited Ephesus and other ancient sites around the city. (See my post for June 10, 2013.) On our second day, our guide took us to Pamukkale, a three and half hour bus trip through the verdant Menderes river valley, so we could visit the ancient Greek city of Hierapolis and the hot springs and travertine terraces on which the city was built.
Hierapolis was built on a plateau above the Menderes River Valley
It seemed like a long way to go, but was worth the ride. We stopped on the way at a rest stop (where I bought an absolutely delicious glass of fresh squeezed orange juice) and for lunch at a tourist restaurant where we selected food from a long buffet.

Pamukkale means “cotton castle” in Turkish and refers to the immense white terraces formed of calcium carbonate that rise above the city.  Seventeen different hot springs flow to the surface of the ground in Pamukkale and the calcium carbonate, which is dissolved in the water, deposits as the water evaporates, creating mountains of pure white mineral.  It seems otherworldly.  The terraces and the ruins of Hierapolis are a World Heritage Site.  After paying to enter, we went to the pools, which we were allowed to explore after removing our shoes.  So, taking care not to fall on the sometimes slippery bottom, we walked through the shallow water, which eventually fell to a larger pool in the valley below. The view from the terraces was spectacular.
Entrance gate to the ancient city of Hierapolis
We then entered the gate of the ancient city and had a short tour of the ruins.  It was a beautiful day, with blue skies, fluffy clouds, and red poppies on the hillside.  Nature had taken over what once had been a bustling city in Greek and Roman times, so we had to use our imagination to picture what life had been like long ago.
Our next stop was the ancient swimming pool, supposedly built by Anthony for Cleopatra, when they visited Hierapolis on their honeymoon.  The pool, filled with warm water from the hot springs, was once an elegant structure, surrounded by large marble columns.  But in an earthquake in the 7th century, the columns crumbled, and fell into the pool.
Cleopatra's Pool (note submerged column fragments)

I had brought my swimming suit, so I changed and went into the water.  How could I resist the opportunity to swim in a pool where, perhaps, Cleopatra herself might have once bathed!  The water was lovely but the main hazards were the fallen marble columns, which provided underwater seating, but also places to stub ones toes.
While I went swimming some of the other people in our group went to visit “Dr. Fish”, a spa in which you immerse your feet in a tub filled with tiny fish that nibble all the dead skin off your feet.  I was told that after initially getting used to the idea, it felt like a very pleasant massage. I didn’t try it myself.

Ancient Roman road, Hierapolis
At the end of the afternoon we had time to walk by ourselves among the ruins, following ancient paths through the city. Our final stop in Pamukkale was at a factory where they carved stone into cups, vases, plates, jewelry and more.  After watching a demonstration, we were led into the shop.  Despite the commercial nature of the enterprise, it was actually quite fascinating and many of the items were quite beautiful.

The following morning, our last day in Selkuk, we were on our own and I took the opportunity to wander around town, visiting the ruins of St. John’s on the hill, watching the storks at their rooftop nests, visiting a rug shop, buying some books and other souvenirs, and eating lunch at one of the many restaurants, where I had a delicious eggplant and pepper dish.  I wished we had had more time in southern Turkey, but this gives me a reason to return some day.

My other posts on Turkey:
4/8/2013  Room With a View
8/27/2012  Ephesus: Temple of Artemis
8/20/2012  Letter from Istanbul
8/6/2012  Istanbul: A Food Lover's Delight
5/28/2012  Istanbul:  Museum of Innocence

Poppies, Hierapolis

Monday, August 5, 2013

AKUMAL, MEXICO, Place of the Sea Turtles

Green Sea Turtle, Chelonia mydas.  On the beach at Aventuras Akumal, Mexico.
Turtles have been swimming in the oceans of the world since dinosaur times.  Only during nesting season do they come on shore, and then just for a few hours in the middle of the night.  We were lucky to see this yearly ritual on a recent vacation in the Yucatan Peninsula, whose beaches along the Caribbean coast (known as the Maya Riviera) are historic nesting sites for sea turtles. For six days, we rented a beach house near the tiny town of Akumal, a Mayan word meaning “place of the turtles”. 

All along the beach near our house, just above the tide line, were hundreds of stakes with signs in Spanish and English saying Por Favor, No Tocar Nido Natural de Tortuga Marina–Please Don’t Touch, Natural Nest of Sea Turtle.On the first morning when we woke up, we saw the characteristic “tire tracks” showing that a sea turtle had visited during the night.

In this case, she hadn’t stayed to build a nest.  But on the next night, we got up twice to find turtles laying eggs right in front of our house and a team of volunteers monitoring the process. We were instructed to be quiet and not to use bright lights.  The monitors used small red flashlights, which allowed them to see but not disturb the turtles as they checked their health and took measurements.
Volunteers from Program de Proteccion y Conservacion de Tortuga Marina marking a new nest
One of the amazing things about sea turtles is that when they are ready to mate and lay eggs, they return to the beach where they were hatched.  Apparently sea turtles can recognize their natal beach by its smell.  Mating is done in the ocean.  Only the females come on shore.  When a female turtle is ready to lay eggs, she swims to shore, sniffs the sand, and, if it smells right, pulls herself up the beach with her large front flippers.  Once above the tide line, she uses her front flippers to dig a shallow pit for her body.  Then, using her back feet, she digs a hole about 18 inches deep.  Then, lowering her tail, she begins to drop her leathery, ping pong sized eggs.  As we watched, we could hear the plop, plop, plop, as each egg fell into the hole.  (In that nest, the monitors counted 130 eggs!  A female turtle may nest several times a season, laying about 100 eggs each time.)  After the eggs were laid, the turtle filled the nest with sand, returned to the sea and we went back to bed.
When we came out to see the second turtle of the night, the sky was getting light.  The turtle was already filling her hole and the sand was flying.  The whole process takes several hours and we had missed the first part.
Finally, just after sunrise, the turtle seemed satisfied that the hole was covered.  She turned and heaved her huge body out of the pit. One doesn’t think of turtles being fast on land, but once out of the hole she moved with surprising speed across the sand and in less than a minute had disappeared into the surf.
About two months after eggs are laid, the baby turtles, which are the size of a silver dollar, hatch and scramble to the sea. The nesting season for sea turtles in Mexico is May to October. We were there in the middle of July, at the end of the nesting time and the beginning of hatching time.  When we stopped at the Ecology Center in Akumal (next to the Dive Shop) to learn about turtles we were told that the eggs in one of the May nests were about to hatch that night. We could have signed up to go along with the monitors to watch. It would have been exciting to see that, but after staying up much of one night already, we passed on that opportunity.  If you visit Akumal when it isn’t nesting or hatching season, you can watch a turtle video at the Ecology center and see other informational displays.
At some beaches where sea turtles used to nest, they no longer come. Sea turtles are endangered because of predation by both humans and animals, from housing developments along the beaches where they nest, from pollution, and from global warming. We were lucky to see sea turtles close-up in nature.  You can find out more about the sea turtles along the Caribbean Coast of Quintana Roo on the Yucatan peninsula here.

Note:  Green sea turtles live and nest all over the world including on the beaches of Viet Nam. To see a short video of the egg laying process and some amazing shots of the newly hatched turtles scuttling to the sea, click here.