On this two-day trip out of Hanoi, we passed trucks loaded with pigs, and dozens of duck farms, all supplying restaurants in Hanoi. At the Cuc Phuong National Park’s conservation center, we were hoping to spot a pangolin (a rare, scaled animal that, in photos, reminded me of an armadillo), but they were only on view at certain times of day, so we missed them. We did visit the monkey and turtle sections though. After a night in our Ninh Binh hotel, we visited a temple and then boarded a small, flat-bottomed boat for another river trip where all the rowers used their legs and feet at the oars. Dozens of tourist-filled boats joined us as we made our way down the river, past even more spectacular scenery, and through three low-hanging caves. I was sure we would have to duck or bump our heads, but the rowers knew the safest channel to take. Outside the caves we encountered a floating market of sorts. Several sellers in boats tried to entice us to buy their wares, imploring us to at least buy food for our rower.
The troop-carrier jeep bounced along a dirt road carpeted with large potholes that looked like they’d been blown out by meteorites. I tightened my grip on side railings and those attached to the back of the seat in front of me, but still, every pothole sent me careening in four different directions. Twice, my mouth connected with the side bar, and once, while I was looking up, the bar behind my head rose up to crash into my skull.
We were in the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, on safari, looking for wild tigers. So far, we’d spotted a lot of sika and samboor deer—including two young bucks testing their fighting mettle by locking horns—and several birds. But no tigers. Where the deer were, the tigers weren’t, which makes sense from a deer’s point of view.
To give you some background, the Ranthambhore Reserve covers an area of 1334 square kilometers, was started in 1973, and is home to six species of cats, three species of mongoose and marsh crocodile, an estimated 38 species of other mammals (the deer would fit in here), 315 species of birds and 402 species of plants. Whew!
The road wound up and down, crossing streams and the aforementioned potholes, through a thickly forested underbrush area categorized as tropical dry deciduous. If the tigers had been there, we might not have been able to see them in the tall grass. I was disappointed—and a little banged up. So, to avoid the whiplash affecting my lower back, I opted out of the next morning’s safari. My husband did go, though, and we were both happy about the results. Not only did they spot a tiger, but also a marsh crocodile, monkeys, and different birds.
Tigers are king in Ranthambhore, and tiger images are everywhere, including at a craft shop known as the Village Women Crafts, where sari-clad women (sometimes with a small child nearby) sew and weave beautiful designs into wall hangings, clothing and other fabric items. It may be a woman’s craft center, but men, it seems, are the ones painting tiger images. All the work is exquisite.
Another craft center again offered the vibrantly colored fabrics India is known for, as well as camel-pulled carriage rides. It was here that a group of sassy local barely-teenage boys (the girls are much more reserved) presented themselves to me to have their picture taken, and, wanted to take their picture with me. It was a delightful international exchange, and we all had fun. For me, this is one of the big perks of travel—random exchanges between people. It helps us bond with people of other cultures—and they with us—and reminds us that we are really all the same, despite different skin colors, religions and customs.
To see the slideshow, just click on any photo and use the arrows to move back and forth.
It’s early afternoon in Argentina’s Patagonia, and on Peninsula Valdes, the seaside town of Puerto Piramides is throbbing with tourists lining up to pay for their whale-watching tours. The little hamlet has grown up around these tours, with lodging, restaurants, souvenir shops and a tourist information bureau all catering to the trade and brimming with business.
Beyond the last restaurant, on an ultra-wide beach fronting a horseshoe bay, there are no boat ramps. Instead, tractors—like monstrous crabs—chug across the sand, pushing and pulling tour boats into and out of the ocean with the aid of long metal arms. Ignoring the vehicles, groups of sunbathers and daytrippers dot the sandy expanse. There’s plenty of room for everyone.
From the ticket office, we march in line to the beach after donning our bulky orange life jackets. Across the sand we go, up the metal steps to the boat’s deck in search of a good seat. During a lengthy orientation in both Spanish and English (mostly Spanish), a tractor pushes us into the sea, and at the proper depth, we float off the trailer and are on our way to see the whales.
It’s speculated that right whales, both Northern (Pacific and Atlantic) and Southern, got their name because whalers declared them the “right” whales to kill. Preferring shallow coastal waters, they swim slowly, passing close to ports and lingering on the surface. All of which made them easy to harpoon. And once killed, they conveniently floated thanks to their thick blubber layer, which was rendered into oil.
Eventually, they became even more prized for their baleen—a tough yet flexible material that forms a giant sieve in each side of the whale’s mouth, allowing it to strain flea-sized copepods (tiny crustaceans) and krill from the water for food. An adult whale must eat a billion copepods a day to supply the minimum 400,000 calories it needs. Polite society, however, decided that baleen was more useful as corset stays, stiffeners in fashionable gowns, umbrella ribs and horsewhips (hence the phrase, “He whaled on me.”)
Even though no longer harpooned for their blubber and baleen, right whales are still fighting for their lives. All are endangered, but the eastern North Pacific population, numbering less than 50 animals, is critically endangered, while the eastern North Atlantic population may be considered functionally extinct, with only ten or so individuals left. Leading causes of death include collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing gear, but in Patagonia there is a lesser-known problem: seagulls.
Kelp gulls might be responsible for hundreds of southern right whale deaths—especially calves—near Peninsula Valdes. They land on the whales, pecking at them to tear off chunks of skin and blubber for food. The hours of harassment and extensive wounds cause stress and weaken the whales at a time when mothers are fasting and expending energy to feed their young. Since this is a recent discovery, no solutions have been found.
Right whales can weigh up to 90 tons, and an adult female can grow to 49 feet long. The male’s testicles weigh around 1,100 pounds each—the largest of any animal and easily surpassing the larger blue-whale’s 120-pound testes.
On this day, no males are available for corroboration, but before long, we spot a mother and calf. They venture close to our small boat, a mass of black skin and white tubercles or callosities that look like clinging barnacles. The callosities appear white thanks to large colonies of cyamids (whale lice).
The whales bob up and down on the water’s surface, checking us out, the mother positioning herself between the boat and her calf. Familiar with barnacle-clad humpbacks that spy hop, I strain to see the right-whale’s eye watching us, but it’s nowhere to be found. I learn that it’s halfway down the massive head, near the corner of the mouth—a curved, plunging line that separates a voluminous lower law from a long, thin upper jaw that reminds me of a safe-deposit box lid with a low hinge, or a trap door leading to a storage cellar.
Perhaps because of the odd mouth and lack of a dorsal fin, it seems like the whale is swimming upside down. I’ve heard that these animals can dive to 600 feet, sometimes flipping over and brushing their flat heads along the seafloor, waiting for the currents to sweep food into their cavernous mouths.
On occasion, I can see the mother’s blowhole. It looks oddly like the thick-lipped mouth on the Dairy Queen commercial, opening wide to suck in air or blow out a water spray, then closing tight before a dive.
Other curious mother-calf pairs check us out, too, but finally we head for shore, passing various sea birds and a colony of seals. The crab tractors are waiting for us when we arrive at the beach.
You can check out Jerry’s video here:
We’re a world of pet lovers, and I’m no exception. That’s why I’m always delighted when a client asks me to photograph a pet—in this case, an adorable puppy named Amber. I loaded backgrounds, baskets and a wooden pirate’s chest into the car, along with lights, light stands, my camera and all sorts of other gadgets and props, and set everything up when I arrived at my client’s home. Soft surfaces work best for pets. I don’t want them to slip or be uncomfortable, so the posing table this time was a couch (hidden by my black background drape). I’m also armed with a bag full of squeak toys and my arsenal of animal sounds because the puppy should be looking alert and into the camera as much as possible. You never know what’s going to work and for how long because each pet is different. This was one bouncy, active puppy. In the end, though, we got enough cute photos to make a multi-picture wall hanging. Which one is your favorite?
The Trojan Horse. Existing only in the pages of Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad, it has been recreated on the outskirts of Troy—an ancient, excavated city in northwestern Turkey.
In the poem, Paris, Prince of Troy and thought to be the handsomest man alive, traveled to Sparta in Greece to win the affections of the beautiful Helen, wife of Menelaus.
When Menelaus found out that Paris had stolen his wife and carried her (and much of Menelaus’ treasure) off to Troy, he sent a fleet of ships to destroy Paris and Troy. But Troy wasn’t that easy to destroy. So a large wooden horse was built. It was hollow so that soldiers could hide inside. When the Greek fleet sailed away, the Trojans thought they had won and brought the giant horse—which they were told would bring them luck—inside the walls. That night, of course, the soldiers in the horse emerged and slaughtered the Trojans as they slept off their victorious drunken stupor.
There’s much more to the story, just as there is more to the finding and excavating of Troy, but that’s for another post.
To show how BIG the horse is, note the relatively tiny figure (all 5’9” of me) leaning against the horse’s leg.
The term, Trojan Horse, is used today to represent a deception—something that looks good on the outside but really isn’t. I’ve had a few encounters with that: an ex boyfriend or two, even a job that looked like my dream job but soured after a couple of months. Anybody else had any Trojan Horse experiences?
October 4 celebrated the Feast of St. Assisi, the patron saint of animals. It has also been designated World Animal day, so this is perfect timing, says Where’s my backpack? to share our animal photos. Perfect timing for me, too, since I’ve recently returned from a visit to the San Diego Zoo, where my camera caught many animals just hanging around and being their charming selves.
Just click on any of the photos to access larger images in the photo gallery. (My apologies for some of the incorrect designations [gazelle, not antelope; bonobo, not orangutang; etc.] I’m trying out the gallery style and still have a few kinks to work out)