The Orion crew

One of the joys of traveling on expedition vessels like the National Geographic Orion, is the crew. Because of its small size (the Orion’s total passenger capacity is only 102), you receive more personal interactions with everyone, from the other guests, to the Lindblad staff, to your cabin steward, to the head chef, and even the Captain.

The crew, primarily Filipino, works several months in a row, continuing on from one expedition to another, before enjoying an extended home leave. Many have worked on board the same ships for years, including multiple generations. We had at least two father/son duos, like Teddy “Without” and Teddy “With” (hair, that is). You can probably guess which one was the bald one. Yes, Teddy Without introduces himself by that nickname.

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The galley crew

While I’ve loved the crew on all my other trips with Lindblad/National Geographic, I think the Orion crew may be my favorite. They created such a joyful atmosphere it was infectious. Then there was “Crew Night” where they put on a musical review show for us. (I got to see the show twice since I was on two back-to-back expeditions). The housekeeping staff danced to “Hands Up” (the 1981 disco hit by Ottawan) and the Galley Crew did “YMCA” for us. Most of the passengers got up and danced too. There were more performers, of course, including Cookie, one of the staffers, who got up and sang in front of a crowd for the first time ever in his life. (We provided lots of encouragement.)

Looking through my crew photos I’ve realized that most of them worked the bar. Hmmm. What does that say about me?

And (the worst omission ever), I have no photo of Teddy Without. What?? How can that be? Not only was he our waiter many nights in the dining room, on Apataki (an atoll in the Tuamotus) he loaned me his flip flops! I had been snorkeling in the lagoon and, when tired, I mistakenly exited the water on the wrong part of the beach. If you’ve never been on a coral atoll, some of those beaches are covered in rough, broken up coral. Talk about pain. My water shoes were several yards away on the other beach, so Teddy Without, seeing me gingerly trying to cross the beach without killing my feet, ran over and offered me his footwear. (Yes, they were too big, but they worked.) What a lifesaver!

Of course, you know what this means. I just have to go back and do this trip again!

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Sneak Preview

I know I’ve been away from my blog for far too long. Sometimes real life really does get in the way.

Enough of excuses. I’d rather show you some vacation photos from my August trip to the South Pacific. It’s the first time that I’ve ever flown west of California, and long overdue.

It wasn’t the typical tourist lounging in Tahiti or Bora Bora (although I do have a hankering to spend a few days in one of those over-the-water bungalows). We boarded the beautiful National Geographic Orion NG_Orionand set sail for the Tuamotus and the more remote Marquesas. Our days were filled with snorkeling, hiking, meeting the locals, history and cultural lessons, and, of course, zodiac rides (the latter which, by the way, are even more fun at high speed while listening to Hans Zimmer’s “The Barbarian Horde” on your iPod).

Just wanted to share a couple photos to start. Speaking of zodiac rides, life jackets were always required, but where on earth do we park all those things while we’re ashore? The handy, portable, trash cans, of course.lifejackets Believe it or not, pretty much everyone I’ve traveled with has at least one of these photos. It may seem to be a rather mundane photo but it is part of a complete story when one is traveling with Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic.

And to give a hint of the unique culture of the Marquesas, here’s a picture of a tiki statue at an ancient religious site. It’s one that’s been moved several times, but it is believed it’s current prone position is the original placement. Behind the tiki is my traveling friend Bobbie. (I think she’s taking a picture of the sign on the other side.) Bobbie_statue

 

 

 

Look at that tail!

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One of the prettier lemurs, I think, is the Black and White Ruffed Lemur. Like the Gray Bamboo Lemur, we saw only one and only on the Lemur Island sanctuary near Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. They are supposed to be quite loud, but unfortunately we didn’t get to hear its call. Or maybe that might be fortunately we didn’t. One of the guidebooks compared this lemur’s calls to “agonized screaming.”  Ha! Black_White_Lemur1

Call of the Indri

IndriiOf the many animals you’ve ever seen or heard in a zoo, you would never forget the Indri. If you could find one in a zoo, that is. They do not survive in captivity and are critically endangered with population numbers estimated to be well under 10,000, possibly as low as 1,000.

We were fortunate to see and hear a handful of these magnificent creatures (largest of the living lemur species) in the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. I did not succeed in getting a very good recording of their beautiful, haunting voices, so I’ll link you to a Youtube video posted by Tribes Travel. Just click on the Malagasy name for the Indri, Babakoto, and you’ll be whisked away to the Madagascar rain forest (for a couple minutes anyway).

But today, I wonder how many of those voices have been silenced in the intervening months. This February, Madagascar authorities arrested Jean Yves Ratovoso, one of the leading wildlife officials whose duty it was to protect the Indri. They also seized the carcasses of 11 dead lemurs (10 Indri, 1 Diademed Sifaka). From the description of the location, I don’t believe it was in the exact same part of Andasibe we were in, but was nearby. Our guides names were Jacque and William, so likely we never met Jean Yves Ratovoso.

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Guides Jacque and William

I could sit here in the safety and comfort of my middle-class American existence, and denounce Ratovoso via my keyboard. But can I ever understand what he did? Poverty is rampant in Madagascar, even for those who earn a relatively reliable income from the tourism trade. Their resources are dwindling. Their society is changing, Fady (taboos) against killing or eating lemurs are no longer the deterrent they once were. Organized crime is there. And so, too, are foreigners willing to pay for a chance to eat a “forbidden” delicacy. As the natural habitats suitable for each species of lemurs are increasingly fragmented and encroached upon, their population decreases and their voices fade away. And even those who are sworn to protect them will violate that trust.

If you’re thinking of visiting Madagascar to see the lemurs, you should go soon, before the call of the Babakoto is only a fading echo.

My favorite Madagascar photo

GrayBambooLemur1This little guy (gal?), a Gray Bamboo Lemur, charmed me right away. Banana in hand, looking straight at me, little pink tongue sticking out – you can’t get much more photogenic than this.

Our encounter took place on Lemur Island, near Andasibe-Mantadia National Park on the eastern side of Madagascar. It’s a small preserve, home to a variety of rescued lemurs. It requires a canoe ride to reach it – about a 60 second canoe ride – so that adds to the entertainment value.

Many of the lemurs are habituated to humans and are easily persuaded to come check you out. The Common Brown Lemurs were the most social, while some were a little more reserved (like this guy and the Black and White Ruffed Lemur). This Gray Bamboo Lemur the only one we saw of its species on the whole trip.

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You may wonder what he/she is doing in this photo. Seconds before, the guide smeared some more banana on the tree trunk, so the lemur is licking it off.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here, the guide is offering him a fresh green bamboo shoot, which he spent a few seconds thoughtfully chewing on before deciding we humans weren’t that interesting anymore, and leaped away in small bounds from tree to tree.

 

 

 

Adventures in Breathing

Ringtails

A month ago today, I returned home from a two week vacation on the island nation of Madagascar (off the southeast coast of Africa), an amazingly beautiful yet harsh land. I promise more on the actual trip in future blog posts. Do you love lemurs as much as I do? (I got pictures to share!)

Tonight, as I sit here near the end of my “self-imposed exile” from the office, I want to write about breathing. Any asthmatics out there? Raise your hands! Try not to wheeze or cough — you might make your co-workers think you’ve brought some horrific disease from overseas to infect them all. Got your rescue inhaler handy at all times? Good.

I’ve been pretty fortunate when it comes to my asthma. I’ve never suffered an acute attack (like you see in movies) and I’ve never landed myself in the hospital because of it. But in the last 15 or so years, I’ve experienced about a half dozen asthma “events” (as my doctor calls them) where, for a number of days, my asthma is not under control. The typical remedy has been a round of prednisone. (Only once before have I needed a second round.) Aside from needing to attend doctors’ appointments, I’ve never before missed work because of it.

Now, in the past four weeks, I’ve used a little more than 100 hours of my sick leave (yep – you read that number right – fortunately I’ve not been sick much these last few years and was able to accumulate a decent balance to draw from). I’ll see the final total when I get back to work on Monday. Browsing the internet, I saw a statistic that said asthma is the fourth leading cause of absenteeism from work for adults. Wow. I have now joined those ranks. Never thought I would. But it’s quite difficult to work when one can’t breathe, isn’t it?

You’re probably asking what this has to do with Madagascar. Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. It was one of the harder trips I’ve taken and I was sick in the middle of the trip although that had more to do with sun, alcohol, and stupidity (more on that next time). Maybe that day’s illness set up my immune system for the later failure. Maybe my subsequent drop in appetite for the rest of the trip had an effect on me.

But there I was, four weeks ago, dropping onto my sofa exhausted and jet-lagged after 36 hours of travel (Antananarivo to Johannesburg to New York to Oakland). I’d spent the majority of the day sitting in La Guardia Airport waiting for my delayed flight west…sneezing and coughing. (Thanks to whichever fellow traveler gave me their cold!) It didn’t seem like such a bad cold at first, but then I was pretty much half-conscious throughout the following day. So much so that when one of my cats accidentally punctured my finger with a claw, I did not wash it. (Here’s a tip: even if you’re half-dead and barely mobile, if you get a cat scratch, WASH THE WOUND.)

You can guess where this is headed. That was late Tuesday/early Wednesday. By Friday, my finger was infected and the seemingly mild cold had morphed into a racking chest cough (the kind that hurts, making you cringe). Oh, and yes, I did attempt to go to work – I managed to get through a couple half days – then went to the doctor. She loaded me up with prednisone, some nice cough syrup, and antibiotics for the finger (tests showed it was just a common form of streptococcus something or other that my cat had gifted me with).

While the finger healed and the worst of the cough eased over the next week, my asthma symptoms did not. Back to the doctors the next Friday. More prednisone, change in asthma medications. And, yes, I did try to go to work. But I have to confess my memory is a little fuzzy. I can’t remember if I made it 4 days the first week and only 1 day the next (or if that was reversed). Hmm. I also discovered that some of my co-workers were very unhappy and complaining to my supervisor. (Somebody is apparently convinced I brought the plague back from Madagascar and was spreading it around the office with my hacking & coughing.) People don’t seem to listen when you say “it’s just asthma.”

So when I ended up back at the doctor’s during the third week, I mentioned those concerns. My doctor had already checked with an infectious disease specialist in the event that I’d picked up “an uncommon bug” – they said there was nothing to worry about. By that time I was on my third antibiotic, so not only was it pointless to test me for anything, I had long ago ceased being potentially contagious. (Fourth antibiotic if you count the anti-malaria medication I was on during the trip.) My lung x-rays were clear and all the blood tests (checking things like my thyroid, kidneys, heart, etc.) all came up average. Nothing that explained the extreme fatigue I still felt and the continued stubbornness of my asthma refusing to be reined in. So…more prednisone and a home nebulizer.

When I floated the idea of another week off work (a whole week of nothing – not even trying to do a half day or anything – just resting and recuperating)…yeah…you guessed it. My supervisor and co-workers were more than enthusiastic. Maybe I should say they were very supportive. (Either they really want me to get better or they are truly tired of listening to me cough.)

With one more day to go, I can say it’s been a successful respite. I’m no longer gasping for air when I climb the stairs, No more wheezing and coughing. I still sometimes run out of air when I’m talking and get a little hoarse, but it’s definitely not as pronounced. I think I’ve finally gotten enough sleep too. I know the cats have certainly enjoyed this week. They’ve spent most of it piled on top of me. (Yes, even the one who scratched me.)

So…when I return to work next Monday, if you hear me cough, “it’s just asthma, people” Sheesh. Let me breathe.