My Porpoise in Life

As a nervous swimmer, I wasn’t entirely sure that I was not going to drown, but it didn’t matter. I quickly determined that donning a pair of flippers and hopping into a cove with dolphins was worth the risk. You could have upped the ante on that one and I probably (okay, let’s be honest, definitely!) would have made the same choice.

You see, I’m a pretty responsible person. I got my first job at sixteen, working at ShopKo in the lawn and garden department and then transferring to jewelry when the season ended. I went to college at seventeen, study abroad in the Dominican Republic at eighteen, and then married at nineteen. I had my first middle school classroom by the time I was twenty-one, owned a house at twenty-two, and started my first master’s degree at twenty-three. Needless to say, I’ve never been one to shy away from the responsible choice.

Unless, it comes to animals.

Dangle the possibility of touching an animal, or better yet hanging out/playing with almost anything in the fauna world and the possibility of poor choices rises dramatically. (Okay, in my book, there are a good number of creepy-crawlies that don’t earn the label of “animal” and are absolutely not a part of this equation. No spiders. No snakes [although snakes HAVE unwillingly happened].)

Most of the time, my animal encounters are in safe and organized arenas, but they don’t have to be. If I can get close to it, I will. When we were in Perth a few years ago, we went to Rottnest Island, home of the absolutely adorable quokka. These crazy little creatures are just wild around the island and when we stopped to hole up in the shadow of a bush after a brutal bike ride, we found friends who also were using the same shrub-shade. Knowing that I was famished from the heat, I figured these guys were as well, so I shared my water bottle with them. Yes, I let the marsupials drink from the same bottle I was using. I am sure there are no diseases or possibly problems with a bit of a saliva swap. We’re all friends here!

A couple of weeks ago when we took a little trip out of Caracas to Curacao, animals were the top of my to-do list. (Animals, followed closely by cheese shopping. Luckily, both boxes were checked.)

I’d done a bit of online research before (basically avoiding working on things I should be doing) and found a small aquarium in Willemstad. The aquarium itself didn’t seem like much to write home about (and in proved not to be in person), but their handful of flamingos and a few random fish tanks were not the main draw. Instead, it was DOLPHINS! (As cool as fish can be, mammals always win out over fishes.) The aquarium website offered up a couple of dolphin options, including one where the participants stood on a platform in the water, but that didn’t seem nearly engaged enough for me. Instead, I opted for the one where you don a pair of fins and bail into the cove with the dolphins for an hour of chillaxing.

As a non-proficient swimmer, I was a bit nervous about this choice. I tread water okay in a pool, but that has very finite edges and bottom and I know what is around me. In elementary school, I took years of swim lessons, first at the local city pool and then private lessons when I repeatedly flunked out of the public sector. (Those initial ones were the ones when parents signed me up for the first two weeks of June at the 8AM slot, in Idaho. That is not outdoor pool weather! I blame the early-stage hypothermia for my failures.) When it comes to oceans, I am even less confident in my abilities and am pretty much always convinced something is touching me. (It doesn’t help that when I was getting my SCUBA certification, on the first open water dive, we got caught in a super strong current and even the dive master had a terrible time getting back to shore and had to call the dive off. I was pretty sure I was never going to make it back to the beach and the Tioman Island vista would be the last thing I glimpsed on this earth!)

With survival in question, I grabbed my flippers and headed for the dock. Not even possible drowning was going to keep me away from those dolphins.

Facing death by the sea was worth it for an hour with my new dolphin buddies.

Luckily, my giant flippers were quite proficient at keeping my head above the water. (I was surprised at how terrible a swimmer one could be with the help of flippers. This is key to keep in mind for future oceanic excursions!) I spent the next hour swimming, dancing, having water fights, and just generally hanging out with my new BFFs. The younger of the dolphins was just like a big, slick puppy. It didn’t take more than about one stroke down his side and he’d flip over on his back to get a tummy rub. The first time he did it I was afraid I had broken my dolphin! (You break it, you buy it, right?)

Unfortunately, I did not get to take my dolphin home with me at the end of the day. That would have been the best door prize ever! It doesn’t matter though, because I spent the morning swimming with dolphins in a cove on Curacao. There’s not much there to complain about. Caracas might not always be the easiest gig I’ve ever had, but experiences like this one make it worth the frustrations of not being able to find sandwich bread, my car still being in Miami three months after getting in Venezuela, or trying to figure out how the bolivars that I transferred last week are now worth a fraction of their previous value.

At the end of the day, none of it matters.



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Cruisin’ with Captain Carl

Captain Carl.

The guy’s self-proclaimed moniker is enough to sell me on this day-long adventure.

The first image that pops into my head is of a cartoon Panamanian Capt’n Crunch- epaulets and all. There’s a bravado to deeming yourself captain that I appreciate, and even more so when I learn you live on a houseboat in the middle of a lake in the Panama Canal. There is much I don’t understand in the set-up and I’m not entirely convinced ol’ Carl isn’t running from something (taxman? ex-wife?), but he’s got one heck of a gig going and I wanted to be a part of it for a single day.  (As a side note, when we asked Captain Carl what he did before this, his reply left no room for follow-up questions, “Same thing. Different place.”)

Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

After being in Panama for a few days and having thoroughly seen the canal and lock system, having raided the well-stocked grocery store, and having wandered and eaten our way around the capital city, we were looking for something with a bit more nature for our last day in the country. We met with the travel concierge at the hotel, but were unimpressed with the tour options for the price given, so fell back on a last minute bit of advice we had gotten from a colleague in Caracas- check out Captain Carl’s tours.

Not loving the hotel-provided options, we pulled up Captain Carl’s website and after browsing the photo-heavy pages (seriously, not good for loading on a phone overseas), we decided to go for it. This was about noon on Friday and we booked for a 7AM pickup on Saturday. Money paid and shuttle set, we still were not entirely sure what we were getting ourselves into, but it was outside the city and seemed promising.


Captain Carl’s tour is hard to explain, but it boils down to being a “must do” when you’re in Panama. After driving about half an hour outside the city, we were left at a dock with six other people, where life-jackets were promptly handed out (I tied mine together, thank you very much) and we clambered into a boat with a canvas awning. The eponymous Carl was our boat master, wildlife spotter, and overall champion of the day.

The all-day tour started with a trip up the Panama Canal where we passed massive freighters chugging by as we were in our dingy-sized boat with a motor. I wish I had a photo of the size difference- David and Goliath, boat edition.

Soon though, we peeled off from the main channel of the canal and headed up into the fingers of the lake that is at the heart of the canal. Not far off the main drag, Captain Carl handed out peanuts and told us to hide them on our bodies in a place not easily seen.

It is well documented on this blog that I will touch any animal I can get my hands on. (As a matter of fact, I may have tried to take a lonely kitten home after work today but he was having none of it. If only he knew what he is missing out on- imported cat food, fancy American clumping kitty litter…he could have been living the 1% life for cats, but instead he hissed and glared at me. Your loss, Mr. Gatito.) But yes, if there is a chance to get up close and personal with critters, I’m there.

So yes, I will hide peanuts if it means I can entice some adorable fauna in my direction.

Okay. Peanuts in the shorts? In the rash guard? Maybe just tucked under my thigh?

With peanuts stashed, we headed out boat into a mangrove cove where within seconds our visitors arrived on the boat. Monkeys, used to the gig, knew we were laden with treats and jumped down from their tree perches. Since they were meat-eaters, we were told to avoid smiling, as it would be interpreted as baring out teeth, but come on! How does one feed a monkey, dangling by its tail from the canopy of the boat, peanuts and not grin. Impossible.

From there, we headed back out into the lake on our way to find more monkey families, but along the way had to stop to visit a special friend of Carl’s- Pablo Escobar. Pablo is a loner monkey that lives along a finger of the lake that Carl has basically trained to come get food when he hears the boat. Pablo can catch flying peanuts with grace, a la Benihana, although sometimes he seems to figure the effort isn’t’ worth it and wait to dig them out of the water below. When asked about Pablo’s family situation, Carl says they are kindred spirits, both exiled from their tribes- just another brief insight into who/what Carl is.

That’s not the end of our monkey-time though. The best was yet to come!

(Regular readers of this blog will know that monkeys have not always been my favorite wildlife in the past- we’ve had…well…let’s just say a few run-ins, but Panama restored my faith in our furry cousins.)

After tootling along another side channel of the lake, we pulled to a different stand of trees in the lake, this time with bananas in hand, only to be greeted with the most adorable, tiny monkeys ever! These little guys were happy to eat banana right out of our hands, or did, until one greedy little guy stole my entire ½ banana, which was roughly the same size as he was! I loved having them hop my lap and hang out for a bit and I regretted not having a satchel to tuck one away in as a souvenir. (Yes, I know. It’s not good environmental policy, to steal wildlife and bring them home as pets. I would never do it. But I can daydream about it.)

The morning drew to a close and we put our monkey adventures behind us as we pulled up to Captain Carl’s wonderful floating home- a houseboat built for guests. (What? We could have stayed overnight? Next time, Captain Carl!) It’s four levels of decks and Adirondack chairs, hammocks and swings was a perfect way to relax in the sunshine (with shade options available for those with less lizard-like leanings). Lunch was a fantastic spread of chicken and beef kabobs and a baked potato and some veggies (all of which promptly made their way onto Thad’s plate). It was a much more civilized lunch than I expected from a random houseboat in the middle of a lake in the middle of the Panama Canal.

Our day wasn’t over just yet. The animal sighting boxes were checked, but now it was time for a little outdoor fun on the lake- fun that I don’t remember signing up for, but couldn’t say no to- kayaking.

I thought I was a decent lake kayaker. I have done it many times before and always end up where I need to be. As a matter of fact, I was kayaking on Payette Lake just a few months ago! But, something went all wrong when it became tandem kayaking. Between the two of us, Thad and I ended up with our kayak in the reeds more than once and he may or may not have smacked me in the head with his paddle once. (He says accident. I question it, as he was annoyed with my navigating abilities at that point. We’ll leave it as unknown intentions.)

But, terrible kayak driving aside, we went on an amazing trip up a tiny waterway not much wider than our kayak (which also makes steering hard!) that ended at a beautiful waterfall and pool. We had barely parallel parked our kayaks before Thad was clamoring up the cliffside to jump off the waterfall into the hidden pool. As I waded about closer to shore, I did wonder about the medivac options from this very-off-the-grid locale.

Captain Carl is quirky, but in a lovable way, and he has quite the job, visiting monkeys on a daily basis, kayaking around a lake in the world’s most famous canal, and chatting with tourist from all over the world. This mini-adventure was the perfect foil to our fancy resort hotel and an excellent wrap up to our first escape from Venezuela. I’m sure we’ll be back to Panama and I’m just as sure we’ll be enjoying the Captain’s company in the future- maybe even for an overnight stay!


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Video/photo credit: T. Ross


Lovin’ Some Llama (and Alpaca) Time

Being raised in rural Idaho, my family always had a small menagerie of animals around. At various points in my childhood, our backyard/field was home to chickens (and an evil rooster), a variety of pheasant breeds, rabbits, dogs, cats, cows, and llamas. Yes, llamas. I must have been in upper elementary school when my parents bought the first three and the herd expanded from there. Throughout the years, we took them to nursing homes and schools, walked them in holiday parades, and spent the most time with them as 4-H entrants.

Unfortunately, my prime 4-H llama showing (and judging!) skills don’t hold a lot of weight in Washington D.C.

One would think that with so much llama-time under my belt, seeing a few in Peru would not have been a big deal, and yet, you’d be wrong. As any semi-regular reader of this blog’s travel writing knows, I am a sucker for an animal. I’ll suggest a rather out of the way side trip (as in a plane ride away) to *hold* a koala rather than just pose near one; I’ll put extra efforts into organizing an official consulate trip to the panda reserve to get as close as possible to those dumb, yet adorable, creatures; I’ll risk life and limb to reach out and touch whatever fuzzy critter might be native to my current location. I recently heard a rumor that sloth-sightings are possible at our next post. I now want to put “possibly of sloth encounter” as my number one request on our housing survey. Family negotiations are not complete on this point yet.  If it is an option, I’ll do it. (I once tried to bribe our guide in Terengganu, Malaysia to find me a tapir. I was totally willing to pay up too, but unfortunately, there was no tapir to be found that day.)

Anyway, cuddly digression aside, I was thrilled with all the llamas and alpacas in Peru! (This is not the place for lesson in the differences between llamas and alpacas- let alone guanacos and vicunas- but let me just remind you all they are different and pretty easily recognized with a bit of Googling.)

Lima itself, being at sea level and on the coast, didn’t have any llamas, but they did have endless stores of llama-themed items, everything from hats and scarves to pens and dolls. You want something with a llama on it? This is your place!

Cusco- now that is where the animal action is at! As the jumping off city to Machu Picchu, people usually spend a day or two in this fantastic town acclimating to the elevation. (At 11,500 feet above sea level, the altitude is no joke.) Lots of tourists taking it easy means lots of tourist traps, many of these being in the form of older women dressed in traditional clothing with brightly colored pouches slung over their shoulder, each containing an adorable lamb, and trailing behind them was often an alpaca on a lead. For whatever price you deemed appropriate (for me this ended up being all the random change in my pocket at the moment), you can get a photo with this woman and her small petting zoo.

Yes, I know it is a racket.

No, I don’t care.

If you are giving me the chance to snuggle up to a ridiculously fluffy alpaca for a handful of coins, there is no way I am going to walk away.

Which I did not.

Multiple times.

I could chalk it up to fuzzy thinking from the altitude, which was a bit of a strange sensation, but most of you would see right through that excuse. Lack of good oxygen was not at the root of my experience. I just never pass up the chance to pet/nuzzle/play with an adorable critter.

In all fairness, I do think I need to make one disclaimer before wrapping up this post about my inability to walk away from this delightful tourist-trap found on every corner of the city. The alpaca-on-a-lead was not my only run in with the species.

I may have had alpaca stroganoff for lunch.

I did it.

I couldn’t not.

I grew up with a field of llamas behind my house and I spent the day petting as many alpacas as I could before my change ran out.  Curiosity got the better of me. (For the record, alpaca meat isn’t bad. It was a bit tougher than beef, but in a stroganoff, I’m not sure you’d recognize it as not-beef if you weren’t told otherwise.)

Out of politeness, after my meal of alpaca meat, I did steer away from the street-corner critters for the rest of the evening. I was terrified they’d be able to smell their cousin on my breath!

It felt a bit like coming full circle, after having a field of llamas behind our house growing up to visiting them in their native Andean habitat. They’ve been to my place. I’ve been to their place. We’re just a lovely circle of life now.

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Playin’ with Pachyderms

Never one to pass up a conversation about adorable animals, I was drawn into a couple different ones at the office over the last few days. Just today, chatting over the tops of our cubicles like we often do, a couple of us were talking about shipping pets. In the Foreign Service, this is a major topic that comes up time and time again- how to get a pet (usually a dog or a cat, but I’ve seen serious discussions about birds, rodents, turtles, etc…) from post A to post B. Never a cheap proposition, flying a pet around the world adds up quickly, with thousands of dollars (each move!) going to meet veterinarian requirements, buy tickets, and endure the quarantine process.  For some though, a pet is synonymous with family and no expense is too great to have them accompany tour after tour after tour.

In this rambling tête-à-tête about shipping between posts, I learned that the Frankfurt airport is apparently the Shangri-La of airports for travelling pets. In addition to nice rest facilities for the critters, and staff who are attentive and actually seem to care (apparently this is not a given), the airport has a top-notch veterinarian on call at all times.

Wondering why an airport would put so much effort into animal transportation had me a bit baffled, until a colleague mentioned that the airport is used as a main hub for circus animal movements in Europe.  Of course, this sent my brain down a widly different path, as the thought of sending circus animals by plane had not really ever occurred to me. Apparently, my childhood selection of picture books, plastic toys, and Disney movies has me eternally convinced at all circus animals travel by train- you know, the one with the red engine, the elephant with his trunk sticking out of the side of a car, the car with the giraffe head periscoping out of the top of his roof, and brightly painted advertisements up and down its length. This is how circus has moved, does move, and will always move. Right?

Welcome to the 21st century, Michelle! Circuses are fancy and travel by air. Sadly, this just doesn’t create the same nostalgic mental image as the train congers up. There are no lions roaring in the belly of the plane, no head/trunk holes in the fuselage for various critter pieces parts, although maybe if it were a private plane it could be brightly painted in primary colors.

Of course, with my recent trip to Johannesburg, the talk of elephants and lions smoothly slid into one about trips to various animal parks in South Africa. Unfortunately, I was not able to get out of town to do full-on safari trip, but I did squeeze in half-day trips, one to an elephant halfway house and the other to a lion park.

Yes, I said elephant halfway house.

Just a few hours outside of Johannesburg is an elephant park that houses a mere handful of pachyderms at a time- those who are awaiting placement in new homes. These giants come from a variety of places: one from a zoo that had closed down, one from a bigger park that was having social issues within its herds, and a couple from private complexes that could no longer house them. The day I went to the park, I was unable to meet the oldest member of the transient crew, as he had apparently “gotten up on the left side of the bed” and was in no mood for visitors. The keepers said the transition from the zoo has not been an easy one and he often opts of our socialization.

But, even if Old Man was grumpy that day, I still got to meet and spend the morning with some awesome creatures. The park is small and has a rolling population, but they have a great visitor program. Paired with an attached monkey park (which I opted out of!), elephant visitors still have to make their way through a free-range monkey enclosure to reach the sanctuary of the big guys. (There were monkeys out and about, but not in the terrifying numbers that still haunt my dreams after a trip to Monkey Forest in Bali. At no point was I concerned for my well-being or pondered the possible full ramifications of a broken-skin monkey bite.)

The tour started with a time to feed two of the elephants, mostly just a mash of pellets that they sucked into their trunks like powerful wet/dry vacuums. Our group was mostly adults and some folks were satisfied after dropping a handful or two into a trunk, so with a half-full bucket of pellets left, I went ahead and took a few extra turns at snack time. (The two kids our group were terrified of the elephants and hid behind their parents, regardless of the amount of coaxing by those they trusted. The adults didn’t seem overly interested, and the way I saw it, those enormous mammals ended some serious calories to survive the day, so really, I was the hero of the morning, at least in the long-lashed eyes of my new friends.)

Feeding time was followed by a really nice informational session in an outdoor classroom. We all plopped ourselves down on wooden benches and learned about the differences between Asian and African elephants (the usual, size, ears, toes, etc.), but also some really cool facts about how elephant skulls help cool their brains and about their five sets of ever larger teeth. Coming from someone who signs up for every imaginable animal outing possible when I travel, I was really impressed with the mini-biology lesson I got from the ranger and definitely came away from the day not only having interacted with elephants, but with a bit more critter data in my cranium.

The highlight of the morning was getting up close and personal (up close and pachydermal?)  with the stars of the show. Having no fear of the enormous animal, I walked right up to him and his trainer, full of questions about his age, history, future, etc. The trainer looked at me and said, “Have you spent time with elephants before?” I could only laugh and reply in the affirmative, as a detailed list of my many animal visits wasn’t on the morning agenda. After some hugs and kisses, it was time to bid adieu to our new friends and their wonderful keepers. (These men obviously loved their charges and took amazing care of them. It was really impressive to see the relationships that had been formed between man and animal and to hear of how hard the reserve works to send their animals away from the halfway house to safe and healthy forever homes.)

Elephants were the itinerary for the first weekend I was in South Africa, but after that incredible outing, it was time to get down to business. I flew to Johannesburg on business and it was time to clock in.  I had a week of community liaison office coordinator training ahead of me- a very full week of conducting training sessions for CLOs posted mostly in Africa, but a few from other regions, who were looking for support and a deeper understanding of their roles in their embassies and consulates. This was an amazing week of teaching (it made me realize how much I miss my classroom!) and networking, but as soon as we wrapped up the last session on Friday afternoon, I was off making plans for a Saturday trip to the lion park!

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Saigon Zoo, Go Ahead and Skip It!

If you’ve read more than about three entries on this blog, you are well aware that much of my travel revolves around the ability to go see (and more importantly, touch) *all* the animals. Being based in Southeast Asia has given me some fantastic animal-touching opportunities: snuggling a koala, being a mahout for a day, illicitly touching a panda bear, etc. (Click the links for a quick jump to each of those animal-rific tales. They will open in a new window, so no need to worry about losing this one.) If the chance is there, I’m going to take it! With that in mind and with three weeks of being a solo-traveler in Ho Chi Minh City, one of the first things I did was take the chance to go visit the city zoo.

Now, zoos are not my favorite way to see animals, as I much prefer to get even closer and more personal with the critters, but I’ve been to some fantastic animal reserves/parks, which are just fancier names for zoos, but also usually with a bit more forward-thinking take on keeping wild animals. The animal-area in HCMC is called a “zoo,” but that didn’t put me off in the least. San Diego calls their animal park a zoo and it is amazingly well done, creature-centric and education focused.

So, one day last week, I skittered out of work as soon as I could, made the quick dash to my temporary apartment (a mere one block from the consulate- what a commute!) and changed into a sundress and headed out the door, all in the span of about ten minutes. My  CLO-provided map (thanks , HCMC CLO office!) said that the zoo was a convenient fifteen minute walk, so after a brief consultation with the front desk to make sure I was headed in the right direction (Vietnamese street names all still look the same to me- I have not gotten to a higher level of language understanding yet!) and a book and a bottle of water in my bag, out I went.

The map did not lie about the distance, but I may have slightly overestimated the convenience factor, mainly because I had to cross several large streets and at this early point in my HCMC tenure I had not yet grasped the finer points of local traffic patterns. (A week and a half in, I can report that I’ve gotten pretty good at playing Vietnamese “Frogger” and can weave my way across six lanes of traffic without missing a step.) Arriving in one piece at the front gate, I was a bit taken aback by the general appearance of the entrance to the zoo; rundown is a sliggt understatement. Rather than reading “zoo,” the welcome had more of a “so-creepy-you-might-die-inside-park” vibes. But whatever. I braved the traffic to get there, I was going to see what it had to offer, so I quickly offered up my two dollar entry fee and headed on in.

Saigon Zoo (the official name) is comprised of two main parts: the animals and the botanical gardens. One of these was well-worth my $2 and the other was not.

I’ve seen a zoo or two in my time, but this one ranks as one of the worst. There was a strange array of animals, everything from reptiles galore to sadly swaying elephants. The most abundant caged animal was deer- there was a huge dirt area dedicated to a herd of probably fifty critters. (The “caged” designation is key, as other than the deer, the second most ubiquitous animal at the zoo was rats. I saw enough free-range rats to last me for the next few weeks. ) The best exhibit was the sea otters, mostly because they were actually active and seemed halfway happy. They had just been fed a bucket of fish heads (where were the bodies?) and were skittering around from pond to pond eating their seafood-inspired lunches.

But, putting aside the deplorable menagerie and wandering  a few meters away , I found a decent  botanical garden. It was really more of a nice park that a botanical garden (no labels on flora, nothing seemingly in any order), but I’ll stick with their nomenclature on this one. Toss the poor city parks group a proverbial bone! The park was nice. It was filled with benches, a fountain and several smaller parks-within-a-park. It will come as no surprise that my favorite part of the botanical park was the two huge cranes who wandered by the bench where I had settled in with the book I brought along, in hopes of a peaceful evening. (HCMC is *loud,* so any bit of quiet is a nice reprieve from the bus horns, scooter squeals and general ruckus of a quickly expanding Asian city.) But back to the cranes. These two long-legged, long-necked, long-beaked buddies just walked by as if they had not a care in the world and I was just another inanimate object- a piece of the bench. (Did they make their great escape from the zoo side? If so, props to you giant cranes! Run while you can.)

My afternoon at the zoo was definitely not what I had envisioned when I logged off my State Department systems and headed out the door for the day, but it ended up being an interesting and entertaining evening, regardless. Would I recommend the Saigon Zoo to folks headed through town? Nope. But, if I lived here long –term (rather than my current three-week TDY) I think I’d be a frequent visitor, as the breath of fresh air a bit of calm among the chaos of the city would make for a welcome reprieve. Just ignore the swaying elephants, hungry-looking snakes and slightly mangy deer.

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