A Travellerspoint blog

On the way to Quito

A totally relaxing day!

semi-overcast 67 °F

As I was scheduled to leave Detroit early in the AM and arrive in Quito after 11 PM due to a long layover, I decided to find a hotel near the airport for my first night. I chose the Quito Polo Club Hotel. It does not have a website but it is on airbnb and Expedia among others. Even though my flight departure was delayed and I didn't clear customs until after 1AM (there are a lot of late night flight arrivals apparently, and the immigration/customs queues were stuffed with travelers) a driver from the Hotel was there to greet me and whisk me off to my room.

When I arrived, I was astonished by my room. Here is a 270 degree panorama taken the next morning from between the two beds. All three walls are 10 foot high floor to ceiling glass!

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(Not to worry, there are both screen and blackout curtains!) The table outside was my personal patio space as well.

The grounds are gorgeous - here are a few shots.

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One extra treat was that the restaurant is adjacent to the polo grounds, which are still used, at least for practice. Several people were out practicing, so I sat and watched and played with my camera to see what kind of action shots I could capture. I like the blurry one as you can see the path of both the polo ball and of the follow through of the mallet.

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I enjoyed several meals there, well prepared with good fresh fruit and good coffee. The hotel has only 6 rooms and has only been open a few months, so it surely qualifies as a hidden gem.

The next day, entirely relaxed and ready to go, I headed to Quito proper to do some more urban exploring.

Posted by tdeits 18:50 Archived in Ecuador Tagged hotels airports quito Comments (0)

Quito and the Galapagos ahead!

Trying to plan without overplanning is a challenge!

I am taking advantage of my frequent flyer miles to head to Quito, Ecuador and on to the Galapagos. I decided to spend about 6 days in Quito and then about 12 days in the Galapagos, which should give me plenty of time to wander about Quito and pet tortoises in the Galapagos, with the occasional afternoon lounging with una cerveza.

My planning for Quito was pretty straightforward. I booked a hotel near the airport because I am arriving late, then will use an Airbnb place in Quito as a base for wandering around. I am not sure what I will do there as yet, but that suits my style of travel. I'll report on the hotel and the apartment later in this series of posts.

Now, I have done a lot of traveling overseas with virtually no knowledge of the local language, and have gotten along reasonably well. Sometimes, as in Germany, even if I did have some German, most folks would rather use their English with me rather than endure my German. On other occasions, my excuse has been either that I was going to a country where I felt that the language was way too challenging for casual study (Korea, Japan) or I was visiting so many countries that learning the languages was impossible (my RTW trip). However, as I would be spending considerable time in a country with a language I have heard since childhood in California, I thought it was high time to try and pick up a little Spanish.

So for the last month or so I have been diligently working through the Spanish lessons at Duolingo. It's a free site and I found that I enjoyed their gamified approach to language learning. They have a lot of languages available, including, recently, Japanese (now I don't have an excuse!). I have absolutely no idea if I will be able to use my spanish but I feel moderately confident that I can decipher basic signage, menus, etc. and probably ask for a doctor if I fall off a cliff. For what it is worth, I am what Duolingo calls Level 14 in Spanish.

So that's the Quito side of the equation. For me, though, the big question is how to approach the Galapagos. Of course, the wildlife is said to be awesome and it's really interesting terrain but, like many scientists, I view a visit to the Galapagos as a pilgramage of sorts, acknowledging the immense contribution to scientific knowledge provided by Charles Darwin. I consider 'On the Origin of the Species' to be one of the great scientific works (if not the greatest!) of all time. I believe this not just because he crystallized the concepts of evolution and natural selection for the first time in a coherent whole and then wrote lucid accessible prose to describe his thoughts and evidence, but because of the structure of the book itself.

Darwin does not present himself as an advocate for a particular position. Instead, he acknowledges that he has an idea of how things might work and then spends the bulk of the book trying his concepts out on the most challenging examples he could come up with and assesses whether his ideas can provide an explanatory framework across a dazzling array of biological systems, from orchids to barnacles. His goal is always to ask the hardest questions and go where the evidence leads. This truly scientific approach differs radically from the more frequent strategy of putting forward an idea and lobbing softballs (or outright lying about the evidence) and claiming confirmation - sadly, an approach we see far too often in American politics, for example.

Well, enough of that. Let me give a cool example of Darwin at work. He spent many years studying orchids; not for their beauty alone, but because he wanted to know if the amazing diversity of these weird and wonderful flowers served a function in nature or if they were merely represented the whimsy of a Creator.

In 1862, a botanist sent him this remarkable orchid, which I was fortunate enough to see at the McBryde Garden and Allerton Garden on Kauai.
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The only nectar in this flower is at the end of the almost foot long tube descending from the flower. The botanist asked Darwin how he would explain this remarkable structure. Darwin's answer was that there must be an insect that pollinates this flower that is actually capable of reaching this hidden treasure. Indeed, such an insect was discovered and Darwin's prediction was finally fully confirmed; it's a moth with a foot-long tongue! Final confirmation came more than 100 years after Darwin's prediction!

I highly encourage everyone to read On The Origin of Species. It's highly readable and Darwin's erudition and clarity shine out on every page. It's available online here and of course hard copies are easy to find.

That's the Darwin side of my motivation. I was also motivated by an incident in my family history that involves the Galapagos! No spoilers yet - I'll cover this in later posts.

OK, enough musings. What about actually planning? Well, my research showed that there are two general approaches to visiting the Galapagos. The first, and the one most people have heard of, is travelling island to island while staying on a ship. The ships can be luxurious or spartan, and the tour can be lesiurely or active. It was quite tempting as I love the idea of being able to jump off the ship into the sea as well as seeing a variety of locations and getting pampered a bit along the way. Of course, this approach is kind of spendy. I'm going to say something north of $300/day not including airfare.

In recent years (say the last decade), though, there has been some pushback to this approach. Primarily, the residents of the Galapagos (and yes,there are several small towns there!) reap minimal economic benefit from these ships that don't employ locals and don't fill local hotels or restaurants.

There is an increasingly popular alternative. Stay onshore in the Galapagos and then explore via day tours and the like. There are plenty of places to stay - Airbnb and related services have many offerings. So I opted for this choice. I am spending about half my time in the largest town, Puerto Ayora, and the remainder on the largest island, Isabela (why Isabela? Stay tuned!). You can fly between the islands (expensive) or take a 2 hour ferry ride (cheap and fun; that's for me!). I have not looked deeply into day tour options but I hope to do my share of snorkeling, photography and beaching.

So I'm off in a few days. Let's see if I have done my planning right!

Posted by tdeits 15:09 Archived in Ecuador Tagged puerto darwin lodging galapagos quito ecuador isabela ayora Comments (2)

Japan at your feet

A little side excursion

sunny 87 °F

Well, this is my last post I am pulling together from my great Japan trip. It's something I noticed as we walked all over. Japan is very focused on building infrastructure and one of the places it shows is, of all places, in their sidewalks. As you walk around you notice that utility covers are specialized in every town, featuring things like the local festival, dogs in Akita, seagulls in Hachinohe and on and on. In addition to these attractively utilitarian additions, some neighborhoods have lovely ceramic tiles embedded in the sidewalk that change as you go block to block. One of the tiles below designates a local bike path.

Anyway, I would encourage you to look down now and then - you may be pleasently surprised by what you see!

Here, in no particular order, are some of the city art that we ran across. Some are labeled, some you may be able to guess, and the rest are just there to show how cool they are.

Enjoy!

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Posted by tdeits 14:18 Archived in Japan Tagged art tokyo streets yokohama covers akita kushiro hachinohe morioka aomori utility Comments (0)

Baseball in Japan!

Go Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters!!

rain 80 °F

I enjoy baseball and had some hopes of getting to a game in Japan, but with so much else to do, it looked like it would be a challenge to find a game that I could accommodate in my rapidly diminishing days in Japan. I did go over to the Sapporo Dome, where the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters play and talked to the ticket clerks about options. It turns out that it would be possible for me to get to a game and still return to Tokyo a day in advance of departure, so I grabbed a ticket. I had planned to spend a few days in Akita and Sakata and points north and the only way I could make a game was to travel from Kushiro in far northern Hokkaido during the day to make a 6PM start at Sapporo the same day.

I bravely decided this would work, and made travel plans accordingly. So I headed north, to Akita and Sakata, which I covered in the previous post. I then headed on to Kushiro, trying to get some flavor of far northern Japan. I had hoped to get to Wakkani, which is the true northern extreme of Japan where there are a lot of Ainu (the native peoples of northern Japan, genetically and culturally related to native peoples up to the Bering Strait and down into Alaska and beyond) but is was impossible to get a train ticket up there, and lodging was scarce as well.

Kushiro was pretty fun. I took a tourist train while I was there and despite the rain took a walk to an overlook.

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I had hoped to see some Japanese cranes but apparently you need to book a bus from the train station to do so, and I missed that detail.

The most fun thing to do in Kushiro was to visit the MOO (stands for 'Marine our Oasis') which includes a pleasant indoor garden atrium and a variety of food shops. Outside the main building is a long line of seafood stalls. You purchase tickets from a vendor at one end and then use the tickets to buy seafood from the various stalls.

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After making your selection, you cook your food 'rotobayaki' style - over hardwood coals. I sat next to a nice couple and we shared a few words of English and some squid. My meal is below as well - shrimp, salmon, oysters, eggplant, asparagus other veggies.

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After dinner, I wandered out front and came across a place with 3 Pokestops - Pokemon Go had only been released about the day we arrived in Japan, so it was in its explosive growth phase during our stay. All of the people you see in this photo are playing! (How do I know this? Level 21, dude!).

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I then ran across one of the most amusing items I saw in my entire stay -

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I guess if you win you could take your prize outside and cook it up for dinner!

The next morning I took the train to Sapporo to get to the ball park. Fortunately, I arrived early enough to check in at my hotel and get rid of my luggage (although almost all Japanese train stations have luggage lockers). I headed out to the Sapporo Dome, built for the winter Olympics.

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There was a familiar set of bouncy-things and other entertainment outside the stadium as the rather large crowd arrived. I was about an hour early and lots of people were already there.

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The first interesting difference I observed is that you are free to bring your own food and drink into the stadium, and many folks made a picnic of it. The only restriction is that you have to transfer your beer or soda to a cup.

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There is plenty of food in a bun or on a stick available at stands inside, of course.

Japanese baseball is a very lively event. They have a whole bunch of mascots and cheerleaders (and for some reason, Shaun the Sheep was there as well) who work the crowd throughout the game.

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The also have a whole lot of groundskeepers, snack sellers and even t-shirt cannons!

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The starting pitcher for the Fighters was Anthony Bass who, earlier in his career, played for the Fort Wayne Tincaps in the Midwest League. I may have seen him play against the Lugnuts!

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Perhaps the most interesting difference in the game was the cheering. There was a large section in left field that cheered and beat drums continuously whenever the Fighters were at bat. (There was a smaller section in right that did the same thing for the visitors, so the din was continuous). In addition, they had zillions of signs and even had individually composed songs for the regular team players. Here's a taste of the cheering.

As the game progressed, we reached the 7th inning stretch with the Fighters down by 2 runs. No 'take me out to the ball game' here - instead, the fans were give huge blue balloons which they inflated and then let fly around the stadium. (They did the same thing with white balloons at the end of the game...).

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Then the highlight of the game for me. A towering fly ball headed my way. It landed some distance away but then fortuitously bounced to a guy across the aisle from me. I had been watching him during the game - he was definitely a superfan. He had his own set of laminated display cards for each player (I believe all of them were autographed as well!) which he pulled from a canvas bag as they came to the plate. I asked to take a picture of him with the baseball he caught, and he insisted that I take it! We tried to chat a bit and he showed me his collection of some 30 autographed baseballs, so I didn't feel I was depriving him and it gave me a chance for a cool selfie in my Lugunts hat!

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The Fighters pulled the game out in the bottom of the 9th with a 3 run rally. I was fortunate enough to be able to get an action shot of Brandon Laird, another former Major Leaguer, getting the game-winning hit.

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On the way out, I gave the ball to a young boy who was absolutely stunned at this weird Westerner (I did not see any others in the stadium) dressed in a Fighters t-shirt offering it to him. He and his dad were most grateful which made me feel good. Despite that pleasurable event, I actually felt a bit more like these two guys and was glad to be able to get back to my hotel to prepare for my homeward journey.

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I have one more kind of off-topic post to do, but this pretty much ends my journal of my journey to Japan. I had an absolutely fabulous time. I met some very nice folks, saw tons of amazing things (many more than I have covered here), ate great food and got to spend time with my son.

I am living proof that you can go to Japan armed with essentially no Japanese but with a positive attitude, and do pretty much anything you want to do. Thanks for your patience and attention.

Posted by tdeits 10:00 Archived in Japan Tagged baseball seafood sapporo kushiro pokemon Comments (0)

More relaxation (and more food!)

and a visit to an onsen

semi-overcast 90 °F

After Robin left to go back to the real world, I had an additional week to explore. My plan was to head north to parts of Japan I had not yet seen. I first went to Akita to spend a day. I had a really pleasant day at Akita Senshu park wandering around and taking pictures. They have a beautiful lotus pond and lovely gardens. The restored castle tower has a nice view and some exhibits in Japanese.

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There is also a small museum on the grounds with armor, banners and art, again, with descriptions in Japanese but still well worth the modest admission price (a dollar, if I recall!).

One other fun thing I did in Akita. I had misplaced a cable for my phone (this happens way too often when I travel!) so I ended up in a shopping center adjacent to the train station looking for an electronics shop. I was delighted to discover that in the basement was a Tower Records! As it happens I had just watched a very enjoyable documentary All Things Must Pass about the history of Tower Records on the plane over. Now, I knew Tower Records very well because that was the first place I ever went to buy music. The store on Watt Avenue was great - it even had listening booths! I spent a lot of my modest funds there, in particular buying Beatles and Dylan (and Nonesuch classical albums for 99 cents!). I was unaware at the time that my store was the first Tower Records ever built and was the foundation of a national and international chain. Sadly, the US branch of Tower died, but the Japanese branches remain prosperous. I got my cable and laboriously explained to the guy who helped my that I had been shopping at Tower since1963 - I guess he was impressed...I know this guy was:

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After Akita, I wanted to get away to a less urban part of Japan so I decided to take a train down the west coast from Akita to the town of Sakata. Sakata is a small port town on the Sea of Japan that was once a hub for the rice trade in the region. A lot economic activity has moved to other ports, so the town is not what I would call prosperous, but it is a pleasant spot to visit. I saw some of the squid fishing boats that have such bright lights (both on board and on long lines that are dropped over the side) to attract squid that the fleet is readily visible from space.

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Photo credit

The old rice warehouses are now a tourist attraction. I enjoyed watching some documentaries on the history of rice cultivation in the history of rice museum there, in part because of the cool video display.

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I booked a room at the Wakaba Ryokan in Sakata and had a most relaxing and delicious experience. First, they have an onsen, or public bath. I hadn't been to one before, so I did some internetting to work on the etiquette. I did OK, but I missed a couple of small points. Bear in mind my expertise extends to a grand total of 2 onsens, so rely on the following accordingly.

Anyway, here's what I learned. The ones I went to were segregated male/female. Another item. The onsens I visited absolutely forbid anyone with any kind of tattoo from entering! Apparently there are some that will accept tattoos, but ask first if you're decorated. You enter a dressing room with either cubbies or lockable cubicles. You can put your keys, phone, clothing, etc. into one. The onsen will provide two towels; a large one for drying and a small one for washing. I didn't know, but learned, that you should leave your large towel in the cubby in the dressing room. When you enter the actual onsen there will be stools and plastic buckets in front of a low table. Your job is to use the provided soaps, shampoos, etc to make your self as squeaky clean all over as it is possible to be. Part of the fun is to soap up big time, rub down with the small towel and pour a big bucket of warm water on your head. Lather, rinse, repeat, repeat,.... Once you are confident that you are the cleanest you have ever been in your life, you are ready to enter the onsen.

One amusing thing is that it is apparently customary (my googling speaking here) to neatly fold your washing towel and balance it on your head while soaking. It is definitely the case that whatever you do with your towel (and many folks I saw just put it up somewhere well away from the water) never let it get near the water. Now, this is one of those totally cool random juxtapositions that make travelling awesome. Prior to going to the onsen, as I mentioned we visited Osaka Castle where some beautiful 15th and 16th century armor was on display. The remarkable thing is that one of the helmets we saw was described as representing a folded towel atop the warriors head. That guy must have loved his onsen!

Anyway, slip into the crystal clear water (that's why you bathe so much!) and reeeeelax. Some folks will get out after a bit and go over and wash again and then return. In both onsen there was a beautiful garden scene through a picture window to enjoy gazing at as you melt. Here's the garden visible from the Wakaba Ryokan onsen (more about Wakaba Ryokan below).

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I kind of hestitate go bring up this bit, but I do so in case you find yourself in the same situation and wonder if it's just you. Perhaps I am being overly sensitive and perhaps it's because I visited parts of Japan where I could go days without seeing a Westerner, but I got the vague sense that folks were not quite as comfortable in the onsen when I occupied it as well. It's nothing overt, maybe not even a conscious reaction, but I got that feeling on more than one occasion; things like folks leaving when I entered or moving to a different onsen if available. Not all folks reacted that way - an older guy and his grandson were quite friendly - but there it is for you to be aware of.

Nonetheless, I thought the onsen was great. The Wakaba Ryokan is a traditional ryokan with meals offered, traditional tatmi rooms, and yukata to wear (which I did at all times - anywhere in the hotel). They also have a large collection of really beautiful paintings and other artifacts. Here, for example is a portion of their kokeshi doll collection. These are traditional kokeshi that are associated with this region of Japan and with its onsens in particular.

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Here's my room set up first for day use and then for night.

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So, after a relaxing onsen I headed for the dining room. I had an epic meal.

To begin, a whole pan sauteed fish.

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Next, some lighter dishes including a mussel and jellyfish (in the glass). The vegetable to the right is not a sea vegetable, but a member of the nettle family. It was really delicous.

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Onward to some sashimi. Check out that fatty tuna on the right - it's a local specialty!

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And then, this - a whole steamed crab!

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How about some seared tuna in white and black sesame seeds?

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Don't forget the vegetable tempura!

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A bit of braised pork in miso?

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Ready for some delicous beef short ribs with local peppers?

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I'm sure you're really hungry by now and ready for a rich stew of local barnacle-encrusted marine snails!

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Hope you saved room for dessert.... green tea ice cream with red beans, fruit and a delicious little brownie

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and of course the meal was accompanied by a very fruity local sake. Two hours of solid eating, everything perfectly prepared at the height of freshness. and it cost, with sake, under $50. Yeah, a lot for a meal but for this meal? Whatta bargain. I stayed two nights and had two of these meals! By the way, the host of this onsen is most accommodating and fluent in English.

I finally dragged myself away, but not before I enjoyed the included breakfast.

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Yum - (If you like natto.... and I do)!

I have quite a number of other pictures of meals, some of which will come up in a later post, but I thought I would make a general observation. Food in Japan is great!!! Not only can you expect to find new and interesting foods wherever you go, but we never had any dish that wasn't of excellent quality and well prepared. While we did eat a couple of 'fancy' meals like the above, our daily fare was more modest but just as delicious. My traveller's tip is that if you are hungry and don't know where to go in a new town, head for the largest department store. Either in the basement or on the top floor (sometimes both) you will find at least a half dozen restaurants serving really good food for really reasonable prices. I will throw in pictures of a few meals we had in these places, most of which were in the $10 range.

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By the way, the shushi in the tray was from the local supermarket - about $5 - both supermarkets and what we would call convenience stores have really quite good quality food, so go in and take a look.

I think I have a couple of more posts in me to wrap this up. Stay tuned!

Posted by tdeits 10:51 Archived in Japan Tagged tower ryokan onsen akita records sakata wakata Comments (0)

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