A Hump in the Road

Scrambling up the red rocks of the hill, I watch as the rubble loosened by my sandals tumbles down the steep cliffside to the ocean below. I look out from the ridge-top down to my right side at an isolated beach, blue water glistening in the lagoon and waterbirds occupying the shores.

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The very steep slope down to the waters of the Gulf of Mexico

I continue up the ridge, past the caves and up and down the steep rock faces until I make it to the top of the hill. Here, a large cross marks the highest point, which can be seen from the field station, and everywhere else in the town. Looking out at the whole landscape, from the sharp mountain peaks and seemingly endless Gulf to the right, it is easy to see the continuity. The only thing differentiating the mountain peaks from the volcanic islands bursting up from the sea is the ocean, which will only continue to rise over time. Are these tall mountains the future islands of the Gulf of California?

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The view from the top of the hill, with Isla Alcatraz in the distance.

As part of my work, I have the pleasure of going out on boat rides with various groups. I explored the waters teeming with wildlife alongside students from Cochise College in Arizona. We saw a large pod of dolphins and several babies, only a few weeks old, jumping out passed the surface. A huge flock of seagulls and other waterbirds swarms in a feeding frenzy over a school of sardines. Dozens of juvenile sea lions play in the water as we watch how they glide through the water, yet stumble about on land.

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Baby bottlenose dolphin swimming alongside its mother

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Juvenile sea lions swimming playfully alongside the boat near Isla San Esteban

The highlight was a humpback whale, spotted spraying water through its blowhole on the horizon. We raced towards it, keeping our eyes carefully fixed for signs of movement. At last, we caught up to the giant animal as it breached the surface twice, then swam back under with a splash of its tail. It repeated this pattern until we had taken enough photos of the black beast to identify the individual based on the shape of its fin. Like a thumbprint, scientists use the patterns of their tails and fins to track individual whales over time. It was amazing to encounter such a large animal up close, being able to hear the blow hole as the whale came up to breathe.

Unfortunately, my first whale encounter would also be my last. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, restrictions escalated quickly and the first case was reported in the nearby city of Hermosillo. With bus services shut down and faced with an uncertain future, I chose to go back with the students studying abroad to Arizona.

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A pair of blue-footed boobies, painting the rocks white with their poo.

 

After rushed goodbyes and a celebration involving flan and beers, I set off on a nine hour drive across the border into Arizona, where I barely made it in time for my flight home. So many people commute daily across this border to go to Cochise college; the landscape was indistinguishable from Sonora, Mexico to Arizona. Both sides had thousands of organ pipe and saguaro Cactii and beautiful red hills. I will truly miss these breathtaking landscapes.

 

Boojum

Hiking up the steep, crumbly hills covered in cactii, wearing sandals may not have seemed like the best idea in hindsight, but it was all I had on this cloudy February morning. I paused to pick some cactus needles out of my sandals as I proceeded up the incline. We were following Don Manuel, a member of the Comcaac community of Desomboque, where we visited for our staff camping retreat. He was taking us on a journey to find the Boojum tree, which only grows in Baja California and this part of the mountain range in Sonora.

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The small teddybear cholla cactus along the path was positioned like a sentinel, as if to say “you shall not pass!”

This rare tree looks like something out of a Dr. Seuss novel. They have large upright trunks with small branches popping out all over like a real-life lollipop tree. They are named “Cirios” in Spanish, for they resemble the shape of church bells. At last, we encounter several of these individuals.

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The Boojum trees and I

Superstition follows that touching a Boojum tree will cause a storm, and sure enough we got rained on hiking into a valley covered with quartz. Though I collected my fair share of clear crystals, I got soaked while waiting for the boat to take us back to Kino Bay.

The main purpose of our journey was to facilitate a screening of the documentary, Patrimonio (Heritage), for the community in Desemboque. The movie tells the story of a community of fishermen who fight for the rights to their beaches against a large development firm. The director and one of the protagonists visited us in Kino the weekend prior, where they shared their experiences and discussed social justice issues. We took them on a tour of the islands around the Gulf, seeing dolphins and many blue-footed boobies flying about.

A large sea turtle lets out a deep sigh as she moves her flippers frantically about, trying to slide back off the boat into the ocean. She is caught as a part of a sea turtle monitoring program run by Grupo Tortuguero, one of the community groups here in the Gulf focused on sea turtle conservation. Our boats collide just as they take the turtle out of the large net and into the boat, where I have the chance to see her up close. Her face is covered with barnacles, of which this kind are only found on sea turtles.

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A green sea turtle, one of 600 captured and released by Grupo Tortuguero as part of a large-scale conservation effort

We take the sea turtle to the shore of Laguna la Crusz where Comcaac community youth are waiting for the demonstration. The boat captain weighs and takes measurements of the turtle and conducts an overall health assessment. Finally, she is released back into the ocean, where she quickly swims off after struggling about on land for so long.

Afterwards, we walk along the mangroves of Laguna la Cruz to a restaurant, where oysters are caught fresh from the water. I enjoy them with several other kinds of seafood in a kind of cocktail with tomatoes and cucumbers. Then we shuck cayo, a kind of clam, for a bit and I slurp down the smooth insides with hotsauce and lime. The seafood is fresh from the lagoon and the minimal pollution makes it safe to eat. As long as pollution and coastal development is minimized and oysters are harvested sustainably, these delicacies can be enjoyed long into the future.

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My first Campechana, a coctail of clams, oysters, and other seafood from Laguna la Cruz

 

My first month in Mexico

My first month in Mexico has been a whirlwind. After the long journey south, I arrive in the town of Hermosillo, surprised by how much it resembles an LA or Texas suburb (except everything was in Spanish). I had some delicious Huitlacoche empanadas and spent a fortune on groceries at Costco.

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My first meal in Mexico: Empanadas of Huitlacoche, a kind of special mushroom that grows on corn.

I spent the day sleeping mostly and getting introduced to my beautiful beachfront property. Though I sleep in a tent, there is WiFi and showers and an equipped kitchen, where fellow center workers make delicious meals!

I went on an excursion with the bird team to what seemed like an oasis in the desert, filled with saguaro and organ pipe cactii. It turns out it was an estuary right by the ocean, filled with hundreds of waterfowl.

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An organ pipe cactus and the desert oasis, an estuary by the sea.

I went with the team again on a boat to an island in the gulf of California called Alcatraz. Here, pelicans, cormorants, and blue footed boobies make their nests. While the birders whipped out their scopes, I went on an adventure up the rocky volcanic slopes, slipped a few times, and eventually had to turn around to avoid disturbing the cormorant rookery. I saw a cute little cactus wren, too!

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A cactus wren on Alcatraz island

Though there’s been a fair share of work too. I had some amazing tacos in town to reward myself for finishing an inventory of the library—amazing fresh tortillas and carne asada!

I got the chance to explore the landscape a bit with the geomorphology class. We went on a hike up to the peak of a volcanic rock, with some interesting features along the way. Hiking through the brush and spiny plants, we made our way to a cave which had Comca’ac drawings from the indigenous people who live in this region. The cave even had bats flying around which was pretty cool.

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Any guesses what this cave drawing means?

I made my way up to the peak looking out at the cactti-dotted landscape. I slipped going back down and had to jump a few feet, scraping against the rock face. It was a gorgeous hike in a unique desert mountain landscape.

The surrounding islands are equally desert like. On a boat tour with the marine mammal monitoring group, we went far out to the midriff islands, seeing fur seals and sea lions and tons of birds like blue footed bookies, red billed tropic birds, and cormorants. Some of the islands were small and others huge, many had interesting colors of the full rainbow spectrum. On the largest island, we ran into a pod of dolphins and a sea lion jumping out of the water and playing in the surf of the speed boat.

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Alcatraz island, one of the many midriff islands in the Gulf of Mexico

It has been so much fun tagging along with the geomorphology class to learn about coastal geology. I spent an afternoon on a beautiful isolated beach to learn how it had formed from granite and basalt rock.  I also saw a sea hare in the intertidal pools formed.  An interesting way that people have changed the landscape was that the aquaculture industry produced so much sediment that it formed a sandbar, causing the waves to break sooner before getting to the shore.

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The Gulf of California.

After the lessons, wee ended by running down a sand dune which was a lot of work to hike up but so much fun sliding down the steep surface. It was almost like running through the Sahara!

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Sand dunes–and these were the “small dunes.”

Marsh Mania

In honor of Worldwide Wetlands Day 2020, I thought I’d post an article I wrote for the EPA’s Office of Water during my time at the National Environmental Education Foundation.

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From a family visit to Galveston Bay, circa 2016

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A budding romance, a wedding, and an elementary science fair project. These are all events that sprung from a recent volunteer event in Texas, revolving around planting native marsh grasses to restore the habitats around Galveston Bay. The actions of these volunteers not only brought joy to their own lives, but also helped protect the surrounding community.

“Marshes are a transitional zone between water and land,” explains Emily Ford, volunteer programs coordinator for the Galveston Bay Foundation. They are also critical habitats for life—like fish and other seafood—in and around the bay. “About 90% of all seafood in the US begins life in a marsh or estuary, such as Galveston Bay.” While these areas are important for wildlife and the environment, they are also necessary for people. Ford sums it up by saying, “If you like to go swimming in the bay or fishing, then it’s important for you to protect the marsh.”

However, human impacts have taken a toll on the marshes surrounding Galveston Bay. “We are more connected than we realized—everything we do can impact the bay, particularly marshes,” says Ford. “Marshes would act as a buffer, but the more they shrink, the more impacts [they have] inland.” Galveston Bay historically acted as a buffer for the surrounding Houston area, but the damage to the marshes possibly added to the destruction caused by storms, such as the devastating Hurricane Harvey. This problem extends beyond the Texas coastline; as Ford puts it, “shorelines are eroding everywhere you go.”

The Galveston Bay Foundation set out to find a solution through an event called Marsh Mania. Dedicated to the restoration of the marshes surrounding Galveston Bay, volunteers from the greater Houston area spent a day planting native marsh grasses. “You can see such a difference—it’s just blossomed into this blooming, thriving [place], eroded shorelines all covered with marsh,” exclaims Ford. So far, the project has brought back 210 acres of salt marsh in 95 different locations, using the help of over 8,000 volunteers. And the volunteers have fun. Ford dives into anecdotes of couples that met at Marsh Mania events, a wedding that took place at one of the restored sites, and a boy who took his love for the marsh and turned it into his school science project. As Ford tells it, there is “a lot of heart, love, and appreciation over connecting more with Galveston Bay and understanding how they’re part of the community.” The best part? “People from any walk of life can do this…[with] trained volunteers in the marsh to help.”

“Our shorelines are always in need of help,” emphasizes Ford. You can get involved in restoration efforts of the marshes near you as part of National Estuary Week. Who knows? Maybe you’ll even meet your future spouse!

La La Land Part 2

I leap from the 30 foot high platform and grasp the trapeze as I reflect on what I’m leaving behind and jump towards my future goals.

I finish climbing the rope course, the last activity of the fellowship that includes scaling a 60 foot high tower, scrambling up swinging logs and ropes.

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Standing victorious after climbing the tower

It hasn’t been all fun and games; I’ve learned a lot of practical skills including rope-making, lashing (tying ropes together), shelter-building, and basket-weaving. One of the top five essential survival skills, coiling basket with rafia (thin leaves from the Malagasy Rafia palm) could be used to collect food and bring it long distances if stranded in the wild.

The weather has been nice and warm save for a spot of rain, though it was very cold when I visited Madison, Wisconsin for the National Science Policy Network Conference after Halloween. I learned a ton about communicating science and met lots of great people, including my new friend Danni Washington, who is the first African American female science TV show host (listen to our interview here).

Upon return, there just happened to be another science communication conference on campus. I bumped into my friend from college as I checked out the posters and hung out with her the rest of the evening until I was busted than none other than Cara Santa Maria (another science tv show host). After some flustered explaining, Jason Goldman (who is an old friend of my boss and a wildlife reporter) allowed me to stay the rest of the conference. I received lots of training in freelance pitching, storytelling, and science communication through the conference workshops. I also had fun meeting lots of fun people and C-list celebrities over meals, s’mores, and hikes. It was inspiring to meet so many passionate science communicators and a valuable experience.

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Alie Ward, a fantastic science communicator and enthusiastic speaker at SciCommCamp! I’ve been listening to her podcast, Ologies, while taking care of the animals and it’s great.

I did some horseback riding and had another adventure climbing out near Santa Clarita with a first responder who was there after the shooting. When not taking care of the fish, lizards, and farm animals, I spent time making moccasins out of deer leather. A key principle of the fellowship has been bal tashlit, which translates to “do not waste.” It was fun crafting my own shoes out of the hide of a deer and reusing all its parts.

***

I spent the final day hiking with the team up to some caves hidden in the valleys. Scrambling up the rocks to look over the campus, it was easy to believe it was the largest jewish-owned property outside of Israel. The hills looked lush from all the rain, and the sandstone rocks left all sorts of grooves from water flowing. It was fun living on this beautiful property, and I will miss the gorgeous sunsets!

Algae and Coral Reefs

A creeping green presence spreads across a vibrant coral reef, engulfing the colors in a sea of green. The green menace is algae, living plants that are the base of the food chain for all life in the ocean environment. Coral reefs and algae are usually able to strike a balance; however, changing ocean conditions threaten to destabilize this relationship. Like an overbearing friend, algae can grow out of control and take over the coral reef, threatening the seafood industry and even human wellbeing. What is causing algae, a critical food source for many fish and an essential element of the ecosystem, to dominate coral reefs?

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The endangered hawksbill sea turtle on a healthy coral reef

Nutrient pollution can tip the scales in favor of algae and cause the plants to overcome the reefs. Nutrients, while also important for the environment, can be harmful in large amounts. In a feeding frenzy, the algae consume excess nutrients, such as nitrogen, and continue to grow until they completely cover the coral reef. This situation is more likely to happen to coral reefs that are close to developed areas, like the corals in Florida, since nutrient pollution from agriculture and urban environments can make its way into these waterways.

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A black tipped reef shark on a healthy coral reef

Algae-covered coral reefs are a problem because the excess of algae makes these reefs less biodiverse, meaning there aren’t as many types of fish and other wildlife. These reefs are also more susceptible to pathogens, making them less resistant to disease than healthy reefs. This means less available seafood to feed the 1 billion people worldwide that depend on food from coral reefs and to support multi-billion dollar fishing industries. Furthermore, the increase in nitrogen, phosphorous, and other nutrients in waterways, also known as eutrophication, is harmful to human health. The spikes in algal growth caused by eutrophication can lead to harmful algal blooms, which can cause human illness.

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A startled octopus, morphing from camouflage to red. The surrounding reef has very little live coral.

Nutrient pollution that ends up in the sea travels down rivers and waterways stemming from communities like the ones near you. This also means that nutrient pollution can be reduced at the source. Communities are rallying to reduce nutrient pollution, from stream cleanups to volunteering to monitor water. You can help reduce nutrient pollution around your home by:

  • not dumping paint, oil, debris, or other household chemicals into street gutters or storm drains;
  • limiting fertilizer use, which can lead to the buildup of nitrogen and phosphorous in the ocean;
  • and using phosphate-free cleaners, detergents, and soaps to avoid contributing to nutrient pollution.
    • Check out this Safer Choice search engine from EPA to make environmentally friendly shopping easier!

Sources:

La La Land

The full moon rises over the Conejo valley as the sunset glows a hot red, enhanced by the particles in the atmosphere from the fire smoke. Evacuated to a friend’s place, I watch two whole seasons of cartoons in two days. Honestly, it’s not a bad start to my life in Los Angeles.

I shovel goat and horse poo, sneeze through the Peppertrees, and feed a turquoise-blue iguana worms. Why did I give up my PhD just to work this job in LA?

Because I was misled. I was given false promises of helping on a reintroduction project, and in the end it just wasn’t possible. But, just cause I couldn’t participate in one doesn’t mean my journey ends here. I’m determined, and even have leads on a project bringing back howler monkeys in Costa Rica this winter. My time as a conservation biologist isn’t over, yet!

The same eucalyptus that was in the forest of my fieldsite outside Sydney still haunts me here. All the vegetation is different; agave, desert plants, and lots of palms grow everywhere. A monarch flutters by over the chaparral terrain; a highly flammable landscape, especially with the strong Santa Ana winds this time of year means occasional evacuations.

I climb up the hill on the campus where I work to the House of the Book, the set where the big boss from power rangers was filmed. Supposedly, lots of films were shot here, including Jurassic Park and a scene from Chuck.

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In exchange for shoveling horse poo, occasionally we get to ride across the famous campus

~~

I watch the sun set over the pacific as I learn wilderness safety skills, hiking through the towering redwood trees down to the beach to practice scenarios to administer first aid. On the way back from the beautiful mountain view, I wake up to catch the colors of a gorgeous sunrise. Not a bad first trip in LA!

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Not quite sunrise, but an unforgettable sunset over the Pacific Ocean from the cabin I stayed in as part of my wilderness first aid course.

Stopping by the elephant seals on the way home, I’m excited by their strange noises and awkward movements as they inch themselves forward on the sand before collapsing in a pile to cuddle and scratch themselves in the sun.

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A male elephant seal sunning himself–what a life! Check out that long snout.

~~
I’ve picked up new hobbies since I’ve moved to LA. I went climbing for the first time! It was exhausting hiking 7 miles in with all the equipment through thorny oak thickets and red manzanita trees lining the walk. At the top, Malibu and LA are in view as well as the Channel Islands. It was nerve wracking scaling my first cliff, called corpse wall, but the encouragement from my new friends below and support from my trusted colleagues helped me climb, hand over foot, to the top. Some crevices were easier to traverse than others, but nothing was more exhilarating than to realize I’d climbed 60 feet up a vertical rock face to the beautiful view of the Valley at the top!

I also went climbing at night, which is challenging and scary, but I made it through! I just climbed for my third time outdoors this past weekend. There are so many gorgeous spots around LA. I went on a beautiful hike through Malibu Creek—with rolling hills that look a bit like Jurassic Park (though M*A*S*H* was filmed here). I can’t wait to keep exploring all of the nature in the city.

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M*A*S*H* was filmed here to imitate the hills of Korea. Looks more like Jurassic Park to me!

Plastic Spells Trouble for Sea Turtles

Sea turtles swim throughout the open ocean, grazing on algae and other foods. Some sea turtles, such as the leatherback sea turtle, like to snack on jellyfish, and have thick skin to protect their mouths from jellyfish stingers.

However, pieces of plastic floating in the ocean can resemble jellyfish, especially from the perspective of a hungry sea turtle. Sea turtles can accidentally consume plastic debris, causing health problems and even death.

Sea turtles can become entangled in other marine debris, like plastic six pack rings and fishing lines, preventing them from being able to swim or eat. Pollution on beaches can even trap sea turtle hatchlings, stopping them in their tracks on their way to the sea.

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The endangered hawksbill sea turtle!

Plastic pollution most often comes from inland sources and is carried by rivers to the sea, where currents carry them out to remote areas of the ocean. Other wildlife are affected by ocean pollution as well, from birds to whales, which also accidentally consume plastic. Even marine invertebrates, the main food source for many other forms of marine wildlife, are harmed by consuming marine debris, affecting the whole marine ecosystem.

Plastic pollution isn’t just bad news for wildlife and oceans; it can also harm people! Plastics that are consumed by the seafood people eat can cause an array of health problems, and pollution caused by discarded fishing nets that entangle sea turtles can even have a negative impact on the economy. Helping prevent plastic pollution not only helps wildlife but also can help you and your family.

Ocean trash originates from inland areas near you, which means that it can also be reduced at the source. Here is what you can do to help reduce ocean plastic pollution and help the sea turtles:

  • try to avoid using plastic straws, which can end up in the ocean and can be responsible for causing harm to wildlife;
  • bring re-useable bags with you to grocery stores to avoid using plastic bags, which can contribute to marine debris;
  • and find out other tips here.

 

Sources:

Jervis Bay

My final destination in Australia is perhaps the most beautiful.

Arriving by happenstance at sunset, I set up camp just as the red glow reflects on the pool of Honeymoon beach, a classic Sydney destination. I watch in awe as dozens of bottle-nosed dolphins swim by as the last lights go down on Jervis Bay.

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Honeymoon beach at Jervis Bay

Climbing on the rocky outcrops to get a closer view, I enjoy a beer with my fellow PhD students. A few eastern grey kangaroos pass by the campsite, and kookaburas perch on a nearby gum tree eagerly awaiting a snack.

The next day I take my time on a nice walk down to an isolated beach, called Silicon cove, named for the silky white sand lining the coast. The fact that not one soul on the beach is hauntingly beautiful, and I quickly hike back to my friends.

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My favorite beach!

We drive out to the cliffs overlooking Jarvis Bay, and to our surprise, we glimpse humpback whales breaching! We perch on the sheer drop (which I surprisingly inch myself out to the cliff of, staring in awe as the bright blue waves crash on the rocks starkly below). I’m amazed by the climbers going straight as we welcome the whales back from their long migration across the Pacific.

We continue exploring these jaw dropping cliffs, carved in sheer limestone. White bellied sea eagles entertain from above as they swoop down over the ocean, catching fish as I stumble over the rough terrain. All sorts of beautiful song birds line the thick coastal heath trail. Cockatoos, honeyeaters, and a stunning fairy wren are among my favorites.

What a wonderful trip to conclude my time in Australia!

Angkor Wat

The remnants of the Khmer empire left gorgeous ruins with a sad history. I was excited to fulfill my dream come true exploring the jungle temples of Angkor Wat, like I saw in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider as a kid. However, so much of this part of history is left out of the textbooks, and I was saddened by all the destruction wrought on the temples as empires rose and fell, and wars put bullet holes in the temple walls.

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The main temple of the Angkor Wat complex

The temple complex of Angkor Wat is massive, with long corridors and intricate structural designs depicting hindu symbols and buddhist inscriptions. There were cool, dark refugia to take shelter from the sweltering sun and meditate, a zen moment disturbed by some tourist knocking into the Buddhist shrine.

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Angkor Wat

After seeing the dried up lake where Lara croft zoomed through on her speed boat, we navigated our way to the top of the main tower for a great view of the Angkor Wat complex.

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View of Angkor Wat

Personally, I was much more excited to explore Ta Prohm, a temple overrun with fig trees. The large buttress roots circumnavigate the crumbling temple walls, adding support and resembling the interwoven nature of these temples with the surrounding jungle forests. A beautiful parrot tweets overhead as we take a second to rest in the shade of these large fig trees.


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Ta Prohm and the famous fig vines. Lara Croft: tomb raider was here! 

The most impressive temple in my opinion is Angkor Thom, with the 7-faces of Buddha carved into the walls. I felt empowered hiking to the top of this structure, passing through the ornate doors and peering over the detailed designs.

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Angkor Thom South Gate

The next morning we returned for sunrise at Angkor Wat, the beautiful morning colors reflecting over the square pool. It was still too soon to start exploring the other temples, so we rested outside and got some breakfast as the sun first broke through the canopy.

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My only regret was stopping to see some long-tailed macaques, as they soon were in the tuk-tuk we hired to take us around the temples and stealing water bottles. The mother macaque was very angry when I tried to grab it back, so we just left them be—the baby sure was cute though! The elephant-riding also made me uncomfortable as a conservationist, but it still made for a beautiful site.

We explored a variety of other temples and learned how they transitioned from Buddhist to Hindu and back to the hands of other groups of people. The saddest part was learning about the destruction from the Vietnam war, which spilled into Cambodia and killed millions. Land mines still litter the country, and that night at the market of Siem Reap men and women missing limbs sat playing instruments for money.

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Angkor Thom

I got a beautiful mug and painting of the temples at the market and had a delicious meal to rejuvenate from the jungle heat. It was amazing exploring these beautiful temples and getting a history lesson that is often overlooked from a Euro-centrist, American perspective.

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