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.”

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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Flight from the Thailand Coronation

Bangkok

The taxi driver was frantically explaining how the police were setting up blockades as we negotiated a ride to the airport. It was time for the king’s coronation, and we just barely escaped as the city was shutting down for the most momentous day in Thailand.

I was so scared about eating food due to my peanut allergy, but in my first night in Bangkok all I had to do was to motion to leave peanuts off–and I had my first delicious pad thai as a welcome to the country! I even tried a scorpion head, which was distinctly crunchy. I also had to fend off lady-boys grabbing me in the streets; I didn’t feel super safe in Khao San Road.

However, I had a great time touring the temples of Bangkok during the day. The grand palace was aptly named; the incredible decor, fascinating murals on the walls detailing history, and the ornate temples gave meaning to a place where the new king was soon to be crowned.

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At the Grand Temple palace, the site of the King’s coronation

We visited a huge reclining buddha statue with some of the best decorated feet I’ve seen in my life. We also stopped by a floating market, tasting some delicious rice pudding out of a coconut. My friends insisted on a river boat tour to see Wat Rong Khun, and we saw a water monitor and people coming up to us in boats to sell trinkets.

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Water taxi tour of the Bangkok temples, avoiding the traffic from the King’s coronation

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A very large reclining statue of buddha. The feet had very ornate drawings!

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Wat Rong Khun

I was in awe at sharp white spires of the final temple on our tour.

Ao Nang

I was immediately struck by the pandora-esque landscapes before me, with large green hils erupting suddenly along the roadside. I later learned the karst limestone cliffs formed from volcanic cones bubbling to the surface, then eroding over the millenia into the wonderous shapes (my favorite of which was shaped like a hand).

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Even the hostel sat at the base of the wondrous cliffs. Not far from the beach, we watched the sunset over the bay, dubbed “ugly beach” as it seemed in comparison to the others we saw the next day.

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Though I was sick from a green tea milkshake smoothie we had our first day, I could still appreciate the cerulean waters and fish that came to greet us. It was like seeing old friends: parrotfish and moorish idols swimming around my feet and several new kinds of coral that only exist in the world famous “coral triangle”–stretching from Indonesia to Australia to the pacific ocean.

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I almost fainted from the heat on what was probably the most beautiful beach in the world, second only to Railay beach where I took shelter in the shade of the karst caves where a fertility shrine was built.

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The fertility shrine offered shade and a wonderful view of Railay beach!

The next day, my strength returned and we hiked over 1200 steps to the tiger temple in the midday sun. It was very hard and hot but the views of the rolling hills from the top were worth it. The buddha statue at the top was also very impressive, and the wind kept the space cool.

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Amazing karst limestone landscapes! The “Tiger Temple” has the best view in town

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The temple was named for the tiger print left in the rock at the base of the temple. It was interesting seeing people bring offerings and gifts to the monks as we rested in the shade after the arduous hike.

Personally, I enjoyed playing with the long tailed macaques at the bottom, who were not as aggressive as the ones in Angkor Wat. They were keeping cool by the waterfall, eating fruit and occasionally investigating the tourists for food.

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A long tailed macaque enjoying a piece of pineapple.

We ended the trip with one delicious passion/dragon fruit smoothie-worth the traveler’s diarrhea I got from it.

We watched what was probably the most beautiful sunset over the “ugly beach” celebrating two years since graduating from Rice with my best friends from Martel college.

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A collared kingfisher enjoying the sunset view with us at Ao Nang

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Reunited with my college roommate in Krabi, Thailand!

Singapore: SciArt, Foodie’s Paradise & The Future

I stand in awe at the top of Marina Bay Sands watching the skyline of Singapore come to life as it turns from gray to blue to purple and white. The rooftop bar turns into a club at night with the best view in town, where I can see the light-show from the Gardens by the Bay. These electronic trees are mesmerizing as I watch from the skybridge to the tunes of “staying alive” and other hits from the ’80s.

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Gardens By the Bay. The artificial trees put on a show as we danced along the skybridge, and my friend taught me West Coast swing.

 

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Marina Bay Sands Hotel

The architecture of the buildings is incredibly aesthetic, and many are designed with the environment in mind, including green roofs for insulation. My favorite was the cloud forest dome, an art exhibit covered with flora from the cloud forest, my favorite biome. The gorgeous wall of greenery and stunning lighting displays at night highlighted the best these ecosystems have to offer. Unfortunately, because they are so sensitive to change by climate change, will this be the last remnants of these forests?

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The cloud forest dome, featuring the flora of one of the world’s most endangered ecosystems

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A long-tailed macaque, following us along the trail of Bukit Timah nature reserve.

I was impressed to see how much nature was still intact in Singapore. I woke up at dawn to see monkeys in Bukit Timah reserve along the MacRitchie water catchment, where I spotted a water monitor, a plantain squirrel, and plenty of long-tailed macaques. Hiking to the canopy walk, which was closed, we came back the next day only to get caught in a rainstorm. Still the lush rainforest was gorgeous, and even the botanical garden had a small patch with sunbirds and butterflies flitting around the orchids. My favorite orchid genus, Aranda, had a whole section!

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A water monitor cruising through MacRitchie Water Catchment

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A plantain squirrel. If you look closely, you can see the skin flaps under the arms that allow her to glide through the canopy!

Science fuses with art all around the city, which springs to life at night with an almost magical aura. I watch with my friend, a mechanical engineer, as she explains to me how her company, ARUP, built the tower with their sleek design team. They also designed the “DNA Bridge” connecting Marina Bay Sands to the fun wharves, like Clark Quay across the way where I got a Turkish delight ice cream surprise in the upbeat neighborhood. I originally had an oolong tea ice cream that I tossed out in exchange from this charismatic Turkish ice cream scooper. He made eye contact with me, motioned for me to toss out my cone, and he played a trick where he gave me a new scoop of thick, creamy vanilla which I didn’t mind one bit!

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The “DNA” bridge, also designed by ARUP, and the Science and Art Museum

We dined on some of the most unique and delicious food I’ve had in my life. It was like being in one huge Chinatown: walking down the street grabbing Durian ice cream, having soup dumplings, then eating some Michelin star “Chicken & Rice,” approved by the famous TV food guru.  I could’ve sat and ate all day long (and we did!) going to the Hawker-style food courts, enjoying braised duck with noodles and soursop and ice for dessert, all for less than $5! There were these rosewater milkshakes called milo dinosaurs (Milo being an Aussie chocolate powder drink sprinkled on top of a fruity delight).

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The Michelin star restaurant found at a Hawker’s market

My favorite dish was the black carrot cake. A bit of a misnomer, this dish is egg based and has a “melt-in-your-mouth” texture reminiscent of flan . However it is very chewy, smooth consistency, and absolutely paired well with a light dinner after a long walk along the marina bay sands’s most touristy hawkers market. I remember gawking at the “overpriced” $4 cake!

Walking through Chinatown, it was clear to see the influence of the Chinese immigrants that built the community. I even had the chance to take a stroll through the Hindu temples in Little India, the community built by the Indian immigrants. The shops were lined with spices and I even picked up an umbrella to keep dry from the pouring rain. Touring further along the easily accessibly train line, Chinese temples adorned the streets and gave a teaser of what was to come in Bangkok. I really enjoyed learning about the buddhist customs and traditions, and monks and religious patrons were lighting incense in honor of a holiday at one of the temples.

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The Jewel: This shopping complex made me feel like I was in the future!

On my return layover, I never even had to leave Changxi airport. From exploring The Jewel to the butterfly garden, I was in awe of how futuristic the place was.

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The butterfly garden in ChangXi Airport

There was a sad aspect as well, as everything was automated, I ordered food from machines and went the whole day without speaking to another soul. Is this the future–machine run and nature existing only behind closed domes?

“She’ll Be ‘Right”

I had a lot of fun while I was homeless in Sydney for two months.

Don’t get me wrong; I was really lucky that I had friends rent out their rooms to me while they were away. But I still would have loved a place. I even found one I thought I could call “home” while I was in and out of fieldwork four hours north of Sydney.

It all began when I, foolishly, decided to leave my perfect, beautiful place on the beach in Coogee, Sydney because I thought I could do better. I was wrong.

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Just a walk around my favorite neighborhood study spot in Sydney! 

At first it was like an adventure, bouncing around different lab members’ homes and learning more about them and their research. And I always had enough graduate funding to pay for a night or two at a hostel when needed. But, after a bit, the uncertainty of not knowing where I was going to be in a week or two caught up with me, and I was tired of living moment to moment.

I would still take breaks and enjoy myself once in a while. I remember going snorkeling after moving in to a friend’s place in Maroubra, which was one of the few chances I got to see some of Sydney’s marine wildlife. I would take advantage of a house inspection near a beach and go see some groupers, sting rays,  and even some squid!

My favorites are the goatfish with their whiskers that clean the bottom of the sand, searching for crustaceans and other hidden snacks. The water is warm enough to swim in during March and the bays are protected as well. Between the fluorescent blue algae, patches of kelp, and alien looking fish all camouflaged to blend in, it is like exploring another world.

I even went free-diving for the first time after I moved into a place that I thought would be my new home in April. I remember picking up on some of the subtle cultural differences, such as being more laid back (and flakey), which made it difficult for making plans.  After living around Sydney for so long, I felt as if I was still going through culture shock after 6 months, as I discovered the little things that are different. For example, people being indirect about rejection sort of leaves you hanging and guessing as to what people mean, while people from the Western hemisphere are usually a bit more straightforward. Australians also tend to “beat around the bush,” so to speak.  

And I mean it when I say I was lucky. I found myself talking more and more to homeless people, understanding how hard it is for them to find help for themselves when their is a shelter just around the corner because of something called tunnel vision. Living moment to moment takes a toll on your long term planning, and some days they might just have needed a helping hand or some leftover food. One time I offered assistance and was berated, but another time I gave someone some takeaway (Aussie slang for “takeout”) and I think just giving them the time of day helped. 

Smith Lake

Update: This post was written January 10, 2019. 

Tick check! This frequent activity occurs every time I get back from the forests surrounding Smith Lake, a part of Myall Lakes National Park (~three hours north of Sydney). As I carefully sift through my clothes and inspect every inch of my body for signs of ticks, I reflect on the long weekend spent preparing for the field biology course taught at the University of New South Wales.

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The ocean view, just outside Myall Lakes National Park, traditionally land occupied by the Worimi peoples.

The site is like a lakeside retreat, with a shimmering blue pool just beyond the simple cabins where my professor and I are staying. A butcher bird that knows no fear lands just a foot away from me on the balcony outside my cabin, chirping its robotic sounding call.

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Despite the grim appearance, butcher birds actually have quite a melodic call

The goal is to set up cameras to take pictures of the native wildlife for the advanced field biology course introducing students to scientific techniques. The cameras are placed in three different habitat types, all with their own sets of challenges.

The first location is in the forest, where I was the only one to escape unscathed, while the rest of the team was stung and bitten by jumping ants. The beautiful eucalyptus forests provide shade from the hot sun, and besides the ants there are few other bugs. Next up is the abandoned farm habitat, where hiking through thick grass surely led to lots of tick bites. As I tripped over heaps of hidden stumps and branches, I stumbled out of the thicket onto the hilltop, complete with a beautiful view of the lakes! Hiking along the water sure makes for a great experience, and it almost makes up for the difficulty of the trek there.

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Family recipe Latkes, fieldwork style! 

After setting up cameras, we take a break for the day and end with a barbecue by the stream. I contributed fried potato pancakes, known as latkes, to celebrate the first night of Channukah, an eight-day holiday. A cheeky kookaburra came down and tried to steal one of the steaks from the grill, but other than that it was nice cooking outside.

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A kookabura, resting in an old gum (Eucaluptus) tree

The last location at the swamp proved to be the most challenging, yet one of the most beautiful. Fortunately, there were some tracks already carved through the thick marshy grasses of the swamp making it easier to follow. Much of the swamp grass provided ample foot cover above the murky waters, but there were many holes plunging down into the water that I accidentally stepped in. Though the muddy boots slowed me down, it helped me to appreciate the beautiful scene before me.

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I felt as if this “Christmas Bell flower” (named for its annual peak bloom around the holiday season) was whispering to me “Go West.”

Many flowers were in bloom and we discovered some interesting insects around, including a praying mantis and some sparkly beetles. I even saw what appeared to be a familiar face, the monarch butterfly, which I found strange since I am used to seeing them in the Americas. White bellied sea eagles and kites flew amongst the marsh trees, and even though it was tricky setting up cameras here, it makes for a great field site!

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A praying mantis camouflaged to match the brown of the swamp.

After the work was done, we celebrated with a quick stop at the iconic Seal Rocks for a dip in the ocean and some pies for lunch. Though we didn’t see too many animals, hopefully the cameras I helped set up will capture some interesting photos for the students next year! (Update: The students saw a koala on one of the camera traps I set up! I’m jealous).

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Probably my best field outfit yet. Yes, I walked into the pie shop and the grocery store dressed like this.