Our current time zone: GMT +8 (We're home in Singapore!)

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Swamp Things

The National Parks Annual Pass is one of the most value-for-money items you can get while you're in the US. Costing US$80 per year, it covers entrance fees for the both of us, our vehicle and 2 other adults for any national, as well as state parks, all over the US. Entrance fees can cost up to US$25 per park per vehicle (including the passengers in it) and since we planned to visit more than 4 parks during our 3 months in the US, it definitely made sense to invest in an annual pass.

The good thing is, unlike a Six Flags pass which is valid only for 2009, the park pass is valid for exactly 1 year, regardless when you bought it. So we can look forward to continuing our visits to more parks on our return journey via southern US in early 2010. I definitely have the Grand Canyon in Arizona on the agenda, despite it being winter when we get there in February.

Last week, we wrapped up our 2009 park visits with the Everglades National Park in Florida. The Everglades are a fragile subtropical wetlands environment, the largest wet patch of wilderness in the United States. Being subtropical means that there's still a distinct summer and winter season in the Everglades, unlike the 100% tropical climate that blankets Singapore throughout the year (our only season being the monsoon season.)

Summer (Apr - Nov): Hot (min 24, max 32 degrees Celsius - just like every day in Singapore), wet (daily afternoon showers), 100% humidity. Hurricane season. Mosquitoes out in full bloom.

Winter (Dec - Mar): Cool (min 15, max 25 degrees Celsius), dry and very sunny. No bugs. High tourist season. Humans out in full bloom.

The Everglades receive fresh water from the Okeechobee lake and its rivers. Interestingly, as the grasslands are located along Florida's coast, they also come into contact with the briny saltwater of the Mexican Gulf. Where the waters mix, you get mangroves. So 'steamy hot weather' + 'mangroves' made us feel right at home - sweating in the wetlands of Sungei Buloh.

The warm weather and nutrient-rich waters encourage the plant and animal life to blossom, resulting in, literally, rivers of grass teeming with birds, insects, marine life and small mammals. To see these watery plains in a less romantic light, would be to view them as a big massive yucky muddy swamp. Anyway, the Everglades are so precious that they've been designated a World Heritage Site, International Biosphere Reserve and Wetland of International Importance (a very pompous-sounding title indeed!)

A tourist commented that this was a scene right out of The Lion King, which prompted DanDeLion to burst into an African yodel. The tourists were very amused and complimented him on impressive rendition when we bumped into them later at a fruit stall.

Apparently, the Everglades is the only place in the world where you can get both freshwater alligators and saltwater crocodiles living side by side in the same environment. If you're lucky, you might spot a manatee (dugong, seacow) too. We had planned to go canoeing in the backwaters of the Everglades and I was rather worried about encountering an over-friendly gator or croc. The park ranger assured me that the giant reptiles are more wary of humans than we of them (really now, that's exactly what I tell people about reef sharks) and that I had nothing to worry about. I decided that the best method of defence would still be to stab the scary attacker in the eye with the end of my paddle anyway.

I really needn't have worried cos it was the most boring canoe expedition I've ever been on in my life.

The only buaya I saw on the trip. It just wouldn't stop following me. At least it helped get rid of all the irritating mozzies.

On the bright side, two full hours of solitude, with nothing but the sounds of nature to keep us company, is good for bonding. That is, if you can get past the first ten minutes floating in a canoe that keeps turning round and round on the spot without clawing each other's eyes out. On hindsight, a kayak may have been a much better choice than the American-sized canoe (which is so big, we couldn't possibly have managed to claw each other's eyes out anyway.) We finally figured that the best way to get the boat to move forward without veering into the mangroves was to have just one person paddle. SO. BE. IT.

DC (yelling forward): Baby, stop doing your dragon boating thing!!!!!!

YL (yelling backward): What dragon boating thing?!

DC (yelling forward): You're leaning forward so much, digging the entire paddle into the water and throwing the water back! Relax okay?

YL (sulk): FINE

After receiving numerous complaints about my paddling abilities, I changed my strokes. By doing away with them totally.

After a while, I started to feel rather useless. At least when I'm being driven around, my job is to navigate, play deejay, feed and water the driver, provide clean tissue and receive used ones, and manage the garbage bag. Seriously, in a canoe, there's nothing to do. Except slap mosquitoes.

So I picked up my paddle again...

Obediently following my Director's orders and doing some rowing while on this trip. So that I keep my rowing skills in tip top shiny shape for our next inter-agency dragon boat competition when I get back.

... but the person behind doesn't do his job, which is to steer (otherwise why give him the longer paddle)... and I end up crashing face first into a prickly pile of branches! Actually, I'm sure he did steer... straight into the thick mangroves, which were full of mozzies!

Being blinded by sharp twigs. Obviously, the person at the back found it all highly amusing and had no intention of getting me out of there anytime soon.

Burnt, bitten, beat, bored and blinded, we finally returned the canoe to the rental centre after touring the swamp (suffered throughout, but die die must maximise our two-hour rental.) The guy at the pier was incredibly friendly. Probably because it was so quiet that he was actually glad to have some visitors to talk to. He took a real interest in life in Singapore, from our weather ("you mean it's hot like this throughout the year?!"), our language ("what do you guys speak at home? Nono, I don't mean English. What do you really speak?"), our currency ("you have your own dollar?") and so on. In return, he told me everything about his two kids whom he hardly sees cos they live with his ex-wife, his twin girls - the result of a fling with another woman, and about how child support is costing him an arm and a leg. It's quite sad really, but also so... unsurprising. Sigh.

Oh, and I was really tickled when the storekeeper asked for my ID when I bought a can of beer. Tee hee. Good to know that I don't even look 21. Nice.

After battling the heat and the mozzies, we desperately needed to cool off. We stopped for a peaches and cream milkshake from the super-crowded Robert Is Here fruit stand, packed with ang mohs all dying from the heat, and headed back to the Everglades International Hostel. We had taken the advice from our Let's Go USA (On A Budget) guide and had chosen to stay at this interesting hostel instead of yet another run-of-the-mill cookie-cutter motel.

It proved to be quite a refreshing change indeed, from the mosaic entrance arch, to the quirky paintings on the walls, eclectic old furniture and the old school hostel way of life - very homey, very minimally staffed, where boarders have to chip in and do some things on their own. Such as collecting clean sheets and bedding from the reception and making your own bed, and then stripping it when you leave and placing the used linen into the laundry basket.

Nice mosaic arch - which you can't walk under, cos the front entrance is all taped up - to keep rainwater out and prevent flooding!

Our very spartan semi-private room...

... meaning, it looks into the dorm and we share a bathroom with the other guests.

A well-equipped kitchen. You can help yourself to food on the common shelf, in the fridge and herbs from the garden.

Quiet shady hideouts in all corners of the garden

We thought the best thing about the hostel was their new rocky swimming hole. The cool, clean water is pumped every morning straight from an underground spring and cascades down as a waterfall into the pool. Stepping under the gushing falls, it's quite a torture to be baptised by a wall of icy-cold water but it's a welcomed respite from the oppressing heat. And the relentless biting bugs. Once you sink into the watery protection zone, those nasty insects can't get you.

Get cool. Get into the water.

The nice thing about hosteling is that you get to meet and chat with other hostelers - especially if everyone chooses to cool off and soak in the pool. We met an American from Tenessee called Lee (we told him that there are some Very Important People in Singapore who share that name) on his first visit to the Everglades, a black dreadlocked Californian guy living in the Carribean who gave us a contact for scuba diving in St Johns and a Hawaiian who moved to Florida and fed us natural honey harvested straight from the hive and some home-made gravy.

And that's an experience that you won't get while being holed up at the Hilton.


aud said...

"there are some Very Important People in Singapore who share that name"

like me for example? :D

Yi Lin said...

Riiiiggghhhttt... was totally thinking of you when I told him that. Totally :P

Zen said...

Robert was there???

Yi Lin said...

Haha, isn't it a funny name? :) I didn't see anyone named Robert, much less Robert Ang. Unless Robert's the emu which lives behind the fruit stand. And stinks alot.

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