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

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Big Crack

Poor Dan.

During the earlier stages of trip-planning, we had envisioned a week-long birthday celebration for him spent lounging on a Mexican beach at Club Med Cancun, surrounded by sexy bikini-clad women and sand between his... toes.

In the end, we had to give the sunny Yucatan a miss. Damn those budget constraints.

Look what the poor guy ended up with as a sorry replacement:

Fields of snow

Once again, poor Dan *cue sympathetic "awwww" from reader* (yes, that means you. Do it. Please?)

This is a guy who doesn't sleep with the air-conditioning on back home (and by default, cured me of my nightly air-con habit), hates the cold, doesn't own any decent winter clothing, and has a like-hate ('love' is too strong a word) relationship with snow.

Fresh from South America, the cold treatment we received in Ushuaia was not yet a distant-enough memory for us to welcome snowy days again with new eyes. It didn't help that Guatemala was uncharacteristically (or in the words of our hosts "crazily") cold when we were there.

We thought we had planned an unflappable Great Winter Escape by heading to Arizona in December, and that the great red deserts of Southwest USA would kindly offer us some respite from the wintry white blanket falling over most of North America. Plus, since the price of some Mexican sunshine wasn't within reach, why not treat Dan to a visit to a World Heritage Site instead? Standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon would make a memorable birthday experience indeed.

Well, we learnt the hard way that:

(1) The reference to the south in "southwest" isn't exactly a heavyweight when the region located in North America.

(2) The Grand Canyon is located at an elevation of 2,134m above sea level - high enough to catch more than a few snowflakes during winter.

On the bright side, it would definitely be easier to find some sweet birthday treats in Arizona than it was hunting down a slice of cake for my birthday in the Atacama.

I was well prepared to see a smattering of snow at the top levels of the Grand Canyon and maybe in Flagstaff, the gateway to the national park. I only realised that we may have gotten more than what we bargained for when my friend Dawn mentioned on my Facebook page that it was the perfect time to go skiing in Flagstaff....

I certainly wasn't expecting this much snow:


Nevertheless, we took advantage of the blue skies that day to visit the Grand Canyon - affectionately termed "The Big Crack" by Dan. He enthusiastically demonstrated the use of the term, "On my birthday, my wife is going to show me a Big Crack." Ha.ha.ha. What.Ever. Luckily for him, birthday boys get to enjoy special privileges, which include immunity against getting pulverized by the wife for making lewd jokes at her expense.

Gazing over The Big Crack

At 26km-wide at the maximum, the Grand Canyon isn't the widest in the world. I had always thought that it was the deepest, with walls stretching 1.83km into the bowels of the earth, but it isn't. That title goes to a gorge in Nepal.

Nevertheless, the Grand Canyon is undeniably wide and very deep. Stretching hundreds of kilometers into the horizon, it's sheer size is visually overwhelming. Gazing over the South Rim and literally seeing no end in sight, I found it hard to wrap my brain around how massive this single canyon really is. It's like looking out into the ocean but instead of water, you see rock. It was so unreal, it literally looked fake, like a painted backdrop in a photo studio.

People looking so very tiny in comparison with the Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon was formed millions of years ago by the simultaneous uplift action of the Colorado Plateau and the downward carving forces of the mighty Colorado River. From where we were, the powerful river was a mere blue-green squiggly line and the roads leading to the bottom of the canyon looked like limp spaghetti.

Obviously, if you go over the edge, you have a really long way to fall before you literally hit rock bottom after about 1.4km. If you want more time in the air, jump from the North Rim - it's higher.

No, seriously, please don't. The very first drop from either rim WILL kill you. Bouncing down the canyon wall till you reach the base is only an added thrill.

Some 600 people have died in the Grand Canyon since the 1870s. 53 fatalities were due to accidental falls. 48 deaths by suicide. 23 as a result of homicide (!!!!!!!) The rest through plane and helicopter crashes, flash floods, dehydration, drownings and other factors.

I decided to take the advice of a wise little elementary school student whose haiku graced the exhibit at the park visitor centre:

The Canyon is deep
I stay away from the edge
I obey the rule

Oi! You! Obey the rule!!!!

Amazingly, we had picked the best weather to make our visit. The minimum temperature that day was a whopping 3 degrees Celcius, falling to minus 7 at night.

The day before, it was minus 3 at the max, and minus 9 at night.

Prediction for the following day was 1 degree max and minus 8 at the minimum.

We made a good call on the weather, huh? Brrrrrrrrrrrrrr!

I've said it twice and I'll say it again: Brrrrrrrrrr!!!!

While we were bitterly, bitterly cold that day, the freezing temperatures didn't stop us from enjoying the spectacular views (before they were totally blocked by a thick curtain of falling snow.) The cold only drove us into each other's arms more tightly! Awwwwww.....

Celebrating our birthdays with each other in a year of adventures!

So yeah, even though he was freezing most of the time, this lucky fella received many a cuddle on his birthday and is thus not that poor a thing.

But thanks for the sympathy anyway. (You can stop feeling sorry for him now.)

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Onwards To The Red Rock State

Over the Christmas season, we hopped and skipped and flew and drove and made our way from Guatemala to Florida and onwards to Arizona.

It was our first Christmas celebration away from the family and thus the quietest one ever. We spent Christmas dinner in bed in a motel near the Miami airport with a large pizza that was delivered straight to our room and a heavy dose of American TV. Okay, maybe it wasn't that quiet an event - the Muppets and kooky characters from Family Guy can be quite a rambunctious bunch.

On Boxing Day, we flew to Phoenix. Never again are we flying American Airlines.

Reasons (and really valid ones too):

(1) You have to pay for your first checked bag. Yes, the first bag - you know, the one where you put all your travel necessities; the one that almost all other airlines in the world (even those hailing from countries worse off than Great Uncle Sam's mega-continent) let you check in for free?

(2) You get a drink (hooray) but you don't get any snacks. Not even peanuts. Those are for sale. Or you can opt to buy an all-American snack - the American Airlines Giant Chocolate Chip Cookie.

(Ginormous American Lady seated next to Dan along the aisle had no qualms ordering that. Dan waited till she had finished chowing down on her American-sized snack before he asked if he could get pass her to visit the washroom. She said, "Sure!" and sucked in her belly by a few invisible inches, which she thought would give him enough space to stroll through onto the aisle. He stared at her in disbelief. She finally got the hint and heaved herself up from her seat to let him pass.)

(3) There is no personal entertainment onboard the flight.

(4) Should you wish to watch the movie showing on the tiny screens lining the aisle, you have to purchase earphones at US$2 a piece.

Before you say that we're being total spoiled brats and are too ngiao (stingy) to pay for anything onboard a flight, we have to point out that other local airlines have managed to provide almost all the above cabin comforts at no additional cost to paying passengers. And their airfares are comparable to or cheaper than AA's too.

Our favourite local airline is Jetblue. The fares are cheap, you check in your first bag for free, you get a drink and your choice of 2 snacks from a snack basket, you get a personal entertainment screen where you can watch local TV channels and cable onboard, and you can plug your own earphones into the entertainment set.

We also really like Southwest. They only lose out to Jetblue in the in-flight entertainment arena but they make up for their lack of fun by being really nice and letting you check in 2 bags for free.

So what is AA's excuse for being so crappy huh?


We didn't do much in Phoenix. Instead, we hit the road the very next morning and drove ourselves to Sedona, just a couple of hours from Arizona's state capital. After spending 7 months being car-less in the Caribbean and Latin America (except for the occasional golf cart and 1-day rentals), it felt really good to be in control behind the wheel again.

Sedona is a small town set amongst chunky blocks of red mountain. While Sedona sits on the edge of the Colorada Plateau - the same one which the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon sit on - unlike the latters' red rock wilderness, it is inhabited. And by really kooky residents too. We saw business signs offering palm and tarot readings, 'new age' products (like exotic incense and twangy music CDs) and the occasional tour promising UFO-sightings *cue twilight zone music*

We visited the Red Rock State Park, a small nature reserve in Sedona with lots of beautiful scenery to offer. Although declared a public park in 1991, Red Rock is not slated as a national park. It's relatively small proportions of red rock features cannot hold a candle to the grandeur of Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park, both which we had visited last year in Utah.

The beauty of Red Rock lies in its intimate setting and quiet nature trails. There are no carloads of tourists pouring in throughout the day. No free park shuttles that ferry large groups of camera-toting visitors from viewpoint to viewpoint. At Red Rock, you can almost have the whole park to yourself.

Taking in a lungful of desert air

It's the desert - it's always sunny

And yet, you can still see signs of a desert winter

Evidence that the temperatures drop below freezing at night

Pretty patterns form when a stream ices over. A passer-by saw me so enthralled by something on the ground and called out to ask me what I had found there. Nothing much - just some ice!

Following the trail to the lookout point

These bright orange rocks are 250 million years old. The red hue is due to the high levels of iron in the sandstone.

Cacti dot the landscape throughout Arizona

Sedona's dramatic red rock landscape

Sadly, Red Rock State Park is slated for closure in June this year due to lack of state funding. The same fate awaits 12 other state parks in Arizona. Only the 9 parks that generate the most revenue in order to fund the parks' operations will remain open.

For Red Rock, it means that members of the public will no longer be allowed to enter the nature reserve.

And with its closure, there goes yet another little sanctuary for people to escape to. We are indeed very blessed to have experienced the quiet magic of Red Rock before it gets neglected and eventually, forgotten.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Streets Of The Arch

The beautiful old town of Antigua is Guatemala's most visited tourist destination. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, the cobblestone streets of this lovely Latin American city are still lined with colourful but unassuming buildings conserved since the 16th century.

A tall pale-yellow arch built in 1631 - Arco de Santa Catalina - is the face of the city that welcomes one and all to Antigua.

Dan giving the Latin American thumbs-up for Antigua. (We learnt in Rio de Janeiro to stay clear from the universal 'OK' sign - which apparently means 'a**hole' in Brazil. There's no knowing what it means in Guatemala!)

Living life on different sides of the arch

This charming Guatemalan city couldn't have been more different from the tiny island by the same name, which we had earlier visited on a cruise of the Caribbean. Instead of spending the day lazing on the palm-fringed sands of Antigua-the-island, we got a fair bit of legwork under our belts pacing the streets of Guatemalan Antigua. Our Haviana-ed feet didn't take too well to the slippery well-worn-till-they-shine cobblestone paths. But basking in warm tropical temperatures and Antigua's laid-back, festive, year-end atmosphere capped only by Central America's sunny blue skies, we weren't in the mood for socks and shoes!

In Antigua, it's not just the buildings that hail from the past...

An ornate stone doorway. And arched windows that serve no useful purpose except for people below to look up into the blue blue heavens.

Beautiful arched walkways that let in so much natural light that people have to squeeze up against the walls just to find a sliver of shade

... you can also see glimpses of the past in everyday life on the streets.

A cute old Beetle slowly put-putting past the Catedral de Santiago (1542)

Who needs to recycle shopping bags when you don't even need one in the first place? Just tie up the goods with string and carry them on your head!

Although carefully preserved over the past 30 years, touches of modern life have managed to creep through the city's walls over time, but in very tasteful and subtle ways.

A modern annex and 16th-century facade lean into each other. It's all about balance and mutual support. The new kid on the block doesn't overwhelm the old.

A blink-and-you-will-miss-it Maccers outlet. No golden arches here. Same goes for Burger King and Citibank. Crass in-your-face commercialism promoting fast food and fast cash has no place in Antigua.

We stayed right across from the mercado local, a busy mess of make-shift stalls selling everything from clothes, toys, festive decorations, household items, shoes, hats, pirated DVDs, game consoles and every tropical fruit and vegetable available. It was just 2 days to Christmas when we were there. All the locals were frantically shopping for food, clothes, Christmas tinsel and toys. There was a huge buying - and selling - frenzy throughout the market. I got myself a jungle hat to replace the one I lost in the Bolivian desert.

Tiny oranges on a string

That woman in green looks like me in the office on Christmas Eve. Can't wait to knock off and head home for the festivities!

Typical Guatemalan dress - an ornate lacey top over a woven skirt

Guatemalan food is very simple, comprising of hearty stews, grains, salad and steaming hot tortillas (wheat-flour pancakes) that come in a cloth-wrapped basket.

Got Meat? Check. Bon appetit!

Fried chicken is the other popular option.

(Note to travelers: they don't do they equivalent of popcorn chicken here. Don't be fooled by the pictures. Those crunchy pieces are actually fried intestines... )

Waiting for our order at a hole-in-the-wall fried chicken joint. An enterprising lady selling hot tortillas positions herself at the door, tempting exiting customers to pick up a few tortillas to go with their freshly-fried chicken meal.

Fried chicken joints weren't the only hole-in-the-wall businesses we visited in Antigua.

Guess what store this darkened doorway leads to? See wall for clue.

For US$3, Dannie finally decided to relieve his wife from hairdressing duties and treat himself to a long-awaited haircut by a professional. He emerged from the shop barely minutes later with a longish but neat mullet hairdo.

Very handsome! Very latino!

Holding his breath for the end result after dispensing instructions to the barber in Spanish

Friday, January 15, 2010

Hot Rocks!

From Brazil, we took our first ever flight in South America on Taca Airlines - only to leave the continent. Actually it was a 3-in-1 flight that took us from Rio de Janeiro back to Lima, then to San Salvador and finally to Guatemala City, changing planes at each stop. It got a bit nerve-wrecking in mid-journey when our flight departing Lima was delayed, causing us to miss our connection in San Salvador to Guatemala. Or so we thought. We were incredibly relieved to find our plane still waiting at the gate for passengers who had been delayed by their previous flights.

Didn't we just spend six leisurely months wandering around South America? So why the rush to get to Guatemala on time?

We had given ourselves only 3 days to visit Guatemala before our flight back to the USA on Christmas Eve: 1 day to get to Vulcan Pacaya, 1 day to scale the volcano, 1 day to get back to the airport for our flight to Miami. We wanted to complete all our air travel before the super peak Christmas-to-New-Year period.

We had first heard about scaling Pacaya from a German traveler whom we had dinner with in Colombia sometime in August. Her tales about leaping across a river of glowing lava (which, as we discovered later on the trek, was probably an exaggeration) and watching other tourists' Crocs sandals melt before her eyes convinced us not to give Guatemala a miss - if only to scale this active volcano.

Pacaya may be about 23,000 years old but is very much still alive and kicking. And erupting. It may not be spewing its red hot molten guts too often nowadays, but the volcano still coughs up the occasional lungful of ash, plentiful enough to shower the nearest city, Antigua, in black dust.

Having discovered how my body reacts to climbing a mountain while in Peru last year, I was understandably nervous about climbing yet another one, be it snow-capped or on fire. I trawled online reviews and climbers' accounts of their Pacaya experience. Many related how difficult the climb was despite them being young and having an above-average level of fitness.

For one, the thick layer of ash blanketing the path made taking each step akin to walking in quicksand. One step forward, 2 steps back.

Secondly, climbers who chose to stay for views of sunset atop the peak spoke of how tricky and dangerous the descent in the dark was.

Next, I read about how some people lost their footing and had either ripped their skin open on the sharp lava rocks or suffered third-degree burns from landing on the burning ground. Gulp.

Then, it didn't help that our hosts in Guatemala City - just before they saw us off on a van to Antigua (the most popular base for trips up Pacaya) - mentioned that previous guests have had their shoes torn to shreds on the trek.

So I formulated a simple battle plan: rent walking sticks for the hike to help me keep my balance on the soft ash and sharp rocks; choose a morning ascent and complete the descent before sundown; and set aside money for new shoes.

I was relieved to hear that tired trekkers could hire "horse taxis" to help them scale the mountain. But given my dubious horse-riding skills on the trek in Peru and on our horse-riding excursion in Mendoza, I was highly aware how uncomfortably butt-aching a four-legged cab ride up and down the volcano would be. Besides, it's really wimpy to have an animal plod about on your behalf while everyone else is walking up, isn't it? Oh my pride, my pride.

On the very morning that we left Guatemala City for Antigua, our van driver advised us to choose the afternoon ascent over the morning climb, as the glow of the lava was more prominent after sundown. I was really not prepared to be told at 10am that I would be climbing a volcano at 2pm that same day!

We went anyway.

I had to admit, it was a beautiful day to be outdoors.

Perfect day for a walk in the park. Or on an active volcano.

The path started out gradual and fairly firm to touch, but quickly transformed into slippery ash-covered slopes. I found it easier to bound lightly across the powdery surface, moving quickly down the path before giving the loosely-packed dirt a chance to crumble under my weight.

A note of warning to those attempting the hike: taking the road less traveled here is not a good idea. Stick to the well-beaten path. A couple of smarty-pants hikers decided to take shortcuts across the slopes where no one else was treading. Their foolish attempts sent large loose rocks hurtling downhill and would have hit unsuspecting climbers quite painfully if not for other alert tourists and guides who yelled "watch out!", just in time for the human targets to jump out of the way of the oncoming rocks.

Can't make it up on your own? Hire a horse-taxi. (Wimp!)

My personal mule service carrying our pack and water-bottles so that I could climb unhindered. I only needed to carry my own camera.

As we neared the summit, we could feel the ground burning up through the soles of our shoes. Treading cautiously along the banks of the lava rivers, the heat on my feet became unbearable, forcing me to back away from the glowing rock. Amazingly, our shoes held up despite the intense heat. I think Nike and Adidas deserve some credit here for their volcano-proof soles.

It was incredibly surreal being so close to molten lava and watching the viscous red ribbon of glowing liquid rock snake through the cracks in the craggy black face of the mountain. If you got close enough to peer through the crevices, you could see flames licking hungrily at the air (and errant fingers) near the surface.

Happy to have made it to the summit. Happier still to be standing side by side with lava rivers!

A must-do on the volcano - roast marshmallows over the hot rock! Honestly, the best marshmallow I've ever tasted. Some people made popcorn too!

Watching sunset atop the peak was a magical experience.

Worth the climb. Totally worth the climb.

Then, the sea of tourists parted as the fire goddesses appeared - a couple of tourists in our group who performed a fire dance before the setting sun.

Head and pois lowered in a respectful commencement to the dance

An offering to the sun, sky, clouds and mountains

Hula-ing with finesse

A dance fit for the gods

Lights out!

Fire-mountains, a fiery sunset, lava rivers, flame-toasted marshmallows, fire goddesses performing an enthralling dance offering - our first volcano experience could not have been more complete.

Fire in the sky

Oh, the descent back to our waiting van was a piece of cake too. We just had to buy a torch to combat the darkness. Duh!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Getting Closer to Jesus


Skimpily dressed people hanging out at the beach. Favelas where drug lords rule. Kilo buffets filled with foods of all kinds. You would think that this was a country of self-indulgent decadence. Maybe it is, but then again, maybe it isn't.

Brazil seems to have a religious streak hardwired into the population as well. For one, the long-distance buses in Brazil tend to screen Christ-related movies, while Buses in Peru and Argentina tend to screen popular Hollywood movies.

Two of the movies we got to watch in Brazil were 'Fireproof' and 'The Passion of Christ'. The first was a touching story of how the power of Christ helped heal a broken marriage. It was so good that both the wife and I found tears in our eyes by the end of the movie; and I just had to get a copy for my parents - I think they will like it too! The latter was the controversial movie directed by Mel Gibson, which graphically depicted the pain and agony Christ went through before He finally died for our sins.

Which, of course, brings me to the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue atop the Corcovado mountain in Rio de Janeiro. The statue was last seen by most Singaporeans in the movie 2012 being swamped by a tidal wave, but we're glad to report that this New Wonder of the World is still safe and sound.

Despite standing in a high, prominent spot in Rio de Janeiro, it is pretty difficult to snap a nice, good shot of the statue. For one, it was on top a mountain, so distance played a part. Then, you would also have to take into account the often misty/cloudy weather that seems part and parcel of Rio. Our path to Jesus was therefore full of little steps as we made our way closer and closer to Him.

Our first glimpse of him was when we wanted to go cycling along Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas. Because we were told that there was a helipad around the lake where we could get a helicopter ride to fly round the statue. But, one look at the gloomy, low-lying clouds and we decided that that wasn't the day. Besides, you know how lying is a sin... it was just not an auspicious day!

Our very, very first look at Christ the Redeemer

There was a bit of sun a couple of days later, and we DID cycle round the lagoon and make it to the helipad. Unfortunately, the prices were quite a bit higher than our hosts at Rio Dolphin had presumed. We had expected a short flight for about 70 Reals, but the cheapest flight turned out to cost 150 Reals. And it did not take off from this particular helipad, but the one nearer to Sugar Loaf Mountain, which would take too long for us to get to (by which time the clouds would swamp the mountain again).

The next level up was 230 Reals, but did not include flying past Christ the Redeemer. Moreover, no others were taking that particular route, and I needed 4 pax to make a flight.

So we were eventually forced to 'upgrade' all the way up to a flight costing 280 Reals. Or rather, I was 'upgraded'. It just did not make sense for both of us to pay almost 600 Reals for a 12 minute ride in a helicopter! So, after some debate, it was decided that I should go alone while she waited at the helipad for me. And she would just view the video footage I shot later. Alas... the restraints of budget shackles us!

As my friend Celine remarked, not many Singaporeans can say they flew past Jesus on a helicopter!

Oh, and a recommendation to those who ever intend to do a helicopter ride in Rio de Janeiro. Do whatever you can to either sit beside the pilot in front, or if you have to sit at the back, take the extreme left seat! I discovered, to my chagrin, that all the good views are on the left, and being seated on the right-back seat, I was forced to shoot my video past the bellies and hands (holding cameras) of two other guys. Gah!

From the helipad, you can only see His back

Just hoping that by the time my flight was announced, the statue would not be shrouded in clouds!

So, I had my close encounter with Christ, but the wife was still unenlightened. And frankly, my close encounter was really too, too brief, and left me wanting more. We had already decided that we would be taking a half-day city tour in Rio de Janeiro that includes a visit up the mountain to Christ the Redeemer. The only question was when. After all, it would so totally, totally suck to take a ride up to the top of the mountain, and find that we can only see half of Him, right?

The next few days turned cloudy again, and we filled our time with a visit to the favela. And another realisation hit us. With the favela on one mountain, and Christ the Redeemer on another, most residents would have a constant reminder that Christ was constantly watching over them. Serendipity or design? We can't decide!

A good view from a favela

View from another part of the same favela, just 15 minutes later. See how fast the weather turns?

With our little side trip to Buzios beckoning, we decided to just take a leap of faith, and book the tour for the next day. And wonder of wonder, miracles of miracles... the weather turned out perfect! The vertical panorama you see on the upper part of the blog's sidebar was taken during the tour, as are these other pictures below.

Welcomed with open arms

The heart design on his chest was a nice touch

We took a normal picture, because we refused to take cheesy ones like most others - with arms similarly outstretched!

I remembered flinching while watching them nail Jesus to the cross, in the Passion of Christ

Radiating benevolence

And then, the most amazing thing happened. As the wife and I were snapping pictures of Christ the Redeemer up close, we saw a circular rainbow appear right about Christ. To my eyes, it looked like the energy ball in the Dragonballz cartoons, the standard last gasp effort of Son Goku to pulverise deadly enemies. But we knew it wasn't an enery ball (duh) - it was a weather phenomenon our friend Gerald has described as an icebow (not rainbow). To us, it was just beautiful, and a very apt way of ending our path to finally find ourselves at the feet of Christ the Redeemer.

Surprisingly, none of the others in our little tour group noticed it. Only us. Are we blessed or what? :)

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