Friday, May 27, 2011

Window Shopping in the United Arab Emirates

The front left windshield cracked— it was on the captain’s side of the cockpit. We were still ascending and at an altitude of about 30,000 feet when it happened, having taken off from Doha International Airport, Qatar, about 30 minutes earlier! 
I had been quietly standing behind the cockpit, minding my own flight attendant business, as the pilots were attending to theirs, when we all saw it crack. We looked at each other, sighed, and shook our heads in disbelief. Not again! The right windshield had cracked a couple of months before while we were in Gander, Newfoundland, just before take off, on our way across the “pond” (the North Atlantic Ocean) to London. But, no worries, there were double windshields on this private Gulfstream III aircraft. I was relieved to know that from the last experience.
However, this would still require that we make an immediate “unplanned landing”, according to FAA, and international regulations. The danger is that if something were to happen to the second, interior windshield, and we could experience a sudden decompression.
DohaQatar had been a fuel stop on our way from Madrid, Spain to Phuket, Thailand. Initially we were supposed to make that fuel stop in DubaiUnited Arab Emirates, but foggy conditions had made for poor visibility, so we diverted to Doha. Now, we would descend to a safe altitude and figure out where to land. We needed to inform our boss, the owner of the airplane, who was currently sleeping restfully in the back.
The airplane was privately owned by a South American gentleman and his family — we’ll call him Mr. “D”. Our captain, John, asked me to inform Mr. D of the situation. I walked back aft, through the main cabin where his guests were snoozing. Gingerly, I knocked, then opened up the door to the aft cabin where he and his wife were sleeping. I tapped on his shoulder. They hadn’t even noticed that we were descending again. 
The D family had owned airplanes, and flown around the world for many years, so they were used to, not only the turbulence, but also the drama that is part of private aviation. They would often sleep through re-fueling stops—landings and take offs—during the middle of the night. I quietly and calmly explained the situation and stepped out. Within a few minutes Mr. D came forward to inspect the windshield, and speak to the pilots. Instead of being upset and worried, he actually seemed, well...excited. It was yet another anecdote in his adventurous life.
John and Mr. D decided that it would be best to land in Dubai, rather than returning to Doha. This way, Mr. D and his wife and guests could go shopping, while we flew to Abu Dhabi to get the airplane fixed at a facility there. 

We flew around for a few more minutes, waiting for the fog to lift, so that we could land at Dubai International Airport.

The United Arab Emirates

Mr. & Mrs. D, and their guests were happy to have a shopping opportunity in luxurious Dubai. We, the crew, went shopping for a windshield in Abu Dhabi!

Flying over the UAE  from Dubai to Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi is the capital of the UAE and  is a modern, clean, and dynamic city. 

Abu Dhabi is also the "New York" of the UAE, a high rise financial center.

And, of course, the obligatory sign was painted on the ceiling of my hotel room, 
which points in the direction of Mecca, to guide Muslims in their daily prayers.

Friday, May 20, 2011

How to Pack for the Jungle

Traveling to the jungle is probably one of the greatest adventures a nature and wildlife lover can experience. Cradling the equator, around the world, there are still some relatively pristine tropical jungle destinations to explore. 

However, If you are traveling to the jungle there are some essential items you’ll want to take with you. If you’re flying in, such as I did last year from Cusco, Peru to Boca Manu, in the Peruvian Amazon, it will probably be on a small airplane and you’ll have weight restrictions on your luggage. The limit on my trip was 22 pounds. These limits are even more challenging if you’re a photographer with a lot of camera gear.

The most practical way to carry your stuff is in a light duffle bag which won’t add much to your weight. Also you can fold this up in your suitcase, which you will want to leave behind at a trusted guesthouse or hotel, located the point of your departure to the jungle. You will also need a good day pack for those day hikes to animal and bird viewing sites. If you’re a photographer, a daypack (like Tamrac or Lowepro) which carries both your photo equipment and hiking essentials, is ideal.

This was the inside of my cozy bungalow at the Manu Wildlife Center.
I had a small duffle bag and daypack which had to weigh less than 22 pounds!

Aside from the obvious—passport, airline tickets, and money—here are some essentials you won’t want to leave behind (in no particular order):

1. Insect repellant with Deet! Deet! Deet! Need I say more! If you live in the United States, buy it at home, before your departure (not sure about Europe and other countries). It’s usually stronger here, with 30% to 100% Deet. However, I’ve used the 100% before and it made my hands peel. I prefer the 30% for that reason. Carry it in a plastic baggie.

2. Camera & gear: You will have to prioritize on this one if you have strict weight restrictions. But, if you’re shooting in the jungle, in low light, I definitely recommend a lightweight carbon fiber tripod. 

Shinji, a well equipped member of our group, and Marlena, our fearless guide.

3. Binoculars for wildlife and bird viewing.

4. Lightweight clothing that’s easily washable and which dries quickly (try to stay away from cotton). I really like my REI synthetic convertible pants, which I can wear as shorts, and have lots of useful pockets. I also love my button down REI shirts which have zippered meshed air vent openings on the side. But there are many brands out there which do the same job. I brought two changes of clothes with me and would wash them out and hang them at the end of the day. However, three might be better because everything dries reeeaalllly....... sllllooowwwllly in the tropical rainforest! So, I was wearing damp clothes a lot in the evenings! And, socks, forget it! They take days to dry in the rainforest!

Lightweight synthetic clothing works best in the hot and humid tropical rainforest

5. Lightweight hiking boots or trail shoes which are well worn before your trip (no brand new boots).

6. Hiking socks: My personal preference, here in the U.S., are Wigwam socks from REI. But, like I said, they a long time to dry.

7. Rain jacket and pants: Necessary items. After all, it’s called the “rainforest” for a reason! The Manu Wildlife Center provided the rubber boots. Otherwise that would also be a required item.

Not surprisingly, it rained a lot!

A soggy day on a viewing platform!

Ponchos will work too, and protect your backpack at the same time.

8. Hat: For sun and insect protection.

9. Water bottle: It’s very important to stay hydrated in hot climates.

10. Swiss Army Knife, Leatherman, or similar multi-purpose tool. I never leave home without one.

11. Flashlight: Actually I prefer to bring 2; one a Petzl headlamp which leaves you free to use both hands; In addition I like to bring a Mini Maglight which you can unscrew the top of and also use as a “candle”.

12. Sunglasses: Preferably with polarizing lenses which cut the water glare.

13. Sunblock and Chapstick with SPF of at least 15. I’ve been told by a dermatologists that it’s better if your sun protection has zinc oxide or titanium oxide rather than an ├╝ber high SPF factor. 

14. Any medications you might require, including an anti-Malarial prophylactic if you are going to an area which has malaria carrying mosquitoes. 

15. Your own personally customized First Aid Kit. Yours may be different than mine!

16. Electronic gadgets and their accessories: In addition, don’t forget extra batteries, camera chargers, memory cards, plugs, and any electronic device and its accessories, which you cannot live without! Although we did not have electricity at the Manu Wildlife Center, where I went last year, the staff did turn on the generator for several hours each evening so that guests could charge their camera batteries. Oh, and to make cocktails!
Other random stuff that I like to have:
  • Purrell or any other hand sanitizer.
  • A bandana which is good for a number of purposes.
  • A small microfiber towel. It’s the jungle, it's hot and humid, and you will perspire!
  • A backpack cover to protect your gear, when it rains. Or, you can get a poncho that will go over you and the back pack!
  • A pack of Kleenex or facial tissues.
  • A journal and a couple of pens.

When you have a strict weight limit it’s a good idea to pre-plan the packing at home, prior to your trip, exactly what you will be taking to the jungle, and weigh it. Every item and ounce counts, so pack wisely.

And, have I mentioned the Deet? For goodness sakes, don’t leave home without the Deet!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Getting to the Jungle

“There’s a problem with the airplane,” said Fiorella, a representative for Inka Natura Travel, the company which was supposed to guide me through the Peruvian Amazon Jungle in two days. She was meeting with me at the guesthouse which I was staying at in Cusco, Peru, to give me a briefing on the trip. 

“Huh?” I said, unsure whether I heard correctly. Well, that wasn’t a good start! “What do you mean, there’s a problem with the airplane?” I asked her.

“They are waiting for a part,” she said. 

“Uh, oh...definitely not good,” I thought. The part was apparently coming from the United States. I’ve had my share of experience in the field of aviation and know that parts don’t move fast. The part gets shipped, then it gets stuck in customs in your host country for a few days,’re delayed...sometimes.................very delayed!

A couple of months before, I had booked a trip to the Manu Wildlife Center through REI Adventures. They, in turn were using Inka Natura, as the local operator. My husband and I were traveling to Peru to see Machu Picchu, and explore the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Although his time was limited and he couldn’t accompany me, I had the opportunity to extend my trip and go to a place which I had missed nearly 2 decades ago, while backpacking through South America. That place was the Manu National Park area in the Southern Peruvian Amazon. 

Manu, renowned for it’s abundant and diverse wildlife, is also a Unesco Biosphere Reserve, and a World Natural Heritage Site. I wanted to go and observe, for myself, the Macaws eating from the clay lick which I had seen so many times in magazines like National Geographic. I also hoped to see giant river otters frolicking around; monkeys; tapirs; sloths; snakes; morpho butterflies; and lush tropical rainforest. I wasn’t so keen about the mosquitoes, chiggers, and leeches—those, I could do without, although I’m sure they serve their purpose in the balance of nature!

It was Thursday evening and I was meant to be flying from Cusco to Boca Manu on Saturday morning, but now that was unlikely to happen. Apparently, a plan had been devised—without my knowledge or input—to drive our small group to the Manu Wildlife Center from Cusco. That would take two full days of overland travel, which would have been a spectacular and fun adventure, if it had been added to our time in the Manu Wildlife Center. However, it was going to be deducted from that precious time—a development which I did not welcome.

Fortunately, I had a bit of flexibility with my dates and Juan Carlos, the Operations Manager for Inka Natura, was willing to work with me on finding a resolution. After an extended phone conversation with him, and follow up calls, he told me that they would try to get me on their Monday flight.

On Monday morning, Nico, from Inka Natura, came to pick me up at my guesthouse “Casona Les Plaeides” promptly at 8:45. We continued on to two more hotels, where we picked up a friendly California couple, Dan and Charmaine, and a quiet New York based Japanese guy, Shinji. It was going to be a nice small group, which was perfect for wildlife viewing.

When we arrived at the Cusco airport (Aeropuerto Internacional Alejandro Velasco Astete), Nico led us to a special check-in area where there were a group of people surrounding a scale. It was another Inka Natura representative with a small group of victims. It was that dreaded time to weigh in! Aaaarrgh! They placed each passenger’s duffle bag and backpack on the scale, then the individual had to step on the scale. Good thing this was after a week of walking around Cusco and Machu Picchu! I had worked very hard to get my duffle bag and back pack down to the 22 pound weight limit (including camera gear). My bags easily passed the weight test. However, getting my body weight down to the actual number which I had optimistically written down in the pre-trip application form, had been another matter! Luckily, for my ego, it didn’t seem to be a problem.

After waiting for a couple of hours for the pilots and airplane to arrive, we were led out of the security zone, around the building to the tarmac. A blue and white Twin Otter aircraft belonging to the Peruvian Air Force, was waiting for us! Apparently the other airplane still had “issues” and Inka Natura had arranged for the Peruvian Air Force to fly us into Boca Manu!

Upon boarding the airplane, I saw a bunch of boxes piled up on the floor leading aft. It looked like our aircraft was doubling as a cargo plane for the transportation of provisions into the jungle. I turned left, and looked forward for an empty seat. There were no seat assignments. 

Neither was there a safety briefing. After everyone sat down and the pilots completed their checklist, we simply taxied and lifted off, flying out of Cusco, heading East towards the Amazon.

The flight was about 40 minutes long, and we descended from the Andes, at an altitude of nearly 11,000 feet (3326 m), down into the Amazon rainforest. The scenery changed from alpine, to cloud forest, to dense jungle. I started to peel off my layers of clothing as I began to feel the heat and humidity.

We landed on a grassy landing strip in the middle of the jungle.

The runway

Our Peruvian Air Force Pilots

Jungle provisions coming off of the airplane

The Boca Manu Terminal!

Yours truly ready for a jungle adventure!