Saturday, November 26, 2011

November 2011 vacation diary - day 13

It’s odd that the only time Ally and I ever did anything special for US Thanksgiving was in the Galapagos. The restaurant was fuller than we`d ever seen it (six separate groups I think) and the buffet was quite nicely done. So we had a good meal; we even went back for seconds. It was a good note to end on, and the Royal Palm is a great hotel. Sometimes it seems to slip a bit like anywhere else, but then it`s a complicated operation. On our last day they asked we leave our check-in luggage outside the room by 7 am (although our flight wasn`t until 11.30) as part of their advance `VIP Check-in`. We duly did so, but then the bags just sat there until 7.45. Never mind – it all worked out. We`ve met a concierge and an assistant manager and various other people, all of whom seem on the face of it to be doing much the same thing. Most mornings, we see two guys maintaining the tennis court (which can`t possibly get used that much). This morning there were three of them. All quite endearing.

We had a final breakfast, looking over our surely unique view, and I (rather beyond the call of duty, I’d say) responded to a work email. The hotel is at its best in the airport transfer process. A cab took us to the port, and then the driver (accompanied by a little kid, maybe his son, maybe his grandson) took us across to Baltra on a boat with a bunch of other people. They all got herded onto a transfer bus, but were picked up by another guy in a hotel mini van. At the airport they handed us our boarding passes, already processed, and then took us to the front of the security line (other people must have hated us). Then we sat in the hotel lounge until the plane was boarding, at which time we just had to stroll a short distance. It’s nice to live this way once in a while.

The plane wasn’t even a quarter full, and we had an easy ride to Quito, at which time of course our hearts instantly filled with dread. Still, we had four hours to catch our next flight, so we knew the odds were heavily in our favour (by the way, I did not realize until today that Quito is right on the equator, and in certain places you can stand with one foot on either side – and then when you got stabbed your body could lie right across it). We had some nail-biting moments when a storm blew up and there was an announcement about some plane being unable to land, but by the time our flight came up that was all over. We took the two hour trip to Lima, where we had another two hours to collect our final boarding pass, which we easily achieved. The only mild hiccup of the whole day was that we were having a nice snack in the Lima airport and we had to abandon it half-eaten because our names were called and Ally thought the plane was about to leave (although of course planes seldom depart an hour early) (it was just some admin thing). At the end of the day, despite all the logistics on this trip and our occasional nervousness about them, we never had a single problem with any of the flights (except the last twist coming up below). By the way, if we were into that thing of counting countries you’ve visited regardless of the quality of the interaction, I guess we could have ticked off Peru too (in all integrity though, if you don’t need to complete the country’s entry form because you’re just passing through, then you probably can’t count it as a visit).

The last flight took off at 11 pm. Neither of us slept as much as we might have expected. I finished watching Yasujiro Ozu’s Equinox Flower, read the last of the five New Yorkers I’d brought with me, and found myself reviewing some draft financial statements at 4 am. Ally watched The Help. The thing I alluded to above…well, the bags didn’t make the trip home with us, they’re probably still in Quito somewhere (see, to the very end, that damn place was still taking shots at us!). Under other circumstances we might have been more perturbed, but on this occasion we only cared that we got home. We reported the missing bags as calmly and serenely as I imagine anyone ever could, then we went home. The roads were completely quiet; we were home by 8.30 am. Our home was cleaned yesterday and looked as immaculate as a hotel. In a way it’s oddly liberating to arrive home with no luggage – it instantly takes away a lot of the stuff you’d have to do otherwise.

The real benefit of travel, surely, is in making you appreciate your home; the more attuned you are to the range of possibilities in the world, the deeper the pleasure in deciding to live here, not because fate shoved you here and you can’t get out and you’re making the best of it, but because you chose it. We were just delighted to be back. The highpoints of our trip will last forever; the low points will fade, except as well-recycled anecdotes. All is as it should be.

We went to the St Lawrence market to stock up. Ally went to get a new bank card. And at around noon I collected Ozu! He gave me exactly the welcome you’d dream of from your dog – jumping up over and over, licking my face, just thrilled. He was looking up at me nearly all the way home; normally he drags his heels and sniffs, but today he trotted back the whole way, sometimes outright ran, often gripping his leash in his mouth as he does when he can’t wait to get home. We got home and he ran to welcome Ally; we had lunch and played for half an hour or so, and then he fell fast asleep next to me on the couch, where he still lies as I’m typing this. We're all home.

(PS It seems the bags are on their way!)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

November 2011 vacation diary - day 12

In the unlikely event that anyone has made it to the end of this, I know I should apologize for the depressing turgidity of it all. If you were to read my previous vacation blogs, you’d know I’m not always like this (I've never been like this) – these are usually our happiest times of the year (which of course is the whole reason why we do it). Visiting somewhere like Japan or Israel, our heads were buzzing with observations both large and small and with cultural speculation and a sense of historical significance. On this trip it’s been hard to get past the logistics; the experience as a whole just hasn’t been that mentally liberating. But we at least managed to end on a real high note. The object today was Plazas island, about an hour nearer than yesterday’s destination. We went through the usual ritual, but with a much later start, arriving around 11 a.m. Plazas was the strangest and most rewarding of our destinations, covered in scruffy red vegetation, out of which bright green cactus trees rose up like telephone poles. The sky was the brightest blue, giving the place the air of an alien exercise in primary colours. One of our shots, posted here, contains a number of yellow iguanas in the foreground, rounding out the experiment (unfortunately again, the ipad camera is not the best at capturing these subtleties).

The island was small but crammed with life. When we arrived, sea lions were sprawled out all over the steps of the landing dock. As I mentioned before, the animals here are truly fearless; when the sea lions moved out of the way for us, it was solely because they had to – they seemed to make their views on being disturbed pretty clear (the steps are obviously a hot spot – when we returned ninety minutes later, they were covered in sea lions again). We might have seen a hundred of these animals in the course of our walk – it’s hard to spot them all. A lot of the time of course they’re just sprawled out looking lazy and physically implausible. But we watched one of them pull himself onto the rocks far below us, and haul himself up a steep cliff path with impossible speed; not put out at all by the small crowd watching his progress (see photo), he proceeded right past us and picked out a nice spot overlooking the water, where I expect he planned to stay for hours. Others were circling endlessly in the water – apparently males will protect their chosen territory for days until they give up out of sheer exhaustion, at which time another may come in and steal it. There were many puppies, often behaving quite independently.

And then in between all of this, the iguanas, like mysterious sentinels, usually alone but sometimes in small groups, staring out to sea, or in proximity to the sea lions (guarding them? communing with them? drawing comfort from them? Who knows…) or most entertainingly of all, marching along in their ungainly but very determined way. They often look as if you could pull the skin off them with one good tug, and some of them show the residue of having feasted on sea lion excrement (good for protein) but whereas you could imagine hurting a sea lion’s feelings with such remarks, the iguanas seem too cool to care. For flavouring, the island also had scatterings of crabs and birds. Even more than a few days ago at Seymour island, it really is your classic sense of the Galapagos, a place that looks and feels like nowhere else on earth, and where some elemental harmony still holds in place, even making room for visiting humans (who, frankly, barely deserve to be admitted).

We had lunch on the boat, as usual, and then travelled back. About ten minutes from the port, the boat docked at a cove which was good for swimming and snorkeling. I happily stayed on the upper deck of the boat reading David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster, but Ally went in and did a circle of the cove (here she is, taken from the boat). She saw a little less than yesterday, but that included a shark and various other marine colour. And then we were back in the hotel by 4 pm. It’s only when you get here that you realize the compromised meaning of a “full day tour” in the Galapagos, at worst bringing to mind the quip about the Oscar broadcast constituting thirty minutes of sparkling entertainment…spread out over a three hour show. Today though, the entertainment was so pure and potent and memorable, any amount of dilution wouldn’t have mattered.

There was a Canadian family on the boat today, and also a large family from Georgia. The Canadian woman warned us early on that she’d met the others earlier in the week, and the Georgian woman had offended her by mouthing off about how few hours Canadians work compared to Americans. We were in no mood for such stuff today and momentarily girded ourselves for a confrontation, but as it happened we never exchanged a word with any of them. Another example, as it were, of sea lions and iguanas happily coexisting.

We arrived back at the hotel and the receptionist rang to ask if we’d be eating dinner at the hotel, citing their special Thanksgiving buffet. Although I knew of course it was US Thanksgiving, it had seemed until now entirely abstract, not like something that could possibly have any application here. So in that sense we did achieve the kind of removal you hope for on vacation. As I write, it's about 5.45. We are mostly all packed for tomorrow. Ally is well-advanced on reading Freedom. I will shortly finish watching The Little Theatre of Jean Renoir, which I would have finished days ago if I hadn't got sick. All that remains for this diary is to report on a problem-free journey home...

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

November 2011 vacation diary - day 11

We had to get going early today – at 6.15 am, to catch a cab down to the main road, and then a bus to the port, and then a dinghy to the boat Narel, and then a two and a half hour journey on the boat, during which they served breakfast. I suppose that if one were doing the Galapagos on a cruise ship, as I believe most people do, then the transitions between locations would be part of the whole experience and wouldn’t feel as much like a specific task. On the other hand, a cruise ship – we imagine – would have been a much more claustrophobic and repetitive experience. We’re glad we’re based on land anyway (being sick on a ship would probably have been especially dire). Either way though, it feels like you spend a huge amount of time stepping in and out of dinghies – ten times today alone I think. We arrived at Bartholome island, the furthest of our destinations on this trip, although if you look at the standard map of the islands, everything we’ve been doing has been concentrated around a tiny little chunk of the whole.

Narel was the same boat as we took the other day – it holds around sixteen people. On the previous occasion the tone was dominated by a few Americans who were shamelessly, at times almost operatically, preoccupied with talking about themselves. This time round, the pace was set by a group of two Indian families, including four kids, who seemed pleasant enough but inevitably slowed everything down to a crawl. I’m not sure this is an ideal location for kids to be honest – somewhere more straightforward might be easier for them to take. Anyway, we walked slowly up to the island’s highest peak, allowing us some bleakly striking views of surrounding islands. Bartholome is a fairly new island in the scheme of things, a million years old or so, entailing not that much grows or lives there (a few iguanas were hanging out where we disembarked, but that’s about it).

We returned to the boat and travelled a short distance to an adjacent beach (to avoid further mishaps, we left the ipad on the boat, so have no pictures of this section of the day). First we walked the narrow width of the island to another beach, where the water was fairly full with turtles and sharks and other fish. We returned to the first beach where Ally went snorkeling, much more productively than the other day. She saw a couple of sea lions, came face to face with a shark, spotted an enormous starfish, encountered a lonely penguin and a solitary iguana hanging out on a rock together, accompanied by some crabs (this is one of the sweetest things about the Galapagos – the sense that a Disney-like vision of bonds between species actually holds sway) as well as some very colourful fish. I only went into the water briefly – I mostly just lay on the beach. I was feeling mostly recovered from yesterday, except for persistently aching legs.

We returned to the boat after an hour and a half or so, had lunch, and then took the two and a half hour boat ride back. Most people slept for a good chunk of it, including me (but not Ally) despite the very choppy water for the first stretch of the journey. We didn’t get back to the hotel until around 5.30 pm, nearly a twelve hour excursion. Although the trip had some fine moments as I’ve described, in all honesty they were a bit thin relative to the time invested. And at the risk of sounding like a whiny kid myself, we didn’t see that many animals. The magic of the Galapagos lies in its famously rich and unique ecosystem – it seems to be missing the point to spend a day mainly on mountains and beaches. Or I suppose that by saying that I’m just missing the point in a different way. Anyway, we were happy enough that I was healthy enough to do it and that nothing went wrong (this is how we’ve adjusted our expectations downward now).

This would have been one of our most expensive vacations even if we hadn’t suffered those additional losses (if you count those in of course, it’s far and away the most expensive). As I mentioned the other day, the supply and demand curve drives up the cost a bit. Beach space for example is meticulously allocated to different groups, arriving and departing at specified times with minimal overlap. If you miss one of your scheduled tours, there’s a good chance you won’t be able to book another one. It sounds like some of the lesser tour operators organize outings without securing the permits to stop at the main points of interest, a recipe for obvious second-rateness and customer disappointment. Although much of what we’re doing was prepaid, there’s a constant expectation of tipping – according to the guidelines we were given, at least $20 per person a day for the guide, maybe half that for the boat crew (it’s not hard to observe many people, including those big-talking Americans, fall far short of this!) Maybe there's a way to do this trip on a budget, but we didn't find it. Mind you, I guess we didn't really look for it either...

We ate in the hotel tonight, although I was not very hungry and only managed an appetizer. We had some wine though; I don’t think we’ve ever gone through a bottle as slowly. I got some aspirin from reception which took care of my aches at least. I fell asleep almost as soon as we got back, while Ally was watching TV; I'm writing this once again in the early hours of the morning. We have one day left, but I can’t pretend I have any great ambitions for it: my mind is focused almost entirely on getting home. While that’s always true to some extent at the end of a vacation, there’s a particular urgency attached to the sentiment this time round.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

November 2011 vacation diary - day 10

Given the nature of this trip, a dance (or at worst a trudge) of steps forward and back, it’s no surprise that soon after completing yesterday’s installment, and calling it the best day of the trip so far, I started to feel heavy and nauseous. We went out for a drink, but I couldn’t even finish one; I threw up three times during the course of the evening, and spent hours in one of those wretched states where you can’t function awake but then can’t sleep either. Poor Ally just had to entertain herself through all this. At around 1 am I lay in the jacuzzi to see if that would relax me (it did, but only for an hour or so), and then I became obsessed with drinking some skimmed milk; I called the so-called all-night room service repeatedly but there was no answer. I ended up drinking all the Gatorade from the mini-bar. The next day I felt better for a while, but then chronic exhaustion set in; for much of our morning outing I could barely stand. It’s lucky I suppose that today was the lightest day on the itinerary.

Rafael was our guide again. He’s an amazing story-teller, for instance reminiscing about visiting his grandparents as a child – a trip made without roads and before electricity - and bartering fish he’d caught earlier that day for fresh avocados and smoked beef; he’s one of those people whose relish in telling the story makes you taste the food even across several decades. First we drove a short distance and went on a little nature walk, with him instructing us in various plants, drawing out the famous richness of the island, from superior coffee beans to medicinal applications to flavour enhancements to pure beauty. He took us to a little patch of woodland where we spotted a bright red vermillion flycatcher (the ipad camera isn't the best at capturing such fleeting sights, but here's the best we've got) – he was overjoyed and said he’d spent three hours the other week with an ornithologist trying to find the bird, without success – this, he said, meant seven years good luck for us. Maybe that'll start tomorrow...

Then we went to see giant tortoises in the wild. We saw maybe twenty of them, hanging out in fields, cooling off in mud pools; mostly a hundred or a hundred and fifty years old. Living so long and moving so deliberately, it’s as if their own slow metabolism affects everything around them. It’s tempting to say confinement couldn’t possibly matter to them as much, but who’s to say they don’t feel the presence of the wall just as strongly, even if it takes them a year to reach it? One of the tortoises was mating with another, which made Rafael ecstatic again; he said crews from National Geographic or suchlike might spend weeks waiting for such a moment. Once the moment comes however, they should be able to enjoy it at their leisure – the process lasts three or four hours. There was another tortoise hanging out outside the washrooms, and later we passed one on the side of the road as well, just as you do.

Finally, we visited an enormous cave, a tunnel carved out of molten lava, discovered only a few decades ago by a farmer looking for a missing calf (the whole of Galapagos is built on lava; the most recent eruption within the system was just last year). Well, visiting caves is always cool, what can you say. By now though I could barely stand – each step was an ordeal. We returned to the hotel; I got right into bed and slept for four solid hours. Once again, Ally was stuck having to fill time.

I woke up around 3.30 feeling somewhat refreshed and after a while we headed into Puerto Ayora. It was bustling compared to the other day, with a lot of locals hanging out around the port. We engaged in the vital tourist project – shopping. We bought a new bag to replace the one that got stolen, a tortoise figure which will be our souvenir of the trip, and various gifts for people (hard to keep this in mind right now, but when we return it'll be the cold downward slide to Christmas). Then we went to eat. Ally had beef tenderloin, which was very good; I could only manage chicken broth and cheese sticks, and didn’t finish all of that. By now I was exhausted again; when we returned to the hotel I slept for several more hours. Still, the worst seemed to be behind me (I’m writing much of this around midnight, because of course I’m now awake…hopefully I haven’t screwed up my sleeping pattern too much).

Today then was one of those vacation days which “worked” in that it generated images we’ll probably remember all our lives: a rare thing when one can’t typically remember what happened this time last week. But on the other hand, most of the day was a total failure. We have two more days, which I’m sure will be memorable, but our minds are both heavily focused on Friday and on returning to our normal life (we’re both preoccupied by the prospect of missing a connection or some other mishap on the way home, which we'd never usually worry about - it sums up where our minds have gotten to). We’ve never been able to attain any unhindered, liberated momentum on this trip, and unfortunately we’ve both given up on the idea of reaching it now. Still, you never know. Did I mention we have seven years of good luck ahead of us?

Monday, November 21, 2011

November 2011 vacation diary - day 9

The temperature varies a lot in the Galapagos, even within relatively short distance – our hotel is in the “Highlands” where it’s often quite cool (a complaint by some past guests it seems) but on the beaches it’s very hot, and I got burned again yesterday. We stayed in the villa for a few hours last night – the sunset from here might be the largest and yet most intimate I’ve ever seen. Ally went to the gym but unfortunately the equipment wasn’t in such good shape. We tried the jacuzzi although neither of us is really into it. We ate in the hotel restaurant again, all alone, although a group of four came in when we were winding down in the bar afterwards. Unfortunately, a new day didn’t bring the camera back to life, although a forlorn light comes on now when I insert the battery. And sadly, the wireless connection seems insufficiently strong to check in on the Urban Dog webcam. What a sea of complaints! (By the way, today’s pictures were taken with the ipad, which worked OK except it’s difficult to focus with it, and at various times we were shooting videos when we thought we were taking photos).

As we’ve seen in other countries, South America still deploys several people to do a job that would be done by just one back home (assuming it hadn’t been automated). Two people came by around 6 am to collect the breakfast order I’d hung on our door (one to drive the golf cart, one to run up to the door). Three people actually delivered the breakfast. Anyway, today was probably the best day of our trip so far. The guide, Rafael, met us at 9 am and took us in a cab to Puerto Ayora and to the Charles Darwin research centre, which was surprisingly almost deserted. For an hour and a half or so we immersed ourselves in the world of giant tortoises, and what’s wrong with that once in a while? We saw the famous Lonesome George, hanging out with his two girlfriends, and many other tortoises, aged from 6 months old to over 100. Of course, the default mode of the tortoise seems to be to laze around and do very little, but we saw mild activity; some posturing between two females, some contemplative eating. One little guy was stuck on his back – apparently in the wild they sometimes live on in that state for six months. At one point the island was down to its last dozen or so tortoises, but now there are 2,500 (if they flourish much more, they may start to be handed out as parting gifts at the airport). Ally brought a nice hat at the hotel gift shop.

After this we took a short ride to the entrance to Tortuga Bay, walking 4 km through the vegetation and then opening out onto another immaculate, barely occupied beach. We walked almost to the end and found a secluded spot in the shade. The beach itself would be pleasing enough, but it’s made special by the numbers of iguanas who hang out there, along with pelicans and other birds (Galapagos makes you realize how beaches are usually essentially dead, no matter how beautiful). The photo at the top of this entry has me in the background and an iguana in the foreground, and at the time it seems like the most natural thing in the world to be strolling along and to pass an iguana heading in the other direction. Rafael described the island's animals as being fearless, which sounds right, although he put it in the context of El Nino and El Nina, the interaction of which he said culls the species every so often and so instills a certain fatalism in the creatures.

He was a very interesting guide, immensely knowledgeable and often deploying science as a kind of poetry. On several occasions he went after people who were excessively bothering or messing with the animals – the main offenders today, as apparently on numerous other occasions, were Russians (he said the guides also dislike young Israelis who are just out of the army, although older Israelis are fine; in answer to my question, he said they have no strong views about the Irish). He said that back in the 1930’s there were only 35 people on this whole island; when he was growing up it was maybe 400 people, and now it’s more like 20,000. We hadn’t realized that the Galapagos in its current form is such a recent creation (we might have known of course, if we’d done even cursory research before coming here). Contrary to what some people had told us, it seems there’s no inherent restriction on the number of people who can visit the islands each year, although limitations on shipping licenses and hotel building permits provide a practical constraint (and drive up prices of course). And in answer to another question, he said the reason we haven’t seen any fast food joints like Macdonald’s or KFC is simply because the locals don’t want them (by the way, this is yet another trip where Ally misses out by not liking seafood).

Ally went snorkeling again and at one point came face to face with a giant turtle who seemed as surprised at the encounter as she did; otherwise though the water here was pretty cloudy. I didn’t do that but I did swim for a while. Occasionally frigate or other birds swooped down into the water to scoop up fish. We walked and watched the animals and listened to Rafael’s stream of insights (some of them credibly contradicting what we were told yesterday). We only stayed an hour and a half, which was enough time particularly given the temperature, but you feel you could stay there forever. Of course, we had to retain enough of ourselves to manage the 4 km walk back. It was very hot and my neck in particular was all burned and flaking – haven’t been in that state for a long time. We went back into Puerto Ayora where we had lunch, coincidentally at the same restaurant where we ate on the first day. And then we were back in the hotel by 4. Not a long day in the scheme of things, but for once we’d carried out some actual physical activity, and we had some images that will stay with us forever.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

November 2011 vacation diary - day 8

We had dinner in the hotel restaurant – one of the most astonishing restaurant spaces I’ve ever seen, capable of seating hundreds, with the roof rising as if in a cathedral, but with a thrilling attention to detail in every aspect of its design. Only one other couple was eating there tonight; they left after a while and we had the whole place to ourselves (the hotel offers 24-hour room service, although it must mean some poor person spends night after night killing time). We had a couple of drinks in the adjacent bar, then we walked around the grounds for a while. Everything was still open – the gym, the business centre, even an art gallery on the site – but deserted. It’s a cliched reference, but it was like one of those movies where everyone has eerily disappeared, leaving a couple of survivors to plunder what’s left; or maybe it's like a more scenic version of Justin Bieber renting out an entire movie theatre for an evening. The stars (I mean the ones in the sky, not Justin Bieber) were visible as they could never be at home (so that stuff about the constellations is actually real!). The TV was showing Mexico’s Next Top Model and the old Drew Barrymore movie Riding in Cars with Boys.

We had breakfast in our room (we usually skip it, but for today at least the idea of having them bring it to us was just too tempting). We left at around 8.30, getting driven down to the road and then joining a group on another bus, which took us to a dinghy to the mid-sized boat Narel, where we were part of a group of sixteen or so (including Japanese, Indians, and Americans, the latter of course being the most unavoidable). Thirty minutes on the boat brought us to Seymour island, where we took a guided walk of an hour and a half or so, yielding extremely close and vivid views of frigate birds and iguanas in particular. The environment was very parched (although the rainy season starts soon), and he explained at length how the characteristics and age of each of the islands influence what lives and grows there. At the end of the walk we came to a beach where the rocks were crawling with sea lions, iguanas, crabs and birds – I’ve never seen a beach so bountifully defined by life. We walked slowly back to the dinghy (with another variation on that sense of being at the end of the world) and returned to the boat where they served us lunch – we expected it would just be a sandwich or something, but it was actually a full meal with fish and rice and vegetables and dessert. You realize pretty quickly that beneath the surface of the Galapagos lies an astonishing infrastructure of coordination and scheduling – people are constantly being collected from their various locations, combined into groups, then decombined again; everything is tightly booked it seems so that the previous group leaves each of the headline visiting places as another arrives…preserving that sense of privileged isolation isn't easy.

The boat took us to Bachas beach, the pure white sand of dreams, where we were given an hour to do as we please. We walked for a while, watching the crabs run away from us and disappear down their holes in the sand. Alison went snorkeling. I didn’t feel like doing that, but I waded into the water to watch her. Suddenly I remembered the camera was in my pocket. I quickly came out of the water and extracted it, but it was dead. Obviously I was mad at myself for being so dumb. On the other hand, I might have been more mad if we’d been having a seamless vacation and I’d suddenly thrown a wrench into it. On this trip I’ve already lost my Blackberry twice (for the first occasion, see day one) and now in a sense I've lost two cameras, after never losing anything in the past. If we believed in such things, we’d say destiny was operating this time to ensure we never get too sucked into the highs nor too consumed by the lows; after letting ourselves be lulled last night into the near-fantasy of the hotel and the island, we’re reminded again of our fallibility. Anyway, that explains the absence of pictures for today. I don’t think we’ll buy another camera right now (maybe it’ll dry out over night or something, we can only hope) but I remembered that the ipad we brought with us has a camera. It’s more cumbersome to use, and we’re having problems with that device too (the battery doesn’t seem to be fully charging), but it would obviously be better than nothing (and it would redeem the ipad in our eyes – to this point we consider it largely a waste of money, except for the week when my nephew Shane visited and used it all the time). Check again tomorrow…

Anyway, given this distraction I almost forgot to appreciate where I was, but Ally enjoyed the snorkeling, although at the distance she swam out to she didn’t find it as rich in marine life as her earlier experiences in Bermuda (another couple went out much further and they were raving about it – I think they were swimming with turtles among other things).

We were back in the hotel around 4. We walked up from the road instead of being driven (they sent a van down for us but we told him to go back – from his reaction I don’t think that happens often) – it had been a wonderful outing, but one involving distressingly little physical activity (another theme of the trip unfortunately). It took over twenty minutes to walk, which gives you a sense of the hotel's isolation. On the way we found some steps to a cave (it seems to me that every story I read as a kid involved a cave – where have they gone in my adult life?) The concierge, who was off yesterday, was waiting for us at the top and took us for another complimentary drink - it's just that kind of place. Apparently there are just two more families here tonight. The essential pattern of today will continue for four more days, no doubt accumulating into a stunning sense of the Galapagos’ richness, but hopefully of course with no more technological mishaps.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

November 2011 vacation diary - day 7

We had a good evening, returning to the hotel restaurant of the first night, where we sat at a table by the window looking down into the hotel courtyard (there’s an outdoor pool with people swimming late into the night). We had excellent food and drank lots of wine and ended the day happy. However, we were both a bit morose again the next morning. It may take a while to clear our heads completely. I’m now watching Jacques Rivette’s 1982 Le pont du nord (you can find entire film festivals that don’t show as many good movies as I carry with me) and I’d forgotten an early scene where the actress Pascale Ogier suddenly brandishes a knife. I reacted with much more visceral shock than I normally would have (intensified by knowing the actress died a couple of years later, only in her 20s). Anyway, we were up early again the next day and the hotel shuttle got us to the airport by about 6.45 – the roads were almost completely clear, and the city looked almost tranquil (we passed a big park with lots of early morning jogging and dog-walking action).

However, our section of the airport was utter chaos. We first lined up for a cursory bag check, then to buy our $10 entry permits, and then got mired in the most dysfunctional check-in process we’ve seen in quite a while. We eventually got to the front though and from there it moved quickly (although they later summoned me back out again because she’d forgotten to give me the tab for one of the bags). The flight left a little late, but nothing too serious (in addition to watching the movie, I actually did a bit of work on the plane; Ally is now reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom). Because of the way it came together, this trip has involved more transitions than we would ideally have chosen, but they’ve all gone well so far. And in South America it seems you still get food even on the shortest flight – usually pretty good stuff too. And in the barest-trace-of-a-silver-lining department, our carry-on baggage was somewhat lighter…given how a portion of it was stolen. We didn't have anything to tell the time, so there's an obvious souvenir purchase for the Galapagos. I mentioned Ally’s glasses were stolen, so she is alternating between wearing her prescription sunglasses indoors, using my glasses, or just making do. But we were able to email the store where she got them and they should have a new pair ready the day we get back.

When we got off the plane we were walking to the terminal among all the passengers when we came to a guy holding up our names on a card (no one else on the flight got this treatment it seems!). The guy took us to a private lounge for our hotel, the Royal Palm, where we had an iced tea while he took care of all the formalities, collecting our baggage and so on. A big bunch of hotel guests was flying outl, but no one else coming in. The airport looks cute and pretty busy, but we only glimpsed it as we were being whisked out celebrity-style. It's on Isla Baltra, which hangs just above Isla Santa Cruz, the second biggest of the islands I think. We were driven for about ten minutes out to a little ferry crossing, where we crossed in just a few minutes and were then put in another van. About five people were involved in all this, seemingly just for our benefit. After a further drive of ten minutes or so we reached the sign for the hotel. It's quite a way back from the road in magnificent seclusion, consisting of twelve villas, each standing alone at a safe distance from the others, and eight smaller units, each with a veranda, along with all kinds of amenities, mostly all in their own buildings as well. We’d booked one of the smaller units (I think the villas are around $700 a night) but since the hotel is not too busy we were upgraded! So I’m writing this at a gorgeous desk in a refuge of well over 1,000 square feet, with a jacuzzi and a beautiful old-wood decor throughout (the door key seems to belong to a fairy tale castle), and huge windows from which, glimpses of some other villas aside, the landscape stretches forever. In other words, we have comprehensively left Quito behind us. In fact, we’ve left most of reality behind us (insofar as Galapagos has any reality at all, I guess that’s where the other people on the plane must have gone to). Well, we can deal with that I think.

At the risk of place-dropping, from our past vacations it reminds us primarily of the Shamwari lodge in South Africa, where we stayed in similar (but less opulent) circumstances (and without wireless Internet or HBO!). Of course, the landscape doesn’t evoke Africa, although at first sight it wasn’t as we’d expected either – we had a general expectation of lushness, but it was surprisingly dry and rough-looking, weirdly reminding me at times of the Welsh mountain near where I was born. Of course, this initial narrow impression will be considerably supplemented in the next few days! Anyway, our schedule of touring starts tomorrow, so for today we just took a cab into the island’s main town of Puerto Ayora, about a twenty minute ride away (there seem to be no private cars on the island, but it has an enormous volume of cabs, all of which are white Toyota pick-ups). The area we drove through is very sparsely inhabited, other than one small town called Bella Vista, the main attraction in which might be a grey shack called “Danny’s Video Store.” Puerto Ayora is a bit bigger – fifteen or twenty thousand people maybe – but the primary attraction is the main street named after Charles Darwin, running partly along the water where the main port is located. It's full of restaurants and stores, many of them much classier than you get in the usual tourist trap locations. I’m sure it’s teeming at times, but today the pace of things was very gentle. We had a snack there and walked from end to end; Ally bought a watch (a Swatch with a Galapagos theme; that's all they had, watch-wise). We’ll probably return there for dinner some night. But for today, we returned to our villa, where I’m writing this as the day ends, the sky layered in pinks and blacks. If there's still a world out there, I can't see or hear it. And for now, I don't miss it a bit...

Friday, November 18, 2011

November 2011 vacation diary - day 6

Yesterday’s distractions took my mind off the sun-screening process, so I’m a bit burned today. No altitude sickness though. We didn’t feel like leaving the hotel last night (originally we had a plan to try a particular restaurant in the old district, but we scrapped that idea too) so we ate here again, in its Swiss-themed restaurant. No surprise that we kept returning to the same topic, and also that we were both thinking and talking very slowly, as if having trouble getting back in sync with things. We both assume we unknowingly crossed an invisible line and entered a part of town where the prevailing social assumptions just don’t apply, but still, it can’t help but reduce your enthusiasm for being anywhere in the city. And I forgot to mention yesterday that when we went back to the old town in the afternoon, we saw two dogs running up the street, and one of them ran into a car which rolled right over it. The dog kept going (as did the car), but it can’t possibly have been unhurt. Shortly afterwards we saw the other dog coming back by itself. We love dogs and have a possibly unwarranted concern for their welfare, so it would have been sad anyway, but given what had happened earlier, it seemed especially symbolic and painful. On a happier dog note, I tuned in again into the Urban Dog webcam, and for the first time ever saw Ozu humping another dog who he was obsessively following round. Maybe he’s in love…

We both woke up early but went back to sleep for a while. I had a lurid dream involving zombies. I’m now watching Eric Rohmer’s 1972 film Love in the Afternoon, which has the unintended consequence of reminding me how happy we were in Paris last year. Ally has been reading Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, parts of which are coincidentally set in Chichen Itza and Valladolid. Anyway, we decided to visit the Museo Nacional del Banco Central del Ecuador, which we’d already walked by several times. The guide book suggests this might have filled four hours, but it took us less than an hour (admittedly, some of the galleries were closed). It has some interesting old artifacts and paintings but it all seems rather abstract if you’re not actually in tune with the country’s history. We walked round the surrounding area a while longer, but even more than Ally, I couldn’t relax and felt suspicious of every second person. We returned to the hotel and had lunch in the same attached café as yesterday.

Then we decided to take a cab to the Fondacion Guayasamin, a gallery built around the works of a famous Ecuadorian artist. The cab ride ($3) took us in a direction we haven’t seen before, with some spectacular views emphasizing how Quito is embedded in the cradle of the mountains, hemmed in on some sides and exposed on others. The gallery is a very peaceful, sheltered collection of buildings around a courtyard, and although Guayasamin’s works couldn’t all be called peaceful (some of them are distinctly anguished), the exhibition as a whole is very satisfying and cleansing. Still, it didn’t take long either in the scheme of things.

There’s another gallery just a short distance away. They pointed the way for us and said it was just five blocks, but after the first couple of blocks it started looking distressingly similar to where we got held up yesterday. It’s not very likely I suppose that the relatively short space between two art galleries would be festooned with criminals, but I think any reader will understand our risk aversion. So we turned back and caught a passing cab back to the hotel. We could have taken a tram up one of the surrounding mountains, but we’ve done that kind of thing before and it’s usually underwhelming (various sources suggest it wouldn’t be safe to do any walking on the mountain once you get there – two days ago we would likely have felt OK ignoring such warnings, as we did in South Africa and elsewhere, but that mindset’s not available to us right now). And we never did get up to the monument overlooking the old city, but that’s a forever tainted spot now. What else? It would have been good to take a walk, but we’ve covered all the walkable areas around the hotel it seems, and anyway, as I mentioned, that’s not the carefree experience it used to be.

So for the third day out of six, we spent more time in the hotel than we ever would have planned on. As I mentioned, it’s an exceptionally nice and spacious hotel room, which certainly helps. And we both really like the stuff we do in the hotel. But you know, it’s hardly why we spent all that money. As we were coming up in the elevator, an older couple was just arriving and from the tag on their luggage I saw they were from Chatham, Ontario. Part of me just wanted to say, “Guys, take it from me, just turn round and get the hell out.” I honestly don’t have any ill-will toward Quito. But it’s just a fact that we’ve been to Africa and Asia and Australia and all round Europe and barely ever had a bad day, let alone a bad week, and yet we’d always held back from visiting South America, sensing it might not suit us. And then we changed our mind because the conference in Cancun came up and we decided to use it as a springboard to a new continent...and so far it’s been the worst trip we’ve ever had – not just because we were robbed at knifepoint, but because we’ve never been able to get into our rhythm of just happily exploring, engaging with the sights and the rhythms, constructing a mental map of a new place. If you ask me right now, I’d say South America is fine, just as the NFL and stamp-collecting and the history of the Popes are all fine, but I just don’t personally care about any of it (hey, we can’t all care about everything). Of course, it’s all experience, as the phrase goes, and maybe seeing Chichen Itza should make up for all the rest. But what we really need now is to just love the Galapagos.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

November 2011 vacation diary - day 5

We ate last night in one of the hotel’s five restaurants. The meal was very good in a polished fine dining kind of way and would easily have cost $150 back home, but here cost $56 (our biggest day to day problem, we thought at this point, might be not having enough small bills). Then we sat in the bar for a while.

I just discovered that the top drawer on the desk where I’m writing this contains a little ruler, a pencil sharpener, a highlighter and so on, as if they expected the guests to be engaged in school projects. Very cute. Anyway, this trip has been unusual in that we’ve had a reason every day so far to get moving by a certain time, but today we didn’t. Even so, I was up by 6 and we were out by 9 am. We walked back to the historic city, moving very slowly and happily through the Quito masses, alternating crowded side streets with magnificent squares and monuments and structures (an immigration lawyer offered me his business card...not sure what the analysis would have been there). We walked through the La Plaza de la Independencia, a gorgeous gathering spot; went by an imposing old movie theater, walked by an opera house advertising a forthcoming outdoor concert by film director and (I guess) musician Emir Kusturica.

It was still only a little after 10 am. We decided to walk up to the monument which towers over this part of town – maybe a twenty minute walk. The crowds were only a block or two behind us and we’d just passed a group of construction workers. We were starting up the hill. Suddenly a guy was holding a knife at Ally’s face and two others had grabbed me from behind. The whole thing was over in maybe ten seconds. I had nothing on me except the Blackberry, the camera and maybe $70, so they got all of that. They took Ally’s bag which had her wallet with a Visa, a bank card, her health card and that kind of stuff. Most annoying in the short term might be that her glasses were in there (she was wearing her prescription sunglasses, which they didn’t take). They pulled at her wedding ring, but took off without getting it. Ally heard me uttering words to the effect that they already had everything, but I don’t know what I said.

We walked back into the crowds. Within seconds, a van full of police drove by. It’s inconceivable numerous people didn’t witness the whole thing, but we knew it would be hopeless to try reporting it. We’re both pretty calm and pragmatic by nature, and neither of us was particularly shaken (despite the knife, it hadn’t felt that we were really in physical danger, although unless we were trained Navy Seals or suchlike, I don’t think we could possibly have registered the threat anyway, it just came and went too fast), but of course it just made us sad. We walked back to the hotel and got some new room keycards – the desk clerk seemed mildly surprised we’d been robbed, but certainly didn’t exhibit the level of concern you’d get in some places. We made a few calls, to cancel the Visa and the bank card and disable the Blackberry. It was still only around noon, but we couldn’t decide what to do. We had lunch in a café attached to the hotel. We decided to go out and buy a camera, walking back to the area we were in yesterday. To say the least, I think the people in the camera store, who didn’t speak English, were bemused at their luck in having us just walk in and buying a camera and a memory card all via sign language, with no haggling (today’s pictures were all taken with the new camera, but I think the settings are currently a little off - they’re a bit over-exposed).

We took a cab back into the old town ($4 fare), just a couple of blocks from the scene of the crime. It was so tempting to think we might have ventured in there to find Ally’s bag and the stuff they didn’t need, presumably just lying on the street somewhere, but of course that would have been foolhardy (maybe even going back as near as we did sounds foolhardy, but we really weren’t traumatized, we were more, I don’t know, just disappointed). We continued our exploring from the morning, but the shine was off the place now and we weren’t really enjoying it. Eventually we went back to the hotel ($2 fare!!) and had a couple of glasses of wine in the lobby bar. I think really we just wanted to be together because, banal as it is, you just inevitably find yourself endlessly repeating that the main thing is that we’re both safe and unharmed and so forth. But then it’s true. And so you can’t help experiencing a perverse exhilaration at the fact that, wow, we’re here. Maybe it’s linked to the reasons why people jump off cliffs for fun.

This incident might be seen as darkly ironic given my enthusiasm about Quito yesterday (and given that we’d received some extremely good news earlier that morning, which put our economic losses in considerable perspective anyway), but it’s one of those things that’s beyond analysis. Searching the web now, I find this: “Having traveled extensively through Central and South America, here is my summation of Quito: In many Latin American cities, including busy capitals, it is POSSIBLE that you CAN get robbed. In Quito, it is PROBABLE that you WILL be robbed, within your first three days…I guarantee if you ask 6 people who have been to Quito, 5 of them would have first hand accounts of theft.” Someone else writes, of the general area where we were: “During my 2 week stay I heard of 7 tourists who were kidnapped.” But we’ve walked in many places where the Internet would have posted similar or worse alarm bells, without any incident at all. So who knows? Still, as a practical matter, it breaks your momentum. We would probably have gone on a tour tomorrow to Cotopaxi National Park, containing one of the world’s highest active volcanos, but we decided to drop that idea. We’ll probably just do some targeted exploring of Quito, and then move on to the Galapagos…

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

November 2011 vacation diary - day 4

We left the hotel at around 4.30 am, and were driven to the airport by the only cab driver in the whole world who would make a point of staying within the posted speed limit on largely deserted roads. It didn’t matter though – we were on the first flight of the day and through security in virtually no time. Our first leg was to Panama City – an easy two hours. I watched about half of Robert Bresson’s 1977 The Devil Probably, about a teenager who convinces himself suicide is the only rational option. That’s right, the archetypal vacation movie. From the air, Panama City looked surprisingly like a mini-Manhattan, but I guess that’s as much as we’ll ever know about it (if we were into that thing of counting countries we’ve visited regardless of the quality of the interaction, I guess we could have ticked one off right there). Within another few minutes we were sitting at the gate to our Quito flight. That went smoothly too, and actually I don’t think we’ve ever been out of an airport with our bags so quickly (it helped we were in row 5 – we had a big line-up building up behind us at immigration).

Everyone in Cancun accepts both US$ and pesos, but with a highly variable exchange rate – 1:10, 1:13, who knows. If you had the local landscape figured out you could probably make a modest income on arbitrage activity. In Ecuador, the US$ is actually the official currency. We got a cab at the airport with a flat rate of $7. We thought maybe this meant the hotel was merely around the corner, but actually the drive took almost half an hour, seemingly a sign then that we've entered a cheaper phase of the vacation (the Galapagos will blow that to pieces of course). Based on the drive from the airport, Quito was a crowded mishmash of the kind people live in all over the world, but we know not to judge anything based on that.

We were in the hotel before 3 pm. We’re staying in the Swissotel, after nice experiences with the brand in Berlin and London; they upgraded us in London to a terrific suite with a stunning view of the Thames, and they must be our lucky hotel chain because we were upgraded here again, to an equally terrific suite (with a diverting but less stunning view - here it is). It’s really a wonderful room (and much cheaper than London of course), but you see the difficulty of maintaining equivalent standards across the world –Internet access in the room isn’t automatic and isn’t wireless and costs $15 a day (again, compared to $7 for a half-hour cab ride), which I had to go downstairs and sign for separately. No matter – it instantly felt good to be here.

We asked the concierge about walking in the area, and he mapped out a little route for us – once we started on it we realized it would take us about twenty minutes, mainly involving shopping for souvenirs at a little market (that’s the low expectation hotels have of their guests), so we just followed our own route. Any theoretical concerns about safety (which does come up a lot when you look into Quito) fell away almost at once – people are just living their lives, and it was actually exhilarating simply to be ignored by everyone (the interventions got so intense in Cancun that a little girl came up during dinner on the last night and asked for the avocado off my plate). We walked for a while along a street on the edge of the financial district – nothing special, but a pleasant jumble of stores and cafes with wide sidewalks and plenty of diversion. We crossed over into a big park, and then evolved an idea of walking toward Quito’s main attraction, the historical district (which we were originally going to leave for tomorrow). We didn’t end up reaching it, but it became a wonderful walk, through further green spaces, past various historical buildings and learning institutions, mostly very quiet (although with the sense of things shutting down and people heading home); the kind of exploring we’ve enjoyed in multiple European cities. We easily got our bearings for tomorrow, more or less reaching the threshold of the old city, with the virgin monument rising above it like a life-forming prophecy. We ended by walking up to the La Basilica del Voto Nacional, a Notre Dame-like structure that we assumed to be hundreds of years old, but turns out to date back only to the 1880’s. From there we wandered back to the hotel, arriving around 6, as it was starting to get dark. Again, no one showed the slightest bit of interest in us along the way..I was almost feeling insulted.

There’s a risk of altitude sickness here, but we didn’t feel it today – I was pretty achy at the end of our walk, but that was probably from too little activity in recent days. Considered objectively, Cancun is obviously an impressive creation, a major destination that’s become a modern legend of sorts in just a few decades, reflecting immense vision and will-power and coordination. But this sometimes seems like the only kind of major project that’s possible in the modern world – whether it be Vegas, Dubai, or even the current activity in downtown Toronto. Luxury condos and pleasure palaces we can build. Urban mass transit? – not any more. And so western life gets grimmer and more fatiguing, making the dream of a short-lived escape to somewhere like Cancun all the more necessary; a far from virtuous cycle. It’s perhaps rather funny how happy we became as we settled into our Quito walk, objectively much less soothing than a beach resort (if this turns out to be the last entry in this blog, it’ll certainly be because I get run over tomorrow – traffic control here seems patchy at best) but with a major, priceless advantage – it’s all real!

We stayed in the hotel for a while, doing some planning and relaxing in our different ways, which in my case involves frantically writing this journal, reviewing our photos, checking dozens of websites, and even responding to the odd work email (regardless of the out of office message). Maybe that just means I’m an internal mess, but that’s another reason then why Quito would be a more satisfying environment…

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

November 2011 vacation diary - day 3

On the subject of safety, one of the people at the conference looked downcast when I said we’d been to Chichen Itza – he said he would have loved to go there too, but people back home had convinced him it would be unsafe. I felt bad for the guy and almost wished I had a story about being beaten up by the modern-day Mayans, just so he could feel vindicated (the Mayans are very short, but I expect they could still take me). I guess you never know though because later that day I heard about one of the other attendees getting robbed by a corrupt policeman. And by the way, the Chichen Itza guide told us the other day that Cancun means “nest of snakes” in the Mayan language. Anyway, we spent Monday night at a conference buffet dinner on the beach – it was set up very picturesquely, with live music and pretty good food (and a lot of it). Of course we spent much of the time just talking to each other, and at one point thought we might take off somewhere else for a drink, but then we got into various conversations, and ultimately outlasted virtually everyone, ending up in the bar with the guy who runs the whole thing. Among other things, the conversation demonstrated that I can pull the name of New York City’s traffic commissioner out of my head, which perhaps indicates too much time on the Internet.

The following day I was up around 5 (which actually is later than I woke up the previous two days – it’s not jet lag or anything, it’s just when I wake up). I did my presentation at 8.15, Ally went to the gym again, and by 9.45 we were fully on vacation, no more work obligations, all fun from here. Before going out, I took the opportunity to check on Ozu, via the Urban Dog web cam. He was lying on a yellow platform thing in the middle of the playground, which seems to be a favourite spot of his (I swear I don’t check up on him too often – that would be obsessive…I did leave the web cam open while we were out though, and when we came back several hours later he was in the same spot, with one of the staff sitting next to him with her hand on him, as if the two of them were overseeing the other dogs).

Cancun isn’t an island, although it’s often referred to as such – the vacation zone is on a strip of land which looks on the map like a grafted-on airstrip. We took a cab out of here, into the old downtown, to the Parque de Las Palabas, the local equivalent of Times Square I suppose, although at this time of day with about 1/100,000th of the activity level. Truth is we must have got there ridiculously early – there seemed to be a lot planned for later, with live music and all kinds of food vendors and sideshows, but none of that was happening yet. We walked round the surrounding streets a bit, but it was just cars and stores and people doing their thing – not unpleasant, but no great reason for us to be there. We explored some of the side streets and happened on a bistro/bakery called Grazie which looked a bit more elegant than the others (here it is). We decided to have breakfast, which we seldom do – it turned out to be the best meal of the trip so far, very simple but effective. We also had cupcakes, which may be an underexplored breakfast alternative. Nothing else was happening at the Parque de Las Palabas, and the returns on the outing were obviously going to diminish pretty fast, so we decided just to take a cab back to the hotel.

Then we thought we’d walk along the beach in the opposite direction to the walk we did the previous day, but we didn’t get very far before hitting the end of the public strip. We walked out to the road, but it seemed we’d reached the end of the hotel zone. So we wandered round a bit more, looking round the mini-mall containing the Hard Rock Café, that kind of thing, but you almost get the sense you’re not wanted there by day – you’re meant to be on the beach by day, and doing the other stuff at night (walking around during the day probably just stamps you as insufficiently classy, like someone who would try to sneak a peek at a star without her make-up). We ran into a woman from Quebec who lives here now and apparently hands out discount vouchers for a living. You run into the discount voucher providers a lot, and for example I now have four separate vouchers to the Plaza la Fiesta (“The largest Mexican outlets”), meaning I could go there four straight times and receive 10% off, or a free $20 of silver jewelry on any purchase over $50, as well as free shots of tequila.

We walked a bit more but it was too hot and anyway not that interesting. We returned to the hotel and had a couple of margaritas in the outside Sunset Bar, then essentially called it quits for the day, perhaps after having done less than on any previous day in the long history of our vacations together. Which of course is fine because people don’t come to Cancun to engage in “activity,” or again not during the day at least. We’re planning to make up for it later on. So we had some very quiet hours, which we spent napping and reading and suchlike and in my case watching the end of Fritz Lang's 1928 movie Spies, which I'd started watching on the plane. During my nap, I dreamed I made a smart-ass remark about Oprah Winfrey and some guy - not a Mayan - overheard and hit me. It really hurt, even in the dream. I think this means Cancun was insufficiently stimulating so my subconscious was twisting itself into ridiculous knots, trying to compensate.

We had dinner at a restaurant called Natura, described in one place online as the only good restaurant in the hotel zone. Maybe has a vegetarian emphasis and the food was very fresh and well-judged. We walked back through the competing noises of the mini-Vegas strip, and some mild rain, and wrapped it up pretty early. Because we knew we had an early start the next day...