St. Petersburg, Russia

Wow, where to begin? Well first of all, I’m in Russia. St. Petersburg, to be exact. I arrived yesterday, after flying from Burlington to New York (where I spent my 7 hour layover visiting some friends in the city), then from New York to Paris (no, I didn’t get to see the city, but my luggage spent an extra night there) and finally, Paris to St. Petersburg. Somehow I managed to get a first class ticket, thanks to a very helpful Delta agent, so my flight over was actually very enjoyable. I had my own 12 inch TV screen to watch movies and shows on. I had lots of storage space to stow my bags, leg room galore, my own coat hangar, an overnight kit with a toothbrush, eye cover, comb, and socks. On my seat were a nice thick blanket and soft pillow and complimentary champagne was served upon takeoff. How can I go back to economy class now (which, on this aircraft, was on the lower deck. It was a double-decker plane!)? And the best part was, my seat reclined to a completely vertical position! I could even roll over onto my side! And surprisingly, the food was great!

But reality hit when I stepped off the plane in St. Petersburg. I had to fill out 6, yes 6, forms in order to locate my lost luggage and arrange for the airport to drop it off at my hotel. Then, after clearing customs, which was amazingly quick and easy despite the nightmare I went through to get my visa, I changed some money into Russian rubles, grabbed a taxi, and I was on my way. When I left the airport and caught my first glimpse of Russia from the ground, I felt sort of giddy. I have traveled much of Southeast Asia and Central America and some of Africa, but I haven’t had much experience with Europe. It felt so different!

It was about an hour ride to the center of St. Petersburg where my hotel was, so I sat back, enjoyed the view, and shared sunflower seeds with my taxi driver, who spoke no English. As we got closer, though, I began to see why everyone says St. Petersburg (formerly known as Leningrad) is so beautiful. It is, in a very European sense. The architecture is very colonial and the buildings a lined up in a razor straight line along the streets. Each block is a different, but uniformed, style in a rather paradoxical sense. I couldn’t read anything, since it was all in Russian, but cafes and restaurants lined the streets and boats chugged up and down the narrow river that runs through the center of the city. It took me awhile to realize what was missing. Then I realized, there are no trees! At least along the streets and sidewalks. But there are large areas designated as parks and beautiful gardens and these are interspersed frequently throughout the city. The city is still enchanting, though, despite its lack of roadside greenery. All the buildings are painted bright colors (to stave away depression during the 250 days of cloud cover) and it is so immaculate (both in – relative – cleanliness and in city planning) that I didn’t notice at first that everything was concrete. It just looks right!

As we turned a corner and into the semi-circle entryway of The Grand Hotel Europe, I knew I wasn’t staying in an average hotel. In fact, The Grand Hotel Europe is the finest in the city, the choice for celebrities and VIPs around the globe. Somehow I’m not surprised that it’s also the choice for Lindblad’s St. Petersburg sojourn.

I checked into my room in the very fancy lobby and went one flight up to room 244. The room itself is nice, of course, but the beds are spectacular. I wanted to lie down and submerge myself in the pillows and down blanket, but I was too eager to explore
the rest of the hotel and the surrounding vicinity. I also wanted to change my clothes, but since that wasn’t an option, I called housekeeping for a toothbrush and toothpaste and brushed my teeth instead.

The Grand Hotel Europe is enormous, with 5 (or more) restaurants, a chocolate shop and numerous boutiques. I wandered around for a bit, admiring the paintings and feeling slightly underdressed, then headed outside to explore the streets. I’m forever grateful that I got my dad’s sense of direction because the Russian maps made no sense to me. I couldn’t even pronounce the street names. I wandered through a small park with a statue (maybe Lenin?) then followed a winding street toward the golden onion domes that I spied over the top of a nearby building. The rest of the structure came into view shortly and I stood in awe over its splendor and grandiose. It was some sort of church, but every surface was covered in colorful paintings and detailed artwork. The architecture was amazing, with towers ending in gilded onion domes and intricately carved stonework on every window, door, overhang, and corner. After taking about 100 photos, I moved on to an adjoining park and meandered along the gravel pathways toward the river.

By that time, it was getting late, so I retraced my steps and headed back to the hotel, but not before stopping in at a (Russian) bookstore.

Dinner that night was in the banquet hall, where I met some of the other Lindblad travelers (some I knew!) and explained 20 times that yes, I work for Lindblad, but no I’m not working this trip! Then it was bedtime where I finally got to enjoy the ultra-comfortable bed and down blanket.

We have two more full days in St. Petersburg and I can’t wait to see what else it has to offer! Then it’s on to the ship for 10 more days and 7 additional Baltic countries.



One week down, One week to go

I’m sitting in a little coffee shop in Sitka, waiting for my latte. It’s grey outside and there’s a light drizzle coming down. We just finished a trip from Juneau to Sitka and it was one of the best wildlife trips I’ve been on in Alaska. We started with the orca hunting a baby porpoise (which you can now see a video of here), then while we were at Fox Creek, I discovered (while taking a “nature break” in the woods) an entire brown bear skeleton that hadn’t been scavenged at all. You could see its skull and teeth, all its vertebrate, matted fur scattered around, and each individual bone in its paw. Another gruesome, but impressive sight. It was impossible to tell how the bear died, but the naturalists guessed that it had been wounded in some way, perhaps by a bullet, and had escaped its tormentor, but was too injured to survive. Brown bear hunting in Alaska is an extremely controversial affair because nobody eats brown bear meat. Thus all brown bears that are hunted are simply shot for trophy souvenirs. So why isn’t brown bear meat eaten while black bear meat is? There is a rumor that it doesn’t taste good, but no one is willing to try it, so all the animals that are shot are left to die and decompose for no other reason than procuring a bear skin pelt.

Moving on… At the Inian Islands, which are always a good place to see spectacular wildlife, we were rewarded by a pod of humpbacks feeding on fish in the swirling Pacific waters. I was onboard watching them, but there were four Zodiacs full of guests who got to see the humpbacks up close – probably no farther than 20 or 30 feet. If that wasn’t enough, one humpback decided to breach several times for the enjoyment of those in the Zodiacs as well as onboard the Sea Lion.

The salmon are still in their staging phase – not quite ready to begin their journey upstream, but congregating in the bays and streams. In Pavlof Harbor we watched as hundreds of the fish jumped repeatedly out of the water for no apparent reason other than to show themselves off to the kayakers. At the waterfall, the hikers were rewarded with a brown bear ambling across the water with a large salmon between his teeth. The bears need to put on a lot of weight to sustain themselves over the long winter, so when the fish begin to amass in the rivers, they become salmon-eating machines.

Orca, porpoises (including the few that joined us at the bow for some bow-surfing), bears, salmon… what else could nature throw at us this week? It was a grey, dreary day in Glacier Bay and we spent the entire morning and early afternoon searching the shores and waters for wildlife to no avail. Most people had retreated inside when we pulled up to humpback whale carcass that has been slowly decomposing for several months. The guests who did remain outside on the bow, however, were rewarded with a brief glimpse of two adult wolves and their five pups! Unfortunately I was in the middle of giving a massage, so I missed them, but it’s still incredible to know that they’re out there!

As you can see, it was a great week for us on the Sea Lion. I have one more week to go and I hope it’s just as exciting!

Killing Killer Whales

I’ve seen a lot of amazing things while working on the ships, but this morning was by far one of the best wildlife sightings I’ve seen yet. One of our naturalists spotted a pod of killer whales just before breakfast and we slowly made our way over towards them. I was in the middle of my stretch class when I saw a huge black dorsal fin right off the starboard side, so I abruptly dismissed everyone and we all hurried to the bow to get a better look at the orca. Humpbacks are common and we see them every trip, but killer whales are so elusive that weeks may go by before seeing another pod.

There were four killer whales in the pod we were following and it wasn’t long before we saw them turn their attention to a small Dall’s porpoise they had separated away from its pod. For an hour and a half we watched the orca chase, nudge, hit, bite, and play with the Dall’s porpoise before they finally (and mercifully) ended the hunt. It sounds gruesome, especially coming from a vegetarian, but it was incredible. So incredible, even, that I didn’t want to run down to get my camera in fear that I would miss something. Killer whales are incredibly smart and just watching them hunt gave me goosebumps.

I haven’t written since I got back on board, but everything is going well. It sort of feels like I never left. Only a week and a half left, then I’m back home to do some more mountain biking and head up to Portland to visit Will.

Time to go… we have humpbacks off our bow.

Two weeks to go!

It’s been seven weeks since I returned to the Sea Lion as Wellness Specialist, and I have only two more to go! (Acutally one and a half) It has gone by really fast, but I’m definitely ready for a break. We had a staff switch-out this past turn-day, so the people I’ve been working with for the last five weeks left, and now there are four new staff members (all male… again). It was really sad to see them go – we had so much fun together! Tom (who is a Lindblad legend) taught me a few limericks, most of which aren’t appropriate to post here. Here’s a (relatively) clean one though –

There once was a girl from Madras

Who had the most wonderful ass

It wasn’t as you think, all round and pink

It was grey, had long ears, and ate grass!

Tom had us in stitches, telling us some of the more dirty ones. He’s also written a book, which I bought, called Dragons, Cannibals, and Erupting Volcanoes – or The Unofficial History of Lindblad. It has hundreds of stories about Tom’s adventures and mishaps while working for the company. It’s hilarious!

Not much else to report… It’s been pretty rainy and cold, so I haven’t gotten out much. We have had some good humpback sightings and we’ve seen a few bears. Last week in Glacier Bay there was a black bear foraging along the coast, turning over rocks and scratching himself amid the seaweed. The bear itself was cool, but in the setting of Glacier Bay, it was beautiful – tall mountains, u-shaped valleys, and mist shrouded trees.

Massage has been going pretty well – I think I had 14 people last weeks, which is quite a few when I have to schedule them around hiking, kayaking, zodiac cruises, wildlife, and of course, my yoga practice. I’m getting really excited for my yoga teacher training. It starts in November, but I’ve been receiving pre-course assignments – like readings, journal entries, etc… – The latest is to take three different types of yoga classes – Mysore (ashtanga), Iyengar, and Sivananda. Obviously I can’t take classes while on the ship, so I’ll have to find those classes when I get home. That’s it for now, hopefully I’ll see something worthwhile to write about this week. Maybe for orcas or bubble-net feeding!

Breaching Whale

It’s the end of another week and I’m sitting in the Baranof Hotel lobby in Juneau, poaching internet and slurping an iced coffee. This past trip was great. The New Yorkers were all very friendly and fun (partly due to the 220+ bottles of wine they consumed within the span of seven days) and we had a great week of wildlife, hiking, kayaking, and weather – as far a Alaskan weather can go. I think the highlight of the trip for me was the morning Stephanie, our expedition leader, woke us up at 5:30 to announce a breaching humpback whale off our bow. I threw on some clothes, grabbed the camera that a deckhand lent me, and ran up the two sets of stairs to the bow. It was really windy and chilly, but the whale kept breaching and breaching for over half and hour, and I didn’t want to leave, despite the cold and spray that covered the deck. I got a few good shots, but I was wishing that I had my camera with its longer lens (which I did receive in Petersburg last week, and I’ve been dutifully shooting anything and everything I see). We have another full trip this week, and I’m hoping it goes as smoothly! I managed to fit in 16 massages last week, along with the hiking and kayaking and my yoga practice (which reminds me – I got accepted into the yoga teacher training program in Thailand, starting in November. I’m so excited!). I just hope I can keep it up for another six weeks!

A lesson on global warming

One of the reasons why  I love working for Lindbald is because they are dedicated to educating people about our world not only through travel, but also through research, videos, photos, stories, lectures, etc… We have naturalists onboard who are well-versed in the doings of the natural world and they share their knowledge with guests, other naturalists, and the crew onboard. I love learning about each place that I travel to and by listening to the naturalists, I come away with a greater appreciation for the environment and how intricately it is pieced together. The other night we showed this video in the lounge and although the footage is amazing, I think the message is even more important. Please, please, please watch it and pass it on!

The New York Yacht Club

This week is slightly different from our other trips aboard the Sea Lion. It’s a charter, which means that the ship and the itinerary are essentially in the hands of our guests, the New York Yacht Club. They have ‘rented’ out the ship for a week in Alaska and so far it has been pretty good. They’re all really nice, if somewhat high maintenance (they love their cocktail hour and they had the hardest time accepting the fact that they need to hike in their mud boots). I’ve also been looking at the wedding rings on the women and some of them are ridiculous…

On the first day we saw a bear and a pod humpback whales, which surrounded the ship, so everywhere we looked we saw whales. It was amazing and everyone was really excited. We went to Elfin Cove, a tiny fishing village that has only 11 year round residents. There are a few lodges for visitors to stay at while they fish in the summer and a nice gift shop, but the whole “town” can be seen in about 10 minutes. The houses and buildings are connected by boardwalks and everything is green and mossy with snow-capped mountains in the distance, giving Elfin Cove an elfish feel.

I haven’t been doing much off the ship because of massages (although I did go on a nice hike at Lake Eva the other day with a few crew and one of the younger guests). But it’s nice to just stay on board and watch the mountains pass by. Most of them still have snow on the tops, which make them even more majestic. Today we were in Glacier Bay National Park and the morning started out rainy and cold, then by mid-day it was just cloudy and now (at 9:30 pm), the sun is shining and there’s a blue sky. I gave five massages, so I didn’t have much time to enjoy the park, but I did see a mama brown bear with her two cubs moseying along the shore. We watched them for about 20 minutes, then a big old male came out of the the forest and the mom fled with her babies. The natualists onboard said that the mom could have taken on the male and she probably would have won because she’s protecting her cubs, but it wasn’t worth the risk since the male wasn’t threatening her. Apparently, like lions, male grizzlies will kill young cubs because they want their genes to succeed.

I had a really good dinner with two couples, one from New York and the other from San Francisco. One of the women, Susan, is/has been recovering from mercury poisoning from eating so much fish. Her metal levels were up to 87 (I’m not sure what that really means, but it’s bad), and now they’re down around 10, due to a very detoxifying diet and health regime. Because her immune system was so shot from the mercury poisoning, she also got Lyme disease and she said that if she and her husband hadn’t had the money they do to spend on treatment, she would be dead right now. So now she and her husband make short documentaries about these kinds of issues and try to spread the knowledge about how harmful toxins are and what people are aren’t being informed about. The movie “The Cove”, which I haven’t seen yet, is about the illegal dolphin killing in Japan, and tests have shown that the dolphin meat, which is being sold to schools and markets, is obscenely high in mercury levels. Susan and her husband filmed the 20 minute post-video documentary about mercury and how harmful it is. She also gave me a list of other films to watch, some about foods and another about Lyme disease and how prevalent (and widely unnoticed) it really is. I can’t wait to watch them!