To join me on a virtual sketching trip, download a travel sketch-journal here.
I add tutorials to them so you can learn the techniques and details you see in the sketchbooks.

My former workshop students asked me to upload my workshop workbooks to make them available to everyone. So you can also download a workbook and give yourself a workshop! Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Final Day at Otorongo ~ December 29, 2010

My Birthday! From the get-go I had planned a memorable day to console myself on this yearly occasion commemorating the regrettable fact that I have completely used up another of my finite number of years. WaaaaaaaH!

As a consolation prize, I had wanted to be able to say, "I spent my 67th birthday on the Amazon River!" And so I did!

But first things first: a trip to Jajun Cañon was in the offing. I was a little puzzled at the name "Cañon" because it translates to "canyon," and to me that denotes a deep cleft in the earth. How deep can you go with the water table a couple of feet down? And in the Google Earth flyover I made with Daniel before I left home, I hadn't noticed any mountains in the vicinity of the Oran River between which one could travel, as in a canyon. Hmmmm..... well, we would see.

Okay, now. Pretend you are charged with propelling a boat up a river without hitting any submerged logs. Now pretend that at the same time you are also charged with finding sloths for the guests you are escorting. This was the task of our boatmen, and time after time they pointed out sloths in the trees alongside the river.
Can you see the sloth in the image at left? Because that's the view the boatman has. Okay, click on it and see if you can spot it. That's a binocular view, and with that you can probably see the sloth-blob ~ but the boatmen don't have binoculars. My hat is off to their sharp eyes!

They also pointed out a troop of monkeys passing through the jungley mass at right. I saw an occasional moving black form but I'd never have been able to identify them. Anis (a large black bird with a honky beak), kingfishers, egrets and hawks were all over the place, and Osmar was jubilant when we passed under a huge tree decorated profusely with the hanging nests of oropendulas ~ right in the midst of two big mud ant nests and at least two large wasp nests. He had just been reading that these birds often seek out the protection of ants and wasps which become accustomed to them but attack unfamiliar outsiders (how smart is that!). And here was a perfect example. Be sure to look at both images. Red arrows point to wasp nests, yellow point to ant nests, and purple arrows point to the bird nests.

I think my favorite sighting, though, was a pair of turkey-sized, black Horned Screamers, Anhima cornuta, perched in the very top of a large tree (alas, we didn't hear any screams). Apparently these huge birds sometimes soar like vultures, high in the air. What a sight that must be!

At length, after a very satisfying outing, we returned for the last time to the lodge so that we could eat lunch and finish our packing. In the end, I was still confused about where the name Jajun Cañon comes from (I should have asked).

During lunch, Anthony discovered that Osmar and I had not found, during our Christmas frog hunt, the local celebrity, a poison frog as yet unnamed and found only at Otorongo (as far as anyone knows). He donned his rubber boots and went out to find one, returning awhile later with the most delightful little amphibian I had ever seen ~ it looked like a red frog immersed in a blue-green bubble bath. (In fact, it looks a lot like the Red-backed Poison Frog, Dendrobates reticulatus, but with much less red area and greener bubbles.)

What a beauty! It was irresistible to sketch. And what a cherry on the birthday cake of my last day at Otorongo!

I spent the last few minutes on the porch saying goodbye to Anthony, the staff, and that rascal Tio Juan, then we all trekked down to the dock and set off upriver toward Iquitos in the launch.

The weather was sunny at first, but as we chugged our way upriver toward the west, the fluffy clouds turned black underneath, and for part of the trip we rolled down the clear plastic curtains you can see along the boat's sides in the image below.

Here are some of the sights we saw: eroding banks on both sides, sometimes with big trees fallen into the water ~ this is a normal, seasonal occurrence as the river floods and recedes; a family crossing the river with an umbrella (good for sun or rain!); a river bus named Titanic III (any guesses as to what happened to Titanic I and II?)

We came upon a multi-decker tugboat ~ looking more like a wedding cake than a working boat ~ shepherding a raft of logs downriver. It didn't look very stable to me, but it must be capable or it wouldn't last long on this wild river.

Finally we began to see more and more mud steps leading up the bank, and we passed the community of Santa Isabel ~ which I only know because they had hung a sign on a tree at the foot of the mud steps. A large cluster of thatch-roofed homes announced the outskirts of Iquitos, and finally the dock, where most of the river traffic noses into Iquitos, appeared.

I was filled with real sorrow to see my Amazon River journey end, but there was still the prospect of one more exciting ride through Iquitos on the Motokars to look forward to.

Then, after some touristy shopping for trinkets along the Boulevard and a long chat with Osmar on a park bench in Plaza de Armas, I made my sad goodbyes to Osmar and Ivy and caught a taxi to the airport.

I would take this journey and stay at Otorongo again in a heartbeat.

But the less said about the 30-hr trip home, the better. It wasn't as bad as it might have been, though. When we were in the air over northern California, the pilot announced that there was dense fog at the Medford airport and we might have to fly on to Portland (oh no! Not another night sleeping on airport chairs!), but it lifted enough for us to land and you could probably hear the cheers from the passengers clear back in Iquitos. We landed at 11pm and my Daniel was there to meet me, wanting to hear about my adventures, glad I was home. A perfect ending for my Amazing Amazon Journey.

Here's to your own journey into the unknown!
May you have the determination and persistence
to do what your heart desires,
no matter how impossible it may seem at first.
Bon Voyage!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Seventh Day at Otorongo Lodge ~ Dec. 28, 2010

Oh dear! My last full day at Otorongo ~ and still so many things not yet experienced. Time to rectify THAT!

The first "experience" of the morning was a gigantic catfish being prepared for the kitchen by our host, Anthony, here holding a typical Amazon River Catfish which he subsequently filleted for our breakfast. This one catfish provided plenty of food for us all. One can easily imagine that giant mouth vacuuming up everything in the vicinity as it cruises along the bottom mud of the Amazon! Be sure to appreciate the beautiful markings on this big fish.

I had told Osmar that today I wanted to explore the jungle to the north of the lodge. We had made a quick tour in that direction the day I arrived, but it had soon gotten dark and I now wanted to see it in daytime.

Besides, that first hike was MUCH too fast for me since we were hiking with the purpose of getting to the trees inhabited by the pygmy marmosets. This time I wanted to go at my own pace, stopping to look at and appreciate things encountered along the trail. Osmar had told me there was a high hill back there, and I was eager to see it.

So, decorated like a Christmas tree with my sketching bag, my binoculars, my string water carrier containing about a pint of water, and with my light-weight rain poncho (with sleeves tied about my waist since it was warm and relatively dry but I wanted it Just In Case), we started out.

I loved our "slow" hike. We headed out through the palm orchard, and soon were walking along a new trail. I asked Osmar to take my picture, and he insisted that I pose with the machete ~ and I'm glad he did. Here is my favorite self-portrait ever, drawn from that photo, entitled "Lean Irene, the Jungle Queen" (stop your giggling!).

Here are some of the things we encountered on our slow hike:
1. a bee tree with a bee just emerging from the hole. I don't know how they create that "starburst" effect around the hole, but it looked like the one I saw on the bee nests at the rum distillery. I wonder if it's made of wax. I DIDN'T touch it to see!

2. lots of mushrooms, including these little umbrella-types that looked as though they should be stuck into a tropical drink. One of them, though, had been overwhelmed by a fungus, and looked more like dandelion fluff.

3. an abandoned cassava farm tucked away in the jungle. This is an example of typical slash-and-burn agriculture, well on its way to becoming jungle again as light-loving seeds take root in the sun-bright opening. I wouldn't have realized this is an abandoned farm if Osmar hadn't told me. Very likely it was left to return to jungle when the cassava crops waned in productivity as the available nutrients were extracted from the soil.

4. these lovely pink and green buds and "flowers" look like bird-of-paradise blooms. I don't know whether they are actually of the same species, but I can envision the first one growing and elongating into the second, and they were near each other. Aren't they lovely?

5. This striking orange and black beetle, about half an inch long, was ambling across a log when I spotted it. I've no idea what kind it is.

6. The shiny black seeds in their fleshy red coats at left illustrate a perpetual problem in the jungle ~ trying to get sharp, clear photos in dim settings without using a flash. In my opinion, flash-lit photos look fakey with their black backgrounds, so I compromise by trying to hold the camera steady for natural-light photos. If I were alone, I would just work at it until I got a sharp image, but with a companion, even a guide, I felt constrained to "get on with it," so I didn't take time to get a sharp photo (gotta work on this attitude). Of course, I could use a tripod, but I hate carrying the extra weight. So you might call this image "soft-focus" if you feel generous. Otherwise, you can just say it's blurry. Sigh....

7. I was really pleased to spy this cicada, pressed close to a stem for camouflage. Its dark coloring works well to make it nearly invisible in the dim light. I had to do some fancy dodging in Photoshop to make it show up at all, which is why the forest behind it looks so washed out.

8. This purple bloom at left is on a shrub growing in one of the swampy areas near the lodge. Anthony had showed it to me a few days before, and now Osmar led me to it so I could photograph it. It's a tall, open shrub, and the flowers are an exquisite purple with interesting form. I can't remember what Anthony said it is, but I am properly impressed. Be sure to look at the blooms close-up!

9. Our final treasures appeared as we came back through the open orchard ~ these huge caterpillars all over a couple of trees, maybe fifteen of them in all. The head of the left one is blurred because when I'd get close they'd all started wagging their heads as a defensive measure. They're fully as big as my index finger, and about 4" long.

And that is my show-and-tell for my Jungle Queen Trek.

Lunch was being served up early to Ivy (at left), two guests, and their guide, Walter, second from left, all of whom who were catching the boat back to Iquitos ~ as we would the next day. Ivy spends much of her time greeting and shepherding guests in Iquitos, so she treasures her intervals at Otorongo.

Behold the bowl of bananas on the table. I managed to gobble up at least one and sometimes two or three of these little delights with every meal. Fat, sweet, and about 4" long, they are among the best I've ever eaten (El Remanso also offers wonderful little bananas like this. Wish we could get them here in the US!).

My afternoon was spent sketching the many things I had picked up during the week: seedpods, feathers and other curiosities; and adding color to pages of my journal while I still had the memories fresh in my mind. Figuring out how to draw this Monkey Comb had kept me stymied for days, but now I had to either draw it or toss it over the veranda since it was beginning to show a bit of mold. The drawing came out fairly well, considering.

[if you saw yesterday's blog during the first hour after I published it, you may have seen parts of this next section there ~ I got my days confused.]
At about 3pm I met up with Osmar for a final sketching session with the Ornate Hawk Eagle and the Harpy Eagle in the yard. Both are rehab birds (one of them is blind in one eye). They

are absolutely gorgeous. This session was mostly for Osmar's benefit, although I continued finishing up some painting in my journal. He had really wanted to draw the birds, but I knew he wasn't ready and would require some intensive coaching on pen techniques to learn how to show texture and shading.

With such an intense and eager student, teaching is a pleasure, and I was glad to spend some time helping him hone his skills. We worked together for a couple of hours.

At right is Osmar at work on his drawing, and below that is a larger image I managed to extract off the upper image to show how nicely he was doing. Osmar says he had never drawn before, so this is his fifth or sixth drawing ever. Not bad, huh? He spent more time on it after this, and made it even better, but I'm sorry to say I didn't get any more photos.

At dinner the staff brought out a plate of fried piranhas caught by one of the guests (who generously shared them with us). They were actually quite tasty, and it seemed a fitting fate for a fish with such a dire reputation. Actually, that bad reputation (reducing a cow to a skeleton in five minutes) is a bit inflated, although if you catch one and flop it into the boat, you'd better watch out for your toes. I nibbled at one's head until I had excavated an entire jawbone complete with teeth ~ quite a little chopping tool! (Don't tell anyone, but I brought it home in a bottle.)

As a parting gift, the guides took us out after dinner for a starlit drift on the Amazon. Motoring upriver for about a mile, they turned the boats around and we drifted in the warm, moist air under the incredibly bright and numerous stars (if you live in a city, you'll NEVER see stars like this!) past the mouth of the Oran, then Oran village. Rock music was drifting out from the futbol court speakers, and the light on the bluff shone brightly, but just as we came even with the village the generator cut off for the night and the light and sound blinked out. Stillness and darkness enveloped us as we floated under the firmament, punctuated by the frog and cricket orchestra onshore. It was a memorable experience.

In my room that night I began to pack up to go. Where my backpack had rested on the floor for a week was a large white patch of mold (obviously I didn't pay attention to details ~ see at left) which I brushed off as best I could. Into the bags went everything except my clothes, damp as always. I would wait until the very last moment to pack those, hoping to get them home before they turned to smelly slime.

I went to sleep trying to memorize the croaks, cheeps, whines and buzzes, and the light flutter of bat wings above the netted ceiling. Tomorrow would be the last day.

Sixth Day at Otorongo Lodge ~ Dec. 27, 2010

We started this day really early with a 7am boat trip to Aysana Creek upstream on the Amazon. Another pair of guests started with us, but we left them off on the bank of the Amazon to hike while we went birdwatching. We'd pick them up on the way back to the lodge.

The Aysana was beautiful, with slow-moving waters, and we moved past small farms (although we couldn't see anything but the mud steps going up the bank, with a boat or dugout moored in the water at bottom). Suddenly, our progress appeared to end at a pasture.
Actually, we had arrived at the edge of a floating field of water plants. Flat and apparently impenetrable, it was made up of water hyacinths (which jams waterways in the American South), water lettuce (the same), and a plant that looked like a bit like endive. It appeared impossible to navigate, but not to worry ~ the boatman headed right into it, with Osmar occasionally clearing the way with a pointy paddle, and we motored right on through.

As we came into uncarpeted water again, mysterious vistas opened up, presenting strangler figs with hanging lianas, and huge trees with bromeliads, ferns, and other epiphytes, decorating their branches.

We saw LOTS of cool birds: Amazon and Green Kingfishers, lots of cacicques and long-toed Wattled Jacanas, Jacana jacana, and raptors such as this cinnamon-red Black-collared Hawk, Busarellus nigricollis.

I'd like to apologize for my poor bird photography. I'm not using any special camera equipment ~ just a simple Canon PowerShot A590 with 4X Optical Zoom, and I shoot on Automatic so I don't have to spend time fussing with exposures. So the bird shots are pretty dinky, and sometimes a bit fuzzy. Still, I'm pleased with the majority of my photos.

We came up on a fishing boat with its load of armored catfish and I think another smaller type of fish ~ I only had time for a quick shot or two as we passed.

Suddenly the boat motor shut way down and the boatman was pointing into a cecropia tree high on our right where he had spotted a 3-toed sloth. This was the fastest sloth I have ever seen, obviously spooked by our appearance, and in moments it had descended arm-over-arm down the tree trunk to safety (it thought) behind another tree.

To my great delight, the boat headed to shore and we climbed up into the jungle to see if we could get beneath the sloth's tree for a closer look. It was dark and tangled, and you could tell this area is underwater during the wet season. We pushed through vines and past thorny trunks until we stood directly under the sloth's tree.

At our appearance, the sloth apparently decided its smooth tree trunk was poor protection, and still in speed-mode it prepared to switch trees (by speed-mode, I refer to the fact that we could actually see it moving). Over a period of about ten minutes, it used its incredibly long arms to transfer to a nearby tree, stretched out horizontally for several excruciating minutes (well, it would have been excruciating for a human) until it could haul itself across the space onto the next tree. What a fascinating process!

It had been sprinkling off and on all morning, and as we turned back it got pretty spitty, but it didn't really pose a problem because I had brought along a plastic grocery bag (I keep it in the bottom of my sketch-kit bag) which I tucked my camera and sketch bag into. But I kept hauling out the camera to get shots like this Great Egret, Ardea alba, which kept flushing in front of the boat and landing a short distance further on. The boatman had slowed way down so that I could get this shot, and was very pleased when I showed him the results on the digital screen.

Working our way back through the floating plants, we came upon this clique of beetles sporting on the plant leaves, and near the mouth of the Aysana we passed a defunct boat, clearly past its prime. It will probably be taken by the Amazon in the next high water (unless someone decides to rescue it).

After lunch, I took a siesta in the hammock room ~ after I finished sketching it, that is ~ and worked for awhile in my journal, drawing this huge snail that Tio Juan had been tormenting (it was rescued by Ricardo, one of the guides, who gave it to me to sketch, much to Tio Juan's displeasure).

Awaking from my siesta, I had some time to spare before the afternoon's adventure, so I played with Tio Juan and did a photo shoot with Ara and Azul, the macaws.

At 3:30 we started off on our afternoon adventure, a visit to Oran Village, from which Otorongo Lodge hires its staff. The village sits out on the bluff at the mouth of the Oran Village, about half an hour's walk from the lodge. On the way, we crossed behind a whole section of grassy bluff that is falling into the Amazon. You can see the fissures in the image at left. Just inland from that was what remained of the pasture, with a pool full of lounging water buffalo (perhaps the source of our buffalo cheese at meals?).

As the day cooled, Osmar and I sat drinking Inca Kola (neon yellow-green and sweeter than sweet) in the bleachers above the concrete futbol court (that's the World's name for soccer, y'know ~ except for us Americans...), entertained by two little girls who took a shine to us.

We were joined by one of the other Otorongo guests, Leili, and her guide, Walter, sitting and comparing notes about our day, shouting above the blare of the loudspeakers' funky rock music, provided courtesy of a generator which chugs away in the village each afternoon from about 4 until about 8 or 9pm.

As sunset drew near, we meandered down to the village landing with the girls to meet the waterbus. As it drew close, a parade of mostly women and girls filed down the trail and boarded the bus with trays of drinks, fruits and cooked food for the people passing through. Water buses don't supply food for their passengers, but the long-distance riders need to eat, so the villages along the way have created a thriving business of meeting the water buses with edibles and other necessities. Down behind the boat and next to shore, we spotted Anthony and Paymon, Leili's husband, fishing for the big, flat catfish common to this part of the river.

Leili and I played with the girls, taking their photos and sharing the images with them on the cameras' digital displays, which sent them off into gales of laughter that bridged the language barrier. Within twenty minutes, the food was distributed and the water bus pulled away from the landing to continue on downriver on schedule.

Near sunset, now, we all decided we'd better get home to dinner, and headed off through the village, which has the amazing attribute of no streets or vehicles ~ just sidewalks. What a nice way to create a serene town!

Our path along the bluff edge, in swiftly descending darkness, was lit by the flashlights we'd brought along 'just in case,' and since we kept stopping to listen to and photograph frogs, it was "dark-thirty" by the time we got to the lodge, just in time for supper. Nice day. Busy, but very, very nice.

Here's a grab-bag of other entries...

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