Tsunami Warning!

Nothing quite like the end of the world to put things in perspective. This was a crazy day. Not only because of the horror that hit Japan but because we thought the horror was headed our way. My thoughts and prayers and condolences are, of course, with the Japanese people who truly suffered the consequences of this Tsunami and this story is not intended to make light of their tragedy. But it’s interesting to read this old notebook and witness my own self responding to apocalyptic possibilities. Me and Ms. B.; riding the storm out…

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Tsunami Warning!

Canoa, Ecuador; March 2011

It’s early morning but after sunrise. I have a hangover and a headache. I awake groggily to the sound of sirens and loudspeakers. The words are in Spanish; I’m half asleep; I can’t understand. I get out of bed and go to the window. We are staying in a beach front hotel. Only a dirt road and about 100 feet of sand beach separate us from the ocean. We can watch the waves wash on shore from our bed. But we closed the window last night because of bugs. Now I open it and look outside. There are several police vehicles driving up and down the dirt road and on the beach. Sirens blaring, loudspeakers blasting. Evacuation!! Evacuation!! We are under a Tsunami Alert. Evacuation Evacuation. The hostel erupts into chaos. People run around in a panic; shove things into backpacks and scurry about as they talk excitedly. An earthquake has hit Japan. A tsunami is coming here. Evacuate. Evacuate. Holy Shit, we have to evacuate… Hmmm…. I guess that means I should probably wake up Ms. B…

After four days of fun but difficult hiking in the cold high mountains of Quilatoa, Ms. B. and I are ready for the beach. Ecuadoran Carnaval is now over so the beaches shouldn’t be crowded. I oh so badly want to kick back and relax. But not quite yet; first we have to get there. And transport between Latacunga in the mountains and Canoa on the beach is not exactly straightforward. As a matter of fact, it’s a regular odyssey. We leave the hotel at 7:00 am and go directly to the bus station. From Latacunga, we take a bus to a place called Aloag which is basically just an intersection on the Pan American highway. We cross the busy highway, dodging traffic in full packs, and climb aboard a bus parked on the opposite side of the road facing perpendicular towards the crossing road. This bus goes downhill through a steep canyon until it comes to the traffic mishap. A water bottle truck flipped over and plastic water bottles are everywhere. We are held up for a long time. Jean Claude Van Dam on the video monitor entertains us while we wait. Eventually, they allow us through the water bottles and we arrive at the crowded bus station in the city of Santo Domingo. We negotiate the chaos to find our way to another bus. No time to eat, just chips and snacks as we are rushed aboard. Another long, hot, crowded bus journey terminates at a town called Pedernales on the coast. Again we have to switch buses. We shout out the name of our destination and we are led through the sandy streets of a beach town from one bus company office to another. Eventually, we find the correct bus, load up our bags and head south along the coast for a few more hours. Finally, we arrive in Canoa at just about sunset.

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Lost and Found in Quilatoa

This right here is one of my favorite stories ever. Well, okay, perhaps the words on paper don’t quite match the experience as I remember it because words alone can never really explain such things. But it is the kind of story I want to shout from the rooftops. If only everyone would just understand…

It has been suggested by the lovely Ms. B. that I can be overly cynical. Indeed, if you read my last post you will probably come to the same conclusion. Nevertheless, I disagree. While it is true that I am exceptionally cynical about the government, the economic system and the perpetual imperial war, I am exceptionally optimistic about human nature. To my mind, the coming collapse of the imperial capitalist world order is a good thing because I believe in the power of human beings to create a wonderful world to live in. No doubt, the transition is liable to be dicey. There’s probably a 50 50 chance our entire species and quite a few others will burn out in a blaze of glory when it all unfolds. But I really don’t think so. I believe in free will and I believe we as a species will choose survival. Sometimes when I watch or listen to the news, I have to scratch my head and wonder as the specter of doubt seeps into my consciousness. But, then again, I remember experiences like this time in Quilatoa and once again I believe.

Anyway, here is the story.

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Lost and Found in Quilatoa

Latacanga, Ecuador; March 20, 2011

No doubt about it, we are definitely lost. The wide clear horse path shrunk to a single human foot trail before it petered into nothing. We have before us now; a wide open beautiful view of mountains and a valley. We are somewhere in the vicinity of the Quilatoa Circuit. There are a few houses scattered randomly in the distance but there is no definite and clear direction to go. What should we do? Retrace our steps backward to the trail we lost or continue ahead looking for our destination? I see a small group of locals picking vegetables in the field across the way. I hope that we are not trespassing. I put down the rock I carry for protection, bring forth to my face my most innocent smile and head over to the farmers to ask them directions.

By the time we arrive in the City of Latacunga, Ecuador, I am in a bad mood. I try to ignore it, put forward an enthusiastic face, but the truth is that I am grumpy as hell. The specter of neo-colonial tourism has engulfed Ecuador like an endemic disease and I feel somehow a part of that specter. I try to deny it. I’m a traveler not a tourist. There’s a big difference. Or so I like to believe. At the moment, however, I have an urge to ditch out on Ecuador completely. Go straight to Colombia or the jungle or someplace real. I can’t take anymore of this merry-go-round. Actually, what I really want now is some beach. Only a couple weeks of travel time left. I’m tired of tourist trap world and I’m also tired of the long journeys and the endless walks. I could use some hammock time on an isolated beach with a view of the ocean and no resorts for hundreds of miles.. I could use a splash in the waves… But no, that is not possible. Now is Carnaval time in Ecuador so the beaches are packed and expensive and crazy. We have to wait four more days for Carnaval to end before we can go there. Ok, what shall we do?

The Quilatoa Circuit is Ms. B.’s idea. She read about it on the internet or in the guidebook and suggested we go there. It’s a hiking circuit in the mountains near Latacunga. There’s some public transport so you don’t have to hike the whole thing. But the basic idea is that you can hike from indigenous village to indigenous village through a mountainous canyon and past a crater lake. There are places to stay in all the villages. In other words, it’s hiking with cultural exchange; my favorite kind of activity. I’m a little concerned about the possible effects of the ongoing neo-colonial tourism on the Circuit but I’m hoping for the best.

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The Conquest Continues…

It’s not all rainbows and unicorns that’s for damn sure. Sometimes, you just have to deal with the darkness. No doubt about it, I can be a difficult person to travel with because sometimes I am moody. The crazy thing is, I don’t usually get mad or depressed about normal every day things. Oh no, not me. What gets me riled up and angry and difficult to listen to is the big picture. I get mad about structural economics, imperialism and the ongoing war against the poor.

I’m not even sure where the bad mood came from on this 2011 trip. Maybe my biorhythms were out of whack or the stars were misaligned. I see some hints of it in the Chachapoyas stories but it doesn’t really become pronounced until Vilcabamba. Indeed, I posted a rather impassioned diatribe about that time in Vilcabamba several years ago and it proved to be one of my most popular blog posts ever. Yeah sure, my angry anti-imperialism is interesting for you the reader, it’s just not necessarily fun for my fellow travelers and I to put up with in the present tense. Anyway, if you are following the continuing saga of me and Ms. B. on our first trip together in South America, that popular post about Vilcabamba is the next episode and you can find it in the archives under the title “Paradise Lost.” The story I am posting today takes place a week later and I am even more riled up. Hold onto your hats and prepare yourself for a rant. Poor Ms. B had to listen to the whole thing over and over and over. Believe it or not, thanks mostly to her, we still managed to have a good time.

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The Conquest Continues

Latacanga, Ecuador; March 7, 2011

The Devil’s Nose Train Ride in Alausi, Ecuador is probably the single worst tourist attraction in all of South America. As a matter of fact, it may be the single worst tourist attraction on the entire planet earth. How bad could it be? Real bad. It makes me want to scream. It makes me want to shout. It makes me want to line the board of tourism directors against the wall and throw rotten tomatoes at them. How could they do such a thing? How could they create such a commercial absurdity and somehow imagine that it is a beneficial enterprise? They should be ashamed of themselves. It’s an absolute disgrace. It’s almost as if they took everything that is horrible and stupid and annoying and wrong with tourism and combined it into a single un-attraction. AAAAAUUUGH! I can’t believe I actually paid for this.

 

Actually, my nightmare with Ecuadoran tourism began on our very last full day in Vilcabamba. We heard from several people in town about a really awesome Hostel and Restaurant called Ixchaluna (spelling? I can’t read my notebook handwriting) that is located a few kilometers outside of Vilcabamba. We have no intention to stay overnight but we decide to walk out there on a Sunday afternoon, have some lunch and a look around. The walk to get there is fairly pleasant though a little hot and dusty on the dirt road. And Ixchaluna certainly has a great location perched upon a hilltop overlooking the sacred valley. The food in the restaurant is quite delicious and the surrounding grounds are well designed with atmosphere, luxury and convenience in mind. As a matter of fact, Ixchaluna is so well organized and put together; it’s difficult to come up with an objective criticism. Nevertheless, I hate the fucking place.

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Crossing Frontiers

It is a classic traveling tale. As I read the story now in my old notebook, it reminds me of many other stories I have in many other notebooks. A strange phenomena occurs while traveling wherein coincidences crash together and ordinary events take on extraordinary meaning. Reality twists into a kind of living fantasy and it starts to seem like you are a character in a story rather than a real live person. This has been happening to me for years and I spend considerable effort attempting to capture such experiences in words. What’s special about this week’s story, however, is I’m not alone when the story unfolds. Ms. B. is right there with me when all the crazy stuff happens. That’s right, we ride the surreal travel roller coaster together until we make it to the other side. The only thing better than living the travel adventure life is sharing that adventure with another. Thanks Ms. B.

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Crossing Frontiers

Vilcabamba, Ecuador, Feb. 14, 2011

I’ve rarely been so frightened in my entire life…  Passing on blind curves, going 80 in a 40 zone; screeching tires; slamming breaks; no guard rails and steep steep cliffs.  Who does this damn driver think he is… Evil Knievel?  Mario Andretti?  Nascar Superstar?  How did we end up in the share taxi ride from hell?  Ms. B. is crowded in the backseat with several ladies and a nursing baby.   Here I am in the front seat.  Massively hung over.  Tired and exhausted from a late night out.  All I want to do is make it to our next destination.  But my life flashes before my eyes on another blind curve, squeaking breaks and squealing tires.  I try to remain calm.  Tell myself there’s nothing to worry about.  I’ve been on a lot of crazy bus rides and car rides and train rides and motorcycle rides.  Just let go of worry.  It’s like a rollercoaster ride.  Experience the thrill not the fear.  The driver knows the route.  He’s probably driven this road a thousand times.  It’s his job.  There’s nothing to worry about….  But then, I notice the driver’s face.  He’s not a wizened old man with many years experience behind the wheel. He’s a fucking teenager.  All pumped up on hormones and testosterone and perhaps some stimulants, over excited from too much television and video games.  He thinks he’s a super driver.  He’s barely gone through puberty.  Screeching tires and squealing breaks.  Another blind curve and another close call.  Oh my God, oh my Buddha oh my Ganesh!  We are going to die.

In the grand scheme of things, I’ve never really believed much in the concept of borders.  Nation states are a stupid idea and the arbitrary lines drawn by humans separating one absurd political entity from another certainly cause more problems than they ever solve.  But what can I do?  The world is not sane.  Nation states exist, borders exist and as a world traveler, I have to deal with them.  Sometimes crossing frontiers is easy; a stamp, a smile a wave and bingo you are in another country.  Sometimes it’s complicated… long lines, searches, and endless questions.  And sometimes it’s a nightmare; harassment, bribery and deportation.  As we prepare for our journey across the border from Peru into Ecuador, I consider all these possibilities with some measure of anxiety.  But, like many things in life, there’s not really much I can do to control the outcome.  All I can do is cross my fingers and hope for luck. Continue reading

Great Wonders of the World

The next episode in the continuing saga of my courtship of Ms. B., is our arrival in Leymebamba. But I posted that story a couple years ago when I was exploring the Paradise theme so you have to pull it up from the archives if you want to read it now. For this week’s story, I am jumping ahead to the next chapter; our fantastically good time in Chachapoyas. This is another one that has to be transcribed from the hand written notebooks. Again, it’s very funny for me to read this now. It’s like witnessing a slow conversion of my own character as I learn the importance of compromise in a relationship. In retrospect, I can just imagine the eye rolls of Ms. B. as I blather on and on about how it’s more fun and exciting to experience travel the hard old fashioned way instead of the boring, easy organized way. Don’t misunderstand. Ms. B. definitely likes adventure and she does not hesitate to travel off the beaten track. She is traveling the winter with me in South America after all. She is just not overly idealistic about such things and she has no qualms whatsoever about the occasional comfort. This story is a classic case of a woman’s positive influence attempting to soften the edges of a man’s reckless extremism.

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Wonders of the World

Chachapoyas, Peru, February 2011.

Imagine the perfect moment; a full on sensory immersion in the bosom of nature; a totally tantalizing experience that pushes the possibilities of physical and spiritual ecstasy. How good can human existence possibly be? How about this? Floating on my back in a natural pool at the bottom of the third highest waterfall in the world; surrounded by green jungle, towering rock cliffs, blue sky and sunshine; blowing gusts of wind scatter the flowing water into a floating cloud of mist; sunlight shines through the water droplets and fragments inside the natural prisms to glitter and sparkle like amorphous ever-changing rainbows. My body, hot and sweaty from the long trek to get here, is cooled perfectly by the refreshing waters of the natural pool. The air coming into my lungs is rich, clean, oxygenated, and unpolluted. I want to scream, to shout; to somehow express the joy that rushes through me. Every cell and sense within me is like a sponge that soaks up the surroundings. How good does it feel? Can words possibly describe it? I am the world and the world is me. Baptized in the waters of the Gotka waterfall; the cloud of human confusion is lifted and once again I can clearly see…

After a pre-dawn bus ride from Leymebamba, we arrive in Chachapoyas in the early morning and check into a tourist trap. My brain is clouded by early morning fog or I never would have stayed there. But ah, such is life, sometimes we make mistakes. It’s called the Hostel Revash; it’s recommended in the guidebook, advertised on our bus ticket and we are hustled into it’s courtyard from the main plaza almost immediately after we get off the bus. There is a crowd of gringos, a big board listing an assortment of tours and an overly enthusiastic staff. They offer us breakfast and promise us a nice double room for 50 soles once the room is cleaned. 50 soles is on the upper end of our budget, but tired and hungry and trusting the guidebook, we register and pay for the room without even seeing it. Sure enough, it’s a shit hole. It’s dark and gloomy and cave like with a tiny window looking out at a brick wall. Actually, it is a perfectly fine room for 10 or even 20 soles a night but for 50 it is an absolute and complete rip-off. When I complain, they offer me a better room for 100. Forget it. We stay in the cave for a single night and leave the next morning.

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The Big Party!

This is another story from the continuing saga of me and Ms. B. on our first journey together in South America in 2011. I am finding great amusement reflecting now upon my younger self engaged in the ultimate heroic struggle. It’s kind of an old story and a new story at the same time. What does it mean to be independent? What does it mean to be part of a couple? Wherever do you draw the line? In retrospect, I can’t help but wonder if Ms. B. was even mad at all because of my late night jaunt. As I read the story now, her character certainly does not show any evidence of anger. Perhaps I merely felt guilty because of my imagined misbehavior and I projected that guilt onto her perception of me. Human beings are crazy creatures and strange things sometimes happen. I will have to ask her. “Hey Ms. B. Do you remember that night in Cajamarca four years ago…” Anyway, this version may or may not be the exact truth, but it’s the way I wrote about it in my notebook back then.

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The Big Party

Cajamarca, Peru Feb. 2011

Imagine the scene. Altahualpa, the leader of the Incas, worships the God of the Sun. He cannot read or write because the Incas have no written language. He and his followers meet the Spaniards in the main square of Cajamarca in order to welcome them to the continent. When Pizarro gives Altahualpa a gift of a Bible, the Inca leader does not know what to make of it. What is this strange thing you call a book? It is not food or drink or gold or silver. It’s not a tool or a weapon or a toy. What purpose does it serve? It is nothing. He tosses the Bible aside because he thinks that it is irrelevant. Unfortunately, the Spaniards think differently. To them, the Bible is significant, precious and holy. And because Altahualpa does not properly respect it, the Spaniards think they are morally justified to massacre the Incas. And so, they do. With their horses and swords and suits of armor, they have a significant technological advantage. It doesn’t take them long to kill thousands and capture the Inca leader. Thus, the history of South America changes completely because of a misunderstood metaphor.

When we arrive in Cajamarca on a Thursday evening in early February, we are seriously concerned that we will not be able to find a hotel. Why? Carnival… a very big Carnival. It was not our intention to go to Cajamarca for Carnival. We were going to Cajamarca as the first stop on the back way to Chachapoyas. As mature and responsible adults, neither Ms. B. nor I are big fans of the wild party scene. Yeah sure, I’ve been to a few wild ones in the past, and no doubt I’ve gone off the rails on the occasional bender. Indeed, if you read some of my very old stories, you will find that a small percentage involve me drinking too much of the local poison and embarking upon an inappropriate and overly ambitious adventure with just met locals. But all that is in the past. Now that I am traveling with a partner, I have to restrain my reckless impulses. So it definitely was not our plan to go to Cajamarca for Carnival. We were on our way to the Chachapoyas region for the natural wonders and the ancient ruins. Cajamarca was just supposed to be a one day rest stop in a nice mountain town with Inca hot springs. But the day we leave the beach in Huanchaco, a group of the scoundrels on the beachfront tells us “oh, you go to Cajamarca today, you will arrive just in time for Carnival, it’s going to be great. Cajamarca is the best place for Carnival in the whole world.” And then, at a rest stop on the bus journey to get there, a guy with a guitar sings a long and beautiful epic song all about the craziness of Carnival in Cajamarca. So we look it up in the guide book and the book warns us about the reckless abandon associated with the Cajamarca Carnival. Oh no, what are we getting ourselves into?

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A Rock Cries Out

I had a rather wonderful sensation the other day when I discovered a brand new book. Old story, of course, but re-imagined in a different way. I have to put it together yet, but it more or less begins with my last blog entry. The next two chapters in the book will be slightly revised versions of stories I posted on this website a few years ago and the fourth chapter is the story I am posting today. In total, there are 15 chapters, five of which have been posted previously the rest of which have to be transcribed from the messy handwritten notebooks to the neat and clean computer screen. When I say I discovered a brand new book, I mean that quite literally. I was reading through my treasure trove of old travel notebooks and my brain zoned in on the two notebooks that contained stories from the winter of 2011 journey to South America. I guess,theoretically, I could make a book about each and every one of the 16 winter wanders that I have been upon in my life. But I try to avoid just piling stories together into a jumbled mess. To make a book, I want some narrative arc… a unified whole, or, at the very least, a web of interconnectedness. In other words, I like my travel books to be about something. The winter journey of 2011 was the first time I ever traveled with Ms. B. It was the first time I ever traveled with a partner. As I look back now and read through the hand written journal entries the emotions are a bit overwhelming and the whole big story comes flooding back to me. It’s all so amazing, I can hardly believe it really happened. Perhaps I exaggerate… or maybe it’s all just a beautiful dream…

In the coming weeks, I am going to post the stories on this blog with reflections in the present about these adventures in the past. If you follow along and retrieve a couple stories from the archives, you can read the whole thing here without buying the forthcoming book. This weeks entry is the fourth chapter in the continuing saga. In the first chapter, Ms. B. almost died from altitude sickness. In the second chapter, I dragged her along on crappy local transport to stay in a shitty room just so she could see some ancient stone ruins that were really my fascination instead of hers. In the third chapter things took an upswing as we successfully trekked around the glacier lakes of Llagunanoco and visited with the Mountain God of Huascaran. It’s hard to imagine a more incredibly perfect day. In the fourth chapter now, we leave the awe inspiring mountains behind and head to the fun loving beach. It’s funny to look back on this now and read the words I wrote then. I was such a confused and befuddled young man. I could feel the transformation going on inside me but I had no idea what that transformation was. Anyway, here is the story…

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A Rock Cries Out

Huanchaco, Peru; February 2, 2011

A snake sheds its skin and becomes a new snake. A tadpole becomes a frog and a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. Is it possible for humans to undergo a similar transformation? No, I’m not talking about enlightenment… or new age notions of evolutionary leaps into the next phase of development. Hierarchical advancement is inconsistent with my dynamic vision of the universe. After all, a butterfly is not better than a caterpillar and a frog is not better than a tadpole. They are just different… differently adapted to the world in which they live.

Big waves crest into white water and catch the rising sun to glitter and sparkle as they crash on shore. Soft wet sand squishes between my toes as I walk down the beach. Hot sun tingles my skin as the first sign of sunburn makes its presence known but a light spray from the ocean moistens the atmosphere. I feel a bit like a different person. Something significant is transforming inside of me. It’s difficult to explain what that something is but it feels like a kind of metamorphosis. Is it possible that I am changing from a mountain person to a beach person as the animal within adapts to its environment? I do realize, of course, that according to scientific theory, evolutionary adaption takes generations to occur. But I live in a metaphorical world rather than a scientific one. In my universe, human beings, like all animals, are connected symbiotically with their environment. Change the environment and change the animal. They are one and the same. As I stand here, on the edge of the ocean, with waves washing over my feet, I can feel the metamorphosis occurring.

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