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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So Chachapoyas gets off to a lousy start but it is still a great town. Located in the mountains of the Amazonas province, it is the capital city of the region. Nevertheless, it only has a population of about 40,000 people. It retains the feel of a small town but it still has all the conveniences of a big city; hotels, restaurants, bars and café’s… It also has an incredibly amazing big center plaza, a fully stocked central market and an atmospheric pedestrian walkway. Once we are comfortably situated in a decent and reasonably priced room at Hotel Dorado, we are quite happy to stay there for as long as our destiny allows.

In addition to being a very pleasant small city in and of itself, Chachapoyas also happens to be located in an area teeming with possibilities for excursions. There are several significant archealogical sites and loads of smaller sites scattered in the surrounding hills and valleys. Combine this with the abundant natural attractions (waterfalls, mountains, canyons, jungles, rivers) and it’s easy to see that a tourist boom is on the horizon. Sure it’s a bit hard to get there so the place has yet to be overrun with the multitudes like Cusco and Macchu Pichu. But it seems almost inevitable that that day is coming soon.

Tourism; a blessing and a curse… The outside world; investors with capital… discover paradise and turn it into an amusement park. I saw the first signs of this transformation during our brief stay at Hostel Revash. With it’s peppy English speaking staff and well-organized bulletin board of activities, the go go atmosphere reminded me of orientation at an American summer camp. But Hostel Revash is only the beginning. All around the main plaza, tour agencies are sprouting up like dandelions in Spring. Pizza joints are becoming common and American style café’s as well.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like pizza and I really like good coffee and even tours are not necessarily a bad thing. But something happens with the influx of the western world’s amenities and I have a hard time putting my finger on what that something is. Maybe I’m just getting old and I have a hard time adjusting to modernity. But no, that’s not it. Instead, my problem lies somewhere in the notion of struggle. I like a challenge. I like to work. I like to earn my glorious experience. When all you have to do is pay a fee and follow the crowd, something wonderful is truly lost.

On our first excursion from Chachapoyas, we do it the old fashioned way. We take a taxi to a tiny village outside of town and then we walk to the canyon overlook. Afterwards, we have a menu (set lunch) in the local village restaurant. Honestly, it is one of the most disgusting meals we have ever been served. They call it cescina and it looks and smells like rotten, rancid meat that was cooked for a very long time and then stomped on with an old pair of shoes. In a rather tricky social situation, we don’t want to eat the food but we don’t want to be rude to the local woman who served it to us. We are, after all, the only customers at the “restaurant” and she hovers around our table like a favorite aunt who just served her long lost relatives a glorious triumphant meal. Eventually, she does leave the scene long enough for us to slip the strange meat to the dog who is scampering around our table. We thank the woman for her hospitality and pay for our meal but we unfortunately have to leave the restaurant hungry. And there is still a long, hot sweaty walk back to Chachapoyas ahead of us.

The walk, in my opinion, turns out to be a winner. Indeed, I would even say it is amazing. No doubt there is some hunger, thirst, heat and exhaustion involved but for me, at least, the pain and suffering somehow give depth and texture to the experience. With the wonderful view of the spectacular canyon as we walk and the friendly folk we meet en route, the entire afternoon is a complete package of the full on travel experience. I think, however, that my traveling companion may have preferred to skip some of that extra pain and suffering.

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The next glorious destination on our Chachapoyas to-do list is a place called the Gotka waterfall. In this world of possibilities, there are, once again, two different methods for getting there. The first option is the old fashioned…local… traveler’s way. This would involve packing a lunch and taking a crowded collectivo to the highway turnoff and then walking for five kilometers along a dirt road to reach the village of Cochibamba. From Cochibamba, it’s a six kilometer walk on a trail through the jungle to the waterfall. Afterwards, we would have to return the way we came. The other option involves taking a tour. With the tour, we ride in a comfortable bus with a group of tourists not to the highway turnoff but all the way to Cochibamba. In Cochibamba, we will be met by a tour guide and led down the trail through the jungle to the waterfall. Afterwards, we would return down the trail for lunch in a tourist restaurant and then ride in the comfortable van back to Chachapoyas. It’s important to emphasize that the difference in price between the two options is not that great. The tour costs a little more but not a lot. The main difference involves struggle versus comfort. The tour saves 10 kilometers of walking and adds a guide and a good restaurant. Left to my own devices, I would probably do it the hard way. After all, I think walking 22 kilometers in a day is fun. But I’m not traveling alone this year so Ms. B. and I together decide that it is best to take the tour.

Honestly, the tour is not bad at all… Actually, to tell you the truth, it’s rather fantastic. The group of tourists we go with are very nice and the local guide who accompanies us to the waterfall is friendly and interesting to talk to. And in the grand scheme of things, how much was the experience lessened because I only had to walk 12 kilometers instead of 22. The waterfall itself is beyond spectacular. The third highest waterfall in the world, surrounded by dense jungle… it is Mother Nature showing off. There is no doubt about it; doing the back float in the pool at the bottom while looking up at the great wonder of the world is definitely on the highlight reel for this journey. Indeed, it probably even makes the highlight film for my whole life. Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder if the experience could have been better… On our own, just me and Ms. B., without a tour group, after an even longer journey; perhaps with camping gear, maybe even a big fat joint and a bottle of wine to top it off…. But alas, it is not to be. The tour guide informs us that it is almost time to start the walk back.

The next day we are faced with a similar dilemma when we want to visit the ancient stone ruins of Kuelap. The old fashioned way… or public option… involves an early morning crowded collectivo ride and a very long hike up a very steep trail to reach the ruins at the top of the mountain. Or, we could take a tour with a guide and a group and get transport all the way to the entrance of the ruins. Once again, in the interest of the well being of my traveling companion, we decide to take the tour. I am learning to be realistic about these things even if a little bit of regret hides inside. I may want a crazy challenge. But the fact of the matter is, when you travel with another, sometimes you have to compromise.

Truthfully, I did the journey to Kuelap the long and hard way when I was in this part of the world in 2003 so I don’t really need to do it that way again. This is a different journey with Ms. B. so we should do things differently. Nevertheless, I remember that journey in 2003 as one of the greatest experiences of my entire life and part of me wants Ms. B to experience the same… Crammed in a collectivo with locals for a long ride in the pre-dawn darkness… the endless hard hike as the dawn brightens and the sun rises and the unbelievable sight of the ruins at the top. The largest stone structure in the Americas; built on top of a mountain, somehow the glory of it all is more appreciated when you make the effort to walk up the darn mountain yourself.

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In contrast, the packaged tour we take is somewhat unfulfilling. No doubt, the other people in the group seem nice enough though they definitely hail from a higher point on the economic hierarchy than us. And the transport is fine and comfortable and it sure saves us a lot of effort. The tour guide, however, is a complete pain in the arse. He’s of the rah rah variety. Did he, perhaps, go to cheerleading school in the States? He’s also a know it all and very bossy. When he goes around the van making individual introductions with his little fricking microphone, I have an urge to scream and leap from the moving vehicle to escape. Then, when we arrive, he actually tries to suggest that we have to stick with the group and follow around and listen to him for the whole time visiting the ruins… yeah right? Ms. B. and I ditch the group at the entryway and wander and explore the ruins on our own.

What can I say about Kuelap? It truly is a great wonder of the world. Watered down in a tour package, corrupted by the ongoing Disneyfication of the planet; but still, there is something there. Perhaps the detail and quality of the stonework is not as impressive as Angkor Watt or Machu Picchu. Nevertheless, the sheer size, scope and dimension of the place combined with its unbelievable location is enough to make any person scratch their head and wonder. And for someone like me, who works with stone on a regular basis and appreciates the work involved, it is mind bogglingly incredible. To carry those stones up that mountain and put them together like that without the aid of modern gas powered machines is really incomprehensible. Kuelap was built over 1000 years ago. And I dare say there is nothing constructed in the modern world that compares to it as an expression of human accomplishment.

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And I guess that’s it really. The notion of accomplishment. The suffering pain and anguish that attends struggle heightens the notion of satisfaction and fulfillment. That’s what tourism lacks. As a matter of fact, that is what the western world crazy belief system lacks. Yeah, I know, some people will disagree. After all, there is mythology about Adam Smith style capitalism and the notion of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps and the merits of hard work and competition. And no doubt Americans do work more hours per day and more days per week than most people. But think of the mind set of the western world. People don’t work because they like to work. They work to make money so they can buy and own things. They long for retirement and dream of vacation. And when they do go on “holiday” they like to sit on beaches in all inclusive resorts and be served drinks in their lawn chairs. People work so they can earn enough to not have to work. They reject the process. They reject the ideal of ongoing struggle and seek instead a position of power wherein others struggle and they reap the benefit. But what is the benefit. The absence of struggle… a life of leisure…a life of ease…. Is that what we really want?

Perhaps it is just a question of metaphor; the story we are taught to believe. There is a difference between heaven and paradise. Paradise is a process. It requires active involvement in the environment that surrounds us in order to provide for our needs. Heaven, on the other hand, is the glorification of power. It requires inaction rather than action. In heaven, you do nothing but sit on your ass and all your needs are provided for. The problem with heaven, is, of course… well, it’s boring. And it’s not really possible unless someone else does the suffering for you. Thus, heaven and hell necessarily depend upon each other while paradise contains the whole package of possibility by itself.

Anyway, as far as tourism and travel goes. I personally want the metaphor of paradise rather than the metaphor of heaven. I have no wish to be waited on and slaved over. I seek not exploitation of the places and people I visit. Rather, I want to become part of the process of the places I visit. I want to speak with people in their own language to learn about their way of life and somehow participate in it. Unfortunately, these days, it is becoming harder and harder to do that. One after another, all the great wonders of the world are being developed, commodified, labeled and packaged for western style capitalist tourism.

 

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