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Chemtrails in the Heavens

What follows is a social and political comment paid for entirely by my monthly Social Security Check. Thanks, Uncle Sam! Direct deposits and an international ATM card are my true friends; they keep me wandering and wondering.

Sung to the tune of “Red Sails in the Sunset,” the title of this post refers to a disturbing “religion” I’ve been encountering with far too much frequency: the idea that somehow we are being subjected to heinous yet ill-defined chemicals sprayed atop us from on high. Therefore, and in defense of my own sanity, I chose exercising my only authentic strength: pure, seat-of-the-pants speculation. Spend enough time alone with just your own thoughts (rather than mired in Facebook/Status updates) and you too can conjure.

So this is a rant. It is a break from my travels. It is an unabashed diatribe roiling against what I see as yet another unsettling development in the continuation of dumbing down in the US. That it has primarily found a home in our newest generation, The Millennials is of little comfort. These folks are our future and I am deeply concerned about it and them. However somewhere along the way the current election process insinuated itself and I have woven the two into a single post.

You may travel through my musing by your own choice. If I offend, do not forget that I respect our differences. I only hope that your opinions came from your own considered reasoning and not from some pretty face broadcast around and about the ether. These times demand personal critical thinking rather than subscription to emotional jingoes.

In the beginning there was Spiro

From my personal recollections the slide into an embrace of national ignorance began with my then favorite political punching bag, the ex-Vice President Spiro T. Agnew. Picked by Richard Nixon as his first running mate, Agnew did indeed hit the ground running. He wasted little time initiating a full frontal attack against anyone questioning the folly of our war in Viet Nam.

Firing off his infamous barb claiming “effete intellectual snobs” as his nemesis, Agnew set a new low for using sarcasm to belittle opposing views; almost 50 years before the Donald shot to center stage. This particular brand of attack was actually the only weapon in Agnew’s arsenal against logic and reason. He couldn’t rely on facts, there were none.

And who among us back then could forget his change order to the dress code for the hapless Secret Service men assigned to patrol the White House? As a reminder for those who were alive then, and as an introduction for those not yet born, the leading image above is a photo of Agnew’s directive for the guards. Which operetta did he steal those costumes from?

Nattering Nabobs of Negativity

Nattering Nabobs of Negativity

Mercifully, that particular outrage endured a mere 2 weeks of wholesale national media scorn. Before their next paychecks those employees of the US Treasury were thankfully back wearing somber suits and ties. If Agnew hadn’t had to resign in disgrace over blatant charges of extortion, tax fraud, bribery and conspiracy what else might we have endured? That’s a fun thought to play with.

The Administration’s (and Kennedy’s and Eisenhower’s before Nixon’s) believed that the nation was somehow going to “Stop the Spread of Communism.” And we were going to do this by relying on tactics and strategies held over from a peaceful Philippines regime change; a decision that was less than astute. Thus the only way to sell the fear of Commies was by convincing The Silent Majority that critical thinking was suspect. So intellectuals became silly women, protests were treasonous, and anyone who thought otherwise was clearly “un-Amurrican.” Love IT or Leave IT you scummy hippies, college professors, and worst of all: scientists.

Thus the slide to Bubba-hood took off. The glorification of redneck chic, previously recognized as barely literate and anti-everything not itself, was now something to be celebrated; “I’m dumb and I’m proud!” Its corollary: that being informed and educated was somehow a thing of suspect and must be rejected became a national pursuit.

And as it has moved forward through the decades this rejection of knowledge and research and overwhelming peer-reviewed clinical evidence stymies any progress toward healing the planet.  We’re told that treasonous talk like climate change comes from over-educated limp-wristed geeks.

Thankfully Lush Rimbaugh and Hawn Shannity comfort us, singing the lullaby that those bad things just ain’t so. Facts are just an effeminate excuse, a sublimation from people who can’t afford a Hummer or whatever has taken its place these days. Let’s have another beer. Our “authentic” media heroes will bring us the truth so we don’t have to think. What a relief.

Let’s get back to Chemtrails, shall we? Trump and Roger Ailes and the rest of the pushers of simplistic nirvana are big boys and can take care of themselves. And make us all great again. Donald said so.

There’s an Illuminati hiding under my bed

Ever since I landed in Ecuador more than a year ago I have encountered a surprisingly large subset of wanderers, both there along the Equator and now here in Perú. Not surprisingly, most folks on the move and traveling the world are pretty young compared to myself. Most are 2 generations younger and if I had had children, these people would be their children.

So far, this flame is focused on people from the US. It’s not to say that young people from other lands don’t share these commonalities, but I have yet to meet any that do. I refer to the Millennials, born and bred Stateside. However I will say that when it comes to middle-age, I meet other nationals of other countries who have bought into this incredulous mindset. Which tells me that though it’s not a theory exclusive to Millennials, the dense numbers of subscribers are more localized with them.

Enough (too much? probably not) has been written of, explained about, blamed on the fact that this particular generation can expect a world with less goodwill than the world we had available to us as we ventured forth, establishing ourselves and our futures. Wholesale battalions of Millennials, with admirable educations often going well beyond 4-year Baccalaureate degrees find themselves, when lucky enough to have a job, pulling lattes and mochaccinos for those of us with mythologically disposable incomes. I’d be resentful if it were me behind the counter as well. Thanks again, Social Security!

With all the talking heads forecasting more decidedly dismal futures for Millennials than either their Gen-X parents or Boomer grandparents had, it’s no wonder that they’ve taken so completely to social media. Only by constantly checking in with others facing the same bleak existence can they remind themselves of the promised entitlement to a wonderful life. Growing up with a distorted message like that one needs constant reassurance that it really is all right and we really are having loads of fun. Let’s take another selfie so we don’t forget how it should be.

Were I fed the same creation myth I might hide behind a 3-inch (or 6-inch, sorry iPhone junkies) reality too, if only I could remember to turn on my smartphone in some regular fashion. It’s almost enough to make one think that the world conspires against them. Well, surprise! That belief does live a vigorous life.

I am constantly stunned to learn this is exactly what a disturbingly large segment of Millennials do believe. And they are more than willing to bleat this revelation to any and all with a chilling stridency. Recently I blundered into just such an encounter, the outcome of which I can only blame on myself.

In February, after the final ayahuasca ceremony at a retreat near Iquitos, I was having a heartfelt conversation with one of the volunteers. He had been a fantastic source of strength (I usually cannot walk unassisted during a ceremony) and protocol during the retreat and we were discussing our separate and possibly similar futures at other venues.

We seemed to resonate over any number of shared views, and he was somehow fascinated with a few of my life experiences and sincerely wanted to cement our friendship. This prompted an invitation to visit some of his compatriots in Vilcabamba, Ecuador. I replied that I had heard about the natural beauty of the area and might someday visit. But I cautioned him that through several accounts I learned that the place was awash with conspiracy theorists. Should that last bit be capitalized?

Well, from that point onward: DEAD AIR! By his silence I immediately knew that our budding buddy-hood had died a miserable death. Theorists indeed. It’s not theory (at least to this young man and his cohorts), it’s the TRUTH! Imagine my surprise to learn that the Illuminati, or is it the US Air Force (or is it even more widespread than that?) were out to get him. And me. And everyone else too blind to notice.



For those of you still ignorant enough to be wallowing in the pig-trough of ignorance, and I too was for a time one of you, let me tell you now that we are all doomed. I’m learning that since the mid-90’s at least, the Air Force, or is it the Illuminati, or is the Air Force following Illuminati orders most secretly; well it’s somebody, and they have been seeding the atmosphere with brain disease. Or is it GMO/Monoculture-Crop-Catalysts? Or is it anti-matter resonant frequency generators? No, really! Just look up!

And if I had been silly enough to counter that I knew otherwise, I would have been identified as ONE OF THEM! An Illuminati! But in honesty, I cannot excise that part of my brain infected by social contact with physicists and engineers; folks who do in fact know how the universe is put together. How foolish could I be not to realize that professionals who spend their lives understanding such things are mere dupes of the Illuminati? And that any resistance I might have to the Chemtrails existence validates my identity as one of the enemy?

Oh my goodness gracious sakes alive! Talking to these folks made me feel as though I was floundering in a vat of circular reasoning with no way out and the waters were rising. If this were indeed true and tens of thousands of jet pilots were conniving to poison our air, why were they willingly poisoning their own families as well? That question is not acceptable to these defenders of the conspiracy. Or perhaps (I haven’t kept up on the finer nuances of the absurd) the families of the pilots are secretly given anti-Chemtrails antidotes.

Paranoiacs have a right to be worried

Paranoiacs have a right to be worried

Maybe I need to dumb down too. In the 50’s Kevin McCarthy starred in “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” that scared me no end. Art begets life. Donald Sutherland’s remake was no slouch either. Check ’em out…if you dare.

How can one be so educated and still not know anything?

In spite of the bulk of Millennials growing up getting gold stars at school and everyone winning while no one loses and everyone being special and everyone entitled to high-paying jobs as soon as the ink on their diplomas dries, the world really is a pretty shitty place these days. Just look at the Republican Party if you have any doubts. Somehow reality bears little semblance to what Millennials were led to believe it was going to be. Well, certainly we are all unique, that much is true. However simple mathematics tells us that we can’t all be special.

But since it’s virtually impossible to accurately assign blame for this mess we’re in, in spite of a knee-jerk resonance with jingos like making the country great again, then it stands to reason(?) that sinister forces are at play. You just have to open your eyes and look up at the skies. How could I have been so blind?

Now, how did this happen? How did seemingly rational, stable, intelligent young people ascribe to a world where someone or something has devised a most sinister plan to rob them of their birthrights? I believe that I have an idea.

The Boogie Man

The Boogie Man

As each of us progressed from infancy into childhood The Boogie Man played an ever critical role in our lives. His (am I being sexist here?) existence predicated unexplained evil, predicated a world that was not fair, predicated a life where long, hard and often boring work (if one could find it) was the only guaranteed path to success. Once we dropped our final diapers and realized that not only were we not each of us the centers of all known things, we quickly discovered that life can, at least on occasion, have some very sharp edges. Why, Daddy? The Boogie Man, of course.

With the reversal of economic progress and the upcoming generation facing a very sad future with lessening opportunity for growth and betterment, our friend The Boogie Man has now morphed into Chemtrails. You can see them everywhere in the skies these days. Just look up.

Chemtrails, they're everywhere!

Chemtrails, they’re everywhere!

These stratospheric evils, far from the innocuous vapor trails we knew and loved when the country was still great, are designed to infect the populace with something bad. Not quite sure what, but it’s got to be bad. Late night radio boobs tell us so, and if you’re sleep deprived enough (or just getting off of your brain-eating shift at the coffee bar) it all makes perfect sense. Kind of. To some.

Chemtrails are symptomatic of a larger loss of critical thinking

Spiro Agnew was the midwife for the birth of my understanding. His attack against critical thinking, sadly well received by a large segment of the population, was just the beginning of my dis-ease with cultural “values.” Fortunately I had other teachers as well.

Perhaps the most important was Neil Postman. Having published Amusing Ourselves to Death just after we elected a “movie star” as President, Postman argued that we are not threatened by Orwell’s 1984, where the State has stolen our rights, but in fact we have, along the lines of Huxley’s Brave New World, voluntarily traded those rights for the narcotic of entertainment; movie star President to be sure. But really, that was nothing compared to today as we are herding ourselves behind a real estate billionaire. After all, Trump did have his own “reality” TV show. And if reality, even TV’s version, is not entertainment, what is?

Still and yet, please don’t misinterpret my point. I welcome Donald J. Trump. He’s exactly what we need. And exactly what we deserve. Every 4 years the talking heads remind us just how broken the US electoral system is. The dysfunctional Electoral College, the delegates and those true, real Boogie Men: the super delegates, all chosen during the previous election process 4 years earlier, when today’s hot issues were inconceivable; it really is broken.

Shiva, Hindu God of Destruction

Shiva, Hindu God of Destruction

The GOP old guard have it completely wrong. The Trumpster is not a Democrats’ plant, put on center stage by Hillary to subvert a party already in serious decline. Our Man of the Hour is quite probably the disguised Hindu god Shiva: both The Destroyer and the creator.

Raised by Socialists and named after Karl Marx and Frederick Engles, I have long believed that this country will only survive by building a viable election process that includes, encourages, demands strong 3rd parties. With the current, winner-take-all, 2 party system we are saddled with, every 4 years we trade off the baton to either of 2 sides of the same coin. And the True Change that both sides swear they will bring, if we’re only foolish enough to believe them, somehow never comes.

Should then, Trump’s extremists be denied a voice? Certainly and most assuredly not. Not any more than Bernie’s fervent acolytes on the left should be denied. We need a system of inclusion not exclusion if we are to move forward into a world we barely understand. The rise of Trumpism was a given that only took the unaware by surprise. The world and especially this country are far too complex to think there can be an either/or, Democrat/Republican solution.

And should you question the sanity of 3rd parties, just tune in to some of the deeper, frantic discussions taking place right now at the upper levels of the GOP. Either they swallow a bitter pill and endorse a Tea Party ideologue who himself has vowed to destroy the party, or they fund a breakaway candidate carrying a splinter banner. Something, anything but the Donald. If they see a need for 3rd parties, why don’t you?

Shades of Bogart and a Welcoming 2nd Person Singular; I’m in Lima

I know, I know…

Several folks have been asking for specifics about the Galapagos, and I fully intend to explain my encounter with this unique place. But the 15 days I spent there were far more complex than I had anticipated and it will take several separate posts to do justice to the visit.

Instead, I’ve got several shorter impressions that I need to describe here and now. These are more than just brain farts, but less than individual full-on posts that I prefer sending out. They are snippets of sights and sounds now assaulting me in this first week. They have a certain chronological order but really no cognitive relationship, one to another.

Thurs, 2ndOct2015 Now that I’ve just landed in Lima, for probably a stay of at least several months, I’m overwhelmed with new feelings and impressions of what can only be said is a major change in direction. Lima’s going to be fun.

OK, I’ve been here (on the street) maybe what, 10 minutes? And I’ve already found a friendly face: A young man, Jonathan, who is serving me breakfast. I’m in the upscale mall, Larcomar, and I’m sitting on a terrace overlooking the ocean about 600′ below. Jonathan is studying English and I just introduced him to SAEX; he’s duly impressed and promises to search them out on the web and get involved with their cultural interchange. My public duty for the day and it’s not even noon. Yet I’m not done though.

I just finished talking (via WhatsApp, insanely popular here in South America) with my friend Janina who is the manager of Hostal Gardner in the Galapagos. I recommended her to the director of the Quito SAEX clubhouse, John Caselli. John is looking for a point-person to direct club members to when visiting the Islands. And Janina is the logical best choice. A resident-native of the Galapagos, Janina is also a registered guide for the National Park service. She knows the flora, fauna, and also which tours allow visitors to view these wonders. Both John and Janina will benefit from this relationship, as it should be.

Now it’s time to reconnect with Michaela, a solo German traveler I met on several of the Galapagos islands. Michaela, like Janina, has her own travel agency in Germany and caters primarily to other solo travelers. She periodically takes these trips to build on personal experiences so that she can offer her clients choices based on real-world fact. Any travel agent can read from a catalog, but when you visit an agent who actually toured Kicker Rocks on a SCUBA dive trip, then you want to bring this person your business.

Michaela wants to meet Janina too. I guess that I’m the fixer these days. But that’s a good thing, since folks want to follow separate paths and often these paths parallel the goals they seek. And just like we learned in high-school geometry, these parallel paths share the same directions and goals but like all parallel lines, they never meet. So I interfere; I disrupt the trajectories just enough so that the 2 paths intersect. After that, it’s up to them to continue exchanging energies (and perhaps financial rewards) or not. My work with them is done at this point.

Sun, 4thOct2015 In Michigan it’s Meyer’s. In upstate NY it’s Wegman’s. But here in Lima it’s Wong. South America’s oldest and largest Chinatown is here in Lima and it’s several hundred years older than San Francisco’s. As one might expect, the Chinese here did well and now the largest, most complete, most extravagant grocery emporium in the country is Wong, and there’s a branch about a 10 minute walk from SAEX/Lima. I was on the lookout for not only food, but other items to make my room at the clubhouse a bit more liveable. Where else but Wong? Up on their 2nd floor, given over to school supplies, a kid’s barbershop, video games and Osterizers, towels and table lamps, I found what I came for, an embudo (a funnel).

Back down on the first level I was awash in Santa Clauses (12 degrees south of the Equator), flocked table-sized Christmas trees, and, being October, Jack-o’-lanterns. As those of you in retail know, it’s never too early to push the Holidays down peoples’ craws; even if the Holidays have nothing to do with this part of the world. But they weren’t pushing Hallowe’en at the store, they were celebrating the upcoming HalloWong! Indeed. What’s in (Wong)store, literally, for Turkey Day? I can’t wait to find out.

Wed, 7thOct2015 I was walking by the Honorary Consulate of Malta earlier this morning.

Jeez — I love saying that! Even though it’s only the honorary consulate, still: Malta?! I’ve heard of Bogart’s movie, The Maltese Falcon, the Maltese Cross of the Knights Hospitaller, and a Tunisian physicist I know in Quito tells folks that he’s from Malta, just to avoid conversations about terrorism. Moreover, these days Malta is square in the path of refugees streaming out of Libya in leaking boats, hoping to survive somewhere, anywhere, without getting shot.

Regardless, I’ve never had the thrill of seeing anything firsthand from Malta, honorary or otherwise. Yet from what I’ve bumped into so far, Lima is teeming with these little discoveries and I’m very happy to be here, walking and wondering. Two blocks in the opposite direction is an island of greenery with towering trees. It’s the Brazilian Embassy and I’d love to scale the iron gates and walk barefoot on the lush grounds.

Later today I’ve been invited to critique a traveling magic show which debuts in Barranco. This barrio, universally described as “bohemian” by the guidebooks, is just south of Miraflores, where I and most other gringos stay when in Lima. The SAEX clubhouse is in Miraflores, the yoga studios I plan to attend are here too, as well as the higher-class prostitutes, KFC, McD’s, BurgerKing, and oh, so much more.

But it’s also extremely clean and as safe as one could hope for in South America’s 3rd largest city. These days the streets are awash with federal police in their spit and polish. The IMF, the World Bank, and the other major money manipulators are here in town for their annual meeting. Armadas of limousines sail around the city with police escorts wailing and the parasitic press is here too. Yet we have nothing in common and so I generally ignore the pomp. But tomorrow’s pomp will not be denied. It’s a federal holiday with all major businesses closed.

October 8th, 1879 was the Battle of Angamos (a main thoroughfare, Avenida Angamos is 4 blocks from here). It was the turning point in what is also known as the Saltpeter Wars, and though Perú was defeated by Chile, Bolivia was the ultimate loser. And the navy of that land-locked country still grieves for its stolen seaport. However Bolivia will have to wait. Here and now I’m in Perú, where I guess they celebrate that they didn’t lose any land, just the battle.

For now I am enjoying the differences twixt Quito and here. SAEX/Lima provided me with the names of 2 Spanish teachers and we’ve been trading e-mails: Lilian, Jenny, and I. I was immediately struck by the fact that both of them began their responses to me in the 2nd person. That’s a pretty big deal, really. And in Quito it would have been completely unthinkable.

The Serranos (mountain dwellers) of Ecuador are known throughout South America as being a formal bunch, with clear social boundaries. Whenever 2 strangers meet, they always refer to each other as “Usted” a linguistic holdover from the royal courts of Spain. It is a polite address and in fact a standard way to talk to strangers in all Spanish-speaking countries, though up in the highlands they hang on to it more than any other place.

Ecuador carries this behavior further than other countries, and a good example was the personal relationship I had with my 2nd teacher there in Quito. Profesora Paty, perhaps 10 years younger than me, never once used the familiar “Tu” when talking with me, even after knowing each other for 5 months. We talked about all sorts of personal and even intimate subjects, often laughing to the point of tears. Yet I was always “Señor Karl” to Paty and because of it, I responded to her in the same, separated 3rd person fashion.

But here in Lima, on the street, in the markets and the banks, and via e-mail to 2 separate prospective teachers, it’s Tu, baby. And that feeling of informality repeats itself throughout the day. I’m lovin’ it. This 2nd person familiarity is a very warm and welcoming start to my new life here in Perú.

Climbing the Steps of the City of Zaruma and Climbing the Ladder of Success in Loja

Zaruma, de la Provincia de El Oro, is unquestionably the most vertical city that I have ever visited. Roads, at least those planed for motorized vehicles, are at best an afterthought throughout the entire municipality. In a city, a village really, of barely 20,000 residents there is a developed and inhabited area that marches up and down the mountain for more than 1,000 vertical feet.

Zaruma Steps

Zaruma Steps

This isn’t a place for someone with a fear of heights. Since as you move about in just the commercial area of Zaruma alone, you move along in the street, up steps, down steps, over curbs, up more steps and then repeat. A still active mining town, Zaruma is like no other. And because of this, Ecuador has petitioned the UN to place it on the short list of World Heritage sites. It certainly has my vote.

Though as beautifully unique as it is, a village this size only has so many things one can do, and with wi-fi being something that not all of the residents had heard about, keeping myself plugged-in was it’s own interesting challenge. It’s a nice, no it’s a great place to visit, but you know the rest.

Three days later I hopped on a bus out of town for the most beautiful yet frightening bus ride yet. The first hour was pretty tame: we coasted downhill to the smaller town of Portovelo where I changed buses after a long wait in the town square. Within 3 minutes of leaving Portovelo the pavement ended and we started climbing up into the Andes.

Zaruma to Loja Road

Zaruma to Loja Road

I was thrilled to be on this route because near the end it would meet up with the road I had taken out of Catemayo in April to attend the Natem retreat. That path ended at the door of the finca we stayed at and this ride would complete the rest of the journey coming in from the opposite direction. However these interprovincial buses are very tall affairs with great stretch out seats.

They are far taller than a Greyhound back in the US, so that when we rounded bends on the one-lane gravel road and overtook an overloaded mining truck, or met an oncoming pickup, my heart lumped up in my throat as the cabin swayed along the hardpack. We weren’t making much speed, since the gravel and washouts prevented over-jouncing along the way. But we were moving about, perched 8 or more feet above the road surface.

We did of course survive the trip. The drivers of these buses do this every day and know the twists and turns of their routes intimately. So at the times when I knew we were going over the edge, the driver carefully and methodically maneuvered this beast easily along to our destination. The days in Zaruma were a true march back in time and this bus ride punctuated the divide.

But now that I’m in Loja, life is different. Somewhere in the vicinity of 200,000 people call Loja home (accurate population figures and, for that matter, municipal boundaries are more of a concept than a reality in much of South America). Considered by the rest of Ecuador as the jewel of the south, this city holds a long memory of mining and agricultural wealth. But it’s the 21st century. The old days were nice and there will always be respect for history (Loja is one of the oldest cities in Ecuador), though I get a clear message here that folks want nothing more than a comfortable middle-class life.

And who can blame them? With the wonders of cable/satellite TV, dubbed Hollywood movies, and the Internet, all the excitement of the outside world beckons, and many here have answered. They have seen much that favors the attraction of a comfortable life and have decided to follow this dream. It’s the American dream, but it’s not exclusive to the US. This is also America, America of the South, and let no one forget it.

With a city of this size, geographically isolated though Loja may be, one can find most anything imaginable for leading the comfortable life. These days that also means that Loja has caught the eye(s) of travel and retirement media as the “new” Cotacatchi, which everyone who’s anyone knows is the “new” Cuenca. And for those who have followed these types of publications, we cannot forget that Cuenca of course was at one time the “new” Ajijic/San Miguel de Allende, and they of course were the “new” on and on and on…

So there is a small and slowly growing expat population here, and these retirement publications are all singing praises for Loja. Of course the result of this favorable press is that expats are moving here. But they are in no way as visible in Loja as the expats are in Cuenca, where they have seemingly taken over the Centro Historico, or are they as visible through sheer numbers, as they are in tiny Cotacachi. But expats are here and they do blog and the blogs make for some interesting reading.

Bolívar Enters Loja

Bolívar Enters Loja

As regards expat life, Loja is still in the first stages of “colonization” and this means that the transplants here are a hardy bunch, by necessity speaking Spanish, and who are quite content flying under the radar and not flocking or swarming as in the other locales. These new Lojanos are happily leading the middle-class life too and fitting in quite well with families tracing Lojano roots back in some cases to the founding of the city in 1546. Ah, but nice though it may be, that same middle-class longing is where problems arise.

Rafael Correa has changed the face of Ecuador like no other president before him. Regardless of how one applauds or rejects his views, his redistribution of wealth essentially made a new country. In multiple comparisons to other South American nations, Ecuador has lifted itself from an also-ran to a contender in virtually all aspects of social metrics. Correa’s administration has lifted more people from poverty than all of his predecessors combined and the country is now in the top tier of wealth, prosperity, and individual contentment across all factors of life in Latin America. Crime is down and happiness is up.

Because of the wealth re-distribution there is now in Ecuador a large sector of the population that not only can simply dream about material gain, but actually achieve it through individual effort. This has never happened before and the people who this message was intended for have embraced it whole cloth and gladly worked hard to move up the ladder; out with the old ways and all aboard for the new ones. Yet differences exist here in the beautiful and rugged south.

Unlike Cuenca, the cultural capital of Ecuador, or Cotacachi, near to the world market of Otavalo, or the main cities of Quito and Guayaquil, Loja is off the (international) tourist trail. It is at the bottom of an isolated valley, nearly 7,000 ft above sea-level, and surrounded by rough and mountainous mining country. Loja therefore is at the mercy of its geography, and as a result of these defining landforms the city, like any city anywhere in similar circumstances, has an insular outlook on life and the values that define it as a community.

Seeing the world of the outside and how the Loja of old compared to that world, and seeing progress as good thing, it was only natural that Loja too would be moving forward. If hard work and a clear vision were the antidotes to stagnation, then Lojanos were ready for their share of the rewards. It would be worth it for now and for the future. But at what cost?

When I arrived here last Thursday I had several immediate tasks before me. In order to stay on the road I have certain regular chores and the occasional “one-off” task that come up. This last week I needed to have some laundry done, a haircut, and some forms filled and mailed back to a US bank. I also wanted to purchase some palo santo.

This sweetly aromatic wood is burned in curandismo ceremonies and next week I begin a 12-day retreat hosted by 4 curanderos. The plan was to purchase quantities of palo santo for each of the shamans as symbolic offerings. Once I leave Loja I will be again in isolated country south of Cuenca and unable to locate such things. So Loja is where I had to find my palo santo.

Booking a room in a centrally located hotel in colonial cities has many benefits, not the least of which is convenience. There is a reassuring sameness to the layout of old Latin American cities. Each has a parque central: a green-space (sometimes more green in concept than in currency) which will have fronting it the city cathedral, the local governmental offices, and provincial and/or federal agencies as well.

Radiating outward from the park will be the supplementary and complementary businesses, shops, and other modes of commerce that keep the community operating. The tailors, the hardware stores, the cyber cafés, and pharmacies, restaurants, and more. Big cities and small pueblos; this layout is both regular and reassuring.

Loja Mercado Centro

Loja Mercado Centro

Among these surrounding stores will also be the mercado central. This will be the grand market selling everything from local produce (which in Ecuador is astounding in variety, beauty, taste, and incredibly low prices), meats: both the butchered and often the live still clothed in feathers or fur, toys for the tots, sweets for both the tooth and the heart, umbrellas, shoes and boots, basketware, items for the kitchen and home, and many, many other items in a large warehouse or series of warehouses with running kids, pleading mothers, hawkers for both licit and illicit goods; a fascinating place to watch one’s belongings while weaving through the always crowded aisles.

Loja’s grand market is barely 2 blocks from my digs, the Hotel Podocarpus, and after scouting it out on Thursday just before the 6pm closing, I knew that checking off my tasks would be a snap; there was even an internet café, so I could print out the forms for the bank. The central post office was 2 blocks in the other direction from my hotel. Perfect! At least mostly so.

After finishing up most of my tasks at the mercado with a $2 haircut (and it looks like a $2 haircut too!) on the top floor amidst the row of barbers, I set out to find the palo santo. In Quito, Cuenca, and many other communities along the major transportation routes, tiendas de remedios (shops selling folk remedies) seem to be on almost every street corner. Yet I couldn’t see any, either in the mercado or along the side streets lined with shops selling everything but remedios.

Mercado Produce

Mercado Produce

So I asked one of the vendors in the mercado who gave me a puzzled look and then pointed me off in some vague direction elsewhere, a common gesture when someone doesn’t know something but can’t bring ones’ self to admit it. So off I went to another sector, got the same treatment, and repeated this a number of times until the husband of one of the earlier vendors found me several aisles over and pointed out a tiny closet of a shop one more aisle down.

Finally! Success with what turned out to be the last remedio shop in Loja. It was getting late with rain threatening, so I was thankful that I did find my palo santo, and that the old man selling the flower-waters (floristas), trinkets, salves and such had 4 bundles left. He was both quite pleased and puzzled to find a gringo as a customer, and after our transaction admitted that not only was he the last, but that his supply of palo santo had dried up from over-developing the forests for farmland. He also told me that for 10 years or so, fewer and fewer people are following the old ways and that he was going to close down this last of the remedios in Loja.

In their climb up the material ladder, Lojanos have willingly forsaken indigenous ways and plowed up the once plentiful palo santo forests. For progress. Other communities here in Ecuador, ones located on busy and regular transportation routes still accept the old ways and have comfortably integrated them into newer ways of living. There is no real conflict in those cities and both beliefs of health and healing exist symbiotically. However, these folks here in Loja, walled in by the beautiful but culturally stifling mountains, concluded some time back that it was an either/or choice and made their move forward by saying goodbye to traditions that had been in place for millennia. Something was lost here in Loja.

Out of Guayaquil and On to Zaruma And Back in the Mountains

The Howler monkeys were a bust. We could hear them grunting high up in the Royal Palms, and we smelled their excreta (similar to the “apples” a horse will leave as it makes its way down the street in a parade), but except for some moving fronds, no sightings. It wasn’t a complete surprise since a group of school kids, 20 or so, set out less than a 1/2hr before us. What with their screams, shouts, and other teenage vocal discharge, this pretty much sewed up any chance for a primate encounter on this day’s outing.

So, as the family from Wisconsin, our guide Eduardo Meneses, and I made our way back to our driver Freddie and the van, I figured it would be a good time (I had dropped back to last in line) to relieve myself of the morning’s coffee. We had been walking for an hour and previously riding a 40′ motorized canoe for 2hrs before that, so now was as good a time as I was going to have. But the Chonta snake, Chironius carinatus, stretched out in the understory felt differently.

In Parque Central, Zaruma

In Parque Central, Zaruma

Bashful Bladder is a not uncommon urological condition that many males confront during our lifetimes. Often it can be outgrown as a man matures. Yet in an instant, I reverted to childhood as that snake and mine stared each other down. At the time, I didn’t even know that it was a Chonta, and though it didn’t look particularly venomous, it also didn’t look particulary pleased either.

And it wasn’t about to give ground at that point, based on its rearing its head along with about a foot of its 5ft long body. While I learned later that not only is it non-poisonous, and full-grown can become twice that length, at this point in my life herpitological taxonomy was not high on my list of must-do’s. Ever so slowly backing away I watched its 2 bright yellow longitudinal stripes slide into the brush in the opposite direction. Walt Disney was never like this!

Fortunately, our next stage, lunch and then a tour of a cacao farm, was far more lighthearted. Ninfa, the daughter of the farm’s owner, and a high-energy recent college grad, was our hostess and guide. After our main course of Pollo Seco, a regional chicken dish, she brought out a Stars-n-Stipes cake in our honor to celebrate the 4th of July.

Ninfa and Our 4th of July Cake

Ninfa and Our 4th of July Cake

Later she walked us through the land her great-grandfather had cleared 100 years before. By most chocolate experts, Ecuador is recognized as producing much of the world’s best bean, and the “Champaign” region of Ecuador’s best was only a short distance down the highway from where we were sampling this fruit. Ninfa took us from germination to seedling to grafting to the eventual harvest of the 1/2 dozen varieties her family grows.

She then demonstrated the advantage of 4 days of sun drying the seeds over oven-baking (less chance of mold and a better, richer flavor), and finally the roasting which transforms a fruity tasting pulp into what we  know as nibs. These are ground into a cocoa butter which she mixed with her family’s crop of dragon fruit, and mango juice, and produced an amazing drink that became even more so with a bit of aged rum.

The whole day spent with Eddie, the owner of Guayaquil, A Guided Visit Tour Guides, was a wonderful exposure to the Guayas Peninsula. Eddie is a native of Guayaquil and his love of place is ever-present in his interactions with the network of farmers, fishermen, street shills, museum staff, and others he works with to show us the life here beyond the popular tourist guidebooks.

Earlier that day, while we glided through the mangroves very similar, and yet also very different, from the Florida biomes I’ve visited previously, we saw how the province and the central Ecuadorian government are working to halt further wetland destruction. The country’s 4th largest source of income is the harvests from shrimp farming and this industry has been the biggest threat to mangrove stands along the coast.

Eduardo Meneses in Manglares Churute Reserve with the Wisconsonites

Eduardo Meneses in Manglares Churute Reserve with the Wisconsinites

Many areas in the Guayas Peninsula have been reclaimed from those same shrimp farms and now the trees, crabs, and other elements of the original habitat are returning. But it’s still an uphill fight. It takes time, and curious tourists, to help more Ecuadorians see that saving and revitalizing the natural habitat can be as profitable, or in many instances more profitable than monoculture crop production. Next time you head to the Galapagos, stay awhile in the Guayas Peninsula and it will benefit us all.

But enough of this heat and humidity, an hour ago I plunked down the princely sum of $4.40 and bought a bus ticket to Zaruma, the original capital of El Oro Province. El Oro was originally named for the pre-Inca, then Inca, and finally the Spanish Colonial gold mines in the hills and mountains that spill into the sea, at the Peruvian border. Now the gold comes from bananas, and Ecuador leads the world in banana export. With a lock on the European Common Market, and a major share in the US and elsewhere, Ecuador means bananas and bananas mean Machala, the current provincial capital.

When I started my tour of the country after leaving Quito, Machala was high on the list. But with the chance to visit the Amazon Basin having become a reality, Machala lost my custom. I’ve been told not to regret this since the city has no tourist facilities, but I was essentially told the same about Guayaquil and found quite the opposite. Perhaps getting to or from the Galapagos I can make amends and find the time to visit the “ugly” port of Machala.

Seeing the port of Machala, which transits so much of Ecuador’s wealth, really is of high interest to me. And when people tell me that there’s really nothing of interest, nothing to see, I simply cannot accept their notion of what matters. Immersive diversion (hanging out in tourist bars, standing in lines for tourist attractions, etc.) is not what I consider touring. I want to know what/where/how a country works. Machala is a place where that happens.

And so is Chimbote, Perú. When I was in Lima I learned that Chimbote is the country’s largest fishing port, which like Ecuador’s bananas at Machala, makes Perú tick. So in a few months, after I’ve been run out of Ecuador, I’ll start to plan for the smelly fish-capital of Perú, and visit another town “of no interest.” But next is the mountain-sided mining town of Zaruma.

Well it’s now 8hrs later and I’m ensconced at the Hotel Zaruma Colonial and sitting out on a restaurant balcony enjoying both the end of daylight and my first meal since breakfast at 7am; I’m famished. I’ve only seen a small bit of this small town, but it looks like fairyland: most of the houses are wood, a rarity in Ecuador. This is the direct result of a disastrous earthquake nearly 200 years ago that totally destroyed the town. In rebuilding, the town leaders decided to abandon the plentiful stones nearby and harvest trees from the surrounding forests.

So. I’ve had 8hrs of sleep, saw the town square after sunset (top photo, really!), and now I’m off to the mines. But after breakfast, please…

Can You Like a City And Not Like Its People?

Perhaps Term-Limits Do Have a Place in Modern Politics

Guayaquil is a gritty, sticky, smelly and crowded place with more homeless than I’ve seen elsewhere since I’ve been in South America. The weather is dismal: hot, humid, with mostly still, dank air and a breeze only rarely. When you think of the tropics and your thoughts are not kind, Guayaquil (“Gwhy-a-Kill”) could at least be a placeholder for your archetype.

But I really like this city. In the city center, where my seedy hostel is located, there are buildings more than one hundred years old (and occasionally double that age) and beautifully preserved, sprinkled liberally throughout the barrios. One revitalized barrio, Las Peñas, is a multi-colored maze of old houses, tiendas, boutiques, and restaurants seductively climbing up a hill overlooking the Guayas River.

Barrio Las Peñas

Barrio Las Peñas

The showpiece of Guayaquil, the Malecon was a rundown and crime-ridden slum along the waterfront less than 2 dozen years ago. Now, after millions of dollars of makeover, it is a 2.5km long, pleasant and picturesque place to stroll. These most recent days it is even more active, for along with the rest of the city center, the workers along the Malecon are preparing for Pope Francis, who will visit Guayaquil in less than one week’s time.

There are banners and bunting all over this part of the city, with multi-storey’s tall pictures of the Pope and his quotes adorning many of the big buildings near and even on the grand cathedral. Of course even though he is not expected to generate the excitement here that will come when he chews coca leaves with Bolivia’s President Morales later this month, nevertheless one can feel the emotion and pride brewing locally. And with the power-washing machines blasting away mold and mildew from many of the larger buildings, this part of the city is looking pretty fine, thank you very much.

The sad part is that the day after the Pope has come and gone, Guayaquil will revert back to being an also-ran in the Pantheon of must-see South American destinations. But why? Each year the Galapagos Islands compete with Machu Picchu as the most visited place in all of South America. And each year tourists drop half a billion dollars on the islands. And no matter what people think or how they book their cruises, you only get to the islands via Guayaquil, period. You may think that you’re going to visit the islands via the capital, Quito, but you will fly here nevertheless.

Half a billion dollars to a developing country is some serious cash. Yet this, the largest of Ecuadorian cities has effectively no tourism infrastructure. I just came from 2 weeks in Otavalo, an indigenous city of about 90,000 people, roughly 1/30 of the size of Guayaquil, and yet every restaurant that I visited, and that was about a dozen in the time that I was there, had wireless internet. But here in the city center? Nothing! I can get an advertised 1/2hr free along the Malecon (though they cut you off after barely 20 minutes!), and I can get it at the Ecuadorian version of Starbonks, called “Sweet & Coffee” but that’s it. What’s up with that, City?

Perhaps it was a cost-cutting measure, but the city now only has a single tourist information office. After visiting 3 times, I believe that I’ve had more than enough. The only person I get to talk to may as well be a robot; in fact, I wish that she was fully automated so I wouldn’t have to fake being courteous. She’s only capable (or perhaps only willing) to talk about the Malecon, the high-end hotels, or the shopping malls. When I asked her, during my final time about a good restaurant with comida tipica, or regional food, she could only talk about fast-food places. I repeated several times that I wanted neither fast food nor fried or greasy food. But she only could talk about the same thing, over and over an over. When I asked about a restaurant that had wi-fi, she just looked and said nothing. When I repeated my questions, she took out a phone book, turned to the restaurant pages and showed me the listings. I again repeated my questions and she had no idea what to say, she could only point. This is not what a tourist office is, I’ve been to ones in cities that care. I’ve been to ones in cities that realize the value to city coffers that tourists bring. Guayaquil is not that city.

And that’s the problem: this city doesn’t care. They have an alcalde, a mayor, who’s been in office more than 15 years and he needs to go. His name is plastered over every surface imaginable, and yet he has no clue about how badly he is harming this city. The central government of Ecuador is spending great sums of money promoting the country world-wide as a tourist destination, but the guy running the country’s largest city is clueless. He really, really needs to go.

Fisherman, River Guayas

Fisherman, River Guayas

When you read online travel forums you see that the main message about Guayaquil is to spend as little time as possible on the way to the Galapagos; get in, get out, and get going. This is an outrage and it is a message that should have been countered years ago. It is a message that is thoughtlessly hurting the city when instead this could be a place where people actually look forward to spending some extra days. Virtually every other part of this fascinating country has a great tourism infrastructure, but not here. What a sad state of affairs for a situation that doesn’t need to exist. Who is running this place anyway?

But as I say, I do like the city. Today I took a double-decker bus tour (there are 2 different tour companies, but the first one I went to, 4 separate times (and right there on the Malecon), never seems to actually have a bus that operates. Yet I had a great time with the company that actually does have a working bus, even when the driver backed into a tree heading out from the ticket office and smashed the glass window inches from my head. Well, I quickly changed seats and spent the rest of the trip cautiously ducking as he passed a bit too close to many power lines, light posts and other tree branches. In spite of his driving though, the bus ride was very interesting.

Build-Out, Old Style

Build-Out, Old Style

Build-Out, New Style

Build-Out, New Style

Because of the heat and the equatorial sun, the architecture in Guayaquil has retained an interesting element of sameness. The old buildings still standing are of an identical nature that builds the second and successive storeys above it out over the ground floors; every building has this feature. It’s more than a portico, since the actual floor space above the ground floor extends outward rather than just providing a roofed overhang. And it’s not cantilevered, since there are columns to support those higher floors. This design helps pedestrians escape the direct sun and the plan works so well that the newer buildings have adapted accordingly and integrate the same design. These newer structures aren’t nearly as attractive as the old ones, but they do provide us walkers with  an escape route from the killer sun. My sincere thanks to the architects who refuse to fix what ain’t broke.

I really do like this place, just not the way that it’s run. Or the people that run it.

Port of Guayaquil

What’s Really in a Name?

Michigan is filled (both the Upper and the Lower Peninsulas) with place names derived from the French language. From early 17th Century onwards, French-Canadian trappers knew well the lands that were to become the Wolverine State. And one can now find cities such as Charlevoix, Sault Sainte Marie, and even the once and perhaps future great city of Detroit. You can travel on Gratiot Avenue in Detroit or visit Montmorency County farther north and just below Presque Isle, near Fort Michilimackinac, but no, that’s an Iroquois word. You can visit Marquette, or ride the Bois Blanc (“Bob Blow”) boat to the amusement park of the same name.

As a child I was always fascinated by these names, but none held quite the fascination of Belle Isle, truly a beautiful island. Back in the late 50’s and early 60’s our family visited this jewel of a city park very often. Smack dab in the middle of the Detroit River it was entirely given over to leisure times and maintained by the City park service. My dad would try his hand at fishing in the rank and polluted river, my mom would busy herself with laying out a picnic lunch while my brothers invested time in doing brotherly things. I, on the other hand, would like as not find myself on the bank of the river, looking south toward the Canadian shore.

Now here’s a pop-quiz for you geographically challenged: When one looks due south from Detroit, the first country one locates is, wait for it; O, CANADA! Canada to the South? Check out a good map and you too can verify that Windsor Canada is actually directly south of Detroit and their Red Wings.

But I wasn’t really interested in Canada during those times, I was looking for smoke stacks. Not the stationary ones, though both Detroit and Windsor had more than their belching fair share. I was looking for smokestacks atop the Great Lakes freighters that sailed from late March to the beginning of November each year, bringing iron ore down from Minnesota’s Mesabi Range to Cleveland steel mills, bringing Chicago livestock to New York processing plants, and coal to Eire Pennsylvania and so much more.

I had a notebook that I used to keep track of the insignias on each of the smokestacks because each of these insignias was unique to a particular shipping company, and like nations’ flags, each was a beautiful design that set that particular fleet of ships apart from competitors. Yet even while I kept a log of the big US firms like Cleveland Cliffs, and Ford Motor Company (bringing iron ore down to its River Rouge automobile plant, another French name), I really had my eye out for the foreigners.

Mast and Spars, Guayaquil

Mast and Spars, Guayaquil

In April of 1959 the first ocean-going vessels could travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the middle of the US heartland with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway. A series of locks and canals built to skirt the rapids of Canada’s St. Lawrence River which emptied the Great Lakes into the sea, this water highway opened up new worlds for me and fanned the fires of my dreams to travel which were already burning brightly.

I spotted ships from Antwerp and Panama,  São Paulo and Liberia, and more, each one setting my mind alight to the possibilities of knowing at least some of those places. And now I’m here in Guayaquil, South America’s 3rd largest Pacific port.

I discovered this morning that there’s a boat tour of the city. How could I not get on board?

The Subjunctive is Only Subjective When You Don’t Know That It’s Real

After a 24-year hiatus I returned to school in the 80’s, this time to finally earn a degree. A crippling back injury had just ended 20 years of construction, and thus my general contractor’s license, my plumber/gasfitter’s license, my residential electrical certifications; all that was gone thanks to a cast-iron bathtub.

So one day I found myself sitting in a linguistics classroom, having just been introduced to the genius of Benjamin Lee Worf, a pillar of US language and thought. Worf developed what he called “Linguistic Relativity” which argued that one’s perception of the world is entirely mediated by one’s language. A northern European cannot comprehend the realities of an African Bushman anymore than a Tokyo businessman can truly know the ontology of an Anatolian shepherd. Makes sense to me. So much so, that I considered changing my major from psychology to linguistics.

imageI considered the change for about 3 days until the Chair of UNM’s Linguistics Department finally convinced me that Worf’s theories had been roundly dismissed as bunk and his theories were no longer regarded as valid. Well, there was no way that I was going to pursue a career in a field where the leading lights were so misguided. By this time linguists were enamored with the “universalist” theory of Noam Chomsky and others, which argues that regardless of language, all humans are ready and able to understand the world in exactly the same way.

Yet, as Native Americans know, time is circular rather than linear, and Worf is finally returning (though slowly) to a seat of prominence. I’m hoping that the other dim bulbs now holding down the linguistics fort will get out of their laboratories and into the field where they belong. Maybe some of them will head south into Latin America and face off against the world as defined by the subjunctive verb.

I have recently had my own head-on collision with this other world. Yet as fascinating as the difference is, I am too under-qualified to be able to adequately perceive some of the subtler differences, so I’m asking for help.

This posting is really an open letter to my sister-in-law Candice, married to my lovely younger brother. Candice is a true US of A hero: she’s a high school teacher. And for an impressive number of decades she’s led the heathens and the unwashed; your kids, and his kids, and her kids, and those kids over there (but not my kids, I don’t have any, HAH!) out of the darkness of monolingualism and into the amazing world of the Spanish language.

As a teacher of Spanish she spends 9 months in the classroom and the other 3 months shepherding hoards of the little ruffians through Spain and/or a number of Latin American countries. If any of you think that public school teachers have 3 months of vacation every year, call her up and volunteer to help control adolescent hormones in a foreign clime. It ain’t a piece o’ cake.

I’m writing this to Candice, but if anyone else has more than a ¿Donde está la biblioteca? understanding of the 3rd most frequently spoken world language, welcome aboard. Please throw your hat in the ring. Because I believe that, after more than 10 years of reading, writing, listening to, and speaking this language; why, I may have made some progress today. And I’m asking for clarification. Today’s Spanish class was great.

It was an ¡AH, HAH! Moment that I had this afternoon. A Moment that rarely comes in one’s lifetime. And I’m not talking about those LSD-trippy days of the 60’s, when we all went ah hah. Back then we finally understood the universe, except when we came back down from the trip we saw it was just that the red flower was the only one in a bank of yellow ones. Good riddance fringed bell-bottoms. No this Moment today came about from re-acquainting myself with the subjunctive mode in Spanish verbs.

Wikipedia tells us that the Subjunctive is:

adjective: subjunctive
1 1. 
relating to or denoting a mood of verbs expressing what is imagined or wished or possible.
noun: subjunctive; plural noun: subjunctives
1 1. 
a verb in the subjunctive mood.
the subjunctive mood.noun: the subjunctive

Now that that’s cleared up, we know that subjunctive is an adjective, except when it isn’t. Or maybe it’s a noun, but then, what about verbs? I mean it might be, but then again who knows? Or really, for all us English-speakers: Who Cares? We have painfully few examples of the subjunctive in English. We have little direct knowledge of what is vital to more than half-a-billion Spanish speakers. Let me give you an embarrassing example. Or maybe it’s 2 examples, depending on how you look at it, or them.

One of the fascinating websites that I used to get ready for my trip and still use to learn about culture in South America is Medellin Living. Three hours south of Honolulu I’d have been in the middle of the Pacific. But 3hrs south, non-stop, from Miami, I’d jubilantly deplane in Colombia’s trend-setting world class city of 2 million. A city that astounds new arrivals almost by the hour.

If you still think that you’re being informed, truthfully I mean, by the likes of CNN or Fox “News,” or the other side of the same coin, MSNBC, or some other infotainment channel, then I’ve got a scoop: Pablo Escobar’s been dead for 30 years. Although interestingly enough, his hippopotami aren’t, but I’ll let you Google that one; they’ve become a very serious environmental issue. The point being that Colombia as a whole and Medellin in particular are worth a much closer look; and Colombians love yankees.

I’d be a whole lot safer walking Colombian streets than those of my home town, Detroit. My original plan for this trip, a plan that still carries a modicum of truth, was to refine my language skills in Ecuador, Peru, and perhaps Bolivia, before landing in the north of South America. I may still make it. I’ve been planning to get to Medellin once I can (barely) understand the staccato rhythm of their rapid-fire brand of Spanish. Sooo, where’s the example of a subjunctive world?

Medellin Living is primarily geared for a younger generation of hip and worldly mobile that won’t spurn a good time. Medellin Living, along with many other topics, tells you how to date Colombians. Thus, a frequent topic is that of addressing effective ways to break down cultural and gender non-specific, specific, and pan-specific barriers. In other words: how to party on the weekends and hold down a job, if need be, during the week. Or learn a language, or fly a kite. There are some serious local competitors for this last treat, so be warned, you warriors of the sky.

Often 2 people, say for example: a gringo boy and a Latin American girl, will meet and seemingly hit it off very well, perhaps even seeing each other several times, with maybe (or not) a bit of intimacy involved. Nothing perhaps very exclusive as far as a relationship, but also not simply a casual, “Oh yeah, I remember, you were at the party too” kind of encounter either.

Then the girl will suggest doing something fun together soon, and she will call the boy back to set it up. She will have specifics about where to go, what to wear, which songs to dance to, etc. She’ll have enough detail to let the boy know that this is really something she’s not just simply thought of, but really plans to do. So he waits. And he waits. And he waits for a call that never comes.

This is such a common heartbreak that Medellin Living devoted an entire article to the unwary and vulnerable to serve warning of a pitfall as real as the pickpockets on public transportation. I first read about this some time back and also encountered corroborating accounts as well. Which allows one to suppose that I’d recognize a parallel behavior if it ever came my way. Yet I fell for it too; TWICE!!

My first Spanish teacher and I spent a great deal of time together, 5 days per week for 5 weeks straight. We even met a few times after class when we shared a meal with her delightful husband. So when, during a taxi ride back to the school, she asked if I wanted to accompany the 2 of them to Otavalo in the northern mountains for a weekend of work, I said yes. Her husband, Edison, is a veterinarian who works for the federal government.

Edison travels the whole country administering to wild animals in their natural habitats, even spending weeks at a time in the Galapagos Islands. He gets paid for the privilege of seeing what us gringo clowns pay $500/day to see. (Not this clown; 3 days of that kind of Galapagos luxury and my monthly budget would be shot.) So when his wife said that we’d be helping him tend to “A condor, or an eagle, or some kind of big bird,” I believed her. She said she’d call and she was my teacher, so of course she’d call, right? That call never came and she never mentioned it again.

Fast forward 2 months. Raquell’s gone off to a different school (Spanish teachers here are hired guns. They work as independent contractors and are always hustling for work in a highly competitive field.). I’ve come and gone to Cuenca, fully immersed myself with another teacher and everyone tells me that my Spanish is really accelerating.

imageLast week, walking home in the rain, who do I see but Raquell. She goes all Ecuadorian on me with the kissy-kissy on the right cheek several times. That is the standard greeting here in the middle of the earth, and you better remember that it’s the right cheek or else you’re in for a painful close-encounter.

When she’s finished with the greetings and a soulful thank you for the parting gift I gave to her and her family, she asks what I’m doing in 2 weeks? It’s not like my social calendar is overloaded, so I guessed that I could probably be available, why? Well she and her husband are going to Esmeralda, the home of Afro-Ecuadorian culture on the northwest coast. And she wants me to come with them for the weekend. Edison has to work with yet another ill-defined animal, needs help, and would I join them? Willing to prove that suckers really are born every minute, I naturally said yes. And then went home and got ready to pack. And, yes of course, wait for the call.

The weekend of note has come and gone, and I finally stopped waiting. So while you’re winding up for a culture-wide condemnation of the Spanish-speaking world, let me stop that silliness before it leaves the box. In general, and particularly in the sierra (the mountainous regions of South America) the cultural norms are ones of refinement and respect wrapped heavily in courtesy. Which to our North American eyes seems impossibly contradictory to this other, set-me-up behavior. How could someone who knows that she will probably run into me again before I leave in 6 months, lie to me so boldly?

Unless it’s not a lie? Unless, and this is where I need some context, it would only be a lie if the person posing the invitation didn’t want it to happen in some dreamy far-off world where wishes can come true?

Gabriel García Marquez, the late Colombian author, won his Nobel Prize for Literature by writing “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” The Nobel Committee says that it doesn’t award for a single book but rather for an author’s body of work. They lie. Marquez introduced the world to what has become known as Magical Realism. If you need a visual example of Magical Realism, re-visit “Like Water For Chocolate.”

This truly wondrous book from Marquez follows a family of note through 100 years of its life, running forwards and back in time, playing with linearity like a rubber ball. The common tie across generations is the ghost of the grandfather showing up again and again offering sage advice and codging a drink of booze or 2. And the idea of what is real and what is imagined, what exists and what defines existence, and if the mind wants something to be real, who are we to deny that it isn’t, is central to not only Magical Realism, but I think to the core of Latin American thought.

I do not believe that Raquell set me up any more than the heavy breathers in Medellin were set up by the Colombianas. What I do think is that with 14 verb tenses in the Spanish language, and half of those tenses in the subjunctive mode, Benjamin Worf is still right on the money. We are, as a species, held captive by the words we use and they way we use them.

OK class, the grammar lesson is over for today. Your homework consists of reading a book, watching a movie, or writing in the subjunctive mode about what could just be real. Or not.





South American Explorers Club

I’m here in Quito, a short city bus ride from the Equator, El Mitad del Mundo: the Middle of the World. This being the tropics, with visions of steamy heat, jungles, humidity and all that goes with these notions, you’d think that this is what I’m contending with. And except for the humidity, you’d be totally wrong.

I’m here at my desk wearing long-johns, a fleece vest over 2 sweatshirts, fingerless gloves, and a wool watch-cap, struggling to keep warm. Ah, the tropics! Tonight the South American Explorers Club, or SAEX (Quito branch) is hosting an Open House and I’m looking forward to being there. Of course meeting with 4-dozen expats, Ecuadorian nationals wanting to practice their English, German and British students just loving life, and cheap beer are incentives enough. But the clubhouse also has a wood fire burning in the living room fireplace and I really want that heat.

SAEX/Quito Open House, March 2015

SAEX/Quito Open House, March 2015

The Open House is both a monthly fund-raiser for the non-profit Club and a very effective way to break down cultural barriers by providing a low-key venue for an international blend of the curious, the shy, the extroverts, the singles, and those pretending to be single, at least for one night.

It was a pretty broad mix of ages, from 20-somethings to pensioners. There was even an octogenarian newspaper editor from a suburb of Albuquerque who was there visiting his son, married to an Ecuadoriana. I’ve already marked my calendar for next month.

SAEX/Quito, aboard the Chiva

SAEX/Quito, aboard the Chiva

Next week (it’s now several days later) SAEX hired 2 Chiva vans. These are really converted cargo trucks with the beds outfitted to carry several dozen happy, loud, and wild revelers each. We were thankful for the covered tops, since it’s winter here and the night saw an off-and-on drizzling rain. The Chivas are a popular way for folks to enjoy club dancing without the clubs, cover charges, or buying drinks.

Both Chivas parked and ready to rock & roll

Both Chivas parked and ready to rock & roll

Everything is included in the $10 ticket; just hop aboard and cruise the city, and dance!. We eventually did stop at one of the parks, where all hopped off and danced along the sidewalks. Each of the Chivas had its own DJ and each had 4’ tall speakers announcing our musical progress as we snaked through Gringolandia (Mariscal Sucre) and Centro Historico for 2 hours.

Lest you think that SAEX exists for throwing great parties, there really is more, far more. The Quito branch spent several years working with the federal government here to clean up the language school business. There are more than 200 language schools in Quito alone, with new ones coming as quickly as old ones shutter their doors. Many operate out of garages, and virtually all of them host impressive websites, snaring the young and unwary from afar.

SAEX helped design a standardization process and the few schools registered with the national certifying board guarantee students a no-surprises education. When I first arrived, I rented a room here at SAEX and worked my way through their literature before choosing one of the qualified schools. When I leave here to move further north, I’ll use their guidelines to choose another language school in Otavalo.

The club also supplies members with guidebooks, personal recommendations, and one-on-one instructions on how to live and thrive both in Quito particularly, but also in the country as a whole. Membership in the Club provides hundreds of discounted opportunities for restaurants, hotels/hostels, tour guides, travel agencies, theater events, and new offers that are constantly changing.

Should the need arise, SAEX can recommend English-speaking healthcare options. I’m sitting here in the living room waiting to accompany several of the members who regularly see a dentist that they like. I’m ready for a teeth-cleaning visit and will join the other 2 for an unscheduled drop-in.

John Caselli, SAEX/Quito Club Director, taking control

John Caselli, SAEX/Quito Club Director, taking control

More than 35 years ago the first Club opened its doors in Lima, Peru. Now there are 4: another Peruvian clubhouse in Cusco, a brand new one that just opened near Valparaiso, Chile, and this one here in Quito. The local clubhouse is run by John Caselli, a retired US Marine pilot and flight instructor. John provides clear direction both for day-to-day requirements, and also for long-term planning such as the language school standardization.

If anyone has the vaguest notion of visiting South America, or just simply learning about one of the most fascinating areas on this planet, SAEX, with its $60 yearly dues, is a goldmine of information and a great way to meet some fascinating travelers and very curious and enjoyable Ecuadorianos. Next weekend the Club is hosting one of its many hikes that take place several times each month. You should join us.

Cuenca, for a While Only

The Gran Hotel, 3 blocks from Parque Calderón, the center of the Historic District, has a delightful interior courtyard. Like the majority of buildings in this old section of town, the courtyard here is hidden from street view, but once inside, we are treated to a jungle of plants, some as high as the 2-storey enclosure itself.

imageBoth breakfast (included with the room-rate of $35/night) and the 4-course lunch ($3.50, no tipping allowed) are served here from 7AM until after 2PM. I’m here in-between the 2 meals, wondering how they will remove the body from the 2nd-floor room before lunch.

Since all the rooms front the courtyard, the platoon of EMT’s, local and state police, and the criminalistics team, along with the hotel staff are working out the logistics. I’m sitting off to the side at a small table watching the staff move the dining tables for what appears to be an over-the-rail descent. Really, it’s a front-row seat and unless they tell me to move, I’m here for the duration.

Two hours ago, while finishing up a late breakfast, I heard running feet from the floor above and looked up to see the First Responders entering the room. Shortly after, the initial cadre of police arrived, and then later the CSI group. I knew from the lack of urgency that whomever was checked into the room had left for good and now it was time for all the paperwork.

I can’t help but think of Sir Terry Pratchett, who just died a few days ago. It’s been 15 years since I was introduced to his “Discworld” satires, and if I haven’t read all of his several dozen books in the series, plus other similar works, it’s not from lack of trying.

But Cuenca is far more than dead bodies. It’s now Friday and Frank and I arrived here in Cuenca on Monday. We’re flying back to Quito Sunday morning with Frank returning to the US early Monday morning. So we still have some fascinating sights to take in.


This is a very interesting city and like Quito, selected as a World Heritage Site. Cuenca is Ecuador’s 3rd largest population center, at about 1/2 million people in the city proper, with an extensive suburban development.

This beautiful city, with 4 rivers running through it and defining it’s internal boundaries, is regarded as the cultural heart of Ecuador. It’s easy to see why, with 3 major universities, both an old (16th century) and a new (19th century) cathedral, plus a dozen or more beautifully preserved churches, period buildings with balconies like those in New Orleans (or France, for that matter), museums, Inca ruins, and more. Cuenca is a delight to the eye. In fact Cuenca is such a delight that I’ve concluded that I cannot live here.

Since we got here Frank has developed a passionate love-affair with the city and he plans to return with his wife for a visit very soon. With it’s bite-sized colonial district that can be walked end-to-end, both north-south and east-west in less than a day, and with a climate far friendlier than Quito’s, Cuenca seduces very easily. And that is my problem.

Sometime in 2009 Cuenca was selected as the most desirable retirement destination in the world. This singular prize, decided by any number of international living periodicals, and seconded many times since by other publications has not gone unnoticed by an ever-growing number of expats. Earlier this month the federal government released its figures of approximately 12,000 expats living in Cuenca, with about 8,000 of them from North America.

Yet walking the Historic District, or limping along with a cast in my case, some things catch my eye. Perhaps the decades I’ve spent in Honolulu and Santa Fe have soured my soul towards hot tourist destinations, I don’t know. But here in Cuenca I feel a distinct division between the expats and the local population. There is a palpable disconnect between the 2 communities even though they trod the same paths. It’s as if a colony of ants and a colony of elephants occupied the same land, with both populations busily going about their business and not a clue that the other colony exists.


I realize that this is a gross over-simplification, but it feels real to me and I don’t want any part of moving here. Though the 2 of us dropped in on 3 very competent Spanish language schools to see about enrolling in their immersion programs, I just can’t do it. All 3 are within 4 blocks of each other, a few blocks from the hotel and the central plaza as well. It feels as if I would suffocate from the claustrophobic closeness of everything. And living with ants and elephants is not something I would willingly do.

Would I come back to Cuenca for a visit? In a minute! The place is gorgeous and known for some of the best food in the country. Its venues host world class symphonies, dancers, writers, painters, sculptors and much more. But I prefer losing myself among the millions in cold and rainy and chaotic Quito.



Language Immersion in Quito

Terracentro Spanish Language School

It’s not like I’ve been putting this off, but with Guaranda and all, I just got side-tracked. Though now that I’ve just finished my 5th week in a Spanish language immersion program, it’s time for a review. I just ended one program and I’m set to begin a new phase.

Firstly, I have to say goodbye to Raquell Dávalos, my cultural, historical, environmental, and, when I couldn’t avoid it, Spanish teacher. Raquell has headed off to a teaching contract in El Oriente (the Ecuadorian part of the Amazon headwaters) for 2 weeks. All the best Raquell! It was 5 weeks of in-depth exposure to the wonders of Quito.  I could not have hoped for a better profesora.

OK, really, it is now time to buckle down and truly feel, not just know intellectually the difference between Por y Para , the rough Spanish equivalents to the English For. Wait! Let’s put it off some more; first let’s take time for some diversion. I can always study later.

I’m going to meet Frank, coming in from Albuquerque late tonight, and we’re headed to the southern part of the country for some genteel mayhem. It will have to be toned down simply because I’m sporting a plaster cast from mid-calf to my toes on my left foot. I broke the outside metatarsal by looking up when I should have been looking down.

So, with cane in hand, I lead Frank to Cuenca, Ecuador’s 3rd largest city. Like Quito, Cuenca is a World Heritage Site, selected for it’s colonial architecture, postcard setting, many museums, and because it’s just simply a beautiful place. More of Cuenca later, in a separate post.

I stumble back in a week to change my program at the school. Since starting at Terracentro in the beginning of February, I have been enrolled in “Cultural Quito” a stunning introduction to the charms, secrets, and thousand year old history of this amazing city. This program puts the student in class, one-on-one with an instructor in the mornings, then during the afternoons we were riding buses, taxis, and mostly walking in, through, and around some of the museums, markets, churches, cathedrals, historical sites, and so much more, both in and also near to Quito. It’s a good program; no, it’s a great program, but really it was not right for me. And I knew it even before I left Honolulu.

So sue me, that’s the way I am: if moderation is good then it stands to reason that overindulgence must be better, right? Tell that to the broken metatarsal.

It’s been almost 3 years since I bowed out of Spanish classes in Albuquerque: to first remodel the house, and then to sell it to return to Honolulu. Three years is a disastrously long time to be away from a 2nd language that I had certainly not mastered before the hiatus. I knew this, but the thinking was that I would only be in Ecuador for a month or 2 and I wanted to pack as much as I could into that time, so taking a cultural program without remembering basic grammar was a good thing, no? Ahhh, No.

I have no real idea how Raquell put up with such a poor student other than because of her deep love for her native Quito. And the fact that she shares a cynical view of the world. If this old gringo wants to blow his money by tripping over first-semester verb tenses, at least we can have fun. So we did.

Every day for 5 days each week for the full 5 weeks we saw something new and wonderful. Which was after she made me pay for it by squirming from her stare in the classroom.

imageShe’s got a certain sadistic side that hides behind an innocent smile, a smile that speared me daily with questions about how could I possibly ever think to use a first-person present tense ending on a 3rd person past tense verb? Even children don’t speak like that! Yet in spite of myself I have made progress and look forward to the new program. I will spend 5 or more hours in class each day with no more sight-seeing, so that I can really build a strong grammar base to use in this truly expressive language.  ¡Que Bueno!

Two weeks into my cultural program I realized that I need to be in Ecuador for more than the standard 90-day visa allowance. The culture, the language, and most importantly, the people of Ecuador demand (though politely, to be sure) a deeper commitment from me. And I willingly accept this, so I am working with a lawyer to extend my visa to 180 days. Will that be enough? Of course not, but I really do want to see other Andean countries too.

Cotopaxi from my 2nd storey bedroom window

Cotopaxi from my 2nd storey bedroom window

The other part of an immersion language program expects that the student will live the language outside the classroom, and what better way than to live with a family? In my case, I believe that I have the best of all worlds, since I live right here, at the school, with the Director’s parents. Carmen and Hector Villacís are about my age and they have both welcomed me into their home, into their kitchen, and I dare say into their lives. Carmen is a retired banking officer and Hector is a journalist, a Periodista.

Having lived in Long Beach, California for several years while earning an accounting degree, Carmen speaks pretty good English and we, against the rules, often default back there when my Spanish flounders. We spend breakfasts and dinners here at the kitchen table, while I go out for lunch on my own. She’s an avid listener to talk radio, and it’s usually the basis for a protracted breakfast, with heated discussions along the way. Strong into women’s rights, she has little patience for weak-willed, macho politicians. And let’s me know it, often.

Hector, who teaches an advanced arts and politics program for his daughter’s school, speaks no English. Yet somehow, he and I have had any number of 3 hour discussions with both of us enjoying them immensely. He is widely traveled, particularly through Latin America, and has worked for 40 years in radio, in television, and with the printed word, spending decades both in front of and behind the microphone. He has a life-long love of the arts and knows Shakespeare and Tchaikovsky and Velázquez far better than most. He currently writes for a political publication and here in Ecuador these days, that’s not easy.

Well, that’s what I do with my time for the most part. Yet I haven’t explained how I chose Terracentro, one school out of 200 Spanish schools in Quito. And that’s because I haven’t told you about the South American Explorers Club. That might have to wait until after the Cuenca post.