Dramamine Monologues: Galapagos, Pt. II

After the first week spent exploring the most populous island of Santa Cruz I was ready for a change. Knowing, though not focused on the warning to beware of what one wishes for, I was in store for a very big change on a much deeper and purely personal level.

So I hopped on a 6am speedboat headed to the largest of the islands, Isabela. By now it was mid September and the calm, tranquil waters offshore were gone. By far the best times for diving were over. With rough seas came silt and sediment, so underwater visibility is greatly diminished.


Those of you who SCUBA dive would be best served by fighting the hoards of the July-August high season, when the water’s warmer, calmer, and clearer. It’s also rumored that those times don’t demand a wetsuit either. But 2 weeks after US-Labor Day the lazy days of summer are gone. And so was breakfast for at least 1/3 of the 15 or so passengers on board for the commute. Oddly enough though, not for me.

Some of my earliest childhood memories, predating Kindergarten no less, were of the times spent puking on Sunday drives with the family. Joining my dad, smoking one cigarette after the other motoring down the highway, my mom riding shotgun and passing around sandwiches and kool-aide, was my older brother pasted against the left side of the back seat, hoping to avoid any backsplash. He was mostly lucky in this regard.


Motion-sickness has whipped me about the head, shoulders and stomach my entire life. I’d get sick in wide-screen movie theaters, riding the ferris wheel, often even a teeter-totter, anything that moved in more than one direction at a time; for-my-entire-life. Often my motion-sickness has been the deciding factor, the weakest link, in determining directions, adventures, roads not taken for more than 65 years. What was going on now, here in the Galapagos?

The chop was breaking over the bow from about 10 o’clock, and we were headed due west with a strong wind from the south. This 40’ sport fisher, with twin 300hp Yamaha outboard engines (and a monster 500hp spare) was battering through, under, and occasionally over waves while fish-tailing and slipping sideways with constant irregular lurches. And I wore the biggest ear-to-ear grin the entire time enjoying the bouncing and pitching and rolling the sea was throwing our way.

So here’s a disclaimer: an hour before launch I had downed a Dramamine. Having grown up using the drug I also knew that it rarely if ever had a damping effect on my upchucks. But I had received what may turn out to be a lifetime supply of the stuff earlier in the year from my support staff back in Hawai’i, specifically delivered to me for my Galapagos trip. I really wanted to visit these islands and overcome my dread of the sea with handsfull of the pills.

But not only didn’t I have the least bit of queasy feelings, I pushed my luck and started reading my Kindle part way through the ride. The chop was so intense though, that I had to stop for fear of cracking the tablet lens on my forehead. Nevertheless, this was a major event; I couldn’t bring on even a hint of discomfort. Another test was in order.

Six days later I boarded another boat, this time from San Cristóbal back to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz. Believing that I am my own best Guinea Pig, I chose to wait until the boat was underway before downing a pill; normally Dramamine takes 1/2hr to an hour to kick in. 

This trip, if anything, was even more violent than the first and I was sitting amid-ship, inside and away from any views of the horizon or anything else but fellow passengers. This location was where the pitching was far more noticeable. It’s hard to imagine, but my grin was even bigger than during the first trip. What was going on here? An older gentleman taking the commute in the stern of the boat and confined to a wheelchair was thrown to the deck 4 times from the strength of the battering waves (he was grinning though the whole time though, a great sport). I badly needed a reality check.

Back in Puerto Ayora I met with Janina for a deep debriefing. The week before she told me that when she was younger her father had insisted that she have an ayahuasca ceremony. She had been experiencing some very serious health issues that were just not responding to “conventional” medicine and he believed that it was time for a more traditional indigenous approach. So, knowing that this woman is wise beyond her years, I sat down and talked this nausea thing out with her. We both agreed that something deep was going on here.

During my April-May ayahuasca intensive I received 2 separate messages from la medicina. The 2nd message dealt with my immediate future in Ecuador and revealed that it was time to quit Quito, which I subsequently did. But it was the first message that had a connecting link to this motion-sickness issue.

At the time I arrived in Ecuador, and for nearly 5 years previously, I had been plagued with what my primary care physician diagnosed as “intractable nausea.” He was of the notion that a chronic liver condition that I have was the root cause of the nausea, but being cautious he wanted additional opinions. So I spent several years and multiple thousands of (health insurance) dollars with medical specialists trying to pinpoint the origins of this nausea. All of these examinations failed to discover anything definitive, though I did receive several scares of more serious conditions. It was fortunate that those frights were all false alarms, and yet the nausea remained.

So when I received the first message from the ayahuasca ceremony, clearly explaining what the cause was and how to cure it, I was very happy to be lying down at the time. I was rocked to my core. And now, talking to Janina I realized that I was experiencing continued healing from that ceremony from nearly 6 months earlier.

Clinical research, both here in Perú and elsewhere in South America, has frequently shown that ayahuasca can and does have delayed healing effects. While it could be argued that my experiences are purely anecdotal, I’m getting ready for another experiment.


A few hours south of Lima are the Ballestas Islands, billed as Perú’s answer to Ecuador’s Galapagos. It is my intent to go there without any Dramamine at all. This Guinea Pig’s ready for some real action. As the year winds down we’re now heading into a showdown with El Niño and the seas are not smooth and they are becoming less so with the passing weeks and months. If I’m truly over my life long motion-sickness I’ll know it pretty clearly. If not, keep your boots on.

But enough about me, what about you? We were talking about Isla Isabela, the largest of the Galapagos Islands, so let’s get back to business.

The Galapagos is More Than Just Animals

A lesson that I am constantly relearning is one of patience. It’s a lesson of immediate importance as I try to explain my time in the Galapagos. In just over 2 weeks that I spent there I was assaulted; in a friendly way to be sure, but assaulted nonetheless. From the minute I left the hostal and walked down Charles Darwin Avenue, new experiences, new sights, new everything piled up in front of me, on top of me (pelican shit on my hand and my camera: wear a hat, please!), all around me.

For several weeks I’ve struggled to find a way to begin this story of what happened during my time in that very special place. I’ve begun nearly a dozen attempts and each one felt hollow and stilted and in no way a true explanation of how deeply I was affected. Thankfully, and out of the blue I believe that I can now solve this problem. It started with a song.

Paul Simon’s “Boy in a Bubble” was the catalyst I needed, and the line where he sings that we have — no, that we demand: “Staccato signals of constant information” nailed it for me. So here goes. I’m going to present you with facts and factoids. You’re welcome to piece together what you will.

We hear of (and insist upon) Take-Away Points and 6 Reasons to Do This and 5 Foods to Eat or to Never Eat for That and 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover. So I’m going to start with the Power-Point of the trip. I’m dividing up my story into several separate posts that ebb and flow with what I did, where I went, what I saw.

Off the top of my head, this is what I saw:

  • Fish
  • pipefish
  • 15” clown fish
  • parrot fish
  • tangs
  • sharks — 3 kinds
  • Birds
  • vermillion flycatcher
  • yellow warblers
  • Galapagos doves
  • owl
  • blue-footed boobies
  • penguins
  • scissor-tail frigates
  • pelicans
  • ani
  • plovers
  • rakes
  • rails
  • Darwin’s finches
  • cattle egrets
  • great blue herons
  • yellow-crested night herons
  • flamingos
  • mockingbirds  — several kinds
  • seagulls
  • coots
  • Galapagos ducks
  • White-cheeked Pintail ducks
  • Gallinules
  • Sea Creatures
  • sea turtles
  • star fishes
  • sea urchins — 4 kinds
  • sea cucumbers  — 2 kinds
  • marine iguanas
  • sea lions
  • stingrays
  • crabs — 3 kinds
  • unknown fish by the oodles
  • Land Creatures
  • Galapagos tortoise — 2 kinds
  • land iguanas
  • striped racer snake
  • rat (squashed and desiccated)
  • indeterminate lizards large and small
  • people big and little and each with an interesting story

I know that there was more, that there had to have been more, but for now: that’s what I saw of the fauna. The flora ranged from giant opuntia cactus forests in the desert areas, to highland cloud forest plants duplicating in look and in feel the tree-fern forests of Hawai’i, plus vast tracts of palo santo trees with their stark white trunks and branches. I saw bugs up the yin-yang, scientifically speaking, and so very much more that I will still be processing the information overload for some time to come.

I spent approximately $132/day for the 15 days I was there. That’s an all-inclusive rate of expenditure which includes a round-trip flight starting and ending in Quito, a twin-engine hop between 2 of the islands and 2, 2hr $30 speedboat trips between 2 other islands. This also included all meals (breakfast was included in 1/2 of my hostal nightly room-rates), lodging, 1/2-day and full-day tours, plus obligatory tips to the guides (you cannot go anywhere without one).

The trip could have been cheaper had I wanted to purchase groceries (even cheaper still if I had brought them packaged from the mainland) and cooked at any one of the hostals I stayed at. But I didn’t. It could have been vastly more expensive had I booked one of the many 5-day, 8-day, 2-week cruises on one of rusting hulks or gleaming yachts available, especially had I booked during the high-seasons of July-August or the Christmas-time holidays. But I didn’t.

So there you have it, the quick-and-dirty. No need to read any further, just pack and go. And you’d better hurry since these days those academics in the know claim that within a (human) generation the islands will have become so genetically polluted from tens of thousands of visitors (carrying seeds on their shoes, insect eggs in their clothes, and smuggled produce with their luggage) that the magic of the Galapagos will be gone forever. So go, now! You will never forget the experience.

And if you stop reading now you won’t be disturbed by my conclusion that all of this was almost a distraction to the real Galapagos. You’ve been warned. Here be dragons.

In 1818 the Nantucket whaling ship Globe, under Captain George Washington Gardner, discovered a “mother lode” of sperm whales some thousand miles west of the South American coast approximately at the equator. He returned to Nantucket in 1820 with more than 2000 barrels of sperm whale oil and the news of his discovery. This led to an influx of whaling ships to exploit the new whaling ground and the Galapagos Islands became a frequent stop for the whalers both before and after visiting what came to be known as the Offshore Grounds. This led to the establishment in the Galapagos Islands of a kind of unofficial “post office” where whaling ships stopped to pick up and drop off letters as well as for purposes of provisioning and repairs.

Or, at least so sayeth the Wikipedia. These days in the Galapagos one can find Gardner Islote (islet), Gardner Shoals, Gardner Bay, and even a place to stay during a visit, Hostal Gardner in Puerto Ayora, the main city in the islands.

TripAdvisor (copyright somewhere, no doubt) told me that this very same hostal was a great backpacker place to stay, so I did, and remained there for more than half of my time in the Galapagos. By the time I landed on Baltra Island I had traded several e-mails with the manager, Janina Chong Murillo. She seemed friendly enough.

Baltra Island has the main airport in the Galapagos, the other being on San Cristóbal, the Provincial capital. Once you land on Baltra, nothing but the remnant of a shield volcano and no more than 50’ above the sea at its highest point, you immediately board a bus for a 10-minute ride to the ferry landing. From there it’s another 20 minutes across a few hundred yards of water to Santa Cruz Island and the home of Puerto Ayora, the main city (12,000 pop.). But that city is a 45-minute ride from the dock, across the island (north to south) that climbs to the high-point (3000’) and then back down to sea-level. Waiting for me at the dock was Marlon Arias, Janina’s boyfriend.

Marlon works part-time at Hostal Gardner. He’s like many island residents, not just in the Galapagos, but Hawai’i for one is the same as are other island cultures. Full-time jobs are the rarity on rocks in the middle of the ocean and people survive by stringing together threads of employment, often unrelated to each other. Take Marlon, for example.

Often I’d find him on the computer at the main desk of the hostal, working the books and balancing the accounts. But find a phone booth and like as not you’d see him changing into a uniform of El Parque Nacional Galapagos Ranger (ed. note: for you younger folk, this last sentence refers to a quaint artifice of the antiquities whereby people would actually step into one for strange and occult reasons, or occasionally make a phone call!).

When not at the hostal Marlon flew a single-engine plane to the far and uninhabited reaches of the island chain, patrolling the waters for illegal fishing, instances of which there are far too many. He learned his craft and earned his license at a flight school near Orlando, Florida where he became hopelessly addicted to bacon-double cheeseburgers, the poor soul. We seemed to hit it off and had a pleasant talk of life and love as we made our way to the hostal, a block inland from the waterfront in downtown Puerto Ayora. It was then, when we off-loaded my bag and I checked in that all my plans changed.

Janina, a beautiful young woman of 34 was there at the desk to welcome me to the Hostal, to the city and to the Galapagos. There are those times when you meet a stranger and immediately know that all bets are off. You can tell that your preconceptions are headed out the window. Once the formalities and innocuous pleasantries were over Janina let me know that this was to be one of those times.

In a seemingly innocent manner she explained that while people from all over the world come to the Galapagos to see the animals, the local people are really what was most interesting. This was something that I was totally unprepared to hear and it stopped me stock still. It was such an outrageous statement that somewhere deep in my visceral core I knew that somehow, some way she was right. With her offer to help I decided that I would test this hypothesis.

But come on! These are the Galapagos Islands, famous the world over. Everyone knows of their most unique and untroubled animal populations that set Charles Darwin on an intellectual journey which put science and religions upside down and still generate deep controversies. People sacrifice, often deeply, for the one chance in their lives to be here among the furry and the feathered and the scaled creatures found nowhere else on this planet. Yet here is this hostal manager telling me that something else, not in any guidebook in any language, is just as interesting; and maybe more. What??!!!

Janina knew that it would take some time to digest this lump of information, so she gave me the rest of the day off. However she let me know that not only would she plan and arrange all my tours and visits for the 15 days I would be there, but that the next day I was invited to go with her and some of her family on an excursion. We would be headed up to the highlands in search of wild Galapagos tortoises, free-ranging on an organic coffee plantation. Who am I to blow against the wind? (thanks again, Graceland) Of course I said yes.

Let me make this clear: before I got there Janina and I were total unknowns to each other. She also never heard of the South American Explorers Club and I knew nothing of her but her name and her occupation. That was it. But not for long.

Then the next day after lunch we drove up there to the misty forests, saw Los Gemelos (the twins) — 2 collapsed volcanic craters, spotted several dozen of these living dinosaur/tortoises that live for more than one hundred years, spelunked through several lava tunnels and sipped some great coffee with snacks of cheese empanadas. Sublime indeed.

Later in the week, via Janina’s promised ministrations, I snorkeled (the first time in more than 4 decades) with sharks, a sea lion, and more. On another day I rode a taxi to and bicycled back from walking through a 2km long lava tunnel, and more. Still later in the week I also took a day-trip to another island, North Seymour, for some serious and up close bird-watching, and more. It was a very busy week and then it was time to visit some of the other populated islands.

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.

Where The Writer Bites The Lodge That Fed Him

Here’s the second of the my 2-part posting about my experiences in the Rio Cuyabeno Reserve. If you came upon these 2 postings out of sync, you probably haven’t lost much, but reading the first post first will probably make more sense; so go back and start at the beginning.

Did I mention the fresh-water dolphins? Every afternoon, as we headed to the ole swimmin’ hole, we would stop at a bend in the river where the Rio Negro joined the Cuyabeno and wait, perhaps what? 3 minutes, for a spotting. They are not of the “Flipper” variety and have no interest in human contact, but their lives are predictable and therefore they are pretty easy to locate. At the juncture of the 2 rivers they swim in circles feeding on the numbers of fish passing by. Compared to the familiar ocean-going bottlenose dolphins they are an odd looking bunch and they rarely provided us with more than a glimpse of their blowholes as they surfaced for air.

Each day following the previous was a precious reminder of why the Amazon Basin is so important by ensuring that the world goes ‘round. The bio-diversity can at times be overwhelming, it is that ever-present in one’s consciousness. So what of the people who inhabit this biological cornucopia? Do they exhibit this same richness. I wish it were so.

As mesmerizing as the Jamu Lodge stay was, it was not perfect. And yet, the blame cannot be solely the Lodge’s responsibility. This blame must be shared. It must be shared not only with the other lodges located within this river shed, but also with federal agencies and the indigenous communities themselves.

Puerto Bolívar

Puerto Bolívar

Towards the end of my stay, on a Saturday both bright and hot, the guests of Jamu Lodge and the nearby lodges were invited to attend a once-yearly celebration downriver at the Siona community of Puerto Bolívar.

The Siona, the Cofan, the Secoya and other indigenous peoples populate Amazonia. The Cuyabeno reserve is operated by a collective primarily made up of Siona and Cofan, with the latter group also extending into Colombia. The collective puts up pieces of the reserve for bid to outsiders and this is how Jamu Lodge came to be. Jamu, now 15 years old, and the other lodges lease the land they are on and adhere to the guidelines formulated by the collective.

The guidelines dictate how many lodges the reserve can sustain, how many guests the reserve will receive, and how the lodges care for the environment. Jamu has been in the forefront of the “green” movement within this jungle environment and relies solely on electricity generated from solar panels to operate day-to-day activities.

After some pointed questions about their “green” claim, I was invited to inspect their composting system, the solar charging station, the water filtration units, and the bio-digester for black-water (the plumbing kind of black water, not the tannin-based kind). They really do have a green system. If someone wanted to build a new lodge there on the Cuyabeno, using Jamu as a model would be a smart choice.

But the problem I saw was not with Jamu’s environmental footprint, but rather with the manner in which it handles the interaction between us tourists and the folks downriver. We had been invited to come and share with the Siona and join in, not only at the huge community feast, but also to afterwards take part in the festivities and games of skill, like tree-climbing and spear-throwing, swimming and dancing, chicha-drinking and running. I was ready.

So we left right after breakfast and motored downstream until we landed in Puerto Bolívar around 11am. Sulema had arranged for us to first visit with a family that she’s known for years. The the mother, señora Florinda, showed us how to harvest yucca, peel it, grate it (watch the fingers!), strain it and then cook it on a ceramic griddle for a surprisingly tasty (nothing added) tortilla-like flatbread.

Later we went down to the community hall and listened to several elders. They explained how, in the past, they used bows and 7-ft long arrows to fish. The elders showed us how the blow-gun was made and used, with darts soaked in varying strengths of curare, depending on whether you wanted the animal for food or just to knock it out and keep it as a pet; all fascinating stuff. Then it was time to eat. And so we ate and then just picked up and left.

Lovin that Monkey Meat

Lovin that Monkey Meat

As the communal dishes were being set out for a crowd of several hundred I wandered down the tables seeing what I could see, and then seeing more than I wanted. Halfway down the 50-ft long foodline I spotted one of the main dishes and a human-like claw on one of the platters. I had read that folks still eat monkey and I had also read that it should be refused since primates the world over are endangered. I was so glad that Sulema had brought Lodge-made boxed lunches.

What didn’t make me happy was that immediately after our private meal (off to the side and separate from the foodline), we collected the containers, walked back to the canoe and motored back to the lodge. This was disturbing to me. And I let it be known to Sulema and Victor, the head guide. From all I’ve come across and all I’ve seen personally, no one eats and runs, that’s one of the biggest insults imaginable. The answer I received was as vapid as could be.

They “explained” to me that, well, the Siona aren’t very organized. What??! So, you insult them? I’m still trying to figure out just what transpired, but disorganization is not at its root. These folks, the Siona, host the lodges who in turn host us tourists. Why visit, eat, and then vanish? WTF, indeed.

I understand that they live simpler lives. Puerto Bolívar is miles and hours from the nearest road. Their electricity comes from a diesel-powered generator.  Although earlier I had seen a Siona teen teardown and reconstruct a Yamaha 40hp outboard motor. I lead a simpler life than that kid.

But if they lead simpler lives, isn’t it the responsibility of the lodges, depending on the indigenous community for their existence, to help organize a once-yearly event so that there can be real interaction between the tourists and the people who have lived there for millennia? And wouldn’t this organization of efforts give both groups, the indigenous and us, the chance for interchange? To the benefit of all? Jeez Louise.

Based on previous personal experiences contacting indigenous life and customs here in Ecuador, I know that outsiders want more and deeper opportunities for cultural exchange. And after my encounters with the Shuar down south, I realize that the indigenous also want this exchange because it may be their last, best hope of preserving what they have left.

Siona Elder2

Siona Elder2

Earlier, in a completely separate post, I mentioned about the violent confrontations the indigenous have recently had with the Correa government. They do not have a receptive ear within that government and they are desperately looking for other means to get their message to the rest of the world. Here, on the Rio Cuyabeno, they still have that chance.

I came away with feelings of embarrassment (to be included in such an insult), anger (at such insensibility) and confusion (my normal state). Since the visit I’ve communicated with both the lodge and the owner, a Quito-based entrepreneur. Or, I should say that I’ve written to both but not heard back from either.

So, given this lack of perfection, would I repeat my jungle experience again? In a heartbeat. The Amazon Basin is 7 Wonders of the World rolled into one majestic piece of the planet and it deserves to be seen by all who can do so. I would also repeat my stay at Jamu Lodge, which offers both a most restful hideaway and a stimulating chance to be off the grid and unconnected; with some wildlife thrown in to boot.

If I were to repeat this trip, I’d save even more money by flying (or taking a 10-hr bus ride from Quito) to Lago Agrio. Then I’d stop in one of the local agencies and book passage to the Lodge from there. Now that you know it, start planning your trip. Below is a repeat of the images from the first part of this story.

In the Galapagos and Thinking About the Amazon

I’m sitting in the Hostal Gardner here in Puerto Ayora, Galapagos waiting for the Steelers-Pats game. It’s already over (it happened last night) and either Rothlisberger has prevailed or Brady has yet again displayed super-human abilities. Or maybe both. But I don’t know who came out on top and ESPN3/Español will, through pre-recorded programming, lead me to NFL nirvana. It’s still 8 hours until the broadcast, so what to do?

It’s surprisingly cool today, 10 feet above sea level and a few miles south of the Equator. The proprietress of the hostal, Janina, has invited me to take a trip to the highlands of this island to view giant land tortoises, see 2 collapsed craters, and walk through some lava tubes. Her recently married cousin, the cousin’s husband, and Janina’s boyfriend will be going with us too. This should eat up some time before kickoff.

I’d also like to review the jungle trip that I took last month. But I saw so much and La Amazonia is such a critically important region of the world that I’m going to split my account into 2 postings. I’m also going to post more images to go along with the postings, since this was a visual journey. WordPress, the group that hosts my blog, has a feature called a photo-carrousel, so I’m going to try that out too. Let’s see how this works; in Spanish: ¡Vamos a Ver, Compañeros!

I had decided to follow my nose and hook up with a place called Jamu Lodge. It’s located on the right bank of the Rio Cuyabeno, one of the major tributaries in Ecuador leading down to the Amazon River. Though I didn’t know it when I signed up, I later learned that the Cuyabeno is a “black-water” river, fully saturated with tannins from trees growing in the surrounding forests.

These tannins not only stain stain the water dark but they also lower the pH to around 5.4, which makes for an acidic environment. It also means NO MOSQUITOS! It’s hard to believe that one can visit the Amazon basin and not be eaten alive by these parasites, but sadly (not!) this was the case.

After a 7hr overnight bus ride from La Mariscal in Quito I found myself at dawn in Lago Agrio. This is an oil-drillers town hard up against the Colombian border (across the Rio Putumayo) and reputed to frequently host visiting FARC guerrillas on their best behavior. Well, I didn’t see any.

An Interesting pair of bluejeans in Lago Agrio

An Interesting pair of bluejeans in Lago Agrio

But I did have breakfast at Hostal D’Mario while waiting for another bus which would take us to the end of the road. In the meantime I was entertained by a vendor selling medicinal tonics. These folks with their pushcarts are fairly common in cities and towns throughout Ecuador. Here in Lago Agrio this young lady was pouring liquified herbs from jug to jar to jug to jar with a brilliantly choreographed style. And her bluejeans were one-of-a-kind.

Finally by mid-morning this other, much smaller van showed up. The driver stuffed me and nearly a dozen fellow trippers inside and we took off. I was surrounded by Germans, Dutch, Belgians, a Scotsman and his French wife. Except for the Scotsman they all spoke passable English. We had 2 more hours of sitting in the van until we ran out of pavement and boarded a long canoa for yet another pair of hours motoring down the Cuyabeno to the lodge. By this time I was done with sitting for the day. Or so I thought.

After an hour or so of unpacking, introducing ourselves and settling in, we gathered back at the dock to go up the river for a sunset swim in huge lake formed by the Cuyabeno. Since by then I’d already been back in Quito for a month, wearing layers of fleece for the ever changing high-elevation climate of the capital, it was downright paradisiacal to be clad only in a bathing suit floating, splashing, blowing bubbles and stroking around the boat while watching a beautiful sunset in one direction and a moonrise in the other. I haven’t been to heaven yet but if it’s anything like swimming in that lake at sunset, I’ll be knocking on its door.

The real wonder though, was that this was the first of successive evenings that we spent swimming at sunset. And as the moon was on the wax, each night was more stunning than the night before. After several of these swims we stayed out late for either a nighttime walk through the forest or we floated down the river spotting caimans or a tree boa or we were enchanted by the hundreds of fisher bats, the largest of the bats in Cuyabeno Reserve, swooping down to the water for a night’s feast of small fish.

By day we also traveled either up the river or down it or on one of the feeder streams with our guide Sulema. She was a fantastic set of eyes for us, motioning the motorman to halt the canoe countless numbers of times as she spotted monkeys or birds or sleeping bats, plus 1/2 dozen anacondas throughout the week. I knew through readings that this part of Ecuador has some of the highest concentrations of wildlife in the world. But to be there, on the water, and witness this abundance is a spellbinding experience.

A day-walk through the forest is a great example of our time there. We were sloshing (knee-high Wellington boots are the only way to do this) up a trail when Sulema stopped at one of the trees. It could have been any tree as far as I could tell, there were so many of them. Some scientists argue that this portion of the rainforest contains more vegetation per square foot than any other spot on earth. I surely won’t contest that point of view.

As it happens she stood in front of a cinchona tree, where quinine comes from. She explained how the bark is stripped, then dried to a powder and used as an anti-malarial medicine. This bark, in powdered form, was the basis for Samuel Hahnemann’s development of homeopathy for treating diseases. Here, growing wild in the rainforest, it seemed to me like just another tree. Who knew? It turns out many, and for thousands of years in the Quechua culture.

After much oohing and aahing from her charges Sulema then proceeded to blow our minds. In a fold in the bark of the cinchona, known as quina locally,  she pointed out what appeared to be a sleeping beetle about 2 inches long. She ordered each of us to get close enough to see a tiny thread with a white dot protruding from the head of the bug. This insect wasn’t sleeping, it was dead.

And the dot on the filament were spores of a microscopic fungus the beetle had ingested. The fungus feeds on the brains of this and other insects. She explained that eventually the fungus causes the insects to act like zombies and find protected locales for their final resting places. To complete its cycle the fungus bores through the head of the bug and the spores on the end of the stalk are released into the atmosphere to find new hosts. How’s that for nightmares?

I noticed that several of the group seemed to be trying to hold their breaths until she said that this fungus was very specific to insects. The collective sigh was short-lived though when she continued by saying that there were literally thousands of different kinds of air borne fungi like that and we were breathing them in all the time. Sleep well tonight will you? Actually, I did.



The next morning we were up before dawn engaged in a bird-watching venture, floating among the semi-submerged trees and looking for avians just stirring. While we saw many “Stinking Turkeys,” or Hoatzin which are the most common bird seen in the Cuyabeno, the Potoo was the fascinating one for me. It is one of the few nocturnal birds in the reserve and it took me a good 5 minutes to finally see one while Sulema patiently waited for these old eyes to figure out what to look for. During the day they perch with their beaks pointed skyward and freeze in that posture, becoming (truly) one with the tree. I was pretty excited about this one. You really have to watch this video:


For my part the image that I grabbed was of a Potoo perched about 5-6’ above the water on a branch of a dead tree, their favorite hangouts. (On my Mac, if I double-click on the image and then click again on the enlargement, I can then see the bird. Give it a try.)

After finally identifying this bird I came to realize that it was impossible for an outsider to “know” the Amazon even in several lifetimes. Sulema was showing us the easy stuff, animals large enough or common enough for even us lumbering, loud, and camera-flashing tourists to see. And to know that we were only scratching the surface of the abundance of life here is a very humbling realization. But you take what you can get and what we got was a lot, so we continued on.

One of my hopes while in the reserve was to finally see monkeys in the wild. When I was in Guayaquil I took a guided day-trip to Manglares Churute, a vast mangrove reserve and we hoped to catch a glimpse of howler monkeys, the largest in this part of the world.

But a rambunctious group of teens had proceeded us on the path half an hour before, both laughing and chasing the monkeys deeper into the forest with their noise. Though I fully enjoyed myself (except for the snake encounter), I really was disappointed that we could only hear them and occasionally see a shadow or two.

Fortunately the Cuyabeno, and more specifically Sulema, didn’t let us down in this respect either. Of the 9 or so species of monkey in the reserve, we were able to spot 6, including the tiniest, the Pocket Marmoset, smaller than my hand. We saw the Wooly Monkey, with a tail as bushy as a raccoon’s but twice as long as the entire raccoon. We saw White-faced Marmosets and a few others of the marmoset family but I’ve forgotten their names.

Yet the real stars in the region are the Spider Monkeys, flitting through the trees in tribes of many dozens of animals at a time and not too worried about human trespassers. While we didn’t have the good fortune of 2 other groups at the lodge, where the monkeys actually came down to just a few feet from their canoes, I had my needs met to be sure.

In the tea caddy

In the tea caddy

Tarantulas, and scads of other spiders as well, were pretty common near the lodge. And we even had a juvenile who made itself at home in the tea caddy. Each night and on the same tree there were 2 trophy specimens that lumbered slowly on, in search of smaller prey. The lodge also hosted a mild tempered parrot (loro, in Spanish) who often decided to perch on a guest and tour the facilities.

Of the lodge itself, nothing could be found amiss. From the mosquito netting covering each bed that prevented intruders from disturbing our sleep, to the inexhaustible and delicious food for each meal, to the friendly and attentive staff, this was the way to see the Amazon Basin. Elías, the head waiter, could give the best of English butlers a run for their money in his unobtrusive yet excellent and cordial way of anticipating every need. We were living the life.

So with that, I’m going to end part one here.

Not All Volcanoes are Geologic

Cotopaxi from Quito

Cotopaxi from Quito

Ecuador endured 2 very different eruptions on the same day this past month. The first was geologic and the second was societal. And both left scars.

On August 14th the world learned that Cotopaxi, 30 miles south of Quito, had erupted once again. One of the tallest, most picturesque, and one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world, it is readily visible from here in the capital on clear days. After months of ground swells along the flanks and mild tremblors from within the crater, the volcano sent an ash cloud skyward that inflamed our eyes.

Cotopaxi is an important spiritual center for many people in Ecuador. The Quechua, who inhabit the Andes not only in Ecuador but also the other countries making up the spine of South America, regard the mountain as the “Sender of Rain.” Until it became a national park with attendant admission fees, the volcano was the site of regular pilgrimages. Now, though not visited by large numbers of Quechua as before, it is still regarded as sacred. So when it did erupt, they were listening.

But the volcano was not the only disturbance in the country that day. Here in Quito indigenous people met barricades and tear gas. This second eruption though did not register on the Richter Scale, nor did it capture the attention of many beyond Ecuador’s borders. Yet this eruption was felt around the country and even as it is repressed here in Quito it continues in other towns and cities in all parts of Ecuador.    

Both of these tectonic disturbances, Cotopaxi and the people’s riots, elicited immediate and far-reaching actions from Rafael Correa, the President of Ecuador. And he has used Cotopaxi as a reason to declare a state of emergency with a clampdown on the media “to discourage false rumors.”

One month earlier, during mid-July and in the southern province of Zamora Chinchipe, a small but swelling group of indigenous collectives began their long march north. Their plans were to join other indigenous groups from south and central Ecuador and meet in Cuenca, long a center of anti-Correa sentiment. Their ultimate goal was to reach Quito on August 13th and present the government with ultimatums from his voting base.

The president’s rise to power and his subsequent re-election were both due to a large extent from strong backing by the indigenous segment of the population. Historically, once he entered politics he had capitalized on the country’s endemic marginalization of the indigenous way of life. While more than 70% of the country’s population is of mestizo heritage, the old ways had always been seen as 2nd class and therefore unfit for the modern world.

Correa defied this old-guard attitude and argued successfully for the inclusion of traditional beliefs and even changed the constitution to reflect a new reverence for nature and those who are guided by it. His courts allowed Pachamama (mother earth) to bring suit against environmental violators and he gained a great deal of world-wide approval for such enlightened regard for this view of the country and by extension, the planet. Sadly, this enlightenment was not to last.

Declaring that it was foolish for a pauper to be sitting on a bag of gold, Correa, in his second term in office, began instituting changes in policy that are now viewed as inimical to Pachamama. The biggest of these changes involved treaties he has made for extractive rights given to the Chinese. New mineral rights contracts allowing for gold and other precious metals mining on indigenous lands now threaten the existence of the lives and lifestyles of the very people who elected him. They are not happy.


The above video was recorded by John Caselli, the director of SAEX/Quito. John’s an ex-Marine who served (combat) in Viet Nam and never ran from a fight. Thanks for the permission to use it, John.

But since the Cotopaxi eruption allowed Correa to declare a national emergency with the subsequent media clampdown (already one of the most repressive in South America), Pachamama has worked in his favor. At this point he is safely in office and his party holds an overwhelming majority in congress. It is widely believed that this formula will allow a change in the constitution, removing term limits and setting up a move to see him re-elected as often as he likes. The vote on revising term limits comes up early in 2016.

In 2 days I fly to the Galapagos Islands, where I’ll be schmoozing with the sealions, the tortoises, the iguanas, and laughing at the blue-footed boobies. I’ll be there for 15 days, arranging day-trips out from the capital, Puerto Ayora. After that I return to Quito, pack my bags and say good-bye to Ecuador by flying to Lima, Perú, my new home. I picked a fine time for leaving, Lucille.

Returning To Quito For Some Basics

I’m back in Quito after more than a month on the road circling Ecuador. From Otavalo and Cotacachi in the north to Guayaquil, Zaruma and Loja along the coast and in the south, to a retreat near Cuenca, I’ve met some wonderful sights and seen some interesting people. Or is it the other way around?

Rooming at the SAEX/Quito Clubhouse for the next month, I have set aside this time to review what has transpired and what will come next before I leave this amazing country and move on to Perú. Having 2 months left on my visa I expect to flesh out the 2 big targets on my agenda: the Amazon Basin and the Galapagos Islands.

Through connections here at the Club I am negotiating a trip to the Amazon, most likely from the city of Coca. With a population of about 45,000 people, Coca is the staging point for trips to both the Cuyabeno and the Yasuní Reserves and sits at the confluence of the Coca and Napo rivers.

The Napo is a major tributary of the Amazon River and was the route taken by Francisco de Orellana when the conquistador made his way east as the first person to cross South America from the Pacific to the Atlantic. You might have seen the movie “Aguirre: Wrath of God” (1972) that was an artistic take-off of the expedition. I’m hoping my trip won’t be quite as surreal! And anyway, Brazil’s pretty expensive, so I’ll skip the Atlantic for now.

On the Road to Cuenca

On the Road to Cuenca

My way back to Quito from Loja included a 12-day retreat near the village of Gualaceo, itself about an hour outside of Cuenca, which I have now visited 4 times. I’d have to say that the road from Loja to Quenca, only a few years old and in beautiful condition, has to be one of the most stunning I have ever traveled, anywhere. Within minutes of leaving Loja the road begins its love affair with the mountains and canyons separating the 2 colonial cities. This twisting route hugs the cliffs along the way and reveals to the traveler wondrous vistas of mountains, rivers and bottom land, often a thousand feet below the pavement. I’d consider visiting Loja again, just to repeat witnessing the drama along the highway that leads there.

After a night in Cuenca I made contact with Javier, the axis of a multi-generational family of taxistas. He drove me and 2 others over another beautiful but rough road to a private 55-acre retreat that we will call Sacred Earth for now. Javier is the person you want to know in Cuenca. He seems to know everyone and every place and will connect each to the other upon request. I enjoyed his company immensely and we’ve since traded several e-mails. We had a great conversation about life on our way to our destination.

I had reserved a spot at this retreat 2 months earlier and I was eagerly looking forward to repeating my spirit world journeys of April/May while visiting the Shuar. But it was not to be. Just because both retreats each held ayahuasca and san pedro ceremonies, just because both use state-registered shamans, and just because both profess a path to the divine, was no assurance that both would, or could for that matter, deliver the same experience. And this turned out to be the case.

Community Center Garden

Community Center Garden

In the most charitable of times I might be able, I suppose, to consider the Sacred Earth retreat as a kind of summer camp with ayahuasca. Though we received many pep-talks at Sacred Earth about how we were there for spiritual growth and how Sacred Earth was set up for this “life-transforming” purpose, in fact and in deed this was really not the case. More attention was placed on and directed to Kumbaya-style creature comforts with a little jungle medicine thrown in for authenticity. And very little at that.

In nearly 2 weeks of very comfortable living, we attended 4 ceremonies: 2 each of both ayahuasca and san pedro, with a lot of free days in between. In comparison, during the 18 days I spent with the Shuar, the participants attended 16 ceremonies, 11 of which were natem (ayahuasca in the Shuar language), a san pedro ceremony, and 4 other ceremonies relating to the ayahuasca vine that also provided opportunities for spiritual assessment.

Each of these 2 very different retreats had set participants back about the same in costs on a per diem basis: about $125/day. In comparison this expense is a 1/2-off bargain to what is available at the new age-y retreat extravaganzas in Perú, where you can also get your hair done and your teeth straightened, with maybe some paragliding thrown in too. But what was delivered by these 2 Ecuadorian retreats differed immensely both in quantity and in quality. Surely let the buyer beware.

To The Ceremonial Maloka

To The Ceremonial Maloka

Sacred Earth is truly an ayahuasca beginner’s resort and and it’s really rather more an introduction to the Wonders of South American Spirituality. Compared to the Spartan offerings of the Tsunki retreat, this experience was closer to a Club-Med for your summer vacation. I suppose if I had read more closely between the website lines and asked a few more pertinent questions beforehand I could have detected the difference, but Así es la vida, such is life.

What with the 3 full-size hot tubs, a “sauna-ish” room, a media room in the Community Center with an extensive video and music library, wi-fi connectivity and a yoga pavilion, massage and Reiki, we were offered any number of diversions with a high level of creature comfort. Oh, and don’t forget: an ayahuasca ceremony on Tuesday; try not to be late! But don’t fret, because Saturday is a free day and we’ll all hop into vans and go into Cuenca for shopping, ice cream and dinning out at any of the numerous groovy restaurants.

During the Shuar ceremonies each participant had an understanding of reverence for the procedure. I don’t remember it ever being discussed as a rule to follow, but for at least an hour before the beginning of each ceremony, as we singly prepared for what we knew would be a long and difficult night, there was little to no talking since each of us was focused on the intent of being there for our personal journeys into the spirit world. Even as a newcomer I understood that this was a sacred undertaking and by no means a trivial jaunt. Silence and contemplation, like the Zen retreats I attended many years before, was a given and an expectation; you just did it.

Maloka Ready for a Ceremony

Maloka Ready for a Ceremony

At Sacred Earth however, each lead-up to a ceremony was entirely light-hearted and even when the shaman appeared and began his incantations, his songs and his prayers, the group behaved as if we were taking part in an adult version of a sleep-over; with jokes and silly banter and fluffing the pillows just right; all this sharing was going on back and forth around the circle as the night closed in and the ayahuasca took effect.

I was speechless at such a casual approach to what I’ve previously only understood to be regarded as a deeply religious experience. Yet at Sacred Earth we were assured that all was taken care of and everything would be fine, because the tobacco smokers among us would have the option of a smoke-break part way through the night’s proceedings! Sacred indeed.

In the past few years, as ayahuasca has become quite well-known in the “developed world,” a division has grown between 2 groups seeking out this indigenous medicine. There are those who recognize the power of the vine and its ability potentially transform one’s life. This group believes that through millennia the people of the Amazon developed their protocols based on keen observations and their integration into the natural world around them, and developed the reverence necessary to realize the full potential of this powerful path.

Those who studied these cultures and their approach to the path of self-discovery both accept and welcome the traditional steps necessary for such an experience. As it happened, the majority of the people in my first retreat had been working with the plant for years. A woman from Germany who helped introduce me to protocols during the retreat, believes, by her own calculations, that she has taken ayahuasca about 80 times.

Then there is the other group that I can only regard as tourists: people who add the ayahuasca “experience” to their lists as just another must-do, like storming the disco bars down in the Zona Rosa, like buying the perfect trinket for a new setting on the dining room table. These are the ones who race to South America’s natural wonders, grab a selfie, and move on. Sacred Earth fully caters to this second group and is really nothing more than a beginner’s guide to what’s hot and what’s not in natural medicine south of the Equator. It’s really pretty sad as it lowers the drinking of this important medicine to just another thing to do while on vacation. Wait ‘till we tell the guys back home; I should say.

Oh, right, I just did.

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.