Tag Archives: indigenous

Sirens’ Song

When Carlo Ponti released Ulysses with Kirk Douglas as The MAN, I was 6 years old. Never one for understatement, Ponti’s over the top epic grabbed my entire being. The direct result of my watching his movie was that year or 2 later I took the plunge and borrowed both the Iliad and the Odyssey from the Bookmobile that parked in front of our house. Reading was my life back then and Homer, if anything, was even more captivating than Ponti and I devoured those 2 books. They were Adventure personified and I fantasized many incredible journeys growing up in those days.

At that age I had to be selective in my choice of adventures, since several of Ulysses’ trials were a bit too nuanced for a 1st-grader. I could understand his battle with the Cyclops; didn’t everyone have a monster under the bed? But the Sirens? I don’t know about you, but they looked pretty good to me! Yeah, there were some rocks and a treacherous sea, but I figured that there must have been some place to drop anchor and take up with all those beautiful women. Hmm, even at 6 years old…

Lima plays its own Sirens’ Song and I must admit the tune had its effect on me. After 3 months going underground in a full immersion, awash in diversions of every choice, I have only now been able to surface and take a breath, conceding that I was spellbound. But that’s not why I’m here in South America. I’m not ready to wash up on the rocks. At least not here, not now.

It will take me another month to wrap up some things. After that I’m gone. It’s been an instructional time here and I could easily call Lima home. The Peruvians that I’ve met are warm, open and love life. I’ve checked out a number of interesting and affordable barrios in several places around Lima and even La Punta in Callao.

As it happens I was in Callao the day before the US Embassy sent out an emergency alert, warning that the bordering city to Lima, the massive port of Callao, was declared a danger zone by the federal police. Finding the Christmas spirit, a number of armed robberies and fatal shootings convinced the police to close the city off and let the bandits fight it out. There really is a war zone there and if you do have the urge to visit, plan carefully. Anyway, I ate a fantastic ceviche in La Punta at a landmark establishment and truly enjoyed the day with one of my 2 Spanish teachers.

I’ve been working with Ely between her shifts in a casino as she scolds me into repeating, ever faster, corrected phrases that I had earlier botched. She’s a quick-witted soul who is striving to improve her lot. Having to quit attending the university when her dad walked out on the family, she’s been helping her mom raise her 11-yr old brother and will probably never have the chance to resume her schooling. Already in her 30’s she knows that time is not on her side.

But she speaks English very well and hopes to set up a personal guide service working through the SAE/Lima Clubhouse. The Club is always being asked for advice on things to do here and Ely is as good as anyone for revealing some of the treasures buried here in a city of millions (I’ve heard “official” population figures of anywhere from 8 to 10 million, but no one will ever really know).

Before he ran off, Ely’s dad was one of thousands upon thousands of independent taxi drivers in Lima. Unlike Ecuador, and especially Quito, taxi drivers in Lima are fully un-regulated and the single most dangerous form of transportation in the city. Every guidebook agrees with the US Embassy and warns about kidnappings, armed robberies and other delights when the unwary hop in for a frightening cross-town ride.

When we ride the taxis Ely does all the interrogation of potential drivers while I stand away from her with my back to the street. Gringos are always charged double. But we have no trouble. She is street-smart and knows where and how to move anywhere one could want to go, so she can spot a weasel and rejects most taxis.

Visiting, day and night, many off of the guidebook listings, we’ve used the taxis; independent, broken-down private buses; combis, which are minivans stripped down with miniature seats bolted in; an occasional city bus; the limited access Metropolitano bus-train and other, less traditional ways of going from A to B. I’m helping Ely draft a brochure for her services and it will be posted prominently here at the Club. I’m rooting for her to make it and I think she’s got the drive to succeed.

Jenny, on the other hand, is my academic teacher. One of the English and Spanish language faculty at a university here, she’s moonlighting and has been affiliated with the Club for several years. We visit museums, cafes, and some notable highland restaurants. Jenny’s been helping me to understand the immense social upheaval caused by decades of gruesome terror during the years of the Shining Path maoist guerillas. It’s not a pretty lesson and many of the photo-essays on display are very hard to stomach. Yet like the Holocaust museums, the belief in Perú is that if we continue to see we will continue to remember and we must never forget.

At the height of the insurgency, during the 1980’s and 90’s, the Shining Path took few hostages and wiped out entire villages and even regions of the country. They were such a destabilizing force that millions of indigenous families and whole pueblos fled the highlands to flood into an already over-crowded Lima. The city will never be the same.

The shanty-towns that crawl up the steep hillsides circling Lima are now home to a disturbing and restless population entirely unregulated by any standards. Up in the hills, the residents pay 5 times the cost of water delivered within the legal city limits. Water delivered in open barrels with E. coli and other biological goodies at no extra charge. Ahh, city life.

Once the home of the Spanish colonial Viceroy, Lima has been an upper-class city for hundreds of years, with the white criollos ruling a poor and backward country. This tight group of powerful families kept immense riches harvested from all parts of Perú. Even now there are wealthy sections of the city that steal one’s breath with their opulence. Billionaires? They’re quite happy here, thank you. For centuries Lima had a ruling class and an underclass and it was easy to distinguish who was who. Until the Shining Path butchered its way onto the scene.

Never a big fan of television, I watch even less here in Lima. But I’ve seen one commercial many times now and it, in a microcosm, is indicative of the immense social change. The opening shot is of a man stepping down from (what else?) an overcrowded city bus. He looks like millions of other Limeños, an ordinary sort dressed casually and walking purposefully while a voice-over begins extolling the virtues of building wealth. This everyman nods his way past street vendors, shoe-shine men, small shops and other scenes from the bustle of big-city life.

Eventually he enters a doorway and is handed a hardhat, walking past groups of workers in an ever-expanding view of a major construction site. He strides up to face a newly poured concrete pillar, gives it a hearty slap, turns around and gives the OK to the expectant workers. He smiles, they smile and then all hop back to building this skyscraper as the commercial fades to the investment logo. Everyone’s happy.

This man, short of stature with prominent indigenous features, looks like most of the people on the street and the message we received was to judge him by his performance and not his appearance. With so many waves of refugees fleeing the central mountains into Lima for 30 years, the power structure has undergone massive change. This man represents the change.

Whites, while still at the controls of the super-wealth, are no longer necessarily the ones getting things done on the ground. They are frequently no longer the major players nor the ones in charge of running the chaos of 21st Century Lima. It’s been a very painful growth and anti-discrimination signs and posters abound throughout the commercial districts. But discrimination still exists and the signs are simply the admission of a work in progress.

Which is about all that’s working now. Perú holds its general elections in 6 months. My friends tell me that this will be like all the previous pre-election times when all governmental offices essentially close up shop and go home. For the full 6 months. But for me, this was a boon.

Personal and family business mandated a quick spin back to US soil. So this past week I dropped in on my Tampa-based older brother and we connected with my younger brother too. It was great seeing both at once and we ought to do it more than every 1/2 dozen years or so. On my way back into Perú I made the obligatory stop at the immigration booth at the airport.

Known for a dearth of compassion, the airport office almost never gives out more than the standard 90 day tourist permit. Yet when I got to the front of the line and spoke, in Spanish, to the official I pleaded my case for an extended term. And when I asked the officer for the maximum time of 6 months (which is often granted at overland immigration stops but not at the airport), he just glared at me and said NO. But then he wrote 183 days on my passport, smiled and sent me on my way. I think that he was being filmed and wanted to project his limitless powers to the powers that be. Good Man, and by the way: thanks!

So his getting back at the system through his rebellious action gave me the opportunity to invest this wealth of days into a 5 month jaunt around what a number of anthropologists believe to be a cradle of civilization. I’m reading the book 1491 these days and it is riveting. The author is taking revenge on his grade school and high school history teachers by showing what the Western Hemisphere was really like before Columbus and his ilk set sail. To all of you who, like myself, were subjected to standard public school drivel, we’ve been lied to; big time.

New (though some of the conclusions are more than 30 years old) discoveries about just how large and complex indigenous cultures were have trashed what we learned way back when. Although way back when isn’t too far back since the author’s sons are receiving the same old lies. Those pesky Pilgrims were really far more doltish and the surrounding “Indians” were far more advanced than what I learned in Mr. Scandary’s 5th Grade history lessons. Though I did like his collection of old National Geographic Magazines.

I’ll hit the road soon. Though I make no promises, I believe that my posts will resume a more frequent schedule. I’m eluding the Sirens and making a break for the jungle in February. We’ll have to see. In the meantime, happy holidays for and to all. I never did like prepositions.

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.

sea_sick_railing_cartoon

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.

670px-Treat-Motion-Sickness-Step-4

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.

successs-sounds-a-lot-like-motion-sickness_Fotor

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.

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.

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.

https://youtu.be/exdhIw4KpPY

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.

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.

Night Bus to Guayaquil

By now I had already extended my stay here in Otavalo by several additional days. There is so much to do, so many kind people, and the hostal is very peaceful. But somehow today I knew that I was ready to be moving on. Maybe it was the train I couldn’t ride. Rejection is usually the time to end relations.

Before I arrived in Otavalo I planned to visit the famous weavings market in addition to attending Inti-Raymi festivities. The Saturday morning animal sales across the Pan American Highway was also a strong attraction. Then too, there’s the train that runs from Otavalo to the coast, stopping at a small town called Salinas. This is not the popular beach town of Salinas, near Guayaquil, but an Afro-Ecuadorian village up near the Colombian border. Sadly, the train is overbooked and over sold, so I’m not going to stick around another week in hopes the seating fiasco will sort itself out.

Animal Market

Animal Market

One traveling idea I’ve had is/was to head to the northwest coast near Esmeralda and then work my way down to Guayaquil. But after some conversations last week, I discovered that a trip to the Amazonian jungle, like a cruise in the Galapagos, is not an unreasonable possibility. Bam! This changes everything. My priorities just changed and rearranged. No more, the notion of a slow trail down the coast. I’m off to Guayaquil now instead of visiting at some vague time at a later date.

In a bit over 2 weeks I’m scheduled for a 12-day retreat south of Cuenca, so Guayaquil just got moved up the list to number one. After the retreat I will head to Lago Agrio for a trip to the Amazon, and pretty much duplicate the strategy that I have already planned for the Galapagos in September: hurry-up and wait.

The standard routes to these 2 destinations is through one of countless travel agencies, which is in so many ways a smart move. There are branches of these agencies in not just the major cities, but also in the Galapagos and the gateway cities to the Amazon: Lago Agrio and Napo, though choices at the last 2 locations are severely limited in these tiny, oil industry settlements.

Trying to plan one of these trips independently without an agency can well be a nightmare. Both the islands and the jungle encompass vast areas and the success (or not) of either visit is driven by a complex coordination of elements, not the least of which are time and timing. If you don’t have one you will never have the other. Both destinations are also highly restricted biospheres and wandering on one’s own is strictly prohibited.

The best of the travel agencies (do your research before you get here) will not only devise a trip for you but they will listen to you as well. If you want to SCUBA dive with sharks, but are turned off by iguanas, they want to know this. If you want to see pink river dolphins but are not that interested in visiting indigenous jungle villages, they want to know this too.

By thoroughly interviewing their clients these highly professional agencies can create tours that will provide tourists with a genuine trip of a lifetime and the trip will be based on the desires of the traveler. Both the Galapagos and the Amazonian Basin are unlike any other places in the world. And an experienced and committed travel agency will ensure you receive memories never forgotten. But it won’t be cheap. Like anything of quality and singularity, you really do get what you pay for and these 2 destinations don’t come for free.

Yet one can greatly reduce the costs if time is on your side. A two-week break from the normalcy of life won’t make it though. For that, just accept the breathtaking costs and know that you will have purchased opportunities unavailable elsewhere and worth every bit of the expense you incurred. But if you do find that you have more time than money, fly to the Galapagos, or arrange for time in one of the Amazon gateways.

People are changeable creatures and if you have the patience to wait for change, visiting either of these destinations need not cost so dearly. The travel agencies who book these tours must frequently face cancellations and subsequently must deal with them as quickly as possible. Because all of the Galapagos are part of a national park, the schedule of tour vessels is very tightly controlled.

These schedules are assigned once yearly and each separate vessel, whether  a small sailing yacht or a 100-passenger cruise liner, must adhere to this pre-set timeline or risk losing their license for that year. So if they have cancellations they must fill them quickly or possibly lose money for that particular cruise. A full passenger manifest is more important at this point than maximum profit. Because of the strict governmental rationing, having fewer visitors than allowed for a particular vessel can mean a reduced quota for the following year. At this point head-count trumps all. 

This being the case, if a potential passenger (with more time than money) is there on the dock when such an opening occurs, then the chance for a discounted passage opens, however briefly, and very often at a discount approaching 50% or more. Though not as dramatic, a similar opportunity can and does happen with the jungle excursions. My physics professor friend from New Zealand happened to be at the right place at the right time, so she took a 2nd Amazon trip for 1/3 the cost of her first one. While it didn’t provide her with the luxury of the first one, she saw a different area of the Basin in a non-motorized canoe and without the outboard motor noise she saw far more animals than during the first, expensive high-end trip.

We Are Otavalo!

We Are Otavalo!

Thus, my night bus to Guayaquil. It leaves at 9PM, in about 5hrs time, taking close to 12hrs to make it there. I’ll arrive in city-center about rush-hour, looking for breakfast and booked into a hotel in the historic district.

My bags are packed and I’m taking a last stroll through Otavalo. This is a place I’d love to return to. There are so many great experiences that I’ve had here and the “Valley of the Sunrise” has so many more.

Ecuador Calls and Hostal Curiñan Answers

Otavalo, Part III

Comfortably into my 2nd week here in Otavalo and I’m at somewhat of a crossroads. I could easily stay here, even while Inti-Raymi is winding down. Though today is the official end, more festivities go on until Friday, and then there are 3 “spill-over” religious rites that last until early July.

BigHead, Inti-Raymi parade

BigHead, Inti-Raymi parade

Tomorrow, with my senior discount 20¢ fare, I plan to visit Cotacachi via a 30-minute bus ride. This small village, known around Ecuador and beyond as the Nirvana of leather goods, it is also home to a growing number of expats. Sue, one of the guests at Hostal Curiñan is one of them.

She and her husband are “mule farmers” in Alberta and are also homeowners in Cotacachi. They have just sold their original home in the pueblo and are in the midst of constructing their 2nd one. Sue is a true expat in that she speaks a passable Spanish and knows how to always have a backup plan.

Plan B is critical for when the plumber doesn’t show up as promised, or her Ecuadorian lawyer disappears at a critical junction in her property negotiations. Or worse yet, when he asks for double the original fee for handling the legal papers. Not only does Sue have a Plan B, but she plugs it in with a laugh and a smile.

Ruth blew in and blew out of the hostal this past weekend. A retired physics professor somewhere north of age 70, this New Zealander has been a solo traveler for decades and she taught me a thing or 2 about bargaining with alpaca weavings vendors, traveling light, and converting inches to centimeters on the fly. We had a great (but frigid) boat ride on Cuicocha Lake the day after she bought me a pitcher of tomate de arbol (tree tomato) juice for my birthday.

Judy Goldberg is another one of the Hostal Curiñan clientele crew. She and I share acquaintances in Santa Fe that go back more than 20 years, though the 2 of us had never met when I lived there. She and her husband have lived in New Mexico for more than 40 years and she’s in Otavalo for the next stage of her anthropology grant. A professional videographer, Judy is interviewing Matilde and José Miguel for the 2nd year running and she recounted to me a bit of the extraordinary lives that brought them together and that they are even now living as the hosts of this wonderful inn. 

Years ago Judy created a non-profit in Santa Fe that is now very alive and healthy. As time moves one she wants to pass it on to others as she grows her Ecuadorian projects.  In addition to recording the Hostal owners, she is also making audio recordings of a family split apart during the Ecuadorian diaspora. I had no idea that the 4th largest Ecuadorian city is NYC! I do now. Now that she’s interviewing the brother of a New York Ecuadorian radio-show host. The brother lives here in Otavalo. Where else?

Inti-Raymi in Otavalo

Inti-Raymi in Otavalo

Judy was having some issues with language subtleties during a few of the interviews, so Marcela stepped in to help. A young Chileña psychologist, beautifully fluent in English, she had the room next to Judy at the Hostal. Marcela is here buying medicinal herbs to use with her curandera during an upcoming San Pedro (mescaline) ceremony. She felt comfortable revealing this after I recounted my own Natem experiences from last month.

Marcela, even while directing a UNICEF program on a farm outside Santiago, is a fellow traveler in the spirit world. She and Judy, José Miguel and Joselito, and I all journeyed to Peguché at midnight on Monday to enter the waterfall for a ritual New Year’s bath.

We all swapped e-mail addresses and my pals: synchronicity and serendipity, being what they are we may well and we may easily cross paths sooner or later. But the hostal is quiet today. Sue and I are the only ones left and she’s headed back to Alberta tomorrow.

Yet even as she’ll be hopping buses back to Quito’s airport, the Hostal is set up to greet a dozen new faces scheduled to arrive on the same day, some for the night and some for longer terms. Among them will most certainly be some worth knowing. Hostal Curiñan and the loving people who own and operate it attract guests who also bring with them this energy and this love. Should I go or should I stay? I’ll have to answer that question at some other time. Right now, more people are dancing in the street outside the restaurant, and I’m going out to watch