Tag Archives: Spanish language

Galapagos Wrap-up, pt. IV

Arriving on Isla San Cristóbal I was more than ready for change. My time on Isla Isabela had put me into a dismissive and negative mood and the sooner I was off the island the better. So I went to Isabela’s airport an hour early and met Veronica, another passenger also eager to be gone. She’s a director in the Ministério del Ambiente, kind of a Parks & Recreation Bureau within Ecuador’s central government.

I didn’t know it at the time but she’s a high-level functionary within the workings of the country’s civil service. I found this out later when visiting a Sailors’ Museum and saw a bronze plaque with her name on it. The plaque commemorated the new museum and its major benefactors, with her name prominent on the list.

Anyway, Veronica suggested some things to do while I visited San Cristóbal. One of them was the path that began at the island’s Darwin Interpretation Center and continued to the summit of a hill overlooking the main city of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. Following that advice I was to take that trail several times during my stay, each time just before sunset. Muchas Gracias, Veronica!

She was very proud of that trail, having recently attended its grand opening after having worked to get it funded and built. She also took my phone number and promised to call and meet while we both visited the island. But this time I was ready for those notorious subjunctive tenses and (rightfully) didn’t expect the call to come. By now I’ve started to recognize “the meeting that will never be.” On the road for less than a year and I’m already making some cultural progress ;}

Who I did meet though were people very different than the folks on Santa Cruz or Isabela. I found people who were not on the make. The people of Santa Cruz, and more specifically Puerto Ayora, are there for your money. They are friendly enough to be sure, but the town and the island by extension, is there to redistribute the wealth (and property if you don’t hold on to your purse) from the visitors of the developed world and relocate this wealth among the people of the developing world. Visitor and resident alike knows this and there’s no misunderstanding. And at a coarser and sleazier level the same is true on Isabela. But San Cristóbal is different.

It also has an airport allowing flights from the mainland, though the traffic is far less than at the main landing strip on Baltra servicing Santa Cruz. And it also has sights and tours to some relatively unique features, like the only natural fresh water source in the Galapagos. What keeps this island different in flavor is the presence of federal offices, a large naval base, and national commercial fishing administration. There are dry-dock facilities, freight-forwarding yards and other trappings of non-tourist related activity. So one’s chances of meeting someone not involved with tourism are far easier on San Cristóbal. No scams for a change, and a welcome one too.

In Puerto Baquerizo Moreno the streets are clean. And the waterfront promenade with its one-way street was named, but what else? Avenida Charles Darwin. All the shop fronts and park benches in the sun and the shade were well-cared for. This port town was neat, proud, and yet still had time to be friendly.

Just outside the Darwin Interpretation Center there is a brand new UNC/Chapel Hill facility housing earth and/or natural sciences graduate students with lecture halls and common areas as well. The architecture blends well with the surrounding structures and land forms. It was the beginning of fall semester and the grad students seemed to be mixing rather smoothly with the local residents. This island is definitely different from the others.

Yet again Janina was right by revealing to me that the people can be every bit as interesting as the animals. I got a first-hand view of her thesis and now am a believer too. People can and do change rapidly in different social structures. They had clearly done so among the inhabited islands of the Galapagos. But do they evolve? Maybe, if they are as adaptable as guppies.

Which brings me to perhaps my biggest failure while visiting the Galapagos: I never visited Floreana, the mystery island. The last, smallest, of the inhabited islands, Floreana boasted a tale of death, perhaps murder and certainly deceit; mistresses and scandal with transformation following hellfire. Being south of the main island group, this outpost holds itself back from the others.

Set completely ablaze by a whaler’s prank in 1819, it is now believed that a number of important and unique species of animals were lost in the conflagration that consumed the entire island. Descendants of the original settlers from early 20th Century still run the single hotel on Floreana. And if I ever return to the Galapagos, I’m going there very early in the trip.

Back on San Cristóbal, one night walking, I encountered a sea lion pup not more than a very few hours old. Cruising along the town’s seawall and encountering herds of sea lions is vaguely reminiscent of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. The difference being that the hundreds of sea lions use the beach here, plus the common piers and sidewalks to bask; Watch your Step!!

Barely able to move with most of the umbilicus attached, as was the placenta to the mother, this particular little pup was too weak and still too new to use the flaccid skins that would become flippers. When I returned barely 8 hours later those same flippers had somehow “inflated” and were now able to carry the pups weight as it struggled to find its mother to nurse.

Witnessing both of these sea lion pup events I was accompanied by a recent friend, Michaela. Twenty years my junior, this owner of a German travel agency and I had bumped into each other on 4 islands now, so we ended up wandering the docks and eateries along the waterfront. I was fortunate that Michaela speaks far more English (she’s fluent) than my 4 words of German. We compared notes of our various day tours and she collected the information for her clients back home. My second regret, after Floreana, is that I never directly introduced Janina and Michaela. I’ve made some amends via the computer and I sincerely hope that both of them thrive.

In Puerto Baquerizo Moreno I had my first (and only) lobster in the Galapagos. It was pretty good and pretty cheap. Seafood in the Galapagos is generally a bargain.  Along with visiting Floreana, I will spend more time on this island should I get blown back to this part of the world. If I weren’t so fond of Janina and her family on Santa Cruz, I’d fly directly here from Guayaquil. And being retired, I’d happily and easily spend a month in these islands. Now THAT, would be a vacation!

It’s mid-November as I’m writing this and I’m living a comfortable life in Lima; the Galapagos is a long way away. When I consider those various experiences there and the people I met, I think often about how I could improve on my trip. And the most obvious change would incorporate my new love of being aboard a boat. I would root out more day-trip boat tours, or perhaps even a short multi-day cruise. But I wouldn’t learn to SCUBA dive here. These waters are for experienced divers.

The unique life systems that motivated Darwin to devise his theories were themselves the results of unique geologic and geographic conditions found nowhere else on the planet. These islands sit at the collision point of 5 major and 4 minor ocean currents.

From the massive Humboldt Current bringing both cold water and surprisingly cool air temperatures up from the Antarctic, to the nutritionally important Pacific Equatorial Under Current bringing food eastward from the ocean depths to feed the whales, to the Panama Current bringing rain and clear diving waters, these currents form a complex set of powerful forces which endanger the unwary. So learn to dive elsewhere, learn safety and emergency procedures and then you can put the knowledge to good use here.

A day-trip for SCUBA divers will cost somewhere under $200/person. It’s all-inclusive with well maintained equipment, just show up with your bathing suit (and a set of warm, dry clothes). But if you’re like me with size 13 feet, bring your own fins. Each of the populated islands offers day-trips and with some pre-planning before leaving home one can easily dive in almost all of the biomes in the islands.

What about the last-minute cruise packages, said to be possible at amazing discounts? Possibly. But marketing has changed over the last several years. When the Islands started accepting tourists wholesale a generation ago, the park was geared solely for the well-heeled who could afford multi-day cruises aboard all manner of yachts. There were no land-based facilities and the choice was expensive cruises or stay home.

As more travelers visited the islands, the galapagueños rose to the challenge and began offering trips for land-based tourism. Each year saw newer and more extensive and comprehensive ways to experience these islands without committing to an expensive cruise package that virtually dictates every minute of every day. The change in emphasis from cruises (which, to be sure, still exist in a multitude of options) to land-based day trips brought about a corresponding change in what gets flogged to the newer generation of bargain conscious traveler.

Now that all the hip travel guides mention the lure of last-minute cruise deals that is exactly what is (said to be) offered by every business everywhere on the islands. Of course it begs the question: if they are all last minute, how can this be a bargain? I’m still waiting for that answer. The various agencies, sporting goods stores, and shoeshine boys, each of whom offer tickets to everything everywhere network amongst themselves with smartphone apps, so the deals of a decade ago are deals no more.

What this means is that one sees a leveling of pricing that follows the increase in choices. So one now still has the option for a pampered but rather rigid cruise package (which take the traveler to places off-limits to the day-trippers) or a more personalized though still regulated series of land-based 1/2 day and full day tours. As there is some wriggle-room in pricing for the land-based tours, a general homogenization of offerings among vendors markedly dampens opportunities for bargaining. Yet it doesn’t hurt to ask. Hidden treasures exist if you seek them out and you don’t have to pay the asking price.

The Galapagos Islands is an experience every bit as astounding as people say. I barely touched on what is there and how a visitor can see it. I met a Scottish couple in Quito who spent £800 between the 2 of them, for a week. That’s a bit less per day than I spent and one of them had a sea lion come up to him and kiss his GoPro® while snorkeling off Isla Española. I watched it on their computer back at the SAEX Clubhouse.

There are as many ways to visit the Islands as there are visitors. Pick one…

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

Lima Interlude During the Multiple Inti-Raymi’s of Imbabura Province

Preface: I had written this piece at the beginning of the month (June 4th) and then after I returned to Quito a number of events crowded out the time to post it in it’s rightful order. Now I’m thinking that rather than trash it, I’ll wedge it into the Otavalo/Inti-Raymi postings and disrupt them too. Since I’ve left my comfort cocoon I see that each day is bringing me nonstop experiences. Until now I had been collecting and perfecting them for larger posts, but that presents its own problems.

With so much daily input I could end up waiting forever for the perfect wrap. A wrap that really, will never come. So rather than try to bring organization, a totally foreign concept in my life, I will henceforth spew shorter but more frequent postings. Let’s see how this works for me. For you, fractionally more e-mail. At least for those who “Follow” and therefore receive notifications.

Cement, Sand, and Gravel

I’ve been in Lima now for 2 days and I can find some interesting differences between here and Quito. For one, more people I meet seem to know at least some English and are willing to switch languages for my benefit; even when I’d rather continue speaking Spanish. Maybe that’s a hint that my Spanish is worse than I’d like to think. If so, I’ll just refuse the hint and keep on butchering the language.

Perhaps the first thing I noticed is that they seem to know how to pour (AKA “place” in the trades) concrete here. After 20yrs in construction culminating in a general contractor’s license, I do know a thing or 2 about mixing cement, sand, and gravel with a bit of water. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case with Ecuadorian construction.

I’ve already suffered from poor pours by breaking a bone in my foot stepping on broken concrete pieces a few months back. The sidewalks in Quito are deplorable and inexcusable. And I have stood there and watched new pours and lived in Quito enough months to judge the results of those same pours: the crap they place is so badly mixed that it’s decomposing almost as soon as it cures. COME ON FOLKS: concrete mixtures are not a lost art; 3 components plus water, it ain’t that complex!!

Thing is, when I was working in the trades, it was a given that whatever you built, you did so with the expectation that it would last for generations. Nothing was more devastating to a tradesman than to have his (and now, thankfully with gender liberalization, hers too!) work fail. When you built something, by God that construct was going to outlast your grandchildren!

I can’t begin to tell you the feeling of pride I got when I revisited something I built 30 years later and saw it looked as solid as when I put it up back in the late 60’s. You don’t see that as much as I’d expect with so many projects in Ecuador. I’d love to meet an Ecuadorian builder for some in-depth discussions about this. I love the country and its people so very deeply but I cannot fathom its construction practices. By contrast, I truly appreciate the sidewalks I’ve seen in Lima so far.

Yeah, well I never claimed to be normal, anyway. You have your loves, I have mine.

One puzzling issue twixt these 2 Andean countries is economics, and I have no recollections as to whether its micro- or macro-economics that I’m talking about. My college econ courses were too many years ago to remember now which was which. But everything I read and hear says that Peru is a poor country. OK, I get that. Then why are things more expensive here than they are in Ecuador?

It’s a given, at least to everyone who talks to me, that the cost of living is higher in Perú than in Ecuador, but why? Please, all you closet economists out there: I’ll buy you a beer if you can enlighten me. Food costs, taxis, hotels and hostels are noticeably higher and I have no clue how that is related to a country being designated as “poor.” Somebody, help me!

Chicklet Seller, Lima

Chicklet Seller, Lima

Another major difference between the 2 capitals is the climate. With Quito kissing the Equator one might expect it to be far warmer than it is. Not so, amigos. Many’s the time I’ve been bundled up in long-johns, a fleece jacket and wool watch-cap, and still feelin’ the chill. Of course sitting on a valley floor at more than 9,000 feet above the sea, surrounded by 16,000 foot volcanoes does have a mitigating effect.

Quiteños never tire of reminding me that June is the best month for weather in their city. But, except for 2 days next week, I’ll miss being able to verify that claim. By the middle of the month I will have “closed shop” in the capital and moved on. Perhaps Quito really does have great weather then, but I can say that the first 5 months of the year were less than appealing, with changes every 10 minutes, from sun to clouds to rain to cold and back to sun all over again. The city itself is endlessly fascinating, but the climate is not my favorite to be sure.

And yet what I hear about the climate of Lima is also not attractive at first blush. I’m here during the heavy cloud-cover time. It can be downright cool at night and even though my eyes are troubled by bright days (glaucoma), I can leave both my hat and my sunglasses back at the hostel. The clouds never seem to leave and the overcast is very complete and persistent. And when it does get sunny (December to February), it is also hot and humid, which seems like an unpleasant time too. I’ll have to wait and see because the hot season is when I think that I’ll be back for an extended stay.

I discovered my “traveling style” while in Quito. Initially planning to be there for a month, I was seduced by its charms, its noise and chaos, and just simply wandering its streets watching it work. So that month became five. I expect the same will happen here in Lima. During an initial meeting with the SAEX/Lima director, Michael Goldsworthy, I learned that the Club has a number of ways for the newcomer to ease into the capital.

They publish a hard copy guide to services and attractions of interest to travelers and have updated it regularly. As opportunities arise, Michael invites local experts to present talks about the arts and politics of both the city and the country. There is a Spanish language teacher who includes “hands-on Lima” classes that visit markets, examine how to ride public transport (no simple skill with a completely private “system” of buses, renegade taxis, vans, minivans, etc.), and other immersive activities which are so vital when landing in a capital of a new country and culture. I’ll be ready for those field-trips to be sure.

This past Friday evening I attended a Machu Picchu lecture at the Club. The overall theme, delivered by an explorer who has an intimate 40+ year history with the ruins, seemed to be that a great conspiracy exists. This collusion I’m told, wants to keep the “truth” of Machu Picchu from the rest of us through some apparent Indiana Jones machinations. Entertaining to be sure, but I was actually more drawn to the expat characters who made up the bulk of the audience. The youngest seemed to be from early-middle aged (whatever that category is in these changing days) while the oldest seems to have been on intimate terms with Hiram (the “discoverer” of Machu Picchu) Bingham’s youngest son. This Club, the oldest branch of SAEX, demands further investigation. I’ve accepted the assignment.

And I’ve also accepted Michael’s invitation to apply for a room at the club when I do return. Like each of the SAEX branches, Lima has rooms for both short-term and longer stays. It has a kitchen large enough for several travelers at a time, a common area with a large map table and a very large lending library with a separate book exchange.Michael tells me that soon they will also inhabit the downstairs and begin hosting monthly socials like the successful ones held in Quito. This should be in effect before I return.

Visiting The Shuar of Morona Santiago

In my earlier 3-part Guaranda postings I mentioned that I have been exchanging casual English lessons for Spanish lessons with my Ecuadorian friend Jefferson. We often meet at the SAEX clubhouse and talk over the days events. With the Club being what it is, namely a conduit for information transfer, I have received an invitation to teach English in El Oriente. This isn’t a formal offer, but rather a chance for cultural exchange.

A group of people, some from SAEX, most not, are leaving this weekend, the final one in April. The plan is to fly to the very south of the country, to Catamayo, and work our way northeast by bus and van.

Before I arrived in Ecuador I had already known that I would visit the Amazon Basin, but I had no clear plans as to just how to carry this off. What I did know is that I wouldn’t be staying in an eco-lodge paying several hundreds of dollars a day to hang out with other tourists, dress up like “natives” and play with blow-guns. So once this invitation reared up, I knew my chance had arrived.

For 18 days I will be traveling in one of the most undeveloped areas of Ecuador: the Province of Morona Santiago, in the southeastern borderlands fronting Peru’s Amazonia. This is the land of the Shuar, the only people on this planet who collected the heads of their enemies.

Una Cabeza Reducida

Una Cabeza Reducida

Known by the Shuar as Tsantsa, this “head-shrinking” practice which is agreed upon by many as having ceased, was done to acquire the warrior spirits, Arutam, of the enemy and to prevent these spirits from causing further harm to the Shuar. I believe that there is a good chance that I will return from this trip with my head still attached to the rest of me. The contents of my head however may not be the same as what I started out with.

There are 17 of us plus Paul, the leader. The majority of the group hails from Europe, with the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland among those countries represented. We will gather on Saturday the 24th to the south of Loja, the largest city nearby the farm where we will begin. Each of us joined this group to take part in 8 days worth of Natem ceremonies and to attend the workshops necessary to prepare for those ceremonies.

These are Shuar-derived ceremonies, evolved through millennia and developed as an intimate and participatory examination of human placement within, rather than imposed upon, this Amazonian environment. The Shuar are, as are all localized indigenous peoples, masters of the knowledge necessary to be fully integrated into this life. They know the plants, the insects, the animals, the land, the rivers, the skies, and of course the gods who weave each of these parts into the syncretic whole.

By taking part in these ceremonies the group will be exposed to the cosmology of the Shuar and how this unique apprehension of the universe is vitally relevant to the existence of the planet. There is a very real and immediate threat to not only the Shuar and their ancestral lands, but, as the “lungs of the world” this land’s endangered future is a threat to all of us.

The Ecuadorian government has doubled back on its promise to protect indigenous lands, allowing the Chinese, the Canadians, and others access to this vital Amazon watershed for surface mining, with plans to permit the largest surface mines in the world. These mines will destroy hundreds of thousands of hectares of unique drainage basins that feed the headwaters of the Amazon.

These watersheds are among the most bio-diverse ecosystems in the world and once they are removed from the Amazon’s life-cycle the entire planet will be adversely affected. Such an environmental violation will not have simply a small ripple effect, but rather an immediate and enormous negative impact on how the world breathes.

By inviting us to take part in such ceremonies the Shuar hope that the knowledge and experience that we gain will help us to help them tell the world of this most critical series of events. The Shuar, the Achuar, the Siona/Secoya, the Cofán, and others live in an ecologically unique part of our planet.

Just off the Ecuadorian coast, the large El Niño clockwise current from the north collides with the even larger counterclockwise Humboldt current from the south. Coupled with this phenomenon is the equally important and  constant collision of prevailing winds, both easterlies and westerlies.

All this occurs both near and above a small (about the size of Colorado) but topographically varied land that ranges from sea-level to 20,000 feet above the ocean. What results are more species of flora and fauna per square mile than almost anywhere on earth, only rivaled by Colombia just to the north.

The Shuar intermontane lands lie between the snow-covered Andes and the low flood lands of the Amazon itself. This area of hundreds of rivers, waterfalls, and jungle forests is home to an unknown number of species where new discoveries happen virtually year-round. So that they might protect this land, and that they might reverse an impending ecological disaster of immense proportions, the Shuar invite outsiders to their home.

After 8 days of ceremonies and workshops, approximately half of our group will continue on, further into Shuar territory, to live with 2 separate families. While with these families we will observe additional healing ceremonies among the families themselves. And I have been invited to teach English to the children from both of these families and meet with teachers in a high school near Gualaquiza. We will stay directly in the homes of these families, with the first family near the pueblo of Gualaquiza, then with the second family near the city of Macas for another several days, finally heading back to Quito by bus.

With Spanish as their second language, many Shuar believe that their children should pursue English to better position themselves as a voice to the outside world. They are now actively working to create a formal English language program and in the meantime welcome any preliminary help that they can find.

I have been told to expect a lively recruitment response to my visit, and look forward to conversing with them in what is a second language for both of us. What a fantastic chance to waltz through the linguistic minefield of subjunctive verbs!

There is a far better than fifty-fifty chance that I will be offline for the entire 18 days, so this could well be my last post until mid-May. Though unable to post, I will continue to write while traveling in Morona Santiago, capturing some to the wonder of this area, and I hope to convey some of that wonder when I re-connect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wikipedia tells us that the Subjunctive is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

image