Tag Archives: Subjunctive

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…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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