Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Last Time I'm Going to Tell You

With every passing day I am losing inspiration as well as memories with which to write this final installation of the story of my past 4 months. But every good story must have an end and this one needs a few things wrapped up as well.

I should start...where should I start? I think that my recent lack of steady blogging is going to get back at me right about now.

So I left Cartagena what seems like another world ago and made my way up to Santa Marta. Other than a few friendly coeds, not too much to see there so I hopped over to the next beach, a fishing village turned tourist destination called Taganga. A great place to have a beer and watch the sunset, Taganga was good and relaxing after the escapades of Cartagena. Forewarned of the drug dealer that turns in tourists to the police, I met Neil and Chris while trying to warn them of that very situation which they were just about already in. Two IT guys from London taking their 3 weeks vacation, they had no cares in the world, spoke no Spanish and had the same destination in mind as I did. So after just meeting we decided that we would take off the next morning for Parque Tayrona, the most famous National Park in Colombia. I met them after a 3 hour sleep and off we went. Upon arrival at the park and after getting everything sorted for entry, we were bused to where we could begin walking first to the beach, then up the beach to El Cabo (The Cape) which is the most picturesque and popular of the beaches. Other than the first night which was windy enough to make it very cold (considering where we were sleeping up top, wind was not surprising), we had 3 perfect days of card playing, sun bathing, bad food eating and home run derby playing.

For story telling purposes Parque Tayrona marked the end to my trip.

Getting back to Venezuela:

In Maicao there were not people selling stolen iPods (Guy...?) so I continued onward to the border. After getting all of the immigration and money stuff finished I was officially back in Venezuela and there was a pickup truck ready to leave to Maracaibo (where I would then catch a bus). The driver charged me about double the actual price, but I was in a hurry and being back in Venezuela this is what I expected. Wedged between two Colombians, we began the journey. What I wasn't aware of is that I was wedged between two illegal Colombians, one with a fake Venezuelan ID and the other with a Venezuelan ID that identified him as a foreigner. We were stopped much more often than in Colombia, but the difference being that in Colombia the police actually do their job and are looking for guerillas or drugs...but in Venezuela it is just looking for someone out of line who can be bribed. Every time we were stopped the Colombian with the real ID was taken out of the truck, paid his bribe, then after 15 minutes we could leave. Not exactly the express service. Then, the last time we had been waiting for 45 minutes and I was ready to catch another ride. The driver who had already overcharged me said he would pay my fair on a bus the rest of the way. He got on the bus, had a conversation with his buddy and I was on my way. Then, 20 minutes down the road the bus asks me to pay also. After about 20 minutes of yelling and fighting with this guy--making the biggest scene that I could, I paid him. Welcome back to Venezuela.

The only piece of good luck was catching a departing bus in Maracaibo, that, in 11 hours and after various unnecessary delays got us back to Caracas. Got in at midnight, picked up at 1am and off to the beach, Puerto La Cruz, at 4am. A nice (couples, right Molly?) weekend at the beach brought things full circle and it was back to Caracas for one day of last minute preparations.

And my birthday/our last night was great with Molly's surrogate family throwing a little party and Angie gracing us with her presence. A great surprise and a nice time to see some of the South American fam before leaving that world behind.

Not as easy as I thought it would be to leave it behind...on several levels. Aeropostal, the Venezuelan government run/worst airline ever to my surprise still had record of my ticket with them. Sigh of relief...however since I arrived in July they had yet to improve their punctuality.

We were actually on the plane, seated, and only a half an hour or so late. Things were looking good. Then rises a cloud of smoke in the aisle just in front of me which I try to ignore, hoping that I'm the only one who sees it and maybe we can just take off. Not the case. To avoid panic the pilot told us that the air conditioning vents had lost pressure (not a good lie, because they hadn't we could all very clearly see) and that we would have to deboard while the problem is looked at. This would prove a long process and to make a long story short our 4pm flight finally took off, although to a different destination, at 9:30am the next morning. To make the story a little longer...we at least had a fun group in the airport and ended up hooking up a bikini contest to the big screen airport TV that normally had propaganda for Caracas and some fake news about how good Chavez is.

It was a tiring affair, and I almost didn't get on the flight the next morning just out of distrust for the airline...but I ditched the American reservation I had made and luckily got back in time for Katherine's wedding! 38 hours of travel, only 6 of which were in the air.

Mom and I looking good at the wedding

And, In Conclusion:

I just watched The Motorcycle Diaries today and it was great, because this time I understood the language, and recognized the places, the people; understood the cultures and politics of the places that they were passing through, the end, when Che says that he was undoubtedly changed by his experience--I can empathize. Amazingly enough I followed the same route that the moto pair undertook, starting in Buenos Aires and ending in good ole' Caracas.

Over 500 hours (which is more than 3 weeks 24/7) in buses, 10 countries (although fleetingly brief in Brazil, and only by sight for Paraguay and Uruguay), my favorites of which were Argentina, Colombia and Bolivia...all for very different reasons. Least favorite: Peru.

What an amazing experience and how lucky I am to have had it! Couldn't have done it without lots of support, both in telling me to go for it and of course the "scholarship" that literally supported me. Thanks Mom.

And now on to the next step, more in the direction of "real life." But before you sigh an awe schucks for me, don't, because I'm excited about the next step. Excited to renew that sense of accomplishment and to start on a path that could lead just about anywhere. I'm not entirely sure where that path will begin, which is where you are all welcomed to chime in with ideas, but regardless it'll be an interesting and fun time because, why shouldn't it be? I've been riding too much of a high to stop now!


These are emails, starting from the first ever sent from Venezuela through to Christmas. Just to fill in that 5 month gap, these are the group emails that at least give a PG overview of things. Meant more to contribute to this collection of my travels and help me remember where I've just been and what I've done...enjoy, if you have some time...

Hey Mama--I'm here. Finally into a bed at 4:15am, without my luggage!
Miserable. They forgot to put them on the plane somehow, but the
people here with Optimal English have been so helpful not only in
picking me up and dealing with the people in the airport, but then
calling all morning while I slept so that my luggage will be on the
next flight...whenever that is. They are also trying to have them
wrap them up for me or secure them somehow because you have to worry
about the airport workers at Caracas. Just a blessing that I have my
computer and all of my money...can't wait to tell you all about it,
but have to go now to lunch. Thanks so much for all your help, the
people here were really thankful for you calling as well.


Caracas is different. And I say that with utmost sincerity. I
expected it to be different, sure, culturally, linguistically, etc.,
but not exactly like this. According to the CIA World Factbook,
Venezuela has the poorest of all South American populations with 40%
living beneath the poverty line; this mark clearly was not set by
anyone living under those circumstances because locals estimate it to
be closer to 80%. This creates a city that lives by the trademark of
being dirty, dangerous, and having no rules—but of course that isn't
the whole story.

That was my first impression, and based on the circumstances of my
arrival it was warranted. I wasn't in the best of moods after
spending 12 hours (a chaotic and dramatic 12 hours…like the police
having to be called to the ticket counter because of angry customers
and women crying because they had been split from their families by
this flight being delayed or cancelled now for the third day) in the
Miami airport with airline workers who barely spoke English, only to
arrive without my baggage. Compounding my fears were one, that I
hadn't locked my luggage—which you always do when flying abroad (I now
realize), and two, that getting back to the airport and dealing with
the bureaucracy within, would prove to be an expensive and interesting
exercise in finding my way solely in Spanish.

So that was how Venezuela started…hectic and sleep deprived, but on
the bright side it provided a good basement from which the only way
was up.

Some interesting things…Caracas has a towering 3,000ft. peak creating
it's northern border and separating it from the Caribbean. Very
tropical, this jagged hulk of green acts as the lung for the city.
And the city needs a lung, because one of the rules Caracas lacks is
emission standards. This, combined with the fact that you can fill up
a tank of gas for $1 here (yes, ridiculous—I'm working on building
some sort of covert pipeline) means that Monte Carlos and Chevettes
run wild in the city, followed closely by clouds of gray nastiness.
Everything here is reasonable if not super cheap. 10 rides on the
Metro, $1.50, a beer in a restaurant, $.50, etc.

What else? There are monkeys in the park here, which I thought was
pretty cool. Never knowing what to expect, I was at first confused by
this very agile and hairy midget, but I figured it out.

Consistent with the theme of no rules….red lights at night means yield
to some, but to most it means keep going without pause. People don't
use lanes, go as fast as possible and are generally out of control.
The guys on motorcycles are worse. Crossing the street here is an
adventure. Police, of course, are useless if not malevolent. Better
to avoid is what I've been told, but clearly they aren't too well

Otherwise things are going well. The people in the office are all
great and I really like some of the other Coaches. As for work
itself…it's long, with 3 one and half-hour sessions a day all over the
city (which basically means for the most part two small counties
within the city that have better police and more money. The other
parts people stay out of…especially at night).

But work is also good; the people are really motivated and so that's
not too bad—just work. I've also been meeting some cool people
through work to go out with and it's doubly good because we
automatically have this symbiotic relationship of you teach me and
I'll teach you. So the Spanish is coming along that way. Also
helpful is the fact that I'm living with a family who are great and
that are willingly a guinea pig for my Spanish. They are so helpful
and kind towards me…I spend hours talking to the father (he speaks
English and I Spanish) almost daily and they assured me that they'd be
my Venezuelan Grandparents. So other than not having hot water in the
shower (you quickly learn a very useful breathing pattern that I
imagine is somewhat like Lamaze), I really lucked out on the living
situation (other Coaches tell horror stories of being kicked out of
places, etc.).

Well this is getting long and my free form, unorganized,
parenthetically dominated rambling must be getting on some of your
nerves. So I'd be thrilled to hear from all of you, and 'til then, I
hope all's well.

A lot can happen in two weeks—like getting robbed by the police,
seeing a pregnant woman get hit by a bus, and falling into a river of
sewage only to be saved at the last moment from sure death. Luckily,
none of these things happened to me, but I do have some stories.

First, let me start as I commonly start and end these types of emails,
with an apology. I have loved reading and appreciate all of your
emails, however, I have yet to respond to any of them. I plan to do
this very soon, so please prepare yourself for some quality personal
correspondence. One reason for my lack luster email performance,
although not a very good one, is that many of you noticed the same
important flaws in my last email and offered similar questions: Why
are you there? (and) What are you doing there? (or some variation of
these questions). Good questions, important information. I'm
currently an Executive English Consultant (English Teacher) for a
start-up company called Optimal English ( I
usually teach (or Coach, as they like me to call it) 3 to 4 one and a
half hour sessions, five days a week, all over the city. I'm not
exactly handsomely rewarded for these deeds, but it's all in the
experience, right? Actually, relative to the rest of the people here
it is very handsome indeed, but of course it's all relative. In fact,
most of my clients work 12-hour days, at least, because the
competition for their job is so great. Another common question, how
long will you be there (here)? It depends on the weather (as they say
here, but doesn't make sense because the weather is always the same),
but Caracas isn't the best place (see last email) and I'm already
looking into the more European Buenos Aires or Santiago as possible

"As they say here," is not an isolated case. There are many
colloquial Spanish phrases that I've simultaneously been bewildered by
and laughed at. They say that it's "Donkey Time" which means that
people are tired after lunch. Strange, but fine. Another is "If you
can't roast the chicken, why kill it?" Much weirder, not exactly sure
what that means but it's still fun to say to strangers. Sort of on
that note, my friends and I have found ourselves freely cussing in
front of children—not in a malicious way, just casually and by chance
(it's alright Mom, they don't understand English and neither do the
people they would repeat this to). I think the novelty of this will
wear off, but it's still fun for now.

My reason for saying that their parents wouldn't understand these
phrases is two fold; not only coming from credible statistical sources
such as the C.I.A. world fact book, but also from empirical evidence
based on their choice of clothing. For the non-English speaking,
usually lower class, it is popular to wear shirts with English sayings
on them. Although I've seen much funnier, two from today are "WANTED:
A Bad Man" and "I SMELL LIKE CANDY." The latter was a tight pink
shirt with curvy white writing. Maybe she was trying to suggest a
Cotton Candy smell, or some sort of berry. I don't know, this is only
speculation—but this shirt on a woman nearing middle age is
unacceptable. OK, let's be honest, the message being sent by this
shirt is confusing and basically unacceptable for anyone to wear.
This could maybe be the worst and simultaneously the best aspects of
globalization: Chinese people with hardly a grasp of English,
designing shirts to sell to unassuming Venezuelans, who in turn, give
Americans a good laugh. It's brilliant. Think of the boardroom where
they discussed whether "I SMELL LIKE CANDY" was a good idea for their
latest t-shirt. I picture a crack staff of savvy individuals, saying,
"What the hell!"

I see things like this everyday that just make me stop and laugh. I
don't think that it is any different wherever you go, people always do
stupid and funny things, it's just easier to openly laugh when there
is a cultural and language barrier that keeps them from understanding
that they are the butt of the joke. I'm sure that I'm laughed at
almost as much as I do the laughing—maybe more. Maybe they're writing
emails as I speak…let's hope not.

Not as funny, but more interesting and amazing is that I saw a guy go
down an escalator in a wheelchair the other day—backwards! As if the
degree of difficulty wasn't high enough! He got a ten in my book,
easy. A cultural difference can be inferred here but I'll leave that
to you.

A friend I work with recently said that so many Caraquenos smoke
because they want to filter the air—not so funny (since I live here),
but I thought it was very well put. An interesting, and to me amazing
and sort of scary fact is that they still use leaded gas here. I
didn't understand what Sin Plomo (unleaded) meant, but unfortunately
it is not used by enough people. The good news is that they plan to
phase it out by next May; the bad news is that I'll be gone by then.
In the meantime I walk around through thick clouds of lead, a job
hazard. For those of you who don't understand why this is bad, see
"lead poisoning" or the joke about eating paint chips (with lead) when
you were a baby.

But really, a lot has happened in two weeks and I've had some pretty
amazing experiences. Managed to get an invitation to an Urbe Bikini
(like Maxim in the states, but bigger here considering the large
market share coupled with the Machismo attitude) party, which was
pretty exclusive and was mainly the media, super rich old men, models
and TV stars. I was actually offered two jobs, which was flattering,
but I'm sure it was to be a model for a dog food commercial or some
sort of diarrhea medicine or something. The rest of the night was
spent avoiding gay guys (one of which was in the movie Moulin Rouge)
who were overly friendly as well as a little too forward. Also a
great story from that night is my friend who got robbed (just a
little) and taken home by the police…but I'm pretty sure you have to
know him for it to be funny…contextual, sorry.

Also, I've been to the beach twice, both a good time. The first was
with a friend from work and her high school friends. After the day at
the beach we went to this guy's complex on a mountain overlooking the
Caribbean. The best way I know how to describe it, is as being about
20 times nicer than the Caribbean house in Thomas Crown Affair (the
new T.C.A). There were 3 or 4 houses on the property I think, the
driveway was like the greens at Augusta, the landscaping was perfectly
manicured with huge flowering plants and palm trees, and there were
invisible edge pools (connected by a waterfall) from which you could
see the Caribbean about a thousand feet below. Rough life. The whole
day was very 'fratty,' a good time, and the roads to get out to these
places were sometimes non-existent, and other times barely clinging to
the sides of the mountain. The other beach excursion was to another
friend's house with a few people for a weekend—much more laid-back and
surely less extravagant.

Of course there is always more to report (like going to see Charlie
and the Chocolate factory but not realizing that it was in
Spanish…even the songs! What a botch.), but this will have to do for
now. Oh yeah, I will say that I've just recently self-diagnosed
"Montezuma's revenge" or as WebMD calls it "The Turkey Trots" or the
Russian Rumble (I made that one up). Just a word of caution to those
of you traveling to or already in less developed countries…I too once
thought that I was invincible…not the case.

Other than that, things are fantastic (considering certain
circumstances…it's all relative, as you know, is my theme) and I leave
you now to take a nap in my room where car alarms (they all set each
other off and ring like a schizophrenic chorus both day and night) and
car horns pour steadily in (and at piercing decibel levels) through my
barred, jail-like windows. Just know that your emails make my day and
sometimes my week, so no pressure, but keep writing—and sooner, rather
than later, I'll get back to you on a more personal level. Get ready.

til then,

So I thought I would wait to write for a while, so that I would have
something significant to write about when I did…however, I've
underestimated a bit and there is quite a lot now. So maybe this
email will be a little less observant and more substantive, in the
interest of length. Can't make any promises, though.

In my last email I told about the Urbe Bikini party that I went to,
and although I haven't seen it yet, one of my friends informed me that
I am in this months issue of the magazine. I should probably go ahead
and buy it, but I thought that was funny and am proud to say that my
streak of appearing in magazines in foreign countries continues!

There's a new movie in Venezuela called Secuestra Express that I saw
recently and is really cool because it is the first Venezuelan movie
in a long time to be bought by Hollywood, Miramax in this case. I
think that it has been released in New York and LA, but anyhow, it's
about a kidnapping and is based on a true story, although it could be
based on many true stories because car-jacking/kidnappings are
relatively common here. It was really cool because it was filmed in
Caracas and shows a lot of the city, and the movie actually ended at
the same building that I was inside while watching it…which is an
experience I haven't had before. It scared a lot of the people that I
work with because they are the targets for this and one has actually
been kidnapped before, but I thought it was pretty good all the same.

I've been trying to get out of town on the weekends and have had two
great trips to two very different and beautiful beaches.

The first was Choroni, a very unique place where the mountains and the
rainforest meet the Carribean. The only road there is a one-lane road
with two-way traffic through the rainforest and mountains. Probably
one of the most dangerous roads I've been on, hanging over cliffs and
non-stop twists and turns. Once we got into Choroni, late, we found
the house that the seven of us had rented and it was really nice, the
whole house surrounding a beautiful courtyard—very cool setup. The
next day we packed lunch and drinks and took off on a lancha
(motorboat) to the furthest beach, Cepe. The day was going well and
everyone was having fun…then, four of us decided to swim over to
another beach that you couldn't walk to because of huge rock that
jutted out into the ocean. We were looking for a sandy place to come
ashore in the waves, but realized too late that no such place was to
be found. Two of our friends were able to turn back and basically be
rescued by a lancha, but my friend Molly and I were too far in and had
to make our way to shore among the sea urchin infested coral.
Combined with the waves, it wasn't a graceful entrance and my feet and
left hand as well as Molly's feet were casualties of our landing.
This all happened almost three weeks ago, and I'm still picking
centimeter long daggers of pain out of my hand. Needless to say,
walking was more difficult for a while and it put a little damper on
my day.

That night we went into town and saw the coolest drumming thing (the
words aren't really flowing today), called Tambores. Two guys each
sat on and played a six-foot, tree trunk looking drum, while two more
played on the base of those drums. Another guy played a more
traditional snare drum. A huge crowd gathered and the innermost
circle of guys were the performers who jumped around, danced, pushed
the crowd and made up lyrics which the whole crowd sang with them.
The performers created an amazing and high-energy atmosphere—it was
pretty cool. Then we went to the only club in the city, an outdoor
club that was a lot of fun and everyone was there from the Tambores.
Choroni and the sister city Puerta Colombia are wonderful, diverse,
and friendly towns.

The next weekend four of us took off for Morrocoy. A National Park on
the Carribean filled with small islands (cayos, keys); we went to Cayo
Sombrero where we could camp for the weekend. It was so fun because
we had a really good group and being able to camp on a white sand
beach under the shade of palm trees while being only 100 feet from
crystal clear water…is hard to beat. We packed all the food and
drinks for the weekend, and had a great time. No Sea Urchins (or
erizo del mar, as they're called here…I just call them 'evil'), other
than the ones I killed with a stick for revenge. The snorkeling was
great and midnight swims were no problem because the moon was so

One of my best friends here, Maru, had her birthday this past month
also…which was a ton of fun. My friend Dan and I decorated her desk
with confetti, balloons, and streamers the night before, and then
brought her a giant turtle made of bread and cake the next day. She
had a great birthday, and thanks to me was forced to wear her princess
tiara all day and at night when we went out. Good times.

Last weekend I went kayaking at a reservoir that is near the city. I
was told that there were babas, which are small crocodiles, and was
hoping to see some. We went to the place where the river came into
the lake and in about a foot of water started seeing some babas. We
sat there for a bit looking for an especially big one because we had
seen its head. After waiting around for 15 minutes and seeing small
ones we started paddling back into the lake when I spotted a seven
foot monster of a crocodile on the bank sunning himself. So, the lake
actually has very large crocodiles meanwhile we had been paddling
around in their hunting ground in our tiny kayaks. Adrenaline got us
out of there pretty quickly.

Last week Chavez announced that he was going to start reclaiming rural
land from private citizens and redistribute it amongst the poor. A
very communistic, dictatorial move on his part, and the city (my part,
the small, wealthier area) erupted in protest (people banging pots and
pans from their apartment windows, mainly). We went to the central
protest (blocking main roads and attacking cars who tried to break
through baricade...)and were taking pictures when a guy approached us
asking what news agency we were from. The long and the short of it is
that people who take pictures of anti-Chavez activity have been
tracked down and made to divulge their pictures…sometimes with force.
Wouldn't that be big international news? If Chavez henchmen beat my
friends and I up for our pictures! Further signs of a burgeoning

The big news, however (if you've read this far), is this. On October
11th I leave for Buenos Aires! I'll be traveling around with Maru and
her brother (who are Argentinean) for three weeks, then they leave and
I'm going to play it by ear from there. In Buenos Aires I plan to
meet up with two friends from Vanderbilt, also a friend I met while
here will be down in the area and other plans are to hopefully travel
down the Coast of Chile, which I hear is magnificent. Other to do
list things, but that unfortunately have a 90% chance of not happening
are Machu Pichu and Cuba. How cool would that be?

Other big news is that after a painstakingly long process, I've posted
pictures on the Internet! Please indulge, and often, because I'll
keep adding pictures in a continuous stream….So here she is: . Also big news is
that I saw a shirt the other day that said "Bling It On" with cartoons
of diamonds and worn by a middle aged someone who I hope did not know
the meaning of their shirt. I guess that news isn't quite as big. I
can't make this stuff up—it's too good.

Sorry this email, like all of them, got so long. I'm not great at
summarizing or omitting useless information. Thanks for bearing with
my long-windedness, look forward to hearing from you soon…


Hi--this is just meant to be a little announcement that I have safely
arrived to Buenos Aires, via Lima, early this morning. Since then
I´ve dropped my stuff off at my friend´s apartment and have been
walking around the city. My impressions of course are still very
premature, but I feel like this is a wonderful place. It reminds me
of New Zealand in a lot of ways--is like Europe but with a lot more
beautiful people and costs relatively nothing compared to both of the
aforementioned places. On top of that, it is early Spring, my
favorite, and they speak a language which challenges me, but which I
really enjoy.

So things are looking up in such a positive way (considering they
weren´t looking down before) and I even had a hard time pulling myself
into an internet cafe because there is so much to see and do outside.



Alright! Another country! I arrived last night to Santiago, the
capital city of Chile. Although it was tough to say goodbye to
Argentina....Ill be with her soon enough and left with too many fond
memories to count.

So, coming to Chile was the #1 most amazing drive Ive been a part of
in my life (trans-Andes). I could be forgetting something, but Im
pretty sure. I was lucky, because not only did I choose the perfect
time to leave, but also took a mini-bus (10 people) which made it a
lot more friendly and customs a ton faster. I was with people who do
this trip all the time, no tourists, and luckily asked and was able to
sit up front so I got all the amazing views. You start out of Mendoza
and get pretty quickly right up into the Andes, amazing in scale and
beauty alike. The second tallest mountain range in the world which
boasts, also, the tallest peak outside of the Himalayas (which I saw
yesterday), Aconcagua. Huge. So, driving, driving...go through a
very very long tunnel to get to the border, go through an interesting
customs process, then, Chile. You come out of customs and it is a
drop-off...more handy would have been a hang-glider than a Ford
mini-bus. The first thing you come to is a ski resort that I have to
return to...amazing. You are at a very high elevation (were huge
snowbanks and its just about summer) and the scenery is exquisite.
The chair-lifts are enough motivation...Ive never seen steeper...if
you can imagine, the huge metal polls that hold up the chairlifts cant
stand straight up because it is so steep. They are concreted into the
mountain between a 40°-70° angle that is scary to even look at.
Amazing place...and with Laguna del Inca which is really pretty also.

Then, the descent (in Bus). I asked the driver, and just in a row,
one on top of the other, are 32 switchbacks! If I could have used my
camera (waiting for it to dry as we both went swimming Saturday
night), it would have been an amazing shot to peer down at miles and
miles of switchbacks. And by this time the sun was setting through a was incredible. After we got down, it was high-tailing
through a beautiful valley that ended up in this valley with miles of
green pasture and an amazing backdrop of the Andes. A great trip (and
sunset)...crossing the second tallest mountain range is a complete

Then, in the terminal I started to get accosted by all these guys
offering taxis and I was of course super-leery, too friendly. But
this one guy wouldnt quit, and it ended up that he called the hostel
to make sure there was room, got me a taxi, everything, without
thought of making any money from it. I thought this was an anomoly,
but then I get to the hostel, first off meet a Chileno who Ive been
hanging out with ever since and couldnt be nicer or more accomodating.
I thought Argentines were nice, and they were, but these people so
far here are uber, scary nice. Not quite used to it.

So we walked around the city today, saw a few museums, the "White
House" equivalent, etc. The coolest thing was this park, though, that
is a hill in the middle of the city, rock, that has had a castle like
stairway and turret system built onto is so cool. Beautiful
gardens, and once you get to the top you have the view of the skyline
with the snow capped Andes in the background. Pretty phenomenal.

The downside of Chile is that it is more Im going to
take it easy on doing any tours or anything and just take it in on my
own. Ill also be eating a lot of their "completos" which is a hotdog
that has avocado and mayonaisse piled on top. I hope I get out of
here before the heart-attack.

Thats the update. I dont have a good family list will
you both please forward this to our respective loved ones....thanks,


Hi everyone, Merry Christmas! First of all, I wish I could be visiting with each and every one of you now, but since that isn`t happening, I`ll be there in spirit with my words and pictures.

I`m spending Christmas in Buenos Aires and luckily will be surrounded by friends that I`ve met over the last few months, some from Venezuela and others from the road. It`ll be a truly international Christmas with friends coming together from 4 continents and my first spent in the Southern Hemisphere (it`s 85 degrees today!). We`ve been cooking a lot and trying to make it feel Christmassy despite the perfect weather. I`m lucky enough that one of my friends that I`m staying with is a Chef (his job), which has been amazing thus far and doesn`t seem to quit. Then for New Years it`s off to a friend`s beach house at the posh Pinamar to end the year right while getting a tan--tough life.

I haven`t written much since Thanksgiving because I`ve been on the move so much with little time to stop and organize things. In the past month I think that I have lived enough good stories to entertain hours of conversation...but I`ll try to just write a couple of bits and pieces while leaving the rest for another time.

I left Pucon, Chile (see attached map), to return to Argentina on a decrepit bus (fully loaded) and a gravel road...rain filling the skies. Amazing drive crossing the Andes on such a road. At the border crossing (my 2nd at this point), Volcan Lanìn, I met a Swiss guy named Andreas who would travel with me for the next week or so. After contemplating a climb of Lanìn, we moved on to Bariloche, Argentina where we quickly gathered together some gear and got up into the mountains. Andreas is an experienced mountaineer (trained in the Swiss Army, climbed in Nepal, etc.) and I felt lucky to be up there with him. He convinced me that we could be the first of the year to do a pass between two huts that had yet to be attempted because of all the snow...there was plenty and it was a pretty harrowing experience to be climbing in snow that was at places 9ft. deep and one missed step could have sent you down about 2000ft. Especially considering my equipment--used boots that I`d bought that day. My $10 sleeping bag didn`t help too much also when we were camping on snow the second night in -15 Celsius! But overall, the 3 days afforded us some spectacular views, some good boot skiing, and all in all an amazing time.

Next I met up with a friend of mine from Holland that I had travelled with a bit before, and we went back over to Chile to see the island of Chiloè (eerily resembles the North of New of the archipelago have just within the past year been hooked up to electricity and it is a really interesting fishing and farming culture that differs from mainland Chile), then back to Argentina to fly down to El Calafate via LADE, a government subsidized airline which at times can actually be cheaper than taking a bus...very nice to save 30 hours of bus trip! Oh yeah, one of the highlights of Chiloè was seeing a blind man who wore a toupee and had a little bit of an Elton John style going on--we found this first strange that someone who can`t see was so worried about appearance...but then decided that the people he was travelling with were just pranksters. It was funny, there`s a picture in the "Chile" album. I digress. In El Calafate we had a great day that started with a stunning ridge hike, then we went to the Glacier...which is a very famous tourist attraction here. This glacier, Moreno Glacier, is amazing. I`ve seen, and walked on glaciers before, usually they are just there, moving very slowly, not too exciting. However, this one is so famous because of how close you can get to it and how enormous it is. The face of the glacier that looks over the lake is 60m tall, about 180 feet. I completely lost my sense of scale when I first got there because you feel like you are very close and that it isn`t so big. Then you hear a piece fall off, what looks like a little pebble until it hits the water and is followed a second later by a sound like an enormous clap of thunder. So this is what people do, go to the glacier for hours just to listen to it`s amazing size and to hopefully see a big piece fall off. We were lucky and after our two hours (from 8-10pm, around sunset), right before leaving we saw a huge slab of the wall come off. Really loud (although looked like slow motion from the distance we watched it happen), then after about 60 seconds the big piece came charging up to the surface from the bottom of the lake and caused another big eruption. It was amazing, and I think the "best picture to tell the story" is "BPTTTS" in the "Argentina" album where you can see a tiny little person between the camera and the glacier..and this person is still very far from the glacier. Good stuff.

After that we headed to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, in Chile, which is South America`s most famous park. Beautiful views, but we didn`t pace ourselves quite well enough. Walked 15miles the first day (which included seeing a girl I went to high school with, in the park...small world) and 12 hours the second (which was a lot more than 15miles) with packs that seemed to get heavier with every step. After 10 hours the second day my friend called it quits and my pack got a bit heavier as I started carrying his stuff as well. It was nice, though, to arrive to the campsite and see a few people I had met a couple of weeks we had a good chat until I couldn`t stand up any longer. The park was amazing, though, and if the pictures aren`t up yet then they will be soon.

Then, I decided to skip Ushuai, the world`s southernmost city on Tierra del Fuego, and started what would become a 4 day, 40 bus hours, and one night sleeping in a bus terminal odyssey back to Buenos Aires (6th border crossing). Because of the close time of my first connection I didn`t have time to shower after I got out of the park, which of course made the next four days even more fun! The one night that I wasn`t sleeping on a bus I slept in the station (all the hotels were booked due to some convention in town...), but luckily enough five separate friends of mine that I had met while travelling wondered into the station at different times and kept me company for a little bit. I was a pretty sorry sight with my sleeping bag, next to all of my homeless friends. My friend John, who`s from VA and was even more delirious than me, suggested jokingly that I should hire one of them to act as bodyguard while I slept...decided against that.

Anyhow, going to keep this one short as really I just want to wish you all the happiest of holidays-- but then of course thought it might be good to fill in a bit of info as to my whereabouts and wanderings.

Check the photos (http:// and keep warm!


The map picture my route is to draw a circle around the outside...that`s basically it. And of course my Christmas greetings (please note the sunbather behind me...)

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Good, Clean, Family Fun

The trip is not over, this much is for sure--in fact things are as good as ever.

Cartagena has been great, enough so that it has inspired me to offer up a few anecdotes before they slip away.

Finally cutting through the haze, Kash, Thompson (Aussies) and I got up early enough so that we could do something with our day. So we were off to the mud volcano. A taxi got us to a decked out school bus convert that transferred us each onto our own motorcycle taxi which delivered us to the base of the volcano. It wasn´t as seamless, however, as it may (or may not) sound. The bus which you can only understand if you´ve been to South America I think, was painted six colors, complete with shag and tapestries on the inside, and dotted with stickers which simultaneously sent two very different messages: proclaiming that God Is Love and that the proliferation of naked women stickers is and should be a top priority. This bus, with a max speed of 30mph looked like it was never going to get us there. Then we got a flat tire. But, we did arrive and all the better for the round about way we got there.

The volcano rises in typical conical fashion about 25m out of the ground and falls another 2500m beneath the earth (we couldn´t figure out how that was measured?). After climbing the rickety stairs you get the giggly surprise of putting yourself in for the first time. The mud is the perfect consistency and thickness so that it leaves you buoyant enough to float in the position of your choice completely comfortable in a fashion that lazy boy could not begin to compete with. Buoyant enough that you can´t actually dunk yourself without someone else´s help and conveniently thick enough to enjoy a game of tic-tac-toe on the surface, the mud pool was for sure a unique experience. Filled with all sorts of mud people, the most populous of which were the mud munchkins that decided that that would administer involuntary massages to one and all. Then were the mud mammoths that, as was keenly observed, changed the mud levels with their departure from the mud jacuzzi.

By the end of it we had become brave enough to search for the bottom, and everyone else in the pool enjoyed as two of us pushed the other down about 10ft, then let go and a second or two later the formerly lost popped through the surface like a torpedo. It was good fun, even though we were mud monsters in a silent world of darkness until the mud was dug out of our ears and eyes.

Thanks to the flat tire delay, that is where we met Kira from Brazil who would accompany me after the guys left (to their chagrin) to another great day of adventure.

Motorcycles to buses to cabs got us back to Cartagena, and it was on the way that I noticed a small town called Clemecia that was having a 3 day festival complete with bull fights. I had yet to partake in this tradition and decided that the next day, the last of the festival, I would head back.

A party bus escorted the drunkards through the night, and even though I couldn´t get Kira´s mom to dance with me we still had a great time.

The next day we turned up to Clemencia on a scorching afternoon and found a ghost town. However, we saw a few people drinking beer (including a midget, the time) and they directed us to the closest beach, telling us to come back at 3 o´clock when the festivities would begin. They also mentioned something about the midget show as I translated it, but Kira got the idea that the midgets would be fighting the bulls. No way! We both couldn´t believe that scenario and awaited what would at least be a good surprise. Midgets and bulls???

A quick stop at the local shop and we found ourselves sporting our new swimming attire, hers a "guerilla" camo number while I chose the bright blue and orange waterproof kids suit. Back on the mototaxis and off we went to Punta Canoa. A basically deserted beach where amazingly you can still get a cold beer (from Luis Miguel) and some freshly cooked fish. We spent the afternoon basking in the knee-high Carribean bath water and anticipating what was to come.

Motomen got us back to where we needed to be in time to catch the last half of the action. After a quick stop for the first meal of the day we were hustled into the "stadium." A proper bull fighting stadium it was, although definitely the most ready to fall structure in which I have ever set foot. To our delight the midgets were doing some sort of tumbling tricks while waiting for the next bull to be brought out. But then, oh no!, the midgets shuffled off for their bull fighting equipment and the gates were opened as a charging bull ran through with anger in his eyes, a taste for blood, and midgets in his sights. Yes, it`s true--the midgets were the bull fighters! I have never been so worried for such small people. The bull charged and the midget ironically dressed as Superman just didn´t have the arm length to pull off the proper matador maneuvers and BOOM down he went with a swift head to head attack by the bull. Finally, as he was malled for the next 15 seconds, another midget came over to distract the bull and receive his similar fate. This wasn´t a bullfight, it was Revenge of the Bulls, or a Midget Massacre...what was this surreal world that we had just stepped into? But then, almost (not quite) as quickly as he had gone down Superman popped back up triumphantly, hands over his head, as if he´d just won the World Heavy Weight Championship and scurried off just barely before he was gored again.

And so it continued, full-on midget carnage which went from sad to extremely entertaining. And once the bull got sick of crushing midgets they put it back through the tunnel and out came a fresh spanking angry new one! No bulls were killed, so although it may have not been an extremely authentic was way better!

Seeing as we were the only two foreigners and Kira looks just as Colombian as the next...I stuck out. And thanks to this we were approached by two guys that told me it was time for the gringo bullfight! They offered me $5000 pesos (a little over $2 US) as their final offer although for a time I thought they might just throw me over the side. The crazy thing is that I actually considered it, I mean why not? I´m at least much more nimble than a midget. But then again, also a bigger target...finally I was dissuaded both by Kira and the gnarly scar on one of my petitioners arms that he proudly admitted was from this very activity. Then, just minutes later this same slightly cross-eyed, definitely crazy scarred man was down in the ring, running toward a charging bull that he then did a front flip over. The bull was looking forward to his advantage in this game of chicken, but then was left completely bewildered as the Colombian soared overhead. Midgets don´t do that move.

He was the first, but soon the floodgates were open. Every Colombian worth his weight in pesos was down in the ring being the biggest man he could be. Soon the scrap metal was ripped off of the walls of the already crumbling wooden stadium as to allow easier entry (and exit) from the ring. At this point Kira and I were both silently planning our escape routes from the soon to collapse rickety beams and thought that the show may be over except for the band that kept on playing and the bulls that kept coming out to meet their hoards of amateur bull fighters. It went on like this until the Sahara-like sunset put an end to a great day of events and found us napping to the rumba tunes on a bus headed for Cartagena.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Space Cowboy

Hace un rato.

But things are good. In the few weeks since writing I have inevitably forgotten some things worth mentioning...but, that`s how it goes.

From the coffee district I caught the vomit bus to Bogotá, the capital of our fair Colombia. Checked out two noteworthy museums, one being the Botero Collection which was probably the best I`ve been to in, well, a while. Botero is Colombia`s most famous artist and is easy to appreciate for both his skill and sense of humor. All of his characters are disproportionally fat or at least disproportional. Including his bronze statues of birds, horses, etc...they all have a funny, beady eyed look to them and are at least telling you that he doesn`t take himself too seriously.

Mona Lisa

Next it was to the Gold Museum, which they say holds the most important collection of gold artifacts in the world. In fact, everything is gold--a characteristic of pre-Colombian (and pre-Spanish) societies that made them great and consequently led to their demise.

Bogotá was nice, and I was lucky enough to meet up with a friend of a friend who is great and we had a nice time hanging out while not actually doing any sightseeing. I wasn`t planning to stick around for too long, but when I heard Jamiroquai was coming to town and had a group to go with it was a done deal.

So to kill time before the show I headed up to the north-east of the city towards Tunja, Villa de Leyva, Raquira, and San Gil. Very cool little towns. Raquira was really nice, a colorful town sitting on mounds of workable clay-- the one street in the town is used mainly to sell the crafts and with a short walk up the hill you can see the artisans at work. From there I walked over to the next valley to see a cathedral/monestary combo called La Candelaría. A small group of us was given a tour of the grounds by a young monk and the whole thing was just a bit strange. This place is completely isolated, has been around since the 1600s, is really nicely furnished and modern with conference rooms and wireless internet while surrounded by poor little farms, still has monks who whip themselves with the little barbed belts in order to pay for their sins...really interesting. The last thing on the tour was a cave that he explained was where a monk used to live, staying down there all the time only to come out of Sundays to get food for the next week.

San Gil was good too, beautifully set in the mountains it was a perfect place to go for a good bike ride (until my legs almost fell off). Then, the next day I rappelled down an 80m waterfall, which although wasn`t actually that exciting...was still a good time.

Back to Bogotá and my first blockbuster South American concert. Everything I expected and more. We were frisked and herded in like nervous cattle, waited a few hours, then comes the main show. Jami was great, fully pimped out with sequined Indian headdress and Bolivian style poncho. Quite the sight and a great performance.

Next night was taking off for Medellín, where I had planned to stay two night max. Ten nights later and I was still fighting to get out of there. Laid back place, great hostel and company...not much to do in the city but when you find good distractions it`s hard to leave them. Did head out to a great place...a big hunk of granite that shoots up 200m out of the ground. The stairs that they built up this thing are`s surrounded on all four sides by shear, overhanging cliffs but there is one seam and in this seam they jammed in a concrete spiral stairway. I was expecting it to collapse under its own weight with every step. Great spot though, and the few from the top of the finger lakes that surround it was stunning. One of these little outlet channels of this lake would be an ideal spot for a house.

check out those stairs


Two nights ago then I broke free and now find myself in Cartagena on the Caribbean Coast. I`ve met up with 3 Aussies and a Brit whom I`ve becoming friends with and between our main activities of drinking and playing cards we`ve found some time to explore the historical district of Cartagena. Beautiful city complete with fort and an inner wall that was used to ward off the British and pirates. Some of the streets have been very well preseved which makes it a nice place to go for a stroll. Cartagena is a circular peninsula which means that your walk will most likely be along the water for a very pretty. From here the boys are chartering a sail boat to Panama and I`ll keep on towards Venezuela to more pristine beaches. Rough!

While here we plan to go to a mud volcano that you can take a bath in and to head out to an island for a night or two. Things are good and the trip, she winds down with every day. But not ready to say goodbyes yet and onward I go, still living the good life.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Three Years and One Day

An uneventful bus ride brought me to Cali, a big city that is manageable because a small part of the city has just about everything for which a tourist could ask...although, really, there aren`t many tourists which is the best answer of all. This is part of the beauty of Colombia, that you can feel as if you are doing something that not too many others do. With this comes the opportunity to exclusively speak Spanish, but most importantly a country that has a citizenry untainted by the uglier side of tourism--the idiot, nuisance tourists who the natives tend to just see as a dollar, euro or pound--and so the people of Colombia have therefore been left incredibly open and friendly with the lack of an overwhelming tourist industry (see "Perù" for counter example).

That said, one of the first people that I met in Cali, and the only other person staying in my hostel, was a tourist--but a good one. He joins the ranks of people I`ve met with an interesting story, or who are themselves interesting, funny, or just good people. I`ve had the chance to meet over the past few months quite a few characters, of which includes, but of course is not limited to: the 60-year old from Alaska who is riding home from the southern tip of Argentina on his motorcycle, who has already before this done some other amazing trips and who happens to have a girlfriend that he interviewed (to be his girlfriend) from Russia; the New Zealand couple who while riding their bicycles from the same tip of Argentina to Ecuador, crossed the Andes several extra times just to slow themselves down(!), my Dutch friend Henk who realized that by selling his house in Holland he could live off of investments and enjoy the good life of Argentina, the Ecuadorian girls who stopped me to ask to take a picture, only to then realize that they each wanted a picture with me (a gringo sighting maybe?)...and of course there are loads more.

Gregor, I thought at first, judging by his dress, was a member of some sort of religious denomination such as the Amish. But in fact he is a German Carpenter (whom are quit famous) and one of which who is participating in a very interesting, time-honored tradition. He told me that it used to be a tradition in all of Northern Europe, but however now is confined to Germany--that tradespeople, once done with their apprenticeship are to leave their home for exactly (or at least, I gather) three years and one day to continue their education by learning about the world and living by their skills. There are all sorts of rules that go along with such a tradition, but the main ones being that he is not to return within 50km of his home for that amount of time and he is not to stay in any one place longer than 3 months. As may be expected, his group, who are Anarchists (another interesting and seemingly very often misunderstood subject) have relatively very few rules compared to the others. I interrogated him rather thoroughly on the subject, but I will spare the elaboration--just to say that I found the tradition and the lifestyle pretty amazing. Because he is meant to live only on what he makes while travelling (and building), he arrived to South America as crew on a 40ft (not very big) sailboat and will return the same way. Anyhow, we had a good night of drinking Colombian beer (which included being approached by another German who was obviously gay but insisting that he was "stuck!" in Cali because of all the girls he was meeting!) and will surely meet up down the road.

Cali was nice, but I quickly got out of the city to a place which had been recommended to me several times over, called San Cipriano(say it with me now, huh?). Between Cali and the Pacific, San Cipriano is a tiny, almost inaccessible village that sits on a stunningly clear river that flows through the same dense jungle of the famed Darien Gap. Although the ride there + that day`s lunch left me not feeling too great, the last leg of the journey was very cool. San Cipriano is only accessible by railroad, so in order to transport things (including people) back and forth, they use this as their route. Many people opt for the Venetian style rowing method to travel the 10km, but what is becoming more often used is a motorcycle (mounted on top of a wooden platform with wheels that fit onto the tracks) that has it`s front wheel on the platform and it`s back providing the force to the rail. It was a cool ride through the jungle, and luckily we didn`t run into any trains...or derail on a bridge, or get struck by lighting in the violent lightning storm (I was thinking about the abundance of metal yet lack of rubber wheels)...etc.

The coasts of Colombia are majoritively populated by the descendants of the African people that were brought over shortly after Spanish Colonization--and San Cipriano is no exception. The town itself is two dirt roads lined with basic wooden homes (shacks for lack of a better word) and looks more like the setting of a Sally Struthers commercial asking to please send food fast! And I was the only white person (and only non-native of the town) there which was a cool reversal of how things normally are. The people were beautiful, both in their looks and their disposition--and the kids were some of the cutest. Maria, with whom I was staying was at least 6´2, had too many kids to count(and at whom she could be heard screaming all over town...screaming seemed to be the main form of long distance, and some times short communication) and a great guest quarters with bunk beds, tin roof and plywood walls. It was camp! And with the rainstorm pounding above it was the perfect place for a nap. Reading on the porch with the sound of the flooded river rushing behind, being bitten by bugs, and stared at by the little kids (and sometimes the big ones) was about the only thing to do that night.

The next day I set out into the jungle to see a bit more of the river. The water had settled down from the muddy heights it had reached the day before and was back to it`s clear, beautiful self. On my walk I had the luck to encounter a two man team of ecologists with two guests, that come out to San Cipriano every two months to measure the evaporation, rainfall, etc, to put it into the international data bank of such information. They were a great group, really friendly and interesting to talk to. We checked on the various levels and made some measurements, after which they insisted that I join them for lunch and a swim. It was a great afternoon, and in a show of true Colombian hospitality I rode back with them to Cali and then even stayed at one of their houses for the night! Really friendly people, it was a bunch of fun to talk about everything from the environment and the natural wonders of Colombia, to the politics of the U.S. and Guerilla fighters. Two of them are avid cyclists (the national sport...along with soccer of course..which I think is pretty cool)--hopefully on my next time through I`ll have some more time to go for a few rides in the mountains surrounding Cali.

An interesting thing was that the road between Cali and the coast (one of the only to the Pacific, which attests to the dense jungles and lack of American-style development) is a notorious Guerilla zone. Because of this, the route is full of military personnel, usually in groups of three that constantly patrol the area. They say that it is actually pretty safe thanks to the patrols. I think that the road to San Agustín would probably be the same but by now it is not worth the time to go back anyways. Really, other than the first bus ride that was preceded by woman who successfully instilled in me the "Fear of the Guerilla," I haven`t felt unsafe at all in Colombia. I know that bad things do happen, like a bus that was recently bombed, and a gunfight at the border that Gregor told me about--but the conflict mostly lies between the Government and Guerillas and it is at least satisfying that they are doing something about it and that the situation is getting better. I did have to put my hands against a bus today and be searched...why, I don`t know...but at least they`re working at it.

Out of Cali now, and on to Armenia, which is the largest city in coffee country. The first thing I noticed when I got into town (other than that my backpack was mysteriously wet and that this place is so not touristy that it isn`t even listed in the Lonely Planet....which is nice) was the disproportionate amount of really good (I sampled a few...the return of Breadboy is full on) bakeries, ice cream shops, and all other things rich in taste. I got onto the scent of this place from a good article in the New York Times and am sure that I will find plenty to do in the surrounding area, from visiting coffee plantations in picturesque little towns to the Coffee National Park. Colombia, between great people and places is giving me no lack of things to do or good times to be had.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Nick Cage!

Other than the beautiful old colonial part of Quito, and the sprawling views rewarded for climbing the valley sides, all I really saw in Quito was rain. I decided to stay in a hostel that I knew would put me back in touch with drunk British, Australian, and Israeli travellers. It did, and the night of my arrival, coincidentally, was also free Rum and Coke night! I was disappointed, however, to find that my unannounced presence was not the cause for celebration but instead R&C night is a tri-weekly event, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Sure it was a good time, as we all drank near poisonous amounts of the stuff, but as Friday came around and the afternoon rain dug in once again, I decided I had had enough of Quito and headed north.

Crossing the equator didn`t make me feel any different, but in fact winter is now becoming spring instead of summer, fall, and I am back in my native hemisphere, not too far from home now. Not that I`ll recognize the change in seasons still for a while as for now the only weather changes depend on your altitude and whether or not it is the rainy season. It is, and as I write this I can hear a big storm rumbling into town.

After a longer trip than expected, we arrived into Tùlcan, on the Ecuadorian side of the border with Colombia. Just as I`ve heard countless "danger" warnings about Ecuador which at this point just annoy me, I`ve heard similarly that the border is pretty nasty. So, I found a hotel which I had read has cable TV in the rooms (which, for $3.50 is not too bad) as I have grown accustomed to searching for Sportscenter in English and The Office to fill the void in some boring places. The next morning, I got on my way...but as I was taking the van to the border I was informed by the fellow border crossers that there is no, hasn`t been any, and will not be any transport in Columbia until Monday because of the elections (today, Sunday). So ten minutes after getting my passport stamped to leave Ecuador I was just about to try to get back in to the country, ironically enough, seeking a safer place to wait out the next two days.

The useless military personnel at the Ecuadorian side, however, were pleased to tell me that I would have to go and get a stamp into, and out of Colombia first before I could get back into Ecuador...and that usually there would have to be a 24-hour period before new stamps could be issued. I knew that I would have similar issues navigating the Colombian entrance and exit within 30 seconds, but after getting my entrance stamp the "stamper" informed me that what I had heard, several times over, was untrue, and that I could still get transport to the North. This didn`t sounds like a great alternative, but neither did going back to Tùlcan to wait, and watch bad movies on in a decision that would surely anger my mother, I said I`ll give it a try.

The women who had initially told me there was no transport, also were talking about how dangerous Colombia gets around election times (more so, that is). They said they were too scared to vote and don`t know anyone who isn`t. "If I did vote, I would run to vote and run home and lock the door," one woman said. They also confirmed, to my delight that the violence against public transport also heightens around elections which is part of the reason that none is aloud on election day itself.

The Guerillas operate, or maybe it`s better to say "control" Southern Columbia, especially the Southeast. One of the most important archaeological sites on the continent is found in this area--the huge monolithic statues of the pre-Incan San Agustín people. These mysterious statues, some 2000-5000 years old, and of which about 500 have so far been excavated, show incredible signs of contact with other continents because of the subjects of their carvings--animals that were never native to South America. Would be pretty incredible to see, right? Not with my American passport--apparently Europeans can go and pass through the Guerilla check-points unscathed, but an American is different and as I was told yesterday, a "prize." (comforting)

So I did find a bus after all, the last one that would go North to Bogota (only one company was running as opposed to the many that normally take the challenge). It is highly recommended to only go through this area during the day, when a Guerilla attack is less likely, my bus was meant to leave at 1pm, but didn`t actually leave until 2...all the while I`m thinking about the impending night time driving to come. Luckily I was only going to go about 6 hours, to the colonial town of Popayàn and therefore shouldn`t have to be driving for long in the dark.

We took off and the drive through these mountains was one of the most beautiful, yet harrowing I`ve yet to experience. A long ways down, and a long ways up. Everytime the bus stopped (frequently) for whatever reason, I was just hoping Guerillas didn`t come on board. I was the only foreigner on the bus, as far as I could tell (which has become the norm as this isn`t high season in Perù or Ecuador...and there is no "high season" for Colombia as ironic as that may sound if you get what I mean), and found myself thinking about taking shelter in the bathroom or thinking of plans to outsmart or somehow fight the Guerillas. I was a bit anxious (as were my fellow passengers) which was responsible for my over-imaginative defense mechanisms.

Finally, after several stops we stopped once more. After 15 minutes the bus driver informed us that there was a (another, damn it) landslide ahead and we would wait here until news came that it had been cleared. Great! The sun set as we forlornly sat by the bus, all discussing the perils that lie ahead. The woman from whom I bought a coke actually offered for me to stay with her instead of going ahead...but I actually didn`t have enough money converted into the Colombian currency was only 3 more hours! I luckily (or unluckily, depending on how you see it) had only three hours left, while the rest had many more. But once past Popayàn the Guerilla risk was also substantially decreased.

We all got back on board and started off again, a nervous vibe in the air but mixed with Colombian laughter and joking in the face of it.

[Here begins my rant, which although not relevant, kept me entertained for hours on the bus] You know that blue disinfectant stuff that they use in bus bathrooms? I would like to meet the genius who did the cost/benefit analysis on that one. I would prefer to be left with the smell of whatever is left behind in the bathroom, rather than the overly pungent formaldehyde smell that, with a sharp turn or inevitable opening of the door, is let out for everyone else`s enjoyment. Covering up a bad smell with one much more offensive is not a good strategy. And although I think disinfectant is probably unnecessary anyway (who actually touches anything in those bathrooms? worried about the birth of airborne diseases?), why not use alcohol, it`s a disinfectant and doesn`t have a bad smell.

I think everyone was getting a good whiff and the fast corners and quick braking of a seemingly nervous driver also did not help the rising level of nauseousness. The guy sitting next to me however, seemed oblivious to these conditions, and would scare me every time we went around a sharp corner and his head would thud against the glass of the bus. It sounded like it hurt, and I actually wondered if he was alive until he answered with signs of life that came from neither a snoring nose or a wheezing mouth. I think it actually improved the smell of the bus, though.

A guy sitting in front of me and on the other side of the aisle (where, unfortunately there was a little trashcan fastened to his seat that everyone sort of kicked as they walked into the bus) was quite the character. One eye veered towards center, covered by large, scratched square frame glasses, overlooking a permanently gaping mouth and a Puma jacket that had seen better days. He was nice enough, but not the brightest of I realized when he was directing the incoming line of traffic onto the bus (incidentally, a one way bus aisle), from my seat earlier in the day.

He was not doing too well with the aforementioned smell/motion duo, and a burp unfortunately turned into something that spilled down the front of his jacket. The guy sitting next to him cleared out once he realized what was happened, and our friend sailed out of his seat, first stepping in the little trash can, then emptying what was left in his mouth, into it en route to the bathroom. As he came back to his seat (taking off the jacket now revealed a glow-in-the-dark Rosary...take from that what you will), he found that his seat buddy was now in a new seat with his girlfriend (unfortunately, much larger than he) on his lap.

The bus ride continued like this, with our little friend having a few more trips to the bathroom...the first time he again stepped into the same trash can in which he had previously relieved himself...until I safely, and with relief (not because of the Guerillas) got off the bus in Popayàn.

The relief of disembarking also came from escaping the seemingly unending chain of Nicholas Cage movies (a step up from the inevitable Stephen Segal or Jean-Claude Van Damme movie that graced the screens of buses throughout Perú and Ecuador), which up to this point consisted of "Faceoff" and "Windtalkers," probably two of his more violent movies and surely meant to calm the nerves (as the sight of automatic weapons and face transplants amidst Guerrilla Warfare normally does) of the passengers. In an ironic twist I arrived to my hotel and fell asleep to "City of Angels," starring Nicholas Cage, but a much more peaceful version.

This morning was nice, walking around the colonial city that they say is the most beautiful in Colombia. Voting was going on, oblivious to any danger and the people all seemed quite happy to be participating the democratic process. Now, however, is a bit different as the afternoon rains have commenced, I foolishly checked into a new hotel today without TV, and the feeling of travelling alone is pretty strong. My book will have to keep me company tonight, then tomorrow the buses start back up and it`s on to Cali, which is Colombia´s third largest city, and at one time it´s most dangerous and drug infested...but I hear it´s pretty nice now!


Shortcuts don`t always prove short...or easy, and this is the experience that I had just a few days ago (now, quite a few).

After biking 60km (mostly downhill) in the morning from Baños to Puyo, along a route that has several stops to see, hike to, or take a cable car to waterfalls, I decided that I would try what was described to me as a good (the word adrenaline was used) descent to Baños. I used the detail lacking map that had been given to me and started to ride up the back side of the mountain in order to get to the trail. After going up quit a ways and by this time sufficiently tired...the road ended. And a look across the valley below revealed another road...the right one. I didn`t have the energy to turn around, so I thought I would just simply cut across the valley. I knew it wouldn`t be that easy, but it looked better than the alternative. So I started down the landslide which created the only semi-passable route down to the stream (another looming problem). A few 10-12 foot drops weren`t too easy to navigate (the bike took more punishment than the normal day rental usually gives it), but were only a precursor to what was to come. After getting down to the stream without any serious falls I was sure of two things, one that I could no way make it back up carrying the bike, and two...that the hardest part was behind me. I was wrong. Crossing the "stream" was an issue and it took a while of walking (in what ended up the opposite direction, but also the only option) to find a place where I could just barely throw the bike across (without it being swept downstream) and where I could just barely jump across without meeting the same fate (incidentally, right above a little, but nasty looking waterfall). I made it, the bike made it, and together (bike on my back), I ventured into what would become one of the most physically challenging things I have ever done.

At first it was OK...the uneven ground was sufficiently covered by plants, so that every step was a surprise, be it rock, hole, or something in between. The bamboo/sugar cane like plants were thin enough at this point so I could make it to the cliff that led up to the order to confirm that I had no chance of climbing it with the bike in one arm. So I walked towards the area where I remember seeing that the cliff gradually subsided...and I should be able to make it up to the road. However, the walking became quite a bit more difficult at this point. The aforementioned obstruction/plant (which were a uniform 10 feet high) became impassably thick and were joined in their efforts by vines and small trees. At one point I had to just push them down and crawl over the recently bushwacked as well as the dead ones which made up a 4ft high, sharp and difficult undergrowth. Crawling through wasn`t easy (occasionally hitting a hole and falling either head or legs first into the mess that was under me) and I knew that it would be more difficult when I went back to get the bike (I had to do several scouting/bushwacking mini-expeditions without the bike...). Finally I did it all over again, with the bike...clearing a path hopefull big enough to get the bike through while I decided that handle bar extensions (which caught every vine, branch, etc, etc) were the worst invention...ever.

It took about an hour to go 50m...with no end in sight the whole time and just hoping that I found a passable route before it got dark. It was bad, and I looked horrible when I came out...clothes changed to a green and brown from all the contact with the plants, dripping in sweat, and cut all over. In my foolish optimism, I actually tried to keep going up towards the top! But after about 100m I realized how tired I was...and road down the road. The driver of the bus that I eventually caught back to Baños actually seemed concerned (although not enough to keep him from over-charging me) from my appearance. It was officially one of the worst shortcuts I have ever taken...I`m just happy no one else had to endure that with me...and nobody was there to be angry at what would have surely been my insistence that we take the "short cut." Anyhow, I made it out and decided that between that and Machu Picchu, I had had enough of a "jungle experience" for my whole trip.

The hot springs, however, that night was the best hot spring experience of all time. This place was good, complete with hot and cold baths, as well as a firehose strength cold-water shower. Very nice.

The next day I settled my debts in Baños and it was onward, through the blinding rain, to Quito.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Three-Legged Horses

It`s been a while and I think part of the lack of communication is the downer that was Perù. So far my least favorite country, although, there were some times worth mentioning--and hanging out with Dan (Kankles) was a good time for sure.

After almost getting robbed on the way to Lima, Kankles (according to the Urban Dictionary, "Calves that become feet without taking an ankle break") and I took it extremely easy in Lima, me getting over the Cholera (yes, I had Cholera) from the cebiche I had eaten and Kankles resting his Machu Picchu`d kankles. We watched two or three movies a day, Kanks talked to his girlfriend and I drank a lot of water. And that was Lima.

On to the Cordillera Blanca which should have been called the Cordillera Nublada...because instead of being white it was just cloudy. Highlights of Huaraz: the girl that fell in love with Dan (Chinito), and getting in a full blown water fight with a middle-aged traditionally dressed Andean woman...only to realize too late that it was an trap/ambush and a bucket of water came down on me from the rooftop above. I got her good, however. Huaraz was amazing for that, as it was the last day of Carnaval the town was transformed into an all-out war zone with rooftop bucket bombs and balloon snipers, gangs of water-wielding teenagers (they came toward us screaming "Gringos!" but luckily weren`t too well stocked up on water), and the aforementioned shop-owners turned traitors. It was quite a scene, and no one escaped the line of fire. As we caught our minivan to the mountain lagoon the driver and co-pilot hustled us into the van as if we were in a scene from Patriot Games and the mortar rounds and rooftop fly-by-wire missile launchers were bound to get us if we stopped for too long. Needless to say we were pelted by buckets of water the whole hour and a half ride and one bucket of water actually caught the driver in the face as we were doing about 60mph...all fun n` games.

The ride back was the real story. For the entire hour and a half we had over 30 people in a minivan (really those Toyota vans with the engine under the seat)! The worst part, however, was that one of our fellow passengers decided to bring her furry friends. Two kittens were suffocating in a plastic grocery produce bag as Dan took them away from her and held them on his lap (while I sneezed). Her dog was loose and running around under the seats...then(!) we hear a cluck...and sure enough two roosters pop out of a canvas bag that she was carrying. It`s funny now...not so much then.

Kanks and I parted ways after two nights in Huaraz, he back to Lima and I onward to Trujillo. I immediately got out to Huanchaco, the beach town, where things were better, a decent hostel, some nice people (one being the 7-time Trujillo surf champ) good food and some great Pacific sunsets. The waves were good, too, shoulder to head high, but I mistakenly thought I couldn`t get access to any money to surf so I packed it in and said I would surf Màncora where the water is warmer and only another 6 hours up the coast. And how wrong I was!!! I got into Màncora, and the Pacific Ocean looked more like Lake Pacific, literally, it was pacified and flat. So you win some and you loose some...and I lost that one. Hopefully I`ll be redeemed in Columbia.

Spent 14 hours on buses yesterday and well worth it to get me out of Peru! Away from the hastle and hustle that had made me weary of travelling, and really of people in general. Dan and I were both a bit disgruntled the whole time we travelled Perù as the people just managed to get under the both of our skins. But he`s flying to Buenos Aires (I`m jealous) today and I`m in Ecuador.

Hello Ecuador, good to meet you. Everyone I`ve met so far has warned me that Ecuador is dangerous, which is fine, but I`m accidentally carrying a little too much cash right now which has left me a bit paranoid. Should be fine, though. I was riding the bus here and I noticed the music the bus driver was jamming up front. As I read the Lonely Planet they described Ecuadorian music to the tee, and so as I don`t give that book credit for much I will credit it with this clever description: the beat of Ecuadorian music is like a galloping three-legged horse. It`s so true...and bad. But other than the music, which I was expecting to be similarly poor as it was in Perù and Bolivia, and the amazingly high concentration of drunks (also similar to the southern neighbors), Ecuador is OK so far and I`m happy to be here. Right now I`m in the touristy town of Baños (translations: Bathrooms...or Baths probably more accurately) from which I plan to explore this part of the Andes.

Some pictures:

"Enjoying" the ruins

Dan, contemplating higher things (Vanessa)

A shamelessly posed photo-op

"This hike is great!"...then the sun set

An unenthusiastic midnight arrival

Kanks testing his mental tenacity--with dissapointing results

River crossing that Dan and I had just completed seconds before...thank God

All smiles(!) as we began what would become the fruit truck ride from hell

Dan and I in sandboarding and dunebuggying heaven...and check out his sweet shades


Sunday, February 26, 2006

Peru is a Stomach Ache

Not too much to write about which will at least make this one a bit less of the novel that my last few entries have become.

Dan and I left Arequipa on a bus in which our seats just barely reclined...needless to say it was necessary to take a nap once we arrived in Huacachina. A little green oasis set upon a lagoon and surrounded by mountains of sand, Huacachina is the most "Savannah" like place that I've ever been. Uninspired, we sat by the pool and read until our 4:30 dune-buggy/sandboarding debut. Dune-buggies are fun, there is no doubt about that, and our ride was like a roller-coaster. Sandboarding is fun too, same concept as snowboarding but slower, a bit different technique, and harder falls. The three of us in the buggy came to the consensus that it was more fun to go straight down, head first and to see who had the courage to minimize their drag the most and therefore go the fastest. Then a great sunset over the desert (and a chicken farm in the the desert, our guide told us, to keep them away from disease) and we returned through darkness to our oasis.

Peru has a lot of tourist trap type places; the type of places that the guide says is good and people suggest, but only because there is nothing else that is more exciting to do. So we took off for Paracas, home of the "poor man's Galapagos," which was sure to be a let down and at least in that regard it didn't fail us.

Sea lions, thousands of birds, amongst which we saw a few penguins...and that was it. Let down and ripped off we started our journey to Lima. Only a 3 hour bus ride or so, but could have proved much worse.

I got on the bus and Dan stayed outside until our luggage was safely under the bus and locked away. As I got on the bus a guy passed and told me to put my stuff up top (we were so frustrated with Peruvians at that point that any word was taken with resentment and definite suspicion), then as I couldn't find two seats next to each other he asked a woman in the second to last row, without our knowledge, to get up so that we could sit there. A bit bewildered, we sat down with these guys (we found out later there were 2 involved) behind us. I felt a splash on the back of my legs and looked down to see that water had been spilled on the floor behind us. A few miles down the road Dan realized he'd put his backpack in the water and the guy's behind quickly suggested that some kid had peed on the floor and that he should put his backpack above his head (so they could steal it). A good scam, but we were well onto it by then and after exchanging a few strong words they got off the bus at the next stop...presumably to do the same scam on the way back.

And now we're in Lima, where a serious lapse in judgement from Arequipa has limited our weekend activities to movies, frequent naps, and staying close to the bathroom. Had I been alone I would have never eaten ceviche (raw fish) in a dirty market in an inland city...but Dan loves the stuff and I had yet to try it. So seeing as quite a few other people were eating it and having a bit too much confidence in my stomach...I got myself into the situation in which I now find myself. We splurged and ate some Fridays and Papa Johns, hoping American food would somehow clear things up...after the food coma that came along with eating Fridays, we still find ourselves entrenched in the apartment.

And that's it. Next move is it to the Cordillera Blanca (second highest mountain range) and Huaraz, then onto the largest left-hand wave in the world at Trujillo. I'll be in touch.