Amazonia: Getting to the Heart of Things Part II (Entry #19)

28 Jun

On the Anna Beatriz IV

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This is a formidable river ship we’ve boarded, much longer than the Anna Karoline and at least twice as wide besides. An entire extra deck of hammock hooks means that our views will be significantly elevated and the amount of raw, human mass is easily quadrupled. We load ourselves just as the crates of green bananas pass inside. We will all be ripening quickly on our three day push to Manaus. Along with the bananas are packed boxes of cabbages surrounded by the merciful mask of pungent aroma afford by several tons of citrus. A sound system, too, and motorcycle are added to our cargo hold.

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A deck above, and a world removed, reveals a similar cacophony of snack hawkers, tumbling children, men on laptops or shaving with a hand mirror, old women lounging professionally and a general milieu of mini-missions and sub-plots leading feet to cross paths and an organic atmosphere of relaxed chaos to take root.

A deck above this sits your loyal scribe, extending his sense throughout the ship in order to puzzle thru the relevant details and find a communicable cohesion. To his back swings a few limp hammocks and some filled. Before departure the chaos will spread here as well, like a diffuse gas under pressure. A deck above this one, and the final surface to be enumerated, all is still still. Paint cans huddle in a corner, the lifeboats cling to each other in constant emergency orange and the round tables stand empty and bolted vertical.

No kites shimmer farewell, a spiral of vultures will have to suffice. Nobody waves goodbye from shore, but the railings fill all the same with quiet gazes outwards. These passengers are taking advantage of the chance to see something disappear. There will be plenty of time later for peering inwards, to observe the shores of self and witness the things departing there too.

This is decidedly a different river flowing beneath a different boat. It’s so large we stay far from shore. Less apt to observing the wildlife, we turn further inwards. Friendly brasileiros buy us food and beers, dealing cards and trading knowing winks whenever a young woman passes by. But the time for those nights have passed for us. We simply desire a peaceful river trip to take advantage of, before this chapter of our lives fades to a dream.

Hanging out top deck after Tyler lost a bunch of money in a card game we never fully understood.

Hanging out top deck after Tyler lost a bunch of money in a card game we never fully understood.

Strangely enough, we come across yet another fellow who's nickname was Obama. I think the Colombian Obama is far more convincing, but you be the judge.

Strangely enough, we come across yet another fellow who’s nickname was Obama. I think the Colombian Obama is far more convincing, but you be the judge.

Tyler practices meditation to still his restlessness, his need to count down to the next big thing. No need to anticipate. Enjoy the quiet before the storm. He meditates for five minutes before slumping back, asleep. I pick up where he leaves off.

At times like this, when moving thru the epilogue of one’s voyage, a last ditch ambition can prompt a stab at the Big Question, looming elusively at the periphery of every traveler’s itinerary. Why do this at all? For me especially, why drive myself further into debt for some wild goose chase far from home?

The Big Why

“The first question you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, ‘what is the use of climbing Mount Everest?’ and my answer at once must be, ‘It is no use’. There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behaviour of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It’s no use. So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live. That is what life means and what life is for.”
-George Mallory

“Everybody is looking after everybody else so beautifully that nobody has any fun at all.”
-Alan Watts

I wouldn’t compare what we did to climbing Everest. We weren’t completing a first in any big category, although thru its own contingent intricacies this trip was a first in the world. Still, the same economically useless urges to break the monotonous cycle of birth-work-death that compelled Mallory to make a blitz for the peak also inspired me to set out for South America.

“The need to extend the self in time and space—the need to create in order to live, to breathe, and to be—precedes, indeed, of necessity exceeds, the need for self-reproduction as a personal survival function.”
-Edith Cobb

It’s never been too mysterious, really. The long answer is we wanted to see what the people down here were up to, to make the abstract real and dive into the map, to read amazing books during an extended stay outside of routine and enjoy incredible food. We wanted to spend our money in the best way we could imagine while young, to see what it was like to travel with a friend, to cross a continent overland and to grow our capacity as human beings. In the spirit of Rolf Potts, we wanted to vagabond.

The short answer is that I am Curious George peering at the universe within Mary Poppins’ handbag. This is the next tattoo I’m getting, and what it depicts has been my lifelong condition. A friend of mine plans on incorporating the Vonnegut quote “So it goes…” into his tattoo design. To me, this is that quote made visual. 

Philosophy thru visual symbology, this is the second draft of a very complex tattoo I hope to get this year.

Travel, in the broadest sense of the word, has always been the most effective means of discovering the size of the world and our limited place on it. More than that, however, travel uncovers the vastnesses within ourselves, teaching us how to extend these immensities towards the remote corners of the world we thought no one could feel at home in. And when we find ourselves at home in another’s home, we find we feel like a child of the universe, which we are. Even as we forget names and numbers, this is something to remember. As I’ve said before and will say again:

Matter doesn’t matter much
in fact, not much matters
but what matters matters much

I travel to remember what matters.

I also travel so my writing has somewhere new to go. As you’ve noticed over the past 19 entries, I have a knowledge base a mile wide and an inch deep. Fortunately, wearing the hat of Travel Writer vindicates this flaw and puts it to good use.

“Travel writing is one of the last great “generalist” professions, where you are integrating all this knowledge — geography, history, religion, language, culture, art, literature, music, architecture, ecology, biology, anthropology, sociology, storytelling, politics, philosophy — into one coherent narrative that communicates place and culture to the people back home.”
-Rolf Potts

Writing about people and places in a compelling and accurate way has been a wonderful challenge, but sometimes it’s okay to let them speak for themselves. Over the past five months, I jotted down little sayings I heard people utter briefly in conversation. Usually they were comments that seemed to highlight something quintessential about the speaker, or at least epitomized a mood or belief system with which we’re all familiar.

“Nothing is secure.”
-Linda, housewife married to investment banker

“Some things cannot be measured.”
-Lisa, Dutch student studying organizational anthropology

“I mean you don’t have to get laid if you don’t want to.”
-Johnny, Canadian solo traveler into partying

“There is a demon within every bottle of vodka.”
-Joana, Brazilian lawyer

“It was safer to buy coke in Rio than Coca-Cola in Bolivia.”
-Jack, Aussie traveler

“With women, attitude gives you latitude.”
-Victor, 16 year-old Brazilian aspiring wrestler

“There are no borders, only those we make for ourselves.”
-Edu, Moldovan wanderer in Paraguay

“What quantum physics shows is that matter is mostly space, so this is all an illusion.”
-Tom, Canadian New Age nut

“Scratch a cynic and you’ll discover a disappointed idealist.”
-Jeff, New Zealand ambassador to Guyana and black death metal enthusiast

I found one more a few weeks ago when speaking to a good friend. He’d been earning fast money and dating plenty of women, but found himself confessing “I’m not the hero of my own story.” This, I realized, is another reason I travel. It affords me the feeling of full autonomy-even as certain privileges and rights may be taken away-which is something that can be difficult to achieve while snagged in a work routine, even in a free country. But I am one of the poorest people I know, and this means there’s good news for the envious. They, too, can be the hero of their own story. The first step is booking that one-way ticket.

A month and a half ago I picked up Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari in Peru. Since I returned to Seattle, I purchased his new book, the sequel The Last Train to Zona Verde. In it, Theroux gives his own succinct answer to The Big Why:

“Reading about a far-off place can be a satisfaction in itself, and you might be thankful you’re reading about the bad trip without the dust in your nose and the sun burning your head, not having to endure the unrewarding nuisance and delay of the road. But reading can also be a powerful stimulus to travel. That was the case for me from the beginning. Reading and restlessness — dissatisfaction at home, a sourness at being indoors, and a notion that the real world was elsewhere — made me a traveler. If the Internet were everything it is cracked up to be, we would stay home and be brilliantly witty and insightful. Yet with so much contradictory information available, there is more reason to travel than ever before: to look closer, to dig deeper, to sort the authentic from the fake; to verify, to smell, to touch, to taste, to hear, and sometimes — importantly — to suffer the effects of this curiosity.”

The Paleoichthyologist at the End of the River

Until you zoom in on Google Earth, the Amazon Basin appears to agree with our romanticized view of a last, great stronghold of “pristine,” “untouched,” wilderness where tribes uncontacted by modern man hunt uakari with blow guns amid the buttresses of kapok trees. The reality is so large that this can be true at the same time that Manaus is true.

Need some creamer in your coffee? It takes some time for the two to mix.

Need some creamer in your coffee? It takes some time for the two to mix.

Everyone has heard about the concrete jungle of New York City, but fewer know of the concrete city of the Amazon jungle. Manaus is a city of two million, located at the grand confluence of the Rio Negro and Rio Solimões in the heart of the Amazon. How is this so? The river is so massive, it can accomodate a major port 1,500km inland, and the people here crave the metropolitan lifestyle and jungle at the same time. We saw the barges, stacked four in a line in front of a chugging tug. They must easily stretch over 1,000ft. long, so huge they only move in daylight. This is how Manaus can maintain itself as “The Paris of the Amazon,” though that nickname seems pretty outdated at this point.

The slums of Manaus greet the traveler coming from Santarem.

The slums of Manaus greet the traveler coming from Santarem.

Even so, for a very brief period during the Belle Epoque Manaus was a force to be reckoned with. This is largely due to Charles Goodyear, who developed a method of vulcanizing rubber, and John Dunlop, who patented the rubber tire. Rubber prices soared when tires began to be widely used. Rubber barons paid for the ticket, food and tools of any plantation worker who would come tap the rubber trees. Many did come, and their enormous debt made them a type of slave to a horrible master. Meanwhile the money kept making its way over from Europe and the barons kept buying rococo frills, making Manaus “one of the gaudiest cities in the world.”

“One historian has written, ‘No extravagance, however absurd, deterred’ the rubber barons. ‘If one rubber baron bought a vast yacht, another would install a tame lion in his villa, and a third would water his horse on champagne.'”
-Wikipedia

It gets better:

“Within a few short years Manaus had Brazil’s first telephone system, 16 miles of streetcar tracks, and an electric grid for a city of a million, though it had a population of only 40,000. Vast fortunes were made by individuals, and ‘flaunting wealth became sport. Rubber barons lit cigars with $100 bank notes and slaked the thirst of their horses with silver buckets of chilled French champagne. Their wives, disdainful of the muddy waters of the Amazon, sent linens to Portugal to be laundered…They ate food imported from Europe…[and] in the wake of opulent dinners, some costing as much as $100,000, men retired to any one of a dozen elegant bordellos.’ The citizens of Manaus ‘were the highest per capita consumers of diamonds in the world.'”

But once an Englishman carried a few rubber tree seeds to England, and later they were planted in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Malaysia, the boom busted. And boy did it bust! The barons lost their wealth and the opera house, or Teatro Amazonas, was left to decay for over 80 years. Manaus had been electrified before most European cities were, but suddenly nobody could pay for the generators. Southeast Asian countries grew and harvested rubber more effectively, destroying the Brazilian market. Synthetic rubber was developed later, which further eroded the need. This was all great news for the Amerindians, who were dying by the thousands in one of history’s most despicable industries. But in terms of wealth, Manaus had peaked.

All the wealth had flowed out with the river by 1912, the same year the “unsinkable ship” kissed rock bottom. Suddenly the dry season meant something again. Like many other fallen angels, Manaus lives under the shadow of a greatness that faded 100 years ago. Only by careful attention by curators, historians, painters and their ilk are these roses of a bygone era protected against the weeds of cheap construction and tinfoil ideals. They really don’t build ‘em like they used to. But here at least they keep them as they used to be, whether it’s out of embarrassment at the bubble bursting or as a cautionary tale against frivolity.

Today, though it has begun renovating many of its rubber boom buildings, Manaus is not exactly a jewel of the Amazon. The waterfront lies never far away, but you’d hardly know it given the layout of the city, which mostly centers around the resuscitated Teatro Amazonas.

On our way to our target hostel, we experience the competitive nature of tourism in the number one destination in the Amazon. Maximilian is a fast talker and strikes me as a fairly slimy dude, but he promises cheap rooms and free internet. Rather than accompany us one block to the front desk, he points the way before disappearing. Of course, the prices are much higher, the internet is not free and they do not in fact do laundry here. It could have been worse if we hadn’t turned down his offer to head into the jungle for four days. “Two Italian girls just signed up. Very nice! Big tits!” He holds his hands to his chest to help paint a picture of what we could be dealing with. With his record, though, chances are it’s two transvestites with chlamydia who failed out of Italian 20 years ago. Gotta be careful where you throw your money in this city.

This type of scamming is extremely common here, given the fact that Manaus has become the Machu Picchu of the jungle. Flocks of wealthy patrons fly in from around the world, having been romanced by the mystique of the exotic, which is perpetuated by every dreamer. But observe the soaring hotels and read about the elaborate hijinks that have evolved in order to capture a piece of the pie: men who dress up as reputable guides, fake negative reviews to mar the good standing of any competition with integrity. You name it, it’s happened. Even those things you wouldn’t normally name.

One of the things I don’t normally name awaits me at breakfast our second morning here. His name is Niels, and he is a paleoichthyologist. “I study fish fossils, but I’ve done all sorts of reading about dinosaurs as well.” Fantastic, I think, as I pour myself another cup of coffee. Niels is a 72 year-old retired scientist, a professor emeritus from Copenhagen who’s been publishing papers on fossils since the 60s. With upturned eyebrows suggestive of benevolent wizardry, Niels is one of the most cheerful men I know with a refreshingly precise mind and a lifetime’s worth of knowledge to draw from. I am delightfully smitten to spend the morning hearing about how he is “disrupting the field of freshwater fish.”

He came here, you see, to give a lecture on two species of large, ancient fish living in the Amazon, the arapaima and another one we had eaten just the other day. The current thinking goes that these fish are true freshwater species and did not evolve from any oceanic species. But Niels says he has examined fossils in Denmark of a huge, extinct species that lived in saltwater and is remarkably similar to these fish from the Amazon. The implications would overturn many long held beliefs. How wonderful.

He also tells me that there are many authenticated cases of the candiru, the penis fish, swimming up a human penis. Taking his word for it (with some doubt still lingering deep down), I stand corrected and safely cautioned. How many cups of coffee have I gone through? All I know is I have been craving this type of conversation, where tedious details are enumerated with good cheer, where the world’s splendor is woven together in ticklish stories of a far reaching nature. In other words, it is the type of conversation I have unloaded on you, my silent reader, for the past five months.

Niels tells me about meeting the late, great Steven J. Gould once in the 60s and again 30 years later, how Italy gave France a massive fossil bed in return for Napolean’s protection from Austria. He speaks of the fiery politics surrounding paleoanthropology and how everybody wants to claim they’ve found the direct ancestor of man. He chuckles at these perennial foibles and asks me what I do. Though I’m sure his interest is sincere, I do my best to get past my own history and interests as soon as possible so I can ask him more questions about this esoteric world he moves thru so freely.

I wonder what it is like to be married, retired and free to travel as an established and respected scientist. Many dread the thought of going from lecture to conference, from museum to symposium, but I think of the company he must keep and the doors that are opened to Niels when he travels. It’s certainly one approach to get a behind-the-tour look at a place, and a way to stay active and relevant thru old age. His company makes me feel a strong wave of saudade for the grandfather who died before I could meet him.

We share a meal with Niels inside a restaurant with a dull exterior. The food ends up being so on point we leave a solid tip that confuses the owner. Manaus is excellent for food, whether it’s rodizio at a churrascaria or their unique tacacá, a jungle hot and sour soup I often order outside the operahouse. Live music plays, reminding me that Brazil pumps out some fantastic tunes, and I end up getting three bowls of soup in a row.

A Symphonic Insanity

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Tonight is one of our final evenings in South America, and a Brazilian symphony from somewhere far away is playing for free at the operahouse. We don our nicest attire, which isn’t much, and step in a line that must form some type of simulacrum of the old days. The opera! The grande ole opry! Oh my, Herr Shöneberg, how oppressively hot my bosom has become! I simply must find my pearl-handled fan or I may faint before the conductor even begins!

Back in the day foreign opera troupes would arrive to give the rubber barons a big show. Often half the troupe would succumb to yellow fever. Not only that, the operahouse, built in 1896, was fitted with a capacity for only 700 people, which is the same as installing a self-destruct switch. There was no way theater tickets could ever economically pay for the absurd price tag that comes with importing Murano glass chandeliers from Venice, ironwork from Glasgow,  maple, walnut, oak and mahogany fitted together as fancy flooring without any nails or glue. And that right there is why the operahouse has become the overall word to the wise in Manaus. Dream big, but integrate your dream with reality.

Some rich guy was a fan of Mr. Eiffel himself, and had the ceiling painted as if the audience was sitting beneath his famous tower.

Some rich guy was a fan of Mr. Eiffel himself, and had the ceiling painted as if the audience was sitting beneath his famous tower.

Inside, while resting my chin upon the velvet clad railing, I watche the musicians dressed in black make their clamor of noise and tuning for a brief eternity before disappearing and reappearing to patient applause.

The conductor strikes me as a broken broker on Wall St. who has lost everything in a sudden crash and gone insane. Now he is locked up somewhere, shivering in a straightjacket painting in his head an extravagantly vivid hallucination of order. A hallucination we have all been dragged into, in a jungle operahouse far from New York.

When he encourages the oboes, they gain heart and play. Delightful. A bit of nudging towards the strings and lo! they heed his call. His lips pucker with growing confidence. But will the thunder in the back obey? A jab with his stick. Yes! Even better, he can toss tempests with a bend in the elbow and a flick of the wrist! What was it he did before this? Who cares! The cellos sing and the flutes are swooning. One violinist is a hunchback, but his bow hangs on the tip of every whim of our mad conductor. When the crescendo rises and falls, the spell is not broken but fully cast.

The tragicomedy of the world’s dramas pass across his face. The suggestion, perhaps, of a sick girl dying, a grand entrance of nobles on horseback, bombs falling thru clouds, bombs landing on crowds, a thief stealing a string of pearls and the hint of a fat man tumbling down a spiral staircase. The greatest achievements of fallen giants are his to release, and at his discretion. A tension runs through his temple as the tempo increases and the music soars. The planet is rattling, verging on the edge of collapse. Patterns develop needs of their own, rhythms pull nearly away from pinched fingertips, but by some last second reserve he’s holding it all together with a staunch gravitas tucked behind a turned in chin. Silence strikes like lightning. The cable of nerves running between his shoulder blades extend again. A smile breaks like dawn. Applause is his proof of control. Somewhere, far away in a windowless padded room, a shivering man breathes easier.

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And that’s pretty much what happened in South America. Plenty was left out, a requirement of every story, and I didn’t have time to get to every cool idea, like how our consciousness is a pattern that can be copied onto different media, which means that if our technology rises to the challenge, you literally could exist outside your body. But that just means I’ll have to travel again soon to explore further the acts on view in this flamboyant and comprehensive circus of ours.

On our flight to Rio from Manaus, a naked boy with Down’s Syndrome runs up and down the aisles of our plane, a sanguine flight attendant smiling down upon this unnerving chaos. He’s too old for this to make sense, but just retarded enough to hush any proprietary yelps. If an albatross is a bad omen for a ship’s voyage, what in the hell could this mean for us? The answer isn’t at all immediately clear, but I have a few extended flights ahead of me, and a lifetime leftover to consider such things.

Our digressions mapped geographically.

Our digressions mapped geographically.

Amazonia: Getting to the Heart of Things Part I (Entry #19)

27 Jun

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How could an accumulation of adjectives or a richness of epithets help when one is faced with that splendiforous thing? Besides, any true reader – and this story is only addressed to him – will understand me anyway when I will look him straight in the eye and try to communicate my meaning. A short sharp look or a light clasp of his hand will stir him into awareness, and he will blink in rapture at the brilliance…for, under the imaginary table that separates me from my readers, don’t we secretly clasp each other’s hands?
-Bruno Shulz, Sanitorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass

Like a River

Nobody knows how big the Amazon River is. Sure, there are large numbers involving cubic meters per second, but only computers can make use of those. For the rest of us, it may as well be an infinity. A smaller infinity, to be sure, than the number of stars in our galaxy, but a number never the less beyond any reasonable conception.

River metaphors have always had the easiest go of it, this whole job of describing life, that is. Because things just tend to flow one thing into the next like a hip hop cypher. Or a river can be used to understand a continuum, the way no one could really take a boat to the mouth, point to the Atlantic on one side and the Amazon on the other. It’s all one unbroken body of water, with a name for every distinct purpose.

Rivers inspire spiritual epiphanies. Siddhartha’s river lesson had to do with the moment and its sacredness, with change and its engine: time. “You cannot step twice into the same river for fresh waters are ever flowing upon you,” says the river boatman. They inspire big business. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, “wanted a name for his company that began with ‘A’ so that it would appear early in alphabetic order. He began looking through the dictionary and settled on ‘Amazon’ because it was a place that was ‘exotic and different’ and it was one of the biggest rivers in the world, as he hoped his company would be.” And rivers come up in politics too, as when Nikita Kruschev observed “Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build bridges even when there are no rivers.”

Analogies seem to stick to rivers like raindrops do. We can’t just take it as it comes, it has to be like something else. A river is an obstacle (for the hiker), a highway (for our boat or for fish), or an ecosystem or a drainpipe or expensive real estate. But what is it really? There is no answer to that, surprisingly. All thought and all language is analogy, says Douglas Hofstadter, and when you think about it, it’s true. Or rather, it’s like something that’s true. A river is understood one facet at a time, and the largest of them all has many.

Santana’s Golden Reality

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“The hour when everything is beautiful.”
-The San People

In that “magic hour,” as a past girlfriend of mine used to chime, when all the scenery submits to a golden gilt it may never have earned, a field of kites rise. From the third deck of the Anna Karoline I watch them gain height, like a squadron of fighters. When they cross the line of gold glimmering with pride, the puppeteers give them a dance. Like fevered sea monkies, their frilled tails curve and whip and bend over themselves. Somewhere, below, young boys stand entranced and nimble. The cool air channels down the Amazon, making this the Hour of Kites, a magical hour indeed that barely preceds the waves of mosquitoes, those winged demon kites to which nobody holds the line.

And in this way the port town of Santana, just down the road from Macapá, holds control until the last fleck of gold leaves the last smear of cloud, when the last pair of kites have tangled and spun in a death plunge to the careless waters waiting. But there too lies their one chance to travel further than any boy could send them.

The Anna Karoline detaches like a somnolent, drifting log, pausing uncertainly and shivering as one who prepares for her first step on a long hike. Then she spies a child’s homemade kite behind her, and heads upriver. The two part ways, the kite to see what the river becomes, the boat to chase the sunset for the sheer thrill of it.

Slivers of the Big River

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Onwards we put-putter, following a course of the river’s choosing, released for once from the bonds of efficacy which hold the reigns of every civil engineer. Far from proving dull, life on the Anna Karoline varies hourly. Nearly thirty of us have concocted a tangled jungle of hammocks and hooks. Climbing into mine is an intimate affair, as the space between the edge of my hammock and that of my neighbor’s has been squeezed and pushed elsewhere. We are practically spooning, and any adjustment of limbs (and a hammock demands several) requires a cruel disruption of sleep down the line, a domino effect I precipitate every time my bladder rebels.

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In the Amazon dawn Tyler spots his first river dolphin, and later that day I spot mine. Far more often, however, I notice tough guys tossing garbage overboard, their analogy for the river is obviously ‘a landfill.’ There are two types of river dolphin in the Western Hemisphere, pink and grey. As for careless assholes, there has only ever been one type. Their brains are made of cheap beer and cigarrette tar, with only trace amounts of empathy. They’re the reason the baiji, or Chinese river dolphin, faded to oblivion seven years ago. The toughest part about being an atheist isn’t knowing that there’s no life after death, it’s realizing most thoughtlessness is never corrected for. There’s no Hell for assholes, only light sentences and willing women. But this river trip means more to me than to them, and all the scummy forró music in the world-and the crew seems capable of fitting nearly half of it into each day-can’t change that. Still, I can’t fully trust someone who cannot take out their garbage.

A shifting world full of dynamism calls from starboard. Little fishermen’s huts stand alone on stilts, their curious fish traps scattered along the swollen banks. Egrets wait on logs, and surprisingly large clumps of grass and lilies regularly break off and sail away, rippling like magic carpets. Sometimes the far bank is close enough to pick out the porch of a remote shack. Other times only a vague silhouette of greenery is visible. I didn’t believe it when I’d first heard it years ago, but there really are places so wide the far bank disappears entirely over the curvature of the earth, even from a vantage point 20ft above the water. Though we experience this during the wet season, with the water level over thirty feet higher, there are points this wide even during the dry season.

Music, books and gazing can take up a lot of time.

Music, books and gazing can take up a lot of time.

The riverbank, usually flat and dense, will open out to flooded grasslands where cows swim, nibbling leaves from the protruding saplings. Then it will close in again and rise up on a massif several hundred feet high. Vast power lines, the largest I’ve ever seen, span the Amazon here. Towers higher than Columbia Center, the tallest skyscraper in North America west of Chicago, support these cables and march north to provide power to Macapá and Manaus. Still other times our young captain will veer into the narrows between an island and the bank, and our river journey encloses us in an envelope of jungle life.

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We stop briefly at a tiny village to exchange passengers and goods and we purchase a block of cheese from a man making his rounds among the hammocks. What a lovely way to spend a sunny day on the river, munching crackers with tuna, cheese and hot sauce. Sure beats the piddly meals cooked below, above the engine room. Always a grab bag, the cook seems to toss spaghetti, rice and meat into every possible combination: one. Supplemental snacks are a must, though pleasantly a bug net is not. The skeeters must not buzz out this far over flowing water.

I spend my hours at the railing, passing whole villages arrayed along a flooded bank like a tropical Waterworld, their stubby satellite dishes peering hopeful and skyward, torn between the fact of their remoteness and the common impulse to connect. These amphibious cottages speak to the reality that rivers of a certain magnitude begin to swell above the rules of what a river should be. The Amazon becomes pocked with grass clumps, they coalesce and establish a tangle in tall trees. This mass grows large enough for humans to take note and consider calling it an island. In this way the Amazon is split, subdivided and reintegrated downstream. Hardly a normal river, the Amazon is more a common theme repeated and witnessed for 4,000 miles.

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Borrowing sugar becomes an odyssey for some of these river dwellers.

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Bring your galoshes on Sunday!

Bring your galoshes on Sunday!

We spot the tree that had held us transfixed at the botanical garden in Ciudad Bolivar. What is it? No birds touch the fruit, which flower from the branches of a few of them. The bark gleams like a turtle’s shell. In fact there is so much not knowing taking place, we become rooted at the railing, mesmerized completely by this constantly unfolding channel. Upstream river travel is delightfully slower, the boats heading down ride the central current, but we hug the coast. This allows for wildlife viewing. In ten minutes I see a toucan, dolphins, an iguana on a branch, a monkey on a trunk and, I’m convinced, a sloth! When we rejoin the main flow of water and a giant moth nearly flops into my mouth.

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Past a large island of grass, a barge heads towards the Atlantic.

Trace the myriad tongues of this body of water and you can find all manner of uncomfortable issues, from the unforgivable oil spills up in Ecuador, to the construction of the world’s third largest dam complex on the Xingu River. The Belo Monte dam will displace over 20,000 people, and indigenous leaders have travelled as far as Paris protesting the Brazilian government’s crude environmental impact statement. On a more chronic scale, the wet season sweeps disease thru the basin.Creatures unknown to science devour each other in places far from any hospital. But here on the river I fail to frame things any other way than beautiful.

Musings from a Moving Deck

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During our second night the river swells like a drowned cow. Cumulus peaks had been sparking just before the storm hit, creeping over us like the mothership from Independence Day. Now I awaken to a darkened deck. The crew has unfurled the tarps around the entire vessel. The only lookout is from the top, so we take our shower in the open under a soapless torrent. These outbursts don’t last long, so soon the only dripping falls from the canopy, and a full rainbow parabolas wildly as if every other rainbow in the world was nothing more than a captured specimen removed from this flooded Eden, to be displayed in the zoos of lesser downpours.

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And there is the dove and we ride the ark, for it is a view like this one that Noah would have floated by. The difference is that none of these animals are on the boat, and their spectacular shapes and plumage are far too colorful to be mentioned in the dusty Bible.

The New World…only to those who would condescend to its tenants and, at the same time, declare grand plans for filling its “emptiness.” This is the old world separated from itself, not a blank palimpsest but a land utterly teeming. This is where a culture independently invented the wheel but decided to narrow its use to children’s toys.

What to make of that call is tough to say, and perhaps it wouldn’t be politically correct, but neither was the thrusting of the wheel-and everything that rolls along with it-upon a people who had been minding their own business. But that’s history, everything except politically correct.

Cause and effect are eternal, and free will is an illusion, so none of this could have been a lick different and judgment is ultimately superfluous. But so is the judging of the judgment. All that will be done is already implied in the process of doing right now. But fortunately the causes of our thoughts appear to be us, and that may just be enough to build a platform from which to leap out of this esoteric mindfuck and accept the simply straightforward conclusion that South America is a helluva place to be in and you should “choose” to visit soon if any of my understatements have moved you.

Reflecting in this manner, and listening to Blue Sky Black Death’s album Noir, we pull into Santarém. We don’t spend any time in this middle-man of a river city, trading goods between Belém and Manaus and exporting its surplus of soybeans to Europe for chicken feed. Instead, we took a bus an hour west to Alter do Chao, a freshwater beach town free of any surfers. This is the place to go when you feel cabin fever creeping up your legs and staying out of the water becomes pointless.

Our hostel entrance is a forced one, since no one answers the gate. The man who sashays over to the counter, Angelo, has been running Albergue da Florista for ten years. “Seattle…this is the home of Jimi Hendrix.” Exactly. Wanna hear his new album? We immediately head towards the amps to make the day sing. He does some cooking while I play with his dog and daughters. An iguana does some slithering up above, the sky unleashes more water and Angelo shares his passion for the slower type of capoeira. His favorite word is “relaaax,” which can make the most supine napper feel like they were getting up in his business. I’m sorry, I wanted to say at first, I’ll go relax more now. Or later. Whenever I get to it. It’s not too important…

When Tyler heads off to hang his hammock and I’m left alone with Angelo, I get the idea to see if I can’t find a bag of bud for the three day boat trip we would be starting the next day. I’d smelled it in the kitchen when he’d disappeared, and decided it wouldn’t hurt to ask someone so relaaaxed. Before I’ve said one word, though, he catches my train of thought thru my eyes and exclaims, “no! no! I no have.” Well played, I tell him, feeling like the millionth gringo he’s hosted. Well played.

The day is young, so we rent kayaks and paddle thoroughly about, past grass roof huts serving drinks and grilled fish, past people lounging in plastic chairs beneath umbrellas. The difference is this is all conducted in two feet of water, this being the end of the wet season. Yachts sit anchored by these aquatic bars, with girls dancing to forró music and taking open showers at the rear.

We find our own sand spit and tie up our kayaks. Swimming in the Amazon is something I’ve looked forward to since Chile. And never mind all their excited gossip about the fateful candiru, that catfish parasite that has fueled scary legends for hundreds of years. The most exciting detail they never fail to blurt out: if you stand in the river around knee height and pee, it could swim up the stream and lodge in your urethra. I’ll pay you mad dollars if you can find even one authenticated report of this happening to humans. I pee to my heart’s content.

The only hill for miles is a funny shaped mini-mountain rising from nothing nearby. We hike it to catch a 360 degree view from the top, something often difficult to do because most of the basin is flatter than Kansas, lacking even an errant stone on the ground. The day blooms into a panorama of Amazonia. Nothing else can literally top this, so we paddle back to eat.

A rare peak from which to take in the basin.

A rare peak from which to take in the basin.

Before you know it, you're on somebody's roof!!

Before you know it, you’re on somebody’s roof!!

Who wants water with their burgers?

Who wants water with their burgers?

At dinner a beggar with a lazy eye makes his rounds toward our table. Beseeching me, he puts his hand on my shoulder. “No, and please don’t touch me.” It isn’t said in a nasty way, simply straightforward to minimize our language barrier. But he decides to get ugly and punch me on the shoulder, the first beggar I’ve ever seen take it to that level. So of course I give him my burger and fish fingers because that’s how that works. Either that or I tell him to fuck off and finish them myself. Time to get back on a boat.

*My thalassemia minor, while conferring smaller red blood cells, gives me extra protection against malaria. I wouldn’t have swallowed the pills anyway, but it helps to have a minor superpower.

Bienvenue à l’Euro Piège! (Entry #18)

12 Jun

Walk down to the crossroads, judgers of the unlawful
so quick to pick like a perfect apostle
but, too, you’ve fallen
awful
believe
we, not me, makin Mother Earth a brothel
human and our voice is boomin
with skyscrapers inducin’
just a ruined race losin’ it keepin pace with the fossils
quarter ton of dynamite
sky high trilobite
it’s all strip malls
makes me wanna die tonight
it’s the heart of Nature
rough, like the Harlem paper
take the pain, play the game
rain like it’s water vapor
and I’m not your neighbor
but I play your cadence
back from the past when we were basic and ancient
now we think we’ve made it
changing times from the Dark Ages
but I’ve seen them turn a kid’s mind to a crime agent
now the wood’s gone, but we got our nest built
disco inferno, a phoenix in the exhale
watch the dead thought
caught in a headlock
31 flavors and we merely mutter “guess not”
we tailspin from rock comets
write sonnets of spring
blink once, and wonder why’s it August

brain like a lentil, so much potential
with eyes open or closed we’re always traveling
it’s like we hope that we know our time is happening
but that is our call, (so) tell me who is babbling

environmental, fire in the mental
when you spell ‘break’ then you break the spell
like, so much for snakes and them lakes of hell
when you grow up then fake ain’t a state to dwell

Quit the discoveries, put together a summary
pause for reflection…then move onto other things
it’s all a matter of illuminated laughter
the baby in the bathtub, or finishing a chapter
it’s all disaster when you think about the after
now. but the thing is
who ever really has tuh?
wow! See, the king is
a revolution master (why?)
‘cuz the masses, they muster much faster (like what?)
like the mower make the grass mo’ grasser (so what?)
so today the people graze in the pasture (where?)
Shanghai to Marseilles to Perth and Alaska (whoa!)
and even on the Moon (zoom zoom, NASA!)
but with a dead king, the boogeyman’s gone
look at us pretending that we got nothing to stand upon
our common enemy is now a common enemy
black and white is grey: decapitated centipede

brain like a lentil, so much potential
with eyes open or closed we’re always traveling
it’s like we hope that we know our time is happening
but that is our call, (so) tell me who is babbling

environmental, fire in the mental
when you spell ‘break’ then you break the spell
like, so much for snakes and them lakes of hell
when you grow up then fake ain’t a state to dwell

somethin’ ain’t quite right
we’re all tryna paint a pattern
by waving night lights on this zeitgeist
and other times we´re feelin fine
like ‘why worry? I’d rather wonder’
until the thunder bring that white light
is there a prize and who is fighting in this prize fight?
and if I told you would you wanna take me at my word?
because I look and, boy, I see I lot of black eyes
I ask why…and they all say “because the past occurred”
I tell ‘em that’s absurd, that that’s the Last Lie
from here on out we’re gonna clean behind our ears
…and lean behind our beers, and then agree on what it’s all about
oh, you don’t drink? well no wonder you look hollowed out
a man without a spine, he slithers and he follows doubt
and then he whispers “mysssstery”, but I call him out
it’s the hiss that gets to me, hits me like a histamine
it’s the halitosis to my Listerine
so I give a solid shout and whoever’s listening
will hear a bellow’s echo (echo, echo)
it’s all a feeling that we lay upon the world like a rug
did you forget? ya better let go (let go, let go)

Because the Past Occurred
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The Guianas are Caribbean first, South American second. Except French Guiana, which is still a department of France. That means it´s part of the EU, uses the euro and enjoys a constant influx of money from Paris to maintain its satellite launcher. Flights to Paris are actually considered domestic, which shows how made of silly putty our words really are! But it´s not an independent country, which is a good thing, or not, depending on who you ask. There are those who strive for independence, but the vast majority are happy with the way things are, and I think the other two Guianas are jealous. No matter, their histories aren´t as silly as French Guiana´s. Peep this.

Colombus sailed to the area in 1498, naming it the “land of pariahs,” which turned out to be pretty true later on. The Italians scoped it out, but it never worked out for them. The French got around to settling Cayenne in 1643, but were repelled by Amerindian attacks. Like a lonely whore, the country was taken by the Dutch and then the British before France took it back. Then the Dutch took it again!

confused

Ah geez…again?!

After Britain bludgeoned France and Spain in the Seven Years’ War, France lost everything except Guiana (which down here they call Guyane) and a few islands. It didn’t take a genius to realize that some settlers better be sent down there to add strength to their one tiny land claim. King Louis XV fooled thousands of French to head towards gold and fortunes, but it was all smoke and mirrors. If the Amerindians didn’t kill them, yellow fever and malaria did. Hardly any survived, and those that did fled to several islands offshore, which they named the Salvation Islands. When they returned to France, they told stories that were etched in the minds of anyone who listened. And everyone listened.

When a generation passed and people got excited about the abstract again, another group tried out the settler’s dream. They also escaped or died. A little later an Anglo-Portugese group took the country and gave it to Brazil, but it was given back to France after the Treaty of Paris was signed.

Finally France figured things out a bit (or not, depending on how you look at it) and began shipping in West African slaves to work the plantations. One of the crops they grew was a delicious red pepper known as the Guinea spice, or Cayenne pepper.

Was the city named after the pepper or vice verce? Trying to figure this out online is to be reminded how much people love babies. One historical link will pop up, the rest being devoted to explaining the meaning of the girl’s name, Cayenne. There is no meaning, you dum dums, unless you wanna say she’s redhot! Whether it’s a French word or Tupi indian name (undoubtedly for a girl) is up to somebody who doesn’t have to pay two reales an hour for internet.

Anyway, the French didn’t have slavery for long, as it was abolished in 1848. The ex-slaves headed into the jungle, set up their own colonies and are now known as maroons. This meant the plantations fell into disrepair and the country experience yet another low period.

A couple years later a bunch of Indians, Malays and Chinese were brought in to work the plantations, but they figured they’d set up shop in Cayenne instead. Good call.

But wait, it gets better!

France figured: why not kill two birds with one decree and get rid of our habitual criminals while increasing the population of our sorry colony at the same time? Any person, therefore, who had more than three sentences of theft longer than three months was sent to the colony. They would spend six months in prison there, and then were freed to live in the colony. As with every other attempt in the prior 400 years, this failed utterly.

French Guiana has some of the worst soil in the world, so any prisoner that survived the cruel treatment in the prisons (leg shackles, guillotines, tropical diseases, etc.) were freed into a land they could not work. The only solution was to revert to theft until death took them, which usually wasn’t a long wait. By comparison, Britain’s penal colony in Australia was an antipodean vacation. Under the tyranny of the French the Salvation Islands’ prisons (run for 100 years) grew sadly ironic, and Colombus’ arbitrary name became meaningful: Land of Pariahs indeed.
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The first good idea in this tragicomedy was de Gaulle’s: Let’s build ourselves a space center in our colony! Yea, we’ll have plenty of open space as buffer and the location near the equator will provide a slingshot effect that will cut fuel costs by 17%! In 1964 the French faded out their space center in Algeria and ramped up in their Guiana. Over the next five decades, it would bring technicians and engineers from France and around the world. Though France´s colony used to serve as a place to imprison people, now it would help them-at least their rockets-escape…Earth.

The other good idea came in the 70’s. Hmong refugees from Laos were brought in and given two villages to settle. The various flavors that survived were beginning to marinate and produce that pecularialy Guianan mix. The tide was finally turning. And it´s still turning, apparently.

Rockets and Coconuts
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We entered a country with no public transportation system outside the capital, and very little tourism to speak of compared to the other two Guianas. No bridge has ever spanned the Maroni River separating Suriname and French Guiana, so we took a water taxi.

The problem was we had arrived too late in the day to receive our entrance stamp, so with much French adieu we found a taxi. But where could he take us? We certainly weren´t going to pay a hotel the exhorbitant €50 it would cost us for a room. Our driver, named Papa, nodded and began driving us off into the darkness. Where to?

As it turned out, to his brother´s place where we could cook our own food and sleep comfortably for €10 each. Much better! We boiled noodles and heated up some burgers while our black neighbors braided each other´s hair and watched an orchestera play Wagner on the channel I´d tuned the TV to.

We woke up on this small family's farm to gaze at Brahman cows munching.

We woke up on this small family’s farm to gaze at Brahman cows munching.

The next day was a series of ripoffs and confusions. We paid a pirate´s bounty to get to Kourou, and even then were dropped off too far from the center to walk. Our taxi driver was straight from Hell and ripped us off big time, but the stars have always played silent witness to our furies and Kourou is a place well in touch with the stars. Be at peace, they twinkle. Or maybe they´re just burping hydrogen.

There had been a launch scheduled two days after our arrival. We´d planned it that way. Well apparently the dates got altered. How cute. I didn´t expect to ever return to this semi-country, so it came as something of a heart break to miss my one opportunity in life to watch a rocket blast off from the tropics. Boo hoo.

We spent time with Pierre instead, a French backpacker just beginning his 11 month journey. All three of us strung up our hammocks at a hammock shelter on the beach, which a friendly family had built amidst the coconut palms. What a balm to wake up, piss on a palm and leap into the Caribbean/Atlantic.
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A lonely calabash.

A lonely calabash.

Wanting to avoid taxi fees, we walked the couple miles from the beach to Europe´s only space center, the Centre spatial guyanais or CSG. Tyler hadn´t brought his passport, so he got to break his umbrella in umbrage in front of the assembled respectables and leave Pierre and I to do the tour on our own. This tour was slickly rehearsed, our guide knew everything under the moon and above it. Here are the meteoric fragments I was able to snag, which was difficult given the fact that the entire tour was in French.

Observe the baguette behind the rocket scientists.

Note the baguette behind the rocket scientists.

There are currently three types of lift launchers that send three different rockets into space: the Vega, Soyouz and Ariane. Given the extra 100mph thrust provided at the equator (compared to Cape Canaveral, for example), CSG´s rockets can carry 20% heavier loads. Different bits and pieces come by ship and plane from Europe and are tested and assembled in Kourou. Since the Ariane 5 rocket is 60m tall, weighs 800 tons and 90% of that is fuel, the solid and liquid fuels are prepared nearby the CSG too. The most recent rocket was an Ariane 5 launched June 5th, sent to deliver 20 tons of bits and pieces* to the International Space Station. If you´d like to send anything far away, just cough up $15,000/kg and you´re golden. You can visit the CSG and have prime seating reserved to view your very own launch.
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This is one of the rocket launchers. Notice the lightning rods built above it to redirect lightning into the ground.

Two launchers...in ONE PHOTO!

Two launchers…in ONE PHOTO!

French Guianans are all well acquainted with this backyard business, and thus failed to share any of my boyish excitement for these big things that go ZOOM! In fact launches are broadcast all over, especially in Cayenne and Paris where flaneurs can watch on large public screens as they purchase their croissant. Hey, beats football.

They are currently in the process of developing the Ariane 6, which will actually be smaller than the 5.

They are currently in the process of developing the Ariane 6, which will actually be smaller than the 5.

The Soyouz was purchased from the Russians, and they help out with the launches and use the launcher when they have their own needs. Most launches are commercial (90%), only 8% are scientific and 2% are military. This information ended up bumming me out a bit, which is probably silly given how important satellites are to the communication and entertainment systems we use daily.

Still, the approach the Europeans take is different from the Americans, Russians or Chinese. The CSG has never launched a human into space, and doesn´t plan to anytime soon. It’s not practical anymore, they say, send the robots now. Of course the U.S. has to send astronauts to Russia now if they wanna leave the atmosphere, so who am I to complain.

We noticed in Kourou what had been staring us in the face throughout the Guianas, most businesses are owned by Asians. Pierre commented on this, ¨My friend in Cayenne tells me zee Asians run businesses always, but zay never marry or have funerals here. Zay are here and zay are not here.¨ In The Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker says that every culture has twisted the knobs of courtesy, expressiveness, deference and sympathy to suit themselves. Failing to acknowledge this truth leads to a general bewilderment and racism, a lifelong wondering: Why on Earth are these people so strange and how it is certain minorities control specific regions of the economy?

Be that as it may, mostly I remember Kourou as a city undernearth the wet season, with white bread military men jogging like packs of dull wolves in the rain.

Onwards to Cayenne, a capital with a name so scintillating, it could never live up to it. But I was willing to check on how close it´d come.

Spicetown

I got their capital on the arm.

I got their capital on the arm.

The people of Cayenne are easier to enjoy than those space cadets in Kourou. Caught up with the business of living, they´ve spared time enough for lovely, European eccentricities such as cafe lounging. Kourou was too busy doing rocket science to bother much with budget travelers, but we found in Cayenne a quaint, sultry capital with excellent music, phenomenal pho and crepes all tucked into a tropical setting Paris could never emulate.

The obligatory waving cat exists in French Guiana too.

The obligatory waving cat exists in French Guiana too.

With only one full day to spare, we stop into a rickety museum filled with some of the saddest attempts at taxidermy I´ve ever smelled. The gargantuan caiman  flakes and chips like cheap laster, the giant boa´s head resembles the textbook example of elephantitis and the once tie-dyed menagerie of birds are now tawdry and drab, as if they had never learned to fly. Chalk it up as just one more reason to strike out to find the real deal. There is simply no room in taxidermy for half measures.

Upstairs the curators have gone nuts with their collection of pottery. Far more intriguing is the sequence of paintings depicting the despicable treatment of France´s exiled criminals. Steve McQueen starried in a film called Papillon that brought attention to the Salvation Islands. The film was based off a supposed autobiography, which actually turned out to be based more on Charles Brunier who escaped several times from the prison on Devil´s Island.

Feeling musty, we pay a taxi a fortune to drive us a couple miles outside town to le plage de montjoly, a topless beach where sea turtles creep around at night. For all the absent company we find, it may as well be full nude. The wet season keeps the boobies under wraps, apparently.

Cayenne

Cayenne

No matter, for the water is warm and our schedule open. Men go to topless beaches when they´re full, but the little boys emerge once they notice there´s nobody to impress or be impressed by. A shiver of the absurd rolls up our backs, and we stuff time beneath a poncho with the rest of our belongings.

Thus begins our timeless campaign of wave jumping, getting utterly thrashed and whipped into positions of an unsafe nature. Somersaults and jack-knives and limbs akimbo in entirely novel positions, we let the sand polish our knees. And when we feel that invisible timeclock strike and that programmed obligation to leave the water pass, we keep at it some more. Why, without its turtles ´n´ titties to keep it occupied, Montjoly has to get its montjollies elsewhere and we´d come along at just the right moment. Undoubtedly the second we leave roves of buxom babes and leatherbacks will rise from the waves and begin cavorting and rutting until a new age of Dionysus is realized. But we have a river to occupy.

Busing to the border town of St. Georges the next day, I spot an old, iconic friend, a dioecious tree that has formed an alliance with the ants. Cheap toothpicks culminate in green starfish, or slender-fingered hands. Brittle shoots no wider than my arm zip up 60ft. to steal a quick burst of light before wilting silver and stale, the parchment palms drooping and dropping without a sound. The leaves lodge in a crotch of branches, taking their shade with them. What remains is an awkwardly pronged array of dried matchsticks ignored by every perching bird-though not the sloths and moths-but even so a brief celebration of height. Cecropia could have been the very treeshrub that pervaded the world of iguanodons. A sudden change in the heavy beast´s plodding, and its great would snap the plastic trunk of this cheap, pioneer species. And yet it is the great lizards we now ponder over, while cecropia remains profuse and unremarkable by the roadsides of South America.

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We learn that for some reason French Guiana does not require an exit stamp from its eastern border town. Curious. Our final vision in this Guiana of the French is their impotent bridge, connecting it to Brazil. No cars have ever crossed it. This, the only brdige ever to connect to Brazil, the only bridge on the L´Oyapock River, has just been completed in 2012 after years of delays. But the road to Macapa has not yet been completely paved-as we would be attesting to this evening-so the great cable-stay bridge stands unopened and useless.

A premature spanning.

A premature spanning.

Why, the attentive will ask, would a road´s quality hold sway over a bridge´s use? Are they afraid to get a little dirt on it? Nobody knows these things, child, just be glad God made the water taxi. And with gladness in our hearts and ¨au revoir¨ on our lips, we begin the final leg of this now fully matured-and occasionally crotchety-sojourn. To Amazonia!

By the way…

Because the final entry is much longer than this one, I´m sticking this here for those interested in number crunching. d

Accounting

Distinct countries visited: 13

Total border crossings: 18

Total capitals visited: 12 (We visited both Sucre and La Paz in Bolivia)

Total days traveled: 160 (5 months)

Money spent pre-departure:

$200 (approx.) on gear I didn’t already have

$807 on visas (four of them)

$160 on Argentina reciprocity fee

$30 on embassy in Argentina (necessary??)

$10 to notarize scanned documents

$147 on initial flight to Buenos Aires (because of Tyler´s companion pass)

$294.76 on travel insurance

Total spent pre-departure: $1,648.76

Total spent while traveling: $7,759

Average spent per day: $48.50

Total cost of trip: $9,407.76

Unnecessarily expensive, unless you want to do a 13 country blitz in five months. Because we traveled fast, rather than focusing on two or three countries, which allows the slower traveler home cooking and a learned street knowledge of all the cheap spots, we paid the price.. Budget traveling can be done much more cheaply with either fewer countries in a given time frame or a longer time frame for many countries.

At the same time we saved money because Tyler´s dad is a pilot, so we used his companion passes to fly to and from the U.S., which allowed us to only pay the airline tax. We also did without certain traveler knicknacks, such as malaria pills and foreign phone plans.

The take home message should be that I am one of the poorest people I know, so if you really want to travel abroad long-term you can make it happen too.

*Bits and pieces is Tyler´s favorite go-to phrase, so I had to honor his absence on the CSG tour by using it in this post.

A Little Mixed Up (Entry #17)

11 Jun

When the first time you
painted the world with a bird’s eye view
it made me think about the words I threw, yup
and where they landed
whether to verse they expanded from haiku
or, was it a stillborn flourish?
never provided nourishment 
and now I need to speak with more courage
anticipate the needs of how they listen 
to these seeds that I sew on my mission of thought
thawing the snow
it’s a possibility I entertain
my modest aim:
get ‘em to look behind The Game
that’s an honest gain
and to keep it funny
let humor fan the spark into flame
for a universe of art looks sunny
so, I do my best to get it running
it takes a lot
but what else is worthy of my cunning?
capiche?
when the birds and the bees and words heard with ease 
intersect
then we’re dinin’ on fried eggs and honey
so why crave the money?
well, for security
but, if they’re hearin’ me
maybe they doubt the purity
of what it means to be safe
when the rich and the brave
still rip 
like a page
and throw
fits of rage

we can live, if we wish, like a slave with a crutch
or desire what is free and call the bluff, yup
we can live, if we wish, like a slave with a crutch
or desire what is free and call the bluff

so, I call the bluff
and lead a life many others lust for
keep my goals close 
so I can see ‘em thru a dust storm
give ‘em enough form
so they can form me
’til they confirm that I am who I wanted to be
it’s the only currency
that I currently see
in other words make a list of fears that you hurry to free
easier to say than to do, so I said it
now I’m in the act of enacting the message
it’s practically credit
somethin’ to spend daily
somethin’ I’ve been tryin’ to lend to my friends lately
I’m sick of hearin’ ’bout the dreams that they never feed
a lifecourse parallel to the one that they lead
what’s your pleasure? a story and a game in the mind
or a day spent with unburied treasure?
well, this either clicks or it don’t
the way we bend our words round the sticks and the stones
who wanna make an impact?
don’t throw a fist into foam
instead arrange a life
as a twist in a poem

we can live, if we wish, like a slave with a crutch
or desire what is free and call the bluff, yup
we can live, if we wish, like a slave with a crutch
or desire what is free and call the bluff

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“Deep, malarial jungles protected the region from getting too much European interest early on – most of the first settlers died of tropical diseases. Today, this gives these countries a trump card they have yet to fully exploit: some of the purest tropical rainforests on the planet, ideal for the most adventurous sort of ecotourism.” -Lonely Planet

“Our country’s history is a little mixed up, so our people are a little mixed up.” -Elly, Couchsurfing host

Lonely Planet has failed us for the first time. After the ferry crossing to Suriname, we decide to find a way to Matapica Beach first, before continuing on to Paramaribo. The locals keep claiming it is nowhere nearby, while the map silently contradicts all. Finally a tourism director kindly drives over and convinces me to double check online. Huh…it really is near Paramaribo. By this time, and just our type of luck, the last bus from Nieuw Nickerie has already departed. We resign ourselves to a night in this old rubber town and book a bus for the following morning.

We spend our time catching geckos and marvelling at the Caribbean accent speaking Dutch. The next morning I step out into the lobby to find two locals chittering amicably. True to Surinamese form, they are entirely friendly, which thoroughly compensates for the horrible “breakfast” awaiting us in the sterile corner. One of the women has a crush on Obama, the other on her own country. “We have everything here…EVERYTHING! This is the fifth richest country in the world! We have diamond and bock shit…” Hmmm, bauxite? “Eggzacklee! Bockshit…and aneemalls…” She’s a hoot, and we have fun teasing each other until our bus never arrives. We find one anyway, and fishtail thru a downpour towards the capital.

Suriname is a harmonious hodgepodge, a perfect potpourri inspiring lame alliteration which falters at the dusty doorstep of description. It’s an exercise in stuffing a turkey. How many languages, how many disparate cultures can we fit into one tiny ex-colony? The answer seems to be a baker’s dozen. Dutch is spoken by most Surinamese, but Sranan Tongo (a local creole language) is used commonly on the street. It evolved from the common need of African slaves, from various parts of their continent, to communicate with one another. It is only spoken in Suriname and a bit of French Guiana. A local dialect of Hindi is spoken by many Indo-Surinamese, and Javanese is spoken by the descendants of the Indonesians brought over to work the plantations. Add to those five dialects spoken by the maroons, escaped slaves living in the jungle, as well as the multiple Amerindian languages and you almost feel like you have enough already. But wait, there’s more! Hakka and Cantonese are spoken by the descendants of the Chinese workers, and more recently Mandarin as well. Spanish and Portugese hold their own, simply because of proximity and English is indispensable.

Walking thru downtown Paramaribo is like passing thru a UN meeting that adjourned decades ago, after everyone’s suits were stolen by the Dutch drycleaners. Of course the story isn’t that tidy or filled with goodwill, but everyone is fairly friendly with each other now. The racial tensions that plague Guyana are inexplicably absent here. Suriname is indeed doing well for itself, when stacked against the other Guianas and Caribbean nations. Holland has helped stabilize it in the past, and it’s rolling out its natural resources to a wildly applauding free market.

Paramaribo

Where you can sweat, sweat, sweat!

We got a tip from somebody in Guyana that there were ‘open-minded’ cafes in Paramaribo (pronounced Pa-raw-MA-raw-bow), perhaps a bit of Amsterdam influence. I ask a lifetime resident during our initial wander, “No, they don’t exist.” Another guy says the same thing. Five minutes later, however, the mystery is solved. Just ask the dude with the most hair.

In fact the rastas here wear stretchy hair pockets. This makes their skulls appear deformed, like an alien or freak pharaoh. Two of them lounge on a bench in a style so relaxed I am surprised the clocktower doesn’t stop right now and crumble out of sheer absurdity. They call out to us in a way that defies exertion. How can they communicate without burning calories?! I ask about the cafes, they try to sell us weed. Finally the one on the left says, “You want I take you there?” So they do exist!

We are taken by the hustler named Wesley, who might as well have responded to our query with an “as you wish…” Thru the local market we step, past the ginger and meat that would mask the smell of anything you could sell behind it. Left into rasta alley we trundle. A man sells us good weed and Moroccan hash along the way at a gentleman’s price, and then right towards the water. There is a shack on stilts that houses the cafe, complete with a greeter’s counter where one can purchase single papers. Locals pepper the many homemade booths, built with their own privacy and windows peering out onto the Suriname River and the boats moored there. Everything inside is ramshackle and lovely for encouraging a friendly atmosphere for puffing away from prying eyes. Two men are organizing wood and paint, putting up artistic signs. Is this place new, or are they just now deciding to add some color? It’s tough to say, but it’s nothing like Amsterdam’s cafes, aside from the tolerance for herb. No matter, it exists and we have Wesley and his quiet friend to smoke with. The conversation is decidely not one, but not for lack of interest. It’s just that Wesley has already exceeded his daily quota of wordage, and the business of parsing Alex’s sentences is delicate. We can’t understand each other, but emerging from the cafe, we feel understood by the city, and therefore ready to do some understanding of our own.

Our taxi driver this evening is Muslim. I ask him if he knows which way Mecca is all the time, or only when he’s oriented in his mosque.
“What?”
Mecca.
“What?”
The Hajj.
“What? Ohhh, I know what you talking about! I go to all churches. We have only one God above. When you wake up and you feel the breeze.”
Yea, only one breeze for me.

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The largest mosque in the Caribbean.

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The largest wooden structure that’s smaller than any wooden structure larger.

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A shot I got from online of the interior, since our photos weren’t quite up to snuff.

And that pretty much sums up Suriname. That, and the fact that the city mosque and synagogue sit side by side, sometimes sharing a parking lot. In case you’ve been living under a rock, that doesn’t really happen anywhere else. The mosque-the largest in the Caribbean-wins the beauty contest, until you factor in the largest wooden building in the world, St. Petrus en Paulus Kathedral. The smell inside! Heaven would smell like a wooden cathedral.

Trying to pronounce the street names when asking directions from the locals was a fun game.

Trying to pronounce the street names when asking directions from the locals was a fun game.

It is good for an American to go somewhere small, a country that isn’t a big player. When you find such a backwater, and there are many, it’s the closest you will come to learning what it’s like to leave the political map and move thru a world largely detached from The Great Gears. Of course, Suriname has its issues and concerns that are very real, and we’ll get to those, but the change in scale is refreshing. The uncelebrated gift of coming from a where-is-that? is the ability to be taken as an individual first. This allows you to introduce yourself as you choose, and to introduce your home country in the phrasing of your choice. Nobody here is worried about a nuclear attack, or a tornado. There is no Hollywood here, Wall St. is thousands of miles away and professional sports is mercifully overshadowed by thousands of monkies.

After we passed a few more houses, the street ceased to maintain
any pretence of urbanity like a man returning to his little village who,
piece by piece, strips off his Sunday best, slowly changing back into a
peasant as he gets closer to his home.
-Bruno Shulz, “The Street of Crocodiles”

We step off the paved road, and find ourselves on Demerarastraat. Time to meet our host.

Elly falls on her couch languorously in the a room that no amount of whirring fans can tame. She’s hosted myriads of surfers, and says she likes to have connections when she travels. I wonder how many of these connections she’s drawn upon, since I hear no mention of travel outside the Guianas. There are couchsurfers who play both sides of the field, but generally hosts and surfers are as different as farmers and nomads. She’s turning 30 soon and I hope she feels the urgency she should.

Her sister, Daniella, is a foxy vixen, a complete physical contrast. Their folks were born into a remote maroon village eight hours up the Maroni River. The maroons are known as the finest woodcarvers in tropical America. These girls lead a very different life. The house is falling into disrepair. Black mold blooms above our bunk bed, but belly laughter fills the spaces where termites move.

Elly is a hoot with a big, bold voice. She has a hands-off approach, but I wouldn’t want to cross her. Too late! A shriek reminds me to leave my shoes at the door. She won’t cook you dinner, but that’s because she won’t even cook it for herself. When asked what her plans are for a meal, Elly responds “Well, usually I just eat bread in the evenings.” But her lids will sag idly and she’ll wave a weary traveler in the door. She’s so laid back, that’s often where I can find here. I’m glad to know somebody I would not meet by any other means.
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Tyler turns the TV on at a random moment, maybe because gazing glazed at the fan wasn’t doing anything to cool down the world. It’s Macklemore and Ryan Lewis being introduced at the Billboard Music Awards. If they’ve made it into the living rooms of the Surinamese, they’ve made it everywhere. We’ll be seeing them in less than a month. But that’s insane to think about now, so we agree to strike out for the jungle instead.

Brokopondo

Dam!

Dam!

 

We pass old Dutch plantation houses as the bus winds out of town. Though the British founded the city in 1650, they traded their stakes in the area for a small island called Manhattan, ‘cuz what would that ever be worth? People visit New York for one reason, and Suriname for another. The British and the Dutch now own neither. But the houses are still there, as well as the minerals they left in the ground.

During WWII, 80% of the war’s aluminum came out of Suriname. As the lady said, bauxite is big here. Much of the energy produced by the dam that powers the entire country is siphoned off for aluminum smelting. It will likely be a very long time indeed until Suriname is making more than half its income from something other than natural resources.

Speaking of natural resources, the jungle is approaching. Two Dutch girls and a Dutch guy are riding with us. He is telling us about coming from the Netherlands to earn medical experience at the hospitals here. “You see things you could never imagine back at home.” A woman, he says, fell and split her jaw in the interior. She waited a week before making her way to the capital for medical attention. By that time her wound was crawling with maggots. They were eating through her ear canal and she could hear them munching away her ability to hear! Imagine that as your last sound. She went mad, he said. I wiggle my own jaw. It feels, and sounds, like a loose ball rolling thru the hollow tube of a twirling hula hoop. I glance outside for a distraction.

Our hike is far more fruitful than our canopy walk in Guyana. Today every animal is in business, running errands before the weekend hits. We spot frogs of all sizes, wandering gangs of trumpet birds, agoutis with nuts to hide, nervous lizards, wasps for every day of the month, the dreamy blue morpho butterly, noisy eagles, deadly snakes and monkies in the trees! Twice we spotted families of white-faced monkies, silently grabbing for nuts like a mother with a memorized shopping list. Their bodies were made for leaping between trees, and my brain was made to appreciate the way a monkey’s foot is a puzzle piece fitting to the curve of the liana. Hordes of red howlers are running from branch to mighty branch, and their calls lift the hairs on my neck.

White-faced monkey.

White-faced monkey.

No vacancy at the Dirt Hole Motel.

No vacancy at the Dirt Hole Motel.

Howlers make the worst neighbors, because they are the loudest animal. Their calls roar three miles thru dense jungle, and sound like the Great Maw sucking the universe like a Slurpee.

We trek on, past illegal pits dug by gold prospectors. This forest has never been logged. Petrek, our guide, brings us to a spectacular waterfall. Tyler plays some music on the speaker while the five of us strip down to our bathing suits and jump in. I find a nearby bat cave, reeking of guano. Hundreds or thousands of bats are blowing like a black wind towards the back. Or is it the back? I cannot tell.
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Tyler's umbrella technology has a ways to go.

Tyler’s umbrella technology has a ways to go.

How 'bout this one? It's more my size.

How ’bout this one? It’s more my size.

When we return to Brownsberg a bit bushwacked, we gaze down upon Brokopondo. After Lake Nasser in Egypt, it is one of the largest man made lakes in the world. Dead trees still jut up, a dwarfed canopy of ghosts. Many of these trees were submerged before being cut, and now forty years later are finally being harvested and shipped to Germany as ‘reservoir wood.’

Small Talk

The Dutch tell us about a party bus in the capital going on tonight, so several hours later we’re flagging down the topless bus and hopping aboard. We’re handed cups of something sweet and alcoholic, which is refilled whenever we need it. Question: How many Dutch girls can you fit on a party bus? I gaze around at our new company. Well okay then. Enough to start a new colony.

We burn gas and sip booze to the music before pulling up to our fancy hotel pool party. Our Dutch friends are nowhere to be seen, but it’s all pretty swanky, so we proceed to chat with the doctors and DJs while downing a sequential line of rum and cokes. Everybody’s either Dutch, Belgian or Surinamese, and they’re yucking it up fully. Tyler joins some folks in the pool and when we no longer give a fuck we let loose on the dance floor. But after nearly 25 years of figuring shit out, my familiar failing is small talk. What is it these people are chatting about?

Booze parties generally weed out worthy conversations. It is not a time to explore new ideas, it’s a time to replay inside jokes, revisit a high school mentality and seek sex thru “dance,” all of which I can happily do without. I’ve always felt older than my peers, and I used to think that naturally they would catch up with my “age.” Lately I’ve come to terms with the possibility that this will never occur. And that’s not a comment to build me up, just a true, blue observation. If I were more well-balanced, I would seduce on the dance floor and think deep thoughts, but my pragmatism tells me I need only find one special gal and that whole circus of wristbands and mixed drinks will become happily erroneous.  I’m a lover, not a player.

Which is to say that we leave the blond crowd and stroll down the road sipping Parbo, possibly the most wretched beer I’ve ever tasted. We throw away our bottles, half empty, just in time for Tyler to get bum rushed by four bitches and bit on the leg. That signals our need for a cab.

give me those bat caves and thickets of thorn
howlers, downpours and vicious fish swarms
but bar out the club scene
the thug jeans and makeup
that fumbling neediness expressed for the sake of
a quick kiss in need of no breakup

Axioms of Taxi Drivers

Somehow casinos enter the conversation, “You see…life is a gamble.” Yea, but a casino’s a swindle. He nods like all taxi drivers, who speak their minds and then carry on with the business of navigating whenever the passenger responds. I think many of us wish we had the taxi driver excuse when we’d rather do the talking without the listening, but a conversation is a two way street. Shouldn’t the driver recognize this? No, actually, since they all drive on the wrong side here. Even so, he manages to get us to the cineplex in time for the Great Gatsby.

It’s a book we’ve all read and a movie we should all watch. That THat THAT’S how a bloody movie should be made! Mixing modern music with period instrumentation was genius, something Executive Producer Jay-Z probably had a hand in. The critics mostly hated it, but that’s probably because they can’t accept that movies and books will never tell a story the same way. As David Mitchel notes in Cloud Atlas, books keep details ambiguous and let the imagination paint them in. Film, meanwhile, locks in the scene the way they set it. Get over it.

Speaking of Leo, we pop into a local DVD store and spot a sophisitcated scammer's product: Package DVDs arranged into weird groupings based on superficial details. This one wants to combine 2012 with Titanic.

Speaking of Leo, we pop into a local DVD store and spot a sophisitcated scammer’s product: Package DVDs arranged into weird groupings based on superficial details. This one wants to combine 2012 with Titanic and Poseidon, apparently because all three involve exciting disasters…

The funny thing is that the package promises much more than those three films. Look at all the non-existent sequels included!

The funny thing is that the package promises much more than those three films. Look at all the non-existent sequels included! My favorite is Titan II. If anyone is fooled by this, they deserve to lose their money. Rolf Potts, as usual, wrote a great, brief essay about the newly emerging field of “mockbusters.” Read it here.

Influenced by the film, perhaps, or influenced by the spare ribs we had for dinner, that night I dreamed a new dream, vivid and unfolding. Dawn is creeping along the concrete canopy of the city below us. Our party is still going strong, and Charles is cooking bacon to array like spokes on a wheel on each pancake. I leave the group, suddenly I’m a father.

This little boy in my hands, is he one day old? One week? He’s already speaking! My clever son. I name him “curious” in some eastern European tongue, something I can’t even pronounce. His diaper falls off and there’s shit all over his leg and my hand. I’m stumbling thru a sleepy hostel dorm, trying to shush him, wanting only to find a sink and a crib.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: No, Really!

He sings to stimulate the female bird's ovaries, and indirectly earn old men loads of prestige and maybe some money.

He sings to stimulate the female bird’s ovaries, and indirectly earn old men loads of prestige and maybe some money.

We take the morning bus to town and stroll thru the warm rain. A group of men are getting their drink on and it’s not even 8am. Reaching a field in front of the presidential palace, we behold dozens of cages with songbirds. This is birdsport.

The man I interrogate is standing in a group of umbrellas shooting the shit. He says this has been going on since he was a little boy, at least fifty years. It only occurs in Paramaribo, Nieuw Nickerie and more recently Holland. Birdsport is essentially a singing competition where male songbirds are placed in a ring in Independence Square (in Paramaribo) with their rivals arranged symmetrically, and a healthy distance from the first. The tiny bird’s mate is placed nearby in her own cage to get him excited. Nothing like a caged female, right? RIGHT?! Hmmm. Anyway, let sex be the songwriter.

I am told the jury then listen to the calls of the twa twa (or one of the other two species-and thus categories-of songbirds) and cast their points. The bird with the sweetest song belted out for the longest period wins. Today the birds are simply “training.” They compete in June.

Dozens of caged songbirds arranged on Independence Square to "train" on a rainy day.

Dozens of caged songbirds arranged on Independence Square to “train” on a rainy day.

What I particularly appreciate is the ready-made metaphor the “birdtrainer” employs. When I ask him how many seasons he has any specific bird compete, he tells me three or four, “like a football player who is the best for a few years.” Right, like a football player. But fuck it, why not?

These guys invest sometimes $12,000 Suriname dollars (about $3,500USD) in their twa twas, which they usually buy from the Amerindians in the interior. They play CDs to their errant knights, to instruct them in the ways of twittering and tweeting. Something we all arrogantly think we know enough about. Birdsport certainly beats cockfighting.

Spice Quest

Our final meal in Suriname is at Spice Quest, and turns out to be well chosen. We kneel at a Japanese table after filling our plates with a fine selection of epicurean treats from Asia and beyond. Then our young waiter drops in and answers my inquiry about the old printing presses in the back, overgrown and broken.

The irony of Free Voice getting burned to the ground is not lost on anyone.

The irony of The Free Voice getting burned to the ground is not lost on anyone.

To do this he draws upon decades of history, involving one of modern Suriname’s darkest periods. Back in the 60’s “The Free Voice,” a popular and critical weekly newspaper, was run by Wilfred Lionarons. In the 70’s it grew into a daily paper, and when Suriname became independent in 1975 the paper was one of the main sources of public criticism.

The Netherlands had provided Suriname with a hefty severance package, money that kept everything rolling along for a solid decade after Independence. This tempted many of the young soldiers who were running the country, and all it took was a few joy rides in their new Mercedes to piss off everyone else. Everyone else, that is, except for the 33% that emigrated to Holland, doubting that the largely inexperienced population could run the country independently. Good call on that one.

Things got uglier over the next few years, and the military didn’t appreciate the criticism it had earned itself. In 1980 a military coup overthrew the democratic government and declared the country a socialist republic. Not the first time that’s happened, but now those in power began to draw up a list of the troublemakers. Lionarons was among 16 others on the list, and one of two who escaped to the U.S. before the rest were kidnapped in the middle of the night. His paper was burned to the ground, however; ground which the owner of Spice Quest would purchase decades later.

The kidnapped were brought to Fort Zeelandia and shot. Astoundingly, the coup and kidnappings were led by Desi Bouterse, who shot dead two of the captives himself. Today he enjoys immunity as Suriname’s 8th president. No matter that he was heavily involved in the drug trade, trafficking hundreds of pounds of cocaine. No matter that he admitted to leading the kidnappings and executions. The Surinamese couldn’t find anyone better to guid their little country.

Seeing all this, Europol has issued a warrant for the arrest of Bouterse, but his own people voted to grant him amnesty. So long as he doesn’t travel, he’s A-okay. The Netherlands, showing pity on its juvenile ex-colony, even invited Suriname to rejoin them as an “associated state.” Instead, they elected Bouterse.

At this point it may be wise to recall Elly’s excuse, “Our country’s history is a little mixed up, so our people are a little mixed up.”

Spice Quest is the silver lining, a restaurant Patrick (a Surinamese native of Chinese/Irish descent) founded back in 2004. It is one of Suriname’s finest restaurants: “The goal is to give my customers the evening-out experience.” Patrick trained at New York’s Culinary Institute of America before working as a chef in Europe and China. Now his kids go to school in Ft. Lauderdale, where they live with their mom. He visits often.

Instead of leaving home to live somewhere better, Patrick decided to stake his claim as chef in Paramaribo and raise the game here. His efforts to do this are now fossilized in the name. It was a spice quest to build the consistent menu that has awed diners for nine years. All that was available in the beginning was Italian parseley. Patrick began talking to the farmers, who began planting herbs. He developed wine sources of a quality previously unheard of. Now he’s started an association for chefs and this year, for the first time ever, he will be sending five new chefs to an annual Carribean food fest. All this and he barely looks 35! Needless to say, the food is exquisite, and we didn’t even try the best on offer. Patrick is a great example of how the people of Suriname are mixed up ethnically, but he certainly has his vision straight.
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We head back to bid farewell to Elly and stuff ourselves into a shared taxi to Albina on the eastern border. As usual, our driver blatantly lies, yelling “only one hour away!” (It takes four, and we miss our ferry.) He then proceeds to make dozens of mysterious stops every ten minutes, and in the interim he watches the soccer game on his dashboard screen while navigating the rainy roads.

Not to be deterred, we receive our exit stamp from a lazy man in a frathouse-type building. “You’re late.” And you’re not wearing a shirt. With a border checkpoint that relaxed, we know there’s gotta be another means of crossing the Maroni River. Indeed there is, and as the sun lights a forge above the western canopy, we turn our eyes to the last country in South America we’ve never visited.
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Are We Still in South America? (Entry #16)

25 May

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If yuh eye nah see, yuh mouth nah must talk. -Guyanese Proverb

At the border we fill out our tourist cards, and I notice a spelling mistake far too endearing to ignore. The usual lines labelled ‘Christian Name’ and ‘Maiden Name’ are present, but then I notice ‘Suriname.’ Because this is a tourist card for the ferry crossing from Guyana to Suriname (we fill out the wrong ones, as usual), I genuinely cannot tell if it is referring to my surname or the country. I ask the border official, Officer Wilkonson. “Oh, dat dere’s a spelling mistake.” And a charming one that could only happen in the Guianas. We had left the last Spanish speaking country on our trip.

We are crossing the Takutu River along the border of Brazil and Guyana when we approach a switcheroo I’ve seen only once in pictures. It was a bridge crossing from Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China, a wonderful figure eight engineering compromise that prevents drivers on the left side and drivers on the right side from colliding head on.

Back in the 1600s the Dutch established colonies in Guyana, but ceded control to the British in the early 1800s, who consolidated the disparate colonies into one, calling it British Guiana. This lasted a good while, until in 1966 Guyana achieved independence. But most people don’t know a lick about all this. If you’ve even heard about Guyana, it’s because of Jonestown. But let dead, crazy white people stay dead, crazy white people. We got better things to talk about.

The thing you need to understand about Guyana is that it stands out even as it’s overlooked. Old Man Guyana holds so many superlatives within his borders, you sometimes gotta wonder how there’s any left for the rest. With an area the size of Great Britain and a population just above Seattle’s, Guyana (pronounced GUY-ahnah or GWAI-ahnah, depending on who you ask) is one of the only truly Caribbean countries that isn’t an island.

But aside from its coast, Guyana is mostly home to its magnificent menagerie. I could throw out impressive numbers, but the key point is that Guyana’s tropical rainforests and slew of charismatic creatures make it a serious treasure. These things are tough calls to make based on many competing variables, but it would hardly be an exaggeration to say Guyana is one of the most biologically important areas in the world. This is of course partly made possible by its remoteness, which the Guiana Shield helps maintain. The Shield, which covers southern Venezuela and all three Guianas, is a 1.7 billion-year-old formation called a craton. A craton is a stable part of a continental plate, far away from geologically active areas. The Guiana Shield is the reason for the tepuis and their world class waterfalls, one of which spills out in Guyana. More on that below.

The Thick and the…Where’s the Thin?

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Wow, look at Tyler’s way of showing the Guyanese how we dress back home…

Guyana is the only country in South America where English is commonly spoken (as well as Creole), which comes as something of a shock to us after four months of misunderstandings. Nelson, our driver, has a thick Caribbean flavor to his voice, my favorite accent of the trip. The subtext to his every tone is, “take it easy;” English in a hammock. When speaking of his girlfriend he’ll say “mah child muddah.” Every question I ask is answered first with a “wow.”

Pointing at the nearby Kanuku Mountains, Nelson tells us proudly  “deez our da beegist mountuns in da wurld.”
Wow, what?
“I meen, in Sout Amurica.”
Whaaaaat about the Andes, mate?
“Wow, well deez our da beegist mountuns in Sout Amurica. “
I tell him they’re beautiful all the same.
“Well in school dey say…wow, well maybe dey our not da beegist but da longest.”
Sorry, Andes again.
I feel dirty bursting his handy Chamber of Commerce factoid, though I’m sure he’ll go on repeating it to other polite tourists rather than let one measly correction turn him around. What he should have said was 70% of Guyana’s birds live in the Kanukus, and that’s saying quite a bit already. I chuckle as I head into another world, one much smaller than most. But best not to tell it so.

Dirt road, dark sky. Guyana has very few paved roads, very few roads in general. Basically a north/south highway of rough-and-tumble and an east/west coastal road connecting Suriname. As I find sleep impossible, I gaze drowsy out the window and for miles around literally not a single solitary light shines. Only the lightning over the Kanukus. The largest lightning in da wurld, or at least in this one.

I realize we are passing thru one of those places and one of those still states busy minds unwittingly seek out. Every now and again there is that need to shake the Etch-a-Sketch somewhere silent, or buzzing with bugs. What else could explain the need wealthy, white people have to spend bundles on wilderness survival courses, when that is probably the least relevant knowledge they could seek. Do they not value their ability to survive in the far more dangerous environment of the concrete jungle?

However you come down on that question, we stop in one of those places, called Surama, and grab a hammock for $2.50. I find it to my liking, large and cozy and stretchy as tough yoga pants. There’s no preliminaries with a hammock, only sleep. And that’s all we need.

The driver wakes us at 3am in order to continue our bone juggling blitz thru what I can only describe as The Thickness. A few hours later we reach the Iwokrama Research Institute and hop out, deliriously reprieved.

Iwokrama

Tree bark like acid-etched metal.

Tree bark looks like it’s been hewn at with an adze.

If you’ve ever had dreams of flying in a tiny Cessna above thick jungle with no canopy breaks in sight, Guyana is your cup of tea. Maps of it apologize for “estimating” and “projecting” areas in its southeast, for lack of better data. No doubt about it, this is the real deal, make you squeal, sex appealing jungle feel.

What is Iwokrama? In one sense, a large plot of undisturbed jungle larger than Rhode Island, but I prefer Wikipedia’s language on this one:

The Iwokrama International Centre for Rain Forest Conservation and Development is an autonomous non-profit institution established by Guyana and the Commonwealth. It “exists to promote the conservation and the sustainable and equitable use of tropical rain forests in a manner that leads to lasting ecological, economic, and social benefits to the people of Guyana and to the world in general, by undertaking research, training, and the development and dissemination of technologies” [1] .

The Centre manages the Iwokrama Forest in central Guyana to show how tropical forests can be conserved and sustainably used to provide ecological, social and economic benefits to local, national and international communities.

In other words, the Iwokrama Forest is different than a national park because it’s not funded by the government. They figure out the best way to manage the land to balance the needs of the Amerindians living there with the welfare of endangered species and the opportunities of tourism. They manage to selectively log the forest, which supplements the profit from eco-tourism. It’s a unique system that basically does what countries should already be doing, balancing intelligently.

We sit down with a large group of staff, from janitors to guides. They hand us a ‘menu’ of potential activities with a price sheet that serves as a reminder to us that gas is expensive on unpaved roads and most visitors to Iwokrama make much more money than we do. In fact, as I find later in the 2010 Business Plan they placed in our room:

Guyana receives 100,000 visitors/year.
The typical eco-tourist  is 35-54 years old
80%+ are graduates
60%+ prefer traveling in a pair
13%+ travel alone
25%+ are prepared to spend $1,000 to $1,500 per trip

The yearly lumber profit was around $385,000, but is currently suspended while they work to settle a lawsuit with a business partner.

Vibert Welch is a name I’ll never forget, partly because he walks in looking more like a general leading a military coup in the Congo than the Director of Tourism. He is huge, dark and knows little about PR. Mostly I stare at the assortment of gold accessories on his arms.

“You want only one room! Why?”
Well, we don’t have much money and we have two sleeping bags.
“No!”
No? We can just lay out our two sleeping bags and share the bed.

I can tell his fear of homosexuality is slowly being conquered by his obligation to negotiate with tourists. Plus, we’re the only ones they have that day.
“Okay…”

We settle in then head up to grab breakfast. That’s when we meet Jordan, the only other gringo for miles and miles. He’s wearing corn rows, and even though he’s 25% black I can’t quite abide his taste. Only later do I learn some “ghetto girl” from Georgetown had seen him jogging and offered to braid his hair and lick his sweaty chest. This says more about some of the women in Georgetown than it does about anything else, but Jordan is a pretty built fellow all the same. Just that morning, in fact, he’d been out jogging and spotted a black jaguar. These are one of the rarest cats in the world, and even rarer than white guys with corn rows, but not rarer than white guys with corn rows spotting black jaguars on morning jogs.

Jordan has many facets. Sure, there’s the hip hop, corn row side who can hang with black dudes. Then there’s the football player who earned a scholarship to study and play for Germany. An injury changed his life, widened his interests and now he’s in the process of earning his graduate degree by helping to design a management plan for Iwokrama. His internship brought him here four months ago, and he’s already seen many things most people never dream of. Amerindians have taught him to fish with a bow, he’s spotted a jaguarundi-a cat some say is more dangerous than a jaguar-and he’s had one of his hip hop songs make it big in Guyana.

“One of my new friends here knows a ton about the forests, and he was telling me about the sasparilla root and how it’s like Viagra. So we made a song about sasparilla, and people here had never heard a song about that so they started playing it in Annai and then Georgetown. People started calling me Sasp’rilla Man.”

We let Jordan do some work while we hop into a truck and head out to explore. Our driver this time is Richard, and he looks a little high so I decide to broach the topic of marijuana in Guyana. At first he doesn’t offer much, but as the morning drizzle eases up, he follows suit. “Actually, I had a joint this mornin. Y’see that guy up ahead?” He was on a motorcycle. “He brought me a sack recently. Hang on.”

He hails his friend, Sayeed, we pull over. I can’t tell what ethnicity Sayeed is, but he definitely comes with his own rasta style. His is the type of accent so molasses thick I find myself nodding twice as much as I should be. Before we know it he’s rolled two swollen joints and we are  standing in the middle of the only road from Georgetown to Brazil, puffing green to the birdcalls.

Now we really

can’t understand each other
and of course we are
understanding each other perfectly
now.

Then he hops back on his bike to continue his jungle herb deliveries. He does this everyday, the plants being grown north in Linden, the seeds coming from Jamaica.

Sayid and Tyler with his shorts figured out again.

Sayid and Tyler with his shorts figured out again.

We speed onwards, almost running over the third most deadly snake in Guyana*, a sun bathing coral snake. In cub scouts we learned about poisonous snakes and the colors of deadly ones, “When red touches yellow, you’re a dead fellow, when red touches black you’re okay Jack.” It’s a testament to how ludicrous some of our supposedly helpful mnemonics can be. Here’s a picture of a coral snake…

Hmm, it's good most cub scouts don't travel to Guyana.

Hmm, it’s good most cub scouts don’t travel to Guyana.

Part of growing up is extending one’s provincial knowledge to a global level, and that coral snake reminds me of the need to re-evaluate the trite truisms that used to guide my life.

We meet our guide, Leon, who is just overzealous enough in his role as naturalist to remain endearing rather than hitting the Wall of Obnoxious. He actually knows a good deal about the rainforest, and I can see thru him Guyana’s earnestness in expanding its tourism base. We learn about purpleheart, which vine it is that can be cut for freshwater and how to identify the famous greenheart tree, a wood which resists water rot and sun damage to a heroic degree. Georgetown’s St. George cathedral is one of the tallest freestanding wooden structures in the world, made of greenheart. It’s well over a century old and looks very white, but with a green, pulsing heart.

Jungle mushroom already being devoured.

Jungle mushroom already being devoured.

Leon takes us up to the canopy walkways, with platforms ringing large trees nearly a hundred feet up. So far this is the only canopy walkway in the Guianas. We shoot a bit of footage for my epic music video, because there aren’t any animals around today. The tropical rainforest is an incredible place to be in, and it often disappoints in its emptiness. Even in remote areas, in total silence you’re lucky to see one or two colorful birds. Still, it rewards the patient and persistent with tapirs, anacondas, harpy eagles and ocelots. Not that we see any of these in the wild, we can’t even find a tarantula!

Shooting a scene.

Shooting a scene.

In the evening we meet up with Jordan again, almost completely broke. The ATM at the border had a maximum limit of not very much, so as it turns out we only carried enough money for breakfast, our room and the canopy tour. That means we’ll have to skip lunch and dinner. Jordan hooks it up, showing us banana and papaya trees to snack on throughout the day (make five shallow slits around the rind of a papaya and it will ripen overnight as a milky fluid drains). Ishwar, a Trinidadian staff member, brings us dinner’s leftovers, a delicious dish of spicy meat and rice. The vulnerable, provided for, are quick to take the bone and thank the thrower.

After dinner we walk down to the waters of the Essequibo, South America’s third largest river. I keep an eye out for the local caiman, a 16 footer rescued from a piranha years back. He only has three legs now, but he’s been consistently fed on kitchen scraps and given the name Sangkar, a perfect name for a caiman.

After a few mariner signals across the river with flashlights, a small boat swings in and brings us to Michelle’s island out by the ferry crossing. Michelle is brief in height and lovable as the island’s hip mother. She runs a bar and cooks up some wicked jungle meat. Jordan tells us that a few years ago she got bit by the second most poisonous snake around, the labaria. It’s also known as the fer-de-lance, the pit viper and by many other names, but a venom by any other name would kill you just as quick. Michelle had sliced open her toe immediately to drain the venom, sped the boat across the river bleeding from the mouth. She survived, but only because she could identify what bit her. It’s okay if you don’t know every bird in the forest, but everybody needs to know their snakes.

The last of our Guyanese dollars goes towards a bottle of 5 year-old El Dorado rum, a very special rum only brewed in Guyana. The 15 year-old bottle wins awards every year, and is second to none in the Caribbean (and perhaps second to one in the world). Later I would try a shot of the 12 year, a shot I chose to sip instead. Silky smooth, oaky clean and dark as my intentions. Hunter Thompson would’ve sipped this in Puerto Rico if it’d been available there.

The Rum Diary

The Rum Diary

“You guys are lucky,” Jordan beams, “I’ve been here four months and there’s never been so many people! In fact this is only the third time we’ve come out here to party.” Lucky indeed. We freestyle by the river, dance reggae with the locals and wonder what to make of the shifting content on the TV screen. At first it’s simply a dating show edited to include topless scenes as much as possible. After another few drinks, though, we glance up to straight hardcore porn. We glance at each other, then at the locals dancing against the pool table.

Later I would learn that the “dancing” we saw is called ‘daggering.’ It’s several steps beyond grinding, and absolutely shameless, though apparently there are rules. The man can bang against the woman doggystyle all he wants, but the second he reaches up to cop a feel, she’ll walk off haughty. All we could tell was the level of our drunk was following some strange arc of jungle fever, in which the locals followed the lead of the television, perhaps all brought about by the she-witch, Michelle.

Jordan with the 5-year.

Jordan with the 5-year.

Michelle's island.

Michelle’s island.

We wake up at 5am the next morning, hike to the “highway,” and up to the ferry crossing to catch a minibus to Georgetown. Catching it’s not a problem, but riding it becomes a full time job. Eight hours of pot hole surfing on an unpaved road during the wet season, dead broke in a loaded vehicle without a centimeter of ass room to spare and no cush to the seats means sleep is ruled out by the frequent bumps that send the back row straight into the ceiling. Not a good day for a hangover.

I’m sitting next to Robert, a Machushi indian from the interior. He tells me it’s his 40th birthday today. Happy Birthday, Robert, I manage to slip between a jolt and a bump. “I have ten children, and I want ten more.” Obviously this is his biggest pride and the first one he offers to strangers. I wonder if someday mine will be that I have one child and don’t want any more.

He smiles, and points to two sons of his riding along with us. They speak just fine, but seem to prefer speaking with their dad and to each other in a sign language I can’t quite grasp.

No Brits in Georgetown

City Hall built in the time of the British.

City Hall built in the time of the British.

Guyana’s people are also a far cry from homogeneous  which is one of the reasons we find the food here worth writing home about. Guyanese like to say there are five ethnic groups living together, or is it six? When they list them, they usually don’t make it to their second hand: the descendants of East Indian slaves (the majority), descendants of African slaves, Amerindians of various tribes, a bit of Chinese and then a motley crew of ambiguous folk with a lifetime identity crisis.

Indeed, the motto here in Guyana is “One People, One Nation, One Destiny” and that’s cute and official and all, but probably has never once been true. In fact, several tell me they would submit to British rule again, and I’ve seen the motto “Discipline is love” more often than that hopeful plea on the country seal. Even though their school system is one of the best in the Caribbean, the quality of education has declined with the recent negative population growth. Many people simply grow up, look around at the dearth of opportunity and fly off to New York, or Toronto.

The mixed ethnic make-up of Guyana is not as harmonious as neighboring Suriname’s. The government is largely made up of Indo-Guyanese, and many agree they largely favor “their own,” which has allegedly resulted in a large majority of the brick and mortar businesses being owned by Indo-Guyanese. So while a certain amount of multi-cultural tolerance allows for mosques, churches and temples to share proximity, racial tensions are something our black taxi driver says “we have learned to live with.” It’s not all race relations, either. Homosexuality is punishable by two years in prison, the worst LGBT tolerance in all of South America.

Intolerance takes a geographical shape when one looks at all of the border disputes. As I’ve written before, borders are funny. We draw them around things that matter to us at specific times. So during the age of colonies, certain areas were never in dispute, and the border was clearly shown and agreed upon on all maps. But what happened when one tried to follow the divide inland thru the vines? The same thing that happened if one tried to figure out where to fish, and these quandaries led to century-long headaches, many of which must still be ironed out, or else completely ignored.

All three Guianas have border disputes with each other and Venezuela. The southern borders all involve triangles of disputed territory, where searches for the headwaters of a given river have become common as coatis. Add to this the constant fear that the Brazilians are cleverly trying to sneak away Guyana’s resources, and that’s enough issues to keep anyone busy. But that isn’t enough. I noticed Venezuelan maps included a large shaded region to the east they like to call their “Zone of Reclamation.” Really long story short, the two have agreed not to bring it up at the dinner table anymore. It’s just too painful. Which confuses me a bit, since this type of agreement seems to mean that Guyana gets to keep its 60% of disputed land until Venezuela decides to make a fuss again.

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Excellent architecture still standing tall.

We find Georgetown a relief from the ride, but a show all to itself. So many rastas! I have never seen such a profusion of black people, and simultaneous absence of anyone white. Because of the negative elevation, canals resembling moats fill with garbage and surround most blocks. It’s not a clean or affluent city in the least, but it’s got a flavor all its own. We pass the seawall and ask the taxi driver about the sand bags we notice being stacked on top of ominous puddles. He says it happened two weeks ago for the first time, the sea at high tide breached a section of the wall. We didn’t have to introduce him to the concept of climate change.

But why aren’t they raising the wall? Long story.
These things are rarely answered directly and in the moment they are asked. Over the course of the week I would hear bits and pieces from various characters, but corruption seems to tie it all together. Several billion were given (given??) to an engineer to raise the wall. Instead, he purchased properties all over, some within the zone to be flooded if he doesn’t follow thru on his responsibility. No one said anything about his being arrested.

Finally we meet our couchsurfing host, a kiwi named Jeff. He’s been working (“sort of”) for the U.N. for six months in Georgetown, and worked in China for nine months awhile back. Jeff’s job is to work on REDD, which stands for Reduction in Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation. Guyana makes millions of dollars a year by not cutting down its forests, and Norway is the one paying them not to. The idea dates back to the Kyoto Protocol, when nations with a conscience (not the US, for one) signed on to actually-maybe-possibly do something about this climate changing reality.

The thinking goes something like this: Hey, the earth is warming and much of those emissions are coming from, and have come from, the developed nations. The nations that are currently developing are going to be emitting more CO2 as they develop, and who are we to tell them they can’t? But more CO2 is bad for everyone, so it’s the responsibility of the already developed nations to pay the others not to log their forests. That way the rainforests continue to trap carbon,  and as a bonus rich, white people have cool places to go visit. As I said, something like that.

So Jeff does some cool work and is an impressively smart dude. In fact, he reminds me of my buddy Charles to an uncanny degree. Both wear thick beards and work jobs that stress them out a bunch but are really important positions that serve admirable goals in the world. Both hold a treasure trove of music and film on their computers, and both appreciate great stand up comedy and alcohol. Both smoke cigarettes (actually Charles is just about done now, I believe) and think and speak very quickly, to the point where you wonder if what you’re telling them is worth their time. Or could it perhaps be condensed into a 140 character meme that would express the point more poignantly and with a more piquant sense of humor? Both keep a tidy bachelor pad and go out often with large groups of friends. Both earn a lot and are generous with their things, but not to the point where they lose control of the get-togethers they like to throw fairly often. I could go on, but the differences are fascinating as well.

Jeff is a punk rocker who’s had a rough life in the past. Probably all punk rockers have, but what do I know? Anyway, he’s into the deepest, darkest death metal imaginable. Shit where the performers are known murderers, with fire at their shows and bloody sheepheads on pikes facing the front row. Back in the day Jeff was in a punk rock band that played a song he wrote called “Fetus in the Front Yard.” It’s based on a true story. He’s had a rough couple months, and seems a tad lachrymose. Tyler exclaimed one outing, “I just wanna give him a hug, but I think he’s too punk rock for that.”

Punk rock bastard.

Punk rock bastard.

But here’s the thing, Jeff’s also a vegetarian. I know, right? Since when are people so complex they escape the boxes we’ve built for them? And that’s why I had written Jeff in the first place. His profile said he was a fan of Christopher Hitchens, that he was a dude who did interesting things and that he didn’t care what other people thought. Needless to say, we feel at home. Or maybe that’s because this is the first country in four months where we can flush our toilet paper.

Jeff and Jordan are friends. Jordan had stayed with Jeff the week before we did. When I say this is a small country I’m not the only one saying it. And I run into the others all the time.

We learned a lot from Jeff. He’d tell us that when locals say “right now” as in “Ima call yuh right now” it really means they just intend to call you sometime. We met a lot of his friends, most of whom I could’ve done without. Rostum was so dry and sarcastic, and more than that simply full of spite, I never knew what the fuck we were talking about and if it even mattered to either of us. He’d been in a motorcycle accident and crashed at 80mph into something very hard and it showed on his forehead. Maybe that was it. Who knew, but I did my best to avoid him. Nobody in Guyana is normal.

Nicole, the middle school math teacher, was from New York. “I can’t multitask,” she would tell us as our stir fry sat beside her untouched. She wouldn’t eat because she was talking. She wouldn’t stop talking because she’s hit the Wall of Obnoxious, an alcoholic with no musical taste. She tried to play the new Justin Bieber song when we were taking a shot, and I simply could not abide that. I found it charming that Nicole and Jeff are friends.

Cassie was cool enough. A gorgeously slender Indo-Guyanese girl, Cassie would roll up a joint and smoke it with me on a hidden balcony out by the back. But then she’d do what (almost) every girl does when the joint’s being passed: talk your poor ear off. My God, woman. Is there really that much drama in your life? In Georgetown, actually, there probably is. Domestic violence is common here. A Red Cross volunteer friend of Jeff’s works in that department and stays plenty busy. I tune in again when I hear Cassie telling me her “friend was 17 when she was having sex with the president.”

Everything down here is sexualized. Cheating is rampant and everyday is hot and humid. Taxi drivers are high status, and their radios define them. They’ll pop in music video DVDs and watch them on little dashboard screens as they weave thru traffic. Every song is soca and every soca song is about loving girls. Bo-ring!

Our passion for banana shakes peaked during our stay with Jeff.

Our passion for banana shakes peaked during our stay with Jeff.

But the hot sauce in Georgetown does not disappoint, and the pineapple is the best in the world. The language, too, is lyrical and uplifting:

Yah wuhoppinday (local greeting) bana?
Hey boss yuh wanta calaloo in da calabash or duh benga mahrry wit fry rice?
Yuh go sit dere under da wallabah tree, soljah boy nai bring yuh dish out.

We waxed nihilistic with Jeff and explored his fantastic taste in film and comedy. He brought out his Johnny Walker’s Double Black Label, a whiskey I didn’t even know existed. He poured shots of his Mount Gay Extra Old Barbados rum, also one of the finest. I watched a three part documentary Jeff showed me called Land of the Lost Jaguar, a BBC expedition to Guyana. They travel to some of the most remote places and find giant, poisonous centipedes, giant otters and footprints of an unknown creature.

This inspired us to visit Georgetown’s zoo, a piece of shit place where the animals are trapped like death row inmates with no effort to naturalize the exhibits. But its also the only way we’ll ever see many of these amazing species.

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On the way to the zoo, just standing by the side of the road.

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The denizen of the deep pond, actually there were many of them and their skin feels incredible. The nostrils close on command and the manatees eyes look like sphincters. There are three types of manatee in the world, a dugong and an extinct giant called a Stellar’s Sea Cow, which we exterminated awhile back.

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The largest raptor in the Western Hemisphere, the harpy eagle kills monkies…with its glare. It’s really tough to spot in the wild, but if we’d spent two thousand bucks we could have searched for a few in the Kanukus.

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The legend himself.

We still had time to make it over to something else that had been on my list for awhile, Roy Geddes’ Steelpan Museum. Back when the British still ruled in the 50’s, Roy was a 15 year-old blacksmith. Steelpan bands were real popular in Georgetown, a sound you couldn’t escape. They originated in Trinidad and Tobago from the tamboo-bamboo bands that played at Carnival there. Over many decades they developed into the full steelpan band, with multiple oil drums cut to various lengths. This was in the late 40’s. The steelpan is the only instrument to follow the musical cycle of fourths and fifths first calculated by Pythagoras. Check it out!

So Roy’s already working with metal, and suddenly he finds himself learning to play and then tune these unique instruments. In 1964 he founds the group the Silvertones, who become immensely popular in and around Guyana, playing steelpan music for forty years. Now Roy’s 74 and teaches the steelpan to students and curious travelers alike. His wife cooks gourmet food while he keeps visitors company as they try to take in the thousands of photographs he’s pasted all over the walls. He kinda reminds me of that old freak at Slab City who features in Into the Wild, the guy who decided he loved God a lot and built a pile of adobe and cement to paint bible verses all over. Roy does the same thing with quotes he finds in old books.

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Tools for tuning oil drums.

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That last bit could have been spewed at any generation by an older one.

I’m trying to ask him questions about the history of steelpan music and he’s trying to have me read every quote. And he double checks, too. “Did you read that one?” Yes, Roy, I read fast. Did you notice I read that one? But you can’t not love him. He may not be very self-aware, but his laugh is raw and unquestionable. His passion for the instrument and the alleged philosophy that comes with it is lifelong. He is a legend, having received two National Awards, and and a man who decorates the sharp tips of his front yard plants with impaled eggshells.
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Upstairs his house is stuffed with color, irregardless of material. Shiny soccer balls have been carefully placed on flower pots, Hot Wheels hang next to the speakers and beach balls adorn the ceiling. It is a mix between an antique shop, the inside of a preacher’s mind and, yes, a museum about steelpan music. His wife puts on some classical music played with steelpans: Mozart’s “Eine Kleine”. Then it’s Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds”. “What’s your favorite music to play, Roy?” He nods and she puts on his own compilations, which I find myself enjoying more. His music sounds to me like when a character in a big Hollywood film flies to the Caribbean and the director cues the local sound. This is probably how most Americans think of steelpan music, and it probably means I should listen to steelpan outside of movie soundtracks. I buy a CD, and wince as she tells me it’s only $15. I could probably find it online free, but why not support the guy. He banged on his drums beautifully anyway, and the museum has no fee.

Afterwards we grab food at a hyper fancy Chinese place recommended by Roy. It’s called New Thriving, which makes me think of all the hilarious Chinese translations out there. There’s a display window with all the bizarre things Chinese people eat. Just about no holds barred: sea horses, shark fins of all sizes, pubes (or maybe that’s seaweed?), dry scallops, and a bowl of somethings that resemble small vaginas. Our black waitress sports a gold tooth with the Nike swoosh etched in it. If she was having doubts about getting it, I’m sure she simply reviewed Nike’s motto.

I read a few of the headlines from the local newspaper, a paper I can finally read! It’s mostly sensationalist crap with various colored inks like a tabloid, but a few are worth repeating:

-“Winner says he was too busy to collect 78M dollar lotto prize.”

-“Doctor arrested after hit and run”

-One article employs a heavy euphemism for an old creep who had “carnal knowledge” of a 7 year-old girl.

We head back to Jeff’s and have a night out at one of the many rum shops in Georgetown. I meet a Syrian dentist, a Spanish-Guyanese dock worker and plenty of others until the blur kicks in. My puke never hits the porcelain until the next morning. We spend a day being pieces-of-shit on Jeff’s couches watching the Thief and the Cobbler, Waterworld among other gems.

Unavailable in Washington state. We checked.

Unavailable in Washington state. We checked.

Jeff’s neighbors are a kind Indo-Guyanese family: a mother, young girl, little boy and a caged parrot that shrieks daily like the Psycho shower stab scene. The mother makes us her famous seven curry and it’s a divinely humbling lesson in the power of home cooking. Her precocious daughter has a habit of staring out the window at our doings, smiling unabashed. “You look anxious” she tells me, in front of Tyler and her family. It is that type of not beating around the bush that only little women are capable of, disarming you like you’re caught with your pants down. “Yea, maybe I’m anxious.” A series of better responses hit me far too late.

The Russian Ambassador has Arrived

Jeff decides to grab a bunch of beer and instigate a day of day-drinking. He tells the world and much of it heeds his bugle call. And when that mixed nucleus of diplomats, schoolteachers and Red Cross volunteers amasses here, and after we take our shot of El Dorado 12 year and lick our sated lips, I get lifted with Cassie and swept up in that swing of marijuana.

While the others tip glasses, I watch my ability to hang at a party flutter by me and disappear beneath the cloud I now ride upon. Conversation grows useless, diffuse like rum in a tummy. Too many thumbs on phone screens, now basically a default identifier for 21st century social gatherings. No one can focus, at least on anything mutually worthwhile. I am wedged between a consistently high expectation for personal interaction and a historical inability to elevate many minds at once to that world I’ve been before.

For none of us can ever give the exact measure of his needs or his thoughts or his sorrows, and language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity. -Gustave Flaubert

The Russian ambassador has arrived, and I have nothing much to say to him.

What, Another Waterfall?
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 Our last day here we catch a 14-seater single-engine aircraft back into the interior. There’s one last thing we need to see. Kaieteur Falls isn’t the tallest, and it doesn’t have the most volume either, but it does have the oddest name. It’s also one of the most powerful waterfalls in the world, on average hurling 663 cubic meters of water over 820 feet of swift-dwelling abyss. That means nothing in words, which is why I post the photos, which don’t capture much, which is why you should work harder to see it yourself.

But since chances are you won't go see it, here you go.

But since chances are you won’t go see it, here you go.

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Mostly we go because it’s in the middle of bloody nowhere and almost completely untouched. They’ve really constructed no infrastructure whatsoever once you leave the airstrip. We walk atop a Pakaraima mountain plateau through a dinosaur’s rainforest of miniscule frogs and giant tank bromeliads. The world’s smallest fern lives here, as does the tiny golden-dart poison frog, which lives in the bromeliads.

Tiny sundews silently catch bugs we barely even notice.

Tiny sundews silently catch bugs we barely even notice.

And then there’s the falls. Besides photographing them, humans don’t seem quite sure what to do with waterfalls. Our tour doesn’t allow us enough time to sit alone and meditate, so we try to savor quickly. It is possible, but not preferable. Sarius, our guide, points to the incredible pride rock extension of conglomerate jutting over the gorge. It’s the place where a very sad girl once leapt from, and it reminds me of the name for these falls.

Do we believe the story of the annoying old man infested with fleas who gets pushed out of his village in a boat that goes over the falls? Kaieteur is said to mean “old man fall.” Or do we prefer this: the one about the tribe in danger of being raided by another, and they needed to appease the gods. So they sent their most valuable member, the chief, who sacrifices himself over the falls.

Either way, only about 2,000 people see the falls a year, and maybe one day I’ll return to do the three day overland trek to the falls.

We thank Jeff and leave in the early morn for Suriname. I look forward to seeing how these two ex-colonies compare. In the meantime, if I gave you more of an itch to scratch and you wanna know more about the Guianas, here you are.

The ferry to Suriname.

The ferry to Suriname.


*The Bushmaster is the most deadly snake in the Americas, and the second largest venomous snake in the world after the king cobra.

Paranoia is a Country Part II (Entry #15)

16 May

“Death is a friend of ours; and he that is not ready to entertain him is not at home.” – Francis Bacon

“Do not seek death. Death will find you. But seek the road which makes death a fulfillment.” – Dag Hammarskjöld

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They say your life passes before your eyes, as if some idiotic montage is edited in time for some last second entertainment, or nostalgia. But your life takes a lifetime to pass before you, so clearly only a lame trailer would be possible. For me, I received something perhaps more useful. One of the Great Fears of mine was manifesting very quickly, and fear, appropriately inspired, can be the mother of motivation. I wanted to live, not dwell on the past.

The jolt from silence came fast as a bullet, no uneven driving to foreshadow the impact. The noise was what we would use the word ‘terrifying’ for if our lives weren’t usually so mundane as to call for exaggeration. Perhaps there were two seconds from the moment my neck, shoulder and head collided with the steel supports of the chair-the same moment glass erupted in Tyler’s face below me-to the moment our double decker tipped like a sick elephant. Were we rolling off a cliff? Should we prepare for another head on? Anything was possible in that momentaneous silence, and exerting control involves narrowing the likely possibilities to the few in your favor. I decided to stand up.

Did I fall or crawl as right became down and up became right? Who can say? What mattered was my head was pointed up and we weren’t going over a cliff, our first stroke of luck. Our second was that our last minute pleading with the driver had resulted in our bags sitting with us rather than in the rear compartment. “Tyler! Tyler!” He responded from a dark crevice as a cacophony of similarly primitive, locative calls filled the death box. We had to get out. Water was dripping from the bathroom, and the only light shone from cell phones.

We grabbed our bags and I found that the bus had fallen on its door. Our third stroke of luck was that the front of the bus had come to pieces. I crawled out of this and climbed up to the road. Highway traffic was already slowing on both sides. Where was Tyler? I returned to the bus, “Tyler!”

“Yea man, I’m helping people get out.” Good call.

He sends me a distraught and portly fellow with a broken nose and a visage not unlike that of Wormtongue. I grab his armpit and haul him to higher ground. Next a little girl, frozen in shock. Her mother followed soon after. Tyler finally joined me on the highway, his pinky drenched in viscous red. “My foot’s fucked up.” So was his back, it turned out. Something had stabbed thru his tough sweater, his shirt and then the skin of his back. Was that his muscle bulging thru his tattoo? The yin yang moon had been ruptured, and balance lost.

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I felt myself. Painful scrapes on my ankle and knee, a hematoma on my shoulder and a quail’s egg in my neck. About the time they were firing up the jaws of life to cut out one of the drivers, my own jaws began to flame up as well. Aw, man! Again??

I’d fractured it in three places eleven years ago on a poorly chosen ski jump, and it felt the same as then, it’s range of motion reduced threefold. People littered the highway and tall grass. The sky lightened, revealing the mess all around us. Wormtongue lay as if dying, begging us for water. A woman broke down, a man yelled to his cell phone, and the cause of all this suffering stood ten paces away.

Some genius had parked a huge dump truck in the midst of our lane without any lights on. The driver had barely swerved in time. Apparently this type of bullshit is common in Venezuela, and this particualr stretch of highway more dangerous than many.

A medic invited us to throw our bags in an ambulance, and we speed off to the nearby hospital, our fourth stroke of luck. We introduced ourselves. He said his name was Jesus. Of course it was.

The injured from the wreck were there to greet us from their gurneys, and many more poured in after us. The worst was the second driver, the one we’d paid and who had to be cut out from the wreck. They wheeled him in with blood dripping after. The staff had to mop twice, once as he entered and again after his leg braces were removed. We sat in the hall and listened to the saw grind thru bone, and his screams as the leg was removed.

After too many hours of looking at broken people and giving our names to dozens of people, we were driven to another building where a tall, black doctor with a committed dread looked at our x-rays and spoke rapidly. Confused and beleagured, we were led across the street to one of only two 171 buildings (Venezuela’s version of 911) in the country, our fifth stroke of luck.

A large cohort of uniformed people helped us out, hauling our bags, bringing us water and finding an interpreter to make sense of the technical conversation that needed to happen. Julio was brought down from Risk Managment to communicate our needs and make small talk about the Mariners, a kind gesture I’m sure, but not among our growing list of needs. Information was traded, and my jaw injury was suddenly downgraded simply because that was the final doctor to see us and cast his opinion on the matter.

While Tyler took a shower, Julio gave me a tour of the 171 building. Eight ambulances sat in the parking lot cooling, the fleet used for our rescue. Upstairs drywallers were finishing the shape of a room where officials will sit and watch rescues live on a screen. He brought me to his office, Risk Management, “where we have to think about our responses to floods, fires and bad things.” I glanced out the window and raised my eyebrows at a blackened ambulance. “Oh, that got burnt in a summer fire.” Right here? Outside the office of Risk Management? He nodded. Irony is thicker than smoke.

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The nurses seemed generally elated to have a pair of injured Americans in a small room under their matronly advances. “She says you must take her to Seattle and find her a husband.” I play along, but am in dangerous need of sleep. One of the nurses had been helping people for so many years, she’d completely forgotten about self care. She was the kind of obese you’re supposed to simply shrug at, deny and move on. Nothing to be done there. But  she was all smiles, taking photos with us like we were at prom together.

Our fateful bus company, Empresa Los Llanos, had arranged for a free coach to take everyone onwards to Ciudad Bolivar, so with no time to spare for rest we hopped back onto the death trap and sped off into another night. Tensions were high. I glanced around at faces full of gauze and wide eyes. Every pothole was a vivid flashback. Our relief was great as we stepped off at our destination, 24 hours after beginning that ugly business. We had received free healthcare, since Venezuela has been ruled by Socialists for so long. That meant a great deal to us, even though we already had travel insurance. But I also had my doubts about their conclusions on my jaw x-rays. I would probably be getting another opinion back in Seattle.

Orinoco Flow

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Ciudad Bolivar sits on the south side of the Orinoco River, a name recalled from my childhood when my mother would play Enya. The name is evocatively exotic, but the bend in the river there looked like any other. It is the gateway to the gateway to Angel Falls, since backpackers must first fly to Canaima before trekking to the falls. But our plans had swerved off the road, so we simply took it easy in our 200 year-old posada, sipping beers from a bar Simon Bolivar very well may have gotten plastered at before signing his name to the document creating his Gran Colombia. We witnessed our fair share of Venezuelans exhibiting their not-giving-a-fuck temperament, but received no major trouble.

Strange tree at the botanical gardens. Turtle shell bark?

Strange tree at the botanical gardens. Turtle shell bark?

Fancy hotel's fountain obviously shaped like a cock and balls. The fountains would metaphorically be the sperm production?

Fancy hotel’s fountain obviously shaped like a cock and balls. The lion spouts would metaphorically be the sperm production and movement through the vas deferens?

Our stay was punctuated by one final evening with Matt, Karen and Uta. They stopped by to buy us drinks, commiserate and share a few more laughs and stories. I politely asked Matt why English people tended to have more crooked teeth than other folks. “Oh, really? Come on!” He denied it, and I must say his teeth look splendid. If anyone has a valid theory, please comment. Currently it seems that it could be because England doesn’t use Fluoride in their water, although I grew up in Santa Barbara which is an exception to the American rule.

We told them to say hi to the falls for us, and bid our friends a fond farewell. The next morning, we took off for the southernmost city, Santa Elena.

A Continuum of Buses

Because much of our journey has consisted of riding (or surviving) on a bus, it is worth taking some time to illuminate the various types one can have for their money. First and most lovely are the Starliner luxury cruisers, which can be found in several different sub classes, though the best run the routes in the Southern Cone. This is the class Tyler wants to buy, and no wonder.

Yummy

Yummy

It’s a sexy forty-foot streamlined comfort cabin with two levels (and two classes, like an airliner), TV screens, working lights, adjustable air vents, overhead compartments, arm rests, fully reclineable bum-friendly seats, head wings for resting a tired noggin, free food and drink and a bathroom. A glorious, functional bathroom! In five months of travel you can expect to ride this top of the line pleasure palace perhaps thrice. It’s all downhill from there, which is all the worse for what you know you’re missing.

Your mid-range option, which is usually anything but, is a single-decker luxury liner. No food, the lights are broken so you can’t read after sunset, no food, forget the air vents and the seats are known as “semi-cama” instead of full, so sleeping is a precarious proposition.  However, the suspension still allows smooth sailing and, praise Pachamama, the bathroom is still onboard! Or at least a shadowy, sloshing hole to piss in.

A step down.

A step down.

The next level of long distance “coach” doesn’t deserve such a respectable moniker. It still goes the distance, for us often a 12 hour plow, but becomes intolerable after two. Say goodbye to size appropriate design, these cages were built for pygmies. The arm rests are absent, ‘cuz who needs those, and the reclineable back springs forward every moment you forget to clench your shoulders against it. Somebody somewhere is always blaring ranchero music or some other form of Devil spawn, not that anyone seems to notice but us. Obviously tuned to gringo frequency.

Avoid at all costs. You get what you pay for.

Avoid at all costs. You get what you pay for. Just because it’s clean doesn’t mean it’s not  fundamentally broken.

The curtains won’t stay open or shut, simply hanging like limp napkins. The overhead compartments make a mockery of logic. The passengers’ luggage, inspired by the constant suspensionless rattle, rains down upon anyone nervy enough to shut their eyes. Indeed, every object, every rump and every mood shifts cartoonishly over twelve hours, and must be consistently readjusted to avoid total entropy, a fact that more than twice has moved Tyler to a rabid fury, a free show that every spectator besides us seems to take pleasure from. And I must piss in my water bottle because the bathroom is eternally elsewhere, probably in some protected park where the remainder of Venezuela’s safe drivers are herded.

Indeed, there is nothing to do but submit to the madness or leave the country. Actually, that’s what we’re trying to do, but this is the only affordable way to do it. We may not make it, given that lightning indeed strikes twice in Venezuela, a fact you may recall. When I searched for our bus accident online, it didn’t even make the cut. I read about several other horrific bus plunges from the same evening in the same state. Apparently a minimum threshold is 14 dead and 20 injured before a journalist even photographs the wreck.

The first class I ever took at UW was about South America and the various preconceptions we have that must be reversed. One was that its people value life less than Americans do. I don’t believe that’s true, but they still have a knack for letting it slip through the cracks.

At the moment our driver feels compelled to pass everything moving on our two lane jungle highway. This means a routine game of chicken with oncoming vehicles, a gambler’s roulette where he’s banking on a bus-sized slot to swerve into at all times. A slot that often isn’t there. Outside it is clear we have entered the land of the tepuis, gorgeous rock plateaus so ancient and unique I may never see them again. But the thing is, I’d like to be the one to make that call.

Next Time, Then…

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What I would have taken if we'd had a helicopter.

What I would have taken if we’d had a helicopter.

Angel Falls was discovered probably by Jimmy Angel, and we’re confident enough about that to give it his name. I for one am glad his name wasn’t Jimmy McGillicudy, because the falls do look more gossamer than mutton-like. Anyway, Angel was an American pilot looking for, what else, gold. Instead he found the falls, which is probably the only reason anyone still talks about Jimmy.

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Eventually, after poking around the world some more with measuring tapes, folks agreed no other falls was higher. This proved a fortunate fact for Venezuela, because mostly that’s what tourists are interested in. We were too, until the crash shifted our priorities. With new stitches and open wounds, we decided with a sigh to skip tempting infection.

This sigh was echoed once more on the bus to Santa Elena, when Mount Roraima loomed large in the distance. Our six day trek to the top and back would have to wait for a future return. At this point we wanted to take things fairly easy and move on to the Guianas.

But what a cutting figure! Roraima shrouded itself in clouds like a modest maiden. From one angle I swear it looked the spitting image of a great Noah’s Ark, the one we’ve all agreed never existed, but in that same stylistic way it’s always drawn.

Roraima is the highest of the tepuis, those enigmatic plateaus of granite rising from the landscape. But are they really rising? In fact, everything else has fallen, and the tepuis are all that’s left of a world that existed billions of years ago. They are some of the oldest rock in the world. The BBC, of course, has some brilliant footage  of the unique life making its way on these far-fetched islands.

Roraima in the distance.

Roraima in the distance.

For the most part Santa Elena is three streets with a couple of hostels and a lovely town of locals living their own lives but happy to help. Just as in Foz do Iguacu, our hostel owner is a gringo love refugee now living in a border town and organizing treks. We rest for a day, and learn about the gas smugglers who exploit the extreme price differential between Venezuela and Brazil. Because smugglers can earn thirty on the dollar, gas quotas are maintained and enforced with stamp cards.

The next morning, after remembering our dreams for the first time in a week, we plunge back into the land of Portuguese  only to bus back out of it some three hours later. This region is so remote, it’s the only way to cross into Guyana from Venezuela. The Guianas, that obscure trifecta of ex-European colonies the rest of the world-the rest of South America-never even think about. We had waited our entire trip to reach this corner of the continent, and we were suddenly but an hour away.

Paranoia is a Country Part I (Entry #15)

14 May

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I’ve seen a fisticuff battle that’ll rattle an ace

I’ve seen diamonds in clubs

seen ‘em grindin with thugs

seen my mind fall flat to the chatter of space

it didn’t matter

the Madhatter had a good day

back when he was a little bitty lad

at a bidet

he knew he’d see a few things if-

how do I say?

if when the boy had a query

he put it on a list

this list it served as a way to get paid

with as much of the It

so…bit by bit

he bit another megabit

and it didn’t mean shit

but he

kept at it occupied

until he ossified

and who can ask for more

can we philosphize?

how can we not not survive?

live for the day

but uh

the tax man made it cost a night

by now I’ve seen a few fall in improbable ways

seen walls halt the few with formidable strength

I lived a dream

it felt like autumn for days

when I awoke I had a modicum of audible grace

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Tyler has returned from his epic three day mission to Cuzco and back. We have new books, new music and even though he hasn’t slept since he left, we need to first celebrate having everything important in one place at the same time. The sun sets in Santa Marta, we have a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label, Hitchens’ favorite, and a speaker singing sonorous splendor.

"One would not be doing one's job if they did not have the itch to prick." -The Hitch

“One would not be doing one’s job if they did not have the itch to prick.” -The Hitch

Couples began leaving the waterfront once the sun was only halfway melted! But stay another five to ten minutes and you get this.

Couples began leaving the waterfront once the sun was only halfway melted! But stay another five to ten minutes and you get this.

New Agers Love Hawaii

The same week Richard Dawkins, a biologist, was named the world’s greatest thinker, I spent time with a girl at the hostel in Santa Marta, a girl who had been to the Galapagos and was suddenly asking me seven year-old questions about the animal kingdom. Granted, one never has the same conversation in hammocks as one does standing up. Still, she wondered aloud what ticks and mosquitoes were doing existing here as a nuisance, “because flies are for birds, but what are ticks for?” I asked her what birds were for? “Other birds…”

There is no why, I said, only how. Animals aren’t here for us. Ticks’ genes are here to make more tick genes, and that’s all. She squinted, and I felt a huge turnoff. This is the type of reasoning abandoned a hundred and twenty years ago by offended theologists. It’s not that the facts don’t exist, that they’re expensive or difficult to access, it’s that there’s too much time spent wondering idly with no urgency to follow up.

I realized I’d had to deal with this existential malaise with more than a few of my best friends, and much of their romantic leanings had swayed them over to Hawaii. New Agers love traditional beauty, like the Victorian romantics in their day, and Hawaii has plenty. You can get together a group of people who like to smile, do yoga and exclaim soft, airy butterfly sentences and call it an ecovillage. It’s the first step towards twisting an unpleasant non-fiction into whatever fiction you like, few people will challenge the community because they’re not cooking meth or acquiring automatic weapons. Yet.

In fact there’s nothing wrong with this form of running away, just don’t try talking biology with these animal lovers. That’s not something they find beautiful.

Case in point, my old best friend from years back who still owes me $400 decided to say hi on Facebook chat.

  • Me: So why hawaii?

  • Him: its the top part (elevation) of the ancient land of Lemuria where our consciences is gathering to raise Lumeria

  • M: dude what the fuck are you talking about
    simmer down now, wildcat
  • i may be an ancient lemurian soul
  • M: Celestine Prophecy type of shit

  • H: you kno
    i believe in all that

  • M: and I may be just a white guy who writes
    that’s fine with me

  • H: im a white guy who writes
    with the soul of an ancient lemurian
    hahahahahaa

  • M: why is that important is the first question
    and why do you think it’s true, is the sescond

  • H: because the only thing importand is rekindling our frayed connection
    we are all one
    and we collectively believe this reality into existence

  • M: well it looks like you’ve dove down the rabbit hole far enough to convince yourself
    are you rekindling defrayed connections?
    ‘cuz paying me back is one great way to do it

  • H: creating a bridge between todays society and the ancient conscience spirits of our ancestry
    i def got you for your money my guy
    dont you worry
    :))\

  • M: I’ll believe it when I see it
    y’know I go for what’s timeless, not what’s ancient

  • H: whats timeless?
    love and light
    moneys not timeless

  • M: value is timeless

  • H: nor are memories
    disagree
    everything is timeless

  • M: you owing me money is timeless, lol

  • H: lol

  • M: well Hawaii’s beautiful, regardless of your reasons for going there

  • H: our love is timeless
    and unconditional
    hahahahahaha

  • M: who the hell are the lumerians?

  • H: maybe ur not a lumerian
    perhaps ur a hebrew or a martian
    and then there’s nascals
    that made the nasca lines

  • M: and now you’re just fuckin with me for laughs, right?

  • H: i am laughing
    but no im not fuckin w u
    im serious cacao
    i am cacao

  • M: wow
    dude, our world history has a lot to say about different cultures. and martians are not among it
    I just posted an entry on ancient cultures in colombia

  • H: thats dope bro
    and all that shit happened

  • M: so why go searching for made up places?

  • H: i love our ancient cultures

    we made up everything

  • M: most people don’t love you enough to tell you you’re going crazy but you are, bro

  • H: lemuria and atlantis are just older cultures of ppl that existed on this planet
    before the egyptians or the maya

  • M: no they’re not. they never existed man
    vortex mathematics, lemurians
    this is you searching
    because you’ve had a rough life and you want answers
    and I hear that, man, many people are searching
    but there are real answers and fake and comforting answers
    and I search for the real ones

  • H: u got your way of life and i got mine
    same
    just b/c you cant see the value in what i see doesnt make it not real
    it is
  • M: Philip K. Dick had a great quote: “Reality is that which does not go away when you stop believing in it.”

  • H: im not asking you to believe everything im saying
    you got ur quotes that help you
    guide you through life and thats cool

  • M: I see a good friend as someone who helps you see the hard truths

  • H: everyones got theyre patterns they favor

  • M: but if you see a friend as someone who nods at whatever you’re into, that’s cool
    I gotta run. time to hit the beach here

  • H: i live differently then what you may consider sane but this does not make me unfit for this world
    you shine in the time when you make everyone think a little different
    just something ive observed about you tye

  • M: okay, man
    enjoy the day
    I mean that sincerely
    I’m gonna go enjoy mine

  • H: you too bro

  • M: peace

    Crystals, man. See what I mean?

    Crystals, man. See what I mean?

    Maybe I shouldn’t have tried shifting his fantasy with my killjoy words, but this conversation got me thinking about something else that seems to mean a lot, but rings hollow instead.

    God Bless America

    Let’s assume for fun we understand the first two words, which history has proven we just don’t. Or perhaps we understand them so well, we’ve woven dozens of definitions to choose from. But throw the dogs a bone already. God Bless America.

    Have any three words led to so much applause and teary eyes while meaning so little?

    Maybe semantically it means God Bless everyone who was born in America, regardless of where they live now. Or maybe it means God Bless anyone living in America, regardless of where they were born. Or maybe America is a sweet toffee dream tucked away wherever folks believe in root beer and FREEDOM! Should God Bless that? I honestly don’t know what it means, but by God I know they mean it.

    Reaching Perfection by the Skin of our Teeth

    Better than Hawaii, because it hasn't yet been associated with Atlantis. Sorry, Lemuria. How silly of me.

    Better than Hawaii, because it hasn’t yet been associated with Atlantis. Sorry, Lemuria. How silly of me. (Not even these professional photos do it justice.)

    Go to the pirate’s coast at Tayrona. Nearly get yourself locked away in the process because they’re worried you’ll take over the world with your bag of marijuana.The guards will find your foil-wrapped acid, and pull out the paper towel, delineated into four squares with a pen. What’s this, they’ll ask? Rather than introduce them to a new world, you’ll simply grab a pencil and say it’s a game Americans play, like tic tac toe. They’ll give it back to you, take your weed with one hand, your $30 bribe with the other and let you go on your merry way. Your friends and family will reward your openness and honesty (itself a form of dangerous living) with advice and stern warnings, as if you’d never thought of leading a cautious life before, but you’ll realize all their eye rolling is coming from a place of love.

    And when you’re there, listening to the “new” Jimi Hendrix, tell me you don’t know what treasure is. These are prehistoric Edens we’re gazing up at, and Hendrix is nodding right there with us. These shores have never sounded with this music before, and I will never be the same for it.

    We come up in a Tomb Raider-like grotto of boulders, a ceiling of lianas and fern dappling the sunlight. Where are we? The music becomes too much for our heads, and we crawl, hop and hoist ourselves thru a trail we make from scratch. Our reward is a distant beach removed from the others, which themselves were removed from everything else. Jumping into the pure depths, I have never known a dip so unperturbed. I’ve acid tripped somewhere around a hundred times, but never this intensely. This is the New Year’s Eve batch, a special reserve we’ve kept in an alcohol swab packet in the first aid kit for emergencies. The visions are too hot to touch with words. A lot of red and distended cartoon horns which would creep into reality until I opened my eyes, surfaced and took a breath.

    Ralph Steadman Should Have Been There

    Not quite British, perhaps, but the same attitude.

    Not quite British, perhaps, but the same attitude.

    Later, as I loll like a loggerhead in the warm waves I see a most cartoonish sight, a sight I am at pains to describe, but shall do my damned best. We have come across these types through our…unfortunate wayward windings as human beings. These types who are looking for something, something important. They squint, because they think they’re coming up on something big, but really they squint because squinting is what we do when things are still a shout away. Where is it? Is it getting closer? Never mind where it is! Keep moving along now.

    And here they come, from the ruddy underbelly of dirty London, they shuffle: Five or six dentist’s nightmares straight up the beach towards the acid kings. And I’m crawling like a crab on the sandy shallows. With pouty cloudy lips these landlubbers lap at our knowifs and wheretos. “What’s the problem?” I gesture around us, “Enjoy!” I offer this as a true suggestion, because they clearly have lost sight of where they are. Where’s the next beach? Dear god, man. What worse blow could you inflict upon me, brother? A snaggle-toothed donkey of a girl marches up to Tyler, “Wuh ah yew awn abaht?!”

    Well, ahem. We’ve been through them goblin caves with their bats and their bites. Nearly got our balls snipped off and led to the iron cages just to be here today. Here. HERE. With Jimi and the coconut crabs. Something this godforsaken shore has never resounded with before, a Jimi I have never heard before. So somebody told you about a better beach somewhere. Believe it or not that beach is here, now. We’re on it and somehow you’re not. You probably can’t get here from there.

    And this is the answer we give them. An answer too big for them to swallow, a fact none of us have any doubt about.

    That some of us are ready to duck the vines to find our beach, while others want it guaranteed and with a martini umbrella stuck in just for the fuck of it, is why some of us pluck pearls while others suck empty oyster shells.

    The Border: “They No Have Reasons”

    The lesson, kids, is that you can play boyscout and be prepared, but in the end it comes down to your nationality and how crazy the last leader was in the country you wish to enter. In our case, we arrived as two Americans at the Venezuelan border, and that just won’t fly. But sometimes it will, which is even worse. It depends on how long it’s been since the border agent received a blowjob, whether it’s raining or if Chavez appeared to him in a dream the night before. Anyway, nothing is in your control, but they’ll find a reason to convince you it is.

    It’s usually easy to find some silly document a gringo may have missed. In our case, they had a tough time of it, but the memory of Chavez was strong, so they weren’t unwilling to get crafty. After reviewing our passports, proof of accomodation, proof of onward travel, our tourist cards and our bored faces for thirty sleepy minutes, and after conferring with our driver that we were indeed headed where we said we were, and after I had watched the resident gecko fail several times to catch a dragonfly, everything seemed to be in order. Then a lightbulb went off outside, which could only mean one of those buggers had had himself a clever, inverted idea.

    We had arrived at the border in a colectivo, a shared taxi, instead of a bus, you see. They could not get even close to explaining why this would bear thinking about for even an iota of a second, but it certainly and suddenly mattered. No matter that no buses had been available at the terminal, and would not be again until tomorrow. No matter that we had paid $25 to get to the border, and spent all our money before changing countries. No matter. The jig’s up, boys. Time to head back to Maicao, your seedy border town for the night.

    Our American friends had crossed a few days before with no hassle, but at this point we have a reputation to uphold and we’ll be damned if we’re not noticed and provided special treatment. Logic’s overrated.

    Actually our friends did get a bit of trouble after all. Two cops randomly asked for their passports once they were well into the country. Their gear was pawed and they were thrown into separate cells and strip searched. Karen had to remove her panties and bra and jump up and down three times to prove that nothing was going to fall out of her. Meanwhile, the cops stole $50 from her wallet, an amount that was great enough to be worth the cops’ time but small enough to not merit much of a fuss. Well done.

    We try again the following day and get thru. Apparently if I had simply flashed our colectivo ticket the day before, we would have been spared all the nonsense. But the agent had spoken to our driver and nobody had bothered asking for it! Best not to think about these things.

    We push on through low scrubland with tons of goats and Brahman cows. The old codger to my right tosses his empty bottle casually out the window just as I read up on Venezuela’s environmental policy. It’s actually fairly succinct: we couldn’t care less. At least outside of their parks and refuges, which cover an area the size of California.

    Within the first fifteen minutes of entering the country, we are stopped no less than four times at military checkpoints. Our passports are scrutinized, or not, depending on their whim.

    Money in Maracaibo

    Finally we enter Maracaibo, a city of 2.5 million and Venezuela’s largest after Caracas. Strangely, Lonely Planet barely gives it a page, and fails to provide a map. This begins to make sense soon enough. We find, or rather are found by, a man who exchanges bolivar fuertes (literally “strong bolivars,” which replaced the older “bolivar,” even though the ‘strong’ ones have been consistently devalued) for dollars on the black market. The black market, sometimes referred to as “Green Lettuce,” exists because Venezuela has developed a shortage of greenbacks and their currency has been sliding for some years now.

    If I wanted to be a good boy, I could go exchange one US dollar for 6.30 bolivar fuertes today, or I could talk to any old guy on the street and get between 20 and 25. It just doesn’t pay to please the ghost of Chavez, sorry. Just like that, an expensive country becomes ridiculously affordable. New sandals are $4, a delicious meal is $3, and a 12 hour bus ride is less than $10.

    Back in the 20’s Venezuela produced more oil than anywhere else in the world, and thru the boom and bust of the 70s it remained an oil producer. The result? Rich homes and a lack of cultural richness. Baseball and beauty pageants rank high, in fact more international beauty contests are won by Venezuelans than women from any other country, but it remains an odd place. Gold and diamond production is big, but mostly Venezuela is mono-cropping it with oil, and that means that they import most of their goods. For example, for some reason there has been a toilet paper shortage for a long time, so we wipe with care.

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    Very near that trash heap is this contrasting view.

    Very near that trash heap is this contrasting view.

    We walk from a fetid river to a spontaneous trash dump, thru a market so large we must’ve walked a mile before spotting a brick and mortar business. Most taxis here are old Cadillacs, and the fancy cathedral and stunning sculptures we pass are flanked by stacked projects and obvious poverty. The face of Chavez smiles from every corner. A bizarre decree he gave back in 2007 meant that Tyler had to wind his watch forward half an hour. Borders isolate nations in space, and now Venezuela lives thirty minutes in the past. “It’s about the metabolic effect, where the human brain is conditioned by sunlight.” Maybe his brain has seen a bit too much of that helpful sunlight. In any event, very little about this city reminds me of any other.

    Destitution is very real around us. Emaciated faces scrub clothes on the sidewalk next to a gutted brick edifice. Children walk thru gardens of garbage. The architecture sprawls randomly like a schizophrenic’s memory, and the market secretes an aroma of pig heads and cheese.

    We decide we feel like seeing a film before our night bus leaves. Iron Man 3 is in English, and though we rarely hold high hopes for a third in a series, it proves pretty damn snappy, raking in over $600 million worldwide on opening weekend. I get a shave and a haircut, and a handful of stares as a free bonus. Very few gringos frequent Maracaibo. I spot two others during a very active nine hour period.

    The night bus affords us fair glimpses of a very special phenomenon over Lake Maracaibo: el relampago de Catatumbo. The Catatumbo lightning is a fairly mysterious series of thunderless flashes observable at night. Flashes that have been consistently storming over the lake for at least five hundred years, since the conquistadors first wrote about it. Stranger still, in 2010 they ceased altogether, but only for a few months. Residents of Lake Maracaibo can read at night, as the lightning flashes around 150 times per minute.

    We couldn't see it like this from the bus, but this is what it looks like when you have the right camera and teh weather is perfect.

    We couldn’t see it like this from the bus, but this is what it looks like when you have the right camera and the weather is perfect.

    Theories involve the unique location, where the high, cold Andes tower thousands of meters above the warm and massive lake. In addition, uranium deposits exist beneath the soil, so it is thought that the mixing winds ionize the air constantly. But probably we’ve simply discovered Zeus’ dressing room.

    Last Nest of the Andes

    When we arrive in Merida, I realize this will be our final nesting spot in those long, articulated mountains. Our list of lasts has begun. Unable to contact Maritza, our couchsurfing host, we opt for a buffet. In the bathroom I discover that what resembles a purplish skin tag on my hip is, in fact, my very first tick! Fortunately it is still small-barely a centimeter-and I don’t need to worry about an embedded head. But why does it exist when it proves such a nuisance? It doesn’t! I flush it down the toilet.

    It’s Sunday, and nearly 90% of Merida’s businesses are closed. No wonder people still attend church! Their options have been castrated. We follow suit and follow the suits, sitting amidst a full mass to read about the human mind and mechatronics. We do not stand to sing with the rest of them. They smile anyway.

    Merida turns Seattle-grey every afternoon. The second we dip outside it pours down upon us. We came here for two reasons. In 1960 an assortment of French, Swiss and local companies designed and constructed the world’s longest and highest cable car, beginning at 5,000ft and ending via four segments at 15,000ft. The problem is that it ended its operating life in 2008, and the new one won’t be operational until December of this year. So much for old wires…

    The other reason we came was for the wind. Merida is Venezuela’s adventure sports capital, and particularly well known for its paragliding. The high altitude typically provides longer glides and the Andes serve as a stunning view. We call to reserve our spots for the next morning.

    It’s not uncommon for Venezuelans to give their children unique names, and Maritza somehow inherited a Bulgarian moniker. She steps around the puddles holding a transparent umbrella with black stars, and is immediately charming. On her couchsurfing page one reference read “she is crazy and won’t stop talking.” I had immediately written to her.

    We soon find out we are the first Americans she has hosted. This puts the pressure on, but flatters us all the same. “I could tell, haha, you are a real surfer.” Her mid-sentence giggles proved to be a confidence builder and very endearing.

    She suggested we say we’re English or Canadian in Venezuela, since Americans are anything but cherished here. The reasons for this are multifarious, as you may expect, but it’s worth speaking about Chavez a bit to understand this country better.

    Chavez: Where There’s a Whip There’s a Flay

    Here he is depicted in Bolivarian dress.

    Here he is depicted as Bolivar usually is.

    “From here, we send our solidarity to the Syrian people, to President Bashar. They are resisting imperial aggression, the attacks of the Yankee empire and its European allies.” -Hugo Chavez

    Hugo Chavez was born poor, wanted to be a painter growing up, played basketball and baseball and joined the military in 1975. He led a fascinating life in the military, starting social programs and improving relations with indigenous tribes. In the early 90s he attempted a military coup to overthrow Carlos Perez, who had made Venezuela rich during the oil boom years. Unfortunately Perez had also embezzled millions, and failed to oppose the US and IMF like he had promised. The coup failed, but it provided Chavez a speaking moment on TV, where his charismatic strong man image, one taken as a friend of the poor, was broadcast across the country.

    Over the following six years he founded his own political party, toured Latin America and befriended Fidel Castro. In 1998 he was elected with a 56% vote, the first of many leftist wins in Latin America.

    Chavez, nicknamed El Lastigo (The Whip), ruled Venezuela over four terms from ’99 until March, when he died of cancer and a heart attack, or was it an evil plot by the American CIA? Venezuelans disagree. As a socialist who built bridges with Castro in Cuba, Morales in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador, and Russia, Chavez had poor relations with the US from Day 1. In 2010, the Venezuelan ambassador to the US had his visa revoked because Chavez didn’t approve of the diplomat appointed to represent the US in Venezuela. Now both countries are represented by a Charge d’ Affaires, which is basically a downgraded ambassador.

    Even so, Venezuelan oil is one of America’s top imports, and Venezuela buys plenty of manufactured goods from the US. In many ways, Chavez criticizes exactly what America should be criticized for: chiefly neoliberal economics. The problem is that he showed little subtlety, and devalued his own critiques with his endearingly memorable, but not very tactful language:

    In a dramatic speech to the UN in September 2006, Mr Chavez famously described then US President George W Bush as the “Devil”.

    “And the Devil came here yesterday. Yesterday the Devil came here. Right here. [crosses himself] And it smells of sulphur still today.”

    Even better:

    “Remember, little girl, I’m like the thorn tree that flowers on the plain. I waft my scent to passers-by and prick he who shakes me. Don’t mess with me, Condoleezza. Don’t mess with me, girl.”

    He blew a screen kiss to Ms Rice and jokingly referred to her as “Condolence.”

    Indeed, his hyperbole and superstition didn’t help dispel the cartoonish demon much of the world’s media painted of Chavez. Christopher Hitchens visited Venezuela with Sean Penn, a friend of Chavez’, in 2010. They witnessed Chavez exhuming the remains of Simon Bolivar to determine whether the Colombians had poisoned him or he had, as was believed, died naturally.

    The excellent article Hitch penned afterwards is not very flattering of the man, and fleshes out some of the stranger tendencies of mighty Hugo. After denying bin Laden posed any real danger in the world, and that he was probably a planted US distraction, he segues thru Strangeland:

    After all, “there is film of the Americans landing on the moon,” he scoffed. “Does that mean the moon shot really happened? In the film, the Yanqui flag is flying straight out. So, is there wind on the moon?” As Chávez beamed with triumph at this logic, an awkwardness descended on my comrades, and on the conversation.

    Chávez, in other words, is very close to the climactic moment when he will announce that he is a poached egg and that he requires a very large piece of buttered toast so that he can lie down and take a soothing nap.

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    All this conceded, the man certainly made changes, and not only bizarrely time warps. Because the oil companies had been nationalized in the 70s, Chavez had plenty of money to funnel towards his socialist dreams.

    Thus, Chavez was left free to enact his redistributionist, welfare state-expanding, centrally planned economic agenda more or less free of trouble. He created worker-owned “cooperatives” to act as a substitute for corporations, which he relentlessly propped up with government funding. He started grocery stores that would deliberately sell food below market value so as to run capitalist alternatives out of business. Eventually, he set price controls on food. He seized land belonging to rich Venezuelans and redistributed it to poor ones. He nationalized telephone companies, electricity companies, cement production, food plants (even those owned by foreign entities), coffee plants, rice fields and banks. He pulled Venezuela out of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, accusing both entities of exploitation. He even seized control of the media. And he did all this while pushing a fierce brand of socialist rhetoric (one of his slogans was “Motherland, socialism or death”) and attacking capitalist powers

    This sounds like a lot of good when it’s packed into a dense paragraph and listed consecutively, but the reality is that he made Venezuela almost entirely dependent on oil, homicide rates (which were already bad) skyrocketed, and the well-equipped health care system fell into disrepair (after all, why was Chavez being treated for cancer in Cuba?), with long lines we would experience soon enough first hand.

    With currency devalued five times in a decade, frequent blackouts, marathon television speeches (as they say, four hour of Chavez yapping or riding bicycles was short), and blatant antisemitism (“Don’t let yourselves be poisoned by those wandering Jews.”), it has become a Herculean effort for his supporters to address a legacy of failure. So for the most part, they don’t bother.

    Certainly, there are positive lessons to take away from the Singular Story of Chavez, but overall he came to represent superstition and paranoia, a legacy travelers today have to live with. And more importantly, his people have to live with. His named successor, Maduro, recently won the election by a 2% margin, which either shows a dwindling support for this type of politicking, or another scandal. Either way, the country is highly divided and their oil is highly finite.

    Chavez revered Bolivar like Venezuela revered Chavez. And maybe that’s part of the issue right there; too much reverence. Like they say, no people ever suffered from being too reasonable.

    Gone with the Wind, Finally!

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    That night we make dinner with some friends we met in Potosi on the silver tour: Matt and Karen, the tall English bloke and Chinese American gal from Brooklyn. They have just returned from a Los Llanos tour, Venezuela’s swamplands full of capybara, anacondas and giant anteaters. They bring over Uta, a German they’d met on the tour.

    The gang is assembled, the stir fry (what Matt called a gulash) prepared and the girls head off on a wine run. It’s Sunday, and Colombia mimics Ecuador in its alcohol prohibition. Luckily, Maritza has a few connections, though she cannot explain why it’s prohibited in the first place. People say it’s the government responsible, not religion.

    Matt is the only other traveler we’ve met hitting every country. He has dedicated eleven months to do it, too, which has allowed him to see Antarctica, Patagonia, the Galapagos and many of the other places I am sad to pass this time around. “I have a fear of missing out,” he explains. A quality like that is all one needs to motivate them for big things.

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    Blurry photos of happy faces.

    Blurry photos of happy faces.

    We spend a lovely evening together, the six of us cozy and full. My dreams are slow in the relinquishing of my body to the morning. I can’t recall the last time we slept in.

    At Fanny Tours I meet Jose and Patrizia, a husband and wife team. Jose drives us off up to the mountains, picking up his friend Pablo along the way. The plan is the two of them will fly the two of us tandem and Jose’s ancient father will drive the jeep down to meet us.

    Jose was Merida’s pioneer 25 years ago, when a friend of his from Spain brought a glider over. Since then he’s tried out all types of wind-riding toys, including hang gliders, “they’re faster and more technical.” He’s been attacked by eagles and had his glider ripped, but throughout it all he and Pablo have been riding the wind. Now Merida has 100 pilots and 15 along who fly tandem.

    It’s a long way up the mountain, but gasoline is subsidized here, and so cheap it’d make your granny nostalgic. Cheaper than water, today gas is $0.18 a gallon, the loweset gas price in the world. Sure, buying and maintaining a car is another matter, but once you have it (mostly the wealthy), you can drive aimlessly and nearly for free, like the wind we harness down the long slope.

    It’s really easy to paraglide. Anyone with the need to run off a cliff can do it. A few tugs on the strings and the beast steers. Quite intuitive, if gliding could be called so.

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    Pablo brings us over a group of munching goats and sends ‘em scattering. One carcass I spot has been laying there for six months, he tells me. “The vultures, they no eat it.” A poisonous snake had killed it. “Over there, they do mountain biking competition every year.” But at the moment, the vulture soaring nearby is easier to relate to.

    Jose has a pretty nice gig going. My blood pressure is probably too low to inspire me to buy a pickup and earn my license, but I appreciate the softness of the whole experience, from takeoff to landing.

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    That’s Not on our Itinerary

    We head back to make lunch and share a last meal with Maritza. She delays our exit with hot chocolate, and our bittersweet parting loses its bitter. We grab a bus with Matt, Karen and Uta and roll off towards Ciudad Bolivar. Well, they grab a bus. It only has three spots, go figure, so we wave goodbye and hope the other one shows soon.

    I know it’s a coincidence, but it’s one that complements their personalities and ours besides. They are always “on it” and we’re off in the bushes missing buses.

    In any event, the other one comes around 1am, and we’re delirious with exhaustion. It’s been five long days since we’ve had a decent sleep, so when they tell us it’s full we fight to get aboard anyway. How I wish now we had let it go.

    It’s a packed double decker Starliner. So full, in fact, that for the first time on our trip we find ourselves sitting on the staircase connecting the two levels. Our bags sit at our feet. The A/C is on, as usual, so we’re bundled up and experimenting with a Kama Sutra’s worth of positions in order to get comfortable for the twelve hours it will take to reach the Orinoco.

    Life in the bus is still and peaceful. Families share blankets, all the lights are off. It’s 3am and I’m the only one awake besides the driver. Tyler has just listened to “Kill Everyone” by Skrillex and he’s now reached that soft state of slumber, a state I feel I may be finally edging towards.

    Earlier in the evening, Tyler had leaned over to me, removed an earbud and smiled, “I feel great! That’s all. Things are lookin’ good.” I share his sentiment, thinking about our imminent trek to Angel Falls, the world’s highest waterfall and the inspiration for the setting in Pixar’s Up. He’s right, I self-mutter, this is a very special trip.

    We’re the only gringos on the bus, and the only two without seats. I’m curled up in a vulnerable position above the stairs and behind the front chair when the Great Arm of Destiny flexes its bicep. What now, it screams in a language of sheared metal and shattered glass. What now?

Gold, Blood and the Caribbean Part II (Entry #14)

3 May

Medellin

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“There are two hundred million idiots, manipulated by a million intelligent men.” -Pablo Escobar

Flourescent lightning strobes behind clouds as our bus ignores the drama. We cling to the hills of jungle, beauty outside too commonly exotic that the pen falters while the eye lingers. A few hours later, we’re in Medellin.

Shared lunch with these child things. They were genuinely chill and fun to be around. I have to make one of them sometime.

Shared lunch with these child things. They were genuinely chill and fun to be around. I have to make one of them sometime.

The first thing that happens after meeting our couchsurfing host, Damien, is his allusion to smoking. This is the polite way two smokers find each other out. “Smoke what? You mean cigarrettes?” A quick scan of his room had not revealed definitive evidence of the ganja sort. “No, I smoke weed.” That preliminary clarification was all we needed before bumping some music, leaning back, lighting up and learning about one another: a ritual so similar to that of the middle-aged middle class wine sipping that it’s difficult to see the same chasm that they often do. Superficially, liquid and smoke are noticeably dissimilar. Superficially.

Damien, from France recounts tales of living in Rio, Taiwan and skiing in Iran. “Of 41 countries, I think Iran is number one.” I have often heard of Iran in just this way, how its rough reputation precedes its actual kindnesses. Damien tells us 30% of Iranians are atheists. The truth beneath the myth. Iran is woefully misunderstood, much like Colombia. They are outcast sister countries, where a lucky few enjoy their treasures. But the general fear of them adds to their charm, once inside.

I had asked Tim that morning on the coffee farm what it was about Colombia that everybody raved about. “The people!” Of course, but what was it about the people? “Their history has been so violent, things are better now. They are happy with their newfound peace. Visitors have only been arriving for five or six years.” So they’re not jaded yet? “It’s the honeymoon period,” he responded, honing my observation.

Tyler and I slept well, but awoke to find ourselves bickering. “I think we need a day apart,” he accurately observed, before heading out the door. Indeed, our stubbornly independent personalities can be so at odds, it’s a wonder this doesn’t occur more often. I walk out alone and at my own pace, in my own direction into a downtown engrossed in its day to day. My goal is to find a balcony to perch upon and snipe a plaza for a better understanding of this most singular city.

After all, Medellin (pronounces Meh-duh-JHEEN) is largely why my friends and family who haven’t been here warned me about Colombia, though they probably were not aware that Medellin specifically was the source of so many terrifying headlines in the 80s and 90s. Pablo Escobar will doubtless ring a bell for you. Of all the various drug cartels, moving coke and sending out their hitmen on motorcycles, Escobar held the largest: the Medellin cartel.

Hollywood loves a good kingpin, and Escobar didn’t leave much room for exaggeration. The cocaine mafia began modestly in the early 70s, but upgraded their facilities and logistics quickly. A crescendo was reached in the 80s when Escobar, who owned newspapers and founded a political party, was elected to congress. In 1983, the following year, the government launched a campaign against the drug trade. The cartls said nuh-uh. Many of their enemies they liquidated, including a key presidential nominee. Mafia-owned properties were siezed in response, and the cartels fired back with car bombs.

Eventually Escobar surrendered and was arrested. But during a bungled attempt to move him to a higher security prison, he somehow escaped. A special elite force of 1,500 men hunted him for nearly 500 days before gunning him down on a Medellin rooftop in 1993, proving his ratio of idiots to intelligent men could be deadly.

Over the past 10 years the violence has decreased considerably, because the Colombian military has beat back guerilla groups into remote jungle and the mafias, though still present, are far less public than before. Medellin today is a slick, self-assured business capital with breast implants and smug suits. The drugs, however, are always there.

As Lonely Planet comments:

The battle to eradicate cocaine from Colombia looks Sisyphean. In 2008 the UN reported an increase of 27% of land under coca cultivation, despite a total of US $5 billion of US aid in almost 10 years. In 2009 land under cultivation decreased by 18% – meaning a net increase of 9%. As satirical US online magazine, The Onion, once put it in a spoof headline: ‘Drugs Win War On Drugs.’

Botero

Botero, Colombia’s favorite sculpter.

Ruminating on these things, I pass the fat, iconic sculptures of Botero in the cultural plaza. They motivate me to look for a vegetarian buffet, but it seems I have to pass a block of prostitutes, the city’s offered meat, before I can step inside Govinda’s.

The plaza below me bustles, but in a commitedly relaxed fashion. Old black men in grey beards lick ice cream cones on benches, shoeshiners squat in the early sunlight, women strut like they enjoy their unbelievable curves, and I share their enjoyment.

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Curves on my mind.

After brunch I walk to Colombia’s only Metro system, a smooth going elevated railway to rival Chicago’s. For $1 it takes me to Medellin’s new teleferico, which swoops low over the slums below. Cable cars excel at encouraging curiosity, having done away with noisy distractions and stewardesses. The passengers can observe the way improvised homes are fed by makeshift trails up the hillside, and how these trails connect to subsistence farms. It was an interesting and commendable choice to build this line above the poor neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city.

Completed in 2010, the $2 cable car conveys me to the top of the city and beyond. I hover silently above a strange forest, feeling suspended in a secret. For miles I move alone. Finally, I leave the birdsong and touch down in Parque Arvi, a wildlife park of massive proportions.

I must have a knack for smart choices, for I spurn their offer of a free tour and find myself impressively lost within twenty minutes. The sort-of trail ends at a barbed wire fence and a lonely house in the woods. I am crossing a creek in flip flops (my boots are still drying from Salento’s rain) when two things happen at once. My foot plunges deep into the mud and I hear dogs hear me and their barking gets nearer. Somehow I extricate my foot and footware and plunge thru spidery bush until I find myself back where I started ten minutes later.

I try a different trail. Is this what the rangers were talking about? Nope, it ends at a locked gate and now the same thing is happening that happens every hike I do down here: bone soaking rain falls. I begin to miss the easy trailheads of Cascadia, the way you know officially that you’ve begun the path, a trail that’s wider than most webs bother spanning. The whole nature lover movement may have a ways to go in Colombia.

That evening we head to a live salsa club with Damien. Everyone there dances salsa except the three of us. We enjoy ourselves despite this.

That's not me dancing.

That’s not me dancing.

The following morning we grab a bus to Cartagena. The air conditioning blasts so, I feel like a carton of milk. Fuck this driver.

Cartagena

This is how you shake hands with an approaching pirate.

This is how you shake hands with an approaching pirate.

“We have decided to retreat, but we will return to Cartagena after we take reinforcements in Jamaica” -Edward Vernon, English naval officer

“In order to come to Cartagena, the English King must build a better and larger fleet, because yours now is only suitable to transport coal from Ireland to London.” -Blas de Lezo, Spanish admiral

With that zinger, the one-eyed, one-legged, one-armed Spaniard sent Vernon and his few survivors on their way. But we’ll get to that soon enough.

I have never before found myself so willing, no, eager! to dive into the history of a place as I am with Cartagena. History, that lullaby word that conquers so many otherwise active minds. This type of inattention is the result of inflammation of the ego coupled with the inability to notice meaningful connections between the then, there, here and now.

The history of Cartagena is intimately wound arond the story behind your festive mojito as well as the name of George Washington’s plantation home. But force me not to sell our history, when all I wish is to tell. Pirates! There, now you’re captain hooked, har har har!

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If you’ve heard of any pirate city greater than Cartagena, it likely exists in fiction. This poor city was too rich for its own good, which served as Spain’s dropoff point for all the gold and silver they heisted from Peru (which included Bolivia then). Along with Portobelo in Panama (the great trading port), Veracruz in Mexico (siphoning the wealth from the Aztecs), Cartagena’s bounty was shipped to Havana before speeding the wealth to Spain.

We never got a decent shot of the cathedral, so I PIRATED this from the interwebs.

We never got a decent shot of the cathedral, so I PIRATED this from the interwebs.

Trillions were ‘earned’ this way, but Spain had a few familiar thorns in her side. The English, Dutch and French (the three rulers of the Guianas, you may recall) skirmished, plundered, commandeered and killed as they saw fit, or simply when the captain felt like it. Consider just the first few decades after Cartagena was founded in 1533.

1534-French attack and victory
1544-Frenchman Jean-Francois Roberval attacks and is victorious
A few years later-Martin Cote, a Basque, attacks
1566-The people of Cartagena wise up and build their first fort
1568-Englishman John Hawkins attacks and fails
1586-Sir Francis Drake, Hawkins’ cousin, attacks and is victorious

Drake fired a cannon from his ship, floating right outside Cartagena’s gate, destroying their recently completed cathedral. He ransomed the city for an enormous sum and continued on in his incredible career as privateer and battle strategist, defeating the Spanish Armada and earning his head a handsome bounty which was never earned.

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So that right portion of the land is the old city with the walls around it. The top is the new city, and in the left middle you can see the Castillo de San Felipe, the greatest Spanish fort in the Americas. Its cannons could defend the city from land or sea.

The gold of the Sinu culture Tyler and I had viewed in the Museo del Oro was the first source of wealth for the Spanish. They raided the treasure-stuffed tombs. So much money was reaching Spain from Cartagena, that it earned itself a litany of nicknames, which speak to its reputation:

  • The Heroic City
  • The Door of the Americas
  • Capital of the Caribbean
  • The Mother City
  • The Walled City
  • The Key of the West Indies
  • The Fort of the Kingdom
  • Best Fortified City of the Americas

That last one has to do with the trillions that Spain began investing in the city once it realized the attacks were only going to increase.

Castillo de San Felipe "The most formidable defensive complex of Spanish military architecture."

Castillo de San Felipe “The most formidable defensive complex of Spanish military architecture.”

1614-The wall building begins
1626-The fort Castillo de Santa Cruz is completed.
1640-The wall building finally ends
1640-Three Portugese ships crash at Boca Grande, until then the largest (but shallow) entrance to the bay. This ends up improving the defenses of the city, as Bocachica becomes the default entry and exit. Bocachica is much deeper, narrower and easier to defend as a bottle neck.
1645-The fort Castillo de San Luis constructed.
1657-The Castillo de San Felipe is expanded.
1697-The French Baron of Pointis raids Cartagena. The English try to capture his ships on their way back, but only succeed in taking a hospital ship full of yellow fever. Hundreds of English die at sea.
1700-The Castillo de San Felipe is repaired and expanded again.
1741-Edward Vernon leads the largest amphibious assault until Normandy against Cartagena. He commands a fleet of 186 ships and over 23,000 men. Cartagena has fewer than 4,000, but the walls hold 160 24lb cannons with a range of half a mile and the suburbs hold 140 cannons.  Blas de Lezo, the Spanish naval commander, has a chain drawn across Bocachica, which the English destroy as well as the fort Castillo de San Luis. They continue to assault Castillo de San Felipe, the last bastion remaining. But Vernon’s ships’ cannons cannot assist in the attack, their ladders are ten feet too short for the walls and dawn breaks which allows the city’s guns to aid the fort. 3,300 English and Americans die in this single assault. After a two month siege, 50 British ships are lost or badly damaged and 18,000 men dead or incapacitated. England loses big time. But George Washington’s half brother, Lawrence, fought with Vernon and was so impressed with him he named Mt. Vernon after him. So that’s the silver lining for the man who got no silver. Blas de Lezo, meanwhile, became a legend, though he died of the plague shortly after the siege due to unburied bodies.
1757-The Castillo de San Felipe is expanded again.
1765-The fort Castillo de San Rafael is completed.
1798-The Castillo de San Felipe is expanded again with the help of a Dutch engineer and declared impregnable.
1811-Cartagena claims independence from Spain.
1815-Spanish blockade the harbor and starve the city in order to reconquer it.

Yes, this was the age of privateers, buccaneers and corsairs. It was also the age of slavery, and aside from Veracruz, Cartagena was the only city authorized to trade African slaves.

Benkos Bioho was captured by the Portugese from Guinea-Bissau in the 1590s and sold in Cartagena. He escaped, was recaptured and escaped again to found Palenque de San Basilio. Though Bioho was betrayed by the governor of Cartagena, and hanged in 1619, his fugitive village lived on. The King of Spain eventually gave up sending troops to attack, and in 1713 Palenque became the first free village in the Americas. Linguists today hurriedly scribble down the unique creole before it fades completely.

A ridiculous gun at the naval museum.

A ridiculous gun at the naval museum.

Our ex-merchant marine guide.

Our ex-merchant marine guide.

Tyler and I visit the naval museum, where we learn all this and more. The massive cannons and mortars help the imagination, but the fact that Cartagena is one of the best preserved colonial cities in Colombia is obvious when we stand upon the walls. They are nearly completely intact, surrounding the old city and built of limestone and coral. These cannon windows, once the paragon of violence, have now ceded their use to lovers gazing at the sunset and trading kisses.

The Caribbean doesn't skimp on color.

The Caribbean doesn’t skimp on color.

Much has changed in Cartagena, including a peninsula of skyscrapers called the New City, but as we filled our bottles with potable (finally!) water at the hostel, we couldn’t help but notice how it tasted like gunpowder.

Obama and the Cockfight

“If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” -African Proverb quoted by Al Gore

We were due for a night out, so after the naval museum we patronized El Bistro, a savvy European bar and restaurant owned by a German who dries his wine glasses like a surgeon cleans a scalpel. I sidle up to the tap to try a snobbish Medellin brew (made with German help) and chat with a plain-faced American businessman.

“I do appraisal work in Bogota.” Because appraising is one of those occupations I only half understand, I simply read his tired eyes and respond, “You seem thrilled about that.” It was meant as a straightforwardly sarcastic remark (oxymoron?) rather than a biting quip, but regardless of how he took it I only heard him sigh before our mojitos arrived.

A waiter appeared with our food, muttering “just don’t forget about the chicken fight.” Tyler thought he was mentioning the chicken burger special, but my double take paid off. “What was that you said?” The man looked like Barack Obama. “There is a chicken fight tonight, we can go later.” His coworker called him over, using his nickname: Obama.

And that, my PETA friends, is probably what tipped me towards a yes. In the taxi, Obama chatted with us amiably about our families while his friend Carlos revealed his one-dimensional personality, that of a hustler selling the typical Gringo Grab Bag. Sure, you can nobly try to shift the topic from substances to something with substance, but some people are just tactless, shameless and dogged. Next to friendly Obama, Carlos came across as the secret services, none of which we wanted.

When they dropped us off at the fight, Carlos demanded an expensive tip before they departed. I refused, aware that they had already exacted a hefty surcharge when they did us the “favor” of grabbing our tickets for us. He looked like Obama, sure, but he was just a Colombian working the good cop bad cop routine with Carlos, and he’ll probably last longer than two terms too. We bid the president farewell, and turned our attention to the current war he was endorsing.

He told me he'd permanently kill Keystone XL, finally close Guantanamo, cut defense spending and spear Boehner thru the neck with a trident. Next week, that is. He's busy helping tourists see cockfights.

He told me he’d permanently kill Keystone XL, finally close Guantanamo, cut defense spending and spear Boehner thru the neck with a trident. Next week, that is. He’s busy helping tourists see cockfights.

And how was it, you ask. A raucous mob on a dusty street with a watch outside the circle scanning for cops? More legal and established than that, as it turned out. Think miniature coliseum with a ticket booth, restrooms, vendors, the whole shebang. Cages, marked 1 and 2 were lowered onto the blood soaked turf poked with feathers. The gladiators, armed (or legged, if you prefer) with razor blades above their talons were brought into the ring and placed in the cages so the crowd could visually gauge before the cacophony of bets were tossed around. I counted one gringa, and three local women out of 150 men. The roosters, or gallos, were lifted from the cages, the cages in turn raised by weighted pulleys and the men narrowed the distance between beaks, allowing a bit of pecking to get everyone, but mostly the birds, in the mood. Then they set them down and left the ring.

Handlers have been killed by these extended razors as well.

Handlers have been killed as well by these extended razors.

It was nature red in tooth and claw with man’s silver razor for assistance. Horrific to watch. These are territorial animals who skirmish before backing off, one male ceding hens and land to the other. But this behavior was exploited to the fullest, with nowhere to run though many tried for an escape all the same. I saw blood smeared against the white wall of the ring. I saw a flash of silver strike scarlet life and an even match end in a second. I saw a bird’s head pecked clean off, and one so utterly fouled it was reduced to leaping backflips that landed upside down. Many died, and many merely maimed beyond use. The last fight was the saddest.

During an energetic round, both roosters suddenly stopped fighting and paced in circles like converted pacifists, or the blind. Somehow both had pecked each other’s eyes out at the same time. The men took them away, and no cash changed hands that round. What was it Gandhi whispered? Anyhow, no blood no money, and those two have always fared well together, like conservatism and coin collecting.

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But there was another side I experienced that evening. Call it carnal, male or repressed. Whatever it was, it’s worth admitting if not necessarily repeating: I loved the spectacle. It was thrilling to see the stakes raised and our veiled sports euphemisms pulled aside for once. I was cheering with the crowd, and the crowd wanted blood and a definite loss. I noticed men nodding in approval at the spirit we showed, betting alongside the rest of them. I decided to fully indugle in my lower self and visited the toilet stall to do a line of the coke I intended on finishing fully that night. Funny how guiltless things can become when we name them “my last.” We made blind bets, but somehow my roosters killed Tyler’s four times out of five. He bought us many beers and paid for the cab home.

But ‘home’ is not where we stayed. These kind of nights’ events tend to blend like a cocktail. Beer. Dance party. More beer. Wandering thru Plaza Trinidad. We got drunk enough to ignore the steep cover at Cafe Havana, an elite salsa club where we sipped the best mojitos in Colombia, or so sayeth the good book, 2010 edition. We ran into some gringoes from the coffee tour. They tried to salsa. Tyler tried to salsa. I still don’t know what I tried to do. One among them had six years experience, and I spent a lot of time sipping drinks and ogling her ass.

Another woman dancing blew the ordinary scale of sexy a bit wider. With cinammon skin and a feline face, she transfixed. Yes, everyone looked mighty fine and the band played our requests before they’d even revealed themselves to us, songs we had never once heard. More coke in the bathroom, and there I was telling the history of the mojito to a couple of maybe gay men.

After Drake ransomed Cartagena, his men began dying of dysentery and scurvy. They wanted medicine to ease the symptoms, and upon reaching Havana they began collecting the ingredients that make up the modern day mojito, which included aguardiente (sugar cane firewater), sugarcane juice, lime and mint leaves. The lime alone would’ve helped the scurvy, but there you have it.

Standing in Cafe Havana in Cartagena sipping the best specimen in the country, I realized I would never again find a more appropriate moment to pass on that story. Their appreciative smiles made the moment pop. It’s okay to admit your “never agains,” and coke was another one of them that night.

More beer, and we’re caught in the spin of two Dutch guys on a mission to club. “Naw man, no deep conversation tonight! We’re just gonna do it!” This arrived unprompted, but I conceded that it looked like that type of night. We never intended, I think, on following them all the way, but then no one presented an ultimatum either.

Having finished the rest of the cocaine, and feeling more jazzed than ever, we took thoughtless steps and kidded until reaching Havana Club. I thought Colombia had enough going for her that borrowing sexy names was superfluous, but I’m sure the law of grass-is-always-greener means that in Havana they do likewise.

Our Dutch fellows seemed to melt away as we ran into a trio of Denver cats we’d met pre-cockfight. More beer and we were discussing her summer work trip to Antarctica, his next skydiving license and how flying rich geezers around in private jets doesn’t mean you get rich too. At this point someone said it was 4am and Tyler notified me of his imminent crash. And without bothering with parachutes, we did just that.

We awoke with a familiar headache. The package had arrived in Peru, and had passed thru customs said Tyler’s mom, who had miraculously remembered that she did in fact have the tracking number.
No, it was still there but by Monday would be ours, maybe.
Nobody knows anymore.
It turned up in a rubber duck shipment in Siberia.
There never was any package, but without a doubt Tuesday for sure no worries.

Given that even with Tyler pulling all the strings available, flying Cartagena-Bogota-Lima-Cuzco and back again costs $344. Knowing what, where and when has become a full time job. Indeed, it would be cheaper to repurchase the entire contents of the package new, but at this point that would be closer to a threat to our manhood, or a blood feud. Anyhow, this thing is gonna end.

The greatest comic strip ever survives in Spanish!

The greatest comic strip ever survives in Spanish!

I particularly like the Darien Gapster. Next time, Cartagena, next time.

I particularly like the Darien Gapster. Next time, Cartagena, next time.

We wander to the New City, which is just a bunch of skyscrapers on a peninsula with another fort at the end. Nevertheless, we had Tex-mex burritos and witnessed a burrito eating contest. On the walk back we paused to admire the most realistic mannequins I’d ever seen, with eyelashes and proper poses. A Colombian grandmother stepped over and tried to sell me headache pills. I pointed to the glass, “that’s my girlfriend.” She laughed and stopped giving me a headache.

Mi novia.

Mi novia.

The next day we took it easy. Feet in the sand, staring at a Caribbean sunset, sipping banana milkshakes and chatting with a guy filming an Alguila beer commercial by the water. “But everybody already buys your beer.” Yes, he agreed, but it’s to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the company. We bought a couple Alguila and commemorated our fourth night in Cartagena. The next day Tyler would jump the necessary hoops back to Cuzco and I would bus to Santa Marta where we would rendezvous in a couple days.

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Santa Marta

The morning I left for Santa Marta, Tyler walked his bag to the bus for me. The plan was I would take the bags and he’d grab the package. Neither of us could make sense of it, but when we left Seattle our bags weighed the same. Now his was a full 16lbs heavier than mine.

He jumped on the city bus for ten seconds to help get our luggage situated, then hopped out on his own extended mission. The stingy dirtbag of a driver threatened to throw me off if I didn’t pay Tyler’s fare too. Our shouting match was good sport, but it was a low blow won on a technicality. It was time to move on.

It was at this point that two endings coincided: that of my own money and of my notebook’s blank pages. They had served me well, but I would be proceeding without them. Tyler lent me plenty for the rest of the trip, and I had one more notebook ready for action. Most people I know would never take a trip without a padding of several grand in the bank for their return. This is due diligence, and nothing to scoff at, but I had a running list of 14 job opportunities for my second summer. And that serves as a healthy potential down padding as well. I wasn’t stressing. Whoever let a little lack of money get between them and finishing what they started?

I sat back in my seat and closed my eyes. It had been a hell of a week, and not just in Colombia. Richard Dawkins was named the greatest thinker in the world the same week many poor thinkers were trying to assure themselves the Boston Bombers’ Islamic tendencies were nothing but a red herring, and England decided female Muslim nurses no longer needed to wash their hands because it compromised their modesty. Well, to put it modestly, what is it the people of England are compromising to maintain these ladies’ glorious comfort? Oh not much, just the Hippocratic oath, another dusty text that differs little from the Koran but for all the glaring sense it makes.

It’s a strange world, where calling foul gets you called an Islamaphobe, a term as abundant and helpful today as ‘communist’ was in its own happy time. Many things are backwards, and many people are bending backwards to fit in with it all. Any moralist with a sense of humor is relegated to the fringe while the serious nuts with inherently abortive dreams take the wheel to try delivering the dead things anyway. But the palm trees still grow upwards, and today that’s going to be enough for me.

As for Santa Marta, not much to say. It’s one of the oldest cities in South America, and the oldest existing city in Colombia, but it’s not as well preserved as Cartagena. Aside from the beautiful beach sunsets, it’s mostly just another city with access to a few neat spots. But it served well as the end of the road for us in Colombia, or nearly. I took a moment  with a cup of coffee to reflect on the whizzbang show we’d strolled within.

Picking Bones

I’m sitting in a Santa Marta cafe because it has air conditioning, and because I remain baffled by the gushing reports about this city. Somewhere, somebody is hammering. Dammit, Maxwell!! You may be able to escape the belching buses and nasally street hawkers of South America, but you’ll never avoid the hammering. Like a mosquito buzz slowed down by a factor of ten, it’s the reason one can never truly sleep in.

And what is it they are building? Nothing. At least nothing to rival the Spanish reminders silently bettering any further attempt at architecture here. Often they construct hideous concrete expletives that never fully get finished. The rebar sticks out like an ugly soccer injury when the skin gives way.

The source of the hammering has been located. The ceiling is now crumbling on my head, and Chicken Little’s coffee mug must move across the cafe to protect its modesty. Indeed, I cannot shout with the rest of them about Colombia’s people (unless its to overcome the hammering). I may raise my voice, but I will not shout.

Their music? Lively, and likely the best outside of Brazil, but from my limited exposure I have not witnessed what my expectations have sought. Mostly I’ve been targeted for money, or else ignored, and none of this has been helped by the fact that Spanish is delivered five times faster on the coast, and with a drunken rum slur. But yes, my limited time here is something to consider, though I spent the same amount of time in Brazil with even less knowledge of their language and felt very differently about the people. Then again, it was Carnival at the time and it’s hard to grouse when the world’s greatest party is in full swing.

With so many factors flitting about, it’s difficult to come down one way or another, so I generally stay pretty high. What enjoyment I have had has involved the beauty of the land and sea, the travelers I have befriended, the history of the country and the gringo businesses I have frequented, with a few solid local exceptions. This may sound despicable to the average backpacker, who sneers at anything less than 200% authentic (a word they never quite seem to grasp), but I’ve seen what a lack of the tourism incentive yields: Paraguay.

The truth is many local businesses are like the Peruvian weaver women of the sacred valley: homogenous, and therefore uninteresting after a few visits. Of course, every traveler judges the people they visit by the standards of their own culture, though it’s not the hamburgers I am missing. Here they value sameness, which explains why an entire street will be lined with shops selling the exact same products. How they stay in business is a mystery to me, but I’ve come to understand this sameness translates to community. In Argentina, Borges was too different to be easily cherished by his countrymen, but it’s sore thumbs like Borges that I seek.

And none of this is problematic, for there exists a lively swarm of reasons to travel the world, and I enjoy discovering which reasons pull me and which motivate others.

And further good news arrived just this morning. Through a haze of conflicting reports-it’s the holidays and you’ll have to wait ’til Thursday, customs will charge you a bundle, you cannot arrive so early-Tyler claimed our prize. His mom had hidden the ipod in a box of tampons, which made the whole enterprise cheaper and probably more poetic. New music was on its way, wonderful books to ponder and pour over, and my friend would be back in time for our eastern dash.

We had traveled thru the colors of the flag. I had blood in my body, rum in my glass with a past to inform me and a magnetic future. However many times you hear it and forget, this is the real gold. Seek it, strive towards it, but never forget to sit back and savor.”

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Gold, Blood and the Caribbean Part I (Entry #14)

30 Apr

(song link)

And whenever we shed light

upon another little fragment of the universe

I hear it ring upon the heart of awe

and why not? why not?

for what found truth will fail to surprise?

while everything’s unique at the edges

the details, they act as fonts to the same message

because we are all feathers in the crow’s wing

left wing or right wing, it’s all the same bird

and so after the wicked handshake and the bullshit

then what? then what? then what? then what?

I wanna know where you go

when your body stays put (then what? then what? then what?)

yo

ya wanna imitate or innovate?

(I don’t know…) choose quick, then disintegrate (isn’t it great?)

originality is blurred plagiarism

my DNA

and each word, each rhythm

I see them play

to make the dream of the twenty-first

but yo it seems like it’s money first

kinda like a hungry thirst …

they’ve made it their business to give me more reasons

to make it my business to give you more Reason

(now) I’m kinda like the Highwayman riding, riding, riding

I keep my hand writing whenever I can

indoor to out door

I put the inwards in words, then I do what my mouth’s for

round 4!

two Yanks at the banks of the Yangtze

who remains unamazed by Amazing?

brainfreeze!

ya gotta take life head on

like “say cheese!”

picture love then let on

some names they echo and others they fade

and this is a product of the changes that they made…

yea

a product of the changes that they made

and the days go…

 

moonlight, sunlight

moonlight, sunlight

listen to the tune now you better get it done right

yes is a yes and a yes until no

deep heartbeat keep a grip like Velcro

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yes, Ja blessed me with joblessness

for a time, ‘cuz my mind was an egg in the robin’s nest

now I pow-er epi-pha-ny lightbulbs

with Alan Watts

see what his-to-ry might hold

 

I’ve been to the edge and back

to the corners of the world and the end of a fact

and what I saw were the edges interlaced

the corners all agreed

’til the concept of concept had vanished: free

 

moonlight, sunlight

moonlight, sunlight

listen to the tune now you better get it done right

yes is a yes and a yes until no

deep heartbeat keep a grip like Velcro

 

how do you use your voice?

how do you use your voice?

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I hail from a people where death’s the wish

we get our kicks from the precipice

there are a few who would bail a lost ship to the last minute

but most fetishize the exodus

and some of us would say

‘I get played by fate, I am a guided missile’

and other people say ‘I’m so afraid to be great’

it takes more than preaching to tell the choir

that they aren’t the fuckin’ choir

so now can we save the day?

it starts with us

our heart’s art within us

for me? I was Curious George pavin’ the way

yea a boy with a tadpole and admirable questions

who wasn’t too bashful admitting he made a mistake

so let’s not pretend that it ain’t like this

…the world’s in a state like this

but in a state where the hive is awake and can create like this

and so there there ain’t that much that the train might miss

 

moonlight, sunlight

moonlight, sunlight

listen to the tune now you better get it done right

yes is a yes and a yes until no

deep heartbeat keep a grip like Velcro

 

how do you use your voice?

how do you use your voice?

The yellow is indeed for the nation's vast amounts of gold, and I like how they let it kinda take over like it always does. The blue is for the ocean, and the red...well, it's there for the same reason it's on 75% of the world's flags. If they had white and black stars, then the coke and coffee would get their due as well.

The yellow is indeed for the nation’s vast amounts of gold, and I like how they let it kinda take over like it always does. The blue is for the ocean, and the red…well, it’s there for the same reason it’s on 75% of the world’s flags, the single most common color. Blood! If they had white and black stars, then the coke and coffee would get their due as well.

Colombia is different than the others, and not many can stipulate as to the why of it. When pressed, they’ll throw out an answer that only begs more questions, “it’s the people!” No, really? And here I thought you were judging a country purely by the hills and dales. Which are worth mentioning, by the way.

A map of Colombia doesn’t look like anything recognizable, so no fun analogies here. It just sprawls. From the Pacific, to the only land bridge with the rest of the New World. A land bridge that isn’t very helpful, due to both the Darien Gap and a pretty famous canal. Then you got a long coastline on the Caribbean, which means it gets to trade with both sides of the world. If that weren’t enough, Colombia was allowed to keep a weird foothold all the way down in the Amazon river, so I suppose the keyword here is “access.” But it’s no straight shot across it, no sir. Three arms of the Andes run parallel north and south, with volcanoes and hidden valleys just to keep things interesting. Coffee, gold and cocaine reign large, but so does maritime and tourism. With more than 45 million heads, Colombia is only behind Brazil and Mexico in total population, and somehow it still has enough space for loads of animals. It ranks 4th in the world in terms of biodiversity, and 1st if you love yourself some birds.

Without fail, every backpacker we’ve met so far has cultishly carried on the message: Colombia has it! So I brought my detective’s monocle across the border with me, and decided to answer two questions that had been on my mind:

1. Why were all the people who hadn’t visited Colombia, afraid of it?
and
2. Why were all the people who had, in love with it?

Bogota

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Disembarking the plane and passing thru migration was a cool breeze. Our level of (justified) paranoia reared its head when we jumped thru the last hoop, still glancing around nervously for some unforeseen troll to tackle us for his senseless purposes. But we were in the clear, finally.

We started our day off right, with a knife shave. The straight edge razor has seen a decline on the west coast, though is alive and well in at least New York and Ohio, I can attest. What could account for this? Tradition is stronger in those places? Seems like a flimsy excuse of an answer. I am currently accepting theories of all shapes.

Speaking of being sharp, certain cities stand out because of their edge: New Orleans, Rio, and Bogota. These are places with verve, chutzpah, art everywhere and reliable violence. They thrill and seduce, like a good lover. I think this affinity for sparks is one of the keys to understanding Colombia’s reputation. Those who fear sparks keep a safe distance and thus preserve their fossil of fear, which hasn’t been justified here for about a decade. Those who are drawn to the flame find the flint and bask in the warmth it produces.

We found ourselves a hostel and walked to the obvious first destination, the biggest square around. You can always find something going on in these ubiquitous gathering spots, and often inadvertently design the next few days based off a few chance encounters. There was a large group of people rallying for gay marriage, with a woman dressed as a bride in the middle. We cheered with them, and took a few pictures. Only later did we learned that it was the exact opposite. Whoops! It’s the people…

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A few blocks away we find cheap beer, and sampling each country’s brew is a must. I was just wondering where the hell all the sapo games are, when I heard the familiar clink-and-drop from the floor above us. Sure enough, a platoon of drunks held a handful of gold coins and were tossing them into the gaping mouth of a golden toad.

Your average sapo gameboard.

Your average sapo, meaning ‘frog,’ gameboard.

Sapo began in the UK, or was it Europe? Nobody seems to know, but an early version was called Pitch Penny. Really it’s just a game of accuracy that’s more fun than darts, because the target board can consist of any combination of holes and toads. We yukked it up with them, and I bought the guys a few bottles when I lost a game. It didn’t take long for the most enterprising of the bunch to proposition us with what I (or at least he) came to think of as the Gringo Grab Bag: drugs and vagina. His knowing leer was so disgusting I wasn’t even halfway interested in being complicit. That friendly sales mask has been selected for over waves of tourists/travelers (same thing), and my good humored deflection has been battle readied over years of being targeted for a wallet that was never very thick to begin with. Like the cheetah and impala, a happy arms race that guarantees the futility of any real connection. We moved on.

The next day we sought context, and Montserrat offered the ultimate view of Bogota, nearly 2,000 ft. up via teleferico or funicular. On the way I was surprised to see Simon Bolivar‘s estate, La Quinta. We visited the fancy office of South America’s undisputedly greatest political and military leader. The dining room hinted heavily of Bolivar’s European taste. He apparently witnessed Napolean’s coronation, and was heavily influenced by his years in France, and the figures he met along the Grand Tour. I left the beautiful archway of the complex, wondering if the legendary man had earned all the respect heaped on his name. Certainly some of it. He sped up the process of independence for many of the northern countries under Spain’s rule, but his Gran Colombia had failed. These questions require a different type of view to answer definitively, but we had a teleferico to ride.

Bogota is a behemoth, not quite on Sau Paulo’s scale but that’s why I didn’t use the word “collosus.” Ten million people fit within a sprawl so distant the eyes spot not the edge of it. It was obvious looking down that our ambitious walks and forays were miniscule and necessarily narrowed in scope compared to the millions of stories out there. What blackmarket dealings flitted under the eaves of those corrugated rooftops? What lives were lived and lost beyond the radius of my footsteps? It recalled the scene from the Lion King, “all this is yours, simba,” except that none of it was mine. How hungry is the ego to claim it has “done” a city? I haven’t done Bogota. I’ve barely begun it.

50 Shades of Gold

“There’s fool’s gold—pyrite—and then there’s fool’s gold—gold owned by idiots willing to trade it for worthless dollars.
”
― Jarod KintzThis Book Has No Title

“Gold is the corpse of value…”
― Neal StephensonCryptonomicon

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One place we could not afford to miss, however, was the Museo del Oro. This is one of the world’s greatest gold museums, and gold finds its way into every South American tale whether modern or ancient. Inside was, well, a veritable treasure trove.

I learned that it was a cultural choice the ancient New World cultures had made, to hammer sheets of gold rather than cast thicker pieces such as one finds in the Old World. I had always thought it was technological ignorance, but the presence of a few thicker pieces proved that the ignorance was mine alone.

The process of the “lost wax method” was clearly explained. Non-stinging bees made hives perfect for wax sculpting. The meticulous and extremely impressive sculpture was then covered in clay. The clay was fired, preserving the shape of the wax which was poured out the single opening. At a very precise time, when the gold was at the perfect temperature, it was poured into the mold and then cooled. The metalsmith broke the custom clay mold and gazed at a completely unique sculpture of pure gold.

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The most impressive of these molded objects were the few remaining instances of multicolored metals employed in one sculpture. This required several additional steps to the already complex procedure described above. But that’s the whole point, right? To spend exhorbitant amounts of time and money to produce objects that stroked the ego and mimicked immortality via gold’s amazing ability to remain, well, golden. A few select tribes also produced silver objects, and mixed copper and gold together (called tumbaga: only 5% gold) to stretch the gold even further. The process of producing gilded copper sculptures I found ingenius (use plant acid to remove the copper coating), but even moreso one tribe’s method of sculpting platinum.

Platinum has a melting point so high that ancient people could not produce the necessary temperature in their forges, which they built atop hills to harness the superior windpower. Their workaround involved heating up the tiny grains, melting gold over it and laboriously forging and heating until only the platinum remained. I know, I don’t quite understand it either, but it’s beautiful!

350px-La_Tolita_Platinum_and_gold_figure

As a metalworker, Tyler was entranced by the video of a man hammering a mask from a sheet of gold. Everyone glanced at the video, but the men lingered longer.

Yopo, the DMT snuff the shamans insufflated to reach beyond the stars.

Yopo, the DMT snuff the shamans insufflated to reach beyond the stars.

One whole for every nostril!

One whole for every nostril!

I realized metalwork better represents the grandeur of a culture than its stonework. The thought and detail involved make these objects more human. They’re nearly all form, with little function and because they must conform to fewer laws of physics, this provides a wider aperture into their imaginations. Sometimes one object separated itself from the rest thru its striking enigmatic design, such as this brilliantly golden winged fish.

We headed back to the Platypus, our friendly hostel. A few wild nights occupied our time in Bogota. A couple of Polish fellows invited me to their room for a few lines of the white gold. Previously, my only encounter with cocaine had been a brief snort in Hollywood, and Colombia seemed like the only other place on earth that was too appropriate to pass up. This stuff was better, of course.

The conversation became supercharged, quick nods swapped between minute pauses. I learned they planned on heading to North Korea to start an import business. “There’s a word for that,” I said, “warmonger.” Whether or not they understood me, they mentioned the name of a famous arms dealer. “Is he a role model?” No no, they responded. He is an inspiration. Have fun with that, and be sure to sell me a bullet proof vest.

During an insane foray into the dark city to procure more powder, a series of unfortunate events nearly resulted in us getting robbed, assaulted and arrested. None of this happened, but only barely. Somehow, instead of returning to the hostel with one gram, each of our three hunting parties had returned with its own. Our bets had been hedged, and the hedges had grown. Jesus! What to do with all this coke? The answer would arrive bit by bit over the next week and a half.

Jordan, a Kiwi robotics dude who works on superyachts and once won a race across the Atlantic.

Jordan, a Kiwi robotics dude who works on rigs for superyachts and once won a race across the Atlantic.

During our final night in Bogota, I realized an interesting absence at the Museo del Oro said much about the invisible line we draw between ancient and modern methods. This grand museum of gold included absolutely nothing about what gold’s been up to since the Spanish arrived. It’s all just sexy, ancient stuff. The largest gold mine in the world is being developed in Colombia, but who wants to bum out the visitor with useful information like that? Gold mining is one of the most pollutive industries in the world, and the rivers flowing near this soon-to-be mine head straight to the heart of coffee country. So we followed the river, so to speak, to sample this black gold before the other stuff got to it.

Salento’s Black Gold

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At Plantation House, the ideal hostel in every way, locally grown fresh brewed coffee is free at all hours! This fueled another debate between a New Age nut and my secular, logical self. “So we’re both seekers,” he smiled. Yes, I seek answers and you seek mystery. A great way to wake up and stretch the mind. The hostel is run by Tim and Cristina.

Tim is a cheerful, portly Englishman who lived in Australia long enough to hybridize his accent. Now he is the only white guy in Salento running a coffee farm.

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The first day we jeeped over to the Valle de Cocora, a magical arena of wax palms and jungle set in a stunning valley with so much green that the eyes glance at the sky for a break. A trail thru the dense growth led past walnut trees belabored with heavy bromeliads and constant thunderous rain. I wore a trashbag, remembering that fateful storm in Paraguay. Our package had still not arrived, over a sad month later.

We sat on my trash bag alone in Eden, puffing and passing half of a joint. The night before we’d learned a lesson as we celebrated 4/20 on the deck of Plantation House: our Bogota bud was too powerful to smoke in the same quantity as everythng else we had tried in the past three and a half months. I could hardly follow a thought further than its doorstep!

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The towering wax palms of the valley, a Dr. Suess sight to be sure, are now a protected species in Colombia. Back in the day they were harvested for, you got it, wax, to make candles and whatnot. The wax oozed out of cuts much like how rubber was extracted, and just like a rubber tree the palm eventually drained to death. Though Cocora’s existing palms are left alone, any new growth is devoured by the grazing cattle below, ensuring our valley visit was a temporary treat.DSCF2599

Back in town, our go-to restaurant immediately became Brunch, owned by an Idaho inventor with a knack for brilliant accidents. With a large lack of ingredients available in the states, such as buttermilk, Jeff has cooked thru trial and error until the result of his menu expressed itself on the walls thru satisfied backpackers armed with colored pens.

I have more or less ignored writing about our gustatory triumphs, but that is not for any particular reason. Brunch’s meals are up there with the best of ‘em. Much of my praise is due to his homemade peanut butter, banana milkshakes and the fact that he included a movie theater in the back room. He even does sack lunches to go, and we grabbed two for the bus to Medellin the following evening.

Our second day was devoted to coffee. Tim proved himself a wealth of information, and probably served as one of the best coffee tour guides in all of Colombia. Not only was his English helpful, but he is as curious a guide as I could hope for, with a passionate and good humored answer to every single question. It was one of those cases where going with a local instead would have proved a poor decision. Not that they’re less knowledgable, they know how to grow and process their coffee, but as Tim pointed out, they often can’t say why they do things the way they do. And the “why” is what Tim specializes in.

Pineapple "trees" on Tim's farm.

Pineapple “trees” on Tim’s farm.

Does coffee dry faster under red light or green? Does it taste better when harvested from a young bush or old, and why? Nobody seems to know yet, but these are the types of questions Tim asks and attempts to answer. “Many people treat their coffee like wheat, but I treat mine like wine,” he explains. Rather than a large farm with a single variety, Tim has been working towards the boutique market.

The world’s largest coffee producers lie between the two tropics and grow at an altitude near 4,600ft. Brazil grows 44% of the world’s coffee, then Vietnam comes next. Depending on the year, Indonesia is 3rd or 4th (your cup of Java) and Colombia 4th or 3rd. But Colombia is the world’s largest producer of washed coffee beans, which produce a better flavor. In addition, of the two main types of coffee plant, Colombia has opted for the high end arabica varieties.

It’s a trade off. Arabica contains less caffeine, but more than makes up for this in rich body and aroma. So Colombia is known for some of the most high end coffee. “Coffee needs shade, at least traditional varieties and it doesn’t like frost.” Tim pointed to his neighbor’s plants and belittled the rush job covering the slope below us. “Before Starbucks, coffee was just coffee. Now it’s treated like wine.” So true, and it was good to be visiting the ‘vineyards,’ the source of my cafe lifestyle. There are about a hundred varieties of arabica, we learned, and Tim was growing a delicious variety from Reunion Island, near Madagascar.

Planted there by the French, it was given the name of the famous Bourbon family, the same family bourbon whisky is named after. The French had received their coffee as a gift from the Dutch, who in turn had traded for the beans with smugglers who had worked them out of Ethiopia. The French brought coffee to the New World 300 years ago, while the New World in exchange delivered to the Old tobacco and syphilis.

The Frenchman, Gabriel de Clieu who allegedly brought the coffee seedling to the Caribbean encountered bad weather along the way. As Tim explained it, sailor superstition resulted in the strange new plant receiving the blame. They planned a mutiny, and de Clieu had to defend the propitiously tiny thing with his sword. Not long after it was planted, there were thousands of plants to go around and a lovely new substance became available to night owls everywhere.

Tim’s enterprising nature has led to a website called yourowncoffeefarm.com, where you will be able to lease a row of plants and stake your own claim of Colombia’s 300,000 coffee farms. You can choose any variety you wish, “and if you want vanilla planted nearby to infuse the soil, or you want us to talk to your plants, we’ll do that.” He has chosen quality and variety over quantity and sameness. “My neighbor grows cattle, which is much more boring,” he gestures at a hillside of grass and cattle trails. His seven hectares, by comparison, grow pineapple (they grow like artichokes, not from trees), banana, giant bamboo (used in the building of his house), kiwi, rosemary, avocado, pear, coffee and plenty else. His long table, he notes, is built from local bamboo and coffee bush trunks.

It’s a fine thing to witness pride backed up by ingenuity and dedicated work, and Tim wasted no time explaining his system of rainwater cisterns, evacuated tubs for hot water, his solar panel and LED lights and the concrete roof used to dry the beans. He pointed at a color poster he designed, with 24 photos illustrating the steps in the process, from soil and seed to “this pretentious latte foam art my friend made.”

Fertilizing Tim's bamboo forest.

Fertilizing Tim’s bamboo forest.

We turn the handle of the depulpadora, which is “a brilliant example of applied engineering” that squeezes the two coffee beans (usually, three beans is bad but one is acceptable) from the ripe cherry and separates the skin into another basket. Then he sifts the beans thru a metal slit and pours water in to wash the sugar off them. “You can actually use this fermented sugar water to make coffee wine,” and we tried two different types of it at Brunch that afternoon.

The bottom coffee tots are called matchsticks for obvious reasons.

The bottom coffee tots are called matchsticks for obvious reasons.

After filling our brains with coffee jabber, we prepared to fill our mugs. The roast is important for brewed coffee, for espresso you look at the grind instead. The preparation is always crucial, and as a grower in Colombia you worry over the bean size. As Tim pointed out, “because of the machismo here, bigger is better. They’ll drink coffee from any bean, but when they buy them they want the big ones.” Tim’s farm manager removed the four types of skins from the beans, roasted them in a pan on the stove for fifteen minutes (and crunching on a hot, dark handful proved addictive), hand ground them and poured it into a large filter.

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Sipping that cup of coffee was a minor spiritual experience. Nine countries and my standards were finally exceeded. I asked Tim what had brought him to Colombia, “Oh, because my country had said never to go there, so I knew it was worth a visit.”

Someone’s Paradise (Entry #13)

20 Apr
(original link, comes in at 2:18)
           Who are we if we’re not who we used to be?
that’s gotta be answered in every moment suitably
the steed of time, that’s the speed of time’s phoenix
listen to that again, ‘cuz I mean for you to glean it
in other words, well, then they wouldn’t be mine
so I use these words and no others that I find
but why?
that’s the question I will ask in time
but I struggle with the muggles who don’t ask in time
 
who are we if we’re not who we’re gonna soon be?
that’s life, we be movin in a thin moon beam
some say that’s the game
but a game is a metaphor
so quit extending shit and start spending it
this will be ending soon, that’ what I said it for
shit’s real, if it ain’t what’s realer?
if this is a game, who’s the dealer?
at this point they bring up a book
and I give them a look
then I burn up their book, here’s a mirror
 
The view

The view

I dunno if you’re a white picket fence type person. If you’ve been reading this I’ve probably tainted that familiar notion for you. Either way, if your vision of paradise is vague or involves too many coconuts, here’s a little assist.

 
 
Purchase a patch of land in Ecuador the size of a city block. Maybe $40,000 for a virgin plot with a view over shrimp farms, gliding birds and hills stacked with living jungle, the nearby river placid and familiar. Each sunset is yours, coming to you in your deck hammock as your ipod-selected soundtrack crescendos. This is a house you designed, this is a life you created, and that manic, grasping worry has very little input on your whole affair.
 
 
This is Alicia’s paradise, one we stepped into in early April feeling relief and the distinct feeling that an incorporeal barrier had been crossed overnight. This was a new leg on an insectile trip. It started in Canoa.
 
 
This tiny beach town is characterized by its proximity to the equator, a natural border that actually matters. Further north than Guayaquil, a monstrosity to escape from, and beyond even than the popular surf town of Montañita, the few remaining gringoes find a multitude of villages with a couple thousand people and consistent weather. Canoa is one of them.
 
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I met Alicia what…TEN years ago back when I was daily manning the eagle spotting scope. I had it aimed at a pair of eaglets the beloved Greenlake couple had spawned above the zoo’s elk exhibit, and their midden´s around the trunk grew with their plumage. Alicia was headstrong then (a quality that has since earned her the nickname “brava Alicia”*) and clearly keeping things dynamic. Most volunteers dubbed her their favorite. After she left the zoo, her email listserv (of which I became a part) would receive one elephant of an email at the end of each year. Or when she felt the urge. But it did the trick to catch everybody up with where she was at, which was everywhere.
 
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Adam, her partner, likes to play hard as well. An electrician by trade, and a systematic thinker by nature, Adam had left Dublin to travel South America with his mates. The two met when he was working at the Cocoloco hostal in Canoa, and he soon moved in with her and soon little Griffin was born. His 1st birthday is tomorrow, 4/20.  It was pleasing to be among friends.
 
Tyler's famous peanut sauce in the stiry fry.

Tyler’s famous peanut sauce in the stiry fry.

 
Those days when Tyler, Adam and I would sit on the deck in the waning hours and discuss the mechanics of rolling an L and the nights we had gotten too high. “One time,” Adam said, “me mates and I hot-boxed a car so thick we ran out of oxygen. Bloody lighters wouldn’t work.” The bugs chittered timelessly and I noticed for the first time how a baby’s tiny size is fully realized when it’s rocked to sleep in a hammock. The cloth hangs small like a new cocoon, or as if empty.
 
 
There were frustrations too. The house, though designed beautifully, had been designed for two people. There were two main rooms, the upper bedroom and lower everything else. So we were almost always sharing each other’s presence, because wandering down to the yard meant multiplying the number of bites delivered. This setup presented me with a range of feelings, from sanguine and connected during sunset chats to functionally neurotic when baby Griffin bawled for the umpteenth time. Worst of all, when I needed to dive into a book or find some other means of solace thru solitude, I may as well have been trying to blow away all the skeeters with my lips.
 
 
Writers are particularly peculiar creatures, and their habits can easily rile the non-writers living with them. Certainly, the reason most writers seek to be alone, beyond even avoiding distractions, is that when they’re working hard it looks nearly the same as when they’re doing nothing at all. When I am thinking thru something, I have the unfortunate tendency to pull a brooding face, and this can generally be a bummer in a variety of situations. Tyler, on the other hand, was in his element.
 
 
He can’t help but keep busy with his hands, cooking meals, writing birthday invites with Alicia and puttering around on default until some mission is set or conversation is struck. This behavior wins friends, and is why Tyler is such a people person while I am more a person person, one on one.
 
 
We helped out with projects around the house in return for our lingering in paradise. In Ecuador, the machete is their swiss army knife, except that there’s one blade for multiple uses. This is what we wielded in our daily battles with the vines, and the blisters and bug bites began to stack up. I counted over 30 mosquito bites on each foot, the itching was merciless (It still is). I needed my fix every few minutes, scratching futility into my skin.
 
Fed her a moth. Another connection between Alicia and I is the golden orb weaver. At the zoo this was the only bug without glass between it and the gasping girls.

Fed her a moth. Another connection between Alicia and I is the golden orb weaver. At the zoo this was the only bug without glass between it and the gasping girls.

"Bug spray?" They buzzed, "What bug spray?"

“Bug spray?” They buzzed, “What bug spray?”

 
 
Dead Men Buy no Squids
 
 
One day my chore changed. “A friend of ours died, and we need to clean up his place. You mind putting things in order while I run to town?” I like new things, so my acquiescence was implied.
 
 
As Adam pointed out, a place must be lived in in this climate or it will rapidly return to its raw materials. Dust and dessicated arthropod carapaces littered the window sills and wood floor. Something other than a mouse blipped thru a bamboo wall crack and there was blood on the bedsheets. This was the only time I wasn’t around people in Canoa, but the presence of the late Jerry filled the gap.
 
 
“Jerry owes Jim a porch bulb,” claimed a scrap of paper sitting on a pile. I imagined a late night drinking sesh with the old guys recounting their biggest catches (Jerry’s photo album supports this theory) and Jerry using the broom as a prop, popping the bulb with the handle in a moment of uncharacteristically charged improvisation. It’s a kind fantasy, the one that goes: all my business will be completed before I die.
 
 
I investigate the dingy bathroom. A chair sits in the shower, and as I close the door I inadvertently reveal a framed quote written in calligraphy:
 
 
“There is nothing more absurd than the fact I’m here.” -Jerry Flener
 
 
The world is less absurd without Jerry, they may say when they find this. As I find out later from Alicia after the wake, what they really said was “Yea, he was an asshole, but…” and sometimes not even a ‘but.’
 
 
Cleaning the mantle, I knock the ticking clock with my rag, bringing its tick to a sudden stop. The belongings of this dead man fit on one table. His pill regimen from those final days looks more busy and hopeless than a Muslim’s daily carpet routine.
 
 
I am interrupted by a local at the porch. The man must know this is where the gringos live, and he’s come to sell me (or did he think Jerry was still kicking?) a squid. Hanging there limp on his fingers like I expect Jerry must have looked two weeks ago, it dangles slimy until I indicate that buying a squid doesn’t go well with cleaning the house of the dead.
 
 
One of Jerry’s photo albums is of the sailboats he played with. He stands nude holding a smiling woman, who is equally as nude (though strangely a woman always seems more nude than a man). The other album displays many indoor projects he designed and built. Beautiful counter tops and window shutters, but in the end just a bunch of empty rooms. Two passports carry stamps for Nicaragua and Costa Rica, the places he took his boats.
 
 
The last item I spy in Jerry’s fatal narrative is something I suspect exists near every deathbed with a thinking family member nearby: a notepad with a checklists for the final scavenger hunt.
 
 
Page 1
“hospital bed? wheelchair?”
 
 
Page 2
“-formal arrangements
-who to call
-cremation
-$
-will I have time to get here before burial? 2 days
 
 
Page 3
“Need:
1. gauze pads
2. tape
3. spray med
4. straws
5. med diaper
6. mat pad”
 
 
The story tells itself.
 
 
Last page
“-baby wipes
-diaper
-wheelchair!”
 
 
He played blues guitar, smoked his cigarrettes and died mostly a curmudgeon. Of his 20-pack of Silver Elephants, 11 were left. His Marlboro Gold was still wrapped. Alicia said he died of “everything.”
 
 
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A white-haired expat told me he would live here for the rest of his life. Not many people admit things like that, but Canoa has immaculate sunsets, and would make wonderful place to die. And to live as well. Along with Griffin and his baby friends, new life revealed itself everywhere. A bitch and seven pups, chiclets magnetized to mother, and our lovely waitress pulled out her notable breast to feed her young one as we munched alongside them. Even the internet cafe closed early. “Por que?” The lady just pointed at her belly. Canoa is a place ruled by natural rhythms.
 
Obligatory sunset shot.

Obligatory sunset shot.

 
The surfers observe the tides, the para gliders worship the wind and when Tyler mentioned building here with metal, they pointed to the sturdy, local bamboo and then to the rust, a word to the wise. One day I saw a gay couple collecting beach trash in a bag. They told me one of the bars gives a free cocktail in exchange for a full bag. Good call, Canoa, but maybe you don’t get everything right. Ecuador is the first country I’ve heard of down here that prohibits the sale of alcohol on Sundays, though it may not be alone. This is hardly well abided, but the Mormons and Muslims would not turn up their noses at the gesture.
 
 
 
Many Connections
 
 
Back in 2007 I traveled to Ecuador to volunteer with International Student Volunteers (ISV). After a week of Spanish lessons in Quito, my particular group headed to the Imbabura province to work on a spectacled bear reserve. The spectacled (or Andean) bear is the last remaining South American bear, and lives at altitude in the cloud forests from Argentina to Panama. Of the many short faced bears that used to roam the world, it is the only species left. Though we never spotted the elusive bruins, their claw marks on tree trunks were obvious.
 
 
The project troubled me, because we were asked to cut down a large plot of jungle to plant corn fields for the bears to plunder. This would, they alleged, lure the bears from wandering to farmer’s fields outside the reserve and getting shot. Perhaps it worked, though it was anything but sustainable. Only the other day did I meet Alicia’s friend, Patricia, who just so happened to have worked for ISV in Ecuador during the same time I did my volunteering. “Yea that project’s been shut down. In fact, ISV no longer operates in Ecuador.” The cloud forest was magical, but too many volunteer projects make no difference or end up causing harm.
 
 
Later I joined Growth International Volunteer Excursions (GIVE), founded by Jake (26 years old) who used to work for VESA, which is a bit of a Darth Vader traitor to ISV. VESA’s founder was trained by ISV, but founded her own company on shaky ethical grounds to make more money in the process. Jake didn’t like where VESA was going, and split off in turn to found GIVE. Confused yet?
 
 
“`Be sure you give the poor the aid they most need,´ Thoreau wrote in Walden. `There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.”
 
 
GIVE is a very small and conscious organization that asks the locals what it is they need. With projects in Nicaragua and Zanzibar, it is growing quickly and I have been thrilled to be a part of its growth. Recently volunteers helped provide 600 people access to water. When a volunteer I personally recruited in Perth showed up at the end of their brilliant promo vid, I felt the cycle come full circle. Seriously, click on that link.
 
 
My uncanny connections with Alicia don’t stop with ISV. We met at Woodland Park Zoo, when I was volunteering in Zoo Corps. She came on as the volunteer coordinator, and was there during my interview for Level III intern when I pulled out my tarantula for an interpretive demo. She also used to guide for Crooked Trails, a Seattled-based ecotourism company that I ended up traveling with to Peru for my first international adventure eight years ago. And if that weren’t enough, she told me the other day that she smoked 5-MeO-DMT with James Oroc, the author of Tryptamine Palace. That’s the type of DMT found in the Sonoran Desert Toad, and almost certainly the most powerful psychedelic humans have yet discovered. “It was life changing, and to be honest really erotic. I couldn’t tell you there was a particular being that caused it, just a general feeling.” I had read Tryptamine Palace without ever realizing that Alicia’s experience had been written into the book! Alicia went to Burning Man five times and Oroc still attends, operating the giant paddle steamboat with the female bust at the front.
 
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Now she teaches paragliding in Canoa, watching for warm spirals of raptors and that telltale sway of canopy. One day we drove up to her favorite hill to see which breeze was blowing. Her competitor was just taking off as we arrived and that was enough to convince her to strap in. “Who wants to go first?” Tyler was quick on the draw. They took off tandem, riding a slim pocket of thermal driving up the side of the cliff. It was her first flight of the season.
 
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When we picked them up on the beach and sped back up, the wind had sagged. Watching Alicia watch the wind was a moment of trepidation. I kept my mouth shut and waited, when all I wanted to do was put the pressure on. C’mon, let’s bloody do this!! But I had missed my chance. She wouldn’t risk it and I had to grit my teeth and respect that. Over the next few days it was all I could do not to badger her every five minutes to see if we could return and try again. Alas, a new mother is not overly concerned with taking a vagabond out on free flights. The season was barely beginning, and contained more fickle zephyrs than gutsy gusts. The day we left I quit holding my breath and got Buddhist about the whole thing. Or maybe I said “fuck it” and went surfing instead.
 
 
 
Sooo…what do you doooo?
 
 
This blog has given my journey a purpose, or perhaps this trip has provided shape to my blog. Okay, so they work in tandem, the important thing is that some plate somewhere is spinning. Tyler keeps busy as well. His sketchbook has been filling with designs for a Burning Man art car, and on a larger scope for the Neoplan Skyliner bus he will gut and transform into a festival-touring behemoth. Greece’s ill economy is Tyler’s four leaf clover, and he plans on making his purchase this summer.
 
Scheming

Scheming

 
Every double decker bus we ride gives him another opportunity to scope out the bathroom dimensions, and add another change to the seats in his blueprint. Traveling thru space is one trip, traveling thru the mind is something parallel. Together we keep our counters moving forward, the feeling of some kind of progress even trumping the importance of joy. Fortunately we find both.
 
 
 
Ecuador
 
 
Ecuador is the only South American country aside from Chile that does not border Brazil. Tucked between Peru and Colombia, it quietly plays out its own narrative. Popular with many Americans, Ecuador is basically Peru without the grand ruins and the tourist hordes that go along with them. But it is also undeniably beautiful, cheap and definitely worth the visit. To the east lies the Amazon where ayahuasca ceremonies are possible. An unimaginable diversity of animals can be found throughout a number of specialized and unique ecosystems, such as the cloud forest and high altitude paramo I explored in ´07. The Andes dominate the center of the country, where the more conservative people can be found, and on the coast lies afro-ecuatoriano communities to the north and great surf the whole way down. But of its issues much may be said.
 
 
Unsuspecting travelers expecting to exchange cash in Ecuador are often shocked to find that this is unnecessary. Ecuador, like El Salvador and Panama, uses the US dollar. This wasn’t always so, and the reason for it has to do with one big basket and many eggs.
 
 
Ecuador discovered its oil reserves in the 70s, and quickly began to borrow in order to capitalize on this windfall. Its agricultural exports became relatively less important, and when oil prices crashed in the early 80s, Ecuador did too. Add to this the wrath of El Niño and a proper shitstorm had been stewed. Then began the typical tale of currency devaluation as a means of inflating away the problem. Ecuador was leaning on one leg.
 
 
In the late 90s political instability compounded with economic instability and another El Niño was added as icing to the cake. Ecuador’s banking system collapsed, they defaulted on their foreign debt and many began putting their money in something more stable, the US dollar. Over the next few years there was an unofficial transition to the dollar, but when the government proposed officially switching currencies, a lot of people shouted NO. They liked their sucre, and the independence, not to mention identity, it afforded them. Nevertheless, a switch is exactly what occurred in 2000, and the results have been mixed.
 
 
While inflation has been stabilized, Ecuador has traded its monetary decision making power. Washington D.C. now runs that show, and it can no longer devalue its currency to make its goods cheaper on the world market. As usually happens when a country has backed itself into a corner, a quick fix was preferred over a long term solution.
 
 
Now it has the dubious reputation of being one of the most environmentally ravaged nations in the continent. A 20 year case has been broiling against Chevron for dumping 16 billion gallons of toxic waste into the Amazon and their 900 unlined pits of crude oil they left behind. The details have been covered and published for years, but are particularly well delivered in the 2009 documentary Crude as well as a recent article in the Huffington Post. Chevron has wielded its 2,000 lawyers to great effect, while only one U.S. attorney has served as legal council to the Ecuadorians for the past couple decades.
 
 
Chevron has successfully delayed a cleanup for a decade while over 1,400 Ecuadorians have died, and have yet to pay a penny of the $19 billion court judgment.
 
 

Get ‘er Done!

I just finished donating my diarrhea to one of Quito’s many upstanding and cartoonish KFCs. When I was having a rough day in Cuzco, I unloaded in a McDonald’s. It pleases me that this is becoming something of a tradition. What I’m trying to say is, it’s good to give feedback.
 
 
What inspired this particular movement deserves elaboration, for thru its telling we shall remind ourselves why it is travel can sometimes suck, but that sipping a victorious homemade daiquiri at the end of a bloody day can provide the necessary amnesia required to push forward and get ‘er done.
 
 
As nice as it would have been to explore Quito a little, I did that six years ago. It’s time to move on to Colombia and The Great Northern Unknown. How to do this? First step is to grab a flight from Quito to Bogota.
 
 
Why not bus it like you usually do? Because it’s another 30 hours from here to there, and because now we have an end date in mind. Tyler and I bought tickets to Bonnaroo (ridiculous lineup here) because it seemed the slick way to cap off a year full of Burning Man, Carnival and a whole lot of travel. And because turning 25 the day Paul McCartney performs sounds alright to me. So a flight it is.
 
 
We begin by instigating the usual price comparisons, trying various combinations of destinations, dates and companies to find that perfect number. The number wasn’t perfect ($260), but it will suffice.
 
Ecuador's presidents are buried beneath Quito's cathedral.

Ecuador’s presidents are buried beneath Quito’s cathedral.

A uniquely honest portrayal of what the Catholic Church has always been about.

A uniquely honest portrayal of what the Catholic Church has always been about.

 
First we take a detour to the cathedral, which is a worthy visit given our proximity to Old Town. Inside I ask a man in Spanish how old the cathedral is. The longer you travel down here, the less likely you are to assume the other person speaks English. But I should have known, given his tourist garb and second chin. “Hablas Ingles?” He asks wide-eyed. It’s like we’re two anxious gay men finding each other out with relief.
 
 
Instead of telling me anything remotely related to the cathedral, Richard homes in on himself and his sign business in Vegas.
“But the money isn’t as good as it used to be. Y’know, over the last gabbagabbagabba and I wouldn’t trust a casino check with my life gabbagabbagabba but you guys are smart and young, you should really consider getting into the kava kava business! My friend told me about the money in that, and I’ll tell you gabbagabbagabba.” He glances surreptitiously at the sculpted saint in front of us as he talks about the crazy money he could make.
Had he tried kava kava? “Well, no, but I can sell anything.”
Oh really? The Catholic Church can sell anything, yet here I am in their cathedral admiring the architecture instead.
 
 
The redundantly named kava kava is a plant from the South Pacific, the root of which is used in a horrid drink to produce a mild sedative effect without affecting mental clarity. I tried it back in college and got little more than I did from the highlander’s coca leaves here. These things are hardly worth taking unless the health nut is too afraid to take anything harder and too worried about Western Medicine to take something effective. But there are plenty of those people, so Richard just may succeed in his alternative Vegas.
“Lemme take your names and e-mails down and we can talk about you guys maybe finding a source for kava kava down here.”
Great, Richard.
“I’m staying in Quito because I don’t want to get into any trouble.” And bless your soul.
 
 
We continued on, crossing and recrossing our tracks until we found a travel agency. They were charging more than the listed price. The next agency? Even more. On our way to the real office, I turn to make a stupid joke to Tyler and step into one of South America’s myriad sidewalk booby traps. The random hole was filled with garbage, rainwater and (as I distinctly discovered in the office later) shitty dead things. The odor was a mix between feces, rancid vagina and deceased rodent. But I`m an overachiever, and not long after I stubbed my toe on a sawed off sign pole sticking an inch and a half higher than it should have been. Now the blood pasted my toe to the shitty sandal and a zoo began to sprout in my bloodstream. Probably.
 
 
We still hadn’t reached the TAME office where we would make our ticket purchase, and now Tyler’s getting robbed again! Granted, his hippy pants have loose pockets and look tempting even to trustworthy me. Still, he grabbed the guy’s backpack just before he passed thru a bus turnstile, and held it as collateral until a security guard had been summoned. We got the $5 back and finally made it to the next hoop.
 
 
Key word: Tenacity. We grabbed our number stub and waited until it was called. Here’s what we’re looking for.
“Do you have a proof of exit, like a bus ticket out of Bogota?”
South America has more curve balls than Justin Bieber has swooning ingénues. What do we need that for? That’s something we’ll figure out there.
“I understand,” her favorite calm-down phrase, “but we cannot process your request until you have an onward ticket.” This is why we hold our breath every time we walk into an office with a wait line. The chance of a hiccup is close to definitely.
 
 
We have a little time before their office closes, and dash across the street to buy a bullshit ticket from Bogota to somewhere that we’ll cancel and alter as we later see fit. This turns out to be more difficult than we thought. Most of the sites are in Spanish. No worries, Google translate is pretty sophisticated and quick. But now the site requires a bloody profile to be registered. No worries: Name, Birthday, blahblahblah. An address? In South America? Whatever, I’ll just put down the address of the nearby Hard Rock Cafe and their phone number too. Those hoops behind us, we still can’t find a connection from Bogota to Medellin. That bus company is out.
 
 
We try two others, and the only option we seem to really have is a connection between Bogota and Cartagena. With many minor issues, we book and print it. Back to the office, and now there’s a larger line. A different guy this time. Here’s what we’re looking for.
“Do you have proof-” yesyesyes here. “Great, now may I just have your passport numbers?” Done and done.
We make the mistake of letting our spirits lift.
“I’m sorry, we need proof of an onward ticket to another country.” Gotcha, thanks for telling us the first time. Tyler’s blood is visible in his cheeks. He begins to speak faster than the agent can understand English.
“K, well you guys didn’t tell us that last time and we just spent forty-five minutes booking this ticket so this is on you!”
The man smiles in an endearingly confused manner, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” A security guard brings a bowl of mints over specifically to Tyler and I nearly forgive them for everything.
 
 
So off we run to find a bus ticket from Palomino, Colombia to Merida, Venezuela. Doing this while in Quito is a near impossibility, and I genuinely wonder how on earth other travelers have jumped this devilish hoop. It’s a twisted scavenger hunt they sent us on, pulled off with a straight face. Three travel agencies in a row give us cow eyes. Back in cyber world, we try our darnedest to track down some evidence of success on any of the travel forums. There are a few obscure bus companies that travel the route we need, but there is no way to book it online. They only list telephone numbers. I ring both numbers and get a voice mail. Then the internet cafe closes.
 
 
We trade expletives for an extended period between whiffs of shitfoot. Tyler bashed his own on the rocks of Mancora, and limps lamely with a mummy bandage hanging from his sandal. We have several hundred mosquito bites between us, half a night’s sleep and have just about reached the end of our string of solutions. It feels like running a marathon (without the Boston bombs of course) along a Mobius strip and expecting a finish line.
 
 
Finally Tyler perks up and realizes we can book a flight to Texas (don’t ask), rather than mess around with silly decoy buses. At yet another internet cafe, we do just this. The TAME office has closed by now, but we walk the mile to a shopping mall with a tiny TAME kiosk next to a KFC. He finishes the process and I run to the bathroom to wash my foot and leave them a gift as unseemly as a KFC is in Quito.
 
The next morning we flew to the ninth country of our trip.
 
 
*During the construction of her custom castle, she hired a windowsanddoor guy. Rather than drive an hour south and get it written up, Alicia wrote it herself.
“But what will I do if you do not pay me?” She shrugged. He thought for a moment, “I´ll burn your house down.”
“Okay, and I’ll burn your house down if you don’t finish on time.” They shook. Incidentally, he didn’t finish on time. He opened his door to a petite para glider on his doorstep with a bottle of petrol and no trace of a bluff. He finished the job quickly.
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