Friday, March 27, 2009
A little boy uses a two liter bottle as a sled to fly down the hilly streets of Aguas Calientes, laughing all the while. Amit and I make way into Copacabana, a border town in Bolivia, just happening upon a rally for sustainable development with no other than President Evo Morales speaking and the most colorful, diverse crowd joining us for this amazing event and lining the path of the president with thousands of beautiful flower petals. Kids chase after us on a long hike to catch our boat to the Island of the Sun; these kids are asking for pens and pencils though sadly we have none with us. Along this same lakeside hike, reminiscent of a hike along the Mediteranean, we run into another American traveler who joins us for the next two days of hiking adventures on an island in Lake Titicaca. Nearly abandoned in a random village in route to our mountain town destination northwest of La Paz, Amit and I catch a minibus and squeeze into this van with nearly twenty packed in (reminiscent of South Africa), and I enjoy being completely immersed in local culture-- able to see things much more clearly while wedged between a kicking baby, a jolly talkative elderly man, and several women hauling extreme amounts of vegetables from one town to another. On the way, I laugh at scene of two mischievous boys chasing after a dump truck and jumping onto the bumper for a ride.
Just a day later, a middle aged man offers Amit and me a ride on a mountain road on the way to a series of caves-- he happily chats with us about politics and his illegal time in the united states before telling us that he actually can´t see passed his own nose and has to be really careful on these drives...
The images, scenes, absurdities from these past five weeks are nearly overwhelming-- and these are but a few thrown into a confusing bundle together. It´s been a long time since I have written but it´s been an amazing journey in the meantime. To give a bit of context for these images and brief stories, I´ll try to stay as short winded as possible tracking back through the main events of the last five weeks. If it seems long, just be thankful these come less than once a month (and feel free to skip the more mundane layout for the end reflections)...
-five weeks ago, I started the travels with a trip to the Quilatoa Loop with Amit, Priyanka, and two new friends Angella and Ingrid. We stayed at a hostal with a warm fire place for the high elevation, an ever smiling host, and lots of interesting fellow travelers. The highlight of the first days by far though was our six hour journey around the ridges of the volcanic crater lake Quilatoa. Pictures can´t even do justice to the beauty of this place so my words certainly won´t. But we had a blast taking all kinds of fun pictures over the blue-green lake and enjoying many of the scenes I described in the beginning, as well as telling stories of growing up and each of our thoughts going forward.
-Amit and I hiked from Quilatoa through a deep canyon to the town of Chugchilan where we stayed at a hostal with relaxing hammocks perched atop the canyons and family style dinners with a great group of travelers (especially two Australians). After two days of exploratory hikes, we made our way to the Ecuadorian southern city of Cuenca, where we met up with Amit´s hometown friend Ashley and explored the incredible Cathedral and city lookouts. We then travelled to Vilcabamba, the village where people supposedly live to be over one hundred. We spent lots of time hiking through fog and mud, relaxing on hammocks, writing funky bikes through the town, and enjoying a valley that reminded me of the prettiest parts of the Appalachians. Amit and I then made our way back north toward Quito, where we stopped for a day to hike to the base camp (16000 ft) of Cotopaxi but unfortunately got a completely foggy day and a quirky, out of shape guide...
-Jamie came to Ecuador for her Spring Break, an amazing blessing and a chance for us to spend a week exploring parts of Ecuador I had not yet seen. We spent the first weekend with Amit, Pri, and four other friends (who I met in Quito) in the town of Banos, where we did the bikeride down the highway to a series of cascades and then spent the next day repelling down waterfalls, the last of which was over 140 ft. high. Jamie and I then travelled to Tena, where we planned to make a trip to a nice hotel in the rainforest. Instead, we ended up meeting a shaman (who my brother David told us about a few years ago and who thankfully jamie urged me to get in touch with) and his family on a rooftop of our hostel and they convinced us to come to their town of Rio Blanco, a three hour truck-canoe-hike into the rainforest. We spent the day exploring, swimming, and learning all about their village and the surrounding forest. We then participated in a healing with the Shaman, a remarkable experience that certainly matched what David had described a few years earlier. After only twenty four hours in the rainforest, we made our way back towards Quito for a visit to the overwhelming craft markets of Otavalo, where we loaded up on gifts for family and friends back home. We then got to enjoy Jamie´s last day in Ecuador and Amit and my last day in Quito by celebrating Amit´s bday with some salsa dancing... The wonderful time and travels with Jamie were a great way to end my time in Ecuador and begin the rest of the traveling adventures.
*Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail-- Amit, Pri, and I flew from Quito to Cuzco to join pri´s family and start the Inca trail just a few days after our dancing in Quito. hard to briefly describe this remarkable experience. I went in a bit skeptical of the overrun nature of the trail and the hyped nature of Machu Picchu itself, but I was really blown away. Amit, Pri´s family, and I joined a group of fourteen plus our guide and almost twenty porters for the four day adventure. The first three days, we had impeccable weather (really rare for this time of year). We had continual postcard views of snowcapped peaks and I got to hike at my mom´s pace (muy rapido) because there was a group of Canadians who loved to walk extremely fast and then enjoy the views from the best spots. Our guide had a hilarious English accent (a mixture of Franc from father of the bridge with some south american-french twist) so we enjoyed listening to his dramatic but really informational speeches (and imitating him a little). Every day, we would arrive at camp for lunch or dinner and everything would be ready-- a multi course meal, tents, hot water, and an incredible view. It made the harder days of the trail much more relaxing and we´d finish each day by mid afternoon and enjoy games and conversations with fellow travelers. BUT, the best part for me, of course, was seeing and walking the path of this amazing history. I was blown away by the ingenuity of the Incas and the network of centers they built along the trail that is still nearly fully intact today. We got to visit more than half a dozen ruins before Machu Picchu and these ruins began to prepare me for what was to come-- universities, astronomy buildings, and communication centers, all with still functioning waterways and detailed mathematically constructed patterns in relation to the sun and the natural world. And the size of the stones and the placement of each of these ruins was all the more remarkable. None of this, though, touches on our experience at Machu Picchu itself, which I expected to be a tad bigger and more interesting than the prior ruins. As I said at the beginning, our last morning of hiking to Machu Picchu was through the pouring rain and at 5 am in the morning. I could not believe our luck-- three beautiful days on the way only to lead up to a pathetic one. But sure enough, the clouds lifted just after we arrived at the sungate and the sun stayed out all day after. Machu Picchu itself was more than breathtaking and was several times the size and scope of any of the large ruins we had visited thus far. The ruins are carved around a mountain with some unimaginably large boulders and incredibly detailed architectural work. We had an in depth tour and then several of us got to climb Wayna Picchu, the mountain in the background of all the famous pictures of Machu Picchu for some great views from above. I´ll leave the rest for pictures because I´m not a good enough writer to try any more description... It was a great blessing to be with Amit, Pri, and Pri´s amazing parents and brother to share this experience. It is hard to imagine it better than it was...
*And to finish the five weeks of journeying, Amit and I headed out from Cuzco a few days after returning from the trail and enjoying Cuzco´s huge plazas and tasty food. We made our way to Bolivia, where we happened upon the Morales rally (he really said little other than that Lake Titicaca should be a natural wonder of the world) in Copacabana and spent a few days hiking in the island of the sun. At last, we made way to Sorata by way of the quirky minivan and enjoyed two days in the green mountain town where we had great pancake breakfasts, fun hitchiking rides, more hiking, and a hostal with tire swings and see saws, farm animals, beautiful poems lining the gardens, and more.
*I love how travel introduces me to so many unique and remarkable individuals (almost all liberal, i might add) and provides a space for in depth conversations and random explorations with these same travelers. We have shared hostals with a couple of Australians who have spent years working outdoor camps, hiked the Inca trail with Canadians who have no plans to settle down any time soon, spent days with a few random Americans who are just traveling to try to enjoy the natural surroundings. It continually reminds me that life doesn´t have to be such a straight, planned path. In fact, sometimes it´s better for it not to be. At our hostal last night, a guy asked Amit and me what we were planning to do upon return. Amit said med school and the guy turned to me and asked if I was going to med school as well. I said I had no idea what I was doing and he quickly replied, ¨now that is what i like to hear!¨
*Times with Amit-- I´ve loved having a travel partner who loves to hike, chill, never plan more than a couple days in advance. Also loved delving into childhood stories, diving into dilemmas in medicine or community organizing, struggling with what it means to live in the present, and discussing life full of so many more questions than we could ever have answers. Or just playing endless board games or marvelling at our surroundings in silence. Amit is almost always jolly and a good reminder of how to enjoy things one day at a time...
*Continuing to read a book about storytelling in the search for meaning that focuses on giving up constant and obsessive control. It uses ancient parables and stories to open one to the mysteries and miracles in life that abound. And certainly the book is well times as I´ve been surrounded by breathtaking canyons and snow-capped mountains, persevering and hospitable people throughout the travels, community breaking through even the most stifling conditions.
*Playing guitar-- so I carry the travel guitar with me everywhere and have loved playing it during breaks on trails or on tire swings at nice hostals. Still a struggling sound rises from my guitar but I´m loving it nonetheless...
*The nature of travel-- travel provides such quick glimpses, moments that quickly pass but often remain with me for far longer and reveal only how much more mystery there is to this world and so many different cultures that I am yet to know. I have such a desire to learn more, to ask more, to be present more. But traveling is only the beginning. It reminds me that the learning returns to a centering point-- being present in one place long enough to really form in depth relationships that keep opening more... I´ve had moments of extreme worry and fears about my unknown future, realizing how little I have planned and how much I have to figure out. But the beauty of travel is that it forces me back into the beauties of the moment; it revives in me a curiosity of my surroundings and an enjoyment of new colorful landscapes, cultures, and ever welcoming people (despite what American propoganda would say about bolivia).
Amit and I are now in La Paz, Bolivia, really just passing through in route south. We head tonight to Potosi, the highest city in the world at over 13,000 ft, and a city with a challenging history based in its enormous maze of mines that led to millions of slaves and forced laborers and centuries of human rights abuses. We´ll then head further south to the salt flats and onto northern Argentina and Chile for the last few weeks. Less than twenty days remain!
Photos will have to come at the end, unfortunately. My words do no justice to these places but hopefully the pictures at the end will fill in much of what my writing could not do.
I love you all and thanks to all who have written. As is clear by my lack of blogging, internet times are few and far between. Next time you hear from me will probably be at the end of the travels. Please keep me up to date on things happening wherever each of you are....
Friday, February 20, 2009
Nearly two more weeks have passed, and plenty worth writing about, but I promised to keep this shorter, so I’ll try to hold to that.
I stuck that picture at the bottom of the last post to lead directly into this one. Sunday nearly two weeks ago now, Angella (an amazing fellow student at my language school who was also a grad student at UNC and worked for the CDC for several years) and I took off on a hiking adventure about 30 miles south of
We also had an interesting end to our day. We had to run parts of the way down the mountain in order to make it back to the base before dark. Once we got to the entrance to the trail, we realized that there were no taxis and that the hike to the town with our bus was another 6 miles (we had hiked over 15 after getting a taxi to the entrance). Right as we made it to the road, though, a family of four-- with two adorable little children-- was just getting into their jeep. We ran over and asked if we could get a ride into town, and they graciously accepted. We hopped into the car right as it began to pour down raining (and remember, we are covered in mud), really thankful for the incredible luck. Instead of taking us to town, though, they ended up driving us the hour and a half back to
Other big adventures of the last two weeks:
- Attending a professional soccer game (Liga, the best team in
, vs. Palmeiras, one of the Brazilian clubs) with Angella and my professor Fredy. Before the game, Fredy spent part of my class teaching me the Liga fight songs. We then got to the game hours early to get seats right behind the goal and right next to a huge base drum with an enormous guy pounding it with all his might (yeah, for those who make fun of my over cautiousness, I definitely held my ears for a while). I quickly discovered the joys of South American football—singing songs and jumping up and down the entire game, laughing at the toilet paper and confetti flung onto the field, and loving fans running around with torches and people climbing the fence around the field whenever goals were scored. We enjoyed drinks, hotdogs, and a great game of soccer that ended with Liga scoring a sweet goal to win it 3-2. (if you want to see the goal and the area where we are sitting behind it, check out this video on youtube-- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yd3_ivlECus&feature=related ) Ecuador
- Traveling to Otavalo with Amit’s parents and the normal group of friends. Otavalo has the biggest market in
, full of colorful paintings, scarves, hammocks, and more. I didn’t really buy anything, but enjoyed getting lost in the middle of all the colors. It was also great to catch up some with Amit’s parents before they headed to the Ecuador Galapagos Islandswith Amit and Priyanka the next day. Normally, people make the trek to look out over the two volcanoes and lake in Otavalo, but unfortunately rain changed our plans…
- Continually debating my new male professor (who is an incredible professor other than this) about some aspects of the Machismo culture here and trying to find creative ways to get him to listen to me. Also getting continually destroyed by his intense teaching methods. One day, I had to do a set of 15 exercises using all different tenses (hard for me) and if I missed a single one, even partially, I had to do 15 more. And on it went until I had done nearly 100…
- Eating almost daily banana splits with Amit and Angela at the KFC near our school. Seriously, I don’t like KFC that much in the states, but the banana splits at this KFC hit the spot every time…
- Enjoying the company of Amit’s family. After arriving back from an adventure in the Galapagos, they returned to treat us to Crepes and Waffles, one of my favorite restaurants here…I got to hear some amazing animal stories and we got to hear some interesting medical stories from Amit’s dad (definitely glad I’m not planning to be a doctor).
- Saying goodbye to the language school. Today, I finished my month of intensive language classes in
, which have flown by. I have loved getting to know the professors and other students there, and it reminds me how easily I get connected to people and places. I had the hardest time saying goodbyes to these people I’ve known for four weeks and only with my limited Spanish… I get too attached for sure. But it is amazing how every personality stands out here in some way, and there is something about every person at that school that I’ll remember… Quito
(in the photo: all students and profs at amit's goodbye party). Other than these more newsworthy events, there isn’t too much to report (hoping more reflective stuff is to come). I’ve been searching for jobs for the summer while I still have internet, slowly and painfully learning guitar, taking Salsa lessons every so often, and reading a book about the Lost Boys of Sudan. I began packing this afternoon for the backpacking journey that begins tomorrow—we head to the Quilotoa Loop, a 3ish day hiking adventure around a crater with a beautiful green lake in it, surrounded by snow-capped volcanoes. I have loved my time here, and the Spanish was DEFINITELY essential. But I am ready to get out of the city and begin the next two months. I would love to hear from any and all of you. Thanks to any who have dropped me lines and sorry if I have been delayed responding. Love to you all.
Monday, February 09, 2009
(picture of the group of travelers in the cloud forest my first weekend.
from left to right: Will, Me, Priyanka, Amit, Anita, Peter, Angella)
So after a week of frantic errands and fights with the insurance company, I took off at last in route to Quito! I arrived here Friday just over two weeks ago, and as I got off the plane, I realized I was trusting Amit (one of my closest college friends and roommates who has been doing 6 months of intensive language here) to meet me at the airport. In the midst of the craziness I had not written down an address or phone number for my host family or anybody I knew in Ecuador. I had no information at all. Luckily, as soon as I walked out of the plane, I could see Amit in a window waving emphatically…a wonderful greeting and comfort to begin my adventure…
Many of you may still be a bit confused by my travel plans a (I’m not totally clear).
I am spending three months total in South America—mainly backpacking from Quito eventually down to Santiago. The hope was that this would be quite the adventure: exploring one of the most beautiful parts of the world, spending lots of quality time with incredible friends, experiencing new cultures, reflecting on my life and future, and trying to learn some Spanish and guitar along the way. To give you a quick idea of the travel plan, I arrived in Quito, Ecuador on January 23 and settled into host family’s place (where Amit lives) after first being swept off for a weekend trip to a cloud forest. I started my four weeks of intensive Spanish classes the Monday after I arrived, because I decided that even though I have travel partners who speak Spanish, I was tired of traveling places without putting in the effort to communicate on terms other than my own. Although a month isn’t enough, it was at least a beginning…Near the end of February, I finish my month of classes, and Amit and I will start our two months of backpacking Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile, with a week in the middle in which Jamie will be joining us back in Ecuador for some extra adventures.
I’ve waited for over two weeks to post because I’ve felt like it’s taken me a long time to get my bearings here. My time has already been full of wonderful adventures, but I was definitely not prepared, and have been extraordinarily lucky, as my opening story demonstrated, that I have been able to rely on my college friends here in Quito—Amit, Priyanka, Priyanka’s sister Anita, and more, to help get me acclimated to the city and language. Thankfully, they have all been extraordinarily patient and good-natured about everything, making the transition much easier than I could have possibly imagined. As I’ve already mentioned, this first month is much more structured than the rest will be. I’m living with Amit and his host family, going to intensive language school (one on one classes), exploring Quito and the surrounding area, and spending lots of time at Priyanka’s apartment (which is always full of people) this first month. These last weeks have already made for a very different international experience than I’ve ever had before. In the past, my travels have been focused on the specific history of an area and on work pertaining to my passions in conflict resolution or community development. Here in Ecuador, I am finally learning a language, staying healthy, and taking the time to explore the wonders of nature. Unlike my friends here, though, I have not yet gotten tied into volunteer work that fits my interests and gives me access to the stories and experiences that have really transformed my life these last years. Instead, I’ve been trying to get a sense of the basic language, culture, and history that I failed to really learn prior to the travels. And for now, I’m just enjoying the adventures…
Highlights of my first two weeks:
+Trip to a cloud forest the first weekend. A group of eight of us (college friends and a web of connections from there) traveled to Mindo, a beautiful village about two hours from Quito with lots of outdoor adventures. We spent Saturday zip-lining over incredible valleys/ravines and laughing at some of the absurd zip-lining positions and the great yells that accompanied them. We then hiked to a gorgeous waterfall, visited a house of butterflies, and went to—yes, I’m serious—a FROG concert. I imagined frogs in tuxedos croaking the chords of a xylophone when we first heard about this. It was instead, a simple but enjoyable nighttime nature walk to view tiny frogs and cockroaches the size of my shoes. On the trip, I also had my first churrasco, a healthy (ahem) Ecuadorian special of thin steak covered with fried eggs and served with French fries…yum.
+ Exploring Quito. It took me a while to find my way around and build up confidence in my limited Spanish, but this week, I spent several afternoons exploring the historic center and some of the famous Quito sites alone and with some of my friends. One day, I wandered along the cobblestone streets through the main plazas (plaza grande and plaza de San Francisco), enjoying an odd mix of sights and sounds: a couple playing accordion and guitar on the side of the road, dozens of men lining the plazas shoe-shining, women in indigenous clothing selling fruits, toddlers running around aimlessly, youth selling papers, and many tourists (mostly Ecuadorian on this particular day) making way to the many historic sites. I had some incredible coconut ice cream and learned all about the history of the most famous downtown churches—one built of 7 tons of 23-carot gold and filled with paintings of the prophets and of hell that took well over a hundred years to complete (beautiful architecturally but a disturbing history).
Another day, Anita and I made our way to the Panecillo and climbed a huge statue of the Virgin of Quito to look out over Quito. It’s amazing how little I know of this history, culture, landscape, everything really. But it was awesome to look out over everything, enjoy the breeze, and expand what little I knew of the city. We then went through a really unfamiliar and different area to end up at the Cemetery of San Diego, blocks and blocks of intricate tombs perched on the hill in the valley between all these volcanoes. The place had these stack tombs, floors high, that were then decorated at the ends. And the place was enormous, stretching in all directions farther than our eyes could see. Anita and I commented back and forth about the odd feeling and off-beat beauty of the place and the great contrasts with this enormous gray expanse crested into colorful neighborhoods and the mountainsides. And finally Friday, a group of us went to a world-wide orchid exhibition at Parque Itchimbia and enjoyed taking fun pictures and basking in the views from yet another hill looking over Quito (as the jumping picture shows here).
+ Language school: Although taking hours upon hours of one-on-one Spanish can be overwhelming, the professors are down to earth and interested in our lives; I get to spend breaks with Amit, Anita and other newfound friends; and we have hilarious presentations every Friday (singing solos in Spanish last week-- my songs were slow Andean songs WAY out of my range). I also get to spend hours working on my weakest areas of Spanish and discussing favorite subjects like religion, politics, feminism, and history. One of the most disturbing aspects has been hearing from my professor about machismo culture here in Ecuador. My professor talked extensively about how married men are only considered married when they are physically inside their houses, and that women are expected to accept that. We talked about the need for deep transformation but the overwhelming obstacles here, especially with the many isolated indigenous communities in Ecuador.
+ Papallacta: Last weekend, we took a day trip to the hot springs of Papallacta, and spent hours relaxing in the famous dozen or so hot springs. A wonderful way to follow an exhausting week of Spanish.
- Basketball in Ecuador: a group of at least four Americans (called the gringos by the Ecuadorians we play with) have been playing basketball three times a week with Ecuadorians at one of the parks here in Quito. The basketball is interesting to say the least. The games go to whatever the guys playing decide, often to be extended by five points if the game is tied. Most of the guys call fouls on nearly every play, and they love to call traveling on us Americans for random things. The funniest thing, though, is trying to communicate without street Spanish, something that almost got me into a fight with a huge guy when I was trying to explain why I called a foul on him by demonstrating it on him. It was not easy to get out of that bind…And one of the guys, Walker, who plays with us tried to get a guy to stop holding him by saying, “NO PUEDES, NO PUEDES! (you can’t! you can’t!) AGH!”
- My salsa dancing: I’ve been going to weekly lessons and laughing at just how bad I am at dancing. But having fun nonetheless. My new name, given by my salsa teacher is “Utstent”. Amit is now calling me that on a regular basis.
-I was walking downtown when one of the buses came by with the horn to the tune of “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer”
More to come soon—an amazing 16 mile hike today to be discussed… until then, love to you all and sorry if this was painful to read…