Monday, May 21, 2007

FINAL South American Adventures- Part 12: Ecuador, Colombia & El Salvador

Hola muchachos de Suchitoto, El Salvador!

Upon arriving in Quito, Ecuador on April 25th, I immediately felt a connection with the Lego-looking capital city of this wonderfully strange country where they absolutely love volleyball, 80's rock ballads, gold trophies and Jean Claude Van Damn movies. Just visit once and you'll concur. Ecuador was my 50th country I've traveled through in my life, so of course this was cause for celebration. Fortunately I was joined for the past 3.5 weeks by my former Semester at Sea roommate, the legendary Jaret Martin, so celebrating in style was not a problem at all. Traveling with Jaret is like backpacking alongside a funhouse mirror- You know there will be incessant self-reflection, but there's a healthy dose of unexpected comedy and strange twistedness. During lunch on my first day in Quito, I spoke the words that will forever haunt me... I said to Jaret, "My journal from this trip is by far the most valuable thing I have with me. I'd rather lose my camera than lose this journal..." Two hours later I noticed that my camera had been stolen from my daypack, as the fates delivered a swift kick to the jimmies.

We jammed extra hard in Quito that night, consuming 6 schwarma sandwiches, 8 Ted Brogans, two rounds of apple-flavored hooka and a bottle of wine for a grand total of $14.50. Gotta love South America... Apparently we were sharing a few too many good laughs, as two kind Ecuadorian sisters approached us soonafter and asked if we were boyfriends. Thanks ladies, another kick to the goods. We did end up having one of those unforgettable travel nights, and booked it early the next morning to the mountain town of Banos. A visit to the Amazon jungle, 30k bike rides, thermal hot springs excursions, a terrifying cable car ride across a 500m gorge, latenight Mirador parties, chess battles, delicious food and my worst single day of illness awaited us in this great pueblo. In the interest of brevity, I will simply say that Banos is one of my top five favorite towns in the world. Go there. Now.

While in Banos we decided that we both had a strong craving for some rigorous physical exercise. The only workout I'd had since leaving Guatemala 2.5 months earlier was the daily 12oz lifting of local beverages to my parched lips. We set our sights on Volcan Cotopaxi, an active volcano where you can look into the crater from the rim and the 2nd highest mountain in all of Ecaudor at almost 20,000 (5900m) above sea level. That's higher than any mountain in all of Africa or the continental USA, which is probably why only 15% of attempting climbers had reached the summit the previous week. This was going to be one hell of a difficult rim job. We began the trek up the absurdly steep mountain at midnight aided by tremendous moonlight, the sturdy rope tying us two to our guide, razor-sharp shoe crampones and our diesel ice axes. Seven exhausting hours later, after all others had turned back, we arrived at the "cumbre" where both Jaret and I literally collapsed into sleep in a small snow hole. The walk down was equally treacherous, but we finally made it back around 11am from what I can genuinely admit was the most physically and mentally draining challenge of my life. My respect for mountain climbers is somewhere between how I feel about President David Palmer and the brave souls who catch spiders for a living. Damn those terrifying eight-legged freaks.

The rest of our time was spent viewing the gorgeous Ecuadorian landscapes in places like Latacunga, Alausi, el Nariz del Diablo, Zumbahoa, Laguna Quilotoa (incredible), and the northern market town of Otavalo. While in Riobamba we found a $2 per night hostel, which of course seemed to good to be true. By 3am, we found out that it was. Earlier in the night I offered a drink to the lone hostel worker from the full bottle of Pisco I'd been carrying since Peru. I took note of how much he seemed to enjoy the drink, but what I stupidly overlooked was the fact that he was wearing a cutoff t-shirt and black fingerless gloves. Yes, fingerless gloves. Over the next two hours he drained half the bottle, stole the other half when I told him he couldn't have it because we were going to sleep, attempted to fight both Jaret and I separately while breathing idiot winds every time he moved his teeth, and then finally locked himself outside the hostel for two hours. Again, one of those crazy traveling nights that I will never ever forget nor repeat.

After several weeks in Ecuador we experienced your typical shady latenight border crossing into the land of drug cartels, guerrilla warfare, kidnappings, Cuartas and beautiful women- Colombia. We bounced through Ipialis, pleasant Popoyan, crazy Cali and Pasto during our week in the country. I watched a 45 year-old salsa king tear up the dancefloor with his 23 year-old wife of 7 years, frequented the casinos on various occasions, and as always Jaret entertained with actions that shall only be revealed in person. Typical quotes included, "How do you feel about your personal development?", "Do you believe prayer can change the outcome of events?", and "Oh I forgot to tell you, I had my first wet dream in years last night!" We then popped back down to Quito for two final epic days together before I flew to El Salvador where I'm traveling for four days before returning home on Wednesday. Those final Quito days consisted of perusing the Old Town, splitting the Mitad Del Mundo, Gringolandia partying and of course Jaret fulfilling his lost bet obligation to wear just sandals, boxers and my Cuzco skimask for 15 minutes on the city streets.

I return home to the good ol' US of A in about 24 hours, so this will sadly be the final update from the road. The question I keep getting asked is, "Are you ready to go back to reality?" I started to think about that notion the other day, about the concept of home and the working world. I think that people have it backwards. While traveling is a removal from what's deemed to be "reality", in many ways it actually illuminates the inner-realities of the human condition. On the road and in hostels there's no performance reviews, no paid overtime, no long weekends. There's no defined schedule, no desired promotion, and most importantly, no bosses. I do exactly what my heart and mind tells me is most desirable at any given moment, with no skew of responsibility towards any elements of usual confinement. We are all equals when we throw on a backpack, sleep in 12-person dormitories and wait an extra day to shower because the water will be hot in the next town. Class, color and creed are only meaningful when you allow them to be, and on the road we feel an immediate connection to other backpackers regardless of such attributes. Removal from one's cultural comforts forces an openness and willingness to explore both internally and externally that cannot be induced to such extremes through any other method. Each day of traveling, I inherit new knowledge and expunge myself of subconscious stereotypes and misinformed assumptions. The more I know, the more I know just how much I don't know. For the past four months I've been able to act solely on personal intuition, and what is more real than that? While I'm extremely excited to return home to see you friends and loved ones, there's a bittersweet sadness to leaving the purest form of reality that I will ever know.

Lastly, I wrote a little ditty at the Puerta del Diablo yesterday about the people I've encountered on this trip... It's probably the best summary and conclusion I can give to these writings-

Lumberjacks, quacks and exogenous ex-pats
Hippie chicks wearing sacks spitting facts through braless racks
The whispered prayers of blackmagic soothsayers
Pueblo mayors holding impenetrable pocket pairs
Venemous almond scorpion stares
Alpaca stealers, bamboo peelers, lesbian acid dealers
Chicken bus cop-a-feelers
Librarians, agrarians, political contrarians
Astral travelers, cocaine dabblers, yarn unravelers
Undereducated youth, reluctant bearers of truth
Homeless men grinning vigor through a single golden-tooth
Irish fortune-tellers, Polish jungle-dwellers
Witch market candy sellers
Scuba instructors, cock-fight conductors
Teachers and lawyers, perverts and voyeurs
Masked shoe shiners, Ecuadorian ice climbers
Father and son complejo miners
Army commanders, former Pinochet bystanders
Argentinian cantors, Israeli salsa dancers
Scandinavian jugglers, Cuban-cigar smugglers
American Buddhists, Guatemalan nudists
Local news reporters, cooks for short-orders
Customs-paper sorters, hemp-necklace hoarders
Illegal profiteers falsely guarding sovereign borders
Priests, beasts, those betrothed to the deceased
Casino looters, English tutors
Massively fake Colombian hooters
Japanese tourists, Uruguayan florists
Dancing naked flags of Bolivian futbol purists
Gently echoed sighs of Chilean rabbis
Empty-palmed Mayans blinking dignity through cancelled eyes
All while sun and moon tango to control fickle skies
They said don't go there, to the foreign place you're bound
They said you'll get lost, but look what I've found
And each tells a story, of elation and strife
Each now interwoven
In this tapestry called Life.

Challenge the Assumptions,

Final Trip Statistics
Trip Mantra- "Tourists See, Travelers Seek."
Occupation Given at Final Hostel- Unicorn Hunter
Days- 110
Hot Showers- 29
Total Intercity Bus Rides- 63
Hours spent on intercity buses- 246
Oreos Consumed- Over 300
Facial Shaves- 2
Sticks of Deodorant Used- 1

Sunday, May 06, 2007

South American Adventures- Part 11: Buenos Aires & Uruguay

Hola amigos de Latacunga, Ecuador!

In my last email I referenced the need to describe my time in Buenos Aires with my brother. Let me just preface all descriptions by saying that in 12 nights in BA, I did not go to sleep once before 6am. They say NYC is "the city that never sleeps", I say BA is "the city that never sleeps nor runs out of delicious steaks". I got the best piece of ass all trip in that city, and it was sadly from a cow. Interpret that as you wish...

We arrived from Rosario on April 11 and shacked up in our hostel on Corrientes Avenue, the city's analogue to Broadway. We first decided to get a big beef dinner and went to the best restaurant in the area (Estancia), which happened to have a tango show going on upstairs for an extra 10%. We were in. Expecting some light dancing, we received far, far more. A 70 year-old showman, whom we dubbed "Johnny Crazylegs the Dancing Machine" led a group of young tango dancers through several routines while also speaking at least 8 languages, beating drums, telling jokes, milking the crowd, rodeo-style tap dancing and crooning ad nauseam. Just when we thought the show couldn't get any better, we saw a large woman entering through the hall playing a giant drum. My first thought was, "Holy shit, some hobo broke in from the streets." Oh no, this was the hired act; an Argentinian Mama Cass who smiled broadly to everyone and no one in particular. She sang and sweated her sagging breasts off, while diner participation hit an all-time high with spoon table-tapping and matador napkin waiving. Pretty much everyone in attendance was fully convinced that she'd consumed an absurd amount of crack before hitting the stage, and she did absolutely nothing to dispel such a rumor. A hell of a start to Buenos Aires...

Over the next 12 days we explored the various neighborhoods of the city- The lush gardens of Palermo, the brilliantly painted homes of La Boca, the stunning cemetery of Ricoleta where Evita is buried, and of course the wild nightlife of a city that awakens at 2am. A friend of Scott's hooked us up with some of BA's finest partyers, led by our boy Fernando aka Chiche aka La Pirata. We never fully found out why he was called The Pirate, but I'm pretty sure it's because he's an expert at swindling booty. We spent late nights exploring the great clubs like Pacha, Opera Bay, Museum, Asia de Cuba, and others. Many dances, smiles and laughs were had by all.

Perhaps the strangest night I've had on this trip occured when we headed 30 minutes outside the city to the "best Sunday night club around". Immediately upon arrival we realized we were among the trash of Buenos Aires, but the club interior was nice and the throbbing house rhythms were infectious. After 45 minutes of music though, the hanging TV screen was raised and the music faded... Everyone moved to the outskirts of the dancefloor, taking seats to observe the stage as if they knew exactly what was coming... Suddenly, a busty blond sauntered onstage in high heels and lingerie. "Take My Breath Away" from Top Gun pierced the stank club air, and my first thought was "She's not going to...." Oh yes, she was. After a few pathetic gyrations, she removed her top to reveal silicon-enhanced breasticles. Interesting. Suddenly, a large pony-tailed man walked onstage behind her, wearing an oversized black leather trenchcoat. Ummm, okay.

She walked towards the beast and removed the dead cow from his shoulders, revealing tighty-whitey underwear and nothing else. Scott, Israeli Doodee and I looked at each other with equal looks of "Is this really happening!?" She knelt down to face the Incredible Hulk's incredible hulk, and at that point the same thought ran through all of our heads simultaneously... "Not a chance." Oh, but how wrong we were. She pulled down this dude's jock strap to reveal a freakish 11-inch ramjam boner-nation. A collective gasp shuddered through the scattered crowd, and for the next 3 minutes they engaged in softcore faux sex ON STAGE. We were in a state of absolute shock. This was a regular nightclub we thought, not Marv Albert's chamber of love. Finally the curtains mercifully closed, and Bob Sinclair's club anthem "Hold On" screamed over the speakers. We were paralyzed with "what-just-happened-to-me"-ness, but everyone else sprinted onto the dancefloor and began shaking it up like nothing out of the ordinary had just happened! Where the hell were we?! If anything, they danced with more vigor, most likely to compensate for their newfound feelings of loathesome sexual inadequacy thanks to the trenchoat-wearing tripod... Definitely one of the weirdest and funniest things I've ever witnessed on the road.

In the subsequent nights we ate great dinners with new friends at the famed steakhouse Des Nivel and the hidden "878" lounge, enjoyed the social scene and chess games at our LimeHouse Hostel, went to the stadium to watch the biggest futbol match of the year between Boca and River, attended a beautiful Friday night Shabbat service led by our new friend Sheila, flew to Iguazu to see the INCREDIBLE Iguazu Falls (they put Niagra to shame), and watched playoff basketball while consuming 4 litre beers jugs with our buddy Murph at The Alamo Bar. Murph is a 40-something American who regaled us with stories of youthful drug consumption, women chasery and crafty law evasion. His opening line to me was, "I recorded with my band at Tuff Gong Studios (inside the former home of Bob Marley). You've probably heard of us, RKWP?" When I looked at him blank-faced, he answered incredulously, "Come on man, Rich Kids With Problems!" Sadly, he was dead serious. Mark it down dude, another classic character from the road.

Lastly, I was also able to do something while in BA that I had dreamed about for years. Each of us has those nostaligic handful of songs from our youth. We remember the exact setting and details of our first listen. For me, one of these songs is Jethro Tull's "Locomotive Breath." While on another long-drive with my dad to an 11 year-old AAU practice, the song came on the radio. I remember it as clear as day... he immediately sat up in his seat, turned up the volume, and looked me dead in the eyes. "Oh this is one of my all-time favorites!" I had no idea what the hell was occuring, but I knew the song had to be sweet and that my dad was suddenly driving about 35 mph over the speed limit. I dug the heavy bassline right away. The lyrical delivery was definitely cool, except for the fact that my dad sang the lyrics "Runs the all-time loser, headlong to his death" as if I was the all-time loser. He got especially juiced when shouting in my prepubescent face "His woman and his best friend, in bed and having fun".. and I'm pretty sure we went over 100mph when he howled "And the all-time winner, has got him by the balls!!!" while viscerally demonstrating a testicular grip and squeeze (sidenote: at that time, my balls were nowhere near that big). The flute solo was kickin though, especially the priceless "Ugggh" grunt, and seeing this all in person when they performed at Buenos Aires' Luna Park on April 20th was a special, special memory. If you get the chance to see them live, check out "The Tull" for sure.

After Scott and I had a brotherly depart, I headed by ferry on the Rio del Plata to Colonia, Uruguay for two days with a band of merry travelers from California, Germany, England and Australia. The beautiful colonial city lent itself to some pleasant perusing the first day, and after mis amigos left me solo I rented a motorbike the second day and bombed around the coastal city streets for hours. With raging music penetrating the ear drums, wind whipping my face and sun pelting the shoulders, I felt alive and free once again... Easy Rider style.

The next day I flew to Quito, Ecuador to meet up with my former Semester at Sea roommate, the legendary Jaret Martin. We have traveled this magnificent country together for the past 11 days, soaking in its splendor and regurgitating its unequivocal radness. Although I had my camera stolen somehow during my first day here, I can say with absolute conviction that this is my favorite country in South America thus far. Details to follow in the next installment...

Throughout my days in Argentina, I spent many hours on bus rides just listening to the sounds of my breath. In Guatemala at Las Piramides, whether during mediation or yoga, the breath was constantly emphasized as a focal point of self-control and power. It is so basic, so entrenched in every second of our physical existence, that I felt a compulsion to dig deeper to find something there. In symbiotic harmony with the ever-present heartbeat, the breath is the cyclical manifestation of the lifeforce that moves through each of us at every moment. But what could I take from this? I spent hours of frustration, meandering through thoughtways that made partial sense before I finally succumbed to complacency, resolving to spend my busrides focused on tuneage above all else. But in listening closely to the lyrics of Michael Franti's song "Speaking of Tongues", at one point he says, "...and that would be a shame, because the exhale is the name of the game." The line lingered on the mental treadmill for a few days, jogging through layers of latent lessons until a revelatory thunderstorm of thoughts busted through with unrelenting waves of mental sentences, providing the long-awaited answer to the question in question-

The breath is the perfect representation of the balances we naturally create through our daily actions. We are always both giving and accepting, but the measure and contents of these acts can vary greatly depending on the decisions we make. Inhalation is an act of positive consumption, actively providing us with the essential elements of existence. Because of this, when someone says "Just breathe", we immediately tell ourselves to inhale deeply. Most of our efforts are consistently focused on the inhale rather than the exhale; the consumption of added goods to our lives seems supremely significant. We place great value on the things we possess, the things that we take in, to make a tangible part of the our reality. Alleviation from troubling issues is felt by addition, by augmenting the body and spirit. We feel stress mounting, so we take a long, deep breath inward. We draw breath and our ribcage, in congruence with our possessive value, expands.

Through a lifestyle of capitalist competition, which I agree is the best economic system, the focus becomes production and consumption. Our actions revolve around the positive elements we desire to contribute to our lives... Family, love, material success, etc. We want to inhale these assumed providers of happiness. The only problem is that sometimes we concentrate so much on the inhalation, we lose sight of what we're forced to exhale in the process. Every intake of breath necessitates a responsive expulsion. The realization was that the same is true in life's pursuit of our individual goals. There is a realized gain AND loss through each of our actions, which breathing demonstrates to us during every second of every day.

Fortunately, the body expels waste product through the act of exhaling. But this same waste is utilized by the environmental elements around us for beneficial nutrition. Each time we exhale, we are equally giving off a piece of ourselves while contributing to the realized existence of others. So we must ask ourselves certain questions... Is the inhalation of a better salary worth the exhalation of a significant friendship? How will the exhalation of what I deem my life's waste affect the common good? Am I contributing trails of trash or waves of worthiness through my exhaling actions?... The breath reminds us to always value the inhale, but we must also remain cognizant of our exhale as well. The inhale gets the fame, but remember that the exhale's the name of the game.

I hope this email finds each of you filled with health, happiness and fulfillment.

Challenge the assumptions,

Key Trip Statistics
Days- 94
Showers with Heat- 27
Song of Choice- "Foot of Pride" by Bob Dylan. Take a lyrical ride.
Book Selection- "Global Mind Change" by Willis W. Harman
Occupation Given on Hostel Registrations- Sex-change Authorizer
Quote of Note- "True, deep, abiding love doesn't create the path for others, it lights it." Thanks to my mom for that one.
Random Person- Scott Manson