Travel Mercies: A Feel-Good Story

IMG_5519One of the givens from marathon travel is that you will lose, break and wear out things along the way.

We all do our best to avoid these losses, of course, but it is a challenge to keep track of all your wits, much less all your belongings, while on the road. When you do lose something, the outcome can range from mildly annoying to merely expensive or even borderline catastrophic.

In such moments, travel mercies can make all the difference.

What is a travel mercy? By our definition, a travel mercy is an act of random kindness by an individual or the universe that rescues us from a loss of something we value – property, time, money, maybe even our welfare.

Because we all need occasional reminders that strangers and the universe can be unexpectedly generous, we interrupt this South American travelogue to share four such mercies we have experienced since leaving home nearly three months ago.


Mercies in the Sand

Two of our mercies involve, of all things, sand.

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Cuenca’s skyline as pictured on the postcard chosen for Abby.

Doris sends postcards from the road to her granddaughter in the Netherlands, both to stay in touch from afar and also in hopes that, someday, these offerings from far-flung corners will help keep the memory of her peripatetic grandmother alive. Each card is chosen to illustrate exactly where Mimi and Papi (aka Partout) are. Doris always tries to include in the message some little insight about herself or Abby’s dad as a boy.

Imagine Doris’s disappointment, then, after she selected a postcard of scenic Cuenca, trekked halfway across the city to buy $3 in international stamps at the post office, trekked home to pen an Abby-specific message on the blank card, affixed the stamps, then trekked back across town to mail the card at the post office (mailboxes not being anywhere in evidence) – only to find the card had vanished.

Convinced the card could not have fallen from where she snugged it into her purse, steps were retraced, an AirBnB was scoured, brains were sprained trying to otherwise account for the disappearance but … nope. The card was gone. Since Doris had taken a photo of the postcard before setting off to mail it, she settled for second-best: an email to Abby relating the sad story of the lost message.

Days later, a bright green WhatsApp balloon from Abby’s mom Carole popped onto Doris’s cell phone screen. “Look what arrived!” the balloon announced.

It was the missing card.

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With a PS in an unfamiliar hand at the bottom:

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A travel mercy for sure.


The other mercy from the sands occurred in the Galapagos.

One fine morning, preparing to leave our boat for an excursion, Louis could not find his sunglasses, an essential on the water at the equator. High and low we searched (albeit not a long process on a 16-passenger boat) but, alas, no sunglasses. Mentally retracing our steps of the day before, we realized he had mostly likely forgotten them on a beach of deserted Isla Fernandina.

Learning of the loss, our on-board naturalist jumped on his radio, put out a lost-item SOS to other boats in the vicinity and broadcast our sailing itinerary. Aw, how thoughtful, we said to each other. Many hours later, our captain asked about the brand of the lost sunglasses. Gee, how sweet to take an interest, we thought. We couldn’t identify the brand, but we told him they hung from a distinctive cordón rojo (red cord)

The next morning, when we docked along with dozens of other returning Galapagos cruisers for the bus to the airport, the glasses were the last thing on our mind. At first, we didn’t even grasp why a crew member from another boat was weaving our way with a broad smile on his face. Then we saw his outstretched hand and recognized what he was holding. Yup, another travel mercy.

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Sometimes travel mercies come on cords


Anglophone Samaritan to the Rescue

You do not need to know a lot Spanish to know that any message with words that your scheduled flight for the next day “presenta una cancelacion de itinerario” is not good news.

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The staffing of this airport booth says it all about how easy it was to fly EasyFly

This particular message, arriving only three flights into our 21 of this winter, was especially problematic. The week the flight was scheduled to kick off was more tightly booked than we normally travel, and the flight itself was from Bogotá to a small town deep in Colombia’s coffee country. Transportation options were severely limited, and the small local airline we had chosen turned out not to have a customer service function.

After hours of vain efforts by telephone, email, Facebook, Twitter and frantic dances to the travel gods in an effort to replace the canceled flight with a practical substitute, there was nothing to do but trudge to Bogotá’s dingy domestic terminal and line up at the check-in counter with fingers crossed that Doris’s rusty Spanish was sufficient to secure seats on a flight that would get us to our destination somewhat as planned.

And then we met our travel mercy, Alex. A native Colombian who had lived in the States for many years, Alex spoke perfect English, had a kind heart and happened to be the passenger immediately in front of us in line. Overhearing our worried conversation, he introduced himself, asked for more details, credibly presented himself to the airline agent as our dear local friend, described our plight with convincing passion, secured us seats on the next flight and even negotiated a discount for our overweight bags before saying goodbye after our timely landing in the coffee triangle.

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A travel mercy helped deliver us here


The Mercy of McDonald’s

And then there was the mercy of McDonald’s. Yes, McDonald’s, the home of the golden arches.

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Scene of the McDonald’s travel mercy

Near one of our AirBnBs in Cuenca is a McDonald’s with a café that puts out respectable espressos from a high-class Italian espresso maker for 75 cents. We have taken more than one set of guests there just for the cultural experience.

That was how Louis came to leave his daypack – containing his Sony RX50 camera that makes Partout possible – on a chair in a McDonald’s that gets many hundreds of customers a day. So supercharged was he by the caffeine and the higher high of our friends’ arrival that the next thought he gave to his daypack and camera was at 2 am the next morning when he was jolted awake by the terrible dawning that he did not know where his daypack was. Which meant he did not know where his camera was. After desperately searching the apartment in the dark and retracing the previous days’ steps in his mind, he realized he had left the bag on a chair in McDonald’s 12 hours earlier.

Now, dear readers. Let’s all pause soberly for a moment and ponder the question: If you left a day pack containing a $1,200 camera on a chair in a fast food restaurant of any US city of 600,000 people, what would be your odds of recovering it?

Riiiiiight.  

Nonetheless, we were at the door when the McDonald’s opened a few hours later. A few steps from the door, a well-dressed man was leaning across the counter talking to an employee. Is the manager here? we asked him.

With the expression of a man bracing for a complaint, he straightened. “I am the manager,” he answered.

We left a mochillo here yesterday, we told him. A grey backpack. Had it been found?

His faint frown turned upside down. “SI!” he all but shouted, instantly turning on his heel, sprinting into the kitchen and returning in triumph, the lost pack – camera safe within – in hand.

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Recovered and ready for action again


Rounding Out the Score

Sadly, not every travel loss is redeemed by a travel mercy.

While on their way through two airports going home to the States, one set of visitors lost track of the box containing two Panama hats they had acquired with great joy while visiting us. That smiling lady at the top of the blog is demonstrating the art of weaving one of Ecuador’s unique exports at the home factory of Homero Ortega, where the couple had scored the ultimate Cuenca souvenir.

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Panama hats don’t come from Panama. A lot come from Cuenca, in boxes just like these

The box never turned up at the Cuenca or Quito airports, leading us to the unavoidable conclusion that some unscrupulous traveler or airline employee somewhere is likely chortling over the acquisition of two very fine hats at no cost of their own.

Every story does not have a happy ending, but we treasure the ones that do. By our trip count, the hat-nappers would be one bad apple from a barrel of five situations that could have ended less successfully. Disappointed as we are for our guests, that’s not a bad report card on the goodness of strangers and the random mercies that travel can shower on us.

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We cherish our travel mercies in whatever form they take, friendly smiles included


Tips from the Partout toolbox. We have learned not to underestimate the power of social communications to substitute for travel mercies when things go amiss on the road, Twitter in particular. Twitter was the only way Doris ever made contact with a human at not-so-easy EasyFly over the canceled coffee country flight. (Granted, it took them 24 hours to respond, but at least she reached them.) Twitter was also the only way she was able reach Sixt in Denver last year about an item left behind in a car rental. (Their phones were not answered.) Twitter was also the way friends got money refunded by AirBnB after a hurricane complicated their travel plans a couple years ago. When travel angels do not materialize at times of loss, having a Twitter handle and the know-how (and data on the road) to use it can be an effective fallback.

COMING SOON! Never Say Never

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ode to the Galapagos (Illustrated)

Penguin ignuanaHow do we love thee, Galapagos? After a week on land and sea (and with apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning), let us count the ways.


For Your Monsters

We love you for your prehistoric monsters. For tortoises the size of boulders, marine iguanas so thick underfoot we risk stepping on them, land iguanas that surely were models for every celluloid Godzilla that ever terrorized Manhattan or Tokyo.
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Mating
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Threesome

Even monsters seem to enjoy soaking up rays with their BFFs


For Your Marine Life

We love you for your curious sea turtles who swim up to our noses, your schools of fish that do not scatter when we join them in the water, your countless contented sea lions nursing, napping in the sun and playing with our feet in the shallows.

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For Your Birds

Though birders we are not, we love you for your tuxedoed penguins and your coral flamingoes, for your wee little Darwin finches and thick wingless cormorants and for the countless pelicans that somehow manage to look far more impressive in your islands than when they do when stalking outdoor diners in Southern California.
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We admire you for the red bling your frigate birds flaunt to woo the ladies and for the blue feet your boobies dance upon for the same purpose.
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Boobies

And we adore your downy chicks and the way mamas and papas keep sitting them long after they emerge from their shells.
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Babies

With only 283 Galapagos hawks left in the wild, we especially love that we spotted at least half a dozen of them perched in trees and on rocks, soaring on updrafts and  breakfasting on the less fortunate in the food chain.
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For Your Sallys

Even your crabs win our hearts. Consider the Sally Lightfoot. In this species, females flout the general rule that males in the creature world are more colorful than females. When predators bear down, these Sallys stay put while the young (and the dull males) scatter and live to produce new generations.

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A colorful martyr in waiting


For Your Flora

We love you, Galapagos, for your adaptive flora – for the way your endemic scalesia tree develops white bark to cool itself in the summer and drops its leaves to reduce its need for water in the dry spell ahead. We are awed by cactuses with trunks like trees and even more awed to learn they are ancients who survived their youth by growing bark to prevent iguanas from munching them to death.

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The young cactus on the left doesn’t have much of a future 


For Your Rains

We love you for sprinkling us with a cooling rain that draws beasts out of the grasses and into our path, where they take their half in the middle and we are the second-class citizens stepping into the mud to keep out of their way.

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BEEP-BEEP!


For Your Landscape

We love your beaches of hardened lava or red, black or white sands, your other-worldly volcanic skylines and your calderas that sometimes nest one after another inside other calderas like mammoth turduckens in stone.

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Daphne Minor in view from the tip of Santiago


For Your Endurance

We love you for being the seed from which a young and passionate man named Charles Darwin nurtured a theory that forever changed humankind’s understanding of how earth’s species (including our own) originated and for today’s young and passionate men who were born on these islands, studied “on the continent” in Ecuador’s universities and came home to teach awestruck visitors like us.

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Every cruise has its naturalist. Eduardo was ours on the Nemo III.

And we especially love you for being so ferociously protected by the Ecuadorian government and national park service that when we anchor where Darwin anchored and maybe even walk among tortoises that walked here when Darwin walked, we see very much what Darwin saw.


For the Memories

At the end of each long day of discovery, we love your waters for rocking us to sleep in our live-aboard home, and then waking us up, hungry for more.
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Tips from the Partout toolbox: Age still pulls some privileges, at least in South America, where it appears common for pre-boarding privileges to be extended to travelers 65 years and older. We have yet to hear the policy announced in the boarding area but, if the priority boarding sign at the gate includes an icon of a man leaning on a cane, we are warmly welcomed among the queue of babes in arms and semi-mobile flyers. Able-bodied though we are, we enjoy having a little extra time to board (especially when there is no jetway) and avoiding the crush of general boarding.

COMING SOON! Travel Mercies and Other Minor Miracles

 

Hoofing in the Footprints of Darwin

For a lot of reasons, we decided to combine a cruise of the Galapagos with a land visit. As a result, we will end up spending a week in the archipelago – three nights on the commercial hub of Santa Cruz, four nights on a 16-passenger sailing catamaran.

One of the biggest motivators to spend time on land was to see giant tortoises in the wild. We also wanted to check out the city of Puerto Ayora, which until the 1980s did not even have a paved street but now is bulging bars and restaurants, jewelry and artisan shops, and all manner of other temptations. Pto Ayora is also home to the Charles Darwin Foundation, which has been working for 60 years to preserve the environment in and around the Galapagos.

We started our one full touring day at the fish market, where a seal and pelicans begged for scraps from the fish mongers, and a bold iguana all but dove into the carcass of a shark to cadge breakfast.

Processed with MOLDIVAfter that, it was off to the Darwin Foundation, which dramatically illustrates the problem of plastics in the oceans with these visuals.

Then it was into a taxi to visit a couple of collapsed volcanoes, slog through a lava  tunnel and, finally make the acquaintance of a more than a few tortoises, two of them mating. All we can say about that is that it is noisy, and tortoises are slow at everything they do!

We closed our land trip with dinner under the stars on restaurant row, a la Santa Cruz.
Processed with MOLDIVWith our boat leaving shortly for the internet-less high seas, we have to make this one over and out. Tips from the Partout toolbox next time. Back in a few days with the aquatic part of our Galapagos adventure.
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COMING SOON! Sailing in the Wake of Darwin

Machu Picchu in the Clear and the Fog

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Until our recent trip, Louis was part of a large, sad cohort of tourists to Peru: People who get to Machu Picchu and never see the ruins because of the weather.

Just a week before our visit, our guide told us, there were five straight days when the clouds never lifted and the rain never stopped. He and tourists huddled at a viewpoint, sometimes for hours, waiting for a break long enough for visitors to snap at least one iconic shot. That would have been Louis when he was there on a story in the 2000s.

The picture at the top would be Louis in 2020. Although we made our pilgrimage in the country’s famously rainy season, a time when the hillsides have been known to slide across and block the site’s essential rail access, the only clouds we encountered were the ones photographers covet for their atmospheric shadows, and nary a raindrop fell. This produced some memorable photo opps for Louis and Partout.

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Atmospheric clouds above the river Urabamba, Machu Picchu’s water source

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A peekaboo view with wisps overhead

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Proof there is still life on the mountaintop


The 2.5-Hour Tour that Lasted 5.0

So smashing was the weather that our 2.5-hour guided tour lasted 5 hours. At one point, we all sprawled on the grass in the sunshine, Machu Picchu stretching just beyond our toes, Paul the guide regaling us with the site’s history, or at least his version of it.

He described the “neighborhoods” of the site and who lived where (e.g., priests, nobles, teachers, “chosen women”).

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Machu Picchu was never finished, but it still held 91 residences, 8 temples and 4 observatories for its estimated 400 permanent residents plus transient workers 

He explained things like how the Incas thatched their roofs, secured their doors, aligned their windows for solstices and canted their dry-stack walls 7%-13% to make them earthquake-proof.

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Thatch-freshening took place every five years 

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The anti-seismic angle clearly worked

He told us about the incalculable effort it took to deforest the mountaintop and lay structural foundations (20 years), to install underground drainage systems (180 of them) and terrace for walking and farming.

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Narrow terraces were for walking, wide ones for planting

He assured us that, in addition to enjoying weather karma, we were enjoying crowd karma. On a typical day, now that the site is on everyone’s UNESCO bucket list, there are days when it’s hard to see the scenery for the selfie-takers. We had it almost to ourselves.

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Not more than 50 people in sight. Normally, there are thousands.


The Remaining Fog

Still, even on a clear day, it turned out, a lot of Machu Picchu’s history remains a bit foggy.

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Did they or not?

What were those women chosen for? And what about human sacrifice? Did they or didn’t they? Our licensed guide at Machu Picchu insisted tales of Inca sacrifice are just a case of bad publicity, but our licensed guide at Koricancha in Cusco – the most important temple of the Inca empire – said there are mummies with the wounds to confirm the Incas did sacrifice children.

Or what in the world motivated those imperialists to spend 50 years erecting walls and buildings with perfectly fitted stones the size of sofa sections? Our MP guide waxed on about the sacred nature of the site. “Why did they build on top of a mountain with no water and constant landslides? To be closer to God,” Paul told us. Meanwhile, back in Cusco, our temple guide said the mountaintop development was primarily a retreat for the nobility.

And then there is the Inca civilization itself. Raise your hand if you learned in school that South America was home to just three civilizations before the Spanish arrived: the Mayans in the Yucatan, the Aztecs in central Mexico and the Incas of Machu Picchu fame? That would be us.

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Dear friends Debbie and Barry shared the road to Machu Picchu and Paul’s tutelage with us 

Yet the Incas lasted in their glory barely a hundred years, the shortest-lived empire in world history, and they were highly derivative. Yes, they cobbled together the biggest dynasty on earth for its time (imagine Russia’s Bolsheviks ruling from St. Petersburg to Cairo to picture the scale), but they did not so much found a civilization as build one on their predecessors’ foundations, some quite advanced. The forerunning Tiwanaku, for example, had set up shop at one end of Lake Titicaca hundreds of years BC and, in their glory, built a capital city that featured a seven-layer pyramid and has been called one of the lost wonders of the ancient world.

Who cares? Sunny, rainy, foggy or clear, Machu Picchu is a marvel of a ruin, and we were all happy we arose at 4 am to take a 90-minute car shuttle, followed by a 90-minute train ride, succeeded by a 25-minute bus ride, and and then climbed the 162 floors (thank you, Fitbit) it took to get there.

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Paul was also a crack photographer


Tips from the Partout toolbox: Some US websites will not allow access by visitors using browsers in foreign countries. Social Security, Medicare, the portal for Doris’s physician group, even a consumer survey have refused to allow us to connect at one time or another. Our solution is a free VPN (virtual private network) that fools these sites into thinking we are in the States. There are many out there, but Doris likes TunnelBear because it is so satisfying to watch the little bear tunnel out of her foreign location and pop up in the US. Downloading one of these before leaving on an international trip may be the difference between accessing needed information from the road and not.

COMING SOON! Sailing in Darwin’s Wake

Peru of the Missing Thing

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When we are all over the place in the world, the observations that become our Partout blogs typically come to us easily and spontaneously. Between ourselves, we call these themes “the thing.” (That’s TV talk; newsprint Doris would be more inclined to call them “the hook” or “the angle,” but she is happy to learn new tricks.)

Finding “the thing” is a source of constant pleasure for us, old newsies that we are. We enjoy viewing our destinations through the familiar journalistic lens that seeks what is new, different, illuminating and even entertaining. Camel races in Dubai, for example, had “the thing” written all over them.

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Camels are actually distant relatives of the vicuñas we saw in Peru

But hunt though we did, Peru refused to yield up the thing. Of course, we were dazzled, educated and feasted. We gasped and gawked and all the rest. But nothing, isolated or combined, ever grabbed us as the story we had to share.


Transportation? No.

We considered transportation. Having traveled by reed boat on Lake Titicaca and to Cuzco by the world’s highest regularly scheduled train, “trains, planes and automobiles” had a bit of the thing going for them. But who hasn’t been on trains, planes and automobiles, even unusual ones? Scratch that.

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It’s not every day we are rowed between floating islands in reed boats, but that wasn’t enough to make transportation the thing

Train views

Inside and outside the observation car of our PeruRail transport between Puno and Cuzco we saw a lot of things but not THE thing


Construction? Meh.

Construction was a stronger candidate. Besides speaking to Doris’s trademark Chix with Bricks past, we saw building projects in Peru like none we had ever seen before.

In Arequipa, we learned that only a generation ago, all the white surfaces that have made Peru’s second-largest metropolis known as “the white city” were brightly colored in red, blue and yellow. An inventive mayor decreed that all the color be stripped off to give the city a unique marketing hook. It worked.

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Arequipa is known for flamboyant architecture. A guide told us the old city was once as colorful as a Provençal tablecloth but were stripped to basic white by a mayor who thought the all-white theme might make more tourism. True or not, the “white city” is a visitor magnet.

On Lake Titicaca, there were the millenniums-old terraces on the natural island of Tarquile and the floating islands of Uros, marvels of reed construction that residents rebuild from their roots up every five years.

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Our guide said these terraces on the natural island of Tarquile are 3,000 years old

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The men at the top are excavating reed roots to serve as island foundations (lower left); the boaters are transporting cut reeds to refresh the surface of islands they have already built. The islands don’t float away because the islanders anchor them. If they want to move, they just weigh anchors and float to a new spot.

And, of course, there was Machu Picchu, the Inca sanctuary of stones like Brobdingnagian LEGO blocks, still standing strong more than 500 years and countless earthquakes later. What a professional boom that 50-year project was, requiring architects, astronomers, agricultural and civil engineers, geologists and more.

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We knew the mortarless walls of the Incas were an architectural wonder but never realized they were based on a system of interlocking blocks

Also on the theme of construction, albeit grimmer, were what the locals call “invasions”: pop-up communities where impoverished Peruanos claim a scrap of land too undesirable for anyone to want, erect a shelter and squat – without electricity or running water – until they can claim ownership. We saw them almost everywhere we went.

Invasions

The sight of housing spilling down hillsides in the background may be photogenic to tourists but is often a sign of poverty and deprivation above Peruvian cities, including Cuzco


Pachamama? Naw.

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That’s Pachamama in the middle (sort of)

Pachamama was another possibility. In Inca legend, Pachamama (or Mama Pacha) was a fertility goddess, mother of the moon goddess and sun god (and maybe his wife, too). Because she was embodied in mountains, she was also inseparable from Machu Picchu. For all the colonialization and Catholic conversion, she remains today the Mother Earth of the Andes. During our Peruvian blitz, we heard about her in song and story and saw her in art and architecture. More subtly, we glimpsed her enduring importance in the innumerable public admonishments around using plastic containers, paper towels, straws of all kind, even paper receipts from ATM machines. She is definitely the thing for Andean cultures; she just didn’t stick as ours.


In Lieu of a Thing, Everything

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Yummy but not the thing

In the end, we decided that maybe our aperture was too narrow. In Peru, perhaps, there are too many things for a single “thing.” The thing about Peru was everything: timeless culture, astonishing artifacts, breathtaking landscape, enduring mysticism, lively cities, old-world luxury, gastronomic food.

Fortunately, even when we do not have a thing, we do have the Thing Meister: Louis and his camera. He may not have caught everything, but he captured many things that taken together, might just be the thing. Here are a few of our favorites.

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A kitchen stove that once fed nuns

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Spinning as it has been done on Lake Titicaca for millennia

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Flamingoes on the Peruvian Altiplano

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Color as it used to fill old Arequipa

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A window into the past on PeruRail

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Machu Picchu in the clear 


Your Thing?

Please! If you beat us to Peru (as so many of you did), let us know if and where you spotted the thing. Just hit “Comment” and share with us all.

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The Thing Meister on the other side of the lens


Tips from the Partout toolbox: Anyone who travels internationally knows the dismay of being faced with a screen filled with indecipherable language. Especially when undertaking vital chores like checking into flights, being abandoned to the local tongue can be frustrating and a little scary. Our fix is to set Google as our browser whenever nothing but English will do. Unlike Safari (the default on our Apple devices), Google automatically translates to English, saving us time and mistakes.

COMING SOON! Machu Picchu Beyond What Meets the Eye

 

 

Potty Talk

IMG_9039Let’s talk toilets.

After three years of marathon travel, we are here to tell you that all toilets are not created equal worldwide, and we are not just talking about how they look and flush.

They are housed differently and decorated differently. Toilet paper is provided differently (or not at all) and flushed/tossed differently. Some cultures take their bathrooms seriously; others find them a source of humor. Toilets are not only universal and functional, it turns out. Toilets are photo opps.

For today’s Partout, we interrupt our South American idyll to plumb potties we have known and shot.


Teaching Toilets, Pretty Potties

In some locations, public toilets are treated as canvases for public art.

Surely that is the case in Groningen, the Netherlands. What else would explain these athletes eternally cavorting around this public potty along one of the city’s main canals? (Speak up, Dutch readers!)
Amsterdam december 2015Meanwhile, in Colombia’s coffee country on the other side of the pond, the blank wall of this public toilet obviously proved irresistible for extending the splendors of the Andes and its bird life.
IMG_0227Toilets can be educational, too.

During its dire water shortage, Cape Town, South Africa, offered many water conservation lessons, including a potty ditty plastered in toilet stalls.
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For its part, the United Arab Emerates WC supplied some little-known nuggets to enlighten stall-sitters. (Thank you, IML Group, for making the difference.)
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Speaking of Chinese emperors, Louis captured this helpful lesson years ago in Chendu.

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Greek island restrooms won the sweepstakes with us for consistently providing more fashionable interiors than any we had ever seen elsewhere. In three weeks on more islands than we can remember, it seemed no head was too humble for a flourish of art, greenery or decorate style.

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This is not a particularly good example but take our word for it: In the Greek islands, public restrooms are a thing of beauty

Some loos even offer views. That selfie at the top of the blog? It was taken of us at the mirror of a washroom in Mexico City where a restaurant strategically positioned the glass to provide a reflected view of the skyline to handwashers.
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Amusing Loos, Confusing Loos

Who would have thought of a potty stop as a comedic interlude to travel? And yet they do.

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The comic sign designers invariably seem to be women. These were in Ecuador.

They also baffle.

Doris spent her first week in Oman trying to figure out what to do with the faucet and hose that hung from the walls of public bathrooms. Only when she got the courage to ask another tourist in the opera house in Muscat did she learn the contraption was a “bum gun” to be used for … well, the words speak for themselves.
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And then there was the WC decor in a prominent Cuenca restaurant we visited last week with visiting Debbie and Barry of Long Island.

Louis emerged for a posprandial potty stop with this photo from the men’s room.
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Doris emerged with this one.
IMG_0367We don’t even want to begin plumbing the thinking behind gasoline nozzels in the men’s room and sewing machines in the women’s, but it definitely illustrates why it is important never to leave your cell phone at the table when heading to the toilet.


Let’s Talk Toilet Paper

Nothing but nothing, however, gets the creative juices of toilet owners going like the task of instructing/warning/admonishing and otherwise begging visitors to their porcelain gods to please, please, please not flush the toilet paper.

We cannot begin to do justice to their creativity, but here are a few illustrations.

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(Top): “There was a drunk on a bus…. Now that I have your attention, deposit the toilet paper in the wastebasket.” (Bottom) “Gentlemen: Please stand closer to the urinal. Your thingy is no doubt shorter than you like to believe” (Thanks to Robert Verge for that  translation. Google did not want us to know quite so much!)

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Even the normally reserved Provençal French get into the act with goldfish and telephone bills, bilingually no less.
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No Place Like Home

Alas, there is a sad PS to our globe-trotting washroom tours.

In all our travels, no matter how far and no matter how underdeveloped or poverty-stricken the destination, we never, ever, anywhere, encounter public bathrooms as dirty and derelict as the ones we routinely find back home. It is the rare water closet abroad that is not a model of good hygiene, pride of place, respect for customers and plain old good taste. Whether amused, bemused, educated or simply relieved, we leave them thinking well of our foreign hosts. Coming home, we often shudder at the impressions visitors to the United States must take home from their potty stops.

Toilets talk. America’s could use a language lesson!


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Hand-crafted toilet paper holder in Cuenca


Tips from the Partout toolbox: Speaking of the multi-purposes of cell phones, ours hold scans of our passport photo pages. The scans are as good as the real thing for  identification purposes other than flights, which enables us to leave the essential documents themselves safely behind in hotel safes or locked suitcases in our AirBnBs.

COMING SOON! On the Trail of Incas

Culture Shocked (Again)

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We’ve all seen the cartoons featuring hairless little space aliens freshly landed on earth trying to figure out earthling civilization based on artifacts like a set of giant golden arches.

In Cuenca, we sometimes feel like space aliens.

This was driven home most recently attending our third winter revel in three weeks. The latest (and last for a while) was on January 6, Epiphany on most Christian calendars but Day of the Innocents in Cuenca even though Christian churches normally commemorate King Herod’s legendary butchery of little boys on December 28.

Got that? No matter. The point is that any correspondence between any religious observance and what went on in the streets of Cuenca on January 6 was purely coincidental. This was Halloween meets Stephen Colbert. In drag. An exercise in public satire in which thousands of citizens dress up to skewer the absurdities of the past year and tens of thousands more citizens line the streets to cheer the action. Imagine a Macy’s Parade with nothing but balloons on the order of the UK’s baby Trump send-up and you get the picture.

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A sliver of the crowd on hand for the very serious Day of the Innocents fun

With three holiday celebrations and many hours of grilling locals now under our belts, we are here to tell you that Ecuadorians take their holiday revelry seriously, by which we mean they embrace the festivities in high spirits but also as an opportunity for informed and civil political commentary.

Right. Informed and civil political commentary, paraded in the streets. We are definitely on another planet.


Even as space aliens, we found some of the satire on parade broad and universal enough to be understandable.

There were, for example, the barefoot and pregnant paraders marching behind a banner that read “The ‘Privileges’ of Being a Woman” (emphasis on the quotes around “privileges”) while men with bullhorns wove among them bellowing, “What’s the problem, ladies? You get to go to work! Take care of the children! Cook for your husbands!”

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Note the Christian cross in this parody of women’s privileges

Even without the label “Tele Mentira” (“TV Lies”), Pinocchio with a car-length nose and the message, “Ecuadorians! Everything is good!” was only too recognizable as a lampoon of post-fact journalism. To reinforce the fakery theme, fake TV reporters ran into the crowds with fake TV cameras and microphones to conduct inane fake interviews with the very real spectators.
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Police violence (against students and indigenous populations) was another readily recognizable theme and, along with anti-IMF sentiments, proof perfect that Cuencanos take their parade of ideas to heart.

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Even nice Canada came under fire.


Other exhibitions were a bit more inscrutable.

We understood the sarcasm about natural gas providers who failed to deliver gas during last autumn’s civil unrest (“Muchas Gracias, Gaseros,” the banner read). After all, they left the country without hot water or cooking fuel for weeks.

But what was the connection with the gringa flashing her nether regions in the same “Gringitos Locos” (“crazy little gringos”) entry?

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Whatever the connection, this gringa was very popular with the crowd

Likewise, we could get the connection of “Caballeros de la Noche” (Dark Knights) ahead of a bunch of Batmen and Jokers, but why were they followed by Batwomen sweeping the streets with push brooms?
moldiv-003-copy.jpgIt wasn’t hard to figure out the link between indigenous dancers and the Spanish sailing ship float accompanied by conquistadors (“invaders” in these parts).

But what was the significance of native Americans (“indigenous North Americans” around here)?

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Doris’s efforts to connect with her indigenous American roots did not go so well.

Also befuddling: a dazzling golden goddess (unless she was something else) and fabulous feathered birds. No matter, they provided Louis with some very happy clicks.
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Crowd control and conduct were also a bit other-worldly to us. Essentially, anything went. Louis could stand in the middle of the street busily shooting to his heart’s content while spectators of all ages dashed into the action and the photos.IMG_7592

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Definitely a Yankees fan


Being in Spanish school the last couple weeks has given us easy access to native interpreters to cu through our alien fog. On New Year’s Eve, for example, we were surprised and curious about the complete lack of public drinking. The answer: New Year’s is a family celebration. If grandparents are alive, it is specifically a celebration that they lived another year. What’s more, Ecuador has strict laws against public drinking. End result: New Year celebrations that are not only serious but sober.

In the end, confusion and its resolution have been part of the holiday fun for us. Doris never wanted to come to South America. Her stock answer to Louis’s relentless prodding that she “needed” to see SA was: “I grew up and lived in Spanish colonies! I don’t need to travel to them to know what they are like!” Being culture shocked is evidence that she (and we) are learning better. South America is no more Spain than New York City is Amsterdam or Massachusetts is England.

For us space aliens, that makes every day a new inter-planetary landing.

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A reveler at sunset on the Day of the Innocents with the Church of San Blas in the background


From the Partout toolbox: Pop quiz time, fellow travelers! Do you know the three-digit emergency number for the foreign country you most recently visited? You know, the 9-1-1 of, say, France or Australia or Qatar? Those three little numbers can be the literal difference between life and death on the road, but we have yet to stay in an AirBnB and  house exchange where the number is front and center in the hosting notes. Solution? Look up your destination’s emergency code before you hit the road and, like the Mastercard of old, don’t leave home without it.

COMING SOON! Let’s Talk Toilets