So Much for Tarzan

Arty palmWe all grow up with images of the rainforest. Whether we got them from Tarzan, Tintin or Rudyard Kipling, Harrison Ford going mad on the mosquito coast or dog-eared National Geographics from our childhoods, the tropical rainforest – like the great plains of Africa – is woven so deeply into literature, film and news that it seems easy to picture.

And then, if we are lucky or determined, we get there one day, and the deep jungle of the tropics turns out to be something else altogether.

At least that is what happened to Partout after we flew 40 minutes from Quito to Coca, clambered into a motorized canoe, zipped down the Napo River for nearly two hours, trudged almost a mile through bogs to a shallow creek, boarded a canoe, were paddled to and across a lake and finally arrived at our digs, an eco-lodge in a rainforest preserve deep in the Amazonian jungle of Ecuador.

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The road less traveled

We were armed with insect repellent, sunscreen and a lifetime of images that prepared us to be swarmed by butterflies (on the light side) or consumed by piranhas (on the dark one), all while running the risk of being squeezed to death by an anaconda or snapped in two by a cayman.

Silly, Hollywooded us!

As one fellow member of the merry sixsome assigned to our pair of guides marveled, “When I went to Africa, it was pretty much like I always imagined. This is nothing like I imagined!”

Despite its namesake rain, the rainforest turned out to be surprisingly free of mosquitos, and sunscreen was never needed on the jungle floor, where light rarely penetrates. In our imaginations, the Amazon was full of peril – man-eating fish, lethal snakes, frogs that could kill us on contact. In reality, our guides told us, caymans mostly just lay in the mud with their big mouths open, waiting for a fish to swim in. As for swarms, the only ones that materialized were ants (army and angry leaf cutters).

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The piranha is toothy but man-eating only in the most extreme and unlikely of circumstances

In the end, the Amazon jungle felt much more benign to us humans than the African savannah. On safari in Africa, idiots who step out of their touring cars can and do become breakfast up the food chain. In the deep jungle of Ecuador, humans are pretty much at the top of the chain; it is the small things that live in constant danger.

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Butterfly as breakfast


In fact, perhaps the greatest surprise of the deep jungle was that wildlife is mostly small, even microscopic, and seldom dense in numbers. “What is rare is common and what is common is rare” is how our naturalist guide put it. The rainforest might be full of tarantulas but, in four nights, we saw just one. At the same time, Ecuador’s basin is home to more than 600 bird species, yet we could trek an hour or more through the tangle without spotting a single feather.

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The only tarantula we saw was on a railing outside our room


It turns out lush is not the same as fertile. The rainforest is extravagantly, wildly lush.  The vegetation can so dense it might as well be pitch dark for all the likelihood we could have found our way out. There is good reason the history of South American exploration includes a long trail of adventurer footprints that went into the deep and never emerged.

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Unguided, this would have been the end of us


But lush does not necessarily nurture. The soil is thin, the predators many and the competition for survival ferocious, fostering mind-boggling adaptations. Trees grow thorns and “walk,” changing ground over time, to protect themselves. Birds build nests around wasp nests to recruit armed guards for their young, termites build fake nests to fake out predators, cicadas lay eggs in what looks like spit to make the offspring look unappetizing.

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Thorny tree, spitty cicada eggs, colorful snail eggs


There is no orchid-blossom season, our naturalist told us, because no orchid wants to bloom when all the others are blooming; doing so would just reduce the chance of attracting a pollinator. One wily orchid produces blossoms that look so much like bees that bees have been known try to mate them. In search of nutrients, trees grow surface roots that snake so far from their trunks we could not see the ends of them.

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That’s a tree root our intrepid guides are standing beside

On the African savannah, it is wildlife that is elephantine – big game, finite in number even when abundant and all the varieties reasonably recognizable; plant life is relatively sparse. In the Amazonian rainforest, it is the trees, plants and mushrooms that rule, along with the insects that live off them. Kapok trees may tower like redwoods and strangler vines do hug trees to death, but bigger is not necessarily better in the battle for resources.

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Strangler vine hugging its prey to the death of both of them on the forest floor

Ultimately, the jungle is a Lilliputian cosmos teeming with finger-sized life so infinite in variety that new species are still being identified every day. Without the hawk eyes of our guides, we would have missed or mistaken just about every wild thing we passed. We sure would not have recognized the cordyseps that thrives by a zombie alchemy in which it invades the body of its prey and transforms it into mold.

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Exquisite (and exquisitely photographed by LDG) but teensy weensy shield beetle


In the end, the rainforest turned out to be a sensory feast where vision took the back seat to sensation and sound. Bird calls, of course, but also the 6 pm cicada whose chirp as sunset approaches is the time clock of jungle life, howler monkeys with cries like motors, frogs that bark, rainfall as loud as thunder. And, often, gliding through ancient creeks in a dawn fog, utter and complete silence.

Lake in mist


As for Tarzan. . . . That swinging-on-the-vine thing? More Hollywood. A native might shimmy up one to get bearings if lost in the forest, we were told, but only if there was no better option. A typical vine might not bear the weight of a child, much less the archetypal ape man.
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FROM THE PARTOUT TOOLBOX
Leaf cutter

The childhood phrase “ants in the pants” took on new meaning when Louis did not watch where he was stepping our last day in the jungle and parked himself on a leaf cutter anthill. Within seconds, ants were up his pants and in them, in his boots, under his shirt and on his neck. Being able to strip quickly in public while hopping from foot to foot turns out to be a key jungle survival skill.

TOP TIP:
Never allow yourself to laugh so hard you miss the photo opp that may never come again.

 


STILL COMING SOON: Campaigns to Make US Politics Look Good

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Home sweet home after a hard day in the deep jungle

 

 

 

 

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Jewels of the Crown (and Others)

villa.jpgAs faithful followers of Partout know, traveling South America has piqued our interest in the question of “what did the Spanish do for South America besides introducing the Inquisition, extinguishing civilizations, plundering the natural resources, etc.?”

One defensible answer might be its introduction of well-ordered street grids, people-friendly central plazas and squares, dazzling churches and chapels, romantic balconies and and courtyards, and extravagant art to fill them. To our Western eyes, at least, these are lovely.

What has been eye-opening for these same Western eyes is that much of this beauty is not actually Spanish or colonial at all, and that the handiwork itself often came from the hands of pre-Colombian peoples, not the interlopers.


The street in the photo below is definitely colonial (minus the street lights and mural). We know that because the buildings have no windows, and that was the signature feature of a Spanish colonial home in the 1600s.
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But it was the Moors of North Africa who introduced arches, geometric design and shaded interior courtyards with splashing water to Spain and thus they who bequeathed arches, geometric ornamentation and leafy courtyards on New Spain.
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Other flourishes that strike us outsiders as “colonial” turn out to date from long after the colonial period. Cuenca’s iconic “new” cathedral was begun in 1885, designed by an Alsatian monk and not completed until 1975. The signature blue tiles of its domes were imported from Czechoslovakia and its exterior pink marble from Italy.
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Cuencans of the early 20th century also embraced French architecture with a passion, stamping a distinctive European feel on many streets that has nothing at all to do with the Spanish.
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Meanwhile, up north in Quito, the neo-Gothic Basilica del Voto Nacional would not look out of place in any medieval French market town except that its construction began in 1926 and its gargoyles are iguanas and armadillos.
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And, deep under the earth across the border in Zipaquira, Colombia, one of only three underground salt churches in the world was shaped not by the Spanish but by local salt miners in the 1950s on a site that had been mined since the 5th century by the pre-Columbia’s Muiscas.

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The underground cathedral, where Mass is held on Sundays, depicts the stations of the Cross in salt


All the same, there also endure many decidedly colonial Spanish influences, and they can seem the stuff of fairy tales.

It is hard to imagine a time when there was no such thing as UNESCO World Heritage sites yet it was only in 1978 that the international program began, and it is because of a Spanish church that Quito was the first city in the world given the UNESCO World Heritage seal of approval.

The Jesuits were the last of four Catholic orders to evangelize what is now Ecuador. The crown said there was no land left in Quito for the late-comers so they would have to make do with converting the countryside. The order dutifully headed to the sticks. There, in the great tradition of don’t get mad get even, the brothers managed to become so rich they came back to Quito and bought up an entire city block. The next 160 years went to building Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesus, a baroque splendor gilded from floor through ceiling with 23-karat gold leaf and today filled with art, detail and the remains of a former president.
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Elsewhere, the founder of Tunja, Colombia, was a devotee of Mary mother of Jesus. In the 1570s, he financed a chapel in her honor within the exquisite Templo de Santo Domingo, now all but lost in a teeming university city of little other distinction. Suárez Rendón’s Capilla del Rosario is a wonder of carved wooden columns painted deep crimson and gold-plated with flowers. Elsewhere in the church, transporting frescoes are decidedly Spanish despite the occasional pre-Columbian godhead.
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Rendón and his fellow conquistador, Don Juan de Vargas, also left a trail of exotic wild animals and Greek mythology on their ceilings, the likes of which are found nowhere else in South America or maybe Spain itself. They even paved pathways in fossils.
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And then there are the haciendas, the estates of invaders who settled and farmed rather than mining and warring. Ecuador, which didn’t have much in the way of mineral wealth, is peppered with these grand houses brimming with history, some of them exquisitely restored.

Hacienda La Cienega near Lasso is among the oldest in the country, built in the late 1500s and visited many times by Simón Bolívar in his campaign to liberate the region from Spain. The approach through an alley of eucalyptus (planty much later) is worthy of a lord, the gardens remain magnificent and the private chapel otherworldly.

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Le Duc de Guise felt right at home at La Cienega

Hacienda Cusin north of Quito remained in the same family from 1602 until it was broken up in the 1960s during Ecuadorian land form. For a few decades, the estate fell derelict to bad ideas and neglect, but it has now been revived as a magical lodging for Quinteño weekenders and lucky foreign travelers like us.

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better dining
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Lest we give the Spanish undue credit even for these legacies, it should be remembered that virtually all the construction and art attributed to them in the New World was actually produced not by Spaniards but by armies of indigenous artists, who were conscripted if not enslaved by the church and who were viewed as mere tools through whom God spoke, not as human artisans. They were not allowed to sign their works.

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Every detail here was created by indigenous artists

And yet, these hundreds of years later, from the countrysides to the city centers, the art and architecture from earlier times continue to stun the eye and refresh the soul, immortalizing their creators one and all.

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Perhaps an architectural mishmash but still a pleasure to the eye


FROM THE PARTOUT TOOLBOX
One of the bonuses of traveling long-term the way Partout does is flexibility. Without being on much of a schedule, we can make make adjustments — adding, deleting or shortening stays — without big financial penalties and sometimes with budget windfalls. Back in the States, we eliminated the Galapagos from our Ecuador itinerary for a lot of reasons, one of them the expense of cruising. Once on the ground here, we found flights to the islands an eye-popping 40% to 50% what they cost from the States and cruises priced as little as half what comparable cruises cost from home.

TOP TIP:
If you are traveling for a month or more to a destination and can stand the suspense of not having every room and transport nailed down, booking on the fly can be more economical and even spice things up with the unanticipated.


COMING SOON: Campaigns to Make US Politics Look Good

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Even the icons are still enjoying their days in the sun

 

Eureka! The Fountain of Youth!

DSC07314Remember the scene from Back to the Future where Marty McFly discovers he has been accidentally time-traveled back to 1955?

In Vilcabamba, Ecuador, we joined him.

We came to the 4,000-soul town so far south it is almost in Peru because there was this really enticing AirBnB cabin with great reviews, and it looked like a great place to do nothing for a week. Which it was.

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“Nothing” includes watching the scenery change, which it did about every 10 minutes

After one day of absolutely nothing, we were ready for something, so we trekked downhill an hour and a half from the cabin to the town itself.

Which is where Marty McFly comes in. Picture this. . . .


Location: Classic South-America pueblo. Inevitable Spanish-style church opening onto  inevitable main square. Two-story buildings with balconies hanging over square, one-story adobes slouching down cobbled or dirt streets beyond. Except for the overhead wires and 4WD taxis, probably not much changed for a century.
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Back story: “Oh, Vilcabamba: where mountains soar alluringly above town, where the balmy air is synonymous with longevity (it shot to fame for its high number of centenarians after Reader’s Digest did stories on them in 1955), where those who encounter it simply get waylaid – sometimes for months, sometimes years. . . (Lonely Planet).

(1955!?! Jeepers creepers. Same year Marty McFly went back to the future!)

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Rough translation: “Live in Vilcabamba and live long.” Dapper Don here lived to 104.


Casting: Superannuated hippies, some weathered to leather. Birkenstocks and beards, long beards. Dreadlocks and tie dye. Billowing harem pants, macrame purses. Young hippies come to grow old with the old, some with their own young or, at least, their dogs. Throwbacks to San Francisco in the’60s, Asia in the ’70s, Mexico even today.  Yoga galore, reiki, heavenly massages at heavenly prices.

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Same square, same bench, slightly different beards and shoes

And gringos. Lots and lots of gringos.

Gringos sipping life-extending fruit drinks at the Juice Factory. Gringos drinking flat whites at UFO (“United Falafal Org.”) and Beverly Hills Café. Gringos everywhere else drinking beer. Gringos watching a classic avant garde Soviet propaganda film at an “underground” cinema that screens movies very much above ground on a white sheet.

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Every watering hole has its regulars. After two days, we could recognize them all

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Hard to say whether Louis is happier about finally finding a screening of the classic Soy Cuba or because he see a movie out-of-doors in a T-shirt at night in winter.

Gringos from the US and Canada, from Germany and Poland, from just about everywhere except Spain (the Spanish seem to have stopped coming to the New World) and China (so far). Gringos traveling on wheels that have rolled from afar.

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Dutch gringos shipped in their own camper

There once were even more gringos, we were told, not so long ago. In 2015, an asteroid was supposed to devastate the globe in September. Gringos reportedly flocked into Vilcabamba to dig bunkers to survive the impact and then flocked back out when they were not impacted. Even so, estimates are that about 30% of the village’s population is still foreign, drawn by the spectacular setting, mild climate, drinkable water, low cost of living, universal health care and, maybe, beer and flat whites.


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Every one of them has a story. The German who lives outside Vilcabamba but comes to town to go to a sweat lodge. The Londoner who came to South America for six months in 2010 and is still here, building houses for gringos. The former world-ranked tennis player-turned-Bay-Area-hairdresser with his jazz-singing wife.

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Doris getting a Bay Area touchup in salon with a view. Cut and color: $35

Some just pass through, like the Argentinian couple on an Alaska-or-Bust drive from their home country with their two-year-old son. They have already been on the road a year and a half, living off the curbside sale of drums they make along the way. Asked when they expect to reach Alaska, they just smile and shrug. “Quien sabe?
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Others stay, for years or forever, the pre-pensioners opening bars and restaurants, providing services, practicing healing arts and, sometimes, all of the above and more. We picked up one business card that promised travel arrangements (airplane, hotel, transportation, car rental), payment services (electricity, water, taxes) and Spanish/English tutoring (both languages), all from one person.

Us, we are now north of Quito for a long weekend before setting out in a canoe into the deep jungle. As always, thanks for sharing our road.

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Traffic in Vilcabamba


FROM THE PARTOUT TOOLBOX
Credit card mileage rewards feel like found money for us roadies. Since we would be charging purchases to credit cards anyway, getting free travel for spending money with them doubles the fun. The tricky part comes when we go to use the points to secure free tickets. More than once when we have gone online to ticket ourselves, the same ticket requires, say, 30,000 points from the first of us to go online but 45,000 points for the second. (Our points are in separate accounts to maximize sign-up bonuses.) We know it can’t be a matter of the first of us getting the last ticket available at the lower award level because it happens to us repeatedly – and because we have found away around it.

TOP TIP
This may sound like throwing salt over a shoulder to escape evil, but we now buy awards tickets sitting side by side on separate computers, logged on from separate email accounts and going through the booking process in tandem, right up to “Purchase.” Without fail, booking simultaneously instead of sequentially locks in the same award deal for us both.

COMING EVENTUALLY: Jewels of the Crown (and Others)


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In Vilcabamba, even the murals feature aging gringos

 

From the TMI Department

DSC07123For those of you who pine for Partout to occasionally ditch the reportorial voice and dive into the down and dirty of how Doris and Louis survive living out of suitcases for months on end, this one’s for you: the sickening, the creepy and the refreshing.


The Sickening

We traveled five months last winter without either of us having even a sniffle. This adventure has not been nearly as perfect, mostly for Doris, who developed a mysterious and icky case of chronic nausea about half-way through our four-day train trip.

When it started, we assumed the ick was motion sickness (to which she is prone) but, more than a week after leaving the train, she was still waking up nauseated every day. Since morning sickness was not in the cards, she began googling possibilities like “nausea as a symptom of mosquito-borne disease” and other dire explanations.

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“West Nile Virus”?!? YIKES!

One morning in Cuenca, we went on a walking tour that coincided with shaman day in the central market. Catholicism put down roots in South America without completely squeezing out pre-Columbian beliefs and practices, including shamanism (“belief in an unseen world of gods, demons, and ancestral spirits responsive only to the shaman”). In Cuenca, on Fridays and Tuesdays, curanderos from the countryside take up position in the public market so customers can bring their ills to be cured.

The process begins with the patient (many of them the children of worried parents) being beaten lightly all over with bundles of medicinal herbs. Next, a raw egg is rubbed all over the body to locate the unseen agent causing the problem.

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After this, the egg is broken so the shaman can identify the source of the problem. Satisfied, the curer spits on the customer to expel the source of infirmity. Voila (for lack of a translation). All better, though, ideally, the process requires three applications.

Doris seriously considered giving it a try but was put off by the spitting part. A few days later, she was tempted again in Quito by a variation that started with the herbal beating but ended with a cup of tea made from the herbs. This sounded much more appealing, but we ran out of time. Until the next shaman, she soldiers on, self-treating with motion sickness pills she buys from local pharmacies for 20 cents each and mostly improved without the spit. Still, a drag.

Also under the heading of “sickening” for some of our fur-loving friends: We did consume the obligatory guinea pig in Ecuador, a treat for which families keep dozens, even a hundred of the creatures, on hand at all time. Even Doris, whose pet history includes Elvis the guinea pig, found the critter tasty.
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The Creepy

Five earthquakes in eight weeks feels like a lot, even to Doris, who grew up in California. The last one was the biggest of either of our experiences: 7.5. While it was maybe a couple hundred miles away, it still seemed to go forever. Having arrived at our mountainside perch well after dark, Doris especially fretted about the possibility of our cabin being shaken off its slope into the void.

Blessedly, earthquakes being what they are, everything was back to normal within two minutes, other than the bananas that were still swaying in the windless pre-dawn outside our door.

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Bananas that registered the 7.5 shock to our mountainside perch after the dawn

Creepier was word that a Russian tourist was murdered by robbers walking with his wife from dinner to their hotel in Quito on the same night we were there before leaving on the train. We have been unable to learn exactly where or under what circumstances (e.g., whether the couple was wearing bling, flashing money, resisting demands for their valuables). Louis, who has ducked more bullets and bombs than some soldiers, tends to shrug off news like this; Doris, the fretter of the duo, gets creeped out. Not enough to stop traveling, mind you, but enough to be happy to say goodbye to big cities for a while.

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This guy might have crept but was not creepy at all


The Refreshing

People sometimes ask how we manage to live together 24-7 for months on end without killing one another. In all honesty, it can be a challenge. You know all those annoying little (or not-so-little) habits your dear one has that you can escape at home? Escape is not so easy on the road.

Our first resort is laughter. A lot of what seems annoying can be funny if we can stop being annoyed long enough to find the humor in one partner coming unglued over the surprise of paying $20 to print a boarding pass (?!?) or the other going into a frenzy about running late when his watch stopped telling time accurately weeks ago.

The second resort is that tried-and-true parenting trick: time out. One or both of us will wander off in different directions for a few hours to return with a refreshed take on the world, including each other.

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“Time out” takes on new meaning four miles uphill from civilization

Keeping company with others is also a great antidote for too-muchness and just plain fun and enlightening. While in Cuenca, we reached out through our house exchange site to two fellow sets of home exchangers, who both graciously met up with us for drinks, dinner and even a custom hike through the nearby national park. We are still savoring those memories.

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Hiking with and among new friends in the Parque Cajas out of Cuenca

When none of these completely do the trick, we know it is time to put on the brakes, get off the road, put sightseeing on hold, take a deep breath, recenter. That is what we have been doing for the last five days in our hillside retreat. This is what the respite looks like, if you haven’t seen the pictures on Facebook.
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This is what the respite has done for Doris’s resting heart rate.

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Hearts don’t lie. Nausea (the 72-point) is stressful; Vilcabamba (64) is oooommm

Doris has an old friend who used to be an ultra-marathoner (technically more than 26.2 miles, but his ran more like 50 miles). When she asked him how he held up for so many hours, he used to say, “If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

Ultimately, that’s the best motto for living out of suitcases for months on end, maybe for even more.


FROM THE PARTOUT TOOLBOX:
Making friends on the road turns out to be the travel trick that enriches. We went through Homeexchange.com to find friendly folks in Cuenca because we know home exchangers have common interests and tastes and these guys looked interesting. In Medellin, we found an expats meetup group. After our shaman walking tour, we went to lunch with a delightful young international couple. For all the occasional creepiness, the world is mostly a friendly place.

TOP TIP:
The internet makes it surprisingly easy to connect with fellow travelers of all kinds if sharing the road makes it more enjoyable, even for the occasional hour.


COMING SOON: Jewels of the Crown (and Others)

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The day that began with the earthquake ended with this rainbow. Best reminder ever to stay calm and keep moving. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Little Train That Does

steam.jpegEcuador is about half the size of France, yet Partout is spending nearly six weeks rattling around in it. That means we are moving pretty slowly, sometimes glacially.

Nowhere was that more true than on our 446 km train trip (276 miles) “luxury” train trip from Quito to Guayaquil. The one-way trip took four days, an average of about 70 miles a day. We could almost have walked faster since it was nearly all downhill.

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One of the four cars on our TrenEcuador “Train of Wonders”

But everything is relative. When the Guayaquil-Quito rail link opened in 1908, its trains traveled at the equivalent of warp speed by cutting travel between the two most important commercial centers in the nation from days to 12 hours. Towns sprang up alongside the tracks, and telephone lines followed. Businesses opened. Highland producers were able move perishable goods to the lowlands and vice versa. Farmers and communities throve. Travelers reveled in high-speed travel.

Alas, over time, the train came to seem as glacial as Partout. Freight and passenger travel dwindled and eventually evaporated. The rails, engines and coaches fell into disrepair; in some cities, people even built on top of old train tracks. Eventually, the only sections still in operation were the ones that foreign tourists rode – the famous “Avenue of Volcanoes” through the Andes and the infamous “devil’s nose,” where the route takes a vertical drop of more than 1500 feet on a sheer rock face.

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We could have touched the rock face of the devil’s nose from the historic wood cars of the train

Enter former President Rafael Correa, a charismatic US-educated leftist who campaigned and governed Ecuador on a platform of reform. He vastly improved standards of living nationwide before reportedly succumbing to the temptations of power and money. Fortunately for train lovers everywhere, he restored the old Guayaquil-Quito line before fleeing the country to avoid being prosecuted for kidnapping a political opponent. (He remains in Belgium.) Except for the stretches where recent landslides have covered the tracks and we shifted to buses, these were the rails we rode.


In another country, this story might end with the good fortune the train’s restoration has brought to glacial tourists like us and all the oohing and ahhing the trip inspired, but it doesn’t. Whether intended or unintended (we never quite figured that out), one of the consequences of the train’s resurrection has been nourishing some of Ecuador’s oldest cultures along with the tourists who ride the rails.

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A mother at market in Guamote

An estimated 30% to 40% of Ecuador’s population is indigenous – people who never intermarried with the late-coming Europeans or Africans and who retain their traditional language, customs and culture. They are people like Miguel Andrango in Otavalo, one of the last weavers in Ecuador to make tapestries and rugs on pre-Colombian backstrap looms, and Baltazar Ushca, the last man in a centuries-old occupation of ice merchandising. Ushca still chips glacial ice out of slopes of Mt. Chimborazo and musters it to market by donkey, but it is now made into designer ice cream instead of being indispensable to cooling meat and fish like it once was. They are men like the last embosser in Cuenca, still making art as they learned from their fathers half a century ago.
MOLDIV-002 copyThey are women selling live chickens in the open markets, the ancient who could speak to us only in her native Quichua (not Spanish) and the cowherd making the daily trek with his two milk cows up and down pre-Incan paths high in the Andes.
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They are communities like Palacio Real, a village of about 80 households. Women there have organized an association that operates a restaurant where they serve delicious local food cooked over wood fires and operate a tiny shop where they sell exquisite goods woven from the wool they have sheared, dyed, spun and woven from the llamas they raise. When clothing items are sold, 50% of the price goes to the woman who produced them and 50% is reinvested in the association projects, like their museum of llama culture. Our train stopped in the nearest station, and we walked half an hour to visit them. The goat stew and bounty of vegetables were delicious; the shopping time not nearly long enough!

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Christine in the lower left knit the scarf she holds. Doris supported the community by buying it.

They are individuals from subsistence cultures that benefit from TrenEcuador’s employment of them to demonstrate their dances and serve their foods to the likes of us.

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The dances on board by masked devils have their origins in indigenous protests against Spanish occupation.Treats like ceviche of chocos and folkloric dancing were served at the stations.


They are also people like Christian, our local guide at Sibambe. In excellent English, Christian demonstrated the conch shell his community has used for 200 years to call citizens to meetings and emergencies. Before the Spanish, conch shells were currency, and they still are valued today. He explained that the beds villagers sleep in above pens for guinea pigs and rabbits are designed both to protect the stock and to warm the humans overhead. He showed us cooking pots in use every day that look just like the ones in the anthropological exhibits of the Pumapongo museum in Cuenca.

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Christian’s American wife was not interested in the life of an indigenous Ecuadorian. Now he stays in touch with his 5-year-old son by Facetime.

Christian lived in the United States from the time he was 14 until he was 28, moving around the country as he worked his way up in the construction trades. He married an American woman and had a son. Then he was stopped for a traffic violation, found to be in the States illegally and deported. He returned home to his Andean village of 2,500, where he tells train passengers like us about local traditions before hiking the hour and a half over a peak back to his village. TrenEcuador helps sustain him now, too.


It is not all one big happy welcoming party on the rails. Indigenous communities around Guamote once banned outsiders from their Thursday markets, where inhabitants of different villages have converged for centuries to socialize, buy what they cannot grow in their own communities and indulge in local delicacies.

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Minus the water bottles and power line, this shot could be from another century

Now they tolerate passengers from TrenEcuador wandering among them, admiring their produce and snapping photographs. Louis was in street photographer heaven.
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The different colors of the ponchos and embroidery of the hems signify different village origins


One of the richer countries in South America because of its resources and self-sufficiency, Ecuador is undergoing the urbanization common to developing countries everywhere. Traditional cultures that have been under pressure ever since the Incas arrived shortly before the Spanish are experiencing new challenges as youth brought up on Netflix and YouTube reject rural life and eschew ancient practices. Some ethnic groups survive only in pockets of a few hundred or few thousand people.

But survive they do. For some, the resurrected train through the Andes is one of the survival strategies.

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Old meets new when indigenous women sell produce in front of a Cuenca shoe store


FROM THE PARTOUT TOOLBOX:
One of the best – sometimes the only – way to get off the beaten path (or to do a deeper dive into the beaten path) is with tours and/or knowledgable guides. No matter how much we read or study, we can’t duplicate their depth. Our TrenEcuador excursion proved this point, but we usually are happy with more modest sources. We Google “free walking tours” as soon as we hit each new city and choose the top-rated one. They can be hit and miss (they are, after all, “free”), but they never miss entirely; even the mediocre ones orient us to getting around and provide some background. AirBnB has added “experiences” in some cities that provide out-of-the-box insights (that’s how we found our “violence to transformation” day tour in Medellin), and GetYourGuide is a personal favorite for the quality of their paid tours. We found a guide to the Incan ruins of Ecuador by walking into a local travel agency. Always, Doris scours traveler forums for the names and contact info for guides others have found superlative.

TOP TIP: If there is any sight, culture or experience you really want to see that is under environmental, political or social challenge, go while going is still an option, however you do it.


Coming Soon: Jewels of the Crown (and Others)

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Bucay cloud forest from a TrenEcuador window

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Valentine’s Day Bouquet

Rows of colorHappy Valentine’s Day from Ecuador! In honor of the occasion, we offer today a rose story with a dash of chocolate.

The Chocolate Dash

Once upon a time, in a show of ill-advised friendship, Aztec king Montezuma served a drink made from the coca bean to Hernán Cortés, who could recognize gold when he saw it. The conquistador took some beans home to Spain where a foodie monk mixed the bitter bean with sugar and, voilá, an addictive family of eats was born. The church’s response of labeling liquid chocolate the “food of the devil” (because it fed the “desires of the flesh,” an early nod to serotonin stimulation) initially depressed the treat’s popularity. But, after an influential paper praised its benefits to cognition in the mid-1800s, there was no turning back.

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Coca nuts on the tree and the beans inside the nut. Sucking the raw beans is yummy!

Because the coca bean only grows within 20 degrees north or south of the equator, Ecuador (named for the self-same equator) was prime territory for the bean’s commercial cultivation, and cultivate it the Spanish and their successors did.

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Fields like this once filled the countryside

By the early 1900s, coca beans constituted 90% of Ecuador’s exports. Some coca haciendas were so vast and profitable, they printed their own currencies and operated like postage-stamp states.

Fast forward into the 20th century. A fungus invades the coca plantations. World wars disrupt the sea lanes to Europe. The coca leaf (source of cocaine) gets a bad name and is widely banned. Ecuador spirals into economic crisis. Oil, today the country’s biggest export, has not yet been discovered in the Amazon basin. The nation is forced to diversify. And diversify it does.

In the lowlands, out go the coca beans, in come bananas.

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The banana bunches are bagged while still on the threes

Coastal entrepreneurs begin cultivating shrimp.

And, in the Andes, growers plant roses.


Coming Up Roses

Today, Ecuador is the biggest exporter of roses in the world. If you give or receive Valentine’s Day roses, they very likely came from the soil Partout has been traipsing since the beginning of February.

Roses thrive here and in other equatorial countries because the sun delivers a reliable 12 hours of daily sunshine year-round at favorable radiation levels leavened with lots of rain. Vast swatches of the green Andean hillsides from north of Quito through the province of Cotopaxi are flocked with the plastic roofs of greenhouses, where they are grown indoors to prevent the birds and bees from doing their thing and spoiling the fidelity of the colors.

Under these conditions, roses can grow 10 feet tall and ramrod straight. We saw these giants with our own eyes on a rose plantation we visited en route from Quito to Guayaquil on our four-day “train of wonders” trip.
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With Valentine’s Day barely a week away, the plantation was in high-season gear. For both historical and practical reasons, most rose workers are women. Historically, men in the countryside have migrated to cities for work, leaving their women behind to keep the home fires burning and form a large and willing work force. Practically, it turns out, women distinguish color better than men so they are better suited for the color-sensitive work. As our guide told us, there are nine varieties of red for women. For men, one.

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Roses are sorted in racks by color before bunching. These all look red to us.

Appropriately for Valentine’s Day, the process starts with a couple – he measuring the length and size of the stems, she clipping and bunching the blooms. Once clipped, stems are soaked in water for and hour or two to steel them for the sprint to our vases.
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Colors include Tiffany, Leonidas and Iguana

After labeling, it is into cold storage for 1-2 days of chilling before the beauties are loaded onto special rose flights immediately after sunset and flown overnight by the hundreds of thousands of pounds to markets all over the world, each batch bar-coded to identify its source, color and harvest data.

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Roses are cultivated with their markets in mind. Because Russians like to display their roses in six-foot pots, they get the 10-foot stems. Americans like shorter stems with bigger blossoms so that’s what goes their way. Blooms not exported are sold in the local markets near the plantations for about $5 for three dozen, given to employees to sell on their own for extra income or composted.

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The dump truck looked like it could be composted, too

In the happiest of endings, each rose eventually brightens not only Ecuador’s economy but someone’s day, on Valentine’s Day or any day.
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Sent with all our love.


FROM THE PARTOUT TOOLBOX:

Ever wondered how to keep your roses fresh after you use up the little packet of plant food they come bundled with? Every two days, change the water and cut the stems at a 90-degree angle. The angle is important because it facilitates both hydration and cleansing. Mix 1 tsp of vinegar and 1 tsp of sugar into the fresh water, the vinegar to clean the water, the sugar to feed the blooms. If outer petals begin to droop, carefully peel them away to expose the fresher, inner blossom.

TOP TIP: Make someone happy. Give roses on Valentine’s Day. Who knows? We might have been there to see them growing for you.


COMING SOON: The Little Train That Does

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Adios, El Dorado

Colombia hatLouis and Doris have moved on to Ecuador and it is time for Partout to catch up. But before saying adios to Colombia, we can’t resist sharing a few of the more curious, haunting or memorable sights and impressions from our four weeks in the land of El Dorado.

À la David Letterman, here you go. . . .


#10 – Futbol. It’s not just for weekends.
From all appearances on bar and restaurant TVs, there is a soccer game going on somewhere on earth, every hour of every day, and you can watch it in Colombia. To experience the national obsession ourselves, we attended a futbol game in Bogota, where nobody ever sat down, everybody chanted litanies led by drums the entire game, and the Jumbotron showed commercials, not replays. Go SantaFe!
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#9 – Football. The other foot-ball sport. 
We were able to watch all the NFL playoff games we wanted in Medellin sports bars, which turned off futbol long enough to accommodate football for norteamericanos and assorted non-US gringos who showed up for the fun. This is what led to Louis being hosted to rum shots by a bunch of drunk Austrians who then embraced him with a rousing chorus of “Oh, Canada.” What happens in Medellin stays in Medellin – and that’s a good thing.

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Official staffing at Ay Wey, our favorite Medellin sports bar


#8 – Breasts. AKA “chichis.”
Breasts are big in Cartagena and Medellin. Really big. Eye-poppingly big. We were told in our Spanish school the trend of melon-sized breasts began with the narcos, for whom the augmented chichis on girlfriends were a status symbol, the bigger the better. Now even the store manikins have big chichis. Women of a certain age who sport them are known as “chichibarbis” (yes, old Barbie dolls). Doris no es chichibarbi!

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This would be a bra for the small-chichi’ed woman


#7 – Love hotels. The “perfect and safe alternative.”
Dingy ones with dodgy entrances, snazzy ones that could have passed for Hampton Inns. In the words of a MedellinLiving title: “The Love Motel: A Fun & Practical Solution to Sex in Colombia. “While it is difficult for a Westerner to accept the idea of taking his/her girlfriend or boyfriend to have sex at a motel for two hours, here in South America, the notion is quite different. . . . When you are from a country where most adults live at home until they are married and there is no privacy to explore intimacy, a love motel becomes a perfect and safe alternative.” Full disclosure: We only saw them from the outside!

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In downtown Medellin, romance by the hour is humble


#6 – Sleeping dogs. More flea-bitten than love hotels.
Dogs are to South America what cats are to Arab countries and the Netherlands. Ubiquitous. Never out of sight or ear. The old saw about letting sleeping dogs lie? They have taken it to heart down here.

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Group dognapping in the historic main plaza of Tunja


#5 – Sex tourism. The dark underbelly of sex in Colombia.
A multi-page spread in the nation’s leading news magazine describes the practice of recruiting and selling virgins 12 or 13 years old to foreign tourists. Nearly every hotel room contains a sign with a telephone number to report the sexual exploitation of children and adolescents. Below is an airport poster warning women that if they arrived in Medellin on a free ticket with a job offer, they are at risk. #EsoEsCuento is a national campaign to stop sex trafficking in Colombia. Godspeed.

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#4 – Venezuelans. A demonstrable border crisis.
The current Venezuelan crisis is rippling across South America in waves of hungry, desperate and sometimes violent refugees, perhaps nowhere more than in next-door Colombia. Athletic young Venezuelans breakdance, strum, juggle, and perform acrobatic feats in intersections to earn handouts from drivers. The less able beg, sleep on the streets and, according to locals, increasingly victimize the public. This will be another of those humanitarian crises that doesn’t reach most American radar screens, but it is already real, and it is growing.

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#3 – Smiles. The universal language.
For all its violent history and current challenges, Louis’s lens found Colombia to be a land of ready and radiant smiles, even when braking a load of recyclables downhill on foot.

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#2 – Cheap Ubers. Wheels have never been cheaper.
Big Colombian cities like Medellin and especially Bogota are notorious for taxi scams, but getting around on foot is not always a safe option. Though officially illegal, Uber has come to the rescue, taking root fast as the go-to wheels for locals and visitors alike. Never have we gotten around cities so cheaply. In four weeks in Colombia, we took 48 Uber rides for a whopping total of $104.52. For us budget-conscious travelers, that was a very grand total indeed.

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A top 8% tip added about 16 cents to the fare


#1 – Vive Símon Bolívar!
The liberator of six South American countries died at 47, broke and broken, convinced that the long and bloody war he waged to free the colonies from Spain and forge a United States of South America was sending him to his grave a pariah. Time has come to his rescue. A full 95% of Colombia’s central plazas bear Bolívar’s name today, streets everywhere are named for him and his generals, and it is impossible to spend a day anywhere without seeing his likeness. If there is a New Granada in the sky, El Liberador must be smiling at last.

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The birds may have no respect but history does


FROM THE PARTOUT TOOLBOX

Even more indispensable than the Uber app on the road is WhatsApp. For locals all over the world, the free data-based service is the primary means of texting and talking, including video talking. As travelers, it is how we communicate with our AirBnB hosts, guides and anyone else who is not in the US with a US phone number. At home, it is how we stay in touch with our loved ones outside the continent.

TOP TIP: WhatsApp – don’t leave home without it. Don’t even stay home without it if you ever need to call a friend, hotel, guide or anyone else outside the US.


COMING SOON: A Valentine Day Bouquet

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It was bling like this in the fabulous gold museum of Bogota that kept the Spaniards (and many others) in the hunt for El Dorado – Colombia’s Lost City of Gold.