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:


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.


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.


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.

Coffee country

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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.

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

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.

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.


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.


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.

Path photo


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.


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.


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.

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

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.


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

Thru trees

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”).


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.



Thatch-freshening took place every five years 


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.


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.


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.

Us two

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