Lunch in a Field of Dreams

DSC02202Seven kilometers from the heart of Cuenca, then a kilometer east on San Miguel de Putushi and finally a couple hundred meters up a dirt lane, past a tethered llama, at the end of the road, lives and works a happy man.

Edwin Giovani Combizaca Salinas is the man, and Le Petit Jardin is his restaurant at the end Calle de las Brevas, as unlikely a success as the ghostly ballpark in Field of Dreams.

This is Giovani’s story and how we came to eat frog legs in the Andes.

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Our starters and dessert. In between was a trout almondine.


Giovani Combizaca was born in an Amazonian village of 3,000 where his parents had to walk two days to get to their paying jobs. When he reached school age, his family moved to a larger town so he could get an education, but the family went back to the jungle on weekends to farm, and the children were expected to work in the fields.

Giovani found the work hard. When he fell and broke his leg at 10, he was not sorry that his father said he would have to stay home with his grandmother and contribute to the family support by cooking the meals and cleaning the house.

“I knew little things,” he says, “like how to cook and clean a chicken and cook it in some onions and garlic, fresh thyme and tomatoes.” Giovani found he liked cooking and cleaning, foreshadowing if ever there was any.

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Giovani (near right) still likes cooking but the kitchen has improved since his Amazonian youth.


At about the same time, Giovani first saw Cuenca on a family trip. He was so taken with the city that he chose the University of Cuenca when it came time for college. After he decided law studies were not for him, he dropped out, got married and fathered a son. Working around town in hotels and restaurants, he worried he would never make anything of his life. When his younger brother announced he was going to the United States to find his future, Giovani asked his wife for five years to do the same. She agreed. At 25, Giovani headed north.

The passage was harrowing: two nights on an island off the coast of Nicaragua living off coconuts and sand crabs, 25 hours riding on a wooden platform between the wheels of semi to Guatemala, jail and a shakedown for a $5,000 ransom in Mexico, a foot race from INS agents in New Mexico.

“Always you say, ‘I shouldn’t do this,’ but you keep going,” Giovani told us between meal services on our Sunday afternoon at Le Petit Jardin. His brother Luis was caught and sent back; Giovani pushed on to New York City, where a sister lived, and then to Baltimore when New York proved too intense after tranquil Cuenca.

Thinking of himself as a cook because of his work in Cuenca, he applied for a job in a restaurant where perennial James Beard finalist Cindy Wolf was chef. Despite a less than stellar trial night at the grill, he was hired. In time and with nurturing in the culinary house of Wolf, he learned and rose to became sous chef of Petit Louis Bistro, eventually cooking, too, at Wolf’s highly acclaimed Charleston on the waterfront.

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A souvenir of Giovani’s Petit Louis Bistro days in Baltimore


Five years passed. One night in Cuenca, Giovani’s wife and son went to a mass where the priest asked worshippers to come forward to share their prayers with the congregation. His young son went forward and said, “I want my father to come home.”

Wolf had just offered Giovani a position of executive chef earning a princely sum by Ecuadorian (and a lot of American) standards. When his wife relayed their son’s prayer, he says, “It was a choice between money and my family.”

Giovani chose family.

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Giovani and his wife Maria Eliza outside Le Petit Jardin


Back in Cuenca, the couple bought a piece of bare land on the outskirts of the city and Giovani supported his family selling tacos and burritos from a claptrap vehicle he drove between villages. When the contraption broke down one hot afternoon, he retreated to his empty land, studied the landscape and thought, “Maybe I could have a restaurant here.”

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We all have to start somewhere. Giovani started with this.

Today, Giovani’s Le Petit Jardin at the end of the road is often Trip Advisor’s #1 of 617 restaurants in Cuenca. With another brother, he built everything in the restaurant with his own hands – the building, the kitchen, the light fixtures, the tables and chairs, the intricate working machines he crafts from trash rescued from the dump and never sells because “they are part of my heart.”

Le Petit Jardin is open only Saturdays and Sundays, from noon to 9 pm, where business is brisk enough that Giovani can afford to spend the rest of the week meeting with the locals who grow his farm-to-table heirloom tomatoes and lettuces and crafting the light fixtures and furniture and décor that come from his heart.

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Giovani makes the tables and chairs where diners eat his food.

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He is fond of turning discarded sewing machine bodies into working toys like this fire engine.


The menu changes every weekend to feature the most seasonal ingredients. One item that never leaves the menu is an appetizer called Eggplant Petit Louis, the little tower of eggplant, tapenade, goat cheese and tomato floating in the lightest of pesto sauces that appears in the collage above. Giovani considered Cindy Wolf’s eggplant dish in Baltimore “beautiful.” His interpretation, named for the restaurant where he was sous chef, is his culinary tribute to her excellence and the chance her restaurant gave him.

“She was my school. She is part of everything here.”

Giovanni recruits his own staff from among Cuenca’s poorest residents – all his female cooks are single mothers – and trains them to cook. When they are ready, they leave and open their own restaurants.

“I came from nothing,” he says. “I have more than I ever expected, and I want to inspire people. I want them to know that if they do the right thing, amazing things are going to happen.”

At Le Petit Jardin, amazing dishes, too.


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From the Partout toolbox: We use Uber whenever we can in South America because it is vastly safer (and cheaper) and because it solves one of the trickiest ground transportation challenges we routinely encounter: giving a driver the address of an AirBnB apartment in a language we don’t speak as they do. Leaving the address to Uber saves everyone a lot of head-scratching, but the app is not always available or practical. To simplify things for all involved, we now save our temporary address in a cell phone note before we move to any new destination. Getting into taxis, we can answer the globally understood question of “Where to?” by handing a phone to the driver so he can see it in his language. Works every time.

COMING SOON! Reaching the End of the Line

Related link: Le Petit Jardin website

 

 

 

The New Year that Popped and Fizzled

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Sometimes our plans pop, sometimes they fizzle. Our New Year’s eve was a little of both.

One of the reasons Partout ended up in Cuenca over New Year’s eve was Doris’s seduction by accounts of the city’s spectacularly fiery and colorful celebration.

At least as old as the Spanish invasion, the festivities famously star human, animal and fantasy effigies called monigotes that are built by families and neighborhoods, carried into the streets more or less on New Year’s eve and – at the stroke of midnight or thereabouts – set on fire to burn away the bad juju of the old year and make way for good new stuff. For maximum effect, celebrants jump over the bonfires they set and throw fireworks into them, though ideally not at the same moment.

For a woman who has been known to sleep in the gutter of Colorado Boulevard to get a good seat for the Rose Parade, irresistible, right?

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Veteran roadies that we are, we scoured the internet ahead of time for tips on when, where and how to see the traditions at their most traditional. We read about the way the celebration starts at home when generations gather for dinner and to share rituals like eating 12 grapes one at a time (one for each month) washed down with champagne or running around the block pulling a suitcase to bring travel in the year ahead. We queried locals and expats and grilled the teachers at our Spanish school so as not to miss a thing.

At 7 pm, we set out to see in 2020, prepped and dressed for the occasion.
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Crossing the Rio Tombebamba, making our way through El Vado and along the city’s biggest boulevards, we gawked at masked revelers.
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We noted the range of monigotes, from simple stuffed figures (the easier for burning) . . .
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. . . to elaborate tableaux.
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We admired the the vehicle-borne manigotes and the various ways they were attached to cars and trucks.
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The bike rack for monigote transportation seemed particularly inspired.

We joked with men in drag who play the role of viudas (“widows” of the old year) on the eve of the new year, vamping as they collect money for the city’s poor children.
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IMG_7463And we were startled and impressed to discover that the neighborhood displays were not all about fun and frivolity. Like the cross-dressing viudas, they were delivery vehicles for social messages. Mineral exploitation, substance addiction, discrimination against indigenous peoples. Profound purposes were cloaked in costumes and papier mache.

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The skeleton above left evokes a song about why safety practices are important for miners, while the downcast man at a substance addiction tableaux asks, “Will it be that everything was my fault?” Below left, the question about the landscape ahead of the jolly biker is whether nature will all be lost to “absurd mining. The monigote youth demands that the president stop harassing  the indigenous.


We were equally startled but dismayed to find . . . we ran out of gas before the first fires were lit. The miles of walking, gawking and ogling, interviewing and photographing, rendered us too pooped to party. For all our strategizing and positioning, we had fizzled out. By midnight, we were home and in bed, too exhausted to be too disappointed.

And that’s when things began to pop. We had heard about the fireworks of Cuenca’s New Year’s eve and the way every block if not family ignites rockets that turn the whole city into a 360-degree aerial show. A few moments before midnight, we were jolted from our fizzle by the booms. We ran onto our AirBnB balcony. North, south, east, west. In every direction, the sky was ablaze. What looked like burning kites floated into the heavens.

The show went on for hours, or what seemed like it (probably more like 30-45 minutes) and only when it ended did the city, and we, finally go to sleep.


On the first day of 2020, Cuencanos were still sleeping off the celebration. The city was dead, far deader than on Christmas in the States. The nearby McDonald’s was doing a land office business, perhaps because not another eatery was open.

Possibly more refreshed than our host citizens as a result of fizzling rather than sizzling, we had the streets to ourselves on New Year’s day and wandered about enjoying the architecture in a way we can’t when they are full. Not a monigote was to be seen but, here and there on the sidewalks were their remains, piles of ashes that marked a spot where one had ended its brief colorful career, taking the bad of 2019 with it.
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Tips from the Partout toolbox return after we have fully recovered from seeing in the new year. In the meantime, a healthy, happy and peaceful 2020 to one and all.

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We never figured out what this traveling troupe was about but they sure were colorful


COMING SOON! A Happy Man

 

Living Out of Suitcases

img_0371-kopie.jpegMaybe the most common question we hear from people (okay, women) about traveling for so many months at a time is “How in the world do you pack?”

We could laugh and say, “It’s easy!” but that would be disingenuous.

In truth, it is not particularly hard to figure out what we want to bring with us. What’s tricky is fitting it all into two small suitcases and a backpack each.

We have learned tricks. Compression bags, packing cubes and moisture-wicking underwear definitely are all that they are cracked up to be. This winter, we will be only about three weeks in temperatures reliably hotter than 75F. Doris packed everything she would need for those destinations in a single Eagle Creek packing cube with dimensions not much bigger than a sheet of paper.

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Summer wardrobe in a cube: two pair short pants, four tops, one dress, one bathing suit, one coverup, one pair of sandals.


But clothes turn out to be the easy part. Splurge adventures have their own requirements (Galapagos: water shoes, binoculars, underwater camera). We also carry “kits” – pre-packed plastic envelopes holding items we have learned are expensive, inconvenient or impossible to find on the fly. Sunscreen, specialty toothpaste, sulfite-free shampoo. When the Bluetooth iPad keyboard Doris cannot write without cracked during our first week out, she was mighty glad to be carrying a traveler-shaped supply of duct tape and teensy travel scissors in our portable “tool kit.”

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Doris likes to think that a duct-taped iPad keyboard is proof she is a true road warrior.

Our kitchen kit even holds a very lightweight cotton apron because we cook a lot of our meals on the road. Carrying as little clothing as we do, we need to protect what we have from cooking accidents.

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Remember the book What Color Is Your Parachute? When hitting the road, the question ultimately becomes “How Big Is Your Comfort Zone?” Living out of a suitcase for four or six or eight months is a great way to map a comfort zone. Rule of thumb? Bigger zone, smaller bags; smaller zone, bigger bags. The photo at the top is our Dutch friend Herman schlepping the only luggage he and his wife Annet carried on a round-the-world trip a few years back. Sure sign of a giant comfort zone.

Traveling as we do has taught us more about our own comfort zones, and we pack accordingly. With each trip, we find ourselves packing fewer clothes and more gear. Louis, for example, has learned he really doesn’t need ten different shirts on a trip, but we wouldn’t leave home without a miner’s lamp.

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Room too dim to read, cook or apply makeup? A miner’s lamp does the trick every time.


There’s a fair amount of minimalist snobbery out there in the travel blogosphere (e.g., anyone who checks a bag is not a “real” traveler), and we confess that we have been known to snicker at travelers hauling what looks like their every worldly possession through airports. But, at the end of the day, travel is a challenge, even under the best of circumstances, and few road warriors encounter the best of circumstances all the time. We now always check one bag because it is the only way to get all the liquids we will use over many months onto our flights.

Comfort choices go beyond packing decisions. In Colombia, we talked with a young Canadian working his way around the world who said he happily shells out for the shortest, most direct flight he can find between destinations. Back in the day, when he was only 21, he was willing to take three connecting flights to save $100 on a route, he told us. At 27, he’s “too old” to be uncomfortable.

At 27-plus, so are we. We may live out of suitcases, but packing to be comfortable enough is one of the reasons we can do that.

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We have yet to fly an airline that does not allow passengers to carry on reading material, food, personal electronics and outer wear in addition to the standard carry-on allowance. Our luggage always includes a sturdy shopping bag to tuck in those items and maybe hide a few more.


From the Partout Toolbox: One of the drawbacks of traveling light is leaving home with every square inch of luggage packed and no space for buying anything on the road larger than an emerald ring. Doris’s solution to this dilemma is to pack a few items of  clothing that are still presentable but nearing the end of their life in her closet. At her last stop or whenever she wants to free up some packing space along the way, she leaves clean and neatly folded items behind for the housekeeping staff to repurpose. Especially in underdeveloped countries but even in many developed ones, gifts of usable clothing are a far bigger bonus for low-paid workers than a handful of small coins.

COMING SOON! Cuenca on Fire

A Verry Cuenca Christmas

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Flying out the United States a couple weeks ago, Copa Airline’s in-flight magazine contained an article about colorful Christmas observances around the world. Rockefeller Center’s tree was there. The 37 million (yes, million) lights in Medellin.

And Cuenca’s Pase del Niño – the “passing of the child” Jesus, a Christmas Eve parade that dates back 500 years and draws most of the city population to its streets.

The occasion is the procession of a 200-year-old baby Jesus icon from one end of the old city to the other. Having now spent the day among them, we can confirm plenty of angels, holy families and wise men turn out for the happening, but they aren’t the half of it. Joining the Marys (many pregnant) and Josephs are cowboys, clowns and indigenous gods, dancers and prancers and drummers, every child, woman and man reveling in a day of tradition, family and fun.

Doris could spend thousands of words describing the masses that followed the 1823 niño Jesus icon down Simon Bolívar Street, alongside the plaza and all the way to San Blas Church. Or we could just bet that Louis’s photos are worth far more. Since the man took more shots than he is willing to admit, Partout is going with the photos.

Thus, without further ado (or many more words), merry Christmas or whatever holiday you may be observing (or not) and bring on the parade.


The Sacred and the Masked

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Music and Dance and Showers of Flowers
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Paraders and Watchers

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Color, Color and More Color

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Montage 1

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With that, until next time, and may everyone’s day be as happy and bright as Cuenca’s.


From the Partout Toolbox: Searching local blogs and online news, Wikipedia articles and other sources for topics like “Christmas parades around the world” helps us find events, festivals and other local spectacles we otherwise might miss. That’s how we know that a week from now, Cuenca will turn out for the ritual burning of monigotes to see out the old year. We’ll be there.

COMING SOON! Living Out of Suitcases

Related link: “Cuenca’s Biggest Parade of the Year Combines the Sacred and Profane” from the local expat newspaper 

 

 

Mining Emeralds in Bogotá

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For the record, neither of us are shoppers, especially on the road where anything we buy would have to be hauled for thousands of miles before reaching home.

All the same, non-shopping Doris has a wee tiny weakness for colorful sparkly things for her fingers. And, really, how much room does a ring take up in a carry-on bag?

Thus it was that long-suffering Louis – who innocently believed Doris’s pitch that we should return to Colombia en route to Ecuador because we missed the country’s coffee area last winter – found himself a week ago in Bogotá, capital of the world emerald trade.

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Colombia is to emeralds what Tanzania is to tanzanite. (Photo © Victor Moussa | Dreamstime.com)


As many as 90% of the world’s emeralds come from Colombia, including the rarest and highest quality of them.

In Bogotá, emerald jewelry stores line the streets for block after block, some of them decades old, many selling goods from their own mines. Adding to the color (and potential for emerald fraud), freelance dealers are on the streets, too, sidling up to anyone with emerald lust in their eyes, furtively pulling folded squares of white paper from their pockets in which they have tucked their wares.

A real shopper could probably spend days in the city’s commercial emerald center, comparing stones, settings and prices. Doris figured she could get the job done in a couple hours.

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Doris was sure an emerald was waiting for her somewhere on these streets. (Photo © King Ho Yim | Dreamstime.com)


Doris searched “buy emeralds” on TripAdvisor, picked a store with perfect reviews, and set out by GPS with uncomplaining Louis in tow. Fortuitously, the store she picked was situated in a cozy shopping patio where Louis could sip strong Colombian coffee and do Duolingo Spanish lessons while Doris took a crash course in emerald buying behind locked doors.

In self-defense, emeralds are supposed to increase intelligence and empower their wearers to predict events, making them more than just a pretty carat. Cleopatra went for them (lesser grades come from Africa), and they bejewel many of the pre-Colombian treasures in the Gold Museum down the street from the emerald center. Unsurprisingly, the conquistadors fell on them like ravenous locusts.

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Cleopatra dug emeralds big-time (Photo © Timothy Kurtis | Dreamstime.com)


Inside Emerald By Love, Doris’s guide was Kim Wang, a 20-something adventurer who left her native China to work for a cruise company in Boston, met her true love in Colombian Gerson Morales and moved to Bogotá two years ago to open an emerald store with her new husband, whose family has mined for decades.

Kim patiently explained how the source mine determines the final green of an emerald and that darker green is better than lighter but only up to a point. She said the best stones go into gold settings instead of silver because gold is stronger and less likely to result in a lost stone and that most modern settings are designed by computer (resulting in a 10% loss of gold) and the rest still cast by hand. She showed Doris how minerals like fool’s gold get embedded into emeralds as the earth is shaping the esmeralda, adding to their character.

Then came the fun part: Doris tried on virtually every ring in the store of the color she preferred (dark, of course). Big, little, bling, modest. On and off. When she finally narrowed things down to two candidates, she sent a text message to patient Louis, asking him to join her in the store.

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Yes, Doris tried on just about every ring in this and another display case.


Once at her side, Louis immediately bonded with Kim by flourishing the few Mandarin words he remembers from his Bejing days and then turned to Doris’s choices. Being a visual person and a smart man to boot, he immediately pronounced Doris’s selections the most beautiful in the store. One, 1.5 karats and with tiny diamond chips around the band and on the setting, was deliciously elegant. The second, pear-shaped, was handmade in a Colombian style that probably could not be found outside the country.

He urged her to buy both.

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Kim and Gerson with the candidates.


Yikes! Both? Doris quailed. She had mentally budgeted for one good ring, but two? More time was required.

Gerson (Anglo names are common in Colombia) had joined his wife Kim in the store by then, and he is a smart man, too. He invited us to lunch with Kim and his brother Christian to give Doris time for the possibilities to percolate.

Over a hearty local almuerzo in a local joint, he explained how he grew up around emeralds, his family having owned mines for more than 30 years. Kim told us how her parents encouraged her to seek her future in America even though she was their only child. The couple described how their romance began with no shared language and how it continues to benefit from neither being fluent in the other’s tongue (they can’t argue).

Doris smiled and listened but was all the while weighing the case for two emerald rings. Though she likes finger sparklies, she owns only two of them. Buying two would double her lifetime collection overnight, which seemed excessive. On the other hand, on Partout’s first day in Tanzania two years, our guide had taken us to a rustic trading post that sold jewelry set with tanzanite stones from the nearby mine. Dazzled but fretful we were in one of those “I have a friend and he’ll make you a deal” situations, Doris passed on making a purchase and has regretted it ever since. She did not want to take a similar regret home from Bogotá.

A whole afternoon had passed, but when we eventually walked out the door of Emerald By Love, not one but two emerald rings were safe in a hidden pocket of helpful Louis’s shirt. Better yet, we were both satisfied we would enjoy not only the rings but the memory of buying them from Gerson and Kim in Bogotá for years to come.

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Mine meets jewel in this photograph on Emerald By Love’s shop wall. (Photo at top of blog © Carlos Mora | Dreamstime.com)


From the Partout Toolbox: Before leaving home, print and carry the receipts for airline tickets you are holding, not just the reservations themselves. Partout has found that most online check-in programs do not indicate what special services you have already purchased (e.g., extra legroom, checked bag, toilet privileges). Having the receipt at hand helps avoid inadvertent double purchases and comes in handy if there are challenges from the airline at check-in over what you have bought.

COMING SOON: A Verry Cuenca Christmas

 

 

 

Here We Go Again

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We often meet people whose response to hearing about our marathon travels is, “I want your life!”

To which we (or, at least, Doris) respond, “Beware of what you wish.”

We are now embarked on our third consecutive winter on the road. The international segment will be our shortest yet: only (haha … “only”) three months, followed by a month in San Diego – four months in all.

We have friends in the Netherlands (you know who you are!) who seem able to pack a couple roll-on bags and hit the road for a year at a time, making it up as they go. That is them. This is us.
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This is also us: leaving home with tickets for 20 flights, two trains, one sailboat and 124 nights of lodging in hotels (18 nights), AirBnBs (78 nights) and home exchanges (28 nights).
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Thanks to the magic of Xcel, where every move is recorded, it is easy to count all those bookings. Tallying the hours Doris spent making them all would be impossible. Each checked box represents a juggling act in which hopes, expectations, assumptions, wishful thinking, airline schedules, weather considerations and budget are tossed into the air and hopefully don’t come down on our heads. Coups are scored. Mistakes are made.

And that’s before the trip even starts.


For all the conveyances and lodgings, Partout will not be as all over the place this winter as in winters past. With the exception of outings in Panama, Colombia, Peru and the Galapagos (that altogether add up to less than one-quarter of our time in Latin America), we will stay put in our favorite stay-put city of last winter: Cuenca, the colonial jewel of Ecuador an hour’s flight south of Quito.
IMG_7359Staying put raises new questions for us and for the Partout reports that will follow until we return to the States.

Will we relish the familiarity of one location or long for more novelty? Revel in the climate so temperate it varies no more than six degrees year-round or weary of the sameness? Will we find ourselves luxuriating in stretches of unscheduled days or wilting from boredom? Might we tire of struggling day after day in a foreign language?

And will our Partout followers find our stay-putting so dull they would not even open our emails?

Only time – and future blog posts – will tell.

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En route to Cuenca, we visited our Taylors in Florida, ogled ships in the Panama Canal and hiked Colombia’s Cocora Valley, home of the world’s tallest palm trees.


From the Partout Toolbox: If you are shopping flights, try Momondo.com (a function of Kayak.com). Like all internet travel fare aggregators, Momondo leaves out some of the budget airlines, which means bargain-hunting takes a few more clicks to be complete. All the same, it is Doris’s new go-to for flight hunts because the app’s multi-city search is smooth and customizing an itinerary is easy. Fare alerts can be set up to track prices.

COMING SOON! Mining Emeralds in Bogotá

Related Link: Introducing Partout with Louis & Doris 

 

Where in the World Is Partout?

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We are getting so many emails these days with subject lines like, “Where the hell are you?” that we know we are overdue for a check-in.

(We also regularly are asked, “What does ‘part out’ mean?” Two-word “part out” means selling a car part by part. One-word “partout” is French for “all over the place.” We are one-word partout.)

For all those inquiring minds out there, we are back in the US of A until the end of 2019 with the exception of a relatively brief family visit to Europe in the fall. For the next month or so, Doris will bounce around a bit between Idaho, Denver and DC, speaking and taking care of her rental business, but Louis will stay put. Then we decamp together for summer in Sandpoint.

Our last check-in was four countries ago, from Ecuador, where we relished sights like the colorful head gear below that is a sartorial signature of each indigenous group.
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Next stop was Mexico City, which we found to be … a relief.

Everything is relative. After nearly three months of warnings for our safety in the big cities of Colombia and Ecuador, Mexico’s capital felt like a safe harbor. That goes to show how far the city has come since its bad old days of the 20th century and how much further South America still has to go with its challenges.

After that, we shifted into high gear (for us) … La Paz and Todos Santos (a wedding) in Baja California; San Diego (overnight in transit); Washington DC (unpack, launder, repack); Marseille (the city half of a two-house home exchange); Sisteron (the country half of the same exchange); and, finally, Groningen, the Netherlands to see our European set of “kids.”

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Our “country house” overlooked a lavender field near the fortified village of Sisteron

Combined with fall trips to Greece and the Netherlands, this adds up to just about eight full months of travel, including 26 flights, six ferry rides, a handful of trains, several canoes and scores of Ubers and taxis in seven countries. But who’s counting?!

As a matter of fact, we are. Our top takeaway from Year 2 partout is that “too much of a good thing” can apply to travel.


How Long Is Too Long?

For us, eight months (with two extremely short breaks in DC to repack) turned out to be too long to live out of suitcases. Things began wearing out – clothes, suitcases, bones and our patience. Without familiar routines, we lost track of time, missed important deadlines back in the States, started waking up and falling asleep at weird hours and lost track of stuff. Somewhere around the 20th or 30th accommodation (of more than 40 altogether), we would find ourselves standing in still another kitchen asking each other, “Now where are the dishes in this one?” Or wandering around in the middle of the night trying to remember where the bathroom door might be.

We are still in negotiations about how many months is too many months. For now, let’s just say next winter’s travels are scheduled for December 1 to April 1 anchored by one long stay of about two months in Cuenca, Ecuador, followed by a month in San Diego and bookended with big chunks of DC before and after.

Yet, even as we vow, “Nevermore,” we find ourselves mulling what we would have been willing to give up in order to cut our monster trip down to size. There are no easy answers.


If We Can’t Have It All

Would it have been the 16th-century fortress in Cartagena, Columbia, where vastly outnumbered Spanish defenders turned away the British navy in a victory some historians say destined South America to speak Spanish and not English?

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At the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas in Cartagena

Or maybe the breathtaking gold art of the Incas in Bogotá or the voluptuous sculptures and paintings of Fernando Botero in Medellin?

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At the feet of Botero

We suppose we could have foregone the sight of Panama hats being woven at the source (which is not Panama, btw) or the last masters of pre-Columbian crafts at their work.
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Or skipped a few jaw-dropping churches …
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Or missed an exquisitely photogenic village or two …
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But how much time would that have shaved from the journey?

And, in the end, would we really have wanted to miss out on all those exotic new fruits we tried, or being pulled through the Andes by a steam engine, or seeing the Amazon from the treetops?Fruits - marketSteam engineSasha - canopy 2

Or missed the beauty of waking up in the cloud forest?
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Beyond Scenery

And, beyond the scenery and sensations, which lessons into history, life and culture could we have given up without losing important insights into unfamiliar places?

The tension between Colombia’s yearning for a brighter future and its continued romance with its violent past?

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Only time will tell how far the light breaking over Medellin spreads, especially when “Pablito” Escobar remains an object of adoration in some quarters

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How about Simon Bolívar’s freedom trail?

 

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Mural at the bridge of Boyocá,
where the decisive battle of independence for New Granada was fought

 

Or talking with people living so differently than we do, some in the face of stupendous obstacles?

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Quadriplegic artist painting with a brush held between his teeth on a street in Quito

Not to mention orchids barely the size of a thumbnail …
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Or the landmarks of ancient Rome in modern Provence.

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Pont du Gard (top), Arles and Nimes (L & R)

Even the hooplah of Colombian football?
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What would we have been happy to give up in order to cut our monster trip down to size? As it turns out, nothing.


FROM THE PARTOUT TOOLBOX:
For students and travelers of a certain age, public services and attractions in foreign countries often offer discounts unlike anything we find in the States. Our personal favorite is the “golden” pass in Spain that, for $6 each per year, entitles us to ride any train in Spain for half price. There are many others. The Gold Museum of Bogota was free for us because of our age ($7/person for others). The on-off bus tour of Quito was half-price. People ask us all the time how we manage to travel so long and far on our retirement budgets. One answer is that we make the most of discounts.

TOP TIP:
If you have a student ID or are 60 or 65 years old, always ask at the ticket counter if there is a discount. We have found that discounted prices are not always displayed on public signage; you have to ask.


Coming Soon: Gezellig and Goodbye, Again

but getting there

Rocking chair: Not yet on the bucket list

 

 

 

Weather-Wise: A Practical Partout

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We interrupt our Latin American reporting to bring faithful followers a practical Partout about how we find the weather we want and where we find it.

As anyone who knows us knows, our travels are highly weather-driven. Louis suffers in the cold, Doris wilts in humidity. In retirement, we have solved the heat issue permanently by summering in Sandpoint, where we never experience extremes of heat, humidity or mosquitos. Winter, however, is the annual question.

In Latin America this year, we have done a bang-up job of avoiding winter’s cold, damp and darkness. It has not always been thus.

Sure, a house on the beach like the one above, where we spent a week in Zanzibar last winter, meets Louis’s requirements, but a steady stream of these locations would turn Doris into a molten mess. And, yes, southern Europe is significantly warmer than northern Europe, but how much sunshine does a winter’s day bring? How much rain? And is even southern Europe “warm enough” for cold-averse Louis?

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Southern Spain in late fall 2017: Definitely not warm enough.

(NOTEWORTHY EXCEPTION: For Louis, it is always springtime in Paris. If he is slurping oysters on a sidewalk, the weather is glorious, regardless of what the thermometer says and what Louis is wearing.)

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Paris in winter 2017: Warm only in Louis’s mind


Weather-and-Climate.com

To improve on our active imaginations and flawed impressions, we go data diving. Fellow weather wimps, this Partout is for you.

Weather-and-Climate.com (WAC) is where we start.

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The mere sight of the VW van packed for adventure at Weather-and-Climate.com makes us giddy with anticipation


First, we click on the country under investigation. Let’s take a look at Ecuador, since that’s where Partout plans to spend most next winter. Here is what Ecuador’s country page displayed this March 31.

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Most of this is about as helpful for weather mapping as a horoscope is for life mapping. Only by clicking on the little “city” link do we get the real weather gold.

For example, we are currently planning to spend most of next winter in Cuenca, Ecuador, passing through Mexico City for a couple weeks either on the way there or back. The temperatures in both cities are mild and stable all winter (i.e., both are “warm enough”) so the question then becomes whether there are other weather conditions that make it smarter to go to one city earlier in the winter than to the other one. 

To find out, we scroll down to the annual sunshine charts for the cities, where the plot thickens quickly. The top chart under this paragraph is for Mexico City, the bottom one for Quito (the nearest comparable city to Cuenca). 


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Whoa! (Doris actually says things like this while weather wonking.)

March turns out to be Mexico City’s sunniest month, with an average of more than 250 hours of bright stuff. December is still sunny, with just under 250 hours on average. Meanwhile, down at the equator in Quito, March is close to the most overcast month of the year, with a little less than 150 hours of average sunshine. Things brighten up considerably for Quito in December, when the average is almost 200 hours.

Comparatively, this means we could experience three hours more sunshine a day in Mexico City in March than we could expect in Quito. Mexico City would still outshine Quito in December but by a great deal less.

With this, our itinerary lurches toward heading straight to Quito/Cuenca in December, returning via Mexico City in March.

But there’s still another variable that can make a huge difference in travel pleasure: Rain. Another big wow awaits in the weather data. Again, Mexico City in the top graph, Quito below.


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Turns out Mexico is bone dry in both December and March, but March is Quito’s second-wettest month of the whole year. By the metrics most important to us, starting our winter in Ecuador and ending it in Mexico begins to make a whole lot of weather sense.

There is just one hitch. Quito is not our final destination, Cuenca is, and Cuenca is nearly 300 miles south and 1,000 feet lower than Quito. Sadly, WAC has failed us on Cuenca. The site uses weather data from Guayaquil for Cuenca, but Guayaquil is a famously humid beach city whose weather is nothing like Andean Cuenca. We chose Quito for comparison purposes because we know its weather patterns are much closer to Cuenca’s.

Still, a lot of important detail can get lost in “for comparison purposes.” The average height of Louis de Guise and Lebron James is 6 feet 2 inches, but that does not give us a very good picture of what the two guys look like.

A deeper dive is required. For that data, we turn to a mobile device and open our go-to weather forecasting app: Dark Sky.


Dark Sky

Screen Shot 2019-03-31 at 9.21.04 PMForgiving Apple its chest-beating (“the most accurate source of hyperlocal weather information” on earth), Dark Sky offers at least three really useful weather forecast metrics that build out the averages we get from WAC: temperature, “feels-like” temperature and precipitation, all by the hour, plus sunrise and sunset times. And, again, another mother lode: “Time Machine.”

Let’s switch continents for this exercise. Our most urgent weather-planning need this very minute is not winter in Ecuador or Mexico City but spring in Marseille, France, where April takes us.

WAC reports Marseille’s average high temp at a smidge under 60 F for the whole month, but what does that mean in terms of packing for a visit that will stretch from the end of March to the beginning of May? This is where Dark Sky’s Time Machine – and being really, really data wonky – comes in.

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The Dark Sky forecast for April 17, roughly the midpoint of our visit to Marseille, is for a high of 64 F (four degrees warmer than the historic average).

 
But if we time travel back to the same date in 2018 with Dark Sky, we find the high was 76F – more than 10 degrees warmer than this April’s forecast and 15 degrees higher than WAC’s historic April average. IMG_0972

 

 

 

 
Taking another leap in time to check out 2017 on the same date, we find the temperature not quite as warm as in 2018 but still much higher than the WAC average.

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We pack with all this in mind.


Beyond Data

Weather is not everything when it comes to travel planning. Special events and holidays, budgets, fellow-traveler schedules and many other conditions also figure in. Everyone has something like Louis’s oysters in Paris that renders weather irrelevant. It rains year-round in the Netherlands but, as long as the kids live there, we go. (Favorite weather app where they live: Buienradar, helpfully forecasting rain by the minute.)

What’s more, historical weather data appears to be getting less reliable. Everywhere we go, whoever we talk to – whether it is the last ice merchant of Cotopaxi, an indigenous guide in the Amazon or an Uber driver in Bogota – tells us their weather is not what it once was, their temperatures are hotter, their seasons dryer. In the end, all the research under the sun will not unerringly predict what any given sunrise will bring.

All the same, for us, weather comes down to something like the announcement airlines make on flights: “We know you have a choice in airlines. Thanks for choosing (fill in the blank).”

We choose mild temperatures under sunny and dry skies. Doing the data dive to improve the odds of getting them is like searching for the most desirable flight schedule or air fare. It pays off.

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Mexico in March 2019. Definitely warm enough.


FROM THE PARTOUT TOOLBOX:
Whether your reaction to our weather plotting is “This is the best news since sliced bread” or “Get a life!” we could not travel as happily as we do if we left weather entirely to luck. Having located the websites most relevant to our weather goals, useful data is never more than a few clicks away. We also continue to rely on real, live breathing humans for weather insights, especially those humans with preferences and goals similar to our own. Two inches of rain falling between 10 pm and 4 am daily have a vastly different impact on travel comfort and activity than two inches falling between 10 am and 4 pm. Sometimes it takes someone on the ground to turn the averages and histories into useful guidance.

TOP TIP:
Whatever it is that makes your travels happiest, seek out the internet and human resources that best report on what matters most to you on the road. The most robust source in the world is worthless if it doesn’t lead to the results you want.


COMING SOON: Not Adios But Hasta Luego

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Doris in winter 2017-18 modeling the benefits of doing her weather homework

 

 

 

Campaigns to Make US Politics Look Good

Version 2If the US political environment (or, in our binational family, the Brexit debacle) is getting you down, here is some consolation: At least you do not live in Ecuador.

Partout had the uncertain fortune of arriving in this small South American country in the midst of the campaign lustrum for electing (or re-electing, if not term-limited) every city councilman, mayor, county supervisor/commissioner, public works director and, perhaps, dogcatcher in the whole country.

This added up to 80,281 local, provincial, cantonal and parochial  candidates from 279 political parties campaigning all at once, everywhere. Based on what we saw and heard while there, it felt like many many more.

Ignoring these local elections (as Americans routinely do) is not an option. Every Ecuadorian from 18-65 is required by law to vote. Scofflaws who do not exercise their suffrage are subject to fines equal to 10% of the nation’s minimum guaranteed salary for one month and become ineligible for public services such as education and health care.

Ignoring office-seekers is not an option either because, as we witnessed, they are inescapable, 24/7, for the duration of the campaign season.

We could not vote, but we also could not escape.


Electioneering, Ecuador-Style

From all appearances, campaigning for local office in Ecuador goes something like this.

  • Pick an office to run for, preferably the one most likely to line your pockets with bribes, kickbacks and other time-honored forms of graft.
  • Come up with a catchy slogan, preferably something that emphasizes your honesty because the populace is desperate for some honesty. “Public Works Without Corruption” was one of our personal favorites, as if public works without corruption is a groundbreaking concept.

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    Concejal’s slogan is something like “Vote for me because I’m young and won’t do things the way they have been done by older grownups.”

  • Make about 20,000 colorful posters of your face and slogan (perhaps with a slate of fellow faces from your party) and splash them on every plasterable square inch of your community.
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    Signs at a corner on a dirt road at least one mile from the nearest town, which itself is home to barely 4,000 residents

    When public spaces run short, rent surfaces from the owners of fences and homes.

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    Also on a dirt road. E.g., not exactly in a metropolis

    Flatness is not a requirement. Even trees will do.

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    Arrow points to campaign sign in tree, even further from metropolis. Perhaps the cows vote?

  • Strictly adhere to the rule that more noise = more votes. Buy, borrow or steal the most ear-shattering amplifiers you can, mount them to a car or truck and recruit your brother, brother-in-law, barber or whoever else stands to gain from your gain to drive up and down every block of your community day and night blasting your name and slogan in hopes of impressing everyone within earshot that you really, truly are the honest candidate.

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    Demonstrating the principle: “Never let one megaphone do what three can do louder”

  • Augment mobile blasting with occasional rallies, preferably shutting down Main Street (“Calle Simon Bolivar”) in the process to demonstrate your ability to get things done. If already flush with cash (perhaps because you are already an office-holder?), rent a stadium or other venue and hold an event that can be heard for a mile in every direction or until every eligible voter within earshot promises you have their vote.
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A rally in the village outside this church all but drowned out the Mass celebration. Perhaps these worshipers were asking God for deliverance?


We were not in a position to determine whether these tactics are augmented with relentless radio and TV commercials or robocalls, but every person we talked to in any language and of whatever political persuasion assured us the process produces almost nothing but crooks and promise-breakers.

The consistent response when we protested, “Surely some of them are honest people intent on doing good work?” was that not more than 1 in 3 candidates might fall in either of those categories. There seems to be some hope the ratio is rising. The explosion of parties and candidacies in the 2019 election, the highest in the nation’s history, was viewed by some observers as a sign of political vitality and recuperation. Meanwhile, the populace remains in “hope and pray” territory.

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Translation: “Voters hope the candidates fulfill their promises.” A universal dream, more commonly realized in some places than others


On a More Serious Note

Yes, that was all pretty much the bright side of Ecuadorian politics.

(And, lest we sound like a couple supercilious Americans abroad, to the contrary. We found so much to like and admire in Ecuador that we have ditched our plan to tour Asia next cold season and instead will winter over in the colonial jewel of Cuenca. Yes! Partout will stay put for a change.)

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In downtown Cuenca (photo by Fernando Tapia from Unsplash)

Political stability and rectitude are just plain not Ecuador’s long suit. The country may have avoided the political cataclysms of some Latin American countries, but it went through eight presidents from 1997 to 2010, including a five-day period when it went through three. The nation’s immediate past president has been charged in absentia with kidnapping, and his predecessor has been convicted in absentia for embezzlement. Both are on the lam.

The country’s approach to term limits illustrates the dysfunction.

By law, local officials used to be elected for a maximum of six years (1978-1984), then for four years (1984-2009), then for five years (from 2009-2019, thus the 25-cent word at the top of the blog referring to “lustrum” elections). Beginning with this election, terms have been limited back to four years in order to synch them with general elections.

Got that?

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Voters like this gentle soul with the local campaign stickers on his living room window has to keep track of all the election laws along with the candidates. Good luck with that.

Similarly, reelection has been variably permitted and banned, variably for local officials and the president. Most recently, a two-term limit for every elected office was enacted in 2018 after being banned in 2015.

In a 2003 paper called “Money and the Rule of Law,” one economist described Ecuador’s political system as run by elites completely devoid of “moral inhibitions” who routinely secure special-interest legislation from weak and corrupt elected officials. During the economic tailspin of the 1990s, this “deadly cocktail” produced a free pass for bankers to commit “massive looting” of customer deposits while the country was replacing its native sucre with the US dollar. (Aside: Ever wonder where all those Susan B. Anthony dollar coins Americans reject end up? Ecuador.)

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After her parents’ savings were looted, our Quito tour guide moved to Israel for 10 years. (The studious tourist next to her won the rose by correctly guessing what country exports more roses than Ecuador.)

We heard about the looting repeatedly because it led to a devastating exodus of Ecuadorian youth whose parents were wiped out by the banker-swindlers. Almost overnight, something like 15% of the nation’s population decamped for other nations where they could find jobs and incomes to send home. Any 30-something we met who spoke fluent English was likely to have a personal story like our Quito tour guide’s (caption above). All told, some 2.5 million adolescents and young adults fled the country – something along the order of the entire city of Chicago disappearing from the population of Illinois.

Today, about half of the expatriates are back, both their families and the nation’s economy sufficiently restored they can go home, at last. Some went beyond merely sustaining their families with remittances to build modern new family homes called “emigrant houses” because they were built with money sent back by the diaspora.

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An “emigrant house” in a region of subsistence farming


Back on the Bright Side

Voters went to Ecuador’s polls March 24.

In the name of “calm elections,” campaign noise-making was banned nationwide beginning two days earlier “in order to allow for a time of reflection and definition to those who will vote.” Relief, at last! A suspension of alcohol sales took effect at the same time. Violators were to be fined half the monthly minimum wage in the country ($193).

Dismal and toxic as the US political scene may feel right now, absurd as the Brexit tragicomedy may be, Ecuador reminded us that things can be worse – and are, for untold millions worldwide, every single day.

Also on the bright side: We are told the candidates, by law, have to remove, paint over and otherwise obliterate all traces of their campaigns within a fixed period after the election or be fined. Stay tuned for further reports from Ecuador next winter on whether this actually happens.

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The current president is Lenín Moreno. If the graffiti that requires no translation on this church in Cuenca is an indication, he’s not much better than his predecessors


FROM THE PARTOUT TOOLBOX:
We have a confession: We no longer try to live out of carry-on bags. We check bags, early and often.

Now, we recognize there are friends among our faithful followers whose reaction to this confession is, “DUH! Who carries on everything anyway?!?” Well, among road warriors living for extended time out of luggage, carrying on is a badge of experience and self-discipline. To which we say – bah, humbug.

If you travel for as many months as we do at a time, there are products you need that exceed the liquid carry-on limits (e.g., sunscreen, insect repellent, maybe speciality cosmetics, etc.) and that are either outrageously expensive or unattainable overseas. We have evolved a system in which Louis carries on his roller-bag (which also provides a convenient trolley for his backpack), and Doris checks a somewhat bigger bag (too big for an overhead) that holds all her belongings plus Louis’s big stuff (shoes) and all our big liquids (sometimes known to include unopened alcohol).

If lost baggage was the problem it once was, that would be one thing. It is not. Statistically, it is not and, personally, we have found it is not. In perhaps 30 flights in the last 18 months, every checked bag has arrived with us, in a timely fashion, with all our belongings still inside.

TOP TIP:
Don’t take more than you need, but don’t be afraid to check what you take. We have yet to meet a traveler who said, “Gee, we sure wish we were dragging more stuff through this airport and wrestling more suitcases into overhead bins.”


COMING SOON: Weather Wise: A Practical Partout

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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.

Paddling guide

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.
Vines


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