Popayan, in Southwestern Columbia

Pretty town with a white center. Colonial buildings and a dozen churches and museums in the old part of the city. Lots of policemen all around (young guys doing their 2 year army service duty by serving as police) and feels very safe. Home to the university of Cueca, so lots of students and events, a giant public library and outdoor book market.

Stayed at Casa Familiar Turistica, a hostel in the old part of the city, in one of the old white colonial houses, owned by a quite old lady with two dogs. Both nights of my stay there were only girls here (an unusual occurrence as I’ve met more guys traveling than girls) and the dorm room had that aura of feminine energy.

I spent yesterday mailing my things and walking around the town. I spent today doing more walking, buying fruit at the market, visiting 3 museums, watching the sunset from the El Morro hill, and attending a cornet concert at the university, where I met two of the 4 Russians who live in Popayan. All are music teachers.

None of the museums I went to were especially interesting. The first “Museo Negret e Iberoamericano de Arte Moderno” exhibited contemporary paintings and sculpture, most of which I ignored because I generally do not grasp sentiment through geometrical shapes on canvas and twisted metal, but there were a few paintings I enjoyed… although I was disappointed that the info tags near the paintings did not include the year of creation and more info about the artist. My favorite was a man inside a river, it was a dark painting of blue and gray hues, and his body was not drawn in detail although the muscular structure was visible. To me it represented sadness, a journey, nostalgia and loss. Strange but I do not remember the man’s face…

The other museum was “Meseo Guillermo Valencia” inside the former house of the poet by the same name. His furniture, books (8000 of them, mostly historical and religious texts that few would care to open today I think), family pictures and eventually his mausoleum were on display, and I was guided around the shrine by a guide, one of those young men in police uniform serving his army duty. I understood about 75% of the general point of what he said, and about 10% of the subtle. Was interesting to see the general style of the house and furniture and pictures of what affluent people in Columbia looked like 100 years ago and what they read, otherwise a waste of half hour. The town of Popayan purchased the mansion to convert it into a museum some 20 years ago… I’m pretty sure it could have served some better purpose… like a library…

The last museum I went to was “Casa Museo Mosquera.” Here were also some family relics and contemporary art (from 2011) that was for sale. A few breaths were enough to see everything and I was free to walk up the hill to El Morro where beheld a magnificent sky…

May 20, 2011 at 6:50 pm Leave a comment

brotherhood

Split with Christian friends. Was a strange experience. First time traveling with fanatics.

One was unlike the other. The Chilean was loud and obnoxious, “pesado” (heavy) he said of himself. The Swiss was quieter and gentler. Both loved to speak of Jesus and hug, touch and kiss strangers. They called each other “hermano” (brother).

I felt a trust for the tamer Swiss that I did not feel for the Chilean, who kept referring to god as the source of all his decisions and shared his convictions with a most unappetizing vociferousness.

They called one another “niños” (children) and talked of playing, by which they meant trying to experience life as a child would, engaging with people without the barriers of space and status and living without the limitations of time. Nevertheless this concept provoked very dirty thoughts in my mind, especially of the Chilean who looks more man than boy, with his heavyset frame and bearded face, not to mention his voice and manner.

Although they were generous and kind guys I couldn’t help but turn into a cactus with them, pricking them every time they attempted to impart on me their ideas of god and religion. I’m not really atheist, but I loathed the way they had decided that their subjective interpretation of god and what is right is the only means to the good life. So after the novelty of the meeting wore off (by the second day) I started reacting like a stubborn child, adopting antireligious views to everything they said just for the sake of obstinacy.

They named me Pricilla and refused to call me by my ordinary name.

The Chilean liked to talk of perfection and how our neediness for other human beings is a symptom of our imperfection. Both had shunned the sexual life and decided never to have children, because they said it was a sin to bring children into such a cruel world…where people were destroying the planet and one another by not following god…

I asked… if there is a god why would he let innocent children be born into a world so terrible? The answer was that the choice to have children is independent of god… that the parents of sub-Saharan Africa, Cambodia and all those places where misery is plentiful and food is scarce are guilty!

When the Chilean tried to scare me into abstinence by saying that I would inevitably contract HIV, I told him to stop immediately and that I would not tolerate propaganda. It was my first time witnessing that aggressive tone of preachers, with their imperative intonations to frighten people into submission. It was scary and amusing at the same time.

We parted in the bus station. “Will you miss us?” the Chilean asked in Spanish. The Spanish word for miss is “extrañar” which sounds like “strange” so I thought they were asking “do you think we’re strange?” (a question they asked often in various ways)… so I said “no” (although really, yes!) just to be opposite and not to give them the feeling of satisfaction of being different, of shocking me… “But we will miss you!” the Swiss said with a notion of sadness in his usually gay voice.

I did miss them that first night in Popayan though. In the 4 days we spent together it really did feel like brotherhood.

May 20, 2011 at 6:40 pm Leave a comment

how i spent my first day in Colombia…

Ecuadorian Andes, on the way from Otavalo to Tulcan

Arrived at the border with a huge load on my back, maybe 25 kilos, more than half of which were souvenirs (fabric, tapestries, dried fruits with elaborate engravings, woolen hats and gloves) bought in Otavalo the day before my visa expired. I’d planned to mail it all the day I left but stupidly forgot to transfer money into my account and so ended up with $100 and the choice: mail everything and arrive to Colombia with absolutely no cash or haul everything and have some money.

(the account I always use is online checking with Charles Schwab because they have good customer service and free withdrawals all over the world, but transfers take several days… the other account I have is with TD bank but I found out they’d irreversibly cancelled my card without informing me months ago)

I will tell you how I spent the $100 I had left to show what a fool I can be ;)

After paying for my room (two nights and laundry $19) I decided to buy a few more items at the artisanal market… increasing my load yet more and leaving $25 with which to make my way to Pasto, Colombia where I’d found a couchsurfer to host me….

To travel without much money is to be more creative, more sociable and more open to the unexpected… this is true and wonderful except when your bag is so heavy you can’t even lift it to your shoulders without help :(

Tulcan-Ipailes border crossing

And so it was that I crossed the border into Colombia in the late afternoon of Saturday, May 14, exactly 90 days since I began my trip in Quito. I exchanged my $21 for pesos and got on a small bus for 1500 pesos (approx 80 cents) to Ipailes from where I bought a ticket for 6000 pesos (approx $3.50) to Pasto.

The way to Pasto was dark, which was a shame because to my right were beautiful landscapes of mountains which I would have liked to see. At 8pm i arrived in the bus station and called my CS-host from a phone shop. He didn’t answer so I bought a small cheese bread to satiate my hunger and went to the internet cafe to check my email in case he’d written to tell me his plans had changed. No email from him but there was another “yes” from another CS-er with a # but no address. I wrote the digits down, went over them 20 times in case I’d miswritten, and paid 200 pesos (approx. 10 cents) for the 2 minutes I was online (a bargain after I explained my money situation, “tranquillo tranqiluillo” they said accepting my silver coin, an expression I like for the million uses it has and the goodwill that it connotes)

But neither host answered his phone….

And that was how I arrived to the waiting room of the bus station, heavy bag on my shoulders, a laptop in my small bag (I say this because traveling with it has become more burdensome and I hate the worry I feel on its account) and a conscience growing heavier with thoughts of the couchsurfers.

And that’s when I heard a flute and saw two dark haired guys with large backpacks and smiles inviting me to sit with them.

They were Christians from Switzerland and Chile, waiting for a bus that was to leave in 3 hours for Popoyan, from where they planned to find a place for camping and the natural life. Not exactly missionaries but enthusiastic to talk about Christ with everyone. But the first night we met we did not talk about religion and to me they were just two backpackers who invited me to join them.

The bus to Popoyan traveled at night, along a route that Lonely Planet warns not to take at night for the robbers that stop the busses. But my companions, and all the other riders, did not look worried.

It was a restless night. I cannot sleep in a sitting position. At 5:45 in the morning we arrived and took another bus to a small village with a lagoon where we planned to camp, they in their tents, I in my new hammock.

While they ate their large meaty breakfasts I cruised the market… bought a mango, 4 chonchas, one unpalatable corn flour thing that even the lady who sold them didn’t want to sell me because it’s suppose to be eaten with meat, 2 pieces of yuca bread, 2 pieces of corn bread and some soft cheese. It cost about 3000 pesos (approx. $1.75).

We arrived at the lagoon which is actually a kind of resort for the local Colombians to take holiday with their families. Fishing is done in these small artificial lagoons and costs 1000 pesos per kilo of fish you catch. There is no shower, just a bathroom about half kilometer away from our camp, and I had my first river bath of the year in the river that flowed 10 meters below my hammock.

camping :)

I spent most of the day sleeping… we had a simple dinner of rice, eggs and cheese before the rain started to pour and the sun set and we retreated inside our respective homes for the night…

my amazing hammock, with mosquito net and carp for rainy days

As I write this from inside my hammock, it’s raining hard and I can feel the wind beneath. The carp above my hammock is holding up well and I’m not wet. But it’s my first time sleeping outside, alone, and in the dark… and sometimes when I realize this or try to gaze outside the shelter of my hammock a nervousness intoxicates me, like a drop of water rolling down my spine, but only for a moment. But the hammock is comfortable, I like the sound of the river, and the boys are nearby.

So here I am… in Colombia, some village I don’t know the name of, inside a hammock, in the rain, bathing in a river, eating rice cooked in on wooden logs, speaking Spanish with two people I didn’t know 24 hours ago. Here I am, ajar, free, and happy just to be…

preparing food with new friends

a bridge!

this little girl is called Vanessa and she played football better than me and the two guys combined

coffee beans growing

machine for the removal of husks from the coffee beans. it can be operated manually or with an electric motor. all those brown things on the bottom are the discarded husks.

yo & a pretty woman

May 20, 2011 at 6:28 pm 1 comment

a little update, the beach life

so a month has passed. a wonderful month, of sun and beach and fresh air and harmonious moments.

after Baeza i went to Canoa, a small coastal town a little south of the equator. it took all day to hitchhike from Quito and by the time we arrived it was dark, i was tired, and i hated my companion for standoffishly displaying all the qualities i hate within myself. a few days later we parted, although i tried to keep some kind of friendliness by visiting him and bringing him fruits. but he isolated himself and stared at me mockingly like i was a fool when we were together. here was the problem: he just wanted to be himself, which meant: passive, hostile, and distant. one of my worst qualities is a kind of verbally aggressive meanness that comes out unintentionally with people who are weak and stupid, and so relations quickly turned into a downward spiral with me finding fault with everything he said. it was an ugly situation and made me feel bad, firstly because i hate to instigate negative emotions and second, because i didn’t expect it to escalate into a complete break in the friendship. and third, because his arrival from Switzerland was long awaited, and had altered the course of my trip. had he not decided to come, i’d likely have gone to Peru through the jungle…

anyway, then Andrej came and we camped out in his tent in one of the camping grounds in Canoa, cooked delicious breakfasts in the morning, and swam all day.

a few days later we hitchhiked to Montañita, another coastal town about 250km south of Canoa and a lot more touristy. hitchhiking along the Ruta del Sol (“highway of the sun”) took us longer than expected and we spent a night camping out in Andrej’s tent on a cliff on the beach, washing ourself in the ocean under the full moon, being lulled to sleep by waves.

like most other south American coastal resort towns Montañita is full of “artesanians”, youth mostly from northern Argentina who make necklaces and bracelets out of string, metal, beads, and rocks they acquire along the way. they remind me of gypsies. always stoned, playful, and content to spend all day beside their little tables.

in Montañita i almost drowned. it happened because i felt invincible not knowing what a “tidal wave” is… the kind of wave that takes you under and pulls you far far away from where you were, into a strong current that pushes you out into the sea, into turbulent waters that want to drown you. the lifeguards who rescued me said it was the worst day of the month because of the position of the moon (it was 3 or 4 days after the full moon) and that on this day there were 5 of them instead of the usual 3 on duty. i had always thought that lifeguards were just like dolls on shelves, their purpose to evoke a placebo sense of safety. in Brooklyn, no one ever drowns. the lifeguards job is to take sun and flirt. but in Montañita…they work…. and had one of them not been using his binoculars to inspect the ocean yours truly might not be here today…

a video i took half hour later of 4 more men stuck behind the wave and several lifeguards trying to help them. it took about 20 minutes to get them to the shore…

after Montañita i went to Cuenca, which is the 3rd largest city in Ecuador and according to one Ecuadorian, the “Athens of Ecuador,” abounding with artistic activity.  the famous “Panama hat” is made here from the leaf of palm that grows in abundance. it carries the name of another country because it first became famous during the construction of the Panama canal when all the workers were wearing the hats, which were being shipped abroad through the canal from Ecuador. i’d bought one earlier… and then went into the ocean with it and watched it turn to nothing :(

after Cuenca i stopped in Guayaquil for 2 nights. Guayaquil is the largest city in Ecuador and i imagined it would be large beige industrial flat and barren, full of women who feed escopalomina to unsuspecting foreigners before they rob them of everything including their clothes. the drug is absorbed through the skin, so once chosen the target is defenseless. in one anecdote a woman received a hug from another who pretended to have mistook her for a friend…and several hours later she “woke up” on the street without her things and later learned her bank account had been cleared out. in another case, a man was sitting by himself in a park when an ugly woman sat next to him and started to talk. he avoided her but she insisted on using her napkin to clean up the drops of perspiration forming on the outside of his beer… and the next thing he recalled is wandering in his underwear through Guayaquil.

instead i had a very nice time in Guayaquil.. walked the 444 steps up the Malecon at night, saw the iguanas in the park, walked the streets comfortably at night. unlike Quito, which feels empty after sunset, Guayaquil is illuminated by lights and people, and feels safe and boisterous.

May 14, 2011 at 2:17 am 4 comments

sun is shining

Thursday 3/24
Decided to visit Misahualli, which is a town 20-30km away from Tena, which itself is at the frontier of the Ecuadorian jungle. In Tena stayed at Welcome Break hostel which is reviewed heavily on hostelworld and which i decided to stay away from after reading the reviews, but when i arrived in Tena from Puyo via hitchhiking and saw the amount of hostels…. i didn’t know which to choose… until i saw a gringo boy and asked for a recommendation…and that’s how i came to Welcome Break, which turned out to be of industrial proportions with a nice communal area outside and free wifi.

I had no problem hitchhiking to Misahualli, the first car to stop was a man who was going somewhere in between but ended up driving me all the way. “What do you do for work?” i asked in Spanish, trying to make use of the opportunity to practice. “I don’t, i drink…but today i only had 1 beer” he answered without humor. He was on his 5th litter when i saw him in town later so i skimmed on his invitation to drive back together.

Misahualli is full of little monkey bandits. They piss, steal your food, and rub themselves with onions while tourists, Ecuadorian and other, photograph them with delight.

I visited a few tourist agencies as well which only made me more firm in my decision to visit the jungle without. After i’d walked around Misahualli a third of a dozen times and decided it was about time to return to Tena i saw another gringo. This one was interesting. He was walking with several local men, conversing freely in Spanish and wearing a giant basket on his back. I thought he was a peace corps volunteer, which excited me, because i’ve wanted to meet a few and visit their sites… which i think is a very good way to visit remote communities :) but for some reason there are no volunteers on couchsurfing for Ecuador.

He was an American trying to create a business out of guayusa (pronounced wayusa), a leaf that grows in abundance all over South America. In Ecuador it’s boiled in water with sugar; in Argentina, they call it yerba matte and drink it 20 times a day. It symbolizes many things, including friendship and energy. I joined him in driving through the countryside to pick leaves with old ladies and kids, until eventually we ended up in the house of a “shaman” named Hitler where we spent the night…

Ayahuasca is known as the drug of the Oriente, although it’s cultivated and consumed all over the world by its devotees. It’s made from two plants, both neutral without the other. Only when combined do they become a potent green earthy beverage that can take you into the other dimension. Except i stayed mostly in this one, purging all the delicious food i’d eaten earlier into the earth on this dark and rainy night. The shaman had turned off the light, which i think was a mistake because light stimulates the brain, and the “guidance” of the shaman only distracted from what we could have felt… He chanted and then he beat our heads with a small broom of leaves into which he spit chicha (an alcohol made from plantains using woman’s spit to ferment it). Sitting cross-legged in front of him in the dark room, i covered my face and thought in amused repulsion what a comedy i was in.

The next day i returned to Tena and prepared for the jungle, which i thought would last at least two weeks. Life with just basic necessities, no internet, and many mosquitoes…that’s what i wanted!

Saturday i hitchhiked all the way to Coca (almost 250km, which in Ecuador takes a long time to travel because of the winding mountain roads). Like the stereotype that suggests that women never do anything on time or understand directions i didn’t leave the hostel until half past noon and then i walked to the wrong highway, going north instead of south. Traffic to Coca is scarce but not unreliable and the journey is scenic.

Coca is deep in the Ecuadorian jungle, but is a big town nonetheless, base to the many petroleum companies that exploit the jungle’s resources and undermine its nature. It was a lot of how i imagined Mexico, loud and alive, restaurants, music and people everywhere. I met Andrej, who was also traveling on his own and had a tent which we were to use for the next 2 nights.

My plan was to take the Monday boat towards Nuevo Rocafuerte, and possibly get off on the way if we had a good feeling about a village. We wanted to spend a week or two living with an indigenous community in the jungle, working, learning, and enjoying ourselves away from “civilization.” To conclude… we weren’t successful.

The first problem was that we arrived to Coca on Saturday night which meant that everything (tourist information center and agencies, basically all places with maps and information) were closed until Monday. On the information provided by one of the hotels, we decided to catch the Monday boat from Limoncocha, which is a reserve of “virgin forest inhabited by an indigenous Kichwa community” that most of the tour operators take tourists to. I figured if we got to Limoncocha we could then find a local family to host us for a night, and if we liked it…. we could stay longer….

Well…. we didn’t find anyone to host us, we didn’t find people who lived “outside” civilization, in fact we found very few people at all, and only the children expressed any interest in us, chanting “gringo, gringo, gringo” which i accepted with neutrality. The older people ignored us. We walked towards what we thought led towards the cabins near the lagoon, where we hoped to pitch our tent. But at the biological conservation center we were told it was not possible to sleep in a tent. Formalities aside, i think it’s best that we didn’t, considering the pythons and other critters that move through the jungle at night. We never found the cabins, as our walk took us elsewhere…towards an abandoned police post at the end of the path. By the time we returned to the road the sun was setting and hitchhiking our way towards the port for the Monday boat was futile as there were no cars, just a few motorbikes. We walked several kilometers in the dark before a bus scooped us up and took us to the port where we pitched our tent inside a restaurant.

The next morning we learned two things:

1) there was to be no boat for Nuevo Rocafuerte, because it did not stop in Limoncocha…ever.

2) option two was not possible either (which was to cross over to the other side of River Napo in a canoe and see if we could find an indigenous community there) because permission from the biology department of Universidad Catolica in Quito was needed first. The other side is basically a national park, a protected area of dense jungle that i was told repeatedly is under the supervision of the petroleum companies….

At the port we met an Ecuadorian geographer and geologist whose plans were to cross to the other side as well. Some time later they picked us up as we were trying to hitchhike out of Limoncocha (beware there is almost no traffic here) and we rode inside the trunk of their jeep all day, from Limoncocha to Lago Agrio, along unpaved and paved roads, stopping so they could record something while Andrej collected edible and uneatable fruit for experimentation.

We got to Lago Agrio as the sun was setting. Due to its proximity and the high rate of migration from Columbia Lago Agrio is considered one of Ecuador’s most dangerous cities. Nonetheless we walked the city at night without trouble and i felt more comfortable here than in Quito’s Mariscal district. But i didn’t like Lago Agrio (which means “bitter place”), it felt ordinary and dreary.

The next day i decided to end the trip. Lonely Planet was right in suggesting that guided tours make visiting the jungle a lot easier. (Although over the past week i’ve learned how to visit the other side of Limoncocha and about the people who live there from a petroleum manager i met hitchhiking, and about visiting another community outside Nuevo Rocafuerte.) The problem with tour agencies is that there are so many to choose from and none stand out in any positive way.

strange lemons...

lemon tree

delicious foraged guava

oil pipes running all the way from the jungle to the coast of Ecuador...

—–

Before Andrej joined me he was staying with a local family in Baeza, helping them with their small tortilla business and other chores. I followed him back to the family and have been here since…. swinging a machete in the garden, making and selling corn flour tortillas in the market, milking the cows… The house where we live is actually on the Baeza tourist map as the “Galeria the Artesenia de Truncos” and is full of wooden art and furniture made by the dad, Oswaldo, out of wood found in the forest.

We spent this weekend in Oyacachi, which was celebrating something (nobody knew what). The tortillas went so quickly that we had nothing but coffee to sell on Sunday, since we could not find more corn flour in tiny Oyacachi, which is home to only 500 people. There are two roads that lead to Oyacachi, one is through Papallacta and requires special permission to enter, the other is through Cayambe and is accessible without permission. From Papallacta, it’s about an hour on the unpaved road through the Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve. Mountains and fog pave the way, and the dust dances its welcome ballet after each car.

Andrej and i were the only gringos beside the peace corps volunteer in Oyacachi, who’s trying to create an eco-tourism project here. For more information about Oyacachi visit their community website (created by US Aid). In the future there might be need for volunteer English teachers as there are currently no English classes in the schools. I think it would be a great volunteer opportunity for people who want to get away from the puppy-mill type volunteer operations. If interested email Conner directly at conner.hunihan [at] gmail.

I’m having a really nice time here :)

April 4, 2011 at 8:39 pm Leave a comment

Coca -> Limoncocha -> Pañacocha -> Nuevo rocafuerte

 

Left the volunteer site in Salasaca two days ago, traveled 3 hours east to Puyo where i couchsurfed for two nights speaking only Spanish with my host and his family. Now in Tena, a small nice city on the foremost layer of the Amazon. From here i will go to Coca, about 5 hours further into the jungle and on the Rio Napo (which flows all the way to Peru and then becomes the great Amazon in Brazil). In Coca i’d like to take a cargo boat to Nuevo Rocafuerte which is on the border with Peru. However instead of going to Peru (read a very good description of the trip from Coca to Iquitos in Peru here) will return to Coca and then to Quito to meet a friend. On the way to the border i’d like to stop at the Limoncocha reserve, Pañacocha or any other village… the only problem is that i do not have a tent, or even a hammock, and as of today i’m still by myself.

 

expand to see more. the intended route is in pink on the right =)

 

There are many tour possibilities for trips to the Amazon, but i’m not really interested in the amenities included or spending much $ (although a good guide and group are welcome ideas). Something like this would be fun, although as the writer never seems to have any.

Stay tuned.

March 24, 2011 at 12:33 pm 3 comments

volunteering in Salasaca day 2

Day two of volunteering went a lot better than the first. I have only positive feelings about the Katitawa school, the 20+ children who attend look really happy, and the volunteers all appear well-intentioned. It also seems I’m the only sour apple on the tree. Most of all I love being around the Salasacan people, who smile often and offer their help earnestly when I’m lost, who wave from trucks and greet me joyfully. I love the mountains, the views, the farms and the animals that surround me. So I will stay… at least until the weekend and see if I can find some way to feel productive. If you’d like to read more about the school see this blog, written by a previous volunteer along with excellent pictures.

March 15, 2011 at 7:29 pm Leave a comment

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