Proof of Life: Nine Days in the Galapagos

So we began our journey by stepping off the edge of the map. That’s really what it feels like to be in the Galapagos, but it doesn’t hit you all at once. It creeps up on you, bit by bit, while your brain is still insisting that you’re on just another island vacation. But you aren’t. This isn’t Hawaii, or the Caribbean, or even Zanzibar (been there, bought the shirt). This is Terra Incognita. This is the frontier. Here there be dragons, and they won’t even get out of the damned road.

This guy knows who’s boss, and it isn’t you.

Of about thirty or so islands (and 200 “rocks” that don’t merit the title) only four are inhabited. On three of those, “habitation” barely amounts to planting a flag and paving a handful of streets. Ninety-seven percent of the Galapagos are still wild. Lea and I are here in the low season so the archipelago isn’t crawling with hikers, divers, backpackers, and other tourists, but even in the settled areas the wildlife doesn’t seem to care one bit about the invasive hairless apes encroaching on their territory. Marine iguanas and sea lions roam the docks and nature trails as unbothered as sacred cattle in India. Humans have certainly had an impact on the ecosystem – just look at all the strident attempts to bring the Galapagos tortoise back from near extinction – but these islands don’t let you forget that humans are interlopers and the original residents would be perfectly happy if we’d all just bugger off, thank you very much.

Blue-Footed Boobies on their own damn rock, not yours.

The only way to see the majority of the islands is by cruise but that would have blown our budget for the South American mainland, so we opted to take the landlubbers’ tour by visiting two of the port towns, Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz and Puerto Villamil on Isabella, staying in hostels instead of resort hotels and taking whatever tours and hikes were available from those two home bases.

A female Lava Lizard with her face on.

Our plane landed on Isla Baltra, which looks like the surface of the moon if Buzz Aldrin had planted a few cacti while he was up there. The airport feels like a National Park entrance somewhere in the American west. As soon as passengers get off the plane they walk across a specially treated bit of astroturf to kill any invasive bugs on the soles of their shoes and then, where the immigration and customs desk would be in an international airport, visitors pay the Galapagos Park Entry Fee to the tune of $100 per person. This is in addition to the Transit Control Card that had to be purchased in Quito or Guayaquil before getting on the flight. (See instructions for that bit of fun.)

Iguanas are everywhere, and they’re watching.

A bus ($5 per person) shuttles you across to the other side of Baltra where a ferry ($1 per person) takes you across the narrow strait to Santa Cruz proper where you can either hire a cab, meet up with your tour group, or take the express bus (another $5 per person) to Puerto Ayora.

(Side note: use of the word “ferry” in the above paragraph is generous. If you’re picturing a large flat-bottomed vessel that you could drive a vehicle onto, it’s not that. They have those, but only for tankers and cargo trucks. Even the “ferries” to the other inhabited islands are simply motorboats into which they cram as many passengers as they can before taking off into the wide, choppy Pacific. For shorter hops, such as the Baltra crossing, it’s more like a tender or water taxi – a smallish boat with a canopy and outboard motor. These run $1 – $3 depending where you are and where you’re going, such as crossing a bay to get to a secluded beach or to get from the dock to your inter-island ferry or cruise ship.)

This dock is currently occupied. Move along to the next one.

The express bus dumped us off in the middle of town, and Puerto Ayora looks like an island tourist town. Walking in any random direction, you’ll likely stumble into either a hostel, restaurant, or travel agency selling excursions to dive and snorkel sites. However, it’s a much more laid back tourist town than any I’d seen (and only because I hadn’t been to Puerto Villamil yet). There are no aggressive touts shaking you down for souvenirs. The taxi drivers don’t hassle you every five seconds. People are friendly without latching on to you and offering to “help” you buy stuff at all the tourist shops.

These sea lions broke my cuteness meter.

Two things on that first day signaled that we’d entered another world. First was the fishing dock and market. The seaside was crawling with crabs and rock-black iguanas so thick we have to watch our feet not to step on them. The fish market was crowded with more seabirds than you’d believe – big birds walking around like they were shopping for dinner – and a sea lion right there among the workers who apparently serves as the fish market’s mascot (and main tourist draw).

And you thought your dog begging for scraps was obnoxious.

The second sign that we weren’t in Kansas anymore was our inability to connect to the Internet from our hostel for any length of time. At first we put it down to irritating problems with the WiFi, the local ISP, or bad weather blocking the island’s satellite signal. Little did we know, but after days we would come to realize that the Galapagos are almost completely cut off from the World Wide Web. You can get a slow connection early in the morning before the islands wake up and start sharing the bandwidth, but by noon any hope of connecting to the outside world is gone.

Not a care in the world.

My god, y’all. Do you have any idea how hard it is to function without the Internet in the 21st century? It’s like having your oxygen taken away. It’s not just that we can’t look at cat pictures on Instagram, it’s that we can’t search for reviews on tour options, check the weather, or confirm our housing arrangements for the next stay on our trip. We were able to get out the occasional message on Facebook, but all connection with the wider world would be confined to the wee hours of the morning or the occasional miraculous mid-afternoon break when a signal would get through.

There are so many Darwin’s Finches in the Galapagos that every time you breathe you run the risk of one flying up your nose.

Anyway, back to the islands. Santa Cruz and Puerto Ayora are pretty well developed as things go. It’s easy to catch a ride, groceries are readily available, and the street food is fantastic. Why go to some pricey restaurant when the lady at the market two blocks from our hostel is handing out beef, cheese, and chicken empanadas for $1 each? Then again, there’s something to be said for two-for-$8 caipirinhas and mojitos from an ocean view table.

The ubiquitous yet annoyingly hard to photograph Blue-Footed Boobie.

We took a taxi to Los Gemelos, a pair of giant volcanic sinkholes, and El Chato Tortoise Reserve. For a $3.20 water taxi ride we hiked to snorkel at Las Grietas and picnicked at La Playa de las Allemanes, and after a very long walk we made our way down to the Darwin Research Station (which was infested with small, screaming children, not really worth the effort, and necessitated the caipirinhas and mojitos mentioned above).

A flamingo, living the life.

It wasn’t until we took the choppy, bouncy, water-flume ride to Isabella, the Galapagos’ largest island, that we realized how far into the wilderness we really were.

Despite the palm trees and crystal clear waters, Isabella’s lone village of Puerto Villamil is nothing like an overdeveloped island resort town. It tries to be, with a seaside street of tourist-catering restaurants and dive shops, but it feels like a precarious illusion. One reason is because it’s so cold. This time of year the Humboldt Current sweeps up from Antarctica bringing cold water and chilly air. There is misting rain every morning and evening, with the sun only breaking free in the afternoon. The temperature hovers between the upper 60s and lower 70s. While strolling along the beach you would never expect to see a giant cruise ship appear over the horizon. An 18th century British whaler would be far more likely.

While stalking this crab, I named him “Bisque.”

Despite the impression that the whole town might slide off into the Pacific or be swallowed by one of the nearby volcanoes, I love Puerto Villamil. The town is so quiet and easy. When it comes to a laid-back atmosphere, Jamaica’s got nothing on Isabella. Lea says she could imagine coming back here and teaching English for a month or two, but not staying any longer than that. Me, I’m not sure. Were I to, say, become a bestselling novelist and take up the Ian Fleming lifestyle, I could imagine building my Goldeneye right here.

I could live with this view and a couple caipirinhas.

In Villamil there is snorkeling in abundance so snorkel we did. We took two trips from Pahoehoe Galapagos Tours, one to an islet called Las Tintoreras and the other to a volcanic formation called Los Túneles, and Lea went snorkeling off a pier at a spot called Concha de Perla, where she saw some fantastic starfish.

All those spikes… I never knew starfish were Slayer fans.

The tour to Las Tintoreras was somewhat spoiled by a bunch of Germans who thought that snorkeling was about flailing their arms violently, treading water in giant flippers, kicking their legs like five-year-olds learning to dog paddle, knocking their neighbors in the head, and stirring up so much sand and muck from the seabed that no one could see anything. Seriously, who thought letting Germans in the water was a good idea?

Los Tuneles. Volcanic rock + ocean = swiss cheese.

The trip to Los Túneles, though, was hands-down the best snorkeling experience I’ve had in my life. The thing about snorkeling and diving is that once you’re in the water and the sounds of the upper world fade away it truly becomes an otherworldly environment. Also, from an intellectual standpoint, any time you go into the ocean you’re entering the realm of creatures that wouldn’t mind eating you, much more than on any well-trodden nature hike on land.

A Whitetip Shark. Supposedly harmless, but I wasn’t making any sudden moves.

Previously I’ve snorkeled off Mexico, the Bahamas, Caribbean islands, the Red Sea, and Zanzibar, seen beautiful coral and colorful reef fish. Next to the Galapagos, those other sites seem completely domesticated. Here we saw sharks, three whitetips and a baby blacktip. We saw sea horses sleeping with their tails curled around an underwater log. We saw manta rays, a spotted ray, and a flight of five golden rays swimming in formation. We saw giant sea turtles minding their own business while surrounded by a school of neoprene-clad sea monkeys from the surface world.

One of the turtles swam right by me so close I could easily have reached my hand out and touched his shell. Instead I kept my arms to my side, didn’t move or breathe, and let him glide on by me. Mis amigos, sharing space with one of the most beautiful and majestic creatures I’ve ever seen is the closest thing I’ve ever had to a genuine spiritual experience. Now I know how Darwin must have felt being here.

It was hard for me to leave Isabella. It’s harder still to come back to the world of pavement, skyscrapers, obnoxious taxi drivers, and crowds and crowds of sweaty humans. Not that human civilization doesn’t have its charms, but having been to the Galapagos and getting a glimpse of what the world would be if we’d just leave it the hell alone, I’m not going to feel so bad the next time I see an abandoned shopping mall being slowly reclaimed by nature.

A lazy day at the bottom of the sea.

Still, like salmon returning to their home stream, Lea and I returned to the world of fast WiFi, personal automobiles, and regular bus schedules. Our plane landed in Quito, and we were completely unprepared for what we would stumble into that first night back in the World.

But that is another story…

The Hairless Galapagos Sea-Monkey (Invasive Species)

Last Known Photograph

And we’re off! Right now Lea and I are sitting in the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport waiting on a jet plane, don’t know when we’ll be back again. Lots of our friends have been excited about our trip, have wished us luck, and even put us in touch with people we can meet along the way. Meanwhile, a small minority has responded to our plans with some variation of, “You guys are crazy! Backpacking for a year around South America? You guys are going to get killed down there!”

In honor of that sentiment, here follows a list of all the ways we plan to get killed while traveling around South America. Friends, this is for you.

 

“You know, every frame of this movie looks like someone’s last known photograph.”

-Joel Hodgson, MST3K Experiment 524: “Manos, The Hands of Fate”

 

Ecuador: Explosive Decompression

Assuming we don’t burst into flames as soon as we leave the United States, we’ll be landing completely unprepared at the Mariscal Sucre International Airport outside Quito, Ecuador. Nestled in the Andes, the second highest mountain chain on earth, we’ll be disembarking at an elevation of 7,874 feet above sea level with an atmospheric pressure of a mere 10 PSI. Now I can’t speak for Lea, but as someone who grew up at sea level in the lowlands of Louisiana, I fully expect to explode like Arnold Schwarzenegger on the surface of Mars in Total Recall.

Jared & Lea, Avdat National Park, Negev Desert, Israel, 2017. While exploring the site, they accidentally came across the lost resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, opened the lid, and burst into flames.

Peru: Alien Abduction

One of the places I have to visit while we’re in Peru are the famous Nazca Lines which, as Erich Von Daniken’s classic text Chariots of the Gods informs us, are landing markers for alien spacecraft. Now if you get scooped up by a flying saucer while driving through the backroads of Alabama you can’t really be held accountable, but if you go to Nazca you’re practically begging for it.

Now this is kind of a cheat because I don’t expect the aliens to kill us. However, due to the effects of time dilation and the distance to the aliens’ home planet, I expect all of you to be long gone by the time we get back so it’s really all the same.

Jared & Lea on Dia de los Muertos, Oaxaca, Mexico, 2016, in disguise as zombies to blend in with the hordes of undead unexpectedly rising from their crypts in the midst of the celebration. Their attempt at camouflage failed, and their brains were eaten.

Bolivia: Death Road Bus Crash!

This one is almost too easy. It is a well established fact that no one has ever survived a bus ride over the Andes Mountains into or out of Bolivia. The only thing in question is whether or not someone will be there to film the event and how awesome it will look on television. Will our bus tumble sideways or do cartwheels as it plummets over a sheer cliff? Will we land with a thud or explode like every car that ever ran off a hillside in 70s and 80s television? Place your bets now, amigos!

Jared & Lea on a dune in the Sahara, Morocco, 2015. At sunset, they and their entire tour group were devoured by a giant sandworm.

Chile: Dehydration, Desiccation, Mummification

After having been killed crossing the border from Bolivia, we’ll enter Chile via the Atacama Desert, the driest place in the world. Of course, we will forget to bring water bottles and die of thirst while baking in the sun waiting for the next bus to come by. Here’s the cool thing about the Atacama: it’s so dry that if you die there and no one moves your body, you will be naturally mummified. According to Bernardo Arriaza’s Beyond Death: The Chinchorro Mummies of Ancient Chile, the oldest naturally mummified body found in the Atacama has been dated to 7020 B.C.

Jared & Lea at LSU’s Greek Amphitheater (the place of their wedding in 2002), Baton Rouge, 2013. While on campus, Mike the Tiger escaped his compound and ate them both.

Patagonia: Consumed by an Elder God from Beyond the Shores of Eternal Darkness

In 1997, an ultra-low-frequency underwater sound referred to as “The Bloop” was detected at approximately 50⁰S 100⁰W, a remote location in the Pacific west of the southern tip of South America. The sound was loud enough to have been picked up by sensors up to 5,000 km away. It resembled the profile of a noise made by a living creature, but far more powerful than any ever measured on earth. Since then, scientists have “attributed” the noise to that of a large icequake. However…

What no one in the scientific field wants to admit out loud is that the location of the signal corresponds very closely to the suspected location of the lost sunken city of R’lyeh, prison of the dark entity known as Cthulhu. Lea and I plan to be at the southernmost tip of South America on the longest day of the year. What better time for a monster from before the dawn of time to rise from the deep and eat us all? If you gotta go, you gotta go.

Jared & Lea at Victoria Falls, 2012. While hiking the falls, they were both pushed into the Zambezi gorge by enraged baboons.

Argentina: Trampled by Drunken Cattle

From the research I’ve done on Argentina (which honestly boils down to watching food programs on the Travel Channel) I gather that all they do down there is slaughter cattle, eat red meat, and drink wine. It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to know that sooner or later the cows are going to turn the tables on their Argentinian gaucho oppressors. It’s just our luck that we’ll be passing through the country’s scenic ranchlands when the cattle finally snap, break into the wine barrels, get thoroughly boozed up, and go on a rage-fueled rampage killing everyone in sight.

Jared & Lea on Lake Michigan, 2011. While on the tour, a giant sinkhole drained the entire lake down through the earth’s crust and into the upper mantle.

Uruguay: Sand Blisters

Our plan for Uruguay is to spend a lot of it on the beach. We’ll be there in one of the hottest months of the year, so it stands to reason we’re going to scorch our feet. We’ll consider heading back to Montevideo for medical treatment, but it’s such a long walk to the bus station and that beachside tiki bar will look soooo inviting. We shrug our shoulders and instead of getting proper care we numb ourselves with mojitos and margaritas until we pass out. Our blisters get infected overnight, and we die.

Jared & Lea at the Wet Lizard, Belize City, 2007, on the afternoon that Cat-5 Hurricane Wilbur sank the entire region into the Caribbean.

Brazil: Eaten by Everything

Ah, the Amazon. I hear Brazil has been making great strides to chop it down and turn it into Wal-Marts, but I understand that a great deal of it remains. No doubt at some point Lea and I will find ourselves hiking through dense jungle and accidentally step into a nest of bullet ants. Since the sting from a single bullet ant is the most painful of any insect on the planet, and we’ll be covered in the little bastards, we’ll lose our minds and run screaming for the nearest body of water in an attempt to get them off.

On the way to the river, we’ll trip over a giant anaconda. This will piss the snake off enough to wrap around both of us at once and swallow us whole. It will be so sluggish while digesting us live that it will be easy prey for the hungry jaguar that pounces on it from the trees. The jaguar will get a few good bites, but in their struggle the jungle cat and the snake will both fall into the river where they, and us, will all be eaten by piranhas.

Jared & Lea at the Continental Divide, Rocky Mountain National Park, 2005, mere seconds before the magnitude 10 earthquake that split North America in half and ended human civilization.

Columbia: Old Age

The great thing about Columbia is that it’s the one country in the world where nothing bad has ever happened to anyone. Lea and I will love it so much that we’ll decide not to come back. She’ll teach English and I’ll set up a snow-cone stand. The climate is so excellent, the mountains are so beautiful, the seaside is so lovely, and the people are so friendly that we’ll spend the next five decades in blissful semi-retirement until finally uploading our brains into shiny new android bodies, the Matrix, or robots exploring the surface of Mars (whichever becomes viable first).

We lived happily ever after, and were never heard from again.

Jared & Lea at Capitol Lake, Baton Rouge, 2002. Shortly after this photo was taken, they were pecked to death by wild Canadian geese.

95%

Have you ever updated something on your computer, have it get stuck at 95% and just freeze? Yeah, that’s how Lea and I feel right now. Our flight leaves for Ecuador a week from Wednesday and while we’ve been pushing and pushing to get ready, it feels as if we’ve been stuck at 95% and can’t get all the way finished. So far the only thing we’ve completed is rehoming our cat. The rest is just… Argh!

Here’s a list,  because the Internet likes lists.

Boxing Up, Selling, and Otherwise Disposing

We’ve been asked several times if we’re keeping our home while we’re away. Since it’s just an apartment (one where the property owners recently decided to install outdoor speakers that blare pop music 24 hours a day), no we’re not staying. But that means that every item we’re not taking with us needs to be either boxed up and stored, sold off, or thrown away. We’ve been downsizing in stages for years now, but we’ve still just got stuff.

We’ve sold a bunch, including one of our cars (sale pending on the other). We’ve donated books, DVDs, and comics to the library. We’ve thrown many things in the dumpster (with more still to go), and we’ve put lots and lots of our belongings into boxes. Nevertheless, there’s still a lot left because we can’t stop living and need things like clothing and food, at least for a while. There was a rapid frenzy of boxing things several weeks ago, then everything has slowed to a crawl as we hit items that 1) we still might need, or 2) are large, awkward, and hard to fit anywhere.

Signing Our Lives Away

Not to mention the metric butt-ton of paperwork, contracts, and legal documents we’ve got to get in order. We’ve packed up and moved before without as much hassle – you don’t have to get your whole lives on paper just to change cities or change jobs. Leaving the country on your own nickel without benefit of an employer’s per diem or insurance coverage, well, that’s an Amazonian tree frog of a different color.

First, even though we don’t anticipate any terrible danger per se, it’s not a bad idea to get one’s wills and advance healthcare directives in order. And, since we’ll certainly need someone stateside to take care of financial matters (and check our P.O. Box from time to time) we’re hiring a personal assistant company and giving a family member our power of attorney. All of which requires lengthy forms to be filled out, signed, witnessed and/or notarized, filed with the courts, copied, and mailed to all necessary parties. We’ve checked off more than half of those boxes, but there are still some left to go and the clock is ticking.

And that’s the easy part. The hard part? Finding health coverage. We’re losing our employer-sponsored health care and going out on our own. Most U.S. plans are only good if you reside in the states, so we’re having to go with an expat policy. Which meant finding one with halfway decent reviews, filling out a lengthy application, then filling out even lengthier questionnaires about our medical history and current issues, every one of which pushes that premium up, up, and away. The one we chose (not going to mention who, because they’re not paying me to advertise) has an expat plan that also offers coverage in the U.S. but at twice the price. What’s even better, the U.S. coverage isn’t ACA compliant, so we’re still going to get stiffed with a tax penalty at the end of the year. The solution? Ditch the U.S. coverage and just make sure we get medical treatment anywhere except the United States if something happens to us.

Where are we in that process? Well, there’s one more form to sign, scan, and send back in. As with everything else, we’re still at 95%.

Wining and Dining

Understandably, before we start our grand adventure all of our friends and family want to see us off. This has led to traveling around to visit folks and a lot of meeting people for lunch and/or dinner in and around Atlanta. Which has been great – we love eating out and spending time with people – but it’s been chewing into our prep time and causing last-minute waistline expansion which we’ll have to make up for by switching to a ramen-only diet before we leave. Seeing all our friends one more time before we go is a welcome respite from the dreaded “doing stuff” and at the same time the nagging, responsible voices in the back of our heads keep telling us we ought to be at home printing another form or packing another box.

To try and take care of a lot of goodbyes in one fell swoop, we’re hosting a “Rum Sail Away” going away party for ourselves and two other friends who are also leaving town. (Hey Sonica! Hey Erin!) This will hopefully be a great time, let us see a bunch of folks all at once, and clean out my Caribbean rum collection which has been growing faster than I’ve been drinking.

Once we’ve scratched that off the to-do list, we’ve got a plan to push that 95% completion up to at least 99%. We will spend Monday driving around, signing and filing documents, returning overdue library books, picking up prescriptions, and generally putting the last nail in the paperwork’s coffin. On Tuesday we’re not going to leave the apartment or communicate with anyone (except via GrubHub) until the apartment is Packed. Caput. Finito.

Wednesday I pick up a moving truck. Thursday we move the Stuff into Storage. Friday will be for odds and ends, and sometime before we leave we’ll have to give the apartment a thorough scrub down. Even though we know the apartment complex is going to rip everything out and renovate the place as soon as we’re out the door, we still want our damn deposit back.

And then, just maybe, we’ll sit back and binge Narcos on Netflix until our plane takes off.

Stay tuned, compadres.

Leaving Miss Piggy

This is Miss Piggy. We think she’s about ten years old, but we’re not sure. She was already an adult when we found her in 2013, scrounging for scraps in the compost heap behind our house in Birmingham. Once we fed her and got her to trust us, it became clear that she’d been somebody’s house cat. She’d already been spayed, she was terrible at fending for herself in the wild, she ate every meal as if it might be her last, and our vet let us know that she was an actual breed (a Bombay). We posted signs in all the nearby neighborhoods, with all the local veterinarians, and on lost animal forums online, but were unable to locate her owners. Several houses had recently gone back on the market in our neighborhood shortly before Miss Piggy appeared. We believe someone moved away and abandoned her.

Now Lea and I are leaving the country for ten months and can’t take her with us. Leaving Piggy behind is the saddest part of the whole deal.

The good news is that we’ve found friends to take care of her, and we do want her back when we return. It’s hard, though, knowing that she’s going to be unhappy. She doesn’t understand what’s going on, and having been abandoned once before we hope she doesn’t feel like it’s happening all over again. It’s unclear how much animals actually remember of past trauma, but any pet owner will tell you that they do retain something.

We’ve left Piggy’s carers detailed instructions on all her little quirks (how  she likes her food, how she likes her litter, etc.). We hope she adjusts quickly to her new situation and doesn’t spend all her hours hiding from her new humans. Most of all, we hope she remembers us when we get back.

With this career break, I admit that a big motivating factor is to leave behind the non-stop, high pressure world of American working culture. There is so much emotional baggage wrapped up in surviving day to day, even for those of us in the “comfortable” middle class, that we desperately want to escape from, and we can’t wait to find out what it’s like to be free from the constant daily nightmare of alarm clocks, crushing commutes, hair-on-fire deadlines, and demanding, demanding, demanding customers. (I know: First World Problems. Send me a meme.)

However, there’s a lot in our lives that we love and it’s hard to let go. For weeks, it’s seemed as if every single day was the last day I was going to see at least one person. Some will be here when we return, but some won’t. We’ve made a lot of friends over the last two years in Atlanta, and we love the city itself.

I haven’t felt this way about every place that I’ve lived. There were some that I couldn’t wait to leave. Here, though, Lea and I feel that we’ve finally found our place. For me, there are people here I can hang with, game with, go to movies with, make music with. Here I can go to DragonCon every single year and not have to pay $300 per night for a hotel room! (Incidentally, we’re leaving before the Con and they’ve booked Peter Capaldi as a guest. AAARGH!) I know, more First World Problems. Sue me.

So, if Atlanta’s so great, why not just stay and find new jobs? Because now is the time. Because we’re not getting younger or healthier, and if we wait too long to live what we dream then it will only be a regret instead of an actuality.

Believe me, once we set all the gears moving to get us out of the country, we discovered that the pressure not to go is enormous, from society in general and our own inner expectations. We’re both overproductive people, so we feel like we’re the kid who makes all A’s who suddenly wants to drop out of school.

Funny story: I was that kid, and I did that too. In 1993 I dropped out grad school. I wasn’t prepared for the emotional fallout of ditching the path I was on and forging something new, but in retrospect it was one of the best decisions I ever made, and maybe the first real one I ever made for myself.

Here I am, twenty-five years later, about to do it again. This time I’ve got my game face on, I’ve got my partner in crime and love of my life with me, and we’ve got a battle plan for what comes next.

But we’re really going to miss Miss Piggy.

The Secret Untold Truth of The Escape Hatch – Now Revealed!

Buenos diás, compadres!

When I started this blog back in April, I talked about how my wife Lea and I are frequent world travelers and that I was going to use this space to chronicle our adventures and why hadn’t I been doing that all along. I also implied that along the way we might learn a little bit more about ourselves and the world and wouldn’t it be swell to share all that with the reading public, because who just wants to look at a bunch of pretty pictures of places someone else has vacationed, am I right?

Well… All of that is true, but it’s not the whole story. The whole story, which couldn’t be revealed publicly until now is… (drum roll, please)…

I done quit my job. As of July 14, I will no longer be your friendly, neighborhood librarian. Lea and I are taking a long-needed career break. On August 1, she and I will fly to South America and not come back for at least ten months.

The plan is thus: We land in Quito, then fly to the Galapagos for an actual “vacation” before our serious traveling commences. Once back on the mainland, we’re going to take two weeks of Spanish-immersion classes (Lea at Intermediate level, myself at “laughable beginner”). After that, we’re just going to head downhill in the general direction of Antarctica and see what happens.

Our itinerary is deliberately vague. We’ll travel by bus, stay in hostels, and couch-surf as much as we can. If we like a place, we’ll stay a while. If we don’t, we’ll move along. If we find we’re spending too much money, we’ll look for somewhere cheap and hole up. If we get fatigued and a little too dusty from all that backpacking, we may (on occasion) wimp out and book ourselves into a resort with trustworthy showers and air conditioning for a day or two.

We’re planning an average of about six weeks per country, going from Ecuador to Peru, a quick dash through Bolivia to see the salt flats, moseying down a good stretch of Chile, flying to Tierra del Fuego sometime around December, then back up through Argentina, Uruguay, maaaaybe Paraguay, Brazil, and finally flying across to Columbia before coming home. Or going somewhere else.

FAQ:

Are you both out of your goddamn minds?

Why, yes. Yes we are. If you’re a working American with a relentless, 40-60 hour a week job that barely lets you sleep at night, you probably are too.

The truth is, we’ve been planning something like this for a long time. Originally we were to have left two years ago, but life happened. Life always happens. Eventually you have to tell Life, “Back off. I’m doing what I want.” Life replies, “Oh yeah? Bet I can stop you.” To which the appropriate response is “Bring it, jerk.”

But seriously, you’re quitting work for a year?

That’s not all we’re quitting. We’re not going to have a fixed address. We’re not going to have a car. We’re not going to have a TV. We’re not going to have a cat. We’re not going to be around people who speak our own language.

We’re not going to have employers or customers making demands on our time and our energy. We’re not going to have a schedule to follow except what we impose on ourselves. We’re not going to have any choice but to immerse ourselves in another world. At the same time, we’re not going to have anyone to stop us from heading to that beach, or hiking into that jungle, or taking a gondola up that mountain whenever we damn well want.

(You’ll note that I didn’t say climb that mountain. We’re not completely crazy.)

Basically, the time has come for us to do a hard reset – a CTRL-ALT-DELETE if you will – on our lives. Whatever happens, we’re going to be different people at the end of this. With planning, luck, and determination, we hope to come back refreshed, in better shape, and with a whole new point of view on the world.

Assuming, of course, we decide to come back at all.

Stay tuned, dear readers.

Guatemala, Day 8: Adiós!

Today I start my journey back home while Lea begins her home-stay with a local family as part of her language immersion class. Since we hadn’t done it yet, we spent the morning walking around Xela’s Cementerio General.

Color us weird, but we visit cemeteries pretty much everywhere we go. They’re beautiful and quiet, and it’s fascinating and touching to see how different cultures deal with death. We made a whole vacation out of it two years ago when we went to Oaxaca for Dia de los Muertos (but that, my friends, is another story).

The cemetery in Xela is gigantic. We barely covered an eighth of it in an hour of walking. It goes on and on over a significant portion of the city. I’m pretty sure it’s bigger than the town I grew up in.

Latin American cemeteries are incredibly festive. Not all, but many of the tombs are as brightly decorated as the houses of the living, or even more so. On any given day, American cemeteries tend to be empty unless there’s an active funeral going on. And yet, while we were at the Cementerio General there was a steady stream of people coming in and out to bring flowers and wreaths to their loved ones, enough to support a small market outside the cemetery gate.

I think it shows that Latin American cultures are much more accepting of death as a natural part of life. Above the entrance to the cemetery was an inscription that Lea translated as “The Memory of the Living Gives Life to the Dead.” To be remembered is something I think we all yearn for, but with seven billion of us wandering above the ground that may seem a daunting prospect.

Nevertheless, life (as they say) goes on. I’m sad to say goodbye to Lea for a week and head home. Right now I’m typing this from a hostel in Guatemala City, and my day tomorrow is a string of airport hops. The cat, I’m sure, will clobber me when I get home.

Over the next months I’ll periodically drop in with some highlights of our past trips. Our next adventure comes up in August, and it’s to an island chain that begins with G and ends with S. Let’s just say that a famous Beagle went there once.

Adiós, Amigos!

Jared Millet, Guatemala City, 12 May 2018

Guatemala, Day 7: Wandering Around Xela While Looking For a Laundromat

An edifice in Central Park, Xela. Because every park needs an edifice.

Today was a day for taking care of business. What business? Well, when you’re a week away from home and you only brought three outfits, getting some laundry done is business #1. This can be a challenge. Fancy hotels will charge you more than an airplane ticket to do a week’s worth of laundry. The cheaper ones will often have a deal with a local laundry service to pick your clothes up and deliver them back – this worked for us in Africa – but here we weren’t able to get a straight answer from our desk clerk as to where and when we should drop off said laundry, so I went in search of a place on my own.

In this part of the world coin-op laundromats don’t exist; laundry is strictly a service industry. I did find an excellently priced and quick lavanderia with pick-up and drop-off in four hours, but I did have to wait for them to open because the hours listed on Google were wrong.

But that’s boring. What about Xela?

Museum of Natural History, Xela

I did wander around a bit after Lea started class at the Spanish school. Mainly I went to Xela’s Parque Central, took photos, and paid a visit to the Natural History Museum. I wish I could have taken pictures inside, but no fotografía, por favor. The first floor was essentially a taxidermy exhibit with all manner of dead creatures skinned, stuffed, and posed like victims from an episode of Criminal Minds. The upper floor had the expected displays of local history and Mayan culture but, to my surprise and utter delight, they had a display of ancient telephones, computers, and office equipment.

They had an original TRS 80 from Radio Shack, y’all. They had an original Mac.

Catedral del Espiritu Santo

Also in the building was a nice little display of local art and, outside around the corner in a basement entrance to the same facility, the public library. Being a public librarian myself, I couldn’t resist. Once again, no fotografía, so you’ll just have to bear with me.

The American Embassy

Inside was a large, well-lit reading room. This was the only part of the library that was well lit, or even lit at all. The book stacks were in a series of dark alcoves, much like monastic cells. Most of the book rooms were padlocked shut – including the children’s books, which made me giggle inside. I can’t tell you how often I’ve fantasized about sealing away the children’s section of my library so the little brats couldn’t rearrange all the picture books. In Xela, the librarians actually got away with it.

The weirdest bit was something I saw on the way out. There was a plaque where in many American libraries you might see something in honor of Andrew Carnegie. Instead, this library was thanking and memorializing… wait for it… L. Ron Hubbard. The plaque was dated April of this year, so I really don’t know what gives.

Not L. Ron Hubbard

Anyway, Lea got out of school, the laundry got done, we ate lots of food and wandered around some more, then packed up for the next stage of the journey. Tomorrow Lea moves in with a family here in Xela for a week. As for me, tomorrow I start the trip home.

Boo, hiss.

P.S.

OK, seriously? A McDonald’s van?
Panda Express too?! Talk about cultural appropriation.
That’s it. I give up.

Guatemala, Day 6: A Hot Spring In a Cloud Forest On a Mountain In the Rain

Fuentes Georginas, May 10

Today we wound up at Fuentes Georginas, a beautiful hot spring on the other side of the Volcán de Cerro Quemado from the city of Quetzaltenango. No one calls it Quetzaltenango except for cartographers. The real name, as far as anyone in Guatemala is concerned, is Xela (pronounced shell-ah). It’s easier on the keyboard too, so that’s what I’m sticking with.

Una calle en Xela

Xela is about as far off the tourist track as you can get and still be in the populated part of the country. The roads in this city were not planned with cars in mind. Not one is wide enough for two vehicles, so the whole city is a maze of one way streets. The buildings seem squeezed in upon each other, but at least they’re bigger on the inside.

I won’t bore you with the details of how we got here, save to say that it involved another two and a half hours via chicken bus, followed by a cab driver who had no idea where he was going. We checked into the Hotel Kasa Kamelot and Lea’s Spanish school (see below), then because we were so stressed from travel at this point we made the best decision of the day and signed up for Altiplano Tours’ afternoon excursion to Fuentes Georginas.

It’s not fog anymore at this altitude

First off, you want to schedule this as an excursion. Even if you’re brave enough to drive yourself in other countries, this is a trip for the professionals. It’s a narrow, twisty switchback road up to the springs through dense layers of cloud (not fog, cloud) with near zero visibility, several washouts, and a sheer plunge into the forest on the valley floor off to the side.

The steam chimney

Once we arrived, we had an hour and a half before the park closed for everyone except those staying overnight. (You can rent bungalows.) All the way at the back of the path was a restaurant, a bathhouse with lockers, and the spring, which had been dammed into several pools. Steam off the spring water mixed with the clouds and the rain to create an overwhelming haze. The spring itself is in a crack in the mountain, which makes a chimney for the steam. The water is comfortably warm but not overly hot, perfect for relaxing and not taking your skin off.

And relax is exactly what we did. We really didn’t want to leave. After a day of noisy, jolting bus and cab rides and walking up and down hilly, cobbled streets, a prolonged soak was just what the rain gods ordered. It even stopped raining after a while, and the clouds broke up enough for a hint of blue to sneak through. Sometimes when traveling it feels like you hit that perfect moment of peace and otherworldliness. I think on this trip, this was that moment for us.

P.S.

Schooled!

Lea in the principal’s office.

This isn’t just a vacation. The reason we came all the way to Xela was so that Lea can attend El Quetzal Spanish School for a week. Here she is signing over her soul. Classes start tomorrow!

Guatemala, Day 5: Lago de Atitlan (Literally, “Lake of the Place Near the Water”)

May 9: Our excursion begins

First, the good: Lago de Atitlan is a lake in the Guatemalan highlands in a valley defined by thee volcanoes. The population and culture of the area is predominantly Mayan. The scenery was cloudy and hazy, but nevertheless stunning. It didn’t rain on us once, despite the fact that the Weather Channel app on my phone insisted we were in the midst of a constant thunderstorm.

The ugly: We knew ahead of time that Panajachel was going to be a tourist dump. We didn’t anticipate how aggressive the touts would be, not only there but all around the lake. It was nothing like this in Guatemala City, Flores, or Tikal. Here, you can’t walk five feet down the street in broad daylight without having ten people try and sell you textiles, beads, tours, tuk tuk rides, and random trinkets. (In Flores, we had to chase down the tuk tuk drivers. Here they chase us.)

Anyway, we signed up for a boat tour that took us to three of the other towns on the lake. Each town was built up on the hillside away from the water (which apparently can rise by as much as 10 meters). From the boat dock, each town had a steep “tourist street” leading up to the village proper. Once we ran the gauntlet of touts and vendors to the real village, we were safe to walk around unbothered and enjoy the untouristed areas.

The road to San Juan

San Juan La Laguna

San Juan is the smallest of the villages, but with the steepest climb from the dock. The most notable feature of San Juan is the sheer number of murals on the buildings. I’m just going to shut up and show you a few. Enjoy:

San Pedro La Laguna

San Pedro was the gaudiest of the towns we visited with a density of aggressive tuk tuk drivers unjustified by its size.

Welcome to San Pedro

We escaped the crush by cutting down a side street and then a back alley, which emptied out not far from a small museum explaining the geology of the region, native dress and customs, and exhibited some very faded photographs of locals taking part in the traditional Mayan way of life.

On the way back through the alley we noticed that it too was covered by murals. While admiring them, we bought a small bunch of bananas from a passerby and ate them on the spot, because that’s what you do.

San Pedro’s hidden alley

Santiago Atitalan

Santiago is the largest community on the lake. A long straight road uphill took us to the Cojolya Association of Mayan Women Weavers, a fair trade organization that runs a small museum on the making of Mayan textiles.

In the Cojolya Museum

Wandering further from the (very large) sales area, we came up to the Iglesia Parroquial Santiago Apóstol, a church founded in – I kid you not – 1547. The age of the building was impressive, but the saints and biblical figures lining the walls inside were, I swear, shop dummies dressed up in a mishmash of homemade robes.

Not your typical 500-year-old church

We took a side road back toward the docks where we came across a guy grilling food in the street. Obviously this was our lunch. I mean look at it!

Admit it. You’re hungry now.

When we planned to spend time around Lago de Atitlan, I’d been hoping for a little more natural beauty and less blatant consumerism, but then we’ve really got no one to blame but tourists like ourselves.

The view from the docks, Santiago Atitlan

True Confession Time

Haggling. I hate it. I know it’s expected, I know it’s part of the culture in many parts of the world, but it never fails to skeeve me. It makes me uncomfortable, so I’m not very good at it. If there’s something I want to buy I almost always overpay without talking the seller down as much as I can. No matter what, I always feel dirty, knowing that someone ended up getting ripped off in the transaction. Give me a non-negotiable price tag any day. Haggling bugs me to no end.

Last Minute Pre-Post Update

Exhausted, we walked across the street to the Restaurante Santander for dinner. Our waiter, who served our food, two mojitos, and two Cuba Libres, was thirteen years old. Which surprised me, because I would have sworn he was ten.

The Spanish school in San Juan. (Seriously!) Not the school Lea will be attending, but the one she wishes she was.

Guatemala, Day 4: Jumping On a Chicken Bus for Fun and Profit

This bus has had enough of your b.s.

Today we traveled from Guatamala City to Panajachel on the shore of Lago de Atitlan. Did we take the direct shuttle like any other tourists? Hell, no. We took the chicken bus!

See how happy people are to ride the bus?

A transit day isn’t merely a transit day if you take the chicken bus. It’s a state fair roller coaster where you don’t even have to wait in line. No, you have to move your ass if you’re going to catch up with the ride. In fact we took three chicken buses. The first took us from Guatemala City through Chimaltenango and up into the twisty, curvy highlands to a crossroads called Los Encuentros, where we had to run to catch the next bus heading down into the market town of Solalá, from which we jumped on leg three to Panajachel.

A bus in Chimaltenango, traffic jam central

“Chicken Bus” is the colloquial name for the local second-class bus service. Chicken buses are all repurposed and (usually, though not always) repainted American school buses. Wikipedia has several theories as to where the name originates, but I was honestly disappointed that there were no chickens on board. I understand it’s not unheard of.

The infamous Guatemala City Red Bus. Because of crime, tourists are advised to avoid these at all cost.

A chicken bus has a crew of two: the driver and his assistant, who handles the passengers, yells the bus’s destination to potential  riders while hanging out of the door, and unloads whatever cargo the bus may be carrying on its roof. What the driver and his assistant did not do was collect our fares as soon as we got on the bus. This confused me at first until I realized it would disrupt the entire mini-economy based on people jumping on the bus at one stop, selling goods or making speeches, then jumping off at the next.

Sometimes it was obvious what people were hawking, though in once case a gentleman jumped on the bus, made a loud, long speech until the next stop, then began collecting money. Afterward I had the feeling that I’d just listened to a political campaign speech and been asked to make a contribution. Lea recognized enough words to let me know that he started off talking about sweets and chocolates, somehow veered into something about a girl in a car accident, then got back on the subject of sweets. Which he was not selling.

I’ve no desire to ride the bus as a form of transportation in the United States, but I love riding the bus in other countries. There’s no better way to soak up the on-the-ground reality of a culture while getting from one place to another. Sure, you can see the countryside from the tourist bus, but to travel on actual, local public transport means that you’re not viewing the country from a whitewashed, hermetically sealed cage.

Plus, the ride through the mountains really is a roller coaster. These drivers are muy loco.

Panajachel, from La Papuseria Cheros

We arrived in Panajachel and checked into the Dreamboat Hostel, which is apparently run by and full of European backpackers. Lea says that we’re not cool enough to be staying here. We’re surprised they didn’t kick us out for harshing the buzz with our stodgy middle-class Gen-X’er ways.

We made it down the street to Pupuseria Cheros, where the pupusas (corn meal patties stuffed with tasty goodness) are Q10 each and did not stop coming. Toward the end, we ordered all the fillings that we’d never heard of, like loroco and chipilín.

And of course, we walked downt o Lago de Atitlan. More on that tomorrow.

Lago de Atitlan, May 8, 2018

Nuts & Bolts

Weather Forecasting in Guatemala: The Weather Channel has no idea what the weather in Guatemala really is. I’ve been freaking out because if its grim forecasts and yes, it rained on us a little, but WC has been predicting nonstop thunderstorms. That was definitely exaggerated. I’m wondering if they even bother to check their data for some parts of the world. Accuweather seems to be much more accurate (har har) with forecasts of spotty showers in the afternoon.

P.S.

P.P.S.