Trujillo to Lima – ¿Vale la Pena?

It’s been two months since we left on our voyage. Back then, I put up a snarky post in answer to the people who thought we’d lost our minds. Recently though, I’ve had doubts about my ability to hang in there and see the journey through. The last thing I want to do is quit, go back to the U.S., and get a soul-crushing job. On the other hand I have to ask if I’m still enjoying the experience or if I’m sticking it out for the sake of stubbornness.

The thing is, there’s so much left I want to do. Machu Picchu is so close (relativey speaking). I want to see the Bolivian salt flats and the stars from the Atacama Desert. I want to swim in a pool big enough to see from orbit. I want to spend the longest day of the year in Tierra del Fuego. I want to bask on the beach in Uruguay. And I want to write stories, novels, and finish this blog, dammit.

The spirits of my ancestors agree.

The problem may be that Ecuador was easy from a travel standpoint. Peru, on the other hand, is hard. You wouldn’t think there’d be this much culture shock crossing a simple border – not like walking from Israel to Jordan and back last year, for instance. But I’m telling you, Peru just makes everything difficult.

Por ejemplo, Quito was nice enough to upload their metropolitan bus routes into Google. Lima, whose routes are much more confusing, did not. Everywhere else, the buses have their major stops printed in the front window so you can tell where they’re going as they approach. In Lima, the destinations are printed on the side, so you can’t tell if it’s the right bus to flag down until it’s already passed you by.

See?

And it’s the little things, like the lack of hot running water (probably true everywhere in S.A.) that makes it impossible to really clean pots, plates, and silverware. It’s the fact that we booked an apartment with a kitchen that it turns out has no pots, and no bowls, and a single skillet so small you can only fry one egg at a time. It’s the fact that getting around has become a logistical nightmare.

Lima is a labyrinth with streets that weave and split and merge in horrific traffic scrums. Our home town of Atlanta recently made a list of top ten cities with the worst traffic in the world. I can only assume Lima wasn’t counted because the analysts they sent here are still stuck in gridlock.

The spirits of my ancestors laugh at my feeble attempts to get from one side of town to the other.

One point in Lima’s favor: So far all the places we’ve visited have been overrun with dogs. Lima is full of cats.

I’m typing this from a fourth-floor studio apartment near the historic city center. Someone somewhere in the building has been playing (and badly singing along to) the exact same song over and over again for hours. We spent the last four nights in a very nice hostel in a sketchy part of town, but we haven’t had a chance to explore the museums, cathedrals, and other historic sites. Plus, we need a week off from long-haul bus trips.

Trujillo at night.

We came here from Trujillo, a much more sane (in my mind) city that wasn’t too hard to navigate. Trujillo sits right between the ancient capital cities of the Chimu and Moche cultures, each of which is entirely different from the other, and both are very different from the civilizations up in the Andes. The diversity in art and architecture styles is astounding.

Carvings on the walls of Chan Chan.
More of Chan Chan with a design that is probably a seabird, but all I see is “sideways rabbit on a pyramid.”
The face of the mountain god at Huaca de la Luna, Moche.
The uncovered exterior of Huaca de la Luna, original paint still intact.

Truth be told though, Lea and I are getting ruined-out. Archaeology is one of the main draws for Peru, to be sure, but we’ve been visiting archaeological sites and museums several times a week for a month, and the ceramics are bleeding into each other at this point. We’ve made reservations for Machu Picchu – a logistical nightmare in itself – but after that we may have to put a moratorium on visiting anything not built in the last hundred years. After all, South America’s got to have something else to offer, right?

Actually, yes.

(Side note to email subscribers: click here to watch the video.)

That is the Peruvian Paso, a horse breed known for its smooth ride and silly walk. The horse show in Trujillo is not to be missed if you’re down there. The program is normally in Spanish, but we happened to crash the party on a day that a Holland America cruise ship booked the event for its English-speaking passengers. We got to enjoy the show, but las turistas from the cruise ship were treated to empanadas and pisco sours. (emoji angry face)

In Lima we’ve spent four days learning how to get around the city, how vitally important it is to ask the bus conductor whether it goes to the stop you need even if it’s listed on the bus itself, and to just accept that you’ll probably have to walk five blocks at the end of your ride in any case. We went all the way out to La Punta, the tip of Lima’s harbor that juts out into the Pacific, in search of an excursion company – to no avail; one was closed and the other’s office wasn’t open to the public. On another day we went all the way to Miraflores (the part of Lima where the rich people live) to buy our train tickets to Machu Picchu – to no avail; the office only accepted credit cards, which we prefer not to carry.

Each of those trips took far, far longer than any bus ride should. The trip from Callao to Miraflores was an hour and a half each way. On the way back, we discovered that Lima must be South America’s Las Vegas from the sheer number of cheesy casinos we passed. All was not lost, though. We were able to sort out the Machu Picchu reservations online (though we still need to find somewhere to print our tickets) and after twelve back-and-forth emails with the excursion company we were able to set sail for Palomino Island to swim with the sea lions!

The technical name for a large group of sea lions is a “poopberg.”

Isla Palomino is a small rock off the coast that is home to a large sea lion colony. It’s an hour and a half by boat from Lima’s harbor, around the large Isla San Lorenzo and the smaller El Frontón with its spectacular swarms of seabirds. The tour’s promotional material shows happy swimmers smiling in the sun surrounded by inquisitive lobos marinos. The truth, dear readers, is that in late September the Humboldt Current is still merrily turning this part of the tropics into an extension of Antarctica. It was cloudy, windy, and cold as Dante’s Inferno.

Didn’t matter. I squeezed into my wetsuit and flippers, pulled on my goggles and snorkel gear, jumped in the water, and headed for the sea lions.

Only a guide and one other passenger were brave enough to join me. The water was too murky for the goggles to do any good and the cold went right through my bones and came out the other side. And the smell – no BBC Planet Earth documentary can ever clue you in to the smell of that many animals in one place, doing all the things that animals do (in the water too). Still, I did it!

And that probably answers the question as to whether I’ve lost my mind.

Chachapoyas: Sneaking Into Peru Through the Back Door

If you look at any travel book on Peru, they all make the (logical) assumption that you’re going to fly into Lima or one of the other southern cities and work your way outward from there. There’s a reason for that. Coming into Peru from the north does not make a good impression.

There are three border crossings from Ecuador: one along the coast road, one through the mountains, and one in the jungle. The experts all agree that the mountain crossing at La Tina (near the Ecuadorean village of Macara) is the best option, and the Loja Internacional bus company runs a border-crossing route to the city of Piura. Our intended destination was the Andean town of Chachapoyas, but since there’s no straight way to get there we had to spend a night in Piura, catch a morning bus to the coastal city of Chiclayo, then take an eleven-hour overnight to our final destination.

“Imprisoned Man of Ayabaca” welcomed us into the country.

To call the cities of the north Peruvian desert unlovely is being generous. Deserts can be beautiful places, but not when there’s trash strewn everywhere. Blogger Jessica Groenendijk talks about this in detail in an article for Living in Peru. Basically, the closer you get to human habitation the more garbage you see strewn along the road, piled into empty lots, and mounded between buildings.

I’m talking whole trash bags left out to rot and be ripped open by the thousands of wild dogs roaming the area. When walking anywhere, you have to watch every step in order to avoid piles of trash and dog excrement. There’s no green space in these cities; everything is concrete, asphalt, and dirt, so there’s nowhere else for the dogs to go. Lea and I were only in the area for a few short days, but that was enough to put the northern Peruvian wastelands right up there between Texas and Tanzania on the list of places I never want to go again.

But enough about that. On to Chachapoyas!

Chachapoyas is an Andean town of about 20,000 people just on the Amazonian side of the mountains. It’s a launch point for excursions to many natural and archaeological sites, such as Kuélap (the other Machu Picchu). Kuélap was a mountain-top city built by the Chachapoyas, one of many civilizations who were swallowed by the Incas in the decades before the Spanish conquest. Until a few years ago, Kuélap was only accessible via a two-day hike up a pretty steep ravine. Now there’s an over-mountain cable car that will safely deposit you at a tourist landing 2km from the site, from which you can hike the rest of the way in.

The walls of Kuelap.

And see, here’s where tourist attractions in Peru differ from those in the U.S. and, honestly, many other countries we’ve visited. In the U.S., you can drive right up to the Grand Canyon, get out, and look. A few years ago, Lea and I drove all over Mt. Rainier, stopping for photos wherever we wanted, and hiking a few side-trails whenever the mood hit us. In Peru, though, you’ll bounce over miles of twisty, single-lane dirt roads until you finally have to stop, get out, and hike two to six kilometers (or more in some cases) to see whatever it is you came for.

And are the trails level? No siree, Bob. What’s the point of a mountain landscape if you don’t have to climb up and down and up and down for hours on end to appreciate it? Some of the sites have horses you can hire to ride part of the way, but that means the rest of us get to watch out for piles of horse crap instead of enjoying the scenic vistas.

Sigh.

Yes, I know Peruvians are acclimated to these kind of hikes and think nothing of it. I also know that all the cool stuff in the Andes is really inaccessible and that the country has done its best to open these sites up for the public to enjoy. But the fact that these sites are so inaccessible just proves that Andean cultures were bugnutz insane to begin with.

Hey, should we build our settlement in this nice, fertile river valley? No, let’s erect a giant city on the highest mountain we can find. If I understood our guide correctly, all of Kuélap’s water had to be carried up from the areas below. Well guess what, homeys? Your impregnable walled mountain city ain’t as defensible as you think if all I have to do is cut off your water supply and wait for your defenders to die of thirst.

The cliffside mausoleums of Revash.

Anyhow, the walk up to Kuélap wasn’t as bad as I’m making out, despite the altitude. The way down was scarier, what with the afternoon rain making the stepping stones slick with mud. The next day we rode even further out of town to see the Revash mausoleums (a much more difficult trek on foot from the visitors’ station) and the Leymebamba museum of Chachapoyas culture, featuring artifacts recovered from the burial sites at Revash and Laguna de los Condores, mock-ups of local sarcophagi, and a collection of actual mummies. I’ll say this for the Chachapoyas – they were masters of space-saving dead body storage techniques.

The afterlife is a little cramped.

Back in the town of Chachapoyas, we met up with an awesome guy named Leo who teaches business administration and English at the local university. Leo took us out for shots – Amazonian shots. We went to a bar called Licores la Reina where Leo ordered a sampler of twelve regional liquors which we had to sip and decide which we liked best. Most were derived from fruits available in the Amazon, but I actually liked the Leche and Cafe based liquors (much to my surprise). Lea and Leo settled on one called “Seven Roots” and ordered a small pitcher. I did not partake; that one was too woody for my tastes.

Speaking of tastes…

Eating on the Road

Oh my god, we need vegetables. After nearly two months in South America, Lea and I have been dying for vegetables, as well as anything that doesn’t fall under the heading of “typical local cuisine.” The food here isn’t completely lacking in variety, but it does suffer somewhat from what I call the “Morocco Problem.”

We spent two weeks in Morocco in 2015. Ever since, any time someone has suggested going out for Moroccan, we decline. Moroccan food has no variety whatsoever. Your choices are kabobs or tajine (a kind of stew). Your meat selections are chicken and kefta (minced beef or lamb), and sometimes only kefta. I don’t need to draw a chart to show how limiting that is, and how you might get sick of it after two weeks of nothing but. “Did these people learn nothing from the French?” I still ask when I think about that trip. Apparently they did not.

Anyway, Ecuadorean and Peruvian tipicos is like this: Your meal starts with soup, usually chicken or rice in chicken broth, often with bits of potato for good measure. Your main course is a pile of rice with a small cut of meat (chicken, flank steak, pork, guinea pig), more potatoes (often French fries), and a “salad” that is either a spoonful of coleslaw or perhaps a few slices of cucumber in vinegar.

Yes, we ate your pet. It was a little gamy.

We cook for ourselves when we can, but finding hostels with kitchens and refrigerators has been tricky. Finding something we can make into a meal is problematic as well. To paraphrase Forrest Gump, “Grocery stores in South America are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” In the markets there are plenty of fruits available (which the Ecuadoreans are heavily into juicing) but the vegetable selections are sparse.

We’ve often settled for jelly and butter sandwiches, or sprung for small packages of cheese and sandwich meat that we can use all at once and not have to refrigerate. The same for milk and cereal – it’s a nice break from the “bread roll with tea” breakfast that seems to be standard, so in Chachapoyas we improvised refrigeration by setting our milk carton in the bathroom window and leaving it open to the 50⁰ night air.

Every menu in every restaurant.

Our first cooking adventure was in the Galapagos. Our second hostel had a kitchen, albeit short on plates, bowls, pans, and utensils. The grocery stores were short on… a lot, actually. They had plenty of pasta, but nothing obvious in the way of sauce to go with it, not to mention usable cuts of meat. Sure, you can buy a whole dead chicken or half a cow or pig, but packaged cuts like you’d find in the U.S. aren’t really a thing.

On our first night we settled for noodles and butter, but the next time we improvised pasta primavera. Essentially, we bought any vegetable that looked good and used a packet of cream of asparagus soup for the sauce. I’m not sure what we ended up with, but it tasted good.

Pretty good, actually.

So far our cooking, when we can do it, has featured pasta heavily. When we see ingredients we might like in something, whether we’re going to use them soon or not, we grab them because we never know if we’ll see them again. This weekend we hit the jackpot when we came across peanut butter, packets of green curry, and a jar of cayenne. For protein, we’ve kept to tuna and eggs as they’re the easiest to deal with. We’ve gone vegetarian for a lot of our self-cooked meals because if we don’t serve ourselves veggies no one else will.

Our stash.

That is, until we crossed the “Chinese Restaurant Line.”

 

The point came when we just had to have something besides tipicos, bread for breakfast, and street food. We sprung for Domino’s near the end of our stay in Quito. We found a really good Lebanese restaurant hidden away in Puerto López. We ate Cuban in Guayaquil and lavished our praise on the owner. Once we got to Loja, though, Chinese restaurants started springing from the earth like toadstools.

 

To be clear, we’ve yet to see an actual Chinese person in any of these restaurants, and the food is even further from authentic Chinese cuisine than what you find in an Alabama Chinese buffet. Nevertheless, they serve vegetables. More vegetables than we’d seen in ages. We ate Chinese three nights in a row in Loja, and a Chinese restaurant was our first stop when we reached our current city of Trujillo. (More on Trujillo next week.)

Our hostess in Chachapoyas let us use her kitchen, so we concocted something like tuna casserole one night and pasta with vegetables and a mustardy pepper sauce the next. In Trujillo we have our own kitchen (albeit with what amounts to an electric camping stove) and we’ve had noodles with stir fry and soy sauce for three meals in a row. The last was extra good because of that cayenne I mentioned.

Buen provecho!

Yes, enjoying local cuisine is a vital part of travel and immersing in another culture. Sometimes, though, you just need a break. A long break. And a kitchen. And a bottle of hot sauce.

Loja, and a Word About Transportation

When last we met, dear readers, we were watching the whales in the waters off Puerto López. Puerto López, just so you know, is a dump of a town with a nice beach. In fact, we spent all of our non-whaling time in Puerto López sitting on the beach under a cabana, eating jelly sandwiches and street food, and generally not doin’ nothin’. From there we made our way to our final stop in Ecuador, the bustling mountain town of Loja.

I’m going to pause here for a special message to all my loyal subscribers who are following this blog via email. First, thank you! I hope you’re enjoying our adventures in South America, and I appreciate you all for coming along. Second, it has come to my attention that if you’re reading this in your email, you’re missing out on two things: the banner photo at the top of thepost and any videos I’ve embedded. I don’t know why WordPress won’t include those in the mailing, but you’ll want to see both for this article so feel free to click on through to the actual website for the full effect.

Ready? Ok.

The gate to the city.

Loja is a bustling and surprisingly affluent town in the southern Ecuadorian highlands. It’s pleasant enough during the day, but it’s really beautiful at night when all the historic buildings are lit up. Another great thing about Loja: although it’s surrounded by mountains, the central district is predominately flat, easy to walk, with a fairly simple north-south bus line on the central thoroughfare.

A river runs through it.

We spent five days in Loja before heading to Peru. Five days was good because I ended up being sick for some of it and a bus ride would have been miserable, but five days also felt a little long because there wasn’t quite as much to do around town as we’d thought from the guide books. The museums and churches went by quickly, and we never managed to get into the one we wanted to.

This one was nice, though.

From a religious perspective, this is the most significant time of year in Loja due to the presence of La Virgen del Cisne, a sculpture of the Virgin Mary that resides in the village of El Cisne but is moved to the Cathedral of Loja in early August, where she remains until the end of September. We tried several times to see her, but apparently there is always mass going on when she’s in residence and we didn’t want to be tacky and intrude with our big, stonkin’ tourist cameras.

While I was convalescing, Lea scoped out some cool murals.

The biggest natural attraction near Loja is Podocarpus National Park. Since it’s a lengthy taxi ride out of town and a really long walk from the ranger’s station up to where the trail heads begin, at first we didn’t think we would get to go. However, via Couchsurfing.com we met a couple of cool guys named Santiago and Darwin who offered to drive us up there and show us along the easiest (but still insanely steep) trail to the mirador over Loja valley.

Myself, Lea, Santiago, and Darwin at 9,500 feet above sea level.

Loja is also known as a center for the arts, and especially music, in Ecuador. On a recommendation from Santiago and Darwin, we spent our last evening at a concert at the Plaza de San Sebastián. The music was good Ecuadorian pop, but on our way there we were visited by an apparition.

Waaay back in the Galapagos, just around the corner from our hostel, there was the decapitated body of an Alice-In-Wonderland-style caterpillar ride, like something the Joker would strap Batman and Robin to in a dilapidated theme park. The caterpillar’s body was stretched along one street while his head was parked around the corner. Later, in Mindo, we saw a photo of the caterpillar on a flyer for an artisan’s fair that was supposed to take place while we were in town. The fair was a bust (five tables of baubles for sale) and no caterpillar in sight. But there in Loja, on our last night in the country, completely out of nowhere, the caterpillar appears in all its neon glory. We even got video!

However, for every good thing, there is an evil opposite. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you – in all its horror – the gas truck of Loja. Play this video with the audio turned up, if you dare:

In Ecuador, gas for cooking and heating is brought to your home in a way similar to how milk was delivered in the golden age of black and white sitcoms – by a guy going door to door in a truck. In Quito, the gas truck would drive around honking its horn and if you needed gas you would yell out your window for it to stop, then run to pick up a canister.

In Loja, however, the gas vendor tools around playing the ditty in above video like a demented ice cream truck. It never stops. You can hear it all over the city. It runs incessantly from early in the morning until after sundown. The first time I heard it, I thought it was some idiot practicing the only four notes he’d learned on his flute. By the second day I’d figured out it was a vehicle of some sort. By the third day I wanted to hurt it.

The fourth day I spent ill in our third floor hotel room, sitting at a desk with the window open while beating a new short story into shape. The gas truck ditty drifted through the air like a bad smell for the ears. I could hear it nearby. I could hear it far away. I could hear it in my frickin’ imagination, whether the truck was there or not. Lea suggested I record it for posterity. I refused in the name of peace and sanity. She went and did it anyway.

Then I remembered that one of the reasons I write is to take things that are stuck in my head and put them in someone else’s. So here it is again:

You’re welcome.

Friday morning came and it was time to say goodbye to Loja, to Ecuador, and to all its friendly people. In general Ecuadoreans are kind, laid-back, genial, and helpful. I’d like to think that was true everywhere, but Ecuador seems like a special place. It’s certainly somewhere you should visit, and even after six weeks I was sad to see it go.

Our route through the Galapagos.
Our route through mainland Ecuador.

Then we got on the bus.

Oh my god, y’all. The bus.

This is a whole other article, but I’m going to lay it right here so it’s on the record before one of these things tumbles over a cliff and crushes us.

We spent a lot of time in Ecuador getting around by bus. Having entered Peru, we’ve come to realize that we’re going to spend a lot more time on the bus, because Ecuador was a relatively small country and now all the places we want to go are pretty far apart. In fact, as I type this, I realize that we’ve spent 22 hours of the last three days on a bus, including an 8 hour border crossing trip from Loja to Piura, three hours early in the morning from Piura to Chiclayo, then an 11-hour overnight that left Chiclayo at 6:00 p.m. and arrived in Chachapoyas at 5:00 in the morning. Thankfully our hostel acknowledges the reality of the local bus schedule and let us check in that early. We were dirty and we were tired.

Riding a long-haul bus through the Andes is like flying on an airplane where there’s turbulence for the entire flight. Riding in the Andes is a workout for the abs as you try and keep yourself sitting upright while the cabin sways back and forth. Riding in the Andes is EXCITING! especially in Ecuador where the bus drivers don’t slow down for anything, not even hairpin curves next to boulder-strewn ravines.

The buses show movies. The movies are mandatory, pirated off the internet, and of course dubbed in Spanish. Sometimes the volume is low enough that you can ignore it (such as Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Kickboxer: Retaliation on our very first ride) but some are piped in so loud that you can’t block it out (such as last night’s Spanish dub of Wonder). We watched Eugenio Derbez’s Instructions Not Included and its direct French remake Two Is a Family (higher production values but not as funny – even in Spanish I could tell). We’ve seen Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther, both with the last fifteen minutes missing. We saw the first half of Snakes on a Plane before the bus’s TV went out.

The buses don’t stop. Well, that’s not true. They won’t stop when you want them to. They’ll stop in traffic jams, they’ll stop to pick up passengers and let them off, they’ll stop to let vendedores sell questionable snacks, but they sure as hell won’t stop for ten minutes to let passengers stretch their legs or use the bathroom. (To be fair, the bus from Guayaquil to Loja did stop at a hillside restaurant to let people grab lunch, but it was the odd bus out.)

The buses in Ecuador are sketchier (and scarier) but Ecuador’s stations are centralized and some are even nice. The bus terminals in Guayaquil and the south end of Quito are practically airports. In Ecuador the bus lines tend to stop and leave from shared stations, so all you have to do is walk up and down a hall of ticket-sellers looking for the destination you need. In Peru, it’s not so easy.

Peruvian buses have handy safety videos in Quechua.

In Peru, the buses are somewhat nicer (dinner included, sleeper compartments, potential for cat pee smell), but the stations are a mess. Each bus line has its own separate station and its own dedicated routes. There is a website called Andes Transit which purports to list bus routes and schedules. It was somewhat accurate in Ecuador, but its Peruvian information veers into fiction.

From Ecuador we landed in Piura at Loja Internacional’s station, then taxied to the other side of town to a hostel I’d booked that was near the Movil Tours station, whom Andes Transit indicated had a direct route to Chachapoyas. Andes Transit lied. Movil could have bussed us south to Chiclayo the next evening, but we’d have had to stay overnight. The guys at the Dora bus station directed us to Linnea, two miles down the road in the other direction, who ran multiple routes to Chiclayo, so we took a collectivo back across the city to book an early morning ride.

When we got to Chiclayo on Linnea, their station was only two blocks from the Civa station, so we hoofed it down the road, bought our tickets for the night bus, and checked our massive backpacks at the equipaje desk.

So what do you do with an eight-hour layover in Chiclayo when you’ve been up since 4:00a.m. and doubt you’ll get much sleep the next night? Well obviously you visit a witch doctor’s market, stumble upon a surprise parade, give props to a random street band, and crash a wedding.

Also, we were able in eight hours to scratch Chiclayo off the list of places we ever need to visit again. (Pro tip: skip Piura too.)

Here in Chachapoyas there’s not much to do on a Sunday, so we went ahead and walked eighteen blocks in a big circle to scope out the options from the various bus lines in town. The winner is probably going to be Movil Tours, who are the only company to offer a direct line to our next stop in Trujillo, and have sleeper seats available for S/.85.00 ($25.68). Not bad for a fourteen hour ride back to the coast.

But first we get to enjoy Chachapoyas and the Fortaleza de Kuelap. Stay tuned, mis amigos.

P.S. Lea’s Macrophotography Exhibit II !

Whales!

So you’re in this boat. It’s a gray Thursday morning, the kind that Douglas Adams predicted would mark the end of the world. You’re speeding away from the questionable seaside town of Puerto López toward some offshore rock called Isla de la Plata, part of Machalilla National Park, where they’ve got frigate birds, blue-footed boobies, and snorkeling. They call this coast the “Poor Man’s Galapagos” and so far it’s lived up to its appellation. The big draw for this excursion is that during the months of August and September, humpback whales are known to call this stretch of water their turf. You’re not guaranteed to see whales, of course. But there’s always a chance. You watch, but to either side of the boat as far as the horizon, the sea is unbroken cloud-gray and blue.

But then…

A flurry of excitement. Someone’s spotted something way off to starboard. You crane your neck. There – off in the distance – a spout of water. Then another! Whales breaching the surface to breathe. The captain and the tour guides confer, but the boat presses on toward the island. The whales are too far away. Nevertheless you fumble to extract your trusty Canon T3 with its telephoto lens out of the safety of its drybag. You check the settings – high shutter speed, continuous shooting mode, focus, ISO – and you get ready, watching the horizon with a much less casual eye.

They’re here.

More excitement. Several passengers yell “Whoah!” in unison. Another whale spout, this one much closer and ahead of the boat. The captain changes course. You’re going after them. You shift into a crouch. For millions of years your forebears have been hunters. That instinct quickens your pulse, sharpens your senses. Your weapon is a camera, not a harpoon, but the lizard brain at the base of your skull doesn’t know the difference. The chase is on.

You hear the splash before you see it – like someone dropped a bus into the water. You swivel your lens forward and zoom in toward the spreading bruise of sea foam flattening the waves in a wide oval. You wait. You wait.

Then you watch a hill of black flesh crest a wave and blow a spout of water toward the sky. It sinks back under the ocean and a giant tail follows, black on top and white below. It slaps the sea as it plunges, sending up a wall of spray. Your camera has been clicking three shots per second. You ease up on the trigger and let yourself breathe. Come back, Mr. Whale. I’m not done with you yet.

The captain idles the engines. All the passengers hush. Then another cry and a giant splash forward. You turn to catch it but it’s gone. A whale had jumped out of the water and you missed it. Its tail rises up from the sea and splashes as it sinks, as if it’s laughing. At least you got a picture of that.

Another whale breaches and blows. You swivel for the shot. You’re getting the hang of it, but you’re still slow on the trigger. You quickly figure out that your camera loses focus when the horizon vanishes on the upswell of a wave, so you learn to wait until the boat is sliding down the other side to keep your focus true. You watch for signs that a whale is about to appear: the spout, a slight fuzziness on the water’s surface that hints something big is just below. You shoot several more whale humps and plenty of tails, but the handful of times that a whale leaps full out of the water you’re just too slow to catch it.

One whale sticks his tail straight up in the air and slaps the surface repeatedly. The captain guns the motors and steers the ship around the pod for different viewing angles. You set your camera down in  your lap and simply enjoy the experience. There are whales all around you, creatures that make elephants seem small, graceful beings that dwarf the tiny hull you hope protects you while giants casually swim by.

Fee. Fi. Fo. Fum.

The breachings become fewer and farther between. The pod is moving away save for one, maybe out of idle curiosity about the strange hairless monkeys in their silly little raft. The captain sets course for the island and revs the engine for the next item on the day’s agenda. You look behind for a final glimpse and, jaw dropping, see that the whale is following. Instead of your life flashing before your eyes, all you get is a silly line of dialog from an early episode of South Park: “Oh my god, it’s comin’ right for us!”

You take the shot.

To your relief and secret disappointment, the whale does not Moby Dick your tour boat. You reach the island safely, where you climb a friggin’ mountain to take pictures of boobies and frigates, eat tuna sandwiches while being pestered by hungry sea turtles, then snorkel a reef with big, colorful fish and a fairly strong current.

Big boobie and little boobie.
Frigate birds roosting.
Fish in your face.

All in all a good day. You peel off your neoprene wetsuit pants, wring out your soaked t-shirt, wrap your thin, quick-dry African towel around your shoulders, and relax as the captain steers you for home.

But wait. There’s more.

Not fifteen minutes into the ride back, another breach is sighted. This one is close, just off the stern. The captain slows and adjusts our course. A pod of humpbacks is coming alongside. Unlike the ones from this morning, these aren’t feeding or marking territory. These are here to play in the afternoon sun.

Your camera is out and you’re ready this time. And now, the whales are making it easy. You can’t know for sure, but you suspect they’re putting on a show for the cheers and applause every time one of them leaps into the air, flips over, and flops on her back with a splash like God skipping stones. This is what life is about, they seem to say. Why, what did you think it was?

This pod, your group soon figures out, is a family. There is a huge female, a smaller male, and a calf just learning the ropes of what it is to be a young, little leviathan. The mother is a maestro of megaton water displacement, but every now and then her pup leaps from the water in a spiral of sheer delight.

Gone is the primitive hunter in the back of your mind, replaced by pure exhilaration. Speeding along the waves with a trio of vast beings whose lives are so alien to your own, yet who share a common experience of play, of the sun and the waves, of a child running off the end of a diving board and cannonballing into a pool full of adults, it brings such a feeling of unadulterated joy that you want it to last forever.

In the same opening chapters to The Hitchhiker’s Guide in which Douglas Adams ends the world on a Thursday, he also makes the claim that dolphins (and I’ll expand this to all cetaceans) are much more intelligent than human beings because despite their large brains, all they do is muck about in the water having a good time. Damned if the man wasn’t right.

Somewhere In the Middle of the World

Life Lesson from Quito: If you see a guy juggling machetes on the side of the road get off the bus and take a video. You can always catch another bus, but you won’t find the machete juggler again no matter how hard you look. And the universe even gave us two chances: once when we were heading north toward Mitad del Mundo, and again after we realized we were on the wrong bus and had to turn around. We went hunting the next day and the day after, but we never saw the dude again.

But at least here’s a llama.

So what, you may rightly ask, were we doing back in Quito? When I last left you hanging, dear readers, Lea and I were enjoying the hot springs in the little resort village of Papallacta. We spent one night in the ultra-nice resort at the top of the valley then moved down to the pueblo itself for cheaper accommodations, laundry service, and the hot springs park favored by the locals instead of the tourists. Throw in some hiking in the Andes with only a little bit of rain and you have the makings of a pleasant few days.

Papallacta, however, is to the east of Quito and the places we wanted to head next were to the west. And besides, while we were more than ready to move on from Quito, we still hadn’t hit its most famous attraction – the equator itself. Mitad del Mundo is the big, chintzy monument park, museum and shop complex north of the city where you can take pictures of yourself standing on a yellow line marking 0.00⁰ latitude.

Proof!

Yes, yes, yes, if you do the research you’ll find that the monument and the line aren’t exactly on the equator, and there’s another museum just up the road that claims to be the real thing. But the ex-physicist in me says, “Oh yeah? Well for your information, smarty, the Earth wobbles on its axis so that the poles and the equator are changing slightly every day, so no line you draw will ever be completely accurate. So shut up and don’t spoil my equator photos.”

Ahem.

Anyway, after a couple days parked at a crummy hostel near the Ofelia Bus Terminal in a sketchy part of the north end of town, we were very much finito with Quito. Our current port of call is Mindo, a village to the west that’s lower in altitude yet still in a cloud forest, in a valley that’s a biodiversity hotspot. We spent our first night taking photos of birds from top floor of our hostel. The next day we went to a butterfly farm and saw even more species of hummingbirds just sitting on the back porch of a different hostel on the edge of town.

Yesterday we rode a taxi up a mountain and a cable car across a gorge so we could hike to Cascada Reina, one of seven falls you can hike to at once if you’re a twenty-two year old German athlete in perfect physical condition. For us old folks, it was an experience that’s already been described quite accurately by blogger Mark McElroy in his article “Death March to Cascada Reina.” (No, we didn’t find that article until after making our trek. So much for research.)

We hiked five hours up and down a mountain for this photo so you better like it.

Today we got up before dawn to take one of the many bird-watching tours offered in the area. Even my telephoto lens was inadequate for birdspotting, a task much akin to picking out insects in Central Park from the International Space Station. Fortunately our guide had a telescope that she’d apparently borrowed from NASA and was able to help us out with some photos of her own. Birdwatching in the jungle was a fun experience that Lea and I now know we never have to do again. It was also a tour which, unfortunately, blew our budget for the day and then some.

And there’s the rub.

So far the little towns in the mountains, Papallacta and Mindo, were by far more pleasant and relaxing than the big, bustling city of Quito, but in a way they’re more expensive. In Quito you can ride from the south end of the city to the north for a mere 25¢ (and the emotional toil of standing for two hours in a dense human scrum on a bus driven by a lunatic who turns corners like Sandra Bullock in the movie Speed). In towns with no public transportation you’re at the mercy of the cabbies and tour operators.

In Quito there are plenty of museums and beautiful old churches you can visit at no cost. Even the ones that aren’t free don’t charge much – the Basilica only costs $2 to enter and the city’s really nice botanical garden only cost $3.50. Our excursion to the falls alone cost $22 in cab fare and cablecar rides, plus the food and water we had to bring ourselves, plus the Cuba Libre and Mexican food we needed afterward for medicinal purposes. The bird watching trip cost what you’d expect to pay for a shore excursion from a cruise line, and we’re not anywhere near a port.

This hummingbird disapproves.

Our goal on this trip (well, one of them) is to slow travel. To travel cheaply and stay cheaply, moving from town to town while absorbing the local atmosphere and culture, discovering the casual, everyday beauty that the fast-paced tourist would never notice. That ideal is harder to meet in practice than in theory, and it seems to be easier in the Big City where the air can be so bad it literally made my eyes burn from the fumes.

It’s early days yet and I’m sure we’ll get the hang of it. Our next port of call will be Puerto Lopez on the Pacific coast where, yes, we’ll take at least one tour and hopefully see some whales. After that we’re off for Loja and, sooner than you think, the Peruvian border.

Along the way the plan is to kick back, let the hummingbirds come to us, enjoy the cool evening breeze and, as they say, stop and smell the roses. But I’m still holding out for a guy juggling machetes.

Mindo Wildlife Photodump!

Size does matter.

 

School’s Out! (Y ahora, sé hablar un poco español.)

First things first. Some of you may have wondered if I regret quitting my job and running away to South America. Gaze for a moment upon the photo headlining this article and take a guess.

That picture is of the steaming pool right outside our room at the Termas de Papallacta Hot Springs Spa and Resort, nestled way up in the Andes east of Quito. Even though it sorta blew our budget for the week, Saturday night at the resort was our reward for completing two weeks of Spanish classes (and a birthday present from Lea to me – emoji smiley face).

Seriously, you should be here. I can draw you a map.

How did we do? Well, after two weeks of one-on-one conversation with a private tutor, I think Lea’s well on her way to fluency. As for me? I was able to get a haircut all on my own without any help. Granted it turned out to be a really short haircut, since I tried to communicate “a little shorter on top” with hand gestures that didn’t quite came across the way I intended.

Thanks to our command of Spanish, we think this dish we ate is probably pork skin. Hard to tell, because the guy running the food stall seemed to only speak Quichua.

Also, when los vendedores walk through the bus, running their nonstop sales pitches, I can now pick out individual words and even make a little sense out of what they’re saying. Which, given how mind-spinningly fast native Spanish speakers talk, is an achievement for as little training as I’ve had.

“Foreign currency.” You know all those dollar coins we never use in the U.S.? They all wound up in Ecuador.

My lessons were in a more traditional classroom setting, though there was only one other student, the teacher, and me. We learned basic vocabulary, conjugated verbs, conversed, read, and wrote in Spanish. The result? I now have a fighting chance to communicate, as long as I know what the topic is going to be beforehand and can prep myself with the appropriate vocabulary.

In retrospect, I feel that taking Spanish engaged the same part of my brain that I use at board-gaming meetups, where I have to learn the rules to some new game and figure out how to apply them against more experienced players who are going to kick my ass anyway.

But it is soooo nice to be out of class.

Misty Mountains. Will our bus take the pass over Caradhras, or will it brave the Mines of Moria?

And it’s so nice to be in a place with HOT WATER. Let me be honest, up here in the mountains it’s cold and damp. As I’m typing this (in the much more reasonably priced Hostal Coturpa downhill from the resort) it’s been raining and chilly all day. But that doesn’t matter because the springs are so, so nice. I’m not kidding, you should get on a plane and fly here right now.

This could be the view out of your window.

Because of the thermal springs, the hotels here have actual hot and cold running water. This was not a thing in Quito, nor in some other places we’ve visited. Which means, por ejemplo, cleaning your pots, plates, and cutlery in cold water (a questionable venture at best). It also means that when you take a shower you get to use the Shower Head of Electrical Death.

This is how Lea will collect on my life insurance.

There’s no way in hell these things would pass any U.S. safety code. Essentially, you have an electrical hot water heater affixed directly to the shower head, with live wiring (that may or may not be exposed, we’ve seen both) just waiting to electrocute you.

These machines are extremely finicky. The first one we ever saw was in Tanzania. Every electrical circuit in the house seemed to have been run through a single breaker, and when anyone used the shower it would blow the breaker several times between turning the water on and rinsing the shampoo out of your hair.

The ones in Central and South America have been a little more stable but they don’t have the capacity to heat very much water. Therefore you can only have a hot (or tepid) shower if you keep the pressure dialed almost all the way down. Not enough water pressure and the Death Heater won’t turn on, but too much pressure and it doesn’t have a chance to heat the water at all.

Please, someone figure out a way to get a few million real hot water heaters imported to this continent before we get much further into our trip.

At the Quitumbe Bus Terminal, for all your last minute plushie doll needs.

So, you may ask, besides learning a few useful phrases in Spanish, how else is this time away from the American Wage Slave Work Ethic been going? Well, in terms of personal development I’ve kept my promise to myself to write every day. That’s come in the form of this blog, writing book reviews on Goodreads, and working on my rusty fiction-writing skills. In that department, I’ve already finished a new short story and started shopping it around, while also beginning to outline the first novel I want to write while on this trip.

Speaking of book reviews… Even though I’m no longer librarianing, I’m never going to stop telling people what books to read. One thing I decided to do for this trip was to read a novel about each country we visit written by an author from that country. For Ecuador, my book-of-the-month pick is The Queen of Water by Laura Resau and María Virginia Farinango.

The Queen of Water reads like a YA novel, but it’s really an autobiographical account of Virginia Farinango’s actual childhood, living as an indígena servant to a mestizo family in the mid-1980s.

Check it out!

New Blog Feature: Lea’s Awesome Photo Corner

Lea and I both take photos that I use for this blog, but to tell the truth I use more of hers than of mine. In addition to having a great eye for composition, she’s got a skill for incredible macro-photography. Check these out, from the Jardín Botánico de Quito and the Termas de Papallacta resort:

What did I tell you? Follow her on Instagram.

Your humble author, with about a 50 degree temperature difference between my head and the rest of my body.

Bienvenidos a Quito!

(or: It’s more than an altitude adjustment.)

Welcome to Quito, capital of Ecuador and city at the center of the world! (Mitad del Mundo, as they’ll have you know.) Quito sits in a valley in the Andes, and up the mountains as well. Remember this scene from Mission: Impossible?

Yeah, that’s what it feels like to walk around Quito, the streets are so steep. And it’s crowded! The guidebooks all crow about Quito as a jewel of Spanish colonial architecture. (Yeah, thanks Fodors and Lonely Planet.) What that really means is that the Spanish picked the steepest, most defensible hills to build on, then squished the buildings so close together that there’s barely room for one lane of traffic, don’t even think about two. Most of the street corners in the old part of the city have blue paint scrapes from the buses cutting it a little too close.

La Basilica in Quito. Our hostel was just uphill.

What that means is that there’s not much in the way of elbow room, whether you’re walking down the street or taking public transport. This was quite a shock when arriving here from the comparatively deserted Galapagos. I could feel all my introverted little brain cells vibrating frantically in an attempt to generate a force field between me and everyone else.

I know exactly how he feels.

Just to make things extra fun, our arrival in Quito coincided (by no fault of ours) with Ecuador’s Independence Day celebration. Technically, Independence Day was on August 10 when we were still in Puerto Ayora, but the celebration continued all through the weekend with Quito’s biggest annual party, La Fiesta de la Luz.

So Lea and I take a bus from the airport, drag 40 kilos of backpack up the side of a friggin’ mountain to get to our hostel (seriously, Booking.com and TripAdvisor should list the incline of all surrounding streets) and our hosts, oblivious to the fact that we’re both about to die like a pair of overworked Himalayan pack mules, insist that we should go and see the celebration. Since we’re starving and the word “festival” implies the availability of mystery-meat street food, we dive right in to the experience.

Meat in tube form on a stick. Anthony Bourdain would be proud.

Or should I say mosh pit?

La Fiesta de la Luz (Festival of Light, mantén con mi español, por favor) is an event where many of the churches and other buildings in Quito’s Centro Historical are lit up with displays of moving artwork. In addition, there are more light shows in the middle of the street.

Mira:

To give some perspective, Lea filmed that umbrella show while we were inching through a shoulder-to-shoulder mob down a steep cobbled street. Once we got to the bottom there was a bit of a breather, but the crowds around the big displays were really thick. The biggest, the lightshow on the Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco, was surrounded by exactly the kind of slow-crush mob that one could easily get trampled under should you lose your footing.

And that was just the first night!

The view from our school. Not bad, huh?

Our two weeks of classes started Monday at the Yanapuma Foundation and Spanish School, which was mercifully downhill from our original hostel. We study from 9:00 – 1:00 each day, Lea in private tutoring for intermediate Spanish speakers and myself in a beginners’ class. In the evenings we stay with a host family who provide lodging, breakfast, and dinner, and who speak only Español, forcing us to practice whether we’ve got the energy for it or not. Our home is an easy ten-minute bus ride from the school.

Oh my brothers, let me tell you about buses in Quito.

Such as this one.

Quito has a lot, I say, a lot of buses. They go nearly everywhere and in town they’re only 25¢ to ride. The trouble is figuring out which bus to get on. Google Maps is very handy about which route numbers will pick you up from which stops and take you close to your destination. The problems with this are that A) Google is sometimes inaccurate about where the bus stops are and B) only about a third of the buses post which route they’re running.

Instead, the front window of each bus is plastered with a list of destinations and stops along the way, which is fine if you’re a local resident. If you’re not, then all you can do is search for a word that corresponds to something on your route, jump on said bus, and watch Google maps carefully along the way so that you can jump off if the bus starts heading in the wrong direction. Lea and I went so far as to stake out the bus stops near our casa and photograph the destination signs on each bus that came by so we’d know how to get home.

La Virgen del Panecillo overlooking the city.

Lea and I have stitched together several trips by just picking buses heading in the general direction we want to go and switching when necessary. The bus rides are so cheap we still prefer traveling this way as opposed to arguing with taxi drivers. (That’s a rant I’ll perhaps save for a future entry.) What’s crazy-making is that the old part of Quito is so congested it seriously took us an hour one time to travel by bus a distance we could have walked in ten minutes.

So why not just walk? Allow me to refer you to the Tom Cruise video at the beginning of this post.

A typical street in Quito.

For all my grousing, Quito is a beautiful city. Ecuador is like the Switzerland of South America. Everywhere you look, there is some gorgeous mountain vista. Buildings that appear shabby on the outside may have gorgeous courtyards and villas on the interior. There are plenty of parks, all of which are full of people and families in the afternoons and weekends, resting in the grass, playing ball, or tooling around in paddleboats (which are still a thing here).

The churches are simply amazing, both outside and in, with the Basílica del Voto Nacional and the Iglesia de San Francisco being the champs. We also made the arduous journey up to the Virgen del Panecillo (a giant aluminum statue that overlooks the city), took a four-hour, three-transfer bus trip to the Saturday market in Otavalo (same trip back), and the easy but nerve-wracking Teleférico three thousand feet up the side of the Pichincha volcano to a breezy altitude of 12,943 feet above sea level.

Its raining a rainbow over the mountains east of the city.

As close as we are to the ionosphere, mis amigos, the adjustment I’m having to make on this trip isn’t to the altitude. It’s to long-term travel as a way of life as opposed to vacationing, and this week it really started to hit me.

Some of it’s to do with the feeling of helplessness that comes from not having all the information I’d like – it can drive me batty waiting on a bus to appear when I don’t know if I’m at the right stop or if that bus route even exists today – or when the police start closing all the streets around our bus stop and rerouting traffic for no damn reason. I’m learning to cope with that level of uncertainty, though we have caved in once or twice and grabbed a taxi.

Some of it’s to do with the sheer crush of people and the seeming lack of personal space everywhere in the world outside the United States. Yeah, I’ve been on a crowded subway car in the States, and I’ve also been crushed in the chaos of Bourbon Street late in the evening on Mardi Gras. In this author’s humble opinion, the first should never feel like the second.

The hardest thing to accept, though, is the idea that wherever Lea and I travel for the next ten months, we will always be in someone else’s space – sleeping in someone else’s bed, using someone else’s shower, eating at someone else’s table. Some of our hostels have offered more privacy than others, but there’s never a “do not disturb” sign to hang on the door. Staying in someone else’s home brings it to a whole new level. It’s incredibly generous for someone to open their house to us, but sometimes it can feel like we’re intruding, and sometimes it’s difficult to accept that I can’t just go be alone whenever I want.

I’m not homesick for our apartment in Atlanta, but I find myself missing the concept of “home” – some place that’s just ours and no one else’s, where we can close the door and shut out the world. But living without that comfort is part of the deal when you decide to travel the world.

Speaking of, just one more week of school and we’re back on the road!

Assuming we can find the right bus.

PHOTO DUMP!

Cotopaxi, highest active volcano in the world. Take THAT.
Fruits and veggies at the Otavalo Street Market.
Inside La Iglesia de San Francisco. SHHH! No photographs allowed.
The spice must flow.
Inside La Basilica. Now this is how you church.

Your intrepid explorers, two and a half miles above sea level.

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.