Into South America: Week 6

imageMy apologies for the delay of this posting, but I have been offline for the last week or so. This will be the final weekly post as my South American journey draws to a close, and I make my way back to Canada. Kind of cool that it is also my 100th.

When I last left off, I had spent my first night singing with an excellent band at Smiley’s in Pedasi, Panama. With time running short, I felt I had to keep moving and cram as much as I could into my final days. Although rewarding, moving and packing up day in and day out is very tiring, and I was feeling worn out. Another surf beach beckoned–Venao Beach–but I just did not have it in me. In the end, I decided to stay put for another day and night in Pedasi. And that allowed me to discover this sleepy little beach town.

imagePedasi is not actually on the beach, but several are within a few kilometres of the small town of about 2,000 people. I rented a bicycle on Wednesday and headed North-East through the rain to Ariel Beach. I was reminded that I was in the tropics on the way as I biked past a 5-foot snake that, luckily for me, had been previously run over. Ariel beach was deserted, except for a few fishermen cleaning their morning catch. I then biked South along the sand to El Toro beach, even more deserted and unremarkable. Definitely no surf here. Then back to the road, and another 20 minutes of mountain biking to an out of the way beach called La Garita. Spectacular and completely deserted.image

I spent the rest of the day resting and recharging. I returned to Smiley’s for lunch. It is great little restaurant owned by an American, and attracts many expats who have made Pedasi their home. Really great food, and laid back atmosphere, but there was something gnawing at me. It felt very strange to be in the unfamiliar surroundings of Panama, yet surrounded by non-local people like me. I have felt this expat aversion many times before. I haven’t quite figured out what bothers me so much about it. I decided not to return for dinner, and instead found a small, quaint place called Bienvenudush, run by a very friendly Israeli woman. Little touches of love and caring were evident everywhere, and it felt safe here. After six weeks on the road, I had not had a salad. I just couldn’t trust the preparation of them. But she prepared a beautiful, fresh, and very interesting salad for me along with a yogurt based dip that was bursting with flavour and freshness. At $20 it was the most I had spent on a meal in six weeks, but worth every penny. I had not realized until then how desperately my body was craving fresh veggies, and my stomach felt more settled that it had felt in a very long time.

Pedasi was a very special place, with a comfortable, chill flow. Care and attention to detail were everywhere–the people, the food, and the way of life–and I really enjoyed spending time in this bubble of “normal” life for a short while. I met an older Italian man at the hostel, and for the first time since the beginning of the trip, I was able to easily understand his Spanish. His pronunciation was exquisite, his speech slow and easy to follow, and it felt really good not to be struggling to follow the language.

The next morning I packed up, grabbed some snacks for the road from a local Canadian-owned bakery, and began my trek to Panama City, just catching the collectivo before it pulled out. I jumped on the bus, out of breath and discombobulated, and all the locals on the packed bus seemed to get a kick out of this, and watching a 6′ 3″ gringo try to maneuver his way into the cramped space! Open, vulnerable, and not guarded…people universally seem to respond to this. It was a much different vibe compared to the bus ride to Pedasi only a few days before.

I then transferred to a bigger, but still very cramped 5-hour ride from Las Tablas to Panama City. When I finally arrived, the bus terminal looked less threatening this time around. I checked into Hotel Milan in the city centre area of El Congrejo. It was without question the nicest accommodation I have had in the past six weeks. More than the $15-35 I have been used to, but still very reasonable at $65 in downtown Panama City. Right off the bat, I felt really good in this city. Odd because I don’t really like big city life.image

And it felt really good to be back to “civilization” as I know it. I have been living very modestly (and happily), so it was surprising how much I enjoyed having some of my creature comforts back, things I usually just take for granted: toilets that flush everything, ice, good and safe food and water, salads, wine, hot water, a nice towel, AC, reliable wi-fi, clean streets, decent drivers, and the list goes on. I had adjusted to a different lifestyle, and didn’t realize how much I missed some of these comforts. But people are still crazy about using their car horns here, as they have been throughout South America. It is so unnerving, and continues to rattle me.

But there is something else here. It is a big city, but it does not feel big. It feels relaxed, spacious, cosmopolitan, and friendly. I also really like the way it looks, and the thought that has gone into how it looks at night. It is known as a “beta” world city, an interesting term I have never heard of before. A world city can be designated into alpha, beta, and gamma, based on decreasing impact, importance, and influence on global finance and trade.

I wandered around this neighbourhood and quickly spotted a perfect place to settle in and watch Panama go by. Farley’s Piano Bar. Wonderful staff who made me feel very comfortable. Although they didn’t quite seem to know what they were doing, they were open to suggestion, and eager. I was then approached by a very interesting older American/Panamanian couple who chatted with me about the virtues of Panama City, what to do, and suggestions for dinner. With so many seemingly excellent food choices, I was excited to have a nice meal. I walked into a very cool looking place, most definitely underdressed, and enjoyed an equally cool reception from the very well-dressed staff. I have been wearing the same 2 or 3 outfits for weeks, none of which are dressy. But I didn’t care. I may not have looked like I belong, but I felt like I did. I had a beautifully prepared piece of fish and veggies. No rice or potatoes or chicken…what a relief! And I appreciated how well the wait staff practiced their craft.

Then back to Farley’s for a night cap. I noticed an interesting looking guy who had been there earlier and he recognized me. Bill from New York, who was sitting with Luis the Panamanian. Bill approached me, learned I was from Canada, then went to alert a friend of his at another bar who is also Canadian…Jean Galipeau from Montreal, and he came over to say hi. In fact, I have been stopped several times in the first few hours by people who seemed genuinely interested. And that does not usually happen. I am usually happy to just fly under the radar. I had not tried to actively connect with anyone, but it all seemed to be coming to me. Is it the people? Or is it my own energy that is attracting them? Not sure which, but I can definitely feel a shift.

On Friday I spent the day cruising around the city, getting the lay of the land. I visited the Panama Canal, a wondrous feat of engineering. More than 20,000 built this 100 years ago, many of whom died during its construction. I was lucky enough to watch a ship go through the series of locks while I was there….dropping 18 feet in 8 minutes, with only about 24 inches clearance on either side. Very impressive to see this live. Check out this clip of a cruise ship moving through it.

imageOn Saturday, I toured the city again on one of those hop on hop off buses. They were supposed to come by every hour, but this one was an hour late. I spent the wait time feeling fairly relaxed, and befriending yet another policeman (as has become my custom on this trip). One of the other waiting passengers, an older man, asked me in Spanish why I was so calm. Although I didn’t feel particularly calm, I felt that there was nothing I could do, so I suppose I let the frustration go. “You need to fight,” he said. “But fight who, I answered?” Here is a clip on the bus.

With Conrad in the old town.

With Conrad in the old town.

I made my to Casco Viejo, the old town, established hundreds of years ago about 8 km west of where the city used to be before Captain Henry Morgan (yes the guy on the rum bottle) burned the whole city to the ground. Like the rest of Panama City, what I have seen anyway, the old town was laid back and relaxed, in its own little world. As I was having a beer, an older dude came and sat down with me, Conrad. He spoke English, and was extremely sharp, articulate, and well versed. He talked to me about all kinds of things, including what to pay for things, where to find the best mojito in town, politics, Canadians, Panamanians, Americans, Quebecers, what constitutes a gringo, the fact that locals don’t wear shorts, etc. I think he was a walking tour guide, but he didn’t ask me for anything. And I was happy to give him something. He was 78 years old, but I swear he didn’t look a day over 60. A very cool and unexpected little interaction.

Old and new, in harmony.

Old and new, in harmony.

There is a relaxed, comfortable, and laid back feeling in the old town, where I wandered around, sang with a street musician, enjoyed the best mojito I have ever had, and tried to soak in the history. And the fact that you can see skyscrapers in the distance makes for a very interesting juxtaposition of old and new.

With Manuel, at Farley's Piano bar.

With Manuel, at Farley’s Piano bar.

I returned to my little piano bar, and Manuel offered me 3 for 1 happy hour, and asked the chef to prepare an off-the-menu langoustine dish that was out of this world. Over the three days I was in Panama City, he made a very special and constant effort to make me feel at home, which I am very grateful for. It was the first place I stumbled into just after arriving in Panama City, and I felt at home here right away.

And with that, my solo journey was quickly drawing to a close as I prepared for a flight to Florida, and then onto Toronto and back to Ottawa. So far, the return to “normal” is very strange and jarring, and I’m not quite sure where I belong: the cold, the snow, the humanity, the language, Christmas, the complete abundance of everything, and the familiar. I need some time to reflect on the past 2 months, and digest everything I have been fortunate enough to experience, and figure out how to incorporate what I have learned into everyday life. I will post a final wrap up of the this expansive adventure sometime before the end of the year.

Thank you for your interest, encouragement, and support over the past 7 weeks or so. You have given me purpose–a reason to track and focus my thoughts–and I am very grateful for that.

Jonathanimage

Into South America: Week 5

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With a "friendly" Cartagena cabbie.

With a “friendly” Cartagena cabbie.

When we last left off, I had just arrived for a brief stay in the walled city of Cartagena. I made the most of my day there, walking around the castle, and different parts of the city, after befriending yet another policeman who helped me get my bearings. It was so hot though. I was had by a very smooth talking Morgan Freeman look-alike who offered me a walking tour. Well we did walk, but he really didn’t tell me much (e,g. “that’s a church”). He would also walk me into places to shop where he clearly already had agreements in place, but after awhile he got the message that I wasn’t buying. He really had only one thing in his mind, and that was to see how much money he could extract from me. The whole experience was disappointing and I found him to be disingenuous and insincere, although he was very, very good at reading people.

First mate Janeiro

First mate Janeiro

I headed to the marina for about 5:30 pm to board the Gitano del Mar, a 47-foot catamaran, for five-day trip to Panama. Captain David, a Frenchman, briefly went over some rules, introduced the crew Janeiro (first mate), and Luis (cook). Fourteen passengers in all including me, all

Luis, our chef.

Luis, our chef.

early twenties to early thirties from Sweden, Great Britain, Holland, and a bunch from Australia. More on them later. Oh…and Mystico, the boxer, who lives on the boat.

imageAll our shoes were taken as we boarded because no one wears shoes on the boat, which makes sense. I did not realize then that my feet would not be dry again until five days later. There is no ice on board, or anywhere in San Blas as it turned out, so all drinks would be luke warm at best from now on. Then our main bags were stowed for the trip (we all packed and kept only a day pack for the trip), dinner was served, and we were shown our very modest quarters. I had a small space on the port side, about 2×6 feet, in a small corridor connecting to small rooms. This will be like camping on a boat, I thought. It also felt a little like being on Survivor. Part of me was also panicking, wondering how I would ever survive five days on this relatively small boat, with all these people that I have very, very little in common with.

The boat gently pulled away, all of us perched on different parts of the deck admiring the night view of Cartagena behind us, and the spectacular lightning show ahead of us, way in the distance. Then I helped the crew hoist the main sail, and we were off on our sailing voyage! I sat over the edge of the bow and noticed a bunch of glowing dots in the churning water. It was some kind of plankton apparently that glows when it’s disturbed. Really cool.

Then it started to rain a little, so we all moved to the seating/dining area in the stern. Then it rained harder and the sea got a little rougher, so we battened down the hatches. Hmm…not quite so cool now, but just another part of the adventure. I really should have taken their advice and picked up some sea sickness pills, I thought.

Then everyone started disappearing to bed, most not looking so good. I tried to go to bed as well, but could not sleep for hours. Not because I was in a tiny little bunk. Not because there was some water dripping on me. Mostly because we had sailed directly into the eye of this storm. Thunder and lightning crashed around us. The boat was rolling front to back and side to side, and crashing into huge waves. With every heave and crash, I could hear and feel the entire structure groaning, and I was sure the boat would break apart. I could hear the captain and crew screaming instructions to each other through the wind and the rain. I could also hear alarms going off every few seconds. This can’t be normal. It all felt like a movie. It was a long, scary night, but I finally drifted off, sometime in the wee hours of Thursday morning, thinking “please Jesus take the wheel.” And he did.

Things were still rough, but not so stormy the next morning. We had, in fact, sailed through a severe storm, and there were some equipment malfunctions that the crew had to cope with. The 30 knot winds were much more that the usual 5-10 on crossings over the last several months. “Like a lake,” was how our captain described the crossings of the past several months. Not today though. Everyone on board spent the second day napping, sitting quietly, and/or vomiting. But I felt some level of group cohesion kick in. Check out this clip.

Captain David

Captain David

I spotted flying fish off the bow all day long. And out of nowhere, many miles from shore, a bird landed on our boat, sat in our hands for a few minutes, and then flew off.

I still found it quite bumpy and it took time to adjust to the constant rocking and lurching of the boat. I bumped my head and fell a few times over the first day or two, but eventually started to find my sea legs. I was fortunate that I never got sick though. And once I made it through that first night, I thought I had probably weathered the worst. Another very stuffy night in the cabin, but the seas were not as rough as the first night, and I slept quite well.

Before we left, the captain had explained the “gypsy toilet,” which essentially involves hanging off the back of the boat and urinating…while the boat is moving! The toilets were not very nice places to be–tiny, basic, and smelly, but I thought there is no way in hell I will be hanging off the back of this boat! But by about day 3, I had found my balance, and was really enjoying the whole gypsy toilet experience. And also by day 3, I had figured out everyone’s name, and had connected at some level with everyone. By day 3, I could really feel a relaxed, nautical groove kicking in. Check out this clip.

Sunny skies, after weathering they storm.

Sunny skies, after weathering they storm.

We were supposed to hit the San Blas islands early on day 3 (Friday), but the crossing took us much longer than expected with a heavy head wind the entire trip. In fact, we set a record for the longest crossing in this boat…about 44 hours. We finally spotted a few birds, and then land in the early afternoon, which was so exciting. I now have a glimpse of how it must have been for sailors hundreds of years ago, who were at sea for months at a time, to finally spot land. Around 4 pm we pulled in between three small islands and dropped anchor. The clouds finally parted and the sun came out as the day wound down. And boy did we need the sun by then!image

Everyone jumped off the boat, basking in the stunning surroundings and warm sunshine. We swam to one of the islands, drank some fresh coconut milk, bought a bunch of fresh lobster, and Luis, our chef, cooked a delicious dinner. The party was going strong, but I was exhausted, so I moved to the front of the boat, away from the noise, and drifted off to sleep lying on the net between both hulls, watching the sky, a few shooting stars, and listening to the water lap gently against the boat. Magic.

IMG_0584IMG_0581We woke up to a beautiful sunny day on Saturday, and after breakfast and a quick swim, we headed off for a leisurely ride to a few more islands where we dropped anchor, swam, snorkelled around the stunning reef…all kinds of fish, even a stingray, and visited a few more islands. There are almost 400 islands that make up San Blas which run along much of the Caribbean side of the Panamanian coast. They are owned and inhabited by the Kuna Indonesian people, part of Panama, but with some cultural independence, and very different from mainland Panamanians. Some islands are small enough to fit a single coconut tree, others might take you 5 or 10 minutes to walk the perimeter.

Greeted by the Kuna

Greeted by the Kuna

imageSome of our gang swam over to a nearby island and spent the day there. I had proposed to our captain and passengers that we give the entire crew the evening off, and that we eat “out” at one of the nearby islands. Everyone loved the idea, so off we went for a traditional Kuna dinner of lobster and tuna. We ate, drank, toasted the crew, and enjoyed each other’s company. And the crew were thrilled with some time off, with Luis saying at one point that he didn’t know what to do with himself.

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A side note again about coconuts (yes I know I seem to be quite obsessed with them). I have mentioned that I have often wondered how many people die every year from falling coconuts. Well, walking around that Kuna island today, a big heavy coconut fell from a tree only about 10 feet away from me! Definitely not the way I want to go!image

Everyone since day 1 had been putting on their music at different times…some really good stuff I had never heard before which was fun. I hadn’t bothered putting any of my own stuff on. But I did have a few ideas brewing as we headed back to the boat on that 4th night, and a few people had learned of my musical background and asked me to play that night. So I came out of DJ retirement for a few hours Saturday night, and I rocked the boat! A wild party ensued with everyone screaming, dancing, and laughing, well into the wee hours. I felt another groove kick in as passengers and crew saw a different side of me that perhaps they had not imagined. And it was fun for me to let that side of me run wild for awhile. Got my MoJo workin’ now.

One side note about Australians…I had heard how they like to party, but this bunch of Ozzie blokes were wild, wild men. I had no idea. It reminded me of some of my younger days. I can’t and don’t want to run like that anymore, but it was very interesting to observe, and “gently” partake.

To bead or not to bead...

To bead or not to bead…

The trip was supposed to end Sunday afternoon, but because the crossing had taken so long, the captain offered to extend it to Monday morning which was very kind. Sunday morning the weather was looking threatening again, and we were moving early while everyone slept. Well, mostly everyone. We dropped anchor next to a small island with a tiny landing strip that serves as a Panamanian immigration for San Blas. Our bleary-eyed, rag-tag crew all marched in, got our passports stamped, and swam or dinghied back to the boat where we continued out magical mystery tour of San Blas. We dropped anchor between two new islands surrounded by reef, went snorkelling (with small sharks!), swam, and relaxed for the rest of the day, with many of our group napping and nursing very sore heads. The crew worked for hours to put on a special final dinner for us: seafood ceviche appetizer, followed by fish tacos and sushi made with fresh caught tuna! Captain David spun a few very cool tunes, the crew picked up their percussion instruments and started to groove, and Luis and I had an impromptu little jam session.

For the final night of the trip, we had made arrangements to have a bonfire on the island next to us and meet up with passengers and crew from another boat, as well as the local Kuna inhabitants. Check out this clip of captain David showing off his great balls of fire!

imageI was hoping for a quiet night to try to catch up on sleep and be ready for a big travel day on Monday, but it was not to be. The Ozzies had arranged a rum run to restock, and had every intention of going out with a bang. So I stopped resisting the flow and just went with it. And I was very, very touched when back on board they had all got together and decided I was “Best On Vessel,” and made a big show of announcing it. And then it felt like the generation gap narrowed a whole bunch. I heard lots of “Good on ya, John-o!” This was followed many shaking of hands, slaps on shoulders, hugging, more music and singing, and general all around merriment until the wee hours, as the lightning rumbled around the night sky.

Another thing I noticed repeatedly about the Ozzies, or at least this group of lads anyway…they laugh easily, whole heartedly, and often. I loved their sense of humour and would spend hours enjoying their banter. Often very crude, but always very sharp, witty, and very clever. I found it to be quite entertaining, and really enjoyed listening to the banter.

IMG_0572Overall the experience was very challenging (mentally and physically), cramped, stuffy, hot, smelly, basic, loud, wet, and potentially dangerous if you do not have your wits about you, particularly during the 30-45 hour crossing. It is not a trip for everyone. But it was also awe inspiring, exciting, expansive, and peaceful. I loved all of it, on so many levels, and it is without a doubt a trip I will never forget. I did not completely click or connect with everybody, but I did with many, at different points on the journey. With some the connection happened early in the trip, some right at the end. And some not really in any meaningful way. Sometimes it’s just not meant to be. But the intention and the effort was there. The trip forced me wide open, perhaps more open and flexible than I have ever been.

The whole island hopping part of the trip was fun and beautiful, and they are certainly quite unique. Many people have referred to San Blas as paradise on earth. I would not characterize them this way, although I’m not sure I would recognize paradise if I found it. Lots more soul searching to do on this clearly.

A final note regarding our crew. Although I have nothing to compare them to, I have heard horror stories about bad and incompetent captains and/or crew on other crossings. Captain David, Janeiro, and Luis were superb. Flexible and professional and always looking for ways to improve the experience for the passengers. I was really, really impressed with these guys and am very grateful for everything they did. I am also grateful to all the passengers who shared their week with me and made it such a memorable trip. Check out this clip from Captain David.

imageMonday morning we packed up quickly, said out goodbyes to the crew, and were picked up by another boat to the mainland where we were met by a few SUVs for the hilly and quite spectacular 3-hour drive to Panama City, where we all dispersed to various hostels. In my case, I continued on to the bus station, in a bit of a daze, where I continued on another 5 hours to the Azuero peninsula in South Panama, finally stopping in Las Tablas. I started my day on the Caribbean and ended my day on the Pacific Ocean, or very close to it. But I felt really tired and travel weary on this day.

Woke up Tuesday morning in Las Tablas feeling like death warmed over and still had wobbly sea legs. What the hell am I doing here, I thought, a feeling that comes over me every few days since I have been on the road. I did not feel good about this place, and I felt like a fish out of water, and that people were looking at me funny. But I suspect it had little to do with the town, and everything to do with me. As I am, so is the world. That lesson is becoming clear.

After a shave and shower, I felt a little more human and decided to continue South to Pedasi to get closer to the ocean. With the help of a few locals, I found a “collectivo” (mini bus) nearby. I know I must have looked like I needed help at that point, and the Canada flag on my bag didn’t hurt. I crammed into the hot bus with all my stuff and about 15 other locals and after about 20 minutes, off we went. I tried to wait outside the bus until we were ready to leave, but I was able to somehow figure out from the driver that it doesn’t work like that. You have to be in your seat or risk losing it if someone else takes it. A little strange. It was only a short trip to Pedasi, and I am happy to say, after five weeks, I have finally landed in a quaint little chill beach town of only about 2,000 people! I stayed at Dim’s, a really nice, clean hostel opposite a grocery store and a tourism agency. Perfect! There are many quality restaurants and shops, and quite a large Canadian and American community here.

imageAfter quickly settling in at Dim’s, I popped into Smiley’s, a decent looking restaurant right next door for a quick bite. They had a full musical set up, and an older dude was fiddling with the sound board, so I asked him if he was leader of the band. “Do you play,” he asked. “No…but I sing,” I replied. Then he asked me to sing with the band, who just happened to be playing that very night. And that’s exactly what I did! We performed a couple of songs together, including the slinkiest, coolest, most laid back versions of Honky Tonk Woman I have ever done. And zero rehearsal time with these guys. I just dropped right into their groove, and let it rip. A very talented bunch of guys who play so loosely, yet are so tight! It was a pleasure to share a stage with them, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity. From feeling crappy in the morning, to singing with a bunch of locals in Pedasi…I certainly could not have predicted this day. You never know what’s around the corner.

‘Til next week,

Jonathan

With Smiley's House Band...what a night!

With Smiley’s House Band…what a night!

Into South America: Week 3

imageI keep thinking my updates will be brief, but so far it is not to be. It would appear I have a few things to say! Here’s another long one, but if you don’t feel like reading, you may want to focus on some of the cool pics and videos.

If week 2 was slow and relaxed beach time, week 3 has been the complete opposite. On the move through the Andes as I made my way North towards the Colombian border crossing. When I updated last week, I talked about loud and inconsiderate people. Well the universe has certainly given me a big dose of noise this week. Wednesday we continued through the mountains, and arrived in Banos. We checked into a clean hostel on the main square. The next morning at 6:45 am, a 7-piece band began playing, right below my hostel window! And not even a good band at that! This was followed by fireworks and other explosions. Friday and Saturday mornings, it was parades and fireworks. Sunday, no parades, but a tremendous amount of activity and door slamming and alarms going off beginning at 6 am. Now I just have to laugh, because the universe is evidently sending me a message. What it is ain’t exactly clear, but I can certainly hear it!

I am usually pretty good at going with the flow, but sometimes I get edgy or anxious when things are not going to plan. Little things, like waiting 15 minutes for coffee in the morning, or having a 7-piece band outside my window, or things being consistently done ass backwards (I know….suspend judgment), or how complicated things get if you ask for something a little different. I keep having to remind myself that I’m not in Kansas anymore, that everything moves at a different speed, and that they have their own ways of doing things. I have to keep reminding myself that I do not necessarily create the flow; rather I must simply allow myself to connect to it, whatever and wherever it is. My work in progress continues.

Banos, at the base of an active Volcano

Banos, at the base of an active Volcano

The trip through the mountains into Banos was another very cool drive, in, through, and around various peaks and valleys. Because of the rich, volcanic soil, there are many vertical farms actually running up the mountain/volcano sides. Banos is at about 6,000 feet nestled into a valley, at the base of the active Turgurahua volcano. Really orderly, friendly, safe-feeling little town where people take pride in their surroundings. Lots of stuff to do here…rafting, biking, hang gliding, zip lining, bungee jumping, natural volcano fed hot springs, waterfalls, jungle trips, etc.

Thursday turned out to be one of the best days I have had in a very long time. I took a jungle tour around Puyo, about 90 minutes east of Banos, where the mountains end and the jungle begins. This is also where the rivers from Ecuador (and also Peru, and Colombia) flow into Brazil to form the Amazon River, which then flows out to the Atlantic. Interesting facts about the Amazon River…it is about 6,400 km. long, and used to flow in the opposite direction (from East to West) before the formation of the Andes/Sierra mountains, thousands of years ago.image

imageOur guide, Ruma (whose real name was Richard I found out later…never quite understood this) spent 20 years living in the jungle with no electricity or running water. This dude really was the king of the jungle in every sense of the word. Our first stop was a rescued animal sanctuary…lots of monkeys who had been rescued from various situations. They are so very human when you study them carefully. One took a special interest in me and we stared at each other for awhile, then he curled up and covered his eyes, which I thought was quite rude!

Muddied, with Simon

Muddied, with Simon

Then a 45-minute hike into the jungle. Ruma would stop every few minutes and show us things. For example, leaves when you crumple them release a substance that helps asthma. Or mud from a river bank that is good for the skin. I asked him what he might suggest for a cut on my leg. He walked up to a tree, sliced the bark, collected the resin, and rubbed it on my cut. They refer to it as sangue de dragone (dragon’s blood). He also showed us a very different looking tree (the Devil’s Penis) that can actually move itself several feet in any direction by extending its above-ground roots!

imageWe arrived at a secluded mountain waterfall and pool (Ola Vida). I have never seen anything like it…simply breathtaking. I jumped in, and then under the waterfall until I was behind it. I looked up and could see the water falling just in front of me. I looked down and saw a rainbow. imageI looked through and I could see a misty version of the outside world. In some meditations and therapy, they talk about going to your safe place. This waterfall oasis will be that place for me.

With then king of the jungle, Ruma (or Richard?)

With then king of the jungle, Ruma (or Richard?)

We hiked back, then to the Puyo River, and got into these long wooden canoe-type boats and rafted for about 45 minutes through some very active water. The boat guides maneuvered them expertly using only long sticks, around some very treacherous and rocky stretches. But it was very peaceful, and it makes me want to take a bigger trip down the Amazon in Peru or Brazil. Check out this video.

imageWe then stopped for lunch and climbed up to a lookout where there was a swing that went right off the side of a cliff. Freaking terrifying! I wasn’t going to do it, but I watched the others and decided I did not want to regret not doing it. Plus I was the only Canadian, so I felt I had to swing for my country. So I did it….and what a rush! Check out this video.

Ruma, King of the jungle. Note the shirt.

Ruma, King of the jungle. Note the shirt.

Finally we visited an indigenous community where I learned to use a blow dart gun, and we learned about some of their customs and traditions. These communities are extended families, so it is not permitted to marry inside one’s own community. It is not uncommon for men to have 10-15 children with a number of partners. Ruma himself is in his mid 20s, has been “divorced” once, and already has four kids with several women. No question, he is the jungle version of a ladies’ man. Some of the girls on the tour were swooning over him, and he knew it, and was clearly used to it. And for good reason. He is also somewhat of a prankster. He coated my face with mud, and into my hair for good measure. He also offered us to taste the inside of a certain leaf, and when we asked him what it was, he told us “ants!” He seemed to have a number of side deals going on wherever we went, and had clearly bridged the gap between jungle and “civilization,” but I liked him, and he gave me a day I will never forget. I asked him what life he preferred–jungle or city, and he said without hesitation, “the jungle.” A very interesting response.

I also met a few other cool people that day. A filmmaker from Amsterdam who was shooting a documentary in Quito on gated communities, and how these are rooted in fear. And also a young drama student from London, Simon. He has been travelling the world on and off for the past several years, and his parents have finally stopped asking what he is doing with his life. It seems many of his generation are doing exactly this. Good for them. He jumped into the bus with almost nothing with him, and blissfully unaware of what we were doing that day. He reminded me of the the critical importance of being in the moment and going with the flow.

We spent the next couple of days in Banos, every morning serenaded by some form of early local entertainment outside the hotel window. Halloween night, as I walked down the street chewing on a candy, I felt a hard crunch. I had grabbed a handful of these delicious, chewy, soft, chocolate sweets from the restaurant. The crunch was not the candy, but my FILLING which had fallen out. “What the @&$? am I going to do now,” I thought. That’s what greed will get you. If I had taken only one and not made a pig of myself. Mark thought I was overreacting, and that all would be fine, but I found it quite traumatic, and had a mini meltdown. I was worried about having swallowed silver and mercury. I thought I might not make it through the night. It really is the strangest “filling,” missing half a tooth! Surprisingly, I did wake up the next morning, and it didn’t hurt. I’m getting used to it, but know I must get it looked at soon.

imageOne other note from Banos and other spots along the way. They serve a local “delicacy” called cuye, but really it is a large rat, roasted whole over hot coals, with its teeth and paws sticking up. I am usually a fairly adventurous eater, and will try almost anything, but I simply cannot bring myself to eat that! Yuck!

Another sidebar on services…generally tipping is not expected, and not part of their culture. So if you leave them anything, they are surprised and grateful. I leave modest tips for almost everything, and I can always feel a positive vibe shift. This raises a lot of thoughts in my mind about money…how people view it, what they will do for it, and what it represents. And perhaps now a different way of viewing it for me. More like a form of energy transfer.

Saturday we continued North through the mountains, past Quito, Otovallo, stopping in Ibarra for the night, a non-touristy town of about 100,000. Good vibe here. Why I keep thinking I will arrive in a tiny Ecuadorian village, I have no idea. These are mostly big cities. I am also realizing again that I don’t like big cities! I don’t mind short visits, but I really don’t want to live in one. Too much hustle and bustle and yuck.

In Ibarra with Doris and Jefferson

In Ibarra with Doris and Jefferson

Nothing was booked, so we just drove around near the main square, and happened upon this small family-run hostel. Doris and Jefferson greeted us warmly. They don’t speak much English, but somehow my musical background came up before we left for a quick bite.

..and daughters Kelly and Angie!

..and daughters Kelly and Angie!

When we came back, they were waiting to chat with us, and more of their family had joined them. I had to explain in my halting Spanish that, no I am not a famous musician but that I just like to sing! They wanted pictures anyway, and immediately said they were fans. Really very lovely people. The next morning right on cue at 6 am, slamming doors, loud voices, and lots of noise (this is not Kansas).

We hit the road again for a short hop to the border town of Tulcan. It is also about 100,000 population, and I did not get a good vibe here at all. We splurged and stayed in a very nice place for $36, and I had perhaps the best sleep I’ve had since arriving in Ecuador. This was also my final day with Mark, and we said our goodbyes. I have been so very fortunate to have met him and have really been spoiled travelling by car. I am very grateful to have toured most of the country with him, and have really enjoyed his company.

Monday morning I was up early (no band or parade!), and took a short cab ride to the Colombian border of Rumichaca. I have heard this crossing can get crazy, so I was there by about 7 am. I had my passport stamped by the Ecuadorian immigration, then simply walked across a small bridge and did the same at Colombian immigration. Easy. Too easy actually. There was nothing preventing me from simply walking across and not showing anyone my passport. Or maybe because I’m a gringo. But with no stamp out of Ecuador, and into Colombia, I would not be able to get out.

For the rest of the day I felt uneasy–new country, unfamiliar surroundings. I took a short cab ride to the bus station in Ipiales, the nearest town. The fare was 7,000 pesos (about $4). Nice, friendly cabby, but when we arrived he announced it was 10,000 for no reason I could understand (maybe because I am a gringo, or because that’s how much I gave him?). At the bus station, you have to pay to use the washroom. There is no central ticket counter, and everyone is shouting at you to buy your ticket from them. And I certainly don’t look like I’m local, so I am likely a target. A big target. Then a spectacular 90-minute bus ride through the mountains to Pasto (sit on the right side for best views). It continues to amaze me how these roads were built.

Rather than a 20-hour bus ride to Medellin, I had previously booked a flight for Tuesday, but thought I would try to get a flight that day (Monday). So rather than stay in Pasto, I headed directly to the airport. After a lot of confusion, and befriending a policeman, I learned that buses or cabs to the airport from the bus station was not possible. So I took a cab to another place where a bunch of mini buses were parked. The fare to the airport (about 45 minutes north of Pasto) was 5,000 pesos. But when I gave him 6,000, he announced that that was the fare. Note to self…don’t expect change! Annoying, and I want to argue on principal, but I guess this is how they make money and for the amount, it’s simply not worth fighting about, especially given my limited Spanish.

So far, there is definitely a different feel in Colombia. Not unsafe exactly, but as soon as I crossed over, I saw police and other armed people everywhere..in the towns, and along the roadside, in the middle of nowhere. So far it feels…unsettled…as do I.

Travelling light...

Travelling light…

At the airport I learned that it was possible to fly that day, but that it would cost me more than what I had paid for the ticket. So rather than go back to Pasto, I left the airport on foot with backpack and luggage in tow, and tried to find a place to stay for the night. What a site that must have been, I’m sure. Yes, I certainly must look local! The truth is I am a gringo, and will always be, but there are ways to break down this barrier, in time. I have written about this before…when it comes down to it, we are not all that different, regardless of background or culture. We respond to the same things. And a smile goes a long, long way in any culture.

On the road I befriended another policeman, and he pointed me in the right direction to find a hotel. I stopped at the first place I found, and took a $10 room for the night. Nothing fancy, but clean and the people seemed honest. Not really a town, but there are few hotels and restaurants along the main road. No wifi, and no banks. Note to self: always get what you need whenever it’s available, because you have no way of knowing where you will end up and what will or won’t be available when you get there. And forget about cashing traveller’s cheques. So far, impossible, even at any of the main banks in the big cities.

I dumped my stuff, locked everything up, and walked up the road and had a bite, again very much aware that I stick out like a sore thumb, and feeling everyone’s eyes on me. Then back to my room where I napped for a few hours. I wandered back out around 7:30 pm looking for another snack, but the strip of highway felt very eerie in the dark. I could feel that there were shady things going on. Anyway I found a place, and had coffee. Again I felt everyone’s eyes on me. And that can feel intimidating, especially when I am not in zone. A young man who works at the restaurant, Daniel, took a special interest in me, as did the rest of the staff. I was suspicious at first, but then it started to feel OK. I loosened up and tried to chat with him. I reminded myself again that it takes time to find the flow, or for it to find you. Flow is elusive. Be patient.

Then back to Hotel San Miguel where I flipped through the TV channels, bit my nails, worried, and finally fell asleep. I ended up sleeping alot that first day. I kept wondering what the hell I was doing here, realizing that I really am alone now, with no Mark to ease the way for me.

Deep down I know things will be OK, and that I have been and will be taken care of, but sometimes I forget. In any given moment, I will never have all the answers.

imageI woke up Tuesday to a bright sunny day, feeling refreshed and more comfortable. Everything seems different today, better somehow. I walked back to the restaurant I had found the night before and had breakfast. And this time it felt completely different. What a difference a day makes. I was very friendly and more open with Daniel and the staff, and they were all excited, laughing, and buzzing around me. imageWe even took a bunch of pictures together, all the kitchen staff giggling. As I look back on my first day in Colombia, for the most part I know I was guarded and nervous. And that’s exactly what I got back, or felt I was getting back. When I opened up, that’s exactly what I felt I got back. Funny that.

Then I packed up, and walked back to the airport for my scheduled flight to Medellin, via Bogota. Packing is a struggle every time. Too much stuff, more things to keep track of and worry about. Note to self: don’t bring so much stuff!

imageI still get a buzz of excitement every time I fly, and continue to be amazed that a big metal tube can fly through the air. Also a relatively cheap option compared to a 20+ hour bus ride!

I connected through Bogota, the capital, a large mountain-rimmed city high in the Sierra. I can’t say much else about it, but it certainly looks neat, well-designed, and green…at least from the air! Then a short hop to Medellin (population 4.5 million), a few hundred kilometres West of Bogota. The usual travel hiccups and delays, and I did find myself getting more anxious as edgy as the day wore on (maybe too much strong coffee?). And of course, the usual uneasiness when I arrive somewhere new. No doubt things will look better, and I will be more comfortable when I wake up tomorrow.

Things would have been so much easier the last few days if I could speak the language better. I have the tools…dictionaries and apps, but in the moment they are quite useless. Note to self: you must learn more Spanish!

I arrived in a section of Medellin called El Poblado, and found a boutique room at a place called Happy Buddha, which I thought sounded perfect at the end of a long travel day. Too loud and young and expensive, but it will do for the night. From the little I have seen so far, Medellin is young, chic, hip, modern, definitely has Western standards, and is far more expensive than what I have been used to the last several weeks.

More from Medellin and the rest of Colombia next week.

‘Til then,
Jonathanimage

Into South America

“The pilgrim is a poetic traveler, one who believes that there is poetry on the road, at the heart of everything.” ~Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage

Hello friends,

Yes it has been a long while. I just haven’t really felt like writing much. Until now.

I am just beginning a two-month journey to South and Central America: likely Ecuador, Panama, and Costa Rica. Alone, into the unknown.

Why? There are a few reasons.

Firstly, because I can. And I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity.

Secondly, because I have read about these places and how it is possible to live quite well on relatively little money. But it is one thing to read about it, and quite another to live it.

And finally, and most importantly, because there is something about venturing into the unknown that brings out some of my very best human qualities. I learned this, or perhaps was reminded of this, during my volunteer journey to Africa two years ago, and Nicaragua the year before that. When I am out of my comfort zone, in unfamiliar territory, it forces me to dig deep and open my mind and soul to new ways of being and experiencing the world. It somehow gets my “MoJo” working at a heightened level.

So off I go. I appreciate your interest, and will update you weekly on my journey.

First stop, Ecuador.

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Attention, Ubuntu, and Being In the Moment

Last week I went to a local fitness center. As I walked in, a group of young kids tried to get my attention. I was feeling a little off—perhaps a little tired, and I had a few things on my mind. I felt like I was being harassed, and that they wanted something from me (although I hadn’t taken the time to find out), so I quickly said “thanks but not today,” and walked away.

I just caught myself in that moment, and felt their disappointment, like the wind had been taken out of their sails. From the registration desk, I looked back at their table, and wondered why I had been so curt, closed, and dismissive. I probably assumed that they wanted money, and it seems that everywhere I turn that’s all people want.

So I walked back and asked them about their project. Their little faces instantly lit up as they began chattering away excitedly, describing how if they had the most votes, their group would win $125,000 towards the improvement of their local park and soccer field. They were not looking for my money. They just wanted my attention. And I gave it to them. But I almost missed that opportunity.

I have been thinking about that little exchange ever since, and a few things that have been percolating have bubbled to the surface.

My friend Jules recently introduced the concept of Ubuntu to me, an African philosophy about people, generosity and interactions with each other. Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes it this way. “A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole, and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

One of my favourite bloggers, Thomas Ross, has an entire blog dedicated to being present. In a recent post he described it as “a single-minded effort in each moment. It sounds so small, but within this conception a world of great wonder and possibility resides. Each moment becomes a fresh start.”

Two very powerful ideas that, if applied consistently, I think can change the world.

I would like to be mindful of these always, but I also recognize that it may not always be possible 100% of the time. Things happen sometimes to prevent it. But I am encouraged, because I am becoming aware enough to recognize that disconnected feeling when it happens. More and more, I am able to catch myself in the moment of being closed.

And that awareness means I can do something about it.