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.


Into South America: Week 4

image When I signed off last week, one of my biggest frustrations was not being able to speak the language. So certainly one of my biggest giggles this past week was being asked at a cafe to be a translator between the cashier and an Australian couple…OMG…the irony!! But I managed to help them. I have also been complemented on my Spanish accent which I find very hard to believe.

Wednesday I spent the day getting my tooth reconstructed by a very good dentist in Medellin (pronounced medajeen), and getting to know the area of El Poblado. Very hip and modern part of the city, with lots of beautiful hotels, restaurants and shops. Very first world, and they know what they’re doing. I also switched hostels, moving right next door for half the price. I had heard of another spot, the Black Sheep Hostel run by a New Zealander, so made arrangements to move there for Thursday and Friday. It’s a very popular spot with young people…so I fit right in (well sort of, not really)! They had a tour going out Thursday, so a signed up for that.

With Rafael

With Rafael

There was an interesting mix of Canadians, Americans, British, Australian, and Dutch. All early twenties. We all piled into a big blue bus, led by Rafael, a local 30-something dude. He and I looked at each other and connected, an immediate transfer of powerful positive energy that was way beyond language. Lots more to say about him.

A troubled bridge over water, in Guatapa

A troubled bridge over water, in Guatapa

The destination for the day was Guatape, about two hours North East of Medellin. But as it turned out, the destination didn’t really matter. There was strong positive energy on that bus right from the get go…singing, dancing, and laughing all the way (ha, ha, ha). Check out this video from about 1 hour in. Samuel, a young musician jumped on the bus and played some tunes for us for awhile. We then jumped off a rickety bridge, that was certainly higher than it looked, at least to me when I was preparing to jump. Check out this clip.

imageThen we arrived at Guatape and climbed a HUGE rock (740 stairs to the top!), that looks like it has absolutely no business being there. About half way up there is a statue of the Virgin Mary. There is a Spanish sign on her that reads “please don’t touch the virgin,” which I thought was very funny, although I was too tired to laugh at the time. imageAfter the climb Raffy prepared a home-made picnic lunch for us. On the way back we stopped at a few quaint little towns along the way. I also got to chat with Raffy about all kinds of things: the people of Colombia, drug wars, how Pablo Escobar basically ran the country, how that was solved, and how the solution may be worse than problem, why most women here get boob and/or lip and/or other cosmetic surgery, and much more. Raffy has no formal education, but is a very wordly wise man. He spent about 10 years travelling South America in his teens and twenties, before settling down and having kids. This has given him a perspective on life and people that no school can ever teach you. At the end of the tour, Raffy invited me to join him the next day to visit the central market and run some errands, so of course I accepted. This turned out to be an incredibly rich day, beyond anything I could have ever predicted.

He picked me up this morning and we toured the central market, a very different experience because I was with a local. Some random dude stopped and wanted to talk to me…he saw that I wan’t local and was interested. Great chat with him about life and people of Colombia. Had lunch there, and then a massive wind and rain and thunder and lightning storm hit. They say they haven’t seen this kind of rain in 20 years. One of the waitresses thought I was Santa Clause. Now, I realize I have a slightly bigger belly than when I left Canada, but Santa Clause? Seriously? Although I remain a gringo, so far it feels a little different in Colombia…many more people seem interested in the fact that I am not from there.

Pancho gringo

Pancho gringo

Then he invited me to his place for the night. I hesitated at first…the unknown…but then figured I could not experience life in Colombia in a better way, and simply could not say no. So we picked up his wife, one of his kids, and drove about an hour up and through the mountains to his place, where I spent the night. He has a small hostel of his own there, right next to where he lives with his wife and kids. We spent the evening chatting, having a few drinks, listening to music, and enjoying each other’s company, high in the mountains, with a spectacular view of the full moon and lightning storms rumbling around in the distance. I will always remember his kindness and generosity of spirit. Here’s a short clip.

Saturday, Raffy drove me back to the hostel where I packed up and headed to the airport for a quick hop to Santa Marta on the North coast. I had booked a few days earlier with Viva Colombia, a local discount airline. Although the entire experience from buying tickets to boarding is a bit of a shit show, it turned out to be a very lively flight. I got the sense that very few of these folks had flown before, and most of the 200+ on board seemed to be having the time of their lives, finishing the flight with a raucous round of applause. It was surprisingly refreshing, so much so that I almost didn’t mind all the kids crying and screaming, and being treated like cattle.

imageI was in a window seat next to a small boy and his mum (Jennifer). The husband was sitting two rows up. It was clearly a thrill to be flying for both of them, so I offered them the window seat, and suggested ways for them to deal with the pressure change. I also gave the small boy a Canada pin. (As a side note, I always travel with these now…people everywhere really appreciate this small gift, and you can get a bunch for free from your local MP office). Once the husband (John Freddy) got wind of this, he was so happy and appreciative…you’d think I’d bought him a house! He kept shaking my hand and thanking me. Then he wanted to take a bunch of pictures as we were heading for the exits. We were holding everyone up, but no one seemed to mind, and seemed to be as happy and excited about all this as he was!

I seem to be surrounded by lots of positive energy lately, especially the last few days, and everywhere I go it seems. Not sure how or why, but something is definitely happening. Maybe it’s the full moon.

Feeling more comfortable and confident, I decided to take the bus from the airport, and save some money to boot. Beautiful drive at sunset along the coast. I showed the driver the address and he told me where to get off about 20 minutes later. So out I went, quite proud of myself, walking up and down 21st street, but could not find the hostel. Turns out he let me off in the wrong city! Santa Marta was another 20 minutes up the road! Bad man….apparently they often do this to save time and money. With the help of a friendly local, I hopped a cab to Santa Marta.

I was greeted at the Aluna hotel by Luis, who was reading the bible. When I told him my name was Jonathan, he looked at the bible, and then again at me, and made a connection. Not sure if he caught it when I jokingly tried to explain that Jonathan means “gift from God.” Beautiful little hotel, run by Patrick, an Irishman. These Irish seem to be everywhere! Very peaceful and orderly place though. They clearly care about their clients and surroundings, and I love that. It doesn’t matter to me how fancy it is, as long as someone cares.

Santa Marta is a fairly big town of about 700,000. Geographically it’s a very interesting spot where mountains, beach, and jungle meet. So far, very good vibe in this town, but it’s really hot and humid. And on my first night here, I had the best meal of my trip, and perhaps the best fish dish I have ever had. I think it was sea bass, with an interesting combination of veggies…contrasting yet complementary flavours. And mercifully, no rice. At $13, it was expensive compared to what I have become accustomed to the last few weeks, but cheap compared to what you pay at home. I don’t usually write much about food, but this meal was exquisite. I also tried a new drink…beer, rum, sugar, and lime, with salt around the rim. I am not much of a beer drinker anymore, but this drink was delicious and totally refreshing!

Sunday I made the journey into the national park, Tayrona…tropical rainforest, snow-capped mountains and hugged by the Caribbean Sea. The journey started with a cab ride with Irving, the cabbie. We were at a very busy intersection waiting to turn left. There was a guy on a motorbike ahead of us, in the middle of the intersection, on the phone, completely oblivious to everyone around him. “Idiota,” I said (I had learned that with Raffy). Well, Irving roared with laughter for the next five minutes, like this was the funniest thing he had ever heard! Then a 90-minute bus ride in a local “collectivo” to the entrance of the park. Then a short ride in a jam-packed mini bus to where the hike in would begin. Here is a short clip.

imageA fairly easy hike I guess by most standards, but I found it quite tough through the jungle in the 45 Celsius heat. Eventually the trail led to the Atlantic Ocean (dangerous, not swimmable), and continued North along the coastline to Cabo San Juan…about 2 hours hike in total. The trail and park and ocean…all stunning. But the experience was marred for me by the people who work in the park…from the ticket person at the front gate, to the shuttle drivers, to the restaurant staff in Cabo. They are all fully aware that they are the only game in town and treat the visitors with complete indifference. But I did enjoy the surroundings, and when I finally arrived at swimmable beaches, they were magnificent. Beach, jungle, and mountains…all in one spot. I wondered again, as I have many times before when looking up at palm trees: how many people die each year from coconuts falling on their heads? I think I must have been quite delirious.

Lots of young folk here from all over the world. Most people camp in the park or rent a hammock. I was not in the mood to stay overnight, but neither was I looking forward to hiking all the way back for the return journey. So I was very happy when I discovered that I could take a high speed boat back from Cabo to Taranga, close to Santa Marta. The 4 pm departure didn’t leave til 5, and the boat crew were rude and condescending. Again…the only game in town, and they knew it. During the trip back, I tried to push all that negativity away and enjoy the bumpy ride and the spectacular scenery as we made our way West along the wild coastline. Big, fast, safe looking boat, but I was a little concerned when the old dude in the front whose job was to hold the anchor in place and watch the water made the father/son/Holy Ghost sign as we were leaving. But watching the crew do their thing, I did end up appreciating their expertise, even though I had trouble shaking this heavy energy. When we arrived at Taranga, even the dogs picked up on it and were barking madly at me. Very rare, that. Even rarer that I barked back.

I am annoyed with myself that I allowed other people to affect my park experience.

With Luis, like we have been friends forever.

With Luis, like we have been friends forever.

I finally made it back to Aluna Hostel, and was greeted again by Luis, this time very warmly. Not that he was cold before, but something shifted, and it felt like we were old friends. A beautiful spirit, he has. I told him of some of the day’s frustrations and he apologized on behalf of Colombians. He then said ” tu es un persona mas elegante” (or something like that). I was surprised because I certainly did not feel very elegant. But certainly an nstant energy shift. I then ventured out into the town, which was very quiet compared to the night before. Everything was closed and most of the streets were very quiet. I had a quick bite at a cafe I had discovered the night before…another beautiful meal…fresh, exquisitely prepared shrimp ceviche, and the best mojito I have ever had.

Also ran into a young man staying at the same hostel who was just on the Panama-Colombia sail boat crossing. And on the same catamaran I will be on in three days. And at the park today, I ran into a young woman who was on the Ecuadorian jungle tour with me a week or so ago. What are the odds?

On Monday I decided to head to Minca to visit a coffee operation in the mountains. After a short cab ride to the market I found the SUV headed to Minca. I sat around for about 20 minutes with two other people, and with no sign that we were leaving, I lost patience and got up to leave. Then there was some action, and agreed to pay a little more to leave right away (a gringo surcharge?). I learned that if you behave like a wallflower here, you will be ignored.

With Louis and our two very good bike drivers.

With Louis and our two very good bike drivers.

I met a young guy from France who was going to the same place, and he could speak Spanish, so we joined forces and spent the rest of the day together. After 45 minutes up the mountain in an SUV, then another 20 on the back of a motorbike on a very bad road (imagine the, err, challenges with my ongoing intestinal problems?) we finally arrived in one piece. The scenery on the way up was spectacular as we climbed into the clouds, through massive bamboo and other trees. And the air was pure and much more comfortable.

Great coffee farm tour with Jaime...bean there!

Great coffee farm tour with Jaime…bean there!

Then a very interesting and private tour of the coffee facility, where the whole 6-day process was explained, from harvesting to washing, cleaning, drying, and roasting. Made me wonder again, not for the first time, who could possibly have initially figured this out thousands of years ago. Our guide, Jaime, said that legend has it that it started in Ethiopia. Some farmers noticed cows eating the berries and then acting strangely. So they got rid of the berries by throwing them into the fire. And then noticed how good it smelled. I have no idea if this is true, but it sounds plausible.

Then it started to rain and we still had to go back down by bike which worried me. They were good drivers, but still…the road was very bad, and now getting slick and very wet. I was anxious, but at a certain point I started saying to myself “Jesus take the wheel.” And I guess he did.

imageStopped for lunch (the dogs were MUCH friendlier today) and then coffee, and listened to Louis chat up a young Dutch woman running the coffee shop on the science of sex. A long chat. Ahhh…the French! He also told me a little trick he uses to help travelling intestinal issues…he drinks a bottle a day, and swears it kills everything! And I’m ready to try almost anything! Then a long drive back by car this time, spending about an hour driving down the rest of the mountain in 1st gear!

Then back to the hostel where I chatted with Patrick the Irish owner we had been here for about 14 years. He explained how things used to be in Colombia: government, drug cartels, guerillas, how thousands of people were murdered, and how the clean up process began. I still find it quite incredible how quickly Colombia has gone from very dangerous to very livable.

Overall, Santa Marta is chaotic, dirty, poor, and by and large the people are not as open and friendly as other parts of the country. It’s also very loud everywhere, like everyone is desperate to be heard. When I am not well rested, I find it quite draining. And the oppressive heat takes its toll on me. I get the expression “crazy from the heat.” It must also have long-term affects on the people who live here. But almost without exception when I had the energy and patience to push through all that, I could feel temperaments and attitudes changing for the better, and overall I really quite enjoyed them. Despite all the issues I ran into, I don’t regret coming here.

Tuesday I left Santa Marta for the 4+ hour bus ride West to Cartagena where I will begin a five-day sailing trip by catamaran to Panama, through the famous San Blas islands. I met with captain David Tuesday night, and honestly I’m not quite sure what I have gotten myself into here. They are all 20 something, and I am definitely the oldest by far. Not sure how relaxing it will be, but I suppose I must approach this like another adventure. I must keep an open mind. The French captain seemed to be a bit scattered at first, but I chatted with him and feel he is competent, and we connected in French. No real opinion yet on Cartagena…feeling my usual discombobulation when I first arrive somewhere new. And I have arrived here at Carnival time so everything is louder and more insane than usual. I have already been bumped by a bunch of prostitutes who tried to pickpocket me, but I was ready for them. Sorry ladies…not this gringo.

‘Til then,



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 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,

Into South America: Week 1

In the Ecuadorean mountains, near Otavallo

In the Ecuadorean mountains, near Otavallo

Well, I have come to the end of week 1 in Ecuador, and what a ride it’s been. I realize that for some of you, all the nitty gritty, day to day stuff may be boring. So I will try a new format, starting with a bullet list of random thoughts and observations for those who want it short and sweet, and a full day by day insight for those who are interested in reading more.

Random thoughts and observations
Dogs: there is a dog society, parallel to humans, in most of the small towns I have visited. Dogs are walking around the streets–alone or in groups–going about their own business, running their own show–seemingly unaware or oblivious to what people are doing. I have never seen anything quite like it.
Popcorn: served with virtually every meal. No movie required.
The equator: I assumed it would be stupid hot here because Ecuador is on the equator. Not so, at least so far. 8-23 Celsius in the mountains, and 18-27 Celsius on the West coast. One day last week, pea-sized hail was actually falling from the sky in Quito! Wild.
Gas: 36 cents a litre!
Exports: Ecuador is the number one exporter of bananas and tuna worldwide.
Hats off: the Panama hat is actually made in Ecuador.
Young at heart: I was by far the eldest in the hostels I have stayed in so far. But somehow I don’t feel out of place. Like-minded travelling souls perhaps.
People and pride: people care here. They may not have much, but they take pride in what they do have. They are understated and not aggressive.

The week in review
Flying into the capital city of Quito, Ecuador was pretty cool…dropping into a mountainous valley 9,300 above sea level, twice the altitude of Denver Colorado. And what a pleasure it was to finally arrive after a long (and thankfully uneventful) day of travel, greeted by a very friendly and hassle-free immigration officer at the Quito airport. I then got into an airport cab. The driver was a very nice, pleasant older fellow…but he had no idea where he was going. I think was suffering from early stages of dementia. Poor guy. He must have stopped 10 times for directions, and then promptly forgot them every time! Mumbling to himself, then laughing. So a one hour trip took two.

Finally arrived at a very basic, but nice and clean and friendly hostel in a busy central neighbourhood…good vibe. Hotel staff Alejandro and Andres made me feel totally welcome. No doubt the whole hostel thing was a good idea, as there were people staying there from all over the world. Lots to learn from fellow travellers, but I really was too tired too talk to anyone the first night. But I did much better the second day, meeting lots of new people, including Mark, a young Irishman living in Ecuador. I would end up spending lots of time with him in my first week.

That usual initial fear of the unknown was, and is always right there, but I pushed through it, and ventured out on my own to walk around the neighbourhood on day 2. I had it in my head that I was arriving in a picturesque little Ecuadorian town. Wrong. Quito is a huge city of about 2.5 million people! The most unusual thing I saw was a female police inspector wearing 3-inch heels! I really do not like big city life, but I made the most of my surroundings over the next several days. A few food highlights of the day: a fresh juice I had never tried before (tree tomato), a delicious seafood ceviche, and an interesting combo of figs and cheese (queso) for dessert. Yummy!

The highlight of day 2? While I was walking around the city, a car was backing up and there were a bunch of small kids behind him. I jumped between the kids and the car and stopped him. We all kept walking and when I looked back, a young girl smiled shyly at me and said “gracias.” A very touching moment.

Overlooking Quito, on a volcano

Overlooking Quito, on a volcano

I started day 3 by climbing a volcano that overlooks the city…well not actually climbing. I took the cable car to about 13,000 feet. The air was even thinner up there, and I felt a little light headed and out of breath, but the view was spectacular. Then met a group at another hostel for a 3-hour walking tour of the old town. The guide was really good–engaging and informative–and I learned some Ecuadorian history and culture. Then the rain and cold came in a big way. Not only rain, but pea-sized hail!! But by the end of day 3, I was certainly becoming much more comfortable and confident.

Saturday I took a day tour several hours north of Quito through the Andes mountains. We made several stops, the highlight being Otavalo, home to south America’s biggest Saturday market. I am not a shopper, but I did enjoy this place. Huge market, but surprisingly calm and “tranquillo.” Unlike many other peoples, Ecuadorians are not aggressive when it comes to selling. I am very careful about what and where I eat when I’m travelling–nothing worse than getting sick thousands of miles away from home–but after carefully scoping out the food stands, I enjoyed a delicious freshly pulled pork snack for $1.50, eating with locals. Although the day was a little touristy, this was a really good way to make this kind of trip. I also really enjoyed chatting with some of the others in the bus…visitors from Germany, Thailand, Switzerland, US, and Canada. Even a US pilot. I learned about them, and picked up all kinds of useful travel tips and info. Made a few stops along the way, including a mountain lagoon and the equator line. Pretty cool to have one foot in the north hemisphere, and one in the south.

One foot in the North, and one in the South. pointing North.

One foot in the North, and one in the South. pointing North.

One very interesting thing I learned about that was a new way to look at the Earth. Kind of hard to explain, and I’m not sure I completely understand it, but the gist of it involves looking at the earth not as upper and lower hemispheres, but as left and right. North, South, East, and West stay the same, but the Earth is, in effect, turned on its side. If you hold a globe below you, looking at the equator with North on your left and South on your right, and spin it away from you! You get the idea. A whole new way to look at Mother Earth.

Day 5 (Sunday), I drove with Mark from Quito, heading South and West through the mountains and down to the coast. It was a very long drive…about 10 hours…but the 1-hour descent from about 9,000 to about 2,000 feet was wild. Twisty, turny roads, driving through the clouds, crossing different climate zones…it was an incredibly spectacular part of the journey. We finally made it to the modern port city of Manta (one of the biggest drug ports in the world apparently), then south along the coast to Salango, a small fishing village just outside of Puerto Lopez. We stayed at a very basic, but clean hostel for $8 a night. The best part was falling asleep to the sound of the ocean.

Fishermen arriving with their early morning catch...and the birds trying to get a free meal!

Fishermen arriving with their early morning catch…and the birds trying to get a free meal!

On Monday we visited a large Canadian real estate project (Hola Ecuador) which is about 45 minutes North of Salango. From there, we travelled South, stopping at most of the beach towns and main beaches along the way. Quite a nice stretch of about 60 km. between Puerto Lopez and Montanita, which is a very cool surf town. Lots of life and activity there compared to the others. Beach bums, hippies, and great waves. Then back to Salango for a second night.

imageOn Tuesday (day 7), we and headed south, back to Monanita where Mark dropped me, and where I will hang out for a few days. Earlier in the week, a fellow traveller recommended Balsa Surf Camp, a hostel, off the beaten path but on the beach for $25 a night. What a beautiful place this turned out to be. A lot of care and attention and thought has been put into this comfortable and relaxed oasis. Feels very welcoming and peaceful here. I have not been feeling 100% healthy over the last few days–adjusting to the food, fighting a cold–so this will be a restorative time I think. Spent the rest of the day walking the beach and doing some body surfing, getting to know the water. Not quite up to the physical demands of surfing yet, so will hope to do that tomorrow as I begin week 2!

It is very interesting how things have unfolded this week, the people I have met, and how one person or place leads to the next. I could never have predicted how any of this would unfold. I did not have a firm plan, yet things have turned out just perfectly. It reminds me of the gift that is the present moment, and allowing myself to go with the flow.

A few final thoughts…every time I arrive in a new place, I wonder what the hell am I doing here. My reflex is guarded and nervous and suspicious in various proportions and amount. I tend to want to keep to myself. And when I do that, invariably, that’s exactly what I get back. But I push through it, and make an effort to connect. And that changes the whole experience to something very rich and meaningful.

Even though I don’t know much Spanish, I make an effort in their language. I make an effort to know them. And that goes a long way to breaking barriers. Smiling, asking their name, showing an interest, trying to engage…it changes everything. I have been warned about all kinds of dangerous situations and scams and I am mindful. But I am reminded time and time again that when a I treat people with kindness and openness…the way I want to be treated….I invariably get the same treatment in return. I am perhaps naive in some ways, but I do know that people are fundamentally quite similar, and respond to the same things, whatever country they’re from.

Now why do I work extra hard at this only when I am in unfamiliar territory….need to think about this one.

Any thoughts or questions? Don’t be shy. ‘Til next week.



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.


Into Africa–January 17, 2013

Dear friends,

Today I am taking my show on the road–leaving my home, family, and friends in Canada to spend the next two months doing volunteer work in Mozambique, Africa. This follows a trip I made early last year, doing volunteer work in Nicaragua. Although for a much shorter duration, it gave me a powerful opportunity to open my mind and heart to others, and to demonstrate that in a meaningful way. Something shifted in me during that trip. It’s hard to put into words, but I have been hungering for something similar ever since. So now….Africa.

This time I will not be building a school, but rather providing communication advice and expertise to an education system that needs to reach more Africans. I look forward to the adventure that awaits me, and will use this space to update you on my progress and observations over the next several weeks.

I am so fortunate to have such encouraging and supportive friends and family around me. One such friend, Julie Truelove, just sent me this heartfelt little note. It seems a perfect way to start the journey. Thank you Jules…you have framed it beautifully.

People hear and read many things about Africa, but experiencing it all is a whole new reality. And it is unique to each person who experiences it. You may find the good, the difficult, the amazing, the ugly, the slow, and the beautiful all rolled into one day…and you will see it in your own way. It seems to me that every person who travels to Africa has “their moment”…a specific moment when it all hits you. This can be an inspiring moment or a gut wrenching moment and ultimately both really.

My moment was at a school in Tanzania when this very distinguished, well-spoken, and well-dressed male teacher stood up to welcome us and humbly said he was glad we came. And then his next statement was “don’t be sad for Africa” and that has stuck with me and served me well over the past few years. Another moment I had in the last few months was when someone, and I don’t remember who, said “sometimes you need Africa more than Africa needs you.” This was a more difficult one to get my head around but eventually I saw the light…even though I think Africa still needs people among many other things, but that is for another discussion.

So take it all in, all the tragic and the beautiful and the amazing, and find your moment when it comes. Let it reach you. When you have those tough times, and surely some lonely times, your moment will help you through towards the brighter days. It’s the fight inside that keeps you going, the inspiration that can help keep you positive and your heartfelt secret when people around you haven’t experienced it and don’t understand what you keep talking about.