Naive

No matter how hard you resist your cultural wiring and expectations, it is easy to fall into stereotyping. Since I arrived in the southern reaches of Colombia, to the beginning of the Andes indigenous regions, I have been captivated by the women. Stolen photos and glances, National Geographic moments and textbook images come to life on the side of a mountain or in a small town market. This is what I had in mind with the Andes (along with the llamas I’ve only seen one of).

I’ve traveled a bit and don’t like to think of myself as that (American) person arriving in a new place with a head full of naive stereotypes. But that I had done that was made clear by three encounters I had this week that broke the proverbial fourth wall. The actors walked off the stage in into my life.

On Wednesday I went to Las Piscinas de la Virgen thermal bathes in Baños. I only stayed overnight there on my way to Cuenca, so I didn’t have time to check out all of the various spa offerings, and the owner of the hotel said that most weren’t open in the morning, anyway. So I wandered into the public bathes at the waterfalls. It cost $2 (as opposed to much more in the other spas) and $.50 to rent a shower cap (required). What I found was several different pools under the water falls, of varying temperatures, changing rooms, and an outdoor mixed shower. And a hundred or so Ecuadorians.

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I was the only gringo there. I was the exotic one who was stared at, and probably photographed. I’m relatively inured to being stared at, after 14 years in Asia, where with my height, build and full head of white hair, I stand out a bit. But it is still an experience of role reversals, where I am the object of curiosity and gaze.

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I mostly hung out in the moderately hot pool, where the families and couples, ranging from elderly to young and amorous, were gathered in small groups chatting splashing about. At one point I realized that a particular old indigenous woman had taken an interest in me. Like in some Asian cultures, it didn’t seem a problem for her to move in fairly close and check me out, pore by pore. I once had a female taxi driver in Korea stop the taxi and stroke my hair. I got used to it.

When I went to take a shower, she came up behind me again. Being a mixed outdoor shower, I stayed in my suit, but she pulled hers down to her waist, handed me a black stone and indicated I should rub her back with it. I gently pushed the stone on her back, and the first words she finally said to me were “mas fuerte, mas fuerte.” So I scrubbed her back with the stone as I had once had done to me in a hammam in Morocco, and layers of dead skin sloughed off. I handed her back the stone, and that was the end of it.

The next day I took a bus to Cuenca. The buses here stop for everyone to get on and off anywhere. If you aren’t fond of your seatmate, he or she will change in a short while. I found myself watching what they paid so I would have a sense of when they would disembark. At the Canari terminal, another woman got on, wearing the traditional red skirt, socks, little hat and very long braid. I noticed her, and then went back to my end of a long bus ride musings. Then, with very clear English, she asked me what State I was from. A bit startled, I told her, and then we proceeded to have a conversation in Spanish (a lot or repetition and clarification involved). She explained the significance of her hat to me, told me about her family, and her job in tourism that takes her to Canari for 3 days, and then back home to Cuenca for 3. We exchanged Facebook information and email addresses as the bus arrived at her jump off point in Cuenca.

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My third experience happened yesterday, as I strolled through the flower market. Saturday morning brings everyone out, especially when the sun shines. I crossed the street into a crowded corner and my way was blocked by a short, older indigenous woman in a red skirt, etc., eating espumilla de guayaba (a local very sugary treat) from a cone. She tilted her head back and stared up and me and refused to yield. I caught on quickly and looked both ways and found her partner’s hand in my pocket. I slapped her hand hard and yelled “mala” at her. They both ran off and people at the crowded corner smiled and laughed.

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At the end of the week, I now feel that I will no longer see indigenous women through the same lens. Exotic as they may seem, they are not subjects in Gauguin paintings, but just other people making sense and making do with their lives. And I now feel so much less an outsider. I’ll always be the tall gringa, and they will always be the short women in red skirts, but it does feel that a major barrier has been broached.

 

 

 

 

 

Feminist Friday

I keep seeing splendid entries here, and I just came across this to offer:

http://www.yesmagazine.org/people-power/the-radical-dissent-of-helen-keller

The Radical Dissent of Helen Keller

Here’s what they don’t teach: When the blind-deaf visionary learned that poor people were more likely to be blind than others, she set off down a pacifist, socialist path that broke the boundaries of her time—and continues to challenge ours today.
Helen Keller stamp photo from Shutterstock

Women’s Suffrage, Civil Rights, and War

Keller was part of wide circle of reformers and radicals who participated in a variety of overlapping causes.  She was a strong advocate for women’s rights and women’s suffrage, writing in 1916: “Women have discovered that they cannot rely on men’s chivalry to give them justice.” She supported birth control and praised its leading advocate, Margaret Sanger, with whom she had many mutual friends. Keller argued that capitalists wanted workers to have large families to supply cheap labor to factories but forced poor children to live in miserable conditions. “Only by taking the responsibility of birth control into their own hands,” Keller said, “can [women] roll back the awful tide of misery that is sweeping over them and their children.”

Mindo Tropical Rainforest

 

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The highway over the pass from Quito went through clouds and verdant tropical jungle.

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The town is quite small, and, at this time of the year, perpetually wet.

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This is a cable car that flies for 530 meters way high about the river and jungle. It is a breathtaking flight over flowering jungle.

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Toucans hung out around the balcony (and bird feeder with bananas)

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Hummingbirds were everywhere. I was getting dive bombed the day I wore red.

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My little cabin in the woods.

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A Day in the Life

Blog posts seldom adequately convey a full picture, even with pictures!

I’ve been traveling now for several months, actually, save some down time in Australia, since last July. I try to post regularly about the places I go, where I’ve stayed, and even some personal stories. But it is really all gloss. The gloss is what makes traveling sound so romantic and adventuresome.

But today I’ll write about the travails of travel, about one day, yesterday, and what was involved in getting from Otavalo to Quito, besides riding the rim of the glorious Andes.

Night before last my gut started hurting and gurgling again. It had started acting up on Saturday. I took some medicine and went on my way, but on Monday night it returned. Along with a problem with a bothersome tooth, which had been repaired in January, but was now acting up again. Between the gut and the tooth, and the insomnia I sometimes get the night before I travel, I had a rough night.

I woke up feeling a bit better, except for a camera problem. My Sony RX100, which has been my favorite camera through 3 versions (the previous two were stolen), not to mention the larger Sony I had that had such lens-opening problems that I gave it away to a student club so they could figure our how to fix it, or not, well, my little Sony developed the same problem as the big one had. Yes, a run on sentence. So it goes. The camera was sitting there taunting me as I pondered what to do about my next two weeks’ plans.

I had some breakfast and coffee at the hostel, and let the taxi driver talk me into taking me all of the way into Quito. I insisted we look for someone else to go along, but it seemed I was it. I think I was so taken with the fear of having to buy a new camera- an expense anywhere, but a huge expense in Ecuador, I learned, due to import taxes, that I just went along for the taxi ride. On some irrational level I felt like my budget was shot anyway, so why not.

At first I sat in the taxi a bit mute. The driver was friendly enough, and a bit chatty, but it was laboring my Spanish, and I was in a ragged mood. Then I decided that for the price, I should practice my Spanish. Silly me for hesitating! We had a great two hour conversation and I learned a lot about Ecuador, and the driver was quite conversant about American politics. We got to central Quito, and the driver, who had promised to deliver me to my hostel, realized he was at a loss with the city. He handed me off to another taxi which delivered me to the door.

From the time I arrived in my room and snuggled under the duvet, at around 3, till this morning, save an hour to fix some spaghetti with butter and garlic for a dinner, I stayed in bed. It is the only warm place here, and I think I needed to just be a vegetable. Tooth still hurting, gut still grumbling, and mood only a little less glum.

So, that is the day in the life of a traveler. And not a bad one at all, but more like any day any where; full of aches, pains, disappointments and some sincere pleasures. The life you bring to the road is the one you will have.There are no real epiphanies, at least not that I have experienced. Get up in the morning, pull on your clothes and put out your best effort, whether in your home town or Quito, Ecuador. This is the life.

 

Amateur Travel Photography

My daughter is an excellent photographer (tiffanybretzer.com), as is her partner. The featured image is her shot. Just a shot from a recent day in the park. My photography is a bit more, well, amateur. I have a good camera (Sony RX100) and great subject matter. But I have no technical expertise.

The intent of my photography is narrative. I tell stories about my travels, and the photos are part of the tale. Sometimes I’m very luck with my shots, sometimes the content is worth the prosaic quality of the image.

At one time travelers sketched (thank goodness for cameras, because my sketching skills are horrible). One of the refinements required of the traveling classes was training in sketching. We of humble origins were never intended to do serious travel. Even now we are just supposed to take a 1-2 week vacation (at least for Americans) to a tourist spot and take snapshots.

I want to improve my photography (as well as my Spanish, and my writing and…). I can’t really afford better equipment, so I am going to have to hunker down with what I have and see how I can improve the outcome.

I’ve taken a step backwards on this trip, as I didn’t want to travel with my MacBook Pro, with its photo editing options and much bigger screen. I’m using a very cheap Asus computer that doesn’t offer much, but maybe that will force me to be more attentive with my shooting.

I would love to have my daughter along with me as a designated photographer. It seems utterly unfair that such grand material as I have every day on my travels should be wasted on me. Maybe someday.

Here are a few of my amateur shots from a recent trip to a condor rescue center. What she could have done with these!

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Otavalo, and of course, the Market

Five days in Otavalo and I am ready to move on. A splendid little Andean town, surrounded by volcanoes, greener than St. Patrick’s Day, filled with markets and old churches: A good way to spend my first week in Ecuador (by the time I leave on Tuesday). Then it will be on to the big city of Quito.

On Friday I went to the Condor bird sanctuary, which I’ll write about later, and hiked the 5 miles back. I’ve been to Cotacachi twice. It’s been written about a lot as a new retirement hot spot, so I had to check it out. I was so amazed at how quiet and small it was, I decided I needed to check it out a second time, on its market day, Sunday. I was right. There is really not much there. I would rather wait till I die to have nothing to do, so I think I’ll give Cotacachi a pass as a retirement option. I’ll write more about it on birdwithwings.com, my retirement blog.

Saturday was Market day, and, and the whole of downtown is one big street market and family get together for the Otavalo people. It really is one of the world’s great markets. I’m traveling light, so there was no shopping for me. Just photos and food.

The other thing about Otavalo is the weather. It sits at 8,441 feet (2,573 metres) and gets lots of rain and thunderstorms. It is cool enough to require a wrap in the evening. Last night it rained all night, and this morning I woke up and the volcano Imbabura was topped with snow.

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The big white building to the lower right is my hostal. As wonderful as it looks.

 

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Local architecture

 

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A favorite snack at the market-tiny snails with lime, salt and onions

 

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A gentleman in traditional Otavalan dress: Hat, blue wool pancho, white trousers and white espradrilles.
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Women in traditional dress: Hats, scarves or sometimes a cloth wrap around the head, a shawl, white lace embroidered blouse, wrap wool skirt and black espadrilles.
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Roast pigs-12 hours overnight in the oven. A real lunch counter favorite. A generous serving, with cracklings, little mashed potato pancakes, corn and salad.

 

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There is the serving, with fresh salsa on the side.

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This morning there was snow on the volcano and a nip in the air.

 

 

 

 

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Lonliness and Travel Stories

When you travel alone, and have been traveling alone for a long time, you can get hungry for an audience. You have been remarkable places, a lot of them, and have had some wonderful and harrowing experiences along the way. Blogging is one way to tell the tale, and it is so helpful, but you want to tell it to someone who is sitting across from you, mouth agape, keeping your glass full, in a tavern full of laughing people. You long to wow an audience. I always say of my near misses and close to death experiences, ‘if it doesn’t kill me, it will make for a good story.’ A tale needs an audience, and at the end of the road in a lonely hostel with the rain falling, there is only you and, if lucky, some young ‘uns who only look at you askance, but are happy to share your pasta.

No, this is only partly autobiographical, but it is the story of a  man I met in a cafe in Bogota. He was enough older than me to be  bit wobbly with his coffee cup, and have tales of adventures that took place while I was in high school. I really really hoped he wasn’t my ghost of Christmases future.

After he started to chat me up with a few stock pleasantries: “Where are you from?,” Why are you traveling?,” “Are you alone?,” I of course reciprocated.

“I’m from Canada, but I live here in Bogota. I have an apartment on the corner. I had a wife long ago. I will go back to Canada in a month or so, but I won’t stay. I don’t know where I’ll go next.” He went into much more detail, and if he had collapsed there and then, I could have told the medics his blood type.

He told me tales of Goa in the 60’s, jumping trains when broke (I tried then to share my story of such times in Nime in the 90’s, but he cut me off), getting robbed on another train. He told me about hiking to the top of  mountain to meet a famous guru, and getting stopped by the police and helped out by a beautiful young acolyte.

He told me he had been to Vietnam many years before and didn’t like the coffee (now his general mental status was in question for me) so when he came to Colombia, he searched for seeds for good Colombian Arabica to take back, as a sort of caffeine missionary, to convert the Vietnamese. There was a convoluted tale of getting the seeds from a young man who had to bring them to him in New York so he could get them to Vietnam. Which he did, and that is why you can now buy quality Arabica coffee in Vietnam. Several times I tried to convert his monologue into a conversation, as I had lived in Vietnam for over 3 years, but again my contributions were not welcome or pertinent to his tale.

When I started to visibly lose interest, becoming greatly fascinated with  my toast and eggs, he got up to leave.

I did listen for way longer than I wanted. I felt bad for the old man alone on a rather dive street in Bogota, going back to Canada, and then going where he doesn’t know. It was a bit too close to the bone. He was starving for an audience, for people to  care about him and his stories.

I have felt frustrated with the exquisite lack of interest my family has in my stories and travels. Sometimes I wonder if my friends are humouring me as they listen and ask questions. But then there are times when I can tell genuine engagement. I love encountering other travelers who want to exchange stories and fill each others glasses. My encounter with the old man reminded me to pay close attention to my audience and know when it is time to wrap up the story. I think a good sign is when your cup runs dry and stays that way.

Great Coffee on the Road-Put a Sock in It!

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Good (really, excellent) coffee and what the Colombian’s call “grandma’s sock”

I see way too many posts where travelers mention drinking instant coffee. For shame! The other day  was traveling all day by buses and taxis, and the only recourse for coffee was the god-awful stuff they were serving at the bus depots. Worse than instant. I had a coke to get a little caffeine fix. I never drink sodas. Bad for my health. But truly bad coffee? Bad for the soul.

Here is something I learned in Cambodia. If you use a big enough and open enough “sock”, you can get pretty great coffee. (I know  there are some who recommend using a large tea filter, but this doesn’t really to the trick- they are too small and the coffee gets compressed.) These days when you visit Siem Reap or Phnom Penh, you can go almost anywhere and get nice pulled espresso. Years back , not really so many, breakfast was a simple affair: noodle soup and coffee served up at little 10″ high stools and cooked by squatting women. The coffee was actually splendid (as was the soup!). The coffee was brewed in a sock. I am fairly sure it was an actual grandma’s sock. No harm no foul, as they say. Well, the water was boiling, so no harm, but the sock? Well, no harm, at least.

Now I carry with me one of those lovely fine mesh filters shown in the picture above. I got my first one in Bangladesh, when I lived there. Then I kept two-one for coffee and the other to strain homemade yoghurt. I haven’t seen them in the US, but you can always resort to a sock.

I simply boil water, put my desired amount of coffee in the filter, put the filter in a cup, and pout the water over till the cup is full. I like to let it brew a bit, 3 or 4 minutes, more or less, and then I have a great cup of coffee. I do this at the sink, because sometimes there is a bit of overflow or dripping.

The filter in the picture is cheap and weighs nothing. It goes with me everywhere. I got that particular coffee in Colombia, and it may be an all time favorite. Good coffee is available most places. A corner of the backpack for some coffee and the filter is easy.  Hostels have kitchens, but if you must be in a hotel, they have coffee makers and you can boil the water there. Instant coffee is a crime, even Starbucks.