Thursday, December 23, 2010

Lost in Cajas...



The patter of rain on the tin roof of my little terrace room has been unrelenting for the last three hours.  The clouds moved in quickly engulfing the blue skies darkening the entire city, then with a deafening burst of thunder they began to erupt, flooding the colonial streets of Cuenca.  The rainy season has arrived, and being in the middle of a storm has made me realize how much I miss it.  There is something comforting about a heavy rain, it makes any building that you are in at that moment seem like home, and then when it stops and you emerge outside, it makes everything seem clean and fresh.

I’ve returned to Cuenca for a part of my holidays.  The cold mountain air in this quaint, quiet city seemed like a good place to come and find some calm for Christmas.  For the last two years I’ve experienced Christmas on the coast in El Salvador, and as fun as that was, I’ve grown weary of bright flashing lights, vodka, and obnoxiously loud Latin Christmas music.  Instead I wanted to come here and relax and perhaps pass Christmas Eve with a local family.  

Today, before the rain began I made my way to Cajas National Park about forty minutes above Cuenca in the Andes.  They say that Cajas means the “gateway” to the snowy Andes Mountains in the indigenous language of Quechua, and that ancient travelers have always used this pass.  I arrived early, the first one there, and set out on a hike that was supposed to take five hours to complete.  I asked the guide before leaving if the path was well marked, and he told me that it was easy and I’d have no problem.  After twenty minutes of walking I came to the first post and it read that solo hikers must have a map and a compass and that the next post was in 221 meters.  I had a map but no compass, and as I continued for about a half hour on what I thought was the path I realized that I had passed 221 meters a long time before and had not come to any post.  I wasn’t incredibly worried because I knew that if I just headed in a certain direction I would eventually reach the mountain highway, but it is interesting to reflect on the thoughts that go through ones head at the possibility of being lost in the wilderness.  The night before a friend had told me I shouldn’t hike solo, that years before her professor had gotten lost for two days in Cajas.  I started considering my supplies.  I had a knife and a small bottle of water, an apple and some peanuts.  I could survive on that for a couple of days I mused, but then I remembered how cold it was.  I was in my Alpaca sweater and could still feel a chill, and this was with the sun pounding down on me.  There was no way I could survive a night in these frosty mountains without a fire, and I didn’t have a lighter.  I tried to remember how Survivorman started a fire from scratch, but then I remembered that the episode was in a dry forest, not in the misty mountains of the Andes where everything is moist.  I opted to keep walking in an attempt to find the path again.


The landscape of Cajas is magnificent.  The mountains are wide and round but not very steep, with the exception of the occasional face of dark rock that juts into the sky above you.  Everything is a dark, moist green that is spotted heavily with cold and equally dark shaded lagoons and lakes that make the entire mountain range shine like an emerald jewel.  As I walked I came across small waterfalls and rushing streams; long grasses and marshy plains.  There were the occasional thick groupings of what are called “paper tree” forests that are skeleton like and seemed out of place yet complemented the setting perfectly.  Often I would walk across marshy grass that almost had the appearance of coral, and when I stepped on it I sunk in and water rose over my shoe.   
I was certainly lost, but I felt good.  The hiking and the landscape combined to evoke images in my mind of ancient nomads traversing this same range, equally uncertain as to what came next but fully prepared to face it.  It inspired me to keep moving.  Hiking is an interesting activity that we put ourselves through.  It can often be arduous and even miserable, especially when you are deep in the mountains and cold and short of breath.  But then when you come around that bend and you suddenly see miles and miles of mountains and lakes unfolding into the distance, and all you hear are the sounds of a nearby stream and singing birds, you remember why it is all worthwhile. 

I came to large rock plateau on which I decided to drink some water and take the following picture of myself.  After five more minutes of walking I came upon a wooden cross, signaling some sort of human contact, I had found the path again.  I emerged on the highway about an hour later, after about a three hour hike.  I don’t think I was ever really lost in retrospect, but rather I went astray and somehow found a short cut. 

I’m back in Cuenca now enjoying the rain, tomorrow I´m going to watch one of the most popular Christmas processions in Latin America and then eat a traditional Andean dish – Guinea Pig.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Nomadic Artisan...


Throughout my travels I have come across many people who have questioned me about the country that I came from and the way in which I arrived.  With wide, curious eyes I’ve had an old indigenous man in the mountains of Guatemala ask me how many hours it would take to get from his town to Canada by chicken bus.  I’ve had anxious teenagers here in Ecuador ask me how much a flight would cost to Canada and then stare at me in disbelief when I tell them the price, their minds suddenly thinking that I must be filthy rich.  For many of these people the idea of international travel is a fantasy, something that they see in films and hear about from foreigners.  It is something that they’ve accepted as beyond their reach, and in most cases it is.  My ability to travel is something that I am extremely grateful for, but it has often been difficult to come to terms with the fact that most of the places that I visit are populated mainly by people that will never have the chance to leave their own country, let alone their community.  But this piece isn’t about those people.  This is about a societal segment of like-minded individuals in the poor world that represent a way of life and an outlook that I as a privileged traveler both envy and admire.  They are the nomadic artisans.

It is largely due to economic circumstances that we in the rich world are able to travel and that the majority of the poor world is not.  We have the benefit of being able to save lots of money and receive paid vacations, of being able to afford flights and travel insurance.  The idea of the long distance vacation is very much a product of rich-world capitalism.  The notion that we can leave the cold winter to go and hang on a beach for a week is something particular to our society, and to the upper throngs of the poor world.  That is not to say that people living in poverty do not enjoy a good vacation, but rather that their options are much more limited. 

One type of travel that the rich world has become known for is long-term travel.  It has become common place for young people to take off backpacking for months at a time, visiting entire continents if not flying around the world, seeing all of the great sights that their guide books tell them they should see.  This type of travel is next to impossible for most of the poor world, where daily work means a daily meal and bed, where people must work to support their families.  I´ve been living a life of long-term travel for the last three years, and people back in Canada who know me often tell me that the way I live my life is adventurous and uncertain.  I´ve often been asked if I ever worry about money or my future.  Relatively, I suppose my life is not conventional, and that from a rich world perspective the path I’ve taken thus far might be considered risky.  But the reality is that I have money in my bank account and a credit card for emergencies.  I have a government that will go out of its way to assist and support me and I have a family that opens their arms and doors for me when I go home.  I go home to a country where I can find a job and receive medical attention and where I’ll receive support when I’m old.  Thus long-term travelling for me is simple; it is just me taking advantage of my extremely lucky circumstances.  Any personal risk that my lifestyle poses pales in comparison to the people I’m about to talk about.

The true adventurers that really live on the edge are the nomadic artisans.  They are the people that travel long distances for an indefinite period of time, living day to day off of the work that they do with their own hands.  Here in Latin America, they come from different parts of the continent, often from extremely poor families, but they have found a way to enjoy the wonders of travel.  They represent a way of life that utilizes the capitalist world only as a means of survival, but that rejects it as a foundation of their existence.  They are the owners of their finished products, and they work when they like, at a leisurely pace, selling what they can.  The focus for the nomadic artisan is not to find a good job and save money, but to simply enjoy the experience of life, with money simply being a necessity of survival.

Being a traveler I always seem to find myself in the places where the nomadic artisans flock.  From the colonial streets of Antigua to the quaint surf town of El Zonte; from the downtown steps of Cuenca to the archeological ruins of Copan.  Where the tourist goes the nomadic artisan follows, for that is how he survives.  In the coastal town of Montañita lies the greatest abundance and diversity of nomadic artisans that I have ever seen.  It is the Mecca of the nomadic artisan.  They line the main street there with their displays of necklaces and bracelets, rings and other random items.  Many of them can be distinguished by the way they present and carry themselves, with loose and often dirty clothing, dread-locked hair and tattoos, and mannerisms that reveal a non-caring, easygoing lifestyle.  Many of them live from day to day, surviving off of the items that they are able to sell, some diversifying into street performing to add to their income.  A few nights ago one fellow told me he needed to make three dollars to pay for his bed that night, when I saw him later he told me that he had made four dollars by juggling fire and now he could buy a beer, he was very happy.  Such is the essence of the nomadic artisan: they find happiness in the little things and in the experience more than anything else, and if they make a little more money that day then it simply means that they can buy more food or drinks to share with their friends. 

The nomadic artisan also represent an outlook of tolerance and acceptance, and are some of the friendliest most self-less people I have ever met.  I always seem to find myself in great conversations with the nomadic artisans, as they are eager to talk and learn about you whether you are going to buy something or not.  After just a few days in Montañita I had made friends with several artisans and I would spend the evening hanging out on the curb of the main street with them, waiting for customers to come along and bargain for one of the items laid out on a cloth before us.  Despite my clear affluence in comparison to many of them, they were always eager to share, and rarely asked of anything from me but my company.  Many of these characters came from poor families in poor Latin American countries, but their lifestyle has allowed them to travel and see the world, to share experiences with people that they likely would have never met had they not been artisans.

My experiences with the nomadic artisans have given me a new found appreciation not only for my privileged ability to travel almost care free, but also for the dedication and joy put into the work that they carry out, and to what that work represents.  When I buy a bracelet or a necklace or whatever it may be from that interesting looking character on the street, I know that I’m not only helping him to eat that day, but that I’m allowing him to continue living a lifestyle that few are able to experience.  And it is a lifestyle of freedom and joy, immaterialism and openness; it is a lifestyle worth supporting.  

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The inevitable Montañita post...


Before I arrived in Montanita, I didn’t feel it was going to be necessary to write about this place, as so many travelers before me had already done so.  It is one of the most popular surf towns in all of Latin America, what more could be said?  But for the very reason that Montanita has gained its name, I feel a strong inclination to share my thoughts and experiences.

I arrived in Montanita on a Saturday, it was overcast and cold, the small streets that make up this tiny town were rather calm and empty.  Aside from the oddly dressed characters and the clearly foreigner-oriented hostels that lined the streets, Montanita was not what I pictured it to be.  Then again, no place ever is.  It was no normal Saturday in Montanita.  There was a nation wide census to take place the next day, and some sort of backwards logic led the government to believe that by imposing a dry law on Saturday, everyone would stay in there homes on Sunday.  So it was that all of the bars were closed, and the liquor stores were forbidden to sell anything.  At least that was the idea.  Every rule has its exceptions, and on that day Montanita was one of them.  To make a long story short I spent the one night when drinking was forbidden in Ecuador, getting drunk with a Brazilian, a Chilean, and an American in a hostel kitchen and then continuing on to a luxurious masquerade, literally, in a beach house in the next town over.  It was a sign of things to come in Montanita.

It is a special place, there is no denying that.  The eclectic mix of surfers and hippies, artisans and entrepreneurs, make a simple stroll down the street very interesting.  Although it is filled with foreigners, and definitely caters to the North American/European crowds, there is a huge population of South American travelers that help to maintain a uniquely Latin feel. 

The beach here is long and stunning, with consistent waves that break along the crystal clear water for about two kilometers.  It ends at a huge rocky point, where they say a perfect point break wave forms when a northern swell rolls in, which is something I have yet to experience.  Walking out to the point on low tide really makes one appreciate the natural beauty of a place like this.  The point is gigantic and covered in all sorts of interesting tidal creatures and life; it makes you feel very small as you walk across this huge outcropping that was covered by ocean just hours before.  My various walks along the beach in Montanita left me feeling inspired yet uncertain.  It is a place that invokes dreams for the future and allows one to get carried away with their thoughts.  Walking through the warm sand, feeling every little grain on your bare feet, scanning the sky and the surrounding landscape, one can imagine dropping their previous aspirations and living the rest of their life in a place like this.

Every great place has its downfalls, and for me one of Montanita’s best known qualities, is also its worst.  Montanita is famous for its parties.  Every night of the week there is a party somewhere, whether it is in a bar, a house, a disco, or on the beach.  I admittedly enjoy such festivities; Montanita is a place that simply makes one want to party.  I would join the friends that I quickly made on the street in the evening, sharing a bottle whilst sitting on the curb, discussing life and watching people from the around the world pass by as we slowly fell into a comfortable drunkenness.  Then around midnight we would find the most crowded place and dance the night away, losing each other until the next evening only to tell our stories of the night before.  Such a lifestyle is ubiquitous and contagious in Montanita, and difficult to avoid.  While it is undoubtedly entertaining, it wears on you over time and begins to eat away at your soul.  I suppose eventually one could learn to appreciate the more subtle qualities of this place with out engaging in the festivities, but it depends on the person, and their situation in life.    

Ultimately, Montanita provided me with a unique and unforgettable surf town experience, and it is a place to which I will continually return.  While the partying eventually got the best of me, it has been an incredibly good time, and surely something I will want to experience again.  Even though it has been somewhat cold and cloud covered here, there is a beach life that thrives and continues - its appeal unwavering.  This is especially so for surfers who can appreciate the lack of sun in the sky as they sit out on the open ocean waiting for waves.  As I write this the clouds remain in the sky and the chill of the ocean gives me goose bumps, but as I follow the soothing sound of the crashing waves and look out onto the turquoise pacific, I see a line of glowing orange on the horizon as the sun begins to set and I become as satisfied as I ever have been.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Culture of Slow...

With the exception of the dangerously fast buses that I always seem to find myself on, everything in Latin America moves incredibly slow.  There is a culture of slow here that seems to be intrinsic in the lives of most.  It is both a blessing and a curse. 

This culture of slow entails more than just a lack of urgency in the everyday actions of people; it entails an outlook and a way of life.  It includes those slow walking people on the sidewalk that I struggle to pass, but it also includes the idea that what one says is not necessarily what one will do.  I might be accused of generalizing, but after three years of experience in Latin America I’ve learned that when somebody here tells you that they will do something you can never fully be sure that they will follow through.  This is not an intentional thing - people will say things here just to be agreeable and amicable.  Over the last three years I’ve asked many random strangers for directions or information, and only once can I remember someone saying they do not know.  Rather, people will just say something in order to seem helpful, even if they actually have no idea.  Such things are all a part of this culture of slow that I am attempting to illustrate here.

I have lived much of my life in a rush, always wanting to grow up quickly, to get to the next destination, to arrive early.  For me one of the greatest challenges of living and working in Latin America has been adjusting to the culture of slow.  Working in a small community has really brought out my frustration.  Every meeting that I schedule with people, no matter how much I emphasize the importance of beginning on time, everyone shows up at least thirty minutes later than the agreed hour.  When the meetings finally begin we end up talking about different things until everyone is either tired or thirty minutes late for their next meeting and we end up accomplishing nothing.  One can only imagine then, the frustration that accompanies somebody working in the field of development, where change is the desired goal of all parties involved yet it comes ever so slow.

I find myself wondering if a part of the lack of development in this part of the world is a result of this culture of slow, indeed scholars have attempted to argue along such lines.  But the more that I think about it and the longer that I live here, I come to realize that it is likely the other way around, and that this culture of slow is the result of a lack of development more than anything else.  The culture of slow causes its limitations on certain aspects of life, but it needn’t be a pejorative.  Despite my many grievances, this culture of slow is no doubt what causes Latin Americans to be some of the happiest people in the world.  I recently read an article about levels of happiness in different countries around the world, and eight of the top ten happiest countries were Latin American.  Despite high levels of inequality and poverty, a lack of basic social services and infrastructure, and often rampant crime, people in Latin America are simply happier.  In the “developed” world we have become fixated on hard work and punctual meetings and “growth”, but often at the detriment of happy lives.  Here in Latin America the culture of slow allows for leisure and recreation despite the fact that people have to work hard just to put food on the table.  It is an insight on life that we have somehow lost in the developed world.

I’ve tried many times to adjust to the culture of slow, but I think it will always be something foreign to me, a cultural trait that I will never pick up, and it is a shame.
They say that people in parts of Latin America live longer than anywhere else.  Indeed I’ve met many people that I believed were fifty years old only to find out that they were seventy.  The culture of slow is far reaching.  So for those that come to Latin America and inevitably become frustrated with the culture of slow, be sure to deeply consider what it ultimately entails.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Playas... The Surfing Frontier

I am sitting on my bed in my cheap hotel room, listening to music and writing. My room is small and has a permanently odd smell; the poorly painted blue walls are accentuated by the insides of squashed insects and mosquitoes, my bed sinks in uncomfortably every time I move. The thin curtain beside my bed flaps calmly with the casual breeze and as it opens the bright sun shines in and I get a glimpse across the street and down the beach. From my pane-glass window I can see the stretch of beach that extends to a rocky point and then wraps around out of site, the calm blue ocean that accompanies this extension of sand is interrupted at the point by rolling white lines heading towards the shore – point break waves.

There is a word that is used here in Ecuador called “Cholo”. It is hard to describe what exactly “Cholo” means, but my understanding is that its closest equivalent in the English language would be “white-trash”, or in this case “Latin-trash”.

I live in a coastal town called “Playas” which translates literally into “Beaches”.
Traditionally, those Ecuadorians who travel to the beach on weekends to enjoy the ocean and the sun have passed up on this town, despite its proximity to the big city just less than two hours away. Indeed, it is no place for the rich classes in search of secluded beaches and five star services. Rather, it is a town of cheap deep-fried food, stumbling drunks, and reggae tone. It is a town of rustic hotel rooms, dust filled streets, and urine smelling walls. It is probably the closest geographical representation of “Cholo” that can be found here in Ecuador. For me, it is paradise.

I’ve lived in my share of beach towns and none of them compare to Playas. Part of the reason for this I think, is that it is extremely difficult to find other foreigners around. People that travel avidly tend to seek out those places that allow them to be fully immersed in the local culture, and Playas provides just that. There is a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment that comes with being the only foreigner in town; it really seems to take the experience to the next level.

With a lack of foreigners comes a lack of crowded waves, especially in a country like Ecuador where surfing is still a relatively new activity. Playas has at least ten different locations to surf close by, yet there is not one surf shop to be found. Finding a surfboard, wax, a leash, are not easy tasks for those just passing through, but finding a wave means a short walk down the beach.

The shape of the coastline here in Playas makes for perfect surfing conditions, especially when the south swells are rolling in. A series of rocky points north of town allow you to walk along the beach and have your pick of right-hand point-break waves. Those that venture the furthest away are sure to find an empty break. Despite the “Cholo” feel of Playas, the beaches are beautiful and relatively clean. They are of soft white sand and they stretch for miles, roaming across them one can always find perfect sea shells and sand dollars, or quite often washed up creatures from puffer fish to sea turtles.

Heading even further north in the back of a pick up truck for ten minutes and you find yourself in Puerto Engabao, one of the most consistent and powerful waves in this part of Ecuador. Engabao is particularly special because of its isolated setting and the openness of the local population to outsiders. It is a coastal-desert town, where the dry and open landscape meets blue pacific waters. The coast is highlighted by red cliffs and rocky outcrops where crabs are seen scurrying around as massive pacific waves crash upon them. It is a fishing town and nothing more, and the fishers actually embark right at the point where the waves break. To surf you must sit and watch until all of the fisherman have left the beach, and this is often a show in itself when the swell is big and the boats are all struggling to get past the break. Why they would choose a place where the biggest waves break as a port is beyond me, but I suppose it seems to work for them. Those surfers that are lazy often hop in the boats and get a lift out to the point – in Engaboa the fishermen heading out to make their living are happy to contribute to the recreation of others. Despite its reliance on fishing, the community of Engabao is making a clear effort to diversify economically by making their small settlement a haven for surfers. They have set up a lifeguard tower that is always manned in peak hours which acts as a safe place to leave belongings while surfing. Even more interesting, they have set up a community based hostel system for surfers that wish to stay overnight. This is a series of families around the community that have either converted or built private rooms in their homes to house surfers that want a longer stay. It is a communal system that allows for cooperation rather than competition in this steadily growing tourist area.

My illustration of Playas as “Cholo” is probably not the most appealing to those looking for a beach getaway. However, once you get over the initial “cholo” feel of Playas, a deeper undercurrent of beauty and authenticity reveals itself. It is not just the cultural authenticity that is apparent here, but rather the emotional authenticity of the people whose lives pass by here, or of those simply passing through. The smiles and the genuine sense of happiness and content is apparent as one strolls through the town. Playas is a place like no other, and for surfers, it is a frontier waiting to be explored. The empty line ups are undoubtedly a treat, but people here are willing to share. There are plenty of waves for everyone, there always will be.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Cuenca...

Ecuadorians definitely know how to take advantage of their vacations. Last week there was a five day holiday consisting mainly of two important days: the independence of the city of Cuenca and the day of the deceased. I have never witnessed a country mobilize for vacations like they did here in Ecuador, it was as if they were preparing for war. Hotels repaired and cleaned their premises, stores and restaurants stocked up, I even saw businesses that have always been closed open the doors and brush the dust off the counter.

I spent the first few days of this holiday in the beach town that I’ve been living in for the last month, a special place that I’ll explain more about later. With the holiday came a lull in the waves here, and also an influx of obnoxious noise. The mayor of the town decided to set up a giant stage with hundreds of pounding speakers where music and dancing would be performed all day and night. This stage was positioned directly in front of my hotel.

I was lying in my bed at 4:30 am on the second night of the holiday, tossing and turning, fighting off mosquitoes as the worst singer I’ve ever heard continued to throw out horrible Latin songs. It was at that point that I decided I needed to get out of here, at least for awhile. I needed a break from the beach and the constant sun, from the ceaseless music and the dry landscape. So I would go to Cuenca I decided, the renowned colonial city in the Andes that was celebrating its independence.

I arrived in the evening and took a cab into the historic downtown. Everyone had warned me to book a room because everything would be full, but when I called a place earlier in the day they told me they had plenty of rooms available and that I needn’t worry. I found the hotel and walked up the stairs.
“Hey there, I’d like a single room please.”
“We have nothing available.”
Alright, so I should have reserved something. I took to the streets again and found a different hostel. It was full. This continued for the next hour with about ten different places. It was around 8:00 now and I had given up, I had accepted the fact that I’d likely be sleeping on a bench in the central park that night, the party would be going until dawn anyways.

I made my way to the park, having no idea where I was, I just followed the people and the music. I emerged from a small cobblestone street into a huge open area of giant trees and towering colonial buildings, there must have been at least five thousand people enjoying the festivities. There were fireworks and marching bands, glow sticks and cotton candy. I bought some street food and settled against a wall, enjoying the spectacle without a worry in the world. Things always seem to work themselves out when you are positive, and not too long later I got a call from a friend who had a place for me to crash for the night. We met up and the celebrations began. It was a long night and I had an amazing time from what I remember, I really liked what I had experienced so far in Cuenca, but it wasn’t until the next morning that I really came to appreciate the city.

I awoke the next morning on the top bunk in some sort of dorm room which turned out to be a fair trade organization, or something along those lines. I went outside, it was quiet and cool but the sun was shining, making the temperature perfect. There was a small park across the street that was covered by bright green grass, I was ecstatic. I quickly walked over, bought some sort of pastry from a vendor, and then sat down on the grass – an experience that I had missed dearly. Sitting there on the soft grass in my hungover state I looked around and noticed the cleanliness and calm, I realized that where I was at that moment was a place that I could not distinguish from any other small park in a rich North American city, except I was deep in the heart of Latin America.




My other friends awoke and we took a bus to the centre. Along the way I began to notice the architecture and layout of this city, it was perfect. There were small cobble stone streets everywhere which were lined by magnificent colonial buildings. There were museums everywhere, and churches that were clearly several centuries old. There were restaurants of all kinds and quaint cafes serving real coffee. There were parks and open spaces where trees and flowers were abundant. It was decidedly the most beautiful and perfect city I had ever seen.

I spent the next couple of days exploring this city by day, and enjoying festivities by night. I came to learn that it was a city full of foreigners, many of them living there permanently, which is understandable. Besides its aesthetic wonders, it seemed to be a perfectly functioning city. It was well maintained and clean, you could drink water from the tap, poverty and crime seemed to be under control, the transit system was organized and easy. I realize now that I had only seen but a small part of the city, and for a short period of time, but it was a clear example of a city that had taken the steps to organized itself well in a relatively poor country.

I’m back at the beach now, recovering and focusing on work. Seeing another part of Ecuador was valuable to me, it showed me how diverse this tiny country really is. In a few hours I went from a dusty, hot beach town where I was surfing, to a cool and magnificent city in the mountains where I needed a warm sweater. Whether it be the geography or the people, everyday this country seems to amaze me more and more.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Community Experiences...


Last night, sitting by myself at the corner of an almost deserted street in a small town that cannot even be found on many maps, I had one of those moments of self-reflection.  The sun had set and the cool ocean breeze cast a slight chill as it stirred the dirt roads that connected the different ends of this community.  It was dark and nearly silent; the few street lights that the municipality had provided cast a dim glow, I could hear the sounds of foot steps from far away.  The occasional person would pass by on their way to the tienda.  I expect them to stare at me - this is no place where foreigners come and my tanned skin is not quite enough to conceal the gringo within me - but they simply tell me the customary “good evening” and continue on their way, as though I am supposed to be here.  I later realize that they probably already know who I am and what I am doing here; word spreads quickly in a community like this.

I’ve experienced similar moments before, where I’ve felt completely outside of my comfort zone, completely removed from everything I know.  I was in a place where not many people from my part of the world have ever been, and will likely never go.  Usually at times like that I get a little down on myself and I question what I’m doing.  Why did I choose to put myself in this situation?  Is this really where I want to be right now?  Last night though, as I sat waiting patiently for a meeting that I had with the community leaders, I came to realize that I was truly privileged to be where I was.  I realized that I thrive off of such uncertainty, and that it is such experiences that have shaped the person that I am today. 

The leaders of the various barrios slowly began to assemble about an hour later than the scheduled start - such is the custom in these parts.  I was to take part in the meeting of the newly elected Community Development Committee which was composed of leaders of the nine different barrios, all of whom were informally elected by their constituents of mainly close friends and family members.  I quickly came to realize that what I was about to participate in was the most direct, fundamental, grass-roots manifestation of democracy that we as organized societies know. 

We gathered around a table in the yard of one of the older leaders, sitting on a wooden bench I inspected the faces of those around me, their features illuminated by a hanging light in the centre of the semi-circle.  Most of their eyes caught my own as I crossed by them, their curiosity equal to my own.  They all knew who I was but their interest in me seemed heightened; after all I was an outsider participating in the local politics of this community.  What did I represent?  Was I a threat to them?  Such thoughts, I soon came to realize, were not just my creative imagination but rather a reality in a community and a country that has seen decades of broken promises and exploitation on the part of outsiders.

With such thoughts going through my mind the meeting began and immediately I was introduced and invited to say my words.  They all watched me with an intensity that I have never before felt – this was no power point presentation, it was politics, and we were discussing the future of this community, of these people.  As I finished speaking and opened things up for questions and comments, immediately those more vocal members of the committee had some grilling to do.  One person asked me how the community was to trust that I wasn’t here with an ulterior motive and that I didn´t really just represent a group that wanted to exploit the people or a natural resource in the community.  As prepared as I was to answer such questions, it was at that point that I came to terms with the responsibility and accountability that I had accepted with this position, and I realized the magnitude of the message that I had brought to this community.

What was my message?  I don’t feel that this is the appropriate space to discuss the specifics of what I am doing here, and I think that it would take much more than a few paragraphs to explain.  I’ll leave those who are interested to know more with a promise to explain in more detail at a later date, and I’ll say the following for now.  The community that I am working with here is one that is relatively poor and under-developed in regards to infrastructure, education, and health, and is lacking much needed alternative sources of income that they have the potential to realize.  In a country that calls itself socialist, this community is a clear example that not everything can be provided by a top-down governmental structure.  Thus, in very general terms, I feel that my main purpose here, for now, is to assist in community organizing.

Returning to the meeting, it went on for almost three hours, and in the end the Committee seemed both satisfied and appreciative of my presence there with them.  They represented a community that has not received much interest from any outside group, and they were clearly united in their openness to the support.  As we finished off freshly baked empanadas and glasses of soda that were passed around, I was invited by them all to take part in the next meeting. 

Today, as I think about that experience last night, I feel humbled and at the same time extremely privileged and proud.  Witnessing such a meeting was a learning experience like no other, and was a moment of personal and professional growth.  Participating in such a meeting, and being respected and treated as an equal among those wise and obvious leaders, I felt ready to move forward with confidence.  My position here in Ecuador, while ambiguous at first, is beginning to reveal itself.  And just as my job here may impact the lives of those I am working with, it is clearly affecting my own. 

Friday, October 1, 2010

Ecuador, Sep. 30th 2010: Reflections on a People's Victory...

I awoke today, on my 27th birthday, to the regular sound of downtown Guayaquil coming through my balcony door from the streets below.  Although there is no doubt that much needs to be done in order to bring Ecuador back to the point of stability that it had appeared to be in before the events of yesterday, a calm seems to have set and people have gone back to business.  Yesterday will likely be one of the most memorable days that I've ever lived, every minute of it remains vivid in my mind right now.  I have lived in politically unstable countries before: I was in Thailand during a successful Coup D'etat by the military; I worked briefly in Honduras while it was under the control of a Coup regime (the situation in Honduras is still terrible, lest we forget).  In both of those cases, the police and the military were in control, controlling the masses with an iron fist.  In Ecuador, the nature of the situation here made things much different, and much more volatile.  What happened here yesterday was something usually confined to the realm of Hollywood; it was a display of solidarity amongst the masses in the face of chaos and oppression.  I'll try here to go through my day yesterday to give those wondering an idea of what exactly happened here.

I was drinking my usual morning coffee at around 9am when I got a call from a fellow Canadian living here in the city.  "Are you watching the news?" was the first thing she said to me, and I knew at that point that, just from the sound of her voice, that something big had happened.  The perceived sense of stability that the current government had instilled here led me to believe that there had been a terrorist attack in North America, or perhaps even political unrest in another country close by, but when I switched on the news and saw police burning tires in the streets just blocks from my apartment, I realized then that something huge was happening right here.

The police across the country had decided to suddenly protest against a public servants law that had just been passed by the government.  It is not clear how many police were involved in the protest, as the country has about 40,000, but reports say that there was some division between them.  Looking deeper into the grievances of those police involved, it seems that there indeed was misinformation and shortsightedness involved in many of their decisions.  The new law would have canceled some bonuses and made it two years longer before they could receive promotions, but it would have also raised their salaries.  The President mentioned that before this insurrection took place, the police generally agreed that his administration had done the most to help police than any other administration in the past.  It is because of this disinformation being spread amongst the police that many people were led to believe that this was much more than just a common police protest but rather an attempted Coup D'etat by powerful forces from the right.

I went downstairs and passed by the security guard, he told me that five banks had been robbed already with the absence of police.  I began walking around my neighborhood, passing banks with at least ten heavily armed security guards standing outside.  Slowly as I came back around to my apartment, I could see that businesses were starting to close.  Indeed the reports this morning show video footage of banks and supermarkets being looted, but the reality is that such incidents were isolated and not widespread across the city or the country.

I came back home and was joined by my room mate and some of his business partners, and the other Canadian that had called me that morning.  She had been living in Ecuador for the last eight years, and she had never seen anything so serious happen here before.  It was tense in the apartment, all eyes were posted on the news.  It was an odd feeling being a foreigner here, I almost feel guilty about the thought processes going through my head.  I was thinking, "what will this mean for my job here?", when sitting right beside me was someone who was likely thinking "what will this mean for my life?".

We had learned that the President was attacked by police while giving a speech at a military barracks.  Images of him speaking fiery words, ripping at his shirt shouting "If you want to kill me, here I am!".  They then shot tear gas at him and and tried to rip off a gas mask that he had put on.  Eventually he was taken to a hospital where he was basically locked in a room under guard of dissident police who were trying to force him to revoke the law that they were against.  It was at this point that people began to say that the President had been kidnapped and that a Coup was underway, but no one knew where the military stood at this point - they were still remaining silent.

The smell of smoke and the sound of chanting began to creep into our 16th floor apartment, we decided to go downstairs to investigate.  Down the street on the Malecon people were beginning to gather to show their support for democracy and for the President.  This gathering grew as the day carried on, people from all strings of society, from different political affiliations, all showed up to show solidarity in this time of crisis in their country.  The city was shut down by now, everything was closed, only the street vendors were out in full force taking advantage of the masses beginning to fill the street.  We ventured back home to check the news, we saw that thousands of people had begun to gather outside of the presidential palace in the capital Quito and outside the hospital where the President was being kept.  Finally, the leader of the military forces in the country said publicly that he will defend democracy and follow the orders of the constitutional government.  This was a huge sign of relief in a way, because we knew then that the President had not been abandoned, but the potential for violence had just escalated as the chances of a battle between the police and the military were very real.

We went back down to the streets and saw that the military had arrived and were securing the area where the democratic supporters were gathering, it had now turned into a full rally.  The military had also moved to secure the public news station, the only channel broadcasting, that was in danger of being taken over by the police.  The crowds were growing in both the capital Quito and here in Guayaquil, it was clear at this point that the people were not going to permit a Coup D'etat in their country.  Although we can consider the declaration of support by the armed forces as the turning point of the events that day, I believe that the earlier silence by them was a sign that they were making a decision.  If it hadn't been for the thousands of people that took to the streets in support of the President, perhaps they would not have decided the way they did.
 
We spent the rest of the evening drinking local liquor and watching the news with a group of friends here in our apartment.  Everything was still uncertain, the President was still a hostage, and until his freedom was secured anything could have happened.  It was at that point that I witnessed the most dramatic hour of live news footage that I have ever seen in my life.  Journalists were stationed both inside and outside of the hospital where the President was being held, and the cameras were running as a military force moved in on the building preparing for a rescue attempt.  The footage was constantly shaking and blurry, as those filming were in serious danger.  We watched a gun battle between police guarding the hospital and military moving in, meanwhile a journalist on the inside of the hospital was reporting what was happening.  He said he couldn't recognize who was police or military, there was smoke and gunfire everywhere, and bombs going off.  After about half an hour of this shaky footage we saw an SUV leaving the hospital surrounded by soldiers, one soldier seemed to have been shot and toppled down in front of the camera.  We quickly learned that the President had been rescued.  My Ecuadorian friends were ecstatic, cheering and shouting at the television.  Five minutes later the camera switched to the Palace where thousands of chanting people waited.  All of a sudden the cheer went louder and there was a frantic rush of everyone as the President appeared on the balcony of the Palace.  It was a magical moment for everyone in that room with me, and I'm positive that every person across the country was sharing that moment with us.

Democracy and the constitutional order had been saved, and any attempt at a Coup D'etat had failed.  My personal opinion was that this crisis did not begin as a Coup attempt, but that opportunists against the government used the unrest to attempt to bring the government down.  The people of this country had been through so much political turmoil before the administration of Correa had arrived and brought some semblance of stability in the country, to lose that would have been to lose everything that they have been struggling for. As a foreigner I can only speculate on the feeling of joy and relief sweeping across the masses in Ecuador, but it has undoubtedly been an incredibly special event to be a part of.  It was an unequivocal statement by the people of Ecuador that they will not stand for a breach of their democracy, that only they the masses will remove a President from power.


I have yet to venture into the streets, but I look forward to hearing the conversations that will take place, and to seeing the way this clear sign of solidarity will propel a peoples movement in this country.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Another walk through Guayaquil...

It is a city a beautiful city, not only aesthetically, but spiritually.  Guayaquil continuously provides me with new experiences and sensations, new thoughts and perceptions.  This weekend  I met so many interesting people and I got to know this city even better; my weekend was subtle in its passing yet vivid and memorable.

Thursday night I went Salsa dancing with friends of my room mate.  I once tried in Guatemala to learn how to salsa dance, but I got frustrated with the constrictive nature of an organized dance and gave up right away.  I know that the many salsa enthusiasts out there might take offense to this, but there is something about dancing that just makes me want to go with the flow and do what my body tells me, not what I'm supposed to do based on planned steps.  I think it probably takes a certain appreciation for dance to truly understand the beauty behind the salsa, which is something I'm admittedly lacking, but I know that when I'm feeling the music I like to just move with nothing holding me back, I don't like someone telling me I'm dancing wrong, that doesn't make sense to me.

Leaving the salsa club we accompanied a friend to her car parked a few blocks away.  She was a little drunk from what I understood, but she was insistent on driving her car just down the street to another friend's place.  A large discussion about what to do ensued beside the car until eventually a bunch of people got in and the girl started driving, I began walking to my apartment just around the corner.  Apparently the whole time that they were deciding who would drive, the transit police were sitting around the corner watching, and as soon as the car began to move it was pulled over.  Now, Ecuador definitely has very strict laws when it comes to alcohol and driving.  First of all, only on Fridays and Saturdays can bars serve alcohol past 12am, which in retrospect helped me figure out why the salsa club that night had looked like it was closed from the outside past midnight - so that they could secretly keep serving us drinks.  On Sundays, a new law prohibits the sale of alcohol all day, everywhere.  And of course, drinking and driving is strictly prohibited.
The girl who was driving got out of the car and was visually a little inebriated, consequently the transit officers told her that the law dictates that they must put her in jail for three days.  But where there are strict laws in poor countries, there are always ways around them.  After a long discussion with the transit police it was decided that one hundred dollars cash was enough to secure the girl's freedom and let everyone be on their way.  It is interesting the way we sometimes view police corruption.  Externally, we look at a given society and say that laws must be upheld and police must be honest in order to have a fair and just system.   Personally however, when you or someone close to you is the one being prosecuted for a crime with a clearly incommensurate punishment, police corruption can literally save your life.

 The next day I just relaxed in my 16th floor apartment, doing some work here and there, watching the people below happily walk along the Malecón.  I took another walk through downtown, observing the way people go about their everyday tasks.  The cab drivers, whether in an actual taxi or just some random car, that honk and point at you, trying to convince you to take a ride somewhere.  The Vendor standing on the corner of a busy street bellowing out the items he has for sale, over and over in an almost operatic voice.  The call of the vendor is something I've come to appreciate here in Latin America.  It is an art that must be refined over years, and the visually older vendors are the ones that truly have it mastered.  They are the ones that produce a loud sound that carries down the street, that is soothing to the ears and that draws you in to them.

As interesting as the weekdays can be in Guayaquil, I was anxious for the weekend and for the tranquility that it provides where I live downtown.  Saturday morning finally came with a clear sky and a light breeze - it was unusually perfect weather for this time of year when slightly overcast skies are commonplace.  Saturday is a stark contrast to the weekdays in Guayaquil, it is like walking through a ghost town, with all the fuming cars gone and the downtown workers relaxing at home.  The silence of Sunday is exaggerated even more, with almost everything shut down, this city certainly knows how to take advantage of its day of rest.  Needless to say, if one wants to walk around the city without a headache, the weekend is the time to do it.  I decided to walk to the top of Las Peñas, 450 stairs to a lookout of the entire city, from there I could see even better the city that grows on me everyday that passes.  I walked back down working up a small sweat as the sun beat down on me, and decided to pass by a friend´s place for a swim in the pool.  A couple hours of lounging around led to a decision to go the the Bahía to check out what we could find, I ended up buying a bootlegged DVD for a dollar.

The peacefulness of the daytime on Saturday is contrasted by wild nights, when once again the city comes alive.  I never used to be a big party person, but it is difficult to avoid when you live downtown and the beating music from the various bars below blare into your apartment calling you to come enjoy.  I ended up going to a quasi house party in the historic part of town.  It was in a huge courtyard surrounding a pool, with stone pillars and plants creating a unique ambient that was only complemented by the eclectic crowd of artists and intellectuals that showed up.  I spent the night talking Latin American politics with people from different parts of the continent, and then ended up at an after party in an apartment right on the river.  It was the first time in a long time that I walked home after the sun was already high in the sky, but somehow it felt good, if only because it was here in Guayaquil.  This city is one that I could make my home for so many reasons that I've already mentioned.  Its greatest asset for me however, is its proximity to the beach and to the pounding waves of the Pacific.  And so it is with sadness and excitement, that I am leaving my apartment here in the city and heading to the ocean, where I will be both working with communities along the coast, and surfing until my arms ache.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A walk through Guayaquil...

Downtown Guayaquil from my apartment balcony
Guayaquil – a city long dismissed as a dirty, industrial, crime-ridden coastal settlement.  It is a city that Ecuadorians come to when in need of work; that travelers merely pass through in order to hit the beach or catch a flight to the Galapagos Islands.  Living here in Guayaquil however, and experiencing the everyday life makes you realize how special this place really is.  It is a city trying to reinvent itself, and like every other Latin America city that I’ve come to know, it has its unique idiosyncrasies that make it both adorable and detestable at the same time.
I live on the Malecón, a stretch of renovated riverfront that runs along the Southern side of the city.  It is a relatively clean and secure part of the city where Guayaquileños come to relax and stroll alongside the impressive Guayas River, an arm of water that winds out of the city to eventually widen into the Pacific ocean.  The Malecón is one of the many signs that this city is pushing to rid itself of the reputation of being nothing more than an industrial port city and instead become a cultural attraction for Ecuadorians and foreigners alike.  It’s proximity to the coast and its thriving night life, complemented by agreeable weather and a series of unique estuaries that snake through the entire city, make it a place like no other.  Its potential as a tourist centre is obvious and living here while such a transformation takes place has provided me with an amazing perspective, especially considering the purpose of my position here – to assist with the development of sustainable tourism initiatives in this largely under-visited region of Ecuador.

            A short walk from my apartment in one direction and you find yourself in Las Peñas, an historic part of the city that still maintains cobblestone roads and classic colonial structures.  A walk in the other direction and you find yourself in the Bahía, the black market that is unofficially recognized as a commercial centre of the city.  There, you can find whatever it may be that your heart desires, and if you don’t bargain you’re a sucker.  If you take a little detour on the way to the Bahía you can visit the iguana park.  This tiny park, in the middle of bustling downtown traffic in the largest city in Ecuador, is the home to hundreds of iguanas that have essentially become domesticated.  The city cares for them and in return the iguanas allow those passing through to pet them – they actually seem to enjoy the attention.  There are no cages or barriers, it is just an open park in which the iguanas have made a home, they never try to leave.
The Iguana park in the middle of downtown
An Iguana hanging in the sun on a park path
            I like walking around the city as much as possible, it really allows me to get to know it on a much more personal level.  It is not a pedestrian friendly place and cars actually seem to speed up if they see you crossing where you are not supposed to.  Despite the dangers, it is probably one of the safer ways to get around.  One of the biggest problems that this city faces right now is what is being called “sequestro express” or “express kidnapping”.  Anybody who takes a random taxi here faces the chance of the driver, or an accomplice, pulling a gun on you and robbing you of everything you have.  If you carry your bank card with you then they will take you to a series of ATM’s and force you to withdraw the maximum, and then they will take you to the outskirts of the city and if you are lucky leave you with five dollars to get home.  This is undoubtedly an epidemic gripping this city, and the authorities cannot seem to figure out a solution.  It is happening to locals and foreigners alike, no one is immune. 
The problem of crime in many Latin American cities raises important questions about development itself.  Crime continues to be one the greatest impediments to improved standards of living for many parts of Latin America. Many of the cities that I’ve lived in have been plagued by gang problems, high homicide rates, and pervasive petty crimes.  Almost everywhere, the government response has been iron-fisted, putting more police and military in the streets, and raising defense budgets.  Crime however, is the direct result of poverty, which in turn is created by a lack of social infrastructure and failed development policies.  I realize that I’m pointing out the obvious here, but my point is to encourage a deeper analysis of the issues that affect us all.  As a foreigner here, it is important to always look at the wider picture before jumping to hasty decisions or developing prejudices.  There are places in Guayaquil that I am simply told to stay out of, especially at night.  I've accepted that my freedom of mobility is somewhat hampered by the crime in this city, but I enjoy it nevertheless, and I try to look at the positive side of things.
Despite the rampant poverty and the desperate situation of so many, when you see the ingenuity of people here to make money without resorting to crime, it makes you feel sad and hopeful at the same time, and it makes you truly appreciate the goodness of the human spirit.  Getting on a bus here you will likely be accompanied by someone selling some sort of product or by kids performing live music.  Walking through a park you will have people offer you a shoe shine or a plastic cup of soda.  People will do what they need to do to survive, and I often find that I need to check myself when I begin to get angry at the constant bombardment of people asking me for money.  When it comes down to it, I do have money, and they don’t, and at least they are asking me rather than forcing me, I appreciate that.
A walk through Guayaquil leaves me feeling refreshed and exhilarated, guilty and remorseful all at the same time.  It is a city that illustrates the marvels of human kind on one block and the misery that pervades this world on another.  My first impression after almost one month here is that this is a city I could grow to love, and that I'm going to learn a lot about myself and this world by being here. 
Sticking to the true traditions of this blog, I encourage everyone to come and visit this place.  By doing so, not only will you have an amazing experience, but you will be supporting people that have their arms wide open ready to show you the real Ecuador.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Tourism...

Arriving in Quito, Ecuador at around midnight, I was only able to view the glowing city from above and thus had no idea what to expect the following day. The landing was smooth - apparently a welcome abnormality here at one of the most difficult landing strips in the world. By that point I was with some of the other interns working here in Ecuador, and so together we made a late night taxi ride to a small, quaint hostel in the middle of the city. The negatives of arriving so late into a completely unknown Latin American city are many, but somehow the next morning always makes up for it. I slept hard, only because of my state of exhaustion, but I felt extremely groggy when I awoke early, no doubt a result of the altitude of this city in the mountains. Our hostel was perched upon a steep hill and had a series of levels and balconies from which we could view the city. I stepped out of my quarter into the the court yard, the strong morning sun causing me to squeeze my eyes shut as I tried to orient myself. I found the stairs and clambered up to the highest point in the hostel, arriving on top, what little breath I had left was taken away by my first view of South America. The sky was clear and the city of Quito stretched out before me, dwindling up the slopes of a green sided mountain which towered above, marking the natural boundaries of this Andean civilization. A giant Ecuadorian flag fluttered in the morning breeze, the city was buzzing. I had finally arrived south of the Equator, and I was exhilarated. Later, I would see a famous local artist's rendition of the landscape of Quito, and only then did I truly understand the inspiration that this city invokes.

Quito from my hostel
A rendition of Quito by Guayasamin...















Throughout my travels I've watched tourists of all kinds come to these poor parts of the world, and I've always admittedly been quick to criticize so many of them. After living among the local population in a certain place for a certain amount of time, it is easy to forget who you are, and to become critical of the obtrusive nature that tourism can have on the lives of local people. On the other hand, living among families that would have nothing were it not for the services that they provide to tourists, I can easily appreciate the positive benefits of tourism. My travels through Central America consisted of the cheapest possible rooms I could find, a basic, healthy diet of fresh produce and street food, and public buses everywhere I went. Today, after getting back from my guided tour of the city, I took a cab to grab a bite to eat, and then took a cab back to my luxurious hotel. To be fair, I'm not here by choice, this week of activities is organized and funded by the organization that employs me; being a part of it has been a personal challenge and incredibly revealing, and even somewhat enjoyable. A few of us interns and a group of about fifty students from all over the world who are here to study in Ecuador, have been touring around the country in a manner that would have made me cringe not too long ago, and even still now. It is hard to become immersed in a culture when you view it from the window of a private bus and then return to a sheltered hotel where locals who aren't filthy rich are strictly prohibited from entering. I'll never be able to come to terms with the fact that those with more money are simply treated better than those who are poor. For all the disdain that this guided tour has stirred within me, there are certainly a few positives that I feel have come of it. The other day we went to a mainly indigenous market town in the Andes, where locals make a living off the purchases by tourists. As we converged on the central market with our money belts zipped open, the locals all prepared for the impending sales that were sure to come. Each of those students took with them souvenirs and memories that will last them a lifetime, and in exchange they left much needed and well deserved money. Even more importantly however, many of these students have never left home before, and just by them being here, slowly exposing themselves to something new and foreign, they will take something home with them that will be far more significant than a trinket or a local craft. They will take home with them an experience and an understanding of the world that hopefully they will share with those back home who choose to not look beyond their own borders.

The idea of tourism is a controversial one that consistently stirs debate and raises deeper philosophical questions about the nature of our world system. That we as middle class citizens in the rich world, can come to the poor world and live like kings and queens is a clear sign of economic and social injustice on a global scale. That we in the rich world even have the ability to go about and see the world is an indication of class advantage that is hard to come to terms with for any conscious traveler. As the global economic system continues to revolve around capitalist principles however, what logical sense does it make to abandon tourism as a viable source of economic production for any given population? Tourism has the ability to raise entire communities out of penury, while at the same time ensuring the protection and continued recognition of the environment. As poor nations continue to move towards resource extraction and other damaging forms of production, tourism is an economic alternative that actually encourages the discontinuation of extraction. Most importantly, tourism is a way of spreading the wealth of the rich world into the hands of the poor world, while at the same time allowing for an important exchange of culture and language, and thus a more socially globalized world. Albeit, this is all ideal, and only happens when tourism is practiced sustainably, but it is something that cannot and should not be looked over in the constant search for sustainable development. These are some of the ideas that I will be grappling with over the next six months as I work with a university here in Ecuador on issues of sustainable development and tourism. I look forward to sharing my thoughts and ideas, and I'd appreciate any opinions you may have to offer.

I write this now from a small hacienda just outside of a place called Rio Bamba in the Ecuadorian Sierra. To arrive here we drove along winding roads which cut through the endless green highlands between the two chains of the Andes mountains. These hills are tilled for agriculture steep up the slopes - a result of colonial land ownership and indigenous displacement. Tomorrow we will climb part of the Chimborazo, the mountain furthest away from the center of the earth due its proximity to the equator. I've never been at such a high altitude, I'm anxious to see what it will do to me.


Mount Chimborazo, 6310 meters above sea level, but considered by many to be the highest point on earth.  It is the point furthest away from the centre of the earth and the point closest to the sun.  We climbed to 5000 meters with little trouble, next time I'm going for the summit.




Sunday, August 22, 2010

Air travel...

I've been on a lot of planes over the last week, and somehow I've been placed in the exact same seat every time. I've consistently been seated on the left hand side of the plane right behind the wing where I can see the landing gear perfectly. As many times as I watch that rubber wheel lower out from the wing as we descend, and then slam into the ground causing the plane to spasm violently for a few moments until we slow, I'll never get used to it. I don't really know what it is about planes that scare people so much, I suppose its just the feeling of helplessness if something goes wrong and of putting your life in the hands of someone else. But then, every day that we drive a car on the highway, are we not putting our lives in the hands of every driver that speeds by us?

Every time I'm in a plane I'm reminded of the conflict of interest between my love for travel and my desire for a sustainable future and a healthy world. That I will never be able to eliminate my carbon footprint regardless of how active an environmentalist I may be, is something that I find difficult to come to terms with. I can only reconcile this admittance with the belief that for the overall greater good of this world, the positive effects of cross cultural experiences outweigh the negative effects of jet plane emissions.

If ever I stopped flying, which is not likely in the near future, the part of it I would miss the most is the airport. There is an underlying source of energy and emotion constantly floating around the airport. People about to embark on life changing journeys around the world; a weary traveler embracing his waiting family after being gone from home for years. Airports are places of extreme emotion filled with love and elation, sadness and tears.

I write this now as I sit in my make shift bed on the ground in a corner of Vancouver international airport. I've slept in many airports now, or should I say, I've drifted in and out of consciousness. I never quite fully fall asleep, and I'm always amazed and envious of those that do. Some airports are more conducive to sleep than others, with padded benched seats and dark quiet corners. In others its as though the airport authorities have gone out of their way to keep us fatigued transients from dozing off, with handles built into the chairs and a constant bombardment of noise and distraction. I'll know five hours from now how this latest attempt will fare, but I'm preparing myself either way for a rough day of international travel tomorrow.

I just spent five days in the serene mountain town of Cranbrook B.C., followed by a night in the busy city here in Vancouver. It was an odd feeling walking down Granville Street at 11pm with my backpack and guitar, watching the club goers and bar hoppers stumble by in drunken stupors, knowing that I'm heading to an airport to leave that all behind for at least six months. At this time tomorrow I'll be in a far different land, where the people and the smells, the food and the music, will be a welcome change from anything I've ever experienced. At this time tomorrow I'll be in the historic city of Quito, Ecuador.

Addendum: (4 hours later)

I sit up from my spot on the ground, groggy, cold. I'm not sure if I slept at all, I don't feel like my conscience shut off, but somehow four hours has passed. I look around and see people sprawled out around me, apparently I picked a good spot. They are all sound asleep, one even has a sleeping bag and a mask to block the light. They all look so content and peaceful... Damn them all. I'm tired. I get up and take a stroll, I need to kill time before I can check my bag. I go into the washroom and look at myself, I'm a mess, they're not going to let me through the security check. They are going to take one look at me and pull me aside for "extra" screening, they're going to ask me questions that I'm not coherent enough to answer right now. I strip down and wash my face, put on the one buttoned shirt that I have. I just need to make it to the plane and then I'll fall into a dream to the hum of the engines as we soar off towards the equator.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Leaving...



What is life but a series of vivid moments that we share with one another, that stay with us for a lifetime and that define the characters that we ultimately become.  The last few weeks have been filled with such moments, and I couldn’t have asked for a better way to leave Canada yet again.  A perfect, romance-filled night at the hot springs, with the high-tide rushing into our stony, steaming, candle-lit pools; jumping from an old wooden bridge into the depths of a sweet tasting fresh water lake on a hot sunny day; epic waves at the same beach that I spent the summer teaching others the ways of the surf.  I leave Tofino now, taking with me only my few belongings and those vivid memories etched into my mind for good.

Only when you lose something do you come to realize what exactly you had in the first place.  Be it good or bad, it always becomes clearer in retrospect.  Life is a constant struggle for each one of us to find what makes us most happy, but our levels of devotion to that pursuit of happiness vary.  My devotion is unwavering, and as I continue to move freely seeking out new and interesting experiences around the world, I find it difficult to finally admit to satisfaction, if only out of the fear of missing out on whatever comes next.  It is only at times like this however, as I move on to something completely new, do I truly question my decisions and anguish at the thought that I had already found exactly what I was looking for, and that I left it behind.

I often wonder what is worth more to me, the comfort that comes from commitment and community, or that which may be derived from the free-moving, independent lifestyle.  Such is the traveler’s dilemma.  Do I stay or do I go?  That sense of insulating comfort that comes with the sedentary lifestyle is strong, and it captures us with relationships and steady jobs.  But it is often a false sense of comfort, and for many it ultimately brings regret and unhappiness.  There are those of us that find comfort in something else completely; we find comfort in the unknown, in the fact that tomorrow may bring something completely new and different, and that we may take our lives to any place and in any direction we so choose, no matter how ambitious that path may seem. 

I’ll be leaving Tofino heading to Cranbrook, deep in the Rocky Mountains where I’ll spend five days.  After that I'll spend two nights in Vancouver and then off to Ecuador for six months.  My situation has not availed me the opportunity to visit my home city before leaving, and it will not be until next spring that I will see my family and friends again.  This is undoubtedly one of the hardest things about leading this life of mine.  The people that I grew up with, who know me through and through, are constantly slipping away and those new people that I meet along the road are all fleeting just the same.  People constantly come and go, nothing is constant except change itself.  It is difficult for me to address all the different people in my life, especially because they are constantly changing.  But if you are reading this, and you have not heard from me lately, know that you have a place in my heart, and that those moments that we shared together are a part of who we both are today. 

Friday, July 30, 2010

Predator

They say that if you see a cougar it is the last thing you see. As I sit here now in the comfort of my house, sheltered from the elements and the roaming wild, I wonder just how close we actually came to danger on that eventful day.

There are days in Tofino where it seems as though there is a strangeness in the air, as though the whole town wakes up that day feeling a little odd. It may be the constantly changing weather, or perhaps the connection with nature that living here provokes, but often if you ask someone else if they feel that strangeness, they will eerily concur, awed by the realization that the feeling is not solely their own. It was one of those days when we decided to hike what is known as the Bomber trail.

We had surfed that morning, before the fog had burned off, and I knew that it would be a special day when I reached the outside before the others and saw two Porpoises splashing around a few yards away from me. Surfing has always put me in close proximity with ocean life, from giant turtles to curious otters to wave riding manta rays. When I surf in warmer waters there is always the thought at the back of my head that a shark could be close by, and that it could mistake me for food. Here in Canada, it is not the creatures of the water that one needs to worry about, but rather the predators of the land. Where a shark might mistake you for a seal and take a bite, a cougar will stalk you knowing exactly what you are, and kill you, likely from behind by a single strike to the neck, if it so desires.

As the sun finally escaped through the grey sky and the air began to warm, we walked along the shoulder of the highway to find the entrance to the Bomber trail. It is an unmarked trail, outside the jurisdiction of the park rangers, and it begins with an ominous sign telling would be hikers to continue at their own risk.

The sun quickly became strong, heating the backs of our necks, but we were kept cooled by the perfect ocean breeze that made its way through the forest as we moved deeper along the trail. The Bomber trail is not like others, it is not as lush and green as the other rainforest paths, it lacks the thick foliage and giant trees that are soothing and inviting. Rather, it is sparse and muddy, the forest seeming dry and near death.               

After about 25 minutes of walking we came to a clearing. With short shrubs and sporadic dry trees jutting from the yellowed space and a small round pond surrounded by thin bare-branched trees, the clearing had the feel of an African savannah with the sun shining brightly. Beyond the clearing, about half a click across, rose a steep hill where laid the treasure of the Bomber trail. You could see it from where we stood, a huge metal tail piece jutting out from the tree line, the wings resting evenly upon heavy broken trees that were downed decades earlier by the Bomber plane as it crashed there during the Second World War.


We moved across the clearing with haste, eager to experience this untouched piece of history, this giant anachronism lying in the middle of the B.C. wilderness. As we got closer we realized just how big it actually was, the wings spreading at least forty feet across, the thick metal dug deep into the side of the hill. It hadn’t rusted at all, but it was almost a skeleton nevertheless, with many parts and panels removed by scavengers over the years. We traversed a heavy log leaning against the point where the wing meets the fuselage, and clambered onto the heavy wing. There, atop the giant plane, looking across the clearing that we just passed we decided to sit and eat our sandwiches in the sun.

We had finished eating and were basking in silence when Tyler jumped to his feet, declaring that he saw something moving in the clearing. He thought it was a deer, but when Tasha told him that there were no deer around there, he came to realize what he actually saw. I stood up to investigate myself, eager to see something interesting. I walked to the far tip of the wing; there was a natural silence as we all scanned the clearing intently, the only sound coming from the wind blowing through the trees. I had almost given up when I suddenly saw a little glint of light from a spot on the ground that my eyes had just passed moments before, it was the eyes of the cougar, and they were staring right at me. It was crouched low, perfectly camouflaged, looking at me with a hunter’s intensity. As my eyes met the creatures’ I instinctively pointed at him to show the others, and only then when he knew that he had been spotted and that his hunt had been compromised, did he rise from his crouch and saunter off without a seeming worry at all. I was more thrilled than I was scared at the time, excited that I had seen what so few get to see. No chains, no bars, no trainers, just a wild cougar in its natural habitat – we were the exhibit. Only now, when I think back to that moment when the cougar was crouched low staring at me, I realize that before he was spotted I was his prey, and I wonder how long that cougar was stalking the three of us before we reached the bomber plane.

Although the cougar seemed to have walked away, really we had no idea where it was. It could have been circling around in the hill behind us, or it could have been waiting patiently in the brush below – in the one clearing that we had to pass to get back to the trail. We considered waiting a while to see if it reappeared, but I thought our best course of action was to show the beast no fear, and to walk upright and loudly back along the path without delay. I found myself a heavy stick with a pointed end, and the others found weapons for themselves. There is something comforting about brandishing a weapon in the wilderness, it eases ones sense of vulnerability and brings out that primitive hunter instinct within us. But armed or not, that cougar would have had its way with any one of us if it was really determined.

I want to tell you that we encountered that cougar along the path back, if only to avoid an anticlimactic ending, but I think if that happened I wouldn’t even be writing this right now. We made it back to the beginning of the Bomber trail leaving our weapons at the entrance for the next intrepid adventurers to pick up. As we emerged onto the sunny highway we all felt a sense of relief. It was like coming out of a dark tunnel, out of a savage world unfitting to modern day humans like ourselves. We had reached the asphalt and the speeding cars; we had reached civilization and left the domain of the cougar. Yet, as I sit here writing this, all that I can think about is heading back to that crashed bomber plane, and meeting that cougar again.