Saturday, August 28, 2010


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


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.