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.