Hello AllMarch 5, 2005
(Read the first installment of Dan's crazy travels)
I am now in Huanchaco, Peru, a small beach town north of Lima. There is a great wave here, and a lot of surfers from all over the world (like the landlocked germany). The local fishermen use these funny looking reed boats to set their fishnets past the breakers. There are also several pre-Inca empire ruined cities and temples, but the lazy Moche people made them out of adobe (mud) instead of rock, so they are falling apart. Freaking lazy Moche's could really have learned something from the Egyptians.
To the right is a fave pic with me and the local village, from Peru at the very end of the trip on the eastern (amazon) slope of the Andes.
So in Ecuador went to the tiny tiny nonexistent town of El Chaupi. I rode a bus absolutely packed with uniformed 10 year olds returning home from school. I was the only gringo on the bus in a place where gringoes seldom go. They looked at me like I was from mars. El Chaupi is very rural and everyone farms here. But in the local shops only processed garbage food was available, and the locals typically had shockingly rotten teeth, if they had teeth at all. How depressing. I wandered around asking people for fresh milk, sensing that there must be some in the area because of all the damn cows. I got a lot of funny looks. Empty-handed, I got a ride to Hacienda San Jose, a small hotel thats really just an extra bedroom at a farm run by the friendly ageing Ecuadorian hippe Rodriguez. He's got Che Guevara and John Lennon posters. And then-holy fucking shit-hes a dairy farmer with some 100 grassfed cows, and milking time is in 2 hours. At milking time-sharp-I was at the fully mechanized milking parlor with Rods biggest glass mug. He had several mestizo farmhands, and the hands of the farmhands were very skilled at squeezing the warm frothy milk directly into the glass. I got some good mug-n-udder photos and drank more than a gallon. We stayed up late getting hammered on fresh milk and busting on GW.
The most favored way for mestizos to milk down here is to tie the hind legs with a rope, and collect the milk in a bucket. I found that if you see someone in the countryside doing this, you can easily purchase a liter or two for $1.
The next 2 days, carrying a gallon of fresh milk, I climbed Iliniza Norte (5150 meters), along with a couple italians and a gaggle of Venezuelans. I can say that altitude sickness and freezing ass cold seems to take the humor and fun out of everything. But at the summit the sickness was gone, the sun was warm and the view was absolutely astonishing. And I got free spanish lessons. Spanish lessons at 16,000 feet are somehow more memorable.
Days later I found myself hitchhiking with an Ecuadorian woman to Latacunga, a nothing shit town that has already been destroyed 3 times by the ominous and active Cotopaxi volcano (and sure to be destroyed again-Cotopaxi is very active and a bomb waiting to go off). Latacunga is boring as hell (one day soon Cotopaxi will solve that problem haha), and tourists only come there to do one thing: climb Cotopaxi. Thats the only reason I came. Cotopaxi is the second highest peak in EC (at 5900 meters or about 19,300 feet), and highest active volcano in the world. Its hard as hell to climb because of the altitude, cold (my god it's freaking cold up there) and vertical ascent (over 1300 meters). But the Latacunga market was sweet, and again I had celebrity gringo status there, and said status was amplified because I was actually eating the food, instead of just taking pictures of it. Latacunga was so boring I had to just walk around one afternoon. But walking around at this time of year is dangerous because of carnival, and during carnival people like to throw water balloons and shaving cream around. And the kids in latacunga are bored, too. Being a celebrity gringo, I was a high value target, and after a few hours of walking, I came home soaked and splattered with shaving cream. Thank you Latacunga.
The food in latacunga deserves some mention: 99% of it is a dish called chugchicaras or something like that. latacunga is the red hot center of the chugchicara universe. making chugchicaras is pretty simple: melt the fat from a giant pigskin, and then throw tons of meat, eggs, popcorn, and plantains into the fat and fry the hell out of it. The fatless pigskin, hard as a wooden board, is then hug up apparently as a decoration, though its not at all attractive (you know anyone that hangs fried porkskins on the wall?). The extra pigfat is scooped into 5 gallon buckets, and you can score a kilo for a dollar-score!. Oh yeah, you could also buy a roasted pighead for two dollars, and there was one vendor with a truckload, though they were not hot sellers. I ate lots of chugchicaras (good as long as its not overcooked) and all kinds of weird shit in Latacunga, including some membraneous tissue with funny ridged patterns on it (never could translate what it was). At the market, there was a Jeffrey Dahmer character in the bottom corner that apparently specializes in busting open cow heads. He was splattered with blood and weilding an axe, and there was a pile of cow heads, and a group of nosy american tourists taking pictures. The tourists and cowheadhacker was a memorable scene! What I want to see is a group of ecuadorian indian tourists coming to Estados Unidos with their digitial cameras and taking pictures of the Kroger deli section.
On the trip to Cotopaxi I was part of an international expedition representing three continents: an American (me obviously), a Uruguayan, and a Spaniard. The Uruguayan was an officer in the Uruguayan Navy who was more goofball comedian than officer (in Uruguayan navy we say , the Spaniard would only refer to himself as from the 'Basque country', never as a spaniard. We coughed up a whopping $390 between us, which fully paid for the shitty, circa 1970s K-mart rental climbing gear, unmotivated guides, bad food, and unreliable vehicle (which gave us an unscheduled, 3 hour picnic at 12,000 feet). What a bargain. After climbing a mere 1 hour, we were turned back by a snowstorm, which the guide (justifiably) declared as dangerous. It was a good day for the guides (who love a well-timed snowstorm as much as much as a public school pupil), and bad day for us. The guides had a great time the rest of the night playing cards, eating the food we paid for, and thanking sweet Jesus for the snowstorm.
See, the guides are unmotivated because they have already made the agonizing, painful trip to the summit a billion times. They dont get any more money for summiting, so all it does is make them exhausted. They hate the summit. Therefore, they tend to create excuses and impossible situations to avoid the summit, while appearing to give it their best shot. On my second trip to cotopaxi, I went with two fine blokes (an american and swiss), though less in shape and less acclimitized than I. We had two guides and perfect conditions. We were divided into two rope teams: one with me, guide and bloke, one with the second guide and second bloke. The guides correctly sensed that I was the strongest, and so of course they put me on the 3-person rope team, with one slow bloke. With this arrangement, of course, neither rope team would make it to the top (the summit must be reached by 7:30am or so). When I (and the blokes) asked to switch to be with one guide and put the blokes together (so I could go at a faster pace and reach the summit), they mumbled about the difficulty of switching rope teams and other BS, and said we should wait (i.e. until it was too late for anyone to summit). After we all insisted, I was paired with the assistant guide (the lead guide got the easy job of taking the slow, sure-not-to-summit blokes), and he was PISSED. That fucker now had no excuse not to go to the summit, and his friend was getting to bed early. We summited at 6 am, after climbing all night. I was STOKED and the guide was Mr Sourpuss, which I thought was damn funny. The miserable cold, wind and vacant air that makes one gasp and wheeze with every breath actually gave me a little sympathy for the guides. I mean, the summit is amazing, but I dont want to do it again. Mountain climbing is cold and uncomfortable and requires much suffering and danger; it seems everyone wants to do it, but few actually enjoy it apart from the summit. Climbing isnt a day at the beach, or even a day at the laundromat, and if I were a guide, I would probably pray for bad weather, too. But whatever, those guys make bank for Ecuador.
So $300 bucks and a lot of suffering and I finally made it to the summit of Cotopaxi. There. I did it. But I have to wonder: one of the reasons I came here to the equator was to GET AWAY from the cold miserable weather in Virginia. And now I find myself paying much money, and enduring much agony to reach the absolute bitterest coldest feaking places on the entire continent. Go figure.
I went to the awesome town of Banos last week, and my first night in town I and several other tourists were suckered by another harmless guide scam: the nighttime volcano trip. See, Banos has this amazing active volcano just outside town, but it cant be seen from town. Several years ago, the volcano was creating impressive nighttime displays of fiery lava. But no more, now it just belches ash, and most days nothing. But that doesnt stop the guides from proudly displaying dramatic pictures of volcanoes with fiery lava, and enticing unsuspecting tourists to see the fiery lava displays that havent occurred in over 3 years. So everyone pays $4 and gets a truck ride to the top of the adjacent mountain, where-surprise!-you cant see anything. No lava. No nothing. Our guide feigned surprise slightly, which earned him a good-natured ribbing from us...a small price to pay for the $24 he earned for a 15 minute truck ride. But we had lots of beer (not included), and a fun high school night out drinking in the back of the truck on top of a mountain above the clouds. Who could really complain?
But banos is a great town with biking, hiking, open-all-night discos, cheap hotels and, of course, the hot springs from which banos derives its name. A typical day in Banos involves a splendid meal at the market for $1, several incredibly flavorful mangoes, a hike into the mountains, followed by a soak in the hot mineral water baths for $1, and finally all the alcohol and loud spanish rap music you can tolerate. Its perfect.
One cool thing about the mountain area of EC is the mineral water. many towns have their own source and bottling plant, and much of it is quite good and chock full of minerals. But the mineral water from Latacunga is exceptional and must be considered in a class all its own: EXTREME mineral water. There are so many minerals in the San Felipe mineral water from latacunga its like a syrup: over 1000 mg of magnesium per liter, and 1/3 as much calcium, and plenty of sodium etc. Many people seem to avoid it becuase it tastes so strongly, but I love it because its so damn extreme.
I went on the famouns Nariz del Diablo train ride, which is a 4hr, 100km train ride through the high andes. Its pretty much only for tourists, and it provides some awesome views of the high andes paramo grasslands and mountains. You would think you were at a presidential press conference or OJ Simpson trial with all the damn cameras everywhere. The only Ecuadorians on the ride are the ones selling junk food to the tourists. Anyhow, one of the fave things for tourists to do-especially because its carnival-is throw lollipops and candy to poor EC indian kids in dirty clothes. See, EC kids love the train, and come running when they hear it, I guess this may be because they always get candy and such from the topside gringoes. When they smile, they show their crooked, oftentimes rotten teeth. I have been really disgusted by the enormous quantities of junkfood and garbage eaten by citydwellers and countryfolk alike here, and the bad teeth that result. So I didnt throw any candy or anything. But what I did have were some sweet, excellent quality carrots from a small town market. At one town, lollipops were again being thrown, so I started throwing carrots. The first carrot was kind of big-and brightly colored like a huge hard sugar candy, so it got all the kids attention, and they sprinted for it. But once it hit the ground, they saw what it was, circled around it, and let it lie there on the ground, untouched like it was radioactive. Everyone on the train laughed, and finally one girl picked up the carrot and tossed it back to me. I ate it.
I did a big NO NO in the eyes of the US state department and offical travel dogma. I went to Colombia. With my friend Eddie from LA. Eddie is a schoolteacher who likes strip clubs and cavorting around the entire continent of south america. He has been traveling down here for almost a year. Anyhow, we went to Cali on a 24 hour busride. On the bus I did think about the 5700 hostages presently held by the FARC of Colombia, the 60ish American-Colombian who flat-out told me not to go, and the story of Ozzie tourists the FARC didnt want to take because they only had flip-flops for shoes. You cant run through the jungle in flops, reasoned the FARC. I had flops so I figured I should be just fine.
Eddie and I went to Buenaventura and outlying island beach resort areas with cheap little cabanas and whatnot. The resort areas where we stayed are safe, but the surrounding coastal jungle area is definitely sketchy. The FARC are here, along with plenty of cocaine laboratories cooking up their specialty. Coca is grown in the mountains, and then brought to the labs in the jungle where they are well hidden and booby-trapped. We were warned by the locals not to go wandering into the jungle away from the beach. We didnt.
But whatever, the cocaine down here isnt as dangerous as some of the food. The mangoes here, for example, are a hell of a lot more addictive than the cocaine. The mangoes are sometimes soooo good they produce a kind of drugged-out euphoria. In some peruvian towns especially, they are sold on nearly every streetcorner. This is a real problem for me, because I am driven to eat so many that I get sick and cant eat much else. I have to stay away from the mangoes and I am trying to limit myself to 3 a day. I'm an addict (And I was worried about the cheap coca).
In Buenaventura we ate a LOT of coconuts, according to local custom, and I had my hair braided and beaded by three little black girls, which is definitely NOT according to local custom for true machismos. But I was Mr Celebrity gringo, so I got away with it.
See, down here I am apparently a God or something. Teenage girls sometimes just come up to me to have their picture taken. I am a gringo prop. Its weird, but fun and amusing. Usually they strike a pose and give me a kiss on the cheek. I dont resist.
Celebrity gringo status was working hard for us in Cali, a town that sees few of our kind. On a sunday night we hit the party scene with a fifth of Absolut, which , insanely, you can bring into the bars. Calians party harder on a sunday night after church than Virginians party on New Years Eve. The music is loud and it just doesnt stop, and neither do the people dancing. With the proper chemical amusement aids imbibed, I was a madman on the floor, braids, beads and all. Colombians like gringoes, and they LOVE gringoes that know how to dance...the drunker the better. I suddenly had a fan club and I was like a queen bee in a hive. A black man with gold chains grabbed me and put a pair of drumsticks in my hands and led me quickly through the sweaty crowd to a drum kit. He put me in front of the drumkit and I started playing. I dont know what I did, but I must have done something right because I got lots of screams and several black colombians gave me great big bear hugs and shook my hand. On the drums....Mr Celebrity Gringo!
Hope all is well with every one of you.
(Read the first installment of Dan's crazy travels)