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A sign in Cuenca's bus:

íSEA CULTO! NO BOTA BASURA EN PISO, BOTA POR LA VENTANA

Translated:

BE CIVILIZED! DON'T THROW TRASH ON THE FLOOR, THROW IT IN THE WINDOW!


Thursday, March 11, 2004

Arrival

Usually my most stressful experience in any country, particularly 3rd world countries, is the moment of exiting the immigration and being immediately assaulted by an army of taxi drivers, tearing me apart and screaming some numbers, fairness of which I have no way to tell.

However my arrival to Ecuador was as smooth as it could be. Upon arrival I was approached by one(!) officially looking girl with a badge and walkie-talkie, who quoted me price of $6, even less than I was prepared to pay. Upon payment I was immediately escorted by another girl to taxi van, which had one more passenger in it. Almost immediately as I climbed in, the van took off. To my great surprise, driver buckled up and drove very safely, diligently stopping at every red light (well, almost) The road looked well maintained, the streets were clean and lighted... Where is the catch? There was none!

I think statistically Ecuador is poorer than it's neighbor Peru, but it sure makes a better impression. I hope it will stay that way.

P.S. Few days later I found that the cost of the taxi from the airport should be only $4. This was the catch, if something seems too good to be true, it isn't :)


Friday, March 12, 2004

Intoxicating streets

I didn't didn't many things to do in Quito, and left next morning to Cuenca, supposedly beautiful city to the South. It was my intention to study Spanish in this small city where there won't be too many distractions interfering with my education. However after spending here the first 30 minutes I realized that 2 weeks in this place would be too much of a commitment. Even though Cuenca is UNESCO World Heritage Cite (as well as old Quito), apparently it doesn't take much to get on the list. Or maybe I am spoiled? It's unrealistic to expect that each little city on my way will have the magical appeal of Cusco...

There are however some good things that could be said about Ecuadorian cities. Firstly, they are very clean. Secondly, there are very few beggars and absolutely no hustlers, which is very atypical for poor countries. On the other hand there must be many robbers. So far I haven't encountered any of those personally, but I assume their existence by the number of uniformed security guards on the streets. They are everywhere, with weapons ranging from dogs and sticks to saw-offs and M16 rifles. I bet these tools come handy during the frequent Govt. overthrows. So with all these security, safety isn't my major concern. What literally poisons my life here is trivial car exhaust. The air is so saturated with it, that it heavily stinks even in the mornings when hardly any cars are running. And keep in mind that this is highlands where oxygen hasn't been abundant to begin with.

So if there is anything I miss about civilization so far, it's US clean air laws. After all, of all human freedoms, the right to fresh air is the most basic.

I can't say how soon my resolve to study Spanish will be dissolved in toxic fumes. My plans change every minute. I almost decided to take a week of classes no matter what... I even went to register, but was told to come back after the siesta. However as I went to internet place to wait till school reopens, I met this girl Fe from Brooklyn who suggested to meet her individual teacher tonight at the big get together of local vegetarians... mostly tourists, as you can imagine. Well, I suppose I can postpone my registration till Monday...

Mounted cop near the presidential palace

I got in Cuenca just in time to witness a demonstration... Whatever they are protesting against - I am all for it!

Friday, March 12, 2004

Meet my host

My stay in Cuenca was arranged through my brother's connections. He has Ecuadorian friend whose Mom lives in Cuenca. So here we go!

Of course, when Angel (this is friend's name) suggested that I can stay with his Mom, at first I was exited. But then the initial exuberance gave way to caution when I found that his mother doesn't live in Cuenca proper, but in a "suburb". My worst expectations seemed to be confirmed when taxi driver spent more than 30 minutes driving around the city and unsuccessfully asking fellow drivers for directions. Finally however he made a turn... and pavement ended. Soon afterwards cows appeared grazing on a side of the "Avenida del Salado". I panicked and started to think of all the excuses which will get me out of this arrangement... However in the end everything turned out to be okay. Señora Rosa house turned up right after the cows. Despite its suburbian location the house is very modern, clean, spacious, attractive, and includes all modern necessities, from hot water to DVD player. And Señora Marin herself happened to be very cheerful, likeable woman. She lives in her large house by herself and it seems she doesn't mind having company.

I must also say that she's very talkative but doesn't speak a word in English... It's going to be an interesting experience, a continuous game of charades.

P.S. Hot water ended at the most inappropriate moment, but DVD player still works

Meet my host

Saturday, March 13, 2004

Social life in Cuenca

Meeting Fe in the Internet cafe was my lucky chance and I am very glad I took it. As I came to the vegetarian party she immediately introduced me to two more guys from Brooklyn and one more from Brooklyn College. C'mon, and I thought that Americans don't travel! Later in the evening as I was sitting at the table with 3 Minnesotans, savoring delicious combinations of raw vegetables prepared by the visiting Californian chef, a young good looking girl came over to me and gave me a big kiss in the cheek. I certainly love this local custom! When was the last time in New York you were kissed by hot 17 y.o. latina? The chica introduced herself as Masha. She's from Chicago, but originally from Minsk. Pinch me, am I still in Ecuador?

Masha volunteered to introduce me to other Russians(!) in Cuenca and also gave me invaluable information about local Salsa clubs. According to her, the best night is on Wednesday, which is unfortunately still some time away...

So in the meanwhile I finally met some locals - two friendly professoras de Español, Monica and Chela. Afterwards they were going to some private party and invited me to come with them. I however was working on my image of a good boy - I didn't want to shock good Señora Marin by coming back to her place at crazy morning hours on the first night of my stay. I went back home to make good impression on her, at least initially...

Anyway, I already had enough for the night. In a matter of few hours my prospects for social life here changed from very bleak to quite bright. I'll keep you posted.

P.S. Professoras say that it'll take 4 full weeks before I'll speak BASIC Spanish... And I naively thought that I already speak basics! I am starting classes tomorrow.

Fe: A Vegetarian with a Vegetable

Monday, March 15, 2004

My new calling

Yesterday a pipe suddenly burst in the bathroom of Señora Marin's house, just as I was sitting there in a very compromising position. Instantly I was drenched head to heels in lukewarm water - one occasion to say thanks that they don't have true hot water here.
Actually the moment when the pipe burst was very fortunate, Especially for Señora Marin. Had I not been there to shut off the valve both floors of the house would be flooded in under few minutes.
Later in the day I rolled up my sleeves and installed new pipe, a deed that earned me a new nickname from the grateful señora: El Maestro. El Maestro of water pipes? I am glad I finally found something I am good at!


Comments:
  • The list of the classes you can teach just got longer. :)
    posted by Z. on 03/16/04 10:17 PM   

    Tuesday, March 16, 2004

    Vegetarian delights

    Perhaps some of you thought I was ironic when speaking of "delicious combinations of raw vegetables". However this was one time when I was serious. The sophistication of food that was prepared without use of "animal byproducts" and fire was amazing. Mateo, the traveling cook from Santa Cruz is a true grand master of his trade. Apparently it wasn't only me who was impressed by his creations. Right after dinner he was booked for consultations by every vegetarian establishment in the city.

    In one respect however, I think he went overboard. Imagine chocolate mousse cake prepared from raw ingredients. What do you think would be the components? Obviously chocolate and less obviously avocado(!) The imitation would be almost believable if Mateo hadn't also added some chili peppers(!) to the mix... Unfortunately it killed the idea of dessert for me.

    Next day when I met the chef in El Cafecito - local gringo hangout, I asked him about chili. In response he showered me with information way over the minimum I cared to know. One of the facts however I found interesting. According to Mateo, they traditionally mix chocolate with chili in Mexico, which is the origin of both products. What a barbarian custom! No wonder nobody ever heard of Mexican chocolate.


    Comments:
    • Regarding the chocolate and chillis. It's not true that Mexican chocolate is unknown - in fact, it's probably the most known, or at least it should be as it's the *original* chocolate. Chocolate was adopted by Europeans from the Maya, who inhabited Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. From what I know, the Mayans mostly had their chocolate in liquid form and it was usually made with various spices, including chilli peppers.

      So did you try this chocolate mousse and didn't like it or did you decide not to try it when you found out it has chilli peppers in it?
      posted by Serge Shamis on 03/18/04 1:04 AM   
      • I *found* chillis in my chocolate, much to my surprise and dislike. However it was palatable, I finished the whole thing or most of it anyway.
        posted by MM on 03/19/04 12:27 Pnbsp; 
      • I was going to comment on 2 things, based on our fresh Mexican experiences:

        1) Chocolate with chillies. We tried a Mexican dish of "pollo en mole poblano". Mole poblano is a sauce made of many ingredients, but the most prominent among them are chillies and chocolate. It doesn't taste at all like chocolate, but it's dark brown in color, a little spicy and slightly sweet. We both liked it.

        2) We found a distant cousin of your "bane of Banos" rooster. It happens to be a peacock and it lives on the grounds of Hotel Mayaland, which is next to Chichen Itza. We noticed it roaming around the property and marveled at its beautiful plumage. But beauty, as everyone knows, is feather-deep and we were reminded of that as soon as it opened its mouth. What emerged was an ugly cry that sounded like an elephant trumpet, but much more piercing. But our initial amusement quickly turned into annoyance as it turned out that the stupid creature made its home on a tree branch right above our thatch-roof bungalow (who knew peacoks could fly?) and made its duty to announce the progress of the sun to us each morning starting at 5:30am. Needless to say, a thatch roof is not the best sound-proofing material, so it seemed like it was perched on our ceiling fan and screaming right at us. Luckily we were only staying in that place for 2 nights and had to get up pretty early anyway (although not *that* early), so it wasn't a huge nuissance. But one more day and I swear the hotel restaurant would've had peacock soup on its menu.

        posted by Serge Shamis on 05/10/04 1:04 AM   
      Ingredients to choose from

      Thursday, March 18, 2004

      Jungle Law

      Yesterday some creature jumped on my neck in my room. I instinctively swept it off and no matter how well I looked for it I couldn't find where it fell. Few hours later however, I discovered this creature climbing up the furniture - a large bug, probably 5-6 sm long. I'd say that it looked like a scorpion, if I only knew for sure what scorpions look like. It definitely had some kind of a weapon at the end of its tail.

      At first I considered whether I should do what every reasonable, self-respecting woman would have done in my place: to scream and call firefighters. However my Y-Chromosome quickly took over and I only reached for the camera to snap a picture, trying not to disturb the bug. Hey, what if it's endangered? Then I shut off the light and went to bed. However as soon as the light was off the creature promptly climbed to the ceiling and fell again, with a loud(!) thud, landing only a foot apart from my bed. That was it. I turned the light on and killed the beast. Hey, it's a Jungle Law, it should have known better.


      Comments:
      • It's most definitely an insect, not a scorpion - it doesn't have pincers (the little "claws") and most importantly, it has only 6 legs (scorpions, like spiders, have 8).

        That said, I would've enforced the law of the jungle even sooner. :0)

        I had seen a scorpion once - that was in Tuscany, of all the exotic tropical places. Julia noticed what she thought was a little bug in the bathroom, and when I came to investigate, I realized it's a "folded-up" little black scorpion (it folded its tail onto itself, so it wasn't obvious what it was). It looked dead, so just to make sure I poured a bit of water on it. Turned out it was quite alive, but that only lasted the time it took me to reach for my slipper. It should've known better! :0)
        posted by Serge Shamis on 03/18/04 2:39 PM   
        Meet the Bug

        Friday, March 19, 2004

        On Ecuadorian nationalism

        In Eucaliptus, one of the most chic Cuenca's restaurants, I saw two huge 3x3m maps on the wall. One of them said "Ecuador today", another named "Ecuador tomorrow" was outlining the secret plans for future imperialistic expansion. It had southern border with Peru moved further South and had pictures of tanks, guns and other military equipment drawn all along the border.

        It's been only few years that Peru and Ecuador signed a peace treaty, much to the dissatisfaction of the general population in both countries. Before that it was customary for Ecuador to attack Peru every few years, in a dispute over an uninhabited chunk of Amazon jungles. Or maybe inhabited, but by some cannibal tribes which don't even understand the concept of the border. Rational mind probably can't understand why either country considers these cannibal lands their rightful territory. But a small international war is always a good way to distract people from overthrowing their own governments.

        I think that "patriotism" in general, is nothing more, but a device invented by ruling class to channel internal conflicts against external enemies. But the notion of patriotism is particularly weird in the context of Ecuador and Peru, which are essentially the same nation. Yet somehow fighting over jungles is important to Ecuadorian pride. However considering the fact that in every single conflict Ecuador was invariably beaten up, I think what they are really looking for, is occasional spanking.

        I'd like to conclude it with a quote from George Orwell, IMO the greatest social thinker of the XXth century:
        "nationalism, religious bigotry and feudal loyalty are far more powerful forces than sanity"

        Friday, March 19, 2004

        Maestro del Tango

        During my short in Cuenca and without any loud advertising, I already had several chicas asking me to teach them to tango. So I am considering the opening of the first Cuenca's Tango salon. Since there is absolutely no qualified competition I might actually make a living. And what if it doesn't work? No problem, I can always go back to fixing plumbing.

        Masha, with whom I shared my grand plans, told me that "this Jewish logic" doesn't work - residents of Cuenca are not too much into dancing. But why teach locals when I can teach gringos? They don't have anything to do here anyway. And they'll go back home long before discovering the fraud.

        Saturday, March 20, 2004

        Cuenca no mas!

        This morning I left Cuenca and now 7 hours later and several hundred meters higher I am in another Andean town - Riobamba. Riobamba used to be the capital of Ecuador at some time, but was destroyed during one of the frequent volcano eruptions, and therefore didn't make it to the UN Heritage list. Yet I find the city much more appealing than Cuenca. It's less busy, there are fewer cars, and the mountain views around the city are not as defaced by human activity as they are around Cuenca.

        Riobamba it a transit city for me, I am leaving tomorrow morning, so I guess there will be nothing to spoil my favorable first impressions.

        To give Cuenca justice, I must say that my social life there was superb. Even though I didn't yet disclose all details, a shrewd reader noted:
        "It is amazing that a little city in Ecuador offers more entertainment opportunities than cities in the Midwest of America. Remember Kentucky? And there is a dense population of college students in Kentucky, which you would assume are young and active. I have a perception of people from the Midwest as not creative..."

        Well, maybe, but I have a theory that it might have something to do with the so called Blue Book (religious) laws that were introduced by the puritan pilgrims and still control the life of US Midwest like they did 300 years ago. I.e. I wrote in one of my previous notes that the entire city of Nashville is completely shut down on Sunday mornings. Because it's Church time - we couldn't get breakfast till noon. There are probably even tighter laws that control the nightlife.

        For example, Masha (from Cuenca-Chicago-Minsk) complained that in Chicago people are not allowed to dance clubs until they reach 18(!). That's right, no dancing till you can vote, marry and fight in Iraq. Go do your homework! What a horrible place for young adults!

        Ecuador, BTW, is also a fiercely Catholic country, and as such it probably has it's share of the similar laws. The difference is however is that here these laws are not enforced. Masha told me a story how once while she was in a bar with two other girls, the place was stormed by police in SWAT gear for complete document check. One of the girls didn't have her papers and panicked, but bartender came to her rescue: "hey, it's my girlfriend, leave her alone!" And police turned around left.

        The bottom line is that even though I didn't like Cuenca, I am sure glad I didn't spend last week in Kentucky!


        Comments:
        • "Blue Book laws"? Are these the laws to regulate fair pricing of used cars? I assume you mean Blue laws. :0) But "Blue Book" laws would certainly be the more useful (or at least the less useless!).
          posted by Serge Shamis on 03/22/04 10:09 AM   
          • Nitpicker! :) Yes I meant "Blue Laws"
            posted by vseznayka on 03/22/04 10:51 PM   

          Sunday, March 21, 2004

          Climbing on Chimborazo

          Riobamba. 6am. I am woken up by heavy pounding on my door. Few seconds later I hear pounding on other doors, as loud as if it's my own. Then a female voice screams: "wake up! wake up!"

          I get up and look out to see if there is a fire or a similar calamity. However it's only a couple of obnoxious either Canadians or Americans. A conversation ensues:

          -Que pasa?
          -The outdoor door is locked, we can't get out!
          -So you decided to wake everybody up?
          -Yes, this is the general plan... (and she's smiling!!)

          What a... I just shut the door, lost interest in them as in human beings. Ok, I understand their problem and the concierge who left home while locking everybody inside is an idiot. But what's the point of banging on guest's doors? Because misery likes company?

          Soon afterwards, they somehow managed to force their way out and just as I prepared to catch 30 more minutes of sleep, somebody started complaining about what just happened right outside of my door. On the brighter side of things, as a result of this conversation I've learned a new non-dictionary word: chucha. I can imagine that during my travels there will be other situations when it's use will be justified.

          And in 7am I met Joel, my private driver, who took me to Chimborazo, the highest mountain on Earth. That's right, as you know the Earth isn't ideal sphere, it's Equatorial diameter is larger than polar. As a result of this Equatorial bulge, mountains on Equator are much further from the Earth's center than anywhere else. I don't have the numbers handy, but I think that even the "sea level" on Equator is "higher" than the top of the Everest. Of course, from a practical perspective it's a nonsense, and that's why mountains are measured from sea level and not from Earth's center. This however opens another question: how did they measured precise sea level in landlocked Himalayas? Anybody knows?

          Anyway, so I came to this Chimborazo mountain and climbed up to 5000 meters! This however wasn't a big adventure, because the road comes up to 4800m. After that a well beaten path winds up through a small international cemetery. A welcome and inspiring sight for future climbers. I however was only a tourist, hiking up just to the "refugio" - the base camp from which the real climb starts. Still at this altitude, without proper acclimatization, climbing 200 vertical meters isn't an easy task, I had to stop every few steps to catch my breath. However when I finally got to the refugio, I actually felt better than at the start. A super-quick acclimatization? Maybe, but more likely the result of the ibuprophen intake. So with the altitude headache gone, I decided to climb up another 200-300 meters to the bottom of a glacier. However it proved to be a futile effort. The ground was so steep and crumbly that for every step up I'd slide 1.5 down. Somehow I managed to crawl up half the distance and then gave up and turned around. How did the first climbers (1802!) found the solid path to the top? I have no idea.

          Anyway, I didn't accomplish much as a climber, but I sure had fun on a ride down. Joel would occasionally abandon the road and drive straight down the mountain side. Amazingly it actually felt smoother than driving on the road!

          Eventually Joel took me directly to the bus terminal where I took the bus to Baños - a supposed backpackers paradise famous for it's geothermal baths, European food and cheap hotels. I am looking forward to soaking in a hot bath. After all this climbing and particularly sliding on Chimborazo, bath is a necessity.


          Riobamba


          Small international cemetry welcomes Chimborazo climbers


          Joel the driver

          Monday, March 22, 2004

          Baños de Agua Santa

          The city of Baños, or under it's full name Baños de Agua Santa (Baths of Holy Water) is the best place in Ecuador I've been to so far. It is located in a narrow valley squeezed between two nearly vertical forest covered mountains. From one of the walls a 100m waterfall cascade drops down right into the city. At the bottom of the cascade a whole system of pipes "steals" the natural water for baths and other less interesting needs. The main attraction of the city, the geothermal baths didn't impress me much - too overcrowded, to the point of causing hygienic concern, and too overbuilt. I mentioned in my previous note that there is only so much improvement that nature can take before things start getting worse. Here in Baños they built a huge 2 store complex around the springs, and now it's only the murky green color of the water reminds of it's natural origin. I sincerely hope, that the water comes out of the mountain, already colored that way, so the color not the result of the human activity in the pool. So pools, kinda suck, but the city itself is great - it's pretty and ideally suited to cater to the needs of the independent tourists. Lot's of cheap hotels, all kinds of funky restaurants, tons of shops and of course hundreds of tour agencies offering tours to every altitude - from climbing to the highest active volcano Cotopaxi, to rafting in the Amazon basin. Add to this the spectacular natural setting, freshly painted houses, colored brick sidewalks and ideal climate! Baños is located at comfortable 1800 meters above sea level, sufficiently low to be warm - here I can walk in T- shirt and flip-flops all day long - finally it fills like I am on vacation. Yet the city is sufficiently high to be out of reach to the humidity and mosquitoes of the jungles.

          The only problem is that Baños is located at the bottom of an active volcano. The volcano so active that few years ago it was put on "red alert", whatever it means, and the city was evacuated. Nothing happened though and the residents trickled back in. The red alert however is still on. So sooner or later the volcano will erupt and the thriving city will disappear under layers of smoldering lava.

          Moreover, because of the city's location in a narrow valley, I believe that last moment evacuation will be very difficult if at all possible. Even if lava doesn't flow into the city directly, it will likely flow into the valley somewhere around the city, cutting off the escape route.

          This precarious situation, living under the Damocle's sword did bother me when I was planning my trip from New York. This was probably a decisive factor why I picked Cuenca as a base to study Spanish. I fear the mighty forces of nature, especially after visiting few remaining ruins of the once thriving city Yungay in Peru. The whole place and it's 25,000 inhabitants were buried under glacier flow in a matter of few minutes. More loss of life than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. So I did worry about this volcano when planning the trip, but once I am here I see how easy it is to forget about danger once you get to a really nice place. However don't worry, whether I want it or not I won't stay here for a long, I have too many other things planned. But take hint, if you want to see Baños, there is only one time to do it - now. This place won't be here forever.

          Tuesday, March 23, 2004

          The hike

          This morning I hiked up to the top of one of "the nearly vertical mountains" surrounding Baños. I was very surprised to find at the top 2 grazing cows, peasants tending their fields, two unfriendly dogs, a chapel and cafe Bella Vista, currently closed. Some things look much more difficult than they are! As I looked down at the baths, I saw that at 8am they are not as nearly crowded as they were on Sunday evening. Besides they had one more pool open, maybe I should pay this place another visit. Upon returning to town I cad breakfast in local favorite Casa Hood. There I was flipping through the log of tips, from travelers who passed through this joint. They have entries in all languages, even in English. Believe it or not I also found one in Russian! One of the entries that interested me most was warning against hiking in the neighborhood hills, the authors were robbed by "two punks with a gun". Well, I think that at 8am it's still safe, punks do not wake up at such an early hour.

          My yesterday's ride to Puyo, happened to be more eventful than I expected as I hooked up with a group of 4 more riders - German, Swiss, USA and Holland. At some point close to Puyo we were stopped by military police for a document check - a useless procedure loved by the security forces of less developed countries. I value my passport too much to carry it around and I kept it locked in hotel's safe. So when all other guys from the group turned their 4 passports to the guy in the booth, I just tried to make myself small and hoped that police won't be smart enough to count to five correctly. This was a case, after a brief friendly conversation they waved us to go and wished a good ride. On a way back same cops stopped the bus we were on, but the driver told them a couple of jokes, they all laughed, patted each other on the shoulder and let us go without bothering themselves with the documents check. Yet, few miles later we were stuck again in a construction roadblock. We hanged in the middle of nowhere for 1.5 hours, which was a great opportunity to trade travelers tales. The American, Scott, had particularly fascinating ones, from spending 4 nights alone on Dhaulagiri, Nepal, to winning $50,000 in Black Jack in Atlantic City. For all I know some of his tales might actually be true. He said that some of them are published at travelerstales.com. Some day I'll check them out, but right now I am too busy writing my own tales.

          Tuesday, March 23, 2004

          A bike ride to Puyo

          I'm writing these lines on a stump that replaces a table, sitting on a stump that replaces a chair. It's "Otro Lado" (other side) - a restaurant that overlooks the gorgeous Paillon de Diabolo falls. Oh-oh, two huge hawks started to circle right over my head, I'd better put my hat on! Don't want to be an easy target! Ok, back to Otro Lado... just et me take a picture of these two butterflies playing in the flowers in my arms reach. Ok, so what I was going to say? Ah, here it is, as I look at this stump furniture, other details of wooden decor, at the suspension bridge down below, I understand what Japanese have already discovered many centuries ago: No matter how beautiful the nature is, it can always benefit from some artificial improvement. The key is to know how much improvement is enough. As a general rule, when Coca Cola ads start to appear, it's already too much.

          But this harmonious merge of human activity and nature so far is right on target. It's located just under a tiny town of Rio Verde, a 2 hour leisure bike ride from Baños. The mountain road runs mostly downhill along the river, with countless waterfalls and vistas at every turn.

          Rio Verde is only 16km from Baños, and I wish I walked here instead, instead of taking a bike. For some reason, American bike engineers, or rather marketeers believe that getting dirty is the main attraction of the sport. Have you seen mountain bikes ads that feature men and women covered in muck and with crazy expressions on their faces? Engineers assure this effect by excluding the two most important parts of every road bike: the rear and front fenders. For those of you who already forgot how a normal Soviet or European bike looks, fenders are those semi- circular wheel covers that collect all the dirt that flies off the wheels on your face and your back. At the same time, same engineers cram 21 speed gears on their creations, which is approximately 10 times more than necessary. Why is all this emphasis on performance when 99 percent of their buyers are only recreational riders. Many of them don't even know how to use all these gears - I've seen people walking their 21-speed bikes uphill. Did I say 99%? Make it 100%, because professionals don't buy these mass market bikes anyway.

          Yet, after putting all this thought into useless gears, bike designers forget about another essential part of every road bike - the trunk (bagazhnik). Or maybe they are under impression that riders are more comfortable to carry their possessions on their backs? Anything could be expected from people who still couldn't figure out metric system. This lack of trunk is even more unfortunate in view of the previously mentioned lack of fenders. Because now not only do I need another round of bathing and laundering, but I also need to clean my previously new backpack...

          Ok, my lunch is here... Most tourists stop at Rio Verde and take a bus back to Baños. But after lunch I plan to continue for another 40km to the jungle town of Puyo. There are 3 reasons for this irrational undertaking: to justify $4 I paid for the bike, to convert my lunch into mechanical energy, and most importantly to make myself to remember how much I hate biking at least for the next few months. I already look like a bike ad character, so I have nothing more to lose, except my butt.

          Tuesday, March 23, 2004

          The Bane of Baños

          There is a crazy rooster living next to my otherwise nice hotel. Unlike the Hawaiian roosters which had decency not to start their concert until 7am, this beast wakes up at 3am and screams non-stop almost till 8. And it's so unbelievably loud that even earplugs do not help. Sometimes it doesn't even sound like a rooster, more like a mix of howling dog with a trumpeting elephant. I don't know why this screamer hasn't been converted to food yet. Are his owners are deaf? But for me it became a real problem. Isn't ironic that I might be forced out of Baños early than I thought, not by an erupting volcano, but by a mad chicken?

          Comments:
          • Vspomni uroki Panikovskogo. Works as well on roosters as on geese. :0)
            posted by Serge Shamis on 03/23/04 3:23 PM   

            Wednesday, March 24, 2004

            Internet time

            My Mom asked me, how come I have so much time to write these notes. Well, after I left Cuenca I don't have much to do in the evenings. And before I left Cuenca I hadn't much to do during the day. I don't know what would I do if not the Internet. Maybe I'd do my Spanish homework?

            Wednesday, March 24, 2004

            A bus ride to Tena

            This morning I left Baños for a 6-hour ride to Tena, a small town but the essential starting point of many jungle trips. The bus actually made it to Tena on time, but in general the published schedules are often only guidelines.

            According to my 1999 Let's Go guide the schedules are unpredictable because of the road construction. And sure it is, now in 2004 the road is still being constructed. Remember my account trip from Puyo to Baños? It took our bus 2.5 hours to cover the distance we made in 3 hours on bikes.

            So here we are riding the bus, below is a messed up dirt road, above tropical rain, and on both sides impenetrable green wall of jungles and orange streams of muddy water that drain into the road. And occasional houses along the road, many are not even houses but run down shacks, dyryavye izbushki na kurih nozhkah. But in front of every shack there is a clothesline with various types of washed undergarments left to dry in the rain. And the people who occasionally hop on the bus, or seen from the window are all very neat, well groomed and really clean. (well, except one crazy cyclist who went by on a bike without fenders!)

            I was particularly impressed by a group of high school students going back home - all dressed in immaculately white starched shirts. Surprisingly, there are lot's of people in this dirty part of the planet, who wear white clothes. How do they keep them white in this environment? Whatever is their secret, it seems that in *THIS* part of Ecuador people maintain very high level of personal hygiene, higher than those of some of the Westerners. Having said that, I remembered that I haven't shaved since I left Cuenca. Now it makes me feel uncomfortable.

            P.S. It should also be noted that during the entire 6 hour ride the bus never stopped for long enough to let the passengers to get off, stretch their limbs and perform other necessities. So it's a good thing that being an experienced traveler, I not drink or eat before taking a trip.


            Comments:
            • Perhaps clotheslines there used as washing machines and not to dry undergarments. Read directions on the local wash detergents, it probably instructs you "to pour one cup over the clothes and hang outside, then dry on gentle cycle."
              posted by Z on 03/25/04 12:43 AM   

              Drying or washing?

              Wednesday, March 24, 2004

              Ne hodite deti v Tenu...

              According to "Let's Go" guide, Tena is a "Jungle playground of Ecuador. Visitors keep swinging from one activity to another... Some of these activities can be found in other places in Ecuador, but others i.e. killer white waterrafting are available only in Tena... The water conditions are perfect throughout the year..." Yeah right!

              Let's Go is a good reference and sometimes they are right on target, but quite often they are just full of BS. I started to get this feeling when I first saw the river - a very mellow one, with kids wading in the water, throwing their pants upstream and then catching them on the way down. They could entertain themselves that way for hours!

              My initial intention was to sign-up for the guidebook advertised 4 days kayaking course, although I was a bit put off by the high price - $250. For this money I can probably have class anywhere in USA, although there I'll have to spend one day signing 300 different waivers... Anyway, not only this class is expensive, it's also unavailable, unless they can sign up few more students, of which they currently have none. The next student who might be signing up for the class is expected only in April. The jungle trips from Tena are indeed available, but they are of inferior quality, compared to those offered in Coca, a town to the North. Ok, you don't have 4-day course, but you sure have simple one-day kayaking trips? It says so on your door...

              "Oh, yes, but for these we also need to sign up more people...If you stay in Tena few more days, we can let you know when we can do the trip." Well, the way it works, if you can't tell me what to do in Tena right now, I think I already overstayed!

              In addition to the lack of attractions I find Tena very overpriced by Ecuadorian standards. I.e. I pay $14 for my hotel, the highest room price ever I've seen in Ecuador so far. Well, there were cheaper options, but I had a sudden urge to splurge. But this urge evaporated when a vendor at the makeshift market asked $10 for a T-shirt... What is it, Armani Exchange?

              Besides, the prices, I find the air here too heavy as well. I spend 2 weeks in highlands and here with higher pressure, heat and particularly with 90% jungle humidity I feel like I have to cut through the air when walking. I remember reading that Incas, the highland dwellers, couldn't live at lower altitudes, now I understand how they felt.

              The food. It's hard to believe, but locals here eat the same things as everywhere else in Ecuador - overfried meat with either dry rice or overfried potato chips.. In this climate I can't even look at anything fried. I have a feeling that till the end of my jungle trip I'll have to subsist only on ice-cream! Well, at least ice-cream was good, no complaints about it.

              Ice cream was good and so were monkeys in the in-city jungle park. It's located on the island in the middle of the river, right across of my hotel. That's what I am paying for - the view. Crossing the bridge to the park I met Alexis, a Jehovah Witness from Texas. Fortunately for both of us, she already finished her daily proselytizing routine, and we simply enjoyed a walk through well groomed jungle and happily laughed at the private show put for us by two monkeys.

              Comments:
              • Few weeks later, in Quito, I met a kayaking instructor from North Caroline who moved to Ecuador because the rivers here are very good and easily accessible. He confirmed that there is indeed good kayaking in the Tena neighborhood and the prices they charged are indeed better than what it costs in USA... So if you are willing to hang out in Tena for a month or two, until they assemble a group maybe your patience will be rewarded.
                posted by vseznayka on 04/23/04 3:23 PM   

                Thursday, March 25, 2004

                The Caves of Jumandy

                I left Tena the following morning. The only attraction left to see around the town were the Caves of Jumandy, conveniently located on a way to Coca, my next destination. A small voice inside of me was questioning the sensibility of hoping off the Coca bound bus to see yet another cave. After all, I've already seen plenty. They are all dark , wet and have stalactites and stalagmites. And no matter how many more caves I'll see I'd probably never remember for sure which of the s-words grow up and which down.

                Well, in general, listening to little voices is important, but this time I am glad that I didn't. Jumandy wasn't 'just another cave'. Although at first nothing promised an unique experience. I simply paid $2 at the gate and entered a reasonably well tended garden. A little bit further there was a large swimming pool that hasn't been cleaned since the time of the Inca Empire. It was lined up with clown-shaped trashcans, judging by peeling paint - from the same historic period. On the left there was a long abandoned building with a deceptive sign "Discoteca", on the right a monstrous spiral of a multi-level waterslide, currently not functional.

                I think it's needless to say that, not counting several employees working in the garden I was completely alone there. The signs "Cavernas" and "Toilets" was a bit ahead, b/n a large Spanish speaking parrot and some cottages painted with still legible scenes of the idyllic jungle life. Nothing unusual, up to the moment when an attendant insisted that I undress to my swimwear... Pardon me!? Well, he explained, the cave is partially filled with water so in some places it might be required to swim. Wow, this doesn't sound usual anymore!

                However it was only after considerable hesitation that I left ALL my possessions in an empty shack with an unconvincing sign "Guarda Ropa" (ropa=clothes). Usually I am paranoid about separating with my documents, but the bus to Coca already left and the situation didn't leave me much choice.

                And so I entered the cave, or actually the underground river which this cave was all about. Maybe not an Amazon, but yet a full featured mountain river complete with underground fish, underground beaches, boulders, and even underground waterfalls. And sure enough, to proceeding beyond 100m from the entrance required underground swimming through some deep sections and even underground climbing over a small underground waterfall... But it wasn't the most unusual feature of the cave, what surprised me most is that I was there alone. No guides and no tourists. Only me, my flashlight, some underground fish and lot's of bats.

                There was however one feature of clearly artificial origin - a waterpipe running into the depth of the cave. Aha! Are they actually pumping all this water in?! Talking about people improving the Nature! I gotta investigate!

                Investigation was easy, just a walk on the beach for about 500m or so occasionally crossing the river from one bank to another. It was too trivial, so at some point I turned to investigate one of the side tunnels. It was very interesting at first, with some of those cool s-things, but eventually it became to narrow to walk comfortably and I turned back to the river, because crawling in tight dirty holes has never been among my major interests. Besides the bats this place also had many other creatures that I didn't like. These where either small crabs or really big spiders. Sorry, Serge, they moved fast and I couldn't count their legs properly. And then I was much more interested in another biological wonder - I found a plant. A real one, with a stem and two pale yellow leaves at the top. How does it survive in absolute darkness? Feeds off tourist's flashlights?

                Unfortunately I can solve only one mystery at time, and I left the plant to continue my investigation of the pipe. Finally, after a few narrow spots the river once again widened and few minutes later disappeared under and artificial dam. I climbed over and after studying the currents I concluded that the river is natural, the pipe wasn't for pumping water in, but rather for taking some of it out. But where all this water is coming from? I gotta investigate!

                Easily said than done, especially because the density of bats considerably increased. Now they were practically flying into my face. I started to wave my arms to scare them, but apparently they were too blind to notice.

                Nevertheless I went forward... After another 30 minutes or the river channel split in two. I followed left branch for about 10 minutes, it didn't seem to end. I came back to the fork and tried to follow the right branch, but it didn't seem to end neither. Suddenly I remembered that attendant warned me that the cave "closes" at 8pm. Since it was only 10am, I thought then that his warning is kinda strange, but now I started to see his point. I walked a bit more, but the scenery was still the same, and it started to become a bit boring. Who knows, maybe this damn cave goes all the way to Colombia? Ok, I got an idea and turned back, I missed the sunlight. So when I discovered an intermediate exit on the way I happily climbed out, deciding that for a change I'd walk back under the daylight.

                However instead of getting out in a civilized area next to a Coca Cola stand and a photographer I found myself in the middle of the jungle. Carefully stepping over the lines of leafcutter ants I climbed to the top of a small hill. The view was wonderful, however all I saw around me had no indication which way I should go. So imagine the situation, here I am standing on the top of the hill in exactly 4 articles of clothing (speedo, sandals, watch and a headlamp) and having no idea whether I am still in Ecuador. I looked right and I looked left and then without much enthusiasm I climbed back into the cave to follow the river, it knows which way to go.

                Comments:
                • > Besides the bats this place also had
                  > many other creatures that I didn't like. These
                  > where either small crabs or really big spiders.
                  > Sorry, Serge, they moved fast and I couldn't
                  > count their legs properly.

                  They were moving fast or you were moving fast? (in the opposite direction). :0) Fascinating adventure. How many hours did you spend there overall? I take it the water wasn't that cold?

                  posted by Serge Shamis on 03/30/04 12:02 PM   
                  • I think I spent underground no more than 1.5-2 hours. But when you are alone and in the dark it seems longer :)
                    posted by vseznayka on 03/30/04 4:18 PM   
                  • hey hey! you didn't finish! na samom interestnom meste! anyway, can you find out if they have an entrance to the cave in eilat?
                    posted by lenny on 03/30/04 1:44 PM   

                    Friday, March 26, 2004

                    Jungles, Day 1

                    I am swinging in a hammock in Yarina Lodge, about 40 minutes from Coca by a motor boat. There are over 20 guests cabin here, but so far I am the only guest. There are also about 15 employees here, whose job is to maintain the property, cook me meals and do whatever else it takes to make me feel comfortable. Sure, humidity aside, I'm comfortable, but it's a far cry from the wild machete swinging, jungle hacking adventure I had in mind.
                    Not that I didn't know what I am getting into, but under the circumstances I didn't have a better choice. Even though Coca is the primary starting point for remote jungle trips, it has absolutely no tourist industry of it's own. All groups that pass through Coca are assembled in Quito and Baños 200-300km away. When I arrived to Coca and started asking directions to tour agencies, most people only blinked their eyes. Finally, somebody remembered that there is a Luis Garcia who operates from a place called Emerald Forest. So this Luis Garcia represents the entire Coca's tourist industry, and the place he operates from is not even an office, but a bar, where he relaxes after returning from his trips. And that day he wasn't there anyway...
                    Somewhat late, but I finally I figured how the tourist industry in Ecuador works. There is an infinite number of tourist agencies in Quito and Baños, which tout the specific advantages of their trips, yet they are only marketing storefronts for a much smaller number of actual guides. So whether you purchase the trip from agency A, B or C, you'll still end up in the same group lead by the same Luis Garcia. I started to suspect it even back in Baños, because the pictures displayed by various agencies looked remarkably the same.
                    Because the number of actual guides is very small, it's not possible to hop on on a tour on the day you want it, you'll need to a) wait until the previous group returns b) until agencies assemble a new group, sufficiently large to make the trip profitable for them. This model is very inconvenient for independent travelers, who don't have prearranged reservations. Many trips depart only once a week and if you missed it, like I missed Luis Garcia, well then you missed it for good.
                    Fortunately my tourbook mentioned another company in Coca that operates two jungle lodges Yuturi and Yarina. Normally they get their Quito clients on Mondays, but because of the proximity of the Yarina Lodge they agreed to take me there next morning, on Friday. I readily agreed, because spending even one extra day in this stinking town of Coca would be unthinkable.
                    So now I am here alone, but on Monday this place might swarm with 20-50 more tourists, totally destroying any remaining illusions of being in the middle of Amazon jungles. Therefore in spite of all the disappointment of my situation, I might have actually gained by traveling to Coca on my own. That way I am not going to trample through "remote" jungles in a pack of 20 more gringos. And I got my private experience at the wholesale group price.


                      This is Coca. Exciting, huh?


                      Here I am in the process of contemplating this travel note

                      Saturday, March 27, 2004

                      Jungles. Day 2

                      There are currently 2 tour guides at Yarina. One of them is probably the most dislikable person I ever met. The first 40 minutes of knowing him, during the ride to the lodge, I thought he hates me. However after observing his interactions with other people in the lodge, I was relieved to see that he actually hates all human beings in general. I am very impressed by his talent to find the exactly right words to put everybody down. I.e. he would approach a girl playing with a baby parrot and tell her that "this is food for anaconda". Then he would walk over to a crying baby boy, point at me and say: "here is the gringo who steals crying children"...

                      I think he can speak decent English, but it's hard to say because, unless I demand clarifications he prefers to speak Spanish at all times. This might be ok for one on one interactions, but I find it annoying in the social dinner setting, when talking in Spanish totally cuts me out of the conversation. On the other hand probably I am not missing much. From the bit's and pieces I understand it seems that his idea of dinner talk is a non-stop cursing of every person who had the misfortune to meet him in the past. All I hear is "chucha this, chucha that..." Here is the one I caught: "French chicas are chuchas because they don't take showers..." Surprisingly, he likes Russian girls, because "they are blondes and have big tits"

                      Besides being really offended on behalf of the French girls, I am also put off by his attitude to the people of the lower social status, i.e. kitchen stuff. He talks to them like if they are his personal servants and the common courtesy words like "please" or "thank you" are not even tried. It doesn't look though that the stuff takes the offence or takes him too seriously. But in any case, I am very glad, that as a tourist I am actually a notch higher than him in the social hierarchy. Finally, to make his portrait complete and fair, I must say that as far as his professional guiding obligations are concerned, he fully fulfills them, taking me wherever he's supposed to and showing whatever he's supposed to show. Yet, it's needless to say that he does it without any kind of enthusiasm.

                      Therefore I was very relieved when this morning he delegated the responsibility of taking me around the jungles to Juan Carlos, a somewhat junior guide. To save on typing in the future I'll refer to him simply as JC, make no connection to the guy from Jerusalem.

                      Me and JC went along pretty well. To start our hike on a friendly footing he offered me some lemon ants picked fresh from a tree. At first I politely refused: "Thank you, I already had breakfast". But he was so convincing that eventually I tried... Mmmm...Yummy! From now on they are part of my diet. I only need to be careful to pick the right ants and from the right tree. Because here in jungles the things that man can eat and things that can eat man often are often difficult to distinguish. It's important to know, for example, that millipede is harmless, but centipede is toxic. Hey Serge, how about counting these legs? Here is a hint, centipede has more of them than millipede! Armed with this useful information, I followed JC on into the jungle and very soon I noticed his inclination to abandon the path and hack straight into the brush. A bit concerned, I asked him how does he find the way? He laughed: "It's an instinct!" And this of course was very assuring.

                      However about 2 hours later, as I was about to mention that I've already seen this tree at least three times, I overheard JC muttering "we seem to be going in circles". And I thought "Chucha!" And then I said "Are we lost now?" "No, I am a bit confused, that's all" And I congratulated myself on having the foresight to take along in my backpack a water filter, flashlight and a pack of dried apricots. Because the ants might be spicy, but I bet they are not sufficiently nutritious to support us for several days.

                      JC in meanwhile continued with his erratic attempts to get us back to our canoe landing. I mindlessly followed him around, just as a good tango dancer should follow the leader, whether the leader knows what he's doing or not. I was actually very exuberant about the fact that for the first time during my travels I bear absolutely no responsibility for the trouble I am in. And the trouble itself was very much to my liking. Many friends of mine had great stories about getting lost in jungles, why shouldn't I have one? Without getting lost at least once, my jungle experience wouldn't seem complete. Of course, it's easier to think this way when you have a water filter and a pack of dried apricots in your backpack.

                      The moment approached however, when I realized that it's time to take charge of the situation. This happened when JC told me that we must cross a river. I objected that I don't remember crossing any rivers on our way in. In ensuing conflict b/n his intuition and my common sense, I convinced JC to abandon his instinctive zigzags through the forest and to follow the river instead. (This is the trick I've learned from my recent cave experience). I told him that even if the river doesn't lead us to our canoe, it will definitely take us eventually to Amazon. I've already been in Brazil before once we are there I know some cool places where to go.

                      JC was easily convinced by my impeccable arguments, and instead of following the zigzags of his intuition we started to follow the zigzags of the river. Of course, it was more easily said than done, because the twists that this river was making could defeat any imagination. It seemed that sometimes it was turning around the whole 360, and in these cases the temptation to make a shortcut was too strong. And in other cases the vegetation along the banks was so dense that even with a machete we couldn't cut through. So intentionally or not, we would sometimes lose the sight of the river, yet in all these occasions few minutes later we would find ourself back in the same spot which we just left. It was a truly Blairwitch experience. Of course, I've heard stories about people getting lost and walking in circles, but I had no idea that it might happen so easily and that the circles can be so tight.

                      Anyway, eventually, in a triumph of the common sense over the blind instincts, we did find our canoe and paddled back to the lodge just in time for lunch, and only minutes before a major rain started. I mentioned this fortunate fact to JC, but he only said: "Of course, everything was calculated!" And to spare his feelings I made it look like if I believed him.

                      Comments:
                      • Have you bought your fedora hat and a whip yet? Your adventures are getting more Indiana Jones-like every day. Regarding centipede vs. millipede - I know that they don't really have 100 and 1000 legs (respectively), but I always thought that generally speaking a millipede has more legs than a centipede. Of course, it depends on the actual size of each - i.e., there may be very long centipedes that do indeed contain more legs than a short millipede. Perhaps that's the case for the Ecuadorian varieties? A quick google search revealed that centipedes have 1 pair of legs per segment while millepedes have 2, so it sounds likely that in general a millipede would have more legs. What did you see in the jungle? Anything of any interest in terms of wildlife? Did those lemon ants actually taste like lemon? Oh, and by the way, being pedantic again, I think the original JC was from Nazareth, not Jerusalem. But he definitely had only 2 legs. :0)
                        posted by Serge Shamis on 04/01/04 12:59 PM   
                        • Google didn't lie. However centipedes have more segments, so overall they win on leg count. And my JC is from Quito, and he also has only one segment with only one pair of legs attached to it. And here all the similarity to the original JC ends.
                          posted by Anonymous on 04/14/04 4:12 PM   

                        Juan Carlos: Remember where we left our canoe?

                        Sunday, March 28, 2004

                        Jungle Biodiversity and Human Stupidity

                        Biodiversity means the number of species one can find in a square mile, kilometer, meter or inch of the territory. But no matter how you cut it, the Amazon basin has more of it than any place in the world. Or so they say, because I haven't been yet to all other places. However, as a general piece of advice, if you want to see many different animals, you should go to Zoo. It's said that 70% of jungle species are nocturnal, and the rest doesn't like humans and avoids them(for a good reason!).

                        As I am about to give you a complete account of what I saw, first I need to complain about one inconvenience of English language that I find most difficult to adjust to. It's the requirement to refer to animals with the sexless "it". Of course, I am not against It in principle, It could be quite handy in business communications, i.e. think of all the benefits of the concise "Dear It" over the uncertainty of the conventional "Dear Sir or Madam". However here am not talking about law firm partners, but about living creatures. And while expression "I played with IT" seems to be semantically possible, the reverse "IT played with me", sounds too weird to my non-native ear. So to make it easier on myself in the future I'll refer to all creatures of the undetermined sex accordingly to their Russian classification.

                        The biggest animal I saw in the wild was an endangered tapir, an improbable crossbreed of a pig and an elephant. This sighting would be an extraordinary strike of luck if it hadn't been a tamed tapir, specially brought into this area for a breeding project. The rest of the creatures were wilder and considerably smaller, i.e. caimans... ok, let me roll it back, what I actually SAW were small red lights which were explained to me as reflections of my flashlight in croc's eyes. So it's really difficult for a non-expert to estimate the size of the reptile solely from the intensity of the red color. Maybe these were big caimans with small eyes. Then I definitely saw a glimpse of a small monkey, I held by the tail a baby anaconda, that has been caught in the lake a day earlier. I also played with a friendly little boa constrictor who climbed for a nap to the porch of the next door cabin. I think HIS friendliness had very pragmatic background. Since I was to big for him to be useful as a source for proteins, the least he could do is to use me as the source of heat. Smart little creep!
                        I also saw a bunch of birds, but they were mostly too far to present any gastronomic interest... ( Hmm, I am thinking like boa now, it must have been contagious)

                        However the most of the biodiversity one will encounter in jungles is represented by insects of all colors, shapes and sizes. And you don't have to go looking for them, they'll find you wherever you are. Not all encounters with insects are of unpleasant kind, in addition to previously mentioned lemon ants, I also liked the numerous butterflies and an amazing light bug. Unlike the Northern variety that only emits intermittent light, this one had two permanent bright green headlights. It would dim them a bit when resting, and according to the guide, it switches the color to orange upon the take off.

                        One of the other amazing creatures were the "marching wasps". At first I thought the guide is pulling my leg, but indeed, if you stand next their nest and yell "March!", they start marching! Well, what actually happens is that they all start clapping their wings in sync, but it sounds like if a fairly large military unit is marching by. It's amazing how well these brainless insects understand orders in English! You can ponder it as you yourself quickly march away from their nest.

                        And of course, no story of jungle biodiversity can't be complete without mentioning the most dangerous of the animals, the beast at the top of food chain - The Mosquito! According to my travel book, 200-300 million people contract malaria every year and 2-3 million of them die. And this is only from malaria, but there is also Yellow Fever, Dengue Fever, West Nile.... who knows how many other nasty things these creatures spread. So it seems that annually more people are killed by mosquitoes than by all other animals, natural disasters and criminals combined!

                        Yet despite all the hatred my species and me personally feel towards mosquitoes, I must admit that they did play one important and positive role. It is my theory, that it's only because of the mosquitoes humans haven't yet cut down the last of the jungle trees. Never underestimate human power, greed and stupidity. Consider the highlands of Peru, once covered with lush mosquito-less forest. And what happened? It was completely destroyed even in pre-Inca times. Since then human tree cutting abilities skyrocketed, but sadly the greed and stupidity stayed at the same pre-Inca level. So with more chain saws and repellents than ever, I think it will be maybe only another 50 years or so, before the jungles go down in history.

                        With this kind of outlook I can only admire President Bush, who for the first time in his life has demonstrated some foresight, by encouraging Americans to move to another, less polluted planet. After dumping billions of dollars into the desserts of Iraq, bringing the democracy to Mars seems to be the next worthwhile use of OUR money. I only wish that those interested in oil on other planets, research it using their private funds. I'd hate seeing MY money flying into the space when I have so many good uses for them on this planet!


                        My new friend


                        Tapir: A cross between a pig and an elephant

                        Monday, March 29, 2004

                        Jungles. Day 3. Morning

                        JC and myself took a canoe to visit local Quechua family that lives up river. When we landed I noticed an interesting fruit that looked like an already familiar rambutan. JC told me that these fruits are used to extract very strong red dye used for clothing, body paint... Body paint?
                        This sounds like fun, and I playfully squeezed the fruit and applied to my face the most intimidating war colors of my people. Then we walked around the semi-cultivated jungle sampling the local delicacies, i.e. raw cacao seeds - these taste like candies! And then we tried chota - a weird fruit, or rather a vegetable. It looks like plum tomato, tastes like pumpkin and has a pit in the middle, that looks and tastes like the 'meat' of the ripe coconut.
                        In the midst of these feeding activities, I completely forgot about the war colors on my face, and therefore when we finally walked into the house of the aborigines, they must have thought that I am some kind of an idiot. Or as it was politely phrased by JC: 'Now you look like a tourist'. The Quechua family was even more discrete, they didn't say anything, at least not in the language I could understand.
                        Now JC says that this paint might stay for 2 weeks... I hope he's kidding.


                        Comments:
                        • don't come to the u.s. with your war-like coloring... you know what they do to people like you after 9/11...! ;)
                          posted by lenny on 04/14/04 9:15 AM   
                          • Speak for yourself! Remember how you were arrested in Miami airport for undermining the national security? I am surprised they didn't send you to Guantanomo :)
                            posted by vseznayka on 04/14/04 3:11 PM   

                          Entering the war path


                          Native family... Only kidding, this how they dressed 20-30 years ago, before gringos discovered oil, killed animals, cut down the jungles and introduced locals to western fashions

                          Monday, March 29, 2004

                          Jungles. Day 3. Evening

                          I am swinging in a hammock and scratching. Despite my use of 95% DEET repellent and other gimmicks of civilization, the mosquitoes won and I acknowledge my defeat. Out of curiosity I attempted to count the number of bites on my left arm, but had to give up after several tries. I think there are around 70, and these are only ones where body has developed some reaction. So overall I have probably around 200-300 visible bites over my body, some of them in places that I thought were well out of mosquitoes reach. Don't let your imagination run wild, I mean my shirt protected back and my rubber boot protected feet. Miraculously they mostly spared my face. Apparently my war paint was a better deterrent than 95% DEET.
                          I asked Juan Carlos whether mosquitoes prefer gringos, but he replied that they (mosquitoes) do not discriminate and bite locals as well, and demonstrated several bites on his arm. The locals however are less sensitive to the bites, and do not develop so many allergic reactions, so they don't suffer that much.
                          As for me, although I seem to have above average sensitivity, I am not the worst case he's seen.
                          His assurance however doesn't relieve the itching and I am really glad that my jungle stay came to an end. I am looking forward to taking a flight to mosquito-free Quito next morning. Back to the safety of the highlands!


                          Mosquito bites

                          Tuesday, March 30, 2004

                          Jungles. Day 4. The departure

                          On the way back to Coca I found an interesting detail about this town - they have an Opera House! (build by the Ecuadorian military). Incidentally they also have a military camp, built by US military. US special forces come here for their jungle training.
                          What Coca doesn't have however is laundry! The local opera stars wash their garments in the river and hang them to dry in the rain, just like everybody else. It didn't suit me however, after 3 days in jungles, getting my pants clean and dry ASAP was my only goal. So I asked:

                          -where is the nearest laundry?
                          -Ha-ha-ha! in Quito! (200km away)

                          I turned around, walked across the street into the airline office and bought the first available ticket to the nearest laundry. That's it, Coca no mas!

                          When in the airport I saw a group of gringos, most likely Americans, coming back from a different lodge (Sacha lodge, if you like to know). I looked at them in disbelief: their skin was of the palest shades of white, like if they've never left office, their clothes were immaculately clean, pants pressed, the hiking boots just walked of the shop's shelf...

                          Did these people just spent several days in the same jungle?

                          I asked JC and he replied that the only difference is that these people paid $120 per night. Wow, what a lesson to learn! How insignificant are the crude forces of nature compared to the refined power of money!

                            Saturday, April 3, 2004

                            Criminal News

                            Probably 1 in 3 or 4 travelers I've met in Ecuador had been robbed. The items stolen were ranging from the trivial money to passports and even to a digital camera with full set of pictures from Galapagos... Imagine how it must hurt! Fortunately until now all I knew about crime in Ecuador was based only on other people's stories and also deduced from observing the unusual number of armed guards on the streets. Finally today I can report some firsthand experiences!

                            This morning Zara and I took a bus to the town of Otavalo to look and shop at the famous crafts market. And one thing that you need to know about the buses in Ecuador is that they have open door policy. Passengers and vendors jump on and off whenever the driver feels like slowing down.

                            So just as I made myself comfortable in the seat, with a backpack on my knees, the bus slowed down again to pick up two more passengers. One of them took a seat across the aisle, and another helped him to put his backpack on the shelf, than without skipping a bit he tried to grab my backpack as well, explaining that it also should be placed on the shelf above for "security reasons". However after my assertive "NO, I need my backpack here!" he looked around for few more moments, and as I was still pondering what's going on, he and the "passenger" he just "helped" to jumped of the bus.

                            Oops! It was a close call, it is quite easy to imagine the scenario which I've just escaped. One guy places my bag on the shelf and stands in the aisle, blocking my view and exit. The "passenger" grabs the backpack and heads for the door, while the first guy pretends that he had no previous acquaintance with the thief. He might actually even help me to scream, once his accomplice run sufficiently far. It's interesting that other passengers and the driver's assistant who stayed near the door, completely ignored the whole scene, just like if nothing has happened. Oh, well somebody just tried to rob gringos, nothing special to look at, nothing special to talk about.

                            Once we got to Otavalo, the market was great! Very colorful, exotic, lot's of cool stuff. I was mostly looking and admiring, because I've already done all my souvenir shopping in Cusco. But Zara bought some neat things. Unfortunately one of them, a beautiful painted vase for a bargain $4, will never make it to New York. Because on our way back we were robbed again! As we had our shopping bags on the floor, under our seats, somebody pulled out the bag with the vase from behind and we noticed the loss only upon arriving to Quito. Was it a professional thief sitting directly behind us? Or is stealing on opportunity is a common and acceptable way to make an extra buck?

                            P.S. It should be noted that many Ecuadorians suffer from the crime almost as much as tourists, but they blame it almost exclusively on Colombians - visitors from the absolutely horrible country to the North. I saw a message on the Lonely Planet board, somebody was asking: "Is there anybody who went through Colombia without being robbed?". And there were no replies.

                              Tuesday, April 13, 2004

                              Guyaquil

                              Below is Zara's story from Guyaquil. I've not been in this city and therefore without her observations my Ecuadorian notes won't be complete.

                              ----- Original message -----
                              From: Zara

                              First impression of the city.

                              The city divides in two parts, a horrible and expensive. I decided to skip the horrible part and go to expensive (I have a very valuable luggage, which I can not risk). I talked to people in the airport and they suggested me to stay in Best Western, it was a good choice. The hotel located in the middle of the downtown, it has a pool, nice view from my room on the six floor, air conditioning, TV; all these pleasures for the total cost of $40.

                              I covered all the points of interest in downtown in about two hours. Unfortunately I did not had a chance to check out the museums, but I probably did not miss much. There few sky risers mixed with buildings of classic architecture. Few of the classic building are freshly renovated, streets are wide and clean, made out of the red brick; for a minute you can mistake the scenery for the cultural capital, but then downtown ends.

                              Most beautiful part of the town is a stretch along the river. It has monuments along the path, the city clock, fountains, pirate ship and a beautiful view on the city. I really liked the clock tower with white and blue tile ornaments on the bottom, reminds me the architecture of the Middle East or Spain.

                              I also visited the main cathedral, but churches in Quito are a lot superior to the one in Guyaquil. And unlike Quito, this was the only church in downtown. Another difference is people. I have not spotted any tourists, and local people are not the same as in Quito. People here are much better dressed (all woman wear hills), cars they drive in general are new, and it seems that they have a better level of life. Men here remind me of Tajikistan, as I pass by it causes a commotion. I never knew that men can make such a diversity of sounds, they can whistle in the different manner, send air kisses, use signals of they cars, and even try to speak English to get my attention! Perhaps it is because I am the only woman around who is not dressed up and not wearing hills.

                                Wednesday, April 21, 2004

                                Arrival to USA

                                My Quito-New York flight made a 3 hour stop in Miami where I had to formally enter the country and clear the customs. Two surprises waited for me as I entered the USA. Firstly, everybody in the airport was speaking Spanish, as if I have never left Ecuador! Second surprise was of a less pleasant kind, my backpack that survived Ecuador, Thailand and few other countries came off the baggage belt ripped open and with a torn-off shoulder strap. The zippers that were previously secured by a small padlock were brutally cut off at the base. I went to complain to American Airlines customer service which turned out to be unusually rude and unfriendly. There were 3 clerks at the counter doing their important stuff while me and one other customer had to patiently wait in line. Upon hearing my complaint they first flatly rejected it, saying that airline is not responsible for "minor damage" and referred me to a big sign that was describing the kinds of "normal wear and tear", i.e. cuts, broken handles, etc. The clipped of locks however weren't listed, so when I mentioned that, the "customer service" used their second line of defense and pointed their blaming finger at the Government: "It was done by the TSA guys (the security), we are not responsible for what the Government does..." A special pamphlet was handy, which described the kind of damage done by TSA - occasionally they have to clip the locks, but then they supposed to reseal the bag with the security tape and leave their phone number inside, which wasn't the case with my bag. Yet, AA people were well trained in deflecting customers complaints and I could get nothing out of them. After some additional haggling they reluctantly issued an incident report, which now I am supposed to send to the special Government office that deals with TSA damage claims. Let's do a quick poll: how many of you think that I'll eventually get any kind of restitution?

                                Yet despite the lack of the security seal, now I think that the bag was indeed vandalized by the security personal. Nothing seemed to be stolen and the nature of the damage is very consistent with what I think about their intelligence. First of all, instead of clipping the cheap padlock, they cut the much more expensive bag, where the padlock was attached. Secondly, clipping the bag on one side would be sufficient to open the zipper - that's how padlocks work. And the zipper with one clasp would be still usable. Yet they went into extra effort of clipping the other side, so that they can detach and throw away a perfectly fine lock. Lomat' tak lomat'! And if they didn't follow their own instructions and didn't reseal the bag, so what? You didn't really expected them to know how to read, did you?

                                I know some people don't mind extra security precautions, it gives them a sense of safety. Unfortunately I can't feel secure knowing that my safety is entrusted to idiots. As a matter of fact I would have felt safer if instead of hiring a fresh bunch of idiots, the Government fired those responsible for the initial problems. Every single security agency showed their incompetence, yet nobody lost a job. Same wizards continue to sit in the same chairs and make our lives safer, presumably by taking us into new wars.

                                The moral of the story: travel light, don't check in any luggage.

                                P.S. I wrote the note above while on the plane, but next day I found that my perception of the airport security is not too far off from where the things are. This article was among Reuters' top stories: http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&cid=578&e=4&u=/nm/20040422/ts_nm/security_airports_dc