Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Peru and Bolivia

A real quick update for those who are checking. I made it to relaxed Copacabana, Bolivia (on Lake Tticaca) this morning after almost a week in hectic, touristy Peru. Got to see Machu Picchu in the early morning mist, which was spectacular, and rightly on life's must-do list. I'll have pictures to share eventually. For now, I'm going to take it easy for a couple days, head to Lima, then into the driest deserts on earth.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Hasta Luego

I'm flying to Cusco this afternoon to take a little "vacation" in Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. Hoping to see Macchu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, and the Atacama Desert--which is the driest place on Earth, apparently a Mars-like landscape where, in some spots, no rain has been recorded in hundreds of years. I doubt I'll get a chance to post much before I return to Quito in early November, but I'm sure I'll have lots of tales to tell when I get back.

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Jungle

Went down to the upper reaches of the Amazon rainforest--what they call the selva here--for the weekend with three other travelers who live in my apartment building. It was a bit funny when people asked where we were from because Thomas is German, Emma French, Emily Scottish, and me American. We spoke Spanish the whole weekend.

Getting to the jungle town of Tena was a not terribly pleasant overnight bus ride. The roads in Ecuador are terrible. Much of the road, which is a major route used by buses and semis, was unpaved, sometimes extremely rough, with one-lane bridges curving down the precipitous eastern side of the Andes. They've put some resources into improvement: there were some half-completed bridges, and some isolated sections of pavement--one no more than a quarter-mile long in the middle of nowhere. But the driver didn't tear down the mountains like a maniac and it was only five hours, so not too bad.

Tena was a cool town with a lively weekend nightlife. We stayed at a beautiful hostal with friendly owners and great showers for $10 a person. (I think people would spend a lot more time traveling in the States if the cheapest crappy hotel room didn't cost $50.) We went to what the guidebooks said was by far the nicest restaurant in town and were surprised to realize half-way through brunch that there was a live sloth hanging out in the top of the doorway by our table.

While we didn't end up seeing that much wildlife on our expedition into the jungle, there was a little zoo on the island in the middle of town. The parrots and cats were sadly in pretty small cages, but most of the monkeys and an ostrich were just running around free. Several different species of monkeys were all playing together and one ran right up and sat on my knee to get away from his friends.
Even though a sign in the park told about how bad the trade in wild animals is, I really want a monkey as a pet now.

We went to the Caverns of Jumandy, a pretty extensive network of caves with a river flowing through them. Caves here are warm enough to hike in wearing a swimsuit, which is good because you needed to swim to make your way through parts of the cave. There were pools to jump in, and perhaps coolest, an underground waterfall that you could bathe under.

Our guide in the caves, Luis, offered to take us camping overnight the next day. He and his cousin, Miguel, led us down a country road where you could look out over the rainforest with Sumaco Volcano looming in the distance.
They took us down steep paths into the jungle to a campspot under rock overhangs similar to Old Man's Cave in Ohio, but completely covered in green tropical vegetation.
We went on a night hike, then spent two hours diligently feeding and blowing on our campfire before the wood was dry enough to sustain itself. In the morning, we followed the stream to the point where it poured out of a cave, continued into the cave, and climbed a ladder next to the waterfall where the water entered the cave.
From there we swam up a small slot canyon to see another waterfall.
Several in the group jumped off a 35-foot cliff into a lagoon, but after slipping and landing on my tailbone the night before, I decided to skip that part of the adventure. Finally, we hiked up out of the canyon in a warm drizzle which became a downpour. Luis showed us various edible and medicinal plants and got us to eat some "sweet-n-sour" ants before we stopped and visited the Quichua family that maintains the trails. (They had a pet monkey, as well as a dog and cat.) At last, exhausted and a bit sore, we headed for chilly, polluted, civilization back in Quito.

(More Photos)

Thursday, October 4, 2007

America from Outside

I was having dinner with a bunch of travelers one night--Europeans, Australians, New Zealanders, a couple of Americans. Somehow the Americans were talking about where they were "from." I'm from Germany, England, Ireland etc. One girl was really from Ireland, and we were talking about immigrants fleeing the potato famine and coming to America. "Do you know what really happened during the famine?" she asked. "There was plenty of food. The people were growing plenty of wheat, but it was to pay the British." (Similarly, I'm told, at one time plantation owners would not allow Ecuadorians to eat any of the bananas the country produced--they were all exported.) She explained that when people were starving, besides taking in immigrants, the US sent food. "American ships bringing food in would pass the British ships that were taking food out." She finished with a line that made my heart sink: "America has always been our friend until George Bush."

Election Results

As far as I can tell from here, Ecuador's election last Sunday has been pretty much ignored in the American press, which surprises me and doesn't surprise me. Of course US media outlets don't cover every little third-world election. But Ecuador was electing a constitutional assembly to rewrite the constitution, with candidates promising to oust the capitalists in congress and more. Where do you think your bananas and tilapia for fish tacos and sushi come from?

Last year, Rafael Correa was elected president from a new party, Alianza PAIS, that refused to run any candidates for Congress. The President, who is quite close with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, ran on a platform of reforming the government through a rewrite of the constitution. Before the election, he wasn't expecting to win an all-out majority, but that he did. With 70-plus seats out of 130, he can set up the government however he pleases (subject to a popular referendum.) The first order of business when the assembly meets at the end of the month will be to dissolve Congress--though Correa is careful to call it a recess--and appoint a temporary legislative body. There are proposals to change to a two-house legislature, to popularly elect supreme court judges (this is supposed to depoliticize the courts!), and generally give more power to the executive. Those on the right fear Correa becoming a socialist dictator. Correa himself seems warm to the idea of reuniting Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and Bolivia as a single country. And while he says that keeping the dollar as the national currency is the only prudent option at the moment, he dreams of a single South American currency like the Euro.

Interestingly though, the campaigns barely mentioned these major issues, except when asked directly by journalists. The propaganda of every party just talked about how they were going to provide better education, better health-care, better environmental protection, a better economy. People went to the polls (voting is mandatory) with no idea what the specific proposals were, largely voting for Correa's personality and against entrenched, corrupt powers that haven't made anything better, I think.

Even though change is pretty frequent here--there have been 19 constitutions since 1830, and 9 presidents since this constitution was written in 1997--it seems like potentially momentous and--importantly--peaceful change taking place here right now. Change that could actually affect the US. So I thought I'd give you a little hint of what's going on.

(It turns out TIME does have an article on the topic this week. It covers the failure of democracy across South America. Interesting, short, and sweet. Read it, or just look at the picture of Correa.