Saturday, December 22, 2007


I'd been planning this since mid-November, but hadn't said anything since I wanted to surprise my parents, but I'm back in the States. Flew up Thursday through Houston and entered through the collosal immigration center at George H. W. Bush airport. My entry interview:

Immigration Officer: Good Morning.
Me: Morning.
IO: (Takes passport.) What countries did go to?
Me: Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, Peru.
IO: What was the purpose of your trip?
Me: Tourism.
IO: Did you go on a cruise?
Me: Um, no?
IO: What were you, just tooling around all over the place?
Me: yeah.
IO: What's your job?
Me: I'm a teacher.
IO: (Hesitates.) OK. (Returns passport.) Uh, welcome home.

Kerri picked me up at the Columbus Airport and drove me to Mount Vernon. My folks were very surprised. Mom couldn't stop squeeling "Oh my goodness, oh my goodness!" Dad said my she hadn't been so excited since they found out they're going to be grandparents.

The plan is to completely overload myself on America by driving to New York and DC after Christmas and then make my way back to San Francisco. Already noticing funny things, like I got to Mount Vernon, and realized I'd driven the whole way without buckling up--got used to riding in taxis that didn't have seatbelts. And I've already dropped my toilet paper in the waste basket instead of the toilet! Little things to adjust to...

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Day in December

I went down to the old town the other day to find a couple Christmas presents. It was interesting to see what life is like here the week before Christmas. You do see strings of lights in windows here and there, and in the new town, where people have money and there are tourists, you see some decorated trees. The supermarket up there is selling various prepackaged gift boxes. Down by the La Marin bus station, there's a huge temporary store set up in an alley selling candy candy candy. You can pick your type, or scoop out of an enormous bin of mixed chocolates, lollipops, and animal crackers. The animal crackers seem to be important and are a part of every store's mix. For those in a rush, they have baskets of candy ready to go. It seems more like Easter.

Walking around, it was mostly just a normal day in Quito, but thinking about how different Christmas gets in the States--all the lights, the gaudily decorated malls and streets, the inescapable recorded carols--I started noticing the things I've gotten used to here. Just down from my apartment building, there's a little restaurant that serves meat and corn-on-the-cob (Ecuadorian style: bred for starch, not sugar, and weeks overripe) cooked on a little charcoal grill right in the doorway. The man is often standing there with a blowdryer in hand, getting the coals nice and hot. When Kerri saw this on her visit, she started laughing. It took me a minute to figure out what was so funny.

Down by the bus station, there was a row of three women and a man, sitting at sewing machines under the overpass, in case you needed any alterations or repairs done. The three women's machines were black with gold decoration, the style that was common in the States before World War II, though perhaps still produced here. The man's looked like it was from the 50s. How I'd wished I'd wished a tailor was so easy to find in Chile when my back-pack had a growing hole in the top.

I stopped in a tiny store to get a snack and bought a baggie of chochos, white disk-shaped beans, salted and topped with chulpis, crispy-friend corn kernals, and a tomatoless salsa of onions, lime juice, and cilantro. Later, I got llapingachos, fried mashed potatoes with fried egg, avocado, shredded lettuce, and beets. It wasn't cheesy and lacked peanut sauce, like it often comes with, but it still filled me up for a dollar.

I stopped in the supermarket, where they were playing christmas carols, among them, strangely, "Favorite Things" from the Sound of Music. Outside, a guy was juggling flaming torches in the intersection. I walked over to La Floresta to meet a friend and see one of the few Ecuadorian movies ever made, Qué Tan Lejos. It was a bit surreal, because I'd been in about half the places it was shot in. The characters travel from Quito to Cuenca, a trip that ends up taking a lot longer than expected. It's a really good portrait of the country, and I hope I can find it in the States to show people where I've been living. Unfortunately, the director has been reluctant to put it out on DVD, because in Ecuador, there's no such thing as non-bootleg DVDs. You just go into the corner CD/DVD shop and buy a computer burned copy of whatever for $1. Blockbusters you can get before they even appear in theaters in the US.

A couple beers with Meagan in the theater lobby/cafe, and a $2 taxi ride home. Such are my South American wanderings this week.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Tables and Chairs

Eleven years ago, shortly after I returned from my first Latin American adventure, six weeks in Guadalajara, Mexico, I remember walking into a Don Pablo's restaurant and being struck by how they'd gotten the decor right. It wasn't just the concrete floor and rough masonry. They'd selected really typical furniture--rectangular formica-topped tables with chrome trim, and chrome-tube chairs with vinyl seats and backs. Something along these lines, except removed from the Pottery Barn catalog ambiance:

(photo from ebay auction)

You have to forget that such furnishings have since become retro-cool. Decades-old, with torn and taped vinyl, stained formica, and rust-dotted chrome, they were definitely down-scale, but along with bare incandescent light bulbs, they created a particular developing-world feel, more modest than you would ever find in a dining establishment in the States, but charming nonetheless. So while I'm sure Don Pablo's seemed a lot less beat-up and a lot more sanitary, I was impressed by its authenticity. I'm pretty sure they've since rethemed in the interest of blending into suburbia, but initially, at least, they got it right.

Here in Ecuador, there are lots of those kinds of modest restaurants, family run joints offering a set menu of something like soup, rice, vegetable, chicken or beef, and a banana for $1.50. But they've switched to oppressively white compact fluorescent bulbs, and you sit in the sort of plastic chairs that have become popular patio furniture in the US. This is a pretty typical looking place, though from the sand/gravel floor, I'd guess it's an outdoor place at the beach:

(photo courtesy of Alt1040)

I don't know when these things were invented, but they've only become widespread in the last decade, so I suspect that they've replaced the kind of tables and chairs I saw in Mexico in the mid-90s. I don't think it's an improvement. I'm sure they're cheap (likely manufactured by an even poorer labor pool in Asia), and that's certainly the main concern of a lot of people setting up businesses here. In a place where the average yearly income is about $1000, and people find it worthwhile to keep a restaurant open that only has a dozen customers a day (paying $1.50 for their meal, remember), the start-up cost for your business has got to be a few hundred dollars at the most. I suppose it's good that cheap plastics make this possible for a lot of aspiring entrepreneurs, but the aesthetic loss is really unfortunate. They're fine on a deck, but they can't match those holdovers from the 50s. They certainly aren't going to last as long. If this is the face of economic development brought about by globalization, it's not making the world a more livable place.

Monday, December 10, 2007

New Fruit (#9)

(photo courtesy of Cereales Killer)

Another very big fruit, the SAMBO looks a like a mottled watermelon, though it's more closely related to zucchini, pumkin, and squash. I had a heck of time finding any information about it online under that name. It must be an Ecuador thing. Makes me wonder if the term has any relationship to the racist American stereotype of a watermelon-eating African-American of the same name. The scientific name is Cucurbita ficifolia.

I didn't buy a whole one because you can buy slices empacado in a plastic bag. They don't have strict rules about putting health claims on packaging in South America, like they do in the US, so the package has a box that sort of looks like a surgeon general's warning labeled "Health Benefits." It says, "Besides giving you energy..." [Energy (aka calories) is a favorite selling point down here. Cookies are healthy and good for kids because they give them energy.] " is used to combat illnesses of the mind because of the phosphorus it contains, and as food for people suffering from high cholesterol." (To put these claims in context, I heard a 15-minute spiel on the bus for a vitamin powder that largely contained radishes, which the guy called "the healthiest food in South America.")

Unlike a watermelon, the flesh is totally white, and it has rows of soft, white, unripe seeds. Fully ripe, it's supposed to be a juicable fruit, but less ripe, as this must be, it's treated like a vegetable. When I opened the bag, a certain tanginess rose to my nose. In texture and flavor, it's more like a cucumber than a squash, but a little juicier. In my mouth, the tang becomes more distinct, though still mild. It reminds me of miracle whip, or the light mustardiness of deviled eggs. It would probably be nice as a salad, salted with tomato and parsley, or the crunchiest parts rolled into sushi instead of cucumber.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

The developing world is turning me into a very bad consumer.

One thing I occasionally see down here is packaging that's designed to be useful even after the product that came in it is gone. While it does disturb me that everyone drinks instant coffee in a coffee-producing country, I like that one company sells it in these glass mugs.

It also comes in smaller glasses. They're what I drink out of every day, and hopefully I'll have room to bring them back to the States with me. Years ago, I brought back dulce de leche that came in nice little Tweetie Bird juice glasses. In Bolivia, our desert guides put small plastic tubs of margarine on the table that had handles so they could later be used as mugs.

You never see this in the United States anymore. I'm pretty sure this was common from the Great Depression through World War II, when it was patriotic to be frugal. Growing up, when my family went camping, we drank out of plastic mugs very similar to the ones I saw in Bolivia. Some of them even had markings inside to show 1/4, 1/2, 3/4 cup so you could use them as measuring cups too.

Of course you can use a peanut butter jar for a drinking glass, but unless it's actually designed to look like a glass, without a screw-cap lip, nobody wants to. I'm sure the demise of this kind of design-for-second-use had to do with the prosperity and upward mobility of the 50s and 60s. As middle-class people started to be able to afford to throw away perfectly good glasses and buy new glasses that had never contained coffee or jam, buying reusable packaging must have become a reminder of hard times, a sign you weren't prospering, an embarrassment. Not reusing became a sign of affluence.

Once reusability quit being a selling point, corporations must have had no reason to make it easy for you to forego buying more stuff. In fact, they could sell you the same item twice by making packaging less reusable. So no more refillable beer bottles (still the norm here), no more dishes that come free with your food, no more flour sacks printed so you can sew them into dresses. The civilized thing is to throw it all away.

By now, we've forgotten it's even possible. Maybe we should try to remember. Why waste the energy and resources to make everything twice? Why buy a glass when a jar of olives is so close to a glass? But why should we buy olives in jars, when they could just as easily be sold in glasses?

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Fiesta on Wheels

Tomorrow is 6 de Diciembre, the anniversary of the founding of Quito in 1534. To celebrate, the city has been a giant party for the past 8 days. The central event is the bull-fighting festival. The city is filled with billboards of the faces of the world's best fighters. I went to the fights in Pamplona a number of years ago, which was probably enough for a life-time, so I've skipped that part of the festivities. Every night, the streets are filled with people. There's live music all over the place. And it often seems like I'm living in a war zone from the near-constant sound of fireworks. Mostly I've been missing the party and letting my foot heal, but last night I went out with some friends for a chiva ride.


An essential part of the fiesta is to hire one of these open-sided buses with your friends. There are dozens of them crawling around the city with brass bands on top playing repetitive, out-of-tune, clap-along music. During the day lots are filled with families and old people, but at night, they turn into wild mobile parties. A couple of conductors keep the cubas libres (rum and cokes) flowing, and everyone is issued a plastic whistle to increase the ruckus. People dance on the rear platform and hang off the back, although you're not allowed up top with the band. Quiteños are immensely proud of their city and everyone is constantly yelling "¡Que viva Quito!" Hanging enebriated off the side of a moving vehicle might not be safe, and certainly wouldn't be legal in America, but it sure is fun!

Update: Here's someone's video of a not-very-full chiva at San Francisco Plaza. We stopped here too, and there were women selling "bengalas" (roman candles) for a dollar. Several other chivas had also stopped and everyone was shooting off their fireworks and dancing.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Unsilent Night

I shot this video last December at the Unsilent Night event in San Francisco. It's sort of post-modern Christmas caroling, a crowd parading through the streets with ambient melodies from boom boxes filling the city. It happens all over the place, and I'd highly highly recommend that you check it out if you are anywhere nearby. It'll be in New York City and Asheville on December 15th, Baltimore on December 21st, and San Francisco on December 22nd. Check out specifics and many more locations on the composer's MySpace.

You should (but don't have to) take a boombox so you can be part of the music. And tell your friends, because the more people, the better. It'll make your holidays happier, I promise!

(update: new unsilent night website)

Culture Shock

As a somewhat experienced traveler, I try not to be shocked as I pass into new cultures. When I go to a new country, I'm expecting things to be different from what I'm used to. What happens to me though, is that I get jarred by passing into places that are more familiar, which sometimes happens unexpectedly.

After leaving Machu Picchu, heading further and further into Bolivia in October, the Western World got more and more distant. It's not a place where people can jump in in English when your Spanish fails you. While it's certainly a country colonized by the Spanish, the indigenous influence is very strong. Aymara women stroll past businessmen on the streets of central La Paz in their billowing skirts and bowler hats, and soon it quits seeming unusual.
Traffic and high-rise buildings have definitely made it there, but the streets are filled with 30-year-old Dodge mini-buses that were never seen on American streets, and the hillsides are covered with unfinished brick and tiled-roof houses accessed by narrow stairways, rather than spacious suburbs. Most foreign to me was that the city has yet to have been touched by multinational retailers, at least in the day-to-day street-level business.
They may be selling Adidas and Sony (or more likely Adidas and Sony knock-offs), but they're selling them in small shops and street stands, not Footlocker or Best Buy. People still eat at family-run restaurants, and you're more likely to find a "witch" selling dried llama fetuses than a McDonald's.

Leaving the capital and heading into the altiplano desert, I receded further and further from civilization, to the point where it would have taken several days to return to a two-story building or a paved road. I slept in a village where on the edge of town were numerous open graves with mummies that had been sitting undisturbed for 600 years or more.
And then, further on, even the dead were distant. I've never felt so in-the-middle-of-nowhere in my life.

Finally, I was dropped off at the border crossing, no more than a building with a lonely guard. I'd had to get my passport stamped days earlier in the last real town. There wasn't even a road crossing into Chile, really, just some tire tracks in the sand that the bus I boarded followed.

We drove through the absolute desolation of a desert where nothing grows, where no one lives, and then quite suddenly, we pulled onto a perfectly smooth, asphalt-paved highway, with painted stripes, reflectors, guard rails, road signs--indistinguishable from a US highway, something I hadn't seen since my parents had driven me to the Columbus airport more than three months earlier. I'd traveled so far into the 3rd world (though it would be difficult to call that part of Bolivia even developing) that I'd come right out the back side.

There was no real road going from Chile into Bolivia, only this path I'd taken that isn't used for any sort of trade, just passing off a few crazy back-packers a day. The highway I suddenly found myself on, though, was the road from Chile to Argentina, only a few miles the other direction. People driving between those two nearly 1st-world countries probably wouldn't even notice that there was a path to a third country connecting to their highway.

It was jarring, as was having to pay $2.00 instead of $.25 for a glass of orange juice in San Pedro, the little oasis town in the Atacama desert in sight of the high mountains of Bolivia. The 24-hour bus I took from there to Santiago sailed comfortably down smooth roads that didn't break into rubble every few miles, as I'd become accustomed.

When I arrived in Santiago, I almost immediately walked past a supermarket, and I suddenly felt relieved, strangely at home. Foreign as Chile is, in comparison to Bolivia, it seemed completely familiar. Shopping for dinner didn't have to be a learning experience, I could just do it without thinking. This thought-free existence is much of what defines home, I think. I could walk around without feeling like an obvious outsider. I could blend into the crowd and be just another person in the city. While comfortable, that felt more shocking than any of the strangeness I'd encountered making my way through Peru and Bolivia.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

The World by Bike

While traveling through Bolivia and Chile by bus, train, and plane, I met a couple people seeing South America by bicycle. It's not the first time I've seen this. When Kristin, Eileen, and I were visiting Iquaçu falls, in Brazil, we met a Kiwi couple who had bicycled from Alaska. As if this weren't impressive enough, they had enjoyed riding down the west coast of the States so much, that they'd flown back to Canada and rode to Mexico a second time down the Rockies. Their dog had also been riding in a trailer with them for much of trip, until it died of old age in Central America. A couple weeks later, the same couple rode into the campground we were staying at in the Brazilian coastal town of Paraty, 830 miles away from where we'd met them.

In Bolivia, I met an even more extreme cyclist. At the beginning of my desert tour with the Polish kids, we drove out onto the salt flats, where the locals were harvesting salt. While we were taking pictures, this guy rode up, wondering which way on the seemingly infinite white plain the salt hotel was located.
He introduced himself as Dean from Slovenia. He too had ridden from Alaska, but not just from Anchorage, or even Fairbanks. He'd ridden from Barrow, the northern-most point in Alaska! There aren't even any towns further north in Canada. He'd tried to cross the roadless Darien Gap in Panama to get to South America, but four days into the jungle, was turned back by the Army. He had to take a boat to Cartagena, but also took a side-trip to ride around Cuba.

It was only a few days later, talking to another traveler who'd had a more extensive conversation with him, that I learned the full extent of his adventure. Eighteen months earlier, he'd started riding a zig-zagging tour all over Europe, starting at home in Slovenia, and had been riding ever since. To get to Alaska, he'd ridden from Europe, all the way across Siberia. I guess he plans to fly to Australia and return home via Southeast Asia and Africa.

This guy had been a cyclist basically his whole life. In some ways I was more impressed by the Japanese kid I met in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. Yokito had only ridden from Quito, but had crossed the unbelievably inhospitable Bolivian desert that had taken me four days to cross in a 4WD SUV. He was getting ready to cross the Atacama, the driest desert on Earth--where no rain fell between 1570 and 1971, where some river beds have been dry for 120,000 years--to get to Santiago.

What was astonishing was that before this trip, he had no real experience cycling. He said the longest he'd ever ridden in Japan was 10km. His family knew he was in South America, but he hadn't told them he was touring on bicycle, afraid it would freak them out. He'd bought a cheap used Trek mountain bike in Ecuador and had rigged racks over both wheels to hang backpacks from, no special fancy biking gear. Once he got to Santiago, he planned to fly to Buenos Aires and head up the Atlantic coast into Brazil. While Dean's feat seemed super-human, Yokito's journey was much more inspiring. If he could make it 1700 miles through the Andes with nothing more than a crazy idea for preparation, what could I do? I used to think riding across the US would be cool, but probably too difficult. But maybe not. Perhaps that's my next adventure.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

New Fruit (#8)

I seem to have run out of small fruits that are in-season, although the produce book at SuperMaxi says that many more exist. So I'm forced to move on to the giant fruits, which have their own shelves on the edge of the produce section. I'd hoped to try some of these while Kerri was here, so she could help me eat these monsters, but we were mostly off traveling and didn't get around to it.

(photo by Eric in SF)

I picked the smallest BABACO on the shelf, whiched weighed in at almost exactly a kilo--more than two pounds. It's mottled green and yellow, torepedo-like, and shaped like a star in cross-section. As a sterile natural hybrid of two papaya relatives, it has no seeds, but the seed cavity is filled with the fluffy white fibers that would support seeds if it had them. The peel is edible, but a little tough; however, the star shape makes a veggie peeler unhelpful. The flesh is soft like a juicy pear, except that it resists being scooped with a spoon and is more slippery in the mouth. Its large size and the pale yellow color of the inside made it difficult to recognize that it tastes a bit like a blackberry. Actually, it's quite a lot like a mulberry, if you've ever eaten those off a tree, but more flavorful. The blend of sweet and sour is perhaps perfectly balanced. I wonder if it would survive baking into a pie.

(photo by Philip Bouchard)

The GUANÁBANA (or "soursop") looks a lot like its cousin, the chirimoya, except spiny, and the size of an american football. (Again, I picked the smallest one I could find.) Unfortunately, the seeds aren't nearly so easily dealt with, each encased in a little sack-like membrane. I took a couple bites, then decided it would be easier to eat it as it's always eaten here--as juice. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a complete blender in the shared kitchen, so I had to resort to mushing it through a colander with fork and spoon, which took about half an hour and left my hands sore. Even mushed like this, it's still too stringy to drink, so I have a couple cups of spoonable stringy slime.

But oh what stringy slime it is! It took a minute to recoginze, but it tastes almost exactly like the filling of a rhubarb pie, which is perhaps my favorite kind of pie. It's not like just rhubarb, but the baked filling, already sweetened, smooth and buttery. Except, it hasn't been cooked, so it still tastes like fresh fruit. Unreal. Could there possibly be a fruit that tastes like pecan pie as well?