Micah: Unmitigated

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Archive for June, 2010

Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

Over the past week: I changed hemispheres a couple times, ventured deep into “Gringoland”, participated in the customary activities, and made it out nearly unscathed.

I arrived in Quito on Tuesday, the day before the 3rd US World Cup game. The next day, with the England game on at the same time and with me at the most popular sportsbar in town, I ran into 2 seperate brits I had met in Colombia. It was an exciting place to watch the game, with the England fans cheering on one side of the pub at their big screen, and us yelling at our smaller TV hanging over the bar. Only at the end was there much rejoicing and slapping of hands, and everyone left happy.

I proceeded to do my tourist duties and walked around checking out the museums, the Old Town, and numerous churches. Quito is actually a nice city, once you get away from all of the upscale bars and guys trying to sell you reefer. My favorite site was the “Basilica del Voto Nacional”, a gothic church set on a hill with towers you can climb.

view of city from tower

view of city from tower

Thursday, I checked another site off my list, the “Mitad del Mundo”or Equator. It is a silly place, with many shops and museums surrounding a line that they have drawn on the earth. I overpaid for one museum and for some reason decided to see a show at the planetarium, but more importantly got a picture of the sign.

the Ecuador, or is it?

The Equator, or is it?

The silliest thing about the whole place is that they have now determined using GPS that this is not the actual Equator. They were off by about a hundred meters and thus next door there is a smaller site with supposedly the real thing.  More importanly, they host the fun and games associated with changing hemispheres. They have water tricks showing a straight drain on the line and different directions a few feet on either side. Feats of strength were also performed, trying to show that there is less gravitational pull on the line, and I attempted to balance an egg on a nail. All very amusing, though the highlight of the day could have been that I was told I looked Israeli by a random Israeli girl on the bus back to town. I have always thought I looked too American and it was good to hear that as I cultivate more hair, I can assume another identity if needed. Though it would be tough to learn Hebrew and I don’t think my family would let me convert to Judaism.

Next on the Quito tourist list, a ride up the Teleferico. A cable car takes you up to about 4100 meters with great views of the city below. The main reason I paid the $8.50 foreigner price, was for the access to climb the last 700 meters to the top of Pichincha Volcano.

this is it

This is it

Another fun ridge with great weather and views. Less strenuous than the last volcano, the 2.5 hr hike only had me on the verge of quitting a few times. The people coming down told me that all you could see was the white of the clouds but I was blessed with semi-clear skies for my final ascent and time at the top. Some scrambling was required, which means I had to use my hands to climb rocks, but that made it more fun.

I am number 1

I am number 1

views on the way down

views on the way down

I found a way down from the top that didn’t require much reverse scrambling and had a blast following a sandy/ashy avalanche path that felt like skiing. It was a great break from all of the people back in town and at my hostel. But when I got back, I went ahead and joined the birthday celebration and had the first dance club  experience of my trip. It was a lot of fun to mingle with a big group of fellow travelers of all shapes, sizes, and itineraries. Especially when you meet a fellow kickballer who plays in D.C. and has enjoyed similiar success on the field.

With my tourist obligations complete, I layed around Saturday with the other revelers and watched the final US World Cup game.  Then we hit the local Mongolian grill restaurant where I nearly got down 4 plates of bland tasting concoctions, despite how much or what sauce I put on. Sunday I departed.

I am now in another market town called Latacunga. This one seems to be bustling everyday, with an area the size of 2 city blocks filled with fresh produce and random items. Despite being here for 2 days, I have not yet fully experienced the joys of this town, with my body apparently trying to remind me how old I am after my 5 nights in ¨The Party Hostel¨. I had dreaded entering Quito, hearing stories of muggings and pant slashings, but in the end I really enjoyed the big city. Now I long for the fresh air I breathed while on my volcano hike.  My next destination is the Quilotoa Loop, a bumpy circular route through the mountains with small towns and a spectacular crater lake. Voy a tratar de escribir más a menudo.

E = 56

One In A Million

Sunday, June 20th, 2010

This is an interesting time in the life of my trip. It is sort of a convergence of a couple things, and I am not sure yet how I feel about them individually or as a group. Allow me to explain:

It says ¨Welcome to Ecuador¨

It says ¨Welcome to Ecuador¨

First off: I am now in Ecuador and beginning a new country had me a little nervous at first. A new book had to be read and a new plan had to be put into place. Since I am exiting to Peru, I have to make my way south without missing anything to the east or west. Backtracking will be unavoidable but not very expensive. The tentative idea is to hit the sights south along the Andean Mountains, especially the numerous volcanoes, before doing a loop to take in the pacific coast. Down here they use a currency known as the US Dollar, with their own version of our coins. Though for the time being, I still convert most prices to Colombian Pesos to compare.

My first and current city is Otavalo, known for having one the largest indigenous markets in Latin America. I woke up early on Saturday morning, hoping to catch the animal market in all of it’s glory, but I was locked in my hostel until 8 am. Catching the end of the wheelings and dealings, I saw mostly chickens, guinea pigs, and hens exchanging hands. By 9 am, most vendors are setup in the streets closed to cars and the main square, ready to sell. An amazing sight, the Otavaleños always dress in traditional garb and are renowned for their weaving and craftsmanship.

shopping

shopping

Around the center and main streets, you get the tourist items like ponchos, sweaters, and handbags. On the outskitrts, I found locals buying their everyday items like shoes, clothes, and rope. Some walk around with the animals they bought earlier in the day, often placed into sacks, and the sacks are often squealing or trying to roll away.

The food section has everything you can imagine, with fruit, veggies, and kitchen counters. Open partially everyday, I have eaten most of my meals there, finding some good and bad stuff. My first meal here was the only one this trip I didn’t finish. The skillet filled with rice, noodles, eggs, and some types of meat, looked harmless enough, but it smelled like I was walking through a barn at the state fair. I believe the meat was chewy intestines and possibly blood sausage, both tasted very real. For my next meal, I opted for one of the numerous giant pigs and discovered I don’t have a problem looking my lunch in the face, or eating it’s crispy skin.

I think he was looking at me

I think he was looking at me

Overall, the food has been decent but not great. I think the places I have been eating in this town are a little too local. I worry about a noticeable lack of empanadas and really any breaded fried street food, for that matter. And I may have gotten a little overconfident in eating all of my meals at tents, resulting in my first sickness of the trip so far. Luckily, if I had to choose a day and place to be cooped up in my room, this is it. A nice cheap room with private bath and a TV, complimented by World Cup soccer, a replay of last years Wimbledon final, and the Estados Unidos Open as a night cap.

The next factor at play here is time. Today marks the 2 month point of my journey, and now everyday is the longest trip I have been on. I am curious to see how I hold up mentally and physically. Already very thin, I wonder how low I can go and if I will weaken at some point. Given a 90 day stamp, I can take all the time I need exploring an area roughly the size of Nevada, so I should be able to stay fresh. I have also decided to let the hair on the top of my head grow for the duration, despite my cousin’s disapproval. This should be fun, any tips from people who have attempted this courageous feat?

The last factor is the season known as Summer. I never like to travel during the busy time, wanting beaches to myself and my choice of accommodations. On top of the number of people, it is the type that bother me the most. Walking the market, I saw a group of 14 year old Americans, haggling for an Andean panflute. Now I don’t have a problem with parents taking their kids on an international vacation or the 2 week trippers off from university, I have been both. I just don’t want to be lumped into that group while I am on this self titled “crazy adventure”, even if it is just for one market day. In that one day, I saw/heard more Americans than in all of Colombia. I found myself wishing I had a sign around my neck that said “7 months”, so that all vendors and tourist would know what I am about. It’s like embarking on a 2 month journey through the jungle looking for a lost city, and when you get there all battered and bitten, a family wearing newly bought ponchos has just arrived by helicopter and their son is sitting on one of the statues playing his gameboy.

I don’t know if that makes any sense, but it is how I felt. Parts of it are comfortable and feel like home, but that is not really what I want. As they venture off on their $1,000 a head trips to the Galapagos, I will seek refuge in the mountains after a short stop in the country’s capital. Hopefully I find a dorm room filled with like minded folk, and get back in backpacker flow. While at the moment, I am finding joy in the little Ecuadorian kid next to me, bobbing his head and singing to a Shakira video on YouTube. La aventura que tenemos por delante me excita, yo sólo espero que no se puede acceder en helicóptero.

E = 52

Rearviewmirror

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

I feel the need to tell you about my last few days in Colombia, before moving on to my new location. Here is the story:

Saturday: Hung out with a guy from the D.C. area, who was in my dorm. A decent guy, ex-military, currently does security type work on contract, and studying international something at a college (may be an assassin).  We found a Brit and an Aussie to watch the US/England world cup match with and searched for a local hangout.  Stumbled upon the ¨Cafe Colombia¨, an old school guy hangout in the heart of the city. Containing a small TV area with plastic tables in front, a large pool table area, slot casino in back, poker tables up a floor, and completing the man cave – a trough urinal openly installed on a main wall. A lot of action all around, with some guy trying to get us to place wagers and many people hawking lottery tickets. A fun game to watch with the Brit left shaking his head and us feeling very satisfied.

Back at the dorm, a Brit girl joined our group seeking Colombia travel advice. Being the only one heading south, I dispensed what I could to all interested parties and soaked up valuable info about my next destinations. They now have me excited about future treks and volcano watching.

Later: The Brit girl (Lucy), the D.C. guy (J), and I hit the town for street food and drinks. After checking out a few overpriced bars, we found a small cheap liqour store with 2 tables, and sat. Aguardiente, an anise flavored drink, is the liquor of choice down here, and it doesn’t taste too bad.

The highlight of the evening was the inebriated man, close to my age, who wanted to talk. He slowly forced out the few English words he knew and I tried to move the converstaion along with the even less Spanish I knew. At one point, an older lady came to the entry of the shop and called the man over. A few minutes of what seemed to be scolding and finger pointing, had the room holding back laughter. The 3 other Colombians around (all 20 something and one spoke English) told us that it was the man’s mother-in-law, and that she informed him that all of his things would be on the street when he got home. Undeterred by the news, the man proceeded to restart the talk and share shots. The whole scene highly amused me, despite a lack of understanding.

After parting ways with the town drunk, we hit a salsa club with the 3 Colombians from the store. Interesting to watch, though I did not participate. A few songs were too slow but when they moved, it was with ease and grace. They move their hips to the beat and stare off, nonchalantly, like they were walking. Sometime on this trip I will try, just not on that small floor during our short visit.

Sunday: I continued my journey south, to the town of Pasto. A man from wee Britain, was heading my way, so we traveled together. He had taken classes in Medellin and was a master at the art of flirting. That came in handy when he bargained our bus prices down and when he chatted up a pretty lady, a row in front of us. He did it with words I could understand, he just knows how to put them together. We crashed in Pasto 2 nights, he was sick the next day, so I headed off to see ¨Laguna de la Cocha¨, a good size lake with a densely forested island.

view of lake

view of lake

Tuesday: Farther south to Ipiales, 3 km from the border, where we parted ways and I headed to nearby Las Lajas. A small village around a stunning church, I shacked up at a large hostel, formerly run by nuns. Being basically the only person there, I got views of the canyon and the Santuario that spans it.

Santuario de Las Lajas, (not the view from my room)

Santuario de Las Lajas, (not the view from my room)

The next morning I was awaken by the sound of a marching band. Looking out my window, I saw them coming down the hill and suited up (it was raining) to check out the action. Young kids pounded drums, leading a caravan of cars, all for a gold relic on the back of a truck. The streets were decorated with yellow and white, but they misjudged the height by a little bit. I snapped the photo below, seconds before the relic caught the overhanging line and fell off it’s pedestal.

look closely

look closely

hanging down

hanging down

The parade stopped for about 10 mintues while they tried to fix it, with onlookers looking very concerned. It ended up just being carried to the church by a man in a coat, where it was prayed to all day. That night, I followed as a procession took the relic to a chapel in town and from there I can’t tell you what happened (Not because of any laws or anything, I just don’t know). A good day to be in Las Lajas, and people thought I was crazy for wanting to stay in this small one-church town, for 2 nights.

Well rested and cleaned up, I headed for the border, where I sailed through the necessary formalities. I will have to save any word about Ecuador until the next post, as this one is categorized as “Colombia”. All I will say is that I am hoping for more interesting food and cheaper days. Todavía no están en el hemisferio sur

Gore-Tex

Monday, June 14th, 2010

I don’t know how I would have survived this past week without my titanium rain jacket, made by Colombia Sportswear, product # 205 SM7478. It is the wet season, so please don’t feel sorry for me, no matter what I say in the next few paragraphs.

It began in San Agustin, a little sprinkle the first night while I curled up in my hammock. Then steadily increasing throughout the morning, before the downpour during my walk to the market. Turning Monday into a good day for a blog post. It continued throughout my stay, but the show must go on.

I saw most of the main sites, including the signature Archeological Park, despite my moto-taxi breaking halfway there. A well preserved area, with many rock carvings guarding tombs and a nice round path they’ve lined with 35 interesting figures. I also attempted a hike to sites normally seen on horseback, resulting in a wet muddy affair. Not really worth the effort, but I do love getting dirty.

Parque Arqueológico de San Agustín

Parque Arqueológico de San Agustín

The highlight of my stay in San Agustin was hanging out at the hostel. No ping pong was played, but I met some more cool people. Two more British girls as roommates, a guy from NoCal, a girl from Germany, and a talkative Aussie gal. With the kitchen connected to my room, I got to witness money saving ways to feed yourself, with the cheapest being, hangout and eat their leftovers. Although, I still think the best value was the $1 – $1.50 full meals I was getting from the market every morning. If only every town had a daily mercado where I could sit at a counter with the locals.

I completed my circular tour of central scenic places, with a 5 hour bumpy bus ride back to Popayan. Three nights were spent there, a slight altering of my original plans. The Aussie guy I met in the desert, showed me pictures of a hike he did around these parts. I had thought the trip was too difficult and expense, thus passed on it my first go around, but he painted a different picture. Stunning scenery, a way around the park entrance fee, and my male ego, all sealed the deal.

Friday: I set my alarm for 3:45 am to catch the bus out of town, got on the right bus, was dropped off at the turnoff around 6 am, and began to put one foot in front of the other. Destination: The rim of Volcan de Purace (a volcano that last erupted in 1949). With the early start, I was able to cruise past the dreary eyed visitors center without paying the $10 fee.

The trail traveresed along cow pastures, muddy forest, gravel road, rocks, and then volcanic ash. Wind and mist were a constant throughout the 4 hr ascent, with boulders providing the only shelter.

rest stop

rest stop

I thought about turning back many times. The altitude (summit = 15,600 ft) was dizzying, shoes were wet before I started, and I was tired from little food/sleep. Keeping me going, a group of 5 Colombians that caught up and eventually passed me, plus my trusty rain coat. With hood up and head down, I tried to not let my mind think that each false summit was real and plugged away, never actually seeing my finish line until the end. The conditions up at the rim were nasty, forcing rapid fire photography followed by hands inside coat. With the Colombians motioning me into their group photo, I reveled in the feeling of pushing myself beyond pain and raised a thumb.

at the top

at the top

Micah

Micah

I always love the descent, the speed and the recap of what I have accomplished. At this point, I made my second great decision in the past 24 hrs (first was the night before, finding fresh street potato chips to go with my 2 street hamburgers). I was confident enough in the reply I got from a climber and my directional instincts, to take an alternate way down. Following the gravel road we briefly used in the middle, for as long as it was white. I have a theory that all roads connect to another road at some point in time, and needed to test it. The result: a smooth mud-less path, a stroll past the restricted sulfer mine, no sneaking past the visitor center, and a direct line to the main hwy. I was lucky to have a bus roll by within 30 minutes of my arrival, and sat on the hump near the driver, enjoying a victory lollypop. I really do love it when a plan comes together.

At this point, I could tell you about the entertaining weekend I had in Popayan, about the drunk local who tried his best to have a conversation with me, and about my first visit to a salsa club, but all that will have to wait. I need food and this post is getting long, check back in a day or 2. Ahora estoy en Pasto, Colombia y usted no está

Once Bitten, Twice Shy

Monday, June 14th, 2010

(Editor’s Note: This is a seemingly random post that I punched into my Ipod a couple weeks ago. With the more socializing I do, I find less time to just kick it at internet shops. Thus, I have a few in the chamber that shall be released in the next 24hrs. For those playing the home version of Micah:Unmitigated, this wont make much sense chronologically, but please try to enjoy anyways.)

Memories of being scammed in Bangkok still linger in my head. Every kind person who offers help, I keep at arms length, carefully processing every move in my head. I believe this is the way to go when traveling overseas, but also worry I may miss out on making a new friend or might offend an innocent stranger.

Like the little old man in Cartagena, who reminded me of Jackie Mason. He approached me on my first day in town, trying to dispense hostel advice. Quickly moving his little legs to keep up with me, he swore his places were cheaper but I playfully ignored him.

The next time I saw him was 48 hrs later, during the low point of the trip so far.  I had just been told by my hostel that the city buses stopped running at 6 pm and that an expensive taxi was my only option to the bus station. Feeling lost and tired, I took to wandering the streets aimlessly, looking for some form of transportation. He saw me and warned me about walking the streets at night, offering to help. The small funny man was wiser than the hostel and flagged down a passing bus for me. It was a long sweaty ride to the station, trying not to knock anyone out with my pack, but I felt lucky to be there.

Another encounter was with an odd man who approached me in the Medellin bus station, while I was bargain hunting. He happened to already have a ticket in the same direction and aided me in my purchase. The man said he was born in the US but his family moved back to Colombia when he was 2. His English was decent and he seemed harmless, but he was a little too eager to help and he strangely showed me both his passports, with the US one containing a fake $100 bill.

During our trip, I kept a close eye on all of my stuff and maintained a ninja like awareness, waiting for the trap to be sprung. In the end, he was nothing but helpful in making all of my connections. I feel bad doubting his intentions, knowing now that he was probably just a quirky, talkative guy.

Those are just two of the many helpful Colombians I have come across. Everyone has reacted to my broken Spanish with smiles and patience. Even at the bus station, I know that the men shouting destinations at me will point me in the right direction, even if their company doesn’t service that area. With only a few days left here, I hope the people down closer to the equator are equally kind. La gente es extraña cuando eres un extraño, rostros se ven feos cuando estás solo.

Under the Milky Way

Monday, June 7th, 2010

The past week has gone by fairly quickly. A couple hours off the well worn path down to Ecuador, I met some very cool travelers and have been reenergized by conversation, cerveza, and fresh air. Here is a recap:

Arriving in Tierradentro after a 5 hour bumpy bus ride, the 3 other gringos and I were shown reasonably priced accommodations and formed a group. Consisting of a guy from North Carolina (traveling south for the past year, with some work mixed in, I envied his beard, long hair, and Spanish), his female Canadian travel companion (they met in Central America and reunited in Colombia, she also has done volunteer work and speaks Spanish), and a young man from London (teaches English in Ecuador and has had a sitdown with the Dalai Lama). As you can see, a group I was able to learn a lot from.

The only tourists for miles, we were fortunate to have a friendly shop owner across the street, little rain, and cheap meals. The area is known for the elaborate tombs lining the tops of the hills. A full day was spent doing the loop hike up and around the ridgeline, taking in some stunning vistas and climbing down into holes in the ground. Most of the 100+ sites have been raided, but there are a few in excellent shape and illuminated by lights.

tombs along the ridge

tombs along the ridge

art in tomb

accidental flash photo

That night, another 4 random tourists rolled into town, we played a card game very similiar to my family reunion ¨Heck¨, which the Canadian called “Dutch Blitz”, and socialized. Two of the randoms were females from England who just happened to be heading back to the city of Neiva, in my direction, a day after me. One of them just finished a year of teaching there and had an apartment which I could crash at. I decided this was too good an opportunity, so I stuck around another day and acted as an uninformed tour guide while doing the loop again. The other 2 in the group: a cool German guy and a French girl, who spoke some English and picked random berries and fruits for us to try along the way.

The next day, the 2 British girls and I made our way to Neiva where I got to sample some local food and a local bar. I was grateful for the free accommodations, tea, Lucky Charms cereal, and new Facebook friends.

Friday morning, I headed out to “Desierto de la Tatacoa”, about an hour north of town. Fully prepared to hike the last 8 km in midday heat to the observatory, a moto-taxi driver was desperate and went down to ($5) from his initial ($10) bid. Only really worth it for the laughs that he got from his fellow drivers for going that low. At the observatory, my accommodations were in a hammock strung up between the pillars on the front porch.  No privacy, constant tour groups rolling through, and they locked me out at 10 pm; the only good parts about the place were the price and the view.

The first night, an Aussie tourist came out from town just for the astronomy presentation done on the roof. I joined him in paying a few bucks to see a guy point at things in the sky with a green lazer and to look through the telescope, mostly for the socializing. He was from Melbourne, we have played the same golf course there (Yarra Bend), and shared a love for the ¨Great Ocean Road¨ coastline. The best part about the show was the photo of Saturn the astronomer was able to capture with my camera through the scope.

Saturn, it´s a planet out there is space.

Saturn, it's a planet out there is space.

The next day, I hiked around the desert in the stunning “Cuzco Labrinths” as my body weakend from the draining heat and lack of sleep.
a good place to frolic

a good place to frolic

I gained more confidence around livestock but am now afraid of birds dive bombing me. Then, splurged on some goats milk dessert and a dip in a nearby pool before taking in the night sky show. I really enjoyed flexing some photographic muscle, aided by my tripod and a lengthened shutter.
¨That big dipper looking thing is Alan, the Cowboy.¨

¨That big dipper looking thing is Alan... the Cowboy.¨

Milky Way, I think

Milky Way, I think

Sunday, I successfully hitched a ride back to civilization, after walking 2 of the 8k.  Boarded a couple of bus/truck type vehicles and am now in San Agustin, home to some statues and scenery. Another couple of chilly nights in a hammock await, but this time my room is shared with a ping-pong table. I heard stories of competetive games the night before my arrival, but will have to size up the next crop of tourists and hope for some pongers.
The past week was a good mix of socializing and solo travel. Although I greatly enjoyed all of the people I met and their fluency in the local tounge, I felt a renewed eagerness to get back on my own. On the ride out to the desert, I loved being the bearded white guy on the back of a truck, surrounded by bags of Sulfato de Amonio, getting curious looks from locals. I missed stumbling over words and pointing at things. The plan now: satisfy my need for social interaction after a few days of lonesome wandering. Plus, I am considering taking some Spanish classes while in Ecuador and will look for volunteer work there as well, aided by a timely comment on my last post by H4.  Le lleva aquí a pesar de su destino
E = 42