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Quito: Third Time’s a Charm

Colonial, historical splendor, with mountains: View from the Secret Garden Hostel in Quito, Ecuador.

1st Try Quito: Dusty, Overcast, Lonely

Perhaps it is a silly thing to say, but generally I fall in love with the places I visit, usually for different reasons: Costa Rica for jungles, monkeys and beaches; Mexico for sublime tacos, architecture and history; Colombia for lush green mountains and an excellent experience meeting friends and practicing Spanish at a Spanish language school (see here for the school I studied at); and etc. But Quito and I had a series of misunderstandings the first few times I passed through its bustling white-washed, cracked concrete.

Weepy Jesuses always fascinate me, given I grew up Protestant. The Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Merced, 18th Century

My initial impressions of the city, after arriving tired and exhausted from an overnight flight into an eerily empty hostel, and after spending a few days getting myself arranged for the Amazon, were: Windy, dry, overcast, dusty, square white buildings, cream tones, concrete, buses, clothing black and navy, some white and jeans; white fine bread that disintegrates in your mouth when you are hungry, long bus rides for only 25 cents, tiresome bargaining in taxis, men staring me down such that after a few days I begin to fantasize about shaving my hair entirely and dressing in extremely bulky clothing, lots of cigarettes being sold on every corner, women selling fresh juice and bags of mandarins from the street, a loud, packed street called Amazonas nearby. And it goes on. Not all of these impressions are specifically negative; some are quite positive (lots of fresh fruit and cheap bus fare!).

However, as a person who thrives in forest and green leaves, the dryness and aridness of Quito’s streets, buildings, and landscapes did little to attract my attention. I was also preparing to go into the Amazon that first time in Quito and admittedly had some fear wrapped around me those days leading up to my trip to Puyo and beyond. And given there was only one other person in my hostel, I had no one to go exploring the city with, or even to talk to–thank goodness for Whatsapp and my dear friends back home for filling in the void while I stayed in that lonely hostel.

Sick and Tired the Second Time Around

For my second visit to Quito I stayed at Vibes Hostel in the Mariscal Sucre neighborhood, a crashpad after spending a few weeks in the Amazon. Again, circumstances worked against a positive relationship between me and Quito–I was sick with a parasite for days, and couldn’t get myself out to do even the free walking tour or change to a better location. Vibes itself reeked of neglect, and I lamented my choice of hostel when it became clear the place was infested with bed bugs—never before have I seen bed bugs scampering about like that and biting me brazenly in the afternoon. Several mattresses were removed from different rooms while I was there. Furthermore, the Marsical Sucre neighborhood felt rough around the edges–always men about, not many women. After a few days I began to think about shaving my head again.

This sketchy neighborhood, which nonetheless seems to have the most hostels, bars and restaurants, generally clustered around the Plaza Poch, perplexed me. Or was the “sketchy” feeling just my own perception? I’ll admit, a distinct form of paranoia got stuck in my psyche while in the Amazon jungle which I couldn’t quite shake it for many weeks after. The grimy Vibes Hostel and the Marsical neighborhood did little to help me resolve it.

But it wasn’t just me. A fellow female traveler confirmed the hostel and the neighborhood were not appealing, and that she too felt uncomfortable walking around, even in good ol’ broad daylight. We both happily left Vibes and headed to the town of Mindo, where I’d rented a room with a view of trees for the month.

Third time’s a charm

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A Sort of Boring Walking Tour, but it was free, and I made friends!

Thanks to a friend’s recommendation, I booked my final nights before heading to Peru at The Secret Garden, located on Los Rios in Quito’s Centro Histórico. My my, what a difference a well-run hostel and a grand location make! The hostel, located in a colonial building, had its own myriad charms: narrow corridors and open spaces, many places to chill and work, and a rooftop bar and restaurant overlooking the mountains, the Virgin of el Panecillo, and just generally, lovely, historical, Quito. Amusingly, my first day there I got lost trying to find my room in the multi-floored, brightly decorated hostel with two sets of staircases and narrow stone corridors. I felt like a little kid playing hide and seek.

It was while staying here that Quito’s delights began to reveal themselves: small details like almuerzos to be found in cafes with whiteboards declaring the specials of the day, usually soups, meat, rice and salad, a fruit juice and a dessert; and steaming, thick, sweet and fruity colada morada served up for Dia de los Muertos.

Basílica del Voto Nacional

Given I was not sick—except for the altitude-induced exhaustion and headaches–I went out with groups from the hostel and enjoyed finding chocolate shops, new spots to eat, old cathedrals, and more. We even took a taxi one night back to the Mariscal Sucre neighborhood, where, admittedly, there are many fun places to eat. Still, I’d hold on tight to your belongings in that area, and stay at the Secret Garden.

Posing as Sherlock with my only ad-hoc Halloween prop, my tobacco pipe. In front of the Secret Garden Hostel, Quito.

Quito, I’m glad we made peace and you showed me your magic.

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The Melody of Chocolate

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Freshly roasted Nacional cacao beans, Finca Sarita, Ecuador.

“Hershey’s was really all we had in my small town,” I explain to Servio Pachard Vera, a cacao farmer in the coastal region of Ecuador called Manabí, as we are walking through his grove of cacao trees.

It’s hot, probably in the 80s, and I’m glad for the taller fruit trees—breadfruit, mango, orange trees, for example—that shade us on our walk through his permaculture farm.

Servio laughs. “Really?”

We pause so I can pose for a picture in front of one of the cacao trees that is genetically pure Nacional—a rare variety that many, including Servio, claim has a superior flavor profile to other types of cacao. Then he cuts off a fruit with his machete, slices it open and hands it to me.

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A baby Nacional cacao fruit, on a genetically pure Nacional tree. It will grow into a yellow pod.

I take the pod, which is just a tad smaller than a football, and look at it. I’ve done enough chocolate tours in Ecuador to be familiar now with the fruit. The beans are coated in deliciously tangy white pulp, and I pop several at once into my mouth. “I was allowed to buy one Hershey bar after church on Sundays. And I loved it as a kid, of course.” Feeling the need to explain my evolved taste for chocolate, I quickly tell him, “But now I prefer dark chocolate, 70-80%.”

He smiles kindly at this, and then points at the white webbing left in the fruit pod I’d just emptied. “This is called the placenta,” he explains. “When I was growing up, all the women would sit harvesting the fruit, which was piled high by the men who’d cut it from the trees with machetes. I’d come along, pluck up a pod and eat the placenta.”

“Placenta,” I say with a slight grimace.

“Hershey’s,” he says, laughing ridiculously.

We walk by a tree with a purplish pod, a very beautiful hue in fact. “Is this also a Criollo?” I ask, since he’d already pointed one out earlier.

He explains it is a Criollo, but a mix, because it was planted with a seed and cross-pollinated by other varieties.

“Lots of people like Criollo, correct?” I ask.

“Yes, yes, of course. This type has fruity flavors, in contrast to the Nacional cacao, which has more floral flavors.” It is more difficult to cultivate cacao with more floral flavors, he explains. “The taste is not so different between them, but the Criollo blend is shorter.” He pops a finger from his mouth to emphasize this shortness. “With Nacional, a melody begins in your mouth.” He traces the air lightly, as if the melody was floating like a thread. “Floral, floral, floral, floral, fruity, fruity, floral, floral, floral…” and his voice trails off. “All my life I’ve been tasting chocolate, and I recognize this melody.”

“So you like Nacional the most?” I ask.

“Of course. Because it is the best,” Servio answers without hesitation.

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Servio with the Fermentation Boxes. Each is filled with a specific colony of bacteria, which are important for developing the flavor of the beans.

“What about Ghiradelli, and Lindt chocolate? Have you tried these? They’re very popular in the United States right now, but I don’t like them so much anymore. They don’t taste like much. Except oil.” What I mean is added, cheaper alternative oils used to make smooth, industrial chocolate, such as palm oil.

He tilts his head to the side, ponders the empty fruit pod in his hand, and begins talking, without really answering the question. “Imagine everyone eats Hershey’s, like you did, growing up. They get used to a certain type of flavor, texture. They get used to a certain kind of sugary taste. Or a certain very smooth taste. One with only 20% cacao. The rest, of it is sugar, milk, and soy lecithin. But this chocolate has a very short, flat flavor.”

“Hmmm,” I say, “People like a smooth chocolate.”

He also explained it was hard to know what cacao bean was really being used; for example, the purer Nacional was rare, and hybrid varieties, whose flavor profiles vary, tended to be much more common. “And yet, you’ll see chocolate being sold here all over that’s called Nacional, or Arriba, or Fino de Aroma, even if it isn’t genetically very pure,” he said. “You can taste that it’s not pure Nacional.” (Nacional is also referred to as Arriba or Fino de Aroma.)

“It has melodia,” reiterates Servio, tracing the invisible song in the air.

“Would this be a melody for violin? Or for cello?” I ask. “Or merengue?”

“Ah, ah, ah,” he says. After a moment, he sings a diddy in an impressive falsetto. “A cello,” he says.

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Bad Beans, normally picked out by hand. The kind that American companies buy in bulk. (By the way–those are To’ak beans Servio is harvesting, for those of you familiar with that company!)

He keeps walking, and we sit down at a table where he shows me how to bite the top off an orange and drain out the fruit juice from inside. We sit like this, with oranges pressed to our faces, drinking the juice. When we’ve sucked dry our oranges, he tells me the story of cacao farming in Ecuador. How CCN-51, a highly productive hybrid, is sold to impoverished cacao farmers, and how it’s like growing corn in the US, except there are no subsidies.

“They barely get by. They’re stuck in a cycle,” he says. “They invest in the plants, which, yes, have a very high yield. But they get paid very little, and it doesn’t matter what the beans look like, or whether they are even fermented.” His forehead creases a bit. “The problem is, most clients will buy the same bulk beans from Ivory Coast or Ghana for even cheaper. So it isn’t good for cacao farmers here in Ecuador to cultivate CCN-51.”

I tell Servio that a community in the Amazon I stayed with had begun to plant cacao. I was excited for them. But when I’d asked what type of cacao they were planting, they had no idea. “I suppose it was CCN-51, correct?”

Servio sighed. “If they really don’t know what they’re planting, then yes. And that’s a problem. The viveros, the intermediarios, they come by selling hybrids—usually CCN-51–and sell them to whoever will buy them. The problem is that the soil should be analyzed, so that farmer knows which cacao variety is best for his plot. Much of the time, the trees fail, and the farmer loses the money.”

I hate to hear this. I wonder now whether Carlos, the man doing the planting in the community I was staying in, had the time to check up on the details for the cacao. I hope he did. And I hope the cacao seedlings, no matter what kind they are, make it, and produce a yield for him.

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Finca Sarita is in San Miguel de Sarampión, located about 20 minutes from Calceta, in the Manabí province of Ecuador.

After resting a bit in my treehouse, which is located up two sets of ladders in a mango tree–a somewhat dizzying yet thrilling height–we make chocolate, artisan-style.

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Servio’s son and daughter get a fire going in an outdoor oven which consists of clay and ashes–the kind used by his family for over a century. Servio puts the beans in a pan with sand, and we toast them for about twenty minutes. After that, we let them cool, go sit at the table, and peel off the husks, chatting the whole time. Then we grind up the beans into a thick paste, like peanut butter, and eat it on bananas ripened on a tree nearby.

Peeling and grinding cacao beans into a chocolate paste from Nacional beans, perfectly fermented, is a flavor experience unlike any I’ve had before. I’m not certain it will be possible to go back to Hershey’s—I’ve already written about the Point of No Return when it comes to Spanish; I think I have reached it when it comes to Chocolate.

Thanks Servio, for the wonderful tour of your farm, and for teaching me about chocolate.

For more information on Nacional cacao and its preservation see:

www.nacionalcacaoconservation.org

www.toakchocolate.com/blogs/news

www.hcpcacao.org  (Heirloom Cacao Preservation)

Servio mentioned he, along with other members of To’ak Chocolate, will appear in a National Geographic feature coming out in November. It will be about heirloom cacao and craft chocolate. Check it out!

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Scenes from the Amazon Basin

 I.

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I’m sitting in the corner of a young couple’s dirt-floor home, pondering the homemade grass basket beside me, while watching S— roll up a wad of fresh tobacco and blow blooming clouds of smoke over his brother, who sits on the edge of a bed with his wife and newborn son. I look down into the basket again, see a baseball sized object begin to shift and move slowly under a limp T-shirt.

“What’s that?” I ask, nodding down at the basket.

“La soledad,” is what I hear from S— say, who laughs playfully, and then continues his ceremony. His father was a brujo, a shaman, and I think of this as he waves his hand to spread the smoke. Afterward, as we head back to the bonfire he’s set up for me as a farewell, I ask him if this was a blessing ceremony for the newborn.

“No,” he says with his naturally easy smile. The night is settling around us, and the toads croak in various intervals. “Remember the bird that sings loudly at dusk? My brother is afraid of that bird.”

“Afraid?” I ask, trying to understand. I’d heard this bird often, and it has a loud, distinct call, like that of a loon.

“They say it is a powerful being, that it can perhaps harm a person,” S— answers. “I blow the smoke over him, so that he can go out and hunt again, without fear.”

“I see,” though I don’t, entirely. And I feel silly for thinking, earlier, that he was rolling up the tobacco leaves in a giant cigar for us all to smoke.

“Blowing tobacco is good for taking away fear,” S— says.

“I will try it,” I respond sincerely, because even though I don’t believe that smoke will take away fear, ritual and the placebo effect does.

We sit by a large fire for my farewell gathering, and the eldest in the community, Tio A—, begins to tell me the tale of the Jrijri, the two-mouthed animal spirit that guards the wilderness of the Amazon. I shiver.

After, Tia E— shows me how to dance in the Achuar way. A complicated hopping, small steps, her hands placed firmly on her hips. I cannot get all the little steps in, and lament my poor sense of body rhythm out loud.

Everyone applauds anyway, and we drink chicha, a traditional fermented yucca beverage.

It starts raining, and one of the men informs me, solemnly, that the river is rising, and that I cannot leave the following morning in canoe, as planned.

II.

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I’m walking in the pitch black through the forest with three young children leading me.

I’m walking back from S—’s house, where I’ve just finished eating supper, a meal of boiled eggs, plantains, and yucca, and a fresh heart of palm salad, all served in enormous banana tree leaves. The jungle is loud and large moths and small bats whir above and around our heads. We have no lights on; I simply follow their sure little feet as they easily feel the mud and planks and stones beneath their bare toes. At one point, one of the girls stops, and we look to see two glowing green eyes brightly shining through the foliage beside us. The youngest sibling, a boy just learning to write, strides into the leaves, retrieves the large glow beetle, and puts it into his older sister’s hand. We continue on, without speaking. They do this three times, collecting three Pyphoruses.

One of the girls tries to catch a giant glow moth with her sweater. It swerves and dives too quickly for her heavy cloth net.

III.

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A dog is screaming somewhere, the dust is blowing through the walls of my hut, the microscopic flies are biting me, the air is always on fire. I am planning English lessons.

I ask a couple walking by, who have just returned from the jungle: “What is going on? What is the animal?”

The man explains with an apologetic smile while holding a branch of green plantains over his shoulder, “A dog is dying. It has an incurable disease.”

The woman beside him, carrying a basket on her back supported by a strap slung across her forehead, glances at me while shifting the heavy weight on her back.

“Thank you,” I say, and the two continue on.

An awful screaming, a dog child, for dogs have become nearly human. Late into the night, screaming. My skin prickles with the sounds which do not let my mind rest. I find out the next day it is my neighbor’s dog, and his child won’t let him put the creature out of its misery.

The dog lies on its side on a blanket under the house on stilts. It stops screaming when I approach it.

There is silence by the fourth day, when I leave the community.

IV.

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A scraggly black and white chicken arrives in my hut the first day I arrive, sneezing and snorting. I am afraid it has a disease and keep it outside. But it sneaks in, and when it sees a beetle, it squawks in delight (so I assume) and rushes after it, just like a cliché chicken cartoon, its head bobbing forward.

I laugh hard; I don’t shoo him away again.

His name, naturally, is Pinto. Painted Chicken.

When I discover a colony of tiny golden rice-sized termites growing under the cardboard box I brought most of my food in, I push it aside and let Pinto feast. I watch, mesmerized by the precision of the birds beak, how it can pick up every single tiny termite within a matter of minutes. Every day I make my breakfast, open the door, let Pinto in, and push aside the cardboard box.

How strange when one day there are no termites.

“They found us out, Pinto,” I say to the chicken, and drop a handle of rice kernels on the ground for him.

One day a neighbor says all the chickens are dying.

Over the course of the week, the chickens die. They are lying in feathered heaps around the huts and clapboard houses.

Every morning, however, Pinto arrives, sneezing and snorting, and cleans up whatever insects I find for him in my hut. He begins to sit and prune himself while I read in the afternoons.

One evening I’m reading and out of nowhere the chicken flies up into my lap. He tucks its head into its feathers. When I tentatively pet it, it closes it eyes.
Unexpectedly, I tear up. I don’t let Pinto sit on my lap again.

V.

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Mundeesh

It is dark and the toads have begun to sing, and fire flies are dancing in the night air outside the hut. I can see the moon through the wooden slats that make up the wall of my thatched-roof home.

“Cici, come,” my neighbor C— says to me through my wood slat door. “I have something to show you.” He smile is wide, slightly mischievous.

“OK,” I say, and I get up and follow him, wondering what surprise is in store for me this evening.

We go into his family’s kitchen. In this community, most kitchens are thatched roof huts, and consist of a wooden table with stools, a large fire made from three logs that touch in a triangle shape in the center, where the fire lives. His son is waiting by the long-logged fire, also a smile on his face.

I sit down and wait.

C—picks up a banana leaf and shows me a fresh pile of plump, cream colored grubs. Like those in the movie “The Lion King.” Palm tree grubs. Or, as I find out later: palm weevil larvae.

“Mundeesh,” C— tells me in his language, Achuar. Then, in Spanish: “Gusano. It is a delicacy. They pay lots of money in Quito for this.” He sets the banana leaf on his lap and picks one up. “Do you want to try?”

I stare at the chubby cream-colored grub, the size and look of a very swollen Caucasian adult thumb. It has a dark brownish-red head.

“A delicacy?” I ask, somewhat weakly.

“Yes, try one, if you want,” C— says. “Raw first. Then we will roast them on a spit.” He puts one in his mouth and chews.

I— his son, grabs one and puts it in his mouth.

After watching the young boy finish his, I pick one up. Its skin is thick and leathery, and I can feel a pulpy juice inside. Its shiny beetle head is about the size of a pencil eraser. There are little hairs—grub hairs—springing out from the thick skin. I put it into my mouth and bite down.

Again and again I chew until the skin breaks, and the pulp spreads across my tongue. A slightly sweet insect pulp. I have to spit the skin out after a while, as I am unable to chew it. The head pops under my molars and I hear the crunch, as if I’m chewing on a half-popped corn kernel.

I sit and practice English with C—while we wait for the roasted version of the delicacy. Roasted, it tastes mostly the same, except the pulp is thicker and warm.

I fall asleep that night, thinking of that sweet pulp on my tongue, and dream of cream colored grubs in my belly.

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A Jungle Story: Bugs and a Boa

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A friend pointing out a wandering spider (not as deadly as its cousin the Brazilian Wandering Spider, thank goodness) before killing it.

My Ecuadorian housemate back in Minnesota and I had numerous discussions about the Amazon jungle and what to expect when I went to live there for six weeks.

“There are bugs, Christine,” she told me one night as we were snacking on popcorn in the kitchen. “And they will bite you. All over.”

I remember scoffing playfully. “Yes, there are spiders, scorpions, tailless whip scorpions, moths, butterflies, and other insects in the jungles, but they don’t have clouds of mosquitoes and flies like here in Minnesota.” I was thinking of my time in the coastal jungles of Costa Rica, where bugs were like large animals to watch and enjoy rather than swat away.

My roommate Chela has lived in jungles for extended periods of time. She listened, and then responded, somewhat gravely: “Yes, but there are tiny bugs that bite and sometimes carry parasites that get into the skin. You must wear repellent, and you should ask before you go if they have this parasite in the community. You will need to use good netting at night.”

“Chagas?” I asked. The travel doctor had told me not to Google that one, so I didn’t. (Still have not).

“Yes, that, but also Leishmaniasis,” she said.

Leishmaniasis. The open ulcer on the arm of an American woman I met years ago came to mind immediately. She lived in the green jeweled Caribbean coast of Costa Rica,  where she and her husband cultivated cacao, and made craft chocolate. She’d called it “jungle disease.”

We talked into the night, back and forth, about what to expect in the Amazon. About bugs and parasites. I felt fine with all of them, knowing if I ended up contracting a parasite I could get treatment afterward. We only stopped when the subject broached snakes, and especially, the fer-de-lans, or, in Spanish, the equis.

“Well,” I sighed. “Let’s not talk about that one.” The ultimate pit viper, they call it.

“You’ll wear rubber boots,” she said.

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Jungle roommate.

The snake arrived the third night in my thatched roof hut. I was just stepping into my hut after using my latrine, still pondering the tailless whip scorpions that lived on its inner wall, an arachnid couple with sizeable but harmless pedipalps and thread like front legs that float and taste the air around them for prey.

Two moving orbs near the front of my hut, in the roof, reflecting my headlamp’s weak beam, caught my attention. I turned on the lightbulb (yes, I had a light bulb hanging in my hut!) and to my alarm, beheld a moderately-sized snake steadily coiling about one of the log beams holding up the roof.

I stared at it for several minutes, and once it noticed me, it created a “U” shape on the beam and rested its head in it, and observed me in return.

I didn’t know whether it was venomous, but its head did look somewhat bulgy on either side, which indicated it might be a viper. Two options came to mind: a) I could leave it be, get into my tent, and hope it went on its way, or b) I could pick up the machete sitting on the table next to me, swing and chop it half.

My adrenaline prompted me to grab the machete, but my brain said: But Cici, you don’t know how snakes react. What if it lunges at your face?

Though it was very late, I walked down the path to my neighbor’s house and, regrettably, woke him up. He came back with me, groggy, but aware that a foreigner like me needed assistance with such things as snake visitors in the night.

“Did you kill it?” he asked me.

“No, no,” I said. “I don’t have much experience with snakes, and I didn’t know how it would react if I approached it.”

We went inside and he walked calmly up to the snake. “It’s a boa.” He turned, relaxed.

“Ah!” I cried in relief. “A pet, then.”

He chuckled and left, and I went to bed.

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A giant carapa tree.

Sr. Boa killed all the bats, one by one, every other night between 9:00 and 10:00pm. I would be sitting at my table, reading, preparing English lessons, and glance up to see him sitting there patiently in a spring-form “S” shape just outside of the noisy bats’ nest. Quite frankly, when I saw him strangling his first victim, I was glad. While I don’t mind bats, and appreciate the fact they eat insects, I didn’t like them living in my hut—they pooped on my things and screeched nonstop sometimes, disrupting my ability to sleep, read, and think.

And when the bats were gone, I never saw Sr. Boa again.

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Living in Mashien, Ecuador, was a fully-rounded experience, challenging but rare. I will always be grateful to the community for inviting me in and sharing their way of life with me. If you are interested in learning about volunteering in this community, please contact Napo Mashian at fundacion.ikiam@gmail.com. The community hosts volunteer English teachers and those who have skills and interest in developing ecotourism projects.

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In next week’s post, I’ll share more experiences of the jungle in the form of disparate scenes, without explanation, to give you a sense of what I experienced—the rugged adventure, the flora and fauna, and some of the discomfort that comes with being in a new place and culture.

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Literary Interlude: An Update on my Travel Reading.

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I’m sliding into a low dip on my trip right now–I’m undergoing a change of itinerary, dealing with foot pain, surviving bed bugs at the hostel, food poisoning, and a headcold. Thinking about books makes me happy, so I’m going to share with you what I’ve been reading in the past couple weeks.

Born in Blood & Fire: A Concise History of Latin America, 2nd. Ed., by John Charles Chasteen. This compact history of around 350 pages was helpful in orientating my knowledge of Latin America and its development since the time of the Encounter, when the Arawaks of the Caribbean first encountered Columbus arriving in his ships. It is, unfortunately, a difficult and often depressing read, filled with the history of slavery, massacres of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, slaughtering military dictatorships backed by the US, and ultimately, the current situation of poverty in most of Latin America, which tends to be a direct result of trade systems dictated by the US and other countries, and the problem of perpetual national debt. I finished this book while staying with an indigenous community in the Amazon basin—and reflected how, even though in the States I tend to live a fairly simple life, the fact that I had a room and a couch and running water and a kitchen and so much electricity and Wifi and savings meant I lived in a completely different sphere from the majority of the world’s population.

The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa. I couldn’t put this book down and finished it in two days. One of the most compelling reads in many years. I wondered why the translator chose not to leave “bad girl” in Spanish. The voice of the narrator is addicting, endearing, loving, and my eyes teared at those moments when the plot cut through the heart and mind. Extraordinarily psychologically astute, it is a love story of a malformed attachment unlike any I’ve ever read. For those of you who need to know: there are allusions to violent abuse scenes that are at times extremely difficult to read.

Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Guevara. I’m struck (and somewhat jealous?) by the way men can travel—I’d never feel safe riding a motorcycle, and crashing in people’s sheds, yards, and homes while exploring any part of the world. Or jumping on a ship to Easter Island as stowaways…Not exceptionally deep literature, but enjoyable to read while I travel South America, and a good prelude to the Che biography I have queued up.

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan. This just happened to be on my Kindle; wasn’t part of my South American literature list. Started it late one night while in the Amazon jungle, in my tent, listening to the bats sweeping out of my hut into the night air for their nocturnal insect feast. One phrase describing the mood of a married couple who have just witnessed a harrowing tragedy, remains lucid: “Emotional comfort, sex, home, wine, food, society—we wanted our whole world reasserted.” (Pg. 39) It brought me back to thinking of “home” and what this actually means, especially while I spend time in an indigenous community, watching families eat, work, play together. A wonderfully intellectually rich book; however, beware—this is, in my opinion, a psychological horror story. It will make your skin crawl, as the cliché goes, in an unconventional way.

Has anyone else read these books? What did you think?

 

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Mindo Chocolate & the City of Trees

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One of the many waterfalls in Mindo Cloud Forest.

Vast stands of dark green trees fill my body with joy. Literal, transcendent joy; the kind that relaxes and clears your spirit. Welcome to Mindo, Ecuador, a city of clouded trees, concerts of frogs, and chocolate factories.

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Morning Clouds over Mindo.

After spending three weeks in Medellín, Colombia, and then two nights in busy, dry, bustling Quito, Mindo has been a welcome respite, and a reminder of the kind of place which brings me a literal, visceral peace. Riding the tarabita (cable car) over the misted forest to a hiking trail filled with cascades, I could hardly muster a movement except to let my jaw drop, a cliché but a true one, so positively stunned with awe I was by the thousands of tree inhabitants of this place.

Tree inhabitants! A city of trees, so verdant, so enrobed in mist. I didn’t mind the rain after I began the hike; given the arduous nature of the hike, a light mist brought relief.

I’ve had the privilege to visit many crowded tree cities, and while walking this trail my mind immediately connected to the store of images of all the other forests I’ve visited: jungles in Costa Rica and Guatemala, the hovering giant Redwoods of California, towering pines in Oregon, the cedar, birch and pine stands in northern Minnesota, and finally, the gnarled, mystical oak groves of my youth.

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Take the Tarabita for a ride over a verdant city of trees.

Perhaps it is true that being in a place that so resonates with your soul can more easily bring you clarity where before there was just an internal mess; for me this was true. When I sat down for hot chocolate, a bolt of understanding unfolded in my mind of what I needed to do in the coming years, of what I hope to achieve in this one life I have been given.

Yet we live lives of juxtaposition. While in one part of my being I felt peace, in another, I felt restlessness, and unease. Tomorrow I’m headed into one of the last empires of tree: the Amazon basin. When someone asked me why I was going there (so many bugs, and it’s hot!—to which I always reply, hello, I’m from Minnesota, where we inhale clouds of mosquitoes in the summers), why I wanted to visit, I answered: “I want to see the Amazon before it’s gone.”

Pessimistic answer, I suppose, but what else can I say, when deforestation continues to destroy and encroach on this precious parcel of forest? When mining companies and logging companies continue to buy up land from indigenous communities, their economic clout no match for a community whose lives flourished before, but now, relative to the economic status quo, are considered low-income, with few means, other than the growing ecotourism trade, to keep their communities in tact?

As I continue to travel and interact with other travelers, I observe more keenly how complexly rigid our world is, and how difficult to change, whether that be the wages of the cacao farmer for “fair trade” and “organic” beans (see below for more on this), or the campesinos in Mexico trying to change their lives for the better but are blocked by corrupt government practices once they are considered “leftist”.

Poverty continues to exist for the vast majority of people in the world; misery was the precise term a French journalist described the situation to me in Colombia; a desperate way of living for many that cannot change under the system of commerce and trade implemented by the corporations that control our lives.

A system under which cacao farmers never taste a finished chocolate product made from the fruit they grow; a system under which locals who welcome foreigners into their homes and lands will likely never visit their guests in their own countries and experience the wonder of travel for themselves; a system in which TVs fill restaurants and parade images of cars, homes, and the splendor of consumerism before the eyes of those will never have a chance to own those very things.

I look to the silent mass of trees for an answer, and though I receive their peaceful blessing for a moment, and a bit of clarity on my own life’s direction, I do not get any answers for the human condition, other than to offer what tools I have, my language for those who want to learn it; and to continue traveling as a guest in another’s home, a guest who is grateful for the opportunity to visit other lands and peoples. I am constantly reminded of the necessity to live with the kind of integrity molded and informed by the people I meet and the circumstances I observe, circumstance which include some of the world’s harshest realities.

Visit Mindo Chocolate Factory for more information on the cultivation of cacao in Ecuador. Jose and his wife Barbara own the factory, and buy fruit directly from farmers in the area around Mindo. While their products are not packaged “organic” or “fair trade”, they deal in Direct Trade, a practice most chocolate farmers and chocolate producers are moving towards, as the labels “fair trade” can be bought and often do not reflect fair wages. Cacao farmers tend to live on very little, even though their product is one of the highest demand products in the world. Additionally, farmers tend not to be able to afford the “organic” label as it requires a yearly payment to maintain, but large groups of farmers sometimes can get the certification for their farms in bulk. See here for Mindo chocolates, which you can purchase online in the United States.

 

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La Soledad, and Traveling Society

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El Poblado in Medellín, otherwise known as the tourist district.

One evening as my new friend Max and I were climbing the steep hill lined with lush plants to our student apartment, I asked him what he liked to read. He mentioned feeling both “social and lonely” while traveling, and for this reason, preferred reading spiritual texts while abroad. I was astonished that this laid-back, good-looking Californian man just beginning the prime of his life felt this way. My response: “Me too. But isn’t that life? Social and lonely?”

Leading up to this discussion, Max had asked me whether I liked traveling solo. I said, absolutely yes. To travel alone is like jumping on a boat and sailing; you get to stop as often as you like, at whatever island or port city, and spend however long you want there, with whomever you meet, often marvelous people you wish you could stay with for a longer time. Traveling alone drives you to go out and meet people, to form webs of community where none existed before, and for me this is nearly always a rewarding experience.

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We foreigners trying to learn salsa through observation. Son Havana, Medellín

Nevertheless finding yourself alone is alarming at times and comes unexpectedly: an evening out becomes an evening in with cerveza and a book when you realize you forgot where you were meeting a new friend, and that friend doesn’t respond to your Whatsapp messages. [The new friend, E— from S—–, is stressed because she lost her cell on the metro to ladrones, her mind being a bit out of sorts after having spent the afternoon with a handsome Australian from her hostel.]

But being alone, in a state of solitude, is not the same as loneliness. 

Solitude, at least for me, is usually a pleasing experience. There’s ecstasy in being alone, of sailing solo, of having complete freedom in every sense of the word; you go where you want to go, you meet who you want to meet; you change your itinerary at your whim. For those of us who have felt tied down, perhaps by family obligations, illness, or a relationship which ultimately led us to an inner dissolution of spirit; by financial constraints which keep you in a job that is equally dissolving; or by self-entombment, the incarceration by our own beliefs that we don’t deserve to be free, to be content, to seek what is best for us. If we are lucky enough to break free for a time we will find ourselves in a bubble of ecstasy, living life between the company of constant traveling society and a great solitude. At least, that’s how we feel, those of us afflicted with Wanderlust. Unless solitude flips into a state of loneliness, which is bound to happen from time to time.

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Traveling Society: Yasmin, Karine, Katrin, Hongda, and Chris.

When I asked my teacher Óscar  what he thought of loneliness, he looked up from his notes and said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world: “La soledad es la consciencia de la carencia del lenguaje.” [My rough translation: Loneliness is the awareness that language is imperfect.] I smiled at this concise description, knowing it was only the tip of an iceberg. Óscar is a brilliant man; one who has with scientific precision examined ideas, situations, and events from every possible vantage point and is prepared to give you a fully prepared opinion.

His answer, unpacked: loneliness stems from the difficult in fully sharing oneself with another human being, since all forms of language are ultimately inadequate, always a substitution for what lies underneath. His example: If you say, “I feel lonely” and I say, “I feel lonely, too”, are we feeling the same feeling? Not likely. Our feelings of loneliness have differing histories.

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Sandra, one of my teachers at Total Spanish, and I discuss our obsession for books, writing and cats. (El Gato, above, approves this message).

For those of us afflicted with Wanderlust, states of pleasant solitude and aching loneliness come and go. It’s part of the journey. For us, hostels and language schools are Heaven-sent. Total Spanish is a Spanish language school (see website here) in Medellín which provides a place of kindred minds, the perfect way to join a community for a short period of time.

At Total Spanish I’ve had the privilege to take four hours of private language class with several teachers, who happily discuss to my heart’s content whatever topics come up (while drilling me on grammar, including the subjunctive tense). I find with one teacher, Julianna, a fellow aficionado of psychology and self-growth, a bright woman possessing impressive knowledge of her country, language, and relationships.

Sandra, another teacher, and I find ourselves deep in conversations having to do with women, el machismo, and feminism. Being specific in our attraction toward men, we also wonder how we can find men with “el cerebro muy sexy”. As we are both brainy women ourselves, it’s not always easy encountering men who can live up to our cerebral powers. Shortly after our lunch, my eyes don’t shift away when I notice an elderly Colombian couple silently holding hands in an elevator; their at the moment word-less bond a prehistoric comfort I can only dream of at this point in my life.

To accept the occasional presence of loneliness is a necessity; and perhaps the community at large so strictly prohibits feelings deemed “negative” that I don’t have enough practice with feeling lonely—when loneliness hits, so does the desire to flee from it, to other countries, to new people, to books.

In the end, loneliness, like certain depressive moods, can activate one to action: after three weeks here in Medellín, after spending time making new friends, I can’t really say I feel lonely. I feel surrounded by a wonderful community of writers, teachers, and like-minded travelers. Traveling, in my opinion, offers a distinctive way of viewing life experiences. Being lonely is a universal experience, no matter where we are in life.

Cheers, my new friends. I hope to see you all again someday~

 

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El Punto de No Retorno

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A stream running through El Poblado, the tourist district of Medellín

Just two years ago, shortly after returning from a vacation to Costa Rica with my ex-husband, I slid into a precisely defined depression–one characterized by an awareness of lost intellect. Why? I could not speak nor understand the Spanish spoken around me, a language I adored and had studied in high school and college.

I’ll never forget how that mental disease spread through me after returning home, the days spent driving in the gray dawn of Minnesota winter wondering what I was doing with my life, feeling as if a metal ball and chain had been fastened to my head and neck.

Depression, mind you, is activated for different reasons. This particular variety–as soon as its lethargic grip lessened–was the kind that snaps you to attention, calls you to take action because you’ve realized you’ve lost something precious, something you once believed was threaded into the material of your spirit. I’d taken a wrong turn somewhere, and I knew it in my gut. Losing my Spanish was simply the tip of an iceberg gone under.

Fortunately, here in lovely Medellín, a city of Eternal Spring, embraced by lush green mountains and filled with brooks and green, my Spanish teacher Oscar assured me that my Spanish was coming back in tsunami fashion. “I believe you reached a Point of No Return while you were studying Spanish in college,” he explained calmly, while drawing an abstruse web of all possible verb tenses on the board. Needless to say, I felt a flush of gratitude toward him for reassuring me that something I’d worked so hard at was not lost.

I can’t help but think there are many things in life that reach The Point of No Return, and even if we thought we’d lost a thing precious to us, it might still be there, hidden, waiting for our return. Perhaps a talent we once nurtured and put aside for whatever reason, a friendship long let loose, a dream we boxed away believing that one day–after everything else was taken care of, worked out of course–there would time for birthing it.

After enjoying a honeymoon period of idealism in most situations, I tend to swing toward realism. When considering a concept such as The Point of No Returnit’s hard not to also observe the shadowy side of ourselves, especially in regards to those parts of us that take a wrong path and never turn round.

I had ample chance to consider this while taking the Pablo Escobar tour on my first day in Medellín, a city considered politically conservative and unfortunately, demonstrative of the great wealth disparity in Colombia. I went with a Danish couple from my hostel, led by Manny (see his website here), who grew up just across the street from Comuna 13 in Medellín. Comuna 13 is a neighborhood known for its violent history, whose impoverished inhabitants were, in the past, caught waiting to exhale between one gang confrontation and another.

Manny spoke frankly of his experience growing up in the 80s under Pablo Escobar’s reign, and how proud he was of the people of this city and the progress it has made in reducing violent crimes. Standing in front of the house and roof on which Escobar was captured and killed (Manny claims it was a suicide), he told us that one day he and his friend were biking home with a pistol, and seeing the police, believed they were going to get in trouble for possessing a weapon. When they noticed helicopters in the sky they realized the army was also involved, and it was not them the military were after–it was Escobar.

While the city has become a relatively safe and economically stable city in recent years due to peace pacts made between paramilitary groups and drug trafficking gangs, some, such as my teacher Oscar, claim it may not last.

Pablo Escobar’s helicopter landing pad at La Catedral, overlooking the city.

Questions swirl in my head as I cogitate the story of Escobar’s life and his descent into power-induced madness–a Colombian-style Hitler, according to Manny. When did Pablo Escobar reach his Point of No Return? When did he decide it was fine to kill the way he killed, to manipulate through plata o plomo, while continuing to be gentle and caressing toward his family? How do our brains become what they become, creating in us successful project managers who enjoy salsa dancing on the weekends, impoverished and ill artists wishing only to have more time to create, and murderous psychopaths worth billions?

And finally: Is there a way to control our paths, our neural chemistry and genetics (or perhaps, more correctly, our epigenetics), so that we can become the best we can be, without dampening our sense of empathy for others? So that our Points of No Return indicate lives of satisfaction and community, rather than unhappiness and madness?

Thank you Manny, for the excellent city tour, and for sharing your story.

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The Plunge: Cali’s Music Festival, and an 11-Hour Bus Ride through the Andes

Sometimes it’s best to just take the plunge and not worry about what you’re getting into. Less than twelve hours after arriving in Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, I grabbed my backpack and headed out with two sharp Fulbright English teachers to the bus station and boarded the supremely air-conditioned Bolivariano bus for an eleven-hour ride to Cali, Colombia, for a musical festival.

Bringing a plastic bag in case you forget your Dramamine is recommended when bussing through the Andes. Likewise, try not to be jealous when you notice, after you’ve just lost your dinner into a plastic bag at Hour #9 around Hairpin Curve #26 that your literary traveling companions are contentedly reading their books, and not gripping the seat in front of them.

Sickness aside, el paisaje (countryside) of Colombia is absolutely stunning, and it was hard not to take video after video of the hazy afternoon sun setting over clouded green mountaintops. The middle-aged pediatrician who sat next to me happily talked about his country, his life as a pediatrician, and showed me the details for the music festival on his cell phone, lending another pleasant facet to the long ride.

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I ended up saying farewell to the English teachers after arriving, and the next day explored a bit of central Cali with a new friend from the Netherlands, who like me, was seeking—perhaps subconsciously—the roots and shape of our self-identity through new experiences. We spoke extensively of our home cultures, our upbringing, and mused over our obsession for extended travel. For both of us, there had been a sense of not belonging, and feeling like an outsider in our communities. My inkling is that this sense of Not Belonging has something to do with developing self-identity; once a person has this, there is a security that allows one to root into their home places. Our discussion kept reminding of Alice Merton’s song, “No Roots”. There is complexity in the desire to travel, and there is complexity in the desire to be rooted and stay in a place.

After lunch we made our way to the Festival de Música del Pacífico Petronio Álvarez, a five day affair attended by around fifteen thousand people. An enthusiastic 17-year-old Colombian I stood next to during the concert explained how this was one of the best festivals all year in Colombia, and he heartily hoped I was enjoying it. (Which I was, mightily). Africans brought as slaves to the coastal areas of Colombia in past centuries developed their own culture and musical styles that have become an integral and beloved part of Colombian culture. The festival is a competition of musical groups from the Pacific, all of which delve into the traditional rhythms and musical themes of that culture.

While I tried to my best to dance in rhythm to the addicting, heavy percussive beats that mesmerize the entire body, at times I stood still and let myself absorb the stunning nature of the festival; a celebration of human beings, a smattering of Americans, like me, and Europeans, like my friend from the Netherlands; of thousands of Colombians of Spanish descent, Colombians of indigenous descent, Colombians of African descent, all partaking in music, food, and dance, all celebrating the unique cultural expressions that have developed over time in this most surprising and diverse country.

On my long bus ride to Medellín the following day, I couldn’t help but think back on the conclusion my friend and I briefly surveyed over that savory bowl of Colombian fish soup. For those of us who, for whatever reason, felt we didn’t fit in, that our traits, our curiosities, our intense personalities were at odds with our prevailing culture, traveling offers a place for us to seek others like us, who mirror ourselves and offer understanding and an intellectual haven of sorts, and gives us a glimpse into the ways in which other cultures proclaim their identities in proud fashion.

Traveling moreover offers a space to get us outside of our deeply rutted brains, to offer a radical way to understand who we are while also forging relationships with people and places that will always be dear to us.

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Stay tuned for the next week’s post on the (controversial) Pablo Escobar tour, lovely Medellín coffee shops, and Spanish school.

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What is Home, anyway?

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Hostel Sue, in the La Candelaria District of Bogotá.

My sense of home has evolved much in the past year. I’ve been considering it more than usual this past month after I gave up my attic apartment and put all my things into storage and started darting between friends’ homes. The question finally presented itself while I was backpacking with my dear friend Malory last weekend in the beautiful northwoods of Minnesota. We’d set up our tent, had our chairs ready to go, and I’d even brought my expedition hammock to try out. We had, basically, a living room in the middle of a circle of cedars, on the edge of the boulder strewn Manitou River. It felt exquisitely homey. So I had to wonder:

“What is home?”

Is home a pile of books, a mound of ideas floating, playing in the air before me as I sit daydreaming on a couch or an overstuffed chair, a cup of tea or coffee, a bar of dark chocolate? Music from the piano, a woven rug laid before a flickering fire in the fireplace? A comfortable bed, a kitchen table? The sound of laughter from your friends and family in the living room?

I used to live in a lovely little house in South Minneapolis with a black cat and a German Shepherd, with a backyard and a garden. Even while I was grateful to have a home, the experience eventually suffocated me, for reasons I won’t go into now. While heartbreaking to leave it all, the leaving was inevitable. I had some sort of growing to do, a restlessness to wring out, and a journey to undertake. Some might say a journey of the soul, and I would believe that, even though I consider myself more a material philosopher than a mystic.

As I sit here, my first night in Bogotá, Colombia, at Hostel Sue, I understood completely for the first time that I am absolutely free for the next seven months to create Home wherever I am. Even at a random little hostel I find ad hoc through an app.

The same walls that provide comfort for those who choose to live in a house in South Minneapolis had become my shackles, my cage; the lack of a physical space that is my own has produced a deep joy. I don’t question it; I simply accept. I say this even while I dream of a home someday again with a piano, books, a table, friends, and a freshly uncorked bottle of wine about to be served.

That reality will come in time, I’m sure, but not for now.

For the next seven months, “Home” is my backpack, my mind, my heart, my ability to create spaces for myself where I am, the digital spaces in which I communicate with friends and family back home; the communal spaces here, where I will meet new friends.

As my dear friend Malory reminded me regarding the privilege and joy of travel: We enter the Homes of others–whether this is their country, their backyard, their school, their house or their apartment–with humility and open curiosity; and we leave filled with gratitude and a widened knowledge of humanity and the world.

And so, hello Colombia; thank you for receiving me and providing a land and space for my home this month. I eagerly look forward to partaking in your culture, your landscapes, your history.

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My old Home in South Minneapolis, Minnesota. The crew, whom I miss dearly (but they are in good hands now).
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Scorpions and Scrumptious Gallo Pinto in Costa Rica

Let’s address the issue of scorpions at once: Yes, there are scorpions, along with many other critters large and small in Costa Rica; but dang that’s why I like the place so much. So much in fact, I’m moving there Spring 2019.

One of the finest tours I’ve ever taken (and lucky me, I’ve been on this one twice) was the Night Tour led by Drake Bay’s resident entomologist, Tracie Stice, and her partner, Gian, a naturalist. Together, they lead groups of tourists through pitch jungle dark, spotting out of nowhere concealed wildlife for their guests; not only insects but snakes, amphibians, and mammals such as sleeping sloths.

Tracie has a knack for enchanting her guests: her voice swoops and dives as she describes the work of the slingshot spider, which catches prey by–you guessed it–using a piece of her web as a slingshot. Trapdoor spiders are equally enrapturing: they burrow into the side of a clay wall and wait for small insects to creep by its little “door”. We also encountered several scorpions during the tour, and I was happily prepared to squash the pesky visitor that night in my bathroom, thinking airily, “Oh, another scorpion!” Then WHAP with my sandal. (Tracie advises, very matter-of-factly, to shake out all damp clothing with the assumption there might be a scorpion nestled in there).

This wondrous tour (see details for the Tour here) takes place on a jungle trail running along the coastal region of Drake Bay, near the village of Agujitas, on the Corcovado Peninsula in Costa Rica.

Night tour aside, Drake Bay is one of the most marvelous places I’ve ever visited. The rugged coasts, still more or less remote despite the growing presence of tourism, embrace majestic sunsets, abundant wildlife, and a surrounding jungle environment that is certain to please the eye and senses of anyone able to visit. Getting there is also part of the adventure–either fly in and then take a jeep that drives through a river to get to Agujitas, where you’ll then board a boat that will take you to your resort; or bus from San José to Palmar Norte, spend the night, take the bus to Sierpe and catch a boat ride mid-morning to Agujitas.

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Werner’s Beach in Drake Bay

I had the privilege to stay a week in this jungle paradise upon invitation from my dear friend Mari, whose partner Werner manages a resort for tourists called Cabinas Vista Al Mar.

Werner built Cabinas Vista Al Mar in 1998 and has been hosting international travelers there ever since. (See here for more details on staying at Werner’s Cabinas). I helped with cleaning, cooking, and conversing with guests. My first morning had me up at 4:30am to help prepare French Toast for a guest over Werner’s outdoor woodstove–a storm passing through knocked out the power for the day so we used the outdoor stove to cook everything on. I also helped Mari prepare Costa Rica’s most common dish, gallo pinto, and arroz con leche. 

Both dishes are often accompanied with Costa Rican style coffee, brewed nice and thick through a chorreador, which is essentially a wooden stand with a sock that holds the grounds.

Easily one of the best days of my life was spent hiking along the jungle trail from the cabinas to Punta Rio Claro National Wildlife Refuge, about a 2-3 hour hike. I went with Tatiana, a fellow lover of animals and wildlife and a guest at the cabinas. Along the way we spied numerous monkeys, pairs of scarlet macaws and toucans (both plentiful in this part of Costa Rica), lizards, basilisks, crabs, and grass-cutter ants.

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Mari occasionally had errands to run in Agujitas, so I’d accompany her for the 45-minute hike. Once in town, we’d often get an icy Coke or a banana split–both items you crave in the heavy jungle heat. Crossing the aquamarine river to town, we paused to search out lazy sunbathing crocodiles, since they often lay about along the banks. Alas, both times we missed them.

Making Chocolate in Sierpe 

From Drake Bay I headed via boat to Sierpe to meet with Jim Cameron, a  chocolate farmer originally from Minnesota. He is the founder of Cameron Coffee, a business he sold years ago, but the name of which I recognized from local grocery stores.  Two years prior on a trip to Drake Bay, I’d met Jim, a connection Werner and Mari arranged, as they knew how much I loved chocolate–a 70% dark chocolate bar a day keeps the doctor away! This time I planned to ask Jim whether I could come stay in Sierpe and learn how to make chocolate with him. He said yes!

After my visit with Jim, I took the bus to Palmar Norte, where Mari had arranged for me to spend the night in a friend’s apartment. Her friend Otto was ready there with a key to help me settle in for the day. After eating a hearty meal at Soda Acuario, Otto’s restaurant, and chatting with him and his coworker, I spent the afternoon hiking in the hills, enjoying the wildlife. Some wildlife highlights: befriending a giant millipede and chasing exquisite black and turquoise poisonous dart frogs.

San José

Early the next morning I boarded a bus for San José where Mari arranged for me to meet a younger musician relative of hers, Mariel. Mariel and her friend Estefania merrily introduced me to the musical nightlife of San José, including a chill and cozy blues club called El Sótano, suitably named as it is literally the basement in a larger arts venue. There I got to try out Blue Orpheus on my soprano sax with the friendly band. My hope is to get back into music while in San José alongside my writing and teaching activities.

I stayed close by in Hostel Pangea, a pleasant hostel with friendly staff (one staff member who worked late shifts liked saying to me, “Buenas noches, Wo-OOOOOOOOOOF” when I arrived in the wee hours with my friends).

This hostel was just a few blocks from the club, as well as close to a delightful coffee shop I became quickly attached to, Café Miel Garage. This cafe called me back every day to write because of their open, friendly atmosphere and delicious postres. (See here for directions). When I told one of the baristas–who spoke flawless English, by the way–why I kept coming back, she smiled and said, “Que linda!”

With all my heart I recommend everyone visit Costa Rica. Chocolate farms, jungles, secluded rugged beaches, captivating wildlife, a welcoming culture, and so much more awaits you in this peaceful, paradisaical country.

Muchas, muchas gracias to Mari, plus your wonderful pets Jupe, Sol and Otto for hosting me in Drake Bay and arranging for my travels elsewhere. Thanks to Jim for showing me your chocolate farm. And XOXO to Mariel and Estefania for slipping me so easily into your nightly schedule for my four final nights in San José.