On the train ride to Machu Picchu, I found myself enveloped in the warm conversation of several Colombians sitting around my table. Having spent the last few days alone in Ollantaytambo, one of the lovely, small Incan villages in the Sacred Valley, I welcomed the prospect of connecting with people from a country I had such fond memories of.
After a few minutes listening to them speak in Spanish, I introduced myself. Patty, the woman sitting across from me, asked what I did for a living. I told her I was an English teacher and a writer. And that I was really interested in chocolate at the moment.
Her attractive dark eyes widened. Her sister and brother-in-law were getting into organic, artisanal chocolate making, she explained. “You should come visit and try the chocolate!” We exchanged contact information and a few months later, while thinking about chocolate in Argentina, I decided to take up her offer.
The thought of returning to Colombia, the country in which I’d started my journey in August of 2018, pleased me. I couldn’t wait to see the emerald green mountains again, and my friends in Medellín.
After meeting up with Patty my first day there, we went to her family home in Bogotá, where her mother lived, and where the family convened on Sunday afternoons after church to make chocolate. Inside the two-story townhouse in a quiet neighborhood, they brought me to a bedroom on the second floor. A balcony looked out onto a garden and patio where a coffee tree grew along with other fruit trees and flowers.
After church the next day Patty’s sister and brother-in-law began the chocolate making by toasting beans in a pan on the stove. After the toasting was finished, we sat at the dining room table to peel off the shells. Then we put the beans into a metal grinder to make a peanut butter like paste. We processed the paste three times, until it became shiny and syrupy enough to pour into heart-shaped molds.
This is artisanal style chocolate. There’s no sugar added, and no time spent conching, refining, or tempering, processes normally important in chocolate making. You can read about refining and conching here, shared by one of my favorite chocolate blogs, Chocolate Alchemy. Refining happens over one or two days–depending on how smooth you want your chocolate; conching is a heating and stirring process that has more to do with teasing out of specific flavors and adding in additional flavors, such as vanilla or milk powder, to the chocolate. Tempering is the process by which you heat and slowly cool chocolate to a specific temperature so that it crystallizes in a way that produces a bar with good shine and snap. I enjoyed this video on tempering and what it does for chocolate made by the French Cooking Guy, Alex.
The experience of taking an afternoon to make chocolate from scratch is unforgettable. The smell, the textures, the peeling process is delightful—though long.
The following weekend, Patty drove me with her mother four hours southwest of Bogotá to Los Llanos, an agricultural region where her father manages a small farm. After he showed me the cacao and mandarin trees on his land, a trail of ducklings followed him as he walked around the house. He also showed me a pile of beans that’d been fermented and dried, now ready for roasting.
The family enjoyed fresh hot chocolate with slices of mozzarella-like cheese—and no sugar. The bitterness was a bit too much for me, and I felt a bit shamed as the family scrounged around the kitchen at the farm to find a bit of sugar for me to add.
We spent the entire day Sunday together driving around. I felt like I was part of the family. First we ate a hearty breakfast consisting of beef and fish stew and patacones—the latter is mashed, flattened and fried plantains. We drank espressos at Patty’s father’s favorite café and then we visited the cacao farms. Besides Patty’s family farm, we went to Granja Rinconcito, where the cacao beans recently won a chocolate award in Colombia. Strikingly—and as per the norm—the caretaker, the farmer on site, had never tasted chocolate made from his beans.
The style of fermentation in both the cacao farms I visited is done in a mountain-like heap under heavy plastic coverings. Read this article from the Chocolate Journalist and read about what fermentation is, and how it affects flavor.
In Bogotá, I had the chance to peruse a few independent coffee roasting shops and find locally made chocolate brands there. Lök Chocolate, a French-owned company with a factory in Bogotá makes a smooth and easy to enjoy 70% dark chocolate bar. It was the first chocolate bar I’d eaten since Ecuador that I wanted to keep eating (I often gave away the chocolate I bought to people at my hostels because I couldn’t finish the bars).
So far my favorite Colombian brand has been Caofiori’s 70%–they have a wonderfully smooth mouthfeel, appealing cacao brown color, and a malty, caramel, steady flavor. Carlota Chocolat 72% Nariño region was also very good, smooth, fruity, with a bit of honey.
I still like chocolate, just not every day.
When I went to a coffee shop the other day and saw they had Dandelion Chocolate, a craft brand based out of California, on display at $10 a bar, I shrugged and passed by. Didn’t feel like having chocolate. I still haven’t bought a bar since coming home—though I did enjoy some 70% Equal Exchange chocolate chips, which I used to make cookies for a friend. But after those were finished I did not buy more.
I’ve been asked by nearly everyone since returning to Minneapolis how this ambivalence is possible. I’m the one who used to eat a bar a day of 70% dark for the past ten years. Perhaps I overdid it; after all, I tried a lot of chocolate–mostly because I was searching for a good bar of it.
Below: Much of the chocolate I tried while traveling in South America. These bars represent every country I visited except for Brazil. Unfortunately, I did not like most of them.
Still, when I taste a dark chocolate with a flavor that is pleasing to me—then YES, I enjoy it. But overall, my desire for chocolate has waned as my preference has become more refined. So much chocolate today has a flat and short flavor profile, contains vanilla—a loud ingredient that covers more than it adds—and soy lecithin, which also muddies the true flavor tones of a piece of a chocolate.
The other odd thing? I started to get itchy, burning lips and mouth after eating dark chocolate, and a stomachache soon after. So perhaps it’s time to back off for a bit and enjoy the other fruits of the earth.
Argentina went by too quickly. I spent three weeks there,
and wish I’d had a bit more time to see Mendoza and visit its bodegas. Of
course, when you are traveling for seven months you begin to think this
way—three weeks is not enough, etc.. Nevertheless, I found no lack of cheap,
good red wine in Buenos Aires—Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon—among other delicious
foods to try.
Bariloche, Mountains, Chocolate
My Argentinean journey started in San Carlos de Bariloche, a town surrounded by sapphire blue lakes and sharp, jagged mountaintops, laced with snow. A feast for the eyes at every angle, and filled with chocolate shops, to my surprise. I lost count of how many lined the main streets of that city. Furthermore—in every café you can find a warm jug of hot chocolate churning in a vat, waiting for its next customer (me).
Truth be told, I didn’t much like any of the chocolate I
tried there, but that is a different story altogether…the story of how I don’t
like chocolate anymore, which I’ll explore in a later post.
How did I get to San Carlos de Bariloche? I took a bus from
the verdant, neat-trimmed town of Valdivia, Chile—a place that reminded me
vaguely of suburban Minneapolis in July, which felt both strongly unsettling
and vaguely comforting. In Osorno, I changed buses; and from there the bus took
me through the mountains of northern Patagonia—the Lakes Region—to San Carlos
From Osorno to Bariloche I was reminded how decadent very
long bus rides can be when traveling in new countries. Along this route, towers
of mountains covered in green pines border pristine turquoise lakes on the
shores of which fly fishermen work their magic. With a good musical playlist—lately
I’ve been cycling through Birdy, Julio Jaramillo, and playlists of folk and
Americana songs—the hours dreamily melt away.
As for the crowds of trees: my body gladly soaked in the
arboreal images. After spending several months in high altitude places—Peru,
Bolivia—and in desert climes, such as northern Chile, my eyes were thirsting to
For example–a distinct ache bloomed in my head when I arrived to hike in the Maipo River Valley, Chile, another area of tree-barren, rocky terrain characteristic of high altitude places. I realized then that I like mountains, but I’ll trade the smaller, emerald green gems of Colombia for the majestic but chilly slopes of high altitude ranges in Chile, Bolivia, and Peru.
My first night in Bariloche was spent in a somewhat rundown
hostel in the middle of town. I didn’t mind; I was out during the day, and at
night, simply stuck myself in my bed wrapped in blankets watching the Netflix
series, “You”—a series I quickly became enamored with, as I enjoy unreliable
My first evening in Bariloche I discovered that Argentinians stay up REALLY LATE compared to Minnesotans (For us dinner is at 6pm; bed at 10pm). My first night I zonked out at ten, about the time the locals—including a group of very good-looking lads—were getting out pots and pans to start cooking. I swore to myself the next day I would eat late, drink a beer, and be sociable, maybe flirt a bit—but after a long hike, I zonked out around ten again, when the lads were starting to cook up meat and other things which smelled quite nice. Same story my third night.
Another interesting tidbit, which of course I’d known about beforehand, but had never observed firsthand, is that Argentineans drink a helluva lot of mate. Gourd-like cups filled with sucked out semi-dried light green yerba leaves are everywhere, along with the thermoses filled with water. Straw-like silver metal filters called bombillas are in every gourd; without one it would be impossible to drink the brewed tea. Sidenote: The word “mate” is used in reference to the whole setup: bombilla, gourd, hot water, and herbs.
San Carlos de Bariloche is a ski town in winter; and though it was summer, it often rained and hailed and even snowed occasionally. It is not a town for outdoor picnics at the lakefront!
Fortunately, the weather was splendid the day I hiked with a friend to Refugio Frey, a popular trek. Refugio Frey is a stone shelter that sits on the Toncek Lagoon, about a seven hour roundtrip hike from the Cerro Catedral ski resort, where the bus stop is. The bus (#55) doesn’t come around very often, once an hour, so we had to wait.
I spent my three days in Bariloche with a new friend from England
named Grace, who like me, enjoys learning and speaking Spanish and has
experience teaching English. At the age of twenty-five, she’s already worked in
Barcelona for two years as a teacher and translator and is now traveling South
America for many months. Dressed smartly in black jeans, and a fitted black
turtleneck, she spoke to me about her life and work in Barcelona; I was likewise
fascinated to hear how her family, and especially her mother, had encouraged to
spend these years abroad working and traveling. Her mother, she explained, also
had Wanderlust, and spent her twenties living in Mexico. Today her mother works
in bicycle tourism—planning cycling tours around Europe.
Given cycling is a pastime for Grace’s family, she suggested we do the bike tour called Circuito Chiquito the day after our hike. Although our legs were sore and we groaned our way up some of the steeper hills at the beginning of the ride, we loved it. The views along the way, and the viewpoints over the lakes and mountains atop those steep hills were breathtaking. It was handsdown my favorite activity in Bariloche, and one of the best experiences in my trip through South America.
Soaking in the
Vanity: Buenos Aires
Traveling, and especially backpacking, is exhausting. There
are long bus rides, late nights, early mornings…lack of healthy food options
unless you can spend $12 on a salad at a fancy restaurant in the evenings…the
like. Plus you begin craving all sorts of junky foods when your daily rhythm is
off (at least, in my case). By the time I got to Buenos Aires, I was ready to
settle in for a week of pampering, relaxing, and healthy eating. And resting my
foot, which has continued to plague me with its flare-ups around the area where
I had a fractured sesamoid bone removed last year.
In the light-infused, tree-lined streets of Palermo, where I had a heavenly Airbnb rental awaiting me, I sank into a reverie of reading and simply being. My friend Najet came over for a day of work, and at the end of it, we watched a movie on Netflix on the TV on the wall—not something I’d done in six months!
One afternoon my friend Najet and I experienced firsthand
how rainy Buenos Aires can get—on our forty-five minute walk to a salon we
thought was closer, the rain completely soaked us to the skin. The last half
hour we were wading in glee through calf-high pools of water in the streets.
When we arrived the salon staff kindly gave us multiple little white towels to help take the edge off while we got our nails done. I decided to go back the next day and do something I’d never done before: go blond. Truth be told, I don’t always care about how I look, but occasionally I go through phases where I do something bold, and it’s fun. The next morning I commenced a two-day process of lightening my hair. It takes a damn long time to get your hair lightened, so I learned, and both days I was running to get to my afternoon Spanish lessons on time.
Most people I met the day of my blond transformation and after commented that they thought it was my natural hair color—I credit that to Perla, who chose the shade and highlights.
My teacher, Alberto, didn’t comment at first on the transformation of my hair—because he wasn’t exactly certain what he was seeing—until I told him that yes, my hair was definitely getting lighter, and he wasn’t crazy.
One of the sillier situations I experienced that week had to do with meeting two British men, David and Paul, who lived and worked with their partners in Rio de Janeiro. Before they arrived, I was taking advantage of a completely empty dorm room to re-organize all my things. I’d bought new cosmetics as well as clothing, since most of latter I’d been traveling with was starting to fall apart. All my newly purchased clothing—along with bags of the old, plus the contents of my gutted backpack, lay all over the floor. Cue the entrance of David and Paul, who were a bit surprised to see a traveler with so much stuff—Paul, who had the bunk below mine, set his bag down and said, in his kindly British accent, “I’ll get out of your way” when he realized he couldn’t get through.
The next day when the three of us went out for dinner, Paul confessed, somewhat sheepishly, he thought that perhaps I was a little crazy and/or not very intelligent, traveling with what looked like “5 kilos of make-up”. (It’s true, I had the new and old spread out and it looked like I had a LOT of make-up). “And a lot of stuff, a lot of clothes,” he said, laughing.
While walking back to the hostel after dinner, he added, “I said to David I didn’t think you were a very smart person, because of the 5 kilos of make-up, but David said he thought that you were actually a very smart person.” I laughed pretty hard at this, and took it as a complement when he told me I was one of the most fiercely intelligent people he’d ever met.
Even still, I received further ribbing from the my British friends (and friends in general) when I admitted I hadn’t had time to do anything cultural, like go to a museum, because I’d been sitting in a salon most mornings during the week getting my nails and hair done.
My favorite treat in Buenos Aires was not, as many would guess, an alfajor. In fact, I didn’t like this type of cookie too much—the texture of it was not my style, and I can’t digest dulce de leche—a caramel made from sweetened condensed milk—very well (I’m lactose intolerant). But I did stumble upon the coffee drink of my dreams, which I enjoyed in the afternoons before my Spanish class: the Café Irlandés. A splash of whiskey, almond milk froth, espresso, and pieces of dark chocolate made this coffee a daily fixture during my 1-week stay in Buenos Aires. You’ll find it at the Café Martinez on the corner of Chabuco and Avenida del Mayo (I tried two other locations–it wasn’t available).
What else did I do besides drink coffee, get my hair and nails done, and study Spanish? I went out for steak, of course. I rarely order this dish in the States, where it can easily cost thirty or forty dollars. But in Buenos Aires, a full meal with drinks cost around $20 per person (of course, we tourists love the cheap prices…but it isn’t a good thing for those who live and work in Argentina). As a person who doesn’t usually enjoy steak that much, I have to say–I was left wanting more.
The one tour I did go on, or attempt to go on (I left early out of boredom), was the Boca walking tour, supposedly one of the most interesting places to visit in Buenos Aires. It disappointed me. What I observed was a large mass of tourists taking pictures in a working class neighborhood painted in bright colors. (I’ve come to notice that many low-income neighborhoods in Latin America tend to be painted in bright colors; and tend to attract tourists, including myself, in hoards…). Perhaps I was too information hungry for the likes of that tour—being dropped off among fifty vendors selling magnets of the neighborhood I knew very little about was not exactly enlightening or enjoyable.
I did learn it was the locale of immigrants and artists in earlier times, though now it seems to be a neighborhood with a famous street lined with restaurants and shops catering to foreigners.
Later that afternoon I was grateful when my Spanish teacher Alberto offered to take me on a historical tour of the center my last afternoon in the city—a much richer experience, and insightful. Plus, we finished our lesson by chowing down on a variety of facturas, or pastries, as they’re called in Argentinian.
My last afternoon in the city I spent with a new friend named Leo, an engineer and artist, who lived near the airport. I met him while out the day before with his cousin, who an American friend connected me with.
I asked him if I could spend my last afternoon drawing with him, and he kindly complied. On his balcony, overlooking white buildings tucked in between plentiful green trees, we sat sketching the cityscape while discussing Buenos Aires, the crumbling economic situation of Argentina, creativity, and other things.
Córdoba, and the Pressing Heat of Puerto Igauzu
In Córdoba , where lovely UNESCO protected buildings line the streets in the Jesuit Block, I wandered a street market with antique trinkets and puppies, tried the bitter, herbal liquor called fernet and took my first Zumba class. The instructor—a tattooed man who was intensely into hip hop—inspired me with his dancing zeal. Frankly however I could not keep up. Najet, who teaches Zumba in Medellin, Colombia, was rocking it, of course, and laughing at me, the white Minnesota gringa who can’t shake her hips.
I ended my Argentinian adventure in Puerto Iguazu, a stiflingly hot and humid town next to a park that contains the absolutely impressive Iguazu Falls. I visited this park in the morning, did a long hike to see the falls from all possible viewpoints, and then returned by 2:00pm, before a tropical storm set in. The heat and humidity was so intense I passed out for several hours that afternoon, and the next day as well.
Ironically, while I lay passed out, sleeping in my own sweat (pleasant, I know), my friends and family were suffering through a polar vortex in Minnesota. My parent’s electric company was shutting off power intermittently, forcing them to heat the house using the wood-burning fireplace in their basement. My mom’s text explained, “We are managing to survive burning wood in the fireplace downstairs and running a little heater…They [the electric company] tell us people will have to burn wood…our gas backup isn’t working either…Back to primitive times, I guess. I’m staying inside… But we have had these before so us Minnesotans aren’t freaked out…” And really, for my parents and others, it wasn’t really that big of a deal (in Minnesota parlance)—we have had these vortices before.
Even though I spent my afternoons panting like a dog on my bed, I must say being in the spectacularly forested and sauna hot clime of Igauzu Falls was preferable to being in a polar vortex…
Occasionally I hear this sort of question from people when talking about my current trip of seven months in South America: “But isn’t this just an escape for you?”
Escape from what, I begin asking myself, feeling instantly self-conscious and nervous. A city I didn’t quite fit into? Perhaps. A job market that no longer suited me? Yeah, probably. Life post-divorce? Certainly. The cold and dark of Minnesota winter? Hell, yeah! (Question: Shouldn’t I try to escape those things?)
The truth is, the first few times I heard someone ask me whether I’m “just escaping”, it stung, because it was subtly critical of a decision I’d made. That is, the decision to follow through with a dream I’ve had since college, or even before then: to travel long-term around the world and to live abroad.
I can see why others might think of my trip as an escape, and it has been a distraction in some respects—but a very helpful and transformative one. Transitioning from married life into a new and single life post-divorce, one marred by too many moments of raw loneliness and awkward, sometimes painful dating experiences (I’d never dated before getting married), has been surprisingly challenging. Spending time improving my Spanish and considering different ways to teach English abroad has been a superb way for me to indulge myself and my career, and get my mind off of divorce, and the fact that I feel old for the career stage I’m in. Traveling has allowed me to fill my mind with new faces, experiences, and triumphs, and let go of some less-than-pleasant memories and rigid, negative beliefs that I’ve wasted a portion of my life.
Patronization is alive and well
Traveling long-term can be the beginning of something radically new in your life. Or it could be a long-term binge vacation. Honestly–whether it is simply a long-term distraction of drinking and reveling in exotic bars, cycling through Instagram’s greatest hits and shuffling from one hostel to the next…or a healthy life choice (that may incorporate elements of the latter, of course!) depends exactly on who you are.
Recently I asked my friend Najet if people back in France, where she is from, considered her lifestyle abroad as a form of escapism. She said yes. Yet I have seen firsthand her chaotic life as a reporter in Medellín, Colombia, where she is based. It doesn’t look like escapism to me; it simply looks like she found her niche. Which she had to travel to find.
Nomadic Matt–one of the most popular travel bloggers around–has faced the “escapism” branding. As he explains it in this wonderful post, people accuse him of running away from being an adult. Which makes me wonder: Why is traveling inherently wrong? Does it have to be considered “escape?” What if you make money while traveling, or settle in a place you find your niche in…?
I get the sense that perhaps people saying that I am “escaping” may also wish they could do what I am doing. And this is certainly something more complicated–I am privileged to have the means to travel as I do. I am by no means wealthy but I had just enough money post-divorce to pack up and go on a 7-month trip through South America. My budget will allow me enough padding to get me started again when I decided where to settle. Even still I’ve met travelers with no funds; they are the truly nomadic folks who work as they go.
More often I believe that people who say my this simply don’t quite understand the purpose of long-term travel. They believe that whatever happened to me, my job, my Minneapolis life, must have been so awful that I now need to “escape.” This was the general discussion I had with Najet—this idea that we are escaping something in our respective homes by traveling for months, and living abroad. I suppose it’s a question of perspective and also patronization.
As in: I am not doing what I “should” be doing. Or handling my life correctly.
To that I shrug (somewhat wearily). I’m used to being patronized. I’m a woman who grew up in a conservative small town in Minnesota. I’ve had family members tell me I’ll come around to being more politically conservative someday because what I think now is wrong—I’m young (and therefore silly). I’ve had religiously inclined friends express concerns over my lack of faith in my adult years, explaining that if I have kids (which I may not have—which is, of course, another aspect that is “wrong” with me) I’ll probably want to attend church again, and that really, there is no sense in the world without a God. (Therefore I have no sense).
I actively work toward trusting my intuition and intellect—and it seems to me that what path I’m on now is the one most fulfilling to me.
There certainly is a tradeoff for this kind of nomadic existence, whether it lasts a few months or years: financial instability, smelly clothes, illness on the road, just a backpack to call my home. I do not have gadgets, a house, children, pets, a kitchen…all those things which give us wonderful learning, comforts and joy. And yet, I couldn’t feel more content with this phase in my life.
And I’d encourage anyone (but perhaps not everyone) to give it a try.
Go! Go! Go!
To bring this back around to those who decide to take the long-term plunge. I’d encourage you to think of long-term travel as an exploration and a transition period—a time to think and reflect on who you are, and what you really want to do. That’s what this journey has done for me. And it needs to be long—really, really long—because after only one month you haven’t changed, you’ve been on vacation; after three months, when you’ve gotten sick or your heart is broken by that person “back home” (this is a very common trend, my friends—even happened to Che while on his motorcycle journey), when you’re uncomfortable by all these strong emotions and foreign foods and bad water that sends you to the toilet every ten minutes; when all this makes you want so badly to return to the place you came from (but needed to leave, for whatever reason)—that is when you must keep on going.
You’ll want to return to comfort but you can’t, it’s only a
mirage at this point. After five months
you adjust to the new self, the moody but buoyant adolescent emerging through
the experiences you’ve endured and enjoyed. You’ll reflect proudly on the triumphs
you, and only you have brought upon yourself.
As Cheryl Strayed wrote in “Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar,” if you feel the need to go, GO! (She said this in various forms, and once I get the page numbers, I will share them! Or, Meg Egg, if you happen can find the pages, I’d be grateful; or even better, I highly recommend everyone read this book).
You must get outside of your current reality, which is perhaps suffocating you in ways you can’t understand—and won’t understand, until you are out of it.
If you travel for all these reasons, this is not escape. In
a way, it’s a full-on confrontation. When I lay in the jungle for two weeks
without Wi-fi, I confronted all the junk rolling around in my psyche. There
were so many opportunities for me to consider who I was, and whether everything
I’d done in my life had been a mistake—I’d hardly consider this escapism.
For some, long-term travel, or living abroad for a while will give clarity and reason to go right back to what they were doing. Perhaps they will know exactly what it is they need to tweak, a change they couldn’t see before, when they were stuck in their daily rhythms. And for others, like myself, it will give the strength to keep walking into a new life, the one we’ve had in our dreams far too long.
And it’s also true that for others–perhaps traveling is just one more mode of consumerism, bringing nothing but the joy of purchase for a short while.
So then, is traveling for seven months considered the Grand Escape? As in, on March 13th, 2019, will it be my time to return to “reality”? Sure. I’m escaping into new realms, new ideas, new dreams—and a new location to call home. I’m discovering realities that utilize my love for language, offer places to live in sunshine and jungle year-round, and give me a sense of meaning. It doesn’t matter where you end up living, in the US, or Colombia, or China—what matters is that you feel you have the ability to change your life, to escape that old one. For me, travelling has always been the key.
PS: Thank you Jenne and Matt, for allowing me to finish this blog in your wonderful home in Dourados, Brazil, and use your excellent Wifi. You and your family abroad have been an inspiration for me, and a restful haven.
Jenne and Cici in Bonito, Brazil. We are Escape Artists! (You can too, in whatever way you want to be).
Traveling solo for months on end is tough at times. It is “vacation” but it isn’t. It is fun, exciting and overly stimulating at times, and sometimes not. Sometimes you get bored when you’re stranded somewhere for too long; you are stressed when a flight is missed or you have to change plans due to illness. Or if you get really sick and have to find a hospital—alone.
Twice I was a click away from buying a plane ticket back to Minnesota, even though I had no idea what I’d do once back there. In the first occasion, I was lying in a bed bug infested hostel bed, itching horribly from microscopic mites (AKA scabies) that had made my skin their breeding place, and an intestinal illness that had me running to the bathroom every ten minutes. My foot ached terribly as I’d somehow re-injured it in the previous weeks. My heart was broken by a friend back home and by the fact that I’d left the Amazon earlier than I’d planned, because it was too isolating and uncomfortable for me to be living there.
I experienced all of this physical and psychic turmoil alone in a hostel bed, my only companion a little bed bug hobbling its way across the white sheet.
the second occasion, I felt exhausted and stressed from managing a rigorous
travel schedule as well as making and maintaining friendships with folks I was
traveling closely with. It is a challenge, no matter who you are with, to
travel with friends (or partners, as I’ve learned) for weeks on end. During one
segment of my trip I was sharing rooms with two other travelers, and we were
seeing each other every waking hour of the day for several weeks. At another point,
five of us rode in a car for 3 days, blazing across a barren salt flat. When we
finally arrived in San Pedro, Chile, my introverted lizard brain made an
impulse buy to fly to Santiago so I could be alone for a week, sinking into
café shops and talking to no one.
Both situations warranted Whatsapp calls with close friends back in Minnesota. These friends did the wonderful job of reminding me why I was traveling, and asked me if there were ways I could better my situation. Basically, how can I solve this? Would it actually be better to be in Minnesota, and give up this dream of backpacking South America, just because I felt stressed in the moment?
I’m so happy I didn’t give up. So, very very happy. Traveling forces you to be assertive, kind, and firm in your needs. It’s truly a microcosm of the real world.
Meeting locals helps
ground you in a new city and culture
One afternoon while I was sitting alone in my bunk bed at La Princesa Insolente, my first hostel home in Santiago, trying to figure out the best way to explore Chilean wine country, my friends started group texting about Tinder dates in Argentina. I joked: “How is it you have any time to do Tinder? To date? I’m sitting here trying to find a bus!” Travel planning fries your brain sometimes. They kept joking and sharing details of their dates and hookups with various people in their hostels. After pondering all this, I decided to sign up for Tinder and try it out, at least so I could get coffee and practice Spanish with someone from the city.
Although I liked the vibe of Santiago, and felt comfortable with just about every interaction I’d had with people there—I’d say I even felt at home, as if in Minneapolis—I never guessed I’d meet someone to date. In fact, some of my interactions with men in Peru and Ecuador left me completely cold and mistrustful of dating in Latin America in general (a hefty prejudice, I know). But it happened. I perused the Tinder profiles and paused on a young man’s profile who had written “seeking people who are intellectual and feminist, and like going out into nature on the weekends”. He had an easygoing smile and two adorable monkeys perched on his head. That seemed about right to me. After a swipe right, Sebastian and I matched, chatted on and off for the evening, and then met for dinner the next day. Our evening began at five with a beer, and ended with a stroll and a shared slice of hazelnut cake.
My time in Santiago was lighthearted and thoughtful after that. Sebastian invited me to hang out with his friends for an evening at the lake in Pucon, where we chatted and played cards for hours; he invited me to the beach, where we walked and ate seafood; we went out to trendy bars and restaurants. We even danced and sang karaoke one night—he sang Queen; I was going to sing Bob Dylan but they cut me from the list. Toward the end of time together, while we were sitting in a park listening to duos of teenagers perform rap competitions, Sebastian asked me, “Is this the longest relationship you’ve had since you got divorced?” He was laying on his side, smoking a cigarette he’d rolled himself.
Yes, actually, I laughed in response. And two weeks was about all I could afford to spend in Santiago, Chile, unfortunately, before moving on.
Surprise! Friends, all over the place
been traveling through South America for five months now, and have two more
packed months before I fly back to Minneapolis, MN. What have I learned? This:
the longer you travel, the more friends you collect, no matter where you go. So
have no fear, solo traveler! You will not be alone.
repeatedly bumped into friends I’ve met in hostels or tours in a different city
or country. Last night I got to catch up with Paul, a firefighter from Ireland
on sabbatical for the year. He’s traveling the world, and happens to be
traveling in the same direction as me: toward Rio de Janeiro for Carnaval. We
initially met in La Paz at another hostel. While lunching in Valparaiso, Paul
recognized me and came over to say hello.
In Buenos Aires, two girlfriends contacted me via Instagram because they saw I was in the city, and we all met for a steak dinner, which was fabulous. Feasting on succulent, tender char-grilled Argentinean steaks with fellow female travelers was a such treat. Such an occasion felt celebratory for me, and the result of me sticking to my seven-month long journey, and maintaining connections with people.
At the beginning of my journey, I had no idea where and with whom Christmas would be spent. As it turned out, both my friends Peter and Priya would be in Santiago for the holidays. The two of them bought food and cooked so that we could all enjoy a meal together on Christmas Day in the hostel. To Priya’s annoyance and the delight of me and Peter, Harry Potter played nonstop in Spanish for the day.
For New Year’s, Peter rented an Airbnb in Valparaiso—a splendid occasion, as the city puts on one of the best fireworks shows in all of Latin America. The whole city was alive for the evening; there were empanadas, papas fritas, and churros everywhere, people playing music and dancing, and of course, a lot of pisco!
Traveling for a long
time takes some practice
is a knack to traveling long-term. Just like moving abroad, it takes some time
to adjust. Once you do, you get the most out of the experience. For example, you
get used to hearing different languages and accents; you get used to (though
you may not like it) wearing earplugs and sharing a sometimes hot and stuffy
room with five other traveler strangers; you learn to accept your changing body
as you realize it’s been a month since you’ve done any kind of meaningful
exercise besides walking; you accept the strange welts on your body from
insects you’ll never see; you understand that getting a crush on a man you’re
having drinks with from the hostel will likely manifest in Instagram texting
for a few weeks and then taper off, as real romantic relationships while
traveling are nonexistent and I’d say mostly impossible, mainly because you are
both there for the same reason, to wander and eventually settle in the place
best for you, as a single person right now, not as a unit—
traveling is not the same as being an explorer. One can explore via traveling,
it’s true, and I do try to do this. This kind of exploration is more about a
cultural learning and exchange. I am visiting other people’s homes, their
cultures, and I must pay attention to that. How do I sound and appear to them?
Am I rude? Am I attempting to understand their way of life? Am I learning something about them, and about
myself that can make me a better, and wiser person? Finally, what can I give
back, whether in something tangible in the moment, or in the future, through my
behavior and profession? Those are the questions I grapple with as I travel
through cities, towns, and countries.
alternated between longer stays (a month in Mindo, three weeks in Medellin, for
example) and “superficial” stays, for just a few nights, in various cities
where in that time frame the only thing to do is a city tour and eating out before
moving on. The latter is hard for me; what is the point of breezing through a
place and seeing it only from a hostel’s point of view? It led me to create
this list, upon reflection:
traveling today is…
Having an Instagram account on which to post wanderlust-inducing images, and to stay connected with other travelers
Seeking Wifi at all costs
Staying in hostels for on average, 10 USD/ night.
Drinking a lot; going to clubs
Tours: city tours, museums, adrenaline tours like bungee jumping, cultural tours like visiting ruins
Spending loads of time on cell phones texting folks and scrolling Instagram pictures and booking the next flight and/or hostel
Tinder: Most everyone I’ve met traveling uses Tinder to meet locals, either for dating, hooking up or making friends
Of course, traveling can be more than this, especially when you stay in one place for a while and do volunteer work. It’s my opinion that doing at least one homestay or volunteer work exchange is a good idea as it gives you a deeper link to the community you are visiting.
What are your thoughts on traveling solo, and on traveling in general?
Hugs to Peter, Priya, Marco, Michele, Najet, and Seba, for being a part of, and enriching my journey these past five months.
I don’t know why, but it’s been hard to get myself to write this week. Perhaps it’s because so much has happened since my last post, or perhaps it’s because I’m content to be hanging out in Santiago, Chile, sipping espresso and reading poetry—contentment sometimes being the killer of writing. Or perhaps I just needed a break; after all, pondering my future and all the possibilities that await me when I return to Minnesota in March often wakes me in my hostel bed at night—you can only think and process a finite number of ideas, memories, hopes, and dreams at once, much less write them all down.
To catch you up: After spending a few days in Maipo Valley (located about an hour in bus south of Santiago, Chile), I’m back in Santiago, Chile, at a quaint café called Café Forestal, soaking up both sun and a laid back, artsy city vibe. Staff here make a tasty mocha using almond milk and very dark chocolate—thumbs up.
What is Santiago like? Besides sunshine, views of white-tipped mountains and a plethora of comfy coffee shops, there are musicians. Here, skilled classical musicians—flautists, opera singers, string players—flaunt themselves in the afternoons and evenings amidst colonial architecture for change in a basket. A saxophonist serenaded café customers near the Plaza del Armas. There’s so much music I’ve been inspired to buy an instrument small enough to travel with from an Aymara man from San Pedro de Atacama. It’s called an ocarina.
Just the other night, my friends and I listened to a chamber group of college-aged string musicians in the street of Lastarria; their specialty was the waltz. There was no conductor; they simply picked a tune and all started playing together. That evening I’d bought a cigarillo flavored with organic chocolate tobacco, and I must say, I was in my element, enjoying the music and that earthy flavored cigarette.
Another reason I haven’t written, I suppose, is that I’m constantly researching the next place I’m traveling to–and Patagonia looms wild and large as the next segment of my itinerary. When on a trip like this one—seven months, seven countries—you are on the move every few days, and you must constantly plan ahead. I like it and I don’t sometimes. It’s exhilarating and it’s exhausting and it challenges your ability to live in the moment.
Let’s move back in time two weeks to San Pedro de Atacama, located in the north stretch of Chile just across the border from Bolivia. Here I stayed a night and went with friends to observe the stars where the tour guides used a badass powerful laser to show constellations and nebulae. Stunning, that was.
In the days leading up to stargazing, I was riding in an SUV for three days across Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni. This place feels like another planet–not Earth.
Surprisingly, three species of flamingos hang out in these otherworldly parts, in the steaming, poisonous, audaciously colorful lagunas filled with the chemical arsenic, along with minerals. Geysers and smoking volcanoes are plentiful.
Both nights my traveling comrades and I stayed in salt hotels; you walked barefoot and could feel the white culinary pebbles crumble. Salt is everywhere, obviously. And in the middle of a salt desert, you definitely had to pay for a hot shower.
Backtrack to Potosi, Bolivia. My friends and I toured the Cerro Rico mines, where silver and other metals have been mined for hundreds of years. To watch miners who voluntarily choose to do this work, sometimes starting it in their teens, effectively guaranteeing a shortened lifespan due to the hazardous conditions of working in a mine (most develop silicosis, for example) was, needless to say, a sobering and informative experience.
Before Potosi there was Sucre, the pearl white gem city of Bolivia and its original capital, where chocolate shops adorn many corners, well-kept parks and gardens are ubiquitous, and a large dinosaur footprint park looms just outside the city.
When it was time to go, we had trouble getting out of the city as it was shut down for protests—some citizens are not in agreement of extending Evo Morales’ ability to be elected again—though given the results of the court ruling, it seems the people have decided for him after all. As a close friend from Colombia elucidated for me: His situation seems to be one of contradiction; he wants to nationalize and protect his nation against foreign interests that would exploit resources and take income away from his people; but in order to develop the country there must be roads built through indigenous, sacred areas.
Contradictions, I’ve realized, are the truth of life. If I cannot embrace contradiction and its ubiquitous presence, I am living in a dreamworld. I don’t have to agree with the contradictions that abound in life, from politics to my own personal psyche, but I have to learn to live with them.
The juxtaposition of opposing realities and ideals reminds me of an earlier sentiment I’ve experienced, the reality of wanting two opposing things at the same time: to be stable and to travel; to be free and single and to have a partner to share my life with; to be alone to think and to be in company with close friends. To continue traveling because I am in love with places and cultures different from what I know; to go back to Minnesota immediately because I am sometimes utterly exhausted.
At times I wonder if I am going mad; I wonder if any of these oppositions will come to resolutions, or if my life is meant to be a juggling act. And I also wonder: Do others feel this way? Or is it only me leading a pack of contradicting wolves in my head?
Christmas will be spent with my traveling friends Priya and Peter along with others in Santiago, Chile. So far it looks like we’ll indulge in some fine Argentinean wine, a chocolate cake (if I find an oven!), and other goodies, perhaps out in one of Santiago’s many leafy parks.
I have to confess, though I’ll be missing my family I haven’t missed Minnesota winter once (GASP!) during this time. I certainly look forward to celebrating Christmas Eve in Chilean summer sunshine.
I thought of you when I was axe-picking my way up the mountainside of Huanya Potosí last week. You’ve told me of all the adventures you had while living in Ecuador, including a story about climbing Cotopaxi using an ice axe which I’d thought was, let’s say…badass adventurous. Nothing I thought I’d end up doing during my travels.
So it happens that this mountain, Huanya Potosí, part of the Cordillera Real range in Bolivia, with a summit reaching 19,974 feet, appeared as a bit of a surprise in my travel itinerary.
A new traveling friend who is climbing his way down South America had it a part of his itinerary, and he needed a second person to make the tour possible. I don’t think he ever really asked me to go, but at some point while listening to him talk about it, I said, “I’ll go with ya.”
In my mind, I was like, “Why not? I’ve never climbed a mountain.” I’d been stuck in a slightly depressed thinking rut lately after getting sick repeatedly and having to be hospitalized in Cusco. It was time to plunge into something different–and challenging. Climbing a mountain seemed like an excellent way to get my mind on to something radically new.
Peter, my traveling friend, was surprised to hear me I’d come with him, and proceeded to give me the facts: “It’s going to be at a really high altitude. Do you have medicine to take? And you’ll have to use crampons and an ice axe. There might be some crawling and/or climbing toward the top. It’ll be three days—we might be sleeping in tents the second night, at high camp. You OK with all that?”
It’s true, I was in a bit of denial when I shrugged and said, “Sounds fantastic, I’ll do it.” Anyway–isn’t that the way you should go about life? Being open-minded? That IS the way I go about life, and as my older expat friend Claire pointed out to me in her kitchen in Mindo, Ecuador, that means life can bring great highs and great lows—more so than for those who do not take risks at all.
In La Paz, where I was already gasping for air just walking to the tour office, Peter and I met Marcus, a German, as well as Eduardo, our sturdy and soft-spoken guide. Eduardo is from the La Paz area and speaks English, Spanish, and Aymara, an indigenous language of the area. He’s also been doing climbs for over thirty-eight years.
We reached the refugio,an unheated lodge near a dam at the base of the mountain, and settled in for the afternoon while we waited for the sleet and hail to let up. Eduardo was going to take us out to a glacier about a forty minute hike away and teach us how to use our ice axe and crampons. Peter and Marcus had both used them before, but I hadn’t, so I was glad for the lesson.
After we returned we had dinner, which was savory vegetable soup, bread, and a savory pastel de quinoa. The latter was the Andean equivalent of lasagna using quinoa instead of pasta, and it was delicious. We bundled up for the evening in our gear and I went to sleep in my coat and overall snowpants, wondering what the hell I’d signed up for.
The visceral anxiety didn’t really set in until the next day after lunch, when again we waited for the weather to clear, and I compulsively ate cream crackers in my room all morning, not having much else to do, and dozed on and off in my bed, always fighting off a chill, and waiting for Eduardo to call us for the ascent. At some point Peter woke me up and it was time go.
Besides our cook, a round woman who kept her head covered in a knit hat, there had been only men so far on this expedition, including the guides and the other groups staying in the lodge. I was secretly pleased to see a woman named Eva, also from Germany, waiting to come with us. She immediately helped me fasten my ice axe properly to my bag and offered one of her trekking poles for me to use, which I was happy to accept. Then we set off: Peter, Marcus, Eva and I along with Eduardo and his nephew Umberto.
Eating dairy in the morning, my friend, is not recommended before a strenuous high-altitude hike. It took the kind of minute-by-minute marathon running mentality for me to complete the three hours amidst stomach pains and ahem, bloating, up the mountain to the high camp. Once there, Eduardo, stared me down with a concerned, hard look and said, “You must look at your condition. You must see if you can climb in the morning. It is four hours to the summit, but then we must climb all the way down. You must really look at your condition.”
Later, while sitting on the rocks overlooking the clouded mountains that semi-buried the Bolivian Cordillera Real range, I pondered whether I really had the “condition” to climb up to the summit. Was it my indigestion or my fitness causing the problems? My lungs still burned after the hike up. I’ve always been fit, having been a runner for many years, and also someone used to doing yoga and moderate weight lifting; but I had to admit, I felt like crap climbing up that day. Marcus persuaded me that I should at least try a little. He himself was not certain of his ability to get to the summit, and so we decided to pair up in the morning.
“Morning” of course means waking at midnight after a night of labored, shallow breathing and a struggle to stay warm. Climbers from the day before returning to the refugio warned it was nearly impossible to sleep at the altitude—you felt like you were heaving for breath the whole night—and I found this was true for me. Eduardo, over soup, rolls and hot dogs the evening before, told us to simply “rest our bodies”, if possible.
So that’s what I did all night in the orange shed outside of which the gelid wind howled—a familiar sound, given I grew up in Minnesota. I rested and heaved and dozed on and off. At midnight I got up and dressed with the others, because I’d already decided hiking in the snow would be preferable to lying in a dark shed in the clouds unable to sleep for the next five hours.
When we woke at midnight, Eduardo and Umberto heated water and suggested putting in half cold and half warm into our bottles, which we did. We ate some dry bread, had some tea and coffee, and then put on our gear—layers of warm winter wear, including my overall snowpants, crampons, a helmet, a harness for the ropes that would keep my group of three–Umberto, Marcus, and me–together, my backpack with my water bottle. Eduardo roped up with Eva and Peter, the two experienced climbers in the group, and took off; Umberto, who I could tell right away was not excited to be guiding the “slow” group—namely Marcus and I—reminded us to consider our “condition” even after we’d only been trudging the snow in the dark for half an hour. I felt my normal self, actually—my digestive tract having cleared itself of the last of the dairy molecules it could not digest.
What I discovered is that, if you find a slow pace and a rhythm for your breath, you can do just fine. Yes, you feel like you can’t go on sometimes, and your lungs burn and long for dear ol’ oxygen, but for the most part, you just keep moving.
A narrow footpath in the powdery, dark shimmering snow along the slopes led the way, and I was reminded of my time playing in winter as a child—hours upon hours in the same kind of sparking material, even after the sun set. It felt like I was playing again, even though this was much more strenuous.
We used our ice axes to anchor every step, and our pace soon
transformed into a walking meditation: sink axe in, left foot forward then
right, lift and sink again, left foot forward then right; so on and so forth.
For hours in the dark we marched to this beat and as we ascended under a half
moon and a spread of stars and their clustered constellations. As we rose
higher, La Paz emerged in the south, a deep orange blanket of lights, cradled
between the black silhouettes of neighboring mountains.
It took somewhere between four and five hours to reach the summit. We paused often; and each time Umberto asked us if we were tired, and we said yes, and he would ask if we wanted to continue, and we said yes. He would often complain of wanting to sleep, rolling onto his back when we were taking a water break, which I would roll my eyes at. Later I found out that some guides try to tire out or persuade clients to turn around when the hike got tough, so their day was shorter.
The details of the hike and those four hours are somewhat washed away in my mind; however, I do remember hiking up precipitous slopes where we had to sink our axe in well lest we slid down the slope for a very, very long time. At one point my crampon got stuck on the cord of the other foot in one of these precipitous places; Umberto, not understanding I was stuck, kept yanking at the rope uniting us and urging, “Vamos, vamos,” which became the general refrain to both Marcus and me whenever we slowed down.
Somehow we made it the final wall filled with narrow, powdered switchback trails. At several points we had to haul ourselves up around rocks, which really catches your breath and gets your heart pumping; Marcus paused and stared at us with wide eyes for several moments halfway up while Umberto yanked the rope and urged “Vamos, Vamos”; I heard two German women behind us start to wail behind us, asking their guide if they were almost at the top, and when he assured them they were, they still cried and held each other and said, “We must finish!”
We three made it to the summit, and Umberto snapped a few photos of me holding up my ice axe. And we were damn lucky: the sunrise was magnificent, and the sky clear with just a smattering of clouds burying some of the mountains around us. The two German girls stopped crying and began celebrating at the top and before our eyes peeled their shirts off for a topless backside photo op.
I felt victorious: my mind and limbs rejoiced as I paused to take in the splendid view from the summit. I’d never climbed a mountain before.
The way down was quicker but still difficult: our legs were wobbly, and the steep parts caused us to slide and lose our footing. Once, on the only segment that our group agreed was perhaps a little bit tricky, perhaps unsafe due to a steep and very long slope and a few small crevasses, Umberto reminded us to“concentrate” and go “slowly.” For some reason I slipped here immediately, and on impulse threw my axe in the slope above me while Umberto drew up the rope to stop my slide with a snap of his arm. I laughed but Umberto scolded me, asking me why I didn’t listen to him.
“I thought I was concentrating,” I said, laughing because I couldn’t help it, and thereafter I tread carefully down the slope. We reached the final stretch of mountainside that cut horizontally across toward our high camp, and found our crampons filling with melted, crusty snow. Marcus slipped and we held the ropes tight as we slid down onto his belly and took a moment to catch his breath. Again, Umberto yanked the ropes and said, “Vamos, vamos,”. Marcus lay defiantly for several minutes more on his belly, glaring at Umberto, before pulling himself up by his axe onto the path again.
When we made it back to high camp, I tore my crampons off and lay in the sun on a rock laughing deliriously, my body swimming in endorphins and my mind flooded with images of the trail, of the views, of the German girls crying and then ripping their sweaters off at the summit. The morning had been an absolute success.
Hours later we sat for soup and Pringles in the chilly refugio, all of us still a bit stunned at what we’d done that morning. Eva, in her late thirties, told us of her love for mountaineering and climbing. She and I talked briefly about how few women had climbed the mountain that morning, and we couldn’t help but feel proud to have done it.
We rode back in our bus to La Paz in dozy, pensive silence.
Mal, I felt changed in some way after climbing Mount Huayna Potosí; I definitely surprised myself completing the climb, as it was probably the most physically demanding event of my life. The endorphins certainly lasted for days after; and I think all four of us were still in a daze of accomplishment at what we’d done when we went for dinner. Supposedly the climb is not “hard”, and yet I’d say we all felt it was extremely challenging due to the high altitude.
I thought you might be proud of your bookish friend for climbing a mountain.
I’ts time to catch you up on my recent wanderings!
Cusco, Peru, was a lovely place to exist for the past three weeks. A tourist-soaked city, yes, but full of Incan and Spanish architecture, a wonderfully warm culture, delicious food and drinks, and plenty to do in terms of tours to the Sacred Valley (Machu Picchu, of course, but there’s so much more than that).
I stayed in a lovely apartment through Airbnb in the historic San Blas neighborhood, cohabitating with two lovely white cats who adopted me quickly. Their owner, a fashion designer, is on vacation in Europe for a few weeks, and so I lived as if I had my own home with cats in Cusco.
All this has been a respite for me, a solo woman traveler who has experienced quite a bit of unwanted attention, mostly obnoxious and tiresome, always uncomfortable, in the past weeks in Ecuador and now here in Peru.
But Cusco’s different: a snug place where it’s easy to find other travel companions, there were ample, comfortable opportunities to be myself, dining alone and reading a book in restaurants and cafes around the main plaza, without looking like an invitation for a conversation and solicitation of personal information by male employees. In short, I’ve caught my breath, made new friends, and enjoyed taking Spanish lessons again.
And the food! I’ve indulged in vegan chocolate chip cookies and vegan pizzas; and enjoyed trying chicha morada (made from maize) and pisco sours (liquor with lemon and whipped egg whites). I’ve tried grilled alpaca (delicious and rich, reminiscent of elk), roast cuey, (guinea pig) numerous Andean soups, potato dishes (hundreds of edible potatoes here, so nourishing!) quinoa dishes, and fresh fruits from San Pedro Mercado.
The Sacred Valley: Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu
I thought of you when I visited the magnificent ruins of Machu Picchu. I almost skipped them; the thought of how many tourists pour through the place unsettled me. (I’m not a crowd person). But visiting the clouded mountaintop citadel was as fascinating and awe-inducing as I expected, and due to the time of year, November—it was pretty chill at the citadel when I went.
Even still, I couldn’t help but feel a bit sad while walking amid the massive stones that sit so well together; I’d been planning on hiking in on the Camino Inca with a friend to the ruins, but both my foot and that friendship suffered, and I had to change my plans entirely.
The day before I rode the train to Machu Picchu (or more accurately, Aguas Calientes–you have to then hike or take a bus up the mountain to the ruins), I signed up for a “horsehike” out of Ollantaytambo, one of the pretty Inca villages in the Sacred Valley. (You can also catch the train to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu, from Ollantaytambo).
I went out with a guide named Richard, nicknamed “Condor”, and his friend David. The two showed me the Canteras de Cachiccata, where the Inca mined the rocks used for their dwellings, as well as a tomb still used today.
“Piedras cansadas”, those stones left in transit when the Spanish arrived, lay scattered all around the mountainside. Massive-cut stones taller than me, it’s easy to get caught staring at them in amazement, wondering how the heck anyone could have moved those, much less cut them, on a regular basis. At one point, while sitting on one of these stones, snacking on a banana, I noticed my guide and David had snuck off to smoke an apple. Between puffs, they conversed in a veil of chuckles.
“Y cómo fue la manzana de marijuana?” I asked them with an easy smile when they returned. They thought they were being sneaky; but I recognized their fruity pipe from the beginning, and could smell the marijuana smoke.
I happened to be puffing away on my tobacco pipe when I asked this. We laughed, got the horses and headed back down the mountain, talking about Quechua food and traditions and the local religious tradition of Choquekillka, a patron deity of the town. Condor also pointed out the single house perched high on the side of the mountain opposite us cumbia music inundating the valley with cumbia music (ubiquitous in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia), a surprise soundtrack for my horsehike day.
Maras, Rainbow Mountain, and Ayahuasca Ceremonies
The gorgeous Maras salt pools, in operation since pre-Inca times, managed by local families, were delightful to visit one afternoon. You can wander the pools and watch locals pick up salt in large bowls.
The day after visiting the salt pools, I hiked up Rainbow Mountain with a friend. The climb is literally breathtaking at 17,000 feet. The last 30 minutes I inched my feet upward while using a breathing technique I learned from my long distance running days in order to get the oxygen swiftly into my lungs. The summit offered a cold gray cloud instead of a rainbow, but that was all right; the scenery along the way was worth the effort.
Did I mention that I participated in an ayahuasca retreat in the Sacred Valley? I, along with eleven other participants from around the world, were led in two ceremonies conducted in the traditional way by a Shipibo shaman. A controversial choice for a gal like me from Minnesota, indeed. However, many travelers explore ayahuasca while visiting Peru, and last year while planning I had ample opportunity to learn about it and consider its possible side effects. Michael Pollan’s book, “How to Change your Mind” influenced my choice.
Though I confess I don’t plan to take a drug like that ever again, or at least not for a long time, ayahuasca did calm my mind. The best analogy? It was as if I hired someone to come take out, dust, clean, and re-prioritize all the contents of my mind—when I say all, I mean all; the insecurities, the desires, the heartbreaks, the shortcomings, all the good and bad that comprise who I am. In truth, it was uncomfortable reviewing a number of those things within a sparking, colorful psychedelic film taking place in my head. But afterward, a recent heartbreak suddenly seemed distant and in the past, shelved as it should be; the decisions I need to make for the future seemed manageable but also shelved in their proper place. Also, the pressing priority after I left the retreat was to connect with family and close friends, just because, and because it was Thanksgiving weekend.
While there, I asked staff (which includes: a nurse, a psychologist, a general practitioner doctor, among others) how long the effects would last, they claimed at least two weeks, but longer—hopefully a lifetime—if I cultivated techniques such as meditation in order to maintain the changes induced by ayahuasca. Time will tell how long-lasting the results are. (If you are interested in learning more, please contact me–there are a number of “sham” ayahuasca retreats in South America, so it’s important to do your research.)
Right now I’m sitting in La Paz, Bolivia, just returned from climbing Huayna Potosi–the most physically demanding event of my life. I’m enjoying Bolivia so far, and will be writing about it soon!
Hope all is well in the land of ice and snow, my friend.
When I went into the Amazon basin for a few weeks to teach English in an indigenous community, I made sure to pack a whisk and plenty of unsweetened cacao paste tablets so that I could have a hot chocolate every morning. That, along with rice, eggs, and ketchup were my staple foods.
One morning, while scratching the new welts on my ankles left from the itch mites who shared the tent with me, I stared down at my plastic cup of whisked chocolate and wondered if I shouldn’t do something more with this god food. After all, I was sitting in the Amazon jungle with a cup of the thick, pleasurable substance. It was the one consumable I couldn’t do without; it gave me a dose of comfort and enjoyment during my isolating and at times very uncomfortable jungle stay.
As if the gods divined my thoughts, a fellow school teacher, Gladys, walked by with papaya to share. While watching me whisk up a cup of hot chocolate for her and her daughter, she said, “Carlos is out planting cacao today.”
This piqued my curiosity. When Carlos walked by the hut to say “Good morning,” I asked him about his new project.
A grin spread easily across his face. “I planted cacao this morning!”
“That’s grand, that’s great,” I said quickly, and then paused before I asked, “And what kind of cacao?”
His grin fading, Carlos’ face wrinkled slightly. “I don’t really know, Cici. I don’t really know.”
I knew if it was a hybrid he was planting, it was not likely he’d get much money for it. And certainly those who would make craft chocolate and who would selectively pay well for cacao would not want the beans. “I see,” I responded carefully. “Wonderful. People love chocolate.”
As I lay in my tent at night, as I sat by my fire watching rice cook during the day, I kept thinking about chocolate. I needed to know more.
Back to Mindo, Land of Trees and Chocolate Factories
After I left the Amazon, I decided to rent a room in Mindo, so I could gaze at trees, write, and eat chocolate from El Quetzal, the chocolate factory I’d visited on a previous trip to Mindo, where I’d met Joe, the owner, and talked to him about direct trade and the plight of cacao production worldwide. Although I’d enjoyed Nacional cacao before thanks to a Minneapolis chocolate company called K’ul (now closed, unfortunately) which specialized in fine cacao single-origin bars, it was at Joe’s factory where I became aware of what Nacional actually stood for: fine, complex flavor,usually described as earthy and floral. I also was starting to learn that Nacional was in danger of becoming extinct, to be taken over by hybrid cacao cultivars that lacked in flavor complexity, namely CCN-51.
Once settled in Mindo, I decided to visit the other chocolate factory in town, Yumbos, which opened two years ago and has won awards for their 60% chocolate bars both years they’ve been operating. Sharif, my tour guide, started out by serving me with a bitter and thick, robust hot chocolate. He then gave a now somewhat familiar explanation of the two main varieties of cacao in Ecuador: CCN-51,which is high-yield, disease resistance hybrid with little taste complexity;and Nacional, Ecuador’s heirloom cacao, one that was almost wiped out in the early 20th century. Next, he showed me example equipment used to ferment beans—for demonstration purposes only, since fermentation happens at the cacao farm itself—and then the grinding and conching room, and then tempering room, where a woman was carefully filling plastic molds with tempered chocolate.
Claudia Ponce and Pierre Molinari, the owners of Yumbos, explained that they work with and support women cacao farmers in the Esmeraldas region of Ecuador. All of this information stimulated my interest in the chocolate industry, and led me to back up to El Quetzal to ask Joe about a chocolate making apprenticeship. While there, I got coffee and started searching for articles on Nacional cacao online. A series of blog posts by Jerry Toth, co-founder of To’ak Chocolate, appeared, and so for the next few hours, I immersed myself in an intriguing survey of genetic morphologies of cacao fruit and what typifies a Nacional cacao fruit.
When Joe came down to the café again, I mentioned what I was reading. He said, “Well, you should talk to Jerry yourself, because he’ll be here tomorrow, doing a test batch for his chocolate using our equipment.”
I’d never heard of To-ak Chocolate before and only had a vague sense of what the company was about, if only that it focused on making chocolate from an endangered variety of Nacional cacao.
Rare Nacional Cacao: Not a Nib is Wasted
The next day I found Jerry in the roasting and winnowing room with an employee of El Quetzal. Tall, lanky, wearing a hair net, he and a staff member were heavily invested in weighing the nibs they’d just finished roasting, cracking and winnowing, calculating how much to use for a test batch.
I introduced myself and we briefly chatted about his blog posts and the rareness of the kind of cacao he worked with. I’d briefly glimpsed the prices of the chocolate, which both stunned and intrigued me—and had this vaguely in mind while we spoke.
At one point Jerry scooped up some of the nibs and poured a generous amount in my hand to try. They were decadently earthy and complex—a cacao flavor I was only beginning to know and appreciate. In fact, the nibs were so rich I couldn’t finish them, and in a moment of classy awkwardness, I handed them back, saying, “I can’t finish them. But I don’t want to waste them, these nibs of gold.” I was about to drop them into the vat when Jerry shuffled his notebook from his hand, said, “Wait,” and collected the nibs before they dropped. He tipped his head back and finished them off.
After explaining that they were calculating the cacao mass percentage, the chocolate makers moved with an established test batch weight to another room where they ground the nibs into a paste—it has the consistency of freshly ground peanut butter. When Jerry came out, we sat for a few moments on the stairs, and between jotting notes and texting he answered all my pressing chocolate-related questions, such as, is it true that some cacao varieties have more theobromine in it than others (Yes, Nacional has more); and is Nacional the best kind of cacao out there, as in, is it better than Criollo (He paused and said, “I wouldn’t say the best—it’s not an objective science; but I like it best for many reasons. People love Criollo because it is gentle and fruity”).
We launched into a conversation about our hot chocolate habits. For Jerry, it’s a thick hot chocolate every morning in the jungle, usually with peanut butter, eggs, and sometimes oatmeal added in. I told him I’d been obsessed for years with a hot chocolate made with water and 70% chocolate, whisked until frothy. When it was the first thing I had in the morning, it gave me an exhilarating buzz without the crash of coffee.
A group of people touring the factory briefly cut into our conversation. When we resumed, I told him I was interested in making chocolate. He looked at me, perhaps in surprise or skepticism, and said, “But there’s no money in it.”
I laughed sadly and set my notepad down. “Really? All the things I love and want to do lead to poverty, then.”
“It is a creative work,” he concurred. “And you don’t generally make money doing art.” Later I would learn Jerry lives out of a suitcase, traveling between the jungle where he works with a group of farmers who cultivate the cacao used for his company’s chocolate bars, and Quito, where he’ll stay with his co-partner of the company, Carl, when they are making chocolate in the factory there.
“How did you decide to do chocolate?” I asked.
“I started making chocolate to help fund a forest conversation nonprofit I created, Third Alliance,” he explained. “I came to Ecuador to work in forest preservation.”
I did not forget this tidbit of information when I later perused the To’ak website—where I hadn’t seen this connection before.
The Taste of Chocolate
Coincidentally, I’d stumbled upon a Guardian article about Servio Parchard, the Harvest Master of To’ak’s cacao beans, and had already set up a time to go visit him. When I told Jerry this, he smiled and said, “Stay in the Mango House, if you’re not afraid of heights.” So I did just that, and at Servio’s, the chocolate was so good, you could eat it like peanut butter on a banana. (See here for my blog post on my stay at Servio’s farm.)
Servio’s homemade block of chocolate was so compelling that on my 5-hour bus ride back to Mindo from his farm I repeatedly opened the Tupperware in which it sat to simply smell. I could not get over the abundance of its aroma.
At hostels, I’d offer it to people for smelling, and they’d also stand amazed at its strength of complex aroma and nuttiness. Some people claimed it didn’t even smell like chocolate; and for those I offered small samples to, they claimed it hardly even tasted like chocolate the way they knew.
But everyone really liked it. And it made me wonder: What is chocolate supposed to taste like?
At this time, and even still now, I was and am just now beginning to encounter the vast possible sensory delights chocolate can offer, starting with Mindo Chocolate, Yumbo’s Chocolate, and then Servio’s homemade chocolate block.
To’ak Chocolate: Laphroaig Scotch-Infused Chocolate, and the “Rot” Harvest Bar
Given it was my birthday in October, and I hadn’t really properly celebrated it, I decided to splurge on To’ak Chocolate’s lovely $125 Chocolate and Art Tour in Quito, which took place in Ecuadorian artist Oswaldo Guayasamín’s richly decorated house overlooking the city.
A sumptuous tour, I’d say; I felt heady walking around the artist’s home, dreaming of the chocolate tasting that awaited me in the wine cellar at the end of the tour. The large, generous paintings of Guayasamín’s stimulated my mind;the light connection of the tour to the creativity of To’ak’s chocolate making process grew my anticipation for the tasting.
Carl Schweizer, Jerry’s partner who is originally from Austria, greeted me by the wine cellar wearing a smart suit and his hair swept back cleanly into a bun. His demeanor was a mix of austere intellectuality and open, warm nerdiness; the way he patiently went through the history of To’ak’s journey, the story behind the Nacional cacao bean, while I impulsively asked questions and detoured him constantly, was impressive.
Carl walked me through a lengthy albeit engrossing story of how To’ak Chocolate came into existence. After Jerry moved to Ecuador a decade ago and started a nonprofit dedicated to rainforest conservation, he became interested in making chocolate; he and Carl met up to discuss chocolate making; after that, Carl spoke with the anthropologist Francisco Valdez about a nearly extinct, rare variety of cacao called Nacional found on the reserve, which Valdez claimed at the time—and as of last month, is confirmed to be—the original cacao variety, evolved over thousands of years in the tropics of Ecuador. Jerry and Carl devised starting a chocolate company based on working with farmers to preserve this heirloom cacao,a flavor gift to the world. Once the company was started, the vision of preserving this cacao and cacao diversity while offering the world a luxury chocolate unlike any other out there solidified, and the company has not looked back since. To’ak Chocolate unites rainforest conversation, an ethical business model, and a tantalizing luxury chocolate.
Chocolate, Carl continued, especially a fine flavor cacao like Nacional, has over 800 flavor compounds—more diverse than wine—and offers a taste experience unique onto itself.
“What we realized is…chocolate tasting is eye-opening. It opens the door toward the senses…what’s so beautiful about this flavor complexity is that it only exists when we receive products from a healthy ecosystem.” He paused to let this sink in, and then said, as if telling a fairytale, his light German accent adding to the ambience of the mood, “If my daughter grew up in a world that’s black and white; everything would be in grayscale. But imagine that there are stories, lots of stories about the world of colors. So she breaks out and discovers the colors. Lost colors.”
“Yes,” I say, feeling the metaphor was apt in describing the spread of monoculture occurring today.
“This is what is going on with food diversity. It is becoming black and white—but we are pushing to expand diversity in flavor. We don’t talk a lot about it but it is what’s driving our project. Diversity is the DNA of our project. The world of fine flavor cacao versus industrial cacao. With industrial cacao, we lose flavor.”
By the time we started the tasting, I felt a little nervous. I had the odd fear that my taste buds would fail me (they did not, thank goodness). Per Carl’s instructions, I carefully picked up each chocolate sample with a bamboo tasting utensil and smelled them. Unfortunately the room temperature was just a bit too cool for me to experience the aroma properly through the nose, but once I put apiece on my tongue, the flavor experience opened wide, like a movie starting across a screen.
Sample number one was shockingly creamy and the first descriptors that came to mind were silky smooth, caramel, and milky. Sublime would be another word to use with this first sample. It sang like a Brahms cello piece—steady, strong, creamy, somewhat familiar and so much finer than any other chocolate I’d tasted.
“What percentage is this chocolate?” I asked, stunned. It didn’t even taste like dark chocolate.
“73% cacao,” Carl said. “It’s our Rain Harvest 2015 Light. What I like about our chocolates is that every time you try it, you discover something new. This chocolate has matured. It has this gentle acidity still there, red berries,cranberries. When I tasted it earlier, I even got a bit of plum.”
The second sample was wild. I put the sample on my tongue and felt like I was going for a ride—needed to hang on a bit. There was fruit, there was floral, and there were sharp peaks and drops. I could envision how dark this chocolate was; it had no caramel tameness. It finished bright, tannic. This was a wild tasting chocolate to me, and I liked it immensely. It reminded me vaguely of Stravinsky’s violin concerto—bright tones,harsh movements, interspersed with melodic segments. Highly stimulating, and intellectual.
Carl was watching me. “That would be the bar we made from beans during the worst climate year ever.”
“Really?”I asked, fascinated. The lingering profile was still settling into my tongue and throat.
Carl explained the beans were harvested during the El Niño year of 2016, when there was flooding in the cacao growing regions of Ecuador. A terroir unlike other years completely transformed the cacao beans’ personality.
“The Rot Harvest Bar,” I said, christening it.
“Or actually, our Rain Harvest 2016 El Niño,” he corrected. “It’s 78% cacao beans.”
The third sample, called Rain Harvest 2017, had the smooth tameness, and creaminess of the first, which gave my palette some respite. At 76% cacao mass, it was still mellow and creamy. And so completely different from the previous bar. Another cello piece, I’d venture.
The fourth bar nearly brought me to tears. It was smooth, it was delicate, it was mellow,it melted well, and it released a familiar, well-loved flavor onto my palette. “It has liquor in it?” I asked.
“Do I have to guess what?” I said, laughing.
I said easily after letting it melt further.
“Yes. Can you taste the peatiness?”
“Indeed. I love it.” I had tears in my eyes by then, I was that excited. “But how did you do it?” The ingredients of each bar of To’ak chocolate are only cacao beans and sugar.
Carl smiled. “This is our Vintage 2015 Islay Cask, 73%, matured for 2 years in single malt Islay Laphroig barrels.”
“Incredible,”was all I could say as I finished the chocolates off with a sip of aged Don Julio tequila.
After I left the tasting, I wandered down to the Capilla del Hombre, and gazed up at the murals painted by Guayasamín, happily still enjoying the lingering taste of To’ak chocolate on my tongue.
The Point of No Return: the Finest Flavored Chocolate
Here in Peru I’m exploring chocolate as well, though I am disappointed so far. What to do when you bite into a single origin bar from Tumbe, by Chocomuseo, you find its texture a bit rough, and it melts into a flat waxy flavor, with nothing to offer, no symphony to caress you with? I’d say I had a bit of an existential crisis. That’s not to say I haven’t found some good flavors, but none can compare to what I experienced in Ecuador—so far.
Anyway. See for yourself: Go have yourself some good chocolate! Single origin, direct trade, bean-to-bar, and let it melt on your tongue to see what happens.
If you decide to invest in a To’ak chocolate bar, you invest not only in a disappearing heirloom cacao, but also a healthy business model, the conversation of rainforest, and some of the finest chocolate in the world. Your taste buds will certainly rejoice.
For more reading on the subject of food diversity and flavor, I suggest Simran Sethi’s “Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love.”
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.
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
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.
A typical Almuerzo (Lunch).
With Pan de Guaguas and Colada Morada.
Colada Morada and Chocolate.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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:
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com. The community hosts volunteer English teachers and those who have skills and interest in developing ecotourism projects.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
View of Mindo from El Quetzal Hotel.
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.
Organic and Direct Trade.
4 Days of Fermentation before Drying and Roasting.
Young Cacao Fruit.
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.
Chocolate tea, brownie and 100% chocolate sauce.
Yellow fruit from genetically unmodifed Nacional cacao tree, the finest variety in Ecuador.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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~
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.
El Poblado, Medellín
E l Poblado, Medellín
El Poblado, Medellín
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 Return, it’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.
Selling ice cream in front of the house where Escobar died.
Fresh flowers from admirers on Escobar’s gravestone. Manny explained that some still regard him with awe and respect. Manny thinks of Escobar as a Colombian Hitler.
Escobar’s house, waiting to be demolished.
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 plataoplomo, 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?
Manny with Chota, one of the principal graffiti artists famous for transforming Comuna 13 into the wonder it is today.
Manny’s favorite painting.
Manny walking in Comuna 13.
Thank you Manny, for the excellent city tour, and for sharing your story.
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.
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.
Stay tuned for the next week’s post on the (controversial) Pablo Escobar tour, lovely Medellín coffee shops, and Spanish school.
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?”
Attic Living Room
The typical pile of books.
Hot drinks and books
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.
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.
Tracy Showing a Trapdoor Spider’s Home
A Hobbit Home for Spiders
Tailless Whip Scorpion, Neither Spider Nor Scorpion
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.
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.
Stairway up to the Cabinas, surrounded by pineapple and other fruit tress
Werner Tasting his Pancakes
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.
Gallo Pinto with Fried Eggs
Arroz con Leche, YUM!
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.
Tatiana and I on Rugged Gorgeous Beach
Tatiana in a Refreshing River
Tatiana Holding a Tiny Crab
Capuchin Monkey Attempting to Open a Coconut
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.
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
Jim Showing off A Cacao Tree in his Backyard
Cocoa Fruit Pod
Roasted Cocoa Nibs
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!
Giant Millipedes make Pleasant Friends
Gorgeous View of Palmar Norte Surroundings
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.
Playing saxophone at El Sotano
Enjoying a postre with coffee and La Nacion
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!”
I do love these Strangler Figs! Costa Rica, 2018
Werner’s Beach in Drake Bay
Work Station in the Jungle
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.
Mari, In Front of Her Painting
Jupe the Jungle Kitty
Otto and Sol, the Cuddliest Dogs on the Planet
Estefania, Me, Mariel
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.