January 24, 2006

Have Kayak(s), Will Travel

As Much As Possible

The experience of traveling is almost always bittersweet. I am a firm believer that it is really only glamorous in hindsight; so often just simply existing in a foreign place is anything but easy or fun--and rarely is it as relaxing as you had anticipated it to be.
During my travels I go through various phases: The initial elation and sense of freedom, followed by the onset of sheer exhaustion due to constant overstimulation (noise, travel by bus, language, etc), a somewhat "stable" period reveling in the novelty of being acclimatised, followed by a panicky self-doubting phase (the why the hell am I here period), and then finally into the well-adjusted phase where I have usually stopped being bothered by petty annoyances and have accepted what I am doing. Unfortunately, depending on the length of the trip, the last phase usually happens not long before I leave.
The most difficult phase for me is usually the panicky self-doubting phase, when I call into question nearly every aspect of my life, lifestyle, motivations, even my own set of ideals. Lately I have been putting a lot of time into trying to figure out why this happens when I travel; maybe it is completely normal, I can't say. Part of it comes from meeting other travelers, who inevitabley ask you lots of questions, and always wanting to know "What do you do?". Having to answer this enough times, I begin to question myself about what it is I do.
In some ways, this bothers me. In others, it is a good process to go through: questioning myself allows me to really think about the paths I have chosen, the whys and hows of my current lifestyle. While it potentially sends me into a fit of self-doubt, in the end I usually appreciate that I can seriously question my motivations, and still feel good about what I do. Because I really don't have a solid profession, but an eclectic mix of random jobs, I always feel a bit out of place when surrounded by people who do have a title, a defining thing in their life that they work hard to maintain. Recently though, as a product of being more mature, I have come to the conclusion that I can't operate that way, and that for me, a narrow focus just isn't satisfying. I need to have my fingers in as many projects as I can, trying new things on a regular basis, and always exploring different, usually unorthodox approaches. Otherwise, I am simply bored.
So, with that in mind, the next time I am asked "What do you do?", I will finally have a reply that suits me, that is as broad as my preferences when it comes to occupations, and that I feel aptly describes my approach to life in general: "As much as possible."

January 11, 2006

In the Shadow of Tunga-ray-ha

We recently traveled to the not so remarkable, very touristy town of Banios, located in the Central Highlands, about 4 hours southwest of Tena by bus. What the town lacks in character is completely redeemed by it's fantastic location: it is nestled in the Rio Pastaza Valley, surrounded by the Andes. It lurks in the shadow of Tunga-ray-ha, the not-so-dormant beheamoth of a volcano that stands at 5 thousand some odd meters, dwarfing St. Helens, and even Rainier [I should mention that the true name of the volcano is actually Tungurahua, but somehow the butchered spanish pronounciation "Tunga-ray-ha" seems to have a nicer ring to it, and well, it stuck].
Tunga-ray-ha sends out puffs of steams and ash now and then to remind those living in her shadows who is really in charge. A few years ago, Banios was evacuated because it was certain the volcano would erupt. Instead, it sounds like the police and military had a bit of fun looting people's houses while they "guarded" the town; the locals then went back into town, and in the end, the volcano didn't erupt as predicted.
Because of its location in the river valley, there are many drainages to explore right from town. Both days we were there we hiked up a different drainage and were the only gringos on the trail each time; in town we just blended in with all of the other tourists, and felt oddly out of place. The Rio Ulba, south of town, was a spectacular walk, even if it was mostly by road. Most people traveling the road took a right turn where the road did a hairpin turn about 3 km up; we opted for the left to get off the main road, following the river upstream as far as we could. Exploring kayaking possibilties, we found a path through some very dense bamboo and tropical vegetation leading to a nice surprise of a slightly rickety footbridge spanning the river just upstream of a beautiful gorge, and just below a waterfall (the site of the top photo). On the other side of the river we found an abandoned building, and I pondered the many possibilities of what it could have been used for--animals, did someone live there? We didn't notice that the trail continued anywhere from the building, which was a bit perplexing because the trail to the river looked fairly well used.
Once back on the road, we had to see where it would lead us. Cornfields, cows, and a house here and there dotted the hillsides. Finally we came to the end of the road, where two drainages came together. A footbridge crossed the stream that drains Tunga-ray-ha, and a small hamlet of houses sat just above. Having come this far, we had to see this community, that was technically just inside or bordering the boundary of Sangay National Park. We walked up the path, marvelling at the variety of produce being grown, here, in the mountains, and how peaceful it felt to be there. The farthest house away from the river had a stunning view of the Ulba valley, the Andes and the Rio Chico Verde valley to the north (bottom photo).
Finally able to tear ourselves away from this place, proclaiming that we wanted to someday live there, we made our way back down the road, feeling alive and so rejuvenated by our adventurous discoveries. Nearing the bottom of the canyon, closer to town, we stopped at a bend in the road to look at waterfalls and the place we had just been, tucked back behind a ridge in the shadow of Tunga-ray-ha. Just then, the clouds thinned and we caught a glimpse of her elusive summit, which dwarfed the other peaks (which are in no way small themselves) and provided a sense of scale: the Andes are huge!
The next day we headed back to Tena, sad to leave the mountains, but happy to get out of tourist-ville. The middle shot here is of Andy carrying his kakak to the bus station; the Andes and numerous small farms provide a dramatic backdrop.

January 5, 2006


My neighbors here in Tena have a pet monkey named Ramon. Sometimes he is out front playing with a neighborhood dog, in which case he usually has the upper hand...or should I say, tail! He uses his tail to grab the dog's hind legs, then proceeds to slap the poor pooch in the face, play with his ears, groom him, whatever. It's quite entertaining to see them go at it.
The other day, we approached our doorway and Ramon was out front, having just stolen this woman's pen, and wouldn't give it back! Luckily, we were enough of a distraction to prompt him to drop the pen. He then ran over to me and grabbed onto my leg. His owner meandered over, and eventually picked him up. They are so amazingly like human babies, he was reaching for me as a baby would, grabbing my finger, trying to bite it (playfully).
Andy even saw him swinging on a loose cable hanging from a telephone pole. He swung around, then climbed up the cable, as if it were a vine.
Here he is, above, hanging out on the porch railing. He used to be shy around us, but I think he is getting used to seeing our white skin and pale eyes.

January 3, 2006


In Tena it normally rains nearly every day. Since my arrival, however, it has only tried to sprinkle a few times, the days being sunny and hot--so hot, you have to go to the river to cool off. The sun at the equator is intense, and with no cloud cover, it bears down on you so much that you seek out shade--any shade--even walking around town.
But now as I listen the rain finally pummelling the uninsulated tin roof, I finally understand why they call this place a rainforest, and see now that it really can rain so hard it hurts the top of your head. Everything thirsy is getting a drink, and it cools our sweaty bodies, even though it is the warmest rain I have ever felt. It isn't just about the forest and making it more comfortable to live here though. We use the rainwater to wash our clothes; it runs down the gutters, right into a large sink in our covered patio area our roof. It fills the sink with clean water that you scoop into a shallow, textured concrete basin you can scrub your clothes with, much like a washboard. It feels a little like baking bread by hand. It takes a little more work, but feels so rewarding.
Of course, the rivers will all rise if it keeps up this way. My group of friends are paddling in this right now. I almost went with them to do an easy section of the Rio Misaualli. It would have been interesting to paddle in a deluge, but I am content to hear its clatter on this old tin roof.