Oct 2012

Blog, South America

DISCUSSION 20 Comments

Into the Belly of the Duck

A few years ago I attempted the Pines 2 Mines mountain bike race – an 80 mile off road jaunt from Flagstaff to Jerome – on my cyclocross bike.  Everyone told me I was of unsound mind for wanting to ride this bike, which amounted to a road bike with knobby tires.  “Too rough”, they would say.  “So-and-so tried it a few years ago and said never again.”  Naysayers.  I went out there and gave it hell, and after the first fifteen miles I was in the top 5 and feeling pretty good.  I sat in and planned where I’d break away.  Maybe the final 20 mile climb to Jerome.  At about this time I hit a rock and got a flat tire.

Before I even came to a stop I had my new tube out and partially inflated with my mouth, and had my pump in my hand.  I hopped off my bike, pulled the old tube out, put the new one back in, and started pumping.  Air sprayed out of the valve stem; my new tube was bad.  I got my only other tube and put it into the tire and started pumping.  Air sprayed out again.  Both of my spare tubes were bad.  I sat my ass on a rock, pulled out my patch kit, and started patching.

Fast forward to the 65 mile mark.  I’ve endured 13 flat tires and a broken spoke.  Yes, thirteen flats.  At one point I had dropped a patch under the rock I was sitting on, and watched it fall down a snake hole.  I sat in the dirt under the roasting sun and desperately stabbed the hole with sticks until I’d recovered my precious patch.  Now I sit on the roadside wearing my spandex superhero costume with my wheel in my hand, the 105 degree sun beating down on me.  There’s no shade, only dust and weeds and heat waves.  I’m out of water, and I am out of patches.  End of the road.  I look down and realize I’m covered in dozens of spiders.  It’s like a bad dream.  Eventually I see a deer hunter driving by in his truck – the first truck I’ve seen in eight hours.  I stand in front of him in my superhero costume so he has to stop.  We drive together, a spandex-clad bike racer and Donny the deer hunter, in the cab of his beat up pickup truck.  He recounts the time he hung out with two naked strippers from Flagstaff at a nearby hot spring while they worked on their stripper tans.  I start to pass out from exhaustion in the passenger seat, and his story gets caught up in my delirium.  Strippers are dying of heat stroke in the desert, covered in dirt and spiders.

Sometimes we go into the wild knowing good and well that we shouldn’t.  And sometimes we find ourselves stranded in the desert, covered in spiders, begging horny deer hunters for help.  But if we always heed the warnings, what on Earth will we tell our grandchildren about?

I’m pondering this conundrum in the shower on the last night we’ll spend at James and Lauren’s apartment in Huanchaco before heading into the wild.  It’s only been a few days since we were last stranded by a mechanical problem, and they’ve been coming like punches ever since Costa Rica.  The next day we plan to drop off the pavement and head into the Andes on a desolate dirt road climb that strings its way through dozens of hand-dug tunnels before depositing us in the Cordillera Blanca, Peru’s most massive mountain range.  This is the famous Cañón del Pato.  But to get to the start of the canyon we think we’ve found a short cut.  Google Maps can’t make a route of it, but looking closely at the satellite imagery seems to show that the short cut goes through, and if it does, it would shave 17 miles off of the normal road that’s used to access the canyon.  It would be a long path through the middle of an empty desert, through some mountains, and somehow crossing a large river.  If we always heed the warnings, what on Earth will we tell our grandchildren about?

At about this time I’m slammed in the back of the head by a Louisville Slugger and the inside of the shower flashes an electric blue.  Rather than my life flashing before my eyes, all of the times I’ve been electrocuted in the shower on this trip flash before my eyes.  I snap out of it as the fireball dissipates and the shower walls return to their pale yellow hue.  The echo of my yelp still echoes in my ears.  Was this a sign?  I chalk it up to Latin-American electricians not knowing what they’re doing.  Just like the mechanics.  These on-demand hot water shower heads consist of a rat’s nest of loose, hot wires that the water runs over to heat up.  If some innocent shower-taker happens to touch the shower head and create a ground for the circuit, the poor bastard gets fried.  This is the 9th or 10th time it’s happened to me;  I feel like a prisoner in a Bush-era POW camp.

In the morning we brush aside all of the obvious warnings and head South.  We still haven’t decided if we’ll take the ill-omened short cut when we roll up to it on the side of the highway.  What’s the worst that could happen?  Before we have a chance to decide against it, a man with a clipboard approaches.  He takes down our information on his page; I spy the names on his sheet and see that only a couple of vehicles per day cross his post.  This seems like a bad idea.  For our future grandchildren’s sake, we press through.  Before we know it we’re bumping along a rough dirt road toward a line of ominous, sandy desert mountains.  We’re driving on the surface of Mars.

Driving through the desert between mountains and cliff walls, it’s easy to imagine that we’re in Iran or Pakistan.  The road winds through sandy spires and through low passes until finally we emerge at the river.  Across the canyon we can see the primary road that ultimately leads into Canyon del Pato.  This is the point at which our short cut becomes ambiguous; neither Google Maps nor our GPS give a clear indication of a way across the river.  The GPS shows a route, which turns out not to be real.  Google had said we’d cross over a small dam, which also turns out not to be possible.  We continue on for miles along the rough dirt road clinging to the canyon wall while on the other side a nice paved road shuttles cars along at high speed.  Finally, at long last, we come to a guard shack next to a rickety wooden bridge.  We stop to pay our toll for using the bridge, and then a man lifts a metal pole with a rope and we drive through, finally reconnecting with pavement.  No spiders, no deer hunters.

By early afternoon we’ve reached the mouth of the canyon.  Two soldiers stand guard over the entrance to the canyon.  Desert clowns.  We chat for a while about nothing and one of them asks me if I had taken any pictures of them.  Unsure of the best response, I play the dumb tourist and tell him in broken Spanish that the canyon is pretty.  Soon we’re free of his boredom trap and driving through the canyon, past inhabited structures that could have been plucked straight out of a rural settlement in Afghanistan.

Given the fame of this canyon road, there are surprisingly few vehicles.  It doesn’t bode well for the mechanical failure that we’re expecting to happen at any moment.  Construction on this road was started in 1952, and a French company now operates a hydroelectric dam near the top of the canyon.  We occasionally pass pickup trucks emblazoned with the company’s logo, their roofs covered in elevated steel mesh to minimize the damage from rocks that fall from the sheer cliff walls.  A new road has since been built farther South to access the Cordillera Blanca, but this one is still here for those with confidence in their vehicles and adventure in their hearts.  We press on, passing through one hand dug tunnel after another, clinging to the cliff wall on the narrow dirt track.  Below us, the Rio Santa batters the sandstone cliff walls with its emerald-colored torrent.

By evening we’ve only made it halfway, so we look for a  place to camp.  We come across a bridge spanning the canyon, and on the other side there is a large open area above the river.  The bridge sounds as if it’ll come apart as we drive across it; the boards comprising its driving surface are held together by steel bands, and the rivets holding the steel bands on have all come apart.  The steel rattles and the boards shift, my eyes intently focus on finding the best driving line, and Sheena nervously eyes the swift current passing underneath us.

In the morning the sun slowly crawls over the canyon rim, illuminating the multicolored sandstone walls across the river.  The night’s chill is transformed into a still heat.  It’s a classic desert morning; we sip our coffee and take in the smell of the desert plants and rocks as they’re heated by the sun.  Mornings in the desert have a distinct smell, as if the night has deposited a layer of condensation on everything.  When touched by the sun, this condensation turns into an evaporating perfume that smells like shale, cactus, mesquite, and dry sticks.  It reminds us of Arizona.

After crossing back over the rickety bridge we’re back on the road, gaining elevation through the Canyon of the Duck.  We realize that yesterday’s drive was just the mundane prelude to the real show.  Quickly the canyon walls close in and the road winds along one wall, ducking through tunnels, the opposing wall sometimes less than 20 feet away, while the sheer cliff faces rise upwards on either side of the river a hundred feet or more.  This must have been one hell of a road construction project.  We see almost nobody else on the road for hours.

I remember sitting on the couch at Sheena’s parents’ house watching an episode about this road on some sort of Death Road Trucker TV show.  It was about six months before we left on our trip, and I told them we’d be driving that road.  It seemed so far away, like it would never actually come to pass.  Yet here we are, driving our Nacho, of questionable mechanical integrity, through those tunnels, along those precipices, and across those bridges.  It doesn’t seem as deadly in person.

The insides of the tunnels are rough.  It’s as if they were blasted with dynamite and carved out with picks until just passable, and then the workers moved on to the next tunnel.  There are 35 single lane tunnels in all.  The actors on Death Road Truckers had scared looks on their faces as they passed through these tunnels.  They crept along slowly, cameras showed their tires pushing pebbles off the edge into the rushing river below.  At any moment, it seemed, their world could be turned upside down by a collapsing tunnel, a failed bridge, or a landslide.

We just thought it was fun.  This is how we know that we’re more hard-core than Death Road Truckers.

By day’s end we emerge above the rim of Cañón del Pato and reconnect with pavement.  Nacho has survived the trip and so have we.  Our eyes are rewarded by views of the snow-capped peaks of the Cordillera Blanca as we sail down smooth pavement toward the mountain Hamlet of Caraz.  Warning signs be damned; our grandchildren will have plenty of stories to listen to.

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Oct 2012

Blog, South America


Shorts from the Peruvian North

Claim to Fame

Mancora’s claim to fame is that there’s always something to surf.

In the morning I awoke early, having dreamt all night of riding the curl of Mancora’s famous year-round wave, as promised in our Moon Handbook.  I forced my eyes open and rolled out of bed, hopping downstairs using our portable toilet as a step, and stumbled into the morning light.  It was already hot out, the desert sun baking my lily white skin as I clumsily stumbled through the sand.  I walked onto the beach and stood next to a dead seagull.  I squinted across the horizon, but my hopeful gaze was met by the flattest, calmest, glassy surface of an ocean I’d ever seen in my entire life.

“There’s never a wave at Mancora. EVER!”

Tree was smarter than our guidebook.  After all, he’d spent a considerable amount of time living the Sprinter Life and surfing the Peruvian coast.  Tree would make a better life coach than a Moon Handbook.

Born to Run

Instead of surfing, I laced up my running shoes and followed Sheena into a desert canyon leading away from the beach.  I’d just finished reading Born to Run, and was convinced that I actually had an inner Tarahumara Indian deep in my ancestral soul waiting to run his little heart out.

We disappeared around the first bend in the canyon.  On the ridge to our left, two mean looking stray dogs watched us like vultures.  I could picture the face of a Tarahumara Indian in my mind telling me you were born to run, man!  It was pretty hot out, and I can’t say for sure that it wasn’t James Franco saying 127 hours, man!  It took 127 hours!  We continued deeper into the canyon.

I ran lightly on my toes, shuffling from rock to rock through the canyon while reminding Sheena, “This is all very easy for me.  You know, since I was Born to Run.”  After a few miles my inner tribesman had fallen ill and shriveled pathetically into the fetal position.  We regretted not having brought any water.  If my arm were trapped under a boulder out here, I’d be dead in far fewer than 127 hours.

The melting rubber of our shoes flapped against the parched earth in the midday sun as we attempted to steal moments of shade under overhanging cliff walls.  Lizards scurried through the dust and my mind wandered to the running book.  A white man had drifted into Mexico’s Copper Canyon and become one with the Tarahumara Indians.  They called him Caballo Blanco.  I wondered what they would call me if I were Born to Run.  When I worked at my dad’s Mexican restaurant, the cooks used to call me Girafa.  They would make animal calls at me, and when I’d look, they would grab a handful of cilantro and try to feed me.  “Tienes hambre, Girafa?”  It wasn’t my fault that I was a 6’3″ high schooler.  “Whoa there boys, better watch out or I’ll call La Migra.”  Knowing more about Mexico and Mexicans now, I still feel badly about threatening to call Immigration on them.

“Aaaayyyaayyaya!” Sheena’s shrill squeal snapped me out of my lethargic daydream, and all at once she was running a circle around me, her pigtail whipping my face.  The vulture dogs had been waiting for us, and they knew we’d be out of it.  It was at this moment that I realized that I was indeed Born to Run.

The Flop

In the world of professional soccer, there’s a move called The Flop.  A soccer player dribbles the ball skillfully, criss-crosses his way through his opponents’ defensive legwork, and suddenly the ball is stolen.  At this moment, the player who had been driving the ball leaps forward, arms flailing, and lands on the ground.  His face is pure agony; he’s grasping at his ankle while he falls.  He lands on his shoulder in just such a way that he is able to propel himself along the ground in a series of magnificent rolls and somersaults.  When, at long last, he finally comes to rest, he does so with his agonized face clasped in his hands.  That guy was nearly killed! Is he okay!? That’s what he wants us to think.  In reality he wasn’t fouled, but rather put on this elaborate show to try to garner sympathy from the fans and referees.  This is the main reason that most North Americans think that soccer players are crybabies.

Peruvian drivers have mastered The Flop.  In a country with the worst drivers in all of Latin-America, one would expect a certain level of defensive driving skill to be engrained in every Peruvian from birth.  Since crossing the border into Mexico over ten months ago, I’ve become much more comfortable with common-sense driving.  Passing with oncoming traffic is just fine; the other guy just moves over a little to allow three cars to pass on a two lane road.  It’s just the way it is.  For this reason, passing on a blind corner is acceptable if the conditions are right.   It may sound crazy to a member of a modern, rule-driven society like America or Europe, but it works down here.  We do these things every day.  It therefore came as a surprise that once we entered Peru, drivers started completely freaking out.  Everywhere we went, drivers were doing The Flop.

In one instance, I followed a slow semi truck down a straight road.  A Peruvian approached in the other direction, but there was plenty of room for me to pass.  I pulled out and began to pass the truck.  Almost immediately, the Peruvian in the oncoming lane started frantically flashing his headlights at me.  My heart continued to beat at 63 beats per minute.  No reason to be nervous; I’d done this a million times.  As I passed the semi truck I signaled and pulled in front of him.  A few seconds later the Peruvian passed by, and as he did he performed the most elaborate Driver Flop I’d ever seen.  Inside of his cab he created a vivid scene of total disgust.  His arms whipped wildly around his cab, his eyes were wild with rage.  One arm flailed wildly out the driver’s window, signaling his deep repugnance at me for having nearly killed him.  This pass, by the way, would have been totally acceptable even in the USA.  Every day we encounter at least two or three Flopping drivers.  Crybabies.

Desert Clowns

Spending extended periods of time in the desert can make a person crazy.  In Nevada, people see aliens.  In Sedona, hippies seek out energy vortices and pass the day sitting naked on the red rocks, becoming severely sunburned in all the wrong places.  Peru’s Northern desert is as vast as any on Earth, and it has its fair share of crazy people.  Here, they all wear the same uniform; they’re the police who are stationed in the small pueblos that dot the immense sand wasteland.

The police are deployed in pairs.  They place an orange cone in the middle of the highway and stand there going stir crazy in the sun, just waiting for a poor sucker to pass by.  Our desert driving days are spent passing slow semi trucks, and then coming across police checkpoints, where all of the slow trucks pass us again.  Seeing our milk faces through the windshield, the police lick their lips and flag us down.

“Hello officer, would you like to see my importation paperwork and my license?”

“Where are you from? How far have you driven today?  Where are you going?  Why don’t you have a front license plate?  What kind of van is this? Is this van from the USA or Germany?  Do you like Peru?  Have you tried the caldo de gallina?”  The conversations always start the same.  These people are bored, and they lean on my door with their arm perched on my windowsill as they talk.  They’re here for the long haul.  They have no reason to pull us over other than the fact that they’re bored out of their minds and just need someone to talk to.  It’s like being cornered by a conspiracy theorist; you can’t leave until they’ve had enough.  It would be fine if it ended here, but every time we’re stopped the police go too far.

“What do you do for a living?  How much money do you make?”  They always want to know how much you’re worth.

“I’m an engineer, but I prefer not to discuss money.”

“Come on, what’s your salary?  You must be very rich to be driving all the way from America.”

“I said I won’t tell you what I earn.  But in general people in America make $500 per month.”  If they have the right to be jackasses, then I have the right to be a liar.  “We earn $500 per month, but rent is $1,000 per month.  For this reason, people in America are all in debt and they’re actually very poor. ”  Well okay, maybe not a total liar.

“You could live like a King in Peru on $500 per month.  Do you guys sleep in your van?”  At this, the police officer pokes his crazy head into my window and has a look around.  “Wow, it’s like a small apartment in there.  Do you and your wife have sex in this van?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand Spanish.”  Sure, the whole conversation has been played out in Spanish to this point, but to a crazy person my response may seem rational.  The police officer starts motioning with his hands so that I might understand what he’s saying.

“Do you,” (hand gesture) “and your wife,” (hand gesture) “have sex inside of your van?” (grotesque hand gestures)

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand Spanish.”

In Northern Peru, the police are nothing more than insane desert clowns going stir crazy in the sun.


“I’m thinking about getting a wheel alignment done.  Do you know of a good place around here?”  We had driven for a few weeks on a new tie rod, but hadn’t had our alignment checked.  James and Lauren, having temporarily settled down in Huanchaco, would be the perfect people to ask.  After all, they were like us – Americans driving the Pan-Am and dealing with similar incompetency issues.

“Don’t do it, man.  I brought our truck to the BFGoodrich shop a few weeks ago to get an alignment, and then I drove to Cuzco.  When I got there my tires were completely bald.”  I looked at his tires; the tread was completely gone with the exception of a 1/2″ ridge on the outside of either front tire.

“What happened?”  I asked, my finger sliding over the surface of one of his new racing slicks.  They were completely destroyed.

“The guy did the alignment with a broomstick.  He held it between the tires, and then adjusted the alignment by eyeballing it.  Obviously it didn’t work.  These guys have no idea what they’re doing.”

It sounded like I was hearing an echo.  If you’re driving the Pan-American highway and need auto work done that you can’t do yourself, you’re better off setting your vehicle on fire and flying home.

We walked inside and found Sheena and Lauren up to no good.  Lauren was leaning out of their second floor window holding a piece of string.  I could hear a kitten screaming.  Closer inspection revealed that the string had a basket tied to the end of it, and in the basket was an open can of tuna.  Lauren was trying to bait the neighbor’s kitten it into her hanging basket.


Sheena offered words of advice and encouragement.  “Just a little to the left.  She’s smelling the tuna.  One more leg and she’ll be all the way in…”


Before long the cat had taken the bait, and Lauren reeled her away from her loving home in the tipsy basket.  Brian David Mitchell celebrated his kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart by setting up camp by a river in the Wasatch Mountains and reciting a marathon of Mormon prophecies to his victim.  We intimidated our victim by making popcorn and playing a game of Gin Rummy on the roof.  “Squeakers” pleaded a relentless torrent of high pitched squeaks.  Like Brian David Mitchell, we didn’t even care.

We sat around James and Lauren’s apartment, the lease for which they had recently taken over from Stevie and Tree of Sprinter Life, and talked about what had happened since our last meeting.  They were with us on the morning that our transmission failed in Colombia, but they had continued on while we remained in the mountains.  As we talked, someone knocked on the front door.  James got it.

“Oh hi!  How are you?  You know, we actually have your cat!”  Lauren was already fast at work stuffing Squeakers into the basket and opening the window.

“Just hold on Squeakers!  Everything’s going to be fine, just hold on!”

By the time James reached her to get the cat, the basket was out the window.  He ran back to the front door where the neighbor waited, confused.  She hadn’t yet been home, and didn’t know her cat had been kidnapped.

“Actually,” James told her, backpedalling, “we don’t have your cat.  We just…uh…It was nice talking to you!”  When the affair was over we all congregated on the couch.  Lauren looked worried.

“I hope little Squeakers is okay,” she said.  “She jumped out right when I put the basket out the window.”

We all migrated to the window to see if Squeakers was dead.  No trace of a cat was to be seen on the pavement below.  No fur, no blood, no tuna.  Lauren looked at us.  We looked back at her.  The moral divide between us grew, as we couldn’t allow ourselves to be associated with a murderer.  Finally, at long last, a happy squeak emerged from the neighbor’s downstairs grotto.  Squeakers would live  to see another day.

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Oct 2012

Blog, South America

DISCUSSION 11 Comments


Home Alone

“To Los Frailes Beach???”

While downshifting a gear to a cruising pace, every three-wheeled rickshaw driver asked me the same question. While taking a tour of the coast in a spectacular dual toned rickshaw piqued my interest, what was more appealing was watching them go by. The plethora and odd arrangement of decals was mind boggling; dripping flames, cartoon characters, sports logos, marijuana leaves, Jesus heads, and batman-shaped windows, tinted in black plastic to hide the backseat passengers. A slight squint in the eyes and shake of the head was understood as a no thanks. It never hurts to ask I suppose.

No, today I couldn’t be distracted by water and beaches. I had my fun the day before, peering into the strange obsessive sex lives and ritualistic ways of blue footed boobies. These birds were more obsessed with mating than a class of high school boys. Where there was a female, a male was standing obnoxiously in front of her, flaunting his beautiful blue feet by raising one foot and then the other. The female didn’t seem to pay any attention; however she was beyond shallow, eventually choosing the male whose feet were the richest in azure hue. There were many duos between males involving lifting their sharp pointed bills toward the sky and blowing out a high pitched whistle, while outstretching their wings, frantically attempting to display their dominance.

I never saw a female pick a winner, but I did see many soon-to-be mothers incubating their eggs. This was interesting as well, as instead of laying her eggs in a nest, she would defecate in such extreme quantities, that essentially a nest was created of guano. This protected her eggs from bugs and made her nest visible from above.

Off in the ocean waters, you could see blue footed boobies dive bombing straight into the ocean, funneling through the water and devouring off-guard fish. As intense as they were, their lives were short lived. Dive bombing into the ocean blue slowly destroyed their eyesight, leading to an eventual heart-stopping suicide involving a cliff wall or tree.

Today was an unusual day. In the wee hours of the morning, Brad rolled out of bed without me, and ventured off to catch the early bus to Guayaquil in search of a brake master cylinder. For the second time since our trip started, Brad and I were separating for more than the length of an average 9 to 5 work day. This used to be the norm five days a week, now one day apart seemed like infinity. I was left to fend for myself on the beaches of Puerto Lopez.

Nervously, I set out to the market with a simple task for the day, a photographic challenge if you will. The challenge was given to me by a friend; take photos of cooks preparing their food. Easy enough, if you remove from the equation the part where I am shy and horrendous at the Spanish language.

Like many markets, it was a few blocks from the restaurantes turisticos, tour agencies and typical souvenir shops selling woven baskets, sarongs, and keychains. This one was a fabulous open air market, with a few messy but organized comedores. Under a tarped area, dozens of plastic tables and chairs were sprawled out, no clear distinction between one joint to the next except for what kind of salsa sat as the centerpiece. No chalkboards or menus identified the meal of the day; you just had to sit down and wait for the news. It didn’t really matter anyway, they were all nearly identical. Women were surrounded by pots and pans, pushing out food in courses: a brothy soup, then a typical plate of meat, rice, lentils, and plantain chips or patacones, and lastly a cup of juice.

Around the corner, under corrugated metal roofs, If you are wondering why metal roofs, more on this right here. Chamomile flowers were in bundles and women sat on buckets shelling peas, surrounded in a pyramid of colors.

One young shop worker, blinged out in t-shirt imprinted with a faux diamond necklace, flexed his biceps at me as I bought a bundle of spinach reminiscent of a pile of wilted weeds. While flashing a grin, he reported, “Spinach is very good for you. I eat it every day because it makes me VERY strong”. Yes, he looked just like the Latin American version of Popeye.

One of the things I love most about Latin Americans is their incredible creativity. If you can’t afford a fence, make a wall of tumbleweeds and branches to keep the sheep in. If you don’t have a car, chop a rusted out 40-year old bike in half and replace the front with a huge cart and two wheels. No need for handlebars, just grab the front of your cart and start the thigh burning motion of moving the mass forward. These utilitarian bikes (and motorcycles if you had the cash) were second in popularity to the rickshaws. They were loved and used for every perceivable task: delivering propane tanks, glass bottles, moving garbage, carrying people, and selling food. Each one was customized a bit in layout, but the food stands were generally half tabletop and half grill, sometimes with a fancy striped patio umbrella; for ambiance I would imagine.


As evening approached, I left the market with a bag full of food: chorizo, coconut balls, mashed balls of cooked plantain, fry bread filled with cheese, and a few pinches more of confidence than when I started the day. Task accomplished.

The following day, with my honey back at my side, we cruised on out of Ecuador and into Peru. As we wound through the mountains, I spotted a pig dressed as superman. He surely would have tripped on his plaid, baby blue cape if he was skipping along to a mud puddle. However he sat propped up on the table with his eyes closed next to a black charred wok, filled with delightfully juicy chunks of pork.

“I’ll have some pig please”.

The woman lifted the cape of the pig and sliced off a chunk of its back, scooped a few chunks of pork from the wok, and layered the plate with corn, pork, and onion. It was heaven, I promise.

As we continued down the road, I fed Brad like a baby, placing chunks of meat into his open mouth as he drove. As we continued on, my mind drifted to how at home you’d never find the food so exposed. Our meat is cut behind swinging closed doors, packaged in rectangular foam plates, wrapped in saran wrap and marked with an expiration date.  On more than one occasion in Latin-America I’ve watched a family take the life of one of its livestock. To them, it was an occasion and a moment to celebrate their fortune, no foam rectangles or saran wrap in sight.

As we crossed into Peru, things got hectic fast. Nacho was like the white sheep being funneled down the killing chute, engulfed in a mass of pedestrians, rickshaws, carts, and stands.

The following day we were heat exhausted and starving, driving through the vast desert and nothingness of Northern Peru.

We spotted a comedor in the distance. As we sat down on the wooden bench, a single slab of jerky-like meat wavered in the air, hanging from a bare rusted wire strung up between two beams. Carne seca: it’s what’s for lunch.

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Oct 2012

Blog, South America

DISCUSSION 14 Comments

Boobies and Jesus

The fishing boats didn’t go all that far from shore, perhaps a quarter of a mile, to a line where the sea turned from light to dark.  A shelf, most likely, where the sea floor dropped off to greater depths.  I sat on my knees on the paddleboard, paddling for all I was worth to get through the surf break without being toppled.  In my back pocket I carried the hand line I’d rigged up; to a locking carabiner I had tied a 120lb fishing line about 20 feet long.  To the end of the leader I tied a heavy duty hook, and on it I attached the only bait I could find in the van: a hunk of Swiss-style sausage.

I wasn’t interested in those hipster vegan fish.  No, I was interested in the man-eaters.  The kind of fish that require a 120lb fishing line and a locking carabiner; one that would be interested in eating manly nuggets of mystery meat stuffed into a piece of pig intestine.  Of course a fish like this, or a shark for that matter, could easily drown me and take my paddleboard with it.  For this reason I would attach the carabiner to a bungee cord, which would in turn be attached to my board.  I had my dive knife at the ready for the emergency cut-and-swim.

After passing through the surf break the water became more gentle.  I stood up and paddled out to sea, past the line where the water turned from light to dark.  I took out my hand line, unraveled the leader and dropped the bait into the water.  The line unraveled through my fingers until it was taut, and then I clipped the carabiner to my bungee cord and sat back to enjoy the warm Ecuadorian morning.  For a while I sat with my legs dangling off one side of the board, and then I laid down on my back and closed my eyes.  As I lay there on the board, the water gently rocking me with each passing wave, I considered the depth of the water below me.  I thought about the distance these waves had traveled, and the distance we, ourselves, had traveled.  Twenty feet below, the Swiss-style sausage dangled at the edge of an oceanic abyss, taunting the passing fish.  A quarter mile away, life in Canoa ticked by at a relaxed pace along dirt streets.  Ten thousand miles away life went on at home without us.  Sheena, unable to see me lying down, wondered if I’d been pulled under by a Great White.

After nearly an hour, I figured I should come back and let Sheena know I was still alive.  I rolled up my hand line, threw the sausage overboard, and headed back toward the surf.  As I approached the shore I was repeatedly pummeled by set waves, which, as usual, nearly drowned me.  By the time I reached shore my hand line had become unraveled and I was lucky not to have been killed by my supersized man-eater fishing hook.  Sheena, content that I was still alive, went back to reading her book in her lawn chair in the sand.

The following day, while descending the coastal road through a cloud forest toward Puerto Lopez, our brakes decided they’d had it.  I gently depressed the brake pedal coming around a curve, and it gently traveled all the way to the floor.  The ensuing panic-stomp did the trick, effectively jerking Nacho to  a slower speed.  I’d stumbled upon the temporary fix, allowing us to travel the rest of the way to our destination; every time I wanted to slow down, I had to do a panic-stomp on the brake pedal.  Failed brake master cylinder.  Damn.  More of that emergency roadside Volkswagen maintenance would be required.

We pulled into Puerto Lopez and drove the main road along the water until we had left downtown, jerking to an abrupt panic stop before each speed bump.  A few hundred meters outside of town we found a nice spot to camp on the beach and panic-stopped into a serene location overlooking the bay.  We poured rum into two glasses and topped them up with Coke that had been chilling in the freezer, and then sunk back on the couch to listen to the waves.  Outside of our screen door the sailboats and fishing vessels bobbed in front of the lights from the bay while a cool sea breeze filled our small living room.

Having scored the best free beach front property in all of Ecuador, we weren’t in a hurry to move on.  The following morning we ignored our Vanagon maintenance woes and opted instead to go in search of boobies.  It was Sheena’s idea.  “Let’s just enjoy the beach,” I’d say.  “No!  I want to go to the island of boobies!”  She was relentless.  Of course we’re talking about birds here – the elusive Blue-Footed Booby.  La Isla de la Plata was only a 45 minute boat ride away and was said to be loaded with the little monsters.

At the port we found our fiberglass shell of a tour boat waiting, beached like a dead whale.  Our captain played it cool and asked all of the chaps from the group to come and help him get it free.  Twenty minutes and several strained backs later, we were putting Northwesterly.  When, halfway to the island, the engine failed, all I could do was smile.  I watched as the captain and his two helpers wrenched on it for a few minutes, and then switched to watching the panic grow in the other passengers’ eyes.  I was just happy to see someone else behind the wrench for a change.  We finally got on our way when I noticed another layer of ricketyness to our boat; one of the helpers’ jobs was to steer the boat by holding his foot on the outboard motor.  When the captain needed to turn, he would yell at the boy, who would push the motor a little with his bare foot.

“All right everybody, there are four hikes we can do,” our guide said.  We had disembarked and were gathered around the map of the hiking trails around the island.  “The map, you see, is backward.  You have to flip it like this.  The printer made it backwards.  There are four hikes, my fraings.”  For some reason Latin-American guides always say “my friends”, but pronounce it “my fraings”.  Every time I hear it I think of John McCain.

“This hike is very far away, so nobody likes it.”  He swirled his hand over the blue line.  “This one is very boring, you no see any boobies or frigates.  This one boobies, but only frigates flying.  This one is shortest, but has boobies and frigates, my fraings.”  It was clear that our guide wanted to do the shortest hike.  The island was no more than a half of a square mile, so no hike was really all that long.  “So my fraings, we will do the short boobie and frigate hike?”  We nodded.

The trail wound through a dry wash and up the side of a small mountain covered in palo santo trees, and punctuated by thickets of luffa bushes; yes, luffa as in “luffa sponge”.  Luffa sponges grow on bushes inside of huge spiky seeds.

“These are luffa sponges, my fraings.  They make your face so soft, my fraings.”  Our guide mimed washing his face with one of the sponges.

Throughout the hike we dodged blue-footed boobies and red-breasted frigates perched in the trail and all over the surrounding cliffs and trees.  I kept myself entertained by proclaiming “Look! Red-breasted frigate!” using my best nerdy birder lisp every time I saw one.  I’m 29, but I’m not above acting like a 12 year old.  Just ask Sheena.

Back on the boat it was time to head back to the mainland, but not before partaking of the second part of our tour: snorkeling at the island.

“My fraings,” our guide announced, “It is time for snorkeling.”  He glanced over his shoulder at the water and the white sandy beach.  “You will have one hour to snorkel.  There are many fishes and corals to see. ”  We all nodded in anticipation.  “But as you can see the water is very cold.  It may make you sick from the cold.  The wind is also blowing.  So you will not have any fun.  Maybe today is not the day for snorkeling.  Does anyone want to snorkel?”  We peered around at the group, now completely turned off by the idea of snorkeling, and fearful for their health.  Not wanting to be the only ones swimming in the arctic cold water with the deadly wind making us sick, we kept quiet as the boat sputtered to life and stammered out to sea.

On the way back to Puerto Lopez our boat ran out of gas.  Again we were stuck, the other passengers fretted, and I couldn’t wipe the ridiculous smile off of my face.  After replacing your own transmission on a high mountain Colombian farm, there’s nothing more satisfying than watching it happen to someone else.  It’s like all of a sudden waking up and realizing that you’re not alone in the world.

Eventually the helpers unearthed an extra fuel bottle from the depths of the boat’s bilge, and we were on our way.  A short time later, Sheena let out a joyous squeal and all at once I knew we’d be stopping again.  Next to our boat a whale breached, and then her two calves followed.  We spent a half an hour circling the enormous animals as they repeatedly surfaced and jumped around.  I imagined one of them biting my Swiss-style sausage link and taking me into the depths of the ocean while I fidgeted for my dive knife.  I really dodged a bullet there.

The following morning it was time to get down to business.  By the glow of Nacho’s dome light after our boat trip I had removed our brake master cylinder.  I now carried it in my sweatshirt pocket as I made my way at 6:00 in the morning toward the Puerto Lopez bus station.  I would go to Guayaquil, a 5 hour trip, and not come back until I found a replacement.  By 7:00 I had found the right bus and was relaxing my way Southward.  Someone else drove, for a change.

As the bus passed through grasslands and canyons I listened to Radiolab and This American Life on my iPod.  Ira Glass dug deep to find out what happened during the massacre at Dos Erres, Guatemala, and I thought about how long ago we had driven through that region.  It seemed like an eternity.  Being able to sit there and stare out the window while being entertained was a welcome luxury.  By now the uncertainty of when and how our van would be fixed didn’t concern me.  We’d been through this before, and everything would certainly work out.  How could I complain, after all, after listening to what happened at Dos Erres?

When the bus reached Guayaquil I grabbed a sandwich and walked out to the taxis.  I hopped in one and directed him to a VW parts importer.  When we reached the place I stepped out and passed my old master cylinder through the barred service window to the parts guy.  He disappeared for a minute and emerged holding the exact part I needed.  I paid him, thumbed another taxi back to the bus station, and hopped on the next bus for Puerto Lopez.  The whole day was all very non-Latin-American in its efficiency and in the way everything worked on the first try.  I suppose that after you’ve traveled across continents and smuggled really heavy car parts across international borders to fix very difficult mechanical problems, everything else just seems easy.

On the bus ride home I sat in the bulkhead seat next to a pleasant Ecuadorian woman with a lot of grocery bags.  On the bulkhead there was a large picture of Jesus superimposed over a backdrop of a serene Swiss mountain lake.  Jesus was made in the image of a Latin-American boy, but in an effort to make him look as innocent and tranquil as possible, he had turned out looking more like a prebubescent Latin-American girl wearing a satin bed sheet.  He certainly looked nothing like the Middle-Eastern man that he really was.  I find it curious that every Christian society does this same kind of Jesus stylization.  I stared at this innocent-looking bed sheet-wearing prebubescent Latin-American girl for five hours, while listening to episodes of Fresh Air on my iPod.

As the sun went down and the bus descended the same road where our brakes had failed, Terri Gross interviewed Maurice Sendak, the author of Where the Wild Things Are.  Maurice spoke about his impending death and the sadness he felt at having had to watch his friends pass away, while at the same time looking positively on the times he had.

“There’s something that I’m finding out as I’m aging – that I am in love with the world.  And I look right now as we speak together, out the window of my studio, and I see my trees – my beautiful, beautiful maples that are hundreds of years old, and … I can see how beautiful they are.  I can take time to see how beautiful they are … It is a blessing to find the time to do the things, to read the books, to listen to the music … Live your life, live your life, live your life.”

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Oct 2012

Blog, South America


Plank the Line

Crossing into Ecuador from Colombia marked the first time in three months that we had driven across an international border under our own power.  The previous night we’d driven twelve hours, our long push culminating at a Texaco station high in the mountains where we set up camp.  Shortly after our arrival all four of our tires were promptly marked by a band of rogue dogs, as happens every time we stop.

Having driven the last four hours at night, I hadn’t seen a rock in the road and hit it at around 45 miles per hour.  The rock flung up and hit the propane hose that feeds our stove, creating a gash that caused most of our propane to leak out.  I noticed the smell as we settled down for bed, and closed the valve so as to retain what little propane was left, and to avoid waking up dead.  One more thing to fix.

The following morning, after a short visit to a church built over a gorge where a crazy person claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary, we crossed into Ecuador to find the Pan-American a beautifully manicured four lane highway.  We continued South to the town of Otavalo, and after a couple of uninspiring days there we were ready to say goodbye to the Northern Hemisphere.

By early afternoon we had arrived at the equator.  We found a restaurant near the equatorial line, where we were welcomed by a bunch of cardboard cutouts of Dave Zimmern, the host of some American strange foods show.  He had apparently stopped here and eaten a guinea pig, as evidenced by the myriad photographs, quotes, and faded cardboard cutouts of him holding said guinea pig.  We spied several guinea pigs impaled on sticks over a fire, so we inquired.  In a country where lunch rarely costs more than $2, we regretfully turned down the $20 price tag and instead ate what the locals were eating.  The proprietor seemed extremely dismayed that we were unwilling to purchase one of her exorbitantly priced rodents.  We paid the $2 for our lunch and made our way to the equator.

The equator, for all its fame and reputation, was about as interesting as a line painted on the ground.  We checked it with our GPS and found it to be several feet from the real equator.  It wasn’t merely disappointing in the way that your children don’t like The Rolling Stones as much as you do.  No, it was really disappointing.  Like the kind of disappointment you feel when your children quit their perfectly adequate jobs to go live in a van.  This fact didn’t stop us from doing silly poses and, most impressively, planking the illegitimate equator.

A few small issues had popped up with Nacho since leaving Susacón, so we decided to spend a couple of days taking care of them in Quito; one of our inner tie rod ends had developed some slop, we now had a bad propane line, and we found – to my utter dismay and disbelief – that our new transmission had come with a leaky drive flange oil seal.  As we drove, the bottom of our engine and transmission were being covered by a continuous drip of gear oil, which mixed with dust to create a nice oily sludge.  Fortunately I’d picked up a couple of new drive flange oil seals in Panama on a whim, so I planned to replace the leaky one and be on our way.

We drove to Quito and found an enclosed dirt parking lot in the middle of downtown where we could camp for about $3 per night.  Within walking distance were a whole gaggle of restaurants serving delicious – and virtually free – meals.  Middle Eastern kebabs could be had for $1.50.  Indian curry with naan and rice was $4.  Our favorite lunch place turned out to be a nice Italian restaurant with crisp white table cloths and well-dressed waiters.  Main dishes came from the wood-fired oven in the center of the room.  The standard lunch included fresh squeezed juice, an appetizer, a large bowl of soup, a well-stocked salad bar, a main course, and a dessert – all for $3.  Ecuador, with its $1.50/gallon gas and dirt cheap delicious food, was going to be a welcome relief to our budget.

I started off by repairing our propane line.  As expected, none of the hardware stores carried the fitting I needed, so I improvised using things I had in the van.  I ended up fixing it MacGyver style with a bolt and some plumber’s tape.  Next it was time to fix the transmission leak.  I drained the gear oil, cut away the safety wire and removed the CV joint – laughing to myself that I had ever thought I’d be done messing with CV joints – and then removed the clips and washers that held the drive flange in.  Upon removing the drive flange it was obvious that the oil seal had been pressed in crooked when it was rebuilt.  I compared my new seals with the crooked one and discovered that the shop in Panama had sold me the wrong seals.  What? Another inept worker in the Latin-American car repair industry?  Shocking!

I was unable to remove the seal without destroying it, and nothing I tried would cause it to straighten out.  I cursed my luck and reassembled everything.  I would have to deal with the leak, and resign myself to continually checking the oil level.  It just never gets any easier!

The next day I went to several VW parts houses and found that nobody carried a tie rod for Nacho.  One would have to be ordered from Guayaquil, which would take two days.  It made me nervous because the parts guy never asked me what year Nacho was before placing the order over the phone, but he assured me it was the correct one.  I gave it a 5% chance.  In the meantime, Sheena and I decided to escape from civilization for a while, and make the trip South to go camping and hiking at Cotopaxi volcano while we waited.  We’d just drive carefully so our front wheel assembly wouldn’t come apart.

Getting to Cotopaxi involved traveling over several mountains at or around 14,000 feet.  At this elevation, Nacho operates at about 30% power since the fuel doesn’t have enough oxygen to achieve complete combustion.  We repeatedly coasted down long stretches of freeway, and then chugged up long stretches in first gear.  Eventually we arrived at the dirt road turnoff for Cotopaxi, which was followed by many miles of dirt road.  Finally we arrived to our campsite at the base of the mountain; the wind whipped through our the nearly-frozen tundra known as our camp, while the temperature plunged toward freezing.  Our camp was at a frosty 15,000 feet in the shadow of the even frostier 20,000 foot volcano.

The following day we donned our hiking gear and set off across the treeless landscape toward the volcano.  Being above the tree line allowed us to hike cross-country straight up the side of the peak.  We had grandiose plans of reaching the snow line and exploring the edge of the glacier than clung to the side of the mountain, but by mid-afternoon we had only climbed a little better than half way to the snow line.

We regretfully turned around and ran down the side of the volcano in order to make it back to camp before dark.  We crawled into Nacho just as the sun crested the horizon, where we cooked dinner and made tea, raising the inside temperature to 65 degrees while outside it plunged below freezing.  Sure they have mechanical problems, but you still can’t beat a Vanagon for overland travel.

We opted to spend one more day at Cotopaxi, choosing this time to hike in the other direction.  In a failed attempt to locate the trail on our map, we ended up hiking all day along an abandoned road bed through the mountains.  This marked the second straight day of not coming across another human here in the beautiful Andes.  Another comfortable night in Nacho ensued, and then we were off to collect our tie rod.

In Quito we found parking in a neighborhood close to the VW shop.  I crawled under the van with two wrenches and a tie rod puller; yes, I actually have a tie rod puller.  Five minutes later we were walking down the street with a badly worn tie rod in one hand, and virtually no chance of finding the right part in the other.  As we entered the parts house, the owner reached down and grabbed the part, holding it up with a big grin on his face.  I held it up to the bad tie rod and, to my disbelief, found it to be the correct part.  I happily paid him and walked back to Nacho, where I crawled underneath and easily installed the new part while fútbol moms drove by and pedestrians stared.

Having had our fill of Quito, we fired up our safer and more reliable Nacho and headed West.  We were ready for some surf and sun, so we bid farewell to the mountains with a smile on our faces and a drip on our transmission.

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Oct 2012

Blog, Recipes, South America

DISCUSSION 13 Comments

Racing for Figs

Dozens of figs had swelled to a purple mass, soft to the touch, and desperately hanging on for dear life. Literally, it was a race with the birds. The ripest fruits were already pecked to death, left hanging to taunt us in what we did not discover in time. Birds had wings, but we had sticks. As I was warned, you had to be careful when you picked the figs from up high as they leaked a white sticky sap when broken free. I stood on my tip toes, arm fully extended, beating the figs free from their roots. I wanted those fruits, badly.

What to do. What to do.

I had at least a week to burn while waiting for Brad to maneuver Nacho’s new transmission back in place plus a laundry list of other projects to increase Nacho’s mojo. Each day, I would start by running through the eucalyptus trees and alongside the fields of grazing cows and corn fields. At my turning around point, I would stare out at the countryside in utter disbelief of its beauty. My thoughts often led to the general ideas that most Americans had on this country: cocaine and violence. There is no denying that both of these things exist, but often not known is how little this represents Colombia as a whole. After my mind stopped wandering, I’d continue on, stopping to greet the many families of baby cows and the truck driver I saw daily, as he dropped off his workers to tend to the sheep.

When I returned home, Brad was already to work on the vehicle and would stop briefly when I yelled breakfast was ready. For the remainder of the day, the Olympics played in the background while painted, basked in the sun, watched the cows, cooked, wandered through the yard, or kept Brad company. A few extraordinary days occurred in the mix, and that was when Constanza and Hernando took the time to show me how to cook up some local dishes.

Before we left Susacon the first time around, I attempted to cook dessert figs. I failed horribly and realized I needed some expert advice. Cos accepted the role and tutored me on how to cook figs in sugar water, infused with cloves and cinnamon. While the figs simmered, I learned how to make a custard dessert as well called Postre De Nata.

A few days later, Hernando showed Raphael (a French backpacker and instant friend) and me how to make Sarapas, a corn-based pancake. This variation was a close relative to the arepa, also a corn-based pancake offered on every street corner and home in Colombia. After we made a stack of a dozen or so, Luis made hot chocolate, also a staple in the Colombian diet. Yes, there is heaven on this earth. Next to the spatulas and spoons in the Colombian kitchen, there is a special stirring stick made solely for mixing the chocolate and frothing milk.


40 figs (these can still be green but must be somewhat soft to the touch)
1 large block of panela (8″X6″X3” block), chopped (white or turbinado sugar will work as a substitute)
5 cinnamon sticks
1 dozen whole cloves

Cut the stem off of each fig.

On the opposite side create an X by cutting two 1″ slits. This will allow the milk juices to run out while cooking. In a large pot, add 6 inches of water and bring to a boil.

Add the figs and reduce to a simmer for 10 minutes, or until the figs are soft.

Drain the water while leaving the figs in the pot.

In another large pot, add water (a few inches from the top) and bring to a boil.
Add panela, cinnamon sticks, and cloves. Cook until the panela has dissolved.

Add the sugar water to the figs.
Simmer for 2+ hours uncovered, allowing the figs to cook and sugar water to reduce to a syrup.

*If a fig begins to split, remove from the pot and set aside.
*The figs will be done when their color changes from a green to a dark purple.

Recipe alternatives: Instead of cooking the figs in sugar water, you can leave the canela out and simmer just in water. When the figs have been removed from the heat and cooled, fill them with arequipe (milk + panela).

2 cups of whole milk
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons of liquor (rum, contreou, aguadente)
4 tablespoons of sugar
*Raisins (optional)

In a large diameter shallow pot, add milk and bring to a boil. Let the milk stand until a cream forms. This will look like a thin layer of skin on the surface of the milk. Remove the cream with a spatula and transfer to a bowl, repeating until there is no more milk cream. Try to remove the cream each time in whole chunks.

In a separate bowl beat the egg yolk until frothy and light in color.

With a little milk left in the pan (1/4 cup or so), add the egg yolk and mix in a slow moving motion. Some solids will form from the egg yolk (this is fine). Next add the sugar and liquor and continue stirring. Lastly add the cream that was set aside. Continue stirring on low heat and remove before it boils.

Pour into individual dessert cups. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes and then refrigerate. Enjoy when cold.

*If you want to add a tablespoons of raisins, do so while combining the cream and syrup.

1 kilogram of fresh corn kernels (35 ounces)
500 grams of cheese (17 ounces)
1 teaspoon of salt
1/2 cup of raw sugar
2 tablespoons of butter (melted)
4 tablespoons of warm milk
1 tablespoon of thick cream (consistency of sour cream)

In a hand grinder (or blender), grind corn kernels to a thick paste. As you grind, a milk will drip from the grinder. Reserve the milk as it will be added back to the corn paste later. Once all corn has been ground, change the setting on the grinder to a finer setting. Process the corn through once more. The end result should be a liquidy paste.

Next, add the milk and all its remnants to the corn paste. It should be somewhere around 1 – 2 cups.

In a pan, melt 2 tablespoons of butter. Add to the corn paste in addition to salt, sugar, cream and milk.

Once all ingredients are added, check the consistency. It should be somewhere between the consistency of pancake and crepe batter. If the mixture is too thick, add water. Whether or not you will need to add water will depend on the freshness of the corn. Fresher corn will produce more milk.

Enjoy with hot chocolate!

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