Welcome to the Jungle: Iquitos, Peru to Leticia, Colombia to Tabatinga, Brazil

Lima was a riot in a whole lot of different ways. After reading over my last post, I’m worried I focused a bit too heavily on some negative aspects of my experience in the city. Yes, it smelled like an exhaust pipe, was seemingly eternally cold and grey, and I was vomiting through most of it (and if I was lucky, that was it). But I also spent practically a whole night dancing in a Peruvian club to a live Peruvian band, had my first and many (proficient!) conversations in Spanish between a Fin, Italian, and Peruvian because it was the only common language, and successfully navigated my way through a Limen~an neighborhood in the middle of the night after getting lost, something I tried and failed to do a little over a year ago in Brussels and Florence. I value my experience in Lima so much because it broke me in for the rest of the trip. I experienced my first looooong bus ride with bad food and worse movies, food poisoning (now that, plus what happened in Medellin, qualifies me as a real third world traveler), explored, on my own, one of Latin America’s biggest cities, all the while dodging some actually really nice, if still slimy, drug dealers (ask me about that story in person) and figuring out the bus system with capable but still nervous Spanish. It’s something I’m never going to forget, and served as the basis for the rest of my summer’s travels. Without it, I can’t imagine how I would have handled the last week in Colombia–that’s a story for later, but let it suffice to say that it’s a good thing I was heading back to home base, Cuenca. Thinking of everything that has happened in the past month and a half, taking the super sketchy taxi to the airport with Trish, wondering if we were about to be robbed (we weren’t), and subsequently flying to Iquitos seems so long ago. These memories are vivid, yet they are so distant.

You can trace the roots of our trip to Colombia back to the end of December, days after moving into my new apartment. Trish was getting set to head to Oakland, California to intern, and stopped by my place to say goodbye. At the time, I was hanging out with my buddy John, who was in town for New Year’s from Mizzou. We were in the middle of trying not to fumigate ourselves spray-painting and attempting creativity in my living room when Trish walked in, and after talking for a bit, our trips to Peru and Ecuador came up. It was a pretty simple path from there. If you’re going to be in South America, and me in Ecuador, there’s an obvious excuse to see a bit of the world there. At that moment it was set. We were going somewhere. “Where” wasn’t decided until two days before we actually left, and we debated Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil before we finally settled on Colombia. We went so far as to even come up with a plan for getting to Bolivia (below), which was ditched for the travel costs and Bolivia’s cold climate.


Where I would have ended up if we went to Bolivia, I have no idea.

Colombia was initially a no-go due to the usual danger associated with the country, a connotation that seriously needs to change. Colombia is much safer than Ecuador and I hear Venezuela. FARC and paramilitary are still active, but are confined to specific regions. Avoid Choco, Putamayo and dangerous neighborhoods and you’ll likely be fine.

We started our journey in Iquitos, Peru the largest city in the world that can’t be reached by road. From Peru, you can either fly there, as we did, or take a boat a few days up the river from Pucallpa, on the western edges of the Peruvian Amazon. The other route is up the Amazon toward Leticia, the city on the tri-border of Brazil, Peru, and Colombia, which is the manner we took to leave–10 beautiful hours in a speed boat in piranha infested waters lined by small villages. It was incredible. I can still picture it now…and god how I want to be back there. It was pristine. Sweaty and dirty, yet still pristine.

The runway in Iquitos was lined with airplanes that looked like they hadn’t been flown in decades. Their propellers were rusted beyond repair, and I’m pretty sure Indiana Jones used them one day before they were fished out of a swamp in the jungle. Funnily enough, Harrison Ford was in Iquitos filming a movie while we were there, so maybe it wasn’t a coincidence after all. We stayed with our friend Gary “Gazza” Torres, Trish’s jungle guide a few weeks back in the very same city. He’s 27 years old, and has encyclopedic knowledge of the jungle. He actually got lost in the jungle a few weeks before we met, wasn’t able to find his way back before dark, and Man vs. Wilded it in the forest. He dined on the fish he caught with his bare hands, and slept on a makeshift bed of palm leaves with the monkey he raised–he bought a tiny monkey a while back for 10 soles (3.5 dollars), raised him, and soon after set him free. It never goes very far, though, and whenever Gary whistles for him he swings on over. I can’t even put into words how jealous of that I am. Right now, Gary is in Alaska working on a cruise ship, soon to be returning to Quebec to do some more traveling. He speaks Quebecois, English (with an Australian accent), and obviously Spanish. He’s an interesting guy, to put it lightly. I told him about my motorcycle diary dream, and I think I’ve got a partner in my future adventures. He even taught me how to ride his motorcycle in Iquitos (I think there are only like 7 cars in the entire city), which I subsequently killed and couldn’t restart a few miles from his apartment. While a moto-taxista was able to push me home, Gary and Trish were worrying that I got pulled over by the cops and taken to the police station. Without a cell phone or a Peruvian driver’s license, or even my Wisconsin license with me at the time, I could have been pretty screwed. But then again, everything has a price. Maybe the 100 soles I had in my pocket at the time would have gotten me out. To be honest, that’s probably how it would have ended up anyways. It’s a good thing, though, that I’ll never know. After getting towed back and laughed at for killing the engine, Gary and I headed to a club. Gary hit on a girl from Quebec with his Quebecois, got rejected, and we headed back to his place and watched American Pie dubbed in Spanish. If you thought it was funny in English, you’ll find it downright ridiculous in Spanish. The voices are hysterical.

We only spent two days in the city, since we unfortunately had to hurry our way to Bogotá. With Trish’s shorter schedule, we had to prioritize. 200 soles later, we were ready to take the 6 A.M. speed boat to Leticia. After returning from the club at around 2 am, I called it a night, set seven alarms, and prepared to wake up three hours later to head to the boat. Since it was a ten-hour boat ride, I figured I could get some sleep. No need to waste a precious night in a jungle city with a hilarious jungle man. What’s the risk? Well, my iPod died in the middle of the night, and my phone’s alarms didn’t go off. Really? Come on. How does this sort of thing even happen? It must have been too quiet, on silent, or something. I don’t even know. But I know what you’re thinking right now, and you need to hold on. I woke up, saw that it was pretty light out, and checked my phone to see how long I had to sleep. Upon looking at the time, I leaped out of bed, and said in that sort of voice you get when you wake up and realize somethings wrong:

“Um, Trish, we have a bit of a problem. My alarms didn’t go off.”

Still practically asleep, she responded: “Wait, what? What time is it?”

“5:57. We’re going to miss the boat. Do you think the tickets are exchangeable?” That was a stupid question.

Not even paying attention to the question, she bolted up with a sort of energy and purpose I have yet to see since.  “Hurry. Get your shit. Don’t worry about your shoes, nothing. Get it together and let’s go.” It was all a bit bit drill-Sergeant-esque, but I was a bit too taken aback and actually somewhat intimidated at the time to make any jokes. In a matter of seconds, we got all of our stuff together, woke up Gary, thanked him, got a taxi, broke moto-taxi landspeed records to get to the port, and ran through said port with our backpacks on our backs and our shoes in our hands. We didn’t think there was time enough to protect our feet from the hookworm living in every feces infested crack on the street. Whatever. It happened. As was to be absolutely expected, people were giving us the most ridiculous looks. I wonder how often it is the people of Iquitos, a rather isolated yet somewhat because of this touristy city, see two young white people running through the small port the way we were. Probably not very often, although I’d bet more than you’d think. We’re not the first, and we won’t be the last. We got to the port at 6:04 A.M., ran down the stairs to the water two at a time, and hopped on the boat moments before it took of. We were forced to sit apart, but the lovely thing about our tardiness was that I was able to take the last unoccupied seat on the boat: the very front seat, next to the driver, with the most leg room and an unobstructed view of the river in front of us. It was the most incredible boat ride of my life. I’m going to have to remember to do the same thing the next time I make it to out to the jungle.

Oh, Trish was stuck in the middle of the boat, against the wall next to a fat man, basically unable to move her legs, with a small window on her right. She was able to make it up to the front eventually, when the driver allowed me to sit outside so she could take my seat. I have no regrets. Sorry Trish.


Iquitos Houseboats


Nothing but motorcycles and moto-taxis. It was awesome.


What we saw from the late-comer’s seats


“Stumbled out of bed frantically at 5:58 to catch a 6:00 boat down the Amazon, watched the sun rise over the jungle en route, and wound up in Colombia ten hours later. There’s nothing like going through border patrol in your PJs…just nothing like it. — with Matt Conway in Leticia, Colombia.”

– Patrcia Rose Paskov, July 6th, 39 Likes, 10 Comments (most notably that of Ali Massoud: “This is legendary.”

Ten hours later we were handing our passports over to Peruvian exit officials at the border crossing, which was nothing more than a wooden shack with a computer, a desk, and a man in shorts and a t-shirt with a stamp. There wasn’t even a gun in sight. Just parrots. That’s when I knew I was going to like Colombia. I just had no idea how much.



It took me 19 hours to drive from Mancora to Lima. Each second I didn’t spend sleeping–which, thankfully, were relatively few–I filled with enlightening Christian movies such a Facing the Giants, or one of the other movies made by the same company, using the same actors. Some buses pass the time playing ultra-violent or action movies such as Saw or The Expendables, and others choose to err on the more chaste side. It all depends on the bus driver, and there’s generally no in between. Now, don’t get the wrong impression of me when I say this, but I really prefer some Jason Statham badassery to a husky suburban white man telling his football team through his tears that their team will win if they ask God nicely. I’m not an overly religious person, but I don’t think that’s how it’s supposed to work. But then again, when I was in Quito’s cathedral a man asked me to pay the church 50 dollars to save my soul and become absolved of my sins. Maybe things really do work differently down here.

Once arriving in Lima, I took some time to stretch my legs and eventually found a taxi to take me to Trish’s apartment in Pueblo Libre, a quieter, cute Limen~an barrio next to Universidad de la Catolica. Just like Cuenca at this very moment, Lima was a deceivingly freezing 60 degrees. The main factor there is the humidity. Despite being in the middle of the desert, Lima is cold and permanently overcast for about half of the year, with the other part of the year beautiful, sunny, and warm. Being in the southern hemisphere, it’s unfortunately winter now. After a few minutes of walking around, I hopped in the first safe looking taxi I could find (i.e. no holes and an old man driving) and drove to the University. It was about dinner time when I found Trish outside of la universidad, so we headed to the closest market to get some food. Now, since food in Lima is supposed to be some of the best you can possibly eat in South America, I had some high expectations. The food I received was indeed different from what I ate in Ecuador and Colombia, although not in the way I expected. Meals down here come like this: soup, plate with meat, rice, and a light side salad or fries, accompanied by some sort of juice. The course this women served us was, in a general sense, no deviation from the norm. We were given a potato/fish based soup, a plate with meat and rice, and some sort of fruit juice I can’t remember. The difference, though, lies in the ingredients and the way it was cooked. The soup had a chicken leg in it. Not like a drumstick, but the main walking part, with talons and feet and everything included. The meat on the chicken foot wasn’t cooked, which was a theme that carried out throughout the rest of the meal. I didn’t know this at the time, and not wanting to offend anybody and leave food behind, I ate all I could, including whatever meat I could find on the chicken leg. It was a slightly uncomfortable meal because of the chicken foot, but besides that there really wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. Trish and I headed back to her house, hung out with a bunch of her roommates, and soon after prepared a second dinner of cherimoya, lentils, and what I think was fish. I say “I think” not to imply that Trish cooked up some sort of mystery meat, but just to say I don’t really remember. The rest of the night’s events kind of shadow over the rest of the evening. We ate, hung out, bonded about all being from Madison but actually being in Peru (I miss the terrace so much, the square, remember this? etc.), and went to the internet to look at plane tickets and research where Trish and I were going to be spending the next 13 or so days. And then I ran to the bathroom and starting vomiting more violently than I have in probably my entire life. I thought blood was going to come out. In hindsight, I really should have expected this. My meat was a strange pink color, I ate a chicken foot…these are not normal things for me, and I don’t think are actually normal for anybody else. I’ve since heard you’re not supposed to eat the meat on the chicken foot. Either way, what was done was done, and I was condemned to four days of two-way bodily fluid traffic. The long-lasting result of this experience: because they were the last things I ate before puking, I can never eat lentils or cherimoya again. Just thinking about these two foods makes me want to vomit. Ugh. But don’t worry, I’m still totally cool with chicken feet.

While I couldn’t eat or do much, after a couple of bedridden days I forced myself to explore the city. After all, when is the next chance I’ll have to be in Lima? I could finally eat food, and while I spent the majority of my time outside of the house in pristine, European style coffee shops (in both design and cost), I was able to find my way to a Chinese restaurant and a cheeseburger stand. I was done with Peruvian food. These coffee shops were located in Miraflores, the hipster district of Lima if there were to be one. It was actually a really incredible place, with parks everywhere, boutique shops, bookstores, and all; there was even a Starbucks and McDonald’s there (and for some reason a John F. Kennedy Park). Despite those last facts, it was a really intriguing place with lots of modern and historical Peruvian culture. I loved it. It reminds me a bit of the DuPont Circle region of Washington D.C., which, when I visited Matt last March, I decided I would live in if I ever moved to D.C.

I usually kept my hood up as I was walking to guard against the constant drizzle and cold and to blend in a bit more. Blond hair and blue eyes isn’t really a normal thing down here. There are lots of stares…some out of curiosity, others malice. An odd phenomenon occurred, though, when I walked around with my hood up, which was actually the opposite effect I hoped my hood would have. Whenever I walked with my hood down I would get some stares, but could wander the streets unmolested. This was not the case otherwise. Apparently–and this could be a universal thing–when I walked with the hood up it was as if I was holding a sign that said “Drugs. Any and all kind of drugs, I want them.” Wherever I walked, I would hear the quiet whisper of “hombre, hierba/marijuana/bud/ay-yay(cocaine)/heroína?” I even did a small experiment and walked past the same guys a few times throughout the day, both with and sans hood. With the hood, I’m sketchy. Without, just a gringo. It was flawless.

Two things I learned in Lima: how to get drugs and how to get violently ill. But in all seriousness, I met some incredible people, saw some crazy things, and learned a whole lot. The sickness eventually couldn’t stop me from going to clubs, parties at friend’s apartments, and enjoying every minute of my time there. Being the first large part of my trip, it was arguably one of the most meaningful and worthwhile. I can’t wait to go back to experience everything I either didn’t have the time or energy to do. One day, hopefully soon.

The beginning: Peru

Hanging out down here, I’ve met many different types of foreigners:

Type A: Those taking a short break from their lives in their home countries, and want an interesting place to get drunk

Type B: The hippies, looking to get further down to earth and live off the land. This is an interesting type.

Type C: The pelucones, who come down here to say they did, and do little more than observe the country from the window of an expensive hotel or restaurant

Type D: The naïve, hopeful,  a little ignorant and bright-eyed traveler seeing the world for one of the first times, trying to take it in stride. I’d classify myself among this group.

Type E: The seasoned traveler, spending days in some places, weeks in others, going wherever he or she wants and feeling at home in each place.

Dario is type E, and when I first met him, he began telling me about how he’s been hitchhiking and busing his north from Concepcion, Chile with nothing more than two outfits, a tent, and a violin. In order to fund his now 8 months of travel, he plays his violin in the city center of whatever exotic or by now, not so exotic, city he finds himself in. As a violin professor at Concepcion University, Dario has a lot of freedom to take time off and travel as he wants. While usually taking the summers off (December–March) to travel around Patagonia in both Argentina and Chile, he decided this time to go north and see where the world took him. When we met he was 24 years old, and we celebrated his 25th birthday the other day exploring, and of course getting very lost, in Cotopaxi National Park, as we attempted and partly succeeded in summitting Rumiñahui Volcano. I say partially, because only my friend Miro and I were able to summit, having lost Dario and another friend in the path. That’s a story for later.  Dario and I were hanging out at my apartment in Cuenca in mid June, and I was sitting utterly intrigued by his plans, or rather lack there of, and freedom. To me it seemed to take so much courage, and sounded like one of the most incredible ways one could spend a summer, much less a year. Just think of the adventure, and the stories! I had to do it, and after a moment of deliberation, decided to. Dario and I talked about it all the time, and he showed me all the sights in the south I should see. At this time, I was thinking of buying a motorcycle in Quito and heading south Che Guevara style to Tierra del Fuego and north again, along one of these two routes: Without Rio, still Brazil With Brazil

Obviously, that plan didn’t happen. After a few weeks of searching for a reasonably priced, powerful enough motorcycle I realized that this plan would have to be put off for a later date when I had deeper pockets, stronger Spanish, and the ability to ride a motorcycle. That last factor should have been more important that it was at the time. A few days after giving up the search, I headed to the coast to see whales, blue footed boobies, small towns, make new friends and find out if all the talk about Montanita is valid. It is. Don’t worry, I took tons of picture. If you want to see them, just ask the guy who stole my phone in Medellin. I’m sure he saved them all.

Re-reading where I left off in Puerto Lopez just under two months ago speaks volumes. Maybe the change reflected in the writings is more noticeable to me than others because I lived it, or maybe it’s the opposite. Either way, I notice a pretty big change between the man writing this now and the man who started this blog three months ago. James told me to “prepare for a life changing experience” right before I left, and while I didn’t doubt him, I didn’t totally understand what that change would be. The last three months–specifically the last month and a half–has been the most challenging, incredible, eye-opening, exciting, exhausting, and unbelievable experience of my life. And I don’t even consider my trip to be that radical or crazy. Rather benign, really, when I compare it to some of the other stories I’ve heard down here. My time on the Ecuadorian coast was really laid back, and generally revolved around sitting in a hammock and doing nothing on the beach hanging out with foreigners. Not exactly what I was looking for when I set off, but it was a nice way to start.

Things began to change, though, when I started the journey to Lima. On the 8 hour bus ride to Mancora–my first of many of its kind–I sat next to this guy from Piura, Peru (northern Peru, near the border), and was able to practice my Spanish for a few hours as I learned about the fishing industry, which Ronald was a consultant for. I taught a bit of English that he could use when working with his almost exclusively Japanese customers, too (who knew?). Once I got into Mancora at 4:00 in the morning, I stepped off the bus and was immediately swarmed by 15 or so moto-taxistas, all wanting business. Even in a party town, 4:00 isn’t a very busy time for them. For 1 sol, about 42 cents, my hopped into the carriage hitched to the halved motorcycle and told the taxi driver to take me to the nicest, cheapest place he knew of. 5 minutes later, I was introduced to his friend, the owner, at a beach side hostel where I would be falling asleep to sounds of the ocean. And for only 15 soles per night, or about 7 dollars. There really wasn’t anybody staying there, except for the two people who I was sharing the 15 bed dorm with: a German and a Peruvian, also from Piura, who took the weekend off of work in Mancora to unwind after his Spanish girlfriend moved back to Malaga to get surgery after being shot in the leg in a mugging in Piura. He was very evidently still upset, which probably goes a small way to explain this weekends events, such as the ritzy cocaine party at the end of the blue tunnel in the middle of a slum.

Every night in Mancora there are huge parties on the beach, with all the clubs blasting their music at competing tones beach side. These clubs are packed to a point where they’re overflowing to the beach; there’s barely enough room to even attempt to salsa, although they make it happen somehow. Each of these clubs shut down their music and close their doors at 3:00 AM, leaving everybody disgruntled and feeling cheated out of a dance. Since everybody lives with their families, I can understand why they want to keep dancing (although there is a reason hostels rent out by the hour here…). In order to fix this problem, there is generally an after party/club starting at around 3:30 AM. In my one and only experience, it happened to be in an enclosed field in the middle of a slum. After leaving the beach, I hopped in a moto-taxi with my new friends, told the driver the destination, and putted off to the rumba. I was a bit confused upon arriving, since I didn’t see anybody, was surrounded by very small tin, one bedroom houses, and could only faintly hear the thump of reggaetone, although after a few seconds a Peruvian guy beckoned me his way, and instructed me on where to go. After walking single file down this neon blue lit tin hallway, we arrived at the party: huge, beautifully green grass field, bamboo canopy, two bars with American and European drinks, and a state of the art DJ/sound system. Oh, and I should mention the giant pen in the middle that held turkeys, ducks and chickens, and the people discreetly snorting lines of cocaine off of its fence. I felt like the place was stolen from the set of Clockwork Orange. For the entire party Anis and I, Anis being the German, passed a bottle of Pilsen back and forth, both pretending to take sips because it was absolutely terrible. Peru has some fantastic food, but their beer is just terrible. Stick to your strengths.

Now, I actually know nothing about Peruvian food because I spent the majority of my time in Lima vomiting. Violently.

More to come tomorrow.

Dangerous Business

It’s dangerous business going out your door. You step onto the road and there’s no telling where you might be swept off to.

Some guy named Danny Rozan wrote that on a wall in a hostel in San Juan, Puerto Rico last January, maybe just days before Haley and I read it. A quick google search will yield the origin of the quote, which was much more eloquently and fully stated by none other than our very own (my very own?) Bilbo Baggins:

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

I know a few of you reading this will find some irony, or at least some comedy, in the fact that a hobbit spoke the phrase I decided to lead this post with. Believe it or not, I just figured out good ol’ Bilbo said it seconds ago, after getting a feeling that Mr. Rozan isn’t as philosophical as his quote may imply. I find it only fitting that I unwittingly use a hobbit’s words as I begin to detail the events of the Hobbit in Adventureland, as Mariana so wonderfully titled this summer’s trip. Maybe that’s self-deprecating to a degree, but I’m accepting my unwanted nickname/description with only a little reluctance.

It’s been a month and a half since I stepped out of my absurdly un-Ecuadorian apartment in Gringolandia to find what else this chunk of South America has to offer. Now that this first chapter is nearly complete, I can only really speak to how absolutely little I know. Matt always says that the most important, and maybe sole, thing he learns through his elite (my words) education and varying internships is how little he actually knows. After this summer, I can attest to the validity of his statement; the more you learn, the more you realize how little you actually know. I can understand how that can be a daunting and possibly discouraging realization to some, but to me it only amplifies my reluctance to go home. Becoming aware that I know relatively nothing makes me think this trip was an overall success. Though, thinking about everything I didn’t do yet wanted to, didn’t do but should have, or did do despite that I shouldn’t have leads me in the opposite direction, and is the root of the majority of my reluctance to leave. There’s so much more to do, see, and learn and I’m sitting in a creaky, whistling room on the edge of Calle Larga writing about not doing it. Obviously, I haven’t quite made sense of it all yet. I’m sure that will come at some point, and I’m hoping writing about it will spur that process.

The last time I wrote I was sitting at a creaky–everything is kind of creaky here…it’s how you know it’s authentic–wooden table on a beach in Puerto Lopez, talking about whales, new friends, impending experiences, and getting ready to catch a bus to Mancora, Peru. At that time, I thought I was going to be going to Bolivia. Instead, nine days later I found myself on a boat climbing the Amazon river toward Colombia. Looks like I didn’t keep my feet. But should I have? I don’t think so. The only thing you must keep down here is your wits. And don’t forget where the line is. If not, well, we’ll get to that. I can picture my father sighing as I write this.

Cuenca (31)–Guayaquil (1)–Montanita (3)–Puerto Lopez (3)–Bus (1)–Mancora, Peru (3)–Bus (1)–Lima (5)–Iquitos (1)–Leticia, Colombia (1)–Bogota (5)–Santa Marta (2)–Costena Beach (1)–Tayrona (2)–Taganga (2)–Santa Marta (2)–Minca (7)– Santa Marta (2)-Taganga (4)–Santa Marta (2)–Mompox (3)–Bus (1)–Medellin (3)–Bus (1)–Quito, Ecuador (1)–Latacunga (5)–Cuenca (13)

That’s a list, in order, of all of the places I’ve spent at least one night since arriving. If I included day trips that list would have been much larger. The number beside the name is the number of night’s I stayed there. The math may not check out, but that’s the best I can remember. That list doesn’t really say much, since some of the most important and memorable things happened in the places I spent very little time, like Iquitos, and vice versa, such as Minca, although that latter thought is debatable.

In the past two and a half months I’ve seen horrible poverty, shameful prosperity, unimaginable love, hate, happiness, sadness, and everything in between. I’ve seen star and puffer fish, uncomfortable foreign people, road blocks set by small mn with large guns, bugs bigger than my face, and almost my death, although since I don’t want to be melodramatic don’t take that last part too seriously. But really I almost died a few times. The thrill is quicker than you’d think. No different from any other summer, though. Like I said, keep your wits and know the line. And your feet, if you find yourself wanting to. But think twice about that one. Dangerous business is just that, although a good story never came from playing it safe.

It’s going to take a while to detail all of it, so bear with me. I’ll get it all out eventually. While this could realistically be pinned in any of the myriad moments in the past, the most important and substantial beginning is just a while back, a couple of weeks into my first stay in Cuenca:

It all started with a Chilean musician, and soon to be one of my best friends, Dario.

Dangerous Business



The beginning of the backpacking stories: Montanita, Puerto Lopez, and off to Peru

I’ve been on the road for five days now (two months to go), and with my one backpack, three shirts, two pants, and eight pairs of socks and underwear, have passed through three places: Guayaquil, Montanita, and Puerto Lopez. Guayaquil five years ago, apparently, was the Tijuana of Ecuador. In other words, el dompe, which is Tijuanan Spanglish for, clearly, the dump. My first few minutes in Guayaquil are pretty telling of what the city is like. I’m about to go into detail about my whole trip out there, so bear with me until the end of this:

I took a shuttle van from Cuenca to Guayaquil, which cost twelve dollars and took about three hours. Before the bus ride, I was hanging out in the buseta station (the shuttles have their own separate terminal), and a little six year old kid named Cesar walked up to me, mumbled something I could hear, and hopped into the chair next to me. Cesar was covered in shoe polish because he worked as a shoe shiner in the market, which is illegal. Child labor here, though, is pretty commonplace. I would see a lot of the kids I used to work with at Aurora working in the markets on the weekends, or skipping school to work before Aurora. So Cesar was really dirty, and as he was unintelligibly talking to me, I realized he was asking for money. He put his shoe shiner box down, and starting asking more clearly if I could spare anything. I gave him my lunch instead. What happens more often than not, I’ve learned, is the money you give to these kids goes straight to their parents, and their parents don’t always spend it on them. It goes to new clothes for the parents, booze, drugs, or something else. In some situations the kids benefit, of course, but Cuenca is no different than the rest of the world. There are good and bad people everywhere. So I gave him my lunch. He was like forty pounds. As he was eagerly chomping down on my lunch, his nine year old friend and apparent colleague Lenin came over and shared everything with him, and I gave them both my iPod to play Angry Birds on. These kids flipped when they starting playing it…they were so excited. I spent the next hour hanging out with these two before I had to go, and realized as I was leaving that a lot of people were giving my dirty looks. I still haven’t fully understood why, but I wonder what I was doing wrong. It goes back to what Jess was telling me earlier about walking the kids home: of course your first world mindset is kicking in now, but you have to think about what it’s like for these kids in these neighborhoods, and how the people around them are thinking. So here I am a few days later, I’m wondering if there were any unintended consequences of hanging out with these kids, and why people were looking at me so sourly. Anybody have any insight on this?

Back to the buseta. These drivers must get paid something extra if they make it there with time to spare, because good lord, I feel lucky to be alive. Either that, or these men clearly didn’t have the mother I did constantly telling them—as they were that annoying little antsy kid in line with their mother at the bank—“Patience, Matthew. Patience is a virtue. Calm down. It’s just a few minutes.” I shudder to think what I would be like without that constant chiding. And I’m still slightly more impatient than most.  I, and probably countless others, thank you for that, mother. I chose to pay the extra four bucks for the buseta because it goes through Cajas, and therefore is much faster. I realized quickly into the trip, though, why the larger bus doesn’t go through Cajas. In the early evening, a really thick, heavy fog descends upon the mountains in Cajas. It’s brooding gloom  (AP Lit alumni, I hope you thought of Ortman the minute you read that). I say that because below the fog, I’m sure there are hundreds of shells of burnt vans and corpses at the bottom of the mountains. The roads in Cajas are very well paved, and there are three lanes everywhere you go. One for going down, and two for going up. The middle lane is the passing lane for those going up. Of course, though, nobody is going to pass anybody in the fog. Or, rather, this is the hope. As we’re barreling down the Cajas lanes at 65 mph en route to Guayaquil, our driver is going between helping me with my Spanish pronunciation, laughing at various jokes, messing with the radio, and of course, blaring his horn and subsequently passing giant, apparently too slow buses and semi trucks. I wish I had been sleeping. I don’t know exactly what the drivers’ thought processes are, but the best guess I can venture is they’re thinking that if it’s this foggy out, there is no way in hell somebody would be stupid enough to pass somebody. So, that being said and assumed, the passing lane going up the mountain is going to be free to pass downhill. Of course, they’re not thinking about the fact that in a buseta-bus collision, the bus is going to continue unfazed. Every time the van jolted left, I was thinking “No, he’s not going to. Now way. He’s not that stu—oh shit, hold on, here we go. We’re doing this. Again.” I was having this exact conversation with a friend I met up with in Guayaquil, a coworker of Danny, who I stayed with the night I got in. He’s also a telecom engineer, and is from Ottawa. He was telling me that each time he goes back and forth from Cuenca, he sits in the far back, in the middle. I was sitting behind the passenger seat so I could catch the window. But sitting his way, in a head on collision, you’re in the safest position. But then again, when tumbling down a mountain, anything goes.

When we miraculously made it into the greater Guayaquil metro area, the guy driving in front of us was either drunk or attempting to commit insurance fraud, which is a thing that’s been made possible to do in the past five years. He was going from eighty to forty to sixty to thirty to ninety to drunk off his ass all within the same few miles, and my vigilant driver was still hyped up on enough adrenaline from nearly dying in the mountains to slam on the breaks in time to avoid crashing. The guy in the passenger seat was videotaping the whole ordeal with his cell phone. Eventually, the guy turned off, and we figured we were over him. We weren’t. When we pulled into the parking lot to get out and take taxing to our subsequent destinations, he pulled up behind us, got out of our car, and started screaming at our driver for driving like an idiot and to immediately delete the video. They were arguing for a while, and after some carefully placed “vete a la mierda-s” and “concha de tu madre-s,” my driver caught a solid left hook/suckerpunch to the jaw. So they starting fighting, and then took their shirts off, which is apparently a thing people do. After walking around in a few circles huffing and puffing, they continued to fight. A security guard from a bank next door slowly sauntered over, stood behind the guy who initially accosted my driver, casually raised his baton, and cracked him over the head. He crumpled, slowly got up about ten seconds later, and dejectedly and angry walked to his car as my driving was screaming “A donde vas? Ya peleamos! Ya peleamos!”. As this was all starting to happen, I quickly moved about twenty yards away with everybody else from the van. A women looked at me and said “Bienvenidos a Guayaquil. La gente aqui es muy malo. Ellos son como ninos. Cuidate.” Welcome to Guayaquil. The people here are very bad. They’re like children. Be careful. So that about summed Guayaquil up for me. I’m heading back in two hours to grab a connection to Mancora, Peru. I’ll just be in the bus station, but maybe more stories to come?

I’ve been spending the last few days in Montanita and Puerto Lopez, two coastal cities about 20 miles apart. Both are absolutely gorgeous, and quite different from one another. Montanita is a debaucherous surfer town of four square blocks with cocktail stands all up and down the main block for two bucks a pop. So my three days there went like this: go to a crepe stand with Andrew (18) and Collin (19), two guys from Southern California I met on the bus from Guayaquil, hang out on the beach, read, and just bum around, grab dinner when we felt like it, get two dollar mojitos and 90 cent 40 oz beers from the former crepe-now-cocktail-stands, and learn how to salsa in the many beachfront discotecas. It wasn’t a bad life. I can see how some people get stuck there. I was reading on the beach the other day, and after about twenty minutes I looked up to see that I was surrounded by probably a hundred crabs. It was incredible. I moved to grab my phone to take a picture, but scared them with my movement and caused them all to scatter. Puerto Lopez is about the size of Montanita, but much, much quieter. I think they may be like Montanita at certain times of the year, since there are about eight or nine bars on the beach, but at least for now it’s pretty dead. I came here from Montanita with three English girls named Ana, Cassie, and Sophie and a Dutch girl  named Joliene. I met them all in my hostel, and all happened to be heading to Puerto Lopez at the same time. We went to Isla de la Plata yesterday, which is like a poor man’s Galapagos, and saw blue footed boobies, albatrosses, other weird birds, and WHALES. Real live humpback whales, jumping in and out of the water. It was like Free Willy. Absolutely spectacular. Puerto Lopez has been pretty tranquilo, and I’m looking forward to moving on to basically the Montanita of Peru. The only difference in Mancora is that it’s really hot and sunny all of the time, and people may not wear fanny packs all of the time. Those are a huge thing here. It’s weird, and a bit amusing. It’s been really overcast in Montanita and Puerto Lopez, since it’s nearly constantly covered by a massive cloud. It’s supposed to let up on the weekends only, although I’m not sure how that works.

From Mancora I’ll be meeting Trish in Lima. I’m not sure where we’re going from there, but we’ll figure something out. Maybe Bolivia? Chile? Uruguay? Trish is looking for warm, so we may be heading to Santa Cruz, Bolivia, or possibly Brazil. I’ll have to reassess my funds to see what I can and cannot do. Wherever we go, though, it’s sure to be a blast. I don’t really know how it couldn’t be. The only plans I have past being in Lima on the 2nd is going to a 4th of July Party at the US Embassy, probably in Lima. I like it this way…never really knowing where you’ll be in a week, living with nothing but what’s on your back. It’s liberating. Nobody really tells out about the down side of travelling, though. For example, you always hear about the incredible people you meet along the way—like Joliene, Collin, Eddy and Dario—but nothing about how you have to leave these newfound best friends for more or less ever. It’s crazy how quickly you can get really close with people in just a few days, although saddening how you move on from them just as quickly. Although, I now have places to stay and people to hang out with if I ever go to Melboure, Concepcion, Utrecht, London, Jerusalem, Oslo, or southern California. Also, the great thing about living out of a small backpack is that everything you have is right on your back,  and can be carried on busses and planes as a carry on. However, the down side to that, which I realized today, is that once you put something dirty in the bag, no matter how many plastic bags you wrap around it, everything in the bag begins to smell.

So, that being said, I’m off to find a washing machine and a shower.

Pictures of whales, blue footed boobies, and run-down third world coastal cities to come when I find a way to upload them from my phone. 

Goodbye, Cuena. Hello, rest of South America.

I have no idea where to start.  While I’ve been here in Cuenca for just under four weeks now, I feel I’ve already succeeded in creating a home away from home. It wasn’t very hard to do so. The people here are all fantastic. The city in a perfect balance between old European and South American culture, and I’ve made a handful of friends here that I can honestly say qualify as more than Matt friends. That’s not to mention the kids I’m working with–they’re my favorite part. Just for some context, a Matt Friend is a name Haley and Brynna gave to those sort of people who I believe are my good friends, but I’ve only met like, once, and they probably think nothing of the sort. I’m not changing my ways. I have so many more friends than I would otherwise. Reality is how you perceive it.

Now, that being said, I’m leaving Sunday. I don’t know when I’ll be back in Cuenca–maybe the last week or two of August–but I’m buying a backpack and I’m going to the coast. I was initially planning on going to Esmeraldas, but Marcelo and David and everybody else I talked to looked at me, made some gestures and faces, and then detailed how it was a stupid idea. But kidnapping aside, Esmeraldas is a beautiful, fantastic place. Just only for Ecuadorians and other South Americans. While this did make me want to go even more–couchsurfing could provide me with the friends and backup needed–I decided to be rational and cut the first leg of my trip to Montanita and Puerto Lopez, to see the debauchery of the first one and the whales at the second. I heard you can see whales for like 20 bucks at Puerto Lopez, so I’m definitely going there. And my friend Yuni, an Israeli guy I hiked Cajas and hitchhiked back with, is going to be in Puerto Lopez, so we’re planning on meeting up. From the coast I’m headed down to Mancora, Peru, for a couple of days, and then to Lima for another to meet with Trish and others. After Lima, we’ll be off on our Bolivian adventure. After that? I may be going to Chile, but I don’t know. I’m going to try to ride a llama to Machu Piccu and Cusco at some point and do the natural touristy things, but when and how I’m doing all of this I have no idea. And I’m going to do it with the limited cash I have, probably coming home absolutely broke. Side note: if anybody knows of any extremely high paying and exciting jobs available in Madison that don’t require many qualifications, please tell me.

So you’re probably wondering why I’m leaving Cuenca if it’s been so fantastic. You wouldn’t b the first. Cuenca is wonderful, but I wake up everyday and I look at the mountains and the river disappearing behind trees and can’t help but think what else is out there. It’s why I left Madison. I acclimated so quickly to the city (not the elevation) and found so many similarities to my home in Wisconsin, and I think the fact that Cuenca hasn’t quelled the restlessness that was my impetus for leaving Madison is telling that I need to keep going. Marcelo keeps telling me I need to travel, since I’m constantly doing it in my head now, and I should do it alone. I’ll learn more about myself that way, and will become a better person because of it. He speaks from experience and his Master’s in psychology, and I’m finding enough truth in his psychobabble to go, though only going about half of it alone.  Also, it’s actually cheaper for me to travel than to live in Cuenca. How? I’ll spend an average 15 dollars a day while traveling versus 20 dollars a day here. Aurora ends soon, so the kids are leaving me at more or less the same time I leave them. It’s a good time to go, and while I don’t have too much of a plan, I’ll be seeing Trish and her friends the first of July, and Zake the first week of August, probably somewhere in Chile. I’m thinking Santiago, after spending a few days with Senora Lentz in Vina del Mar and Dario’s family in Concepcion. More about Dario in a bit. I think it’s best to go without a plan. Every backpacker I’ve met so far has shrugged and scoffed whenever I asked him where they were planning on being next week, and told me they only know what’s going on tomorrow, the day after at best. It’s a bit frightening, but the freedom is so appealing I’m doing just that. I keep having to remidn myself that I have more than two months left down here. So I’m going to the coast Sunday, after going trekking in Cajas again, and this time not worrying about nearly falling to my death off of various cliffs. Again. That’s a story for another time. Marcelo, some others, and I are going with a guide this time, and not Jose, my new Ecuadorian friend who has an unfortunate tendency for getting into peligroso situations. It’ll be safer that way–although probably not as fun–and we’ll follow the unmarked path that we were somehow expected to follow in the first place. But it was so beautiful. And the llamas looked as hilarious as I expected them to. That, plus the frequent bursts of adrenaline, made it perfect.

So Cuenca has been incredible, and I’m still trying to decide if it trumps my first summer in Madison. Right now, I’m saying it’s an apples/oranges situation, but if I had to choose, I would say it doesn’t. Yet. There is still time…I mean, I’m not even halfway through my summer. Last summer was beyond anything I could have expected, and although it might be the romantic bias that comes with hindsight speaking, I’m finding it is a very hard set of experiences to trump. Although, this summer will probably be the same when I look back. I shouldn’t compare these experiences, though, just accumulate them. However, on the other hand, it’s been said that restlessness is discontent, and discontent is the first necessity of progress. To get more out of life, you need a little of both. If I’m completely satisfied with the past, there is no point in moving forward. So thank you, Thomas Edison, for summing up my feelings so eloquently. As I prepared to move out of the 39 N Mills apartment in December, my friend Andrew asked if I was ever sedentary. I don’t really like the word–not only it’s denotation/connotation, but it reminds me of sedimentary, which a classification of rocks, which are non-living objects, and things I feel people should strive to differ from. So no, I try my best to stay moving, but if it’s worth anything I try to move forward with purpose, and not just progress for the sake of progress. I mean, tried and tested traditions often require no tinkering. A balance, then, between old and new, between permanence and change, between tradition and innovation because some changes will be for the better, while others will come, in the fullness of time, to be recognized as errors of judgement. (A)SO to Dolores Umbrige for that one. Errors of judgement such as following Juan down what turns out be yet another frightfully high, steep, and narrow cliff, and this:

A week and a half into living in Cuenca. I’m walking down the street later at night looking for a bus stop, and stop two well-dressed businessmen to ask where the nearest stop is. We start talking, and they get really excited that I’m from the United States. I’m unsure why (I found out later), but quickly got over it as we kept talking. We’re having a friendly conversation about their work, what I’m doing in Cuenca, their limited travels to the States, and how their kids’ recent joint birthday party went down. So this is Donald and Juan. Donald and Juan have very thick accents, and have a tendency to talk really, really quickly. I thought I knew everything they were saying and was following along just fine. As it turned out, I didn’t, and I wasn’t. They pointed me to the closest bus stop, gave me their cards, and asked if I’d like to meet outside of their office building at the end of the workday the following day. So I looked at their business cards, saw their office was on a very busy, populated street frequented by police, and figured what the hell, why not. Very little risk involved here. These are two young guys I just had a great conversation with who were keen to help me out and had just found out I had arrived pretty recently and didn’t have too many friends yet.

So I went the next day. We met outside of the building with a big group of Ecuadorians, and Juan introduced me: “Hola todos! Bienvenidos, este es Matt de los Estados Unidos. Hola Matt!” I wasn’t expecting this. I was quickly ushered into this building with Ecuadorian families and women and men of all ages, and once again feel pretty safe about the situation since I’m amongst a bunch of people and a mother and grandmother quickly started talking to me and made me feel safe enough. So I walked in. That was a stupid thing to do. I really wish I didn’t do that. We walked upstairs, and made our way into a dusty room with plastic lawn chairs and a screen with energy drinks and cosmetic products projected upon it. I sat down in the front row, and Juan announced: “Matt! Thank you so much for being here! It’s really great to have you here. Would you stand up and tell everybody about yourself and what you’re doing here and what you think of our product?” What the hell? Why? What product? I thought we were going to get coffee or beer or something. I know it’s 4:30, but was that really too much to ask? So I stood up in front of thirty or so people, and all eyes were on me. Nobody spoke English–including Juan and Donald (especially Juan and Donald)–so I tried to speak Spanish as formally and as eloquently as I could and gave a seven or eight minute impromptu speech about myself and my fabricated opinion on energy drinks that proved to taste like liquefied tums and chalk mixed together, all the while wondering why the hell I was there and how I could get out. After I gave this terrible speech I sat down, and was handed a Dixie cup of a yellow chalky liquid that I didn’t want to drink because I started to get mass suicide by kool-aid like vibes. While I was sitting in my lawn chair in this dirty, dusty room full of visibly poor and super friendly Ecuadorians, Juan was giving a speech on his energy drink and cosmetic products and how they not only cure obesity, but epilepsy. His partners gave testimonials on how they previously had brain cancer, drank the chalk, and were cured. This is when it dawns on me. I was not going to die, which was a very comforting start, and the chalky liquid I had been ignoring in my hand for thirty minutes was probably safe to drink. I no longer felt I had to choose between living and being impolite. After that though, things went a bit down hill. Juan is at the top of a pyramid scheme, and keeps referring to me during his speech, asking me to stand next to him, and thanking me because he thinks I’m going to bring his business to America. I don’t know how this happened. I just wanted to make some friends. But all I know is that thirty more minutes later I really have to pee, and am sick of hearing about face wash that turns dead skin into diamonds. This last one is an exaggeration, but people really gave testimonies about how they cured their epilepsy and cancer  through these products. Mentiroso. Finally the presentation ended, and as I’m about to walk out, Juan corners me and thanks me again. I tell him I’m sorry, but I can’t and won’t do anything he’s asking me to do. Now, don’t get a bad opinion of Juan. He was a genuinely good guy, and was just trying to make some money to feed his family. I felt legitimately bad about having to tell him I didn’t want to sell his shit. But even if I did have the time and motivation I wouldn’t have sold his product, because it was shit. I’d prefer Airborne and Robatussin mixed on the rocks to that drink. After I broke the bad news to Juan and endured his depressed face, Donald walked up to me and had me take pictures with him and a bunch of women holding the drink and pretending to drink it in the most ridiculous poses. It was like it was for a stupid, cheesy magazine ad. It turned out it was just that, so if you see somebody who looks like me posing in some terrible ad for a terrible product in  South America, it is in fact me. So that’s how that happened. After taking thirty or so pictures in various poses with people who acted like they’d never seen somebody with blond hair and blue eyes before, I was thoroughly over the spotlight and sprinted out of the office. Once I regained my freedom I bought a 15 cent loaf of bread and walked down the street contemplating my life, my decisions, and how I desperately needed to learn more Spanish.

But that’s the worst of Ecuador so far, and if that’s the case, I feel I’m doing pretty well.

On a better note, I’ve been through so many incredible experiences. I’ve befriended Marcelo, David, Muhi, and Dario, four incredibly different and interesting guys, all of whom I have already learned so much from. Marcelo is the psychologist at Aurora, and one of my closest friends and informal Spanish teacher. He also sings in a screamo band, which I did not expect. David is the 27-year-old owner and chef of Casa del Centro and is recently married. He has two adorable little girls who walk around the restaurant in princess costumes all day, and he’s absolutely hilarious. Muhi is Malaysian (he considers himself a citizen of the world) and just finished his PhD in Australia, and has traveled pretty much constantly for the last year or so, having visited nearly every continent. Needless to say, he has a lot of stories. Dario is from Concepcion, Chile, and is 24-year-old violin professor. He recently graduated, and is traveling before starting his career at the University. Dario lives on two dollars a day, and has the most impressive and respectable character and way of living. I admire Dario so much, and I’m sad about leaving him behind. If I go down to Concepcion, though, which is a legitimate possibility, I may stay with his family. We’ve all hung out late into the night playing guitar and violin and signing everything from the Beatles to Buena Vista Social Club. Doing so has easily been one of the highlights of my trip. I never would have thought a year ago I would be singing Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd with people from Ecuador, Malaysia and Chile after a long day’s hike in Cajas. I suppose I should have seen something like this coming, though.

About two weeks ago I ran into a guy on the street who was wearing a Notre Dame sweatshirt. I broke conversation with Marcelo, and said to him: “Hey, my best friend goes to Notre Dame.” Him: “Really? What’s his name? I’m a junior.” Me: “His name is Matt, he’s going to be a junior too.” Him: “Are you kidding me? No way! I love that guy, we studied econ together all last year. My name is Kyle, nice to meet you.” Matt was speechless, of course, that I ran into Kyle, of all people, outside of a bar in Cuenca, Ecuador, of all places. Kyle and I quickly became friends, and I went out with his big group of American sustainable business interns from USC, Notre Dame, a small school in Pennsylvania, and Colombia. We went to Banos one day, which is a region outside of Cuenca with hot springs and many ritzy spas. We ended up going to the ritziest of spas and were very annoying as large groups of loud foreigners tend to be at quiet spas. I felt a little awkward and uncomfortable being a part of that sort of  group, especially as I caught the dirty looks of the Ecuadorian couple making out in the corner of the hot spring as some other girls in the group were throwing mud at each other. But Kyle and I sort of hung out on the periphery. Oh, I also took two mud baths, among many steam related activities. I had no idea my skin could ever get so soft.

I’ve met a pretty solid number of people down here on university programs from the states, and after having introduced myself, have gotten some mixed responses. From a few of the East Coast frat stars and their Western and Midwestern counterparts, I usually get strange looks and questions asked in a tone that implies that it’s not ok to move a continent away on your own to do something awesome with your summer. Here’s the beginning of a conversation from last weekend: “Wait, so like, you’re here on your own, without anybody? Why would you do that” A: No, I’m not alone. I had a contact down here, and have made friends since arriving. And I mean, why not? 2: “So you just get wasted every day, or what?” Really? That’s why I would come down here? Other people are less confused, like Danny and Petter, two guys I met the other night. Danny is a 19-year-old student from Occidental College near LA (Obama went there for two years before transferring) studying Diplomacy and is in Cuenca on an agricultural internship with the Ecuadorian government. Petter is a 24-year-old computer scientist from Oslo, Norway, down here for a month studying Spanish. It bothers him that he can only speak Norwegian, English,and probably another language perfectly while his girlfriend is also fluent in Spanish. He also has various other business and personal reasons.  When I explained to Danny and Petter what I was doing down here, they nodded like it was a normal thing to do, and excitedly asked about my backpacking plans. They spent the rest of the night telling me told me endeavors and adventures of their own, each inspiring and exiting to hear about. I like these guys. As we moved onto what we were studying and our basic backgrounds, Danny began talking about a Conflict Studies and Humans Rights graduate program at Utrecht University. I looked into it some more, and found other graduate programs in International Human Rights and Criminal Justice. I don’t know if I can find anything more specific to what I want to do with my life. It’s only a year, although it costs betwee 15,000 and 18,500 Euro, depending on the program. Still, I would be done by May 2015.  So there’s another avenue I’m thinking of pursuing. Thank you again, Danny. Astor, so it’s my turn to sublet from you?

I’ve met marvelous people in Cuenca, and my Spanish has improved so much. If I keep moving at this rate, I’ll be highly proficient by August. Well, I hope I will be. No promises. I’m still not entirely sure what highly proficient means. Also, I need to learn how to roll my r’s. I can’t do it. I’ve tried so hard, and I just can’t do it. The kids keep laughing at me. Any suggestion on how to do this? Caitlin, you’re a speech pathologist. Please help me. I love Cuenca, and for that reason I’m leaving Sunday for Puerto Lopez to see whales, and after that to Peru. I want to leave Cuenca while I’m still in love with it, and not when I’ve exhausted my time here. It’s a good enough time to leave as any, and this way Cuenca will always be a place I’ll be wanting to come back to, and will come back to when I get the opportunity. I feel like I’m squandering my time in South America if I remain in one city in one country. So, that being said, it’s off to the coast and two months of hostel hopping and backpacking. Three outfits and an iPod will be enough for seventy days, right? That’s how Dario does it, expect without the iPod and instead a violin.

I’ve realized that I really have no idea what I’m doing. Just enough to make it back home, which is really all I’ll need.

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My kind of natural remedy

So you’re not feeling the greatest. You’ve lost yourself, aren’t interested in doing what you’ve always liked to do, and you stopped loving yourself. You don’t even like yourself, which of course makes it hard to imagine how others would even like you in the first place. A friend of mine described her present state to me as such, and here’s my advice:

Come to Ecuador. Do something utterly life changing. Give a kid his only meal of the day at 6:30 pm and feel their love when they climb all over you and start one of countless tickle fights and laugh in the sweetest way possible. It fills you with so much life and so much heartbreak at the same time, while infusing you with such an incredible amount of confidence and a concept of the goodness of humanity (added to that which comes from just traveling, the myriad failures and eventual successes in the process, the random conversations with people you meet on the street who become your best friends if for just the beer you share at a nearby bar, and really just overall not dying). Basically, travel. I’m not even kidding. Money isn’t an issue if you really look at it. If you do it right, t’s a couple grand all summer, including flight…tops. Get set up with places in Guatemala teaching English, Spanish, and sustainability, Ecuador doing what I am, Africa to see everything is has to offer, both the horrific and marvelous, or Cambodia to combat human trafficking.  And if you can’t do that (and I’m only accepting legitimate reasons for no) there are substitutes. Do the same thing at home, in your community. It’s less of a challenge and risk, but the outcome is just as righteous. Basically what I’m saying is: what I always found as the best way to feel better was make others feel better, and test yourself in the process. It will show you that people do love you, and that you should moreover love yourself. At least that’s how it’s been for me–how it is for me.

Also, read Peter Singer’s essay on Famine, Affluence, and Mortality –> http://philosophyfaculty.ucsd.edu/faculty/rarneson/Singeressayspring1972.pdf