Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Pyramids, Camelback...and a short anecdote regarding my new friend, Arafat

FINALLY! Here is a sampling of the long-awaited pictures of the only surviving "Wonders of the World." Proceeding downward, we have 1) the step pyramid of Djoser (Saqqara), 2) enormous statue of king ramses II (memphis, the former capital of ancient Egypt)...i got to see his mummy at the Cairo antiquities museum the other day., 3) me on camel (YESSSSSS!!!!), with the pyramids of Cheops and Chefren, as well as the sphynx in the background (Giza), 4) Bedoin on camel in front of the pyramid of Chefren...he didn't want to accept my 5 Egyptian pounds for the photo, he tried to demand 20! right, bud., and 5) pyramid of Chefren, with its accompanying funerary grounds.

I have an amazing story about Arafat, my AMAZING taxi driver, who was really nice and began to refer to me as his son after I spoke a few phrases of Arabic (he's 50 years old). He defended me against my rather vile and greedy guide and camel renter, who really tried to take advantage of me, sadly. The short version of the story basically involves Arafat asking me what they wanted me to pay them, an emphatic "NO," Arafat nonchalantly sauntering into the camel renter's shop, laying down my $30, RUNNING out, getting in the car, GASSING it, and TAKING OFF as the two guys came chasing after us. Arafat then proceeded to give me a high five as we headed home. I am pleased to say that I have encountered far more people like Arafat in Egypt than people like my guide. Al-hamdu Lillah (Thanks be to God)!

"Ma Shah Allah..."

So, I know that I've been a horrible person and haven't updated my blog since arriving in Egypt. However, this is now changing. It's been a very busy and awesomely exciting week, so I'll do my best a) not to bore you, and b) not to make this too extremely ridiculously long. Here goes...

First, as per my rant in the previous post, I spent roughly 24 hours in Rome. Which, as it turned out, was more than sufficient. The first time that I visited Rome was with my grandparents. I had never before traveled outside of the United States and Canada, so it was my favorite city, easily. However, now that I have had the opportunity to travel a bit more, I have to say that Rome is entirely too benign, tourist-packed, expensive, and "European"...shudder...much like traveling within the U.S., but with a few more "Mama Mias" and with a currency that spends as quickly as dollars, except that it's actually worth more than the dollars, so you get screwed. REALLY BAD. ARGH. The metro, which I took from the airport to the central station in Rome to save money, still cost me 11 euros. My head is still spinning from that one... But I got to see some cool things and wander about some sites that I had not had the chance to explore on my previous visit, as well as a chance to see some of the places we visited 10 years ago...like...

Um, okay, the pictures didn't insert where I thought they would. So much for the buildup of suspense here. Above, are pictures of 1) the Fountain of Trevi, 2) the Coliseum, and 3) the Roman Forum.

Enough! Onto more exciting things...Munia and I went to the Sinai Peninsula last weekend to climb Mt. Sinai, the biblical mountain where Moses is said to have received the 10 Commandments. To make the climb, we teamed up with a Bible-thumping, red-headed Norwegian man who is obsessed with and lives in Ethiopia. He was on our bus and asked us if he could join us, and especially since we had to climb during the night, we readily agreed. So innocently... Then we are halfway up the mountain admiring the AMAZINGLY CLEAR sky (we saw shooting stars galore, as the Leonid? meteor shower is in full-swing right now), when he proceeds to explain to us that he is convinced that his Father (and by Father, he means God) has sent us to help him to make the climb. Yes, this really did happen. So we get to the top, rent blankets and sleeping pads from some very friendly Bedoins, and proceed to sleep the night away under the stars...UNTIL THE DAMN EUROPEAN TOURISTS STARTED TO ARRIVE AT 4AM!!!!!11!1 AAAAAAGH!!! I mean, I LEFT Rome, right? Then why are they Mama Mia-ing to a pathetically played harmonica version of Amazing Grace?????? How sacreligious! Seriously, Moses would have been most displeased. The experience was very cool and very special, but much more authentic while only the 3 of us were at the summit (about 6,000 ft.)

DAH! I'm so bad at blogging, guys... so the 4 center-aligned photos above the Rome photos are from Mt. Sinai. Starting from the top, 1) view from near summit, during the descent, 2) paths leading up the mountain, with camels and Bedouins and small hut-stores. 3) St. Katherine's monastery at the base of the mountain. This was originally built in the 5th century A.D., and reinforced by the Roman emperor Justinian in order to protect the biblical Burning Bush, through which God appeared to Moses. While the actual bush is still living, locked inside a central room in the monastery, a cutting was taken and planted elsewhere in the monastery and can be seen by the public. 4) sunrise from the summit of Mt. Sinai.

Well this is going to be really anticlimactic, since my most widely anticipated pictures are now going to appear at the top...but anyway, we'll get to the point... Yesterday I visited Islamic Cairo, spent a good bit of time (and money) at the Khan Al-Khalili bazaar (which is everything you could ever hope for in a crowded Cairo marketplace), visited the northern gates, and wandered about, and even visited the Ali Hakim Mosque. This was really really cool, since many mosques are closed to non-Muslims. I have included a couple of the best pictures above. 1) one of many mosques in Islamic Cairo, which really enhance the overall atmosphere and architecture of the city, and 2) inside the Ali Hakim Mosque, built by one of Egypt's most notorious rulers (he did stuff like pouring boiling oil on his enemies).

At this point, I am having trouble uploading more pictures, so I'm going to immediately create another post to upload my pyramid pictures, which are from today. Way cool...and I finally fulfilled my fantasy of riding a camel through the pyramids...check it out!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

WAIT...This Doesn't Look Like Rome??!!!11!1

Ok, so apparently either God does not exist or alternatively, He hates me. I imagine that it is probably the latter... In a post reminiscent of one of my first, again I sit in multiple airports having been delayed and missed an international connection. If you are not my mother or Scot, be happy that I am tired of discussing the issues I have had in the past 28 hours with air travel, and thus will not be continuing to dwell on them here in this post. But basically I will, as a result, have 24 hours in Rome...which will be quick, but of which I will be taking very FULL advantage. Non-stop, baby, we're going to turn the city upside-down. That is, me and my posse...of parasites. They're keeping me company these days, though they are quite hungry and have been responsible for consuming 8 pounds of food that should have been collecting on my waistline. I'm not going to complain. EVERYONE in Talag greeted me by telling me how "gordo" I had become. While they also said that it made me more guapo, a few pounds less of cheesecake won't do me harm.

As I head out for the next segment of my international jaunts, I just wanted to update one last time to reflect on my experiences in Ecuador. I been extremely fortunate in my life to have been able to travel as extensively as I have for my age. Ecuador continues to be my favorite place the world round. It is the only country outside of the United States that I have returned to for a second time. It is the most naturally beautiful, dramatically diverse, vibrant, and simply most alive place I have ever been. In the past two years, I have forgotten how friendly Ecuadorians are, how willing they are to help strangers, and how easy it is to meet new people.

When I volunteered with WorldTeach, we had to fill out forms describing the kind of placement site where we wanted to work. I responded that, in terms of regions, I wanted to be either in the Galapagos Islands (I did study biology in college, after all), or in the Amazon rainforest of the Oriente region. Family size, living conditions, and student demographics were entirely unimportant to me. The only thing I was looking for was a place where I would learn new things everyday. I wanted to experience real Ecuadorian life, and to experience a culture and way of life as different from what I already knew as possible. My ideal placement site was a place where something every day, major or trivial, would happen that would teach me something I never knew, inspire me, move me, and help me to find out more about who I am. As I completed my placement application, I never knew how those words would take me deep into the jungle to a people that would remain forever dear to me and to a place that would not only make me question the deepest facets of my being but also change me fundamentally as a person.

Even as I rode to the airport on the gray, dreary morning of my departure from Quito, it was hard for me to say goodbye to this magical place that has helped me to rediscover myself. While it is undeniable that we are extremely fortunate to live in the United States, I can't help but envy those who call Ecuador home. Life in the United States is more financially prosperous for sure, but Americans are obsessed with their work and their money. We are constantly bombarded by a culture of materialism, where success and apparent happiness are measured by the values of our automobiles, the tags on our clothes, and the sizes of our houses instead of by the time we spend with our children as they grow up, the evenings we spend talking by the fire after dinner, and a constant, intimate contact and interdependence with nature. There is nothing more spiritually enriching than ducking under a bromeliad-laden branch in the rainforest, strolling past colorful orchids and heliconias on your way home from harvesting yucca, or bathing in a cool, flowing stream of crystalline water as it flows down from the verdant foothills of the Andes. In the United States, everyday existence all to often lacks true life. I feel as though I have truly lived the past month of my life -- isolated from the blinding materialism, financial ambition, excessive work, and other aspects of our society which distract us from truly living.

It comforts me to realize how little we actually need in order to live and to be happy. I know that life at home will eventually again begin to cloud these perceptions and to alienate me from some of the values and ideals that I hold most dear...that's why my return to Talag and to Ecuador has been so important to me, and also why I can't wait to go back.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Parasites, Innumerable Mosquito Bites, and "Las Mujeres Sexy"

OK, how do I even begin to write this entry...let alone show my face again in public.


photo 1: This is Ushito and for some reason I found Ushito to be absolutely hysterical...and ironic. He is the mascot of the municipal government of Tena, and he´s supposed to be a leafcutter ant. Of course, leafcutter ants work very hard, sometimes consuming all of the foliage of an entire tree. Needless to say, despite his ubiquitous presence, the Tena government does NOT work like Ushito.

photo 2: Holger, playing a traditional Kichwa drum at Mama Paula´s house.

photo 3: Mama Paula!!!! She´s AMAZING. At the age of approximately 80, she still hikes into the jungle with her machete, barefoot, to her plot of ground where she grows yucca and plaintains. Here, she is singing for me in the traditional style of the Kichwas, with no musical accompaniment. Holger later translated her verses for me. WAY WAY WAY COOL!

photo 4: Rafael Correa holding a rather large boa constrictor. Rather witty actually...because shortly thereafter everyone began chanting ¨No boa, no¨ in opposition to his competitor, Alvaro Noboa.

photo 5: The Tena Association of Shamans performs a traditional cleansing ritual on Rafael Correa in order to ward off evil spirits which could potentially bring him harm.

So the presidential elections in Ecuador are going into a second round, since the top 2 candidates were very close. Later this month, Ecuadorians will return to the polls in order to elect one of them to the presidency. The first candidate is Alvaro Noboa, whom the United States government supports because he's fat, stupid, capitalistic, and wants to make the rich people richer while maintaining the rest of the population as impoverished banana pickers on his banana haciendas. Needless to say, he has screwed over his employees and his own family, in fact, in order to make his billion dollar fortune. Could turn out to be a puppet of the US government. The other candidate is Rafael Correa, a US and European-educated economist from a modest background who plans to nationalize the petroleum industry and funnel more of the profits toward socialistic programs under his plan "Socio Pais" in order to stimulate the economy and hopefully diminish the widespread poverty that afflicts this nation.

Correa came to speak in Tena one evening. He was supposed to arrive at 4pm, but actually didnt get there until 1130pm. Yeah. So, of course they start out the evening with scantily clad women singing and jiggling their boobies. We were bored out of our minds, sitting there with our rafael correa flags making fools of ourselves because they were giving out free boxed wine to the most enthusiastic supporters. Then the debauchery begins as "las mujeres sexy" get up on stage and start to sing...they were HORRIBLE. And we're waving our flags like idiots, half to make fun of them...and of course I'm the only white person there. And when they finish, they personally call me up to the stage to pick up a box of wine. I was so humiliated...but my friends were practically pushing me... It was so absolutely absurd...something that could only happen in the jungle. And the next morning, Holger and I were on national television...luckily WITHOUT the box of wine. Unreal. I can't believe I actually just shared that with all of you. ...OK, YOU CAN STOP LAUGHING NOW!!!11!1

I am now back in Quito, chilling on my last day here in Ecuador. It's really unfortunate that now that my Spanish has been rehabilitated I have to leave. But I may try to get some sort of volunteer position or something at a hospital here at some point as I try to desperately muster clinically relevant experience for my med school applications.

Pictures will be posted shortly, but I forgot my cd at the hostal, so yet again I disappoint. But 2 days ago, as I was saying goodbye to my pueblo, people began feeding me...over...and over...and over. I ate 5 meals that day...and drank a lot of chicha...which luckily wasnt fuerte, because I would have been on the floor after all that instead of on the bus to Quito. I have all kinds of fun stuff to bring home...including soap made in Talag from medicinal plants in the jungle. SOOOO...if you have any interest, please do feel free to get in touch with me. Also, for anyone who smokes or knows someone who does, I have these really cool woven packages of tobacco that Holger and company have grown in Talag with the support of the Peace Corps. They would make awesome gifts! ...that is, if customs officials don't seize them from me at the border. Wish me luck on that one.

Hmmmm... in other news, I have begun to take antihistamines for my mosquito bites, which at this point are so numerable that they resemble some exotic jungle disease moreso than mosquito bites...which freaks me out SLIGHTLY, but they're starting to go away. And I think that I have parasites...I won't go into details regarding the investigative methods I have used to arrive at this determination, but suffice it to say that I will need to de-parasitize myself after getting back to the US. Such is life.

Also, don't forget to stay tuned for part II of my international adventures, as I am heading to Egypt next week to visit my beloved friend Munia and also realize how little Arabic I actually know. Deep-throated gagging noises may have to suffice. Alright...off for now...but will post pictures soon. Chishi gama (hasta luego)!

Saturday, November 04, 2006



Photos 1 and 2: The city of Quito basking in the glory of its eternal spring-like weather. The first pic is from the base of volcanic Mt. Pichincha, which rises thousands of feet above the rest of the city. The second is at an altitude of about 13,500 feet, or about 4,500 ft. above the city.

Photo 3: Ecuadorian countryside in the central Sierra region, high in the Andes mountains. The drive from Quito to Tena is breathtaking.

Photo 4: The bridge that was washed away during the great flood. We had to crawl down through this small ravine and up the other side in order to catch the bus to Tena on the other side.

Photo 5: Me, carrying part of our harvest from the ¨farm¨ deep in the jungle. The walk was about 30 minutes from the road, so I helped a brotha out by carrying this one half way. It probably weighs about 60-70 lbs. My brother who was carrying it the other half of the way is about 12 years old.

Photo 6: My host family...well, Holgers wifes family anyway, at the waterfall that we hiked to. Alana and Brianne, the second girl from the left is Holgers wife, Jaquelin...does her shirt look familiar?

So yesterday, as I was reading through my Ecuador guidebook and planning my return trip to Quito, my host brother jorge, or ¨pishku,¨ started BLARING ¨Whats Love Got to do With it¨...shortly thereafter followed by Madonnas timeless family favorite ¨Like a Virgin.¨ Of course, adding to the humor is the fact that they have NO CLUE what the song lyrics mean!

Today I went to Misahualli, a small village on the Rio Napo (in which I almost drowned during my first visit to Ecuador) to visit the monkeys and reminisce over the days of yore. Well, actually more just to visit the monkeys. Which as always were very cool...and taking advantage of naive tourists through their refined tactics of robbery.

My time in the Amazon is wrapping up quickly, as I will be heading back to Quito on Wednesday. I have to admit that I already miss it, but also realize that I have things to attend to back at home...not to mention my trip to Egypt to visit Munia!!!!11!1

In my last few days I am trying to get things wrapped up with my projects and trying to accumulate a few last minute things that are really needed in the school...like pencil sharpeners, for example. Right now, we have 6 year olds running around sharpening their pencils with razor blades and machetes. Pencil sharpeners would be much much safer and more practical.

Alright, thats about all for now...another update in a few days!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Picture: Volcanic Mt. Sumaco, as seen from Tena.


Now that that is out of my system... I have really cool pictures to put up, but something isnt working right. Go figure. So on Friday we were supposed to have a community meeting to discuss the mosquito net project as well as a few other small projects that we are working on currently in Talag. However, as there was a birthday party in a neighboring village and one of Ecuador´s presidential candidates (brother of the popular but booted ex-president Lucio Gutierrez) was holding a rally in Tena, NO ONE CAME. I felt so pathetic. Such is life, I suppose. So we have some strategizing to do yet...

So we went to Tena for the evening, which was fun. The rally there was kind of ridiculous. Despite police presence, people still set off fireworks in the streets and sang songs hailing the former president. One of the front-runners in the election, Rafael Correa, has started an ad campaign that includes a song about whipping the other candidates with belts. Pretty amusing, to say the least. It´s quite interesting to see how excited people are about the elections. Correa is pushing a very socialist agenda, while his principal opponent Alvaro Noboa (aka fat banana billionaire) is presumably favored by Washington for his strong capitalist rhetoric. If Noboa wins, the only thing I´m sure of is that Ecuador will continue it´s tradition of coups and overthrow him...Holger gives it 1 year. But hopefully Correa will win and we won´t have to worry about such things...

In other news, I have more bug bites on my body than any other time in my life. It is unreal...in the evenings sometimes there are small swarms of gnats flying around my legs and feet. My 100% deet bug spray is going to leave me glowing pretty soon. And two days ago, I did laundry for the first time since I´ve been here. I was trying to avoid the rock in the river as long as possible, and I waited until the last possible minute.

My friend Holger has divulged to me more about his political ambitions and he says he´s going to need $1000 to campaign. Thus for the next several days, we will be panning for gold near Talag. $1.25 per day. SI, SE PUEDE. I think that about wraps things up for now. Pictures will come as soon as I can find a place where they will subir to my page.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Agua blanca, crab brains, and the great flood...or...Don´t mess with big snakes

Picture 1: Rainbow in Tena.

Picture 2: The village of Huasila Talag, with brilliant green, rainforest-covered mountains rising dramatically in the background.

Picture 3: Pet parrot in a tree in our back yard. One day I was headed for the bathroom when I heard someone say "Hola." No one was around, but I stopped to make sure... As I headed for the bathroom once again, I heard another "Hola." OK this is a little weird. Finally, after making a complete idiot of myself, I looked up to see this wise guy...

Picture 4: Heliconia flower...theyre everywhere!

So, even though yesterday afternoon started out to be just about the most boring afternoon of my trip so far, it certainly grew more eventful with time. So, as I was deciding what to do, I heard a rumble of thunder...thus, I decided I had better not postpone my date with the river for a bath. Well, as I finished, it started POURING...like I have never seen it pour before...EVEN HERE!!!!11!1 And my host brothers come rushing out and we wait under the roof of a building for the rain to subside a bit. Except that it doesnt....so they say well, let´s stay here, you won´t believe how fast the river rises. I´m like ok...right. Except that in 20 minutes, the normally slowly flowing river that is hardly deep enough to lie down in grows high enough to wash away full-sized trees.

After the thunder subsided, we still heard rumbling, which my host family explained was boulders being washed down the river bed and also landslides in the distance. It was almost a huge disaster, because the water came within 1 inch of flooding the school buildings...one of which houses their new mini computer lab. About 20 villagers came wading through waist-deep water to help one family save their belongings as the water threatened to flood their house. In fact, 7 of their chickens had already been washed away. It was a really touching show of community solidarity, but the water thankfully soon began to subside.

So of course the logical conclusion to this eventful evening is...to go fishing. Many fish by hand after a flood, but we had a small net. We caught all kinds of cool critters! In fact, my invertebrates professor, Gonzalo, would have been very proud. I ate so many taxa, imagine how much money I could have earned if we had still been in Panama! But yeah, that´s where the crab brains come in...so, crabs, especially of the size we caught, dont have much meat in the legs. What remains is basically the entire carapace...of which, the brain is NOT very tasty. Mine was female, and so I ate the egg-covered ovaries too, which was fairly disgusting...the resulting face that I made REALLY amused my family.

Let´s see what else we need to cover... So, the other day 2 of my brothers and some younger kids went to the Jatun Yacu (Big River, in Kichwa) to go swimming. I was slightly concerned when we arrived that it might turn into ¨whitewater innertube adventures minus the innertube: part II¨but as it turns out, my indigenous friends really know what they´re doing. We just swam relatively close the river´s edge, and climbed up onto some boulders...which proved to be challenging but very fun. A couple of guys went further upstream about 150 feet and innertubed through some whitewater, but Holger and I do not like whitewater...for the same reason, as I later learned.

Today we went to survey the flood damage in the jungle, and we saw an ENORMOUS SNAKE!!! I´m talking 8-9 feet long! It was incredible. But of course, as it slithers down into the water and starts up the other side of a stream, Holger decides it would be a great idea to through rocks at it for amusement. The snake does a 180 and starts coming furiously after us. We take off, running and laughing, but the snake doesn´t really even come close to us and proceeds up the other side of the creek bed.

So that´s about all for now. One other interesting bit is that my friends LOVE my chicken impressions. Holger was even buk-buk-ing after he caught his breath and got back up off the floor.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Talag Proyectos, Day 2

Photo 1: Patricia, one of the teachers in the bilingual school, applying toothpaste to students´toothbrushes after breakfast.

Photo 2: bilingual elementary school in talag (it´s about 25 ft from my front door), where I am working on a few small projects.

Photo 3 and 4: students in 2 different classes, working on drawing pictures of the village and writing short letters to students in the U.S. as part of a penpal sort of intercultural exchange.

Photo 5: brushing our teeth at the river´s edge after breakfast. so cool, but we really need to figure out how we can start to use water that is actually potable instead of ´casi potable.´

So today was my second day working in the bilingual elementary school in Talag. Over a period of three days I am working with students to make cards and pictures to send to penpals in the U.S. I am going to bring them back with me and take them to my old elementary school so that the students there can learn more about life in Amazonia and can respond to the letters. SO COOL!!º!!11!1º1

Also, today was our second day of toothbrushing after our meal. The kids are unbelievably cute and get so messy/toothpasty/wet while their doing it, but it´s so much fun nonetheless. We also played soccer and

basketball during ´cultura fisica´which is basically phys ed class. Of course, I´m not much better than I was when I was younger, which is sort of pathetic, but at least my longer legs and taller height help to compensate.

Then I went to bathe in the river, and of course EVERYONE followed me...like RIGHT into the water, regardless of what they were wearing...and wanted to use my shampoo. So I may have to go buy some because I don´t think that I have enough to last me for my entire trip if 10 other people are also going to be using it. That´s ok though, because they´re learning great habits...I just hope that they continue even after I leave.

This afternoon, my friend Holger is going to take me to visit his grandmother, who I met the other day. We were listening to a CD of indigenous Kichwa music from here in Ecuador, and he said that his grandmother sings traditional music very well. I CAN´T WAIT! And when we left to come to Tena this afternoon, Holger´s wife and sister-in-law were making chicha, a traditional drink made from yucca (similar to a potato). I wish that you guys could all be here, it´s such an incredible experience...unlike anything you´ve ever even dreamed of doing. Let´s see what else...not too much else new. I hope that these pictures work out better than my Quito pics that I tried to post yesterday. I don´t think that I had success with those...I´m sorry for leading you on. I´m kind of new to the whole blog scene, and so I´m still working on figuring things out. Alright, off for now, but as always, more soon!