Motorway Meditations

I still haven’t gotten around to meditating.  In some ways, I feel that the rapidity of my recovery has slightly blunted the urge to try out new health and well-ness practices, beyond the simple fix of adding more medication to my daily regimen.  In the meantime, I’ve rediscovered the wisdom to be gained from a slightly more aberrant activity: hitch-hiking.

In the summer of 2012, I hitched my way across ten different countries in Europe.  The great stories I took away from that trip—the Polish guy with the coffin, the Czech businessman listening to “horror rap”, the German family that took me home—are interspersed with memories of long periods of panic, of annoyance at spending my vacation sleeping in gas station parking lots, of frustration with all the un-filled back seats in cars that went speeding by.  In short, I managed to make hitch-hiking “work” in the sense of getting from A to B, but didn’t appreciate the experience a whole lot.

That’s partly because hitch-hiking has none of the characteristics of the activities I usually devote myself to.  Hitch-hiking does not reward effort or skill.  The thousandth car is no more likely to stop than the first one.  There is no sure-fire strategy for getting a ride.  Smiling broadly might make you seem less threatening to motorists; then again, it could give the impression of a scam artist.  If it’s raining, someone could take pity on you—or they could opt not to stop because they don’t want a sodden person in their car.  Having a sign seems to work sometimes, except when it doesn’t, because people going only part of the way to your destination choose to pass by.

Somehow, though, this time I have found the zen of hitch-hiking.  Hitch-hiking, I’ve realized, really does always work, as some drunken anarchist once (probably) assured me.  It just doesn’t work if you have a plan, or a time-table, or a firm destination.  Yesterday I turned down an early offer from someone who could take me to the edge of the highway from the roundabout at which I was stationed.  I then cursed my poor judgment as I waited in the rain for three hours.  I finally begged a truck driver to bring me to the nearest gas station.  There, I was quickly picked up by an old man who took me to a toll booth, where I met a fellow hitch-hiker who had just gotten a ride from a celebrity chef.  He, in turn, showed me the best spot in the area—from which a high-school history teacher with strong opinions about neo-liberalism took me 200 miles to my destination.  And today I scored six separate rides without a single wait of more than 10 minutes.

I’m a fan of extended metaphors, and I’ve realized that hitch-hiking is an apt one for this year as a whole.  I’ve reached a destination that I’m happy with—contentment and peace—and so it seems silly to question the route I’ve taken to get here.  Sure, I wish I hadn’t had to wait a few months in the rainy roundabout of depression, but then again, if I hadn’t waited, would I have wound up in the same place?

Hot Latin Romance

It’s amazing that I’ve already been back in the United Statse for a week.  As usual, the transition is much faster than I would have imagined.  Preoccupations with my Spanish skills and obsession with grabbing a few more interviews have quickly fated, as I shift gears back into ivory tower mode.  Some things stay with me, though, so in the absence of good material coming out of Central Oregon, I’ll be writing up a few more thoughts on Ecuador before I head back to that other exotic wilderness where I spend my time, Oxford.

This post I have resisted writing for over a month, because I kind of hate posts like this.  It’s a common trope in travel writing: white person travels to poor country and falls in love with how friendly and quaint the natives are.  So, before I launch into this, I will say that I know that Latin America is a profoundly unequal and violent place where daily life is, for many, a struggle.

That said, I love Latin America.

I love that I never feel invisible.  In Coca, I felt like a had at least five surrogate mothers who were covertly watching over me: the mother at the hotel desk, the mother down the street at the frijoles stand, the mother in the tourism office.  They called me “jovencito” and asked, whenever I had been gone for a few days, where I had been.  Visibility is something that can be taken too far, of course.  In Uganda, I often felt overwhelmed by being the endless attention I got for being white.  Here, though, my visibility does not make me feel guilty, because I get the sense people are watching out for me not just because I am a gringo but because I am particularly young and clueless looking gringo.

I love that there is a certain gentleness and courtesy to interactions here.  I never tire of hearing people, upon entering a restaurant, wish “buen provecho” to those already eating.  I love that strangers will always greet me when they come into a room, even when they are there to see someone else.  And, although it always strikes me as somewhat absurd, I love that they will follow up with a formal goodbye, even if they are leaving twenty seconds later.  I have a soft spot for greetings that involve a kiss on the cheek, too, even though it feels awkward and I am generally unsure if I am doing it correctly.

I love that people trust me.  When we were in Baños, the chain on my rented bicycle snapped.  My companions biked on, while I was stranded waiting for a bus in a small highway stop.  A shopkeeper came out and offered to lend me his bike.  He asked for nothing in return and demanded no assurances that I would bring it back.  It’s much the same with the waiters and restaurant owners who assured me that I could come back and pay tomorrow, because they didn’t have change for a five at the moment.  However incongruous it is with Ecuador’s skyrocketing crime rate, I see a faith in community and friendship and humanity here that often feels absent in my own country.

I love that people here dance.  Not just the youth, but everyone; I love that on a Saturday night, I can see young couples and old married ones, grandparents and grandchildren.  Men and women dancing together here leave enough space between them to appease even the chaperones at my high school prom, and yet the dancing here is nonetheless the most sensual thing I have ever seen.  I even appreciate the endless attempts people make to teach me to dance, even though both they and I know it’s a hopeless cause.  I love that a bottle of beer is always served with multiple glasses, because sharing is simply assumed.

And, to get a bit closer to my thesis, I love that people share their time, too, and their knowledge.  I love that a kid who looks like he’s 18, doesn’t know a thing about Latin America, and can barely speak Spanish can still walk into the mayor’s office and get an interview.  I love the pride with which people tell me about Ecuador, the way they find nice things to say about even the most remote Amazonian backwater.  I appreciate that so many people want to exchange e-mail and skype addresses and telephone numbers.  I know that their promises to keep in touch are meant, even though they will almost certainly not be kept.  I love that the question people always ask, when they hear about my research, is when I am coming back.  And I certainly appreciate that, this time, I am being honest when I say that I will be back.

In My Father’s Shoes

One day in eighth grade, when my mother was out of town, my dad picked me up to school.  At this point in my life, all I wanted to do after 3:30 p.m. was get home and fry my brain with hours and hours of video games (I think it was Starcraft at that point), but when my dad picked me up, there was always something that we had to do first.  Trips to the hardware store, plant nursery, or office were always exciting detours to look forward to.

This particular day, we drove to the outskirts of town, to a strip mine where human ingenuity and modern technology were being used to tear down a volcano.  My dad was looking to pick up some cinders, I think, for some landscaping project on which I would invariably be forced to work on the following Saturday morning (I would, once again, have preferred to be playing Starcraft).  My dad chattered with some sort of a salesman, who walked into his trailer to get a price quote on something.  As we waited, gazing over the desolate moon-scape, I turned to my dad and, in the charming sarcasm of an obnoxious fourteen year old, told him “Dad, I’m so glad we can share these father-son bonding experiences together.”

Our trip that afternoon has earned a place in family lore, but it’s not the only quality time we spent together in my youth.  There were also Boy Scout backpacking trips, in which we together learned such useful skills as tomahawk throwing and spar-pole climbing, as well as sniggered at my Scoutmaster’s lingering anger over Jane Fonda’s visit to Hanoi (which happened in 1969) and fear that the federal government might restrict his assault rifle ownership.  For a mountain of reasons, though, the last two weeks I have spent with my dad travelling Latin America take the take for the best days I have ever spent with my father (and not just because there are no pit mines or black powder shooting ranges involved).

My dad has a pretty deep connection to Latin America, having spent two years in the Peace Corps in Peru and another year doing conservation work in Costa Rica.  When I was really young, I used to tell me teachers that my had two jobs: one where he sat in an office in Washington D.C., and another where he went to the rainforest to save monkeys.  Precocious as I was, within a few years I figured out that it was actually the same job: director of The Nature Conservancy’s Latin America program.  Still, though, not until this trip did I have any idea how far-reaching—and fascinating—his roots in Latin America were.  Who knew that I spent an entire year backpacking across the continent, anyway?

It seems every place we visited triggered another memory: “Oh, yeah, I think maybe I was involved in the creation of that park.”  Sometimes, though, his footprints were not so larger, but they were always interested; on this trip, he finally opened up and told me tales of hitchhiking through Argentina, or taking wood-powered paddle boats through the Amazon.  The best part of it, though, is the sense that I am starting to trace my father’s footprints.  Long hours spent winding along Andean highways have given me plenty of time to imagine my dad, at the same age, doing the same.  My father, too, arrived in Latin America with only a bit of Spanish and not one bit of experience, and a few decades later retired with a trail of protected areas and national parks in his wake.  Spending time with him makes me realize that I could be very content with my life if only I could do the same.

The End (As Seen From Paradise)

I’m still in Ecuador, but for all intents and purposes my thesis research is over.  Upon coming back from Yasuní, my dad and I returned to Quito, where we immediately were picked up to go to Maquipucuna Lodge, in the liminal zone between the Andes and the Coast.

Decades ago, my dad helped some young and idealistic Ecuadorians buy a nature preserve, which has now turned into a swanky eco-tourism lodge.  My dad called in a favor, in a sense, and now we are relaxing for the next two nights in a cloud-forest paradise.  To offer but one example: we spent the morning trailing the elusive spectacled bear—we heard it and saw scat, but couldn’t catch a glimpse—and returned to a three course vegan lunch!

In one sense, it’s nice to make Maquipucuna my last stop in Ecuador, because it means I will leave on a note of optimism.  As eco-tourist projects go, I couldn’t imagine one more successful.  The preserve protects a fantastic biodiversity hot-spot—6,000 hectares with 10% of Ecuador’s bird species—and is actively reforesting the surrounding areas.  The whole operation is carbon neutral and sustainably built (almost too sustainably built, given how many bugs made it into my cabaña last night).  A few interpreters are employed from the surrounding community, but—probably more importantly—the lodge owners are working with the entire population of the region to develop fair trade and environmentally friendly agriculture.  Maybe this whole tourism thing really will work out for Ecuador, and they will look back on oil as a forty year long mistake.  Ojala que si.

From the perspective of getting anything done, though, Maquipucuna is something of a dead zone, as it is a few hundred miles from Yasuní.  As is always the case with my academic work, I peaked a few weeks before the actual “end”, and I feel like I have coasted to the finish.  At a certain point, I realized that I had a thesis’ worth of data, and stopped constantly begging everyone I met for interviews.  Trips to Yasuní and the Huaorani territory spawned some interesting stories, but my guides never delivered the “dusk till midnight” interviewees they promised.  I’d feel like I had earned a rest upon my return home if the last few days hadn’t also felt an awful lot like I’m already on vacation.

I leave happy, though, not because I’m particularly impressed with what I’ve accomplished, but because I have hope for what I’m going to do in the future.  Tomorrow I’m meeting with the director of a very interesting group of social scientists that work with local governments and civil society organizations—to talk about working there after I graduate.  At the moment, I think it will be hard to pull myself away from more research: my mind is already full of ideas for extensive surveys and comparative studies and behavioral games.  It’s almost de rigeur to tell people when you’re traveling that you can’t wait to come back, but in my case, it’s definitely true.

There and Back Again: A Barnard’s Tale

It’s a little bit absurd to say this, but up until Wednesday of last week, I had never actually seen Yasuní Park.  As my research went on, my understanding of Yasuní-ITT moved from generalizations drawn from the secondary literature and rumors collected in Quito to concrete, firsthand accounts on the ground.  Yasuní itself, however, remained almost a mythical place, the stuff of Discovery Channel documentaries and novels about the “Green Hell” of Amazonia.  With my flight out of the country just one week away, though, I took advantage of the presence of my father (a “walking ATM” as he describes himself) and finally set off for the park itself.

Yasuní is not easy to get to.  Our journey started with a twelve-hour boat ride from Coca—itself, not exactly the center of the universe—to Nueva Roca Fuerte, the closest town to the ITT bloc of the park.  The river was sufficiently low that we occasionally had to hop out and push ourselves off a sand-bank (“Anyone with an open wound or sore needs to stay in the boat,” our guide informed us, “because there are Pirahnas”).  As trips that involve twelve hours of transportation go, though, this one was pretty entertaining, thanks to the fact that we shared our canoe with sixteen unforgettable and fabulous Ecuadorian ecotourism students from Puyo.

Six hours in, I got my first glimpse of Yasuní.  Sadly, I knew we had reached Yasuní not because of a visitor center or a signing declaring “Welcome to the Park.”  Instead, I could tell that we had reached the park—declared “protected” by the Ecuadorian government and a “Reserve of Cultural and Natural Patrimony” by UNESCO—because I could see oil wells belonging to REPSOL, an Italian corporation.  This dispiriting introduction aside, though, as we moved further downstream, the scenery became steadily more spectacular.  The forest was no longer secondary regrowth, but untouched primary canopy.  Signs of humanity diminished; motorized boats were replaced with dugout canoes; thatched roofs appeared in place of corrugated metal ones.

It was dark when we reached Nueva Roca Fuerte.  NRF isn’t nearly as distant or as small as Bameno, the Huaorani community I visited last week, but it felt to me like the ends of the earth, the last gasp of civilization before it is swallowed by the Amazon.  The two thousand residents have one car among them, which functions as the city garbage truck.  Everything comes in by canoe, and is sold at prices two or three times those in Coca.  The water goes off at 9 p.m.; the power at 11 p.m.  What really makes NRF seem abandoned, though, is the sense that it’s moving backwards—or, as my Dad put it, that “The future has come many times, and it has always left.” There used to be a plane that came three times a week; now it comes every fifteen days.  Gradually, the Rio Napo is “eating” the city (to quote some residents); the first two main streets have now eroded away, and number three is set to last only a few more years.

I can’t explain why, but I absolutely loved NRF.  The city is about as isolated as a place can be while still pretending to be a part of modern society.  To me, it showed the universality of human aspiration, even in the most impossible of situations.  There are restaurants and stores and even a discoteca, all of which are tiny and undersupplied, yet still open at regular hours and attended with care by their owners.  As forgotten as the residents seemed to feel, they also appeared to find pride in what their town could offer: “Isn’t it so quiet here?  So peaceful?” I was asked over and over again.

On Wednesday, we left early to go inside the ITT bloc; for me, it was a chance to see if the park was really so spectacular as to merit the $3.5 billion dollars Ecuador has demanded to protect it.  It was nice to see that the entrance was guarded by a well-kept cabin, with a sign that announced in Spanish “Yasuní National Park: Preserving the Amazon, Protecting the World.” The single ancient ranger, though, didn’t seem quite up to the task of fending of Peruvian loggers and local hunters.  Nor did he seem particularly concerned when a few students started fishing under a sign that read—in rather bold font—“No fishing.”

Before I had actually gone into the Amazon, I had an idea for a blog post that would start with something to the tune of: “And on the eight day, God stopped fucking around and created the Amazon.” I got the idea that the Amazon was mighty and fearsome combination of inclement weather, floods, vicious snakes, killer diseases, and a health number of vampire bats.  In reality, though, the forest is much lighter, more open, and much less menacing then I expected.  It’s not as hot as I thought it would be, nor, really, as rainy.  Going through the forest is no safari: the animals are scarce and hidden.  In short, I left Yasuní with an acute sense of how incredibly fragile the place is.  As much as I like to think of the raw power of nature, here is a place that humanity really can destroy—and, sadly, is actively destroying.  Even as far from “civilization” as we were, signs of the depradations of overhunting and colonization were inescable.

On Thursday, I life-listed another country: Peru. In the 1940s, Ecuador lost something to the tune of 40% of its territory in a war with Peru, about which they are still smarting.  Ecuador didn’t accept its new border until 1998, though: apparently, according to my Dad, customs officials used to confiscate any map that didn’t show the border of the lost Amazonian territory as “disputed.” My first look at Peruvians, then, was of some gunners manning a cannon at the border, ready to repel an invasion at any moment.  (Though the Ecuadorian soldiers I’ve seen can’t even put together matching uniforms, so I’m not sure Peru should feel that threatened).  They wouldn’t give me a passport stamp, but I did see some dolphins, so I returned to NRF feeling quite content.

That night was the last of our trip, so we convinced the owners of the NRF discoteca—“The Yellow Shack”—to open up for us.  After a few cheers of “Que viva Yasuní!” we started downing Pilseners Peruvian style, in which one person goes around the group with a large bottle and a single glass.  Our student friends started to dance, and eventually my Dad joined in, which was fantastic to see (although embarrassing from my point of view, given how utterly he showed me up).  At eleven, se fue la luz, but—in a clear show of good priorities—the discoteca has one of NRFs few generators, and the fiesta continued long past midnight.

When we left the discoteca, the night was the darkest I have ever seen in my entire life.  The town had not a single light beyond the blacklights of the dance floor behind us.  We were too far from any city to have any ambient light on the skyline, and thick clouds covered every single star and the moon.  How crazy is it that, at twenty-three, this is where I have come to?

At five a.m., we were back on the boat, motoring back to Coca.  Five weeks ago, Coca felt like the ends of the earth, but now that I’ve actually seen the end of the earth, landing felt like a return to civilization.  I have a really weird sense, though, that I will be back to NRF at some point in my life.

Pinnacle of Evolution

Pre removal of clothing.

One of the highlights of my five day romp in Huaorani territory was that I didn’t just get to spend time with my guides, but their entire families.  Transport in and out of these remote villages is expensive, so when a gringo is travelling around, everyone takes advantage of the free lift.  Among our passengers for the first three days was the father of Bartolo—my main guide—who had an unpronounceable Huaorani name that I will not even attempt to reproduce here.


Bartolo’s father was, to put it softly, pretty traditional. He has hugely gauged ears—a sign of status—and as soon as we were in Huaorani territory, he removed 95% of his clothes.  He didn’t speak any Spanish, but claimed—through a translator—that he was involved in the killings of Westerners in the early days of contact, and that he hoped that the Huaorani would return to their warrior past and kick out the oil companies by force.  As if to emphasize how lethal he was, he demonstrated to me his ability to shoot a monkey in the eye with a blowgun at an absurdly long range.

While I suppose this discussion should have scared me a bit, other parts of our interactions were a bit more lighthearted and joyous.  As we motored along, he would often declare the presence of animals that I could neither see nor hear; only after we moved up the river another 100 metres could I see anything.  When we got close, with great enthusiasm and often a lot of laughter, he would mimic their calls perfectly, whether they were a frog, bird, or monkey.  At one point during our journey, he declared that he could smell a tapir.  He hopped out and, sure enough, quickly found tapir tracks.

That is a person, FYI.

My adviser, Laura Rival, wrote the book on the Huaorani.  One of my favorite anecdotes comes in her introduction, when she described that often, during her interviews, Huaorani would tell her, “I’d love to sit here and talk to you all day about your research, but I want to go walk in the forest.” My Huaorani friend seemed to enjoy nothing more than just wandering in the forest, showing me which plants could be used for which ailments and how to find ants that taste exactly like lemon.  At one point, I turned my back to him for a few seconds; when I spun back, he had fashioned some sort of contraption out of a vine and was using it to shimmy up a branch-less tree to gather fruit.  When he came back down, he declared that the fruit was too hard to open by hand, and proceeded to create a makeshift saw out of a leaf.

Actual Huaorani may be shorter than they appear.

After three days, we reached his “village.” Most of the buildings were clapboard houses built in Western style; they belonged to his relatives, all of whom had moved to cities to work.  Bartolo’s father and his wife were the last ones living in the village, staying in a traditional Huaorani hut.  Inside was hanging meat from practically every jungle animal I could imagine.  Outside, there was a veritable menagerie of animals he had managed to trap: monkeys, guanta, parrots, armadillos, and pecarí.  Shortly after we arrived, he wandered off to the river, where he managed to “catch” fish by jumping into the water and rapidly hacking them with a machete.

This four foot tall man may very well be the greatest predator the world has ever seen.

Ecotourism Will Save Us All!

This weekend, I was the future of the Huaorani nation.

The face of the future?

This may sound like a rather strong and paternalistic statement coming from a non-Huaorani, but I’m pretty sure the four Huaorani guides with which I travelled this weekend would agree.  Indeed, ask almost anyone in the Ecuadorian Amazon what they will live off of if the petroleum stays in the ground, and they will inevitably respond, “tourism”.

At least in theory, I think the idea of an economy based on eco-tourism is an appealing one.  It provides a way for Ecuadorians to value their environment through its preservation, rather than its destruction.  Tourism is redistributive: most tourists here are rich, and the people they pay to serve them are often poor.  I like tourism, also, because it is an economic activity that doesn’t involve “production” per se: it allows us to “consume” experiences, not resources, and take home photos rather than cheap plastic crap.

Tourism seems like a good bet for the Huaorani, specifically, because—at least, based on my limited experience—it seems to fit well with their culture and cosmovision.  Like most hunters and gathers, Huaoranis historically enjoyed a high standard of living with only a few hours of “work” a week.  Tourism, hypoethtically, provides for modern necessities without obligating anyone to sit behind a desk or wear a tie.  As one guide described it, “I get to walk around the forest like when I was little, except now I get paid!”

Chainsawing our way through an obstacle... just like our ancestors.

For two reasons, though, I doubt that tourism can be the saving grace of the Amazon.  First, “eco-tourism” doesn’t seem so “eco.”  The first preparation we made this weekend for our trip was to buy eighty gallons of gasoline for our canoe.  Rather ironic, given that the point of eco-tourism is intended to allow us to avoid extracting the petroleum in the Amazon.  The river was very low, so every few minutes our guides had to hop out and chainsaw our way through a fallen tree, leaving an oil slick along the way.  Despite my vigorous protestations, my guides insisted on spearing and slaughtering various animals so I could take a picture with them.  My inner Boy Scout cried at every beach we left a mess.  And so on.

The whole idea of tourism, sadly, strikes me as profoundly anti-ecological.  It’s as simple as Newton’s First Law of Motion: objects at rest stay at rest stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force.  It takes energy to move people around.  By the time we’ve taken a flight half-way around the world to look at a pretty forest, the game is already up and the environmental damage is already done.  Add in long-distance trips in pick-up trucks and canoe rides, and even the most environmentally conscious guide cannot prevent a carbon emissions catastrophe.

Many guides, one tourist.

My second concern about eco-tourism is that it will never work economically.  While my guides were always good-hearted and full of laughs, their descriptions of their lives was not rosy.  Although I was paying a small fortune, they would see very little of it: most of the money tourists pay goes to food and gas and oil and equipment.  They work long and unpredictable hours and have to be ready to leave for trips on a moments notice.  One guide—age thirty-five—said that he had decided not to get married because he couldn’t put his family through the uncertainty.  There are 2,500 Huaorani, but the 25 of them that already work as guides in Coca complain that there isn’t enough work.  Sometimes they go on trips not because they think they can earn anything, but because at least the tourists provide them with something to eat.

Building a society around eco-tourism requires making economic and social sacrifices.  If I am paying a lot of money to go into the Amazon, I don’t want to see roads or factories.  In fact, I don’t even want to see clothes, much less televisions and cement houses.  Living in the “traditional” manner that tourists want to observe, though, precludes a lot of economic options.  Almost by definition, then, to make tourism work, you have to put all your eggs in one basket.

I have to wonder if the math on ecotourism ultimately works out.  How many rich backpackers are there in the world?  And how many vacation days do they have?  How many curios do they want to buy?  And how many ecolodges are vying for those tourists?  How many guides, how many communities? Ecuador is spectacular, but so are Thailand and India and Costa Rica and Kenya and any number of other places that have staked their development in part on tourism.  Not all of them can be destination number one.

As with all things, though, the key phrase is always “Show me the alternatives.” Huaorani territory isn’t going to be home to any India-style call centers anytime soon.  At the moment, it’s a stark choice between tourism and petroleum.  Young Huaorani want Western things, and for that they need money.  They don’t want to live in the traditional way–and even if they did, their population has grown too much and the forest is too contaminated to support it.  Ecotourism may not save them all, but it is also pretty much their only hope.