I returned from my last vacation in South America under a dark cloud. It was November 9, 2016. I had spent a sleepless night at the Viejo Cuba Hotel on La Niña in Mariscal watching the election returns on CNN. I could not believe my eyes. Twenty times I would shut off the television and try to drift off to sleep; and twenty times I sprang awake and turned it back on because I could not believe my eyes.
Despite my dislike for Hillary Clinton, I had gone to considerable trouble to vote for her before flying off to Ecuador. I had to drive all the way to Norwalk on the I-105 in a heinous traffic jam. And now I would have to return to the United States to see my country attempt to survive the next four years under a malicious buffoon.
I managed to compose myself enough to take a taxi to Mariscal Sucré International Airport and catch my return flight on Copa Airlines to Los Angeles via Panama City.
When I landed at LAX, though, I was conscious of being in a different country than the one I had left three weeks before. Quite suddenly, all kinds of disreputable figures emerged from their hidey-holes into the broad daylight. And now, even though the Lardfather is no longer president, I feel the ground has shifted beneath my feet. The look on my face is of a skeptical vigilance.
Roughly four years ago today, I had the worst night of my life. Curiously, I was on the last night of my vacation in Ecuador at the time. It was election night in the USA, and I made the mistake of tuning in on CNN for the voting coverage. Big mistake!
I could not believe my eyes that Trump was winning. Not that I liked Hillary Clinton, but I thought her opponent was—at best—a total buffoon. There I was at the Hotel Viejo Cuba in the relatively posh La Mariscal district, waking up every few minutes and compulsively turning on the television.
When I finally stumbled out of bed in the morning, I knew I had to get a cab to the airport—but I didn’t want to return to the United States! That night, I had lost faith in my fellow Americans. How could they do such a thing to themselves, acting against their own interests.
The Hotel Viejo Cuba in Quito
It is now 9:20 PM in Los Angeles, and I don’t have any idea how the final count will go. But I still distrust the American voter—even more, if that is possible. There are some Trump-voting states that I would never want to visit, such as West Virginia and North Dakota. And I feel somewhat queasy about some of the rural areas in California.
Whatever happens tonight, I am not the same person I was before the 2016 results came in.
It was not until I visited Peru five years ago that I realized that the Inca were not the only game in town. In fact, I found the old Catholic churches with their ornate ornamentation was equally interesting. After all, the Inca had no written language and left no books until the Spanish taught them how to write. And yet the Catholic church in Peru was incredibly powerful. A visit to the great old churches of Lima led me to think that the Church in Peru was the recipient of as much gold and silver as the King of Spain.
In the south of Peru was San Luis Potosí, where there was an entire mountain of silver called to this day the Cerro Rico, the “Rich Hill.” The silver was sent to Lima, from where it was transshipped to Panama, where the conquistadores marched it across the isthmus to Colón, where it was loaded onto Spanish treasure ships and sent to Spain.
Altar at Lima’s Cathedral
Of course, much of these Peruvian riches never made it to Spain, thanks to the ravages of pirates and storms at sea. Whatever was given to the church, however, went into the churches of Lima and the rest of the Hispano-America. I cannot count the number of times I would walk into a church and be struck by all the gold used in the altars and in gilding the statues and frames of the paintings on display. Look, for instance, at the picture below of the Company of Jesus Church in Quito, Ecuador:
The Main Altar of the Company of Jesus (Jesuit) Church in Quito, Ecuador
It was nice to see the Inca ruins, but the remnants of a once-triumphal Catholicism were far more impressive. Granted that the Inca were perhaps the world’s greatest stonemasons, but the Spanish civilization is far richer.
I have flown over the Andes on several airlines: LAN, Avianca, Star Peru, Copa, and TAME. Because we don’t often think about South America, we don’t realize that the Andes are every bit as high, in general, as the Himalayas. I say “in general” because our method of measuring altitude is in flux, largely because the ocean level is in flux due to global warming. If we measure a mountain’s altitude from a point at the center of the earth, the highest mountain on the planet is Chimborazo in Ecuador. That is due primarily to a bulge in the earth around the equator which in effect elevates mountains atop that bulge.
In the past, I used to be disturbed by air turbulence. Now, with all the vacations in South America, I see turbulence as a sign that I am nearing my destination. Virtually all flights from Los Angeles to Lima, Quito, Santiago, or Buenos Aires involve a diagonal path over a chunk of the Andes. This usually takes place in the middle of the night, so I don’t get a chance to see the snowcapped peaks over which we are flying.
That plane in the picture was the plane I flew from Cuenca in the south of Ecuador to Quito. My brother had left a week or so earlier (also on a TAME prop plane), so we had returned the rental car to the Cuenca office of the rental company. I explored a bit on my own, taking a bus to Alausi to take a fascinating train ride; and I also visited a whole lot of museums in Cuenca. There are a zillion museums in Latin America, and most of them are fun even when there are no signs in English.
For my next trip to South America, I hope to fly to Bolivia and return via Buenos Aires. There’s a lot to see in between, even if I have to take a connecting flight part of the way.
There is nothing quite like the crafts market of a Latin American city like Chichicastenano, Guatemala; Otavalo, Ecuador; or Cusco, Peru. One wonders down narrow ways awash with color and aglitter with native ingenuity. There are times when I felt bad for not buying far more handicrafts than I could reasonably be expected to carry—especially the textiles. What I do buy is usually small enough to fit into the single bag with which I travel.
I remember the first time I felt this way. I was in San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico. It was December 1979, and I was fascinated by the Highland Maya textiles. It was then that a little Chamula girl, no older than eight or nine, sold me a little doll in native costume that she had made herself (or so she said). As she was describing it in her Highland Mayan dialect of which I knew not a single word, and stroking it as if it were something rare and magical, my heart melted and I bought the doll. I still have it on one of my bookshelves, resting against the Latin American literature section.
At some point, I’ll take a picture of it so that you can all see what I sucker I am. I suppose it is better than being heartless.
Apparently, I have this phobia of getting lost. When my brother and I were in Ecuador last October, we could not find any street atlases; though, it wouldn’t have done us any good if we had them, because outside the central tourist area of the cities, there were no street signs. Dan made fun of me for my meltdowns when we wandered off what maps we had. There mus have been an incident in my childhood when getting lost from my Mommy and Daddy terrified me. I wrote a blog about this entitled Where the Streets Have No Name. (Sorry, Edge and Bono!)
Where this is all leading to is a dream I had last night. I was traveling alone in the City of London. Having been there five or six times and having expended fierce amounts of shoe leather each time, I have a good picture of the city permanently resident in my head. I was trying to find a bookstore near Charing Cross Road, but had no idea where I was. And, even more peculiar, there did not appear to be any Underground or Tube stations on the inadequate map I had.
I had had some sort of meeting and was wandering around the city with some of the participants. At one point, they decided to stop and have an impromptu cricket match, which fortunately did not last long. When they stopped, we kept wandering in an easterly direction, coming on a square with a large Catholic church and a troupe of nuns ministering to the need of a large bump encampment. I thought to myself, “Gee, I had no idea there were so many bums in London.”
In the end, the dream just came to a stop. (Did I wake up at that point?) Although I jnever got to my bookstore nor to any other recognizable monument or building, I was more perplexed than terrified.
Thi9s is not the first time I got lost in my dreams. In none of them did my reaction rise to nightmare levels, but it is an interesting recurring theme—sort of like having to give a public speech while buck naked.
My brother and I were staying on La Niña in the tourist suburb of Mariscal at the Viejo Cuba. On our first day in Ecuador, we were tired out by the 9,000 foot (3,000 meter) altitude, but we had a few hours before vegging out for the night. Right down the street, at the intersection with Reina Victoria, was a fantastic folk museum called the Mindalae. Both of us were interested in purchasing some folk art: The Mindalae provided a guide to the best of what was produced around the country.
We took the elevator to the top floor and proceeded to walk down looking at the exhibits, many of them based on pre-Columbian originals. Included were ceramics, textiles, ceremonial objects, basketry, and other crafts. Adjoining the museum is a craft store with an excellent selection of items paralleling the exhibits, and offered at a fair price.
The displays at the museum were in both Spanish and English. If you are interested in Andean handicrafts, it is a good idea to visit a museum like the Mindalae before visiting the various local markets. You will have a better idea of what is available in every region of the country.
Dan and I enjoyed the Mindalae so much that, after Dan left to return to the U.S., I visited it a second time.
There are few places I have visited to which I would not like to return. I am speaking particularly of my travels in Europe, Canada, Mexico, and South America. There are a fairly large number of cities in the United States that, I hope, will never see my shadow again. On the other hand, there are parts of the U.S., particularly in the Southwest, that I love. New Mexico, for instance. My mouth is watering for those red and green chile peppers, the best in the world.
Last year at this time, I was planning for the trip that my brother and I took to Ecuador. I loved the places that we chose to visit, particularly Quito, Otavalo, Mindo, and Cuenca. The only problem was that traveling by automobile through the larger Ecuadoran cities required the tracking skills of a scout: Street signs around the periphery of every city were practically nonexistent. We finally got into the habit of following what looked to us like intercity buses, which were pretty easy to distinguish from the local rat-traps.
Otavalo was perhaps my favorite place. That was mostly because the inhabitants were mostly Otavaleños. Gringos stood out like sore thumbs. That’s okay, because sometimes it’s fun to be lost in a crowd of indigenous people, even if they didn’t speak a word of Spanish. (Their language was mostly Quechua.) Just taking a walk through their marketplace was like being in another world.
My problem is a simple one. If I were to go back to all the places I loved, I would be alive for several more decades—and no man knows how much time is left to him.
One thing that my brother and I noticed when we were in Quito, Ecuador, last October was that there are many different types of police. We sat in the central Plaza de Independencia for upwards of two hours, watching the different types of police congregate and go their separate ways, only to be replaced by policia with different uniforms and different means of locomotion. We were particular amused by the Segway patrol that mostly wheeled around chatting with one another.
At one point, as we were going by in a taxi, we noticed a number of heavily armed military escorting several male and female officers into the Municipal Palace. They seem to have arrived there without any major mishaps, like having a Segway run over their feet.
Just a few blocks away, there were four cops with bright yellow vests.
These Police Seemed to Be Guarding a Church (Rear Left)
All I could guess is that the creation of different government security forces was a form of mitigating the unemployment problem that seems to be endemic throughout South America.
Several times, we asked the police for directions. They were always very polite, even if they didn’t understand us. Fortunately, we didn’t look like bad guys; else, we would have been mobbed by policia wearing a variety of different uniforms. (It would have given them something to do for a change.)
I always say I have unfinished business with the people, places, and things that I love. Take Argentina, for instance. I have been there in 2006, 2011, and 2015. The first time, I broke my shoulder by slipping on the ice in Tierra Del Fuego; the second time (the best), I went with Martine and saw a good chunk of the Patagonia; the third time was mostly just fill-in, with visits to Iguazu Falls and Sar Carlos Bariloche. But I am by no means finished with Argentina, nor Argentina with me.
There is a broad stretch of the South Atlantic I’d love to see between Rio Gallegos and Carmen de Patagones. I would not mind taking long bus rides to God-forsaken ports like Puerto San Julian, Puerto Deseado, Caleta Olivia, Comodoro Rivadavia, and Bahia Blanca. I don’t even care if there aren’t that many notable tourist sights. I could easily put up with some slow time, especially as I would have two Kindle readers with me, and some 3,000 different titles to read. At my side will be my pocket digital rangefinder camera to catch people and places in the process of being something special.
Guanaco in the Buenos Aires Zoo
Argentina isn’t the only place I’d like to see again. I wouldn’t mind spending more time at the English Bookshop in Quito, Ecuador. And Iceland will continue to be a lifelong love of mine. I only wish I could get Martine to come with me. She has some idea that she would have to dress like an Eskimo amid huge snowdrifts. Far from it! Iceland will be one of the few countries to benefit from global warming. My favorite destinations in Europe are on hold for now, because I suspect that mass immigration will change that continent forever. I also want to see more of the American Southwest, and Martine and I are planning one such trip right now that will take up large swaths of New Mexico, Colorado, and possibly Utah.
As Lao Tzu wrote, “From wonder, into wonder, existence opens.”