November 28, 2003

0°14'S 78°30'W (Quito, Equador)

At 22km under the equator, I've just crossed over into the southern hemisphere. At 2800 meters (3000 where I'm staying) a flight of stairs will wind you. I've made small day trips out to the surrounding areas, the most interesting of which was up to the equator. A large monument established by a French scientific expedition here marks the equator - sort of. As it turns out, they were off by 200 meters. Hey, easy enough to do, but the recent discovery of 1000 year-old monuments precisely on the equator is causing some discomfort in astrological circles. The ancient monuments also pinpoint solar travel on the solstices and equinoxes. Discovery of precise astrological patterns woven into ancient tapestry is freaking out a few scientists too. The geometric angles in the patterns represent values such as the tilt of the earth precisely. I purchased a very interesting multimedia CD about the ancient monuments from an independent research team here. Contact me if you're interested.

Over at the real equator, a small museum has some cool experiments set up. You can watch draining water swirl in different directions - or not at all - a few meters on either side of the equator, or get your kicks trying to balance an egg on the head of a nail - quite easy to do directly over the equator. If that's not enough for you, you can weigh yourself here too. You weigh about a kilo less here due to centrifugal force.

I've been dealt a bit of a setback here in Quito. I had hoped to buy a motorcycle here for roaming around South America - but that's not to be. As a foreigner, the red tape needed to buy a motorcycle then take it out of the country is formidable. Add to that the hassle at border crossings, and the fact that I'd have virtually no hope of being able to resell it in another country, and I decided to forget the idea. Too bad.

December 6 marks the founding of Quito, and the celebrations during the surrounding week are supposed to be great. While I won't be here to see all of it, I'll catch the first bit tomorrow morning at my first bullfight!

All and all, Quito is a pleasant city with pleasant people and a pleasant climate. I'll be moving on tomorrow.

Posted by dhuska at 06:01 PM | Comments (1)

November 23, 2003

Bogotá, Colombia

Beautiful and dangerous, Colombia has grown on me like no other country on this trip. Violent yet cultured, congested but vibrant, polluted though aesthetic, Bogotá to me is the quintessence of Colombia.

I planned to stay in Bogotá a few days simply to see the city and then move on. I've been here over a week now and for the first time on this trip I'm sorry I don't have the luxury of staying in one place as long as I'd like to.

In Bogotá, fantastic people, brilliant entertainment, incredible art, history and culture mingle with crime, political insurgency, corruption and overpopulation. Colombia has its problems, no doubt, but we hear of none of this in the rest of the world. Bogotá is not the off-limits city the media would have you believe it is.

That said, you do have to watch your step here. I arrived in Bogotá a few hours after militants threw two grenades into a popular bar in Bogotá's hip Zona Rosa district killing one and injuring 72. The incident received little press here - this is media policy regarding politically-motivated violence. I learned about it from another traveler who by chance happened to leave the bar an hour before the attack. Two nights later I was at the same bar, and but for a bit of shrapnel in the large sign out front, and the removed patio furniture (damaged in the blast), you wouldn't know there was any trouble there. The place was busy - business as usual in Bogotá. It's still unclear who was the target of the attacks: the son of newly elected president Alvaro Uribe, or the many Americans who frequent the bar. As a foreigner, I would have had trouble entering clubs in city without the help of local friends because the clubs fear admitting too many foreigners (or more accurately, foreigners who might be mistaken for American) might make their club a target for militants.

Far from complacent about the situation, most in Bogotá would opt for less trouble given the chance, but nevertheless they live life passionately and refuse to let the trouble interfere with the serious business of enjoying life.

Though the non-mugging, non-guerilla folk here are nicest you'd ever want to meet, they certainly take a proactive approach to self-preservation. For example:

The military presence here is phenomenal, ranging between young soldiers serving their mandatory year of military service, to career military patrolling with some very scary weapons. Kidnapping for ransom is the guerilla's second largest source of income after drug production - and a huge concern for business people here. In Mexico, I traveled for a while with a Colombian who now lives in France because his father, an airline executive, received a fax one day requesting a "donation" to a political group. The fax detailed the movement of his family for many days prior. The executive moved his family out of the country and now carries out business from Panama.

Stories like this are common here, and business people take precautions. As I stood waiting to cross the street to a bank, a SUV screeched to a stop at the curb in front of me. Two men jumped out clutching very large bulges under their suits and escorted an elderly businessman from the truck into the
bank. They were obviously allowed to enter through some other passage, because when I followed them in I couldn't even get through the mantrap to the teller area. The bulletproof mantraps are metal detectors too, and will not open for you if you set them off. You have to wait for a guard to come search you, then only after putting your metal objects in a locker (including firearms, should you be carrying any), you are allowed in the bank.

The backpacker's hostel I've been staying in keeps a large machete inside the solid double-doors. Officially, it's for breaking up firewood - at 2300 meters, it gets cold here at night - but it gets used more as a sidekick for guests venturing out at night to run errands in the neighbourhood. This sounds funny except it's come in handy several times - for myself included.

Unlike most cities where security guards are most concerned with what is coming out of shops, guards here check bags and purses coming in for weapons and explosives. Being frisked, searched and sniffed is commonplace. Before entering carparks near important buildings, expect to have at least the underside of your car examined with mirrors.

I write this as much for my own benefit as anyone else's; I've been at a loss to describe what it is I love so much about this country. The beautiful geography, climate and culture are given, so it must be the people. While it's easy to describe what to privileged western eyes seems to be insanity, it's much harder to put my finger on what makes these people so alluring. I think it's their passion. Colombians seem to live, love, hate, fight, talk, dance and do absolutely everything else with passion. I have to say, for all the problems this country has, I'm more than a little envious of them.

Posted by dhuska at 09:20 PM | Comments (0)

November 15, 2003

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena is easily one of the most beautiful cities I've ever seen. Walking around "Old Town", a fantastically well preserved Spanish colonial town, you'd be hard pressed to guess what century, let alone what country you were in but for the few cars. Most cities, Vancouver included, would do well to take cues from Cartagena on how to integrate modern business districts and historical centers.

I'm here for the town's largest festival of the year - the coronation of Miss Colombia, a week-long festival held annually on the anniversary of Cartagena's liberation from Spain. Judges must crown one of the "Queens" from all over Colombia as the country's most beautiful - no easy decision, believe me.

The city shuts down business for a few days for the party, and parades and celebrations in the streets take over. Locals smeared in paint or used motor oil extort money from spectators by threatening to hug them or douse them with ooze.

Cartagena's most exceptional asset is its people; something that seems to be true everywhere in Colombia. They are easily the most friendly people I've met on this trip. Colombians are well aware of their country's reputation for violence abroad, but I don't think they are just being "extra nice" to tourists. Hospitality seems to be innate to the culture. Showing the smallest interest in their country; asking about tradition, things to do or see, politics or even the weather will often land you in the middle of a conversation with someone very eager to help you and learn about you.

Posted by dhuska at 11:05 PM | Comments (0)

November 11, 2003

Medellín, Colombia

The influence and infamy of Pablo Escobar is evident just about everywhere in Medellín. Though ostracized and later hunted by his own country, people here still speak of him as a hero. Using the profits from cocaine production, Escobar raised the income of Colombia in the late 1980's from one of the world's poorest countries to 7th highest in the 1990's. The leaps in infrastructure, education and healthcare are astounding. Eventually jailed in Colombia under pressure from the US, Escobar escaped through a secret tunnel (it was he who had the jail commissioned years earlier), and remained on the run until gunned down by police years later.

Raised to legendary status, many here doubt he was actually assassinated in 1993. Assassinations and murders are common here, and I have to admit that the more I learn about it, the fishier the circumstances surrounding Escobar's death seem.

Since 1993, Escobar and the cartel that bore the city's name are no longer operating. The drug profits that were Escobar's incentive are more lucrative than ever, so not surprisingly many newcomers have take his place. Unfortunately for Colombians, many of newcomers are from other countries and so funnel drug profits out of Colombia. The country no longer benefits as much from the industry that is tearing it apart.

The city itself seems a bit exotic if only because it is only nationals who are here. I have yet to see a single tourist! I suppose this shouldn't surprise me. Outside of Colombia, I received nothing but stares from cab drivers, customs officials and the like who learned I was coming here. Nobody thought it was such a good idea. Now that I'm here, while I haven't made up my mind about how safe it is, it's quite interesting to see the locals' attitude toward visitors. Many who live here are light-skinned of European decent, and I don't stand out nearly as much as I have elsewhere. People here are very friendly, and speak to me at a mile a minute assuming I'm a local. Understandable: They don't see many tourists. I have to slow them down in order to speak with them, and once I do, they are extremely curious about the North American who has come here. They want to know what I think of their country: the people, the music, the food, etc, and what opinion Canadians hold of their country. They offer tons of great advice about what to see and do, and what to avoid.

It's easy though, to see the mark that the drug violence has left on this city. I've become accustomed to guards with firearms outside businesses in Latin America, but they don't mess around here. The guards in and around banks carry automatic weapons, fully locked and loaded. Their sidearms are drawn at all times. To get into the bank I used to cash a traveller's check, I was frisked with a metal detector, then sent through a bulletproof mantrap. Once inside, you are presumably safe, so it's there that the businessmen waiting in line for the tellers begin to take money out of their socks and belts.

Heavy rain here has kept me from seeing as much of Medellín as I'd like to. It has caused fatal mudslides in nearby villages, but here it's intermittent, so I've been able to get out and about between downpours.

Posted by dhuska at 09:11 AM | Comments (0)

November 09, 2003

Panama City, Panama

I've been surprised and impressed by Panama City. I expected to find a typical Central American capital stripped of identity by the canal and the US occupation here. What I've found is one of my favorite cities so far. Panama city is cosmopolitan, but still very Latin American. Modern skyscrapers share the city with colonial buildings. This, I think, is what Miami looked like forty years ago. The city is particularly fun to be in right now because the this week marks the 100th anniversary of Panama's independence from Colombia - a touchy issue between the two countries to this day. Flags and patriotic parties are everywhere.

My biggest reason for coming here was the Panama Canal. They dug through a continent! I just had to see it. I loved it!

Unfortunately, Panama City has earned itself a reputation as one of the most dangerous cities in the Americas. In other cities labeled "dangerous", I've taken the warnings with a big grain of salt and changed nothing in my plans. The tourists who are victimized in these reports are usually doing something dumb to invite trouble. I see them all the time; the older couple walking around with expensive cameras, or the young travelers flipping through wads of cash to find that 100 peso coin in order to pay the street vendor. It's not terribly difficult to see why they become statistics.

It's different here. You don't need to go looking for trouble, it seems quite capable of happining on its own - especially traveling alone. I haven't changed my plans at all, but I've taken precautions here I haven't elsewhere. I usually go out with only a photocopy of my passport, $20 in an inside pocket (US currency is the official currency here, and $20 goes a long way), and a few singles sundries, or if necessary, to give to muggers. Apparently they get quite cranky if you have nothing to be robbed of.

I have not been carrying a camera in the city. All pics I'll post are of areas outside of the core.

Still, these are just precautions. I like the city very much.

Posted by dhuska at 06:21 PM | Comments (0)

November 05, 2003

San José, Costa Rica

Pics are up!

I returned to San José Sunday and planned to leave Monday to Panama. The only international bus line I found was full until tomorrow, so I've had a few days to kill here. It's been a chance to relax for a bit and do some of the little things I've been meaning to. It worked out well. I got to meet some great people I wouldn't have otherwise, and even got to the premier of Matrix Revolutions. Did anyone else come away from it with a rather hopeless sense of futility about our choices in the grand scheme of things?

Costa Rica, and San José in particular have been unique on my trip so far. Costa Rica doesn't suffer from the political and economic instability that plagues its neighbours. It hasn't had a military in over 50 years, and has the best record of health and education in the region. Downtown San José feels more like a North American capital than a Central American one. Unfortunately, this means an erosion of tradition. Gone are the holidays, religious fervor, craft markets and traditional clothing present in the rest of Central America.

Tomorrow night I leave for Panama City - 16 hours by bus. Aack!

Posted by dhuska at 07:18 PM | Comments (4)

November 04, 2003

Deep Thoughts: Month One

Neither deep nor monthly, just a collection of observations that didn't fit anywhere else.

On Diet:
The staples of the Central American diet are rice, corn, beans and sugar. They consume enough sugar here to ensure everyone is toothless or diabetic by age 40. You can almost smell the insulin in the air. Hot chocolate for breakfast, pastries with every meal, candy vendors every few feet, and dear god; the soft drinks. They drink more per capita here than anywhere else on earth. Advertising for Coke and Pepsi alone dwarf all other advertising. True, you can't drink the water here, but all that pop must be just as bad - if only in the long run.

On driving:
I'm sure traffic laws exist here, but they're regarded more as suggestions than edict. At least, then, I have to give credit to civic planners who choose not to bother with signs, signals, road painting and the like if they're just going to be ignored. Where you park, your level of sobriety, and even direction of travel on one-way streets is a matter of personal preference.

Potholes, animals, debris, street vendors, trucks, busses, and gridlock make this one of the most interesting driving environments imaginable.

On Using the Horn:
By far the most important piece of equipment on any vehicle here is the horn. Doors, windshields and even brakes are optional, and trivial items such as turn and brake signals are done away with altogether, but don't be caught dead here without your horn.

The horn is used differently here. In Canada, honking the horn at someone usually means "Hey! Move" or "Look out!". A short beep of the horn might just mean "Hi". Here, it gets a bit more complicated. By far the most common use of the horn has nothing at all to do with safety, but as a greeting: "Hi!", "Hi fellow cabdriver/truck driver/bus driver/delivery driver/person-in-a-red-car!", "Hi pretty lady!", "Hi Miguel! How's your toenail infection coming along?". More practical uses from a driving perspective include "I figure I can squeeze myself in as the fifth car across on this road made for two", "Ok, it didn't work. Excuse me while I cut you off", "I have no intention of stopping at the intersection coming up. If you're around the corner, this is your warning", "I'm behind you and speeding pedestrian, you've been warned", and of course the familiar "Move!".

Regional dialects of horn-ese include the classic "beep", the trill tweater in all manner of tone, and various pitches of siren. One cab driver I questioned showed me his custom-installed horn capable of producing all the above and more at the flick of a button, though purists scoff at the notion of synthesized noise and instead do an admirable job of producing all the requisite inflections using the standard horn.

On Street Signs:
They don't exist. Anywhere. You can easily cross town with out seeing a single one. At first, I thought this was just one more of those things there isn't money for here, but I think it runs deeper than that. People here don't seem to need or want them. Addresses are given relative to well-known landmarks, eg: "2.5 kilometers west of the post office", or "3 blocks north of the bus station". These, at least, are far more helpful than " between 29th and 31st streets on avenue 2. Uh huh. That was the address of a hotel I stayed in, and even the cab driver couldn't find it. We drove around asking thugs on corners what street they were standing on. Nobody knew.

Then there's cities like Managua, Nicaragua. There, not only are the streets not marked, they simply don't have names.

On busses:
The most common way to travel long distances here is by bus. They run the gamut from first class to roller coaster, but having riden in most of them by now, I've learned classification is pretty subjective. First class, for example, can mean anything from quiet, air-conditioned buses with television and toilets, to transportation where the other passengers are confined so they can't peck at you.

Posted by dhuska at 09:42 AM | Comments (0)

November 03, 2003

Jacó, Costa Rica

I've been in Jacó for 4 days learning how to surf. "No problem" I thought - I snowboard. How much different can it be?

As it turns out, surfing is a lot harder than snowboarding, and these weren't beginner waves according to the locals. I've been bounced off the bottom of the ocean, hit in the face by my surfboard while being tossed around by waves, and broke a fin on my surfboard. I got up eventually, and it was like nothing else I've ever done.

In most sports you feel like you're doing something to or on nature. When you surf, your surf with the ocean - you feel and work with the power of a wave that has crossed the world the world by ocean. An incredible feeling.

The mornings here are hot and sunny, afternoons are overcast. In the evening, the rain comes in off the ocean with the most spectacular thunder I've ever heard. On my first day I was anxious to start and made my first attempt in one of those thundershowers. A little unnerving being out there alone with lightning flashing all around. The rain was so hard I could barely see the shore, but at least when I got there, I didn't need a shower to wash off the salt water. If I had it to do over, I would have found someone to teach me properly. Maybe down the road.

Again, I can't say enough about travelling in the off-season - the shoulder especially. Besides being cheaper, you get to have places to yourself that are usually packed with tourists. Everything is easier when you don't need to worry about reservations.

Posted by dhuska at 12:37 PM | Comments (0)