Thursday, December 27, 2007

Was there a reason for such pleasings?

It takes a while to know why one goes where one goes and what impact it has had on a life.

When I went to Jerusalem for the first time about ten years ago, I just knew I was pulled there by some unknown need, although I did n0t know the need, and I’m willing to go with the flow when it takes me to spiritual valleys and highs, which Jerusalem did. It put cinematic images, truths as well as questions, in the imagination that augment my reading the gospel or studying the Bible. (I was told shepherds were not watching over their flock by night at Christmas - they were huddled in caves with their flocks to keep warm. It was winter.) And although I thought it corny at the time, there is something in saying I walked where Jesus walked, carried a wooden cross down the Via Dolorosa, knelt where He knelt at Golgotha, touched the birth spot - now a marble shrine - where Jesus was supposed to have arrived in the flesh, drank the wines of Cana and stepped in the River Jordan, which has certainly change it’s H20 quality in two thousand years. But don’t we continue to breathe the same air that has always surrounded earth? Don’t we inhale today what Jesus exhaled on the cross and the white dust that covered him when He spent forty nights attended only by the "beechos" of the desert? We all need to go to the West Wall, known as the Wailing Wall, to leave a prayer for God, and we all need to crawl through the elaborate marble tomb to see that it is empty. Are these proofs? They speak faith.

Although I lived twenty years in Uruguay, I never took the opportunity to see all the travel truffles of South America. When I traveled in those years, it usually meant I had to fly north to visit family in the states, or look at race horses, or do church-related training in England, or I was judging WAFA flower extravaganzas in both hemispheres of the world. So this rumbling through ecologically fragile spots of South America was something from the heart. I had been in the coldest part of the Northern Hemisphere, to remote Greenland and quirky, fun, stylish Iceland in June en route to a poetry seminar in St. Petersburg, Russia. But nothing prepared me for such nearness to God as I felt in Antarctica and Easter Island.

As I organize thousands of photographs from the Atacama-Antarctica-Easter Island-Galapagos-Rain Forest excursion, I realized what most impressed me were the skies. Every squirm in my seat - be it on a Zodiac, on a kayak, on the black or red sand shores, on the black volcanic rock, on the balcony of my state room, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the sky. It didn’t matter if a scavenger scaur, a checkered Cape Petrel, a snow white petrel, a glorious sooty albatross or a red chested sea gull flew through the vision. The clouds, the pure blue color, the white hazes, the gray moods, all pieced together God’s art with such genius that there wasn’t enough film on my camera to capture it all. In the sky is always hope. In the sky is a destiny to which we are blind. In the sky weather gives us signs and mood changes which we don’t really understand. The sky is always the cathedral of faith that gives me the courage to keep on. If there is a rainbow in it, I take that as God’s sign of confidence, to keep on doing what I’m doing. I saw many rainbows.

And the sky still preaches now that I’m home and daily watch the orange sun or harvest moon slide below the horizon across the Mississippi River and Arkansas. But nothing is a clear and pure as the skies of Antarctica and of Easter Island. In Antarctica it’s painted with ice bergs and white foamed mountains often reflected in a calm sea broken only by porpoising penguins or air-blowing Orcas. In Easter Island it was the sharp blue of being on a dot in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, miles from anything, where clouds had no worries like pollution or mal-formations or human excrement and where for most of its history, the sky is still the weather channel. The desert skies of Atacama were dramatic, colorful and sometimes invaded by a pink flamingo. The Ecuadoran rain forest skies were foggy, misty words in a green love song chortled by every kind of bird and very loud cicadas.

Of course, when you encounter your first Orca in the wild, or the first seal lounging on an ice floe, or the first penguin leaping off the snow bank into the sea, or the first sea turtle or over-friendly seal swimming beside you in the deep - and all you have are goggles and a wetsuit - or the first ugly iguana at enough distance you feel escape is possible, or you watch the first giant turtle pulling blades of grass and looking up with you at moist sad eyes - when you see all these things initially, you take a thousand photos. But in the end, you have walked through so many colonies of penguins - be they Gentoos, Chinstraps, Adelie, Emperor, Galapagos or King - and almost fallen dodging red crabs and the long gray tails of iguanas camouflaged by the black volcanic rock they hug, and you’ve stood freezing on deck enough times to watch whales that your zoom will not get you close to, you begin to say, I’ll sit this one out. But you still rev up and go. You may have seen more than your share, but you learn in general, most of them stink. A lot of penguin health and nourishment is revealed in reading the colors of their poop. Same for seals which often bloody the snow with fight wounds. Rock cliffs are frosted in white bird excrement, especially where the bluefooted boobies and cormorants hang out and life goes on.

Most exciting about the animals and birds - and you get addicted to looking for them - was the dive bombing of the bluefooted boobies which was so fast I couldn’t catch it on film; the sad humor of a male penguin hiking up the highest hill to retrieve a single rock, sliding back down with it in his beak, taking it to his mate to add the rock to the nest for their eggs, only to drop it and have it stolen by a pirate penguin; and the male land-locked cormorant diligently bringing dried leaves and tiny branches to his wife as she spruces up their wreath nest, only to have her to stretch her neck upwards and squawk as if she wasn’t satisfied. I was amazed by huge butterflies that looked like monsters and tiny Chinese plants hanging with white balls that looked like perfect chicken eggs. I saw the tiniest orchid in the world and discovered that helaconia in the Ecuadoran rain forest are as common as daffodils in Memphis springtime.

I suspect I’ll never forget the drama of the Endeavor’s effort to rescue the passengers from the sinking little red Explorer ship. And a subsequent drama when a naturalist with a heart dug with boot and shovel - with lots of help from the rest of us - to get a few seals out of a hole they had sunk into. We knew nature had to take her course and eventually, as summer was coming, the snow and ice would melt and there would be an escape route for the seals. But, who would sleep at night knowing that might not happen? Did we do wrong?

I learned to kayak on the Antarctic seas and snorkel on the shores of Galapagos where your companions are seals, turtles, and, ugh, iguanas. I swam not only in the frozen waters of Deception Cove in Antarctica but among light blue fish and serpents in shallow warm bays of Easter Island and took advantage of daily stretches offered as the Endeavor rocked and rolled through the Drake Passage, a gold mask facial in Ushuaia, Argentina, and a chocolate bath and facial in the North Andes of Ecuador. I climbed to the top of a crater on Easter Island and almost got blown away by the wind at the top, up to the peak of a 400 meter mini-mountain of snow and ice in Antarctica, then trekked through a forest of cactus trees as the sun set (and I couldn’t see) in Galapagos and ran up the man made stairs across the dust and rocks of another "cerro" to touch the lighthouse at the top.

The terrain and the views were never the same anywhere, nor was the food. I’ll spare you from that for now. New friends and guide advocates you add to your email list, hope to travel again together in the future, meanwhile we share photographs and memories. Writing the daily blog made me feel connected to a spirit as I shared the experience of these adventures with family and friends. But I figured out happy eco-travel is all about the gear. Dress right, in layers with light load and you can do anything. Avoid overpacking, as I did, but whatever you do, don’t forget your walking stick. It’s like having a third leg.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

My Christmas Thoughts 2007

Today is most of all the golden day for Mothers. It is the Noche Buena of Holy Mary who gave up whatever else she wanted to do and went against public opinion and policy to give birth to our Hope and Savior, Jesus. She knew what she was doing, although stunned by the power of it, and willingly gave herself up to be the handmaiden of God. She spoke poetry as she agreed to take on the task. She bowed down with no complaint in the lowliest of stables, in unclean conditions and an unfriendly environment, to push out that Holy Child and hold Him to her breast. She fed Him and kept Him alive. She showed courage as she was forced to flee with God in her arms to escape a rabid Herod. She put her child first, as most mother’s do. She trusted her faith, strong as Abrahams, and watched Her son become the God He was, as painful as it may have been to give Him over to his short ministry. She was the first to walk beside Him as He carried his cross and then hung on it. This was our mother role model, Holy Mary, Mother of God. Blessed be Mary.

Sunday night I watched an interesting documentary on faith - "In the Name of God." I was miffed that there was only one woman included in the religious leaders concept and she was a Hindu woman in white gowns who hugs. Everyone else was male. Is religious leadership only valuable if it comes from men? Men carry on, dominate, direct so many faiths. Women are the underskirts or the evil Eves who need to be hidden and silenced just by being who we are. Religion seems almost a macho field, like football games. And yet women make up the majority of congregations and saints. Finally in the last decade, some Christian and Jewish faiths have invited the female soul into the holiest of holies to allow them to serve God in a special capacity, as I do. But many men are still in denial of this. They don’t want the female voice. They refuse to share the Eucharist when blessed by woman’s hands. Yet we, the mothers of men, can change their diapers and nurse them with our breasts but are not worthy to be church leaders. Women certainly number among the most prestigious saints, and of course Jesus would not have been born without a humble Mary.

At a time when the hierarchy of the church has lost its trust and respect because men who were ordained to the priesthood hid and hide under its cover of holiness, costume and power to do evil things; at a time when men suggest that we must love everyone Jesus-style, in agape love that loves our enemies and those who seek to do us harm, while most of them huddle only with neighbors who are just like them and follow only their rules - to be safe; at a time when our youth are as distracted as an octopus with ten legs and are becoming permanent delinquents because they have no fathers or heros to trust and mothers must take to the streets to support them,(gangs and crime look easy); at a time when corruption of politicians and the egos of entertainers are stretching the strings of correctness to incorrigible ends, we depend on wise, honest women, mothers, grandmothers. What better than to faint into the embrace of a mom? Who better understands? Yet now clergy and teachers and those who work with our children can no longer give a hug of caring, of encouragement, of reward. It is perceived as something seductive and criminal, because at times it has been. An innocent hug. A touch. A moment of saying I care about you and understand your pain. We can’t do that anymore without being sued. What a world. What a horrible world we have developed outside God’s simple creation in Eden.

Image: The Nativity, by Caravaggio, 1609.

And worse, it’s the age when one atheist or agnostic can so disrupt courtly minds or hire such convincing lawyers that all the foundations of Christmas or other religious celebrations that bring joy to the majority have to be shut down. Something is wrong here. How can traditions held for two to three thousand years all of a sudden be outlawed? Because someone doesn't like it? How can the marble crib in the basement of a church in Bethlehem be forgotten? If you’ve touched it, you never forget the magnitude of what happened in that manger on a bed of straw. I’m sure God is watching and his spirit is in pain.

We are poor fighters without guns and weapons. We prefer the easy way out. We are so busy selling God, we forget to look at our own lives. We claim to not be racist, yet our churches speak loudly of racism since so many of them are still all white or all black. We select who is allowed to kneel at our altars. Didn’t Jesus attend to the needs of all men and women, even the Samaritans? Our pretentious words get out of hand. We are His. He is Ours. But really, who knows who will be chosen? Won't we all? Is every sin forgiven? Our greed goes over the top. Our eyes see the glory of ourselves, not the Lord. We fail to brandish swords of truth, of right and wrong, of humility. We are slack on tolerance, acceptance, forgiving, love, and patience.

We need to look again at the four gospels to see who God’s only Son was and what His words (not some interpretation of them) actually said. Are you attuned to how He thought, responded, reacted, loved? Are you familiar with how He got here, what Scripture foretold? I follow this God. He is who I want to walk with and in whom I have faith. I’ve touched his crib, his rock of agony at Golgotha, the soil of his cross, his empty tomb. I feel him everywhere I turn and in everyone I meet. I continually long for tomorrow when I soar off of this horizon to touch his hand. God bless you all.
Photo: A silver star marks the spot believed to be the spot where Jesus was born, beneath the altar in the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Hold the Shaman Cleansing!

I’ve been re-thinking the spiritual cleansing in the rain forests of Ecuador. It may not have been a good choice.

Oh, the guide said it would clean out all the evil and black stuff for the end of the year. And it was a chance to experience ancient religiosity. I’ll try anything once. When I was a journalist in the sixties and seventies, I was the reporter who got the New Age assignments - like learning transcendental meditation, speaking with aura readers, astrologists, witches, even Satanists that at one time paced our streets in blue velvet robes seeking funds. That story I asked to be taken off of right away. Normally, I just close my eyes and have at any experience from para-gliding, trapeze swinging, parasailing to gold face masks. I always close my eyes when exercising, having massages or just thinking in the surround-sound of the Calvary choir hitting incredible high notes of old hymns. Sometimes it’s better to imagine and feel than to watch.

However, if there wasn’t enough of my dark side for the shaman to cleanse in the cold, moist rain forest in the North Andes sector of Ecuador, the shaman must have knocked loose some of the residue on my rock. First my super-dooper Sony laptop crashed. Just crashed. Like it didn’t like me anymore. I had documents and photographs backed up, but all those emails and email information and email addresses have disappeared. The Geek squad is trying to retrieve something in a higher heaven than the local Best Buys, which couldn’t do it.

Then on arriving home three days later and calling the fancy chocolate shop with the purple decor where I ordered most of my Christmas gifts for friends, I discovered they had lost my original order and since I had no laptop with all the addresses and info on it, I couldn’t fight back and had to search again for a couple dozen addresses. I still haven’t finished that task.

The crowning un-delight that welcomed me home was listening to many phone calls from the Women’s Center on my answering machine. I had the lovely annual called a mammogram prior to my departure November 12th, and apparently there was a blip on the Xray that needed diagnosticing. (I made up that word.) So I called immediately and spent my third day home in the center having mammograms and ultrasounds again and again. The blip was so tiny, the doctor said, it’s either the world’s smallest cancer or a tiny benign mass. One way or the other, I am having a biopsy January 8th. No, I’m not nervous. I’m more irritated because I don’t want anything to interrupt my exercise campaign for the trek to Everest base camp and Mt. Kailas in the spring. Whatever happens, that’s a go. Whatever happens during the biopsy, I’ll take standing up. Would this be the "little C" if it’s the real thing?

There was something strange sitting in the waiting room between sessions. All of a sudden it wasn’t who you are, what you have done, or what your life had been. Everything was removed and you were naked before the world. You were in a new sorority of white robes clutched tightly as if something would spill out. You were starting a new challenge where so many had been before. There was plenty of hope since there would be plenty of sisters who would embrace you in your worst moments. It’s a woman’s world, a sorority of pink, when there is the suspicion of breast cancer on your menu.

Please rest assured, I know God doesn’t do these things to us women. But He allows challenges to our faith as he did with Job. I so daringly trust in God - after all He has taken me through He still is the one occupant of my heart and soul - that I won’t let faith dribble out like melted butter. I’m the eternal prodical daughter, over and over again. Seven times seventy and then another times seventy. Forgiveness is done through God’s grace, but I don’t think it’s free. Whatever happens is my due. I’ve groveled with the pigs and stomped values in the mud time and time again. I know I’m never good enough for whatever I’m allowed to do. And I am not so presumptuous as to think I don’t deserve the fight with cancer when so many so much stronger and holier than me have struggled and fought and won the battle. Some dear women have lost the battle too, but for them, I am sure, there is heaven’s pillow and God’s lap. This is just another mountain. I hope I can climb over it without a groan.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Chocolate Immersion

I may have been cleansed by a Tsachila shaman in achoate hair that had a semblance with the Kenyan Masai, who swatted me with long thin leaves of a palm which had been sprayed with herbs and a special homemade alcohol as he spit fire, I may have tasted a blue seed off a blue and white bromeliad flower made up of a series of tiny balls and said to be a hallucinogen, walked through a breeding ground for butterflies after a rough descent into a town call Menden, and inhaled the aroma of chocolate from an orchid, but none of my experiences in Ecuador equaled the chocolate immersion.

Cacao or cocoa or "cacahuati or cacahuabl" is considered the fruit of the gods. It was presented to the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl when he was a high priest and he decided to bring the seeds from heaven to plant on earth. Well, that’s what the legend is. And 3000 years ago the Olmecs made a heavy fermented drink, a sort of high-kicking bitter cocoa beer with no sweetner. Not a bad idea to revive today. (The Hondurans turned chocolate into the hot drink we imbibe today.) Whatever cacao or chocolate puts money in the pockets of merchants of Central America but primarily Ecuador since more chocolate is produced in Ecuadoran mountains than anywhere in the world. It has been found in 7 BC excavations of a Mayan village and has addicted folks ever since. The Spanish invaders (remember Pizarro?) ran home fast with the new cocoa bean/hot chocolate discovery to present to the royal leaders. Sadly, it’s almost impossible to buy pure Ecuadoran chocolate from Los Rios, Esmeraldas or Manabi, the three zones where most chocolate is grown. All that's available is Nestles and M&Ms. Alas. Americanized. Today we are told this once-considered-sinful indulgence, although it puts on fat, is actually good for us if it is dark with a high percentage of pure ground cacao beans.

At Arasha, where cacao grows throughout the jungle-like grounds, they offer a class in making fondue from cacao beans. When the giant pods hanging on the plants sort of like papaya, turn red, they are harvested and the cacao seeds removed. The leaves are often dried and chewed as a stimulant. I remember that in Ghana in the early ‘60ties women with bundles on their heads chewing cacao leaves to keep themselves awake while riding long distances in crude Mammy Wagons. In the Lima airport, cacao candies can be purchased to help you deal with motion sickness and high altitude wooziness. They taste of and are made from cacao leaf.

Once the seeds are dried, they are put in a hot skillet to roast. I was given the job of stirring them until finally the popping began. This meant they were ready. Then you push the seeds out of their shells and place the seeds in a hand meat grinder.

Grinding is not easy by hand, but do it and a oily black pulp begins to emerge. I put my finger in it for a taste and it’s bitter but agreeable. Or maybe it was just being there in the moment in a jungle surrounded by cacao plants that made everything delightful. When all the seeds are ground, the paste is put into a wok like pan and stirred and stirred til it comes to a boil. Meanwhile a bit of sugar is added and dry milk. Not a lot so it’s not too sweet. But the stirring continues. Then some water is added to make a more liquid substance. Stir. Stir. Stir. Bubble. Bubble. Bubble. And presto - you have chocolate fondue which was poured over of course, an Ecuadoran banana. I wondered how much should eat. Delicious.

Bu t there was more to come in the world of chocolate. A Relais et Chateaux hotel called Le Mirage also in the Northern Andes featured a spa which offered a complete chocolate emersion. They called it Death by Chocolate or the Total Chocolate Therapy. I had indulged in a Death by Chocolate cake once, but had no idea what was to come. The brochure offered that chocolate has healing properties and revitalizes and nourishes the skin and relaxes the body. Everything about this exotic place featured chocolate: balls of fruit covered in chocolate and Christmas colored sprinkles awaited me in my room every day. Sold, signed up for the complete chocolate moment.

It began with a bath of peppermint mineral salts and floating rose petals (remember this is also the land of roses, where 25 roses cost only one dollar.). Then an Ecuadoran lady began to paint my entire body with hot thick chocolate. This was exfoliation in Ecuadoran chocolate supposed to do wonders to your skin, leave it soft as a baby’s bottom. So I was game at my age. After being painted in chocolate, I was then wrapped in plastic and a thermal blanket to cook while a chocolate mask was painted onto my face. For a moment I felt like a brownie with a scoop of chocolate decadent ice cream on the side. Sigh. I used to bake these kinds of indulgences. The face mask was much stiffer, colder and was later peeled off. The only bad part was I had developed a head cold in the Arasha rain forest and couldn’t smell how chocolatety I was. But I imagined it. Oh I imagined it. And when I saw myself painted brown, painted completely in chocolate, I had to laugh. I didn’t know if I should lick myself or not. No, I didn’t. I didn’t want to gain weight. You know how vain we women are. After all the chocolate was removed in a bath, my skin felt soft as a fuzzy towel. And I wondered as I strolled back to my room in a drizzle of rain if I carried with me the aroma of chocolate.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

On the Line in Ecuador

I stood on the equator.

Remember from primary school that imaginary line drawn around the world to split it into two hemispheres? Basically, anyone going into South America to Rio or Buenos Aires, or Santiago, crosses the equator every trip. So I’ve done it hundreds of times when I lived twenty years in Uruguay. But in Ecuador, it’s a big thing. They built a monument and museum to the equator that sits right on an orange line painted on the ground so you can actually see where it goes. I got the idea to visit the spot outside Quito when I saw Al Roker on the Today Show, who actually did some of the things I was planning to do in Ecuador - eat rare fruits, visit the Bellavista Rain Forest, and stand on the line with one leg in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern hemisphere - i.e., one leg in winter, one leg in summer. Really.

Here are some interesting facts about the equator moment:

  • The latitude is Zero Zero.

  • At certain times of the year. March 21st and September 23rd you can stand on the line at noon when there is no shadow, then participate in the Equinoccial Dance.

  • Here you can see rocks float on water.

  • The moon sometimes shines brighter than the sun and you can take pictures in it without flash.

  • On the equator, you travel at more than 1.667 kilometers per hour due to the rotation of the earth.

  • This is the fattest part of the earth because you are farthest from the center of the earth.

But what drew me was the claim I’d weigh less here than anywhere else in the world. On the equator, everything weighs less as by Newton’s Gravity Law and there is a scale so you can test it out. However, after a healthy breakfast and tightening clothes, I didn’t want the reality. I just stood with one foot in each hemispheres and gloated. I didn’t feel any lighter.

At Arasha, a jungle-style, thatched roofed eco tourist "hot spot", the guides were experts in fruits, birds, and tribal lore. Business was light at the beginning of the rainy season - walking from bedroom to the dining room inevitably meant passing through a light shower - so my guide took me on a special hike through a private organic orchard to learn about odd tropical fruits of Ecuador, like the delicious tree tomato so good for cholesterol which I drank as juice for breakfast each day. (There is so much more out there than orange juice. We have been conditioned to OJ. Why don’t you make strawberry juice fresh each morning? )

Cherimoya or custard apple I had already met in Atacama, but not Rosado, a sort of fruit gazpacho made from yucca, strawberries, pineapple and cherimoya chunks. I’ve long believed the plants and trees of our earth have all the secrets of healing so we should never have to use chemicals for our medicines. This very short stroll only proved my feelings aren’t crazy.

Take borojo, a brown round fruit that when skin is pealed reveals a brown paste like peanut butter. It’s served as juice or as a puree and is excellent for cholesterol problems as are the leaves of the fruitipan. Limes are extra bitter here and there is a mandarin-lemon fruit along with naranjilla, and every size of papaya, mango and pineapple. We took a cut out of a cinnabar or cinnamon tree to smell the curative spice, and then I was introduced to the "sangre del drago" (dragon blood) tree. It has a white tree bark that drips a red liquid when cut. Take a drop of the liquid and rub it continually on the back of your hand, as my guide did on mine. If it’s the real thing, it becomes a pink cream that heals.

Achoate is a hairy egg shaped dark green and red skinned fruit which when opened reveals bright orange-red seeds. Rub your finger on these and you’ll find the dye which has been used for centuries by the Tsachilas tribe to tint their hair. This is why they are called "Colorados." Then there are the various "g" fruits: guava, guayaba, guarana, guaramana, guanabana (a reptile looking fruit with white juice), all of which are delicious. If you really know your fruits, passion fruits vary according to colors of their flowers - the red flowered passion fruit is called maracuya. The purple flowered is granadilla. Taxo names the peach flowered fruit. And that goes on and on.

And I was told I hadn’t tasted anything wild until I’d watch the making of helado de paila, made high in the Andes from glacier ice and a bronze bowl filled with fruit puree placed on a stump and a bed of hay. When beaten well it creates a delicious sorbet.

Another popular food is patacone - fried plantains, not at all sweet. They are served with most entrees in place of french fries. There are more types of bananas than you can imagine (three out of every ten bananas in the world come from Ecuador) but nothing tastes as delicious as Ecuadoran empanadas - they are made from a dough of either maize, or of flour or of yucca and filled with cheese or fish or meat. The newest nutritional fad is bamboo "brotes" or buds which are being harvested as salad food like hearts of palm. Besides that, there are 150 species of potatoes. And we think we are cool when we harvest purple potatoes. Listen, there is so much variety of growth in Ecuador, the saying is: "plant stones, harvest apples."

Final word, if you go to Ecuador, you must eat the cerviche. There is nothing raw about it. The seafood is cooked in a tomato-onion broth that is absolutely delicious and served in deep bowls. There is even a vegetarian cerviche with no fish in it at all. Servings are enormous and are always paired with a bowl of popcorn and a bowl of fried corn kernals. It became my daily diet.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Variety is Ecuador's Spice

Ecuador, a country the size of Colorado built from 47 volcanos, does not know what a straight road is. Everything curves. Most roads are two lanes, if that. And to go fifty miles takes about two hours of mostly blind hairpin turns, and if the traffic isn’t terrible. (My notebooks are full of notes I cannot read because the roads were so rough. No one wants to talk about how many deaths on the road happen annually.) It’s a wild ride, Mr. Toad.

Yet Ecuador swims with diversity and I only saw the North Andes provinces of Pinchinca (rain forest there) and Imbabura. (I missed Cotapaxi, the highest volcano on the south side of Quito.) In twenty minutes, the landscape changes from bosque to bog, selva tropica to paramos where the temperature at night drops to zero; from cathedral sized bamboo arches to silver leafed heliconia and secropia (a pioneer plant - which means it will rebirth after a fire levels it); from raining rain all around to dry rock and cactus, from lush green fields and greenhouses of roses to a tight city hugging the Andes hillsides with no room to breath where a nice apartment rents for two hundred dollars a month.

Pollution is powerful as you lift from 3000 feet to 8000 feet and even 12,000 feet and don’t even know it except air seems a bit short. Every kind of bromeliad and/or orchid cover just about every semblance of a tree, alive or dead. Elephant ears (philodendrons) are larger than grand piano tops and make group umbrellas. I even saw one producing a giant white flower. Green orchids camouflage themselves beside bright passion flowers and fruit, well, the fruit is extraordinary. But what you really should be to appreciate Ecuador is a bird watcher. I’m not one of those.

Not only does the environment change every two or so miles, but so does the food and the make up of the people. Many tribes of indigenous Indians continue to survive - and tell you point blank they are NOT Incas, who as invaders from Peru in history exploited Ecuador’s culture (I spent a moment praying at the ornate baroque church, La Compania de Jesus, built in 1605, and completely bathed in seven tons of gold leaf. It is a remnant of Inca wealth.) There is as well a large colony of resident Africans who swam ashore in 1620 when a Peruvian slave ship sank on the north coast, and those who were able to swim ashore and survive formed a colony near the beach keeping sacred African traditions.

Hummingbirds on a Feeder

The selling points as Ecuador buffs up its tourist trade to focus on more than just Galapagos is its variety. There are more species of hummingbirds (picaflor or colibries) than anyone has ever seen anywhere else, more rare orchids, more tropical plants found no where else, even hallucinogens that look like oranges and are called uvre de vaca (cow udder). More than seventy five percent of the world’s chocolate (cacao) is produced (grown) in Ecuador and yet it’s almost impossible to buy a candy bar of pure Ecuadorian chocolate. It is all exported to Belgium, France, Switzerland, the countries that make the best chocolate in the world.

Roses - aah - the exportation of long stem hot house roses is a major industry in Ecuador. Ten million acres are covered with green houses producing the best roses in the world, exporting more than Colombia who actually grow more roses. These roses appear in our supermarkets overnight. (Cheers to FedEx). One guide explained that major buyers are the USA, Russia and Europe and each has its own specific requirements: the USA demands no thorns, big rose heads, tightly shut, 40 cm. stems and few leaves. Europeans want small rose heads, slightly opened, big, long stems, many leaves and ok on the thorns. The Russians and Ukranians, who buy four to five times more than the USA to brighten up continually freezing climates, want everything in abundance: long stems, lots of leaves, thorns, and rose heads completely opened.

A Chocolate-Fragrant Orchid

Each rose ranch employs about one hundred, and eighty per cent are women, who work from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m. while kids are in school. But the ranches offer day care and many extras. These are called Floricolas. Actually women have it pretty good in Ecuador. Those at home are expected to cook for breakfast and lunch, but dinner is a left-over hodgepodge. The saying goes: breakfast fit for a prince, lunch fit for a king, and dinner fit for a pauper. Best, women are given a day off every week from household cooking and chores. It’s tradition. Men don’t cook at home or over the barbecue pit as they do in Uruguay and Argentina. Beef isn’t terrific in Ecuador. Fish is. The star of most meals is tasty cerviche, a deep bowl of tomato and onion broth filled with seafood, squid, corvina and onions, always accompanied by side bowls of popcorn and fried corn kernals. Soups of all kind are festive lead-ins to most mid-day meals, especially locros de papas (a potato, cheese and avocado soup.)

The reason Ecuador can is a haven for rose production is that, being on the equator, plants are guaranteed twelve hours a day of sunshine, varying hardly at all during the year (rose ranches are right on the equator) and this produces stems that grow straight up to the sun, although I saw only cloud and rain in my four nights there. Our own Memphis cultured garden roses, wonderfully odorous, colorful and growing in every direction, are less precise or repetitive. The Ecuadorian rosarians spend much time creating new colors and stiff thornless stems to satisfy international markets. Giant bouquets of rose heads decorate counters at the airport, restrooms, to spa pools (floating roses). Petals are sprinkled over your bed, in romantic patterns and a single red rose is often stuck in the complimentary guest robes, but sadly none have fragrances like Old English roses. If I can select a best desert on this adventure, it was the one at Le Mirage Hotel in Ecuador: tiny balls of rose sorbet lounging o n rose petals which had been sugared and quickly fried to resembled meringue. Talk about gustatory delight!

Editor's note: She's back and sound. She was unable to post while in the rainforest because of computer problems.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Innocence has left Galapagos

The most impressionistic visual of the 24 Galapagos Islands was the landscape. The islands, surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, survive with no natural fresh water. It must be shipped from the mainland of Chile although there are de-salting projects underway in Galapagos. All earth and rock are dry. And the effects on the environment where evolution sets the pace are curious. One island is like a trip to the moon with giant rock craters still implying bubbling cauldrons that aren’t active anymore. Some are high rugged cliffs colored by bird excrements and offering precarious ledges for their nests. Others are long strips of low volcanos introduced by a border of white leafless trees that give a ghostly effect. Think aspen trees without leaves. When you get closer they are fronted by Opuntia, hairy cactus with paddles so tall as to be considered trees as well. There are no indigenous flowers left. What can be found were birthed from wayward seeds blown across the seas from the mainland or carried by birds. Since man settled, they planted their own fruits and vegetables. In green areas where mysterious caves hide petroglyphs and bats, where giant tortoises roam, wild vines of baby tomatoes cover the ground mixed up witha strange orange bell flower that is a hallucinogen which only the locals try and laugh when one asks for details.

All of Galapagos is volcanic, whether rust brown rock or the ever present black lava rock near the sea. It was always a hiking challenge but visually incredible. Was this the environment of dinosaurs and prehistoric animals? As it is, a freaky looking giant iguana has taken over most islands. Charles Darwin said these "lizards", as he called them, had stupid faces. Frightening might be a better description, but they do nothing but lay around on each other on variations of lava rock and if disturbed, waddle away like a person whose belly was too fat for his legs to come together. Marine iguanas have manes, I guess you’d call it, from their head down to their tails, that look like pointed ivory teeth. These are formed by calcium in their meals. They love to bunch together in clusters and move away from the waters edge as the tide rolls in. Larger land iguanas live in deep holes they have dug out of dry soil in separate but equal type of communities. Believe me, as an extra, I encountered a number of geckos, and geckos don’t walk on hind legs and sell insurance in an Australian accent.

Hiking across the black lava rock, I spent most of my time evaluating the variety of surfaces: some layers of dough ready to be baked into a croissant, other areas black petals trying to form enormous flowers, other times the lava had been pushed together into thin ridges on which you could balance your foot as you walked for a bit of reflexology. A walking stick for balance always helped, especially when you had to cross slippery lava rock freshly washed by salty waves, trying not to step on an iguana tale or touch an animal, or even catch yourself from falling by putting your hand on one of the cactus trees . Pay attention. Touch nothing. These were guide pleas.

Galapagos Penguines
For the bird lover, there were endless curiosities, from trying to find all 13 of Darwin’s finches, to being inundated by frigates and gulls flying outside my stateroom at dawn, to gasping at the dive-bombing of the blue fined boobies, to identifying the American oystercatcher with its bright red beak and black and white body, usually resting on the lava rock at the sea’s edge. Of course there was the Galapagos race of penguins to delight in and the nesting flightless cormorants with swan like necks.The seals and sea lions rolling over and stretching in the sun on every strip of sand were hard to turn away from, but they stink in groups and I already had a digital card filled with their yawns. Your first and last whiff is of Galapagos seals lying on human benches at the shaded dock where the buses deposited us
as we came and went to the airport. A last morning surprise was a different kind of wake up call: about a half dozen sea lions frolicked outside my stateroom. Was someone slipping them anchovies from dinner?

A sea lion saying more than it knows.

It's tragic that the innocence of Galapagos has passed into the realms of tourism. (I didn’t feel that about Easter Island.) Although the national parks regulate the numbers of people who can be on one island at a time, there’s still a hundred or so people unloading at dry and wet landings from Zodiacs and leaving their footprints where rare fauna calls home. I wonder what the sleeping and stretching animals think about the 130,000 oohers and aahers passing their perches. There’s always someone in the group who has to try to pick up the sally lightfoot crab, or pull the iguana tail, or touch the foot of the giant tortoise. People want photos of themselves with the animals, squatting down close as if they really KNOW this beast, breaking all rules to invade their space, some hanging back from the group to get done what he wants done undetected. It makes the advocate sensitive to the value of what these islands preserve furious. But what can you say? The guides sometimes turn their backs, reluctant to disturb a healthy and growing tourism. Alas, something must be done to police these nests of the rare mammals, amphibians, reptiles and fowl of the air, and to punish those who break the rules. Please, folks, have respect for a strange and exciting piece of the universe.

Even the island’s population has increased by 50 per cent in a dozen years. Most come from Ecuador to ply the tourist trade. Costs of living are high - everything must come from the mainland of Ecuador - but then wages are high, too. To be able to have a residence on one of the four islands with settlement, one must either be born in Galapagos or marry a Galapagan. Although there is a one-strip runway airport, there is no formal harbor, so ships and yachts must anchor far away and drop their Zodiacs to come ashore. The parks do regulate what tour groups can be on what island at any particular moment. An approved ship would have a weekly schedule of visiting particular islands on particular mornings and afternoons of each day. If you missed, for example, one of those landings where the blue-footed boobies (they also have blue beaks and a crossed-eye look) hang out, you don’t get a second chance unless you stay another week.

But the parks get theirs as they slap a one hundred dollar fee on each arriving tourist and this money goes to preservation and conservation. Now the airport, which has been outgrown ten fold, is enlarging to handle the enormous crowds of tourists arriving on Tamu and AirGal airlines. Baltra, the dot of an island, is nothing but the single airstrip where two or three planes are allowed to set down only three or four days a week and unload curious tourists fretting to find their group. Just in case, fronting the waiting area, are enough small tourist shops eager for business. At least they are confined to the airport.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Tortoise and the Turtle

Galapagos is the Spanish word for saddle. Early explorers of these islands came upon the giant tortoises which had somehow floated here on debris, saw the unique saddle shapes of their giant shells, and changed the name from Enchanted Isles to Galapagos Islands.

Frigates Outside My Stateroom

These isles have not lost a drop of enchantment - at least where the animals are concerned. They don’t seem to fear humans, normally the number one predator of every specie and place. Where else can one skip across prehistoric marine iguanas, hop out of the way of engaging sea lions and fur seals, stand an arms length away from birds mating and nesting on the future generation, where else do non-bird-watchers become avid proponents of bird songs, become well-acquainted with fifteen types of Darwin’s finches (look at their beaks) and the funky blue-footed boobies chorus girl kick mating dance, or become able to identify red throated male frigates from the white chested female as they soar over the ship’s decks?

Isn't it odd that here and in Antarctica frigates are the most visible of seabirds (they are called man of war birds because they aren’t too friendly with other sea birds) but frigate legends are part of the foundation of Easter Island - remember the birdman competition? The frigate was the model for most of the petroglyphs recording that tradition. Yet I saw not one frigate there. Here in Galapagos, the mating season is the game, so male frigates put on a grand show - claiming a piece on some sort of vegetation, inflating their red gular pouch like a balloon until a female, flying overhead and making a "mooing" sound, can no longer resist. Se la vie.

The finale on Galapagos was meeting with unbelievable giant tortoises on Santa Cruz Island, which in itself has oddball climate. We docked in our Zodiacs where a bus drove us on a paved road flat as a knife straight through to Los Gemelos, two huge twin sink holes - one on each side of the road. Did comets fall there to create such canyons?

But oddest was after three miles in dry, starving landscape, as we rose to a higher elevation (a 40 minute bus ride)and temperatures dropped about 20 degrees (we had to close the bus windows) until we were smack in shades of green - the native scalesia forest covered in green moss, but also man-planted papaya, banana, mango trees, and hibiscus and bouganvilla. On the far side of Santa Rosa pueblo, is the Giant Tortoise Reserve, where these giant remnants of prehistoric days are watched, protected and studied by naturalists. We didn’t have to wait long to spot a tortoise: one of these giant slow moving boulders was stopped in the middle of the road blocking bus movement. Anxious to keep on our schedule, (it was late in the afternoon) a group of men exited the bus to encourage the poor tortoise to move on off, and ended up having to lift it up and plant it on the side of the road, none the worse for wear. The giant tortoises have the right of way and look like invasive rocks in local farmers fields.

At the reserve, I had the chance to look face to face at many tortoises, their mouths dripping with fresh green grass, their life one of moving about two miles a day in circles and feeding. Man - hungry for meat and shell - practically wiped out these enormous pre-historic place. Although there is some rain specifically in Santa Rosa, mostly Galapagos is dry. There is no fresh water, and that has to be imported or caught in water towers during the rainy season. The giant tortoise , weighing about 700 pounds, has adapted to dry conditions although in this reserve there were mini-ponds filled with algae in a cooler climate. Just here, mind you. Other tortoises said to be much larger (these were large enough) survive in a small area on Isabela Island.

We were told not to stand or pass in front of the turtles, that frightened them. Of course most tourists did anyway taking ridiculous photographs to make themselves look as if they were touching or riding the tortoises. Once that was allowed, according to seductive tourist propaganda showing children riding the tortise or kissing him, but now no longer. If the tortoise began hissing, that meant he or she was frightened and the head, at one point reaching for fresh green grass, jerks back in under the shell. In a private field turned over to tortoises, there must have been dozens scattered and grazing, and appearing a bit disturbed by the bus loads of tourists. We moved through quickly and at the end of the short stroll in tortise fields, was a small souvenir stall and tea area where I had the best cheese empanada of the trip. (Cheese in pastry and fried to a huge puff, in this case.)

Just to not confuse you’all, these land tortoise walks on elephant size feet with huge toenails. Their movement is only on land, they would sink to the bottom of the sea. The feet of the green sea turtles with shells about the size of a giant pizza pan (with whom I swam) have evolved out of necessity into flippers or paddles because their entire life is in the sea. Annually, the female goes ashore (and it takes a long time to move a few feet) to lay her eggs in the sand. She actually has to dig the bed with her flippers, a long, tedious process which only the females engage in. Since she cannot survive on land, she stays three or four days on the nest, then returns to the more friendly environment of the sea. The eggs hatched on their own. Some survive. Some are eaten by predators.

Such observations sparked Charles Darwin’s naturalistic mind when he stopped on the Galapagos Islands in 1835 during a round the world excursion on the Beagle ship. I’m reading his journal of that trip that brought him to Galapagos and Easter Island, "The Voyage of the Beagle," recording his virgin observations on those travels all over South America that led to his writing "Origins of the Species." It’s amazing how everything fits, adapts, survives in partnership, and changes according to need. A guide humored me when I asked what was the white and yellow scruffy debris floating on top of the sea. He explained it was excrement from the penguins, seals, fur lions, whales and birds that becomes the main meal of fish and marine life. Fishermen catch the fish, ship it to market, we buy fish raw, eat it and the circles goes on. So, to make a point, when we eat fish, we eat the sea animals poop. Oh well. I guess it works.