“Viernes de Chocolate”, they didn’t happen every Friday but it was often enough to be a routine we knew and looked forward to. Every now and then my mom would show up with chocolate, usually on a Friday or at least that’s when I remember it to be.
She wasn’t very affectionate when we were growing up, she loved us in ways that I didn’t understand and at times I couldn’t feel her motherliness. Providing for us was proof enough for her and maternal duties were completed with many hours of hard work and earnest sacrifice.
However, we had chocolate. Sometimes it was chocolate-peanut bars, or chocolate ice-cream or ingredients for homemade chocolate cookies. Chocolate Fridays were always unannounced, always a surprise and a welcomed fleeting moment of peace and happiness in our often turbulent home.
Chocolate brought out a side of my mother that was rare. I can summon up the images of her tired smile as we relished her gifts. Chocolate as an offering of affection, a bridge between our hearts, a fix to our familial stress and a language of unspoken words. The exchange, our metaphoric embrace, the momentary light in her eyes. I remember all that better than the taste of the chocolate itself.
Earlier this week, I visited a small organic cacao farm in northern Colombia. Eighty-five years ago, Señor Cardenas, a man who could barely sign his name purchased a gorgeous tract in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta with breathtaking views of the mountains and the Caribbean Sea. Along with his sons and grandsons he worked the land producing coffee, cacao and avocados. His grandson, Eugenio and his wife Ana run the small farm today.
Cacao trees grow a tiny fragile flower. Only 2% of them are pollinized resulting in pods, the home of the precious cacao beans. Each bean is covered with a fruity flesh that tastes like mangosteen or lychee and Eugenio instructed me to not bite the bean as I savoured its surrounding sweetness. Before the beans are processed they are high in theobromine making them poisonous; but after they are fermented, sundried and roasted they have one of the world’s favorite flavors.
Eugenio slow roasted a batch of cacao beans for us in a contraption he built from a YouTube video and then ground them into 100% cacao paste. The room filled up with a strong aroma of chocolate as he boiled the paste into hot water and milk. I held the cup of hot chocolate in my hands and brought it close to my face. Steamy chocolate full notes hit my senses, snapshots of my mother accompanied them, invading me with bittersweet nostalgia. My taste buds longed for the intoxicating food of the gods, my heart longed for time with my siblings and those Chocolate Fridays long gone.
Cacao in its purest form is dark, bitter, an acquired taste rich in vitamins and minerals that contributes to health and wellness. In order to make chocolate, one must add a sweetener like honey or sugar and for a more palatable chocolate milk is added. Flavorful chocolatiers mix in ingredients like coffee, ginger, dried fruits, sea salt, chili and even insects.
I don’t know all the intricacies of chocolate but over time, I’ve come to understand my mother’s love during my childhood as 100% cacao. It was pure yet it was so raw. It was hard to consume when it wasn’t processed into chocolate yet it sustained us. It was a survival love, like the flowers from the cacao tree. Perhaps, she only knew how to grow the cacao but didn’t know how to make the truffles so she just gave us our treasured Chocolate Fridays.
The road ended in Yurimaguas, a small busy town with a port on the Ucayali River. Cargo boats depart from here a few times a week once they have loaded enough cargo and passengers. We had been advised that the boat departure times could change by the hour and it’s common to spend a night or two waiting. We found a boat that was announced to leave in three hours, so after paying for our fare and setting up our rental hammocks on the top deck with other travelers, we rushed to buy enough water and food for the trip. However, we didn’t depart for another twenty four hours. Since we kept being told we were departing soon we couldn’t leave the boat and spent the rest of the day sweltering and roasting under the Amazonian sun while watching endless crates of beer, thousands of egg cartons, plantains, moto taxis, bags of rice and more, being loaded onto the lower level.
Our boat, Bruno, had three levels, the lower one for cargo, the middle and top deck for passengers. The middle deck also had bathrooms, showers and a small kitchen. Our fare included three very basic meals a day, featuring the locals’ favorite all over South America: rice and chicken and chicken and rice. The two cooks were male cross-dressers wearing some impressive makeup; apparently local belief is that they are better cooks than women so they often land these “chef” positions. They did a good job with what they had to work with except for breakfast. I’ve been raised to eat what is set before me giving thanks but I just couldn’t stomach the gray runny porridge which I suspect was cooked with river water. At meal times, the cooks would ring a bell and the 100+ passengers would obediently make a line, plastic bowls in hand. (Thomas bought a red bowl for a dollar before we boarded and I had a little bowl I unintentionally “borrowed” from a hostel. Thomas is holding on to his cheap tupperware and intends to bring it home). Locals and travelers alike looked like prisoners on a floating prison, hungry faces clutching on to the crumpled receipt that was absolutely necessary to get one’s meal.
Cargo boats are slow-moving and so were our days on Bruno. The hours drifted between card games, reading, sweating in our hammocks, chatting with other passengers, at least one shower with river water, more card games and then some more card games. A few times each day we would pull up to small towns and villages on the river banks where passengers and cargo would come and go. Vendors would also flood the boat during these stops selling bananas, jungle fruits, juanes (a rice ball wrapped in banana leaves) and fried fish. During the nights we fought relentless mosquitoes and hoped our backpacks were safe under our hammocks.
We spent the first day moving along the Marañón River until it merged with the Ucayali River, which is an interesting river on its own, beginning in southern Peru, crossing the Andes, reaching the Amazon Basin and eventually becoming a main tributary to the world-famous river. During the middle of the second night we creeped onto the Amazon River. Thomas kept waking up just so he could make a GPS pin at the exact location of the headwaters.
The first leg of our river travel ended at Iquitos, the largest city in the world that is accessible only by boat or airplane. It’s the Amazonian capital of Peru and a fascinating city where moto taxis and scooters rule the streets, people eat grilled suri worms, barbers cut hair on the sidewalks, ice cream is made with jungle fruits and where rubber barons once lived in luxury. A local couple whom we had played cards with invited us to stay at their home where we spent the next five days waiting for a boat to our next destination.
Our new vessel was smaller and faster, promising a speedy two days – 1 night delivery to Pantoja, the closest village to the Peruvian-Ecuadorian jungle border. Transportes Vichu carried passengers, some packages and also served as a mail system and school bus of sort in between villages on the Nanay and Napo Rivers. During one of our frequent stops we picked up a chicken in a woven cage to be delivered at a house a few hours up the river so it was placed on the front end of the speedboat, I don’t think the chicken enjoyed the ride. Another time we picked up two teen boys who were headed to school, since they live four hours away they stay at the school all week. When they were getting off the boat the driver reminded them to focus, to study hard and added, “so you can do something else than just drive a boat like me”. I thought of their family, standing by the river bank, waving as we pulled away.
The other passengers were military personnel traveling to the border military base, four other foreigners and a second driver. After ten hours we docked in Santa Clotilde for the night. This quiet jungle village comes to life once the sun goes down and the electricity allowance starts. From 8 to 11 pm, they crank the music up, charge their phones and stroll their one paved street in town. We heard that sometimes they party too hard on the weekends and use up their electricity allowance for the week. The kid who told us this said they don’t mind because the town parties were so much fun.
We repeat the same the next day but as we travel further away on this water road, the villages become smaller, the isolation feels bigger, we encounter less smiles and more stares. We deliver a box of medicine at the wrong place, a group of twenty some children surround one side of the boat and inspect us, pink river dolphins swim close to us, children brush their teeth in the river, families travel in small canoes, their sparse houses sit on stilts. I stare at the green lush jungle and tell two young dutch travelers about the uncontacted tribes who still live deep inside.
By 5 pm we reach Pantoja, the end of our second leg. The immigration office sits on top of a little hill next to the military base; we are informed that we can’t get our exit stamps until the next morning. Even though the first Ecuadorian town is only a few hours away by canoe, late evening and night travel has been prohibited in an attempt to control the movement of refugees from Haiti, Cuba and African countries and out of safety concerns for the few travelers who like us take this Amazonian route into Ecuador. It’s possible this is true and it’s also possible that it’s because some areas of the Amazon jungle are a hotbed for illegal mining, logging and drug trafficking. In that regards, we appreciated them making sure we weren’t on the river after dark.
A small canoe takes us across the border the next morning and drops us off at Nuevo Rocafuerte, a modest jungle town where Ecuador’s new president was born. Although it was mid morning, the immigration office was closed and a passerby suggested we go look for the officer who often hangs out at a government building on the other side of town. When we located the officer he told us he could stamp us into the country at 3 pm since he was “busy at the moment”. Jungle time, they move at another pace here. Our official entry to Ecuador consisted of registering our names in a notebook and stamping our passports (when we left the country six weeks later, the border officers couldn’t find our names in their computer system).
Our last boat departed the next morning at 5 am, it was a lancha rapida, a fast boat carrying fifty passengers on tight seating along two long benches. At the first stop, several heavily armed soldiers boarded the boat and asked us for our passports and questioned us about our plans in the country. Across from us sat two of the funniest people we met on this trip. These two girls were government employees who are stationed for one year in the Amazon jungle, working on programs to improve life conditions for the indigenous tribes. They laughed, sang and joked for the next nine hours while sharing their life stories, their tales about living in the jungle, they talked about their hometowns in Ecuador’s central region, the foods they craved, the phone operators that work in the jungle and life with little to no internet access. One of them explained how the government now requires employees like them to live in the jungle towns in an effort to integrate the Amazonian people with the rest of the country and vice versa and to foster more understanding of the needs of the indigenous people and their culture. She thought it was a good thing but she cried when she spoke about how much she misses her children and shared that her five year old son has asked her over the phone why she abandoned him. I asked her why she took this job since it seemed to be so hard on her and her family. She smiled and replied, “My husband and I want to take our kids to Disneyworld”.
It rained hard on the Napo River that day and temperatures dropped. People wrapped themselves in fleecy blankets and wore wool hats. I didn’t know it could get so cold in the jungle. The guy sitting next to me told me that Argentinean rock was his favorite music and he played it on his chinese speaker. We sang a few songs together and he proudly showed me how his bluetooth speaker also doubled as a radio, an external battery and a flashlight. His dream is to have a car of his own one day. I told him that his speaker was much better than mine and that made him smile. He wore a puffy jacket, I wished I had one too.
After thirteen days on water roads, our last boat arrived to San Francisco de Orellana, aka El Coca, here is where paved roads begin again.
PS: To cross the border between Peru and Ecuador through the Amazon rainforest, one must embark in a long journey combining a twenty hour bus ride, a two hour taxi colectivo, multiple moto taxis, three days on a cargo boat, two days on a speedboat, four hours on a canoe, nine hours on another speedboat and ten more hours on a bus. It is not a journey for those looking for comfort or any level of luxury. It was tiring, hot and long but it was pretty darn cool.
This day a year ago, I was so close to crossing the border into Canada and finishing my thru hike. Emotions ran high for myself, for my fellow thru hikers and everyone’s feet were burning to get to the finish line.
On this particular day, the Appalachian Trail traversed the Kennebec River and the riverbank town of Caratunk in Maine. This is a great day for thru hikers, since this town features a fun jaunt across the river, a brewery, a hiker hamburger challenge, ice-cream and an opportunity to pick up resupply boxes.
I got a box from my friend, Dave. It had hiker’s food, enough Starbucks instant coffee packets to fuel every thru hiker on the Trail, and two sporks.
Two Light My Fire sporks, a green one and a black one. I had never felt more alive than at that time, hiking that Trail. I was ablaze, sort of a walking bonfire. I had experienced fire before, the type that reduces everything into ashes and leaves you covered in soot. My landscape had felt permanently desolate, until I saw the sparks. They led me to an incipient decision to go for a long walk on the Appalachian Trail, where I found the heat, oxygen and fuel necessary to light a strong, crackling fire.
After a fire has been ignited, it goes into what firefighters call the “growth” stage. I hope that’s where I’m at now. The flames are still going, some hot coals are settling in and I can feel the warmth.
This was the second time I had walked across the border between two countries. Last year I hiked into Canada from the USA while thru hiking the Appalachian Trail and the IAT . This time I was border hopping between Argentina and Chile while exploring Patagonia.
Thomas and I arrived at the chilean border crossing checkpoint after walking 5 miles from the argentine town of Los Antiguos. A friendly officer takes our passports.
“So you are from the United States of America?.” He is suddenly serious.
“I’ve been following the news about your country and your new president.”
“Umm. Ok”, we chuckle and frown a little. We are still getting used to everyone we meet making some comment about our country’s current political climate.
The border patrol officer looks at our backpacks and smiles.
“Are you refugees?”
“Not yet. But are you receiving refugees? We might have to take you up on the offer in the future.”
We smile back, he is just being funny. Passports are stamped and our new friend welcomes us into his country. He thought it was crazy to be walking into countries so he orders a car who was also crossing the border to give us a lift into the next town.
Today there are thousands of displaced humans who are crossing borders on foot, others who are waiting at camps and many who became our neighbors and live in our cities. Thousands who unlike me aren’t out on a beautiful adventure, humans who unlike me actually are refugees.
Let’s not forget about them. Let’s extend a helping hand. Let’s lift up the borders of our lives and let’s give them a chance.
I don’t like the nickname we gave him but it was involuntary. His name starts with a “J” and his weight isn’t his most prominent feature. However, every time we tell this story, we end up calling him “Fat Guy, the one who took our money”.
We met him through Couchsurfing, he had eighty-seven positive reviews so no need to worry. He picked us up at the bus station on a Friday and took us to his family’s home. He was a really big guy, long hair in a braid, a friendly smile, and an arm in a cast. His mother cooked lunch for us, we took a nap in his room and he explained that he had to work that weekend.
Fat Guy was an operator on a radio/tv tower on top of a hill outside of town. The tower had a small bedroom, bathroom and kitchen in it. It sounded like an adventure and we had read some interesting reviews about it in his profile.
We spent the next two days with him, cooked meals together, learnt about his job, shared personal stories, gazed at the city lights below us, and hiked in the trails nearby. There were a couple of inconsistencies in his stories, but who doesn’t have those? Life doesn’t always add up perfectly. We liked Fat Guy. He had unique life tales, he related to the world around him in his own way and he welcomed us into his whirlwind of colourful experiences. He was Bolivian yet so un-Bolivian both inside and out.
Nice guy, but we still kept our backpacks locked at all times, except for those thirty minutes. Damn moment of carelessness while we skipped over to the nearest store for breakfast items. Half of my hidden emergency fund was gone and Thomas’s wallet was ransacked with about seventy percent of it missing. We didn’t want to point the finger immediately but after going over every possible scenario we couldn’t find any other suspect.
Thomas, who gives everyone the benefit of the doubt was willing to believe that an alien had abducted our cash before blaming Fat Guy. Until he decided to take a break from our hushed Sherlock discussion and eat a snack. Thomas keeps a hidden stash of gourmet chocolate in his backpack. To find the pocket where he keeps his treasure, one would have to be intentionally searching his bag, throughly. That was it, no further proof needed. What kind of man takes another man’s chocolate?
There is always the chance that our conclusion was wrong so we decided not to confront him. We packed up and said a brief and short goodbye to Fat Guy and his radio tower. He didn’t seem surprised to see us depart in such haste. As we shook the dust off our feet, we wondered if he had eaten the chocolate already or if he was savoring it right then.
PS: I reported him to the administrators of Couchsurfing and his profile has been removed. Usually, with an allegation of this type, a user might be blocked for a time but in his case he was removed completely in less than two days. It’s possible that other guests reported him in the past as well. I’ve had nothing but amazing experiences with Couchsurfing and continue to vouch for the community yet there are always a few bad apples in the bunch.
The agreement was 3 hours of work every day in exchange for beachfront accommodations. And the fence. Like the one she shows me on Pinterest.
I set to work hoping it doesn’t become a Pinterest fail. Intertwined pieces of driftwood slowly took shape as I held my breath with their balancing act. Structureless they held on to each other as the fence grew wavy and rich in texture.
On low tide mornings, we would drive to the south end of the malecón and scour the beach for fresh crops of wood. One day we even loaded up an entire tree on top of the pick up truck. The neighbors complained but eventually settled into the artsy new addition to the beachfront. She likes it, it actually does look like the one in the photo.
Location No.: Too many to count spanning over Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia
Time spent there: 01/06/17 – 07/15/17
I’ve spent 6+ months traveling and hiking through the Andes with Thomas and this one song. The same song. Six months and the one song.
The Andes, in Spanish, cordillera de los Andes is the longest continental mountain range in the world, the highest mountain range outside of Asia and has the world’s highest active volcanoes.
Home of many famous peaks, including my first real mountaineering experience summiting Huayna Potosi Mountain in Bolivia at 20,000 ft. One of it’s coveted peaks is Chimborazo Mountain, farthest from the Earth’s center than any other location.
The Andes guard half of the world’s copper production. Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest source of lithium and one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to.
Some Caribbean hubs are peaks of an extensive submerged continuation of the Andes in the north. La Paz, Bolivia’s seat of government, is considered the highest capital city of the world. Potatoes and tomatoes, two of the most widespread crops on our planet, originated from the Andes.
The Amazon River is born in the Andes Mountains. Traveling on it was a bucket list fulfilled experience. They are also part of the American Cordillera, a mountain range that is the “backbone” of North America, Central America, South America and Antarctica. I’ve walked on a section of this spine on the Appalachian Trail back home.
In religion and mythology of Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador; the Andes are the home of the apus. These are the spirits of the mountains that protect the local people in the highlands. We hiked through one of these sacred apus, Salkantay Mountain and visited Machu Picchu. I felt the energy.
Pretty cool mountains, right? We traveled all over the Andes and every single day I was subject to this one song. In our mutual fascination for this mountain range, Thomas decided we should listen to El Condor Pasa (If I Could) by Simon & Garfunkel. Every day.
Granted, it’s a great song. It’s part of the soundtrack for the movie Wild and I am woman hiker; the music is considered Peru’s second anthem and a national symbol of the spirit of the Andes. Appropriate for our setting, but to listen to it every single day?
El Condor Pasa, the condor passes. We constantly searched for condors while hiking. They are often seen soaring near rock cliffs, rising in heat thermals. The Andean condor is the largest flying bird in the world and one of the longest-living birds. It’s a near threatened species. Like the song, they depict freedom. They are the hammer, not the nail.
When we see them soar, we feel free.
The condor is deeply imprinted in Andean culture inspiring orchestral musical pieces like El Condor Pasa composed in 1913. Simon & Garfunkel’s cover in 1970 made it the best-known Peruvian song in the world.
With more than 4000 produced versions of the melody and after Thomas playing it hundreds of times over six months, it’s also a song I’ll be glad to never listen to again.
Albeit, tired of the song, I could spend another six months in the Andes traversing its sacred mountains, seeking the freedom of the condors, feeling the earth beneath my feet. If I could, I surely would.
I’d rather be a sparrow than a snail.
Yes I would.
If I could,
I surely would.
I’d rather be a hammer than a nail.
Yes I would.
If I could,
I surely would.
Away, I’d rather sail away
Like a swan that’s here and gone
A man grows older every day
It gives the world
Its saddest sound,
Its saddest sound.
I’d rather be a forest than a street.
Yes I would.
If I could,
I surely would.
I’d rather feel the earth beneath my feet,
Yes I would.
If I could,
I surely would.
(lyrics to El Condor Pasa “If I Could” by Simon & Garfunkel)
I remember being here as a kid, maybe 10 or 11 years old with Uncle Ruben and his girlfriend at the time, Mery. I always wanted to go back to that place framed by exotic memories of colorful soil and earthy homes.
Nestled against an mountainous rainbow of mineral infused colors and tones. Here is where this place is. They call it “cerro de siete colores” (hill of seven colors), but it feels like there are so many more than seven colors. The cerro spills into the few streets and its rich shades blend into the walls and roofs making an array of color. It’s all one big palette someone left lying in the desert.
I visited again in 2013, 2015 and 2017. Not a child anymore. But my town seems to have stopped growing, stopped in time, frozen in its own history. It seems to be the same size every time I come back. Don’t grow little town, I like you this way. I like you with your narrow dirt streets, with your small shops, with your craft market on the square. I like your adobe (mud) houses, your hidden white church and the lady selling roasted corn on the corner.
I keep coming back to this little town. I take the same photos of the big window with the white and brown spools of alpaca wool, of the bright aguayos on the tables, of the arches over the doors, of the children playing. I crawl all over your hills and the view is spectacular every time. My favorite part is to walk on that street in the northern end of the town, the one with the red clay. My shoes, dusty, speckled red.
Purmamarca, thats the name of my little town. In the local aymara language purma means desert and marca means city. City in the desert. It has been an oasis of color at times when life felt like a desert. On every occasion I’ve been here, life was taking some big turn. In the aymara language desert also means untouched land, more specifically a place untouched by human hand. Secretly, I keep coming back here because it represents a place where my life is untouched by my own human hand. It’s not a painted canvas, its just a palette. I can come here for refreshment, for inspiration, its a shade of home. It’s an opportunity to take a step back and look at the colors of my past and to take new tones into my present.
5:20 to 5:40 pm, I’m supposed to write about anything for 20 minutes. Very much like physical exercise I can’t see the immediate results of this drill. I know it’s good for me, I feel some of the effects but I can’t see the final result. It takes some foresight which often seems to be accompanied by patience. In both I am sorely lacking.
So last Friday evening, Anne Marie found a green sea turtle washed up on the beach. The turtle’s injured fin prevented it from swimming properly and it seemed to have difficulty breathing. Turtle rescuing seemed to require more than just guiding the turtle back to the water. After unsuccessful attempts to return it to the ocean it’s decided that the turtle future is unknown, it may not make it.
So, should we attempt to find a rescue center or a vet, or someone who knows anything about turtles? Or should we just wait, hope for the best and see if the turtle is still there tomorrow? Should we try to provide the surroundings for a peaceful death? Do we let nature take its course?
It made me wonder. Do we let life flow, twist and turn and produce what it may or do we constantly interject, plan, prepare, build and expect to see a result of our liking? Applied to this blog experiment, do I just flow with this very slow process of communication and let it come forth whenever it’s ready? (it’s been over a year and a half since I started traveling) Or do I take a conscious look at this and question why I’m having so much internal trouble with it? Do I just fight my discomfort and post something?
Should I wait until I feel like writing something or do I sit down and complete a daily writing exercise like this one today? My 20 minutes are almost up.
Back to the turtle, after a combined effort we located the only turtle rescue center in Ecuador. We are lucky and it’s 30 minutes away from us. She is currently undergoing treatment with antibiotics and IV fluids but she is expected to make a good recovery. Her fin is not fractured and only seems to be bruised and swollen. She was baptized Tilly and will spend the next 6 months at the rescue center or until she is fully ready to go home.
The assigned writing exercise also requires me to post whatever I wrote. So, thank you for reading this ramble.
Interesting tidbits on sea turtles:
If you find an injured or sick sea turtle on the beach, don’t try to put it back into the water. Their injuries often prevent them from swimming properly and they can drown easily. It is best to try to find a rescue center or at least a vet.
Gender in green sea turtles is determined by the shape of their tails. But it takes 25-30+ years for the tails to develop fully.
Trash in the ocean is one of the main causes of injury and sickness for turtles. Please pick up after yourself and pick up some trash left by the other idiots out there.
Ecuador’s only tortoise rescue center is called Centro de Rehabilitacion de Fauna Marina del Parque Nacional Machalilla. Although it’s a government initiative, it is run by a young veterinarian who not only single handedly takes care of the turtles but also is responsible for securing monetary donations to keep the center running. If you were looking for a place to make an animal rescue related donation you might want to consider these folks. https://www.facebook.com/Centroderehabilitacionmarina/