Thursday, December 22, 2011

Why, Africa, WHY?

Hello blog people! I'm happy to be back in the blog world, despite the fact that "blog" is almost certainly the ugliest word I've ever spoken.

Hello loved ones!

Some of you may already know, some of you might have no idea, and some of you probably don't care, but I am IN AFRICA.

I'm hoping the bold, capital letters help to really send the message home, as I'm a bit overwhelmed at the thought of accurately describing it. Well, I'm actually only in Phase 1 of the journey, about to enter Phase 2. But first:


This is a great question. Why have I decided to spend a large chunk of my hard earned savings to come a'wandering around the motherland? I suppose there a few reasons. The impetus behind this whole ordeal is one Devon Murphy, a champion of life. A fine friend of mine from way back, he has spent the last 2 years working with the Peace Corps, teaching math and physics in Uganda. But really,

what does that MEAN?

I'm here to find out. I intend to gain at least a little understanding of his experience here, by spending a bit of time sampling his life. I will live next to him, meet his Ugandan friends, accompany him to his school, and ideally, get involved in some way. (There are tentative plans to teach P.E. and a life skills class) I'm going to Uganda because I have the opportunity to do so.

First, however, we have to get there. I've come all this way, so it seems logical to see as much of the continent as I can. The Peace Corps gang has some time off before wrapping up their experience, and many of them are embarking on incredible journeys. I've hopped on to one of those.

I've been in the Cape Town area since the 8th of December, couchsurfing in the gorgeous town of Stellenbosch, and within the city itself (please, if you're not familiar with Couchsurfing, do yourself a favor and sign up! I chose to skip the first part of Devon's journey, which took him through from Jo'burg, South Africa up to Victoria Falls, and west into Namibia. I wanted to spend some time alone in Cape Town, to acclimatize a bit, and for the chance to make my own observations about this complex country. So far, so good.

And now, Devon and the gang has arrived, keen on experiencing glorious Cape Town for a few days before grabbing me and continuing on. Over the course of the next month or so, we'll be sampling and savoring small pieces of Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, and Kenya, before getting back to Devon's town in Uganda. I'm ready. Phase 1 of this trip has been wonderful. Through couchsurfing I've made incredible connections, found wonderful, adventurous people willing to join me in exploring the surroundings, and a sense of trust I would venture to say is truly unique. I've conquered Cape Town's stunning peaks, swam in two oceans, sampled many delicious wines from the innumerable local estates, and made some fine friends.

The itch to move on, however, is undeniable. Traveling during Christmas is generally a poor idea, and in South Africa this is no exception. There is a highly-lauded train line that passes slowly through the countryside towards Jo'burg, but trying to find a seat a few days before Christmas? ha! We were barely able to find passage on a bus for Saturday, but very happy about the prospect of getting out of Cape Town. The mountains of Lesotho are calling, and the easy, cosmopolitan life here in CT has gotten a bit stale.

I'm ready for the challenge of Phase 2: traversing a ridiculous amount of land in a fairly short time. I'm ready to savor a bit of sweaty suffering. I'll keep my eyes and heart open, and try to collect as much as I can as during this whirlwind journey.

Another day left in Cape Town, then unwrapping this year's Christmas present: Lesotho!

Much love to you all!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Escape from Cuenca

I'm sitting in my little cabin by Fallen Leaf Lake, and the sun is finally making an appearance. A mountain chickadee in a nearby Jeffrey Pine is requesting my attention--"Hey Ficke! Hey Ficke!" So completely removed from my Cuenca experience, and so enraptured, once again, with the Fallen Leaf experience, it's difficult to place myself mentally in Cuenca.

But I want to!

Those six weeks in Cuenca, Ecuador were notable for many reasons, but now I can't help but focus on a certain aspect: that intangible, hard to grasp sensation that filled me up each day. What do I call it... satisfaction? Yes, something along those lines. The lack of anxiety and doubt, the feeling of being creatively and actively engaged, the opportunities aplenty to challenge myself, scare myself...what's the deal with that? It's achingly obvious that I was doing something right.

And as I enter into this new, nebulous, beautiful era of life, I would be an idiot to ignore this glaringly helpful experience. And while I continue to pick it apart into usable chunks, here's a brief recap of my Ecuador exodus:

Here's the scene: It's late in the afternoon, and Cuenca is soaked through with rain and Carnaval-inspired delirium. Much of the city's denizens have fled to celebrate in surrounding pueblos, but there's still plenty of mayhem available on the cobblestone streets. Much of my day was spent stalking around with a gang of roving marauders, armed to the teeth with water balloons and spray-can foam. We accumulated quite a diverse bunch, with warriors hailing from Colombia, Ecuador, Germany, England, and the US, united by the strong desire and apparent license to cause mischief. Occasionally we were engaged by combatants with equal fervor, but also had no qualms in overpowering unarmed passersby. As our English friend Tom quipped, "I love the casual violence of it all." It was a day full of cheerfully bizarre cross-cultural confrontation, with an endless supply of sheepish grins from young ladies, cowering slightly, hoping to avoid a soaking. We got what was coming to us while passing by the firehouse, mercilessly ambushed by a hose-wielding bombero. Our tiny plastic weapons were rendered useless, and our only option was to flee into the streets, screaming and giggling like schoolboys. One particular avenue presented a unique challenge--an amiable warzone, with grinning snipers lying in wait for the heavily armed gang sauntering their way. We had no chance of victory, as their positions were elevated and heavily fortified, but it was a helluva lot of fun to run through berserker-style, defenseless but fearless. I never received a direct hit, but delivered a couple of satisfying blows, including a well-placed throw into the driver's seat of a passing assault vehicle, and a particularly savage across-the-street chest strike on a young aggressor.

But yeah, late afternoon, and my bags are packed, waiting in Luis' next door cyber cafe. Luis is full-on drunk at this point, and has already soaked me on multiple occasions, taking particular joy in pouring cups of water down my back while I check my email. He's moved on to more exciting, more mobile targets, but the owner of my hostel has quickly stepped in to fill his shoes. While returning my keys and shaking his hand goodbye, I couldn't help but notice the little extra glint in his eyes, and I knew I was in grave danger. Seconds later I was sprinting down the sidewalk, as he gave chase with a full bucket of water, yelling maniacally. My agility saved me once, but my only hope for avoiding an extremely moist overnight bus ride was to quickly hail a cab and escape while he tottered off to refill the bucket. And sure enough, as I jumped into the back seat and slammed the door behind me, he appeared on the sidewalk, grinning with slightly insane glee, his bucket sloshing menacingly. I waved enthusiastically as the taxi sped off, somewhat jealously glimpsing some other gringo becoming intimately familiar with the contents of his bucket.

Goodbye Cuenca!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Dentists and Dancing!

First things first:

I don´t have parasites!

The vicious bout with intestinal problems was thankfully shortlived, and I satisified my parasite-related curiousity with a quick and astonishingly cheap visit to a local laboratory. Instead of going to a doctor, filling out tons of paperwork, and paying way too much, all one has to do in Cuenca is bring a small sample to the lab and hand over $3.50. A part of me was secretly hoping that I did have something living inside me, as it would both give me something interesting to write about, and something to blame for my feeling crappy. I had concocted this image: upon taking the anti-parasitie elixir, my denizens would die a slow, dramatic death, and I would be suddenly imbued with superpowers, or at least slightly-improved powers, no longer hindered by malicious invaders. But, alas, my poo was deemed rather nondescript (I have the printout to prove it), so my grand vision has been dashed, and I can´t blame occasional malaise on some faceless enemy. I can, however, get lots of rest, drink lots of water, eat good food, and do my best to avoid ingesting fecal matter. I have a new habit:

going to the dentist!

I´ve already been three times! In the interest of doing worthwhile things before I leave Cuenca, I´ve decided to throw some money into a little self-improvement. Last Christmas, my folks were amazingly kind enough to gift me a root canal, which I really appreciated. I didn´t appreciate, however, the off-handed news from the dentist that I would also need something called a crown on this already traumatized tooth, or it could easily and without warning shatter into tiny, expensive pieces. I suppose it would be much too sensible to offer a root canal/crown package deal, and finish the job while I was already conveniently in the operating chair, drooling enthusiastically. I already knew I needed a couple of cavities filled, and wandering around crown-less seems irresponsible, so it was an obvious decision. And, by having the work done here, I´ll be saving approximately one million dollars.

I had three cavities filled today, fairly quickly, and for free! They know I´ll be back on Monday to get my crown and pay up--the Doc´s already shaved my tooth down to a nub, so I reckon he figures I won´t take flight without getting that taken care of. After so many suspicious stares on the street, it feels nice to be trusted. Dr. Zumba is a quiet, efficiency-minded person, without being unfriendly. He was about to delve into my gaping mouth when I thought I´d break the ice with a ¨good morning!¨ His response was polite, but that was the end of the chat. Perhaps he has doubts about my ability to converse, as on my first visit, in a bit of a daze, I had failed to respond to his gentle urgings of ¨cierre.. cierreBefore I could refocus my attention from all the hands in my mouth to simple spanish verbs, he resorted to a softly-accented ¨close.¨ Stifling the urge to manually remove his hand from my mouth and insist that I can understand him, I closed my eyes and refocused my efforts on not choking on my own saliva, as Dr. Zumba quietly commanded, ¨close... open... close...¨ Speaking of taking orders:

I´m taking a salsa class!

Under the tutelage of a brilliant, mildly flamboyant instructor from Cuba, I´m taking a shot at unraveling the secrets of salsa. I met my instructor, Dani, on that wonderful night at La Mesa, along with his boyfriend, Juan, and the gorgeous Colombiana, Josna. After five visits to the dance academy, I have made a startling discovery: I have hips. As a lanky, white man, I´ve long been under the impression that I´m inherently lacking in certain areas, namely hips and booty. And swing dancers, at least in my experience, don´t concentrate too much on hip-swaying and booty-shaking. But as I get more comfortable with the salsa rhythm, I find myself moving in ways that have previously been reserved for behind-closed-doors special times. And this is where much of the beauty of salsa lies--the flamboyancy, the fluidity of movement, the liberation of oppressed hips.

Dani is a very in-control teacher, and does not allow half-assed effort. He sees that I can, and insists that I do. My first few sessions with Dani were aerobics-style, and at times even a bit militaristic, as he assessed what I could already do, and wasted no time in pushing me to go further. If my arms weren´t being team players: ¨C´mon! C´mon! Esooo.¨ If my hips were lacking luster: ¨I want more style! More style!¨ When my steps began bordering on automatic, robotic: ¨C´mon, I want you to feel the music!¨

After a few days of steady progress, I was feeling pretty damn good. I showed up at the academy on Saturday morning surprised, but unconcerned, to find a small group of people. Dani was in the midst of administering a grueling workout to a fellow dancer, barking orders, pacing around like a drill sergeant. Realizing this intensity would almost certainly spill over into our session, a tiny cloud of apprehension began forming in my already slightly foggy brain. As we began, Dani´s demeanor was as predicted, and the group of people that had been milling about now sat with glazed expressions, boredly transfixed on the lanky gringo who has the gall to think he can learn salsa. My performance is subpar--my body sluggish--and I quickly regret opting for that final, superfluous Friday night beer. As the struggle continued, I found myself resenting the onlookers, at one point exhorting them to get up and dance along, to do anything besides sit there and stare as all the style and grace I´d accumulated pathetically seeped out of me. I reached my low point, grimly nodded in acknowledgment, and promptly mentally sprinted in the other direction. What was I going to do, give up? No, I was going to chuckle at how foolish I felt, and revel in the absurdity of it all, of the idea of being in a dance academy on a Saturday morning in Cuenca, Ecuador, prancing around while curious locals marveled at the spectacle. How fantastic! Raising my chin, I met my own gaze in the vast mirror, and forced a goofy grin. With Dani´s commands echoing in my ears, I plodded onward, feeling incredibly fortunate to be so damned ridiculous.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Recent Highlights Include:

Another week in Cuenca! I´m still here. It feels good. Unfortunately, my general lust for life has been dampened by

Intestinal Problems

but I´m feeling a bit better now. Yes, again, intestinal problems. When I first arrived in Cuenca, I was stricken with a terrible bout of bathroom-based explosions, but that was almost three long weeks ago. This time has been a milder case, but makes me wonder: what´s wrong with me? As Kat said, ¨Boy, you sure are susceptible!¨ This comment got my pride a bit riled up, as I like to think I have a stomach of steel, and can eat most anything the world has to offer. I concede: stomach is comprised of some lesser metal, aluminum perhaps. My ever-concerned spanish teacher, Mariana, was quick to suggest that things are living inside of me. Imagine that! Uninvited guests, making a home in my poor, embattled intestine, feasting without permission on the countless German cookies I´ve ingested. As part of my investigation into a solution, I stopped at the local laboratory, and the prognosis is good. All I have to do is bring in a bit of feces, hand it over along with $3.50, and they´ll give me the answers I need! I suppose now all I have to do is wait patiently, sipping coffee, while the Immodium A.D. wears off. But enough about me,

How are you?

I´ve purchased my ticket home, and this has me looking ahead to seeing family and friends, and imagining the glorious scenarios that await--dark beer, driving cars, hugging loved ones, etc, all the lovely things I´m lucky enough to have available back in the United States. All this thinking of home, however, has refreshed my sense of here and now, and I´m very excited to make sweet love to Cuenca during my remaining time. It´s easy to chalk up my vague listlessness to sinister parasites, but it´s certainly not uncommon to find oneself disenchanted while traveling. Without warning, the days become fleeting, lacking a sense of accomplishment and purpose, and thoughts of escape start creeping in. But, remember the lesson from my last entry? Don´t leave early! Or at least try your damndest not to. Speaking of a ¨sense of accomplishment,¨

I have a job!

Or something like that. Yes, as of Monday, I´ve been teaching English to a rather intelligent bunch of pre-pubescent boys. The five of us meet for one hour a day, five days a week. We´ve been trying to set up this sort of class for a couple of weeks now, so in order to help attract students, I set the price quite low. Fifty cents per person, to be exact. A couple of my friends think I´m crazy for not asking for more, but I didn´t come here to make money, and besides, that 2 dollars a day pays for lunch! So, for now, I´m happy to have a full belly and to hang out with some youngsters who apparently think I´m ¨cool¨and ¨funny¨.

I´ll take it!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Questions of Divinity

This morning I´m filled with that slightly bleary tranquility that at times greets you after an extensive night of imbibing. Wednesday isn´t usually the day I would choose for a night on the town, but when someone suggests an excursion to La Mesa, it´s unwise to defer. Yes, this steamy little cave of a bar is a Cuencan institution--the perfect battleground for the classic struggle of man vs. inhibition. ¨The Table¨is where locals and extranjeros alike come to sweat profusely, ideally in unison, to the rhythm of salsa.

What this joint lacks in ventilation, it easily makes up in aguardiente-augmented enthusiam. Ever the frugal traveler, I stopped by an aguardiente fueling station prior to heading out, so as to arrive at La Mesa with a head start on my social lubrication. I was blessed with the company of a highly diverse, rambunctious bunch of revelers, a motley crew comprised of locals, yanks, Europeans, and an Australian or two. Included in the bunch was a little Ecuadorian firecracker named Isabel, who got me out on the floor almost immediately--a much appreciated push in the right direction--because while these hips aren´t prone to lying, they can be a little hesitant at times. And so the intoxication began, with everyone partaking in the same potent cocktail, a delightful mixture of adrenaline, endorphins, booze, and that indefinable joy that comes from partner dancing.

Each partner is another gift. Isabel´s combination of backleading, following, and freestyle pushed me to innovate and allowed me to settle more comfortably into the salsa rhythm that has so often confounded me. Dana and I discovered a form of swing-style salsa (I wonder if I can market this?) that suited us just fine. Cassie gave me the chance to practice straight-ahead salsa, and practice my beginner level moves.

La Mesa is not a place where people come to huddle around tables and bottles, biding their time. Quite the opposite--people come to dance, it´s that simple. After a few dances, the floor had become increasingly packed, the air thickened with smoke and heat. In the cool outer hallway, I contemplated making my escape, but as luck would have it, I was trapped, attached to the bill of a friend. I wandered back and forth for a bit, shaking off the mild claustrophobic discouragement, and eventually mustered the will to make another incursion. Passing through the small seating area, I hear ¨Disculpe, eres el hijo de dios?¨ (Excuse me, are you the son of God?). It turns out that years of intense catholic imagery has emblazoned the visage of a white, long-haired, bearded savior onto the collective consciousness of Ecuador. Setting aside the bizarre, complex issues this brings up, it seems to be a pretty good gimmick for me. My knee jerk response to this question was to let my hair down with a bit of a flourish, effectively giving the people what they wanted: a caricature to gawk at. We all had a good laugh, and my response proved to be an excellent one, as suddenly I found myself back on the dance floor with a friend of the curious fellow, a beautiful girl from Cali, Colombia who really knew how to move. I had certainly noticed her before, but wouldn´t have had the guts to ask her to dance if her friend hadn´t asked me if I was Jesus. How bout that. She is a special kind of dancer, with a receptive follow, who had no expectations of flamboyant turns and tricks, but simply enjoyed the way I moved and joyfully, gracefully responded in turn. Soon the bar was clearing out, and I , left with a phone number and the promise of another dance, was riding high.

And what have we learned from this night? For one, don´t leave early--a fascinating concept that is applicable to many aspects of life. And of course, what is always clear in hindsight: Fear is the ultimate paralyzer, and if we´re afraid of failure or rejection, nothing will ever happen. So gentlemen, ask her to dance. (And ladies, say yes!)

Monday, January 24, 2011

Bus-Bottles für alles!

Scene: Sharing a long, uncomfortable bus ride with Sue, self-professed ¨crazy Korean.¨ We had met at another hostel days ago, and now, by coincidence, are both heading south from Popayán, Colombia, hoping to cross into Ecuador before the end of the day. She had been bussing since the night before, and by the end of it will have been traveling for more than 24 hours straight. Crazy Korean, indeed.

Highlights: The Colombian scenery zipping by, interspersed with fits of napping--a bleary-eyed journey through gorgeous, green mountains. I think it must have been a dream... On the way to Pasto, one man in particular was becoming increasingly excited as the hours rolled on. His personal bottle of aguardiente (the national spirit of Colombia) may have augmented this process, not to mention the 6 or so beers. As he loosened up, he became prone to fits of dancing and clapping, pleadly loudly with the driver to pump up the jams. After the 3rd or 4th beer he seemed to be the lone spectator of a very exciting sporting event--¨Pasto!!!¨ (fist pump) -- His compañera in the adjacent seat politely refused the offers of booze, coyly inspecting her well-pedicured feet. And finally, with the liquid confidence came the broken English.

Looking over his shoulder at me, he slurs ¨Hey, meester, hey!¨ After establishing that I´m from the States, he continues--¨I have leeved in Chicago... 4 years!!¨ I tried my best to respond with a similar level of enthusiam, eager to see where this was going. I must have given the proper number of thumbs-ups, because almost immediately he went for it: the well-meaning, unsolicited offer. ¨Hey, you wanna beautiful friend, you call me... (drunken cackling) Anything you want, just call me, ok?¨ How polite! Attractive friends just a phone call away. He made no attempt to give me his number--I assume I´ll just need to shine the ¨Colombian hooker¨signal from the roof of my hostel to get in touch. Occasionally he would temper the exchange with ¨Sorry, I´m juss a little fucking drunk¨ - please, sir, no apology necessary. A few minutes later, I noticed him staring at me, and I turned to meet his gaze. ¨Hey.. I juss want you to know.. I really appreciate you... yeah, I really appreciate you.¨

And there you have it! What a sweetheart. I graciously accepted this sentiment, and a little part of me wished I had brought my own bus-bottle of aguardiente, so maybe I would have been compelled to stand up and embrace this man in the aisle, with the rest of the passengers, gingerly cradling their little bus-bottles, cheering and applauding our newfound friendship.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Small Town Summer, Colombia-Style

What better way to celebrate a warm summer evening in Salento, Colombia than by blasting cumbia and downing a few pints of aguardiente? The group of vacationing Colombians I earlier saw drunkenly riding horses is now split into hip-swaying couples, certainly a precursor to some baby making. I´m choosing to partake tacitly, as a bystander on the edge of the town square, reveling in the beauty of small town serendipity.
The past two night I´ve run across two people whom I had met earlier in the day, all by chance--Cristiano from Brasil on the bus from Armenia, and Cynthia from Argentina at the coffee farm of Don Elias. I spotted Cristiano wandering this tiny pueblo, drank a beer with him, and accompanied him on a mountaineering equipment-rental expedition. Tonight, upon entering a recommended restaurant to savor a lonely meal, I hear my name (of course pronounced in that cute latin manner, ¨Dah-veed!¨) Cynthia had already eaten, but gave me the pleasure of her company as I destroyed a delicious trout. With both I had the option of speaking English, but spoke mostly Spanish and did it pretty damn well. Both encounters ended with a pleasant stroll and a warm embrace.
The magic of solo travel is powerful. During these first two days it´s been particularly evident, as I´ve been so suddenly drenched in the sights and smells of Colombia--sufficiently jolting to crack the frigid shell of Virginia winter, and thrust me, reborn, into this flavorful world so swollen with possibility.