Monday, June 25, 2007

Some Reflections

[No pictures in this post, so feel free to skip]

When I started this blog, I promised occasional reflections on life and travel as well as uninformed opinions about just about anything.

And, my original intention was to make the blog short and pithy--in other words interesting to potential readers. I was even writing myself emails with more detail on my trip so I could spare y´all the boring parts but still have a record for myself later on.

Those who have been following the blog may have noticed that it´s become less pithy and more of a plain old boring journal. This has been partly a result of entropy and partly by design.

Obviously, it's harder to be clever and interesting than just dump everything onto the page. But, I also realized that the primary audience for this blog (aside from mom, of course) is me--that is the me of five or ten years from now. In other words, this blog--with pictures and all--will be the best way for me to remember this trip, not some self-addressed emails. So, I've adopted more of a diary style and sacrificed ratings points for completeness.

This is all by way of apologizing and explaining to those of you who have been reading. Now, for some of those promised self-indulgent reflections...

Penalty Kicks

Let's start with the trivial. Being in Latin America, I've watched a lot of soccer lately. It's pretty much on at every bar with a TV and on ESPN 24-7. I understand why people love soccer. I'm amazed and enchanted by the skill of the players; and scoring is so difficult that when it happens the play is usually spectacular--hence the appellation "the beautiful game" (and hence the reason that soccer highlights are the best highlights around).

The other day I was relaxing in a bar in Quito watching the 21-and-under teams from England and Holland play. That game inspired this particular rant.

The one part of soccer I don't understand is penalty kicks. As most people know, when there is a tie game and a winner must be determined (not always the case), the game is decided by which team makes more shots from a mere 12 yards away--as was the England/Holland game.

But, the game is really decided by which team MISSES more shots. See, the penalty kick is so close that players score 90% of the time--it's kind of like the extra point in American football. This means that it's not really possible for any player except the goalie to do anything positive--they can only screw up. Score, and it's expected. Miss, and you may have just cost your team the game.

This seems like a cruel and terrible way to end a game--who will choke more under pressure. By simply moving the penalty line back a few yards, or using the existing 18-yard line, the soccer gods could flip this whole script.

From 18 yards, scoring is actually hard. The goalie has time to react and doesn't need to simply guess where the shooter will place the ball. Opportunities for greatness (rather than competence or humiliation) would abound--great shots, amazing saves.

It would also seem to better serve the ostensible purposes of any tie-breaker: increasing the chances that the "best" (rather than luckiest) team actually wins and being more exciting for the fans.

For example, since I didn't have a stake in the England/Holland game, I spent much of the penalty kick session feeling bad for the one guy on Holland's side who missed the goal in the first round (on his home field, no less) and then relieved when their goalie made a lucky guess, and hence save, so he wouldn't feel terrible for the rest of his life. I wanted to see heroism, not cringe at potential goat-ness.

So, I know that soccer has been the world's most popular sport for eons--but allow me to humbly suggest this small change: MOVE THE DAMN PENALTY KICKS BACK.


More trivia. Why doesn't anyone ever go to the bathroom in novels? It's something that all of us do every day, but I can't remember ever reading about it (whereas novelists will describe plenty of other intimate human acts in the name of realism). Right now I'm reading Rabbit, Run by John Updike. The book follows the main character, Rabbit, for long stretches but the only time it finds him in a bathroom it's to hide, not to...go. Just a random thought.

Traveling Con/Sin Amigos

For the first and only time this trip, I spent two weeks in Ecuador traveling with a good friend. This provides a good opportunity for reflecting on the pros and cons of traveling solo. Overall it was great to hang with Dave for 12 days--and it also confirmed that I made the right decision to do the vast majority of the trip solo.

My time with Dave was characterized chiefly by the significant gap between the level of our fortunes (low) and how much fun we had together (high). Dave, in particular, couldn't buy a break.

First, there were his materials loses. In the space of twelve days, Dave lost: his passport (before even leaving the states), his camera (at his first stop in Montanitas), his MP3 player and headphones, his flip flops (which became part of our Quichwa guide's tip--they were a nice pair), one shoe, his beloved "space pen,"and his equally beloved UVA hat. Damn, that's impressive.

But his bad luck didn't stop there. He also developed strep throat on his way to Ecuador, wrenched his back helping a casual anti-Semite lift his 4-wheeler out of the mud (see post on Banos), and felt too feverish to party on our last night together in Quito. Finally, on his flight home, the airline lost his bag filled with $170 in duty-free booze. He eventually got the bag back, but one of the bottles had broken, soaking his luggage in alcohol.

Then, there was our joint misfortune of spending an entire day trying (and failing) to raft because the river was dangerously high--which according to our guides happens only once or twice a year.

The bottom line, though, was that despite all of this we had a great time (at least I did, Dave will have to speak for himself when he guest blogs). We talked--a lot; and it was great to be able to discuss real issues of real consequence with someone who you know cares deeply about you. Plus, Dave is/was amazingly equananimous in the face of all of the above. Any one (or at most two) of them would have driven a more high strung person to distraction. I literally don't think I've ever seen another human less disturbed by losing a nice digital camera.

The positives and negatives of having a traveling companion were largely as I expected. The biggest positive was having a good friend around to talk to and never being lonely. It was also nice to have someone else take the lead on logistics for a while.

The most obvious negative was that much time spent hanging out with Dave was time spent not meeting new people and practicing Spanish. This was especially true because we chose to stay in double rooms rather than dorms. In terms of price, it's definitely worth the ability to nap and shower whenever you want; but you definitely don't meet as many people.

But, I also think there's something about traveling alone that builds character. You are forced to be creative, adaptive, decisive, and probable other -ives. And, perhaps most importantly, you must own all of your decisions and come to terms with the fact that your experience--for better or worse--is entirely of your own creation. It's kind of like life in that way. We have family, friends, etc., but at the end of the day we construct our own realities and those other folks are part of what we've created (we don't choose our family, but we choose how we relate to them, for example).

In traveling as in life our experience probably depends a lot more on the attitude we bring in than on our material surroundings. This reminds me of the reason for the name of this blog. Moving houses in Guatemala because of a rooster (gallo) caused me to reflect on the fact that the key to traveling (as in life) is to strike the right balance between seeking the best experience while at the same time being satisfied with (and living in) the experience one is currently having.

I've been happy, sad, lonely, introspective, hopeless, hopeful, dull, and enchanted on this trip--in other words quite human. I'm not sure I would have had the time or perspective to explore these emotions as fully if I was always traveling with a partner.

So, I'm thrilled to being doing this trip alone. That being said, I've seen a lot of happy couples on my travels and I'd love to have a similar adventure with a woman I love. I think that would be a completely differently fantastic experience. Applications available at the front desk...


Spending time in a Quichwa community in the jungle with a smart, thoughtful friend provided a unique opportunity for reflection on the subject of happiness. I think this is a pretty important subject because (not being religious) I believe maximizing and fairly distributing happiness (human and ecological) is our ultimate goal.

The Quickwa are not wealthy people. Many live in the jungle without electricity. This leaves them without most of the standard gadgets that have become such a significant part of our modern lives, and with minimal contact with the outside world.

And, yet, they appeared to me genuinely happy...and well adjusted. More so than most communities I know. This struck me most in the children. They seemed carefree, and they seemed to respect their parents.

Now, granted, I only met young kids who have not yet hit adolescence. It occurred to me that many of the girls I met may later develop body image issues, eating disorders and other maladies of our modern sexist world. But, I think there's a good chance they won't develop these afflictions at anywhere the rate our female population does in the U.S.

So, is being poor and out of touch the answer to our problems? Probably not, but being rich and constantly connected may not be all it's cracked up to be.

This reminded me (and Dave) of two essential facts about happiness that we tend to forget.

First, happiness can often be defined as the ratio between reality and expectations. We may be living the high life, but if we expect to be billionaires, we'll be disappointed with our material status.

Second, happiness is relative. We feel rich or poor, strong or weak, secure or insecure, in relation to our peers. This is why human happiness has not increased measurably with great advances in material wealth. [Economist Robert Frank makes this point elegantly in his book Chosing the Right Pond.]

The Quichwa don't have much, but they also don't expect all that much either. They're not inundated with ads that tell them it's impossible to be happy without an iPod or a Blackberry. They don't have the option of being a corporate lawyer, fancy consultant, or having a column in the NY Times (my secret ambition for years). So, their reality compares well with their expectations--hence happiness. This, of course, is largely a factor of their relative isolation. Their "pond" is the village--or at most nearby Tena--where no one has much more than they do.

This likely works in non-material ways as well, and here's where it gets complicated. If we expect love, fulfillment, contentment, etc. through work and/or personal relations and don't achieve them, we're unhappy. If we try our best, we're likely to end up smaller fish in a bigger pond--and risk feeling relatively...less.

But can the answer really be to lower our expectations radically, to moderate our ambitions and give up on becoming "all that we can be" (as the old army commercial put it)?

At 30 years old, should I give up on love and settle for "looks good on paper, probably won't drive me crazy?" Perhaps arranged marriages weren't so bad--they remove the expectation of pure romantic love but hold out the chance for a happy accident. Should we all forget about finding fulfillment in our work and personal lives and settle for "just getting by?" Will this acceptance make us more happy?

As you can probably tell, I'm not quite ready for that. I'm not pretending to have found any answers here, but my conviction is that the answer lies, as always, in balance.

We should nurture expectations that are high, but realistic. The major problem we have in U.S. society, I think, is the creation of unrealistic expectations--from airbrushed models to sitcoms in which semi-employed "Friends" live in ridiculous NYC apartments.

For this reason, it's always infuriated me when we tell our kinds "you can do anything you put your mind to." Actually, no most people can't do anything they want. Even if I practiced all day every day, I'll never be an NBA basketball player--or, probably, a nuclear physicist. We need to find a way to be realistic with our kids without robbing them of their dreams. [To be honest, I've also never understood why pumping our kids full of falsehoods, I mean fantasies, like the tooth fairy or Santa Claus is good for their development either--but I don't have a degree in child psychology and that's a topic for another day.]

Of course, the trick is in the detail, and I'm not revealing anything new here. But, I think that with all the privilege we enjoy in the U.S., there are certain things we SHOULD shoot for (if not quite "expect"). These include, love in our personal lives and fulfillment in our work. They do not include a BMW or a perfect body--and here lies many of our problems.

Interestingly, there is a project under way to bring electricity to Rio Blanco, the Quichwa community I visited. This, of course, will bring TV, ads, and a splash of "kalifornication." Some enterprising grad student should do a thesis on how all this affects happiness in the village.

La Comida Tipica de Ecuador

OK, I hope someone other than Adam Hollander enjoys this section--oh, what the hell, I don´t care; I like it. So, here goes, another edition of the only regular installment on El Gringo y El Gallo:

La Comida de la Selva

Here´s a rundown on the food we were served when Dave and I spent a few days in the jungle with the Quichwa community of Rio Blanco.

First of all, we got soup with every lunch and dinner. Here are a couple of types. The first is sopa de quinoa con yuca:

Next is masamora de verde, which is the most typical soup of the Quichwa:

For our first lunch, we were served a delicious fried talapia with fried yuca, beans, rice, and salad:

For dinner, we had palmita (heart of palm), which is one of the tastiest vegetables I´ve ever had:

This fish is called chuti in Quichwa. We tasted the babies fried. (That´s Pasquel, el profesor, holding it and Monica and Maxi in the background.)

Our last dinner was a delicious dish of leaves stuffed with hart of palm and chicken (ojas con palmito y pollo). This was truly fantastic--again, I never thought vegetables could have so much flavor.

And, for our last lunch, we had chicken with rice and--of course--more yuca.

Finally, last but certainly not least, is chicha, the beer of the jungle. To make chicha, the Quichwa boil yuca for 15 minutes, mash it, mix it with some old chicha, and then put it in a bucket to ferment overnight. Here is what it looks like in its traditional container:

And here I am partaking (not one to turn up my nose at local culture):

Interestingly, the Quichwa often drink weak chicha for breakfast. The stronger stuff is saved for fiestas.

I have to say that overall I was blown away by how good the food was. I wasn´t expecting all that much, but each meal was hearty and flavorful, complete with soup, a main course, and bananas for desert. I was always satisfied and never hungry after any meal.

La Comida de la Calle

As you all know by now, I love street food. Due to Dave`s reluctance to get sick on his short vacation, I didn´t indulge in as much of it in Ecuador as I would have liked. But here´s what I did get around to.

First, here is Edgar who runs a late night food stand (open ´till 4am) near the Tena bus station. He´s digging into a plate of cow intestines, which he let me try for free (Dave even had to try it against his better judgment b/c it would have been rude to turn down the offer):

Next we have a chicken skewer I bought on the bus. People are always coming onto the buses hawking every imaginable thing. So, I guess this is technically ¨motor vehicle food¨rather than street food...but I think the idea is the same.

Finally, this was technically sold out of a restuarant, but I think $1 shwarma qualifies as street food purely on principle. These were great and I think I ate 4-5 of them in two days while I was in Quito.

Food From Actual Restaurants

Every once in a while I break down and patronize an establishment with a roof and maybe even a health code certification.

Here is some shrimp ceviche I got my first night in Quayaquil:

Arroz con congrejo (rice with crab), also in Quayaquil:

And, this is Wilo´s (our Quichwa guide) favorite dish, ordered from a restaurant called Safari in Tena. It´s called chaulafun, a mix of chicken and shrimp with rice--and it´s quite delicious.

Dave thought the food in Ecuador overall was unremarkable. I´d tend to agree. There was all the usual fast food fare (pizza is as popular in Latin America as the States), and the stuff we got in restaurants was usually solid but not outstanding. The biggest pleasant surprise was the food we were served in the jungle.

Friday, June 22, 2007


Some History

Quito got its start as a major trading center for indiginous cultures where sierra, coast, and Oriente (jungle) came together. The last great Inca emperors made Quito the political center of their northern empire; and the city was burnt to the ground by an Inca general five days before it was captured by the Spanish in 1534.

The Spanish made Quito the capital of their new territory, and the city was officially founded as San Francisco de Quito on 8/28/1534 by Sebastian de Benalcazar (12/6, when things got working, is celebrated as founding day). The major religious orders moved in quickly, building their own churches; and the main Cathedral was completed within 30 yrs.

The population grew very modestly until the 1800s when Quito became the capital of newly independent Ecuador (1830). Entering the 20th century, the city maintained its original geographic boundaries and its population remained 50,000. Then the banana boom in 1940s and oil boom in 1970s pushed population growth, and the city passed 1 million in 1990. Currently, the population is 1.4 million and growing.

View from Above

Dave and I decided to begin our exploration of Quito by heading up the big gondola, or teleferico, for some views of the city from the mountains. This was highly recommended by our guidebook, but was honestly a bit disappointing. It was pretty cold up at the top and there really wasn´t a great spot from which to see everything comfortably. Plus, there was a guady amusement park at the bottom clearly geared towards tourists or the wealthiest Ecuadorians (we decided not to go go-karting because it was $1/minute). Here´s a bird´s eye view of said amusement park:

But, there were some nice views. Here are some of the best shots we got:

Old Town

We met a couple of brothers from CO named Will and Rob on the teleferico and together we decided to explore Old Town in spite of the gloomy weather. We considered a guided walking tour from the city but it was a bit pricey so we ended up with a free lance walking tour from Jorge. He said we could pay him whatever we thought fair (but then ended up haggling for more cash after Dave was more than generous with him...oh, well).

We started at the Plaza Independencia. Here´s a shot of the Plaza...

...the main Catedral...

...and the presidential palace.

And, here´s something interesting. These are stores on the ground floor of the presidential palace. Can´t quite imagine picking up a slurpy under the White House.

Next, we saw a set of chuches. Here´s a shot of a statue of Jesus done in the ¨Quito school¨of highly realistic art (I think that´s real hair on the statue´s head).

From there we saw a statue of Sebastian de Benalcazar, the founder of Quito. That´s Will, Rob, Dave, and Jorge, our guide.

Next we were off to check out Benalcazar´s casa.

Then, the famous Theatro de Sucre...

...and the equally famous Plaza de San Francisco.

New Town

We decided to stay in Quito´s new town since it´s safer with more to do at night. It´s quite a funky little neighborhood with lots of bars and hostels--although it is pretty ¨gringo-ized.¨ Dave and I stayed at a place called Quito Viejo and then when he left I moved to a dorm room in Crossroads Hostel. On the right is a nice whisky bar owned by a true enthusiast. We talked with him for a while and tried such delicacies as Johnny Walker Green Label and Old Parr´s Superior (which is a blended scotch that receives the second highest possible ranking in his whisky bible). He said business has been slower than he hoped because people are intimidated by the price of whisky (his prices were good for the U.S. but definitely expensive for here given that you can get large beers for $1 most places).

Here are some general shots to give a feel for the neighborhood.

Centro del Mundo

Definitely Not the Ecuator...

On Dave´s last day we decided to head for the center of the world and straddle the equator. This is not as simple of a procedure as one might expect. We started out with a thirty-five minute cab ride to a tourist trap/¨town¨called Mitad del Mundo. There, one can find a whole fake town built around a line and some monuments supposedly dividing the earth between north and south.

But, our guidebook says, and everyone here acknowledges, that the equator is not actually here. New GPS technology has confirmed that--as accurately as we can determine--the actual equator is about 200 meters away. Here are some of the obligatory shots from this false idol.

Probably Not the Equator...
Not satisfied with fool´s gold, we left the cozy confines of Mitad del Mundo to search out the real thing. We were told it was on the property of a nearby museum. We came across museum a few hundred meters from the exit, wandered in, and found this equator-looking thing (you can´t really see it behind me, but it says N-S on that monument):

May Be the Equator...
But, we were then informed that the actual museum we were looking for was a few hundred more meters down the road. This is the museum that actually claims to hold the line. Here´s the entrance to said museum:

Here´s a shot of Dave and me supposedly straddling the real line:

They performed a set of experiments to ¨prove¨that this was actually the equator and to demonstrate the unique qualities of the center of it all. These included balancing an egg on a nail (which neither Dave nor I were able to do, but the other folks with us could), and watching water flush down a drain in opposite directions.

Our guide admitted that these experiments were somewhat enhanced with trickery, but I guess they illustrated the point.

The museum also featured indigenous culture (it almost seemed like the trick was to lure people in with the equator but then spend 75% of the time edifying us on other things). Some of it was pretty cool, though, and here are Dave and I shooting blow darts:

So, that was our Quito experience and the end of Dave´s adventure. He got in a cab to the airport and I turned my attention to figuring out how to get safely to Bogota. More reflections on our couple of weeks together, a ¨comida tipica¨section on Ecuador, and news from Colombia to come...

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Tena--and the Jungle

From Banos, Dave and I headed to the city of Tena, which our guidebook said was the best spot to book an eco-tourism trip into the Amazonian jungle, or ¨selva¨as well as boasting world-class rafting opportunities.

The City of Tena

In the 1500s, Tena was settled when the Quichwa population fled the Spanish. The Spanish soon found them, built a church, and named the town. It is now the capital of the Napo province, although it has lost regional power due to the oil boom farther northeast.

Tena is a legitimate city that while boasting lots of tourist opportunities is not mainly a tourist town. In fact, some folks we talked to expressed the idea that the city could do a lot more to generate tourist income (produce good maps, etc.).

Here´s the footbridge that spans the river that runs through Tena. Our hostel (Traveler´s Lodging) was right at its base and we crossed it many times.

A few nights we were there they were having concerts in the main square, apparently to celebrate Father´s Day.

Not Rafting

After spending all day Thursday sorting out our jungle adventure, we were finally able to book a rafting trip at 10pm for the next morning. So, Friday we got up early ready to tackle some of Tena´s famous Class IV rapids.

We piled into the cars with a group of six women from UC Berkeley, and then hiked about 40 minutes down an incredibly muddy slope to the river. Here we are at the beginning of our hike:

When we got down to the river, our guides told us it was too high and not safe to raft. At first we thought they were joking--we´d never considered the possibility. But, soon it became clear they were not and we were grateful they made a professional decision not to put our lives at risk.

So, we turned right back around and hiked back up. After grabbing some lunch, the guides suggested that we try another Class III river which they thought would be doable. We agreed, hopped in the cars and drove about 40 more minutes in the opposite direction.

But, no go. That river was too high as well. The guides were shocked--they´d never seen this happen before (both being undoable after the other rivers they´d checked in the morning were fine). Here we are looking confused:

We ended up making a pretty fun day of it. Our guides, Alex and Tim, were two very cool Irish brothers who´s family owns the business. They took us to a cool lagoon for swimming. I hope to have more pics of that when I connect with the Berkeley woman who had a waterproof camera. Here we are with Tim (left) and Alex at the end of our adventure:

La Selva

On Saturday morning we left Tena for the jungle. There are lots of places to go around Tena and we had spent most of Thursday exploring different options. We wanted to have a good time, but we also wanted to do some genuine eco-tourism, ensuring that we would have a real cultural experience and that our money was actually being used to help the indigenous community we´d be visiting. Some of the programs seemed either fake or parasitic or both.

So, while we looked at some corporate-seeming tours that were certainly well-organized and might have been more ¨fun,¨we ended up choosing to go with an organization called Ricancie ( Ricancie is a network of ten Quichwa communities that have banded together to increase their eco-tourism revenue. The communities are equally represented in a general assembly of 50 members and at this point Ricancie generates about $30-40,000 per year for the collective. They charge $40/day for their excursions which is pretty standard around town.
Here´s Carlos, who helped us at the office. We chose to go to the community Rio Blanco because it it is near primary forest (bosque primero), has a shaman, and was about three hours away.

So, at about 11am we got on a bus that took us to a river where we hopped in a motor canoe. Once we reached the other side of the Rio Napo, we had a two hour hike through the jungle to reach ¨la communidad.¨

Jungle Hiking

Rio Blanco is in the middle of some pretty thick jungle. Wilo, an 18 year old community member, served as our guide throughout the weekend, hanging out with us and explaining the various plants and cultural activities. It´s a good thing Dave and I both speak serviceable Spanish because Wilo does not speak English (although he taught us some Quichwa).

Here´s Dave with Wilo on the hike in, looking very much like the Gentleman Explorer in his collared shirt, khakis, and jungle boots.

The rest of these photos are mixed from our hike in and our hike the next day to some waterfalls. He we are beneath a really big tree called ceibo.

This is called sangre del drago (blood of the dragon) and is used for fighting mosquitoes, brushing teeth, and soothing irritations:

Here we are sampling canagria, which is used for bath vapors and to fight diabetes:

Finally, this phallic-looking thing I´m holding is appropriately called the ¨penis of the devil:¨

La Communidad

Here are some shots of Rio Blanco. The view as we entered:

This is the kitchen of the house where Wilo lives with his parents, two brothers and sister (when he´s not in Tena for school).

Here´s the center square slash futbol pitch:

And the church (yes, the Quichwa have shamans and are Catholic as well):

Cultural Exchange

When we arrived at the village, there was a group from an all-girls Catholic high school from California staying with the community--about 18 girls, two teachers and two interpreters/liasons. Hanging out with them sure made me feel old--did y´all know there´s a new dance out there called thizzing that involves making a face like you´re smelling pee?

Anyway, our first night we all participated in a ¨cultural exchange¨with the residents of Rio Blanco. They showed us aspects of their culture--mostly music and dance; and then we presented something from ours. The girls sang their alma mater. Dave and I bored them with a short lesson in U.S. politics and the upcoming presidential election (hey, at least it was in Spanish and y´all know we can´t sing).

The coolest part of their presentation was the ¨dance of peace¨which commemorates the end of fighting between the Quichwa and Warani tribes. The crossing of the spears represents peace. Here´s a photo and some video:

The next day, Wilo and his family showed us how to make chicha, or ¨jungle beer¨made from fermented yuca. This used to be made by chewing the yuca, mixing it with saliva, and spitting it into a bucket. No longer. Now the yuca is simply boiled, mashed, and placed in a bucket to ferment.

Here´s Dave crushing the yuca...

...and Wilo drinking chicha out of the traditional bowl.

To the Waterfalls...

On our first morning, we took a hike through the jungle to some waterfalls with Wilo and his younger brother Maximillian who is 11 (at right).

Here I am with Maxi on a bridge on the way:

Here´s me in the water...

...and Dave conquering the falls.

Finally, here´s a shot of us returning to Rio Blanco via canoe:


After dinner on Sunday night we took part in a shamanistic ritual. Wilo´s father Clemente is the village shaman. He drinks the potion on the right, called ayawaska, which causes him to have visions. After he drank and before the potion took effect Dave and I each asked the Shaman for what we wanted from the spirits. I requested good health for my family friends and self; contentment with my life; and good luck for the rest of my travels.

When the potion took effect, Dave and I took turns sitting beneath the Shaman while he whisked away bad spirits with plants, seemed to suck some out with his mouth, and spit a cinnamon-smelling plant on us.

Although I´m not one to believe in evil spirits--or good ones for that matter--I actually had a fairly reflective experience. As the Shaman was brushing the plants over my head, I thought about my relationship to the world and the kind of spirits within me. I quickly concluded that I´m pretty well-situated and that the only negative spirit plaguing me in any significant way right now is self-doubt.

I used to be pretty confident, but also cocky and not very self-aware. As I became more self-aware, experienced up and downs at law school, and had a very tough experience working on the 2004 election, I entered the cruciable of self-doubt for the first time in my life.

Now, perhaps, I was ready to have this doubt whisked away and enter a period of synthesis--emerging less cocky, more self-aware, but confident enough to pursue my dreams aggressively and not be crippled by my self-perceived shortcomings.

So, for the rest of the ritual, I imagined that this self-doubt is what the Shaman was removing. It wasn´t what I asked for in the beginning--but I don´t think that´s too critical. It remains to be seen if I was transformed, but one can hope...

The next morning, I asked Wilo about the relationship between Shamanism and Catholicism in Quichwa culture. He basically said that they are separate but equal beliefs held simultaneously. This doesn´t really make sense to me--it seems that belief in evil spirits is pretty anti-Christian. But, I didn´t get the sense that I was going to be able to explore this fruitfully with our 18 year old guide.

La Escuala

On our final morning in Rio Blanco we visited the community´s school. One room with one teacher houses seven levels of students. Here´s what the school looks like from the outside and the inside:

Here are the students outside with Pasquel, el profesor:

We thought we´d just sit quietly in the back and observe, but the teacher brought us up in front of the class to interact with the students. They sang for us, demonstrated their skills (adding, counting in English) and even taught us some Quichwa. Here´s Professor Dave teaching the kids how to draw a rose.

School starts at 7:30am and goes until 12:00 pm. At about 10am there´s a snack break:

And afterwards, sports. Here´s Dave and me playing futbol with los ninos:

Finally, here are some of the more adorable shots from in the classroom. Kati (last photo) is very smart and will break some hearts in ten years.

Overall, I´d say Dave and I had a very good experience in Rio Blanco. We didn´t get to see any exotic animals, but we got a genuine cultural experience and I think our money ($40/day) went to the right place. I would definitely recommend the experience--but I also hope to get back into the jungle to see some monkeys and anacondas and shit.