Friday, November 21, 2008

Interlude: Atlanta

We left Quito at 7 a.m. Saturday. Thanks to drugs, I slept well and woke up with absolutely no worries.


We flew over the tail end of the Andes


crossed Colombia and landed in Panama, which seems to be developing at a rapid place.

Still summer over the tropics.


Not so in Atlanta.


My parents came from Houston, and we ate a lot of Mexican food.

We leave tomorrow for Sydney.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Drugs, the Unexpected Beauty of Colombia, Damn Lovely Quito, and leaving South America


It´s an inevitability that traveling in rough countries will involve bouts of sickness. Part of the problem is that in many poor countries health and sanitation are not particularly strong suits, but part of the blame also lays on the diets of Americans, who tend to eat foods made in factories, irradiated for your safety, and wrapped in airtight packages. True, you don´t get a lot of exposure to germs that way, but it also means your GI tract walks rather openeyed and innocently into the wolves of South American diets. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.

Luckily for the traveler who may find himself spending days hugging a toilet, access to drugs here is supereasy and really pretty damn cheap. Case in point: A few years ago, when were were getting ready for six months of travel in Asia, a doctor gave us a script for six months of antimalarial medication. No problem, until we went to the pharmacy to fill our order: $900 for the lot. Per person. We held out and got the exact same drug from a pharmacy in Calcutta for less than a dollar. Total. Take that, Pfizer!

The traveler´s best friend here is flagyll, an antiobiotic which is the pharmaceutical equivalent of detonating an atom bomb in your intestines and us used to ward off that pesky GI ailment, giardiasis. The pills are so common the chemist does not even keep them stored on the racks behind the counter but instead in a box by the cash register. Two bucks for a halfdozen pills and in a matter of hours your on your way again.

While there have been plenty of times when I was fairly sure I was sick beyond recall, the worst ever was in Tanzania. I was on Zanzibar, an island in the Indian Ocean. I woke up one morning feeling pretty bad and stayed in bed. Three days later when I had not come out the hotel owner came in to see what was wrong. He took me in his pickup to a private doctor, who after some tests, said I had some sort of stomach deal. He gave me some meds and I was on my way. I felt better for a few hours and even went out to pizza but by the second slice it was like a hammer had come down on me. The restaurant owner got a cab and took me back to the hotel. The next few days were incessant trips to the toilet, unconsciousness and brief period of wakefulness when I noticed that the bedsheets were completely soaked. Oh, and my spleen was enlarged so it was sticking out of my abdomen and I was in extreme pain. This time the hotel owner simply took me to the airport. I gave him money and he came back with a ticket from Zanzibar to Mombasa, a decent sized city in Kenya. I was put in a wheelchair and when it came time to get on the plane to men came and hoisted me out of the chair, up the steps to the plane, and into the first seat. I had to change planes in Dar es Salaam, and no one knew what to do with me, partly because I could not talk. So someone wheeled me into what I think was a hangar and left me there. A while later some guards came by and asked me what I was doing there. I could not talk and there was slobber down my shirt. They came back with a sort of hospital nurse who took me to a room where they undressed me, showered me and, after asking me for a dollar, came back with fruit juice for me to drink. They then wheeled me out to the plane, hauled me up, and an hour later we were in steamy Mombasa. A taxi driver met me and took me to a hotel where I dropped my bag then to a hospital. The hospital had no running water, electricity only during certain hours, and the windows and doors were rusted open. They gave me a private room and hooked me up to an IV hanging from a rusty stand. The IV ran into the bony part of my hand and to this day I still feel like I can feel it. Nurses would come at the shift change and say to the oncoming nurses, in English, This is Mr. Schmerker, and he has malaria. My three meals a day consisted of bananas for breakfast, fried bananas for lunch and roasted bananas for dinner. Most of the time I stared at the ceiling and watched geckos crawl along the ceiling. After a day I was well enough to walk with assistance to the nonfunctioning bathroom, and a day after that they released me. Total cost for my hospital stay: US$25. When I got back to the US I had a series of body scans, I think to look at my spleen. These procedures did not include boiled banana meals and generally took about 15 minutes and for the most part cost several hundred dollars. It all leaves me unsure about America´s claim that it has the best health care in the world.

My other great drug story occurred in Nepal. We were on a three week mountain climbing trek and I got pretty sick on day two. We looked at our trekking map and two days away was a clinic. We hired a porter to haul my stuff and made it to the clinic, which turned out to be bureau full of mostly expired drugs in a hayloft. The owner stepped back while we unpacked the jumble of drugs and found what we needed. A few pills, less than a dollar, and after 24 hours I was feeling as good as I could expect to feel while hiking around the Nepalese countryside, eating yak steaks, at 17,000 feet.

One ailment that afflicts me with acute consequences is a sort of panic that precedes things like flights, bus departures, boat departures and general adherence to schedules. When it´s bad, and it´s often bad, I enter into a sort of depressed raging catatonic state of which nothing can cure me. I´ve tried and tried to keep this under control but it seems to get worse with age (I´m now 38 damned years old). So Laura had the bright idea the other day: Let´s just go buy antianxiety drugs. Pharmacies here, and generally around the developing world, have most of the same drugs Americans have, but with two caveats: you don´t need some freaking doctor´s note to get them, and they cost next to nothing. So the past few Days I´ve been walking around town asking who has what. I am now the happy owner of a veritable pharmacy of antianxiety of drugs. Hopefully none of them will kill me, and hopefully I won´t be arrested upon return to the US for drug smuggling. If you don´t see an update for a while, you´ll know one or the other happened.


A few days ago we realized we could go to Colombia. We had not planned on visiting the country due to a number of factors, but two things happened: we realized that once in Quito we were just five hours from the border (well, five Lonely Planet hours, which is reality was about six and a half -- I could wring the neck of the punk who wrote that guide book) and we heard several glowing reports of the country´s beauty and -- you know, this will come as a surprise to a lot of Americans -- safety. Due to the presence of drug runners, narcoterrorists, kidnappers and a smorgasbord of unsavory characters, much of Colombia as recently as 2006 was simply a place to go to be kidnapped, extorted and then killed (though not necessarily in that order). But the new president, Uribe, put a lid on that with an aggressive campaign to take the country back.

We took the five hour ride from Quito (candidate for city with the world´s bus terminal, by the way) to Tulcan, on the border. We took a taxi to the border station and I almost had a hemorrhage when the taxi driver drove right through Ecuadorian immigration and into Colombia, but it was only because there was no turnaround at the customs post). Passports stamped, we walked across the bridge and into Colombia. Zero hassle here. We took a shared taxi into Ipiales and checked into the nicest hotel in town -- 20 TV channels in English, newly carpeted floors and a workout gym, all ours for $33 a night. We made a sunset trip to Santuario Las Lajas, a spectacular Gothic cathedral built on a cliffside over a raging river to commemorate an appearance of Virgin Mary -- you can see her likeness (well, if you squint) above the rock altar. For dinner we had our favorite -- a thin slice of grilled steak, fried patacones (plantains), rice and pinto beans, washed down with cup after cup of dark, strong and sweet coffee. Good times. The next day we went to Pasto and changed to a shared taxi which let us off at a lake in a national park. We paid a guy $7 to take us to an island in the lake home to primary rainforest, though an odd forest it is since the elevation here is over 9,000 feet. We were back in Ipiales by dark and celebrated my 38th birthday with the thin grilled steak, the beans, the rice, the patacones, and the black coffee, plus a piece of chocolate cake. Can I hear a HELL YEAH!?

It´s sort of a joke between Laura and I that when we leave somewhere I say, well take one last look, we may never come back to (fill in the blank) ever again! Not so Colombia, which is a country of breathtaking beauty, gregarious and friendly people, and a certain sophistication not found in other South American countries.


I feel like I should like Quito. The setting, in a broad valley flanked by snowcapped volcanoes (one of which is erupting at the moment), is stupendous. The central core, a UNESCO world heritage site (another to add to my previous list), is an intoxicating warren of alleys, vendors, stores, smells, cathedrals, tiny plazas, simple restaurants and mountain views.

Unfortunately we´ve only got 48 hours here. We arrived at sunset and, against our better judgment, gave the cabbie the the address for a hotel recommended by lonely planet. Yes, it had flower bedecked courtyards, yes it had free coffee all day, yes it had a laid back travelers vibe, yes yes yes to all of that. But for $20 damn dollars we got a windowless hovel with no TV, no room to walk around, and a bathroom down the hall where the door does not reach all the way to the top of the door frame -- just the sort of luxury you cherish during one of those interminable South American emergency dashes to the toilet. Again: whoever wrote the Lonely Planet South America On a Shoestring -- dude, what is your deal?

We had business to take care of in Quito. First of all we had to reconfirm our flights -- Saturday we fly from Quito to Panama (no, not that one, you Floridians), Orlando and then Atlanta, using two different airlines. Except for the fact that for about half an hour it did not seem as though our reservations actually existed, we got everything taken care of. Then we had to go to the US embassy to get more pages sewn into our passport -- you can thank Brazil for that, who used up four pages alone. We tried to get there taking the trole, a sort of electric bus, but the bus did not go all the way. We got free connections for a regular bus, but three different employees of the transport company gave us three completely different suggestions on which bus to take. So we took a taxi: $1.60. The passport wait took an hour -- they give Americans a special room to wait in and THANK GOD there was not a picture on the wall of George Bush (AKA: The Prince of Darkness) we had to stare at as is found in most embassies) only to find when we got our passports that the passport number code printed into the added pages on Laura´s passport were, in fact, wrong. She pointed it out immediately and was told it was probably no big deal. So our government, the mightiest government in the world, which can no longer react in a meaningful way to fiscal catastrophe, which is waging a false war, and which can aid its own citizens caught in a natural disaster of catastrophic proportions, can also not manage to copy down correctly the nine-digit number which is stamped, now quite permanently, into a passport. I dare you to argue this country is not broken.

Well, that´s OK, Ecuador, despite its beauty, is pretty broken, too. Our last errand was to get rid of the $70 worth in Peruvian soles that had been burning a hole in my pocket since entering Ecuador. Unlike every other country we´ve been in, there was seemingly no way to jettison this currency once out of its borders. I tried everywhere: hotels, banks, casas de cambio, bus stations, random people on the streets. No dice. Finally it seemed our only recourse was to go to the airport and try there. We went the day before our flight in case the bureau de change was not open at 5 a.m., which is when we´ll need to do the deed. It was open, so good times. We walked out into the now pouring rain and attempted to use Quito´s trole (´troley´) system. It´s a dedicated bus line with formal stops and tokens. Sounds good, especially as it rides on dedicated lines and misses much of Quito´s traffic which is horrendous -- not because there are so many cars but because there are so many roads which seem to meet at oblique angles and since, of course, there are no traffic lights. Many roads, in fact, are two roads somehow stuck together. Four lanes of traffic will have alternating lanes headed in opposite directions, so crossing to get to the trole station, which is always in the middle of it all, involves nothing short of an Olympic effort. Once there, however, not all is solved. Exits may be barred, troles running in one direction may actually be facing another, and there are hundreds of people trying to get on to the same bus, except upon closer inspection there are not trying to. They are crowding the entrance to be first on to the bus they want to get on, which is invariably not the bus which has just arrived. It´s complete staggering chaos. I was walking up and down the platform trying to decide what trole we wanted. We had a beautiful, big, detailed and colorful map of central Quito which showed almost nothing on the map in the actual place where it was on the ground. I asked four of the helpful, sympathetic station conductors, all of which thought long and had about what to say and then said they had no idea what bus we should get on to go to the very center of the old town. At this point I had what you might term a minor mental breakdown. Actually in was closer to major rather than minor. Laura took my hand and we took a cab back to the hotel.


We fly out of Quito tomorrow for Sydney. We have an incredibly hectic four day layover in Atlanta, where Laura´s family lives and where my parents are going to meet us. I expect that after the busyness of Atlanta going back to hacking our way across unknown continents will actually come as a relief.

This morning we had breakfast in one of the simple streetside cafes in Quito. There are thousands of them. They were serving chicken soup (not as nice as it sounds) and coffee. I asked for a coffee and a plate of patacones, which are sliced, pounded and fried plantains, not unlike French fries but about 100,000 times tastier. No problem. Laura got an orange juice and I watched the cafe owner pull four oranges out of a sack, cut each in half, and them press them through a hand operated juicer. I almost began to cry. Most of the time when I leave a continent after a good long time I am like hell yes I am ready to get the fuck out of this place. But not always. I choked back tears in 1997 on the way to the airport in Johannesburg because I simply did not want to leave Africa, and I feel the same way here. We have to go. We have to go to Australia and buy mountain bikes and bike the South Coast and Tasmania. We have to fly to Bali and island and nation hop through Asia. And we have to go to a dozen other places, from Tunisia to Malta to Mauritius to Sri Lanka.

I´m looking forward to them all, but I still don´t want to leave South America.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

One Degree South and Headed North


We finally left Huaraz on the night bus on Oct. 29. Because the bus went at night and it was a rainy day it ended up being pretty much a waste of a day, but we decided that it would likely be the last down day of this portion of the trip. Just before getting on the bus I got the scare of my life. We found, by accident, an incredibly cool coffee shop, where they had REAL coffee -- a very hard thing to find down here -- and a cool vibe with tons of comfy couches and loads of books and magazines. On the way out the door we stopped to read the message board and on it was a warning from a group of five travelers who were robbed at gunpoint three days before on the trail to Laguna Cherup -- the same trail we had been on just yesterday! Beside that were other warnings by travelers who had been robbed on other nearby trails. I guess I began to panick a bit but we made it to the bus station and the bus ride itself with no problem.

The number of threats to travelers here is really tiresome. While Peru does have some great sites, a lot of the country is trashed and decidedly not fun for the traveler. It makes me wonder if Peru is going to learn the hard way, like Kenya has, when it comes to creating an environment which is welcoming to the tourist.

(Los Frailes, Ecuador)



The departure from Huaraz kicked off a several-day blur of traveling. The night bus bounced its way out of the mountains to the coast and dropped us in Trujillo the next morning. We immediately took a taxi across town and caught a bus to Chiclayo, a three-hour ride. Or it should have been. We made good time before leaving the road to bump across a trackless waste due to road work. Our first problem was meeting headon an 18-wheeler high centered on a sand dune. Once we made it around that we got a flat tire. The tire took a long time to fix because the bus did not have a jack and the driver tried to bum one from a passing truck. After that proved fruitless he solved the problem by driving the rear tires (the rear axle had four tires) on to a brick, digging some sand from under the flat tire, and taking care of things that way. Which would have been a simple solution if the driver had been able to get the spare tire out. He wound up having to dismantle a good portion of the front of the bus to get the spare. Later we spent an hour idling in traffic while lorries and busses waited in line to cross a long one-lane bridge with a severe weight restriction. Anyway, our simple trip to Chiclayo took a few hours longer than it shoud have.

Chiclayo was a nice place, but we were off early the next morning to Piura, which was a total dump. We had lunch then took a bus to Sullana, another total dump, and then got a bus which crossed the border into Ecuador. No problems there, except there were no money changers at the border and I´m still stuck with about $70 in soles. We spent the night in a very cute town just over the border which was strung out on a saddle between two high mountains. To get to Guayanquil we had to bus two hours to Loja and then two hours almost all the way back to the town we had spent the night in. Never made it to Guayanquil that day, however, because the bus got two flat tires. The first one was changed easily, though we had to drive a half hour to get to a place flat enough to change it. Only one spare, however, and the second flat spelled the end of the line for our bus. Our driver got us on another headed for Machala, where we wound up spending the night. We made it to Guayanquil, surrounded by banana plantations, the next day.

So far, despite flat tires, Ecuador is much to my liking. It reminds me a lot of Panama.

(Blue footed Boobie, Isla de la Plata, Ecuador)



Our recent bad luck with busses got me thinking about the worst all time bus ride of my life, and piddly flat tires on hairpin roads in Ecuador don´t even come close. It would have to be what was supposed to be an already epic 24-hour bus ride from Lake Victoria to Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania. The bus left just fine at 9 a.m. and went across dirt roads and through tiny villages. Just after sunset the engine began to make a bad banging noise. We coasted into a tiny village and I spent the night on the floor of a small shop. In the morning the driver and assistant took the engine apart and found the problem -- a cracked piston. They put the engine back together without the piston, and we went across the rest of Tanzania with five cylinders, not six. Which was fine, except the bus then had so little compression everyone had to get out and walk up the hills. Which was fine, except the engine was put back together without any seals, and so oil sprayed all through the interior of the bus.


We have visited several UNESCO World Heritage Sites on this trip. These places are meant to be the most significant cultural, historical or natural places in the world. Worldwide, there are about 700 sites. Member nations pay dues which are used to help preserve and protect the sites, and the UN can yank designation if a government fails to provide adequate protection. Since I like to make lists, here is the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites which I have been to:

Dachestein Austria
Brugge Belgium
Potosi Bolivia
Iquazu Brazil
Angkor Wat Cambodia
Rocky Mountains Canada
Potala Palace China
Dubrovnik Croatia
Prague Czech
Cesky Krumlov Czech
Lalibela Ethiopia
Seine-Paris France
Meteora Greece
Patmos Greece
Tikal Guatemala
Copan Honduras
Budapest Hungary
Luang Prabang Laos
Lake Malawi Malawi
Georgetown Malaysia
Fez Morocco
Marrakesh Morroco
Kathmandu Nepal
Panama Viejo Panama
Cusco Peru
Arequipa Peru
Macchupichu Peru
Sintra Portugal
Transylvania Romania
Sighishora Romania
Cordoba Spain
Parque Guell Spain
Palau de la Musica Spain
Zanzibar Tanzania
Ayutthaya Thailand
Istanbul Turkey
Bwindi Uganda
Yellowstone USA
Grand Canyon USA
Smokies USA
Carlsbad USA
Redwoods USA
Olympic USA
Yosemite USA
Waterton Lakes Glacier USA
Taos USA
Colonia Uruguay
Hue Vietnam
Hoi An Vietnam
Halong Bay Vietnam
Victoria Falls Zambia
Great Zimbabwe Zimbabwe

(Isla de la Plata, Ecuador)



I´ve been busy reading in the past few weeks in a brave attempt to lighten my pack.

Isabelle Allende´s Eva Luna. A remarkable book, but I felt like I read it before and it was called Love in the Time of Cholera. Allende´s shortcoming here is an exhaustive dose of magical irony. Almost too much of a good thing.

Anita Desas´ Village by the Sea

Ivan Doig´s Mountain Time. I was a huge fan of Doig´s This House of Sky. This book is a fictional version of This House, and a miserable failure when measured against the original.

Joyce Carol Oates´ Man Crazy. Good.

Willa Cather´s Death Comes for the Archbishop. A magnificent achievement.


Laura discovered a new sport in Ecuador: surfing. She rented a board and got a two hour private lesson in the small village of Montanita. I sat on the beach and watched her and was shocked when she stood on the board her very first wave. By the end of the hour she was turning and standing longer and riding waves until their end. I thought well I can do this. So the next morning I got a surfboard but declined the instructor. Not only did I never stand up on the board, I never even got to where I felt like I could paddle the damn thing. We´ll have to try again in Bali.