WWOOFing in Pirenópolis, Brazil - Part II

…continued from Part One

Friday, July 19

This morning Julia invited me to accompany the Chileans to a nearby cachoiera (waterfall). They were unable to get a taxi for the trip out so I was the chauffeur since Julia knows and trusts my driving abilities. It was a pretty spot with refreshing waters and an impressive cacsade. I chatted with the Chileans while enjoying the sunshine, I even was able to manage a short meditation beside a smaller waterfall which cooled me with its light spray.

At the waterfall outside of Pirenópolis

As for WWOOF work, today I repaired another splitting table so more glue and tiny nails. I continued clearing out irrigation canals and helped Julia by dropping off the Chileans in town and running some errands for her so she could concentrate on school work.

I did some laundry today, great to use a nice deep sink. As I churned the dirty laundry in the basin I spotted a nearby serene praying mantis (or rather a phasmatodea). Critters are everywhere: ants, geckos, frogs, spiders, moths, flies, mosquitoes, butterflies, bees and a host of other small insects. I’ve become an expert at shooing them from my room since there’s almost always a new friend to greet me when entering. At first it was a bother but no longer – there’s little here that will harm and they are just trying to get through each day like the rest of us.

Praying mantis or phasmatodea? Potato, potahto...

I’m starting to get that restless feeling – it’ll be time to move on in a few days. I was planning to spend a couple of weeks on a WWOOF farm but frankly there’s little farm work. I’ve almost completed Julia’s to-do list and she seems somewhat harried by all the guests (10 Chileans + me!) and her end-of-semester pressures at the university. So I’ll talk to her tomorrow and let her know I plan to leave after the weekend, I doubt this will be an issue.

I fell asleep early tonight to the sweet songs of the curiango, a nocturnal bird that is common in these parts.

Sunset over the Brazil's Pyrennes Valley on my WWOOF farm

Saturday, July 20

No rest for the weary in WWOOFing! Even though it’s the weekend it’s still a work day. Today I spent hours hoeing a bone-dry garden and adding household compost to the soil. The result: a crunchy and dehydrated bed ready for planting that is sure to nourish some succulent veggies when the rains return.

Diggin' it: Adding compost to the dry soil of Canto Guardian farm

Continue reading ‘WWOOFing It in Pirenópolis, Brazil – Part II’ »

SupremeCourt

I was in the second trimester inside my mother’s womb when the Stonewall riots erupted in 1969. I was born at the dawn of the modern fight for gay and lesbian rights in the United States.

I was three years old when the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder. I was growing up in a world where the medical establishment would not consider me sick.

As a teenager I was frozen by the horrors of AIDS and the clashes between regressive government policies and fearless gay-rights activism. I knew I was attracted to males but amidst this conflagration my future was uncertain.

In my twenties I marched in Pride parades, raised thousands of dollars and bicycled 500 miles to support AIDS-related charitable organizations, and worked at pioneering companies that offered benefits to same-sex domestic partners. Yet as an out gay person I was excluded from serving in the US military and witnessed the odious Defense of Marriage Act become law.

I was living with my partner of nearly eight years in 2003 when the Supreme Court struck down Lawrence v. Texas. It was no longer illegal for me to expressly love someone of the same sex.

During the past ten years, politicians and religious leaders shamelessly made gay people scapegoats in campaigns and pariahs on television and radio across America. They called me immoral. They blamed me for the decline of the country. They accused me of taking away rights of others, corrupting children and destroying marriages and schools and churches.

Continue reading ‘A Part of the Family’ »

Timing is everything and my arrival in Salvador da Bahia coincides with a growing Perfect Storm:

  • the lead-up to the São João festival that will spill into the cobblestone streets of the Pelourinho neighborhood with wild drumming, dance and drunkenness
  • the kickoff of the FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil with matches watched on big screens and celebrated in crowds throughout the city
  • the headline-grabbing street protests clamoring against government corruption, poor services and the high cost of living here

These brewing forces will surge in coming days, auguring a street festa of Big Brazilian proportions. Here’s a snippet of the preparations for the São João festival I witnessed in the streets the day after my arrival. If this is just a warm up, the real deal this weekend promises to sizzle!

Scenes from a visit to my childhood home in Dubuque, Iowa

It was a gratifying return to the United States: a few days of affection and rest in my childhood home of Dubuque, Iowa. Dad and Kelly greeted me in blustery Rockford, Illinois and we drove the beautiful stretch through Terrapin Ridge to the icy Mississippi River Valley, my old stomping grounds.

After six months rambling in South America it felt good to be back with family. It was easy to adapt to non-Latino life — I found respite in simple things like hot showers, speaking English, brushing my teeth with tap water, and slumbering deeply under heavy blankets and winter’s darkness and silence.

I was treated like royalty: Dad carefully planned each meal of home-cooked fare and kept up lively topics of conversation about politics, history, academia, my travels and the wider world. We kicked back with bottles of Leinies, discussed articles from the New York Times and The Nation, and laughed in a tavern drinking pints while the snow flurried wildly outside.

Each night I fell asleep with freight trains sounding in the distance. I awoke to Dad waiting for me with a smile and a cup of coffee. I was warm and content and cared for.

While I’ve lived more than half my life away from Dubuque, it’s probably where I’m most rooted and will always find homey comfort. It is safe and familiar, where things are measured and known, my reactions predictable and my memories stored away securely.

I spent an afternoon cleaning up old papers, sorting through the blurred places and faces from elementary school, junior high, high school. Wistful feelings surface: compunction, gladness, ambiguity.

I guess that’s the key to going home: delighting in the nostalgia while accepting the ambivalence.

My childhood’s home I see again,
        And sadden with the view;
And still, as memory crowds my brain,
        There’s pleasure in it too.

— Abraham Lincoln

Lightening illuminates the Colombian skies

Early Sunday morning I departed South America after nearly six meaningful months of volunteering and travel. Six months of living differently and seeking challenges, learning language and culture, and forging friendships. Each and every day was a blessing. I enjoyed moments of extreme pleasure and inspiration while discovering new paths to my future.

And in her characteristic style, South America amazed me at the very end with a fireworks finale. Her wondrous display of stormy booms and flashes illuminated the Colombian skies as I flew over the Andes one last time.

Goodbye South America. Thank you for treating me so well. I’ll be back soon.

Scenes from San Agustín and Tierradentro

I had no intention of visiting San Agustín and Tierradentro. But after perusing the information wall at the excellent Hosteltrail.com hostel, the Colombian Heritage Circuit struck me as the perfect four-day getaway to an interesting and not-very-visited part of the country.

This is an area that only recently opened to tourists. Long the domain of leftist People’s Army, a.k.a. FARC guerrillas (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), the Colombian army has succeeded in pushing anti-government forces out. While I felt safe in my travels so far in Colombia, my current guidebook (published only months prior) still had intriguing warnings on specific routes:

You should not travel after dark, not because of guerrilla activity but rather due to late-night bandits…

I asked several locals in Popayán and no one seemed to think the area or the journey were all that risky. So off I went, during daylight hours of course.

San Agustín and Tierradentro are the sole UNESCO World Heritage architectural sites in Colombia, important reminders of the ancient culture of southern Colombia that dates from 4000 BC when settlers established agricultural communities and thriving trade connections.

Unfortunately little is known about this civilization. But hundreds of unearthed statues remain, beautifully sculpted from volcanic rock, represent humans, sacred animals and even fantastical monsters. Today these are viewed atop panoramic altos (hilltop burial grounds) overlooking emerald forests.

I arrived safely to San Agustín town after an uneventful (yet bumpy) bus ride through the sparsely populated Andean hills. I did see armed Colombian soldiers patrolling the roads but the only apparent threat were the hairpin turns on unpaved roads that teetered above steep chasms.

Continue reading ‘Unearthing Colombia’s Ancients in San Agustín and Tierradentro’ »

The intricate railwork on the windows and doors of Cali's San Antonio neighborhood

After a couple weeks in sleepy, southwestern Colombia – a tourist hinterland – Cali was a refreshing change. A large city of three million, Cali’s strong Afro-Colombian culture makes it one of the friendliest. I was greeted warmly by locals with a hearty Bienvenidos, de dónde viene? (“Welcome, where are you from?”).

In a country rich in rhythms, salsa reigns supreme in Cali. It blasts from buses, apartment windows, bars and restaurants, even in public plazas. And Cali’s energetic vibe is boosted by the strong coffee that flows freely in cafés on seemingly every street corner.

My stay in Cali was brief but I got a good taste of the city: its chaotic markets, the flavorful foods, the surprising large expatriate community, even the night life. With my mates from the hostal I took a salsa dancing lesson and enjoyed cold Club Colombia beers at a bar blasting cumbia tunes.

I stayed in the charismatic colonial neighborhood of San Antonio, just a few blocks south of the main city center, which is a bohemian cluster of residences, hip cafés and galleries. I enjoyed the tranquility of this urban barrio with its picturesque streets and ornate doorways and window, but I left the city wanting to see more…

My next visit to Cali will hopefully coincide with the renowned World Salsa Festival… ¡a baila’, a goza’!

Scenes from the Zona Cafetera in Colombia

Here in Colombia’s coffee heartland, I’ve been ingesting a lot of caffeine. And consequently considering things.

Today I’ve been on the road exactly five months. And I have to admit I’ve hit one of those moments. I’ll call it what it is: a travel low.

Independent travel is what I love and what I crave. But it can be hard work, occasionally I get tired and the luster fades. It’s bound to happen – endlessly overnighting in unfamiliar towns, countless buses and constantly eating out, routine conversations with strangers, forever packing, planning and figuring shit out. It all takes a toll.

I’ve never traveled this long or far in one trip. Long-term travelers I’ve met have told me that breaks are essential in enduring lengthy spells on the road. Stopping can be as important as moving. I’m ready to sit in once place for a bit.

Maybe I feel this way because this travel chapter is winding down. Knowing that I have a couple more weeks in South America hastens the process of boxing things up and turning things off. Paul and Mark and Amy arrive in two days – I am thrilled to close out this journey with loved ones but also caught in this hollow of waiting.

So these driftless past weeks have been hard for me. I feel I’m at my best when I have specific objectives, like the Kiva fellowship, working on a technology project or learning something (like Portuguese) in a structured way.

Yet simply traveling around with a backpack is, and always will be, an important goal of mine. But now after extended periods in South America and Southeast Asia – nine months of transient world travel – I’m ready for something with a different purpose: a new vocational direction, more volunteering, deeper engagement with people, some rooting in a community.

It’s not that I don’t have any plans. There’s much I want to accomplish professionally and personally. Paul and I have lots of exciting ideas and are working on them. But nothing yet is concrete. Things remain uncertain, unclear. This business of changing one’s path is a deliberate process. It takes time. And patience has never been one of my strengths.

Soon I will say goodbye once again to South America and it will not be easy. These past months have been gratifying beyond words and my love for this continent and people grows deeper with each visit. And I look forward to my journey northwards; I want to greet family and friends, taste foods that I miss, start new projects, enjoy the ease and familiarity of home turf for a while.

That’s it, my low point: a threshold. My apprehensive transition between here and there. I know things will sort themselves out in time. Today’s trough will be a peak tomorrow.

So enough of these ruminations about past and future!

Here’s where I am right now:

I sit on the colorful wooden balcony of my charming hostal overlooking the main plaza of Filandia. It’s an overcast Sunday, the town is abuzz with locals enjoying this day of rest, this Sabbath. The busy work of yesterday and tomorrow weighs on no one.

Sunday – a threshold too – is a time to pause, sit and chat, sip steaming cups of coffee to lilting ranchera music…

Sunday scenes from Filandia, Colombia

There was so much we loved during our weeks in Ecuador but here are the standout “Number Ones” from each of us:

Paul’s #1 Thrill:

Paul’s #1 Thrill: Riding the “milk truck”

Riding the “milk truck” on a journey that seemed to climb its way to the apex of a very remote and stunning area of the Andes. We enjoyed the open air with the camaraderie of the locals who, like us, were taking the only ride out of town that day. The only thing missing was a thermos of nice hot coffee because we did have the luxury of an endless supply of fresh creamer right at our fingertips.

Peter’s #1 Natural Wonder:

Peter’s #1 Natural Wonder: The captivating Quilotoa Crater Lake

The captivating Quilotoa Crater Lake was a supremely blissful start of our 3-day trek through the remote Andean highlands. Every step of our walk was beautiful but the splendor of Volcán Quilotoa’s turquoise water was the most dazzling of all.

Paul’s #1 People:

Paul’s #1 People: The group of young Ecuadorian hikers we met

The group of young Ecuadorian hikers we met at the waterfall near Baños. If they are an example of the young and upcoming generation in Ecuador I have great hope for that country. I was thoroughly impressed with their enthusiasm, curiosity and manners not to mention they were just plain fun.

Peter’s #1 Animal:

Peter’s #1 Animal: Felipe the Cat

We encountered countless friendly critters in Ecuador, but none endeared our hearts like Felipe in at our hostal in Chugchilán. This lovely little cat spent every moment with us: purring on our laps, rambunctiously playing with peacock feathers, knocking over beer bottles, sneaking in the dining room to sniff our food, and generally being an entertaining nuisance. Oddly the owner said Felipe was in “mourning” over the recent death of his sister, but to us Felipe was always in the highest of spirits – he certainly lifted ours.

Continue reading ‘Peter and Paul’s Numero Unos of Ecuador’ »

Scenes from Quito's Old Town, a colonial gem of a city

Quito’s Old City, a wondrous maze of colonial architecture, is the largest and best-preserved in the Americas. Having endured a massive upgrade in recent years – with historic buildings restored and dicey barrios revitalized – the Old Town now boasts an impressive list of notable wonders: nearly 60 colonial churches and plazas, a bevy of Independence-era buildings, dozens of private homes, and a long list of outstanding museums.

Wandering the Old Town is a treat for the eyes and I was entertained for days. I’m not normally a huge fan of Latin American capital cities but the lure of Quito’s centro histórico is hard to resist!