From the travel journal of Paul Franzetti
Engedi Mountain Springs & the Dead Sea
Think of it: cooling off in the same mountain pool as David himself when he was fleeing King Saul; surrounded by palm tress and date trees; haunted by the hyrax (think large ugly gerbils); plenty of Nubian Ibex roaming all over. At the Dead Sea we had an oily float (careful not to get even a drop of the saline drenched liquid in my eye). Everything is truly dead here.
Yes, a Dead Sea. When God punishes, He punishes: Sodom and Gomorrah, gone, encased in clay and salt. Lot's wife - I have seen her - in a pillar of salt.
From Israel to Jordan
All these layers of civilization have left my head and my soul spinning. The Middle East is like the middle of nowhere in certain places.
From Israel to Jordan: Nothing is simple here. Getting from X to Y to Z requires patience. Just getting across the Allenby Bridge was a trip full of tension and drama, with armed guards, the dogs, soldiers; mobs of Arabs, Palestinians, Jews; the conglomeration of vehicles.
Jordan: One flat desert plain after another until we got to Petra. A journey replete with endless cups of Turkish coffee; a landscape dotted with sheep, goats, monkeys, donkeys; women in every conceivable veil and garment; and afterwards, leaving the famous temple, a challenging camel ride out of Petra Canyon.
It is unique. In fact, if it weren't for a few signs of modernity, you would think you were walking around in the 10th century A. D.
Docked at Luxor on the Nile
I have heard the muezzins from the minarets blaring the call to prayer twice in five minutes. We were docked in Luxor and I was on the top deck last night to savor the stars and to pray. The night air was full of donkeys braying and microphones full of Arabic prayers.
This morning I got up at 4:45am and went on deck to finish the star gazing; to say morning prayers and to watch the dawn rise. At about 5am, four loudspeakers blasted calls to prayer, which started up a cacophony of cocks crowing and more donkeys braying.
What should I expect, it's the Middle East, it's an "antique land".
Our “Canvas Suit” in Huascaran National Park
Unaccustomed to spending a dark, cold, cramped, hard-earthed-sleeping-bag night, we slept in the same clothes, shivering and sleepless. Just getting used to lying flat, using a sweatshirt for a pillow, a thin mat underneath the sleeping bag, requires practice. Then comes the least pleasant of unpleasant moments: excretion.
There was a perpendicular narrow tent which David had set up, with Jeannette’s [the cook} help—a curious sight on Day 1. He entered this canvas “suit” and began to wriggle inside it, pushing it forwards and outwards, expanding it, again pushing, forming it, as if he were blowing it up like a balloon, but with his arms, not his lungs, being the agent of exhalation. For a moment I did not comprehend the purpose of this “tent” (shaped like one of those mausoleums in marble).
Then I learned, examined this outdoorsy water closet, and pondered it. This takes a zipper-lined entrance, a low plastic toilet seat, and a bag descending a foot to receive the cargo of human waste. David and Jeannette disposed of the contents, but I never saw them utilize it. It was our own private place to further ponder the inconsistencies of things.
The usual, “take-for-granteds,” that peremptory natural chain of biological happenings: drinking leads to urination; eating leads to defecation; both lead to noisomeness. This ordure repository remained unflushed and full-bellied, as it were. It was to this place that I stumbled, especially the first night, out into the wet, utterly black night, wearing a light on my head; fingers numb, hoping to complete the aforementioned biological cycle of my body in order to get a modicum of rest.
The Emerald Lagoon, Mt Osorno and Llanquihue Lake
Yesterday our guide, Christian, took us up the snowy Osorno (second largest volcano after Fujiyama, Japan). Llanquihue Lake and the remote, small, but quiet Emerald Lagoon were the other attractions.
A short walk through the rain forest in the cold, gray weather lent a somber quality to the visit. Views of Osorno, usually but not totally obscured by mists and clouds, formed a background “canvas” of panoramic proportions; but the trip up to the café where skiers warm up and eat, was rainy, unpleasantly dark, and the slopes sadly hidden. The snow, and dark, volcanic outcroppings made a contrasting view. I will remember the cold, the white-out sensations and the disappointment.
Joe rose at 5:30am for a morning sample of dawn on the Pantanal: a soft, cloudless sky that quickly disperses its multitudinous hosts to the cover of daylight. An amber and grey blue; in a full circle, the horizon, which is dotted by trees and grassland, focuses its attention on the yellowish, orange sun that comes up first through an escutcheon of trees, and then, like a large gold coin popping out of a small green piggy bank of leaves, begins its ascent.
So I found him, Joe, that is, sitting on his perch, part of a fence, savoring his last morning on the Pantanal. Since our arrival to this wild district of the Mato Grasso, the weather has been unvaried; in a good way, and not the crap-shoot of Osorno [Argentina’s snowy volcanic giant in the Lake District] where 215 days of the year it rains.
But the expanse of the sky, like a circular diorama, never varied these days. The sun warmed the chill of sunrise and then you’re into short sleeves and bug spray; only to sink again behind the trees, with the temperature dropping and the first stars appearing like ushers in a theatre until—and this was non pareil; the piece de resistance—the sky show outside the Rio Claro: the stars! The Milky Way, the arc of the entire universe.
“The Living Statue of Time”: An Encounter in Huaraz
Always looking for colorful denizens to inhabit my calendar paintings, I find myself hiding and filming or putting down the camera to avoid being seen with it.
Many women are superstitious or shy or annoyed or embarrassed by being photographed. Many of these poor have learned to make the tourist’s curiosity pay. Hence the word, “propina,” which the old, small, bent-over lady spoke in a forest clearing where Joe and I lurked in the shadows of trees. This attempt of capturing on film one of the “indigenous ones” led to our first encounter with this Peruvian word.
Up Huascaran Day 2: "Soul Hiking"
The mountains were ever crisp when I awoke, stronger, more refreshed. Jeannette had food and coffee in that cold, but larger, tent; I warmed my hands over the fire and prepared for the long trek up to El Refugio, a beautiful guest house at 15,000 feet.
We rode horses part of the way, with deep drops assailing the eyes, on the right, then on the left, then on the right. I took pictures and filmed it from my equestrian perch, bumping up and down. Horseback riding is “natural” to us after six trips. We’ve ridden in Peru, Brazil, and Ecuador—all kinds of excursions. But still, the narrow defile was not easy. A loose saddle, a hoof misstep, my loss of balance, anything could have resulted in catastrophe.
At the cold, forbidding, alluring summit, El Refugio, we had some coffee and proceeded down another way, or so we thought. Carefully scrambling over the moraine’s countless number of boulders, the guide, David, left us to scout out a path. About twenty minutes later he returned to inform us that there was no longer a passageway that was negotiable.
“There was one when I was here last,” he said.
“How long ago was that?” we asked.
“Eight years ago.”
Rains and mudslides had made the way impassible. So back we went: one slip and disaster awaited. Then the descent: gorges and gorgeous vistas; pounding of the knees and ankles. (Down is easier than up, but the muscles take a different kind of beating.) Then, bone-tired, we arrived.
Returning to a base camp has a certain satisfying something about it, like returning home. Maybe such a reunion and return to home is a foretaste of heavenly gates open to accept more weary Soul-Hikers; or, more correctly, Hiking-Souls.
The Peruvian Altiplano: God’s watercolors on the Road to Chivay
The “voyage” to Colca Canyon brought us through the vast and productive copper mines, where well-paid miners toil ceaselessly to keep Peru going. It may be Incan and ancient, this area, but it is also modern and productive.
We passed through remarkable land, zig-zagged with pools full of rivulets of clouds and mountains, full of geese.
Then the scene took a turn for the dramatic as we glided through the Altiplano, dotted with vicunas, wild alpaca and llama, often with the great Il Misto jutting up at us from its flank side. The foreground was not the metropolitan Arequipa (its north port was its poorest neighborhood) but this wonderful mixture of hills and highlands, little lakes and gritty sierra, all painted in sudden strokes of God’s watercolors.
The apex of the journey to Chivay was the apex, the high point, a crisp, cold, spectacular pinnacle of rock -strewn hills and water. Surrounded in all directions by the towering Peruvian sacred peaks, Mt Ampato, the focal point at 22,000 feet, the Incan last stop for human sacrifice, the place where “Juanita” and numerous of her virginal confreres were marched from Cusco, amidst strange and somber prayers and awestruck “pats on the back.” Up and up steep mountain byways, precipitous, a breath-stealing treading of sandaled feet braced for frigid mornings and even more frigid nights.
O strange hush, O grave grouping!
“A Desert With Benefits”: The Atacama of Chile
Atacama was, to paraphrase a modern saying, a “desert with benefits,” with its rich venue for hiking, the Moon Valley, the Geysers, the salt Lagoons; more vicunas and mountains on the Bolivian border. Like jewels this wonderland of rock and dunes; and snow and ice; fox, and vicuna grazing in a landscape of steel-blue lakes and slate-colored hills laced with snow.
Ximena is the second guide we met whose parent (in her case, the father), disappeared, taken off by Chilean dictator Pinochet’s death squads. The Museum of Memory commemorates this Chilean stain of torture and death. But a long way off from that is this magical, hot, cold, dry, flat, mountainous place called Atacama.
Long walks, long drives; variegated landscapes—a treasure of surprises, a well to dip into for a few paintings, God willing.
Colca Canyon. Accessible Condor Action: Nature’s Airbuses
From Chivay we traveled to Colca Canyon, the high point of any traveler’s search for accessible condor action. Our guide took us on a longer, winding route, along the 13,000 ft canyon walls. Behind them rose the snow-capped “Captains” of the Andes.
It was a well timed trip that Alonso and his driver had covered many times, timed to get us to where we needed to be to witness “the moment”: a shadow covered the floor of the hillsides. Then a large gliding pterosaur—the Andean condor, largest land bird, with a wingspan of twelve feet across; a hang glider; a thermal hunter; a prehistoric thing, a graceful buzzard, an Incan pilot in a white fur-colored black flak jacket.
Then other birds of thermal-heated feather swooping, often only a dozen feet about the gawkers’ oohing and ahhing at, inarguably, Nature’s airbuses.
Paracas National Park, Pisco, Peru: Bienvenidos
Erica [our guide] informs us that our greatly anticipated trip to the Ballestos Islands [Peru’s “Little Galapagos”} is not possible; the ocean is too rough [waters whipped by El Nino]. The one chance of a lifetime to see the Ballestos lost.
I prayed to the Holy Spirit not to grumble at so little a loss amid such a laundry list of great gifts. But as the saying goes, “If you don’t have a Plan B, you don’t have a plan.”
Then God said, “OK, so the Ballestos trip isn’t possible today. I’ve got an idea! Instead of a few hours, half of which will be spent traveling back and forth to a few rocks with pelicans, penguins, and so forth, in a boat with a crowd of passengers, how about this: You drive into the Paracas Reserve and go to to a place where your favorite artists, Mr. F. Lee Jacques went, and discover a land so breathtakingly indescribable…Wait, Wait, I’m looking for the right words, to a place so perfect a fit for yours and Joseph’s imaginative needs that by contrast the Ballestos Islands will be, to this Paracas Coast land, what bubble gum is to a porterhouse steak.
True, compared to heaven, Paracas is no more than a doorstop to an outhouse toilet, yet for your painter’s eye and traveler’s heart, it will raise your mind to ME, your Creator, the one who turns all Plan B’s into Plan A’s. What if I make the day clear and cool and give you solitude to indulge your joy at my Peruvian creations? What if I throw in enough adventurous exercise to tire those tireless legs of yours? And let you climb up the salt-rock dunes, ever higher, where each new point of observation will pull forth from your heart more and more awe? The sweep of the height of the cliffs; the green and yellow and white water with unfolding waves that break their white knuckles ceaselessly against My rocks?
Wait! I’m just getting started. I will show you the birds of the air, pelicans, terns, turkey vultures, boobies, gulls and sandpipers; their rookeries; those hidden homes made colorful by their own excrement. Waves of pelicans will come to meet you as their wings grace the places where you stand and sit. At each new overlook you will look into my green dens of waters.
Surprise after surprise awaits you. There will be sounds like the crashing of cannons along the field of battle. Waves obey My Will, with a mixture of spray and dazzling mist. I will take you to a small restaurant who a man named John, I will inspire to take you later on to three terrifying cliffs overlooking the profound beauty which, despite Mankind’s sin, I provide to delight visitors.
Trust me. In missing the Ballestos Island and accepting this with trust, you will have one of the best days of your South American travels. Bienvenidos to my world.”
A Machete and Termites: Into the Peruvian Jungle
6pm Inkaterra Lodge on Madre de Dio River
Let’s begin with this: it’s hot, steamy, humid. No cellular connection. Bugs abound (need a spray); but our introductory trail walk and some monkeys (red howlers), birds, and an obligatory river sunset. Our guide Gabriel provided some tidbits. He spoke good English, seems knowledgeable. I filmed him as he said, when I asked him what was absolutely essential to survival in the jungle: “A machete and termites. Grab a handful of termites and squeeze them to get water and protein; a machete to cut palm fronds (double them) for a softer-than-the-earth couch. Use them to make a covering between the huge fig tree roots. Build a fire; but not for sleeping because the fig tree attracts mosquitoes, vampire bats, fruit bats, ants, et. al. The redwoods are better for shelter at night. Nobody has an easy life here, for sure.
The Real Peru
These days at Cotahuasi have involved arduous walks and climbs, not as rapturous as Paracas, but more real, so to speak. The Real Peru, the people in isolated places. It is my swan song to Peru. I don’t think I’ll ever return to this country and its simple, kind, hard-laboring folk, with their [Catholic] faith intact. At 6:15 AM we left Villahermosa and the two women who served us so well, Evolena and Graciela. I tipped them 250 soles, and a calendar, each. Needless to say, their joy was complete. These Peruvians melt your heart; they would melt many a harder heart, in fact. It’s easy to romanticize people and places. With pen or paintbrush in hand, it’s almost unavoidable, and even necessary; akin to needing to color the sleep with dreams.
Climbing to the Huito Stone Forest
So, what to say that is true? True in rural Peru is this. We drove from Cotahuasi to Pampamarcha to start our climb to the Stone Forest of Huito, at 14,000 ft. The trail zigzagged like a relentless dirt and stone juggernaut. Endless upward cutbacks, not “long” in length (one and a half miles); but under the sun of Peru, it took three full hours—half the time, going down.
Bowed by the Curse of Eve’s First Reaching
As we began our ascent I saw a woman in the typical tri-color dress, hat, blue leggings and so forth. I took some photos, from a distance, as usual, just in case, for possible calendar images. We greeted her, Joe and I, and chatted with her with the help of our guide Omar. Joe gave her ten soles. I think her name was Maria: cheerful, a smooth brown complexion, but missing the upper two front teeth; about 40 years old.
So there, on the trail she was, pick-axe in hand, clearing stones from the trail walk. Why? I don’t really know, but she worked, her traditional thickset peasant body bent over its task as if she were a rustic Michelangelo banging against an earth of marble, making another David or a Pieta; an image of Mary with Jesus in her arms. She embodied human labor, its victory over sloth, bowed by the curse of Eve’s first reaching for a fruit she couldn’t earn.
This Maria was atoning for that lady eve. Her work brooded over the trail. She symbolized Peru, exerting power despite the limits of her world.
Pampamarcha and the Centuries
The village of Pampamarcha sat on a precipice of land overlooking a vast arena of terraced mountainside with Mt Soleman in the distance; overlooked by Huito’s Stone Gardens. Time slows down here. The centuries aren’t marked by technological evolutions or grand achievements in art or music; only by the families huddled together in defense against sheer magnitude, relentless rocks, hurtling hills and vast distances.
Iceland 2015 Part 1: “The Discerning Traveler”
And so we met Jon Frosti, an Icelandic-looking Anthony Hopkins, younger than myself by twenty-five years, owner of a Mercedes van that held up to twelve; except that for this 8-day excursion, the van will be like an old “bicycle built for two.” Soft-spoken, clearly successful, Jon resembles many of our one-on-one guides in his personable, easy-going manner, his mixture of information and sightseeing.
Thurs July 16, 7am. A lady is complaining to the Alda Hotel clerk about something or other. The phrase “It’s outrageous” begins her short recitation of touristy grievances. A nice model of us earthly tourists traveling in this vale of tears. So much beauty, so much anxiety. So much for human ingratitude.
“In the Nooks and Crannies"
Ingratitude, hopeless, vain expectations. Why? Because we continually peer through the wrong end of the spiritual telescope. It is—our time on earth, that is—not what we “deserve,” “have paid for,” “have a right to”; it is all gift and grace, a succession of opportunities to pursue the “clues” of God’s love which he places in the nooks and crannies of reality: a bitter look from a one-time friend; an immaculate green sward in Iceland. Everything is jumbled together to be sorted out, almost instant-by-instant by the discerning traveler.
Iceland Part II: “A Pristine Expanse Unsuitable For Agoraphobics”
Thurs July 16. A few touristy locales, including a major water fall [Iceland’s Niagra is Godafoss]. The geysers I could have by-passed, but the drive through the Icelandic wilderness, a pristine expanse unsuitable for agoraphobics, was punctuated by two treks to isolated treasures of natural wonder.
Iceland’s water we drank from streams, tasty, cold and clear. Volcanic rock structures abutted waterfalls; fern glens and lupine—and innumerable gnats (just to make sure one doesn’t forget to distinguish between earth and heaven.)
The crystalline air reminded me of the Andean Mountains, almost sweet with the scent of flowers. The volcanic snow clad glaciers were another matter. And the waterfalls were impromptu sermons, a visitor’s manual to “seek” and (you will) “find.” Forceful, full of sound, alarmingly refreshing were these waterfalls that I see biblical metaphors sprouting out of the mist. There are, according to Jon, ten thousand waterfalls in Iceland.
The casting of a coin into the Troll’s Pool [Brimketill] goes like this: Ask a Yes or No question, then follow the coin. If it lands out of sight, the answer to your unvoiced question is No.
Iceland Part III The "Dreaming Self"
The natural diversity took our usual breaths away.
But there was one place, one alone, high, high up in the mountains. As soon as I saw it, I asked Jon to stop. This one place, it alone “spoke” to me, saying:
“In all your travels, you have longed to see with your eyes what, in summary, all your dioramas and paintings have tried to accomplish. This is the one place that corresponds to your dreaming self: that exact beauty, beyond wildness; maybe, let’s call it “holiness”; yes, strange to the ear, this word. Then again, words are just no good in communicating just what a vision means.”
The beauty transposed itself, sort of entered me; for a tantalizing, twenty, cold, windy minutes; among mountains surrounding all around; snow, zigzagging with volcanic browns and grays and blacks and jagged, iron, resembling zebra skins, like the zebra rugs in an African hut. Prehistoric.
These are finally the mountains in all my paintings in my dreams and in all the dioramas in the Museum of Natural History.
I would not have been surprised to see a woolly mammoth strolling up the slopes. I imaginatively digress.
Iceland Part IV
God’s Wash Basin: Glacier Lagoon
The highlight of the day was the glacial mountains and Glacier Lagoon, with its terns and icebergs against the moody afternoon sky and its mellow, filtered light upon the glacial mountains. There was a solo seal swimming back and forth; and the circus motion of the small ice pieces near the black, volcanic sand beach; and there were the terns living and herding on the ice.
The sense of this scene, private and grand, belonging only to you, the beach goer. Unearthly beauty all of it was, unearthly.
This too had the paintbrush of F. L. Jacques’ arctic scene with the walruses in the Museum of Natural History. All that was missing were the walruses.
Explosive and epochal. If ever I saw it in a painting I would recognize the artist’s attempt to the paint the finger tip of God. God’s wash basin. With words I am facing, as usual, their lousy inadequacy: “gray, black, blue ice”—what a dull palette of vocabulary! “Misty, solemn, galactic, unspeakably ravishing”—more helpless lugging up the hill these dead weights of words.
That I felt as if—yes, now I am coming closer to the transaction—I felt as if I were in the diorama. Yes, exactly that. Life and art merged as the river flowed back and forth between the Atlantic and the Glacier Bay. Terns skateboarding.
Some of the huge chunks of ice had taken 500 years to work their way into the water. There they sailed for a brief day, wearing their inner blue, ice-coat-fleece lining. Then white will take over. Then the water will lick into the ice until, being too top heavy, the iceberg turns over. This, from a non-geological point of view is the ice cycle of these aquatic entities.
I saw them in whimsical shapes: twisted towers, upside down boots; perfectly pyramidical or lumpy footballs; some were lined with black dirt in stripes. It looked like a traffic jam of ice on an Ice L. I. E. In this circus-like central, small water basin; they moved in clockwise motions.
To end this I’ll return to the phrase that popped into my head at the moment when I first stood like an ice stargazer and beheld Nature’s grandest Icelandic diorama: “Unearthly, unearthly beauty.”
A Farewell to Iceland Part V
A Divine Peep Show
“The Icelandic Alps” is a tease because the wind and color and the urgency of the itinerary forbade a lasting enjoyment. It was a tease, also, not “the real thing,” which is not “possessible” in our finite, fragile, human form. But it was a divine peep show; a tantalizer; a slide-show of beauty.
From our pine guest house, a warm hearth, sheltering us from the cold outside, a cold uncharacteristic of July. But for the traveler in me, looking for the remote, it satisfied my needs for the moment. Iceland’s land is vast here in this top part of the country where dizzyingly vast tracks of land, alternating in all sorts of colors, encircle us with mountains. Imagine the American plains, but with icy-blue distant mountains full of endless waterfalls, rivers, basalt cliffs, gray, brown and mossy.
Then off to Echo Hills where there are huge mounds of basalt rock in irregular shapes. The populace see trolls everywhere, and Iceland loves its elves and trolls.
Aviary of the gods
Then it was off to the northern coast lands. The landscape was alpine, with large, ever expanding farmlands with mountains full of sluices of snow and ever brooding clouds moving slowly, leaving the mist-enshrouded lake region behind.
Then the cliffs: the million-bird stuttered cliffs. The noise was deafening: gulls, guillemots, puffins; by the countless thousands; an aviary of the gods. The noise made by these countless thousands made the most hilarious symphonic aviary that Mother Earth could produce. Beethoven would have thrown his piano and 9th Symphony manuscript into this amphitheater of bird music and retired to pace the cliffs and brood on how artificial fiddles and trumpets sound by comparison to this oceanic gaggling. It was all sea smells, wind, and the continual flight of graceful gulls; the torpedo-shaped, short winged-strutting puffins and the squawking razor-billed birds.
The celebrities themselves, the orange-footed, red- beaked, black and white puffins. So used to the continued human audience and gawking camera clickers that they pitter-patter, or perch, or preen themselves; appealing to our quest for the slightly comic, but immensely novel aviary of the gods.
No other bird dwellings can match this northernmost diorama of winged glory; as if this place, at the edge of the world, where Iceland’s coast offers its feathered populace to the Lord of Heaven and Earth. It is a fitting end to our journey. Thoreau wrote, “I did not want to live what was not life, living is so dear.” Where else can I bump into the remote, the beautiful, and the God-provoking mysteries?
Farewell to Iceland
Iceland’s seemingly absence of religious faith reminds me that any time you replace paganism with progress, without looking to the real Lord of Land and Sky and Sea, you narrow the true inner landscape, however vast the outside shell appears. We saw and smelled and tasted beauty here, from the glaciers to the rookeries; we heard the voices of angels in all the birds on the cliffs of the Westland. But it was always You, Lord, that we saw, heard, felt, touched, smelled in all the crystal fountains of Iceland.
Costa Rica I “The Death Bringer’s Classic Glass-Eyed Stare”
Manuel Antonio National Park: some arrow poison frogs; up-close monkeys; capuchins; and a junior fer de lance, curled under a bench. Had another guide not pointed it out to ours (how they see stuff like this mystifies me), we could have been bitten. They are recklessly aggressive, but the junior snakes don’t know how much venom to inject and overdo it. There is no anti-venom kept at the Park. Just 30 minutes to “the sleep that outlasts love.”
A bocoraca—so named for its propensity to hang midway in the air near where a human is passing by will be a pleasing target. The snake darts out, bites the cheek and face, near the mouth. The fer de lance, however, was the more lethal of the two we encountered. “How fast?” I asked our guide.
“Like a cat pouncing.”
So when a few people came to the end of this short trail where the waterfall lay beyond the small wooden bench and one crouched near the snake to take its "graduation photo” our guide told him politely to move away. The tourist demurred as he took his sweet time. I studied the death-bringer’s classic glass-eyed stare; curled like any brown leaf; and I felt a metaphor coming on.
Nothing happened. We left, our guide cautioning other guides, with groups, as they approached that little wooden bench beneath which Junior Fer de Lance was waiting.
Playa Cativo: "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes"
The jungle is not “user friendly” and it is awfully dark, and the further away we got from the lodge, the darker it got. That night there was no moon out, and the stars, though bright, could not penetrate the canopy of trees. Our small pen lights were all we had and they were capable of focusing only a small beam of light. On the path we stayed close to our guide, stopping only when he stopped and moving only when he moved. Our untrained eyes saw nothing on the forest floor.
Suddenly our guide told us to hold our lights up close to our faces, at eye level, next to our ear. Well, there are lights and there are lights. What was not apparent until that moment was now suddenly, alarmingly, very apparent. The entire night sky seemed spread out on that grassy meadow. The jungle floor became a blanket of a myriad of small points of crystal lights—very lovely, very eerie.
“The eyes of spiders,” our guide Alan informed us. A galaxy of incandescent beads were those thousands of eyes; thousands upon thousands of eyes; each two lights equaled one spider; hordes of spiders waiting in the dark for a meal. For small bugs it was a minefield of mandibles. Ah yes, the night has a thousand eyes.
From my vantage point as a human being, I was frightened, but when I reflected on what it would be like to be the size of an ant, those lights became a horror. That little light I held at eye level alone revealed the truth about the jungle floor.
Padre Pio once said this about the demons: “If all the devils would take bodily form they would blot out the sun.” The field of spiders was a visual picture. We blithely skip among all the false lights of the world, scarcely giving them a second thought, unaware of the true nature of our spiritual predicament. And even though our journey on earth is “photo enforced” by guardian angels, we remain in moral peril.
The glamour of the world presents a grave threat to every living soul. Divine grace is the flashlight that illuminates our path. To ignore the sacraments, to ignore prayer, to ignore the reality of the spiritual reality is to make a foolish assumption about our personal safety. It is to risk being devoured by the Enemy of Souls.
Costa Rica III “ The Little Theatre of Jungle Movies”
The black and white owl called, and we came, only to see it suddenly turn towards a large flying moth and pursue it briefly; all in a graceful ballet movement of wings and talons, as it carried the living meal back into the branches and consumed it.
And the tropical rain forest chirped on, its symphony of life like the musicians to the baton wielded by this nightly horror show of death and dining. A snake stealthily glided above the fronds over our head, looking for a frog; spiders with three-layer webs: the sticky middle layer for prey of consumable size (it wouldn’t do to catch a larger creature); blue lobster-like creatures iridescently darting in the night waterways; leaf ants endlessly busy, ignoring the exigencies of bodily sleep.
Darkness invites sleep. Here is the middle of “Jungle nowhere,” there is none of New York’s foolishly lit darkness of partying youth, where the night’s utter echo of blackness and fear are temporarily pushed aside—hid from—ignored among the shrill saxophones and the drum beat of raucous musicians who keep life’s party goers from meditating on the night.
The jungle at night is deeply dark and we were grateful for the night lights given us by Allen, not just to observe the little theatre of jungle movies, but to acquire spiritual insights; for, for all its paradisaical affect, a closer inspection at night reveals the soul’s need for light. The Cosmos itself is pretty dark. In between planets is darkness.
The Galapagos Islands, Ecuador: "Prehistoric Days"
Espanola, Isabela, Floreana, Santa Cruz, Bartolome, Baltra, San Cristobal, Rapida, North Seymour, Fernandina…Geographical names—unless, of course, you actually set foot on these volcanic wonderlands.
On a map the Galapagos Islands looks like a bracelet of puckered brown lumps of moonrock. But in the memory, this volcanic archipelego suddenly form themselves into a glittering necklace of gemstones worn by Lady Memory when she opens her travel album and relives the glories of her youth. Her prehistoric days.
What was expected occurred: a gorgeous ocean; unforgettable star-strewn skies; sunsets ablaze; sparkling flora; odd-shaped mountains. What was unexpected: outrageous animals in their pristine habitats.
Espanola’s glorious coasts with its masked boobies and albatrosses.
Santa Cruz’s prehistoric tortoises (they hiss when they feel threatened and fill the lagoons with their green excrement).
The white sand beaches of Floreana and Bartolome, crowded with sea lions.
The distinctive iron-red sand of Rabida, where a "beach master" patrolled the waters and charged at swimmers that got too close to his harem.
North Seymour with its romantic view of Daphnis Minor—its thickets full of frigates and blue-footed boobies.
Isabela's moon-like terrain of razor-sharp-edged volcanic rock (no place to sit or kneel, especially wearing shorts). There were prehistoric-looking dragons—land and marine lizards (these spit at tourists who got too close).
And the wading pools of Fernandina, full of stingrays and flightless cormorants.
Joe and I always wanted to travel back into Prehistoric times. The Galapagos Islands was just that, a "Land That Time Forgot.”
Quito’s Three Volcanic Mountains.
Look once, once only, at paintings like Heart of the Andes, Chimborazo, Morning in the Tropics Antisana, and Cotopaxi and you’re hooked.
Art may be only Nature’s Apprentice, but compared to a camera, it is the Master. Nevertheless those recording machines were always in our hands when that summer of 2009 Joe and I trekked the hill country of Ecuador.
It is no small thing to visit the same wonders that captivated the American landscape painter, Frederic Church, whom the 20th century critics dubbed, “The Michelangelo of Landscape Art.” To put it another way, Cecille B. Mille had nothing over Church whose large depictions of Ecuador's mountains are more operatic than lyrical. Church’s trip to Ecuador in the 1860’s provided him with images to produce the most exotic art ever produced by anyone else.
So it was thanks to Church, that Joe and I visited Ecuador. Although Quito is a city and cities don’t “do it” for us, our twilight tram ride up a mountain gave us a coin of vantage from which we got to watch the sun set over those three gargantuans Chimborazo, Antisana, and Cotopaxi blazing in streams of sun-dying gold light, with clouds swirling and turning red and purple. It can get confusing: nature, art, cameras.
“Something Smaller But Much Larger Than Inca Stones”
Guidebooks provide you with the basics on Ingapirca. For example: largest site of Inca ruins in Ecuador; top tourist destination one hour north from the city of Cuenca; in the province of Cañar in the Andes mountains of Ecuador. Or: “Cañari stones are larger than Inca stones but not as smooth or snugly fitting."
But on that one hour drive one Sunday morning into the hill country north of Cuenca, we encountered something smaller than the stones but much larger.
Walking along the road were a grandmother (sporting that distinctive Ecuadorian bowler hat) and her granddaughter. We asked our guide to offer them a ride and the grandmother accepted. She was bow-legged as the indigenous elders invariably are (yet she was only fifty years old) but happily accepted because they were late for church.
During the the fifteen minutes of driving before we reached the church, we chatted with her, with the help of our interpreter. As always, interactions like these create a more vivid photo than pictures of landscape or the buildings.
“Why would anyone from New York, from America, come here?” she asked.
To her we lived in a country grander than Oz, so what was wrong with us? She, who lived in poverty and in no place special on the planet, was genuinely curious. But telling her our “calendar story” would have been silly. But we did ask her if we could take a picture of them and she accepted our gift of two dollars. Mountain people, as a rule, hide their faces when gringos try to photograph them because they think a photograph is bad magic. According to our guide, it robs them of their soul. But she was grateful for the ride because they were able to make mass.
They smiled for the camera.
Joe quipped, “Now we know the price of a soul here,” but after we resumed our drive to "the most visited and impressive of Inca ruins" I calculated the distance we had traveled on that road of staggering uphill’s and downhill’s, and figured that every Sunday she and her granddaughter were walking ten miles to church.
Suddenly the Ingapirca seemed no more than a rock pile, and that diminutive mountain woman's Catholic Faith rose like a cathedral, larger than the stones of Ingapirca, and more ancient and ageless.
Camelid Days in Peru
Tourists love animals, the bigger the better: alpaca, llama, guanaco, vicuna. They don’t belong to the antelope family (my first guess) but to the Camelids (camels).
These are the real beasts of burden; as common as dogs and, like dogs, almost everybody’s got one. A herd of llamas out of nowhere surrounded us as they stampeded down an embankment make a nice foreground to the distant brooding, snow-clad Ampata. They hang out everywhere: Machu Picchu, Ingapirca, Cuenca, Cotahuasi, in town streets, and backyards. Their hair is the coarsest of all but they are prized. We encountered a herd on a sandy hilltop in the high Peruvian Andes. They galloped past us.
Thrilling us, but more at a distance, was the endangered vicuna, especially favored by Inca royalty. We saw them in the most gorgeous, picturesque sweet spot in the Atacama desert. There they were in the high mountains on the border of Bolivia, grazing beside ice blue lakes and among snow packed patches of land. Their fur (warmest patch of fur is on the stomach) almost got them exterminated. They are proliferating and 80% occupy Peru.
The Franzetti trophy for camelid “moments” goes to the guanacos in Chilean Patagonia, where they swarmed by the hundreds in front of our diorama-like Torres del Peine Mountains. (There are plenty of these, a half a million of them, mostly in Patagonia and Argentina.)
Last but not least, the shiny fleeced, bulky alpaca which number over four million. Without these animals, the high Andes would be seen as barren.
No place for Claustrophobics: Easter Island Day One
Characteristically, we had done no research, followed no plan, and arrived with a vague idea we'd figure things out. Our motto: no plan is a plan and the remoter the better. Because we had put no restrictions on our tour company, they sent us zigzagging back and forth over South America, over and across the Andes three times; around and down; and finally out over to Chile’s Easter Island, the most remote inhabited island in the Pacific.
So we flew into Easter Island and landed on a football field sized airport. For a fleeting moment we felt like those guests on Fantasy Island, except that there were no
Rapa Nui island girls to place leas around our necks.
I take that back—Chris Brower, our guide, the American husband of a Rapa Nui wife, did. Chris, originally from the South did his best to show us his island. He loved his job and his island home and he was determined to take us to see every one of those 887 Moai heads. In the end, Joe would say “One more Moai head and I'll—”
Make no mistake, it's thimble sized, this island. Population: 5000 people (half, I was told, of Rapa Nui descent), 6000 horses, and plenty of caracara birds.
But the island's a jail, a beautiful but large deforested jail. The immense Pacific is its Warden.
That first day, we walked around the coast for six hours, too excited to rest, even though we had been in the air almost a full day. The cool afternoon breeze and the crashing foam on the rocks were just what the doctor order, as was the double rainbow. But there was no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow. Everything, because it has to be shipped in, was costly. Breakfast, for starters cost fifty dollars. It was empanadas after that.
Outsized Heads and Bird Eggs: Easter Island Part 2
There's a thing about those outsized heads. For sure, no heads = no especial interest in Pascua (Easter) Island. Who visits Pitcairn Island, except Mutiny on the Bounty buffs or that select cadre of insatiable curiosity seekers. But Easter Island remains a popular destination.
Something about those heads.
The best a traveler does is to record, snapshot-like, what he hears, sees, and is told to him. The Guide becomes the door to a place. The heads were easy to find, but meaning was not.
A brief googling on the MOAI –the heads—will…well, let me quote from the Imperial Google, this century’s Encyclopedia Britannica:
…archaeologists suggest that "the statues were thus symbols of authority and power, both religious and political...To the people who erected and used them, they were actual repositories of sacred spirit. Carved stone and wooden objects in ancient Polynesian religions, when properly fashioned and ritually prepared, were believed to be charged by a magical spiritual essence… a representation of the ancient Polynesians' ancestors. The Moai statues face away from the ocean and towards the villages as if to watch over the people. The exception is the seven Ahu Akivi which face out to sea to help travelers find the island. There is a legend that says there were seven men who waited for their king to arrive.
Each Moai presented a status: “The larger the statue placed upon an ahu, the more mana the chief who commissioned it had." The competition for grandest statue was ever prevalent in the culture of the Easter Islanders. The proof stems from the varying sizes of Moai.
Completed statues were moved to the coast, then erected, sometimes with red stone cylinders (pukao) on their heads. Moai must have been extremely expensive to craft and transport; not only would the actual carving of each statue require effort and resources, but the finished product was then hauled to its final location and erected. The quarries in Rano Raraku appear to have been abandoned abruptly. Now it is understood that: some statues were rock carvings and never intended to be completed…Some were incomplete… the carvers would abandon a partial statue and start a new one ….Some completed statues at Rano Raraku were placed there permanently and not parked temporarily awaiting removal….Some were indeed incomplete when the statue-building era came to an end.
Arguably, this is a bit dry. A guide is a necessity, but one has to pick his way through a narrow description of the natural features of the island and to interrupt his factual presentation with questions that really troubled us: “Who were these Rapa Nui and what did they believe about the heavens, and what were they thinking?"
"Did I understand you right—stealing was OK as long as you didn't get caught? But if you got caught, the reason was that you forgot to pray to God of Theft?"
”What superstitious fears led them to imprison the first Catholic missionary for a few years?”
“They had to climb down there, swim out there, then climb up with a bird’s egg, as commanded by the Birdman cult?”
Originally, Easter Islanders had a paramount chief or single leader. Through the years the power levels veered from sole chiefs to a warrior class…the figure of a half bird and half man was the symbol of the Matatoa. Creating the Moai was one way the islanders would honor their ancestors; during the height of the birdman cult there is evidence which suggests that the construction of Moai stopped.
“…. Considered the sacred spot of Orongo, Mata Ngarau was the location where birdman priests prayed and chanted for a successful egg hunt. “The purpose of the birdman contest was to obtain the first egg of the season from the offshore islet Motu Nui. Contestants descended the sheer cliffs of Orongo and swam to Motu Nui where they awaited the coming of the birds. Having procured an egg, the contestant swam back and presented it to his sponsor, who then was declared birdman for that year, an important status position.
So we left Easter Island a trifle bit better informed. Just a trifle.
But if you travel around strange places you start thinking strange thoughts. You look at your own land as strange too; travel creates a sense of wonder. Queens, New York is just as strange as Easter island, even if there are no Moai statues dotting the landscape. And no gorgeous crashing waves on volcanic rocks.
Of course, for seascapes, Easter Island’s beats Queens, New York hands down.
Ah Brazil, Ah Humanity
When it comes to waterfalls, Iguassu dwarfs the competition. Anyone who travels to that jungle water junction where Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay meet, would agree with me that compared to Iguassu Falls, Niagra resembles two rusty faucets in a Bronx tenement. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, when she saw Iguassu Falls, said "Poor Niagara."
Our first trip to Brazil in 2011 included not only Iguassu but also the Amazon, Manaus, Rio de Janeiro, etc.
But Iguassu, thundering in such a vast amphitheater, provides me with a giant simile—memories are like waterfalls, always cascading, creating mists, wetting you with another angle of thought that changes with one’s own weather system. Here a few of our memories, in no particular order:
Big, round, water lilies floating on a lake in the Amazon jungle, crowded together, some rotting on the edges, like circular row boats tied together.
A woman feeding a piranha on a hook to other piranhas that jumped up and reduced it furiously in ten seconds to bones. It is the “devil fish.”
That huge but sedated anaconda which Joe and I picked up in our hands, while a little girl with a ho-hum look on her faced, held its head and mouth shut.
A sunset as beautiful as an orchid. Sunday in Manaus: a drunk sleeping off his Saturday night beer fest in an alley; the long mass in the hot cathedral where the priest decided to give an hour-long sermon. A beet-red faced uakari monkey in the trees.
Immodest men and women in immodest attires on Rio’s Copacabana beach; the seller of coconut drinks deftly slicing, his machete swirling like a dervish, our drinks.
That threesome who sauntered into this small cafe 5 am: one King Solomon and two Bathsheba’s: glittering jungle royalty; one of the women was goddesses posing as Brazilian party girl.
A zoo in Paraguay where three children taunted a jaguar throwing it peanuts and laughing while it suddenly rushed at the bars, alarmingly fast, and roared its deep throated annoyance; the kids laughed off with their children’s indifference the imminent danger. The horrible incarceration of the beast, all that feline muscle and sinew trapped and useless; the proximity of their arms to the claws. Yet, all the while a female zoo official, ignoring the kid’s insane behavior, kept her suspicious weather eye on us two gringos to make sure we didn’t put our cameras through the bars for a good photo.
Ah Brazil, ah Humanity.
A Walk Around the Block
As a child growing up in Brooklyn, I was always held by the hand, guarded by adults and restricted to playing only on the sidewalk in front of my house.
Then one day I found myself alone and decided to walk around the block to explore the world beyond that small slice of pavement on Farragut Road and 96th Street. I can still taste the thrill of it.
That first journey set in stone the template for exploration. Like other "firsts"—first day at school, first movie, first train ride, the first kiss—it was unforgettable.
Perhaps for me traveling around the world has been nothing more than an extension of that first walk and the wonder of childhood.
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