Oct 31, 2005

Creeping Carefully into Cartagena ,Colombia

Map of Colombia

A geographic and political oddity I have never really understood is the Darien gap. Its a small band of jungle in between Panama and Colombia famous for three things... Orchids, guerillas, and its impassability. Humans have stretched roads of all sorts all the way up and down these two continents but for some reason, in the one place that could connect two huge and diverse continents we just havent bothered. We were willing to cut a huge Canal to connect two vast oceans together just a couple miles away, but even though it must be far easier to do connecting two vast continents together wasnt worth the trouble.

I may just be bitter because it broke up the purity of our overland trip. We had looked into getting a yacht ride but gave up when we realized there was really no way of knowing when exactly one would leave. So, we flew an hour from Panama city into Cartagena, Colombia and entered a whole new leg of our trip.

South America seems a world apart both from home and Central America. Suddenly our burgeoning Spanish helps little with the new and faster accents, stores and buildings have gotten enormous, and it feels like there is less striving here and more being.


Cartagena itself is divided into three parts. It has a huge very well preserved gorgeous old colonial town, a peninsula coming off with long lovely beaches and tall hotels and finally a huge "real" city to fit the bustling commercial, residential and industrial life of this city.

This started as a major trading port for the Spanish. And, being the sneaky SOBs they were the English first crushed the Spanish Navy in a war and then let lose all its former navy leaders go into a life of piracy of Latin America. Sometimes they even knighted the most successful pirates, thus allowing some fortunate individuals to become the two coolest things... a pirate knight. Accordingly poor little Cartagena had to build some really thick walls to protect the gold it was stealing from much of Latin America.


The walls, more or less, helped and Cartagena grew to be a wealthy and powerful center of life for much of northern South America. The rich historical colonial feel also made it a really amazing place for us to get started on this second leg of the journey. I am already enamored with this continent. I love it here.


Oct 24, 2005

Something Spectacular Sometimes Starts Subtly as Something Small

A little while ago I heard tell of a sidetrip from Panama city to this place called Isla Canas. It is a little island on the Pacific coast of Panama that is well off the beaten path. We`d heard it`s a sleepy little island without much in the way of facilities for travellers but the beaches are nice and that if you go there at the right time you might see a turtle come to the beach to lay her eggs. It sounded like a pleasant trip; something to do to fill a day. Little did I know that I was in for one of those moments that may well irrevocably and dramatically alter the course of my life. But I´m getting ahead of myself. Lets start at the beginning, riding a boat through a maze of mangrove trees on our way to the island with some newfound friends.

A Maze of Mangroves on the way to the Island

The island is small and has about 600 occupants in small cinderblock houses scattered throughout. The mother of the driver of our boat had a cabana she rented out to the occasional traveller so we found our way there, got settled, and headed for the beach in time for a dip before sunset.


We came back hungry only to discover that the restaurant was so laidback that we should have called someone to let them know we were coming. Fortunately we were in no rush so while we waited we just chatted with Nelson, a friendly local.

Shortly after dinner we walked to the beach not sure exactly how one goes looking for turtles but excited about the prospect nonetheless. Before long we heard a sound and saw a dark turtle shape coming out of the water. Turtles aren´t built well for land so the fifty meter walk up the beach proved really difficult for her. She stopped often for breaks, generally with a gasping sigh that you could hear the whole oppressive weight of the world in. Although she mostly ignored us when we stood very still she would´ve been dissoriented and scared by any white light. So, I had to carefully put a tripod down and leave the shutter on my shiny new camera open for nearly 15 seconds to get this dark shot below. She is almost invisible unless you check the original picture, but if you are curious click below to find the hi-res "original" version:

Turtle walking across the beach to lay eggs

It took her about twenty minutes to make it to the edge of the beach, and then the real work began. She started kicking sand away, spinning around so she could get leverage with her back flippers. Slowly, and with a tremendous effort, a turtle sized hole appeared under her and got surprisingly deep. She then paused, let out a long weary sigh and started laying eggs. It took a lot of strain and about 15 more minutes, but before long she was done.

Done with laying eggs but far from finished. She started rocking side to side pulling sand in from all sides to cover up the eggs which looked to be more work than it was to dig. Using a soft red light and another open shutter picture I got this picture of a turtle butt in motion.

Turtle Burying her Eggs

Finally, she finished and took a long break on top of her future progeny. She clambered up and started the long walk back to the sea while we sat in a blissful daze next to the nest. It was a magical experience to witness, really unlike any other experience I´ve ever had. We kept sitting there watching our turtle make it back to the sea and talking.

Before long a couple locals showed up to join us. Well, not so much join us as stand ominously over us. After several minutes they realized we weren´t going anywhere so they walked over with a trowel to steal the eggs. The five of leapt up on top of the nest and a long, angry argument ensued. Fortunately, on our side we had Monica, a former Peace Corp Volunteer whose grasp of Spanish is only exceeded by her hootzpah and willingness to fight a good fight.

Although they said they worked for the nearby turtle reserve, they clearly weren´t because their only form of ID or justification was that they were closer to throwing punches. Raw turtle eggs, we had found out before, are a delicacy. People like to down one with a shot at a bar, perhaps to prove their despicablness, and pay a premium for it! Just think, from the comfort and safety of your very own bar stool you can do your part to end a species! And because there is enough money to be made, and turtles lay eggs so infrequently, many species are extremely threatened with extinction.

Although it looked doubtful for a long time, eventually the poachers left. At the end of the day, there were five of us, and only two of them. I still can see it from their perspective. We were whiney foreigners that are coming afar telling people trying to make a living what was right or wrong to do on their beach. That is awkward fact. But another equally inarguable fact is that although we are naive and idealistic day-trippers to their island we were also right. If humanity doesn´t figure out some way to let some turtles lay eggs there soon won´t be any eggs to poach. We stayed, watched over the eggs and got into a great conversation. We started talking about what would need to be done to help the turtles, and how much broader a real answer needed to be. It´s not enough to try to get a cop stationed on the beach, it´s more important to bring other opportunities to the island for everyone, especially the former poachers. We stayed on, talking about daydreamed possibilities while keeping an eye on things in case the poachers came back.

And come back they did. And this time with reinforcements. Four angry men, two on bicycles and two on foot. Outside of us it was an empty beach, and our chances didn´t look too good. None of us were looking for a fight, except perhaps Monica, and they were. I don´t know how much money they expected to make on the eggs we were guarding, but it was doubtful that their profits made up for going to find friends and bringing them out. It was more the principle of the thing, more about letting us know we didn´t have the right to enforce the law there. We did have the right, but alas we didn´t have the might. So, after Monica leapt into the middle of things for a last minute arguement, we all dejectedly walked away.

To see something that magical and then have it stolen to make a drink chaser broke my heart. The experience itself was a tangible and real feeling of where idealism runs headlong into reality. But it was also a bitter gift of reality, in that we couldn´t walk away with the false belief that enough turtles successfully lay eggs because ours did.

And I see something else in the collision between idealism and reality. If the idealism is held tight enough it can redefine reality. Before we remet our poachers we daydreamed about what could be done. It wasn´t until after they came back that we started planning.

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it´s the only thing that ever has." -Margaret Mead
Robbed Turtle Hole :´(
Former Turtle Nest

Oct 19, 2005

Panamanian Passage Postponement Procrastination Problem

Map of Panama

Ever feel like you are moving through an hourglass? The MacAllen brothers have made it to Panama, a place Simon Bolivar once declared to be the future commercial center of the world. And it's easy to see why, Panama is connected to everything by virtue of being so narrow enough that a guy (the founder of the evil corporate giant Halliburton, oddly enough) once swam through it from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific via the legendary Panama canal.

Tracy checks out the Panama Canal

Because the Americas are shaped like this all overland travellers going through the Americas come through it. It makes it a fun stomping grounds for all manner of travellers. From hardcore Peace Corps Veterans working their way home up North, to the savy travelling Arwen who navigates cities by giggling.

Micah and Arwen

A couple weeks ago Tyler and I decided that we were far more interested in South America than Panama and expected to blow through it on our way to Colombia. We should've guessed it wouldn't be that easy. We should have learned our lesson in Costa Rica, a country we thought we were going to stay in for a few days because we'd heard it was expensive. Over a month and a half later we barely summed up the will to leave that fabulous place and zip to Panama city and out. But then, faced with the prospect of an 18 bus hour ride from San Jose to Panama city we decided to break it up with an overnight in Panamas Bocas del Toro, a carribean island on the way. Three days later it was all we could do to leave that lovely and laidback beach paradise to go the city. We didn't know what to expect, but we certainly didn't think we'd come into such a vibrant and bustling international metropolis.

Skyline of Panama City

This city, like a breath of familiar air, stopped us dead. We found miles of neon, explored colonial ruins, went to stores so big they're overwhelming (forgive me, our perceptions have been skewed in the small cozy scale of everywhere else on this journey) and stayed in a skyscraper. We were initially delayed because it was difficult to book a yacht trip to Colombia, but before long we were having so much fun we weren't exactly banging down any capitans doors. So several days later, blissfully happy and comfortable, we've lost our southern inertia and are looking into backtracking a little bit to see some turtles.

Before we left home Tyler and I worked out a vague itinerary that generously gave tiny little Central America two long months. Well, we crossed the four month mark a few days ago and it still feels like we've been rushing through this wonderful isthmus.


Oct 17, 2005

Magical MacAllen Motion Map

Thousands of our adoring fans, the UN as well as the US Secret Service have begged for a feature that would let them see a zoomable map of where on earth the MacAllen Brothers are and have been. So, without further ado, below is a current map. And from now on there should be a little version on the right that you can click whenever to see the latest and greatest posted trek. Thank you BallOfDirt.com!

Micahs Travels

Oct 13, 2005

All Access Amazing Art

Cam.. de E.. by Dinora B..

Tyler and I have visited some great art museums in our travels thus far, but the Museo de Arte Costarricaense in San Jose was one of the most peculiar I've ever been too. They had a lot of pretty works by artists, but what got me is the ones that were ugly or disturbing. But disturbing and ugly in a beautiful way. Or if beautiful is not the right word, than perhaps brilliantly unsettling is. I know I am not being very clear, but I dont clearly know how to describe it. Its like I would see a painting and feel uneasy, but not be able to stop looking at it.

Familie by Fernando Carballo

Or find something done clearly with a masters touch but that I would never want in my home for fear of getting nightmares.

Tela Blanca by Adrian Arguedas

Or shocking, but not neccesarily in a Chris Rock Comedy hour kind of shocking. More of a "Who would EVER think to make art out of an average dowdy, grumpy middle aged woman with a cell phone and an obnoxious poodle?"


All in all, it was a great experience that I wish I could share with all you out in blogspace. Oh, right, I can! Whenever they let us Tyler and I take pictures of the great or unique artwork we come across and then post it along with its title and artists name up here and tag it with the museums name. It makes it so you, sitting right where you are, could click to get to a slideshow of a MacAllen tour of a museum. Pretty cool huh? I started organizing em like this for a while, so we already have a pretty decent collection. Click on any one of the pictures below to see what I mean...

Nina by Francisco Arrigh..
Museo de Arte Costarricaense

Paisaje Ortogonal by Moises Becerra
Honduras National Art Gallery

Or even
La Coiffure by Henry Matisse
US National Gallery of Art in Washington DC

Tattered and Torn by Alfred Kappes
Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Massachusetts

Oct 5, 2005

Pontificating Poser Professor


"I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet, strange, I am ungrateful to those teachers." - Kahlil Gibran

It's been a little while since we left the ranch and I'm slowly putting together some of the pieces of what I learned there. Part of what I'm looking for in visiting places like this to see how different people live, how people act, and try to let positive characteristics rub off on me. And I found I learned a great deal from everyone at Rancho Mastatal. The locals, the staff, and each and every one of the students I found to be inspiring, thoughtfull, and earnest. There was only one exception to all these good feelings and that was with their professor, Chuck.

Chuck is a proud hypocrite. He would get up early each day to go for a run before he got into a gas guzzling 4wd truck and drive a single mile to teach a class on environmental sustainability. It's not that he's oblvious. He is a clever guy, an engineer with a PhD and a long history of working on important environmental cleanup jobs who decided to teach in the environmental studies program.

He never seemed like he was genuinely helping anyone. He would constantly exort his students to work hard, help eachother out and work all day each day. But he, himself, almost never put his hand to actually physically doing anything. In a communal living situation he never helped cook, clean up, nor physically lend a hand to any of the projects he demanded his students work on. Thats not entirely true... one day in the last week I overheard several students expressing shock that he did something. He spent a couple minutes mixing some Cob for an oven being built. Unfortunately having little experience with Cob (which most of had been working with for most of the month) he added far too much clay to the mix so pointlessly weakened the oven.

He alternated between talking to his students as if they were prepubescent children with long tedious lectures about obvious things, to being apathetic about how they fared when he wasn't around. Which was most of the time. He came down to ostensibly to run this intense class that his students needed to do all day every day. But immediately after lunch he usually fled to a house a mile or so away to do... something, I suppose.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining he left early every day and skipped our communal dinners for one made by his personal cook at his home. He is an obnoxious human being with few social skills, particularly to those he couldn't lord over. He treated Tyler and I like some sort of lazy leechs taking advantage of him and his class. Somehow he must not have noticed that most of what we did was get things ready, both materials for work and cooking meals, for his students. But relatively we had it easy, he really leaned hard on the permanent staff of the Ranch. Every slight hitch in plans, which is an inevitability of doing ANYTHING in Central America, he'd come down hard and judgementally even if it didn't make a whit of difference in the long run. And after the staff took over the task of managing most of his class because he walked away from it he had the cojones to demand money back from them because he saw their services more like a bed and breakfast than an environmental education center.

His is a personality pattern I recognize all to well. It was a plague in undergraduate engineering school. A lot of the kids that start out studying engineering were the top of most of their classes in high school and accustomed to being considered the brightest person around. They identify their personal worth in their superiority to those around them. That gets extremely hard to maintain when when the world doesn´t offer a clear metric for who is "better," or worse yet when they run into people that are more "successful" at something they care about. It must have been difficult for Chuck to come to terms with the fact that while he preached sustainability, Tim and Robin were humbly and peacefully living sustainably. And through their example teaching his students far more than he could. When those engineering students suddenly are surrounded by others equally as clever they get really insecure and browbeat anyone they can. About every little thing they can. Its so critical that they maintain their aura of intelligence that they sacrifice respect, personal integrity, social skills and even the effectiveness of any group to maintain their imaginary status in a pecking order. And then they angrily decry why "geeks" are so often social pariahs.

Happily, most of us grow out of that. Before long we realized that teamwork depends on respecting others strengths and that meaningful human relationships are not built on a foundation pecking order. Particularly when you meet people whose vision you support it´s just not a good idea to cut them down.

Chuck might have taught me, by negative example, more about what kind of man I want to be than almost anyone else I met on this trip. I want say the right things less, and DO the right things more. I want to give compliments as fast as I can think of them and repress criticism unless it will do good. I want to be someone who knows lots of information, and I do want to be respected for it but that is far less important than being civil human being.

Maybe I've got him all wrong. Perhaps Chuck actually is wiser than I think he is and was striving to teach all of us this instead. Most of his students, when I spoke to them on their own, ultimately took similar lessons from him than I did.

Perhaps he is a deeply humble human being who acts like a Cabrone to truly teach humility?
Gigantic bug

Oct 2, 2005

Infestation of -isms


One fascinating thing about Costa Rica is its governments different priorities and how that effects peoples lives of the Ticas. In the history of Latin America most governments down here seem to constantly cycle from a weak but elected, to a strong military coup, a revolution, back to another weak elected government... etc. In 1947, however, Costa Rica broke out of that cycle by thinking out of the box; they simply got rid of their military.

Imagine what a country could do if it suddenly had the windfall of not needing to fund a vast and expensive military. For point of reference, the US spent about $437 Billion on our military in 2004, so if we divide that by 300 million people we are each spending the equivelent of about $1500 a year. Call me a peacenik hippy geek if you must, but I'd rather that US bought every single American young and old Apple powerbook every year instead.

Unfortunately Costa Rica has different spending priorities than I do. Instead of spending their money on shiny electronics they wasted it all on nationalized healthcare and preserving spectacularly beautiful national parks.


And, it worked. In 2000 the World Health Organization ranked 191 countries for the quality of the healthcare system. Costa Rica ranked 36, ahead of the US who came in at number 37. And, despite what ideologues try to suggest, nationalized healthcare is a way more budget friendly way of keeping a population healthy. The Costa Rican government spends about $310 per person per year which is a small fraction of the $5,267 that the US spends (which is public and private spending combined, we have by far the most expensive healthcare in the world).

Although not Scandinavia in many ways Costa Rica is a democratic socialist nation. Its people elect its government andit is a bustling busy place with plenty of independent businesses. However the government does step in to help pay for things for individuals like health care, education, and claim almost all beach front property for the public. Under FDR the US flirted with being a democratic socialist nation as well, developing national projects and Social Security, but it's hip today to pretend we're a pure democratic capitalist nation. But that isn't true either. I don't think I'm going out on a limb to suggest that individuals and corporations with a lot of money weild enormous power on the US government (You can't even run for president without spending half a billion dollars). And these big money organizations push the idea that the US is sort of like a benevolent oligarchical capitalistic society. They suggest that even though most of or federal elected officials are very wealthy people they they represent everyone, and that everyone wants an unregulated free trade pure capitalist society.

But even their ideal isn't capitalism. The most fitting phrase is individual capitalism, corporate socialism. It's easy for a poor person to go bankrupt by needing to spend more to live than they can make. But when our airline industry ran out of money last year (and the year before, and the year before that) the federal government generously bailed them out. Or imagine a citizen asking their governor for a tax break to keep living in their state, which is something large corporations do routinely. What would Adam Smith think?


Oct 1, 2005

Pura Vida!


After a month off the virtual face of the planet Tyler and I are finally back online. I'm sitting in a Hotel in San Jose with a fast internet connection, a warm cup of tea, and the bewildering feeling I get when something profound and life changing just happened but I don't know quite how to process it. We spent the last month volunteering at Rancho Mastatal an sustainable living retreat and education center a bit off the beaten path.

We lived well but simply. It's amazing how much American society makes us feel we can't live without that, in actuality, we don't need at all. And by having a happy satisfying life without all the things I "need" like constant internet access, telephones, or dependably passable roads showed me a lot about what truly is a neccesity. It was much the same experiment that Thoreau made while writing Walden (and, incidentally, crafting the phrase 'Live Deliberately'). Although I suspected I could live without some things (Unpassable roads=no problem. No internet=Is that even possible?) the ranch surprised me with some others I'd always taken for granted.

Like walls.
The Hooch

This is 'The Hooch' where we spent most nights. It's a bamboo structure in the shape of an inverted pyramid overlooking a ridge. It didn't have running water indoors (nor, come to think of it, did it have doors). It is located high enough that each morning we awoke with the sun to a 360 degree view out into the forest canopy chattering with animals. An utterly amazing experience, even for an anti-morning person like myself.


Life without walls, we found, has many benefits and a few drawbacks. The breeze and sun was wonderful, but the wildlife was a mixed blessing. The mosquito netting slowed down some of the bigger bugs, but as I drifted off to sleep each night the little no-see-ums had a feeding frenzy. One advantage, on the other hand, is that the Hooch had a huge wrap around urinal with a spectacular view.

Does it count as indoor plumbing if one uses their plumbing while indoors?
Does it count as a indoor plumbing
if one uses their plumbing indoors?

It wasn't only our home that wasn't blessed with walls. Other places I had thought them to be pretty important were lacking them as well. Like, for example, the homebuilt outdoor composting toilets. It might seem odd, but it's remarkably pleasant to sit on a throne looking out into the jungle.

Composting toilet
Outdoor toilet

Or they had the best cold water (somewhat solar heated) showers I ever had the pleasure of having. After a long hot day working a cold shower looking out into a lush jungle is a transcendent experience. You feel uterrly refreshed, and connected to the whole world. It's kind of like skinny dipping without dipping.

Outdoor Shower

We worked hard all day on a few different projects. We laid the concrete and built a bamboo framework for the new classroom.

Bamboo classroom

And we were cobbing machines on Tim and Robins new home.

Tyler, Cob Supermodel

But all that hard work made the exotic vegetarian food taste even better. We started with odd new foods like this Pahibohi (sp?)...

Pahibohi (Sp?)

...which magically became a delicious communal meal. Never in my life have I eaten so well and regularly!

Lining up for Dinner

The only thing I enjoyed more than the spectacular natural beauty of Costa Rica...


... was the wonderful people we met there.


I love backpackers, and have thrived on the culture of travelers we've met thus far in our journey but this was something else. There were 17 U Washington students there most of the time there and hanging out with them was a bit different in a really neat way. When a bird flys by a bunch of backpackers we'd usually say "Whoa, Bird, Cool!" This group, on the other hand, would discuss what kind of bird it is, if this is it's normal territory and what effect humans may be having on it. Every single one of them, aside from their instructor Chuck, are really good hearted and earnestly committed to making the world a better place. Everyone had their own interest and specialties but were quick to help eachother out, have a merry night out on the town (ie. they went to the one small bar/store/local hangout), and help make the Ranch thrive.

Another wonderful thing about the Ranch is how hard it's founders work to integrate into it's tiny community. There are less than a hundred people in the town of Mastatal and I met most of them during my time there. While working with them on various projects, slicing vegetables in the kitchen or hanging out at the Pulperia I found them all to be friendly, clever and hell of a lot of fun to be around.

The other volunteers and the staff of Rancho Mastatal really made it wonderful. Only a certain type of traveler takes time on their vacation to work for fun and I've discovered that I really love getting to know that type. Roger, an Englishman who's been with the Ranch for years plays a critical role in keeping things running via a magical combination of dirty jokes, clever know how and boundless enthusiasm. Finally the founders of Rancho Mastatal, Tim and Robin are truly inspiring people. It's not often you meet someone who comes up with a crazy idealistic impossible vision... and then does it. By virtue of their personal charisma and clear ideals they set the stage for a little farmhouse in the middle of the jungle to grow into something magical.

We arrived to a quiet and peaceful ranch, an hour before the students arrived and we left it on a similarly peaceful note. In between, however, things built to insane crescendo. The students left one with a huge blowout. We got things started with a skit and awards ceremony revolving around the Team America theme (Sustainability, Fuck yeah!), a Cob oven Pizza party, and then the night decended into insanity. The party raged from the ranch to the pulperia. Then, as the students were packing up their bus to the airport Tyler and I found ourselves on the back of a Ticans pickup speeding out of town for even more insanity. I woke up having unwittingly lost my camera (Tragedy! I feel blind!) but with three of most impressive hickies I've ever had in my life.

The next few days we peaceful and pleasant. We hung out with the remaining volunteers, got to know a couple Ranch newbies and started getting ready to go. We finished the cob wall on Tim and Robins new house on our very last day and caught a ride out of town early the next morning. We went to San Jose to meet our Mom MacAllen, who just came out to catch up with us and get us fully immersed in the next chapter of this wild, wild adventure.