Nov 29, 2005

Albany and Ancient Archeology

Elizabeth comes to Albany

For a North American I grew up in an "old" city, Albany NY which has a history (Hey, you, Europeans, stop snickering) that harkens back to the original Dutch Colonists who got things started for the Europeans in 1614. I delighted in the fact that I could see elements of my hometown history stretching back almost 400 years. The discovery that this is practically brand new, as far as much of the world, has fueled my drive to travel and read up on history ever since. I can only imagine what would have happened if I grew up in Trujillo, Peru.

Map of Peru

Here the most recent arriving civilization, were those young whippersnapper Spanish Conquistadors, and even they got here in 1535 (you know, over a century before the Dutch got to my hometown.) Like they did all over they slaughtered people, horded gold, enslaved people, but did build some really lovely and livable cities.

Central Plaza of Trujillo, Peru

The Spanish convieniently conquered Trujillo by simply capturing the leader of the Inca people elsewhere. After receiving the largest ransom ever demanded (measured in huge rooms full of gold) they killed him anyway and went about lording over his vast former territory. But even the Incas, who ruled Trujillo when the Spanish got here, were the new kids on the block. Despite being considered one of the major civilizations in Latin America the Incas were only really around for barely a century (even my young country is twice as old as that!). Around 1470 they, in turn, had simply conquered the Chimu people who were already here.


The Chimu people had been settled in for a while, starting at around 1000AD doing the bulk of the work on their vast city of Chan, Chan about a century and half before. This city was enormous and complex,


...with fantastically cool ruins...


... and into clever geometric art. Like the geometric pattern below with two pelicans, and an owl depending on how you look at it.

They even had early surfers, part of what the beach neighborhood of Trujillo is now known for. They paddled out on these reed boats, sent their trained pelicans out to catch fish, and then caught a wave back in.

Early surfboards

In addition to the inevitable blond board-wielding vagabonds I´ll be that even the Chimu had history buff backpackers constantly coming through like we did. Although I doubt those ancient backpackers had the wonderfully good fortune to meet such kind and lovely locals as Tyler and I did.


... they could, however, check out some really cool ruins. Because from about 0AD-700AD, dissappearing around 300 years before the Chimu arrived, was part of the great Moche civilization who ranged all the way up Perus northern coast. Amoung other things the Moche people built two HUGE temples. But they built them like a layer cake. Whenever a high priest died they built a new, very similar, temple on top of the old one. The Spanish trashed the top layer (Grrr..) but so far they have been able to uncover five more below it.


And one great thing about building your temples in a dessert and then burying them behind a succession of adobe walls, is that your artwork is fantastically well preserved. Like this unrestored piece was on the third temple in and is at least 1500 years old.

A 1500 year old original (no restoration work!)

We haven´t even made it to Machu Pichu yet, and Peru has already has me in awestruck by archeological wonders!

Nov 24, 2005

Whats up, up there?

It´s been over five long months since we left the USA and a lot has happened in our homeland that Tyler and I have only heard about second hand. We have heard some good things, like the haves of our hemisphere are starting to share with the have nots; Venezuela is selling Americas poor discounted heating oil. And we´ve missed some horrible things: like the devastating hurricanes in New Orleans.

But someone, clearly, has been up to something else in our absence. When we left the country was still mostly supporting George Bush Jr., a president I worked hard against in the 2004 elections. In that election the country mostly went for Bush, appearing like this:

But then, as soon as Tyler and I left the country things seem to have shifted. Today, a map of the presidents popularity looks like this:

Are you all trying to tell us something? Were you supporting the worst President of this century just because you were sick of my constant whining about how horrible he was?

Perhaps, in the interest of world peace, global cooperation, and a sane environmental policy Tyler and I should continue this trip for ever!

Nov 22, 2005

Quirky Quito, Quintessential Questions

Micah In Front of San Francisco Square

I have had trouble keeping a travel journal in the past. When I was having a great time I´d just fully enjoy having a great time instead of writing. And when occasional travel doldrums hit: when I was sitting at a bus station for countless hours, sick on some exotic food, or found myself lonely and friendless in a sketchy city it would seem like a great time to mope and write about how much suffering I was going through. And so, years later, I look back at my travel journals and think "God, what a miserable trip that must have been!" This weblog has, in many ways, helped me bridge that gap and write about both the good and bad times, from inland seas to scabies. Unfortunately, I am discovering, Í´ve still not mastered the art. This weblog is now running more than a couple weeks and an entire country behind, largely because I was too busy enjoying myself in Ecuador to write about it!

Map of Ecuador

From the safe distance of an iCafe in Huanchaco, Peru after a couple weeks I am finally starting to talk about the country we just left. From Colombia Tyler and I made a bee-line for Quito, Ecuador the capital city. I don´t think I have ever seen such a big city so defined by it´s topography. It´s in valley in the Andes so the city is pinched so that its population squeezes into a long line. Every direction one looks has a slope, a valley, or a little hill. And every time one walks it is uphill.


Just due to its wildly varieing elevations and the countless cool stairways to keep it all connected the city looks complex and intriguing. But the Ecuadorans, not to be shown up by mountains, went out of their way to put in some incredible buildings too. For example here is Tyler, hanging out after breakfast on our hostels rooftop patio with his back to the Basilica (on his right).

Hostal Chicago Rooftop Terrace

The Basilica, which was barely mentioned by the guidbook nor other travelers turned out to be a pretty major highlight for the two of us. We got to climb up in it, above the clock and the bells, to get a staggering view of this remarkable city. Up close it looks like an ancient cathedral that belongs somewhere deep in Europe, when in actuality they started construction on it a little over a century ago and the work is still going strong. Ecuador, as it turns out, has had a pretty fiercely Catholic history that still persists today.

Basilica belltower view

The people we met were invariably friendly and we found a much higher concentration of native people than we found since Guatemala. One particularly cool addition, however, is that the traditionally garbed native women here all wear bowler hats. How cool is that?

Native women in Bowler hats

But they weren´t the only folks in uniform. When school lets out for lunch a sea of red pours out from one street...

Ecuadorian Bloods

... and a block away flows a sea of blue.

Ecuadorian Crips
¿Is this where the US street gangs,
the Crips and Bloods, got their start?

Being the good little tourists we (sometimes) are, we checked out some museums. One was this great Metropolitan Cultural Center/Library:

La Capital de Chile by Enrique Garnica
Click me to see artwork from the
Centro Cultural Metropolitano

But when we made it to the National Art Gallery/Theater/Dance School/Everything-else-cultural-you-can-think-of it was inexplicably closed. We got all grumpy about it, and angrily stormed off across the street to see some artists showing off their wares across the street. Before long we were in a maze of hundreds of local artists showing some really, really, incredible work (not to mention all the local handicrafts!). If they´d put all that work in a building and charged an entrance fee I would have left counting it as one of my all time favorite art museums. As it was simply in a public park, Quito is now one of my all time favorite art cities!

Art in the downtown park

We enjoyed our time at Lima, but were also on a mission. We´d heard of a WWOOFing farm in the south that tickled our fancy and got us moving. On the way there, however, we stopped at Cuenca which purported itself to be the premier colonial city of Ecuador.


And it is nice and it is colonial. But to be honest after the richly cultural but laidback colonial city of Popayan, Colombia Cuenca reminded me more of a big bustling city. Which, indeed, it is; its the third largest city in Ecuador and a commercial hub. With that in mind it was less like a life size museum and more like an example of living evolving history. The city has a nice river and a flower laden center square but my favorite part of the city was probably the view from our hostel kitchen window. We looked down into the busy market below.

Look carefully
Is everyone staring at that
guy just trying to read the paper?

For those of you keeping score at home... you´ve figured Brothers MacAllen must have put in some long hours on buses as of late. In other words, I should have some processed thoughts about the questions I brought up in an earlier post. I got a lot of really great responses to my query, much of which inspired a lot more thought. Clearly there are some fiendishly clever folks out there reading our blog. From your ideas and mine I´ve got grist for several blog posts but one of the first things that struck me about each response was something that was lacking.

Even in a list of several important things no one even suggested that a meaning of life is to seek happiness.

Don´t get me wrong, I´m not saying we should all be depressed. To the contrary, I suspect that almost all of the people that wrote me these responses are generally happier than average. The important part I gathered is that seeking and being happy are two entirely different things. Indeed, they might even be opposed to eachother.
"You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. -Albert Camus "

Tyler and I got to talking about this and we tried to puzzle out what it would mean if one picked happiness as their sole ´destination.´ For me, I suspect I´d end up lounging on a beach, gorging on chocolate ice-cream and expensive booze. While I know each of those has made me (very!) happy if I followed only their pleasure in life I doubt thats where I´d remain. I believe if one chooses bliss as their ideal ´destination´ addiction and misery is where one actually arrives. The ineffable "happiness" is an internal measure, whereas a valid destination has to be external to oneself.

Instead, I´ve found that happiness actually comes as a side effect, if you will, of working towards another unrelated "destination." The happiest days of my life were not when I lounged and ate nothing but fudge all day (although, perhaps I need to try that again) but when I moved towards something outside of myself. This all might not sound profound, but it struck me pretty hard. Far too much of my life and energy is devoted towards "following my bliss" and in retrospect I´m really not thinking it got me any closer to it. So, my personal task is still evolving on this trip. I don´t need to just find a destination that feels good. I need to find one that IS good, and just trust the feeling will come later.


"The happiest people seem to be those who have no particular cause for being happy except that they are so. " William Ralph Inge

Nov 15, 2005

Some Sexy Scabies

It ain't travelling in Latin America if you do it alone. And no, I don't mean everyone needs to travel with someone they love like I am. Nope, I'm talking about those lovable huggable locals that happily accompany every traveler at some point in a long journey whether they are invited or not.

In a word, Parasites.

A little while before leaving Central America Tyler found himself absentmindedly scratching his bellybutton not unlike Dean Moriarty in the classic traveler book _On the Road_. And since Dean was a hardcore traveler, as is Tyler, he didn't let it bother him. For the first few weeks, even as it got worse and worse. Eventually Tyler started complaining to me about his itch and we decided it must just be the new detergent we were using and I chuckled at his folly. I hadn´t barely noticed that all the while I was absently scratching at my own belt line.

By the time we reached the thriving, vast, and intense city of Bogota we were both continuously scratching at an itch that never really showed itself. Tyler stopped long enough to snap this picture of me, checking out the view from a high ridge looking out at a smog covered metropolis stretching as far as the eye can see.


It just itched like crazy, it felt worse every morning and slowly crept over all the sensitive areas on my body from the belt line to thighs to wrists. It was a struggle to pay attention to the really cool things we found, like this great collection of art..

Monalisa by Fernando Botero
Click above to Explore Boteros personal
Art Collection Donated to Colombia

... or a llama patiently parked in a downtown parking lot.


By this time we were both annoyed, baffled and starting to worry what on earth was happening to us. We consulted the internet and looked up everything we could think of from STDs (and if that was it we wont even think about I caught it from my brother) to exotic hyperallergenic reactions. After hours of searching we were itchy, frusterated and lost. We finally wrote to Madre MacAllen, a nurse, praying that she could work her magic. And she did, she suggested we look into Scabies. A truly despicable creature if I've ever known of one.


They are a nearly microscopic mite that burrows under ones skin, gorges on flesh and leaves a trail of feces and eggs like an invisible itchy tattoo. Apparently it takes up to four weeks to start feeling symptoms and they are readily shared between people who share beds, clothes and close quarters.

But finally, even though we were already moving on to the next town we now knew our enemy. As we sat on the long, itchy, bus ride to the well preserved Colonial town of Popayan we prepared to wage an all out war.

Popayan is beautiful

The worldy and wise internet told us of a mystical elixar, Permetrina, that we could get at most pharmacys. Apparently when smeared all over ones body in a lotion and left alone for 8-10 hours it would kill our accursed Scabies. However, being MacAllens we knew that was only half the battle. Upon arriving in Popayan we got the elixir, booked the nicest hotel of our whole trip and stocked up on cheap red wine and junkfood. While the Permethrine attacked them from the outside in, we would wage war from the inside out.

It was long harrowing battle. It involved drinking terrible wine on a balcony overlooking the central plaza as well as smearing greasy goo from the neck down while watching cheesy movies on cable and eating pounds of processed sugar. The next morning, I'm happy to say, we awoke victorious (although slightly hung over). It takes the itch a few weeks to subside to nothing, but we both felt the difference the next day.

Having slaughtered our stowaways we were finally ready to leave Colombia. We rode all day in a careening van headlong into the Andes. Having spent several months climbing the impressive mountains of Central America I had forgotten how truly breathtaking a real mountain chain is. It was breathtaking (but that just might be because we got so high there isn't hardly any air left.)


We spent our last night in Ipiales and each said a difficult goodbye to Colombia the early next morning. Neither of us had known what to expect in Colombia, besides the certainty we would be kidnapped by angry guerillas, and we fell for the country so hard we independently started daydreaming about moving back there to live. This country is incredible, even with scabies.

Guerrilla de Eliseo Velasquez by Fernando Botero
These were the only guerillas we saw on our trip
along the entire length of Colombia

Nov 13, 2005

Tylers Tayrona Tragedy and Terrific Twinkling


A digital tragedy struck! It happened while Tyler wrote a long post about one the most beautiful places either of us have ever seen, Parque National Tayrona. Tyler spent hours writing to tell the story, included pictures, tales of magic (really!) and even threw in a little more of his life philosophy. And then, in that lovable way that computers have, it lost !"·$%&/ all of his work.

After his rage subsided he then told me that he was thinking about phasing out of writing for this weblog. It´s understandable; few people are computer dorks like myself. Most sane people aren´t willing to spend hours in exotic new lands sitting in front of a computer screen in a dingy internet cafe writing for an electronic ether. I do understand that. But Tylers reason is what really puzzled me. He said that no one out there really cares about what he writes and that you were here only for what I say. Yeah, I know, I know. I´m a bigger fan of his perspective than anyone. But he doesn´t believe me when I tell him. If only someone else would...


That happened about three weeks ago, but I can´t let the beautiful place he was writing about go past without mention. A little while ago, I wrote about how I couldn´t understand how another traveller discovered the "Best Beach in the World" and couldn´t get enthusiastic about any others. I´m trying my hardest not to go down that path.

After driving into Parque Nacional Tayrona everyone needs to walk at least forty five minutes through the jungle to get to the coast and then the best place to stay is another half hour up the beach. The hike is good, if for no other reason than it filters out the people that aren´t willing to work hard to get to their relaxing.

Micah and Jiles pack in to Paradise

Home is a few electricity-free thatched roofs plopped down on the beach. There is a small restaurant and an even general store but variety is slim and expensive in both because every little thing needs to be packed in on overworked horses.


Most people throw up tents that they brought or rented in a clearing near the beach. Those are likely a little easier on the back than $3 a night hammocks we rented and they also offer a little more privacy for those fortunate enough to be coupled (Tayrona might be the most romantic destination ever). But we were happy enough to rock to sleep in the gentle breeze with the sound of the waves crashing on the beach.


Our home was plopped on one small bay, a beach protected from the full fury of the Atlantic by a coral reef several hundred meters out. Between our bay and the next there was a small peninsula with a cool structure with a great view. Finally, if one or two people on the beach felt too crowded a ten minute walk in either direction got to empty beaches so beautiful that I thought they existed only in travel agency ads. But there was more to do than just swim and lounge.

When asked many people say they can't decide whether they would like to live near the mountains or the sea. Well here is the ideal compromise, this part of Colombia has mountains rising up higher closer to the coast than anywhere else in the world. So after a morning swim we spent one morning climbing up mountains through the surrounding jungle. We found thick jungle, cool streams, and smooth rounded boulders.


Eventually we stumbled across the ruins of a vast ancient city now populated by a few families still living mostly traditionally.

Pueblito, new homes on ancient ruins

I honestly don't intend to over use the word "paradise" in this weblog, but we have been fortunate enough on this trip to need to say it over and over again. Is it possible for one to have too many wonderful experiences?

That question brings up a topic that Tyler and I are loath to discuss. Those of our readers that have mastered calendar technology have probably started to wonder how much longer our 6 month trip will last. Originally we were to spend two months in Central, four months in South America and come home in time for Christmas. That would be nice, but upon reaching Colombia four months in it just doesn't seem right to give all of South America half the time we gave to the little sliver of Central. But then, even though we both hate to let money dictate our lives, we knew we had budgeted fairly accurately and the money we set aside for this trip will indeed be gone by December.

On our first night in Tayrona we couldn't avoid talking about it anymore. We stood thoughtfully on the beach, looking out at distant lightning over crashing surf and had a difficult conversation. In addition to our travel funds we have both also saved some more to get started on a new life upon our return. We already knew we would need to dip into that for a flight home but we could also dig a bit deeper and just accept that we'll be really poor until we get an income.

It is one thing to decide to extend ones time in paradise while in paradise. And its very much another to live month after month on Ramen noodles while looking for work. Looking out at the rolling waves, peeling off our clothes for a midnight skinny dip, we both tentatively said "lets do it, lets go for broke" and extend the trip another two months.

As we waded in I wasn't sure at all if this was the right decision. If only the universe could give us some sort of sign that would let us know that things will work out. And then, the universe did.

Upon leaping into the water my whole body looked like it was covered in brilliantly glowing fireflys. With every motion the pitch black water lit up around where we moved and sparkled. We giggled like schoolgirls and started splashed ourselves into the middle of a fireworks show. I enjoyed snapping my fingers under water because it looked like a snap should, with a brief white flash of light. Tyler was elsewhere paddling up a furiously sparkling ball of magic to cast spells like a magician.

Never before, in my whole life, had anyone told me about Phosphoresence in the water. It turns out its caused by single celled organisms called Dinoflagellates which under the exact right conditions store up sunlight all day and release it as light when disturbed.

It was magical. It was profound. And it is the answer I was looking for.
America, take care of yourself. I won't see you until February.
Rainbow in Paradise
The universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper. -Eden Phillpotts

Nov 8, 2005

Magically Morphing Medellin

Salida de Laureano by Debora Arango
Click above to explore the
Museo de Arte Moderno Medellin

A little more than a decade ago Medellin had the dual honor of being the Cocaine and Murder capital of the world. Today it has lost most its former notoriety, but picked up a reputation for few other things. It has: the most genuinely warm and friendly inhabitants we have met on our travels, one of the finest Metro systems in all of Latin America, a climate of perpetual spring, incredible colonial and contemporary architecture, multiple high quality universities, and the most beautiful women in Colombia (which, as a country, is itself in the top of this particular ranking.)


So what happened to change things so dramatically and in such a relatively short time? It would do the world well if we could figure out a universal answer to this particular question.

I spoke with a couple Colombians about it and they gave me several reasons. One big reason was that there has been a huge investment in public works in the last ten years. Among others there are new downtown parks, an astronomy/childrens center and the afformentioned metro system. In 1995 Medellin opened up a city train system with one main line branching off to two smaller lines. Its an uncommon thing to have in Latin America, and considering the city itself isn't huge (about 2 million) it didnt seem like an obvious investment for the city to make. The challenge was made that much harder because the majority of the cities population, lives on the steep mountain slopes around the city.


How do you build a train up that? The easiest answer is the simplest... it is the poor people who live up those slope so you don't bother. But thats not the answer, to their credit, the Colombians take with most of the recent public works projects that I have seen. Instead they went to an enormous amount of effort to build a long comfortable Gondola going up the slope integrated into the train network. So, after paying a 50 cent admission to a train on the opposite side of the city anyone can continue onto a long Gondola that other cities happily charge tourists $5 a ride for.


I don't know, but I wouldn't be surprised if the city was losing money on this Gondola and the system as a whole. But in return they have huge previously inaccessible neighborhoods that can now go downtown to work, shop, hang out or go to one of their burgeoning universities. Suddenly, there are more options than cocaine and killing. Medellin took the gamble that in the long run its well worth the investment.

It hasn't been, of course, an easy path. In a square in downtown Medellin I found one of the most moving pieces of artwork I have ever seen. It is the sculpture "Bird of Peace" done by their hometown boy turned internationally acclaimed artist Fernando Botero.

... and it´s precursor.  The first Bird of Peace was blown up in 1995 by guerillas and it killed nearly twenty people

In the background you see the original statue. In 1995 some guerillas planted a bomb on it large enough to tear through sculpture and kill 20 people, mostly children. Instead of replacing the statue Botero asked that a duplicate be put next to its remains. He didn't want to hide away the tragedy, instead he wanted its example to be a part of a newer and more profound future. If there is a better piece of hopeful wisdom to communicate to this country, still immersed in a 40 year long bloody civil war, I don't know what it would be.

Nov 2, 2005

Extended Excursion Elucidates Existential Enigmas


One thing long term budget travelling offers is time to think. Gobs of it. Hour after long pondering hour sitting on a bus from one place to another. And, as those geographically astute folks may have noticed we are going to have a lot more of that particular cramped "time to think" now that we made it to South America. Tyler took a look at a map the other day and noted that with a little twisting you could fit the entire length of Central America comfortably inside Colombia. We need to cross what took us four months in a matter of weeks. And this is just the first country!

Fortunately, we have a great views rolling by: in addition to the rippled mountains I once saw a completely nude man strolling on the side of the busy road several miles from any sign of civilization in either direction. And another time as we crested a high steep mountain I saw this crazy dude zipping down the same steep road precariously riding a cart full of firewood.


Truth be told, all this time to think might indeed be one the most precious things this trip has given me. I left home with my head spinning with a lot of different questions and the desperate hope that somewhere along the way I will find some answers. And answers have been coming, but I started out reluctant to write about them.

"Who else would care," I thought, "about the existential angst of a dorky backpacker visitng a dozen types of paradise?"

As it turns out a surprisingly large amount of people care. I get far more responses in email and comments when I write about what my life could or should mean and what I should do with the rest of it. I have heard from a secretary, a lawyer, a researcher, a cop, students...etc, even an optician! Friends from home, fellow travelers, and even random websurfers. Apparently, there are quite a few of us with these sorts of questions all stuck in a similar quarter-life crisis. The world has opened up and offered some of us nearly limitless possibilities, but as its tempered with a healthy dose of realistic cynicism its almost impossible to find out what is truly valuable. Suddenly the end of the path of what one "should" do ends and its hard to know what we want to do.

And so, it seems, once the questions have been asked there are a lot of folks out there curious what this travel bum with so much pondering time on his hands is figuring out. And I do have some answers, but I am also really reluctant to start laying out what I have for fear of sounding so confident that you all will stop sharing with me what you have discovered in your lifes journey.

So, I would like to open up the questions to you too. I promise I will start writing about the pieces I uncover but I am desperate for your insights too. And, I suspect, a lot of us would be curious what you have found so we could share the answers with the others. If you would like to join this virtual dialogue drop me an email or leave a comment on this post.

Not to be too ambitious or anything, but

What is the meaning of your life?