Archive for April, 2009

Swaziland or Bust!

April 28, 2009


Our Dear Friends,

We are just back from a 10-day meditation retreat where Jordan sat and John served as the kitchen manager, the only non-native Spanish speaker in a group of five (with some extra folks helping out from time to time). There were 85 folks attending, a mix of Peruvians and young people from all over the globe. The retreat was a rich experience for both of us, clearly a time of deepening our meditation practices and gaining confidence in our capacity to live and work in a different culture.

Before the retreat it felt like our time in South America was winding down. We booked tickets and will return to Tampa tomorrow, April 28. We plan to reconnect with many of our friends and family members. We’ll also head off to our favorite haunt near Asheville for backpacking in the Smokey Mountains. John has also applied to sit a10-day retreat in Dallas at the end of the month. It’s such a powerful practice that seems wise to clear the mind a bit before moving into this transition.

Today, over a year after beginning the application process, we formally accepted an invitation from the Peace Corps to serve in Swaziland. It’s a landlocked country, about the size of New Jersey in the southeastern corner of Africa. The country has the worse incidence of HIV in the world. We will both be working with AIDS education and awareness in a variety of ways that we expect to learn more about as the staging process starts, leading up to our departure in late June.

From our research so far, we have learned that Swaziland is a diverse country. There are modern cities and subsistence farmers living in small villages. The several distinct ecological niches and climates range from hot and dry to cool and wet. Here are a couple of quotes and two short videos that we pulled from the internet that may help you appreciate why we are excited about this assignment.

From the Lonely Planet guidebook: “Swaziland might be among the smallest countries on the continent and one of Africa’s remaining monarchies, but there’s more than novelty value on offer here. You can almost feel South Africa’s undercurrents of tension fade away when you cross the border into friendly, easy-going little Swaziland, making it a relaxing stopover on the trip between Mozambique and South Africa. And it’s surprising how much there is to do here – the royal ceremonies, excellent wildlife reserves and superb scenery should be more than enough reason to come.”

From the Peace Corps website: “The greatest single problem confronting the people of Swaziland is the HIV/AIDS pandemic. As of 2005, the infection rate of adults (ages 15 to 49) was 42.6 percent, giving Swaziland the highest HIV rate in the world. In addition, approximately 70,000 children have been orphaned as a result of AIDS.

“The Peace Corps assists the government of the Kingdom of Swaziland in implementing its national strategy on HIV/AIDS risk reduction and impact mitigation. This includes training teachers and community members in life skills aimed at HIV/AIDS prevention, initiating and promoting programs in HIV/AIDS awareness, identifying partnerships and resource alliances to fight the epidemic, strengthening existing HIV/AIDS intervention strategies and activities, mobilizing communities to respond to the effects of HIV/AIDS, and working with in-school and out-of-school youth.”

Here’s a rather corny tourism YouTube video about Swaziland that you may enjoy. It shows some of the landscape, wildlife, people and traditions.

This one about community response to the country’s 70,000 orphans provides a more sobering perspective.

Our response to the Peace Corps invitation was revealing. Jordan was excited to be heading out into the world with her social work training and engaging with others for such a worthwhile purpose. On the other hand, John is looking forward to exploring the exotic environment and engaging in cultural exchanges with others. He was up late last night researching the landscape and wildlife of Swaziland and figuring out which Lonely Planet guidebooks to order. We’re at different phases in our lives and it’s such a gift that this assignment will accommodate both.

We thank you for your prayers and good wishes during our time abroad. We’ve certainly felt supported many times by invisible hands.

Know that we keep you in our prayers.

With love and appreciation,

John and Jordan


Road Trip! Quito to Lima

April 9, 2009

After spending an amazing month in the Galapagos Islands, what does one do next? How ‘bout getting into a bus and heading for Lima, only 825 miles from Quito, Ecuador. It’s only a 24-hour bus ride if you take the straight, smooth coastal route and two hours away by plane (Jordan picked this option). But God only knows how far it is if you choose to ride the ridge of the 20,000 foot Andes in the local buses that stop in every village and for anyone who holds out their hand along the way . . . . Now, God and I both know, it’s a haul! But it’s one that’s filled with some really neat places, interesting foods and warm, welcoming people.

But before I got into my solo bus trip, Jordan and I had a week in Quito. We attended an international orchid show and engaging dance performances, and visited the old town with its colonial charm and massive cathedrals. Then we took a four-day/400-mile car tour of the surrounding area. During the four days, we took some hikes into some beautiful places, enjoyed dishes we hadn’t yet encountered and generally had a good time with our “guide-in-training.” We didn’t know he was not experienced going in, and we’d had such good luck in the past… you learn stuff all the time when you hang out on a different continent. Some cues for those who might engage a guide in the future: Does the guide have a map? Does he have suitable shoes for trekking? Does he ask any passing 10-year-old for directions and then take off helter-skelter in an attempt to make two wrongs a right? . . . . To his credit, we always ended up where we were headed and had some adventures along the way.

By the way, this form of direction seeking, giving and following is common in the Latin American countries that we have visited. Almost without fail, if you ask someone, particularly a man but it holds true for most women and children too, for directions, you will get directions. There must be some strong penalties for not knowing where something is because regardless of whether or not they know, they will speak with the same confident air used in directing you to their mother’s home. It makes for some interesting excursions, especially when you are in the less-developed areas that lack road signs and often anything that would even pass for a road in the States.

We went from the grassy highlands, down through the cloud forest and into the edge of the jungle in the town of Tena. A woman who managed the camp where we had volunteered on the Galapagos lived there so we visited her. I explored the option of staying there for a while and getting into the local practices and maybe spending some time in the nearby jungle with a shaman. The town was dirty and loud, and the overall energy was not attractive. I decided to pass on the invitation.

One of my highlights of the four-day tour was climbing a 75-foot observation tower in the jungle reserve of Jatun Sacha, the same foundation we volunteered with in Galapagos. It was a rush to get back to the old phone company days with the body belt cinched around my waist and the joy of climbing high into the heavens. The view from the top was great, treetops as far as the eye could see, many different birdcalls and a grand river flowing through it all. The experience brought my little boy back to life!

We visited some of the area’s main tourist spots like Banos where we soaked up some mineral water with the masses and checked out the local church (see the photo of the candle offerings at night). On the last night of our tour, we found ourselves in Papallacta, a popular hot springs town. We stayed in a neat little hostel that was being run by a young boy while his mother was away for a few days. It’s amazing how the kids down here take on so much responsibility at such an early age. It was a high point of the trip just watching this boy work. We took a short hike the next morning with an experienced guide (the man sitting on the ground with the thick black hair) who named the plants and explained how they were related, related which were invasive and which were parasitic and other interesting stuff. It was a relief having a guide who knew what his job was and did it well. Jordan found a four-leaf clover for him and he seemed to genuinely appreciate it, relating it to the Apos (gods) of the mountains and laughing with us. This connection with a local person left us longing for our first days in Taray, sharing food and laughs with the village children.

We got back to Quito with just enough time to get our gear sorted and packed for Jordan’s early morning plane flight. She was taking the bulk of our gear with her to Lima and then to a small Eco-village that we planned to volunteer in for a month. As Carolyn Myss likes to say, “If you want to give God a good laugh, tell her your plans!” More on that later . . . now the bus trip.

After a tearful parting at the airport (perhaps a product of living together 24/7 for the past 6 months in a strange land?), I made my way to the local bus terminal and laid down my $8 for the first eight-hour leg of my journey that would land me in Urabamba. In the Loney Planet guide book, I had found a place to stay, “The Oasis.” It was a charming little place run by a couple who did most of the work themselves. For $10US a night (Ecuador uses the dollar, too), I had a clean room, firm double bed and private bath and use of the common kitchen. I then connected with Galo who ran a family bike tour business and arranged an all-day bike trip the next day that included myself and a young couple from Alaska who were staying at The Oasis too. We just happened to meet at Galo’s office which was upstairs in an aging building that housed the large cloth store his father had opened some 30 years earlier. It was like something from a Dicken’s novel, so much color, charm and personality. Galo was an exceptional guide. He knew and shared the history of the area and took care of us like we were his own. We had a marvelous time, beginning with a short hike up the base of a snow-covered mountain that is popular with the serious climbers and has two base camp buildings that we enjoyed checking out. Then we were on our off-road bikes headed down some steep trails and gravel roads. We passed some beautiful farmlands, had some good views of the mountains and met a couple of boys who proved that the art of go-cart making was not limited to the States. These kids even made the wheels from wood. Aside from the wheels, their cart looked like the ones I was building at their age. I swapped them a couple of healthy snacks for their photos.

When the bike trip ended, it was time for a meal at the local pizza place and a good nights rest. The next morning I was back at the bus terminal. This time it was 6 bucks for a 6-hour ride to Cuenca. While Cuenca is famous for its Panama hats (they are actually made here but Panama made them famous by exporting them), I only got as far as the San Blas neighborhood where I settled into a marginal hostel ($15 a night) and found a great vegetarian restaurant on my way to the laundry. I was so starved for healthy food, I had three meals there, got some sleep and passed on exploring any of the local sights. Then, back on the bus. This one would cost four bucks for the four-hour trip to Loja where I would catch another bus for the one-hour trip to Vilcabamba, a place known for its healing powers and healthy mineral waters. I spent two days there resting and soaking up some of the good vibes of the area in a neat little hostel/spa-wanta-be. The $24 a night included soaks in the hot tubs, two good meals a day and all the internet I could use. I can already tell it’s gonna be tough paying US prices again for a hotel that looks like every other place on the strip.

The next leg will carry me across the border, through immigration and into the deserts of Northern Peru. Regretfully, I had to leave my little spa a day early because the rains that come at night block the road and it’s not opened in time for my planned morning ride back to the Loja terminal. The hostel in Loja was unremarkable beyond being an aging memory of what it used to be. The elderly couple manning the front desk showed signs of fatigue that matched the sagging bed and stained carpets. The contrast with my last night in the spa was rather harsh. But, I got some sleep and in the morning, was headed for Piura, Peru. The guidebook was pretty much right on about Piura. It’s not a place you want to do much more than to plan your next destination. The change from the lush deep green mountains of Ecuador to the desert of Peru was stark to say the least. No only was the land poor but the people trying to survive on it and the towns they created all followed suite. It was sad to be among the dirt and the trash that was so liberally thrown about just yards from front doors, or in many cases, front flaps of the small dingy shacks packed together across lifeless landscapes broken only by the occasional dirt path and decorated by small restaurants and corner bars. I felt a little homesick for the green vital hills of Ecuador.

Another eight hours (30 soles/$10) in a hot bus and I was in Trujillo, a town I found quite charming. It was clean and there were street musicians, student actor troops and healthy vegetarian food. The hostel was another Lonely Planet pick and a good thing too because there was no sign beyond the street address on a small faded placard and nothing to suggest that a hostel was hidden behind the small doorway. Esteban, the manager and owner, was delightful and engaging, much more so than the small, windowless room he offered me for 40 soles/$13 a night. I enjoyed my two days in Trujillo, and the calm, welcoming energy of this city revitalized me for the last leg of my trip. In the morning, I caught a bus bound for Lima (another 35 soles). More dry country with blocks of irrigated farmland and then an area containing hundreds of chicken shacks, more than I ever imaged existed. I guess it takes a lot of chicken and eggs to feed the +/- 10 million folks in and around Lima.

I asked the driver to drop me in the town of Chancay so that I could reunite with Jordan at Eco-Truly Park, the spiritual center where we planned to spend a month, maybe more. When I arrived, I found that Jordan was ready to move on as the food was not healthy nor was the sanitation situation. There were too many flies and too little attention being given to how human and animal waste was handled to be inviting. The poor sanitation and spiritual practices not in line with our own propelled us out of the center and on to Lima for a couple of weeks stay before sitting a Goenka retreat. (Jordan plans to sit, I plan to serve, most likely in the kitchen . . . should be a good way to improve my Spanish while getting in three good sits a day.)

We have had many angels during our travels through Peru and Ecuador. There have been folks who have adopted us at times when we’ve felt overwhelmed by the process of finding a bus in a large terminal or a particular place or person in a tiny village. Many times we have been taken under the wing of a patient taxi driver who would go out of his way to make sure we arrived where we were headed safely. We have found informal Spanish teachers, often sharing a seat with us in a local bus, who have been encouraging of our progress and have raised our spirits after a long day. On this bus trip, a driver in Piura loaned me 50 soles at a bus terminal so that I could buy my ticket for the next day without having to first find a bank. He then patiently carted me to four different hostels before I found one that worked for me. These simple acts have helped us feel welcomed even in some rather unwelcoming towns.

When we arrived in Lima on a bus from the Eco-village, we were adopted in a special way. We were getting into the city proper and I had gone forward to ask the driver to let us know when we are at the stop nearest to Miraflores, the upscale neighborhood we would be staying in for the next couple of weeks. A man who had gotten on the bus only a few stops before overheard me and asked in heavily-accented English where we were going. When I replied “Miraflores,” he asked if I had an address. When I showed him, he said he lived nearby and offered to share a cab with us from the bus terminal to our common destination. He then proceeded to walk us through the bus terminal and haggled with three or four cab drivers before settling on a price. We all three piled in along with our bags of gear. As we drove through the bustling streets, we talked. It turned out he was an anesthesiologist, born in Japan and living in Lima for the past 10 years. He explained that he found the people of Lima warm and gave himself a hug to illustrate his point. I had a minor eye problem and asked him about it. He turned around from the front seat, looked at it and assured me that the medicine I had purchased from a local pharmacy was the right choice and not to worry. We then drove around many streets in search of our hostel. He refused to let us pay any of the cab fare, explaining that on his first trip to Lima, someone had helped him in the same way. As he wrote both his home and his cellphone number on the flap of our guidebook, he explained that he was glad to have the opportunity to repay the favor. A classic example of “pay it forward,” drawing from the movie by that name. We felt safe and welcomed in this city of many millions and encouraged by this angel that we were again being supported by unseen hands.

We are enjoying Lima, getting around nicely on foot in Miraflores and by local bus (1.5 soles/$.50) to the center of town where there are many old churches, the presidential palace and streets full of interesting folks and buildings. We have stumbled upon some neat live music and plan to attend a vegetarian restaurant opening that a couple we met at the Saturday Organic market is opening. This past Sunday, we visited a monastery founded in the 1500s and explored the catacombs beneath it where some 25,000 bodies were entombed over a period of 300 years, lots of bones and energy in that huge cellar. It was Palm Sunday and we caught a procession from another church that marked the beginning of the Easter period. As has happened since the Spanish arrived, groups of men carried the figures of Mother Mary and Jesus through the streets, surrounded by thick smoke from the incense burners and the arrangements of fresh flowers. We went inside the simple old church where a mass was being preceded by quiet organ music. The drums and brass instruments started up in the street and it was yet another perfect opportunity to practice, finding the soft music among the loud… the quiet inner voice among the noise of everyday life.

Well, it’s on to our first international Goenka retreat . . . 10 days to work with the mind. What a gift this practice is!

Stay well, Juan

Here’s a Quicktime video of some of the photos we took along the way. Jordan and I hope you enjoy them.