Chinese Oil Interests Force Closure Of Indigenous Tribe’s Award-Winning Ecolodge

Huaorani EcoLodge lies deep within the Ecuadorian Amazon in Yasuni National Park. It’s owned and run by the Huaorani (also known as Waudani) people and its sustainability and cultural practices have won it a National Geographic World Legacy Award. The lodge was opened in August, 2007 in an effort to provide an income for the tribe, sustain and share their culture and protect the rain forest. It was a life changing experience to travel there with my son in 2010.

The only way in for visiting tourists is by boat along the Curaray and Napo Rivers or a small 4-seater plane that lands on a narrow grass landing strip in the isolated community of Quehueri’ono where you are taken by dugout canoe to the lodge. Either way you see both pristine rain forest and the wasteland wrought by global oil and timber companies – swaths of polluted land and rivers, the smell and noise of oil drills and hear the silence because the rain forest fauna have died off or left.

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You need permission to visit as you are entering the protected reserve (the largest in Ecuador) of 4000 indigenous people who have been fighting the encroachment of modern life and ongoing destruction of their land.

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Despite years of lobbying by Hauorani leader, Moi Enomenga, in front of Ecuadorian and international organizations; despite the Hauorani having been awarded legal title to Yasuni National Park and despite its status as a UN Biosphere Reserve, their land continues to be impacted by the environmental destruction of global oil and timber interests.

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Today I learned that Huaorani EcoLodge has been forced to suspend operations because of nearby seismic exploration by a Chinese oil company. The Huaorani have asked to negotiate with Ecuadorian authorities to minimize the damage to the lodge and the business that provides income to the tribe. There has been no response and so they’re working with partners resorting to that most modern medium of appeal – a Change.org petition.

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I was forever changed after leaving the Ecuadorian Amazon. I wonder every time I’m at a gas pump (which is far less these days) what was destroyed so that I might have the convenience of driving? I wonder how much longer the indigenous protectors of the rain forests worldwide can continue to be the front line in a battle to save themselves and an invaluable ecosystem? I wonder if I will be able to fulfill the vow I made when saying goodbye on that air landing strip of grass in Quehueri’ono- that I would return again to Huaorani EcoLodge?

 

 

 

The Agua of Valencia

It was a Mother’s Day Vulcan mind meld! As promised in my previous blog post,  I started to write about Agua de Valencia, the specialty cocktail of Valencia, Spain. However, fellow blogger Fork on the Road (aka Glenn Kaufmann) beat me to it with a Mother’s Day post on the same topic. We took an evening tapas tour of Valencia compliments of the city tourism bureau that ended with Agua de Valencia at what became my favorite haunt, Cafe De Las Horas.  During our tour Glenn suggested I try another specialty of Valencia called horchata, a refreshing drink made from tiger nuts. His Fork on the Road informative blog about both drinks is posted here. He’s a food blogger focused on the story behind the food. Me, I’m an eclectic travel blogger who was enamored about the ambiance of the place and if I would ever be able reproduce the nectar known as Agua de Valencia once I got home.

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My first foray into the cafe was late at night with a tour guide and Fork On the Road. When trying to find it on my own during the day, it was hard to believe this nondescript exterior housed the magical interior of my first Agua de Valencia experience.

But once inside, Wowzer! There was the crystal bar chandelier and painted blue ceiling with gold stars that I remembered from my first Agua de Valencia night. But it was my second time that had me noticing all of the art deco lighting, the bouquet of fresh cut flowers and the play of light off the well-stocked bar.

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On my third venture in I studied the marble, the historic art on the walls and the lush red coat of paint everywhere. Fork On the Road describes it as a bordello-like atmosphere. Maybe so. I just know I was charmed by its baroque over the top attitude enough to return multiple times during my month’s stay. Literally translated Cafe de las Horas means Coffee Hour, but I never came for the coffee. It was their Agua de Valencia that brought me back every time.

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I asked the bartender for the recipe and he said good bartenders each have a slight variation in their ingredients, but an authentic recipe with advice could be found at SpanishWines.com. Here it is:

Recipe for Agua de Valencia

  • 200ml Orange Juice
  • 50ml Gin
  • 50ml Vodka
  • 700ml Cava (or Champagne)
  • Pinch of sugar

Method:

  • Into a pitcher jug, pour one glass of orange juice – best if it is freshly squeezed orange juice.
  • Add a bottle of semi-dry Cava (or Champagne if you do not have Cava).
  • Add a shot and a half of both vodka and gin.
  • Add the sugar according to taste.
  • Refrigerate before serving.
  • Serve in the jug, and then pour into glasses to drink. Enjoy!

If you are planning on making this drink then you may want to consider these pieces of advice. Do not use orange liquors such as Cointreau to make the drink as it is the fresh orange juice that gives the drink its aromatic qualities. Also, try to use oranges grown in the Valencia region as this will make the drink more authentic.

Naturally, good quality alcohol will make the drink taste better, and Cava is always preferable to Champagne as it is truly Spanish. The sugar is optional, and if you prefer a drier cocktail instead of a sweet one, then you can always use dry Cava or Brut. It is also a good idea to prepare this Spanish drink in advance as it is best served very cold which means time in the fridge. You should mix the drink in the pitcher with a spoon, but when serving the drink, you should try and remove the spoon from the jug without disturbing the mixture too much.

The Urge To Speak My Mother Tongue

I’d been in Valencia, Spain solo for two weeks when it struck me that I hadn’t had a full blown, uninhibited-by-the-constraints-of- my-mediocre-Spanish conversation in 14 days. I was living solo in an apartment in a city that was in the midst of Fallas, their exuberant March three weeks family and friend oriented festival which would be followed immediately by a family and friend oriented Easter. I needed to let loose a torrent of pent up English mother tongue words. But where to find English conversation in a city that speaks Valencia (a version of Catalan spoken in parts of Spain) and Spanish? I asked The Google. And then I asked The Facebook.

INTERCAMBIO EVENTS. Intercambio, which literally means exchange in Spanish are informal language and cultural events sponsored by schools, bookstores, coffee shops and pubs that allow participants to practice a language. It turned out there were many public intercambio English events in Valencia inviting English speakers to come converse over beers and coffee with Spanish speakers wanting to improve their conversational English.

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My first intercambio was at the Ubik Cafe , a coffee shop, wine bar, restaurant, bookstore in the charming Rusafa neighborhood. The evening was advertised as Singing in English and that’s exactly what it was. A local expat musician distributed sheet music of Beatles tunes and led the audience of Spanish and English speakers through a lively and social sing-along concert. On Monday evenings, Ubik sponsors a more traditional intercambio facilitated by a local language school where multiple language skills can be practiced including English, Italian, French, German and Spanish. I was unable to attend because while I was singing in English, a local told me about another intercambio venue:

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Valencia’s Portland Ale House is owned by two guys from Oregon fell who in love with Valencia and brought craft beer brewing and sensibilities to the city. The owners came from a land only three hours south of my home turf. I would not only be able to talk English, I could talk U.S.A. Pacific Northwest English! The pub was decorated in comforting memorabilia – a University of Oregon banner, Northwest Airline antique signs and black and white photos of Oregon. After the owner greeted me, I was seated at the intercambio table and given coupons for any combination of three free drinks and pizza as payment for my time as a conversation partner. I was joined by another English speaking partner (from Seattle no less!) and six locals – all young professionals wanting to practice English. The evening was a combination of informal table conversation and pub trivia contests where our intercambio table competed with the pub’s regular crowd. It was a trivia question that prompted another suggestion from one of the locals:

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IRISH PUBS An Irish friend once told me you can find an Irish pub in every moderate sized city in the world. Irish pubs are generally staffed by friendly Irish bartenders, televise soccer and rugby and are frequented by English speaking tourists and expats. There are at least five Irish pubs in Valencia but I only checked out one to see if it satisfied my need for an English chat. It did. Finnegans of Dublin was conveniently located on my daily walking route back to my apartment. The second time I dropped by for a beer after exploring all day, the bartender recognized me and introduced me to a group of London tourists who were there to watch a soccer match. I joined them and two soccer games later left saturated with English conversation.

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LOCAL TOUR GUIDES  The Valencia tour site Discovering Valencia offers a variety of guided tours with English speaking guides. I took the evening tapas and wine tasting tour with their lively and knowledgeable guide, Irma Mariscal and, as it turned out, another travel blogger from the U.S. That not only gave me an evening of speaking English but I also learned a lot about the protocol and culture of tapas, the history of Valencia and I discovered wonderful restaurants that I returned to during the rest of my stay.

I stayed in Valencia for a month with the intent of improving my Spanish by living there as an immersion into the language. My Spanish did improve. In fact, the rare English conversation I heard while out and about was so unusual it would nearly stop me in my tracks. By the end of my trip I thought I was hearing more English street conversation. It turned out the conversations were still in Spanish, but I understood more of it. Still, I found I needed the occasional relief of hearing and speaking unfettered English. As a solo traveler without the companionship of fellow English speakers, I needed to seek out those opportunities. And by doing that I also sang, played pub trivia, cheered a televised soccer match and sampled the cuisine and wine of Valencia.

Next post: Agua de Valencia.

 

India: Nothing Prepares You

I thought I was ready. I’d read the guidebook, some history (though not much sunk in without the context of being there), travel blogs and gotten a lot of advice from friends who traveled there previously. Intellectualizing India, particularly when one is there on a humanitarian mission, does little to prepare you for the real thing.

It began with my airplane descent into Delhi through a smog layer so thick the normal visual cues of a descent (skyline, runway lights) were invsible. Delhi has recently been designated the most polluted city in the world.
However, the pilot took pains to assure us over the loudspeaker that the conditions were milder than normal; our landing would be safely completed. My fellow passengers, most of them Indian, began pulling down jackets out of their luggage as the plane taxied to a stop and I knew immediately that my packing had underestimated the weather. Note to self: guidebooks do not take into account global warming changes in that chapter about weather.

My immersion into the work of The India Group humanitarian project began immediately at the Delhi Airport after a 24 hour sleepless flight. We work with Hindu families of one of India’s lowest castes, the farming caste and one struggling family of Sikhs. I sponsor Amandeep, the only child of the Sikh family and it was his father and another father in the project who could translate who met me at the airport and got me to my lodging in downtown Delhi

Since I arrived two days earlier than the rest of the team it gave me a chance to meet Amandeep and his mother and to be given a tour of Delhi’s largest Sikh temple with them and a basic understanding of their religion. The temple is a beautiful white marble complex. Despite all of it’s oppulence, it is a place of refuge for Sikhs and vistors who wish to live on the temple grounds for some time.

20160205_125714Langar is the Sikh practice of having a large kitchen staffed by volunteers that feeds all visitors no matter what their religion. In the Delhi temple only vegetarian food is served to honor the beliefs of other religions allowing everyone to eat as equals. The Gurdwara is the eating hall and volunteers were serving hundreds of people at a time while hundreds sat patiently outside the Gurdwara waiting their turn.

 

 

 

 

Paris: Two Guidebooks; Two Times

I had never been until last year. I wanted to save it until I had the time to savor the city. I wasn’t sure if I would love it (sigh….all those charming Paris movie and novel scenes) or be hugely disappointed it wouldn’t live up to my decades of pent-up expectations. The first time I went in May (ahhh, Paris in the springtime) and ended up staying an extra week. I returned five months later (mmmm, Paris in the fall). Clearly I am enamored. Since all of my time in the City of Light was an independent exploration (no tour buses and guided walking tours for me) and most of it was solo, I was intent on experiencing it my way. On the other hand, I did need a bit of guidance to travel the lesser experienced sights of the city but wanted to avoid the Fodor/Frommer/Rick Steves/Rough Guide/Lonely Planet tourist paths. Ultimately I found two small guidebooks and used one for each trip.

100 Places Every Woman Should Go In France by Marcia DeSantis, a former Parisian expat, was chock full of suggestions for Paris. It was my springtime guide to the city. I began with her suggestion that I overcome my acrophobia: don’t just snap the iconic exterior photo, but climb the Eiffel Tower steps to the second floor cafe (670 stairs of beating heart and sweaty palms) to toast my accomplishment with an overly priced glass of champagne and gaze at Paris’ rooftops and towers.

It was also her recommendation that took me to the department store Galeries Lafayette, not to shop but to gaze in awe at it’s magnificent stained glass dome and to Sainte-Chappelle, a medieval Catholic chapel where I listened to a concert while the setting sun played off its stained glass windows.

I would have never spent Paris temps precieux at a movie theatre, but her description of La Pagode art house cinema (a reconstructed Japanese pagoda used originally as a ballroom complete with tearoom garden and more stained glass) inspired me. I saw Still Life, a thoughtful English movie but could have seen their weekly screening of Breakfast at Tiffanys. 

Paris Sketching

It was her enthusiastic description of Merci, a concept store opened in an old wallpaper factory that found me there sketching over a cappuccino on a rainy day resulting in one of my favorite Parisian photos.

Bocce Ball Paris

In Luxembourg Garden, I searched for the bocce ball courts (as per her suggestion) and spent the better part of an afternoon cheering for very serious Frenchmen, while trying to figure out the games’ rules.

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And I braved the terrifying prospect of getting a haircut in a hip Parisian salon with my minimal French – made all the more fun when the stylist eased my concerns with champagne.

When I returned in the fall, I took with me City Secrets: Paris, the Essential Insiders’ Guide by Robert Kahn. This compact guidebook is filled with insider personal recommendations of 150 artists, writers, architects, historians and gourmet chefs who live in or regularly visit Paris.

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It was the keen eye of an artist contributor that made me take notice of the public art Metro stops and actually sit to listen to the street musicians.

 

I would never have found La Belle Hortense, a tiny wine bar/bookshop/tapas restaurant/literary and art gallery had it not been mentioned by both a food features writer and landscape architect in the guidebook.

As a travel sketcher, I appreciated the recommendation of a painter contributor to browse and augment my watercolor pencils at Magasin Sennelier, the historic artist supply store that invented oil pastels for Picasso.

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In a Paris guidebook seen through the keen eyes of artists there were a multitude of recommendations about looking in through shop windows and doorways and looking up at murals, lighting, ceiling motifs.

 

 

Ecuador:Go!Clown With Patch Adams

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This happened two days ago. You know that Facebook feature that randomly posts photos of your past life? Facebook posted this. This actually happened six years ago and it made me laugh as hard two days ago as it did when Patch Adams (that’s him on the right in the photo) and his merry band of clowns tried to kidnap me in Ecuador. When I didn’t go willingly they insisted on a group nose-picking pose.

It happened because I was traveling with my peregrine son through Ecuador which found us passing through Quito for an overnight stay three times during the trip. We stayed in the Mariscal area, a touristy but easy place to find cheap food, a good latte and information from fellow travelers. It also had La Casa Sol, an inexpensive guest house that let us safely leave bags of non-usable stuff as we ventured on multi-day trips that took us from the tropical jungle to the chilly mountains. When we arrived the last time late at night after a day long bus ride, the guesthouse was filled with clowns. Lots of them. Uber enthusiastic, red-nosed, horn-honking clowns. My peregrine son looked about and announced he was leaving to find another hostel. I stayed. I was too tired and too curious.

It turned out my charming hostel was hosting a Go!Clown mission, part of Patch Adam’s global outreach program at his Geshundheit Institute. I’d seen the 1998 movie based on his life starring Robin Wlliams so I knew something about the back story. But when you’ve just come out of a week in the remote Amazon jungle to discover you’re the only non-clown in a hostel full of them (always in costume and character….always!) it requires some re-entry time no matter how famous the sponsor. Which is what I was doing the following morning contemplatively sipping my coffee in the breakfast room when blown soap bubbles landed in my cup. I moved over a chair to let three clowns join me and sat on a whoopee cushion. I had inadvertently become an audience of one for their rehearsal of the day’s activities. What I discovered in between their magic tricks and making of balloon animals was that the group was headed to the Quito Womens’ Prison for the day to bring joy and happiness to the inmates. Later that afternoon I happened upon them on the main drag of touristy Mariscal performing for confounded backpackers. And even later in the evening in the sitting area just outside my room earnestly debriefing the day under the guidance of Patch Adams himself using the Institute’s educational philosophy about problem solving. And that is when I quit being disgruntled that I was surrounded by constant clowns. This was a volunteer humanitarian mission born out of a philosophy that spontaneous play in sad places (prisons, hospitals, clinics, orphanages, places that have been ravaged by civil war and trauma) incrementally heals the mind and body.

The next morning Hunter “Patch” Adams wandered into the breakfast room before the rest of his volunteers and I had a chance to meet the person underneath the clown costume. The 1998 movie never did produce the dream he had when he allowed the rights to his life and mission to be made into a movie. He wanted enough attention and funding to let him build a hospital that implemented his model of medical therapy on the 300 acre West Virginia Geshundheit Institute. He wanted the Go!Clown missions, which were annually in Ecuador, Guatemala, Peru and Russia to expand to other countries despite the fact that he was already traveling 300 days a year doing lectures and leading the missions. And he had a new idea – to include traumatized U.S. military veterans on the clown missions to provide a healing opportunity for them.

The rest of the exuberant clowns honked, tooted and danced into the breakfast room to leave for their day’s work at two Quito hospitals. They tried to get me to join them but we had a flight home that morning and so the photo op happened. Two days ago when Facebook memory prompted me, I checked the Geshundheit Institute website. He’s still fundraising for that hospital. He’s taking Go!Clown missions to other countries. And last year a group of military veterans donned clown costumes and joined a mission.

Colombia: The Hostel Christmas Mom

It occurred spontaneously without any of the pressure that normally accompanies the buildup to and carrying out of the holiday season. And it happened in the most unlikely of places – a youth hostel in what was formerly the most violent city in the world – Medellin,Colombia.

I’ve blogged previously about my do-over in Palenque and the non-ending of the world celebration in Guatemala. Also the joyful five day Festival de Blancos y Negros in Colombia. Somewhere on that trip between confirming that the world was going to keep spinning in Lake Atitlan and getting covered with espuma in Pasto, Christmas Eve and Day loomed on the calendar. And my peregrine son, Zach had joined me in Guatemala to launch his own three month backpacking trip through Central and South America. We needed a place to land for  Christmas enroute to southern Colombia.

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Medellin, Colombia had been recently featured in travel publications as an up and coming place to visit and live. Formerly the 1980’s stronghold of Pablo Escobar, the head of the brutal Colombian drug cartel, Medellin had rebooted itself after the death of Escobar with a new reputation as a haven for expats and tourists. The city also knows how to celebrate the holiday season with an extravagant multi-million dollar show of holiday lights all over the city and along the Medellin River so we’d have something festive to do when the city closed down while families gathered for two days. I booked The Wandering Paisa, a hostel that sounded promising because its owners were two brothers from Seattle. It had a tiny private room with bathroom for me and a dorm for Zach allowing us to have our own age-appropriate hostel experience. I could retreat to my room with a book or sight see on my own while he hung out with the younger dorm crowd.

We arrived late on the evening of December 23rd and after dumping our backpacks, I checked out the hostel. Clearly and by a significant margin, I was the oldest guest. The group on the couch made space for me to watch Game of Thrones which they’d been binge watching all day and I’d never heard of. Someone asked if I wanted a beer and because I was sure there was no pinot grigio or pouilley fume to be had in the hostel’s tiny bar, I nursed the beer through two episodes of grisly deaths and a back story that everyone but me knew. I started feeling sorry for myself. It was Christmas and I longed for a tree, Its A Wonderful Life, caroling and hot buttered rum. Before Zach left to go bar-hopping with the hostel crowd, I told him I was going to move into a nearby hotel (one with a Christmas tree) the next day. We could meet for Christmas Eve dinner and to exchange gifts and anything else where he wanted to join me.

Late the next morning when the first of the late night crowd wandered into the kitchen, he informed me they’d discussed my plan to move at the bar the night before and decided it couldn’t happen. It was Christmas. They were young international travelers – all away from home. They needed a Christmas Mom. He promised I didn’t have to do anything; they’d do all the cooking for the Christmas feast. The Hostel Christmas Mom. Who could resist that?

On Christmas Eve Day I bought wine and table decorations. That night, all of us piled into taxis and went to the Medellin River to walk through the lights. On Christmas Day while a crew of them worked in the kitchen, I gathered mismatched tables and chairs from all over the building and decorated our makeshift long table. The Hostel Christmas Mom wasn’t about to be a slacker when it came to mothering on Christmas Day.

Everyone dressed in their cleanest, least wrinkled clothes for dinner – a non-traditional assortment of wonderful food washed down with copious amounts of wine. There were plenty of exchanged travel stories and jokes and good-natured teasing. There were multiple languages. There were toasts to the people who would be leaving the next day to travel onward and there were plans hatched by those staying on for things to do over the next few days – all with insisted invites for me to join them. No solo sight-seeing or book reading for me. It was lovely. It was a Christmas to remember. It still ranks as one of my top three Christmases. After dinner everyone left to head for the bars while I crawled into bed. The next morning I stumbled into the kitchen to make coffee and couldn’t find the coffeepot among the piles of dirty dishes. And so, while my hostel children slept, I filled up the sink with hot water and began doing dishes. Because, I was, after all, The Hostel Christmas Mom.