I´m currently in Baños, Ecuador traveling with Xan, my friend from college. Last week I initially arrived in Bogota, Colombia for a couple of days. Even though my flight arrived at 4am, I had no problems safely finding a taxi to the hostel. Amazingly, the first person I met the next morning was a fellow Washington & Lee alumnus, Eric, whom I had not met before. He has been living in Colombia and teaching English for several months. Also, I met up with Carlos, a native of Colombia who was a good friend in the Philippines (we had the same host family there). Arriving in Ecuador, Xan and I had lunch with two other W&L alumni, Veronica and Francisco in Quito. Francisco was the leader of my freshman hiking trip almost 7 years ago and currently works for the UN, and Veronica invited us to visit her family´s farm in northern Ecuador over the weekend. This has been the highlight of the trip so far, as we had the opportunity to explore the countryside on horseback and try delicious food. One interesting plant Veronica´s family grows is ¨tomate de arbol¨ or Solanum betaceum, which has a delightful sweet juice despite its botanical similarity to the tomato with which most North Americans are familiar. We also visited the Lago Cuicocha, which is a volcanic crater lake similar to Taal in the Philippines. The ¨cui¨ is a Guinea Pig, which is often eaten by Andean peoples, so we gave it a try. Our next adventure was climbing the Rucu Pichincha peak (15,400 ft, the tallest mountain I´ve ever climbed. The tallest mountain in the contiguous US states is less than 15,000 ft.). It had a steep, exposed section near the summit but luckily we made it without any missteps. The climb reminded me a lot of Mt. Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. We were tired after the climb but hopped on a bus nevertheless to Baños, where we are relaxing and enjoying some hot springs for a few days. Overall, my impression of Ecuador is that the roads and particularly the bus station are in surprisingly good condition, and Quito is less polluted and much colder than I expected. Another surprise in both Bogota and Quito was that there are few two-stroke engines (motorcycle-tricycle) on the roads, and the open air markets are less conspicuous than in Manila. I have another week in Ecuador before returning to Colombia, so I will try to post another update, and some pictures, before then.

Starting in May, I will be taking a 6 month sabbatical from my job.  I will be in summer school at UVA until August (math and statistics), after which I will be traveling around South America until November. Here are some of the places I would like to visit:

  • Colombia- Bogota, Medellin, Cartagena, and Leticia
  • Ecuador- Quito
  • Peru- Iquitos
  • Brazil- Manaus, Rio de Janeiro, Curitiba, and Sao Paolo

If you live in, have traveled to, or want to visit any of these locations, feel free to contact me. I definitely could use some advice as I make plans, which I will post here over the summer. I’m looking forward to visiting old friends, meeting new people, and learning more about this fascinating continent.

April 2008 (corresponding photo album here)

(Continued from Part 1) After Ranau, I tried to catch a bus to the coastal town of Sandakan, but since no bus arrived, I ended up hitchhiking 3 hours with a bunch of carousing Muslim Filipino guys from Zamboanga City (Mindanao) instead. This was probably not a wise decision, because whenever you read about terrorists or kidnappings in the Philippines, the reporters always write about it from Zamboanga. It’s only a stone’s throw away from Basilan, which is considered the island base of the terrorist “Abu Sayyaf” group. Nevertheless, I had a great time chatting with them in Tagalog, and they never bothered me except asking for a few ringgits for gas and constantly pressuring me to visit a nightclub with them when we got to Sandakan, which I politely declined. Interestingly, they listened to a mixture of loud heavy metal music, Van Halen, and something that sounded like an Indonesian version of the Backstreet Boys on the radio. It was a lot of fun.

In Sandakan, I stayed in a hostel and joined an extremely friendly guy named Gordon to visit the Sepilok Orangutan observatory (did you know orang-utang is Malay for “Man of the forest”? Similarly, “orang-laut” means “man of the sea”. I guess we are all orangs somehow), where I was equally mesmerized by the massive number of British and German tourists as the orange, fuzzy, and definitely cute Orangutan babies swinging through the trees to get a banana. Predictably, for every five bananas set out on the platform for the orangutans, probably four of them were stolen by sneaky Macaques, possibly the same species Macaca fascicularis that the Aytas had to chase from their farms in the Philippines. Later that night, I met up with a new friend from the hostel named Zaity and joined her and her friends to go out dancing. She taught me a popular dance similar to the electric slide that is apparently the rage in Indonesia called “Poco-Poco“. It was a ton of fun, and I was the only non-Asian in the place, but when a heavily make-upped individual of ambiguous gender approached me asking for a dance, we decided to head home.

The next day, I walked around Sandakan and stumbled across a large Mosque on the outskirts of town that was under construction. I was surprised to find out that the laborers spoke no Malay nor English, but were actually Muslim Filipino migrants from Jolo (an extremely impoverished and dangerous island in the Sulu Archipelago). They invited me to visit their home, which turned out to be in an enormous slum constructed with rickety wooden planks suspended over a wide mud flat along the coast. Apparently almost everyone there was from the Philippines, and even though they have the same ethnicity and religion as the locals, the relatively wealthier Malaysian government won’t grant them any legal rights, and they survive as day laborers, essentially invisible to the rest of society. My new friend explained to me that he would rather face the discrimination and bleak employment outlook in Sabah than go back to Jolo, which is constantly ravaged by pirates, gangsters, and territory disputes between terrorist groups and the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Furthermore, the largely Catholic Philippines government in Manila was not necessarily a better friend to his family than the Malaysian authorities. I found out later that an ancient border dispute exists between Malaysia and the Philippines over Sabah and Sulu, dating to pre-colonial times when a Sultan ruled over the area, and President Marcos even planned at one point to invade Sabah and take it from Malaysia. This historical animosity has so far prevented the Philippines from establishing a much-needed consulate in Sabah, because it would effectively end the Philippines’ claim on Sabah. Stepping tentatively across a gap in the wooden planks, below which all manner of trash and human waste floated in shallow water, I reflected with bewilderment at how ordinary people could suffer so much through no fault of their own, just because they were born in the wrong place at the wrong time. Furthermore, despite the fact that I was completely vulnerable in the slum, no one tried to rob me or even ask for money. They all just smiled and asked how my day was going.

March/April 2008 (corresponding photo album here)

I took the bus from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, where I spent the night with Ken, a Malaysian Chinese guy working in advertising, who it turns out was familiar with North Carolina because he had studied at Warren-Wilson College in Asheville. Ken organized a CS gathering at a food pavilion where I got to try many different kinds of delicious Malay food and meet some new friends. One of the guys there had recently graduated from Duke, and had ridden his bike all the way around the world! Also, I stopped by the Petronas twin towers (a childhood dream ever since I saw Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones in “Entrapment”). It was also great to attend church with Ken. The pastor was from New Zealand, and I sat next to some guys from Africa, but the sermon would have been familiar to anyone from North Carolina! I found out later that even though Malaysia is largely a Muslim country, there are substantial numbers of Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists as well.

My next stop, Kota Kinabalu, reminded me a lot of Wilkesboro (my hometown). As the capital of Sabah (aka East Borneo), a largely agricultural/forestry driven economy, there were tractors and pickup trucks everywhere in KK. After recovering from a brief bout of intestinal drama, I caught the bus to the base of nearby Mt. Kinabalu, which is actually the tallest peak in Borneo (13,400 feet, about 4,000 meters). I joined a couple of British guys and a Swedish fellow to make the two day ascent. We had a great time swapping Monty Python jokes and I was amazed by the diversity of rare plants such as orchids and Nepenthes pitcher plants along the slope. After a night in a chilly mountain hut, we woke up early the next morning to climb up above the treeline and watch the sunrise from the rocky summit. It was definitely a “mountaintop experience” and one of the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever climbed.

After the steep descent from Kinabalu’s summit, my legs were about as functional as jello and we all headed over to the town of Ranau for some rest and relaxation. This sleepy little village surprised me in so many ways. First, I had to get my watch battery replaced. With rudimentary Malay, I asked a guy to do it, and he fixed it in 2 minutes and only charged about $1 equivalent (3 Ringgit). Beat that, Walmart! Secondly, when I went into a restaurant to get some “Roti Telur” (egg bread) and “Nasi Lemak” (spicy rice and sardines, tastier than it sounds), all of the local men were sitting around watching a grainy TV set. When I examined it more closely, I started laughing because it was playing a professional wrestling match with “Stone Cold” Steve Austen, who was really popular with kids in my old middle school. Finally, at the bakery, I tried to chat with the two girls behind the counter, and they explained that they were surprised I would take the time to ask about their lives, because they had never had an actual conversation with an American before. Wow, I hope I made a favorable impression! (CONTINUED in Part 2)

Here are a few things I did for the first time ever while I was in the Philippines:
FOOD

  • monitor lizard, aka “bayawak” adobo
  • balut, the boiled duck embryo
  • dinuguan, a congealed blood pudding
  • isaw, grilled pig and chicken intestines

RELIGION

  • I was invited to be one of three judges at a theological debate on “nature versus nurture” in a Claretian Seminary. I was supposed to represent the “scientific” judge. One of the other judges was an Opus Dei microbiologist and the other was a born-again Christian engineering student. All three of us were friends by the time the debate was over.
  • I touched the Black Nazarene in Quiapo.

INSOMNIA/POLITICS

  • I once stayed awake for 40 continuous hours soaking up the Manila nightlife. During this period, I walked through a rally intended to overthrow the government on my way to fellow fulbrighter Denver Nicks’ presentation on the government’s proportional representation system and its political ramifications.
  • While observing an NGO rally against the Japan Philippines Economic Partnership, I accidentally wandered into the main chamber of the Philippines Senate without an ID
  • Experienced walking through the heart of the market district during a coup attempt by a Senator, who, prior to election, had already been jailed once for attempting to overthrow the government. When I panicked and asked my Filipino companion what to do, he said, “no big deal, it happens all the time.”

February 25, 2008

(click here for photos from this trip)

“Totoy Kano” is a nickname the Aytas gave me, roughly translating to “American dude”, and whenever I used this alias, people found it hilarious. One example of this occurred when I was out hiking with my friend Happy (yes, that’s her real name!). We were visiting the Taal Volcano, a geological wonder not far from metro Manila. It is considered the world’s largest island in a lake on an island in a lake on an island! In order to get to the crater, you first drive to the edge of Taal Lake (you are already on Luzon Island), take a bangka across the lake to the island in the middle, then climb up to the edge of the crater, where you can see yet another lake with a smaller island inside! The hike was very dusty, due to the large numbers of horses used to transport Taiwanese, Korean, and (to a lesser extent) European tourists up to the top. Happy and I managed the trek on foot and celebrated with a cool buko (young coconut) drink, freshly cracked open by a machete. On the way down, we swapped book recommendations (mine was The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco). I found out from a local guy that the big lake around the volcano is heavily used to farm Tilapias to be sold in Manila fish markets, an activity not without environmental implications, as the concentration of waste and feed can alter the chemical balance of the lake.
Happy has a pretty cool family (most of whom I got to know later on). Her brother Gino is a hip hop artist known as “Nimbus Nine”, and her sister Twinkle is a designer. Happy herself was active at the time in a fantastic comedy troupe called Silly People’s Improv Theater. Anyone planning a trip to Manila should try to go to one of their shows. They usually perform at places like Mag:Net Cafe.

Feb. 14, 2008

After returning from Coron, I was supposed to start working on a botanical transect on Mt. Makiling, near Los Banos, but was delayed due to red tape. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because it enabled me to have some fun around Manila. For Valentines Day, my Austrian friend Florian and I went with Kaycee and Lindsay to this great restaurant called Aioli that Ryan had recommended. It was really a hidden treasure, and I had to go the day before and map out the route to get there! I also sent a cheesy text to a bunch of random friends: “Happy Valentine’s Day! Love is not just about falling for someone, it’s also expressed in simple kindness shared with people we meet everyday. Thanks for being my friend!”