Paradise Lost, Paradise Burning


Not to be smart-alecky, but wild fires in the West are now a hot topic.

I haven’t personally seen one, but they’ve affected my life here in the Pacific Northwest, enough to make me worry about the future. A year ago, I was looking forward to spending some time again at Whistler in British Columbia. Fresh air. Unparalleled mountain scenery. Beautiful forests. While the area is famous for its winter sports, there is a different experience altogether after snow melt. I’d only been there once before (in July 2011) when wildflowers were everywhere and miles of hiking trails were open. Surrounded by mountains on all sides, Whistler-Blackcomb is a spectacular part of Cascadia, roughly a two-hour drive north of Vancouver.

It was a bummer therefore that last September, in all our time at Whistler, the skies were shrouded in smoke from wild fires burning in British Columbia. It started out as brown haze on the horizon but visibility got progressively worse each day. It was not unlike fog where objects not more than 100 feet away appeared hazy, except the air had a brownish tint and the temperatures were warm. After the first day, my wife and I couldn’t take hikes to higher elevations because of health warnings.

That summer of 2017, wild fires in California were making headlines. Washington and Oregon had their share, including the Eagle Creek fire that devastated the Columbia River Gorge (top image from katu.com). Seattle for the first time I can remember suffered under smoky skies for the better part of August and into September.

In August of this year, when we went to Lake Chelan to visit friends, a pall of unhealthy, stagnant air hung over the glacial lake. Smoke from a local forest fire was to blame.

After I got back home from Chelan, I never saw blue sky for two weeks. Local health advisories were issued to stay indoors if possible, avoid physical activity outside. Two consecutive summers of polluted air might be seen as the beginning of a trend. The consensus is that fires of immense scale and their resulting dirty air are the ‘new normal.’ For many days this summer, Seattle’s air quality was routinely worse than Beijing’s, the AQI as much as five times more severe. Global warming is taking its toll here as elsewhere on the planet. Normally thought of as a wet, verdant corner of the U.S., Washington is becoming hotter and drier. For four consecutive summers that I can recollect, we’ve hardly had a rainy day from May through September, shocking when compared to when I moved here in 1979. Those days recall Mark Twain’s alleged quip, “The pleasantest winter I ever spent was one summer on Puget Sound.” The precipitation in the ’80s was more like endless days of drizzle, now superseded by heavier rains funneled into fewer months. The difference between then and now, a span of nearly thirty years, is dramatic. Snow today is practically a no-show.

On my own property, I’ve noticed telltale changes. Two Western hemlock trees died this year because of prolonged drought over the years. Western red cedar, in my mind the more iconic conifer in the Northwest than Douglas fir, is struggling. Under ideal conditions, they can live over a thousand years. For several years in a row, they’ve shown signs of exhaustion. On every branch, one or more sprays die, not only on my specimens but everywhere I look. With current trends and repeated stress, is it any wonder I think they’ll be lucky to make it another ten years or so?

By late summer, a high fire danger was declared on 95 percent of Washington state. In the past, this was unheard of. So instead of rejoicing in the splendor of our vast, green forests, I now worry that in the not-too-distant future, climate change will turn them into gigantic kindling that will fuel ever larger, more uncontrollable fires and forever change the paradise that I’ve come to love and cherish. Summertime in the Northwest has always been something to looked forward to, but nowadays it fills me with a little dread.

Update (11-19-2018): I’m speechless about the how the title of this post seems to refer to the Paradise fires that are currently burning in California. I hope readers didn’t expect any coverage about this tragic event that underscores the fear implicit in my writing. And if this weren’t accidental enough, only a week before the fire started, my wife and I were in Oroville, only 20 miles south of Paradise. When I was fueling up my car in Chico, which is even closer to Paradise, a young man noticed my Washington State plates, wondered if it was raining there and rued how dry it was in Chico. Now, I feel even worse. 

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Morocco Recapitulation and Final Thoughts


This is my last post on Morocco. The writing material the country provides is inexhaustible because, to me as a Westerner, it’s different in ways cultural, linguistic and religious, reasons I find Morocco so fascinating. I’ll conclude by writing down some loosely related thoughts and observations that together have contributed to my understanding of what makes Morocco unique.

Where’s the Desert?

I’d bet on what many people picture Morocco as being geographically—a desert. I know I did until not too long ago. This may come from the belief that the Sahara spans the entire upper part of Africa which might’ve happened geologically if it weren’t for the mountains that include the highest peaks in northern Africa. The Atlas ranges fortify northwestern Morocco like the Wall of the Seven Kingdoms against the encroachment of the Sahara.

Mountain ranges of Morocco (image from mapsoftheworld.com)

High Atlas mountain range, south of Ifrane

The cooling Canary Current makes Morocco as Mediterranean as its European neighbors across the sea. It could almost be regarded as a continuation of Spain and Portugal but for the Strait of Gibraltar. If I’d gone to Tangier, the coast of Spain would be only 17 miles (27 km) away. With a favorable climate, I shouldn’t have been surprised that agriculture is a significant industry.

My wife summarized it, “Morocco is so green.” She was referring to the forests around Rabat and Chefchaouen, alpine scenery around Ifrane with its distinctive cedars, olives trees, orchards and wheat in abundance and grasses and trees covering rolling hills.

We even came across fog and patches of snow at higher elevations.

Morning fog over Chefchaouen

Things did get much drier as we got to Erfoud, Rissani and Tinghir, yet they were dotted with amazingly lush palm groves (palmeraie).

Oasis, Tinghir (Tinerhir)

To the west were the spectacular gorges that the Todra (Todgha) and Dades Rivers carved into the eastern High Atlas mountains.

Todra Gorge

And of course there was the great Sahara. We rode into an encampment by camel.

Finally, the coastal cities of Essaouira and El Jadida had their own unique environments.

Essaouira

Morocco did surprise me, this, as the guidebooks say, a land of contrasts.

Mediterranean Diet

On our drives, Mustapha pointed out many of Morocco’s crops. From his van, I spotted fields or orchards of grains, stone fruits, apples, herbs, nuts, beets, citrus, grapes, sugarcane, onions. And there was a bounty of olive trees. I lost count of how many local markets (souks) I saw where all this is sold, not only in the medinas but in small towns as we drove past. With scarce supermarkets and home refrigeration, Moroccans shop at the souks almost daily. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised that meals I had were made with ingredients gotten at market not too long before, fresher than most food I could get back home.

Predictably, Moroccans eat a Mediterranean diet. Olive oil is used liberally in cooking. Meat doesn’t dominate the table; vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains and legumes do. Tajines are noteworthy not only for the cooking vessels but the impressive amount of vegetables (and legumes).

Tajine

Throughout our trip, my wife and I ate Moroccan salad which is nothing more than cucumbers, tomatoes, mint, lemon juice and olive oil. Simple but delicious. The meat-free version of harira (chickpeas, lentils, tomatoes and warm spices), most popularly eaten during Ramadan, is now my favorite vegetarian soup.

Harira soup, Moroccan salad

Zaalouk is a combination of eggplant and tomatoes, traditionally served cold or at room temperature. It’s very much like ratatouille. The version I had at Riad Boussa in Marrakech was so extraordinary that it had me searching for recipes when I got back home.

Because Morocco has a long coastline, seafood is plentiful. I didn’t see much of it on menus, because Moroccans don’t seem to eat large amounts of it, restricting themselves mainly to sardines, tuna and shrimp. Predictably coastal residents eat more. Most of the seafood catch is exported.

I’ll Have a Meal with Those Olives

Like its Mediterranean cousins, an abundance of olive trees signifies the oils and fruit are important parts of the diet. There were olive groves everywhere, acres upon acres of them, from the hillsides surrounding Chefchaouen, down through the Middle and High Atlas foothills and westward toward Essaouira on the Atlantic coast.

Is it any wonder that cured olives are more than an occasional condiment? They were served at the first dinner in Casablanca fresh off the flight from Paris and the following morning for breakfast. Every day after that, all lunches and dinners were incomplete without them.

Every souk had impressive displays of olives, sometimes occupying entire stalls. And what variety: black, green and red mixed with different herbs and spices. At an average price of, say, 16 MAD/kg, that amounts to 80¢/lb here in the U.S. Not suprisingly, Morocco is also one of the world’s leading producers of olive oil.

The Romans are credited with introducing olive trees after they expanded their empire to North Africa.

This Is Not the Middle East

Morocco, Mustapha pointed out, was the first country in the world to recognize the independence of the United States from Britain. I thought it was France. It wasn’t lost on me that even then Morocco was a monarchy (sultanate), part of the Alaouite dynasty that still rules today.

It would continue to surprise the world on the political stage when Mohammed V refused to give Vichy France a list of all its resident Jews. “We have no Jews in Morocco! Only Moroccan citizens,” the king reportedly said. On the tours of the medinas of Fes, Chefchaouen, Essaouira and Marrakech, it amazed me that the Muslim guides included visits to the old Jewish quarters (mellah). Our Essaouira guide gave us a tour of the home and synagogue of rabbi Haim Pinto to whose grave Jews from all over the world make a pilgrimage.

Rabbi Haim Pinto’s synagogue

A gate in Essaouira is decorated with Arabic Koranic inscriptions and the star of David.

Morocco recognizes the contributions that Jews have made to its history and development. Arabs and Jews had been co-existing since the Spanish Inquisition. Morocco even goes so far as to restore many synagogues even after the departure of most Jews from the country. The striking blue paint that covers Chefchaouen could very well be a combination of the symbolic colors of Judaism (blue) and Islam (white). Revealingly, over 50,000 Israeli tourists visit Morocco annually.

Moroccan Berbers now make silver jewelry whose craft was passed down by Jewish artisans (Centre de la Bijouterie Mâalem Ali, Essaouira)

Today Morocco doesn’t deport Syrian refugees who seek political asylum from the Assad regime, even those who may have entered the country illegally.

Call to Prayer

The muezzins sing out the call to prayer five times daily. It used to be that they climbed to the top of minarets and used nothing but their voices. Nowadays, amplifiers and speakers help do the job. The adhan, as the recitations are called, I heard throughout Morocco, their sonority a contrast to city noises. With two mosques nearby, one muezzin could begin a moment after the other. The asynchrony has its own melodiousness.

Bab Souk Mosque, Chefchaouen

The feeling of adhan reminds me in its sound-over-the-city way of the tolling of church bells I heard throughout Italy.

This Is California

Mustapha pointed out a section of Rabat that looked strangely familiar. “This is California,” he said, driving through an exclusive neighborhood. It had an uncanny resemblance to certain residential areas of the Golden State with their large stucco homes, winding streets, palm trees, lawns and bougainvillea. Every large city in Morocco has an enclave called California where the well-heeled live. The designation is more a status symbol than Morocco’s climate being likened justifiably to Southern California’s. So what do American Californians do? Their developments are named like Spanish haciendas and ranchos.

Parlez vous français?

Even if France occupied Morocco for only 40+ years, its influence remains strong. Other than Darija (Moroccan Arabic) and the Berber dialects, French is widely spoken in government, education, commerce, the tourist industry and professional circles. It is a required language in schools. The largest ex-pat community is French and tourism from France remains Morocco’s foremost. I had trouble communicating with some riad staff. In français, things would’ve been much less bumpy. My two years of college French taken long ago did little good. I could only pick out words here and there. I tried to order a cocktail at Kasbah Tizimi’s poolside bar but thought better of it after the bartender’s quizzical looks and ordered bière instead. Fortunately, we got by everywhere because there was at least rudimentary English spoken by someone.

With the rapid rise of visitors from other countries, especially the big English-speaking ones (United States, Australia and Canada), English will become more important because, for better or worse, it’s the de facto universal language. I have to say though that this continues to get us Americans off the hook to learn another language.

Tout Les Touts

The one thing I dreaded most before arriving in Morocco was being harassed by armies of touts as many guide books warn. Fortunately, it never became much of a problem. The usual advice is to politely and firmly say ‘no,’ which served us well. The hawkers were most aggressive in Marrakech, whom I still managed to avoid eventually.

But one incident had to make me chuckle. Each stall in Marrakech’s Jemaa el-Fnaa square has a number, which is posted on a sign somewhere above the stall. We walked through one group offering mixed grill when a hawker got in our face to eat there. We said no and walked on. He followed us. “No food poisoning,” he promised us. “Maybe later,” I said as we pulled away. Within earshot, he yelled, “Remember, 75, still alive.”

Infrastructure

We would be driving in the middle of nowhere when suddenly we’d come across a sparkling new town with new construction, including apartments, and wide paved boulevards flanked by sidewalks and the most beautiful light posts. Absent were the narrow streets of older towns teeming with people and traffic that had to pass each other cheek by jowl. My wife and I were puzzled. There were several such towns like Errachidia. When we asked Mustapha about this, he told us that the government subsidizes their development to help Moroccans find cheaper housing. Many Moroccans see it as a way to escape the big cities. Government support could also be part of the its effort to encourage agricultural development.

And what about electrifying these far-flung, isolated places? On our way to Ouarzazate, Mustapha told us about Noor I nearby, the first phase of a massive solar power plant project (Ouarzazate Solar Power Station) which when completed will be the largest in the world. Noor I will provide power for nearly one million Moroccans. Noor II and III are on their way. Of all the Arab-speaking countries, Morocco is the most dependent on Middle East oil, so shifting toward energy independence can only help. If all goes as planned, Morocco will become an energy exporter in the near future with the help of renewable sources.

Noor I (image from http://www.challenge.ma)

Gendarmes

I could swear there were gendarme stations every mile or so on the Moroccan highways. I’m exaggerating of course but there certainly were several checkpoints along any of our long-distance drives. Roadside gendarmes have the authority to randomly stop any vehicle and ask for papers. The gendarmerie is charged with policing and maintaining the nation’s security. They’re more concentrated near the Algerian and Mauritanian borders and near military installations. It occurred to me that law enforcement vis-à-vis travel within the U.S. is not so restrictive, that Americans wouldn’t put up with such interruption to their freedom of movement.

Whenever we got stopped, which may have been a half dozen times, Mustapha had to show documents. My wife and I never once were interrogated nor asked for our passports, which I thought curious. I just wonder if we were ‘off limits’ because tourism is very important to Morocco’s economy.

Mustapha

As you might’ve guessed, I owe much of this post to Mustapha, our driver who took my wife and me all over Morocco. He picked us up at Mohammed V International in Casablanca and drove us in a great clockwise circle through Morocco, providing insights and pointing out things that surprised me, educated me. Here’s a man who went to university to get a degree in English linguistics. Not language, but linguistics, the scientific study of languages. I gathered he is an avid reader, having mentioned several books or articles he recently read. Even if I thought another profession might better use his talents and education, he appreciates his job. He undertook the 17-day assignment while suffering physical ailments. He smashed his thumb in a car door the day before picking us up and experienced a long, debilitating allergy on our trip. But he soldiered on.

I made the mistake of asking him if it was boring to take tourists over the same route time and again. “How can I get bored when I can see this beautiful country?” As he drove us out of Chefchouen and into the Rif Mountains, he’d point at the valleys and say, “Look how beautiful!”

Mustapha was more than a driver; in many ways he was a guide. He would talk about many things Moroccan. All our wonderful city guides who led us through the medinas were arranged by Mustapha. On the road, he’d identify various agricultural crops along the way, knowing I was interested. “My time is your time,” he said several times. By that, he meant whatever we wanted to see or do, all we had to do was ask. I regretted that I didn’t ask him more about Moroccan history, for he seemed capable of teaching me that as well.

Not once but twice I forgot to return room keys to the front desk (both in Skoura and Taroudant) after checking out. They were in my pocket, well on our way to the next stop. Not to worry, Mustapha said. He arranged to have the keys returned by other drivers who were going the opposite direction.

I don’t know how drivers like him do it, not getting sleepy despite long hours behind the wheel. On occasion, he requested to stop somewhere to get coffee. “It is needed,” he’d say wryly. And, yes, I would get bored driving over the same route repeatedly, so for his stamina and service I applaud him.

Despite his terrible bout with allergies, he refused to take meds in the morning to avoid drowsiness. The next time I make the long drive from Seattle to Los Angeles on I-5, I should refrain from saying how boring the California stretch is. Yeah, that’ll really be a stretch.

Coda

Going to Morocco was out of my comfort zone certainly, but so is travel to any foreign country. Westerners especially seem concerned that Morocco is an Islamic country. Any look at the news shows that there is much less upheaval in Morocco than other North African countries, let alone parts of the Middle East. There never was a moment when I felt uneasy or threatened. Safety for my wife and me never became a concern—except crossing the street in busy traffic or avoiding motor scooters in the alleyways of Marrakech’s medina quarters.

I knew little about Morocco before arriving except what I read in Lonely Planet. But now, having seen and experienced much of the country, I’ve gotten a better understanding. The people were friendly and gracious, as people all over the world tend to be. But, here’s the difference. Almost without exception, when meeting someone for the first time, “Welcome to Morocco.” I rarely heard that kind of greeting anywhere else.

With that, my fond farewell to Morocco.

Here’s a Tip, You Can Never Have Enough Coins in Morocco


Travelers to Morocco, be forewarned.

The tipping culture is pervasive. This is not unique to Morocco, of course, but I never thought the problem was going to be as big as it became. Add to this the fact that most of Morocco operates pretty much as a cash economy. Credit cards are accepted only by bigger businesses that cater to tourists.

Most Moroccans you’ll encounter in your travels will be doing something for you, whether it’s a bus boy, restaurant server/waiter, guide, housekeeping, public toilet employees, and so on. You can, of course, choose not to tip, but that would be a mistake. Tipping is considered an important way to say thank you for a service rendered. Like it or not, many people rely on it to eke out a living. I am not against tipping. However, I wasn’t prepared for the constant demands it made on me and my time.

The usual tip amount is as low as 1 MAD (Moroccan dirham) and goes up to 10 or so MAD, depending on the service. For those of us in industrialized countries, we’re talking peanuts here. For example, 1 MAD is equivalent to a little over 10 cents in U.S. currency.

The problem is this: where to get the small denomination coins for tipping. It’s a bigger issue than you can possibly ever imagine. Here’s why.

Travelers now rely on ATM machines to get cash in local currency. The minimum amount they will dispense in Morocco is often a 100 MAD bill, less often 20. OK, you say, I’ll just get change from somewhere. You’d be wrong. Unless you’re a customer at a local bank, you won’t be able to make change there. Neither can you get it at so-called exchanges/cambios where their business is to swap foreign currencies (for a fee or an ‘adjusted’ exchange rate), not to make change for free. What if you try to buy something at a shop and hope to get small change. Nope. Invariably, they’ll tell you they don’t have the change. I swear this happened every single time. Many items are sold rounded to the nearest 10 MAD at minimum. Try breaking a 100 or 200 MAD at a shop and you’ll see what I mean. Even getting change at a riad or dar is difficult. It may be easier at large hotels.

Every time you use a public toilet, the usual tip to the person sitting outside (for women, this will be the only way to get TP) is 1-2 MAD. These are people who keep the WCs clean. A bellhop might be given 10 MAD. If you want to take pictures of people, they may ask you for 1-2 MAD. Waiters should be given about 10 percent of the total bill. You get the idea; small change is going to want to leave your pocket more often than you think.

The other issue is what exactly should be an appropriate tip for various kinds of services. Make sure you know what is expected. Your tour company should have good guidelines on what to give. Mine issued guidelines but didn’t go far enough on the hows. If yours doesn’t, insist that it does to make your holiday less stressful. And, believe me, getting small change in Morocco is very stressful.

So, traveler, be aware. This shouldn’t in the least discourage you from going to Morocco. It is a beautiful, wonderful country with so much to offer. It will captivate and surprise you in many ways, as it did me. I wouldn’t have traded the opportunity for anything, not even small change.

 

In Princi(ple), Starbucks Adds Food to the Menu


Back in 2005, after a long flight to Milan and a late train to our hotel from Malpensa, all we could do after check-in (it was around 11pm) was to try to get some shut-eye. Try, as you can imagine, because our biological clocks were off-kilter.

The next morning, we headed out for breakfast. The night before, we walked past a bakery/café with a beautiful display of baked items. It was only a few doors away from our hotel on Via Speronari, so it was a logical choice to have our very first meal in Italy, breakfast at Princi. Rather than something sweet, we ordered savory focaccias that were cut up into little rectangles, and our beverages (espresso, cappuccino). Like the Italian customers, we had our breakfast standing up at the counter. Little did we know that many years later this café, now one of five in Milan and one in London, would capture the imagination of Howard Schultz, enough for Starbucks to enter into a business partnership with Rocco Princi to provide in-house food service at Starbucks Roastery stores and Reserve coffee shops, so reported the Seattle Times.

Rocco, I love your stuff.

Grazie, Howard.

Ever think of expanding the business outside of Milan? You know, go world-wide? Kinda like my vast empire.

No offense, Howard, but my business model is different. We make things from scratch, use organic ingredients, control the entire operation from beginning to end. We strive for top quality, whatever it takes. Our operation isn’t scalable like yours.

Rocco, you gotta be kiddin’ me. Think big. Maybe cut a few corners here and there. If the pizzas get a little burnt, bitter maybe, no one’s gonna care. Give it a catchy name like full città arrosto.

Not gonna happen, Howard.

Rocco, Rocco. People respect your name, and they’ll pay.

It’s a matter of principle.

Did I mention that Starbucks would provide you with the space and equipment? You’ll make a mint.

How much are we talking about?

This dialog didn’t ACTUALLY take place. It’s more an alternative conversation. So, what’s really happening here? Starbucks gets exclusive rights to open Princi outlets all over the world, both in its high-end stores and as standalone entities. Since its inception in 1986, Princi has opened six stores (including one in London), clearly in keeping with a strategy of careful growth. Starbucks has over 20,000 stores. Its customers will recall that, in response to criticisms of inferior pastries (my daughter being one of them), Starbucks in 2012 bought La Boulange of San Francisco, which had quite a Bay Area following. While their pastries will continue to be sold at Starbucks, all 23 brick-and-mortar La Boulange stores were unceremoniously shuttered in 2015. They “weren’t sustainable for the company’s long-term growth.” A cautionary tale for Rocco Princi is in there somewhere.

To be clear, food service is going to be provided only at Starbucks’ special stores. Exactly what will be served is up in the air now, though pizza and focaccia are surely slated. The first to get a Princi will be Seattle’s own Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, perhaps in the summer.

roast-2

Starbucks Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room, Seattle

Current tenant Serious Pie, operated by local superstar restauranteur Tom Douglas, will be replaced by Princi, an agreement reached amicably.

roast-1

Princi will take over Serious Pie’s place

I’ll be one of the first to find out how Princi handles the transition, but the feeling of café intimacy I got in Milan surely will not be part of the experience.

Did the Incas Build All of Machu Picchu?


To many, Machu Picchu is the crowning achievement of the Incas. Like an ancient lost city, the ruins lay hidden from the world for centuries, even the Spanish invaders, until they were ‘revealed’ to archaeologist Hiram Bingham in 1911. Yet, for all its undeniable majesty, Machu Picchu is not the only impressive legacy of the Incas. I visited several ruins in Peru: Ollantaytambo, Chinchero, Machu Picchu, Qenqo, Sacsayhuaman, Pisaq, Qoriqancha. They were all magnificent.

But, there’s an anomaly at Peru’s ancient archaeological sites. It doesn’t take a trained eye to see that there are three distinct and very different styles of stone construction, still easy to overlook or ignore if you’re in a hurry. The conventional wisdom is that the Incas did all the masonry during their brief reign in the 13th-16th centuries. When the Spanish invaders arrived, everything was already in place. They made assumptions and recorded what they saw. Without a written language, the Incas cannot tell their own story.

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Carlos, Our Guide in the Sacred Valley


Ours would be an exciting, once-in-a-lifetime visit to beautiful, fascinating Peru. Now, over two weeks into the trip, as I considered what to write about, it occurred to me that I was struck by the people I’ve met more than the natural scenery, including Machu Picchu, breathtaking as it may be. I will soon share what I saw, but these extraordinary people, the guides and hosts my wife and I have met, have made our visit more personal, more intimate for the kindness, open-heartedness, perspective and passion they’ve provided as Peruvians. I found myself wanting to write about them because they say more about the heart of Peru than anything.

Part of our exciting itinerary through Peru included visits to Machu Picchu and other places in the Sacred Valley. I knew that guides would be provided, but I had no idea that it would be one person, one marvelous guide who gave my wife and me not only incomparable professional services but thoughtful personal care.

Carlos Vasquez Salas was our second exemplary guide in Peru.

Carlos met us at Cusco Airport, along with Felix, who would do all the driving, and Lourdes of One Earth Peru, the Lima-based organization that made hotel, transportation and ticket arrangements on behalf of Crooked Trails in Seattle.

Our first stop wasn’t a tourist attraction at all. It was a store. In the Amazon, the outsoles of both my wife’s hiking boots had begun to separate from the shoes. Luckily we had a roll of duct tape. Her boots looked like silvery astronaut shoes. Wearing these with weeks of walking to go in Peru wouldn’t do. Without a moment’s hesitation, Carlos took us to a sporting goods store in the Plaza de Armas where we purchased a replacement pair. I also have this habit of losing sunglasses on vacation. Off we went to an optical shop, too.

We immediately set off for Ollantaytambo and arrived after dark, but not before Carlos convinced strikers to let us pass through a blockade that crippled Urubamba for two days.

Carlos left us in Ollantay to return home to Cusco. We wouldn’t see him until the morning after next at the train station when we would go together to Machu Picchu.

My wife and I had this grand vision that we would first catch sight of Machu Picchu at the end of the Inca Trail. Not that we would take the legendary trek, a four-day journey over a marathon’s distance. Rather, we would start from Km 104, a distance of about 6 miles over fairly challenging terrain to the Intipunku Sun Gate, a good day’s hike that needs no backpacking.

The climb started out well enough, but about an hour into the hike, the high rocky steps and steep climb began to take its toll on my wife who had been battling a painful knee problem recently. Carlos suggested that we make our way to Aguas Calientes along the railroad track instead. I knew she was disappointed, but she wisely took his advice. Even if the route would be level all the way into town, the only precaution being to stay out of harm’s way from approaching trains, Carlos took my wife’s daypack, along with his own, and carried it the 6km distance to Aguas.

Several families live along the track, something I believe you don’t see along the Inca Trail. Other people for one reason or another take this route as shortcuts, maybe guides or locals making their way back and forth. Carlos is a very friendly, gregarious guy, giving greetings to families and offering pieces of orange to tired passersby, another of his fine qualities. And, as we would find out time and again, he knows a lot of people, mostly other guides, whom he would greet at tourist sites with a hand shake or hug. Mama/mami or papa/papi are terms of respect I heard him use time and again. They obviously know each other in this business, and it didn’t hurt that he used to be president of a local tour guide union. I was surprised to learn from Carlos that tour guiding is a very popular and respected career in Cusco.

I found that Carlos is an avid reader. He keeps up with the latest research on Incan and pre-Incan archaeology, history, culture, even archaeoastronomy. One can feel he is a great admirer of the Incas. So it was that he led us through Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo, Koricancha, Pisac, Qenqo, Sacsayhuaman to show us the vast accomplishments of the Incas. He also seems fascinated by the solstitial alignments at ancient ruins.

When Carlos perceived that I had like interests, he’d suggest books which I might like, not only to gratify me but help the vendors selling them. This dual relationship, I recognized, is part of the function of tour guide, to bring together tourists and locals trying to eke out a living. Of course, there was never any urging to purchase anything. When he took us to the markets of Cusco and Pisac, the vendors no doubt appreciated that he, like other guides, bring tourists. For us, at Cusco’s San Pedro Market, when we wanted to see the fruit stands or look for a certain kind of blouse for our granddaughter, he took us right to the stalls.

Above all, Carlos is a caring man. He talks of family, of his daughter in particular. He asked if it would be alright to donate my wife’s defective boots to a Machu Picchu porter who might repair them for use on the Inca Trail. There were little things. For his driver Felix, who would always wait in the car or drive to a different pickup point, he purchased some snacks at Las Salinéras, the amazing Incan salt fields in Moray, and offered comforting words for a personal problem Felix was having.

There likely aren’t very many like Carlos, someone to whom being a tour guide is more than a job, but a passionate commitment. He made our stay in the Sacred Valley all the more bright and meaningful.

Comfort and Care in the Amazon Rainforest, and Other Thoughts


When I told relatives and friends that my wife and I were going to Peru, their first thought naturally enough was Machu Picchu. I would have assumed the same. But when I said that we were also going to the Amazon rainforest, some were surprised, others were intrigued, and a few wondered why. Aren’t there wild animals, bugs, snakes, poisonous frogs, piranhas—and mosquitoes? Unbearably hot and muggy? Yes to all that.

But, the Amazon is the most biodiverse rainforest in the world. Ten percent of all plants and animals, in some cases 20 percent, live there. Observing life in their habitat would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. A safari. Who would want to pass on that? Simply the idea of it got me pretty excited.

To make life more comfortable, Crooked Trails and One Earth Peru, our travel organizers, arranged to have my wife and me stay at Posada Amazonas, an ecolodge on the Tambopata River. The lodge is a cooperative project between the Infierno community and Rainforest Expeditions, a Lima company, to promote ecotourism and provide additional source of income for the community. More on that later.

The flight from Cusco to Puerto Moldonado, the gateway to the Peruvian Amazon rainforest, was somewhat of a surprise for a short jaunt from one of the highest places in Peru at 11,000ft to one of the lowest at 600ft. It was no more than a half hour into the flight that I could see the vast rainforest for as far as the eye could see. The Tambopata River came into view, choked with muddy, rusty water that prior rains produced. To my shock and dismay, there were pockets of smoke from fires that got me shaking my head at the thought of yet more clearing of land for cattle grazing, but later learned that controlled burning was a way for farmers to enrich the poor rainforest soil with ash nutrients.

Arrival

The tropical heat and humidity hit me like a wave as I stepped off the plane. Puerto Maldonado is a little under 900 miles south of the equator. Lodge guests were met at the airport by a guide and boarded on a bus to transport them to the boat launch on the river. Rumbling down the road, the bus kicked up heaps of dirt. Years of vehicle traffic covered the plants and trees alongside the road with reddish dust that disturbed the image of unspoiled, lush tropics.

But, after I boarded the boat, heading upriver to the lodge, I began to get a feeling for the Amazon Basin. The Tambopata was wide and murky. The forest was growing right up to river’s edge. Sounds of animals echoed from the canopy. Parrots streaked across the sky.

The trek up to the lodge was an introduction to what to expect on all the hikes. Despite the high and dense forest canopy, there was still a soft glow overhead, with occasional shafts of light penetrating to the forest floor. There was an oppressive humidity in the air, dampening our clothing and lungs, and the sounds of birds, insects and monkeys. Later, I got a glimpse of the canopy from above. I made a vertigo-inducing climb to the top of a 90-foot (30m) metallic tower from where I got an awe-inspiring view of the forest’s crown, the Tambopata River, and an occasional monkey at eye level. I climbed back down after a beautiful, cloudless sunset.

Spotting Wildlife

A truth I learned is that wild animal spotting is impossible without a guide. A creature doesn’t reveal itself easily to humans. You have to know what to look for and how. In an ecosystem as rich and diverse as Amazonas, you might think that seeing a monkey or tarantula would be easy, but you’d be wrong. Without our guide Luis, ninety percent of the animals I saw would simply have been heresay. Included are white cayman, black cayman, red howler monkey, brown capuchin monkey, capybara, giant river otter, hoatzin, neotropic cormorant, capped heron, ringed kingfisher, anhinga, red-capped cardinal, amarynthis meneria, and more. Luis had to point out almost everything to us, our ability to see dependent on whether we were looking where he was.

Sounds

Forest sounds are another matter. They are everywhere. Rarely is it quiet. Squawks, trills, shrieks, hoots, buzzing, chirps. Strange that I didn’t hear the racket of night creatures since every room at Posada Amazonas has one side open to the jungle. In Puerto Rico and St. John Island, the din was almost deafening. The most baffling sound had to be what seemed like the far-off roar of wind but was the bellowing of howler monkeys. I am really fond of these natural sounds.

Ethnobotanical Garden, or Nature Cures

A visit to a botanical garden was also included as part of the activities at Posada Amazonas. It was billed as an ethnobotanical tour, so it was really my misconception about what that meant that led to surprises. The ‘garden’ is actually a loop hike through a portion of the Tambopata Reserve, led by an Infierno community member who periodically stopped to explain medicinal uses of various plants along the route. For instance, the psychotropic ayahuasca plant, long regarded by outsiders as a way to have the ultimate trip, is used by local shamans as a diagnostic tool to analyze patients’ illnesses, whether physical or psychological. Similar descriptions were given for chacruna (used with ayahuasca, also for migraines, Parkinson’s), caña caña morado (coughs, fever), sanipanga (produces a natural red dye, often used in cooking), uña de gato (treatment for early cancer, liver problems), cordoncillo (analgesic), and para para (rainforest Viagra). At tour’s end, we got to sample four extracts, all fortified with pisco. Not sure what this was about except to tickle tourists. I recall reading that Western medicine continues to research Amazonian plant properties and synthesize promising active ingredients. My takeaway from all this was indigenous peoples are still getting healed by shamans with their plant preparations. Western medicine is not the only answer.

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Comfort

I admit that the lodge made my whole experience nicer. I don’t claim to be an adventurer, so some creature comforts, not necessarily luxuries, were important. Rainforest Expeditions has gone to great lengths to make guests’ stays comfortable. The rooms, while spartan and spacious, are open to the forest on one side, with paper-thin walls and no ceiling that provide no sound buffer against neighbors or barrier to little critters. All meals were worthy of a good restaurant. Lunches and dinners featured Peruvian fare. There even was a bar where the bartenders made expertly crafted cocktails (I had my first maracuya sour and Cusqueño, Peru’s beer). Lounging areas open on all sides provided cooler areas to relax. This is not real life in the Amazon, I realize, only a way to sample it without commitment.

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Final Word

I truly enjoyed my experience. Maybe not the stifling heat so much (one day, it got up to 40oC), but it was a small price to pay for the opportunity to get to know a little about the community of Infierno, primarily through our guide Luis, and to finally set foot in the greatest rainforest of the world.