South America, Travel

Wild Ecuador:  you’d be mad to skip it.

You’d be mad to miss out Ecuador on a long term travel trip through South America. Yet nearly everyone I met travelling early in my trip did- hopping over it to get to the up-and-coming, cooler travel destination, Colombia.  Now I’ve been to Colombia as well I can see why they’re so excited. But skipping Ecuador means missing out on so much incredible wildlife, I can’t understand why anyone would do it. And I couldn’t even afford the Galapagos….

Sure, culturally, it’s a dud compared to Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia. Whereas Bolivia and Peru retain their cultural heritage in every corner you look, and Colombian people ooze a positive energy and vibe unique to them, Ecuadorean culture seems a bit… bland. By which I mean Americanised. I was gutted when I arrived and the first thing I saw was a Dunkin’ Donuts. This was not what I travelled thousands of miles for…

So. Skip Guayaquil. Most people’s entrance into the country as the largest city, but also the ugliest place I’ve ever set eyes on. Get out into the wild. There I saw things I’ve never seen in my life.

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My first stop was in Montanita, a surf/party  beach town on the southwest coast. I’d been gagging for some hot weather after the freezing climates of Bolivia and Peru, but sadly was disappointed as for several days it just…rained, and rained, and rained…  the party was kind of fun still in spite of this (apart from the more hippie vibe it felt like you were in Malaga or one of those dreadful places) but we didn’t see the famed hardcore drug culture and it wasn’t as wild in that way as we expected. BUT we saw whales. And that made up for everything.

Taking a tiny boat smashing (literally) out into the ocean, my friends and I tried not to hurl for over an hour before we gave up hope, and then- there they were. And it sounds stupid to say, but. Wow. Whales are big. I mean really, really, really, really, really big.

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To start we just saw the spurts of the blowhole shooting out of the water a few hundred feet away. And then we were among them. You don’t even get to see them whole, but the peaks of their fins rising out of the sea, higher than the length my armspan and so close I was worried they were going to come under the boat and flip us. Their skin was rough and barnacled.  In one moment they seemed to obscure the skyline entirely- and then- they flipped upside down and we were given a wave of the famous tale on the way down. I’ve never been so in awe at the size and strength of an animal.

From Montanita I went to Banos,  (a town not a bathroom) famed for its natural hot springs and extreme sports.  The bus ride there was the most beautiful I’ve ever taken in my life, like travelling through a fantasy wilderness from Lord of the Rings. The town is set amongst mountains with waterfalls cascading down at all sides. Here, if you can think of a death-defying activity, you can do it.

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I did paragliding. I’ve always wanted to and it’s one of the few extreme sports I hadn’t checked off my list yet. And actually, it was beautiful- like the best bit of skydiving where you’re drifting through the air looking at the incredible view below, without the terrifying falling through the sky part. And the view…

My friends Sophie and Jim and I attempted a bike ride in the pouring rain the next day… and we don’t speak about that now. But we did get the worst ever picture at the Casa de Arbol, (‘swing at the end of the world’).

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Next (when we eventually were taken back to civilisation by a kindly local) the immensely powerful  Pailon del Diabalo (devil’s cauldron, see first photo in this blog), and going ziplining over waterfalls. Sophie did not enjoy ziplining.

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After Banos I spent one of the weirdest weeks of my life at a Hare Krishna eco-community in the Amazon rainforest… but that entailed so many new experiences it merited another blog.

I finally returned to civilisation in Quito, and as much as I hated to admit it, was far too excited to get back all the comforts of the modern capitalist world. I was surprised by how much I liked Quito since I usually loathe capital cities. It’s modern (if expensive) but the historical centre has loads to look at, particularly if you love really blingy churches. I’ve never seen anything like them, and Latin America generally is a bit nuts for OTT churches. Iglesia de la Compania is apparently made from over 70 tonnes of gold!

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Quilotoa has to be my highlight of Ecuador. The Quilotoa loop is a famous four day hike through Andean villages, ending up at the phenomenally beautiful Lago Quilotoa- a collapsed volcano that has become a lake- of the most dazzlingly blue shade you can imagine. Having run out of time, I took the lazy option of the day hike- and it was so worth it. I met a friend there and we just sat looking at it for two hours in the perfect Andean sun.

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My last stop was the Mindo cloudforest, a place rich in natural beauty and positive vibes. Here I got up at the crack of dawn to go bird-watching, and although I was disappointed to not see a toucan, did get to see this fellow- a ‘cock of the rock’ and various other brightly coloured flying things.

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I visited the Mariposario, a butterly house where you can sit transfixed for hours as butterflies of all shades flutter past you.

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And I spent a magical day hiking the trail through the cloudforest  that passes through seven waterfalls, cooling off in the last one for a swim, totally alone in paradise. I was splashing around like a happy duck and whooping when the peace was disturbed by a girl laughing at me. Not so alone then. But she did insist on taking this picture, while I tried to feel less like a dick…

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So Ecuador. If you like nature, you’d be a fool to skip it.

food, South America, Travel

A week in the Wisdom Forest: my experience living with a Hare Krishna community in the Amazon Jungle

In one week I learned about Hare Krishna, experienced a spiritual ‘sweat lodge ceremony’, learned to use a machete, harvest tropical fruit, make chocolate from raw cocoa, press sugar cane juice, climbed up waterfalls, trekked through the jungle, made a traditional Amazonian meal, took part in mantras and ceremonies, tried to meditate (unsuccessfully), and attempted yoga (even less successfully).

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The Wisdom Forest is located in the Amazon Jungle- to reach it you take a bus to the town of Tena, and then a smaller bus, on which you ask to get dropped off at el mono– the monkey. I got hopped off at the statue of Hanuman and followed a little path that winds through a garden of incredible plants for produce- pineapples, papayas, bananas, coconuts, limes, and cocoa, flush with fruit. Bandu, the resident giant dog, and the friendliest Alsatian I’ve ever met, came bounding up to say hello. The front porch of the house is open, with fresh bananas strung up, people swinging from hammocks between the beams, reading books and chatting, guitars and drums lying around, and a little bike workshop.
The community here are Hare Krishnas. I knew next to nothing about Hara Krishna culture before coming here, but was interested to know more about their way of life, experience living in the rainforest, and volunteering on the eco-farm that produces organic vegetables and fruits, which they both live from and sell from a little tent on the side of the road.

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I am always interested to learn about religions, and ways of life other than the one I am used to, but I will admit I was a bit apprehensive about how I would cope with the level of spiritualism in this vedic community. I’ve always thought of myself as a bit of a hippie- but more of a cynical hippie. I care about the environment and conservation because to me the world is beautiful, and it’s logical to look after the planet you call home. I’ve been a vegetarian for 17 years (and mostly vegan for the last) I think it just makes no sense to add to the world’s suffering, and I like animals too much to want to kill them. I object to war and always advocate love and peace because it just makes sense. Non- violence is always better than violence. I don’t like capitalism because it’s a system of fucking people over with unfathomable suffering and death tolls as the consequence. But none of this is linked to any sense of spirituality or connection to something bigger. I think that when we die, we break down and become mud, and that is it. My beliefs are firmly rooted in a combination of logic, proven science, and the general principle of not being a dick. I try to always respect other people’s beliefs, but I have to admit to perhaps sometimes being a bit of a smug twat to two of my best friends, Bethan and Jodi, who really go in for some of this spiritual stuff (reiki, magic stones, fortune telling, prayer bowls that are connected to the sound of the universe etc.) because I have to admit, to me it always seems like a lot of guff. (Sorry to them for that).
But- I told myself to keep an open mind, and even if I thought I would never be the type to go in for this, to learn as much as possible from these people. After all, I was walking into their world voluntarily.

I was thrown in the deep end, as when I arrived the group were getting ready to take part in a ‘sweat lodge ceremony’. First, you get in your cossie and take a jump into the freezing cold natural plunge pool, or shower in an amazing natural outdoor shower that has water running down the forest through a bamboo beam, sheltered by leaves. Then you enter the lodge- a small, thatched hut with a tiny entrance which you crawl through to get in. It’s incredibly dark. Everyone sits on banana leaves in a circle around a pit. Bhaga explains that the hut represents the womb of mother earth, and that we are going to be reborn. We are going to meditate on Mother Earth, and he talks for a while about the importance of protecting the planet and looking after the animals. So far so good. Then they start to bring in the abuelas. Grandmothers. Not old women, but the name they have for the hot stones that they place in the pit to heat the hut and create the sauna affect. The abuelas are each meant to represent a virtue we should meditate on, while they chant a song to welcome them as they are brought in- giving thanks for empathy, patience etc. There are three rounds of meditating, drumming, and chanting mantras to Hare Krishna, Madre Tierre etc., between which more abuelas are brought in, and palm fronds are used to waft the hot stones until it becomes incredibly hot, and everyone is soaked in sweat. With the heat and the beats of the drums, it’s kind of hypnotising. After, everyone comes out of the womb reborn, and plunges in the pool again to return to reality.

There are many variations on this ceremony in different cultures and practices. For some, this is a profoundly spiritual experience. I wouldn’t say I found it that, but it was certainly very relaxing, and the messages were positive. I slept well that night.

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Mornings here start at 5.30am in the temple, located in treehouse overlooking the jungle, where Bhaga, who began the community, leads the morning meditation. The Hare Krishna movement is a kind of branch of Hinduism that practices Bhakti Yoga  (it turns out yoga is a whole set of practices and not just the exercise). Although Varsana, one of the lead volunteers, insisted it’s not a religion in the dogmatic sense, but more a way of life, the ceremony was very like the many I witnessed in Hindu temples while travelling in India. Rhythmic music was played on an instrument I’ve never seen before, with drumming, and chanting mantras, in front of a cabinet full of pictures of Krishna and the gurus (all men). There are many mantras, but the most common is quite repetitive and meant to focus your mind for the meditation:
hare kṛṣṇa hare kṛṣṇa
kṛṣṇa kṛṣṇa hare hare
hare rāma hare rāma
rāma rāma hare hare
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After the meditation, there is a ‘philosophy’ class with Bhaga. This is the part I struggled with the most. I wouldn’t so much call it a ‘philosophy class’, as an hour of listening to Bhaga’s beliefs and opinions. Now, I spoke at great length with the other Hare Krishnas there- latinos from Venezuela, Guatamala, and Mexico- and they talked with great sincerity about how the Hare Krishna way of life had helped them to live in a more positive way, in accordance with nature, to learn to reject material wants and to live to serve others, overcome depression and negative feelings in the past, and feel more whole. I have immense respect for them, because they really did live a simple and peaceful life, and did everything they did with kindness, and importantly, would talk about why they believed certain things without judgement of others. Although I didn’t believe in Krishna, and found the rituals a bit bizarre, I largely agreed with their principles, and they said as long as others followed a way of life that incorporates kindness, and in accordance with protection of the earth, we should find our own way to becoming who we felt happy with.

Bhaga’s lessons were not like this. It felt like the hour of judgement. He would lecture endlessly about the dangers of meat, alcohol, drugs, and sex. Even though I agree with not eating animals, the way he aggressively accosted the meat-eaters in the group was unhelpful in engaging them in a cause I do believe in.

We did a test to find out what our ‘ayurvedic body type’ is. This is based in an old spiritual system that promotes the idea people are made either of earth, fire, or air. The definitions seem extremely random, and I can’t help rejecting any system that reduces anything as complicated as people to three types. I was told I was ‘Kapha/Pitta’- a mix of earth and fire. But realistically, elements of all three body and personality types related to me, and all of them contained elements which were completely contradictory to how I am. On the basis of this system, illnesses are treated by diet- if you are kapha you should eat less oil etc., to balance your elements. He promised this is a ‘scientific’ method, and I had to work hard to maintain politeness, and point out that adding the word ‘science’ to an idea doesn’t make it scientific.

In another class, he advised we should not wear suncream because we shouldn’t put anything on our skin that would be poisonous to eat. He said people shouldn’t put it on their children. This was day four, and I actually felt myself losing my temper. The temperature here was up to 30 degrees in the heat of the day. I feel it’s extremely irresponsible in a capacity as a ‘teacher’ to advise people (especially the groups of blancitas that frequent the Wisdom Forest) not to protect themselves against the sun, and not to protect their children. After all, there is proof that getting sunburn repetitively can cause skin cancer and death. I told him as much. He whinged on about whether there was really proof, maybe he’d have to look at statistics, but his friend told him it was bad and never put sun cream on her children and so… bla bla. At this point I felt like saying, mate. Your name isn’t Bhaga. Your real name is Ben and you’re from Chichester. And yes, the link between sun damage and skin cancer has been proven by (genuine) scientific research. Saying ‘but my whacko mate said this’ isn’t going to hold up in academic peer review. Shut up.

For this reason I had to skip the last ‘lessons’, which is probably just as well because apparently he talked about how having any sex will definitely make you a prostitute, and then you will die. Sigh.

After the hour of talking crap, there was a yoga class, which was actually quite nice, especially looking out into the rainforest, but I realised how inflexible I am as I was barely able even to cross my legs, and had to creak my way through saluting the sun, trying ‘downward dog’ etc. without falling over.

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After breakfast, work. The work here was interesting- I learned to wield a machete and felt like a badass (though more likely just a mentally unstable person with a machete). But we harvested the food we then ate which felt very satisfying. Better yet, we used the cocoa to make chocolate- you suck the flesh off the beans (sounds gross I know, it’s sweet but nothing like chocolate) then dry them, and roast them, peel the shells off, grind them, and we then added panela before rolling them into balls. Panela is a syrup made from sugar cane juice which we cut down and crushed, and then boiled. The result was delicious, natural, and as local as you can get.

Meal times were great. The food here was genuinely incredible- all vegetarian and mostly vegan, we had one awesome giant Amazonian meal (below), which contained fruits and vegetables I’d never tried before- piton, fruitipan, chiclas etc. We also made bean stews, lasagne, stir frys, pizza, and even a birthday brownie cake on Kartik’s birthday. As with anything, there is a ritual that must come before eating in Hare Krishna culture. They consider cooking a meditation, and so before eating you make an offering to Krishna, consisting of a small amount of every dish, which is put in a cupboard, and you chant a mantra thanking mother earth for the food and offering it to Krishna, while a bell is rung and you clap. Then, before eating, there’s a cancion (song), thanking again, with guitars, and you chant the Hare Krishna mantra.

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Days off were fun- we spent a day adventuring in the waterfalls, hitching a ride on the back of a local pick up truck, then wading through rivers, hauling ourselves up waterfalls with ropes, and trekking through the jungle while the boys swung around on the real Tarzan style ropes hanging down around us. We visited a local community, and the family of a volunteer which had eleven children, on their small farm, and tried the local drink, chicha.

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The accommodation was basic to say the least- inevitably jungle bugs get everywhere, there were often cockroaches in my room, we found a small snake in the kitchen, and once when I got in the shower I was alarmed when a frog jumped out at my face. I had about 5000 bug bites when I left, though thankfully I didn’t catch sight of the resident tarantulas the whole time.

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On the whole, I had an amazing experience here. I do believe ‘Bhaga’, if I will go with his ‘spiritual’ name, is a bit of a bullshit merchant, and I dislike his negative approach of haranguing people. It makes Hare Krishna seem very negative as a culture, and I don’t believe it is. I never go in for dogma in religions, but I understand the principle of being thankful for what you have and the ceremonies do remind you to be mindful in a way that can never be achieved in the city and chaos of modern life. I could never be a Hare Krishna, and there is an element of the cultish about it, but I like the people very much, and I have to say that after a week here I did feel more peaceful, patient, and open hearted to others. Which can only be a good thing.

It was an amazing way to experience the rainforest, and if you are thinking about it, I would definitely recommend going in a volunteer capacity so you can get closer to the wildlife and really learn to live within it. I have never had so many new experiences in one week and can only thank the people who let us into their home, showed me a path to being a more gentle person, and gave me memories to last a lifetime.

Love and peace,

Helen

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Travel, Uncategorized

New beginnings

This winter I finally did the thing I had thought about for so long: I handed in my notice at work, told my housemates to put a vacancy ad up for my room, and bought a one-way ticket to Bolivia. In May I will be embarking on a solo adventure through South and Central America with just my plane ticket and my backpack, and vague intentions to be back by Christmas, but really, who knows? I have a map of the region and a vague route planned through Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua, but I am open, and for once have the flexibility, to just see what happens.

I have always wanted to get out into the world and travel long term, but at the usual gap year age of 18 I was far too shy and anxious (and too poor), and like everyone else, as soon as I got into work (finally) after university I had debts and needed financial security and the stability for a while, and to gain experience. I was never able to travel with work but I did always make a personal commitment to saving a large chunk of my income each month and managed a couple of longer holidays; one in India, and a safari tour through Southern Africa, but it was never long enough and I never felt able to really get to know other countries, people, and cultures properly.

This time it will not be rushed. If possible I will spend a month in each country, learn Spanish, and integrate with locals as much as possible. At the end of my trip I hope to spend a few months in my final destination, Nicaragua, rent a room and find a volunteer position within a women’s/human rights organisation, and maybe teach a bit of English or do freelance work to keep my savings from dwindling too low.

This was the hardest decision I’ve ever made in my life. I’ve had to make heart-breaking sacrifices in my personal life, give up the job that I had always wanted (working in publishing within a charity), the home I shared with friends, the town I’d become settled in, and to sell or give away a lot of my possessions, including my beloved car, Poo-Jo. It’s the first time in my life I feel completely uncertain about what the future holds.

As scary as this seems to me, though, the opportunity to travel in this way is, I am very aware, a privilege, and one that I am extremely fortunate to be in the position to be able to choose to take. While more people are moving around the world now than ever before, most do not have the luxury of being able to leave their home by choice. War, terrorism, political instability, discrimination, and climate change have forced seemingly more people than ever to flee their home countries and there are now an estimated 20 million refugees worldwide. It is a matter of shame and outrage to me that my own country, ‘Great’ Britain, has utterly failed to meet its human rights obligations to provide adequate shelter and protection to people desperately seeking refuge, particularly unaccompanied minors. So before I fly to Bolivia, I’ll spend a month volunteering at the Women’s Refugee Centre at the Dunkirk Refugee Camp in France to try to offer whatever help I can give.

I have thought about this a lot, and in many ways I have wondered if it is a failure on my part, and selfish, to be moved by this and yet to  still offer only a month, relative to the time I will spend travelling for personal enjoyment and development, and realistically it probably is. I have justified it to myself on the basis that I have worked and saved hard to be in the position to do this. Not being particularly well paid working in the publishing/charity sector, I have often had to skip social activities I really wanted to do with friends, mostly live off cheap food like rice and beans, avoided ever buying new clothes etc. and have lived in a small shared house that is falling apart in order to save money for a long time, because travel is the thing that has always meant more to me than all of that. I hope that, by travelling with good intentions, favouring eco-tourism and local companies, and offering whatever volunteer help I can to small local organisations working on issues I care about along the way, I will at least be making a fair attempt to enjoy this privilege with as much responsibility and care for the places and people I will meet as possible. Apart from the travel experiences, my end goal with this trip is to gain volunteering experience in human rights work, before doing whatever else I have to do to be able to nudge my career over in this area. This is not because of a (potentially patronising and self important) desire to fight on behalf of others, but simply to be able to offer whatever support is needed to people that have been discriminated against in their own fights for justice, and for the same freedoms we should all be able to enjoy as equal citizens of the world. Idealistic? For sure. But well intentioned, and better than doing sweet f/a? I certainly hope so.

As I travel I will be writing about my adventures, the people, the wildlife, the landscapes, as well as political issues I care/am learning about (particularly in the areas of human/women’s rights, LGBT issues, refugees, labour rights, the environment, and sustainable international development), inspiring work I have seen, maybe some veggie/vegan food recommendations for other travellers, and anything else.

I hope you’ll enjoy reading my blog and get in touch if you have any ideas, thoughts, recommendations, or if you happen across this and are also travelling in this region in 2017 and want to meet up, please do send a message! I am not sure what the next year will bring, but I am very excited for the adventure that is ahead.

Peace and love,

Helen