South America, Tourist, Traveling, Uncategorized

Parque Tayrona

There is nothing but the heat: heavy heat, drenching  you with sweat you didn’t think was left in you. Sweat so thick it covers you with a sheen, a sheet, that stretches your clothes. It explains why, even to church, women wear tight-fit synthetic clothing – cotton is for tourists and the ignorant. The blessing of even a slight breeze that licks the water from your skin like a fan, if just for the briefest of moments.

In the jungle of Parque Tayrona, on the NE coast of Colombia, the heat is the same, but the air fresher. In the shade, noises you don’t know move like large animals lurking in dry leaves, then  turn out not to be large animals but little lizards or iguanas or chameleons. Winter is just ending – the choice is mud or muddier, or, after a couple kilometers, the exposure of the hiking on the sand – hot, and glaring, no protection from sun and giving beneath your feet so that every step you take takes back a half. I choose the shade.

If you’re looking for dry ground, follow the red ants. They are larger than any you’ve ever seen, carrying mac trucks of foliage on their backs down the insect super highway, defying gravity and other rules of physics. Watch out for tree roots that spread across the jungle floor and up its rocky walks like giant snakes, reminding you of what you hope not to see. Butterflies the size of your head, in pantones that would make LG engineers cry with envy, wrestle and settle on occasion. In the distance, you can hear the crash of the ocean you hope soon to see.

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You can’t help but think about Vietnam. You’re dripping wet with sweat and effort for only a day, with the promise of a picnic and a swim in the near future, but what was it like for those boys? To be 18, 19, from someplace in the middle, someplace like Montana, where heat doesn’t sift through your skin and boil your insides, and be sent to a blanket of weather like this, humping a pack half again your weight, things you can see the least of your terrors. That’s some thing we did. To those boys.

At the entry, where you pay the exorbitant $37.500 COL ($20USD) entrance fee  – the price of being an extranjero) – you leave an emergency phone number with the guard. “In case something happens,” he says, and then gives you a ‘tour’ of the park map, carved in wood on the side of an entrance hut, and some admonishments. “Only on a marked path….Only Sendero Arrecifes” he tells me, because that’s where I’ve said I’m going. Only since he tells you you can’t swim there, you’re going to La Piscina, a bit farther down the way. The guard seems doubtful you can do this and make it back in a day.

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Wherever the trail leads to the beach, large signs warn you not to swim. More than 100 people have been lost in the surf, they tell you. At Arrecifes, where you can rent a horse for the trip back, or spend the night, buy a drink, or a bag, or an ice-cream pop, the trail dead ends into a soup of mud and there is no choice but to hike along the beach. The path to the sand sports a sign that says 200 people have been lost at this beach. It is not suitable for swimming. And then this:

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Your fearometer tells you that this says there have been caimans spotted in the lagoon, and not to swim in it. When the path actually turns to beach, there is another sign: 100 people have been lost here. You start to wonder if the caimans were responsible for 100 between the mud and the sand.

At La Piscina, the water is so warm it barely rinses off the sweat, and yet such sweet relief. First there is no one but you, and then, by twos, by fives, some hikers, a tour group, a family. The tide is coming in; you place your things on a high rock so as not to lose them. The jungle comes right down to the ocean here – the sand is being swallowed by the sea in this cove. Waves are full of bark bits and no one cares – you just want the pretense of cooling off.

On the way home, everyone walks the other way. They are coming to spend the night in a hammock between the jungle and the sea. One night, three nights. Couples looking for a private moment, backpackers on a cheap adventure, families who want to experience this national treasure. You can’t help but wonder if their kids will be whining from heat or boredom before night falls. You walk against this tide, think you could have spent the night with a group – but not alone. Not alerting to every sound – in the jungle, that makes for a long, long night. But to sleep by the sound of the sea, the occasional smell of salt in the air– it sounds sweet, it sounds like home. Next time, you think, already planning the return.

The ants go marching….

On the Road, Tourist, Traveling

Walnut Canyon

IMG_2397It looks like nothing coming in: a highway exit outside of Flagstaff, a quick sharp turn and the road becomes small, quiet. High, arid mountain scenery. Smell of rain coming in. You get out of your car, walk to the edge, and it falls before you:  a  canyon of dripping limestone and piñon, layers of rock and earth weathered by wind and rain, striated by history.

Look  a little closer. You’ll see what they saw, the Sinagua, who lived here for more than a century, over seven centuries ago. You’ll see crevices that could become home, protect you from wind, hold the heat of a hearth fire. You’ll see the river water below, dirt that could become clay, that could become bricks to build houses in the high-walled world. The view of the eagles, to keep watch. Plant life so diverse it is unrivaled elsewhere in the valley.  And so you build.

IMG_2315Down the 185 steps from the ranger station, the canyon is so quiet you can hear a child sigh from the far end of the trail. You can hear your own breath as it stumbles from your lungs, unaccustomed to the 6,700-foot elevation. You can smell, on the warm wind, the black walnut in the creek bed below, and when you look down to find the source, you’ll find instead a hawk, lumbering below you, working his way up on the current, until he soars above your head, and still beneath the canyon ceiling.

You can duck into the empty houses tucked into the wall and stare at the residue of hearthfire smoke on the ceiling, and wonder what it was like to live here. And while tucked in this studio apartment that used to house a family, you’ll look across the canyon and realize those striations you see in the rock, half of them are filled with homes just like this one, scattered across the area. If there were still families here, you could holler to your cross-canyon neighbor to borrow a cup of sugar.

crop flowerNo one really knows what caused the Sinagua to homestead in Walnut Canyon, or why they left.  The name itself is a misnomer:  these are native peoples, not speakers of Spanish. Here, just as at Montezuma’s Castle and Tuzigoot, the settlements aren’t far from water. Though climbing more than thirty stories of steps to carry it isn’t ideal, the safety gained from living in an almost imperceptible hole in a rock is worth the effort.

Sinagua settlements up and down the Verde Valley, now mapped by Arizona Highway 17 running south from Flagstaff to Phoenix, all share this same mysterious fate: their development appears at various times, and then they are deserted. Some groups, like those at Montezuma’s Castle, stayed more than four hundred years. Others didn’t last.  Around 1250 AD, after less than 200 years of habitation, Walnut Canyon was abandoned, leaving behind evidence of ample, healthy trade with people as far away as Central America, but no reason for departure. Hopi legend claims the Sinagua as an origin people of their own. Other theories say the Yavapai came and pushed out the Sinagua. Whatever the reason, they left , gifting us this trove of historic mystery in their wake.

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For more images of Walnut Canyon and Montezuma’s Castle, please visit the Ruins of the Southwest Gallery.

Life Skills, Moving, On the Road, Tourist, Traveling

Leap of Faith

A guy should really buy you a stiff drink before he pulls you onto his lap and straps on a harness.

That’s what I’m thinking a few minutes before jumping out of a perfectly good plane. I don’t say it, because let’s face it, though I may have four points of 1500-pound web and metal connection to Tyler, the instructor,  I don’t really know him well enough to be quite that…forward. Despite the fact that I am also sitting on his lap, and in addition to my ass, my life is in his hands.

Moments later he leans forward, taps the pilot on the shoulder, and hollers into my ear, “you ready?”

Fear has prevented me from changing the expression on my face from the frozen smile I had when we took off, so I nod.  At this point, I’ve made the live-or-die decision to go ahead with this business. Matters are really out of my hands on the whole ‘parachute opening’ thing. Now, I’m worried about puking during the jump, which would be fine for me because I’m wearing goggles, and on the bottom, but I’m sure that wouldn’t work out well for Tyler.

Things you don’t think about in advance: of course the plane door opens upward, like on a DeLorean. Otherwise, in 120 knots-per-hour it would come smashing back on my legs, which are now dangling out the hole in the plane’s hull. I’m trying to rest them, ladylike, on the step above the landing gear, but they are just blowing to the side, so I leave it be.

“Chest out,” Tyler says into my ear. “Lean forward,” almost like he’s teaching me to dive. And just like learning to dive, the anticipation is the worst part. With a little lean and a slight push, we’re gone.

There is a moment of tumble, of inertia and movement, and then there: below me is a postcard of wine country. It’s chilly and windy. My mouth is open; when I gave velocity a smirk, it took a gaping grin and pulled all the moisture from my tongue and teeth. I kick my legs out behind me, trying to hit Tyler in the butt just like I was instructed, and let my arms fly out  at my sides. The fall is free and gleeful, and loud with the rush of sky blowing past my ears. You can’t help but yelp, or yip, or yahoo, and so I do. Freely, and gleefully. The fear is left back on the plane with the pilot, coming in for a safe landing on the little air strip far below us.

Then Tyler taps my shoulder again, and again asks, “you ready?” and with that, there is a tug. I hear a flap of fabric against the wind, the sound of a luffing sail, and then the chute snaps taut above us and things become quiet. The vineyards line up below for inspection, organizing the hills into orderly view. Tuscan mansions, wine valley bungalows, trailers and the makeshift labor camps of early pickers speckle the landscape.

Tyler gives me a choice between being still and doing some loops and turns. “Loops and turns,” I shout back in the wind. “Loops and turns!” After two turns, I shout again, “actually, no loops and turns!” I (or more like Tyler) narrowly escape the puking scenario and we return to our graceful float, featherlike. We watch the earth rise to meet us for a five-minute eternity. And then, “lift your feet in front of you,” and here the ground is, right in front of the hangar from which we took off, landing pad of a lifetime, and we walk right in.

Tyler and I, right after walking right back down to the ground

Tyler and I, right after walking right back down to the ground

On the Road

Why Worth Packing In?

Road Tripping - Diamond Lake, 1968

Road Tripping – Diamond Lake, 1968

My grandparents were excellent travelers. They thought nothing of packing up the car like an ancient tetris game and heading out into the world from their Bay Area home base. In 1956, it was not uncommon  for them to put my mother and uncle, their ‘spinster’ aunt, and Bronco the dog in the car and head up the coast to Oregon to check on the maternal family dairy farm, to Carmel for lunch and sandcastles on the beach, to the Sierras for camping and trout fishing, or to Arizona, Chicago, and later, the East Coast, where my mother was in college. Along the way, they managed to find Hopi ruins, Chicago’s greatest hauftbrauhaus, California’s widest redwoods – the best of what their world had to offer, without a guidebook.

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