Sunday, December 26, 2010

Barrels of Rum

Anyone standing at the foot of a rack like this, staring up slack-jawed at the myriad of barrels towering above and knowing that each one is filled to the brim with distilled spirits will react in a predictable way, I think.  My personal reaction, one shared by the group I was with, was something like, "Damn, that's a lot of rum!"  I imagine that's generally the effect that the proprietors of Ron San Miguel expect.

Months before, as I was reading a description of the place, it was undeniably the sheer quantity of rum that caught my attention: "200 million liters of rum in oak barrels."  Hmm.  There I was, absentmindedly browsing a bulletin board at work as I passed the time during a break in a workshop for teachers at the beginning of our fall semester.  It was that day, incidentally, that we were all placed on spontaneous lockdown at the office, due to the news that the national police force was rising up in rebellion against the president.  But that, as they say, is a story for another time.  Because it was that day also that I hatched a plan to organize a trip for a select cadre of our teaching staff to go and see those 200 million liters of rum for ourselves.

Perhaps an alcohol related outing was not an appropriate one for working professionals to embark upon, or for me to organize.  But on the other hand, the bulletin board I had been reading was for our organization's department for US college kids studying abroad.  So certainly if university students could be considered for such a trip, older, more mature educators such as ourselves would be fine.

Ever since I was pulled aside during a trip to Isla de la Plata near Ecuador's coast to do some Spanish-English interpretation between our tour guide and the rest of the non-Spanish speaking tourists, I've entertained the thought of organizing tours as an alternative or supplement to teaching English.  So as I turned the notion of this trip to Cava Ron San Miguel around in my mind, I decided it would be a decent way to actually see how complicated it is to put a trip together.  That, in addition to seeing the aforementioned millions of liters of rum.  For this one, transportation and the entry fee at our destination were the only real costs involved, and as such, it seemed simple enough to set up.  Since I was a novice at organizing trips, I didn't want to actually make any money at it, so I just calculated the per capita cost for the prices I'd been given, which turned out to be only about $5 per person.  You've got to love Ecuador for its low cost of living.

It took me a couple of months to get around to actually making the trip happen.  And so it was on a rainy Friday in November that an assortment of English teachers boarded a red tour bus and set off to see all that rum for ourselves.

When we arrived at our destination, we were surprised by how beautiful the location was and how close it was to the city.  Cuenca, like many Latin American cities, tends to be pretty dense.  But once you leave the city, it's striking how quickly the scenery turns from urban to rural.  As such, Cava Ron San Miguel can just about be reached by Cuenca's public bus system for its proximity to town, but at the same time it is situated in a wide open estate with far more green space than building.  We were later told that the distillery takes its name from its location, which is on the former grounds of a beautiful old eponymous church, within sight of the building we toured.

As we got off the bus and walked into the dimly lit barrel house, the unmistakable aroma of rum immediately filled our noses.  A woman came to meet us and led us up to a platform with heavy wooden tables where we sat and watched an introductory video about the distillery.  From there, as our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we also caught our first glimpse of the many enormous barrels resting in the bodega below us.

There they were, the 200 million liters of rum, aging in their oaken barrels.  Numbers that large are difficult for the human mind to truly conceive of.  As I tried at that earlier date to reckon with the idea of what that quantity of rum really looked like, the image came to mind of a sight not unlike this one, with big wooden casks stacked up and extending as far as the eye could see in any given direction.

The eye could see far less here, however, due to the low light.  As our guide explained, wood essentially breathes, permitting vapors to escape from the aging rum.  Hence the undeniably boozy smell as we entered the building.  And also the reason for the low lights.  Apparently stronger lights, among other things, run the risk of igniting the highly flammable gasses in the air and causing a massive explosion.  With such a thought in mind, so much rum resting in silence demands much more respect from the little people walking among it.

And walk among it we did.  The "cava" in Cava Ron San Miguel refers to the barrel house itself, a sort of cave if you will, where the rum sits in oak and takes on all the oaken characteristics in regards to color, flavor and aroma.  Prior to the aging process, the rum is a clear liquid, highly concentrated and not very palatable.  Sugar cane grows best in a tropical climate, and thus all the production of the rum takes place at lower elevations.  In the case of San Miguel rum, near the coast.  There, the cane is grown, the sweet liquid extracted, fermented, and distilled.  Once distilled down into high concentrations, it is transported up to Cuenca and its perennially cool climate.  Upon its arrival here, it is diluted with spring water and aged for about two years before being blended and bottled as a finished product.

Many Latin American countries have a geography and a climate perfectly suited for this paradigm of rum production.  Ecuador, like many surrounding nations, is hot along the coast and further inland, as the terrain rises up into mountains, it is met with cooler air.  Combine this with low latitude and you have year-round warm weather suited for cane production in one region, and nearby an equally predictable climate suited for aging.  Warmer, more humid temperatures would wreak havoc with liquor in oaken barrels, causing rotting of the wood and spoilage of its contents.  Conversely, cane grows poorly in Cuenca due to the cool weather.  Access to both climatic conditions within short distances of one another means that San Miguel can conveniently contract the production of cane along the coast.  Rather than shipping tons of raw sugar cane up the mountains, the distillation takes place near the coast as well, so that only the lighter and more compact unfinished rum needs to be transported.

A fine means of production, indeed.  And how about the finished product?  No tour of a storehouse full of rum would be complete without a sampling.

We were served.  None of us were shy about asking for seconds, nor in the case of some, thirds, nor fourths.  It was Friday afternoon, and it was raining outside.  And our noses had long ago been permeated with the smell of rum, beyond the saturation point.  What better conditions could you ask for to sip on San Miguel's priciest imbibe?

Alcohol is a mysterious thing.  Throughout time and around the world, it has been devised from essentially anything sweet, and the people who appreciate it must cooperate with invisible natural forces, like yeast, for it to be made.  In so doing, we fundamentally transform something like sugar cane into something very different indeed.  The process is long and demands our time and patience, as though to temper our enthusiasm upon its consumption.

Perhaps as a result of this question of time, those who are responsible for producing rum and other alcoholic products often have a penchant for the antique, I've noticed.  San Miguel is no different.  The tasting room laid surrounded by beautifully well preserved relics from the past, like this classic wooden bar.  The kind you want to belly up to and enjoy a game of cards or a tall glass.  A person with a head full of rum vapor, seeing it empty, is led to wonder briefly over the permanence of the past, gone as it is and committed irrevocably to yesterday.

As our last glasses went bottoms up, we stepped once again into the brilliance of the outside world, more easily perceived as we emerged from the darkness by the fact that it was still cloudy and raining.  But that didn't get us down, as we walked over to our final treat for the day, which consisted of bottles of San Miguel rum available at wholesale prices.

To give an indication of what we were drinking, the high end sample we took in the tasting room was available to us to buy at about $7 per bottle, which even at retail prices wouldn't put it up on the same pedestal that some of the more famous rum might sit.  Nor will I be bringing a bottle on a plane someday, as I did with some of the finer mezcal I had sampled in Oaxaca.  But that day, I don't think any of us left empty handed.

All in all, not a bad way to spend a rainy afternoon.  If people's faces were any indication, I feel pretty good about my amateur attempt as an organizer of tours.  Maybe someday I'll try it again. 

One thing I've always been impressed by in Ecuador is that prices are set for the average working individual.  Of course there are places and events for the very rich, but for traveling and seeing many of the beautiful and interesting sides of this country, the cost is usually one attainable for local and tourist alike.

A tour at Cava Ron San Miguel, for example, is only $2 per person and our guide mentioned that she's happy to lead families and small groups as well as larger organized tours.  Its location just outside the city means that even a taxi shouldn't be much more than $5 more from most parts of Cuenca.  From our point of departure and back again, the tour took about 2 hours and left us home before dark, ready for whatever else Friday night had in store.  Cheers!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Fusión Andina

The photo above is a glimpse of one of my favorite restaurants in Cuenca.  Tiestos is one of the newest and most popular dining establishments in town.  I'd venture to say that if you live here in Cuenca and are known to splurge from time to time on a pricey but delicious meal, you've probably already eaten here at least once.  That being the case, if you do live in Cuenca, maybe you need read no further.  Unless you want to get hungry.  For the rest of you, here's my review of a top-notch restaurant that I'm happy to have discovered along with everyone else in the city.

I've had the fortune to eat at Tiestos twice now with my wife and otherwise fine dining companion.  The first time the two of us went, we modestly selected two of the mid-range items on the menu: a half-bottle of Chilean red and of course a shared dish of the restaurant's signature offerings.  The centerpiece of any table at Tiestos will invariably be an elevated ceramic platter bearing your choice of thick and tender medallions of meat, simmering in a generous portion of one of many delicious sauces to choose from.

Our first experience there was with steak in a red wine sauce, each steak delectable and cooked a perfect medium per our request.  Our waiter, a slim costeño in a Panama hat, presented us our meal with flair, first revealing the sizzling earthenware platter before serving each of us one of the six juicy cuts, and then drizzling them with a hearty helping of the steamy sauce they were basting in a moment before.  Ready to dig in, we helped ourselves to a selection of the many accompaniments to the plato fuerte: bread with a variety of spicy sauces and oils, perfectly cooked baby yellow potatoes, mote (read: whole hominy-style corn), white rice, and a sort of round pasta not unlike israeli couscous.

It is in the accompaniments that Tiestos' chef Juan Solano pays homage to his cuencano roots.  The sauces, grains and other side dishes are nearly all either variations or direct borrowings from typical Ecuadorian cuisine.  The tiesto itself, the glazed earthen platter used to both cook and serve the meal, is a method of preparation which I've seen put to use by street vendors in Ecuador and Mexico alike.  Tempered to withstand direct heat and naturally non-stick, these shallow ceramic dishes add traditional flavor to a contemporary meal.

As we savored our tender steak medallions and helped ourselves to more, we also took in our surroundings.  Tiestos is located in a historic building in Cuenca's downtown, and that night all three of its thick-walled dining areas were bustling with clientele.  When we had arrived there were still a few open tables remaining, but by the time our meal was served all of the dark and heavy wooden tables were full, and the waiting area was already brimming with anticipation.

From where we were sitting we had a view of all three of the dining rooms as well as the kitchen, an open concept in architecture dating back at least a hundred years.  Chef Solano made his rounds throughout the evening, spending time chatting with the larger groups but also saying a few non-intrusive words to couples such as ourselves as we ate.  As we departed that evening we were both already making plans to try one of the other promising choices on the menu before long.

As we stepped in the door to Tiestos more recently, we already knew that our days in Cuenca were numbered in the low double digits, and that this would be our last chance to dine there.  So this time, we decided we wouldn't hold back and treated ourselves to the coveted high-ticket items on the menu we'd been eyeballing from our first visit.  We ordered our steak medium rare in a cordon bleu sauce with mushrooms and bacon, a robust offering which was rounded out nicely by the full-bodied, full bottle of Chilean cabernet sauvignon from Misiones de Rengo we asked for.

The steaks were served a smooth and tender medium rare, the red interior lending itself perfectly to the thick and flavorful sauce.  Each sip of wine offered a refreshing and bold compliment to the main course.  A full bottle of strong red wine may have been an ambitious choice for a couple, and I'll admit that over time the longer-ranging effects of so much to drink may have begun to interfere with our unbiased appreciation of the meal.  But looking back, and recalling clearly my empty plate, empty glass and nicely filled belly, I have no regrets.

With our choice made to go all out before we walked in the door that evening, dessert was a foregone conclusion.  We ordered a dish called "chocolate temptation," and what we got was chocolate mousse with chocolate fudge on top and a chocolate brownie below.  It was served with a generous spoonful of fresh passion fruit, an unexpected inclusion whose tart flavor contrasted impressively with the smooth and rich chocolate.  Equally unexpected and impressive was the artistic presentation of our dessert, served atop an edible still life.  It was a shame to ruin such a sight to behold, an act made much easier by how tasty it was.

My only real criticism of a restaurant where so much attention has been paid to presentation is that dinner was served with your regular, store-bought paper napkins.  You might find this to be a minor point, and such a small detail certainly doesn't detract from the appreciation such delicious food.  But from a design standpoint, ample cloth napkins that complemented the colorful Andean tablecloths would complete the experience down to the last moment.

With our first, more humble outing running us around $30 and our second shameless binge topping out at more than double that, Tiestos is reserved as a rare and much-anticipated dining excursion in the minds of ordinary people living in Cuenca like ourselves.  Tiestos is located at Juan Jaramillo 7-34 in Cuenca's historic downtown.  Its three dining areas offer an intimate ambience and consequently, limited seating.  Due to this and its surging popularity, it is usually full for dinner, but they do accept reservations.  They serve lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday and are open Sunday afternoons.  Whether you are in Cuenca for months or only a few days, a night or afternoon at Tiestos will give you a taste of Cuenca at once modern and authentic.

Monday, November 15, 2010

How I learned Spanish

Back when I was living in Santa Fe, I discovered Allá, a bookstore downtown that specializes in rare books from Latin America.  I would have probably never wandered into its hidden upstairs location if I hadn't first become fascinated by a book in Spanish that I was determined to find.

I first heard of the book during my first trip to Mexico, where I had been on an immersion Spanish course during the summer.  Little did I know before leaving that my trip to Mexico would occur during the infamous teacher strike of 2006.  News traveled slowly enough about this strike that tourists were still obstinately crawling through the historic center of Oaxaca, attempting to go about their regular tourist business while ducking under the tarps and canopies of the teachers' makeshift campgrounds that lined virtually every downtown street.

The institute where I was studying was just a few blocks from the focal point of the teachers' demonstrations, and one day after our morning classes were over, this sight greeted us just outside the walls of our quiet language school.

The protest was truly impressive, with people marching in a line as far as the eye could see in both directions, and featuring hundreds of signs and dozens of paper mache symbols of what the teachers were rising up against.  For someone like me, experiencing Latin America for the first time, I found the energy and the sheer number of people involved to be at once exciting and frightening.  One thought resonated with everyone in the small group of foreigners I happened to be standing amongst: this protest isn't going to just fade away.  Either they're going to get what they want, or they're going to be forcibly silenced.

In the end, it was the latter that brought the ongoing protests to an end.  The first of the government's military responses occurred just a week after this picture was taken when thousands of police entered Oaxaca's downtown area.  With the use of helicopters, tear gas, rubber bullets and flame throwers, the protesters were systematically driven out and their lean-to dwellings on the streets were destroyed, effectively wiping out the infrastructure of their live-in demonstration against the state government.

That particular day we still had classes, and within the walls of the institute life felt just about normal, with tea and biscuits next to our notebooks as we commenced our lesson for the day.  Our professor Luis relentlessly steered our conversation back to literature throughout our barrage of endless questions about what was going on outside.  Despite my own deep curiosity about the teachers and police, a moment came when my interest was definitively captured by our day's reading, and it was at that moment that my fascination with Latin American literature was born.

We were reading about one of the first encounters between the Spaniards and the people of the mainland American continent.  11 ships are burning and they burn too the rebel soldiers that are hanging on the captain's ship.  While the jaws of the sea open devouring the flames, Hernan Cortes, on foot upon the sand, grips the pommel of his sword... 700 men in Mexico, towards the mountains, the volcanoes and the mystery of Moctezuma.  So went this bold tactical move by one of history's most notorious conquistadores according to the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano.  As I wrapped my mind around the words of this unfamiliar language, I witnessed fleetingly the unfolding of 500 years of history between the moment we were reading and the moment of the battle outside.  I decided then that I wanted to read more from this book we were sampling, and that I wanted to know as much as I could about the long history of the Americas, all the Americas, especially Mexico and the many countries of Central and South America.

With that intention I stepped into Allá bookstore for the first time, and bought Los nacimientos, volume 1 of the series Memoria del fuego.  From that day on I didn't leave home without that little yellow book and my fat Spanish-English dictionary.  Knowing already that I had another trip to Mexico and a subsequent one to Ecuador ahead of me, I set about studying that book, reading passages over and over until I could understand them in Spanish without thinking about the corresponding words in English.

As it turned out, I don't think I could have picked a better piece of literature for my purpose of studying both Latin American history and the Spanish language at once.  Galeano's three volume set begins with dozens of pre-Colombian creation stories which culminate with the founding of the mighty Aztec kingdom and the many prophecies of the coming Spanish Conquest.  It then shifts to documented moments in history, beginning with Columbus' 1st voyage and continuing throughout history until the final decades of the 20th century in volume 3.  Each moment is a story that stands alone as well as it fits in with the sweeping chronology of the discovery, conquest and colonization of these continents by the European nations, and the subsequent revolutions and development of the distinct countries which color modern maps of the Western hemisphere.

Each story is told as if it were happening in the present, each moment is taken from real history, and none of the stories exceed 3 pages in length.  A perfect way to take a basic understanding of Spanish vocabulary and verb tenses and shape it story-by-story into a broad perspective on Spanish language, history and literature.  The series has its critics, especially from professional historians who scoff at its brief accounts and lack of detailed footnoting.  But Galeano has crafted a work that lies somewhere between non-fiction and literature, and also provides one or two primary sources for each of his hundreds of historical cuentos.  For someone like me, a novice when it comes to Latin American history, I've found countless reference points from his stories which I can further explore when I choose to.  More often than not, I let these moments in history sift through my mind and am content with the fact that when I need to know more about them I can pull these books from the shelf and reacquaint myself with the story.  Then I can investigate further, either using the references Galeano provides or by simply punching some key words into a wikipedia search.

Hats off to Eduardo Galeano.  As I often find from truly good literature, a good story hooks me from the first line.  I've also thought that life is too short for too much fiction and daydreaming.  In a series that contains hundreds of stories drawn from the real history of the world, I get hooked by these first lines over and over again.  To leave you today, I give you my pale translation of the first lines from Volume 1, a veritable Genesis story in what could be considered a kind of Bible of American history and prehistory:

The woman and the man dreamt that God was dreaming of them.  God dreamt of them while singing and shaking his maracas, enveloped in tobacco smoke... and together they will live and they will die.  But they will be born again.  They will be born and they will die and again they will be born.  And they will never stop being born, because death is a lie.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The straight and narrow

For the last in this series recapping our August visit to the US, we find ourselves on this road, a well-maintained bike path cutting through the green summer woods of Ohio.  This unassuming but tidy sliver of pavement has run through my hometown for years, but it wasn't until our recent trip that I actually had the chance to get on it and check it out for myself.

I've been an avid bike rider since I was a kid.  I can still recall the hours that I spent in abandoned construction areas in my neighborhood with a BMX bike and a couple of friends, tearing up and down the dusty paths that gave me enough momentum to go flying off the many hills built up in the clearings between the trees.  As I got older, I graduated to a mountain bike and started taking longer trips all around the city.  The simple act of going from one side of town to the other and back using nothing more than my own legs gave me a great feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment, far greater than the intangible reward of a high percentage on a report card, for example.

Once I was old enough to drive, I got a car and pretty much left the idea of bike riding behind, up until a day at the university when I was driving home and got plowed into head-on by another college kid making a left turn.  He was apparently too eager to get to the party around the corner and didn't bother to look before he went.  Neither of us had been driving very fast but the impact was still enough to have torn up a lot of what was under the hood of car.  Enough so to have resulted in the other guy's insurance company declaring my car totaled and cutting me check for its value.  I spent a few days considering what kind of car to get next, before ultimately deciding not to get one at all.  Instead I bought a new bike and used it to get around Columbus for the next year or so.

In so doing, I rediscovered the youthful joy I had once derived from going from place to place under my own power.  I also found a new satisfaction in cruising around the college campus and beyond on a warm sunny day, experiencing the urban environment without the filter of windshield and motor.  I made the most of both sidewalk and curbside lanes on the road to maneuver through heavy traffic as I pleased, and found new single track and new hills and mounds to get a mountain-biking fix every now and then.  There were also days when I'd be out and far from home and the sky would open up with an unrelenting downpour.  On days like that I'd ride home with the spray from both tires pelting me front and back, quickly reaching that saturation point where it didn't matter anymore how much it rained because I was already soaked.

Today in Cuenca, I'm back in that place again, car-free and leaving it up to my own feet, my mountain bike of the moment, and public transportation to get me around and out of town.  During those rare times when I do find myself in a car, I can't help but feel like I'm buckling into an amusement park ride.  It was with that frame of mind that we visited the US recently.  At the same time, by virtue of our cross-country trip and the desire to see many parts of Ohio while we were there, I was behind the wheel of a car for the first time since I left the States some years ago.

I even had a bike waiting for me in Santa Fe, but due to lack of space in the car we drove across the country, I ended up giving it away at the last minute to the Chain Breaker Collective, a non-profit dedicated to getting people on two wheels in Northern New Mexico.  I was happy to be able to give the bike away to a group like them, but sad at the same time to say goodbye to that particular bike.  I'd had it for over 10 years, and even though it had been slowly rotting as it waited for me in Santa Fe, it was the only bike I had in the States, and I had been hoping to get out and do some riding once we got to Ohio.

Fortunately I was able to borrow two bikes while we were there after all, and so Nancy and I were able to get out and do some riding together.  Plus, on a few different mornings and afternoons when little else was going on, I took the opportunity to finally get on that trail you see pictured at the top of the page.

Once I was on the path, I discovered that I had entered Ohio's veritable Highway 1 for bikes (and other forms of non-motorized travel).  A quick look at the map posted at the trailhead revealed a growing network of such trails.  Years ago, many of these trails didn't exist, but they are slowly beginning to link up, incorporating already existing paths within cities and connecting them with long stretches such as this one, between towns.  Maybe in a few years, it will be feasible to travel from one State to the next on your bike, using strictly these designated bike paths.

Projecting yourself into such a future, you can begin to imagine a new sort of cycling trend emerging, one in the same vein as an intrepid hike along the full length of the Appalachian Trail.  On a bona fide network of interstate bike trails, one could take a tour of any given region of the US, visiting its respective cities and national parks.  You could camp each night if that were your angle, or you could stay in the hostels or roadside inns that had sprung up to accommodate all the traffic passing through.

Such is the vision of the Rails to Trails Conservancy.  By taking land once set aside for our nation's deteriorating system of railroads and carving out a 8-10 foot wide stretch of pavement along the easement, you create an affordable bike trail that runs along a relatively flat and straight path.  And since defunct railroads exist throughout the country, a comprehensive project to establish such trails along enough of them would lay down the foundation for an interstate transport system to rival Eisenhower's in its scope, but for nowhere near the same pricetag.

With some luck, we'll have something like that to look forward to.  In the meantime, I made it as far as one town to the south and one town to the north of my home in Springfield.  My first destination was to the south, none other than Yellow Springs, Ohio.
Once I had jumped on the trailhead on the north end of Springfield, I followed the trail over an old train trussel.  When I was younger, I thought these things were just a way to take a dive into the river below...

Later, the trail led through Springfield's rusty industrial district, and also within sight of my old church and elementary school grounds:

Next I rode through downtown Springfield, past the old Marketplace building you see on the left, and then headed into the south end of town.  Here, the trail spills out onto residential neighborhood streets before picking up again as a separate trail south of town.

Once out of town, the trail makes a straight shot towards Yellow Springs, through the woods and cornfields of rural Ohio.  One fundamental difference between riding in the high mountains I've gotten accustomed to in recent years and the low country of the Great Lakes is of course the expansive stretches of flat land you'll find in Ohio.  Another important difference for a cyclist is the bugs.  Ohio in the summer is rife with insects, and sunglasses are a must even on a cloudy day, unless you want to pick bug guts out of your eyes while you're riding.

Between Springfield and Yellow Springs, you ride for many miles along a flat course girded by trees on both sides.  With the sound of leaves and locusts in your ears and the uninterrupted line of the bike trail unfolding endlessly before you, you reach cruising speed and just keep going.  And then all of a sudden, the line of trees breaks and you're in a new town:

The Yellow Springs station.  Once a true train station, the rails are gone and its original purpose has given way to a rest area and information center for cyclists.  With a public restroom and drinking fountain, as well as endless brochures and a map of the bike trails throughout the area, this is indeed a welcome center for all those arriving to town by bike.

Yellow Springs is a college town, a liberal enclave and a tourist destination well-known throughout the area.  It's a preferred destination for me because it has the great combination of good restaurants and one of my favorite forests, Glen Helen.  And yet, in all my life I've only this one time gotten there under the power of my own two legs.  And it took me just over an hour to get there from my doorstep on the north side of Springfield, and that was with all the stops I made to take pictures.  Not too bad!

This trail, I'm told, can be taken all the way down to Cincinnati and the Ohio River.  That particular day I contented myself in having made it as far as Yellow Springs, as dusk was already setting in by the time I got there.  But I was buoyed by the feeling of empowerment I got from connecting these two nearby communities by bike power, and vowed to do it again as soon as I could.  And on my way home, as I was pummeled by a new salvo of nocturnal insects, I decided that one day soon I'd follow the trail to its northern terminus in Urbana, the community north of Springfield.

And sure enough, it wasn't more than a week before I took off spontaneously one morning, determined to make it to Urbana.  I originally planned to ride as quickly as I could to Urbana and back again, just to see how long it would take.  But then I found a sign for Cedar Bog, a state park preserving a small segment of what was once a huge swamp covering a large portion of the State.  I hadn't been there since I was a kid and I couldn't resist ducking into the woods and having a look around.

Upon entering the park, the sight that greeted me was this fine tree standing at the entrance to the forest, and a wooden trail carefully laid out atop the marshy wetlands underfoot.  I'm not sure if it was meant for bike traffic, but since it was Labor Day and there was no one around to tell me otherwise, I decided it would be alright.

It turned out that this wooden platform extended throughout the park, and I was able to coast along the length of it as I explored.  The park, while relatively small, covers several different ecosystems, including some open meadows and a nicely shaded forest with a river running through it.  Along the way I learned from the various signs that some 25% of Ohio's plant species can be found within the park.  I also learned the fine shades of meaning between a fen, a bog and a swamp.  If you're interested in such things for some reason, I'd be happy to share.

After I had gone all the way around the park without ever actually having set foot in it, I got back on the trail and followed the railroad into Urbana.

Quietly emerging from the vast fields of central Ohio into one of the countless small wooded towns poking out from the sea of yellowing cornstalks is a normal, everyday task when you do it in your car.  In fact, passing through a town like Urbana often means a resigned foot on the brake and a prolonged wait at a series of traffic lights before thankfully speeding back up to 55 and punching the cruise control back on again.

But when you do the same thing on a bike, when the first sign of the ubiquitous water tower or church spire signals your triumphant entrance into a new town, you first feel the satisfaction of having traversed a wide open space in order to get there.  Then you see the place through a new set of eyes, ones bare of the glass and metal filter that often rob us of the real experience of being in a new place.  There was also something about riding around the streets of Urbana that brought back the many memories I'd had in that town.  At the same time, as I stumbled upon neighborhoods and alleyways I'd never seen before, I felt as if I was experiencing it for the first time.

When traveling, whether it be cross country or just across town, you'll see more in an hour on foot or on your bike than you'll see all day in your car.  Likewise, a five mile trip across the countryside or urban landscape under your own power and out in the elements will reveal more about that place than hundreds of miles will grant you when you're behind the wheel.  Don't get me wrong, our trip this summer would have been impossible without the various cars we used to get around.  But I was happy to have also gotten the chance to experience my old stomping grounds once again on a bike, because that's how I got to know them in the first place.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

That's nice!

As many of you know, we were in the US in August.  It was the first time there for my wife and daughter, and only my second visit home since coming to Latin America over three years ago.  My first time back during that time was for just two weeks, and happened more than two years ago, already.  Some people talk about being away from the US and then feeling culture shock all over again when they got back.  I never felt like I had any kind of "reverse culture shock" or anything like it, myself.  In fact, it was really easy for me to adjust to being there again.  But knowing that I was there only for a visit, and being there with someone who'd never been there before, these things helped me see the US through a different set of eyes than I had before I started my extended stay outside of its borders.

I also had the opportunity to engage in one of my favorite aspects of international living, which is to take a look at certain things people (including myself) take for granted as they go about their daily lives in their respective countries.  I'd say that in any given country, there are certain things that people do as a society - usually without thinking consciously about them so much - which work really well.  Then there are things that they do which really don't work so well, but they do them anyway.  Mostly because from their perspective, that's just how things are and even if it's annoying, that's life.  So I'd like to spend a few photos and paragraphs today looking at three institutions that I see in the US which I highly admire.  Institutions we have the fortune to take for granted in the US as always being there, which may not be the case in many other parts of the world.

The first on my list will be beer:

The carryout you see here is in Columbus, OH and was never more than a short trip from any of the several apartments I lived in there.  Inside, you can find dozens of high quality imported and domestic beer and wine.  There are dozens of other locally owned carryout stores like this one throughout the city, and a comparable number of local bars with plenty of good beer on tap.  There are so many of both in a college area like this one that an easy-going college kid has no reason to ever doubt in the reassuring ubiquity of some tasty imbibe.

Many people don't know that we owe today's deluge of microbrew varieties to Jimmy Carter and the Congress of his time.  In 1978 an amendment was added to a federal tax bill that permitted the making of beer and wine at home with no need for registration or taxation.  When Carter signed that bill, a time-honored industry of American craft beer was revived in the US.  What had been a web of costly legal overhead costs which all but prohibited amateur brewing became a wide open opportunity for anyone to try it out with very little investment.  Many of those amateur brewers, once satisfied with their unique and delicious creations, decided to go professional after all.  30 years later, we can enjoy the many fruits of their labor.

Today, we are enjoying a renaissance in craft brewing made possible by that small detail in a tax bill.  It's ironic that's all it took to bring it back, considering the veritable golden age of brewing in the US was cut short by a full-out 18th Amendment to the Constitution in 1919, known popularly as Prohibition.  Looking at Columbus again as an example, today there is still a part of town known as the Brewery District, which prior to Prohibition had been the home to five local brewing companies begun by German immigrants.  Before the waves of German immigration and the widespread national embrace of their brewing styles, Columbus and the rest of the US had been drinking English-style ales.  Personally, those are my favorite.  Today's blending of American barley and hop varieties with traditional English ale styles is as good as it gets.

In Ecuador, in comparison, there is a woeful dearth in beer options.  Ecuadorians love beer, especially their Pilsener querida.  Right on the label of the iconic 22 ounce Pilsener bottle (meant for sharing), it says ecuatorianamente refrescante, paying homage simultaneously to national pride and the beer's refreshing quality on a hot day.  I'll admit, especially when it's nice and sunny, or if I'm eating seafood, I do enjoy a Pilsener.  But there are few other beers around to be had, and those that do exist closely mimic that same commercial, light lager style that you can find repeatedly from any given country throughout the world.  Red Stripe, Corona, Budweiser, Molson, Foster's or Tsingtao, every country's got at least one.  Don't get me wrong, that style is fine for the right occasion, but some other options would be very much welcome.

Needless to say, after two years straight of largely doing without, during our trip I made a point to sample many different styles from different parts of the country.  From 2nd St. Brewery to Marble in Santa Fe, from Rogue in Oregon to Red Tail in California. Goose Island from Chicago, Great Lakes from Cleveland.  And bigger names like Fat Tire and Sierra Nevada.

I was so hot on the trail for beer that I even stumbled across an extended swath of wild hops:

I thought they were hops when I saw them, and some comparisons with photos of the real thing prove (as far as I can tell) that these are, indeed, hops.  So what were they doing growing out in the wild?  Seeing as how hops are not native to North America, I can do no more than speculate that the area I was in might once have been planted with hops in order to supply breweries, and now their progeny stand in silent tribute to the days of brewing past.

Whatever the case is, someday, if I'm living in the States again, I'll go to that place, cut me a viable switch from those vines and perhaps revive a strain of hops forgotten by the ages.

One thing I will say in defense of Ecuador's brewing industry is that it still operates under the very pragmatic system of the bottle deposit.  The deposit here is 25 cents a bottle, quite high compared to the 10 cents that Michigan requires, especially when you consider the difference in cost of living.  Let's say you have empty bottles in your house.  You go down to the store with your empties and exchange them for full ones, and that way you don't pay the deposit.  Each store, in turn, has cases of empties that they swap out for full ones with the distributor.  Easy, simple, and it prevents waste.  Most conspicuously within the city, where you don't see broken glass all over the place as you often do in the US.  The thick bottles look a little roughed up on the outside from going through the bottling process over and over, but they're fresh on the inside!

Our second consideration for today is the parks system.

There were a number of things that I was looking forward to as I anticipated our trip to the US, and one of them was a walk in Glen Helen.  Located just outside of Yellow Springs, Ohio, it's technically part of Antioch University.

In high school and college, I spent countless days and nights wandering around that place with various friends or by myself, often bearing witness to things no less than magical.  The quintessential trail through the green forest for me will always represent the simple joy of being alive and in nature.  I'm endlessly thankful that there are places which are left to be forest in a world full of cities and planted fields.

The parks we visited were forests.  They were also manmade lakes:

Surrounding this reservoir outside of my hometown is forest, a disc golf course, and a meadow of wild flowers and grasses designed to recreate and preserve the wild meadows that once blanketed the extensive wetlands now drained and given over to cornfields throughout much of the State of Ohio.

Parks are also grounds for historical reenactments, such as the Fair at New Boston, which I hadn't visited since I was a kid.

This Fair recreates the time of the early independence and expansion of the United States beyond Ohio and the Great Lakes.  My interest in history only grows as I get older, and this reenactment was an enjoyable way to spend a day at one of the many green spaces outside of my home town.

One of the smallest but most beloved of the parks we visited was Iuka Park:

It's a small, slender sliver of green space running along a ravine through Columbus.  It runs past the nicest of the many apartments I lived in during my college days, and was the setting for some laid back Sundays and fun parties for a couple of years.  I imagine it still is, for the people living there today.  I was happy to see that the massive slice of tree trunk I had rolled up onto my front porch and called a table was still where I had left it.

I was also happy to see that some permanent garbage cans had been placed throughout the park, as litter was a serious problem in the park when I lived there.  Which was inevitable, since there were places to sit and eat, but nowhere to discard your waste back then.  Once I had even gone around town and taken some public garbage cans from areas of town which I thought had enough already, and planted them in the park.  I called that Robin Hood tactic "urban osmosis."  For a few months, someone even came periodically and collected the garbage from those cans, but then one day the cans were gone.  The day we visited, the sky was blue, the grass was green and the park was clean.  Still a fantastic place to spend an afternoon.

My last praise of the day is for our libraries, universities and other educational institutions.

This is the Columbus Library.  As the banners say, it was voted the Library of the Year for 2010.  It's been repeatedly ranked as among the best libraries in the country.  Above the front door, it reads, "Open to All."

I have great respect for our libraries.  They are an easy thing to overlook, and lots of people don't really use them very much.  I went with my mom to the library all the time when I was a kid, both in my hometown and in Crestline, where her parents lived.

When I moved to Columbus, I discovered the extensive public library there, and the many modern services it offers.  Music, movies, and an advanced system of requests and holds allowed me to find just about any book, album, film or TV series I could think of and have it delivered to the library branch in my neighborhood, for free.  I even received an email message telling me my request was ready to pick up.  US citizens enjoy countless privileges, but our virtually unlimited access to knowledge and culture via libraries is perhaps one of the greatest among them.

The Ohio State University, besides being a first rate institution of higher learning and a virtual city within the city of Columbus, also has an incredible library, 11 stories in height.  Here's a view from the top:

We spent an afternoon exploring Ohio State.  I lived for seven years in the campus area, and now it's been about eight years since I moved away from there.  The campus area and its surroundings have changed a lot since then, seeing the construction of many new buildings and facilities, and the revival of some classic ones.  One great improvement to the library is the 11th floor.  I used to go up there during long breaks between classes, as it was always quiet and offered views like the one you see here.  But at the time it was a functional floor of the library, full of flickering fluorescent lights and dusty stacks of books, with a utilitarian desk situated in each window well.

We rode the elevator to the top floor during our visit, me with the intention to show Nancy the view.  Little did I know that this level had been remodeled into very comfortable observation deck, complete with wireless internet, overstuffed chairs and couches, good lighting, wooden floors, and big desks for studying, providing an excellent space for the appreciation of the panoramic views of the campus.  This change echoes many of the tasteful changes made around the area, in my opinion.  The new buildings do their best to look modern and blend in with the older structures around them at the same time.  Attention has been given to outdoor space and pedestrian traffic, as well as to the "live-work" concept that has needed to be reinvented in the US after decades of overly assertive zoning codes.  There is also room for local business rather than strip mall after strip mall of parking lots and big box franchises.  Those parts of town certainly exist and continue to expand in their sprawling way, but the new growth in the more central parts of town reflect a paradigm shift in urban planning that I hope can take root throughout the country.  In short, Columbus has seen some tasteful improvements in the past several years, and has remained one of those cities I consider to be a nice place to live.

Another place I always enjoy visiting in Columbus is the Franklin Park Conservatory.

Located in the middle of a big city park, itself in the middle of one of the more stately of Columbus' older neighborhoods, it is a gigantic greenhouse and a sort of zoo for plants.  While one can feel sorry for animals stuck in a cage or artificial habitat, as long as a plant gets its requisite amount of light, heat and nutrition from its soil and what have you, it will be content to be where it is.  Hence this conservatory makes for a happier place for a gardener and animal lover like myself to visit.

The conservatory is divided into several habitats, including a desert, a jungle and the Pacific Islands.  It also has a great palm tree house which reminded me quite a bit of the outdoor gardens along the river in Guayaquil.  There's a bonzai exhibit which features a little tree much older than the US Constitution, and a current outdoor exhibit of carnivorous little pitcher plants.  A truly remarkable place for kids and grownups, if you've never been.

Ohio, like much of the United States, is blessed with nice parks and educational places.  They often operate in conjunction, such as this Conservatory in Franklin Park, or Glen Helen and Antioch University.  That seems right, as education leads us naturally to a place of peace and quiet, and it is peace and quiet that provokes a thoughtful state of mind.  I hope you'll think of such things as you go to the polls in November, for example.  While omnibus spending packages often go without a popular vote, parks and schools always seem up against budgets hinged upon the public whim.  Maybe you have kids in school or maybe you don't.  Maybe you use the parks and libraries, or not.  Either way, there is something very important about knowing that they're there, and that they define our country in a remarkable fashion.  I hope I can take my grandchildren to Glen Helen, to the statue of Horace Mann in the tall grass, and then take a walk in a manicured field in front of this beautiful Antioch building with them, full of the enthusiastic young and old.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

High desert dreams

During our trip to the US last month, we visited our friends Andy and Amanda on their wide open land out in the northern New Mexico countryside.  While there, I bore fleeting witness to this gentle unfolding of the Ortiz Mountains.  These mountains were once the backdrop to a four year chapter in my life, and to have them spreading out before me once again revealed at once the distance and nearness where New Mexico now sits for me.

At that moment, as four of us walked around together, it occurs to me that each of us were walking a different path.  Nancy and Tamia found themselves on a trail they had never seen before.  Andy was casually walking along the same territory he might venture out upon on any given day.  As for myself, I was passing through a place I had once considered close to home, and was now taking in everything I could during our brief tour.

The day before, we had met Andy and Amanda on the other side of another mountain range, the Jemez Mountains.  The Jemez are a long stretch of mountains lying some 30 or 40 miles west of where I was then standing, and along their north-south run there aren't many more than two or three ways across by car.  To pull off such an unlikely rendezvous, we had set out from Santa Fe, crossing the Jemez range from their northern end.  Andy and Amanda, living further to the south, chose the way across from the mountains' opposite extreme.  And where did we meet, but a secluded set of hot springs tucked away several miles in from the highway.

Despite being so far from the beaten path, quite a few other bathers were present that day, and after we had enjoyed a nice soaking, and intense hydro-massage from the gush of hot water issuing forth from the source of the springs, we decided to adjourn to a more private place, a meadow further down the hill.

There, we communed awhile and sipped Rioja from the bottle.  Then, as dusk began to set in, we made our way back to the highway and took the long drive to Andy and Amanda's land.

The ride back was punctuated by bouts of curiosity as to what we had all been up to for the last few years.  I won't say that there were quite enough hours for the whole story to be told in the roundabout fashion it was revealed, but I'd like to think we all managed to get into it deeply enough for the time being what it was.  Once we got where we were going, it was very much nighttime and past our collective bedtimes.  Our hosts showed us to their guesthouse and retired up the hill, and we didn't bother unpacking before we climbed up into the loft bed and were asleep.

The light of the morning gave me a better glimpse at the guest house I had stayed in two years prior.  In the meantime, it had evolved in some noticeable ways:

Our guest lodging for our stay is a one room strawbale house. It's an ongoing project carved out by an extended community of contributors who each come to the land when they can to further its development.

The first time I stayed there, (if I'm remembering well) the interior still revealed the straw walls, and the loft bed was one of the few furnishings.

Upon our recent stay, the tree mural on the left wall and a further layer of mud plaster were two of the changes to the outside.  The inside had gotten some plaster as well, and was now graced with a little woodstove, a wash basin, and also a desk furnished with a reading lamp, accompanying guest book, and some light reading by Joseph Campbell.

Another practical inclusion to the project is the water cistern:

Since our friends live off the grid, they look to the land - and at least as often to the sky - for their resources.  A big part of that means water collection.  Every roof on their land provides that much more square footage of area for capturing the rain and funneling it into storage.  As you can see, the slightly slanted roof directs water into a downspout leading to a cistern.

Lamentably outside the frame of the photo here is the destination of the overflow tube, a spiraling rock garden which (I gather) allows the water to be absorbed into the ground gently, contributing to the well-being of some nearby plants without causing undue erosion.  The ladder and other building materials laying about will further illustrate the work in progress that is the guest house.

Before I go any further, I'll make a short aside to elaborate more on Ampersand.  A name for both their land and their project, I might say that it describes their own personal manifestation of sustainable living, and the countless, conscious ways of considering their daily lives in order to achieve it.  While they draw deliberately from the past work and research of other people on similar paths, the beauty of such nascent projects as modern sustainability is that they're wide open to creative innovation, and many of the details you'll see are very much their own.

Amanda and Andy acquired their land about seven years ago, not long after we met.  I recall their inaugural party on the land as a starry night illuminated by a campfire and righteously like-minded people.  Since then I've been lucky to spend many days and nights on that land, and while each time has been unique and distinct, I can't say that there's been a single time I've done so that hasn't felt incredibly memorable and powerful.  I hope you'll take the time to look at their website which I've linked above, especially if you hold sustainable values and live or plan to be in New Mexico.  There, you'll see plenty of specific goals and projects going on.  Here, I hope I can present a complementary narrative that comes from my own interaction with my friends and their vision.

And so, delving back into our time on the land, we climbed the hill from the guesthouse and made our way up to their place.  I was anxious to see it, as my most recent memory of it was of a home still very much under construction.  It had walls, floor and a roof, but they were all still in the rough stages of completion.  But what we saw that morning was unmistakably a well-lived home:

While this picture doesn't capture the full scope of the exterior of the house, which is even more striking seen from the front, it does reveal some of the functional aspects of the design.  If you look to the right, towards the rear of the house, you'll see the solar array that provides electricity to the home.  It's tilted so as to have maximum exposure to the sun's rays, much like the leaf of a plant.  And even more like a green leaf, these solar panels follow the sun automatically as it crosses the sky, thanks to a passive hydraulic tracker driven by the heat of the sun.  An elegant system guided by the very source of energy itself.
If you follow the line of the roof back towards the solar panels, you'll see a tube leading to another cistern, this one much larger than the one pictured above.  The water collected there is diverted for all water uses: washing, bathing, and gardening among them.  And for drinking water too, after passing through the attractive and functional filter/dispenser found in the kitchen.  Water for the shower is first heated, through a solar water heater that operates naturally through the principal of thermal siphoning.  Cold water naturally descends into the heater, while heated water naturally rises up into the shower or any other hot water source when the faucet is opened.

A portion of the garden can be seen above, several plants growing in containers.  An in-ground garden plot is around the front of the house, in front of a cold frame greenhouse.  Those plants are irrigated with greywater flowing from the shower and sinks from within the house, and additional water is provided from the cistern as needed.  I won't go into too much detail about these kinds of things, as it's all nicely laid out on their website.  But suffice it to say that an edible desert oasis can be yours, with no more than rainwater and the right kind of thought and determination.

That morning we had breakfast in their lovely home, and afterwords took a trip into Madrid, a nearby village like none other.  As it was for a time my first contact with humanity whenever I left my own little patch of high desert solitude years before, it was interesting to see it again.  Once a coal mining community, it was rescued from its fate as a ghost town in the 60s and has risen again as a sort of art community, at once reclusive and open to the public, and defies simple definition.

We stopped in to visit the community garden, managed and maintained by a small cadre of gardeners including Amanda.  On the way through town I noticed that while I could still recognize the most successful businesses - the coffee shop, the bar, the general store and some of the more prominent art galleries, namely - many of the shops had changed hands and been renamed, repainted, and born again.  All in all a look down the main drag revealed a town largely unchanged from the one I'd had in my mind's eye, though, which was nice to see.

Then, a trip down to the garden.

When I left the area, it was more of an idea than an actual garden, so seeing how it had taken shape over the course of a few years was great.  We collected some peas and a couple other veggies but the garden was, much like northern New Mexico generally seemed to be at that particular time, overrun with mosquitoes!

While they only seemed to come out at night everywhere else, these mosquitoes were raging in broad daylight.  We did our best to ignore them at first, and then to actively try to keep them off us at any cost.  But soon we realized that we were fighting a losing battle, and our only chance at avoiding more itchy welts was to just get out of there.  Which was unfortunate, because the garden was a pleasant addition to the Madrid community and I'd hoped to relax there for awhile in the shade.  Maybe next time!

Afterwords, lunch at a new and highly recommended restaurant in town, across from the bar.  Great sandwiches, well-peppered grits, and best of all, microbrew beer.  I couldn't help but have a couple of those.

Back up on the land, Amanda was done working and by all reckoning it was cocktail hour.  We had all the ingredients for some homemade margaritas, and so margaritas we made.  And took them down to the wash for some arroyo bocce ball.

Arroyo bocce has, over the years, become one of my favorite traditions associated with Ampersand.  One not to be missed during any visit.  Indeed, on a prior trip there, a friend sustained considerable injury to his arm during a hike among the sandstone rocks and cliffs in the area earlier in the day. Nonetheless, he soldiered through the pain and blood in order to nobly take aim at the elusive little pallino target later in the evening.

That particular day was a more leisurely outing, and we played until the evening had set in deeply enough to prohibit proper visibility.  At which point we adjourned up the hill and prepared for a tasty dinner.

Back at the house, I noticed that the floors were especially clean, to which Amanda replied offhandedly that she had mopped.  But aren't they earthen floors? I asked.  Indeed they are.  Made entirely with natural materials and simple earth being among them, the floor was poured with mud, smoothed out and then allowed to dry and crack.  The cracks were filled in and smoothed over again and again until an even surface was achieved, and then sealed with beeswax and linseed oil.  Making it proof against a wet mop, and great to walk upon with your bare feet and toes.

We were to be joined that evening by Carl, a common acquaintance of ours.  I hadn't seen Carl in many years and his visit that evening was a great surprise.  The fact that he brought a cooler full of nothing less than several home brewed beers made the evening that much more excellent.  In fact, the beer happened to be a light one put up in green bottles, giving it a resemblance to something like St. Pauli Girl, but with a creamier mouthfeel.  Perfect for the end of a hot day in the desert.

That night, spring rolls were on the menu, and we were all on board to roll them up.

Or rather, on the floor.  What better place than on your own hands, knees and backsides for dipping your fingers into raw, local food?  Having twisted up some burritos and what have you in my time, I greatly enjoyed the natural cling you get from a wet spring roll wrapper. And they went well with the beer.

I can't remember what I was on about in that picture, but I'd like to think it was relevant, somehow.  Amanda was certainly giving me her attention, but whether she was truly interested or just indulging me is an open question.

Indeed, that night was full of bold gesticulating and cracking wise.  Some music was played.  And all around, good times were had.  The hour came for Carl to leave, and when he did, while that screen door you see in the background was left momentarily open during his exit, a truly incredible quantity of mosquitoes flew in the house.

A sort of mosquito slaughter ensued, us swatting and wondering over the unlikely number of pests that had gotten inside during such a brief opportunity.  At one point Andy put his ear to the screen and was amazed at the subtle buzz that could be heard outside.  If you were quiet, very quiet, you could hear the insect menace swarming out there.

Eventually, we needed to say good night and go down the hill.  We endeavored to make a quick exit once the screen door was opened.  We rushed down the dark path, determined to get home without a bite.  But then, we glanced up and saw what every city dweller in the world becomes entranced by when he visits the countryside.  Stars!  So many of them.  I knew how it was, I'd lived there before.  But that was a beautiful night sky.  Starstruck, if you will, we indulged in several minutes of shamelessly staring at it.  Sure, we sustained some welts for it, but we had no regrets.

Down the hill and in the guesthouse, we holed up for a good night's sleep.  The next day, Andy and Amanda had business on the road up into Santa Fe, a convenient excuse to drop us off back in town.  And so that morning, we shared a car ride and a good bye.  That trip was full of hellos and goodbyes, every day.  Until we meet again!

When I met Andy and Amanda years before, I felt a certain kinship with them immediately.  At the time, I had a house in the same area and was living out, as much as I was able, a similar vision.  Seeing them again, in addition to being a great time spent with good friends, gave me the chance to see how we've all grown and evolved during those years of knowing each other, too. 

Every day, our minds are filled with vague and random ideas, taking shape from the influences around us.  When something worthy comes to mind, we might be moved to dedicate ourselves to it, and begin making choices that bring our lives closer to that vision.  And then, over time, we might stay with it, or find ourselves compelled to move more into other directions.  In my life, I can see how my own focus has shifted from that intention of sustainability, for example.  At one point, it was a primary goal.  While it's still something I value, I can see how it has, in my daily practice, moved to the periphery in lieu of things like travel here in Latin America, and all the things that have come with that.  I love the choices I've made, and I'm happy where they've brought me. 

I see my friends on their land, where they took what was a temporary dwelling and a campfire out in the country, and built it up into a home and learning place built with their own hands.  That's what you get when you dedicate yourself for years to the same vision.  I have great respect for them both, above all for that dedication.  Every day they can wake up surrounded by what they've realized of their dream so far, and take satisfaction from that.  For my own part, I still have a long way I want to go, but I can say that the fruits of my choices over the past several years bring me satisfaction, too.  Being able to express myself in a new language, and understand the people of this continent when they speak.  A few years ago, I couldn't have said that.  Whatever your vision is, to whatever you may dedicate yourself, take pride in what you've done, be thankful for where it's led you.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Back from the homeland

Just as this blog has started getting hits from GO! Overseas as being a top blog for Ecuador, I took a month off from writing.  That's because we spent the month of August in the US, visiting family and friends, and traveling a good bit around the country, too.  And to further vex anyone in search of some good travel stories from Ecuador, the next couple of months will be all about the United States, as I recap our trip last month.  But, if you're in search of those kinds of stories, all you have to do is go back to previous posts, starting with this one.

So to kick off my triumphant return to writing after a month's hiatus, here's a photographic summary of what we got into while we were gone:

One of the things I had been looking forward to about being back in the US was the beer.  Good, honest, craft beer.  And as I was happily surprised to learn, our first of many hosts had gotten into homebrewing since last I saw him.  So it was that our first night in the US was spent in Albuquerque, playing obscure board games and drinking delicious, dark beverages.

Our trip, as you may have gathered, began in New Mexico.  I had lived there for several years before I turned my sights to Latin America.  Long enough to have accumulated lots of earthly possessions, many of which I had left there.  And long enough, too, to have gotten to know some great people, whose good taste and generosity led to such things as us staying in bedrooms like this one:

Good friends opened up their homes to us to spend the night and their front lawns for me to sell off my personal belongings in a good, old-fashioned yard sale.  They also drove us around endlessly.  Once, we even drove here, where some of New Mexico's nicer hot springs flow.

As hard as it was to leave the beautiful State of New Mexico behind us, the time came to get into a rental car and haul what was left of my personal possessions back to the land of my birth.  We chose a route north, through northern New Mexico's countryside.

We drove through Denver, where we spent the night with another kind friend.  And then, we made the big push across the Midwest, on the way back to Ohio.  Along the way we drove through corn fields.  Lots and lots of corn fields.  And to our surprise, a big wind farm.  In the State of Kansas we saw the biggest collection of windmills I've ever witnessed, and while places like California and Texas are better known for their wind farms, it makes sense that Kansas, smack in the middle of tornado country, would be getting in on the game.

And finally, after two days of driving cross country - and thanks to the generosity of so many, our only night spent in a hotel - we made it back to Ohio.  This trip marked my first time behind the wheel of a car in three years, and while it was fun for the first few hours, the novelty had worn off long before we got where we were going.  Once in Ohio, we were able to unpack our bags fully, and relax at last with my family.

The weeks there will always stand out in my mind as a time spent in places at once familiar to me and new for my wife.  It was her first visit to the US, which meant the first time seeing many things the average American takes for granted.  Big back yards, a multitude of grassy parks, and the expansive Lake Erie were among the things that were impressive to Nancy, and so we made sure to spend time in all of them.

It was a great trip, and we had a great time.  Up until the last day, when the time came to say goodbye to my family.  After spending several weeks together, it was easy to forget that our time was limited, after all.  But even when people are perennially close, geographically, I suppose it's still important to remember that time will always be limited, and that we always need to make the most of the time we have.

And for now, I'll leave it at that.  There's plenty that I haven't included here that will make it into the next few posts, and even more that is just as nicely shared among ourselves and our loved ones.  But the bottom line is, it was great to be home!