The Gringo Trail

Ever heard that old chestnut, When God closes a door, he opens a window?  Meaning that when something goes wrong or we don’t get what we’re expecting or we’re forced to take a bumpy old side road when we would have preferred the shiny new blacktop of the main highway, then beyond the initial disappointment lies an opportunity in disguise.

I’m not inclined to think that God has anything in particular to do with it.  But I do believe in seizing defeat from the jaws of victory.

Or is that the other way around?

Exhibit A: me, denied an independent work visa by the Colombian government.  After weeks of preparation, collecting a mountain of documentation, having everything translated and legalized and receiving a good deal of coaching from my lawyer, I walked into the cancillería office filled with confidence.  There was no way they could deny me this visa.  I was way over-qualified and already had a year of experience in the country working with professionals to improve their English language skills.  They had to see the value I was providing to the public good here in the country.  Not to mention paying rent and taxes and spending my fat green American dollars all over the place.

Application rejected.  Inadmitida.  Please leave the country at your earliest convenience.

At first I was shocked.  How dare they?  How could they not see the obvious quality of my application?  I was stumped.  Of course, a big part of the answer might be  summed up in one little word:


Desperate, destitute, broke and hungry Venezuelans are pouring across the border with Colombia like rats from a sinking ship as their once oil-rich country goes down in flames like a burning derrick.  Colombia is clamping down hard on all migration until the situation improves, which doesn’t help mine.  People who can’t be accommodated are being turned back at the border, or being shipped back to Venezuela when it’s determined they have no claim on legal status there.  That is, those who bother with the legal system at all.  And many more people who can’t find a niche in Colombia are being forced to transit the country, heading for Ecuador, Peru, points south.

There is a great exodus of Venezuelans freeing the dumpster fire that President Nicolás Maduro and his cronies have made of their country.  The numbers are nowhere near those of, say, Syrians and other middle-easterners fleeing the near-biblical disaster that has been made of their countries.  But nonetheless, people are on the move in South America.  A lot of them.  Venezuelans often appear on the buses in Bogotá, selling candy or chocolate or knick-knacks, trying to make a few pesos here and there.  Sometimes they try to sell stacks of their now-worthless money, the Venezuelan bolivar, named after the Liberator, as bits of art or souvenirs.  “Look,” they’ll say, “it has a picture of Bolívar on it!  It’s art!”

Still, I’m no Venezuelan.  I spent the last year busting my ass, dealing with the intractible bureaucracy and incompetent administrators and pouring my own blood, sweat and tears out in an unremediated effort to show what I could do for them.  I deserved that visa, and getting denied it was a blow.  Shock and anger faded into a long gray afternoon of depression.  I had a lot riding on it, besides all the time and money I spent preparing my application just to have it thrown back in my face.  These days I consider Bogotá my home.  A nice little apartment, a girlfriend who is getting very serious, and a hard-won sense of familiarity with this weird, sprawling metropolis at the gateway to South America.  Now I was going to have to leave, with an uncertain future ahead of me.

The irony is not lost on me.  Trying to get into a country that for the last few decades many who can leave have been doing their best to get out of.  I was engaged in a kind of reverse migration from the Land of Opportunity, in the opposite direction of the usual flow.  For the last couple of hundred years, the US has been the place to immigrate to.  The rest of the world has been pouring across the national borders pretty much since they were drawn up.  It’s been going on long enough now that we have a sizable population of ignorant rednecks who have forgotten that’s where they came from in the first place.  And lest we forget, that land was not unoccupied when we arrived.

We just decided to make it that way.

After a day or two of moping around and snapping at my girlfriend when she tried to console me, I realized it didn’t have to be like that.  I had to leave the country, yes, but hadn’t I been meaning to see more of South America anyway?  Besides, I was still allowed another 90 days in the country when I came back.  Colombia permits US citizens 180 days per year of visa-free travel in the country.  I would have three months to figure out this visa thing when I got back.

“You keep talking about wanting to travel more,” she said. “Now’s your chance.  I just wish I was coming with you.”

So did I.  But her design job in a large Bogotá advertising firm keeps her pretty well tethered close to home.  She and I have taken a few short trips around Colombia in my time there, but never more than a few days.  This was going to be an epic cross-continental odyssey.  I had visions of myself like a young Che Guevara and Alberto Granados in the Motorcycle Diaries, trudging up the dusty roads of the Andes, meeting colorful locals, hearing their stories of hardship and loss and determination in the face of adversity.

I couldn’t wait to get started.

Then I spent the better part of the next week on my ass.  Literally.  My girlfriend and I were both stricken with a miserable bout of stomach flu.  My last few days in Bogotá passed by running to the toilet every five minutes.  Funny, since considering the common perceptions of most gringos about food and cleanliness in this part of the world, I hadn’t been sick like that once for my entire time in Colombia.  Central America, yes.  Mexico?  Definitely, and then some.  Ah, memories.

My first idea was to take a bus south from Bogotá through my girlfriend’s hometown of Neiva and the city of Pasto near the border with Ecuador, then cross over from there.  There is a magnificent gothic cathedral near Pasto outside Ipiales that I very much wanted to see.  Called Las Lajas, it was built inside a canyon of the Guáitara River, the approach to its faery spires made by way of a high arching stone bridge over the rapids below.  The whole thing looks in pictures like something out of the Germany’s Rhineland, or the Swiss Alps, not rising out of the sweltering heat and humidity of Colombia’s tropical lowlands.

Like many holy places in Latin America, the foundation of this one was built on a miraculous appearance by the Virgin Mary.  Once upon a time in 1754, an indigenous mother and daughter were forced to seek shelter from a storm between two great slabs of stone, or lajas, found along the river.The girl, a deaf-mute and unable to speak, suddenly cried out in a clear voice, “La virgen me está llamando!”  They looked up and saw the Virgin Mary appear in the sky illuminated by a flash of lightning, her image seared into the stone beside them.  Good thing too; appearing on stone will give her image far greater longevity than, say, a grilled cheese sandwich.

Things like sainthood and miracles in the Catholic faith are often subject to repeat occurrences, and indeed cannot be confirmed by the Church unless taking place more than once.  As the legend goes, the girl, Rosa, died young of some childhood affliction or other.  Her mother Mueces carried her to the same spot and prayed for her daughter, whereupon the girl was miraculously returned to life.  When the woman brought the local priest and villagers to show them the place where the miracle occurred, all beheld the image of the Virgin which had mysteriously appeared in the rock face.  The people built a wooden shrine over the stone, but it wasn’t until the first half of the twentieth century that the current spectacular church was erected, over some decades, and paid for by donations from local people.

Of course, by the time I made up my mind to go and see Las Lajas, the area had become infested again by lawless guerrillas and criminal bands.  The fragile cease-fire between the government and the country’s second-largest Marxist guerrilla group had fallen apart over promises made and broken by the government to the country’s first-largest armed insurgent group, the FARC.

So Ipiales was off-limits for the time being.  Unless I felt like getting robbed at gunpoint, kidnapped and disappeared into the jungle, or maybe blown up in a bus terminal.  At the same time, the ELN and other diverse factions (Colombia is a very diverse and colorful place, after all) had begun causing chaos all over some of the more difficult to police regions of the country.  Almost everywhere outside the highland capital of Bogotá and surrounding region of Cundinamarca had become a no-go zone again for us gringos, along with almost anywhere worth visiting.  Even the cities of Barranquilla and Cali had been flagged as red zones.

Part of the reason I felt like it was a good time to come to Colombia the year before had been because the country had recently signed a peace treaty with the FARC and begun the long process of disarming and re-integrating its members into society.  This came with many long decades of bad blood and emotional baggage between the rebels and much of regular society, and it was clear the process would be a thorny one.  Just ask any Colombian what they think about the guerrillas and you will be treated to delightful stories of kidnap, murder, robbery, deprivation and nightmare without end.

Then the government began failing to live up to its obligations under the peace agreement.  Whether it was through ineptitude, corruption, or the widespread distrust and hostility toward the peace process, things came unravelled over the year or so after the treaty with the FARC was signed.  Re-integration camps went unfinished.  Social work and job training was not provided.  Returns of land from landlords who had forced people off theirs were unfulfilled.  FARC political leaders, who had been promised a place at the table in the Colombian government, started being attacked in public and driven into hiding.  The former guerrillas, their supporters, and those still under arms in the remote mountains and valleys saw this as an outright betrayal.

So much for the peace process.

Sitting on a plane, watching Colombia disappear beneath the high swelling clouds and the mountains of Ecuador slowly rise to take their place, I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed.  My preferred mode of travel is by bus when possible.  Air travel is just so damn expensive.  Not to mention 99.999% lethal if something goes wrong.  I always find myself holding my breath and gripping the seat handles on takeoff and landing, statistically the most dangerous points in any flight.  After each landing I want to applaud the pilot, but aside from planes full of Germans, nobody ever does.  Ingrates.  Don’t they know he just saved their lives?

But it was better than getting kidnapped.  Robbed or killed.  Dumped in a ditch on the side of the carretera with a bullet in my soft, pale gringo forehead.  Oh well.  Sacrifices must be made.

Arriving in Quito was both dramatic and anticlimactic.  The airport there is small, services limited.  Cheap transport into the city was by way of a rickety old city bus, the kind that the Russians used to export to Latin America during the Cold War and that have been limping along ever since.  But the landscape was breathtaking.  High mountain ridges and steep valleys all around.  The landing strip of the airport itself was along the edge of a deep gorge.  Landing in Quito involved a wide banking maneuver around a small mountain, then descending along the edge of the chasm in an experience that felt much closer to a high-speed fiery death than we probably were.

The bus from the airport wound its way into the city, climbing steep hills, passing groves of pine trees and patches of the big spiky high-altitude páramo succulents whose names I can never remember.  The páramo is unique to the Andes.  Wide spreading plains with unique species of plants and animals, a special sort of biome that appears nowhere else on Earth.  Here is the home of the llama, the alpaca and even the Andean leopard in some isolated ranges.  Here is the Andean condor and the spectacled bear, the beloved oso de anteojos that appears on the tiny Colombian 50-peso coin.  And everywhere are the gigantic prehistoric jungle plants that look like something out of a 1980’s adventure film.

When I arrived at the hostel in Quito around noon on a Monday, the proprietor opened the door to me after fifteen minutes or so of me ringing the bell and pounding and shouting hello, and was immediately preceded by a stinking cloud of liquor fumes.  The owner, David, with an Indian face and arms covered in rock & roll tattoos, swayed on his feet and made a heroic but futile effort to form words, which he was unable to achieve in either English or Spanish.  He showed me my room and vanished into the house.  The next day I found him cleaning toilets and making beds, all smiles, but with a lingering aroma of booze about his person.

Quito is an unusual city.  It is the second-highest capital in the world, after Bogotá and before La Paz, Bolivia.  It was one of the most recent Incan cities, the Incas being repelled from southern Ecuador for many years before finally making a breakthrough from the area of modern Peru and conquering their northern neighbors.  During the Incan civil war which immediately preceded Spanish conquest, the general Atahualpa destroyed Quito, and any ruins which remained after that were carted away stone by stone by post-colonization peoples for various construction projects down through the decades and centuries that followed.  Nothing remains of the original city except for a few scattered archaeological sites.

Modern Quito seems somewhat dated.  Amidst crumbling colonial houses and aging buildings built in what seems no later than the 1980’s, the occasional modern storefront, restaurant or cafetería appears.  But these are uncommon.  Most places in Quito present the appearance of being badly in need of renovation.  Even the parks appear decrepit, covered in cracked slabs of concrete with bits of grass poking through here and there.  They are nice enough, but the whole situation seems like something out of a Cold War-era Soviet bloc capital of eastern Europe.  The many statues of distinguished figures from a socialist and revolutionary past, along with the pall of smog which hangs over the city, only add to the impression.

And there are the bizarre gems.  For instance, a park dedicated to the independence of India, featuring a large bust of Mahatma Gandhi smiling out over cascading pools long since empty of their trickling streams of water, every surface stained by the soot of diesel fumes from the flanking avenues, bits of weeds peeking out from neglected corners and edges.  A man and woman in business dress sit on the steps nearby eating their lunch.  Near another stairway a grungy street-dweller is huffing fumes from a glue bottle, his eyes rolling grossly back in his head.

The historic center of Quito is a beautifully preserved colonial capital, the buildings of government and the main cathedrals clustered around a few long city blocks.  There are pedestrian streets closed to vehicle traffic, lovely sidewalk cafes, wide plazas and stunning colonial facades lining the high, narrow streets.  Ubiquitous protestors ring the Plaza Grande, where several government ministries are located, standing in little groups and blowing horns or yelling over loudspeakers about the injustice of it all.  I ask a woman serving coffee in a small café what the protests are about.  “Quién sabe,” she says.  Who knows.  Sometimes they protest in front of one building, sometimes in front of another, she tells me.  Depends how they’re feeling that day.

In a country like Ecuador, there is no shortage of issues for people to protest.  Rampant poverty and unemployment, government corruption at the highest levels, failures of public administration, development and safety that go all up and down the bureaucratic food chain, which like in most Latin American countries has gone to seed and grown uncontrolled like wild berry vines.  Dealing with the bureaucracy is a lot like picking the berries from those vines.  The fruit is there, but often guarded by inch-long thorns and spiky leaves that tear at the skin and sleeves when you try to reach in and pluck it out.

If you want an idea of what dealing with Latin American bureaucracy is like, imagine standing in line at the post office or the DMV in the US.  Then multiply that by a thousand.  And it won’t be just one line, either.  Invariably there will be several different offices to visit, several different forms to fill out and an unbelievable number of documents to deliver.  And they won’t be the right ones at first.  You might wait for an hour or two for your turn, only to find out you brough the wrong form, or they changed the rules, or there is an updated piece of information you didn’t know about that this document or that doesn’t contain.

When you come to the unfortunate conclusion on some woeful day that there is something official business you will have to conduct with the state, some office to visit and functionary to do battle with, the feeling that you experience is a mix of disappointment, regret, misery, resignation and defeat.  You already know what you’re in for.  And you know that there is no choice but to go ahead and jump right in.

In the historic center of Quito, the grand Plaza de San Francisco, flanked by the old cathedral on its western side, seems to have a new metro terminal being built across its eastern half.  The massive construction project, chain link fences, and “Quito Mejor” banners stretching across the old cobblestone street lessen the historical appeal somewhat.  Undoubtedly there were protests against the construction before it was begun.  Progress often marches forward whether you want it to or not.

The other surprise is the Basílica del Voto Nacional, an immense gothic cathedral rising over one of the highest points in central Quito.  The largest neo-gothic cathedral in the Americas, it stands out like a great jagged gray spike over the Quito skyline.  Its immense clock towers can be climbed for a small fee, and from above you can see south to the hill of El Panecillo, capped by a 45-meter tall Madonna statue made of seven thousand pieces of aluminum which glint in the diffuse overcast sunlight of the high mountain sky.

Like Las Lajas, the Basílica del Voto Nacional in Quito is an anomaly.  In almost every city and town in latinoamérica, you will find a colonial-era cathedral overlooking a central plaza.  This infrastructural curiosity is left over from the Spanish, whose tendency was to frame every town they founded in more or less the same way.  The churches tend to be fairly uniform in appearance from one to the other: one or two bell towers over a tall double door, a small chapel/sanctuary to one side, and the long cathedral hall inside flanked by high pillars and soaring arched roof with narrow windows high above.  In many churches the stations of the cross are displayed along the interior walls leading up to the altar, which can be a truly massive affair, saints and angels and the Virgin Mother and Baby Jesus and grown-up Jesus and heavenly Jesus and God the Father looking over all.  Often the dove of peace rests at some high vantage.  There will be a dead and bloody carven Jesus inside a glass case, and often an icon of the local virgin, perhaps standing, perhaps enthroned, that will get taken out on festival days and paraded around the city in mournful procession.

This is the rule.  Massive cathedrals in European gothic style are very much the exception.  To see one like this towering over the rooftops of central Quito is a bit of a shock to the senses.  My first reaction when I saw it was to stand and stare with my mouth open, saying “What?  What?” until a passing man noticed me and turned to say, “Impresionante, no?”

High in the Andes, the region between Quito and Cusco in Peru is often referred to as the Inca Trail, for the royal road that once ran between the Incan capital and the northernmost city in their empire.  These days it may be referred to condescendingly by the locals as the Gringo Trail, due to the high volume of white North American and European tourists that can be found along its length.  The once-lost city of Macchu Picchu is the culmination of this path, and the place has now been fully tourist-ified.

In the Motorcycle Diaries, Che and Alberto ascend to Macchu Picchu on their own and find it deserted.  Not a tour guide or photo-snapping estadounidense in sight.  Of course they made their journey around South America in the early 1950’s.  A lot has changed in Peru since then.  Reports have reached my ears of disgruntled Peruvians who are becoming unhappy with the quantity of tourists who flood their mountains and beaches year-round.  I can’t imagine they would be too happy if the tourist dollars dried up, however.

Since I have decided to follow the Gringo Trail myself, more or less, I can’t really complain.  In most places people are used to tourists, dealing with them, accommodating them.  I have to be grateful for the kinds of services I can find along the way.  But I can’t help but feel a little different.  A bit special.  After all, I live here, at least in theory.  This continent is my new home.  I’m allowed to feel a bit more like I belong here, a bit less like a tourist who flies in to throw some money around, see some sights and fly back home.  Aren’t I?  Having gone so far as to engage in administrative combat with various bureaucracies in more than one Latin country, I can safely say I’ve had the full local experience.  When people speak English to me, I smile and answer them in Spanish.  The surprise and smiles I get are always worth it.

Of course, I still stand out.  Taller than many, bright blonde hair and blue eyes.  You ain’t from around here, are you boy?  I suppose in some ways I will always be a tourist in this land.  I didn’t grow up here.  I have no family here, despite how intimate or legally associated I might become with others.  I will always be an outsider.  But how many people from some of these countries can say they have done what I’m doing now?  Travelling across the whole continent to know it better.  Che and Alberto did it for no particular reason other than the experience.  They had a destination and a purpose as volunteer doctors in a leper colony in the Peruvian Amazon, but beyond that it was pure adventure.

I am no Marxist, but perhaps this journey across South America will change me too.  For better or worse, change must come to us all.  The nature of the Universe is change.  Nothing in life is static.  One only has to look around at the cities along the Inca Trail which were dismantled to build Spanish towns and Spanish plazas and Spanish Catholic churches.  The faces of the people on the street, many very Indian but with definite European features.  However horrific and violent the mixing of the cultures and the races may have been over its history, it is now fact.  America is a mixed place, a mestizo place, even in the United States and Canada where white Europeans did their best to exterminate the native populations, still they mixed and became something different, something new, something never before seen on the face of the world.

In the pre-modern United States, protestant religion took on few features of native faith.  Perhaps the reason for that is the widespread genocide of native North Americans that took place over the founding centuries of that country.  Not to mention the puritan fanaticism of the people who colonized the region.  But native religion had no problem taking on features of the imported one.  The Ghost Dance is the best example of this.  The belief that not only Jesus, but a native Jesus, would return to earth and drive the Europeans back into the sea from whence they came, ushering in a thousand years of peace for the oppressed tribes and peoples of what was now called America.

Sound familiar?  You might remember this story from Sunday School.

The destroying fire creates room for new life to flourish.  That doesn’t make the fire itself any less terrifying, but life always comes back brighter and greener and fresher than ever before after the flames have died down.  Ashes are known to make excellent fertilizer.

And every once in a while, a phoenix rises out of them.

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