Monday, May 22, 2017


When folks ask me for some of the high points of my recent week-long cruise on the Peruvian Amazon, one of the first things that comes to mind is just the wondrous mystique of that whole vast rainforest expanse. It’s not just the pink dolphins, poison-dart frogs and 15-foot anacondas, or the inscrutable oneness with Nature of its indigenous peoples; it’s also the sheer size and power of the river itself.

(Many of the world’s great rivers count their sources as the confluence of tributaries bearing different names. Our cruise, starting on the Amazon proper, reached upstream into one of its two main feeder rivers, the Marañon.)

Where we were, south and west of Iquitos, the Marañon looked to be fifteen, maybe twenty times as wide as the great Mississippi is back home in Minneapolis. One evening, as we returned to the boat in skiffs after some backwater wildlife spotting, our guide gave us a little perspective on the its contribution to the Amazon’s size.

Pointing to the muddy, flotsam-strewn water swirling around us, he said, “Oh, by the way, right here it’s 250 feet deep.” That, even there at the Amazon’s upper reaches, is 50 feet deeper than the deepest point, near New Orleans, in the entire Mississippi river.

   The Amazon’s total flow volume is 
  greater than that of the next six largest 
  rivers combined.

As I pondered this, the immensity of this river started adding up. The Amazon is fed by some 1,100 other tributaries before it empties into the Atlantic, many bigger than the Marañon—only number 14 among them by length.

This abundance of tributaries and the fact that the area of Amazon’s watershed is twice that of the Mississippi—which itself drains more than 40 percent of the continental US—begins to explain why the Amazon’s total flow volume is greater than that of the world’s next six largest rivers combined.

The Amazon's estuary and silt plume from space. PHOTO: Norman Kuring/NASA
That volume reaches up to 300,000 cubic meters per second (11,000,000 cubic feet per second) in the rainy season, with an annual average of 209,000 cubic meters per second (7,400,000 cubic feet per second). At that rate, the Amazon is responsible for no less than 20% of the fresh water entering the Earth's oceans.

The river pushes a vast plume of fresh water out into the Atlantic Ocean, reaching some 400 kilometers (250 miles) long and between 100 and 200 kilometers (62 and 124 miles) wide.
     This place is home to one fifth of 
     all the bird species on Earth, and 
     one third of all plant species.

As captivating as the Amazon’s sheer immensity may be, there’s more to a sense of place than scale. First off, the Amazon Rainforest is…well…a rainforest. (Okay, it’s hard to avoid the scale thing; at 1.7 billion acres, it’s nearly twice the size of the next largest tropical rainforest, and is appropriately nicknamed the “lungs of the earth.”)

A rainforest this size creates its own weather on a massive scale. The steamy exhalations of billions of plants, cooked out by the powerful equatorial sun, rise each day into the atmosphere. There they’re swirled and cooled, wringing out the moisture as rain. And so it goes, day in and day out.

This daily cycle is mirrored in the region's semiannual rainy/dry cycle of seasons. All life here has adapted to the river's predictable 30-foot annual rise and fall, and the flooding of some 140,000 square miles of forest. Tree trunks and the jungle floor, home for half the year to creatures that walk, crawl and slither, become the realm of fish and marine mammals the rest of the year.

PHOTO: Kevin Cure via Wikimedia Commons

The heat and humidity support an astounding range of plant and animal life. Like a colossal, multi-stage Darwinist coffee maker, the jungle canopy comprises at least four distinct levels, the occupants of each extracting what they need from the light, water and air movement percolating through it.

To one unaccustomed to the combination of heat, humidity and light-devouring density of foliage, the jungle here, even at mid-day, feels like a steam bath during a power outage. (I couldn’t take a decent photo without flash.) One can only admire the species, including homo sapiens, which have managed to adapt so successfully to such a climate.

In an environment this unique, this exotic, the notion of place eclipses that of time. How immediate it seems, the fact that this place was once attached to Africa.

Geologically, the pieces—today’s continents—fit like those of a jigsaw puzzle, and, though I know the supposition has been debated by science, many of Amazonia’s species—from certain types of rodents, to monkeys, to large cats, to aquatic mammals and fish—would appear tellingly similar to antecedents found only in Africa.

Paralleling the geology is the amazing hydrological history of the Amazon. At one time, the river actually flowed from east to west. But with the splitting of the South American and African continents some 120 million years ago, and the subsequent upheaval of the Andes, the flow was blocked, creating first a vast inland sea. Then, fed by snow melt from the new mountain range, the sea eventually burst through to the Atlantic, and the Amazon resumed its flow, this time west to east.

In more recent history, Amazonia has been ruthlessly exploited for monetary gain, from the collecting, processing and transporting rubber, to the messy mining of gold, nitrates and guano, to harvesting the rainforest’s rare woods and medicinal plants, to the clearing of more than eight square miles per day for cattle grazing, coca production and other commercial development.

Iquitos's Iron House - Gustave Eiffel, 1889
The effects of the rubber boom—from roughly 1880 to 1915, and again briefly during World War II—can still be seen in Iquitos, Manaus and Belém, where vestiges of European wealth and sensibility still adorn the architecture. The era's ruinous effects on the population and cultures of the region’s indigenous peoples will do doubt outlast the most durable of those buildings.

Today, the brutality inflicted on this land, on these people, remains raw as the world continues demanding more and more of Amazonia’s natural riches. And it is impossible to marvel at the place’s natural beauty without acknowledging—without feeling—that reality.

Of the many unforgettable experiences of this trip, one stands out for its eloquence in articulating this ineffable sense of place.

So, one evening just as the sun is setting, we’re on our way back to the cruise boat in the skiffs. We’re in the middle of a rather wide part of the river, near where the Marañon and Ucayali join to form the Amazon proper. There’s a spectacular sunset. No, wait, there are two…no three.


Looking around the 360-degree panorama, I see three distinct areas of bright horizon and Turner-worthy peach-pink clouds. And, swear to God, I can’t tell which of them is the one, real sunset. Never have I seen anything like it, and our guide, perhaps inured to the phenomenon, casually points out the genuine article, but cannot explain the imposters.

We head over to within 50 yards of the eastern bank, where a spectacular stand of 12- to 15-foot pampas grass sways in the barely perceptible breeze. Our guide suggests we be quiet, listen and wait. Within a few minutes, a flock of a dozen or so green parrots, jabbering excitedly—flying all the way across the river and right over our heads—alights atop the elegant plumes of the pampas grass.

Then, from a slightly different direction, comes another flight. And then another…and another…and another. For the next fifteen minutes, from all over the surrounding rainforest, for miles around, they come by the scores, the hundreds, to roost for the night. By the time we leave, we have to shout to one another to be heard over the din.

The parrots have found their place here in this tall-grass microcosm of Earth’s greatest rainforest. A few billion other critters, having evolved over eons to thrive here, have found their places too. And so, one would hope, have I.

This precious week has shown me both how insignificant and how powerful I am: insignificant for the rarified millisecond in evolutionary time that I've spent here, hoping to better understand one or two things about this incredibly vast and complex biosphere.

Powerful in the fact that my species, in the way we live, the personal and political choices we make thousands of miles from here, may well hold the key to continuing survival for this timeless place and all its inhabitants.

I am deeply grateful for the chance to better realize the connection...and the difference.

Saturday, May 13, 2017


The Amazon. This great river—arguably the longest in the world and by far the largest by the size of its watershed and the volume of discharge at its mouth—has fascinated me ever since I was a boy. The deepest, darkest jungles, the strangest plants, animals and aquatic creatures, the harmony with Nature and reputed mystical powers of its human inhabitants. The fact that its water levels rise and fall by as much as 50 feet each year, turning vast areas into underwater forests…all considered the normal cycle of the ecosystem.

The first horror movie I ever saw, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, was set in the Amazon Rainforest, as have been many others before and since—including Werner Herzog’s incredible 1982 film, Fitzcarraldo. Then there are the books: River of Doubt, about Theodore Roosevelt’s epic, near-deadly 1913 expedition down an as-yet-uncharted Amazon tributary; Walking the Amazon, Brit Ed Stafford’s account of his 860-day, 4,000-mile tracing of the great river on foot; and David Grann’s The Lost City of Z.

So, last fall, when my brother asked me if I’d like to join him for a week-long cruise on the Amazon’s upper reaches in Peru, I jumped in, as it were, with both feet. He signed us up with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) for their Peruvian Amazon Cruise.

I’d intended to journal my experience—at least the best I could during any down time we might have. But both a severe sinus infection and a paucity of free time between outings and events conspired to quash that intention. So I’m taking a new and different approach to my blogging about this trip: Rather than a straight, day-by-day travelogue recounting events as they happened, I’m hitting on several key aspects of the experience, letting my photos tell as much of the story as my words.

So my posts, starting here, will be on People, Place, Art and Craft, and, of course, Nature.

    I never felt the event was hackneyed—

    you know, that ten minutes after we left 
    the next tour group would arrive for the 
    natives’ fifth or sixth perfunctory 
    performance that day.

One of my clients once put on a slide show about a  trip he and his wife had recently made to Kenya. I’ll never forget how grossly he over-generalized what he’d learned—explaining that Africans are so this and Africans think that. He’d been in one part of one country on the world’s second biggest continent…and he’d been there a week.

It's foolish to characterize any place or people by the handful of representative locals one usually manages to meet as a tourist. What I can say is that the few Peruvians I did meet—from the workers at Lima’s airport, to our mototaxi drivers in Iquitos, to the crew of our Amazon river boat, to shopkeepers, to folks we met walking around—struck me as among the kindest, most welcoming hosts I’ve met in my travels.

Nowhere was this kindness more evident than in the rainforest villages we visited along the Amazon and Marañon rivers. I know OAT's A Day in the Life* experiences have to be planned in advance (though one of them, our guide insisted, was entirely spontaneous). But I’ve been on quite a few of these so-called “cultural immersion” visits around the world, and with OAT’s version I never got the feeling the event was highly scripted or hackneyed—you know, that ten minutes after we left, the next tour group would arrive for the natives’ fifth or sixth perfunctory performance that day.

  Folks...encouraged our participation in brewing
  chicha, the fermented, manioc-root-and-saliva- 
  based drink (known locally as masato).

While the settlements we visited lie within the protected Pacaya and Samiria National Reserve, countless other communities in the Amazon rainforest—those in the crosshairs of development’s big guns—face some difficult decisions. Do we try to meet our sometimes dire, short-term needs by selling off our birthright? Do we offer up our slice of the richest biodiversity on the planet to the highest bidder to scour for its rare woods and mineral deposits, for non-native agriculture, grazing land or building plots?


Or do we choose, in return for modest financial consideration, to share this priceless gift with mostly-kind-hearted, respectful visitors from around the world—albeit at the price of a bit of our privacy, and with the concession that it will still fray that primordial natural fabric a bit around the edges?

The people we met in the villages of San Regis and Monte Alegre seem to have embraced the latter option with gusto. They’re proud of their bountiful backyards, their traditions and values, the progress they’ve made in terms of education, public service and health care, and the awe-inspiring river whose rising and falling, whose relentless, all-consuming power, sets the rhythms of their lives.

Folks showed us—and encouraged our participation in—some of their daily activities: preparing a fine lunch neatly rolled up and steamed in banana leaves; weaving a backpack out of two palm fronds; brewing chicha, their fermented, manioc-root-and-saliva-based drink (known locally as masato).

We visited the school in San Regis, where the children seemed genuinely excited to see us. Under the watchful gaze of their teacher, our guide, Daniel, put them through their paces with a little game. After introductions, each child had to remember at least one of our group members’ names and home towns, and then, when that person's name was called, run to her or him with a handshake or a hug. They sang us a song and then joined in joyously as we sang for them: “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap your Hands!”

       I could easily imagine a few seeds of 
       destiny being sown behind those young, 
       impressionable, awe-struck faces.

Many Peruvians, including our guides, were quite open with us about their country's checkered past, recounting for us the hardships and horrors of life during the militant, communist Shining Path insurgency of the 1980s and that group's equally brutal overthrow by President Alberto Fujimori during the 1990s. While we met apologists for both sides of the conflict, all agreed they had lived through a national nightmare.

Still, these folks are optimistic about the future for their children. Yet they do their best to hang onto timeless values, wise, sustainable use of land and water, rituals and artistic expression. The artisans—weavers, basket makers, painters, wood carvers, a boutique rum producer—though certainly highly skilled, surprised me with the modesty of their efforts to sell us some of their beautiful, delectable wares.

In Nauta town, we dropped in, unannounced, on a man in his earthen-floored, unplumbed, wood-fired-kitchen shanty. In thanks for his hospitality and willingness to answer our questions about his daily life, we’d stopped at the public market downtown where each of us had bought him a little something—rice, pasta, sugar, soap…and a live chicken. I’ll never forget his big grin when we spread out that stock of items on his table—goods that had cost us no more than a couple of dollars each.

Our knowledgeable, multi-talented, articulate trip leader, Erik Flores, was born here in the rainforest. He remembers, as a boy, wanting to be a pilot. But his elders quickly dismissed his dream as unaffordable for families of their meager means. So he pursued several other careers, including as a mattress salesman, before realizing his interest in language. And that led, serendipitously, to his job as a guide for Overseas Adventure Travel.

In the pueblitos we visited, I watched the faces of young people as they soaked in Erik’s confident, commanding presence, listening as he, obviously a master of this foreign language, English, enthralled our group with the wonder of this place whose blood obviously still runs through his veins. I could easily imagine a few seeds of destiny being sown behind those young, impressionable, awe-struck faces.

* Overseas Adventure Travel is committed to meaningful interaction with  the communities their tour groups visit. Through the Grand Circle Foundation, OAT supports more than 200 schools in 60 countries around the world.

Friday, April 7, 2017

CHICKEN BUS TO PETATLAN – Plucking Away At My Own Joy

“Peta Peta Peta!” The young ayudante hangs nonchalantly out the clunky bus’s open door barking our destination to folks along Zihuatanejo’s bustling back streets.

My compadre, Silverio, and my friend, Larry, have come down here to the southwestern Mexican state of Guerrero, Mexico from Minnesota to help me celebrate my birthday. And today we’ve hopped aboard the second-class “chicken” bus for the hour-long trip to Petatlán, a pueblo of 25,000 located 35 kilometers southeast of Zihuatanejo.

(Petatlán is best known for two things. Foremost is the Sanctuary of the Padre Jesús de Petatlán, a church less notable for its architecture than its display of a highly-revered statue depicting Christ collapsing under the weight of the Cross, steeped in legend about its mysterious discovery in the 16th century. The town’s other claim to fame is its busy handcrafted gold jewelry market.)

Among the first aboard the bus, the three of us spread out, grabbing the few precious seats with both unobstructed views and working windows.

Finally clearing Zihua’s maze of narrow streets, we head out into the countryside on federal highway 200. It’s hot, already in the upper 80s, and the constant humidity wafting in over La Costa Grande from the Pacific belies the tawny, dry-season hue of much of the landscape. It’s mostly just the irrigated commercial groves of coconut palm and mango that remain green this time of year.

By now a few more windows have been pried open and the moving air feels delicious. The ayudante, the fingers of one hand neatly interlaced with color-coded peso bills, totters down the swaying aisle collecting the 30-peso fare.

At the stop for Los Achotes, a few folks get off and a lovely young woman and her three-year-old daughter get on and sit down across the aisle from me. I say, “Hola, buenas tardes,” and both turn toward me with the kind of generous, open-hearted smiles I’ve come to associate with Mexicans.

Somehow, those smiles penetrate the corners of my consciousness, places I try to keep open, but which too often evade the light of day. It’s as if all my petty concerns —boarding the right bus, having change for the fare, getting dropped off at the right stop, the quality of my Spanish, and making sure my buddies have a good time—simply evaporate.

I feel completely comfortable, completely
safe, completely engaged, completely...
well, complete.

Suddenly, I’m utterly in the moment, acutely aware of all my senses. I’m struck by the colors and textures of the bus’s gaudy interior, the passing scenery, the people’s clothing and skin; the happy, polka-like strains of  ranchero music the driver’s just cranked up; the smell of that slightly sweet, smoky, sweaty breeze.

I’m sitting there, turned slightly toward the aisle, one arm draped easily over the back of the adjacent seat, feeling sublimely relaxed. Here I am, I reflect, on the chicken bus to Petatlán, a shaky, noisy metal box with hard, lumpy seats and about enough leg room for a child.

And there’s absolutely no place on earth I’d rather be.

In the company of good friends, immersed in a culture I believe I’ve inhabited in a previous life, swept up in exactly the kind of adventure I so often dream of, I feel completely comfortable, completely safe, completely engaged, completely…well, complete.

I’m happy…very happy…maybe as happy as I’ve ever been!

I savor it as long as I can, but my reverie soon starts fraying at the edges, nibbled by other thoughts. As it unravels, I scan memory for other times I’ve experienced such quiet, certain joy; there have been, I regret to say, very few.

As my guilt and my self-respect have 
this nervous little dance, I wonder what
kind of person I really am.

Now I’ve never been very good at preventing second thoughts from muddling first ones. And so the rest of the trip is tinged with guilt as I wonder how a man as blessed as I’ve been could possibly count a bus ride among his peak experiences.

For God’s sake, I’m thinking, you’ve been gifted with two amazing children and two grandchildren. You married an incredible woman who has enriched your life. You’ve been to  so many amazing places and so deeply bonded with Nature. You’ve seen loved ones face mortal challenges and survive. You’ve given and gotten so much love.

And yet you consider the simple, fleeting joy you’re experiencing on this bus to be among the happiest moments of your life? Have I unmasked some kind of shallowness here…or am I just being honest and spontaneous?

As my guilt and my self-respect have this nervous little dance, I wonder what kind of a person I really am. Should I try to change which of my life experiences most tap into my soul? Or should I just accept that this is an authentic part of who I am—the kind of stuff I live for—even though I can barely avoid calling it selfish?

By the time we pull off onto the dusty bus stop at Petatlán, I’ve come to at least a tentative peace with my dilemma. In a kinder assessment of myself I realize that the joy I’ve just experienced in no way diminishes those other, perhaps weightier, gifts of life and love I’ve received.

I conclude that I can no more choose which of life’s experiences truly move me or bring me joy than I can which joke makes me laugh. No, I figure, those opportunities, those all-too-rare gifts of perfect presence, choose me.

And that’s just going to have to be okay.

So, as my friends and I start up the long steps to the church and zocalo, I turn and watch our bus pull away in a cloud of dust. I celebrate the few moments of precious clarity and centered-ness I’ve just enjoyed. And I chuckle to myself at the thought of my plucking, clucking little self doubts…still on that bus.

Monday, December 5, 2016

SHELL GAME – The Ownership of Place and Culture


The first time I went to Costa Rica, my wife and I had signed on with a St. Paul travel company specializing in small, custom-made experiences in that amazing country.

The format differed a bit from the few “tours” we’d been on with other travel programs; we jumped from one group of fellow travelers to another, depending on where we were and how long we’d be there. But for most of our ten-day journey we were the charges of one tour guide: Jimmy.

Jimmy was friendly, helpful and well-versed in not only the varied flora and fauna of each of Costa Rica’s twelve distinct climate zones, but in his native country’s geography, geology, history, politics and social fabric. He was also charming and, at least in part because of his diminutive stature, lovable.

It’s certainly not very “adult” of me—I suppose you could call it a weakness—but I have a way of becoming ridiculously attached to people who guide and teach me. It’s a little like a kid’s adoration of a favorite camp counselor. And, sure enough, though he was young enough to be my son, I grew quite attached to Jimmy in that way.

I liked him not just because he knew so much about his country, but also simply because he was Costa Rican. I wanted to be more than his student, or even his friend; I wanted to be Costa Rican.

    I stood in front of Jimmy for what 
    seemed like a full minute searching 
    for the words I’d memorized.

Among his other gifts to me, Jimmy was kind and generous enough to help me a bit with my nascent Spanish. (I’ve always felt that learning at least a bit of a destination’s language and culture is essential to being fully present there.) So, as the end of our week together approached, it only made sense that I say my good-byes and express my thanks to Jimmy in his native tongue.

I crafted what I thought would be a manageable couple of sentences; I looked up the necessary vocabulary and grammar; and I practiced—on the bus, at night before bed, even in the shower—what I felt would be a perfect, accent-free little recitation.

I thought I was ready, but when the moment came, things were hectic. We all had buses to catch; other group members were lined up to thank and tip Jimmy; and the poor guy had all he could do to give everyone a few seconds to say adios and still manage his other responsibilities.

As our turn approached, I got stage fright. I stood in front of Jimmy for what seemed like a full minute searching for the words I’d memorized. After all that work, all those best intentions, I think all I managed was Muchas gracias, Jimmy.

    It just seems a little like ordering 
    the catch of the day, but expecting 
    it not to taste “fishy.”

I’ve regretted that awkward moment ever since—in fact, it has been one of my most powerful motivators in becoming a nearly-fluent Spanish speaker.

And there have been other such moments as I’ve traveled the world—other guides, teachers, folks who’ve welcomed me into their homes and families. I nearly always shed tears when I part company with new friends with whom I’ve shared a profound experience, and so it is when I bond with a place; I weep every year when Sally’s and my annual month in Zihuatanejo, Guerrero, Mexico comes to an end.

Why do I—and perhaps you—become so attached to the people and places we’re privileged to visit? I suggest there are basically two kinds of travelers. The first are those who go places shielded in a shell of familiarity; the other, those whose main goal is to break out of that shell. 

Now I have nothing against the Cancuns or the Ocho Rioses of the world—those tourist enclaves where folks can go and spend a week or two with no surprises and all the comforts of home. Or those all-inclusive resorts designed to keep one even more contained, safeguarded from the locals and their ways of life.

But those experiences are not for me. It just seems a little like ordering the catch of the day, but expecting it not to taste “fishy.” Sure, spending your precious vacation time in that shell may ward off some unpleasant surprises, but it also deflects wonderful, potentially transformative ones.


For the past decade or so I’ve had a nearly insatiable appetite for travel in Latin America. This is due, in part, to my yearning for fluency in Spanish. But there’s more to it than that. I am coming to realize that, in a previous life, I was actually a Mexican fisherman. Though my rational side reminds me that I’m not prepared for the realities of that life, my romantic side says, why not?

I’d be close to the sea—that is, once I conquered my extreme susceptibility to seasickness. I’d have all those colorful, celebratory traditions, that amazing closeness of family that so many Latin Americans enjoy. I’d dance as if no one were watching. I’d be able to sit around a card table with my buddies drinking mescal and jabbering away in the kind of Spanish even quasi-hispanohablantes like me can barely decipher.

Yes, I know I can never be that Mexican fisherman—nor Jimmy’s compañero. But I can dream, can’t I?

Which type of traveler are you?

Thursday, March 31, 2016

HASTA PRONTO – A Farewell to Paradise

As we bid a wistful farewell to magical Zihuatanejo for another year, I share the fifth and final round of my Tequila Shots -- visual sips of this place I find so delicious and intoxicating.

These images pick up on the theme of my previous post, Up Close and Far Away, which invites amateur photographers—in fact, anyone who wants to see the world and life in more nourishing ways—to always be aware of both the exquisite detail and the broader context of virtually everything we experience.