Archive for the ‘Travelogues Latin America & West Africa 1976-78’ Category


First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, February 20, 1977

POSTMARK:  Ecuador


The Spanish word for equator is Ecuador, whose capital, Quito, lies within 25 kilometers of the zero degree longitude line. Quito holds the distinction of being the second-highest capital in the world. The city’s unusual geographical position makes for very warm days and downright chilly evenings.

I found Quito’s charm in the old southwestern section of the city where steep, winding streets dip into deep ravines that have either been filled or have stone viaducts built over them. Plaza Independencia, the heart of the city, was a perfect example of Quito’s huge plazas that are dominated by ornate churches. Nearby was the monastery of San Francisco, the earliest religious foundation in South America (1535), as well as an astronomical observatory, also the oldest in South America.

From high in my hotel room I could safely marvel at the arched bridges, towering steeples, domes and the Pichincha Volcano. I almost preferred this passive method of observing Quito, as strolling through the town is not always pleasant.

I’ve visited many cities in my travels, but I must confess that I’ve never come across one that smelled so much of urine as Quito. Certain cobblestone streets that look enticing for strolling turn out to be torture for the nose. What amazed me was that the stench is not confined to one area, but rather you caught whiffs of the strong odor throughout the entire old city. Businessmen carrying briefcases are as guilty as the native Indians in perpetuating this nasty habit.

The native Indian population forms a large part of Quito’s interesting personality. Many of the men pull their long jet black hair back into a braided ponytail. They wear fedora-like hats, woolen ponchos and, when they are not barefoot, their shoes seem as skimpy as ballet slippers. The women also wear the same brown felt hats as the men, giving them a rugged masculine appearance. Babies are wrapped in a blanket or shawl tied around the mother’s back, papoose-style.

The, Indians are a short race to begin with, but shrink even further from the immense weights they carry. I saw their bent-over bodies hobbling down the streets with unfathomably heavy objects tied to their backs, such as mattresses, desks, or huge sacks of potatoes, all to be sold in the market. When they unload the pounds, their backs fail to arise erectly. The shortest of gringos towers over the native Indians.

Ecuador is rich in oil. The reserves lie in the eastern area of the country, the Oriente, which is untamed equatorial jungleland. I took an eight-hour bus ride from Quito down to Lago Agrio, the temperature lowering as the hours ticked off. Following the gravel road the entire length of the trip was the mighty pipeline carrying Ecuador’s future wealth to the Esmeralda coast where most of the oil is shipped to California.

I had to spend the evening in Lago Agrio, whose population basically consists of men employed by the oil companies. The men passed their hours drinking beer and gawking wildly at any member of the female sex — particularly if she happened to be a gringa in shorts. Between the weather and the men, it was a toss-up as to which was more oppressive.

The next day I was able to catch a bus to Coca, it was about a two-hour ride entailing the crossing of two rivers, and twice all the passengers had to collect their luggage, take a ferry to the opposite bank and reload it on another bus. This was no chore for a backpacker, but several passengers had all sorts of cumbersome possessions, and one woman was transporting two mattresses and several chairs.

Finally I arrived at Coca, a small river village with plenty of American engineers employed by Gulf or Texaco. I noticed enviously that from their living quarters protruded the ultimate in tropical luxury — air conditioners. My intentions in coming to Coca were to look for some means of water transportation to Rocafuerte, Ecuador’s eastern border town to Peru.

Normally there is sufficient river traffic on the Napo to easily procure a ride from the natives in their dug-out canoes at a small cost. However, it hadn’t rained in several weeks, making the waters unusually low and highly difficult for traveling.

The scarcity of native boats forced me to search for other alternatives. The Ecuador navy had a small base in Coca, so I figured it could help me out. Luck was with me as a crew was going down to Rocafuerte that very day. After I had a short, but persistent, conversation with Lt. Francisco Espinosa he allowed me to accompany him and his men.

The troops were outfitted entirely in U.S. Marine uniforms. The boat was from Britain and I recognized their weapons as the Uzi submachine gun of Israel. Lt. Espinosa’s cotton T-shirt was from Red China. Except for the Ecuadorian flag waving in the breeze, all their equipment, from knives to canned goods, seemed to be foreign.

Cruising down the Napo River is a spectacular event. The land is a jungle of dense green foliage on both banks. As we sped by isolated thatched huts, the children would run to the river’s edge and wave at the military boat as if its passing were the big event of the day. We passed natives in dug-out canoes loaded with bananas, paddling by with long poles as oars.

In this dry season with the waters so low, giant sand bars came out of their rainy hibernation, filling the Amazon tributary with scattered lonely beaches. Llori, the young soldier guiding the boat, did an amazing job of avoiding the sand bars. In a way he reminded me of the Bedouin tribes in the Middle East. Those nomads can travel the desert and know precisely where water hides beneath the sand. Llori, a native of the Oriente, can travel the equatorial rivers and know precisely where sand hides beneath the waters.

Only twice on the trip did Llori get stuck in sand bars. Lt. Espinosa ordered his crew to get out and push. The men were only waist deep in water, but the current was so vicious that they had trouble maintaining their balance, let alone freeing the boat.

The first time we got stuck, I stupidly jumped overboard to help, but the current was far more powerful than I realized, and I found myself helplessly floating downstream. I was only carried a short distance, since I managed to cling forcefully to a huge, stationary branch. Lt. Espinosa immediately came to my aid, terminating my frantic fantasy of floating into the obscurity of the Amazon.

We stopped for lunch at a small village called Panacocha, which turned out to hold a colony of Frenchmen involved in oil explorations.

Juanta was on the luncheon menu. “Is Juanta like a cow?” I asked. “No,” replied the lieutenant. “Nor is it a pig.” I caught a look at the head of the animal in the cooking area and noticed it was rather small, with two good sized tusks. I told the lieutenant that it looks like juanta could be a boar in English, but he smiles and said, “Muchacha, juanta is only found in the equatorial jungle, so I doubt if the word exists in your language.” Well, whatever it was I ate, it was delicious.


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First published in the Lafayette Journal and Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, March 8, 1977



It was 8:00 am and and I was the first in line to pay Ecuador’s $2 exit fee to leave the country. With my passport stamped, papers all in order, I crossed the sizable bridge and walked into Peru, the land of the lncas.

This northwestern border seems a logical geographical division for the two countries. From the dense green tropics of Ecuador, one finds in Peru a dry, sandy climate. From the bordertown of Tumbes to Peru’s capital of Lima it is 1,300 solid kilometers of arid desert as one follows the Pan American highway that hugs the Pacific Ocean the entire length of Peru’s western coast.

To me, this stretch of road was the ugliest land I’d seen in South America. It was barren and desolate, a perpetual monotone of brown earth.

The adobe mud huts were almost camouflaged, for they, too, were an ugly, dreary brown. Poorer people reside in structures whose walls and roofs are yellowish woven mats (petates) that I’d normally seen as floor coverings, and the petates appeared so fragile that a flick of the finger might cave in the walls.

In fact, all along the route battered petates were scattered in the rough sand, victims of the fierce winds. The winds whistle eerily and blow continually, turning every village into a miniature dust bowl. Laundry drying in the dusty air seemed such a futile chore for the women. You would have to seclude yourself indoors perpetually to stay clean. Every person in every village wore dirty clothes.

The roadside was marred by scattered mounds of garbage, half buried in the sand like tombstones of civilization. A deserted dead animal would attract a flock of hovering vultures, intensifying the morbid lifelessness of the empty area. Occasionally a solitary red-flowered tree would brilliantly illuminate the otherwise drab environment..

Perhaps the land is different in the winter, but in their present summer season, I confronted miles and miles of brown bleakness dotted by pitifully dirty and dull villages.

I tried to imagine what the word “beauty” means to the Peruvians who’ve lived in this dismal environment all their lives. The poverty, the boredom shone in the people’s eyes, and the winds constantly rearranging the dust and the colorless terrain made the two-day trip from Tumbes to Lima one of the most depressing rides of my travels.

Basically, I was unimpressed with Lima. There were several lovely plazas and various enchanting buildings, but for a big city there’s nothing very intriguing in Lima that would lure me back to the capital. It’s a poorly organized city, especially in the inadequately planned newer suburbs.

Not only was Lima highly expensive for such a poor country, but the capital’s night life peters out around 11 p.m. Toque de quida, which means “curfew,” was announced by a loud gong at 1 a.m., and after that hour absolutely no one was allowed on the streets except for the patroling Peruvian police. Graffiti on the walls indicated that most citizens resent this inhibiting law, which has been in effect since July.

I met a sophisticated Peruvian named Abraham who filled me in on the state of the government and the mentality of the people, and who showed me around the city. He was enjoyable company compared to many Latins who befriend you as a status symbol just so they can be seen strolling with a gringo.

Abraham showed me the super rich areas of Lima as well as the super poor areas. The people refer to their ghettos as pueblos jovenes, which translates as “young towns.” He also took me to a highly tight-knit gypsy section of Lima, and peering into an open door I saw very little furniture but many brightly clothed people sitting on the floor playing some sort of card game.

I saw a totally gruesome sight in downtown Lima — a man who was so poor that he literally had no clothes.  He was covering his torso with newspapers and scraps of plastic to protect what little privacy he had left.  Barefoot, he walked with a daze as if he had just come from primitive jungleland and couldn’t understand how he landed in an urban jungleland.

Another unusual place Abraham took me to was a little restaurant that was the only place in Lima where you could buy camu camu — a nourishing drink made from a fruit found only around Iquitos, a jungle city on the Amazon River in northwestern Peru. The juice is pink and is said to have 30 times more Vitamin C than the equivalent amount of orange juice.

During the 1800s many Chinese were brought to Peru to build the railroads. The result was that Lima now has some  of the finest Chinese cuisine this side of the Pacific.

Twenty miles from Lima are the l4th century Indian ruins called Pachacamac which looked identical to all those depressing looking adobe mud homes I already had seen on the Tumbes-Lima route.

I took a surprisingly comfortable train ride from Lima to Huancayo, climbing upwards into the high Andes Mountains. At one point the train was at an elevation of 15,000 feet, supposedly the world’s highest train ride. Herds of llamas were grazing on the grassy slopes. Their long, erect necks give these animals a noble appearance.

The Indian women wore stovepipe hats and cumbersome skirts which surely must hide several woolen petticoats to give them their bulky effect. A beautiful looking race of people with high cheekbones, and dark eyes very Oriental in shape, they speak Quechua, the same language their Inca ancestors spoke. The rhythm of their music and the Quechua words sound astonishingly similar to Vietnamese.

At the market in Huancayo I came across an Indian woman sifting through her daughter’s hair, which was a nest of lice eggs. This I did not find unusual, but what totally shocked me was that when the woman found a louse, she hurriedly popped the insect into her mouth as if it were a live pill. And in fact, she told me that she was eating them to cure whatever was ailing her. I grimaced when she offered me her warped medicine.

From Huancayo, I took what had to be the most precarious bus ride of my entire life to the next isolated city called Ayacucho. The train terminates in Huancayo, so one must travel on the dubious road that passes through the untamed Andes to reach Ayacucho.

Peruvian buses are ancient monstrosities that could very well collapse at any time. Andes roads are ridiculously narrow, totally unpaved and wind dangerously around sharp curves that desperately need some sort of guard rail. The bus path was so high that when I got the nerve to look down, the river was a mere thread of water. All these dangers were compounded by the reality that at any moment falling rocks could come crashing down on our dilapidated vehicle.

To make matters worse, I took this 15-hour bus trip at night, and by 1 a.m. we were in the midst of the snowy altitudes of the Andes. Sure enough, the bus broke down in the most freezing portion of the route and, naturally, the bus lacked heating. Fortunately, we were only stalled for an hour, I’ll never regret dragging my down sleeping bag through South America specifically for, those freezing hours. The Indians came prepared also, piling blankets of warm alpaca wool on top of themselves.

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First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, 1977



Undoubtedly one of the most charismatic cities in all of South America has got to be Cuzco, Peru, once the capital of the Inca empire. In the Indian language of Quechua, Cuzco means “navel,” and at one time the natives believed that Cuzco was situated in the exact center of the world.

Arriving in the city, we were instantly struck by Cuzco’s enchanting personality. Few places have the ability to charm so quickly, but Cuzco is unique and It immediately won our affections. For two weeks we were prisoners of the magical spell of this old Inca citadel.

The heart of the small city (120,000 people) Is the Plaza de Armas. This attractive square is rich In history, for it is in this plaza where the decisive turning point of the fall of the Inca empire took place. In 1833, the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro betrayed the Inca ruler Atahualpa by executing him where the church of Santo Domingo now stands.

Cuzco still boasts amazingly well-preserved masonry which is the original stonework built by the skilled Inca artisans. One Just can’t believe how perfect those ancient masons pieced together huge chiseled rocks with such mathematical precision that nothing was needed to hold it together.

Other less important walls were constructed by haphazardly placing different sized stones together and filling in the spaces with mud. The result was as coherent and appealing a pattern as a patchwork quilt.

Ordinarily we don’t go around observing wall formations, but the ancient Inca stonework was too amazing to ignore. One day when we were strolling through Calle Triunfo, a narrow alleyway in Cuzco renowned for Its impeccable stone walls (Including the well-known carved stone of 12 angles), we came upon a sight that left us transfixed with wonder.

Two decrepit street musicians, one blind, the other legless, were playing their instruments to an audience that included only the two of us. The stocky blind man, wearing almost surrealistic pink sunglasses, plucked away on a battered harp. His little partner played a steel flute, and like the blind man’s, his hollow eyes never changed direction.

Although they were performing for alms, very few people walked by while we were there. Obviously the
pair preferred the mystical setting of Calle Triunfo to the more populated Plaza de Armas which could have earned them more money.

Their native music was beautiful In its simplicity and close resemblance to the hypnotic music of the Orient. We stood there awed by the bewitching sounds echoing against the stone walls, feeling profound compassion for two handicapped individuals endowed with a talent for creating beauty.

Just outside Cuzco, within walking distance, is the ruined fortress of Sacsahuaman. Three huge walls run parallel, yet In a zigzag fashion, for more than 360 meters. Every Inca wall inclines perfectly toward the center, from top to bottom. This design is supposedly earthquake proof. All corners are smoothly rounded, but ironically with all these circular finishes to the hard rock walls, the Incas were oblivious to arches. Instead, ail doors, entrances and niches in walls are squared.

Sitting on top of the fortress, we admired the precision of the stonework. The walls markedly resemble huge Jigsaw puzzles. We were amazed at the perfect engineering feats they accomplished with their primitive implements.

At the foot of the fortress roam numerous llamas with black, brown or white fur. The animals are so docile we were able to walk near them, but not close enough for petting. When we saw llamas in Chicago zoos, they weren’t that striking. But grazing freely in their native territory with the ancient ruins in the background, the Peruvian llamas presented a lovely scene.

Included in the admission to Sacsahuaman are visits to the Temple of the Sun at Kkenkko (Quenco in Spanish). We descended into a large cave. In the middle Is a huge flat stone big enough for a person to lie on. Presumably the subterranean room was used for sacrificial purposes. Further on is another Inca fortress called Puka Pukara. Perhaps It was installed to guard the nearby baths at Tambo Machay.

Tambo in the Quechua vocabulary refers to a resting place along an Inca route, sort of like truck stops. Tarmbos offered food, drink and rest from the rigors of traveling on foot in rugged Andean terrain, and centuries later the Tambo at Machay served its original purpose for us, two weary hikers.

Cuzco rests in a valley at 3,500 meters above sea level. To reach the surrounding ruins, we had to climb towering hills. We discovered it’s no myth that altitude markedly affects one’s breathing. We were forced to move slower, take frequent rests and at times experienced difficulty in digesting food. Despite two weeks to acclimatize ourselves, we never fully adapted to those tremendous heights.

It was a distance of three miles between Sacsahuaman and Tambo Machay and in between the ruins, we found scattered adobe huts inhabited by Indian families. Most of these people were farmers and since we were walking we had the opportunity to stop and observe them at work.

A group of five or six peasants (including women) were necessary to cultivate the soil. They were using tools Identical to those archaeologists describe ancient Indians as using. A wooden apparatus with a steel curved blade on the end is still used by the natives to turn the earth by hand.

Two farmers wielding the crude instruments would simultaneously one…two…three dig into the soil working on the same row. They were followed by another peasant carrying a sack of seeds and depositing them in the earth upturned by the dual diggers. This tedious method of farming wasn’t helped by the steep incline of the hill they were cultivating.

Potatoes seem to be the primary crop which is not surprising since the potato is indigenous to this area. The “papa,” as it’s called here, is one of the few crops able to withstand the high altitude and rocky terrain of the Cuzco area. Indiana farmers can’t imagine how easy their work is in comparison to all the energy Peruvian farmers must devote to their land and the meager results these peasants receive.

We spent the entire day exploring the ruins on the outskirts of Cuzco. By the time we arrived back in the city, it was approaching dusk and thus getting cool.

Cuzco’s weather is such that if you stand under the hot sun in the day, you sweat. Move several paces to shade and you shiver. So with no sun the nights get really brisk.

We ran downhill to our hotel as the sun set behind the mountain on which Peruvian soldiers in 1819 inscribed in gigantic letters “Viva Peru.”

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First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, April 3, 1977



Throughout our southbound journey, whenever we were asked where we were headed, we would reply “Peru.” “Ah,” would be the normal response, “you’re going to Machu Picchu.”

Machu Picchu, the prime tourist attraction in Peru, is an ancient Inca city situated 76 miles northwest of Cuzco and rests at an elevation of 8,000 feet above sea level. These incredible ruins lay hidden from the modem world for nearly 500 years until Dr. Hiram Bingham of Yale University discovered this legendary lost city in 1911.

Most tourists take the five-hour train from Cuzco, spend several hours at the ruins, then retreat back to civilization in the evening. We decided to approach Machu Picchu in a quite unconventional manner — hiking for three days on the original Inca trail to reach our destination.

Our exciting odyssey commenced on a rather chaotic note. To arrive at the Inca trail we had to take the train from Cuzco to Kilometer 88 (Machu Picchu is at Kilometer 112) and departure time was 5 a.m. So an hour beforehand we staggered out of our beds and ambled over to the station where a horde of Indians were already waiting at the entrance gate.

When the man opened the gates, people began stampeding in the darkness for seats for themselves and all their cumbersome belongings. We pushed and shoved just like everyone else.

The train stopped just long enough to deposit the four of us in the middle of nowhere, so-called Kilometer 88. The only activity in sight consisted of several Indian women who were squatting near the tracks like colorful statues.

To reach our trail we first had to cross a crude manmade bridge spanning the turbulent Urubamba River. There was one hut on the other side and its apparent resident approached us. We chatted for awhile about our journey, gave him a cigarette, and in exchange he gave us brittle green leaves and an object that resembled a long slender stone.

The Indian demonstrated to us how to use his gift. Take a fistful of the leaves and wrap them around the small chunk of the stone which is actually concentrated ashes and breaks fairly easily. Put this wad in the side of your mouth and just chew it casually like tobacco. He explained that all natives participated in this age old custom and its effect is good for hiking in the high altitude.

Immediately we realized that he was giving us coca leaves, the stimulant that in its further state produces cocaine. We had seen many Indians chewing the cud that turns your saliva and teeth a fungus green and we knew that the ancient Indians also regularly indulged in the habit. And we figured that since we were doing the Inca trail, we should do it the native way.

The first half day of hiking we were all chomping away on the Indian present. It numbed the entire side of our mouths and made us feel extremely energetic. However, the sensation soon died away, leaving a rancid taste. We abandoned the coca leaves thinking aloud what poor Indians we would make.
The hike through the imposing Andes Mountains was breathtaking — literally. The vista of towering snow capped peaks in the distance was phenomenal.

The entire Inca trail is strewn with forgotten ruins which are appreciated only by those who undertake such an unorthodox approach to Machu Picchu. The second day we stumbled upon a petrified fortress called Sayacmarca (meaning elevated town in Quechua). This remote ruin is perched high atop a protruding cliff overlooking a stupendous abyss. The stonework at Sayacmarca is moss encrusted with age, and the grounds are smothered by unkempt jungle growth. Its desolation was haunting, perhaps because swarms of camera toting tourists haven’t yet scared off the ghosts of the eternal Inca spirit.

Our last night we camped at the ruins of Phuyupatamarca, the Inca baths. Crystal clear water still flows through narrow channels carved in the rocks. Here was one of the few places in Peru where we enjoyed the luxury of cold, uncontaminated water. Instead of sleeping in a nearby damp cave, we found a simple straw hut erected inside the ruins, a dwelling we were amazed, yet relieved, to find.

The next morning when the clouds lifted we got our first glimpse of Machu Picchu atop a mountain six hours away. We didn’t see the vacant city again until the last hour of our hike, as the remainder of our trek led us through a tropical rain forest.

Towards the end of the hike, we had to grope to relocate the obliterated path. Operating with complete disregard for nature and the priceless Inca stone trail, the Peruvian government is foolishly raping the land to construct a fancy hotel at Machu Picchu’s back door. The engineers detained us for an hour while they heedlessly dynamited their own beautiful wilderness.

Oblivious to the perpetual drizzle, we were ecstatic upon arriving at Machu Picchu. However, we were too weary to explore the ruins immediately, despite the inviting temptation they offered.

After a rejuvenating night’s sleep in a warm bed, we were ready for the ruins the next day. Machu Picchu stands as a fossilized testament to the ingenuity and cultural superiority of a long vanquished race of enigmatic Indians. It completely baffles us how this city in the clouds was constructed without the aid of modern technological devices. If you could see the astounding engineering and exquisite craftsmanship that went into making Machu Picchu a reality, then you could well understand our amazement and the many, many questions that flooded our minds.

After walking around the magical ruins, we realized that we were confronted with one of mankind’s oddities that must be seen — not written about — to fully absorb the staggering beauty of this fantasyland

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First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, 1976

POSTMARK:  Bolivia


In Indian language, Titicaca means jaguar, and from the air Titicaca Lake on the border of Bolivia resembles a jaguar.

Yet how did the ancient Indians, lacking aerial transportation or sizeable mountains to climb, conceive of this design? It’s another of the innumerable mysteries we have encountered in South America.

Traveling nearly 20 hours overland from Cuzco, Peru, to Titicaca, the highest navigable body of water in the world, we stopped at a small village called Copacabana, situated on a peninsula that juts out into the lake.

On sunny days the beauty of the area is stupendous. The crystal waters sparkle with a blinding blue effervescence, and miniature waves combine with an infinite horizon to create the impression that Lake Titicaca is a sea. Native dugout canoes drifted by as we lounge on the boulders along the shore.

The Indian women, with their toothless grins, were amiable and frequently engaged in conversation with us. In our first chat with a native Indian we committed a faux pas: They prefer to be called campesinos (peasants) rather than indios (Indians), the latter being an offensive title to Bolivians. Thereafter we referred to them as campesinos.

Because of the high altitude, the sun at Copacabana is extremely intense. Our thirsts were satisfied when we discovered a peasant women with a makeshift stand set up in front of the lakeshore. Her product instantly enticed us — fresh peach juice. Like the surprise packages in a Crackerjack box, much to our delight we found a genuine peeled peach at the bottom of the glass.

As we were about to leave, 15 men marched by, decked out in neat blue uniforms. The campesina proudly informed us that they were her country’s navy. We found this rather humorous, considering that Bolivia is a land-locked nation. But the campesina pointed to the vast lake, proclaiming “Bolivia does have water!'”

Fresh Titicaca trout is Copacabana’s kitchen specialty. But surprisingly the price is high ($1.29) for a good filet with trimmings, because the supply has been drastically depleted over the years and the people have unwittingly failed to give the fish enough time to regenerate.

From Copacabana we moved on to La Paz, distinguished as being the world’s highest capital. The seven hour bus ride to La Paz was unusual, since the bus was jammed with peasants transporting contraband from Peru into Bolivia to sell on the La Paz streets for a reasonable profit.

At two check points along the route we were detained by “aduana” or custom agents. Naturally the smugglers didn’t want to be caught with an overabundance of outlawed goods, so we were asked to conceal in our backpacks such unlikely items as soap, underpants and tennis shoes.

We willingly complied with their request, taking it more or less as a joke. The Bolivian police ignored us, but a poor peasant woman fought viciously to retain an inconsequential product which would have earned her money in La Paz. From the bus window we watched the tragic drama unfold.

First the agents removed her box from the bus to their jeep. At this point, she jumped on the moving vehicle and, clinging steadfastly, she desperately pleaded with them to give her a break. Tears streamed down her face and her baby dangled from her papoose while the agents mercilessly shoved her off the jeep into the mud. The entire affair was absurd when we learned her “crime” was transporting toilet paper.

We arrived in La Paz during the midst of Carnival.  Although Rio de Janeiro is the Mardi Gras capital of the world, every town in South America celebrates its own version of Carnival.  Throwing water balloons is a characteristic of Carnival and the streets were hopping with high-spirited pranksters.  No on escapes without getting wet, either from a balloon or from a bucket of water upended by a sniper on a rooftop.

Two hours by bus from La Paz lies another one of South America’s mysteries — Tiahuanaco.  This obscure archaeological site consists of only several intact ruins; nothing else has been reconstructed or restored.  Chunks of rock are strewn througout the fenced-in area.  We calculated that if put together like pieces of a puzzle archaeologists could surely provide some answer or hypotheses to the hundredsof unanswered questions concerning this place with no known recorded history.  The rocks look natural just lying there on the ground, but we suspect they used to be part of some magnificent formation. 

The most impressive ecavation is the so-called subterranean room.  It’s an extremely large perfectly symmetrical pit with walled stonework reminiscent of that at Machu Picchu.  On all four sides of the quadrangle are sculpted heads representing various races from all over the world, including Oriental, Negroid and Caucasion features.

Another spectacle which awed us was “La Puerta del Sol” or the Gate of the Sun.  It’s a megalithic doorway carvedout of a 50-ton rock, complete with intridcate designs of birdmen engraved in the stone.   Above the door’s entrance is a man crying because, as oral history has it, his people left for the stars.  Tears spotting his cheeks are clearly visible.

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First publsihed in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, October 3,1976

POSTMARK:  Argentina


Visions of terror danced in my head whenever I used to try to imagine what Argentina was like after reading countless newspaper accounts of terrorist shootouts.

But it’s a pity that the media seem only concerned with the political shakeups for Argentina has far more to offer. The country is fantastic due exclusively to the nature of the Argentine people.  They aren’t friendly; they are overly friendly; They are cheerful, always smiling, helpful, noticeably sophisticated and enjoyable to talk to. Except for my experiences with the Greeks, Argentina has the finest nation of citizens I’ve ever met.

If Argentina didn’t have a military government, I would find it ideal. However, the military is a reality. Within 100 miles of crossing the Bolivian border my brother and I were searched three times on a first-class southbound bus — one that served free refreshments.

One passenger had the boldness to complain when soldiers ransacked his luggage. He had nothing of contraband, but because he protested, and mildly at that, the soldiers detained him. As the bus pulled away I caught a glimpse of the victim and was spooked to see such trepidation and terror in a grown man and such pompous wrath on the face of the uniformed officer.

On two occasions, I witnessed the military’s drilling procedures, and they caused me to shudder, The 7 soldiers weren’t merely marching, but were goose-stepping, just like I’d seen in war documentaries of Nazi soldiers.

Basically the government is unconcerned with backpackers and tourists, and doesn’t bother us at all. From Jujuy, way in the north, my brother Tom and I boarded a train for Buenos Aires about 1,700 kilometers away (forget hitchhiking; people are too afraid to pick up any road-side strangers)

After previous rides on other South American trains, the Argentine train was a relief. It was so clean you could actually sleep on the floor — which I did because it was a 36-hour ride to the capital. The train speeds down the tracks instead of ambling along. There’s no oversale of tickets, so that everyone has a seat, and crowds don’t block the aisles.

Since everyone here was so decent, we had no worries about robbers. Tom had placed his hand-made Peruvian bag above us on the luggage rack. Suddenly it fell off the rack, ricocheted off my back and flew out the open window. We looked at each other in horror, knowing that inside the purse was his passport, all his travelers’ checks, health certificate, $15, all identification, plus an open plane ticket worth $75.

The train made a stop about five kilometers later in a little village called Frias. We disembarked, backtracked up the rails for seven kilometers, but due to the summer’s high grass could find no sight of the precious bag. Disappointed, we returned to Frias to report the loss to the police, since, traveling around Argentina without any documents is worse than getting in a car wreck and not having a driver’s license.

The people of Frias were tremendous. Lelia, a widow with four young children who works at the train station took us to the police to help explain the incredulous event to the officers. After a fatiguing amount of questions — also directed at me, who had lost nothing — Tom finally got a paper which served as a temporary passport.

Lelia then insisted we spend the night at her house, where she fed us and mothered us tenderly. The next day we were going to leave, but about five men urged us to stay. These kind men took time off from their work to help us for a second day to scour the tracks. But, unfortunately the little Peruvian bag did not turn up.

For a second night Lelia took us into her home and fed us well. I had showed her the various coins I’ve been collecting of each country I pass through, and she and her neighbors bestowed on me a variety of obsolete Argentine coins. Tom and I left Frias the next day, touched by everyone’s generosity.

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First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, April 3, 1977

POSTMARK: The Gambia


While attending Indiana University in 1975-76 we became close friends with an African named Ebou Camara. After studying for seven years in America, Ebou returned to his homeland, Gambia, at the same time we left for South America. Our departing words to Ebou were, “See you in Africa’ — and now, months later, as promised, here we are.

Ebou welcomed us into his family’s home where he lives with some of his 10 brothers and sisters and his widowed mother. But at any given time it is impossible to determine the precise number of people under the Camara roof. Like a motel, relatives filter in and out, staying a week or a month or indefinitely. No matter how distant the relative is, his visit is always accepted, for this sort of hospitality is reciprocal.

At one time the Mandinka was essentially a rural tribe. Ebou’s father, like many Mandinka peasants, left his countryside village in an exodus to the capital city area where today’s Mandinka generation now rivals the indigenous Wolof tribe. Even though many Mandinka are now urbanized, most still retain their rural cultural roots.

The Camaras live in a spacious cement house with a big sandy front yard full of mango trees and squawking chickens. Unlike most families, they have running water, a refrigerator (displayed in the living room), a toilet and other luxuries normally considered Western comforts. Despite these Western appliances, the Camaras are truly Mandinka in culture.

The domineering force at the Camaras’ is Ebou’s mother, Fanta Darba. Like many African women, she did not adopt her husband’s last name at marriage. Everyone calls her Ma (the M is heavily emphasized) and she graces her home with all the majestic grandeur of motherhood. Her children range in age from 14 to 37, yet she also attends to her flock of grandchildren.

Fanta Darba decorated her arms heavily with thin silver bracelets that clang musically whenever she walks. She also dyes her palms and feet with fudano.  At first we asked Ebou if Ma had accidentally burnt her hands cooking or something. But no, she often wraps her hands and feet in plastic with red dye taken from the leaves of the fudano tree to darken her skin. This is considered a beauty trait as well as a natural softener against dry winds.

Maternal duties for Gambian women extend even to grandmothers. Ebou’s grandmother, affectionately called Musukeba (old woman) is equally active in child care. She’s a sprite old woman of about 90, and it’s not unusual to see her pacing around with an infant tied in a cloth to her back or thrashing a naughty youngster with a bundle of twigs.

Many of the women help with the cooking, but Ma is the undisputed queen of the kitchen. The Camaras could easily afford a stove, but Ma doesn’t want such a complicated contraption in her outdoor kitchen. She prefers to stick with her traditional log fire because she knows precisely how to regulate the burning flames to simmer or boil a dish to perfection. Breakfast is routine. Each previous evening, rice and peanuts are pulverized with a pestle as large as a baseball bat in a mortar as big as an urn. The crushed millet is called tiachulo and resembles lumpy oatmeal. The family giggled at our awkward attempts to pound the grains. We were astonished at the amount of energy entailed in preparing a simple breakfast and pondered on how Quaker Oats has made mornings easy for many Americans.

One of the most fascinating aspects of living with a typical, African family is watching them pray. The Camaras are Muslim in faith and very devout at that. Each day the adults congregate outside to pray five times at separate intervals. The intriguing ritual is begun by taking a pot of water and carefully washing the hands, mouth, nose, head, eyes and feet.

Once they are cleansed, they move to their prayer mats and face east toward Mecca. Even old Musukeba and Fatou, who’s eight months pregnant, perform the sequence of standing, kneeling and bowing while reciting cryptic Arabic verses from the Koran, the Muslim bible. When the normal five-minute prayer session is over, we can resume conversation with the family.

However, for some of the elder and more devoted Muslims, the homage is not complete. They lapse into additional Arabic verses while lingering a tasabayo. This is a rosary with 100 beads entailing 100 extra recitals to their god, Allah. These devout men have a more comprehensive knowledge of Arabic than the average African Muslim, who simply parrots the language in the same way many Catholics used to chant Latin at mass without understanding it.

One of the obligations of the Islamic religion is to make a “haj” at least once in a Muslim’s lifetime. A haj is a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Ebou’s mother recently had the thrill of her life when she and a group of Gambian Muslims chartered a jet to Mecca.

One night after the evening prayers, Ma presented Colleen with a ring she had brought back as a souvenir from the holy city. Inscribed on the ring was an Arabic passage. We had to wait for the Tetsabayo prayers to end before an elderly uncle could decipher the message. His erudite interpretation hinted at pleasure in life.

The Camaras lead a simple, tranquil traditional life. We share many relaxing evenings with them lounging on straw mats in their front yard. Often they question us about our American lifestyle and we in turn are so curious about the countless unusual facets of their culture. In living with the Camaras, we are receiving an authentic taste of black Africa, and this experience is fantastically delicious.

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First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, 1977

POSTMARK: The Gambia


The advantages of staying with an African family range from sheer enjoyment of the experience to the profound educational opportunities involved, such as the Saturday when the Camara clan invited me to a Moslem ceremony that was the equivalent of a Christian child’s baptism.

To attend the ceremony, we drove 112 miles into the hot African countryside to Mansakonko, where Fanta Camara’s eldest daughter, Ramatou, lived with her husband and five children, plus her husband’s second wife. Ramatou’s latest child was a week old, the age when a child is named.

When we arrived, there was a huge crowd on the lawn and beautiful music in the air, Ramatou’s husband is a high official so his family resides in a huge British colonial house.

I found it ludicrous that past British residents installed a fireplace in the house, probably to remind them of England, but totally useless in tropical Gambia.

All the women were found inside, lounging on beds in the bedroom, dressed up in beautiful African gowns and adorned in their finest jewelry. However, I couldn’t understand the women’s Mandika conversation and felt claustrophobic inside with so many eyes on me.

Even though it is traditional at weddings and funerals for all the women to congregate inside and the men outside, I preferred to be outdoors in the fresh air, and close to the vibrant music.

Nobody invited the musicians to the ceremony. They are known as griots, and show up at special occasions on their own, in the hopes people will bestow money on them.

They sang in raspy voices songs of the past that told a story about their ancestors. The two male griots were strumming koras, instruments similar to the guitar except the base is made of a huge round gourd larger than a basketball. The female griots rhythmically tapped metal tubes on the sides of the kora and seemingly tried to outchant their male partners.

From childhood African women wear earrings of solid gold that weigh heavily on their lobes.  The griot women had the biggest gold earrings 1 had ever seen and the holes in their ear lobes seemed large enough to slide a pencil through. The griots wanted money from me, but all I had was a grapefruit in my hand. They accepted it, and they probably would accept just about anything that was free.

Soon, Ramatou stepped outside, cradling her newborn baby. A bit of the child’s hair was cut for the mother to save and the little girl was named Aja Dalbo after a friend. (The friend has been to Mecca and women who complete the Moslem obligation of visiting the Holy City are given the title “Aja”).

After the hair was cut, all the men lapsed into a monotone chanting of verses from the Koran. They were praying that the child would endure a long life. The next thing I knew, everyone was getting up to go home. On their way, many slipped Ramatou’s husband some money. Others presented him with live chickens.  At a child naming rite, the family is obligated to slaughter some sort of animal, depending on the family’s wealth. Poor people might kill a chicken, while rich people would offer an entire cow.

At this ceremony I witnessed a ram’s throat being slit — a thoroughly gruesome sight. I was the only person grimacing, as everyone else seemed to enjoy it.

Later Ramatou served dinner to the 30 or so guests. About five or six large bowls were filled with benechin, a spicy dish composed of rice and the freshly slaughtered meat. People broke up into groups of five or six, and each group had its own bowl. Some groups ate on the porch, others in the kitchen, and others in the bedroom.

All of them sat on the floor and scooped up the rice with their hands. I was the only person given a spoon, but I refused it when 1 saw I would be the oddball.

Eating their way was fun and a novel experience for me, but due to my inexpertise in molding rice in the hand, I ended up with a pretty messy mouth. The important thing was that my stomach was full and content.

Soon after dinner, the Camaras and I went through endless handshakes and Mandika farewell greetings. Finally we departed.

On the way home we stopped at Worokang to visit other Camara relatives, and as we entered the family compound, I realized that I was probably the first white person to visit this family. All the children came running up to me, yelling “toubob” and forming a circle around me as if I were on exhibit in a circus. Some of them boldly touched me, then yanked their hands back rapidly, as if they had been given an electric shock.

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First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, May 15, 1977

POSTMARK: The Gambia


“Roots” has raised the small West African Republic of The Gambia out of obscurity to become a household word in America.

While visiting friends here, we knew we had to see the now famous ancestral village of Alex Haley, the author of “Roots,” who painstakingly traced his geneology back to slavery days to the Kunte Kinte clan of Jeffure.

We rented a dilapidated taxi and traveled to the remote village via a bumpy, dusty, narrow road. At each small settlement we passed throngs of children came running up to the car, shouting “toubob, toubob,” the native word for white man. The excitement we aroused as toubob in the African bush was a prelude to the elaborate fanfare awaiting us at Jeffure.

When we finally arrived in Jeffure, a Mandinka village with no stores, running water or electricity, our
presence shattered the midday tranquility. A crowd of children was ready to greet us with huge smiles and outstretched arms as we stepped from the cab. They surrounded us, eagerly competing for the thrill of our handshakes.

Suddenly an old Muslim wearing a flowing gown and a red fez broke through the cordon with a ledger held reverently in his hands as if it were the holy Koran. He indicated for us to register as guests. There still weren’t many entries in the book, but among the signatures we spotted were the American ambassador to Gambia as well as reporters from Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times. We signed in proudly, as Journal & Courier correspondents.

After these initial amenities we found ourselves being escorted straight to Kunte Kinte’s compound. As we approached his home, like magnets we attracted more and more villagers until our enormous contingent overflowed into Kunte Kinte’s compound The Kintes welcomed us as if we were two long-lost relatives!

We were given seats on old wooden benches and introduced to all the Kinte clan. The sea of black bodies drowned us with smiling faces that glowed at us as if we were celebrity superstars.

Kinte was a tall man dressed in colorful native apparel. He didn’t speak English, but his glistening eyes communicated efficiently with us. He had a good set of reddish teeth that lined his mouth as firm as kernels on a cob of autumn Indian corn — the stain due to years of chewing the bitter kola nuts.
Momentarily the crowd parted to allow the “Akalo” to enter. This chief of Jeffure was an ancient man with crooked fingers and a body shaped like a question mark. He requested our autographs, then recopied our names in Arabic script.

Kinte and the chief next showed us various newspaper clippings, calling cards and photographs donated by previous guests. We had nothing to add to the collection, but decided to share a package of cookies with the group. At first only a few bold bands reached out for the rare treat, but with increasing speed more and more hands plunged into the package like attacking pitchforks. This frantic outburst subsided only after the cookies had been crushed to crumbs. The human explosion left us thoroughly dumbfounded and even a little frightened.

Like calm after an unexpected storm, the people regained their mellow composure and the incident was ignored. Before we could analyze the incredibly scene, Kinte asked us through a translator if we would enjoy native dancing.

Immediately the natives formed an orderly circle and a hollow calabash gourd was upturned in a
tub of water to serve as a drum. As soon as the baritone tempo struck the air, the women (men don’t dance to drums) began their unique ho-down. Like stationary birds in air, they fluttered their arms back and forth while stomping up and down as if the ground were on fire.

When they invited Colleen to join them, she was reluctant at first to compete with such impeccable performers. But at their insistence she was thrust into the center of the circle. As the audience cheered jubilantly and clapped enthusiastically, she released ail inhibitions and lapsed into the wild dancing as if she had been born a Mandinka.

After the dance ended, the women hugged Colleen and one of the Kintes presented her with a safo, a square leather locket containing verses from the Koran.

The festivities continued until someone advised us that transportation was scarce and we should head back to the road before dark. After a lengthy series of goodbyes and blistering handshakes, the Kintes remained at home while the other villagers accompanied us back with all the zeal of ants converging on two sugar cubes.

One woman gave us two wild fowl’s eggs, because toubobs are “supposed” to like eggs, just as the Mandinka believe that twins are “supposed” to like black-eyed peas.

On the way home we reflected on the lavish attention devoted to us as visitors. Undoubtedly, due to the “Roots” phenomenon, more and more toubobs will flock to Jeffure, making us wonder if the villagers will continue to receive all tourists as enthusiastically as they greeted us. We chuckled at their naive assumption that as Americans we were naturally good friends with Alex Haley.

But looking at it from their perspective, it’s not really so naive. Gambia is a very small country with population of less than 500,000. Coming from a county much smaller than Indiana, they probably can’t fathom the masses of people inhabiting our colossal nation. Perhaps in their limited view, Haley lives only several villages from our native village.

Less than a week after our excursion to Jeffure, Alex Haley popped up in Gambia. Accompanied by his brother, an architect, his prime mission was to present the Jeffure people with a mosque.
Another feature of Haley’s visit was a public screening of “Roots” in McCarthy Square, an outdoor grassy stadium. The movie was free, but hardly worth attending. Besides frequent film breakdowns, it was impossible to see or hear “Roots” in the same private comfort that most Americans enjoyed.
It is absurd that the human roots of “Roots” are denied a proper viewing of the film, especially since the book is still not available in Gambia.

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First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, June 26, 1977

POSTMARK: The Gambia


I lived with the Camara family in Serrekunda, the Gambia, for two months. During that time I had the marvelous opportunity to take part in two important African ceremonies. The first was the christening (called “kulio” in their Mandinka language) of a newborn child. The second and far more elaborate ceremony was Abdoulie Camara’s wedding.

Actually the occasion was not really a wedding. Abdoulie and his wife had already been married for five months, but traditionally the wife continues to live with her parents while the husband resides with his family for several months. The big occasion arrives when the wife’s family officially brings her to live with her husband’s family. This ceremony is called “manyo bito” in Mandinka; the literal translation being “cover the bride.”

Preparations for the huge party began several days earlier when about 20 neighbor women came to the Camara compound to start cooking all the food that at least 100 people would be eating for several days.

The first day was devoted to pounding an unfamiliar grain that would comprise the dish called “jeri.” It made quite a commotion in the Camara compound, what with all the huge wooden pestles hitting the wooden mortars, plus the chatting of a flock of women.

The second day was far from quiet, too. The Camara’s rural Mandinka relatives arrived from the countryside. The compound was overflowing with babies, children, teenagers, adults and old folks. It seemed like every one of them wanted to talk with me, the only toubob (white person) present. I was exhausted from so much socializing. But most of them, after a day that began before dawn, still were talking strong at midnight when I dropped off to sleep.

The ceremonies began on the third day. The guests started coming to the compound about noon and stayed at least until 2 a.m. Naturally all had to be fed lunch and dinner. Meanwhile, over at the bride’s family’s compound, similar celebrations were taking place on an equally large scale. Abdoulie had wanted a small, quiet manyo bito, but his wife is of the Wolof tribe and the Wolof are famous for their extravagant manyo bitos.

At about 4 p.m., the bride’s female family members paraded into the Camara compound, balancing on their heads large woven straw baskets containing everything necessary to prepare the bride’s bedroom. They also brought a huge bowl of food, enough to feed all the Camara’s guests. Likewise, the Camaras gave the bride’s family enough food to feed their guests.

The Wolof women took over Abdoulie’s bedroom, decorating it with new curtains, a bedspread and floor mats. They lighted incense which smelled much like that used in special Catholic masses. Then they welcomed all the groom’s relatives into the bedroom.

I also marched in to view the bed, smiling brightly at the Wolof women to compensate for my total lack of Wolof vocabulary. But behind my smile, I was puzzled as to how the custom of inspecting the married couple’s bed evolved, when in our society the bedroom is so utterly private.

At dusk, the griots (musicians) arrived with their long drums. African drummings are spectacular. Only men are drummers and they perform standing, holding the instrument between their legs. Only the women dance. They form a circle and one, two, or three women jump into the circle, shake wildly for only a minute, then jump back into the crowd and let other women have their go.

The drumming was still going on when I collapsed into bed at midnight. Later I was furious for falling asleep, because the highlight of the ceremony came at about 2 a.m. when the bride’s family officially brought her to Abdoulie. I was informed that she was dressed all in white with a black sort of turban around her head. She sat with the village elders, who chanted Muslim verses for her while everyone else gazed on happily.

The fourth day of the ceremony was wildest. A huge black bull was slaughtered in the yard. All the meat from the bull was used to make “benechin” that was cooked in a gigantic black pot big enough for several people to stand in.

On this day the women wore their “asobi” dresses. Fatou Camara had an asobi made for me, so that on the special day I was recognized by the distinctive material of my asobi as belonging to the Camara clan.  I was touched. She’s my age, 23, and when she had her fourth child last month, she named the baby Colleen.

The drummings on this day took place in the afternoon. As I joined the clapping spectators, the ladies urged me to get in the circle and dance.

I really wanted to dance because I felt energetic in response to the pounding of the drums. But I was shy because so many people I knew were watching. Fatou told the griots my name and they started singing about me. Then a neighbor woman forcefully took my hand and led me into the vacant circle. With my back bent forward, arms outstretched, I imitated their beautiful dancing style as best I could. Although I felt self-conscious, I enjoyed my outburst immensely. Some of the ladies ran up to me and put money in my hand as is the custom when someone performs well.

While we were all having such a fantastic time, the bride was in her bedroom where she had been since the night before and where she was to remain for three more days. People could come visit her, which I did. I promptly asked why she wasn’t outside where all the action was. I doubt if she had been asked that question by anyone else. She hesitated, then simply replied, “tradition.”

On her third day of confinement “tradition” has her come out of her room specifically to shed her clothes. On that day more drummings take place and thereafter she mingles normally with the folks in the compound.

I left Gambia the day before she was “released,” so I didn’t partake in the final ceremonies. Everything else I witnessed at the manyo bito made a great impression on me. In fact my entire two months at the Camara’s was an invaluable experience. It will forever remain my most intriguing insight into a culture so radically foreign to my own.

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