Friday, April 29, 2016

Don't Think, Just Be: My Ayahuasca Experience

I get into the van outside the Dawn on the Amazon Cafe and can't believe my eyes. Of the 8 people in our group I am the only man. Behind me sits a sixtyish hippie woman and the rest are all super cute chicas bonitas in their 20s and 30s. Blonde, brunette, Israeli, Asian. Hot, hot, hot, hot. I felt like the luckiest guy in Peru. 

The mood during the one-hour ride to the Gaia Tree jungle retreat center is bright. Everyone is chatting and laughing and I'm enjoying talking with the cute Canadian who is sitting next to the aging hippie. There are no external signs of the internal torment that some of them are living with.

Iquitos, Peru is on the Amazon river near the borders of Colombia and Brazil and is the epicenter of the burgeoning ayahuasca movement. Ayahuasca is an ancient plant medicine which local shamans have been using for generations. It is used for personal healing as well as psychedelic visions. I am here mostly out of curiosity, partly as an opportunity for personal growth. If I have any demons in my past or pain buried deep inside me, which I do not think that I do, this will bring it to the surface and help me deal with it. For example, I tend to be shy around attractive women and lack the self-confidence that I see in many other guys -- is this the result of some scarring that occurred being the first kid in school to wear glasses and braces? Wearing a headgear (for the braces on my teeth) to school did not endear me with the cute girls or the cool kid club.

Gaia Tree Retreat Center
My home for the next 7 nights is this tambo, a little 10'x10' hut in the middle of the jungle about 100 yards and thousands of trees from my closest neighbor. There is a mosquito net over the bed and a few termites parading around inside.

Each night from dusk around 6 to ceremony at 9 I lay in my tambo just listening to the jungle sounds. Amazing. Whistles and croaks and chirps and querks and rustling and whooshing. All of the frogs, birds, insects, monkeys and whoknowswhatelses are invisible in the dark.

Five minutes walking from my hut brings me back to the central building where we will all spend most of our down time. Downstairs is where we will eat two vegetarian meals per day and upstairs has hammocks for lounging. We won't sleep much at night so these hammocks will get a lot of use. 

Main building - exterior

Main building - interior


And here is the malorca where our ceremonies take place, 5 in 7 nights. They begin at 9pm and last until nearly dawn.

The morning after a ceremony

The Participants
Four of the eight participants have some serious healing to do. They share stories of parental torment and personal struggles that blow my mind. Now I feel like the luckiest guy in Peru but for totally different reasons. I feel blessed because my father didn't beat me and I was never raped, never suicidal, I wasn't slaughtering chickens in a factory at age 12 and my parents never tried to sell me to a wealthy neighbor when I was 13.

It is some heavy, heavy shit. How can people be so cruel?

Our lovely cook in this kitchen.


The Ceremonies
Ayahuasca is a vine that grows plentifully in the jungle around here. Local (mostly indigenous) shamans chop it up with another plant and boil the concoction down for 12-20 hours. Out comes a liquid blacker than motor oil and nearly as thick. It is the worst tasting thing I've ever put in my mouth. We all struggle to keep it down as it is dispensed out of re-purposed 2-liter bottles of Coke.

Over the seven nights here we will partake in five ceremonies. The ceremonies begin at 9pm and we all sit around the inner perimeter of the malorca, a circular building about 50' in diameter. We have mattresses and pillows and a puke bucket close at hand. Everyone pukes. It is part of the process. Unless you're a shitter, that is. Not everyone purges only from their mouth. There is also a lot of crying, burping and blowing of noses.

The ceremony is run by two shamans -- a husband and wife team. They are barely over 5' tall and fairly thick, but not fat. Each of them displays several silver teeth. They are from a local tribe and have been a part of these ceremonies since they were children. They learned to be shamans from their fathers who learned from their fathers and hey prove to be people of deep love and compassion as they guide the healing process with the bedside manner of Mother Theresa.

I chose to sit in the first position to the right of the shamans, meaning I would imbibe first. I was served maybe 5 ounces, three gulps worth. I shudder now just thinking about the flavor. 

About fifteen minutes later I felt a bit of a head buzz and five minutes more and I was puking. The shamans began singing and my vision started to turn into mosaics, but only just a little bit. My body started buzzing like I was on a marijuana high. Then Don Segundo, the husband shaman, moved over to sit in front of me and sing. He would be followed around the room by his wife Belmira, spending 10-30 minutes in front of each of us, depending on what we needed. Their singing right in front of me made everything more intense, but my first experience was fairly mellow.

The woman to my right was gently moaning and the one to my left was humming a little song, kind of annoying as it was out of tune with the singing of the shamans. 

The first night ceremony must have ended around 2am. That's when the shamans left the building. At the crack of dawn I was still buzzing and enjoying the full-body tingle while listening to the sounds of the forest. I was able to sleep for just a couple hours and we all spent the night right where we started it -- on our mattresses in the ceremony building.

My Most Interesting Ceremony
The second night was the most eventful for me. I was given a little bit more to drink and it had a greater effect. After puking it was if someone pulled back the curtain on the universe and showed me a truth. The vision was white on white, a flowing world of energy and joy. There were energy globules morphing into energy tubes and connectors and beings. There were little energy beings from all over existence that had congregated, like the cantina in Star Wars. Each was flowing in and out and morphing at will. Then the vision would change into a face wearing headphones that reminded me of the old Napster logo if it's headphones were pumping out universal joy.

It felt like the only things that truly exist in the universe are (1) energy and (2) joy/love. Everything else is just human-made bullshit. I felt like the shamans were servants of love whose job was to help humans pull themselves out of their self-created misery into the true essence of being and love. 

Then I started thinking about it. I started analyzing what was going on. Why was I feeling these things? What does it all mean?

But as soon as I started thinking, the vision changed. It changed to more of an outer space feel with nodes and connectors like the start of a Dr. Who episode or something. At the same moment my right leg began spasming. Whenever I stopped thinking the vision changed back to the energy and love, but I repeated this cycle several times. Each time I started analyzing the vision, as I am wont to do, I got the leg spasming and the vision change. I realized I could stop my leg from spasming, which felt good that I was still in control. In fact, I was always in control. We all were. We were never 100% out of it. Often we had to go outside to use the outhouse and sometimes people would need some help from one of the facilitators, but we were always aware that we were having a trip.

After a few of these cycles through thinking, spasming, and energy/love a voice said to me: Don't think. Just be.

Just be the energy. Just be the love. This message ties in closely with the meditation and mindfulness I've been working on the past few years. All of our grief and stress comes from fretting about something in our past or worrying about the future. We create so much anxiety for ourselves by worrying about things that are completely out of our control. Anything that already happened is over with. And we agonize so much about things that may or may not happen in the future. If we can just learn to live in the moment, to be, we can remove so much bullshit anxiety from our lives. Our minds are the cause of 100% of our strife. There is nobody else to blame because we control our response to any external stimuli.

Don't think. Just be.

Meanwhile, the Russian supermodel next to me seemed to be going through an exorcism. The shamans had been working with her for a long time and her body was writhing and lifting off the ground, bolting up, laying down. It was like demons were being pulled out of her in a '70s horror film. It was crazy. And it went on until 5am.

The Healing
The most amazing part of the week was the healing that I witnessed, at least in the short term. Time will tell how well these people were healed, but the stories they shared about their experiences were compelling. And I could see it. One woman felt Mother Ayahuasca working on her physical body every night and healing her ailments. One woman came here because she was suicidal a week prior and after witnessing her own death one night in an out-of-body experience realized that she no longer wanted to die. One woman began the week with a negative, mean spirit that really turned me off, but after a couple days was transformed to happiness and positivity. 

The love shared amongst the participants was also amazing. Each day after a ceremony we sat in a circle and shared our experience. There were tears and hugs and people shared things about their personal trauma that they had never shared with even their closest friends. 

Take Aways
  1. I am so fortunate to not have such trauma in my life. I feel like Mother Ayahuasca gave me a clean bill of emotional health, which feels good to confirm.
  2. The essence of everything is energy and love. Unfortunately, humans are awfully good at piling a lot of bullshit on top of it.
  3. Don't think. Just be.
    1. Continue to learn to quiet my mind to all the anxieties it wants to bring up.
    2. We are each in 100% control of our reactions to any external stimuli. Hence, there is never anyone or anything to blame for how we feel.


Saturday, April 16, 2016

Listen to This

In the past week I was on two separate 20-hour bus rides in Argentina. I actually enjoy these rides because the buses are quite nice, like first class in an airplane, and I get to fill my curious brain with lots of intelligent podcasts. Here are a couple episodes of Radiolab I particularly enjoyed and think you will, too:

Thursday, April 14, 2016

My Experience at 10-Day Vipassana Silent Meditation Retreat

The Compound

If you could see through the fence and into the courtyard you would think you were gazing upon rec time at a loony bin circa 1953. The nearly 2-acre compound holds 5 buildings and is filled with towering pine trees. It is a pleasant setting. 

Inside the yard a few dozen adult humans wander about. They wear loose-fitting clothing and walk slowly, heads down, not making eye contact with each other. Men and women are segregated, separated by a demilitarized zone 3 meters wide.  Over there a woman wearing a shawl on her body and a scarf on her head appears to be caressing a tree. Over here, a disheveled man is simply staring at a stump.

But this is not a mental ward. It is a 10-day vipassana silent meditation retreat.


Goals

Why go on a 10-day silent meditation retreat? Here are the overarching reasons that I've been meditating for the past 3 years. My hope was that 10 days of intensive meditation would hasten my journey down the path to being a better human. Specifically, I want to:
  1. Show more love and compassion to people (and animals, too)
  2. Become less frustrated with people or situations
  3. Thoughtfully respond to external stimuli, not simply react
In the past three years I've seen good progress in these areas and meditating for 10 days and 10 hours per day would more than double my lifetime total of meditation time.

Arrival and Initial Impressions

I arrived at the facility the afternoon of Day 0 to get signed in and to turn over all non-essential items. No electronics, no journal for writing. No alcohol, drugs or cigarettes. I took only clothing, toiletries and a sleeping bag.

Participants were asked to arrive between 2 and 4pm on Day 0. After registration we just sat around in the shade waiting to get started. There wasn’t much conversation as the participants seemed to be mentally steeling themselves for 10 days of Noble Silence.

At 5:30 stragglers were still arriving and I was already bored and restless. It was going to be a long 10 days.

Meditation

I’ll never get used to a 4am wakeup call, let alone a 2-hour meditation beginning at 4:30am. Even the roosters weren't awake yet.

And I hadn’t sat cross-legged for longer than twenty minutes since participating in the YMCA’s Indian Guides program with my dad in the 1970s. About fifteen minutes in my right foot fell asleep and a few minutes later the pain in my left knee was unbearable. I constantly wriggled and shifted in order to maintain some level of comfort. Later I would learn that discomfort is a critical part of the process.

Seventy meditators sit in a hall, women on the left side and men on the right. Each has an elaborate system of pillows, blankets, shawls and stools that indicates they’ve done this before. I am sitting on the very pillow I rested my head on last night.

Some people have little stools upon which they place a fitted pillow. They kneel, their feet under the stool and sit on it, wrapping the entire throne in a blanket. Others use multiple pillows and blankets and wraps to build a nest upon which they will perch for the next hour or two. A scarf hangs over many of their heads, mimicking a monk’s hood. They sit, rigid as a Buddha statue, while I shake in physical pain and mental strain.

At the front of the room on a small dias sits Isabella, our teacher. All in the room, including me, want to be more like her. She is calm and compassionate and loving. She smiles a lot and is an excellent listener. She is wise and has the glowing face of someone who has found the key to the meaning of life and is desperately trying to give it to you. Why do you refuse it?

On a chair in the back of the room sits a 70-year old gentleman who has done this before. He is solemn now but after the course he reveals his bright smile and cheerful voice. About every fifteen minutes he emits a sound that is too soft to be a cough, more nasally than a throat clear, but still forceful and determined like a grunting calf. After a few days of this I decide that he’s probably In a state of meditational bliss and feels as if he’s being pleasured by a young Audrey Hepburn. 

Of the 35 men here, I am the only one without facial hair. I stand out like a razor salesman at a shaggy beard convention. 

Vipassana Meditation Technique

The purpose of vipassana meditation, to my understanding, is to reach enlightenment by understanding all sensations as neither positive nor negative. It was developed by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, 2500 years ago and his contribution to the world is that he realized that we are the master of our own emotions. When we become angry, for example, it is we who make ourselves angry and cannot be blamed on anyone else. By learning to control our reaction to external stimuli we are masters of our own happiness.

The first three days (thirty hours of meditating) we focused on the inside of our nostrils and the spot just below the nostrils and above the upper lip. With each normal breath we focused our attention to feel how the incoming breath is colder than the outgoing. Sometimes your breath only goes through one nostril or the other. I could feel the stubble on my upper lip as my gentle breath passed over it. I could feel my nose hairs sway in the breeze of each breath.

After honing our attention for thirty hours we turned our new sensitivity to full body scans. The next seven days were spent slowly scanning our body with our mind and honestly feeling whatever we felt, with no regard for good or bad feelings. You know how you can feel your heart beat? And you can feel your pulse in your neck? That same pulse is in every artery, vessel & capillary in your body, just to a lesser degree. By honing our observation skills we can feel it and we can feel every part of our body with our mind. Advanced practitioners can also feel the inside of their bodies.

This was a revelation to me. I learned to focus my attention on my ear, for instance, and could feel it tingling and vibrating. It was pretty cool to get myself into a full-body tingling experience -- like smoking legal Colorado weed but without the brain fog.

Why do this?
The idea is that by closely examining our own body we will come across different sensations like the pain in my knee of the aching in my lower back. And by simply observing these sensations with a neutral mind we will re-wire our brain to also not react negatively to challenging or offensive words hurled at us, for example. The absence of negativity in our minds leaves us left only with joy and love. This is why the Dalai Lama and other seasoned practitioners are always smiling and so gracious to everyone they encounter.

For the past ten years or so, science has been studying Buddhist monks and its findings support what the Buddha discovered 25 centuries ago. From the BBC:

"Meditation research, particularly in the last 10 years or so, has shown to be very promising because it points to an ability of the brain to change and optimise in a way we didn't know previously was possible."
When one relaxes into a state of oneness, the neural networks in experienced practitioners change as they lower the psychological wall between themselves and their environments, Dr Josipovic says.

Daily Schedule

4am  Wakeup
4:30-6:30  Meditate
6:30-8:00  Breakfast and break
8:00-9:00  Meditate
9:00-11:00 Meditate
11:00-1:00 Lunch and break
1:00-2:30 Meditate
2:30-3:30 Meditate
3:30-5:00 Meditate
5:00-6:00 Snack
6:00-7:00 Meditate
7:00-8:30 Lecture
8:30-9:00 Meditate
9:05 Goodnight, Kirk

Where you see multiple meditation sessions back-to-back, they were broken up by a 5 or 10 minute break. It was all run very efficiently. Volunteers worked in the kitchen and served us two meals per day, breakfast and lunch. The afternoon snack was only one apple or one banana. I got a little hungry at times, but actually skipped breakfast on days 3-8. Hunger is another of those sensations that we often don't just sit with. We think we need to overfill our stomach the minute it gurgles. I basically ate one meal a day, a full plate of rice/beans/salad/pasta, and was satiated.


My Experience

The first six days went surprisingly well for me. I thought that by day three I might be running for the exit (there was a tiny brewery just down the street), but I started off strong. The days actually went by fairly quickly because they were broken up into 60-, 90- and 120-minute segments.

Day seven is where I began to crack. Ten hours a day of focusing the mind is quite difficult and my mind was now all over the place and I didn't care to reign it in anymore. Day eight was similar and day nine I mostly mailed it in. On day ten we finally got to speak so there was much less meditating and a lot of sharing with the other participants. We stayed over the night of day ten and had to get up at 4am again on day eleven, so, in actuality, it was a twelve day experience.


Boring. Difficult. Emotional. Inspirational. Informational.

Those words pretty much sum it up for me. Some of the lectures given over audio tape by the program founder S.N. Goenka were quite inspiring and very informational. Others made me feel as if he were a smooth salesman trying to sell me the best thing in the world - enlightenment and eternal happiness - but that it would cost me a lifetime of one hour meditating every morning and one hour meditating every evening. A stiff price.

I learned a lot and am thankful that I am in a place where I have ten days I can just throw at an experience like this. As of now I highly doubt I'll do another one of these, but who knows. There are centers in virtually every country of the world so perhaps in my travels I will try again.

Would I recommend it?
Only to someone who is serious about meditation. Talking with the other participants it seems the ones who got the most out of it, like anything I suppose, were those who were most committed going in. I was only semi-committed and I think that's why I petered out after a week.

Location of vipassana centers


What's Next?

Stay tuned in a couple weeks for a report from an eight day ayahuasca plant medicine experience in Peru...





Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Thoughts Before 10-Day Silent Meditation Retreat

Tomorrow I begin a 10-day vipassana silent meditation retreat outside of Cordoba, Argentina. I heard about this opportunity from a fellow traveler who I met in Chile. He told me about dhamma.org.

The Experience

  • Days begin at 4:30 am with a couple hours of meditation before breakfast
  • Each day has 11 or 12 hours of silent meditation that are broken into 60- and 90-minute sessions.
  • I will attempt to sit cross-legged meditation style on a pillow all this time. Chairs are available, if needed.
  • There are 2 simple vegetarian meals each day and tea
  • Each day, around mid-day, I will have the opportunity to speak privately to the teacher to ask questions
  • I can bring nothing except for comfortable clothes and a toothbrush, basically. No books, no writing utensils for journaling, no electronics. Nothing.
  • This is not a luxury spa retreat. Accomodations are spartan.
  • We are not even supposed to make eye contact with the other participants, though it sounds like this rule is regularly broken
  • Men and women are separated into different parts of the compound, I think
  • Each evening there is an educational lecture for 30 or 60 minutes
  • Volunteers who have previously attended one of these sessions will be preparing the food
  • There is no cost for the 10-day experience. However, they do accept donations.
  • There are dhamma.org retreat sites all over the world.

My Thoughts

Fear. My overwhelming feeling is fear. I'm afraid that I won't be able to stick out the full 10 days. I'm afraid that I'll quit. I don't want to fail at this. I don't want to quit. Mostly I'm afraid of how difficult it is for me to simply sit cross-legged for long periods of time. I've never really meditated in that position for more than 20 minutes. And when I do that my foot falls asleep around the 15-minute mark. 60 minutes? 90 minutes? I also don't want to use a chair because that feels like cheating. Sure, if I was much older or had a serious back condition or something, then I could use a chair. But I want to do this the right way which means overcoming the challenges. That's what it's all about.

Ignorance. Do I really need to bring an alarm clock? Won't there be bells or something that wake us up in the morning? Is it okay if I bring my full big backpack and just put it in a locker for ten days? I don't want to have to leave my backpack at a hostel in Cordoba for the duration. And pillow case? I'm really supposed to bring my own pillow case? How about I just button one of my shirts around the pillow instead. I'm a traveler, dammit, and don't want to have to go buy all this extra crap for this one experience.

Excitement. I'm actually excited for the food. Full-on vegetarian with no alcohol for ten days. My body could certainly use that and maybe I'll be introduced to some new foods that I will appreciate.

Hope. I hope that my body will get used to it. I hope that my mind will be able to overcome these physical obstacles. I've read enough reviews by people who say that the first few days can be absolutely grueling, but then you overcome those difficulties and get used to it. 

I'm also hopeful because I have such a different appreciation of time at this stage of my life. A year is nothing, so what's ten days? Last year when we had that red lunar eclipse I just sat and watched the moon for two hours. And I wasn't even stoned like everyone else in the Denver park where I was. I can look at spending 3 years (estimated) traveling around the world as just a blip. Perhaps one day I'll look back at ages 45-48 as just those 3 years when I was traveling around the world. Old memories. In the scheme of a lifetime it is hardly anything, but can be immensely valuable for personal growth.

So here goes nothin'... see ya on the other side...

Monday, March 28, 2016

Aconcogua & Mendoza, Argentina Photos

Aconcogua is the highest mountain outside of the Himalayas. I visited it the other day on a full-day bus tour from Mendoza, Argentina. It was a gorgeous drive up into the Andes. Aconcogua is near the Chile border and is about a 3-hour drive from Mendoza. The mountains there are so big and bold and contain zero trees (more because this is a desert than because of altitude).

Along the way we stopped at a little ski area called Penitentes. It's a small area that appears to have some nice hike-to terrain and a few runs dubbed "extremo". The base is at around 9500' and as you can see there are zero trees on the entire mountain.

It has a cute little base area in a dramatic setting.

The view from up on the ski runs.

Then we drove to Aconcogua National Park and took a short walk to a couple lookouts. That's Aconcogua far in the distance. It clouded over soon after this hike, so I'm glad I was able to see it.

Aconcogua is the highest peak in the Americas and the highest outside the Himalaya range at 22,841'. Climbing it is not technically difficult, but is obviously tough due to the altitude. Almost anyone can climb it with proper conditioning, but it still takes 3 weeks due to its location and altitude. I was psyched to be able to see it, if even just from afar.

A few more unrelated photos...

Here's the AirBnB place I'm staying for a week in Mendoza, Argentina. This is the courtyard/backyard of a modest home about a 15 minute walk from the center of town. The green on the trellis you see is actually grapevines with tasty grapes. The building is a little out-building that is about 11' x 9' and has been my room. It is cozy and comfortable and $10/night. I share the rest of the house with the 2 young women who live here. They are wonderful people.

Mendoza is an extremely green city, especially considering it is in the desert. The founders were smart enough to build an elaborate irrigation system throughout the city. Down both sides of virtually every city street runs a small canal mostly concealed under the sidewalk. From this water source grows a complete line of old trees that give shade to virtually the entire city. I haven't taken any photos of it, but you've all seen those beautiful streets that live under an archway of big ol' trees. It's like that everywhere. A very liveable city.

Mendoza is also the heart of Argentinan wine country. The Malbec grape thrives here after being cast-off from France. Malbec literally means "bad mouth" and the grape got that name in France because they struggled to make good wine from it. But the Malbec grape loves the terroir around Mendoza.

I went on a bicycle tour of some vineyards last week, which was a lot of fun. It seems to me that one could do a lot worse for him/herself than working at a vineyard. I love the idea of living close to the earth and, for me, I'd much rather be producing booze out of that relationship than just some healthy vegetables or whatever.

This is a truckload of grapes that were just picked and are beginning to be turned into wine. The three wineries we visited on the bike tour were all organic and I am impressed to see the number of organic wineries down here. Very cool. It was also fun to see all the bugs and spiders crawling around inside this pile of grapes. They must get removed sometime during the de-stemming process.

That's it for Mendoza.

What's Next

Lots of exciting stuff on deck for me, including...
  1. 10-day vipassana silent meditation retreat begins in 2 days. I'll write more about my feelings pre- and post- in other blog entries. Dhamma.org to learn more.
  2. I have applied for a job in Antarctica later this year. It would be a 4-5 month seasonal job working as a garbage man, basically. November - February or so. I think the experience of spending significant time in Antarctica would be amazing. Plus, the money would help me keep traveling longer.
  3. I'm looking for an Ayahuasca experience in Peru. If you can recommend a shaman, please let me know. If you haven't heard of
    Ayahuasca, it is an ancient plant medicine of the Amazon that is used to help people better understand themselves, overcome any anxieties or deeply held negative beliefs, and better see how they fit into the greater world. It is becoming quite popular for people who are striving to improve themselves as humans.
  4. I'm also thinking about volunteering in the Amazon for a few weeks. It would likely be based around conservation of the ecology or animals. I would live in the jungle and count frogs or plant trees or help injured monkeys. Something like that. We'll see.
  5. I also want to check out one of these eco village yoga communities. It feels a bit like a hippie commune sort of experience, but I think the experience has been updated quite a bit from that picture I just put in your head. This one outside of Lima, Peru looks interesting.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Read This

Stuff I've enjoyed reading recently. Perhaps you will, too...


Friday, March 18, 2016

On Getting Conned. On Trust.

A month ago I was conned out of about $50 by a gypsy woman in Chillan, Chile. As a seasoned traveler this is not easy to admit because I am supposedly aware of all these potential scams. I'm careful of pickpockets when in public places, and normally always say "no" to anyone who approaches me asking for a handout. It's easier for me just to have strict rules like that.

The Story

The scenario started a couple hours earlier. I was sitting in the town's main central plaza and had a few hours to kill before taking a bus 5 hours north to Santiago. I sat on a park bench reading a book (on my kindle) when a gentleman sat down next to me and started asking me innocent questions: Where was I from? How did I like Chile? etc.

I was partially enjoying practicing my new Spanish language skills with him, so I tried to make simple conversation. After several minutes he started asking me for money. I refused and refused, but finally gave in and gave him some coins worth less than $1. After all, I'd been able to practice some Spanish so I feel like I got something from the exchange.

At that I picked up my backpack and left, going for a walk around town to kill some more time. Perhaps I could find a better place to read my book.

The Grift

A couple hours later I only had about 30 minutes until my bus and I was back at the same central plaza sitting on another park bench reading my book. This time I was approached by a gypsy woman who sat down next to me and wanted to read my palm. But she didn't just ask to read my palm. After a couple pleasantries to get my attention she took my hand and began reading my fortune. What is a gentleman to do? Should I physically pull my hand away from hers? Or should I humor her for a minute? I decided to humor her, partly because of that extra layer of male-female physical/psychological interaction where it is rude for a gentleman to express physical force with a woman. 

So she's reading my palm and asking me if I want to find love or money in life. I respond and she tells me some fortune that I can't even understand because my Spanish is not so good. Now she has me in a place where she has performed a favor for me. In psychology they call this the norm of reciprocity and it puts her at an advantage. It is a trick used by skilled salespeople for thousands of years -- give someone a free sample and they feel an obligation to at least buy a little something. It also acts in much greater levels of humanity, such as international relations. From the referenced wikipedia page:
An underlying norm of reciprocity is by itself a powerful engine for motivating, creating, sustaining, and regulating the cooperative behavior required for self-sustaining social organizations, as well as for controlling the damage done by the unscrupulous.
She asked for some money to be used as part of the palm reading. I wondered if she had observed me with the other gentlemen a couple hours prior, or if he had tipped her off that I was an easy mark. She wasn't directly asking that I give it to her, only that I produce a bill. At this point I think I was weakened by my minor generosity earlier in the day and my desire to end this interaction without making a scene.

So I reached into my money clip (bad move to show my hand) and gave her the smallest bill -- about $1.50. She folded it up in her hand while encanting some gypsy spell and used a slight-of-hand trick to disappear the bill and in it's place was a bunch of grey pulp mush, as if the paper bill had been ground down into pulp in her hand. She kept referencing her children and how they needed food and clothes.

What happened next I can't exactly remember. It happened fast and my defenses were up because I was protesting the loss of my money. I was concerned and angry and frustrated and felt like an idiot. But the part I do remember is that my money clip was out again and she simply grabbed all the remaining bills in there. It was at least $40. Might have been $75. I dunno. But again, I was attempting to protest in Spanish but lacked the words to say what I meant. For some reason I didn't want to make a scene, probably because I was so damn embarrassed that I just wanted to get out of there without losing my backpack and laptop and everything. As I protested, her 3 children came near as did another gypsy woman friend of hers. There were other people in the plaza, but I felt surrounded by women and children, against whom I couldn't physically take back my money.

I pulled out my phone and looked up the word "thief" in Spanish. Ladron. I called all of them thieves. Then I pointed at the children, one by one, looked into their eyes, and said "mal suerte" or "bad luck". I did that to each of the 5 of them as I grabbed my backpack and left for the bus station. I only had a few minutes until my bus and didn't want to waste time trying to find a policeman.

What Happened

As I immediately reflected back on the experience, I saw what she did to me. The gypsy woman used time-tested tricks to step-by-step her way to my money. They are the same tricks used by conmen and magicians for generations and they take advantage of how our brains work. See my earlier Bucket List post that references this topic and check out the episodes of "Brain Games" to understand more.

My Strategy of Trust Over Fear

The bright side of this is that this event really didn't bother me very much. And why should it? What good would it do me to dwell negatively on a past experience that has gone already?

Buddhist philosophy shares a story of being struck by two arrows. The first arrow hits us the minute we feel some pain -- maybe we accidentally cut our finger with a knife. Ouch! That's the first arrow. The first arrow is just the physical pain.

But the second arrow is far more damaging. The second arrow is the mental pain. It is the one where we beat ourselves up over how stupid we were for not being more careful with the knife. Dammit! Why the hell did I do that? I'm such an idiot! If I would have just been more careful I wouldn't have cut myself.

The point is that we cannot always control the first arrow. But we can control the second.

Trust

I am currently traveling the world and coming into contact daily with people from different cultures and ways of living. In previous travels to distant lands I was often fearful of strangers. Many times a local would see me walking by and offer me a drink from his bottle of local, homemade hooch.  Or a group would offer to have me sit in on their card game. I was skeptical, because where I come from strangers rarely offer to share like that. I have turned down opportunities in Indonesia and Eastern Europe to potentially spend some valuable time with a local, an opportunity to learn more about them and their culture. 

I decided that this time, when traveling the world, I wasn't going to be so fearful. Instead, I was going to trust people with the full understanding that some of them would take advantage of that trust. Four months in and so far only the gypsy woman has taken advantage of my trust. I'm happy with my new trust arrangement because I have a much more positive outlook on people and have had more positive interactions as a result.

I don't approve at all of her lifestyle, but she obviously needed the money more than me.





Where Silver Comes From

The residents of Potosi, Bolovia have been mining silver since 1545. The Spanish ruled the area back then and minted their silver coins in Potosi. It was a very profitable use of slavery for Spain.

Since then over 8 million slaves and miners have died in the mines and in the related facilities of Potosi. The Spaniards raped the indigenous women and put the boys into the mines when they were strong enough around age 14. Many of them died by 17 from collapsing tunnels and poisonous gases.

8 million dead, mostly over a span of 300 years until Bolivian independence. That comes out to 73 deaths per day for 300 years.

In the first couple hundred years they extracted a lot of silver. They say they extracted enough silver to build a silver bridge from Bolivia to Spain.

They also say they could build another bridge from Bolivia to Spain built from the bones of the dead miners.

Today the mine is nearly as dangerous as it was 400 years ago. 17 miners died in 2015. They don't have very good facilities because the mountain has already yielded much of its riches, making every ounce of silver harder and harder to obtain. Since there isn't much wealth they can't afford much fancy safety gear.

This mountain is riddled with  mines that have been blasted inside of it for over 400 years.


However, for this city of 250,000 at an elevation over 13,000' in Bolivia, it is all they have.

Why Tour a Mine?

This morning I toured one of the active mines, but I did not go without much debate. I wondered if it was some sort of exploitation -- tourists gawking at miners busting their ass every day for around $400-$600/month. The guidebooks explained that it really is dangerous and you need to be vigilant while in the mine. Another traveler told me an Italian woman got whacked in the head by a fast-moving mining car last week.

I decided to go because I want to better understand where my laptop and cell phone come from. I want to better understand the people who toil so that I can throw money around whenever a new piece of electronics strikes my fancy.

Miners are Sole-Proprietors

The mines are now owned by co-ops of the miners. In this mountain there are 10,000 workers and dozens of different mines, each controlled by a co-op. The miners are sole proprietors so they have to buy all their own gear and handle their own health care expenses.

Part of being a guest in the mine is bringing gifts to the miners. Each of us on the tour brought gifts of dynamite, fuses, soda or water, and coca leaves. The miners can't eat normal food during their 8-hour shifts in the mines because the food would get dusty and then they'd be eating the dust that would eventually kill them. They just chew on coca leaves, instead. Coca leaves are popular in the high altitudes of South America. They help deal with the elevation by acting as a minor stimulant. And yes, this is the same plant that cocaine is eventually derived from. But cocaine is only created after significant chemical processing.

Tourism exists here because the miners benefit financially from allowing visitors to watch them work. The two miners that my group visited today get visited on most days by tour groups. Therefore a noticeable portion of their daily expenses are paid for by the tourists.

The Mines

This is the view back into town from the mountain mines.


Heading into the mine we are all suited up with hardhats, headlamps and facemasks...

This is just like in the movies. I was in a perpetual crouch, rarely being able to stand to my full six foot height. Most Bolivians seem to stand between 4'10" and 5'6".


The tunnels are barely wide enough for narrow rail tracks and the little mining cars full of rock that come whizzing at high speeds, pushed furiously by miners who don't want anyone getting in their way. Here my group of 5 visitors sucks in our bellies and ducks into a small alcove to allow a car to go by. This short video is best viewed with sound.


The Miners

Oscar is 30. He's been working in the mine for 10 years. He has 3 children. For 8 hours every day he toils alone, in the dark, manually creating dynamite holes with a hammer and chisel. In one day he will chisel 1 or 2 holes and make 1 dynamite blast. Then he has to manually carry all the rock out by first worm-crawling on his stomach out into a main tunnel and then out of the mine to the production facility.
Oscar doesn't want his two young sons to work in the mine, but sons have been following their fathers there for over 400 years.

Tio is the devil and the miners god of the underworld. Here is a shrine to him, decorated after Carnaval celebrations. My tour guides flank him.

After 2 hours in the mine I was damn happy to get out into the fresh air. The tour involved running to get out of the way of speeding mine cars, worm-crawling on my belly through small openings in the rock, climbing up steep rock walls, wearing a face mask so as to not breathe in the noxious dust, and bumping my helmet-clad head on low ceilings more times than I want to admit.

Here I am with Ronaldo, our guide. He used to work in the mines but lucked in to this tour guide gig.

This mine is slowly dying. Eventually it won't be worth it to keep digging and this town of 250,000 will be in deep trouble.

It was a somber experience, but this is where silver come from.




Thursday, March 17, 2016

Read This

Here are some writings that I have enjoyed recently. Perhaps you will enjoy, as well.

  • Raptitude reveals to us the false sense of knowing our own face
  • Tynan wondering why people get offended
  • Slate Star Codex has many thoughtful links
  • And, on the lighter side of blogging, Gear Junkie shares Project Stratosbeer, the launching of a PBR into space

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Atacama Desert - Recap and Photo Dump

The Atacama Desert in Chile and Bolivia is the driest desert in the world. Parts of it haven't seen precipitation in 400 years, they say.

Here's a quick recap with photos from the last week.

My journey began in San Pedro, Chile. It's a small town in the desert that is a jumping off point for excursions into the desert. On my first day there I met Lina (pronounced like we say "Lena") from Sweden and we went for a bike ride in the Valley of the Moon national park. Beautiful desert formations and salt mines. The white in this photo is salt and, yes, I licked it to be sure.

The Great Salt River in Valle de Luna national park. Apparently in this area it rains about 3 times a year -- torrential downpours where they close down the whole town of San Pedro and it's dirt (mud) streets.

More cool desert features...

Gorgeous plains near San Pedro...

From San Pedro it is popular to take a jeep tour into Salar de Uyuni national park in Bolivia. Uyuni Salt Lake is the biggest salt lake in the world at over 4,000 square miles. Our exploration of the area started just west of the salt lake where there were other lakes (with water!), many exhibiting spectacular colors based on the different minerals they contain. A highlight was this lake which has a strong rusty/orange-red hue to it and is full of wild flamingos. I enjoyed just sitting and watching the flamingos for an hour. It's right up there with my favorite wildlife viewings.




There were also llamas hanging out at the same lake.


The days were gorgeous and it is the end of summer here, but this whole area is 10,000 - 13,000' above sea level. The days can be rather chilly so this thermal hot spring was a welcome sight.


Here's another cool lake. I was digging all the colors.

Sunrise over the Uyuni Sale Lake. The night prior to this we stayed in a hotel made of salt blocks. My bed was a big block of salt with a mattress on top. The tables in the dining area were salt. Pretty interesting. We left at 5am to get out on the lake where 1 cm of water covered this section. The reflections in the water of the rising dawn were amazing.

Here's my weak attempt at a zen pose...

The jeep tour contained 6 of us and a driver. Here are 3 fun ladies I was lucky enough to spend 3 days with (l to r: Ieva from Latvia, Andrea from Switzerland, Liana from Portland, OR):

More llamas in Llama Valley as viewed from an ancient cliff dwelling:

In the middle of the massive salt lake was an unexpected surprise -- Cactus Island. This island was probably 1/2 mile long by 100m wide and was absolutely crammed full with cacti. Super cool.

So now I'm in Bolivia. Since I had already made the border crossing I decided to stay here and spend several days introducing myself to the southern part of the country before heading back to Argentina for that 10-day meditation retreat I mentioned previously. 

What's Next

I'm writing this from Sucre, Bolivia. It's a charming, historical city of 200,000 people and full of white-washed buildings. Very pretty. Taking a couple more Spanish language lessons here at 1/2 the price of what I was paying in Chile and Argentina. Bolivia is beautiful and very affordable. Also, the Spanish they speak here is much more clear and easy to understand than speedy Chile and accent-heavy Argentina. I'll be back here in a couple months after I visit northern Argentina and Brazil.

In a couple days I'll visit Potosi, Bolivia which they call the highest city in the world. It's at about 13,400' and has a population of 250,000. At one point it was rich with silver mines, but those days are long gone.

South of Potosi near the town of Tupiza, Bolivia is where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid met their end. They do tours of the sights but I'm told they're not good tours. I'll be going right through there, though. In Argentina I was also very close to a still-standing cabin that Butch and Sundance lived in for a few years after they fled from the States and took up cattle ranching on many thousand acres of land they bought. I also chose not to visit that sight because it's not a museum or anything, just an old building you can look at from the outside. But I've enjoyed reading the history since I'm so close.


Friday, March 4, 2016

First 3 Months Traveling in South America

Update after 3 month traveling through Chile, Argentina and a weekend in Uruguay.

Financial

One great bonus about long-term travel is that it can be cheaper than living back home. I've spent $7,700 so far in 107 days. That's $72 per day ($2160 per month) but is more than I hoped to be spending. My goal was to keep it closer to $50/day. Here's the breakdown...

Why am I almost 50% over budget?
  1. Education expenses have been fairly high -- higher than booze, even. This was not something that I originally budgeted for, but I'm glad I've been learning Spanish. It's a worthwhile added expense.
  2. The bike trip & camping accessories (filed under "stuff", above). Last autumn in Denver I got rid of pretty much everything I owned, including my sleeping bag, backpack and some miscellaneous camping gear like cook kit, stove, and the titanium spork that I remember thinking, upon its purchase, would be the last spork I'd ever need to buy. How wrong I was! I unexpectedly decided to do some bike touring in Patagonia, so I had to re-buy all that stuff. Initially I didn't plan on doing enough camping on this journey that I would carry my own gear. I figured there would be a couple places where I would work through an outfitter to rent gear for a 3-5 day excursion. That's why I'd gotten rid of my backpacking backpack and instead purchased more of a traveler backpack. Oops. Oh well. It hurt the budget but I'm still thankful for the freeing feeling of getting rid of stuff. I knew there would be a couple things like that.
  3. Chile & Argentina ain't cheap. Sure, you can get a good bottle of wine for $5. But a craft beer also costs $5, just like in the States. A meal at a restaurant in Chile is running me anywhere from $8-$25. Last night I went to a Thai restaurant, got the prix fixe menu with water to drink and it was $26. It was a really good meal, but was no cheaper than it would have been at a similar joint in Denver or Minneapolis. The good news is that these are the two most expensive countries in South America and I'm getting them out of the way first. Brazil is getting cheaper and Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia will definitely help me bring my budgeting numbers back in line.
  4. Travel expenses. Moving around a lot costs more than just staying in one place. Buses in Argentina were fairly expensive and I've paid for an airplane a couple times. I always knew this would be a wildcard expense, not really knowing how much transport would cost and how much I'd be using it. As you can see, it's right up there with food and lodging as one of my largest expenses (and it does not include my flight from Denver to Buenos Aires which was free with miles points).
  5. Accommodations. I've been doing a fairly good job on accommodation spending. Most nights I spend $15 or $20. For the last 2+ weeks in Valparaiso I've spent $14/night to have my own room in a 3-bedroom AirBnB apartment. I'm living with 2 locals and they're great people. In hostels $10-$15 will get me a bunkbed in a simple room with 3-5 other travelers. Hostels are good for meeting other travelers from around the world, but I can only do the dorm room a few nights in a row. Most of the time the rooms and spaces are quite pleasant, but I had one bad experience in Argentina that is still nudging me toward paying for my own room.
However, even though I'm over budget I'm still spending only 58% of what I was spending while living in the States. Traveling long-term can be a great way to lower your expenses.

Non-Financial

My goals for this experience on the non-financial side include:
  • Meeting cool people (hopefully someone special cute and female)
  • Experiencing new cultures and places and landscapes
  • Being healthy
  • Scope out affordable ski areas
  1. Meeting People: This has been difficult. In Buenos Aires I made some great friends through my Spanish language lessons, but then we all departed in different directions. Since I am often only in one place for a few days it is hard for me to connect with people. Most of the travelers I've noticed are much younger than me, as was expected. All of the cute traveling women I've seen have been with a dude (and also at least 10 years younger than me). I'm a natural introvert so it is always hard for me to meet people. It takes awhile to form bonds, and when traveling like this it is extremely rare to have enough time near any other person for me to make a connection. To improve this, I'm going to try to join more tours.
  2. New Cultures & Places: The new places and landscapes I've spent time in have been amazing. Patagonia blew my mind and Chile is one of the most diversely landscaped nations in the world. The scenery has been everything I hoped and it will continue to be as I head north. Culturally, I'm not feeling as strong of a vibe. The personality of Latin America is so different from the Norwegian-American Minnesota culture that I grew up with. People here don't go out for dinner or drinks until 10pm. Since I'm unemployed and homeless, I'd much rather enjoy a couple glasses of wine on a patio in the afternoon and go to bed at 10:00. The food has been disappointing, too. Lots of bread and meat and potatoes and little variety. 
  3. Being Healthy: I'm doing pretty well here. Been meditating for 15-20 minutes most days and I've lost a bunch of weight. There aren't any scales around, but I keep making my belt smaller and all my clothes feel too big. And if I keep spending more money on education than booze I'm going in the right direction.
  4. Ski Areas: Nevados de Chillan is a pretty sweet looking ski area. I'm hoping to find a place that gets at least 300" of snow per year and is more affordable than ski areas in the States. NdC definitely fits the bill, getting 400" with some choice looking terrain. However, I've heard that at the ski areas in South America they can often struggle to get a ski area open until a day or two after a big storm. I will have to come back in winter to learn more.
That's it for now. Check back in 3 more months for the fascinating 6-month sequel.



Thursday, March 3, 2016

Me Gusta Valparaiso, Chile

 I've been living in Valparaiso, Chile for more than two weeks and really enjoying it. "Me gusta" means "I like" en espanol. It's a cool, gritty, funky, artsy city of hills and stairs and murals and street dogs. I have spent many afternoons wandering around and getting lost. It's fun to walk up a lengthy, winding staircase with no idea where it will spit me out.

Learning Espanol

For the past two weeks I have been taking more Spanish language lessons and seem to be making very slow progress. I feel like my brain is wired for numbers way more than language. After 6 weeks of Spanish lessons I can, when I have the time, formulate a sentence and say what I intend. However, I am still a looong way from being able to hold any kind of meaningful conversation with a native speaker who isn't extremely patient with me.

Some Sights

The other day I went up over the hill to a more rugged shoreline. It had the classic cliffs and rocks and crashing waves that I can sit with for hours. There was also a cool cemetery that used a different and more cost-effective burial style than I had seen before. You can see it in the background of this photo. 

It's like those tiny Japanese hotels where you just rent a 4x4x8' cubby hole for the evening, only these are for... wait for it... eternity.

Some more cool street art: La Mano Cornuda (the devil hand)


And this one, I dunno. I just walked by it this morning and it was closed. I'm not sure if it's street art or it actually is a Scandanavian disco, bar & hotel all in one. I'll go back tonight and see.

I thought I heard her whisper my name as I walked past...


What's Next

Saturday I bid farewell to lovely Valparaiso and head north to San Pedro de Atacama. Northern Chile contains the driest desert on the planet -- the Atacama. Some places in this desert have not received rain water in 400 years! On average it gets 0.004" per year.

I expect to spend a week or so up there and then make my way back south through Salta to Mendoza, Argentina. Mendoza is the heart of Argentina's wine region so I imagine I'll enjoy some tasty vino there. In fact, most of the hostels appear to have free wine tastings every evening, so if you follow me on twitter you may experience more of my infamous drunken tweeting. Mendoza is a beautiful city full of tree-lined avenues, so I might stay there a couple weeks and take more Espanol lessons.

After Mendoza, during the first week in April, I'm up for my biggest adventure so far. I signed up for a 10-day silent meditation retreat in Cordoba. It is vipassana meditation where you just sit and focus on your breath, essentially, for 11 hours per day with breaks every 60-90 minutes. Read more about it here

I've been meditating on and off for the past couple years, but usually for 10-20 minutes at a time. Just sitting cross-legged for 20 minutes is difficult for me, so I feel like this is a good push out of my comfort zone. I feel I've grown a lot in the past few years and meditation has been one tool that has helped me. It has helped me slow down my frantic monkey brain and be more able to thoughtfully respond in a conversation where previously I may have just thoughtlessly reacted (aloud) to something surprising or challenging. Often times after I thoughtlessly react verbally, I regret what I said or wish I had said something else. So I'm getting better at that.

Last week I got my visa for Brazil, so after I hopefully survive 10 days of silent meditation the plan is to keep heading east to spectacular Iguazu Falls and Brazil.