Guest Blog by Embry

Joe has kindly offered me the opportunity to do a “guest blog,” while we are going through the Chilean Fjords.  I’m sure he will soon be writing to you about the beauty of this remote part of the world.

In the meantime, I am going to write about the thing that impressed me most soon after we got on the ship. That is the prevalence of older couples.  It immediately struck me that we were surrounded by people who looked a lot like us.  This is not what I am used to in Washington, D.C. or most other places we go these days.  I was shocked!  Where did all these people come from?  At the risk of sounding totally politically incorrect, the preponderance of people on the ship look to be older “plain vanilla” types (ie. heterosexual, white couples). They walk around just like we do, holding hands and (looking to be) comfortable just being together for 33 days with not much to do. 

Quite a few years ago Joe and I were invited to the Washington Cathedral to have our marriage blessed among others who had been married 25+ years or more.  At that time (at about age 60) I felt very young, and expected to be surrounded by really old people who had been married for ages and ages. To my shock and surprise, Joe and I (who had at that time been married about 40 years) were called up among the longest marriages in the Cathedral.  That really set me to thinking about what the ingredients of a long marriage consist of.  I concluded it involves lot of luck (to have found the right person, and persevered through some hard times together), to have been blessed with good health, and to have married young.  We were in our early twenties when we married, and during our generation many of those early marriages did not survive. I came away from that service feeling both blessed by the Bishop and blessed by our God-given fortune to have such a (generally) happy and long-lived marriage.  Now, over 10 years later, we will soon celebrate 54 years together.

As I got acclimated to the boat and thought about our fellow shipmates, I began to realize that we were among a lot of people who look and act a lot like we do. It is not surprising that folks who want to spend a fair amount of money to be with someone for 33+ days must be:  retired with the time to do it (therefore aged 60+); relatively prosperous; and happily partnered.  So there was a selection process going that lead to this situation.  Still, it also made me forecast that we were to have some boring times ahead when we met and talked to our fellow shipmates over dinner.  

I am happy to report that the conversations we have over dinner are anything but boring. While many of the couples we sit with are in the “plain vanilla” category, they come from many countries and walks of life.  We have heard fascinating stories of their travels and their past experiences pursuing a variety of occupations.  They come from many countries (mostly the U.S., Canada and Europe).  And, while you have to look a little harder for them, we have met people of a variety of skin colors, some gay couples, and lots of single people (mainly older women). 

Two books I am reading on the trip have given me insights into what makes up a long and happy marriage.  In Don Quixote (LONG but good), written at a time when most marriages were arranged, Cervantes says, “Love and natural inclination readily blind those eyes of the mind that are so necessary in making life’s important decisions; and when it comes to choosing a mate, there is especial danger of going astray, and great caution and the grace of Heaven are needed if one is to be guided aright.“ So true!  I am also reading First Family:  Abigail and John Adams by Joe Ellis. He says he wrote this dual biography to explore the “…startling capacity for a man and a woman—husband and wife—to sustain their love other a lifetime filled with daunting challenges.”  It is reassuring to me to learn that, in our secular world where marriages do not receive as much support from society as they did in the past, we are not alone in this quest to sustain a long-term partnership throughout a lifetime.  Did I mention that I have proposed a voyage around Africa (taking two months)?  Joe is skeptical, but thinking about it.

Southern Exposure 12: The Chilean Fiords, Part 1

On Sunday, November 3, the Zaandam departed the San Antonio harbor in the late afternoon in brisk winds and heavy seas. Our latitude was about 45 degrees, right in the middle of what sailors call the Roaring Forties, where the wind howls most of the time– the kind of weather we were expecting. The sun was out, however, and the sea was sparkling. As the huge rollers hit the cliffs near the harbor, their spray reached 40 or 50 feet. 

When we woke up the following morning, seas appeared calm with  towering cliffs  on both sides, not far from the ship. Overnight we had entered the northernmost part of the Chilean fiords, the first day of what would be three days meandering in these protected waters. As the depth of the channel permitted, the Zaandam coasted along.  I positioned  myself on the  aft deck for almost the entire day taking photographs and marveling at what ranks among the best that Mother Nature has to offer.  The Chilean fiords are right up there with Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, the Yellow Mountains in China, Lake Baikal in Russia and Mount Fuji in Japan. Bucket list material for sure.

Unfortunately, it  was not too long before we made a sharp right turn, taking us due west toward the ocean. As we turned into the wind, white caps started to form, and we could begin to feel the strong breeze. The captain’s somber voice came on the ship’s public address system alerting us to a change in plans. Our original course had us headed out of the channel the next day  in the direction of a major storm to the south, producing gale force winds and seas of over 30 feet high. In order to avert extremely difficult cruising conditions, he had made the decision to cancel our first stop in the fiord in order to get a jump on the storm in order to  make it back  into the fiords before the worst of the storm hit. 

It did not take long to understand why he had made that decision. When the Zaandam  left the protected waters and entered the Pacific, we were slammed by howling winds and huge waves. White caps were everywhere making the sea look like a giant cappuccino. Suddenly it was not all that easy to keep your balance. Sea sickness bags began appearing in common areas, and the captain came on the address system again  to announce that for safety reasons, all doors to the outside decks had been locked and the elevators shut down. All the water had been drained out of both swimming pools.  The captain said that the temperature outside was 46 degrees and the sustained winds were 42 knots gusting to over 50 knots.  Keeping on your feet required holding on to railings.

All morning Embry and I sat in the Crow’s Nest, a bar and gathering area on Deck 9, the top deck, peering out the window through the fog and rain, watching monster waves crash across the bow of the ship with spray at times reaching the window in front of us, some 90 feet above the sea, 

We did finally get some relief from the rocking and rolling in the afternoon when we were able to make the next passage  back into the fiords, just missing the  predicted storm waves of  30 or more feet, almost twice the size of what we had been plowing through. Unfortunately, however, in the afternoon the rain and mist settled in again. All we could  see were eerie, gray silhouettes of mountains and an occasional fleeting glimpse of a towering snow capped peak and  waterfalls draining melting snow into the ocean. 

Then close to five pm as if on cue, the rain stopped, the mist began to rise, blue patches of sky appeared, and the snowcapped peaks showed off their full glory.

About an hour later, the ship paused in front of a glacier, a bluish ice pack about 50 feet deep beginning at the top of a large mountain and extending all the way down to the sea. Even though the rain had started up again and the mist had returned, the aft deck was crowded with fellow travelers snapping photos of the glacier, the snowcapped mountains and the blue fiord. Despite the frigid temperatures and  howling wind, they were asking, I suppose, the same question I was asking: When will we ever see anything quite like this again?

Southern Exposure 11: Day 16, Chile.

On Thursday evening, October 31, Halloween, the Zaandam, escorted by tugs, inched its way into the crowded harbor of San Antonio, Chile’s largest port, located about 70 miles from Santiago and 50 miles from Valparaiso. We were supposed to stop in another port a few hundred miles to the north, but that was considered too dangerous due to the violence sweeping the country. As soon as we docked  in San Antonia, we learned that every excursion the next day had been cancelled for security reasons, and passengers were encouraged to remain on the ship at all times.

So what is happening in Chile? For more than two weeks, massive demonstrations have been occurring all over the country but especially in the two largest cities, both close to us, Santiago with a population of almost five million and Valparaiso with over 800,000. Over 2,800 people have been arrested and 2,500 injured. As of today, 19 protestors have been killed. The country is in a state of emergency with the army called out to restore order. Martial law is in effect. 

Welcome to Chile!

Over the years Chile has had its up and downs. We old folks from the US probably  remember Allende, the Socialist leader who in the 1970s  was overthrown by a military junta, possibly with help from our CIA, ushering in the 20-year dictatorship of Pinochet when thousands of Chileans were imprisoned, tortured or simply vanished in what then was one of the world’s most repressive regimes. But those days are long past; and for the past 20 years, leaders have been elected democratically, and the country has been relatively stable producing one of the strongest economies in South America.

So what went wrong? It is the same old, same old story that we are now witnessing all over the planet and in the U.S.– globalism’s winners and losers. While Chili’s economy was growing due in part to world trade, income disparities were increasing. The rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer, and the size of the middle class was shrinking. What initially sparked the unrest was a transit fare hike in Santiago, which ignited demonstrations. It did not help that the president of the country, Sebastian Pinera, a billionaire, was photographed eating at a fancy restaurant when the first demonstrators were being shot. The demonstrations quickly spread to other areas of the country, and the issues broadened from transit fares to economic justice. No one knows where this is headed or how it will end. 

All I can say is that they have a lot of nerve to start a revolution just when we arrive and are ready to see the sights.

But does a violent revolution deter one Embry Martin Howell, who only three weeks ago was herself in Mali where just yesterday another 40 or 50 innocent civilizations were murdered by revolutionaries? Hey, compared to Mali, Chili is a cakewalk. In less than an hour she had been on the internet and arranged for a private guide to take us around. My only question was whether she knew if he was armed.

So as it turned out, we got our own private tour to the area around San  Antonio after all. A few of the other frustrated–and brave –passengers apparently found local guides also since as we left the heavily guarded port, we noticed a bunch of drivers holding cards with their client’s name on them. 

So the next morning at eight a smiling Gabriel, a man probably in his early 40s and a pretty good English speaker, met us. Hiring your own guard—pardon, “guide”—is a bit expensive, but it does provide some opportunities that you can’t get on a group excursion with 25 or 30 other passengers. Probably most important is that it gives you a chance to meet  local people and to find out a lot about them and their lives. This was for me the best part of our around–the-world-trip in 2015 during our one-month tour of China when we visited 11 cities with a different, local, private guide each time, often spending two or three days with them. That gives you a lot of time to talk, listen and learn.

Gabriel spoke good English because he had  lived in New York City for several years when his wife, a lawyer, was part of the Chilean delegation to the U.N. She tragically died from breast cancer a few years ago, and now Gabriel has remarried, has a two-year-old daughter, and lives with his family in an apartment in Santiago. Being a tour guide is not the best job you can have in Chile, but you would have to call him solidly middle class. He is college educated, smart, and entrepreneurial. However, he is not a happy camper. He sides with the protestors and believes that life in Chili has been rigged to benefit the rich and hurt the middle class. He points to the same problems that we have in the U.S. and believes you need a strong leader to bring about justice and fairness. And who might that leader be in the U.S.? You got it: Donald Trump.

Now Gabriel is not stupid. He is not prejudiced. His values are solid.  He is a loving husband and proud father. He has experienced personal suffering. He is, quite simply, a nice guy and was a delight to be with. Yet he sees Trump as the solution to the economic disparities and divisions affecting the world, not part of the problem. Bottom line: we (bleeding heart liberals and progressives) don’t get it. I don’t get it. Until we do get it, however, we are not going to be able to heal the divisions that divide us.

The time with Gabriel was special. On a splendid day with sunny skies, temperatures in the low 70s, and low humidity, he drove us through the beautiful, peaceful countryside with hills dotted with olive and eucalyptus tress, then along vast vineyards, and finally to Valparaiso, the port city about 50 miles to the north, described as the San Francisco of South America. Since a lot of the protests and demonstrations have occurred here, when we got to the downtown area, we were relieved to see very little evidence of it, perhaps because it was still early on a Saturday morning. The old Colonial city is compared to San Francisco because  of the steep hills covered with houses that seem to be stacked on top of each other. 

Other similarities are its dynamic port, its prestigious colleges and universities, and its hip culture of artists and intellectuals. 

What Valparaiso has that San Francisco does not have are  its famous murals. Gabriel informed us that Valparaiso has more murals than any city in the world except Sao Paulo and by far the most on a per capita basis. That would appear to be true, but what is even more impressive is its street graffiti that surpasses anything I have ever seen. To say every building in the city is covered with graffiti is an overstatement by not by much. And a lot of it is actually quite good. As one who basically thinks graffiti is hideous and is best described as urban kudzu, I was surprised to find myself actually enthralled by a lot of it. Seeing this graffiti was by itself worth the visit. 

And then there were the dogs. Stray dogs, fat stray dogs. Not on every corner but surely on a lot of them. These animals run wild, lounge in the middle of sidewalks as they please, chase cars for fun, and poop when and where they want. The signs directing owners to clean up after their pets fall on deaf ears. Who feeds these animals anyway, and why are they all either black or yellow?  And why do they mainly run around or sprawl  on sidewalks in pairs?

After lunch with Gabriel, we drove back through wine country stopping for a tour and wine tasting at one of the smaller vineyards, specializing in traditional wine making techniques. The area to us looked a lot like California and I suppose that was no surprise since our  guide at the winery observed that the equivalent location of the Chilean wine country we were visiting in Chile in the Northern Hemisphere would be Sonoma County in California.

 All in all a great day and a safe one despite the dire predictions and precautions regarding mob or police violence. It also marked the mid point of the cruise when about two-thirds of the passengers departed and were replaced by new ones who flew  to Santiago to join the cruise.

The new fear has to do with the weather. A major storm is predicted to affect us and to bring with it gale force winds and waves of 30 feet and higher with even taller swells. This dire forecast  has forced the captain to cancel going to the  next port (and all planned excursions there) in an effort to dodge the bullet of this monster, but at this stage it is not clear how that will happen,  where we are going instead, or what it will mean. Stay tuned.

Southern Exposure 10: Typical Tough Day At Sea

So how do travelers manage to get through a day cruising along in ships like the Zaandam? It is true that there is a lot of stress. So many decisions to make. First there is breakfast. Do you want to eat in the elegant, full service dining room or in the casual buffet venue on the top deck? And how do you begin to choose between all the food selections available? 

After you have managed to make a decision and have finished a sumptuous breakfast, then you are faced with what to do next. You can sit in one of the dozen or so venues looking out at the vast  sea, but which one? The library? The pool area? The main lounge or mini lounge or maxi lounge or aft deck?

But maybe you don’t want to sit and look out at the sparkling blue waters decorated with whitecaps.  Maybe you want something more. Every hour there are about a dozen choices: baking classes, classes on preparing desserts, another on appetizers or one on fish recipes. There is always an option of learning about how eating more translates to losing pounds or why calories don’t count. Just thinking about these options makes you hungry, so it is time for your first cappuccino and an oversized, freshly-baked donut or croissant  at the Deck 4 café. Now fortified you are ready for a game of competitive bridge or mahjong or chess or a lesson on how to play one of these games. But you don’t want to miss the talk about how to buy the perfect diamond or how to use Microsoft products or a class in chocolate tasting. These tough choices cause more stress, which can  be ameliorated  only with another cappuccino and croissant.

You look at your watch and realize it is time for the first major presentation of the day in the large theater, a lecture on what to eat on board. You rush to get a seat only to find that this lecture is SRO, so it is back to the café. Now you are ready for something more serious, so it is time to finish your coffee and sweetroll in the salon area where a classical pianist and violinist are playing Mozart sonatas. After the concert you wander up to the pool where people are sunning and splashing around in a small pool and order a Bloody Mary to calm your nerves before lunch.

There are so many lunch options  you don’t know where to start. Of course you could try the main dining room or perhaps the exclusive, extra cost, gourmet restaurant, but you are not really dressed properly. You could do the buffet, but that tends to be crowded at lunch time. So you settle on the café in the pool area and get a plate full of tacos and a large salad, followed by an ice cream Sunday. 

Now it is time for a nap, but that will mean missing your favorite activity, the trivia quiz contest, next to bingo,  the most popular of all the activities on the ship. So you sign up to be on a team and do pretty well, but not so well as to reduce all the stress, so it is time  to calm your nerves by attending  high tea, followed by a lecture in the main theater about the culinary delights of Central Asia. After this you have to decide between a class in ballroom dancing or  learning the tango, a stressful decision, so you decide to order a gin and tonic and relax in one of the lounge chairs by the enclosed pool on the top deck before returning to your room to dress for dinner where you will be seated with nice, well-traveled people  from all over the world, whom you don’t know and  may never talk to again.  The conversation at dinner is about mutual interests associated with travel, avoiding any mention of politics, as you sip wine and think about whether you want to take in the evening song and dance act or to watch the ship’s movie or stop in the bar with the jazz singer. This choice, of course, leads to more stress but not enough to spoil your delicious three-course meal followed by a scrumptious dessert. After dinner, you decide you have time to try one or two hands of blackjack in the casino, which is stressful because you lose fifty bucks and can’t  decide whether after  attending the evening entertainment in the main theater, you want to take in the bar scene on the upper deck or call it quits for the day.

So yeah, it is tough being on these cruises. There is just too much stress, but not so much as to spoil the experience or keep you from repeating the cycle the next day.

Southern Exposure 9: Day 15, The Nats

On Wednesday, October 30, 2019, aboard the vessel Zaandam, en route from Peru to Santiago, Chili, we watched on the ship’s television the historic World Series victory of the Washington Nationals over the Houston Astros, said by some to be the best team in baseball, winning 107 games in the regular season. The game is now history. Through the sixth inning, the Nats had only one hit, and the two runs posted by the Astros seemed insurmountable. Scherzer had not gotten a strikeout and did not have his usual great stuff. The only upside was that he had managed to allow only two runs, leaving 15 runners stranded. We watched the game on board at a crowded bar with a wide screen TV. The 50 or so people watching seemed about equally divided between those rooting for the Nats and those rooting for the Astros. The situation appeared hopeless. 

But wait! The Nats had been in this situation before. In five previous playoff games they had been behind in elimination games and had fought back in late innings to win the game and stay alive. Could they do it one more time? Could this be another miracle?

Indeed it was! No team in World Series history had ever won the pennant without winning a single home game. No pitcher had ever won five playoff games without a single loss as did Strasburg. No team with close to the worst record in baseball in May (19-31)  had ever come this far  to win it all. It was truly a magic season.

Here is an excerpt from the email I received from my good friend and baseball guru, Jim Killebrew, when asked if he believed the Nats comeback victory to be a miracle:

Well, yes, I do believe in miracles. It’s called pixie dust. 

But this was a matter of the team with the best record in baseball losing to the wild card team that got hot in September and October and got to the Series by beating  the team with the best record in the National League. This was a Series where the visiting team won all seven games. That record may survive even Joe Dimaggio’s 56 game hitting streak. The team with four, count ‘em, four stellar starting pitchers lost to the team with two stellar starters and possibly the shakiest bullpen in baseball; and that was all thanks to the best job of managing ever. And, oh yes, don’t forget the no-name Howie Kendrick coming out of the woodwork and possibly winning the Series MVP. 

Thanks, Killer. And thanks, Nats. Washington needed this.

Southern Exposure 8: Day 14, Last Day In Peru

The way most cruises work–especially those in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean– is that you have a day ashore and then motor at night to the next port, arriving early in the morning, allowing time for explorations and excursions. You cast off late in the afternoon, and the cycle repeats itself. This cruise is a little different because of the great distances that we will need to cover. Overall the cruise will take 35 days, and we will have 17 days at sea and 18 at port. We have just spent four out of the last five days in various ports in Ecuador and Peru, so we have some long sea days coming up. This port day, October 29, marked the end of our second week of the cruise. It will be our last port before our three-day journey at sea takes us to Chile. 

When we woke up, the Zaandam was already tied up along a pier with no other vessels present. The area was desolate except for a small village at the other end of the bay. We were docked here, I presumed,  because of two major tourist attractions– a large national park and what was described in the itinerary as  Peru’s version of the Galapagos Islands. Unlike the other ports we have visited, this one had no cranes, no place to stack containers, and no sign of human activity anywhere near except for a fishing fleet, a couple of tug boats, and the tiny village across the bay.

Embry had signed us up for the “Peruvian Galapagos” excursion to the Ballestas Islands. The drill is pretty much the same at every port. If you have signed up for an excursion, you report to the main theater for instructions. Otherwise you go directly to security, check out, then hop on one of the shuttle buses, which will take you out of the port area to a central drop-off place where you will be on your own. As part of an excursion we were directed with 23 fellow passengers to Bus 11 where we were met by our guide, a 30-something woman with a broad smile and twinkle in her eye. The bus ride to the other end of the bay was along a lonely road with sand dunes on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. There was no evidence that the area had ever received any rain. The day was beautiful with sunny skies and temperatures around 70. My only complaint that day, and every day in Peru for that matter, was that due to very hazy skies we never got to see the towering peaks to the east, which we knew were there. That is where it rains. The rivers the rain produces make life possible along the coast. But you can’t see the mountains. Occasionally you think you can make out their slight silhouettes in the distance, but you are not sure.

The reason that it almost never rains in the coastal plains is that they are on the dry side of these invisible mountains. In the Southern Hemisphere, the prevailing winds are from the east, not the west, as is the case in the Northern Hemisphere. The humid air comes off the relatively warm Atlantic Ocean  (warm compared to the chilly Pacific Ocean). When the air rises, it cools and is unable to hold as much moisture, first producing clouds and then rain.   By the time the winds push the air west toward peaks of 15,000 to 20,000 feet, a lot of rain has fallen, sustaining the Amazon rain forest, and when the air falls back down the western slopes and warms again, there is no way it is going to produce rain. This is the phenomenon that affects the entire continent, though when we get to Chile and later to Argentina, I am anticipating that there will be differences from the climate in Peru. In any event the narrow coastal plain along Ecuador and Peru is about as dry as the Sahara.

After about a half hour driving along a dusty road, Bus 11 arrived at a village that was a mix of very modest housing and upscale, resort hotels and was buzzing with activity with  at least a dozen buses lined up  dropping off passengers. I had no idea where the other buses came from but guessed all or most were from our cruise ship. The center of activity  was a large pavilion, jammed-packed with people leading to a long pier where guide boats were lined up to take tourists like us to the Ballestas Islands. I had no idea what to expect.

Our enthusiastic guide led her charge of us 25 old folks down the pier to one of probably a dozen, sleek speed boats with twin Yamaha 250 hp outboard motors that could accommodate about 25 people each. How she and the captain got all of us into the bouncy and unstable boat without losing anyone overboard was pretty impressive, but they did it. We all buckled up with orange life vests, and off we went. 

The first hundred yards were not so bad as we slowly motored through a huge fleet of tuna fishing boats at anchor in protected waters. As we passed them and entered open waters with a two-foot chop, six to eight foot swells and a 25-knot head wind, the captain stepped on the gas. Off we went! 

Lord have mercy!

I do not know how fast the vessel was going, but it had to be close to 50 mph. Had the sea not been so choppy, it probably would not have been so bad; but as it was, every time we blasted through a wave at breakneck speed, water would spray up into the sky and splash down on the passengers, especially those in the stern where we were seated, cowering in fear. I did not look up. In fact no one looked up, not because we were not apprehensive, but because keeping our heads down helped keep off some of the frigid spray splashing down on us. 

My only comment to Embry, who was hunched down beside me shivering and trying to keep dry, was that there damn well better be some wildlife on this godforsaken island.

In about a half hour the boat started to slow down, the splashing on our heads ceased, and one by one heads poked up and started to look around. We had arrived. You could almost hear a collective sigh of relief.

Along with a dozen or so other speed boats, we found ourselves at the edge of the first of four contiguous tiny, rocky islands. We began to look around and dry out and to warm up in the morning sun as our boat rose up and then down in 10-12 foot swells. I could not help thinking that this experience would have to be something really special to justify the terror and discomfort of getting there.

Well, it was. I have never been to the Galapagos Islands. These Peruvian islands are much smaller and certainly can’t begin to compare with regard to diversity, but  in terms of the seabird population and sea lions? Oh my goodness! I have not seen anything that comes close to it. I have never seen so many seabirds  or  bird activity. On these four islands on a typical day, our guide told us there would be well over a million seabirds and over 200 species. On one of the islands there is a tall hill perhaps as high as a thousand feet, and this day it was completely  covered with tens of thousands of Peruvian terns. As our boat slowly motored from one island to the next, she tried to tell us what the birds all were when we got close enough to get a good look— many varieties of boobies, cormorants, gulls, pelicans, terns and so many more, some unique to this part of the world. However, there is no way she or anyone else could begin to describe the vastness of this extraordinary bird world.  I could not help wondering what kind of fish population would be required to feed a million, flying, hungry creatures every day. 

So as terrifying and uncomfortable as the voyage was getting out to these islands, I am the first to confess that it was absolutely worth it and an experience of a lifetime. (We also saw a whole bunch of sea lions sunning on the steep rocks at the edge of the sea.) On the way out before our captain let ‘er rip, he pointed out the side of a steep mountain beside the sea where there was an image carved out of the sand  that appears to be a candelabra. The image is over 300 meters tall and 100 meters wide and has been there on the side of this mountain above the sea for at least 2,500 years. No one has been able to determine exactly what it means or who created the image or how they were able to do it. There are some similar giant images on other coastal plains in Peru.

The trip back was downwind with following seas and much, much easier. Back on  board we enjoyed a delicious meal at the fancy Zaandam restaurant and then watched the Nats beat the Astros to force  game seven of the World Series.

Many good memories of Peru. Now on to Chile where  political instability has caused the captain to cancel our first stop altogether (too dangerous) and to alert us that other destinations may also be at risk. Stay tuned….

Southern Exposure 7:Two Days in Lima

The Zaandam spent  days 12 and 13, Sunday, October 28, and Monday, October 29, docked in the large port serving Lima. How do you make the most of a two-day visit to a sprawling city of 11 million people and come away with a profound understanding of its past and present? The short answer, of course, is you don’t. We tried to make the best of it by spending the better part of the first day visiting a private archeology museum, Museo Larco, and the second day visiting Mira Flores, the high rent district perched at the top of the tall cliffs along the southern shores of Lima.

The first impression of Lima is not dissimilar from what you see in  many large cities in what we used to call “The Third World.” Lima is loud, dirty, messy and seemingly out of control. Modest homes are packed together like sardines, the streets  jammed with cars and the sidewalks teeming with pedestrians. Tiny shops with graffiti on their walls sell food along with all sorts of merchandize, and every means of transport is visible at  a glance–cars and taxis of all shapes and sizes, buses of  all varieties, huge trucks puffing black smoke, bicycles with kids riding behind moms, motorcycles carrying three or sometimes four people, scooters, and covered, motorized, giant tricycles– all charging in different directions as  fast as they can.

  There is always a siren in the background and incessant honking. Within eyesight is at least one emaciated dog lounging on the sidewalk and a ferel cat darting into a dusty alley. Trash lines the streets; and at red lights, if you are in a car or taxi, chances are you will be approached by someone who wants to clean your front windshield, someone else who wants to sell you a newspaper, and another who is hawking bottled water or a warm coke. A young woman may tap on your window and ask for contributions to feed the infant she is holding, wrapped in a blanket. Invariably the traffic will come to a halt due to a car breaking down or an incident involving the police. You could be in Bangkok, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, New Delhi, Mumbai, Ulan Bator or Cairo. But you are in Lima; and if you have been to these other cities, as we have, you probably have that “I’ve seen this movie before” feeling. Yet as chaotic as they appear to be at first impression, these bustling “Third World” cities by some miracle actually seem to function, at least more or less, and what I love about them is their excitement, their humanity, and their soul, warts and all.

Also while similar in many ways, each of these cities is, of course, different with its own unique personality. We only saw one or two panhandlers in Lima. No  one tried to rob us, and the charges we negotiated with cab drivers (before getting in the cab!) were quite reasonable as were the prices of just about everything. The  people we met were polite and friendly, and most spoke at least a little English. The overall atmosphere, while chaotic was upbeat. It felt good to be here.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Lima and some of the other cities in developing countries that we have visited or (in Embry’s case) worked in is that in Lima there are a lot of solid middle class neighborhoods and some that are stunningly upscale. Embry made lunch reservations at Rafael’s, one of the city’s highly rated restaurants, which was in an upscale area called Mira Flores. When the taxi driver finally dropped us off in Mira Flores after inching his way in heavy traffic through typical neighborhoods with a mix of housing, some in pretty bad shape, we thought we had ended up in Miami Beach. Sparkling high rise apartments, 15-plus stories tall, towered  above the broad streets above the cliffs over looking the blue Pacific. Beautiful townhomes with tiny manicured gardens lined most side streets. The neighborhood was quiet, and there was no trash to be seen.

And so we have in Lima Exhibit A of the challenges associated with globalism. There is no question that Lima is better and Peru stronger than when we visited the country fifty years ago. The economy is robust (shipping, fishing, minerals, finance and more recently technology). People have jobs. Unemployment is low. The government has been reasonably stable, and the threats caused by  the revolutionary Shining Path seem to be well behind them. There is a large middle class, and some people have made a lot of money. But like practically everywhere else in the world, the fruits of the global economy have not been evenly distributed. There are winners and losers, and too many who have been shut out of the party altogether. The poverty rate in Peru  persistently hangs around 20 percent, and the social safety net is pretty thin. Protests, some violent, regarding inequality and economic justice are making headlines this week in Chile; and in many other South American countries, winds of discontent are starting to blow. This is not new. What is new is that decades ago some believed that socialism was the answer. Few believe that today, and the experiences of many countries in South America with often corrupt, socialist dictators did not help the cause. Venezuela, for example, is now a basket case and Cuba continues to struggle along. Yet at this stage in the evolution of life on the planet Earth, there is no obvious silver bullet that will magically solve the challenges of inequality exacerbated by the global economy.

The museum we visited was fabulous with beautifully displayed artifacts centuries old. And Rafael’s, the restaurant Embry picked out, was world class, ranking among my Top Five of all time. It had only about 15 tables, and the restaurant did not open for lunch until one; and when we left at three, it was still packed, mainly with men (all wearing tailored suits and formal shirts but no tie) and well-dressed women in their 40s enjoying business, power lunches. When there is no name on the building and you have to make reservations weeks in advance for a Monday lunch, you know it has got to be good. It exceeded expectations. 

So thumbs up for Lima. Not perfect and certainly struggling with globalism, but  dynamic, energetic, and  it has a soul.

Southern Exposure 6: Day 12, Peru

It is Monday, October 28, the morning after the Nats dropped the third straight World Series game at home to the Astros in another lackluster performance. Not the same without Sherzer. Odds for taking home the trophy don’t look good.

So  we are now in  Lima. We passed over  the equator two nights ago, but it is surprisingly cool here due to the chilly Humboldt Current which moves the frigid, Antarctica currents north along the western coast of South America. On shore typical high temperatures this time of year rarely exceed 70 with lows in the 50s. Mornings are usually gray, but the clouds and mist often burn off in the afternoons brightening the seascape and landscape.

 We were here in the late 1970s when we visited our good friends, Hank and Mel Ackerman in Lima. Hank was bureau chief of the AP at the time, and we spent about 10 days with them and their two young children getting a journalist’s perspective on the country. My most vivid memory was touring with Hank one of the huge barrios in Lima. Now euphemistically called an “informal settlement,” the Lima barrio was our first exposure to abject poverty on a massive scale. We also visited Cusco and spent a day in Machu Picchu.  Except for our near death experience due to eating street food in Machu Picchu (duh), the trip was fabulous.

So we are back in Peru, a country of more than 33 million and the center of the vast Incan Empire in the 14th and 15th Centuries. The first of three stops was yesterday in the port serving the small, bustling city of Trujillo on the northern  Peruvian Pacific Coast several hundred miles north of Lima. The main attraction of Trujillo is its proximity to two major archeological sites considered among the best in South America. So the theme of the day was ancient history.

Our two guides for this excursion were women in their forties, both very enthusiastic and proud of their Peruvian heritage, but very difficult for me to understand because of their heavy Spanish accent. The ruins were from two civilizations that preceded the Incan civilization. The first was the Moche civilization, which was dominant in the area for first several centuries in the Common Era. The second was the Chimu civilization, which lasted from 900 CE until the Colonial conquest in the mid 16th Century. One of the guides described herself as a proud Moche descendant and complained that the Incas got all the attention and credit while earlier and just as important civilizations were overlooked.

We will visit the big archeological museum in Lima  and learn more, but what is most interesting is just how far back their history goes. There is evidence that human life in what is now Peru was present as early as 11000 BCE though not much is known about these early human civilizations before about 2000 BCE.  Archeologists now have identified some 18 distinct civilizations prior to the Incas, many quite large and complex with centuries-long histories. One area we visited   was Chan Chan, an ancient, partially restored, Chimu city, which covers several square kilometers. We walked over a mile through a small part of the old city with its restored, adobe walls that made you feel like you were in a huge maze. Without a guide it is the kind of place that you could get lost in for weeks. The other ancient  city was the site of the Sun and the Moon Temples of the Moche civilization, huge impressive adobe structures carved out of the hills.

What archeologists now know about these early people is that religion was very important and for some involved human sacrifice. The sun and moon were both worshipped, and these early Peruvians believed in an afterlife. Rulers were buried in tombs with their prized possessions to help them get a good start in the next life, very similar to the religious beliefs of the ancient Egyptians at about the same time. The restored art work on the walls of the city also looked to me to be very similar to the art of the Egyptians. They also were united behind a strong ruler, and war was central to their dominance. If there were peaceful cultures or civilizations in those ancient times, they did not survive long enough to leave a trace. I guess you could call this one of life’s sad lessons. We are still dealing with this aspect of our human nature today. In spades.

The town of Trujillo is a city of around 200,000 and thriving with traffic jams, lots of honking and the sidewalks full of people. While many of the homes were modest, and the narrow streets had their  usual trash and graffiti, you got the feeling that overall it was a fairly robust and dynamic town. The villages we passed through on our way to the ruins were a different story though not as bleak as what we saw in Ecuador mainly due to the fields of corn and potatoes around them, permitted by extensive irrigation. 

I could not help noticing that the vast majority of homes in the village were only half completed. There was a first floor, but on most houses rebars extended into the air waiting for a second floor to be built. The guide later explained that besides running short on funds to build a second floor, the real reason was that in those villages, only houses that were completed had to pay real estate taxes. 

The entire coastal area of this part of Peru is bone dry but viable for farming due to irrigation. When I asked our guide if it ever rains here, she replied, “Yes, of course, it rains. I heard there was a good shower about 20 years ago.” 

Next post will be about Lima, a mega-city with a population of over 11 million, making it the second largest city in South America, just behind Sao Paola.

Southern Exposure 5: Day 10, Ecuador

After a day at sea we arrived in Ecuador at sunrise on October 24, the morning after the Nats won the second game of the World Series from the heavily-favored Astros. Thankfully I am able to watch on the ship’s television. Inning Seven will go down in the history books.

At 6:30 in the morning the Zaandam tied up alongside a long pier across from two Mexican naval vessels and  near a vast harbor with scores of moored fishing boats. This port town in Ecuador is called Manta, a city of about 200,000 and very different from Panama City. There are no high rises here, and most buildings are old, some quaint, but most mundane. Our excursion began at 7:30 and took us as quickly as it could directly out of Manta on a winding two-lane country road along the coast. The only road near  where we were which appears on Google Maps is “Pan American15, ” but it is hard to believe what we were on is major highway. The narrow road took our bus loaded with two dozen passengers from the ship up and down steep hills for a drive taking over two hours. We passed through a dozen or so small villages– settlements, really—and one small fishing village. Our destination was a large national park about 50 miles to the south along the shore, which was home to one of the county’s largest “dry forests.”

The real story of the morning for me, however, was what we saw along the way. Embry and I have seen first hand a lot of poverty in the world. We have visited remote settlements  in Tanzania and Kenya and in India and Southeast Asia where people live in makeshift homes or huts along dusty roads, often without power or fresh water. We were not aware that villages like this dominated this part of South America, but here they were, staring us in the face. Every settlement we passed along the way consisted of homes similar to those we saw in the jungle in Panama but even more bleak. This may have been due more to the surroundings than the homes themselves. Instead of a luxuriant rain  forest with blue skies overhead, the houses we saw along this lonely stretch of road in Ecuador were surrounded by gray bushes and shrubs covered with dust under a steel gray sky. Our guide,–also very good, like the one yesterday, knowledgeable and easy to understand– pointed out that this part of Ecuador was just coming out of its winter season when it does not rain and all the leaves fall off the trees and shrubs. This was the “dry forest,” the main attraction of the tour. In the mist and under the dark gray morning skies, to us it mostly looked like a wasteland and another reminder of just how hard scrabble life is for a lot of people on the planet Earth.

The other thing that he pointed out was that Ecuador is one of the most climate-diverse countries in the world with dozens of microclimates. Not only is most of the country mountainous with peaks well over 10,000 feet, Ecuador  also includes the Galapagos Islands. 

On our way out we drove through a cloud forest with fog and mist and along occasional fields of green. Most of the time though, everything was gray and dreary.   When we arrived at the national park, except for two police cars, our bus was the only vehicle in  a parking lot that could accommodate at most about 50 cars. Though overcast the area was beautiful in a haunted sort of way with towering cliffs and a wide, sandy beach surrounding an inlet from the Pacific. Most of us in our group took off our shoes and walked along the two mile-long beach for an hour or so before hopping back on the bus. A couple of Scots and two younger guys from our group jumped in the chilly water and paddled around, later insisting that it was really not all that cold.

The trip back brought us to a small archeological site in a  deserted valley served by a trickle of water which when the rains come in several weeks will turn into a raging river. Our two-mile  hike along the riverbed took us through several banana farms and small huts occupied by subsistence farmers. Emaciated goats, horses and occasional pigs roamed the area. At one point when the trickle in the riverbed emptied into a small pool, we saw a dozen or so women  washing clothes and a couple bathing. This is a part of Ecuador that I suspect few tourists see. You could not call it representative of the whole country because Ecuador is so diverse in terrain and climate. The bulk of the population of this small country, smaller than any other country in South America except Uruguay and about half the size of France,  lives in the mountains in and around Quito. At an altitude of almost 10,000 feet Quito has a metro population of  over three million in a country with a total population of only 15 million. It is too bad that we will not be able to go there. It is the second highest capital in the world and the closest, large city to the equator. It is also too bad we will not get to see the Galapagos Islands.

In stark contrast to the poverty we observed as we inched along on the winding two-lane road, we had lunch on the top of a coastal mountain overlooking the sea at a small, upscale resort with outdoor tables surrounding a swimming pool and a hot tub perched at the edge of a cliff. The food and service were excellent and another reminder that vast disparities are a way of life here. 

On our return the sun finally burned through the gray clouds and mist and turned the gray Pacific Ocean into sparkling blue. The dust covered shacks that we passed on the way back did not seem quite so bleak as they did going out, but it will take more than blue skies to transform lives of toil and, what would appear to me anyway, with more than their fair share of misery.

I suppose that a shortcoming of this cruising adventure is that we will see so little of the countries we visit and our experience will be superficial, just skimming the surface. This is surely a fair statement to which I reply that just a touch is better than nothing. Tomorrow another day at sea and then our first of three stops in Peru.

Southern Exposure 4: Day 9, Panama

I had no idea what to expect from the rest of Panama. As we were approaching the series of locks on the Pacific side of the canal, the tops of thin skyscrapers in Panama City  peeped above the hills. Not your typical backwater town, I noted. Indeed! As we reached Panama City around nine pm, the skyline was lit up like lower Manhattan; and when we woke up the next morning in the predawn mist, the comparison that came to mind was Hong Kong. The thin city extends along the shoreline facing due south for something like 10 miles with rows of 50-60 story buildings that soon sparkled in the morning sun. 

The Zaandam  was anchored in a vast harbor dotted with  dozens of other vessels, mainly large commercial ships and fishing boats. We were up early to begin our first excursion, which departed for shore via tender at 7:00, along with about 25 others in our group. The boat ride to shore was only about 15 minutes, taking us to a large, private marina with  a whole bunch of million dollar yachts and a handful of large sailboats tucked away in floating slips that I calculated must experience something like 10-foot tidal variations.  There our guide and our tour bus for the day met us. 

We departed from the marina before eight and did not return to the ship until after four. It was a long day. We began by driving through the city with its mix of glistening new condos and office buildings and older neighborhoods with more modest buildings, many showing their age. Before we left the city the bus took us though the Canal Zone where the Americans used to live and which is now the most prestigious part of the city with many mansions and large homes. We then drove over the mountains and through the dense rain forests, passing by a number of small villages tucked away under banana trees and clearings in the dense forest where the houses were small and scruffy with tin roofs and cement block walls. Some had makeshift fences  around muddy “pastures” containing  goats and pigs and laundry drying in the warm, morning sun. Along the way our guide pointed out a few “informal settlements,” where squatters now lived but  actually fewer than I had expected to see. 

The sights and experiences of the day included a boat ride in search of wildlife on a secluded part of Gatun Lake, (We saw several monkeys, two sloths and a bunch of birds.), then a visit to a tiny, aboriginal village on the lake, and finally a visit to the new part of the Panama Canal, which we had not seen since the Zaandam made the passage on the old  section.

The guide was excellent. Probably in his early or mid thirties, he looked to me a little like Cory Booker and was passionate and enthusiastic about his country. He was also honest, pointing out the resentment toward us Americans for controlling the canal for so long and how the treaty signed by Jimmy Carter giving the canal back to Panama in 1999 averted a full scale revolution. He did not shy away from gently pointing out the income, class and ethnic disparities that currently exist in his country. 

The part I will remember most vividly is the aboriginal village. On a tiny peninsula in Gatun Lake, we visited a village of thatched roof huts where about 12 Indian families live —about 60 people including maybe a dozen kids. They have lived for a decade or so on Gatun Lake after they were forcefully removed from their homes in the rain forest to the south, which is now a national park. These people are no taller than four, at most four-and-a-half feet, and the men wear loincloths and the women colorful skirts and flimsy tops. The huts are elevated and have virtually no furniture. You can’t easily figure out how they survive. 

Well, one way they survive is hosting tourists like us, putting on a show of dancing and music, selling their arts and crafts, and telling their stories (through a translator). It felt to me at times  like we were guilty of exploitation. Certainly the small tribe we visited would not do this kind of thing unless they had to. Certainly it is not the core part of their life as hunters and fishers and subsistence farmers. Certainly the invasion of their privacy is not something they would wish for. But yet here they are. Is this how tribes like this survive into the 21st Century? They are part of a larger group of Panamanian aborigines estimated to number about 28,000 people. You can’t help asking how long they will last.

Part of the challenge of this trip will be keeping the countries straight. A day here and a day or two there. Before long a lot will be hard to keep straight. Was that in Panama or Peru? Argentina or Uruguay?  This may not turn out to be quite as confusing as it might be because the central story of the South American continent is a shared story: Humans migrated here from Asia via the Bearing Straight several thousand years before the Common Era. Some of these ancient civilizations were quite complex and sophisticated, comparing favorably with what we know about  what was happening about the same time in ancient, advanced societies like Egypt, Mesopotamia and China.  Civilizations came and went in South America; and by the mid part of the 15th Century, three vast empires had emerged: the Aztecs and Mayans, mainly in what is now Mexico, and the Incas in the western part of South America. These civilizations counted their numbers in the millions. Many lived in cities with populations in the hundreds of thousands. Then in the mid 16th Century when the Spanish Conquistadors arrived, life changed forever. While the advanced weapons of the Europeans–and their horses–made the slaughter of the native population easy, diseases brought with them to the New World were the real killer, resulting in deaths totaling in the millions. The European invasion came close to wiping out an entire  population.

 Colonialism was the norm for the next three hundred years until the wars of liberation and nationalism of the mid 19th Century, which created independent countries for the first time. That is the essential history you need to know which affected all the countries that we will visit. Individual countries, of course, will have their own unique history and culture, but the engine that drives each one is the same: colonialism. They are still living with this legacy as they continue to chart a path forward. As we cruise to our next port, there are newspaper reports of violent protests in Ecuador, Chile, and Argentina; and Brazil is  borderline  lawless. Should be interesting….

So what else is important about Panama?

  • It is mainly a rain forest. Over 140 inches of rain fall a year in many places, and that affects all of life. Without the rain in the mountains, there would be no Panama Canal. There would not be enough water to replenish the water drained out when all the ships pass through.   Our guide warned us that it would rain on us; and that afternoon, the clouds poured out buckets. By late afternoon it was all over, and the sun peeked out just before it sunk below the Pacific.
  • It is mainly jungle.  The population of five million is smaller than that of the Washington metro area. Panama City accounts for almost half of that with over two million people.
  • It is a very new country, not gaining its independence from Columbia until 1904.
  • It has toyed with socialism and had its share of dictators, Noriega being the most infamous.
  • The disparities between those who have and those who don’t stare you in the face with fancy cars, fancy yachts, towering apartments and gated residences in and around Panama City and lots of tin-roofed shacks in the jungle areas.
  • International commerce drives the economy  due to the canal, two large container ports, one on each side of the country, the world’s largest duty free shopping area, and tourism. Compared to many other South American countries, the economy is considered robust.
  • If it has not already become apparent in this blog, the rain forest is spectacularly beautiful.

Now on to Ecuador!