Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Part 4 - Colombia in a 1968 Volvo Amazon

South America Road-trip in an old-timer

 A summer breeze warms my face as I look out from the old fortified city wall across the skyline of the new part of town. Cartagena de Indias, can you think of a better name for the place where we were to end this fantastic trip? A great finish to a great tour, but also a confirmation of my feelings about a country that has been longing to be discovered for over four decades. I visited Colombia for the first time in 1991 and was instantly won over; the nature, the colonial cities and the people... especially the people.

The next day we left our hotel at 10am for a 400km drive to Medellin. We had already heard that the first part would be relatively flat, then more or less sloping up until Manizales, and from there a final pass of 3,000masl just before Medellin. The road started out perfectly smooth, even turning into a four-lane highway of sorts after the first 25km. Intervals of two and four-lane roads, and road-works kept us on our toes, and it became clear that by next year this entire stretch would probably be much faster to traverse. We reached Pereira and entered the famous coffee region of Colombia, one of the more prosperous parts of the country. The region is one beautifully green and fertile land filled with coffee plantations doubling as hotels. One can spend a good time here between the picturesque towns of Pereira and Armenia, relaxing at the haciendas, learning all there is to know about coffee and enjoying the splendid natural surroundings. We sadly did not have much time to stop, but luckily I had been here before (see a few blog entries back).
We pushed on toward Medellin, which was still quite a long way off. We were experiencing some minor problems with the car. The passenger window had sunk into the door and decided it did not want to come up again, whilst dark clouds were gathering in the sky above us. The “Amp” light was on again, meaning we were once more driving without charging the battery, and the Volvo’s loyal engine was having difficulties adjusting to the climate and had started to heat up. We stopped at a gas station upon leaving Pereira, filled up our tank and provisionally sealed the window using an old raincoat and a lot of duct tape. As the rain started pouring out of the sky, we ordered and devoured one of the best hamburgers on our trip in the station’s cafeteria. This combined with really great service and one of the most impeccable toilets ever seen anywhere, let alone in a gas station, caused Johan to officially baptize the place as one of the very best pit-stops along the entire South American Pan-American Highway. And I think he was right!

Stomachs filled and window temporarily closed we drove on. Though half of our challenges were taken care of, the battery and overheating problems persisted. However, anyone who has driven an older car before knows that an overheating engine can be dealt with, at least temporarily, by turning on the car’s heater. That said, the fans that transport the hot air from the engine to the passenger compartment do so by means of electricity, so when your engine problem is combined with a battery charging issue, then you are kind of screwed. On the road to Manizales we were stopped by another one of those unexpectedly friendly police officers, who wished to see our papers. We killed the engine and did as we were asked. After a nice conversation we were told we could move on, but of course our battery was as dead as could be. Without much ado the police officer stopped another car and ordered the driver to help us jumpstart the Volvo, which was taken care of without questions and with much friendliness and ease. As we stood there with our heads under the hood of our 1968 travel companion, I had a closer look at the electrical wiring. I followed one of the wires that seemed to come from the alternator to one of the fuse-boxes and opened it. It seemed like one of the fuses was kind of dirty and not plugged in as tightly as it should be, but that was nothing a Swiss army knife and a band-aid from our first aid kit could not resolve. I have never been much of a McGiver, but the “Amp” light did not bother us anymore after that.

What with all the pit-stops we had kind of fallen behind schedule and had to make haste. Around 5pm, dusk set in just as we were headed back into the mountains. We had one last pass to conquer before we would be able to descend into Medellin. With the day fading, we found ourselves on a meandering mountain road littered with heavy trucks, slowing us down quite a bit. The car was not happy with this at all, and as well as having the now perfectly functioning heater at full blast, I had to resort to hitting the clutch, brake and gas pedals at regular 20-50m intervals to make sure the engine ran enough rpm’s to keep itself from boiling over. The last 25km were kind of tormenting, the temperature inside the car was around that of an over-eager Swedish sauna, and there was no way for us to escape the huge traffic jam slowly creeping down the hill into Medellin. We eventually reached the city limits around 8pm, but due to the maze of one-way streets that managed not to match with our map at all, it was another hour and a half before we finally found our hotel in the old city center. Old indeed, as our hotel, built in the 1940s, seemed not the have been touched since. We didn’t even bother to have dinner, but located our copper grandma beds and crashed straight away.

We checked out one early Sunday morning, and without having seen one bit of the much-heralded city of Medellin we hit the highway at 6am and made our way towards Cartagena de Indias. We had been informed about yet another 3000m pass we would have to cross 200km after leaving our hotel, and with another 500km to go after that, so we did not take any risks this time. The early bird factor, and the fact that it was Sunday and this is still a catholic country, made for sparse traffic (apart from many sinning cyclists) and we conquered the pass around 11am. After this point we descended easily into the next valley, which would be our stomping ground until reaching Cartagena that night. We made good time and even though we had left the mountains behind us the landscape was attractive and varied. We encountered very little traffic throughout most of the rest of the trip, and sometime around 4.30pm we only had 150km to go before Cartagena. Here we encountered a little more traffic and saw the damage done by the high waters of the past weeks. Colombia is graced by three Andean mountain ranges, intersected by three large rivers, all of which end in the Caribbean Sea near Cartagena. As all three of them had been processing much more water than normal, they had simultaneously overflowed, flooding many villages in the area. We passed numerous houses under water and crossed various bridges on the verge of being inundated by the huge mass of water surrounding us. Parts of some of the bridges had already given in, but we managed to cross them and drove into Cartagena through little back streets around 6pm. Of course we got neatly entangled in the evening peak traffic, but we did not care. Cartagena is a beautiful city, and we were happy to slowly finish the last part of our journey, savoring the salty air of the Caribbean after 10 days of hard driving all the way north from Lima. We eventually made it to the Hilton, our hotel for that night, located in the new part of town and looking out over the Caribbean Sea. A feeling of euphoria came over us and we lost very little time parking the car, stuffing our luggage in our rooms and cleaning up just enough to be allowed into the Café del Mar in the old part of town. A nice and cool place located on top of the fortified wall surrounding the old city, with spectacular views of both the city and the sea. Nothing could taste better than a couple of ice-cold beers to finish off yet another unforgettable trip.

The next day, December 20th, Johan took the Volvo to the harbor from where it would be shipped back to Europe. Just before he left we said our goodbyes, as I would fly back to Lima that same afternoon and from there to Buenos Aires the next day. I was going to arrive in Peru around 1am and had arranged for a room in the Ramada Hotel at Lima Airport to catch as much sleep as possible before my 10am ongoing flight to BA. Of course my life would not be what it is if it had not thrown me one last little curve ball in the form of my old fried Guillermo Gomez, a pal from the early days in Peru, who had moved to Venezuela a long time ago, but who happened to be in Lima and decided it was time to pay me a short visit, even in the middle of the night. This is how I ended up in the hotel lobby drinking double pisco sours with a great friend until the wee hours of the night, missing my flight that next morning and almost arriving too late for Karin’s birthday the next day… Luckily everything was planned well ahead, so when I finally touched down at Ezeiza Airport at 7am on the 22nd, my father was there to pick me up, while my visiting sister and my daughters had already arranged a beautiful breakfast in our garden. Karin just walked down the stairs when I entered the front door. “Ah, you’re back,” she said, “just in time!” We hugged and life was simply great.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ecuador to Colombia in a 1968 Volvo Amazon

South America Road-trip in an old-timer

After leaving Ecuador at Ipiales we entered Colombia, and when the torrential rain had subsided, we continued along the road to Pasto. We were not sure how the road conditions would be, but we needn’t have worried; it was in mint condition, recently asphalted and smooth as silk. We traversed through a spectacular, green and mountainous landscape, regularly passing waterfalls and enjoying views of fertile valleys. Both Johan and I have seen quite a bit of South America, but this was one of those moments when you are simply struck silent, taking in the awe and savoring it. Probably it also had something to do with the fact that we were driving into a country that until recently was considered too dangerous to visit, let alone drive through, and we were entering one of the areas still marked “grey” on the safety map of Colombia. The overwhelming natural beauty, and the peace and calm that the countryside beamed back at us simply did not marry with that cautious warning, or with the enormous road signs showing Colombian Special Forces with heavy weaponry and futuristic war-helicopters, which were, supposedly, protecting the area. We never saw anything even remotely resembling military, apart from a couple days later when we saw troops helping people out in the flooded areas to the north. The road was as safe as any we’d driven down already.

We reached Pasto at nightfall; a relatively small town in the mountains (150k inhabitants). We arrived at our hotel after an easy cruise through the town, parked our car in the garage and went for a short walk. During our walk we stumbled upon an impressive and surreal Christmas garden; an enormous stable with figurines belonging to the Christmas story, some of them higher than the actual buildings surrounding the park, and most of them decked out in rainbow neon lights. Large amounts of people roamed the park, stopping to buy things at stalls selling food, beverages and a wide array of religious objects. Again an unexpected and beautiful moment, enhanced by the warmth of the people we would learn to enjoy Colombia for.

The next morning we left for Cali. The sun was already beaming in the sky and before we knew it we were out of town and on the Pan-Americana Highway again. According to the owner of the hotel we just left, the road to Cali would be more mountainous and in some parts would be of worse quality, mainly due to the fact that lately this part of the country had seen a lot of rain and there had been several landslides. Still the entire stretch for today was only 380km, so we felt that making it to Cali before 5pm should not be too much of a challenge. The first part of the trip was mountainous indeed, sloping down from Pasto at 2500masl to more tropical surroundings at 700masl. Colombia seemed to be much more densely populated than the other countries we had passed through thus far and the road was busy with all kinds of traffic. Especially the large amount and great variety of trucks brought our traveling tempo down significantly. The scenery was pretty and we took our time, stopping to take pictures and enjoy the views whenever we felt like it. Even so, the road was in good shape and we expected to make it to beautiful Popayan around 1pm for lunch, but that turned out differently…

 Closing in on Popayan the road got hillier, and while we were cruising along the winding tarmac, all of a sudden we ran into a long line of vehicles. This of course happens from time to time, when roadwork is being done and one lane is closed off. During regular intervals traffic from one direction and then the other is given priority to take the lane left open. This was a different situation however, as we saw no traffic coming down the mountain and could not see where the jam started. Eventually we turned off our engine and got out of the car, just like everybody else. Our Volvo drew attention as usual, and several people came walking along for a friendly chat. Johan got talking to the owner of one of the cars in front of us, who was also en route to Cali, and meanwhile I went for a walk to find out what was causing this unexpected stall. I walked for a good 20 minutes and still hadn’t reached a point where I could see what was going on. What I did see were a couple of empty sand trucks coming down the hill looking like they had just unloaded. After some asking around I figured out that there had been a large landslide uphill and that the entire road had disappeared. The trucks coming down were the first of a series that had been commissioned from higher in the mountains to bring sand and rocks to fill in the missing part of road. Apparently these had already managed to cross the gap, so I started walking back to Johan and our car. When I arrived Johan was standing with a Colombian baby on his arm, salsa music blaring from the Volvo’s powerful speakers (the Xplod car stereo was definitely no old timer) and people smiling, dancing and taking pictures all around. Nice stop! We shared some snacks and water with other drivers and finally the first cars and motorcycles started coming down the mountain.

It still took a long time before we were could start driving again and in the end the whole episode took four hours out of our driving day. Lunch in Popayan was not an option anymore and we pushed on straight to Cali. During the wait we were approached by an elderly gentleman, also on his way to Cali, but by bus. He was on his way to visit his family there, but the bus ride would take him through Popayan where he would have to change vehicles and lose many precious hours, so he asked if we needed a guide to get us into Cali city in exchange for a ride. We said ‘no problem’ and that turned out to be a lucky move. Cali has over 2m inhabitants and we had no clue how to find our hotel. Funny enough our passenger happened to live very close to the hotel and as he knew the town like the back of his hand. It took us about 10 minutes to traverse the myriad of highways and little streets to arrive around 8pm to the front door of our hotel. We said goodbye to our passenger and ran into the bar for a few cold beers before retreating to our room with two super king-size beds for a good night’s sleep. Another day full of warm, spontaneous, exuberant and friendly Colombians and their beautiful country with spectacular landscapes, managed to send us to the land of dreams in a matter of seconds.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Part 2 - Ecuador to Colombia in a 1968 Volvo Amazon

South America Road-trip in an old-timer

Ecuador is a nice country to drive through in your own car. After having made it without problems to Loja and on to Cuenca, we were headed to Quito, the capital of the country. In Quito we planned to stop and take a rest, but before that we had to cross 450km along the ‘avenue of volcanoes’, a route that promised some spectacular views.

We wanted to leave Cuenca on time to make sure we’d have enough time to take the drive easy and stop for some picture taking. However, we were confronted with a slight electrical challenge. The car battery was not charging and after checking the fuse-box and wiring we decided it had to be the dynamo/generator. We asked one of the hotel’s drivers to give us a jump-start and for directions before we drove to a near-by garage specializing in car-related electricity issues. The owner took one look at our beautiful Amazon and decided that he would help. It took him about 15 minutes to disconnect and take out the dynamo, another 15 minutes to completely take it apart, clean it up and find a small part being worn out to the bone, for which he of course happened to have an Eastern-European-made generic spare. Putting it all back together whilst charging our battery to the max took another 30 minutes, and the total operation cost us about 15 USD. Even so, we did not leave Cuenca before 1pm and so we prepared for a late arrival in Quito.

The first part of the route was very hilly, full of hairpin bends and in bad condition. On top of that, a thick fog confirmed our feeling that this would become a long day, but after passing the town of Alausi, just like a couple of days before, the mist disappeared as we drove into a wide valley and onto a beautiful 4-lane highway. The odds had changed to our favor. During the last part of the journey we hit the Volcano Avenue, and the landscape was indeed spectacular. We managed to get a glimpse of snow-capped Chimborazo; the highest active volcano in the world, and we saw clouds and gasses rise from the Tunguragua Volcano. Sadly, around these parts the sun sets around 6pm, so we missed the perfectly cone-shaped point of the Cotopaxi. We eventually made it to Hotel Quito at 8pm, which given the hectic ride into the city, wasn’t bad going at all.

Hotel Quito is situated in the La Floresta neighborhood, a nice part of town from where one enjoys a beautiful view over the city. The next day was our allocated resting day, so we took it easy and both decided to visit our local business partners. 

Thursday we made our way toward Colombia, crossing the equator en route. We left at 9am with the sun high in the sky and it promised to be a beautiful drive. From our hotel we made it relatively quickly to the highway, taking us out of town before we knew it. Whilst driving further north and away from Quito the landscape turned dry and rocky around us, completely different to what we had seen before in Ecuador. We passed some of the many rose-nurseries this region of the country is famous for, and in which the Dutch have made some heavy investments, and after about 40km reached the equator. First we made a stop at the ‘previous equator’, initially indicated by the Inca people as the line where the earth is at its widest. However, correct GPS measurements indicate that the ‘real equator’ lies about 30m further north, so we were obliged to make another stop at the official monument placed there a couple of years ago. We did not spend too much time here (I lived in Ecuador for half a year in 1994 and have been to this spot many times before) and drove on. We had a long way to go still and had no idea how much time we would need to get to the Colombian border.

On our way we passed through the towns of Otovalo and Ibarra. Otavalo is famous for its textiles and the huge Saturday market. The indigenous people are proud of their legacy, much stronger than many other indigenous people elsewhere in Latin America. They are happy to demonstrate where they come from through their costumes; this is one of the few places where one still finds men as well as women fully dressed according to the local codes. We drove on and passed a beautiful green valley, a lot lower down and warmer. Sugarcane was the main crop here, planted by the Europeans soon after their arrival. The Europeans brought many African slaves to work the plantations and therefore this still is a mainly black region, which is something one would not expect driving through the Andes with its typical indigenous people. The sun was strong and we enjoyed our trip to the Colombian border, arriving there at around 3pm. Without warning, the 2-lane road we were driving on turned one-way leaving us no way out of an enormous traffic jam; it seems there were other people wanting to get into Colombia…

After about an hour in the queue the weather changed; clouds appeared in the sky and slowly but surely it started to rain harder and harder. At some point it felt like there was no space between the huge drops anymore. For some reason our car was not washed of the road and we slowly crept toward the border facilities where we had to get out of the car and were soaked in a matter of seconds. Paperwork went smooth, helped by the laughs and giggles we caused running from window to window, leaving puddles everywhere we went. Colombians like a good laugh and we realized we would have a good time in this new country.

The Amazon was not prepared for the amount of water we brought back in and her fans did not manage to clear our windscreens, forcing us to drive on while constantly polishing the glass on the inside, with our windows open, allowing more rain in. One of the customs officers, between great outbursts of laughter about our appearance, had given us a golden tip; when your windshield wipers cannot process the amount of water falling out of the sky anymore, put on your darkest sunglasses; for some reason, they break the light filtering through the film of water on your windscreen, creating an almost perfect view again. Sounds odd, but we tried it and it works… kind of. Only do this when nothing else helps and you really have to push forward, and then only at a very low speed, as the images are distorted enough to create accidents, but it helped us get out of that valley and onto dry land back on the road to Pasto.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


Sometimes I like to use my blog to share with you inspiring things that I have seen or heard. This documentary, which many of you may already have seen, really struck a chord in me, somewhere so deeply hidden that I had forgotten it was there, and I have only seen the trailer thus far... I am now frantically looking for a place where I can see it or (legally!) download it. I leave you with the official description of the film, the trailer and the hope you will go and see it, pass it on, and that it will change your lives too. Happy trails, Bart.

I AM is an utterly engaging and entertaining non-fiction film that poses two practical and provocative questions: what’s wrong with our world, and what can we do to make it better? The filmmaker behind the inquiry is Tom Shadyac, one of Hollywood’s leading comedy practitioners and the creative force behind such blockbusters as “Ace Ventura,” “Liar Liar,” “The Nutty Professor,” and “Bruce Almighty.” However, in I AM, Shadyac steps in front of the camera to recount what happened to him after a cycling accident left him incapacitated, possibly for good. Though he ultimately recovered, he emerged with a new sense of purpose, determined to share his own awakening to his prior life of excess and greed, and to investigate how he as an individual, and we as a race, could improve the way we live and walk in the world.

Armed with nothing but his innate curiosity and a small crew to film his adventures, Shadyac set out on a twenty-first century quest for enlightenment. Meeting with a variety of thinkers and doers–remarkable men and women from the worlds of science, philosophy, academia, and faith–including such luminaries as David Suzuki, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Lynne McTaggart, Ray Anderson, John Francis, Coleman Barks, and Marc Ian Barasch – Shadyac appears on-screen as character, commentator, guide, and even, at times, guinea pig. An irrepressible “Everyman” who asks tough questions, but offers no easy answers, he takes the audience to places it has never been before, and presents even familiar phenomena in completely new and different ways. The result is a fresh, energetic, and life-affirming film that challenges our preconceptions about human behavior while simultaneously celebrating the indomitable human spirit.

The pursuit of truth has been a lifelong passion for Shadyac. “As early as I can remember I simply wanted to know what was true,” he recalls, “and somehow I perceived at a very early age that what I was being taught was not the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” He humorously describes himself as “questioning and searching and stumbling and fumbling toward the light.” The “truth” may have been elusive, but success wasn’t. Shadyac’s films grossed nearly two billion dollars and afforded him the glamorous and extravagent A-List lifestyle of the Hollywood blockbuster filmmaker. Yet Shadyac found that more – in his case, a 17,000-square foot art-filled mansion, exotic antiques, and private jets — was definitely less. “What I discovered, when I began to look deeply, was that the world I was living in was a lie,” he explains. “Much to my surprise, the accumulation of material wealth was a neutral phenomenon, neither good or bad, and certainly did not buy happiness.” Gradually, with much consideration and contemplation, he changed his lifestyle. He sold his house, moved to a mobile home community, and started life—a simpler and more responsible life – anew.

But, at this critical juncture, Shadyac suffered an injury that changed everything. “In 2007, I got into a bike accident which left me with Post Concussion Syndrome, a condition where the symptoms of the original concussion don’t go away.” These symptoms include intense and painful reactions to light and sound, severe mood swings, and a constant ringing sound in the head. Shadyac tried every manner of treatment, traditional and alternative, but nothing worked. He suffered months of isolation and pain, and finally reached a point where he welcomed death as a release. “I simply didn’t think I was going to make it,” he admits.

But, as Shadyac wisely points out, “Death can be a very powerful motivator.” Confronting his own mortality, he asked himself, “If this is it for me – if I really am going to die – what do I want to say before I go? What will be my last testament?” It was Shadyac’s modern day dark night of soul and out of it, I AM was born. Thankfully, almost miraculously, his PCS symptoms began to recede, allowing him to travel and use his movie-making skills to explore the philosophical questions that inhabited him, and to communicate his findings in a lively, humorous, intellectually-challenging, and emotionally-charged film.

But this would not be a high-octane Hollywood production. The director whose last film had a crew of 400, assembled a streamlined crew of four, and set out to find, and film, the thinkers who had helped to change his life, and to seek a better understanding of the world, its inhabitants, their past, and their future. Thus, Shadyac interviews scientists, psychologists, artists, environmentalists, authors, activists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, and others in his quest for truth. Bishop Desmond Tutu, Dr. Noam Chomsky, historian Dr. Howard Zinn, physicist Lynne McTaggart, and poet Coleman Banks are some of the subjects who engage in fascinating dialogue with Shadyac.

Shadyac was very specific about what he was after, wanting I AM to identify the underlying cause of the world’s ills – “I didn’t want to hear the usual answers, like war, hunger, poverty, the environmental crisis, or even greed,” he explains. “These are not the problems, they are the symptoms of a larger endemic problem. In I AM, I wanted to talk about the root cause of the ills of the world, because if there is a common cause, and we can talk about it, air it out in a public forum, then we have a chance to solve it.”

Ironically, in the process of trying to figure out what’s wrong with the world, Shadyac discovered there’s more right than he ever imagined. He learned that the heart, not the brain, may be man’s primary organ of intelligence, and that human consciousness and emotions can actually affect the physical world, a point Shadyac makes with great humor by demonstrating the impact of his feelings on a bowl of yogurt. And, as Shadyac’s own story illustrates, money is not a pathway to happiness. In fact, he even learns that in some native cultures, gross materialism is equated with insanity.

Shadyac also discovers that, contrary to conventional thinking, cooperation and not competition, may be nature’s most fundamental operating principle. Thus, I AM shows consensus decision-making is the norm amongst many species, from insects and birds to deer and primates. The film further discovers that humans actually function better and remain healthier when expressing positive emotions, such as love, care, compassion, and gratitude, versus their negative counterparts, anxiety, frustration, anger and fear. Charles Darwin may be best known for popularizing the notion that nature is red in tooth and claw, but, as Shadyac points out, he used the word love 95 times in The Descent of Man, while his most famous phrase,survival of the fittest, appears only twice.

“It was a revelation to me that for tens of thousands of years, indigenous cultures taught a very different story about our inherent goodness,” Shadyac marvels. “Now, following this ancient wisdom, science is discovering a plethora of evidence about our hardwiring for connection and compassion, from the Vagus Nerve which releases oxytocin at simply witnessing a compassionate act, to the Mirror Neuron which causes us to literally feel another person’s pain. Darwin himself, who was misunderstood to believe exclusively in our competitiveness, actually noted that humankind’s real power comes in their ability to perform complex tasks together, to sympathize and cooperate.”

Shadyac’s enthusiastic depiction of the brighter side of human nature and reality, itself, is what distinguishes I AM from so many well-intentioned, yet ultimately pessimistic, non-fiction films. And while he does explore what’s wrong with the world, the film’s overwhelming emphasis is focused on what we can do to make it better. Watching I AM is ultimately, for many, a transformative experience, yet Shadyac is reluctant to give specific steps for viewers who have been energized by the film. “What can I do?” “I get asked that a lot,” he says. “But the solution begins with a deeper transformation that must occur in each of us. I AM isn’t as much about what you can do, as who you can be. And from that transformation of being, action will naturally follow.”

Shadyac’s transformation remains in process. He still lives simply, is back on his bicycle, riding to work, and teaching at a local college, another venue for sharing his life-affirming discoveries. Reflecting Shadyac’s philosophy is the economic structure of the film’s release; all proceeds from I AM will go to The Foundation for I AM, a non-profit established by Shadyac to fund various worthy causes and to educate the next generation about the issues and challenges explored in the film. When he directs another Hollywood movie, the bulk of his usual eight-figure fee will be deposited into a charitable account, as well. “St. Augustine said, ‘Determine what God has given you, and take from it what you need; the remainder is needed by others.’ That’s my philosophy in a nutshell,” Shadyac says, “Or as Gandhi put it, ‘Live simply, so others may simply live.’”

Shadyac’s enthusiasm and optimism are contagious. Whether conducting an interview with an intellectual giant, or offering himself as a flawed character in the narrative of the film, Shadyac is an engaging and persuasive guide as we experience the remarkable journey that is I AM. With great wit, warmth, curiosity, and masterful storytelling skills, he reveals what science now tells us is one of the principal truths of the universe, a message that is as simple as it is significant: We are all connected – connected to each other and to everything around us. “My hope is that I AM is a window into Truth, a glimpse into the miracle, the mystery and magic of who we really are, and of the basic nature of the connection and unity of all things. In a way,” says Shadyac, a seasoned Hollywood professional who has retained his unerring eye for a great story, “I think of I AM as the ultimate reality show.”

Written & Directed by: Tom Shadyac
Producer: Dagan Handy

Editor: Jennifer Abbott

Co-Producer: Jacquelyn Zampella

Associate Producer :: Nicole Pritchett

Director of Photography: Roko Belic
Executive Producers: Jennifer Abbott, Jonathan Watson
Media and PR Coordinator: Harold Mintz
Graphic Designers: Yusuke Nagano, Barry Thompson
Release Dates: March 11, 2011 – Los Angeles, March 18, 2011 – New York
Running Time: 80 minutes
Rating: Not rated

Monday, August 08, 2011

South America Road-trip in an old-timer

Part 1 – Peru to Ecuador in a 1968 Volvo Amazon

I really, really, really like driving through South America. This is one of my favorite things to do. Lately, since we have children now and my life has changed somewhat, this does not happen as much as I would like, but every now and then I get to hit the road again. Last December I got lucky, a good friend of mine, Johan van Rijswijck, asked me if I would like to come on a trip with him to scout out part of a rally he was planning. Johan owns Sapapana Travel, a Dutch tour operator specializing in Latin America. We often work together, however, on this particular rally we had decided not to (Class Adventure Travel have a large Dakar Rally event at roughly the same time), but of course I was more than happy to help out and be Johan’s co-driver on the journey from Lima to Cartagena.

The trip was supposed to take place at the end of September, but during the previous stretch (Buenos Aires-Lima) Johan and his other co-driver had had a streak of bad luck ending in a blown-up engine some 300 miles before arriving in the City of Kings. Both he and I had to fly back home (I was already waiting for him in Lima) as repairing the engine of his 1968 Volvo Amazon was going to take quite some time. Parts are not really available in Latin America these days and most had to come from Germany and Sweden. Luckily there is a Volvo Club in Lima and its then president, Karl Spihlman, himself a totalVolvo aficionado, was of enormous help and rebuilt the engine from scratch. At the beginning of December we both flew back to Lima to begin our journey.

After picking up the car, we left on Saturday morning 9am, 11 December. We had 850km to go and that meant a full day’s driving. It is a little bit of a hassle to leave Lima to the north, and probably due to the upcoming elections, road-works were in progress virtually everywhere. It took us three hours to get out of the city and it wasn’t until noon that we were really able to get moving…

The new engine also meant that we had to take it easy for the first 1,000 km: 80kph max. While the almost perfectly asphalted open roads really invited us to drive faster. But there was no way around it - we weren’t going to break the engine again - so we settled for a nice long drive in the Peruvian sun. The coastal desert road we were following sometimes gave way to stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and other times took us over impressive sand dunes. We were already driving in the dark before we reached Trujillo, but we weren’t at our destination yet. The driving was good, but after Trujillo we entered a more populated area so the traffic increased and made it difficult to push on through to Chiclayo, our planned destination for that day. We finally arrived past midnight, found our hotel, checked in and hit the sack immediately. We had a 9am start the next day.

Sunday started like a breeze, we had Chiclayo behind us and were back on the Pan-American Highway in no time. The road was in perfect condition, but we still couldn’t drive over 80kph and could only change the oil and filters after a minimum of 1,000km. Still, we managed to reach Piura in the early afternoon, picked up some snacks for the road, filled the tank and found a garage to change the oil, before hitting the road again. We decided to push the engine a little and see how fast we could go, so we made some good mileage. We left the coast behind us and drove northeast. Slowly but surely the landscape changed; the desert morphed into more tropical surroundings and we even passed some rice-fields. Around 4pm we reached the Ecuadorian border. It was a great setting, a river meandering down from the mountains, crossed by an old bridge, bordered on one side by a large gate saying ‘Peru’ and on the other by a huge sign indicating one was entering Ecuador. Formalities on the Peruvian side only took 15 minutes and it seemed we would have a similarly easy entry into Ecuador, but that turned out a little bit differently. The customs officers were as charmed by the old automobile as everyone we had passed along the way and the stamps in our passports were arranged within minutes. Only when we tried to check in the car it turned out that there was only one officer that was allowed to give clearance, and the said gentleman was out for lunch with his girlfriend in a village nearby… So, there was nothing to do but wait and we started up a conversation with an Argentine couple from Mendoza on their way to Caracas (Why not? Nice drive!). Luckily it only took half an hour for the officer to return to his post and formalities here turned out to actually be as easy as on the other side; after 15 minutes we were back on track.

In Ecuador the road led us directly into the mountains. Beautiful scenery, but the quality of the road surface was a lot less than what we had gotten used to in Peru. Luckily there were so many signs (sometimes up to three identical signs in the same place) that it was hard to miss the direction to the town of Loja. We were lucky to have filled up our tank in Piura as most gas stations in this part of Ecuador were closed as it was Sunday. Due to the road conditions and many curves we moved a lot slower on this stretch. Initially we expected to arrive in Loja around 7pm, but quickly had to reset our ETA to 9pm. After 6pm the sun was gone, which reminded us how close we were to the equator. This meant extra careful driving, especially when we suddenly entered an area of very dense fog. We could see around 2-3 meters ahead of us if we were lucky, sometimes we simply had to feel if our tires hit the sides of the road, so you can imagine we took our time to get through this area. We had just about moved our ETA to midnight when the mist disappeared just as suddenly as it had appeared, the clouds lifted from the mountain and we were driving on, eventually reaching Loja at 8.30pm. Loja is situated at an altitude of 2100masl, which gives the town a very nice climate. Never extremely hot or cold and situated in a beautiful green setting surrounded by nature, Loja promises some great outings for a future trip to Ecuador. Upon arrival in the hotel we ordered some food and of course a couple of beers, but this turned out to be impossible. Recently a law was passed in Ecuador prohibiting the consumption of alcohol on Sunday afternoons after 4pm (which reminds me I need to write a piece on seriously funny laws in Latin America; have seen a couple in Peru lately that caught my eye…). Our Colombian waiter tried to explain this to us, but when he saw the disbelief in our faces he was friendly enough to make an exception, so we could enjoy a nice illegal beer before turning in.

Monday consisted of a relatively short drive to Cuenca, some 200km from Loja, and departing on time we made it there by lunch time. Cuenca is worth a visit, with its beautifully preserved colonial city center and amazing cathedral. It is generally regarded as Ecuador’s most beautiful city. It took us just 3.5 hours driving over a perfectly asphalted road through the mountains, climbing to 3500masl before descending into the adjacent valley. A nicely curved road through a green, mountainous landscape made this a short, but attractive driving day.

To be continued...

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Peru; between a rock and a hard place, or finally on course?

After a stressful and well-commented double election round played out under the eyes of the world, Mr. Ollanta Humala was elected to be Peru’s next president. Since I am a former resident (I lived in Peru from 1997-2004), and because an important part of our business still takes place there, I was and still am very interested in Peru’s political well-being. I followed the election process, initially with growing concern, but recently with a tiny flicker of hope.

The people inhabiting what today is called the Republic of Peru have lived in various states of occupation over the past 600 years. Initially conquered by the Incas (for about 100 years, from say 1400AD) and subsequently suppressed by the Spaniards as their crown colony until way into the last century. Peru ‘s political reality in the more recent past has been characterized by the Roman “Panem et circenses”, basically coming down to corrupt governments keeping the majority of the Peruvian people poor and uneducated in order to more easily exploit them as a cheap force of labor. This is in many ways still the case, and in my honest opinion what has happened in Peru this month has more to do with the current government not doing its job correctly - in terms of making sure all Peruvians have an opportunity to share in the riches of their land (education, job creation, etc.) - than with the populist, mass-manipulation of which the upcoming president and his team are currently being accused.

As a matter of fact, to a certain extent, what has happened in Peru shows that the democratic system actually works. A majority (albeit a small one) of the Peruvian people did not agree with the way the current government handled its power (and the country’s wealth) and they chose to go in another direction. A direction they hope will eventually give them and their children a better chance to become equal, well-educated citizens with similar opportunities to their fellow country-men.

This is not to say that I have faith that Mr. Humala will do a better job than Mr. Garcia. That still needs to be proven and it is definitely not my place to predict anything. Sadly it is difficult to find an exemplary president in the country’s past, and neither Mr. Garcia, nor Mr. Humala really fit the bill. I tried to read Mr. Humala’s plan (If you read Spanish and feel like it, please give it a try: and all I can say at this point is that if he really can stick to most of what is outlined there, then he could actually make a good president.

However, his past does not speak for him. He allegedly supported a coup by his brother Antauro in 2005 against then president Alejandro Toledo, and apparently circulated a bi-weekly paper calling for the Peruvian people to rise-up against the Toledo government. Both while in active duty as lieutenant-colonel of the Peruvian Armed Forces. Also, his recently hidden friendship with, and support for, Venezuela’s Mr. Chavez do not inspire the trust that one would expect a people to have in a candidate they just elected to represent them for the coming 5 years. The fact that a couple of months before the elections he switched his allegiance to Brazil’s former president Ignacio “Lula” da Silva and hired some of his former executives to help him reshape his campaign can, up to this point, only be seen as a smug move to throw his competitors off course and win the elections. Ms. Keiko Fujimori, daughter of one of Peru’s former presidents and Mr. Humala’s closest contender, unsuccessfully tried the same approach to shed some of her more right-wing public image.

n the end it does not really matter who thinks what. Mr. Humala was chosen democratically by the same people that chose his predecessors, so like it or not, he is the man for the job. Hopefully he will be held accountable by these exact same people if he fails to keep his promises.

What is happening in Peru today seems similar to what has happened, is happening and will probably be happening for quite some time, throughout the rest of the continent. After centuries of Spanish/Portuguese rule and a series of make-believe republics followed by, or mixed with, military dictatorships, most Latin American countries have only seen modern democracy very recently. Action causes reaction and sadly many of Latin America’s democracies do not really function the way they should. This is simply because large parts of the population do not receive sufficient education to be able to make up their minds about which presidential candidate would best represent them. It takes a people choosing a president who will invest in their education to get that ball rolling. Depending on the outcome of Mr. Humala’s upcoming presidency we will see if this time that choice was right or not. It will depend on Mr. Humala’s decency; will it be his wish to go into history as the man that saved his people, or will he turn out to be just another charlatan lying to his people in exchange for an easy squeeze? I guess we’ll see soon enough.

Mr. Ignacio “Lula” da Silva has become an icon in Latin American politics and it is not strange that Mr. Humala and some others have chosen to want to be seen more like him than, for example, Mr. Chavez. Even though Brazil has seen a series of “lucky” events form part of its current boost to becoming one of the world’s super powers, Lula has still managed to stay on top of things and realize what in many other neighboring countries has not yet been achieved – how to combine strong macro-economic growth with proper transformations of the actual functioning of society, giving a large portion of the country’s poor the opportunity to grow and become part of the middle class. This may seem trivial at first glance, but until the “Lula Miracle” this had not happened in most of South America. The social changes in Brazil over the past 10 years are the biggest in its entire history.

I do not pretend to be a political analyst, nor do I want to share my personal political opinions here, but I do want to try to figure out what is happening in Peru and why politics in general seem to have become more and more about the well-being of the politician instead of that of the people he/she is chosen to represent. Peru sees similar factors to Brazil at the base of its economic growth of the past 10 years, and if managed well, could potentially follow this example on a social level. In my eyes, Mr. Humala has a chance here to wipe the slate clean and be remembered as the president Peru never had before. If he sticks to his word and really manages to combine Peru’s economic growth with sufficient education and job opportunities for its people, he might not only be remembered as Peru’s favorite president, but as the one that helped a new Latin American socio-political model come into existence.

Now, let’s keep our fingers crossed, our eyes closed and pray for rain…

Thursday, June 16, 2011

God in the machine: Inti Raymi in Cusco and Corpus Christi

Hi there,

I am not a very religious man and although I very much believe there is more to life than meets the eye, I have tended to stay away from institutionalized religion due to some authority issues, which sadly have stood in the way of my enlightenment. That does not mean I do not see the beauty in the history and rituals of some religious habits and festivities, and part of the attraction of Latin America certainly lies in its cultural heritage, and therefore also in its divine celebrations.

I will have to be honest and say I have never witnessed either of the two important religious festivals I am about to describe here. Not sure as to why, as I have certainly not shunned them, I’ve simply not been in the right place at the right time I guess, as is always a possibility when one tries to get to know an entire continent. I was asked to give some reflections on these two events as they are coming up, so I did a little research. I must say that after all I read, I may change my travel plans for this year and make sure to be in Cusco on June 24th and anywhere in Brazil, Peru or Ecuador roughly 50 days after Easter…

Inti Raymi

The Festival of the Sun was a religious ceremony of the Inca Empire in honor of the sun-god Inti, one of the most venerated gods in Inca religion. According to chronicler Garcilaso de la Vega, Sapa Inca Pachacuti created the Inti Raymi to celebrate the winter solstice and a new year in the Andes of the Southern Hemisphere.

Today, it's the second largest festival in South America. Hundreds of thousands of people converge on Cusco from other parts of Peru, South America and the world, for a week long celebration marking the beginning of a new year - the Inti Raymi, the Festival of the Sun.

During the Inca Empire, the Inti Raymi was the most important of four ceremonies celebrated in Cusco, as related by Inca Garcilaso de la Vega. The celebration took place in the Haukaypata or the main plaza in the city. The ceremony was also said to indicate the mythical origin of the Incas, with nine days of colorful dances and processions, as well as animal sacrifices to ensure a good cropping season. The last Inti Raymi with the Inca Emperor's presence was carried out in 1535, after which the Spanish conquest and the Catholic Church suppressed it. Some natives participated in similar ceremonies in the years after, but it was completely prohibited in 1572 by the Viceroy Francisco de Toledo, who claimed it was a pagan ceremony opposed to the Catholic faith.

In 1944, a historical reconstruction of Inti Raymi was directed by Faustino Espinoza Navarro with indigenous actors. The reconstruction was so popular that it was repeated a number of times and the Inti Raymi festival has now been reestablished as a much looked forward to yearly event.

Corpus Christi

Latin for Body of Christ, this is the holiday when Catholics commemorate the institution of the Holy Eucharist, or communion. It’s held either on a Thursday or a Sunday roughly 50 days after Easter.

The appearance of Corpus Christi as a feast in the Christian calendar was primarily due to the petitions of the thirteenth-century Augustinian nun Juliana of Liège. From her early youth Juliana revered the Blessed Sacrament, and always longed for a special feast in its honor. In 1208 she reported her first vision of Christ during which she was instructed to plead for the institution of the feast of Corpus Christi. The vision was repeated for the next 20 years but she kept it a secret. When she eventually relayed it to her confessor, he relayed it to the bishop. Sadly, the celebration of Corpus Christi became widespread only long after St. Juliana had died.

Throughout Latin America, Corpus Christi is celebrated every year and it is considered one of the most important religious holidays after Christmas and Easter. Decorating the streets with colorful carpets made from wood shavings and other materials is one of the highlights of this celebration of the faith.

I hope to have given a more or less adequate description of both festivals, which as I said I have not experienced myself thus far. I truly hope to be able to make the time this year or next to go and witness them - let me know if you’re thinking of going too! Also, if you have any first-hand stories to share about any of these festivities then I’d love to hear them.

Thanks again and happy trails


Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Galapagos Memories


I still remember the first time I went to Galapagos. It was in 1994 and I was working at Pamir Travels & Adventures, owned by long-time friend and mentor Hugo Torres, doing a traineeship in Sales and Marketing. Those were the last days before email; I actually remember installing the first PC in Hugo’s office with an email account. For all the beauty and peace I find in the natural wonders of the continent I have called home for the past 15 years, I still get bewildered by the pace of technological development we have seen in just about the same time frame. If only we would apply more of our technological creativity to finding ways to protect the very world we live in, we would be way past trying to create paradise on earth, I bet you.

I was halfway through my traineeship when I had a meeting with Hugo and his wife Mireilla about how actual travel experience could enhance the sales process. That same afternoon, we had a group arriving from Germany. Since at the time I was the only one in the office speaking German, Hugo asked me if I wanted to accompany the driver to go and receive the group. The group consisted of Dr. Gerd and Mrs. Christel Gigler and some of their best friends, who had come to Ecuador to celebrate their 25th marriage anniversary in style. We had a nice conversation aboard the bus on the way to their hotel and they asked me to accompany them on their city tour the next day, which I did. The day after we were bringing the group to the airport for their flight to the Galapagos Islands, when Gerd all of a sudden asked me: “Bart, we have chartered a ship for our honeymoon, it has 10 beths and we are 9; would you like to join us?” I needed to ask him to repeat that twice before I really understood what he had just said, and when I looked at Mireilla who was with us that day, she nodded and gave me a look, as if to say “what are you waiting for? This is a chance in a lifetime!” So, after some (about 5 seconds) of thinking I agreed and after some practical issues (such as me not having brought anything to the airport but the clothes I was wearing and for some reason my passport) were solved, I found myself with my new friends on my way to the Galapagos…

Samba was a refurbished, formerly Dutch trawler, which today would be considered a luxury, small-group cruise vessel. With five cabins it was actually smaller than most ships one will find, but therefore that much cozier when traveling in a group of friends. We sailed the 8-day, westerly route and it was one of the most amazing trips I have made in my life, when it comes to marine wildlife. I watched, swam and played with so many different species of animals I can hardly remember them all: Giant turtles, white-tipped reef sharks, golden rays, manta, sea lions, leather back turtle hatchlings, black hawks, albatross, red- and blue-footed boobies, spinner dolphins, blue whales, frigates, finches, Galapagos lizards, and so many more that it still dazzles me thinking back on it.

The only experience to come close to this was my 6-hour boat ride on the “Golfo Nuevo” Bay near the Valdes Peninsula, when I actually had an 18m (54ft) Southern Right Whale come up alongside our zodiac, look me right in the eye, kind of asking for a tap on the back. I did and he (or she; I did not verify) started spinning slowly around his horizontal axis, allowing me to caress his skin and have one of my life’s most awesome encounters with nature.

Not that the Galapagos did not offer similar opportunities: I went snorkeling with a piece of rope to play with an abundance of sea lions, who tried not only to bite the rope, but also take off my fins and mask, which was both scary and fun; Swimming back to the surface I literally swam through a cloud of golden rays, only to surface finding a pelican perched on my head, as the ship mates had decided to have a laugh and throw some leftovers of the preparation of the fish for that evening’s feast into the sea next to the boat. I watched a Galapagos hawk spot, catch and devour a baby leather back turtle only meters away from where I was laying, observing how hundreds of its fellow hatchlings made their way into the ocean, surviving the first of many perilous episodes in their lives; I almost stepped on a blue-footed booby, who had placed her nest right on the trail designated for two-legged visitors, completely impervious to the risk I posed her; I saw thousands of spinner dolphins jumping over each other in a feeding frenzy as we followed a pair of blue whales below Isabela Island; I stood in a bay, water to my knees, with two resting reef sharks laying at my feet, while small Galapagos penguins swam across at less than 10m (30ft) distance. I did and saw all that and remember thinking: “this must be the best traineeship ever…”

Galapagos is one of those very few places on earth where we can see what the world would look like if we had not consistently hunted and killed every animal in sight, what it would feel like if man and animal were actually able to live side by side, sharing the same space. I can tell you it is beautifully humbling and if you love nature, this is a place you definitely should not miss.

For a couple of ideas on Galapagos holidays, please have a look at the following links:

Galapagos & Peru Discovery

Galapagos: Last minute and special offers!

Thanks again for reading, hope to see you here soon!

Happy trails,