When in Rome
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
So I was in the Salar de Uyuni, well worth the trip--I can't say this enough, and I was enjoying the tour. The tour was a three-day, two-night trip starting in Uyuni. We had visited the train graveyard and were about to see the Isla del Pescado, a monumentous island outcrop, covered in huge cacti and oasising out of the middle of a dead sea of cracked salt hexagons.
We had stopped to take pictures at a DAKAR monument, for about ten minutes, and were wandering along
when we came across a group of nudists. These particular nudists seemed to be in a delirious trance triggered by wild mushrooms or synthetic MDMA and in the middle of an all-night, all-day rave party. The only thing is there was no music. Otherwise we would have seen them sooner. They were just croaking about to the sound of the, i don't know, sun? There wasn't any noise to speak of. Just all of our footsteps. They didn't really notice our approach, or care, and we got within ten feet of these anomalous specimens. There were about nineteen of them, all completely nude, with the exception of a couple bandannas and a pair of socks, and nineteen pairs of sunglasses. They were dancing, an incongruous pace, some with each other some in their own world. Then they noticed us. First, the nearest of them turned to us and began shimmying toward us. Then two others began to move in an elliptical trajectory, orbiting me. They seemed to develop a sort of communicative idea as they danced along and slowly circled us. As we backed up, they hastened, and a girl in our group almost passed out. Then they started dancing harder and began to chant. One by one our group started chanting with them, and from the aerial looks of it we had probably formed and probably appeared to be a half-clothed, half nude tribe of possibly perturbed peoples. But we swayed along. The overtakers then began to approach us further and delicately remove our clothes. Two of us conceded, laughing with the cause. Then the rest joined the ranks and we became one big party. Now, from afar we probably appeared to be initiates in an army of love. We danced with them for about ten minutes to no sound, then added some chant-song-noise to our nonsense. Our guide found us and began laughing hysterically, and taking pictures. After another five minutes we redressed, exited the mob and were off. I still have no idea what was going on.
I made all of this up. Or did I? Photographic evidence may or may not be traceable deep within my quicksand sea of instagram posts.
It was a warm, Sunday morning. I heard there was going to be a 'feira,' like a public market, on the other side of town. So I packed up my guitar and headed over to check it out and perhaps do some busking. When I arrived at the feira, I was in awe by the number of people. There was a lot going on, on every turn. It was condensed to a couple square blocks and a sort of town square, and they were selling everything imaginable. I walked around and took in the sights, and sounds, for about an hour. Then I decided to set up shop and see if I could make a buck with my music.
I came to this tunnel and decided it was the perfect place. The tunnel connected the feira square with the rest of the city center by burrowing under a major roadway, and it hosted a handful of doorways to unknown rooms. It was constructed with stone, and with my back up to the wall, the echo gave a clarity and power to my voice, guitar, and harmonica that was ideal for stopping passersby with loose change. Across the way from the wall I had chosen, one of the curious tunnel doors was open to what appeared to be people playing chess; or rather, an organized group of people dedicating themselves to the practice of chess.
There was a chess club--yes, a chess club of all things-- in a room in this small tunnel. And I asked them if I could use a chair. 'They were leaving soon,' so they said I couldn't. I set up with my foot propped on the wall across from them, balancing the guitar on my knee. Then I began to play. The tunnel echoed my sound and it came across quite good, if I do say so myself. Most people walking through the tunnel gave at least a glance. It was hard not to, I presume, in a space 10 foot across with a bellowing, dreadlocked musician basically attacking you with music. I think I made the equivalent of ten dollars in a little under an hour, when I noticed other musicians entering the tunnel, older fellows. One started playing in the far corner and this ticked me off because he was drowning out my sound and putting a damper on my day's income. Isn't there some code of conduct for buskers? ..That says you must respect those already working and set up at least so far from their turf. I thought, perhaps this was his usual turf and his usual schedule. Still I was ticked. Then a very pleasant gentleman approached with a smile and stood right by me. After I finished Paint it Black, he began talking with me, and wouldn't stop. After awhile, I figured this was just as well, since the other rude musician was not about to stop. I came to find out that this gentleman I was speaking with, a chipper old chap in his Sunday's best, was also a musician. He had a guitar with him.
As we talked a new fellow approached, also with a guitar, and some nervous tendencies. He joined the conversation, still dominated by the older chap. Even more older looking men with guitars, and other instruments, kept arriving and filling the tunnel. I was bewildered. Before I could ask, my new friend expressed that there was to be a Sertaneja show, as was custom at this time every Sunday, and he asked me if I wanted to play in it, giving me distinct compliments on my guitar and harmonica playing. By this time, the second, nervous gentleman had receded to the staircase to practice. Apparently, he was playing too, as were all the musicians flooding into the tunnel. I asked my friend where they would be playing, and he said the theatre and pointed at the wall behind me. Unbeknownst to me, I had been playing with my foot perched up on the outside, stone wall of an underground theatre, in a tunnel under the streets of Curitiba. Which just happened to have a show of Sertaneja, a traditional Brazilian music genre, right at this very moment, in which I was invited to play. "But I don't know any Sertaneja.." In fact I didn't even know what Sertaneja was at that point. He said it didn't matter and beckoned me to follow him, as the announcer, head-honcho guy arrived. I was surrounded by mostly older, 60-70 y.o., Brazilian men, who play traditional Brazilian Sertaneja music, and I was going to play Rocky Raccoon and House of the Rising Sun with my travel guitar and harmonica for them. I was a little bit nervous. The honcho gave me a sticker with the number three on it to put on my shirt; I would play third. Then we all puttered into the theatre.
It was a dank little theatre, but with all the amenities. The lights and sound system were professional, and the acoustics were good. Although there were only about 12 rows of chairs, maybe eight deep, it accommodated everyone comfortably, but still felt full. Passersby wandered in occasionally to survey the commotion. The honcho began setting up the stage with a lady accomplice. And then it began. He spoke into the microphone, jubilant at the sound of his voice ringing over the speakers. He cracked jokes and told anecdotes, as everyone got settled. I understood none of it. Everyone here had heavy accents, as I presume old Sertaneja draws a particular population, from some unknown location. Then it was time for the first performance.
The first two performances were super cool. The first guy played the accordian and sang in that accent of his and it came across beautifully. There was a lot of soul in this subterranean theatre, and I felt very fortunate to have arrived at this place. The second guy took waaay too long to finish his set. I'm not just aying this because I was on deck. I mean, seven minutes on the first song fine, but 12 minutes on the second one? People were getting restless. He loved the spotlight. I think he did all of the verses 3 times and the chorus I guess 6+, but I wasn't really understanding it, and I was anxious because I was up next. He finally ended it. People clapped.
Some nice woman, the only person near my age, offered to video me when I asked. I mean come on, how could I not document this weird, fascinating spectacle, and my unlikely participation in it. The footage was lost.. Just kidding, I'll embed it below, or maybe it is lost.. but there were some complications. My phone stopped working for some reason, so she switched to her phone, catching the majority of it, although with quality sub-par. Then, she would need my whatsapp to send it to me. Was she hitting on me? No, she was married, but the videos really didn't come out that good, and I think whatsapp lowers the quality; we'll see if I can even find them. Anyways, I was up, so I walked up to the stage, instruments in hand.
The announcer guy announced my name, and I started to set myself up, as he babbled on. He was probably talking about me. So I was fidgeting on the stool and it came to our realization that I would need some sort of amplification for my guitar, which doesn't have plug-in capacity. Rather, it came to Lady Accomplice's attention and mine while ol' honcho talked up a storm taking advantage between sets. It was time to start now, and the solution--this is great--to the guitar amplification dilemma was to have Lady Accomplice stand up there the entire time with the second mic, first one being in front of my face, in hand and aiming at the hole of my instrument.. She would stand up there the whole time, while I sat, and with a half awkward yet professional grin, like the kind that you glue on when you're Miss Universe and have to make an appearance at some peculiar, sideshow event. It was fun.
I finished the first song and the audience clapped, one guy in the front row really getting into his clapping, like it was something that would pay commision, or he was drunk. I started the second song. I worked the harmonica and worked the crowd. Lady Accomplice with the mic worked her grin. She had to have been getting slightly uncomfortable, but she was a trooper, and I appreciated her. The hand never waivered with the mic. The girl videoing with my phone must've switched to her phone by now, halfway across the room. I appreciated her too. My buddy was somewhere in the back with the more nervous guy, and the theatre was brilliant. As I finished, I don't know if anybody understood my music, but I received a tremendous applause and felt welcomed. Honcho returned to the stage amd commandeered mic 2 from the gracious accomplice, and began his usual rambling. On my way back to my seat, the (drunk?) guy in the front row stopped me to give me his sincere compliments. He was funny looking, and quite old or full of life experience, and somewhat honchoey looking as well with some younger arm candy in the seat to his left, and maybe the one on the right was with them too. Anyways he was nice, and I smiled and nodded.
I stayed for a few hours, enjoying artists putting their heart and soul into their classic and original Sertaneja songs. It was a very unique experience, and decidedly different from today's popular Sertaneja music. I really had a good time. At dusk I decided to leave, and they were still going on, and the bent sounds of accordian, guitars, and Portuguese cried and followed me into the early night. It was a successful day.
Hope & Music
This was easily the most fulfilling personal interaction of the entire trip.
I was headed to the bus station to check the schedule and buy a bus ticket when I was approached by a homeless kid who wanted to demonstrate his beat-boxing skills in turn for a tip. Now he was a kid just a few years younger than me and had a pretty upbeat but determined vibe about him; nonetheless, I was still weary as we engaged in some friendly conversation. I complimented his beat-boxing which was in fact quite good, although I admit my knowledge of the discipline is limited. Once it became clear that I wasn't going to provide a tip, he politely conceded and wished me a good day before moving on to the next pedestrian. I never give money because I feel that there’s always the possibility that I'd be contributing to a problem. Money never solves problems. Plus I needed what I had to purchase my bus ticket. Continuing on to the station, an idea occurred to me.
It just so happened that I had my guitar on my back because I was planning to find a nice place to sit and play, such as the alluring botanical garden a few blocks away. This plan had just changed. I bought my bus ticket and returned the way I came at a slightly accelerated pace. I was on the lookout for the kid. As I got to his corner of street, my eyes didn't spot him, and I slowed and gandered.. Then I saw him, shooting his spiel to an older woman as she sauntered on through the heavy sun haze. I stood, and smiled to myself, and was patient. After he subsided, and allowed her to continue her encumbered gait unaccompanied, I approached.
I got his attention and told him my idea. He grinned, interested and pleased. I proposed that we play music together for tips. I'd supply the melody; he'd supply the beat. He agreed, and our collaboration began.
Can't say we sounded super rad. He could've used a mic to give us some more percussive power, and I could've used a better guitar and more Brazilian songs. But we were having fun. And we were working. We were thrown a bone or two from passers-by. We also had a couple supportive, temporary audiences: a drunk guy, some other urchin kids, an older gentleman.. As we rocked, our souls illuminated, and people paid attention.
Towards the end of the set, I thought to put on this guy fawkes looking ski mask I bought in Peru, which happened to be in my guitar case. I thought I was alright to look at, but once I slung on the mask earnings increased tenfold. I guess the shock factor of a masked man playing guitar and harmonica with his beat boxing sidekick is just enough to push people over the generosity hurdle. Some girl actually slowed down and threw us a bunch of loose change out the window and hooted and hollered as she drove by.
I was just about out of songs. It'd probably been a couple hours. My accomplice was sweating. We'd made a good, small haul. So we decided it was time to call it. My buddy wanted to go see if he could get a bath and a bed for the night. He suggested splitting up the earnings. I told him it was all his. He was speechless and profoundly grateful. He conveyed to me that he would have never expected such generosity from a foreigner and repeatedly thanked me. I told him that it was my pleasure, and he earned it. He has talent, and he has heart. We soaked in the moment, our souls throbbing to the echo of our music. It was now dusk and he had to run to see if he could get that bed. We hugged and parted ways with a warm sense about ourselves and faith in humanity and each other.
If you ever see a curly-headed, bright-eyed kid beat-boxing on the streets of Curitiba, hear him out and perhaps buy him lunch. You'll be glad you did.
More to do in Montañita
If you want to find Jesus, I don't recommend Montañita*.. unless you go offshore.
* It's easy, beach town lifestyle may front as a segue to spiritual enlightenment and bliss, but sprinkle on top of that a dose of perpetual nightlife and heavy drug culture, and you can easily fall victim to the trap.
The key is to keep moving. There are plenty of natural, exuberating things to do in this balmy oasis. For one, surfing. The surf is great for learners, and comfortably warm for just soaking in or body boarding. If you're a diver, you can grab a tour with one of the local diving agencies (there may be two) and have a pretty decent ledge dive and see some stuff.
If it's whale season, which I think starts in July (fact check me), I'd say it's definitely worth a dive, just for the chance encounter. The agency will also 'certify' you real quick in their pool (literally located in one of the bars across the street) if you don't have any experience diving. I don't think I should recommend this.
Not to mention, you can hang out with Cristo Rey himself. They dropped this statue of the guy out there a couple years back to bode off illegal fishing and littering.
There is a zone around that ledge and an island that's now officially protected waters.
They have a real initiative going for environmental conservation, and I think it billows from protecting whale migration routes.
To get Cristo in place, they had to build a sturdy, plank bridge between two boats for him to balance on; and then, slowly navigate out on a calm day (which took 3 hours as opposed to the usual 20-30 minutes), and pray it didn't storm (effective in this case). Although a noble idea, I'm not sure how well it's working--judging by the sketchy fishermen fleeing the scene as we approached.. Makes for a cool photo op though if you've got someone with a gopro.
Go ahead and have yourself a good long weekend in Montañita, but don't fall victim to the perpetual party, and put a picture of yourself on the background of your phone.
Lesson 1: Overcoming theft. Stacking the odds in your favor and cultivating dumb luck [Have a picture of yourself on your phone's background]
So I felt a little bit narcissistic with a picture of myself on my phone's background, but I had just graduated from college and was kinda proud.. And after this incident, I'm keeping it there!
I wake up from a hard nap in my hotel bed around midnight on a Saturday. It was time to go out. I had a long night the night before and was about to have another one. My roommates were already out and I knew where to meet them. Getting myself animated, I decided to leave my phone behind because I didn't need it and didn't want to run the risk of getting pick-pocketed. I leave it on the bed and am out the door.
At the club/bar/discoteca my roommates are already having a great time and interacting with the local talent. One of my roommates, Neal is apparently already getting lucky. He had left with a girl in a taxi before I arrived. I was late to the party, but the party wasn't stopping anytime soon. I commence in the festivities, and am dancing, and drinking, and having a good time, when Neal returns with a grin on his face. We continue into the night and after watching the sunrise over the ocean, I make my way back to the hotel for a quick rest and some breakfast before we go. We had a taxi arriving at 9 am to take us 2 hours to the next destination, Salinas.
Packing up my stuff to go, I couldn't find my phone anywhere. I was positive I had left it on the bed, but it wasn't beside the bed, under the bed, or anywhere to be seen. I was frantic. When the taxi arrived, I ended up telling the hotel clerk the predicament. He was sympathetic, but not hopeful. I left him my email to contact me if anything turned up, and left abruptly- not forgetting to initiate the find my phone app from my tablet: "This phone has been stolen. Cash reward $$$." The device couldn't pinpoint it, but hopefully the banner would display across the screen and make a sound. Two hours later, when I got to Salinas, feeling hungover, it occurred to me that this is going to really put a damper on my trip. I had just begun and had already lost my all in one waterproof camera, social media outlet, information source, and communication device, with little hope of ever seeing it again.
Not fifteen minutes later, I got an email from the clerk with a phone number for the woman who 'found' my phone. The email also beckoned me to be careful with local women, and that I can do better, as I'm a decent looking guy. I thought this was weird..
Nervous, but resolute, I called this woman, presuming she was the thief (ladrona). It's a lot more daunting to speak Spanish over the phone, especially when you think the person on the other end stole your phone and that you are about to commence in a bargaining gambit. I asked her where I should meet her when I take the taxi ride back to claim my prize. She told me that she's from a different town outside of Montañita, but is actually going to Salinas that afternoon to go shopping with her mom. Confused, I gave her the address of the Salinas hotel where I was staying, and awaited her supposed arrival.
Sure enough, 2 hours later an overweight, middle-aged woman shows up in a jalopy, with two elderly women in the back (I suppose one was her mother). They were delighted to see me. As I approach, she holds my phone out the window, in perfect condition. Thinking that this is some sort of a trick and slightly baffled, in my post night-out-on-a-latin-town lethargy, I saunter up to them, shadowed by a couple of my anxious roommates, including Neal.
She handed me my phone and I listened, astonished as she rambled off the happenings of that day, trying to understand, myself--let alone professionally interpret for the roommates.
It turned out, from what I gathered, that Neal's 'chica,' with whom he did in fact get lucky--perhaps
dissatisfied with the experience, or in a drunken confusion, or in maniacal kleptomania--did take the phone off my bed, spying it from across the room in Neal's sultry corner, or maybe both the good luck and the bad luck occurred on my bed..
This Good Samaritan, in plus-size form, took it upon herself, as the proud owner (dueña) of a restaurant and several other small establishments in the town where she resides, to get my phone back to me. She had seen the thief, either remorseful or nonchalant, in her establishment, and it is unclear whether she took the phone by force or convinced the girl to give it to her. The sole reason she knew the phone was stolen is that there was, still is, a portrait of me on the background; maybe the thief was an acquaintance or a commonly known perpetrator too. Moreover, she had recognized my face from the bar scene. I didn't know her, but she must have seen me in one of the bars (there's only one bar where everybody congregates on a given night in the small but wild town of Montañita), and recognized my face, and hair. For some godly reason, she was determined to get it back to me.
She somehow pried the hotel location out of the thief, which makes me suspicious of their prior acquaintance. But, anyways she proceeds to our old hotel where the incident occurred the night before, yet is disheartened that we had already left. She refuses to give the phone to the clerk, or turn it in to the police, and is resolute about resolving this herself. So she gives the clerk her number for me to contact. This is when he sends the concerned, weird, but welcomed email to me.
He must've thought it was I that got lucky, not Neal, and with the Good Samaritan, nonetheless.. I'll take it as a compliment?..
As the Good Samaritan wraps up her spiel to me, she proceeds to get out of the jalopy and solicits a photo together. I gratefully accept. Of course she can take a picture with me. She just returned me the one most valuable artifact that I would be carrying with me on my entire trip through South America. It takes her and one of the old ladies five minutes to get an old relic of a digital camera up and working. Then the old lady, still in the back seat of the jalopy, takes several pictures of the Good Samaritan and myself, me holding my recovered prize. Before we say our goodbyes and they depart, for coffee, she corrected me (seemingly they weren't going shopping anymore), I reflect a little bit on the strangeness of it all, and sheer dumb luck that occurred, but am mostly just glad to have my phone back.
Neal threw her a bone for her troubles.
Moral of the story: If you use a selfie as the background of your phone, and are on the receiving end of escalating, fortunate events, you have one free credit for a Good Samaritan to reclaim your device from a thief and drive two hours with her elderly mother to give it back to you, pending you will stand still for a brief photo session afterwards. Or you could just choose less promiscuous roommates. Or you could keep your valuables on your person, or hide them better! Seemingly, it also helps to grow out dreadlocks and be a presence in the local nightlife scene. Idk.. take what you will from this, but it's pretty incredible, right?
Somewhere out there, hanging on the wall of a restaurant in an Ecuadorian beach town, there exist pictures of an astonished and hungover me with this beautiful human being in plus size form.
p.s. You are also welcome to use a photo of me on the background of you phone. If it gets stolen and makes it's way back to me, I'll call your mom.
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My Solo Backpacking Trip through South America with stories and adventures had along the way.