Gringo Trails: Asking hard questions about travel

In 1981, I attended the fourth Vancouver Folk Music Festival. It was amazing. It was fun. It was (relatively) small and manageable. Everyone sat close enough to the main stage that we could all see the performers without a telescope. You could buy a snack without spending the entire evening concert standing in food booth lineups. You could actually get to use a PortaPotty before Daylight Savings Time ran out. It was a lovely festival.

Then it got Known. More and more people poured into Jericho Park each year. The daytime stage audiences got to be as big as the main concerts used to be. Finding space to park or sit down, getting food, going to the loo, moving between stages, all became huge efforts. The fences got higher. The crowds outside the fences got bigger. The lovely festival became a hassle. I stopped going.

This sense of being in “at the beginning” and then seeing something valuable and beautiful crushed under the weight of its own success is what fuels Gringo Trails, a 2012 documentary film.

I stumbled across it at the Vancouver Library (I love their documentary collection!) and found it riveting. It contrasts archival footage of popular tourist destinations from the 80s, 90s, etc. against recently shot footage of the same places, while discussing why and how these “hidden” gems became overrun with (mostly) young (mostly) low-budget travellers.

There’s the corner of the Amazon that became a backpacker’s Mecca after the publication of a popular book about a young man’s survival and rescue set in that area. And there’s the tragic tale of how a picture-perfect, pristine beach in Thailand evolved into a massive party site where tens of thousands of drunken, drug-sodden good-timers congregate regularly, leaving heaps of garbage on the shore and permanently displacing the original residents.

The solution to these destination disasters, the film argues, is locally based, “managed” tourism, where residents plan out how they want to control the onslaught of outsiders and receive the financial benefits. For some places, like Bhutan (profiled in the film) and Botswana (not mentioned), this leads to something called “high-value, low-impact” (read: “high-cost, low-volume”) tourism,” a strategy of deliberately keeping prices for travellers high.

In Bhutan, for example, visitors must spend a minimum of $250 per day, according to the film. High prices mean that fewer tourists can afford to come, but those few bring in the same amount of cash as a horde of backpacker types, who typically take pride in having the lowest-cost vacation possible. Smaller numbers of tourists are more easily controlled and their impact will be much less.

“We don’t really allow the backpacker here coming independent,” says the director of the National Museum of Bhutan during an interview for the film. “We get only multi-millionaires, retired professors, Hollywood, [which I take to mean “celebrities”], and those…who can afford to come.”

Keeping out the riff-raff, which is what this amounts to, may work, but raises its own set of moral issues. If only a certain number of people will be allowed to enjoy a beautiful place in order to prevent damage to it, why should it be only the rich who gain this privilege? The wealthy have no monopoly on respecting cultures or the environment; in fact, some would argue that they are more likely to feel “entitled” and act irresponsibly. Why not establish a test of cultural and environmental sensitivity to determine who gets in?

Well, because money is so much easier to weigh—and so much more fun to rake in.

Countries like Bhutan and Botswana want tourist dollars to preserve unique places, and to prop up the local economy. And that’s perfectly reasonable. But then don’t try to pretend you are on some moral high ground when you are really pandering to the world’s wealthy few.

Gringo Trails is a film for anyone who travels. It’s shocking, disturbing, and thought-provoking. In the course of my own years of being a tourist, I have seen deterioration in some of the places I’ve revisited, and I’ve known that my actions 30 years ago almost certainly contributed to that downslide. It’s a sobering realization.

Have you seen places or events that you loved go downhill as they became more popular? I’d love to read your story in a comment.

The Romantic Road Bus Part 2: Escaping the Castle

Ancient painting of Harburg area. Photo of painting (and additions) by Marian Buechert.

 

When the Romantic Road bus finally dropped us off in Harburg, we discovered that their bus stop is nowhere near the town and a looong way from the castle. We were left standing with our luggage outside a boarded-up guesthouse on the edge of a semi-rural area, with no way to get to the town or up the mountain to our castle. There were no taxis and no commercial buildings other than one small grocery store across the street. Now, this isn’t the fault of the driver, but the company should warn customers about this situation and not just strand people who probably don’t speak the local tongue and may not have a phone (we didn’t).

I walked over to the store to see if I could get any information from the staff or maybe find a phone. All the staff were very busy, so no one to talk to. I wandered back out and spotted a man climbing onto a bicycle. Aha, thinks I, obviously a local. I will attempt to extract useful info from him in my rudimentary German.

It was our lucky break. This kind man not only answered my questions (Yes, a looong hike up a steep path. With luggage, not possible.), but once he understood our dilemma, he immediately said he would get us a ride. He looked around the parking lot and, spotting someone he knew, asked if the guy could take us to the castle. No problem, we would just have to wait until he did his shopping and he would drop us right at the door.

And so it was, with the generosity of two gentlemen of Harburg, we finally arrived at the castle gate.

Happily ensconced in our castle turret room, we nonetheless still faced two major challenges on the morrow.

Number 1: How to get back to the lonely bus stop. If we had to walk, we would at least be going downhill, but it was still a long hike. Number 2: If we could get there, would the bus driver even stop? If he didn’t know to stop there with us on the bus shouting at him to stop, what were the chances he would merrily whiz by on the freeway without a glance at Harburg?

Once again, we were lucky enough to encounter a kind soul; in this case, the gentleman who ran the hotel (he may also have been the owner; if so, I apologize for calling him the manager). Despite being extremely busy with a large party of guests, Herr Marzahn took the trouble to phone the drivers to ensure that one of them would indeed stop in Harburg. He then drove us to the bus stop.

The rest of this part of our journey was smooth: the bus picked us up and the driver was prepared with our train tickets for the onward leg from Augsburg to Munich.

Although we enjoyed the scenic route the Romantic Road bus took through the countryside and we did, eventually, reach our destinations—which were lovely—I must warn travelers away from this company. They are still having major issues with reliability and service and don’t seem to have any concern for their customers’ safety or peace of mind. Do the Romantic Road, but do it by car.

As for us, we’ve chalked this up as another travel adventure: stressful at the time, but kind of a funny story in retrospect. I realize that it’s getting harder and harder to travel without a phone, simply because everyone is expected to have one. Ninety-nine percent of the time you can get by, but then there’s that one situation where it’s vital.

The best part of this experience, however, is that it has reminded us how wonderful people can be in reaching out to help inept travelers. Many thanks to our three white knights who rescued us from our castle plight.

“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

—Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire    

Have you escaped from a travel dilemma through the “kindness of strangers”? Tell me about it in a comment!                                        

The Romantic Road Bus Part 1: Bumbling through Bavaria

The very romantic medieval streets of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Photo by Marian Buechert.

The Romantic Road. Sounds charming, right? The website hype reads “[B]uses…connect the Romantic Road, Germany’s most famous and popular holiday route, with the international gateways of Frankfurt and Munich. As there are no direct rail links, and only a few towns and villages can be reached by train, the bus with its ‘hop on – hop off’ concept, offers the ideal way of organizing one’s own individual voyage of discovery.”

Apparently, at one time, the Romantic Road bus was charming and fun. So despite negative reviews about this tour, my sister and I wanted to see for ourselves if perhaps the company had heeded travelers’ complaints and improved service. Bad idea. (Note to self: Unless you’re being paid, you never want to check out whether bad reviews are accurate.)

We caught the bus in Frankfurt. It was half an hour late. The group of tourists waiting—including us—became confused and concerned that we were somehow not in the right place. When the bus finally showed up, the driver muttered something about traffic. No smile, apology, or explanation.

We learned later from talking to other travelers that this was not an uncommon experience.

On the bus, things were about as expected. Typical long-distance bus: comfy and with good windows. (We won’t go into the WC; it was not pleasant, but I gather fairly standard for those buses.) The bus wasn’t even half full, so there were many empty seats and passengers could easily move around if desired.

There was no mention of the promised audio guides (supposedly available in various languages with a deposit). An on-board announcement system with pre-recorded info provided some cursory comments in English and German. We felt sorry for the many Asian tourists on board whose needs were completely ignored. There was a box full of printed cards with info in a variety of languages and you were welcome to dig through it to find your language. No English versions of the card seemed to be in stock and the pre-recorded voice over the PA was usually inaudible due to the driver’s music playing loudly and the ambient noise of a bus roaring along.

Although the bus stops in some smaller towns along the route, some are not visited unless the driver has a prearranged drop-off or pick-up in that town. The stops in the major towns are scheduled, some for 15 or 30 minutes. Since we were so late leaving Frankfurt, the driver attempted to make up time by shortening the stops, so we had only enough time to jump out of the bus, walk around the square and then race back to our seats. Forget getting lunch or even an ice cream, unless you wanted to eat on the bus. If the public WC was more than a hundred metres from the bus stop, it was a no-go.

At one stop, a local guide from the nearby historic palace came on board to scoop up as many of us as were willing to take a condensed 25-minute tour of the building and gardens. I suspect most of the travelers didn’t have a clue what she was offering, since their English/German was minimal, so we ended up the only takers. It was only one Euro, so we figured we couldn’t lose. It took five minutes to walk to the palace and five back, so the tour was actually about 15 minutes. She showed us the most important room in the building and left us for five minutes to gawk, then whisked us outdoors to the gardens for another 10 minutes of gazing around at lawns, bushes, and statues. That was our memorable visit.

We eventually arrived in Rothenburg, our first destination, without further ado and enjoyed that town’s charms for two nights. Our pickup from Rothenburg went fine, the bus was on time. Different driver this time.

When the driver read our tickets, he said “Remind me after XXX town to stop at Harburg” (our next destination). That seemed odd, because surely he had a daily manifest that told him where to stop? Since we had pre-booked our stops, he should have known that we were getting off in Harburg.

Oh well. We settled back to enjoy the drive through picturesque villages and winding country lanes. After XXX town, we duly reminded him to stop in Harburg. “Yes, Augsburg,” he replied. We looked at each other in alarm. “NO,” my sister said, “Not Augsburg, HARBURG.” “Yes, yes,” he said.

A few minutes later, we started to see the signs for Harburg and waited for him to turn off the highway. Nope. We saw a castle on the hillside that looked suspiciously like Harburg Castle (our accommodations for the night)—and the driver went right past it.

My sister spoke to the driver again and reminded him that we needed to stop in Harburg. “Still ahead,” he said. What do we know? Maybe there’s a special route he’s taking. We watch the last of the Harburg signs disappear behind us.

Twenty minutes later, we start seeing signs for Augsburg. Now we know there’s definitely something wrong. My sister talks to the driver one more time. “Harburg! We need to get off in Harburg!” He finally pulls the bus over and phones in to his office.

It turned out that it was his first day on the job and he didn’t know the route at all. Neither his English nor his German was very good, so he didn’t understand what we were talking about. Now he had to turn the bus around and go back nearly 30 minutes, putting the rest of the passengers probably close to an hour behind schedule.

Next week: Part 2—Escaping the Castle

Calidris Reads: Worldwide

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

Reading on Location

Great books set in top travel destinations

Luisa Moncada & Scala Quin

4 knots: Recommended

First sentence: “At some point in our lives, we have all been armchair travellers, whether it be sitting by a log fire in the depths of winter and dreaming of exotic, steamy locales, or sweating away in the maddening heat of a tropical forest and imagining a much cooler place.”

I came across this title when I was Googling something completely different, but which the search engine obviously thought was related. Sometimes those scary algorithms actually connect to a useful strand on the Web. A book about books set in travel destinations; this one was tailor-made for me!

The book is arranged into major divisions by sort-of continent, some of which are a bit odd. Africa stands alone, logically. North and South America are lumped together but the Middle East gets its own tiny section. Russia is part of the Europe section, but not in the accompanying map. Obviously some kind of communication glitch between the image editor and the text editor.

Within the major divisions, countries are listed alphabetically. Larger countries (or perhaps those with a broader literary culture in English) are given more space, with books categorized by region or city. For example, nine pages are devoted to India, with subgroupings of North and Indian Plains, the South, Mumbai, etc. I like this, because it allows you to find stories that are set right in the area you’re visiting.

Both fiction and nonfiction works are included, but only books available in English.

Each listing includes a short summary of the plot/theme as well as some supplementary information via icons that indicate whether the book has been made into a movie or TV series and if there are websites, tours, museums, author houses, etc. associated with it.

Whether your destination is Albania or Zanzibar, It’s a fun reference that could generate some intriguing choices for travel reads.

The only reason it didn’t rate 5 knots is because it’s now seven years old and there has been no second edition to list really recent books that might be pertinent. Sometimes it’s interesting to read something that reflects on the current situation in a region rather than its history.

 

 

Sacha Lodge: Amazon Adventure Part 2

Sacha Lodge’s canopy walk, 30 m above the forest floor.

When last we met, gentle reader, I was lost deep within the Amazon jungle, pitifully dehydrated and starved, surrounded by merciless headhunters and savage wild animals, swooning in the steadying embrace of my brave companion, as we faced, unarmed, the rapid onslaught of a particularly bloodthirsty-looking individual.

“Lemonade, madame?” he inquires solicitously, proffering a tray of iced fruity drinks.

This is the conundrum and delight of Sacha Lodge: there is no question that you are in the rainforest, light years away from any town. There are piranhas in the lagoon, caimans directly underneath the boardwalk upon which you stand, tamarin monkeys swinging nonchalantly overhead, and tarantulas within armsreach. Yet your weightiest decision is whether to choose fish or beef for your main course. I’ve always been more than a little timid about the dangers of the Amazon, but—as with so many things—once you’re actually there, it all seems exciting and fun rather than threatening.

That’s not to say there aren’t safety concerns. As we sipped those welcoming drinks, the manager gave us the orientation talk with all its do’s and don’ts. We were assigned two guides and given our own little tour group, probably because, being birders, we were the odd ones out. (Trust me, no sane person wants to be stuck in a group with birders.)

Our four-night stay was quite regimented: up every morning by 5 am when the guide knocks on your door. Breakfast at 5:30, hit the trail—or the canoe—at 6:00. The guides decide your destination. One morning, you climb the canopy walk (30 m of stairs). Another morning, you take a different 30 m of stairs to a platform atop a massive kapok tree. A third day, you might go on a longer canoe ride to more distant birding areas. What gets done when depends on the weather and the interests of the guests.

Back at the lodge by 10:30, you find that you are peckish (after all, breakfast was a loooong time ago), so naturally, there’s a snack waiting for you out in the open-air dining pavilion. Then a bit of leisure time before lunch, followed by more relaxation during the hottest hours of the afternoon. Take a swim in the lagoon, read, catch up on your sleep.

At 4 pm, you’re out again with your guides for more exploration, in our case, via small canoe up the various waterways (see previous post “Birding By Boat”) where the wildlife-spotting opportunities change constantly. Birding is a challenge, as the area boasts nearly 500 species, many from families completely foreign to us: antbirds, manakins, jacamars, woodcreepers, etc.

Hoatzin

The first day, we easily spot one of my targets for the trip: the primitive hoatzin with its funky hairstyle, clambering awkwardly through the trees. The next day, we find the boat-billed heron, huge dark eyes peering through the gloom. On the last day, I spot a massive anaconda on the bank less than a metre from our boat. And monkeys, always monkeys, noisily feeding and moving through the forest: capuchins, red howlers, squirrel monkeys, night monkeys, tamarins.

As darkness arrives, you head back to the lodge for the most formal meal of the day, when guests compare notes on what they’ve done and seen that day and wrestle with the aforementioned challenge of choosing between several tasty menu options.

Finally, you stagger back to your cabin and fall into bed, not minding at all that it’s only 9 pm. You might struggle to stay awake for a few minutes to enjoy the deafening chorus of night sounds, frogs, insects, and lord knows what else, competing to be heard a few inches from where you are laying your head, but you won’t win that battle for long. Before you know it, that 5:00 knock is tapping at your door.

“This is like summer camp for grown-ups,” my husband pointed out. I don’t know if he was referring to the early lights-out, the structured, supervised activities, or the joy of being outdoors all day, every day, but overall, I think he hit the nail on the head. It wasn’t all fun and games—hiking in stifling heat and humidity while giant carnivorous flies attempt to harvest chunks of your flesh right through your clothes is not my idea of a good time—but it was all worth it. Sacha Lodge provides a superb adventure for those of us who dream of the Amazonian jungle but like our comfy beds at night.

Do’s and Don’ts for Sacha Lodge

  • Do not forget to count your malaria pills before you leave home. (See previous posting “Malarial Muddle.”)
  • Do not forget to stock up on high-powered insect repellent before you leave home. You may not find any in Quito.
  • Do not worry about being clumsy when climbing in and out of the little canoes; I’ve already set a Guinness World Record for awkwardness that is unlikely to be beaten any time soon. Besides, the guides do take good care of you.
  • If you have the time, do take the car trip down from Quito to Coca rather than flying. It’s a beautiful way to see the mountains. You can fly back, so you don’t have to do the drive up.
  • Do bring a swimsuit so that you can enjoy the lagoon pool. Probably the only chance you’ll ever have to swim in the Amazon waters.
  • When the guide offers you a rain slicker, do not be brave or stoic or think you know better. Take the d**n thing or you will regret it. I was already wearing a rain jacket and a rain poncho and thought the one he offered would be extraneous. Wrong. Welcome to Ecuador, where two raincoats are not enough.
  • The lagoon at sunset.

Sacha Lodge: Amazon Adventure

Oil company vehicles being barged up the river to remote sites.

The photos were gorgeous. The reviews were raves. No question, Sacha Lodge in the Amazon basin of Ecuador has a sterling reputation. We had only four nights to spend in the area—someplace we might never visit again—and we wanted to be sure that our experience would be top-notch. We ignored the Big Numbers on the rate sheet and booked.

In the Ecuadorian part of the Amazon, there are a number of jungle lodges (or, as they prefer to style themselves these days, eco-lodges) scattered along the Napo, the largest tributary to the Amazon. From my research, it seemed like they shared some characteristics: e.g., trained guides, walks in the jungle, and canoe rides. Most have some kind of tower or walkway to allow guests to visit the canopy. Differences between the lodges include style of accommodation, quality of food, size of groups, distance from civilization (the farther, the better). Sacha scored high on all these criteria. It also has a swimming area in the river, a huge draw for us, and something no other lodge can boast.

We knew that we didn’t want to waste our precious time doing activities that were of marginal interest, like visiting a local village (see previous blog People Safaris) or fishing for piranha. Our goal was birds and wildlife, as much as possible. So I eliminated the lodges that seemed to put a lot of emphasis on unwanted activities.

When I contacted Sacha, they were firm that we would not be allowed to do any wandering around on our own. Once we arrived, we understood completely why, and to be honest, although we’re usually pretty independent, we wouldn’t have wanted to roam without a guide. There are just too many dangers in the forest and a lot of ways to get lost or injured. This is the depths of the wilderness; you are a long way from medical help and you don’t want to take chances.

They were also cagey about promising exactly which activities we would do, saying that would be up to the guide and the group we were with. I wasn’t thrilled about that. I’ve been on too many tours where we were stuck with people whose interests were completely different and bored guides who obviously couldn’t wait to check their phone messages. However, I trusted to the excellent reviews and the promises that we would have the ultimate Amazon experience.

When I explained that we are birders, the booking agent asked if we’d like to have a guide who specializes in birds, rather than a generalist. Yes, please! In addition, she told me they would try to place us in a group with other birders, if possible. I crossed my fingers.

For all of these lodges, guests make their way to the closest city, Coca, and meet up with a motorized canoe for the trip up the Napo River. A glitch occurred immediately: while most guests arrive by plane and are met at the airport, we chose to be driven down to Coca so we could see the countryside along the way. I had confirmed with the booking office the time that the boat would depart and had received this info: “If you arrive to Coca on your own you will need to join the group around 12h00 in our office of Coca.” We therefore planned to arrive around 11:00 so there would be plenty of time. We arrived at the office just after 11:00 and were met by anxious handlers who indicated everyone else was waiting around just for us and hustled us into the boat asap. Minor issue, but it was lucky that we hadn’t planned on a 12:00 arrival.

Motoring up the river for a couple of hours was fun. The boat had a canopy in case of bad weather, but it was clear and dry that day. We saw a few small clearings on the banks where people lived, but they were far away and not terribly interesting. We were surprised at the amount of development related to the oil industry that we saw: plants and docks and barges moving large goods (think semi-trailer rigs) to or from the oilfields, plus lots of company-owned boats ferrying workers around. This wasn’t the pristine rainforest I had imagined. But that changed once we docked upriver.

Everything–including mattresses–goes in and comes out of Sacha by small canoe.

After leaving the boat, we walked inland for about 30 minutes along a boardwalk through thick forest to the edge of a narrow waterway, where we climbed into a smaller canoe paddled by Sacha staff. We passed a similar canoe tenuously loaded with a double-size mattress, which reminded us that everything that goes into or out of the lodge must go by small canoe.

Ten minutes later, we slipped into the open lagoon across which lay the lodge, a beautiful sight, surrounded as it is by intense green foliage, blue sky, and still, dark water. Now, we were in the Amazon!

(To be continued)

Blackwater lagoon, home to Sacha Lodge.

Calidris Reads: Atlantic Canada

 

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

The Shipping News

  1. E. Annie Proulx

Read for: Nova Scotia

5 knots Highly recommended

First sentence: “Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns.”

I cheated a bit on this one, because the book is actually set in Newfoundland, but I couldn’t find a book that interested me and that was set in Nova Scotia. Had already read Barometer Rising and didn’t want to read another about the Halifax explosion. This was one of those novels I had always resisted because when it came out, it seemed that everyone was reading it, so, being contrary, I didn’t want to. I was afraid it was going to be a dreary slice of life thing, but it was a good solid read, with well-rooted characters that you wanted to know more about.

I loved the cover art on this edition because it’s intriguing and you go through a good part of the book puzzled, waiting to find out what it means. Then you get to enjoy an Aha! moment.

Have you read The Shipping News? What did you think?

Gadgets: The Cotton Carrier

The Cotton Carrier camera harness for single camera. Photo from cottoncarrier.com.

The problem with photography as a hobby is that the more “into” it you get, the more and heavier the equipment you have to shlepp around. You may start with a modest little point-and-shoot weighing a few ounces, but before you know it, you’re staggering down the trail with multiple camera bodies dangling from your neck, extra lenses the size of oil drums stashed in your pockets, and a tripod crushing one shoulder. Of course, all that weight in the front is balanced out by your 50-lb photo backpack and you can use your monopod as a walking pole to keep you upright.

I am, therefore, always keen to check out gear that promises increased efficiency, accessibility, and/or ergonomics.

A couple of months ago, I began shopping for a camera harness, a rig that is designed to carry a camera (or cameras) close to your body with comfort and security. The idea is to take the weight off your neck and distribute it more evenly around your torso while ensuring that the camera does not swing around awkwardly, damaging you, it, or anything else. Knowing that during an upcoming trip I would be doing a lot of climbing in and out of small, tippy boats, as well as some challenging (by my standards) hiking, I thought the harness might be just the ticket.

After some research, I settled on the Cotton Carrier CCS G3. I was about to order it from a US online photo-specialty supplier, when I realized that the manufacturer is located in my own city. This meant I could avoid paying duty and the exchange rate while supporting a local business. Bonus!

On opening the box, first impressions were good. The materials are sturdy and of high quality. I had the straps fitted to my body in a few moments. Attaching the special mount (hub) to my lens mount took a bit of thought, but wasn’t difficult. As I used the supplied Allen wrench to tighten the screw, I wryly calculated how long it would take me to lose that vital tool.* Small objects tend to go missing easily in the flurry of highly-focused activity around a good bird sighting in the field.

I followed the diagram to slide in and lock the camera/lens in place, snapped on the safety tether (which is your final line of defense in case the camera somehow comes loose from the harness), and clipped the lens strap across my long, 300 mm lens so it wouldn’t jiggle from side to side, and voila, I was ready to hit the trail.

On that test hike, I found wearing the harness and camera took a bit of getting used to: I’m pretty soft and having the straps over my shoulders was tiring. The weight of the heavy lens right on my diaphragm made me uncomfortably conscious of my breathing. As it began to rain, I smugly pulled out the supplied rain cover, only to discover that it isn’t long enough for a camera + 300 mm lens. Gnashing of teeth. I wondered if I would actually use this gadget enough to make it worth the investment.

Happily, I had the opportunity to put the harness to a more definitive test on a month-long photo trip to Ecuador.

I quickly became accustomed to wearing the harness. It was easy off and on with one snap buckle (although you do have to lift it over your head if you only release one buckle). I really liked the twist-and-lock attachment; secure even when I was clambering in those aforementioned small canoes, yet allowing quick access to my camera. I did carry a plastic bag in case of rain (and boy, did it rain!)

Using it when sight-seeing in the city felt a bit pretentious but there was no way anyone could snatch my camera when it was locked in place.

I worried about transferring the camera onto my monopod. You can do this without removing the Cotton Carrier “hub” but I wasn’t sure how secure it would be, as the screw that anchors the whole assembly is quite short. However, I didn’t have any problems with my 300 mm. A larger lens might be an issue.

During this trip, I used my heavy rig so much that I actually developed repetitive stress and numbness in my right thumb, so I was very glad to be able to relieve that strain by carrying the camera on the carrier rather than in my hand. That alone was worth the price.

The harness in use, showing the safety tether. Note how the camera hangs downward when locked into the harness, keeping it close to your body.

Most importantly, I had the gratifying experience of receiving assessing looks and some queries from other photogs at the birding lodges where we stayed. Considering that most of them nonchalantly toted lenses three times the size of mine (yes, size does matter), I desperately needed some edge in the cool gear department.

My single-camera harness retails on the Cotton website for $153 Cdn. For those who want to access a second camera or binoculars, Cotton carries a harness for you, too.

*As it turned out, about six weeks. However, it’s not hard to replace. Maybe carry a spare, just to be safe.

Got gadgets for photography or travel? Share your favourite in a comment.

Ecuador’s Magic Birding Circuit

San Jorge de Tandayapa Lodge

 

Arriving in Ecuador, our first stop, San Jorge Quito, was part of the “Magic Birding Circuit,” a group of lodges under single management. Including Quito, Tandayapa, and Milpe, we spent a total of nine nights on the Circuit, a considerable investment of time and money. Would I recommend it? Yes—but with qualifications.

Things I loved: comfortable rooms (big bonus points for the in-room fireplace at the Quito lodge, a necessity for drying wet shoes and clothes after a wet hike), friendly staff (although most speak/understand little English), lovely locations, reliable transfers, feeders to attract birds, Milpe’s three-level bird-watching “tower,” Tandayapa’s views over a sweeping valley and into the treetops. From what I observed, the guides associated with the Circuit (freelancers, I believe) were knowledgeable and handled their groups well.

Sometimes there were little annoyances, like the person servicing the room carrying off all the towels for washing without giving us any new towels. In one lodge, they provided a single roll of toilet paper in the room and failed to notice when that roll was about to run out (which it did in the middle of the night, of course), so we had to dip into the emergency supply we carried in our luggage.

The first night at Tandayapa, we returned to our bungalow to find that someone had helpfully turned on the light beside our door. Unfortunately, this meant that our door was now covered in hundreds of moths. Although we turned off the light and shooed away as many as we could, it was impossible to open the door and enter without taking a cloud of insects with us. We spent much energy that evening capturing critters and throwing them outside, but I still woke up several times during the night when some large moth blundered into my face.

The food was fine, wholesome and plentiful. However, after several days, we found the Ecuadorian-based menu became a bit monotonous, and by the end of our nine days, I was ready to kill for a pizza or sandwich. It would have been nice to have more variation in the menu.

Tables and chairs in the open-air dining area of San Jorge de Milpe.

Speaking of meals, I’m not one to pay much attention to dining room furniture; as long as it’s functional, I take it pretty much for granted. However, in this case, it was as if someone who never actually used tables and chairs had chosen them. I began my relationship with the chairs at Tandayapa by immediately toppling over and dumping myself onto a very hard floor. Examining the chair after this painful encounter, I discovered that the legs of the chair were set so far in that anyone who did not sit exactly in the middle of the seat would suffer a similar ignominy. At the Milpe lodge, the chairs, constructed of raw, natural tree branches, are so assertively knobbly and uncomfortable that guests dubbed them The Iron Throne. The tables are perfectly constructed to the specifications of some alien race with no anterior limbs, as there is a spindle under each situated in the exact position to torture bipeds: too high to get your feet over it, too low to get your knees under it, so you are forced to sit far back from the table with your legs indecently splayed. In addition, these tables are also cleverly made of free-form tree limbs, creating such an uneven surface that guests’ drinks are constantly falling over.

But these are minor things.

More importantly, because we did not book as part of a tour with a guide, we found that sometimes we lacked useful information about the lodges. We would be shown to our room, told when the next meal would happen, and that was it. For other info, we had to dig around on our own or ask other guests. For example, we didn’t realize that we could request coffee/tea between meals until we saw other guests doing this. At the Tandayapa lodge, which is quite remote, we were unaware that there was a nearby hummingbird reserve that we could visit via some simple arrangements. Luckily, I overheard one of the other guests mentioning it, so we didn’t miss out on this beautiful site, but the experience did leave me wondering what other things we weren’t told. I understand that in a situation where we don’t speak Spanish and the staff speak minimal English, communication can be limited. However, the lodges could easily provide a sheet of basic information available in a variety of languages.

A few other suggestions for improvement:

  • I feel that if you book nine nights with the same company, they could provide free transfers between their properties. Currently, there is a significant charge for this service.
  • Similarly, I think they could offer a small discount for booking so many nights.
  • For Gawd’s sake, put extra rolls of TP in the rooms. I promise I won’t steal them.
  • Bread. No one wants to eat eggs for breakfast every morning, nor should they. (Can you say high cholesterol, boys and girls?) Guests were joking that they couldn’t wait to eat toast again. I was craving bread like you wouldn’t believe. Give me a fresh-baked roll and I’m a happy camper.

In summary:

Although it was interesting to stay in the old hacienda at San Jorge de Quito, we didn’t find it particularly “birdy.” We used it as a rest stop to acclimatize to the altitude and recover from jet lag, but you could find cheaper places to do that in Quito. I know that the tour groups did day trips from the lodge, so perhaps that made the location a better option, but for us, with no car and no guide, three nights was definitely too long. I wouldn’t recommend this lodge for avid birders.

If traveling without a guide, two nights at Tandayapa and two at Milpe would be enough. Perhaps if you’re far fitter than I and relish the prospect of hikes along dark, rough, muddy, slippery, hilly trails, you might enjoy an extra day in Milpe. Being a Lazy Birder, that really isn’t my cup of tea. Since the weather was bad, we spent a lot of time there sitting in the (covered) tower space waiting for the birds to come to the surrounding trees. Pleasant enough, but an expensive way to idle away your time.

We liked Tandayapa the best, although, to be fair, we had better weather there than in Quito or Milpe, so I’m sure that makes me biased.

Overall, the three lodges of the Magic Birding Circuit that we visited provide an enjoyable introduction to birding Ecuador. However, I’m not sure they are any better than similar lodges that may charge less. While it is tempting to embrace the “easy package” approach offered by the San Jorge lodges (and I fell for that myself), I would suggest you do further research and don’t rule out alternatives.

Toucan barbet photographed from the viewing lounge/dining area at Tandayapa.

Calidris Reads: Australia

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

In a Sunburned Country

Bill Bryson

5 knots Highly recommended

First sentence: “Flying into Australia, I realized with a sigh that I had forgotten again who their prime minister is.”

My first, and still favorite, Bryson. Literally laughed out loud reading this. His descriptions of the many and varied ways that Australia can kill you are priceless. “I was particularly attracted to all those things that might hurt me, which in an Australian context is practically everything. It really is the most extraordinarily lethal country.” All three of us traveling together read this book and we all loved it.

5 knots Highly recommended

A Fringe of Leaves

Patrick White

First sentence: “After the carriage drew away from the Circular Wharf Mr Stafford Merivale tapped the back of his wife’s hand and remarked that they had done their duty.”

Author Patrick White had already claimed the 1973 Nobel Prize in Literature (“for an epic and psychological narrative art, which has introduced a new continent into literature”) when this novel was published in 1976, but it’s generally regarded as one of his masterpieces.

Based loosely on the story of Eliza Fraser, who was shipwrecked off the eastern coast of Australia in 1836 and taken in (or taken prisoner, depending on whose version of the story you read) by Aboriginal people. Not an easy read, but compelling in a strange way. The heroine is strongly painted and White’s writing is intriguing.

4 knots Recommended

I couldn’t imagine two books more different than these. Hey, it’s a long flight to Australia. Why not read both; I can guarantee at least there won’t be any overlap!