Not bad number: A value on online news

$315,000,000

The price of AOL’s acquisition of Huffington Post is a not so bad number. Media critics have derided the move as a foretelling of value put on straight content and not journalism, but it’s at least a value put on information after a time when many were writing the obituary for newspapers and other news gatherers.

News flash to some: There is value in news. And to a certain extent, this business transaction shows it.

News aggregators such as HuffPo have raised ire from me for mashing up stories from news services with a line of their own reporting. Casual readers think it’s Huffington Post doing the bulk of the reporting, but that’s not the case. Prominent stories on HuffPo tonight are from AP and Reuters. But that is changing to a certain extent.

The New York Times had a Sunday front-page story a few weeks ago about how HuffPo, Taking Points Memo and Politico each have small armies assembled and ready to tackle the 2012 presidential election. They are new news sources on big stages.

There are also fewer and fewer stories about newsrooms being gutted. In actuality, it appears that many newspapers have weathered the recession and have retained staff.

That isn’t the perception, however. One source for a story I’m working on asked who the editor is I’m working with because “there has been a lot of turnover there in the last few years.” I happen to know this newspaper well, so I listed off nearly all of the senior editors, all but one have been there for more than three years.

That’s good news for journalists and readers. That doesn’t mean that newspapers are a growth industry, but as the AOL/HuffPo deal shows, there are new news groups in new mediums.

One example of the new horizons was Basetrack, a website of journalists imbedded with a U.S. military battalion in Afghanistan. The Knight Foundation-funded outfit provided updated information on the battalion through social media for the families and friends of the soldiers as well as news consumers. They provided information on the battalions whereabouts and missions.

Basetrack’s work was featured on NPR’s show The World last week. Family members talked about how the site kept them in touch with their loved ones.

But on Feb. 7,  the military, which originally asked Basetrack to report, shut them down for “security reasons,” according to the Nieman Journalism Blog and other sources.

Basetrack might not have been the end-all in new media, and neither is the AOL-Huff Po deal, but it shows that journalism isn’t dead. It’s evolving.

G

Advertisements

Give me your heads

Some Monday morning quarterbacking of newspaper headlines is a post-Super Bowl hobby of mine. (Geeky, I know.) Overall — like the commercials — the creativeness was pretty underwhelming. Too many generic headlines, and way too many “Pack on Top.”

Heads up

There were plenty of good ones, though. Some of my favorite were:

“SENT PACKING” from the Washington (Pa.) News Observer. Newseum had this as their favorite with “7 Can Wait” from the Beaver (Pa.) County Times.

Some honorable mentions: “RING FOURTH” from the St. Paul Pioneer Press, “A LOMBARDI LEAP” from the Minneapolis Star Tribune and “GOING GREEN” from the Naples (Fla.) Daily News.

My winners: “BIG CHEESY” from Red Eye in Chicago, with what I believe is some rightful bitterness. …  “RODGERS THAT” from the Houston Chronicle, with rightful credit going to the game’s best player.

Off with these heads

The worst in my book were the most generic. “SUPER!” CHAMPS!” have been done four billion times before, and “TOP OF THE PACK” could have been written by anyone — and by too many.

“TITLETOWN AGAIN” from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel was elegantly simple, but maybe too simple. Their outstanding layout made up for it.

The worst for me was “SAY CHEESE.” Besides the fact that it was in about every fifth newspaper, it was a dorkier pick than me writing about this dorky stuff. Unfortunately, my friends at the Duluth News Tribune went with this one. Fortunately, they made up for it with the best layout I saw this side of the Journal Sentinel.

Heady stuff, I know.

G

Nice Number: Lost Ecuador photos

325

The count of photographs from such Ecuadorian datelines as Banos (city in the valley of a volcano), Cuyabeno (flooded Amazon region) as well as Mompiche and Same (villages on the Pacific Ocean).

The photos were taken in July and August, but lost on Pessa’s camera until now.

Seeing the photos again inspires me on a bitterly cold and drab gray Minnesota afternoon. So, despite the conditions, I’m going on a snowshoe. Take that.

Speaking of inspired, I was humbled the other week when a friend told me that our mutual acquaintance and his girlfriend are now volunteering on organic farms oversees because, in part, he read about Pessa and I’s  journey here.

Que bacan. (That’s cool.)

G

Tambien: Quiero regresar! (Also: I want to return!)

No manifest … not really destiny …

@$&*(!…10/20/10…!$#(@#*

OVER MIDDLE AMERICA, MAYBE NEBRASKA — A stuffy Airbus A319. Two kids to the right. A last-row seat that won’t recline. No matter.

I’m on the road — or in the air — again. Trip is obligatory; duration is not.

Good friend getting married in Vegas: a must see. The subsequent sights of the Grand Canyon, Salt Lake City and Yellowstone: wanna sees.

MILE HIGH CITY — Layover. Airport as static as the rest. Gray concrete concourses set apart by some letter near the beginning of the alphabet and some number. … A-something? … Rows of thinly padded blue chairs. A Starbucks every 30 feet.

Scene starkly opposite of my mood. After two month’s in mom’s basement, I’m en route and feeling at home. Injected w/ wonderlust. CRAZY DRUG.

Sprawled out on those thinly padded “chairs.” My travel partner Mr. Keith Stone sitting upright.

Clock ticks. Next flight still ways out. …

Stone pitches a new TV programme: “See America First.”

Brilliant. He’s put me in a box. (Sort of.) Been tramping south of the equator, looking for wonders of the world. But never laid eyes on the grandest of canyons.

Hence the trip, and the show. See what’s in your backyard. Hence why Keith Stone and a quarter-Asian kid named Mr. Calvin N. Droves and I will drive through the formerly Wild West back to ‘Sota in a couple 8, 9 days.

VEGAS, BABY — Keith Stone second-guesses my grocery-store grab of 30 Keystones. What? Too many? Like they won’t get drunk…?

Mr. Stone only recently realized Keystone exists. Since it’s like Coors Light, he loves it. 

Mr. Droves and Mr. Cher share a two-room apartment in the ‘burbs. Tan leather couch: my current seat and future bed.

A few Keystones in and Keith Stone says somewhat sternly, “I’m going to need to do some laundry at some point.”

Droves — certainly sternly — replies, “You can do laundry or you can study for the LSAT. I don’t care.”

Stone and Droves go back to the day, or so they say. No “please, thank you, or may I have another” with these two “gentlemen.” They will tell each other to go fuck themselves and remain hanging out for the remainder of the day, since back in the day. That’s the deal.

%$#&*(…10/21/10… !*&(

OLD VEGAS — Cher has difficulty standing at Mr. Thompson’s bachelor party.

Perturbed casino sees inebriated Cher. Hails cab for man holding a flammable liquid football.

On road, Cher sobers a bit, asks cabbie if casino paid for cab.

“Nope.”

Blocks from his girlfriend’s house, Cher deftly says, “This is it.”

Cabbie stops car, expects cash. Cher opens door, runs between houses. Cabbie shouts; no avail.

@#*&!…10/22/10…()#*&)

THE STRIP — Amiable Cher is drunk again. Spouting off about a birthday present for, er, me.

Dozen year friendship. Nothing from Cher on my July anniversary.  Indeed: Cher = bibulous.

Grubby white hats worn  by Latinos handing out hooker cards has, um, caught his eye.

First attempt: Cloud of dust. Second effort: Across the pylon.

$20 clams later:

It reads: GIRLS DIRECT TO YOU IN 20 MINUTES. Grease on bill and brim. Don’t want to be rude. Put it on.

Cher shouts to next bunch of card peddlers.

“He’s got a hat just like you!” proud giver touts.

Startled woman peddler, asks haltingly, “What! Why?”

(#(#@(…10/23/10… @$&%#

CHURCH ON THE STRIP — Traditional wedding. White. Gospel Readings. Reserved congregation.

Shifting weight from one ass cheek to next as priest begins sermon. Checking phone for time.

Clergyman clears his throat. Begins with rhetorical question.

“Raise your hand if you have never received a gift?”

In the same pew is Mr. Puck. Confused.

“Did he say ‘gift?’ ” Puck said loudly. He slowly raised his palm.

Priest hesitates, stares at Puck. Condemns him to Hell as if he pissed in the baptismal font.

30TH FLOOR OF MANDALAY BAY — Mrs. Lucky Thompson wants four more dudes in the honeymoon suite. It’s 2 a.m.

The Philippino bride wants her new husband Tott Thompson to have hang out with Puck, Stone, Droves and me.

Found out friendship as strong as in seventh grade. Grateful. Great wedding.

^%$*&^…10/25/10…mile: 0 …*&)($%

SUBURBAN VEGAS — Trunk packed. Odometer reset. 2000 Ford Taurus in drive. It’s 6:42 a.m. Next locale: Dam named after Herbert Hoover.
 

$#(& …mile:192…*#$)@

GRAND CANYON — Western rim of world wonder. Gaggle of Asian tourists mouths agape. Just like us.

“Encula,” I surmise from one Asian woman twirling a finger near her temple. Guess that means loco.

“It’s crazy what I’m looking at,” Stone says. “I want to stare at that [he points], but my periphery is catching that [points in other direction].”

View comes from railing-less sheer rock cliff. Too dangerous for Droves, a bit of a worrier.

On ledge for minutes without Droves.

“We got to rescue [Droves] or he will be pissed,” Stone says. “If we say he is pissed, he will be real pissed.”

But no. Droves content. Safer — apparently — behind garbage cans.

$86.81 later. We stand over the wonder of world on “skywalk.”

But no cameras allowed, says Indian tribe running tourist trap.

“Here’s an amazing sight,” Stone mocks, “you can’t bring your camera!”

On skywalk, Stone says, “When I saw it online, I said I don’t do things like that. That’s not me. Yet here I am.”

Beauty is in Stone pushing his limits on trip.

Guano Point up next.

Droves gives the crane on the pinnacle. Mr. Gray Shirt and his buddy Mr. Brown Shirt soon giggled and applauded the undeniable humor here.

Stone inside abandoned bat shit mine. No joke.

)(*#&…mile:637…!)@*

SOUTHERN UTAH — A Brian McKnight track gets a rise in our driver, Mr. Droves.

“Yes!” he screams.

Next is Blackstreet’s “No Digity.”

Droves bobs his dome.

Completing the trio is Boys to Men’s “I’ll Make Love.”

During ballad, Droves takes hand off wheel to make fist to sing into.

<>?@)…10/26/10…mile:688…}”$%

SPRINGVILLE, UTAH — Night spent in some motel. Back in gold-colored ride.

Snoop on iPod. “Doggystyle” bumps as we head to epicenter of Mormon faith.

:”}#@)…mile:729…***!!

TEMPLE SQUARE IN SALT LAKE CITY — Flurries in air. Nice church.

 Pairs of young female missionaries smiling at us, saying hi. We respond.

Chat with Sister Saunders and Sister Kennedy of Arizona. They give us a tour.

Learn few things. Skeptical of more. polygamy part of church from 1830s to 1890s. They — curiously — drop acceptance of many wives to gain statehood. Hmm. Joseph Smith prayed in N.Y., saw God, dug up Book of Mormon in upstate. Hmm. Book of Mormon has stories of resurrection of Jesus in U.S. Hmm. Smith fled persecution until mob killed him in Ill. Hmm. Brigham Young, like Smith could also talk directly with God, led followers to Utah. Hmm.  Now dude named Thomas Monson is now “living prophet.” He also can speak directly to God. Hmm. 12 other dudes “or apostles” put Monson in top spot. Hmm.

Saunders and Kennedy want to give us Book of Mormon at end of tour. I accept. They want to deliver it to my home.

[They beat me home. My “questioning” father, Dod, invites them in. They say they have no where else to be. Starts out polite. Dod then asks them for evidence. The missionaries share testimony. Dod says there have been at least five documented virgin births before Jesus, etc. … Missionaries say they have somewhere to be.]

Back to Saunders, Kennedy and the other pairs swarming Temple Square.

Maybe lamenting a lost move, Droves recaps: “There were so many ladies around. It’s ‘Hey, how you doin’? Hey, how you doin’? Yeah! Yeah!’ ” 

^%^%^…mile:779…?<>,.

ANTELOPE ISLAND STATE PARK —  Long road connects city to an island park in the lake.

“You can fucking land a fucking 747 fucking here,” Droves said, both excited and slightly explicit.

“Let’s stop and take a photo with the buffalo,” I said.

“Think they’ll charge?” said a slightly paranoid Droves.

“No, I think it’s free!” Stone quips with a sinister — and undeniably dorky — laugh.

Awful.

At visitor center, Droves gets fellatio from plastic buffalo.

“I think they will charge for that,” Stone fires again.

Better.

Vista from Buffalo Point. (No jokes from Stone here.)

If we ever start a band, Droves suggested this as our album cover.

@#@)-…mile:870…+=+-?

PARK CITY, UTAH — Home of Sundance Film Fest. Not this day. No one home. See about 14 people during pit stop.

Bartender says it’s a “crazy party” during fest. The whole street is madness. Again, not this day.

Art gallery has Rembrandts, Picassos, Renoirs. Heeeerrreeeee’s Pablo:

During Sundance, bartender says gallery was emptied for a show from The Fray. Again, not this day.

./,%^…mile:947…%#@%^

EVANSTON, WYOMING — Four deer spotted in ’bout  quarder mile.

“The deer around here are like the women in Temple Square,” Stone said.

~~~~…mile:1,000!…~~~~~

SOUTHWEST WYOMING — Mileage milestone uncelebrated by Droves, who has logged every mile behind the wheel.

A failure to head north instead of east cost us 40 miles. Point a finger inside your noisemaker.

%?/<,>…mile:1,043…~!)$@

STILL IN SOUTHWEST WYOMING — Middle of nowhere. Snow swarms road. Visibility at 10 feet.

Semi rips past. Whiteout for 5 secs.

“All the snow is tripping me out,” Droves said. “I can’t see the road.”

Neither can we.

We abort plan to push through to Jackson Hole. Doubleback to Kemmerer Point of Entry.

Woman at truck weigh station says Jackson has a snow chain laws in effect.  “It only gets worse from there.”

We settle into any hotel with a vacancy. Takes three stops to find one.

Old Hawaiian dude runs this motel. Wearing a Hawaiian Punch hat and a green Hawaiian Rainbow Warriors sweatshirt. Wants to talk your ear off about how he supported Obama and his unity message in ’08. Now, he criticizes Barry O’Bama for knocking down Tea Party. Hawaiian doesn’t mention that Tea Baggers are crazy.

&&##!!…10/27/10…!!//!!

KEMMERER, WYOMING — Hawaiian wants to talk politics, God and the environmental movement over coffee from his homeland.  I think he tied the leadership of Greenpeace to Halliburton. Not quite sure. Wasn’t really listening.

Back on the road. Stumbled on this as we found highway north to Yellowstone.

Tourist, indeed.

#_)$…mile:1,180…>()?

BRIDGER-TETON NATIONAL FOREST, WYOMING — “Show us your tetons,” Stone said.

F#%K…mile:1,214.9…Me!!!

HOBACK, WYOMING — Droves asks gas station shelf stocker if Yellowstone is open.

“No, and I’m not joking,” she said. “There is snow on the ground and it’s 10,ooo feet up there. They are going to have feet of snow there.”

We head up Highway 191 thinking if we’ve come all this way to be turned away on the park’s doorstep.

!#%*&…mile:1,232…+=>#

JACKSON, WYOMING — Jackson city worker (another authoritative source) gives us some hope.

“Oh yeah, you can get there,” he said.  “The roads are probably pretty good now. It hasn’t snowed in a few days. It’s usually open until November first.”

We call the Yellowstone Park office to get the nail-in-the-coffin recorded message.

“Yellowstone is open, but snow tires are required from the south entrance and north to Old Faithful.”

No go. Plug yanked out. Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon were No. 1 and No. 1A on my list. Depression sets in.

But if travels have taught me anything, you have to expect and adapt to change.

Adventurous founder of North Face, Doug Tompkins, believes the journey doesn’t even begin until everything goes wrong.

Guess I’ll go with that.

!&^%…mile:1,263…><+=

TURNOFF TO YELLOWSTONE, WYOMING — Exactly 1,263 miles into trip, and we will not get closer than 28 miles from the first national park and home of a “supervolcano.”

PPUUUEEEWWW!

^,><…mile:1,284…{]#*.

SOME ROAD, WYOMING —

_=+/?…mile:1,300…@$.*

SaME ROAD, WYOMING — An attempt to lighten the soured mood in the Taurus.

“We could hit up Devil’s Tower,” Droves said.

“Yeah, let’s do it,” I said.

“No, let’s just drive close to it,” Stone said.

*&.?/}…10/28/10..&…mile: 1,734…@!.d*

DEVIL’S TOWER, WYOMING —

A Yoga warrior pose, and again, the crane.

Droves wants to bring home a prairie dog.

“That one wants to come home with me,” Droves said.

“That’s what you said about the Mormon girls,” Stone replied.

Droves feigned effort to bring one of ’em with us.

$($<>…mile:1,822…*&=+

BLACK HILLS NATIONAL FOREST, S.D. — Roadside sign: “BE PREPARED TO STOP” with a picture of a ram.

Once we slowed, this guy sprinted toward us.

He kept comin’.

Target: rear passenger door.

“Don’t bang my car!” Droves screamed.

Ram slowed, went behind car.

“He was coming,” Droves said. “He was thinking about it.”

)@%//,,,mile:1,850…?:”@”

MOUNT RUSHMORE, S.D. — Obligatory pic.

After visiting stone-faced dudes, we wanted to spelunk. Punked when  spelunkin’ place closed. (At least I got to use Stone’s favorite new word.)

*0_+=}\…mile:1,921…*$#)..[

APPROACHING A WELL-KNOWN PHARMACY IN S.D. — Tally of 14 Wall Drug billboards in 11 miles on the eastbound highway before the tiny town. 

Game for Stone and Droves: Person to correctly guess the number of billboards gets a free dinner from me.

Droves: 27. Stone: 347.

Stone balks at my total. I mean really balks at it. This despite the scratched tally in notebook.

“They were every 20 feet,” Stone presses.

With my blood sugar low, my irritation level goes higher. With any travels, you are bound to get tired of your companion(s). We HIT the wall in Wall.

I was about as prickly as this here tumbleweed.

#!(,?…10/29/10…mile: 1,992…(+_=}'”

BADLANDS, S.D. —

When this lamb approached, Droves was ready to pop the sucker back in his mouth and hit the gas.

#&<~+…mile: 2,119…_[:8″

NOWHERE, S.D. — Only excitement here was Droves whooping as he pushed Taurus north of 110 mph.

*&#_….mile: 2,204…#4$+='{

STILL NOWHERE, S.D. — Seeing things are thy secondary purposes of road trips.

Droves and I haven’t seen each other much in two years. He in Vegas. Me in Duluth and elsewhere. Time on road is opportunity to catch up.

Unvarnished, we discuss marriage, best current rapper, unemployment, growing older.

Bonding is purpose.

^%9*,./..mile:2,538…&8{}[

MINNEAP, Minn. — Culture shock hits Droves as skyline comes into purview.

“I can’t believe I moved home,” he says.

></.#@…mile: ?,?#?…@!)$&

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Once we reach my destination, we had totaled two thousand, five hundred and sixty-four miles.

G

Reflection of Independence

PINE CITY, Minn.

The South American experience was the best decision of my life. That might be bold, but so was the trip.

As if I were Simon Bolivar — the man who freed part of Latin America from the Spanish — I felt like a liberator. This trip was a personal Bolivian Revolution.

By quitting my job to travel, volunteer and write in foreign countries, I felt alive, free and well.

However, I didn’t discover myself, as is often the context such trips are put into.

I uncovered myself. I uncovered that I truly love to write. I uncovered that I want to commit myself to more environmentalism. I uncovered that I enjoy a healthy challenge. I uncovered that Spanish is tough for me to learn. I uncovered that I want to help people more. I uncovered that I’m more of an introvert.

I’ll use the environment as an example. Before the trip, my environmentalism didn’t extend beyond recycling when it was convenient and tying to walk or ride my bike to work.

After the trip, recycling is a given. Plus, I want to devise a rainwater collection system for my family’s farm, set up a composting system, plant more trees and, among other things, sell produce at the farmers’ market. (Check out the online home of the Greder family farm.)

“You make choices along the way, and in the end, the choices become you,” said my horoscope on one of our last day’s abroad.

For once, a mass-produced newspaper horoscope actually fit what I was up to.

I had chosen to quit my journalism job in Duluth. It became a chance to volunteer at a reforestation project and organic farms in Ecuador and Argentina. And in the end, I’m trying to live alternatively and more sustainably in Pine City.

This is just one example of how the sojourn became my new avenue in life.

The trip also gave me an opportunity to be more reflective.

Today marks the four-week mark since I’ve returned to the U.S. While I’m happy to be back, I can’t help but feel wanderlust. Part of me wants to be on the road.

As strange as it might seem, I felt at home there. I ate up the romantic notion of how everything I owned fit into the pack strapped to my back.

There was excitement in the unknown. … Thoughts of: Where is this bus going? When are we going to eat, I’m starving? Where are we going to sleep tonight? What do you mean my bank account has insufficient funds?

Resulted in: Seeing a new town. Appreciating food once we ate it, a bed once we collapsed into it and cash once we got it.

There are many feelings, beliefs and stories that are internalized from those six months. I’m more than willing to share, but having someone relate doesn’t come easy. It takes more than seeing photos, listening to tales or reading a blog. (But keep reading this one, of course!)

My strongest belief is that you must get out there and see for yourself.

I can’t say it better than this Wookiefoot song:

“The purpose of this life is to live a life with purpose
So don’t get trapped inside your safety net
So fill your well and light your flame
But go on seeking service
Life without a cause is life without effect
 
So drop your bags and drop your fears
Lift your voice and voice your cheers
Hoist your mug and give some hugs
Shout your mantra, sing your prayer”

I, indeed, was shouting my mantras when my parents picked me up at the airport on Aug. 17. Although I had been traveling for more than 20 hours, I was energetic, euphoric.

My parents — and new roommates — were off to bed when we got to the farm. It was about midnight.

Retreating to my new basement bedroom alone, I grabbed a beer, sighed, and asked myself, “Now what?”

The start and finish shots

The first self-portrait shot was taken during our first week in Quito, Ecuador. We were laying on the bed at our host family’s apartment around March 6. I can’t help but think about nervous and naive we were then.

The last self-portrait shot was taken during our last week in Mompiche, Ecuador. We were enjoying a beach trip around August 15. Besides the smiles, I believe you can see two people who are genuinely calm, confident and happy.

Back track

The Declaration of Independence kicked off the trip from the Houston airport. See how it began right here.

Flattered

I want to take a moment to show my appreciation to everyone that read this online journal while we were on the road. I was flattered at how many people mentioned to me how they followed our trip here. It was more than I expected.

Thank you.

G

[Note: The Gonzo Think Tank will not die now that the trip is over. It will simply revert back to its old form, a spot to post a weekly muse. I hope to continue diatribes, rants, opines and features such as Noxious (and Nice) Numbers, Unquote”, My 5, Lucid Lang, and Swine of the Week.The Tank hopes you come back now, ya hear!]

When the bed is a rockin’

SAME, Ecuador

The earthquake shook me awake in the early morning.

The bed was trembling as though we were sleeping on a vibrating model, and it was just fed a quarter. 

Half-asleep, I rubbed my eyes to shake the daze. Where am I? ….. OK, I know this for sure. … I’m at a hostel in Ecuador on the Pacific ocean. … What is going on? … No idea. … Um, a car hit the hostel? …. Hmm, something clogging the pipes? 

After coming to my senses, I realized it wasn’t just the bed that was shaking. It was pictures on the walls. The tables, TV and fridge were all moving. As were the walls, floor and roof.

Now, there was no doubt. It was an earthquake. It ended without consequence after what seemed like a few minutes. We went back to sleep — although I can’t explain that act.

Later that morning, the German woman who runs the bed and breakfast next door confirmed that it was an earthquake. A 6.9 magnitude shake about 250 miles in the middle of Ecuador and more than 100 miles beneath the surface. It struck at about 7 a.m., and because it was so deep, no damages or injuries were reported.

While we slept, the German woman had fright.

“I experienced a few hurricanes in the Caribbean,”  the German woman said. “You have a few days notice with them. This was different. It was scary. I had no idea what was going on.”

 My 5: Slow Life

EL SALTO, Ecuador

This austere town is little more than a crossroads between more popular beach locations on the Pacific coast.

In the unrelenting heat on the Equator, nothing of interest transpired. Everything was slow, deliberate.

Men hid from the sun in front of a hardware store. A boy tried to sell pirated DVDs to uninterested travelers. Women chatted behind a counter of an open-air meat market. A family packed into the back of a pickup. A lean-to shack had few things to sell and no one to sell them.

Here are My 5 favorite photos as we waited for our next bus:

Unflattering

Pessa says that it’s the unruly hair on the top of my head and not the stuff on my face that startles her most.

She isn’t afraid to point it out, either.

When I matted down one side of the beard and ruffled up the other side, she called me “mullet face.”

When I shook my hair out after a swim, she blurted out “shave your head, you mangy mutt.” After another swim, she referred to me as a “wet dog.”

When I bought a $5-buck pair of knock-off Ray Ban sunglasses, she said I resembled Joaquin Phoenix.

Those unflattering comments can be expected from a girlfriend of nearly two years. Another not-so-flattering comment came from an Irishman I had only known for a few hours.

After a few glasses of wine during a tour of vineyards in Mendoza, Argentina, Irishman said I look like Harry from “Harry and the Hendersons.”

I was a bit startled, but I couldn’t really present a legitimate retort.

G

Pretty, pretty, pretty jungle

IN THE AMAZON RAINFOREST, Ecuador

A trip into the jungle was atop my to-do list before I arrived here more than five months ago.

The exploration was more than a chance to see the diverse animals inside this unique habitat. The exploration provided a chance to witness the negative effects of oil exploitation within a national park.

The Cuyabeno reserve was created about 30 years ago to protect the species of plants and animals found in this flooded forest. The islands, rivers and lagoons include towering ceiba trees, mangroves and wildflowers as well as freshwater dolphins, lemon ants, caimans, boars, monkeys, tarantulas, manatees, anacondas and countless insects. The reserve was also created to protect the cultures of indigenous groups – Quichua, Cofan, Secoya, Siona and Shuar – which reside inside the park’s 6,000 square kilometers.

Immediately following its creation, however, Cuyabeno was opened for oil exploitation.

“At least six oil spills were recorded between 1984 and 1989, and others occurred unrecorded,” said the Lonely Planet guidebook. “Many of the contaminants entered Rio Cuyabeno itself.”

Our journey into the jungle began with an overnight bus from Quito to Lago Agrio, a sprawling and unappealing city reliant on the oil industry. The city’s original name was Nuevo Loja, but it has since assumed a Spanish translation of Sour Lake, the city in Texas which was the old home of Texaco.

Day 1

Our bus arrived here earlier than expected – at about 4 a.m. We hadn’t slept well on the crowded and hot bus that jerked its way down the Andes Mountains and over the ubiquitous (and painfully unnecessary) speed bumps.

We tried to doze off on the street using our backpacks as makeshift beds, but a semi-truck rumbled past. Its heavy load included five, 20-yard industrial pipes presumably destined for the oil manufacturing sites inside Cuyabeno.

We paid a nominal fee to sleep on a hostel’s couches and later met our guide, Guido, at 9 a.m. A van took the three of us on a two-hour ride into the park.

Before we exited Lago Agrio, we saw a monkey play on the roof of a parked van. Around the next corner sat the Petro Ecuador refinery campus. And for the duration of the trip, the trans-Ecuadorian oil pipeline ran parallel to the road.

Other signs of development dotted the roadsides inside the park. Men in white hard hats plotted projects. Acres of trees were recently sliced down. We passed at least four oil stations, including stacks which emitted flames. Road construction here rivaled the progress of anywhere else in the country, and without the populations or traffic to support it. This road was undoubtedly for oil.

At the bridge/trailhead crossing Rio Cuyabeno, we boarded a motorized canoe for the remaining three hours to our lodge. From here, we saw no visible signs of oil exploitation – only natural Amazonia.

In the first 10 minutes, we saw four Squirrel monkeys in the tress on the riverbank. Guido told us that they hang out there to stay out of the reach of eagle claws. There were vibrant blue butterflies around nearly every bend in the river.

Pessa described them as either neon or electric blue.

“It’s the most beautiful blue I’ve every seen,” she said.

Not to be outdone were a pair of school-bus yellow butterflies preoccupied with each other. Were they flirting or feuding?

Eager for another sighting, Pessa spotted a turtle in the river. I didn’t see it, but on her next sighting, the turtle turned out to be nothing more than a twig bobbing in the dark water. I believe her first sighting (wink).

Giddy with the promise of four days immersed in this jungle, Pessa went into her well-crafted and thick-accented Bear Grylls impersonation. She gave a rendition using an example of the dangerous black snakes native to Ecuador.

“They are only this big, but if you don’t watch out, you might die!” she said dryly.

The day’s best animal sighting came next as five large macaws majestically crossed the river.

Another species of animal awaited us at the basic Tarapuyo Lodge – about 40 rowdy Ecuadorian kids. Also present were their parents and a mother-daughter pair, Courtney and Cathy of Colorado. They would be the other half of our group the next day.

Day 2

Before leaving the lodge, Guido wouldn’t allow us to face the world without the proper makeup.

He applied the orange and red face-paint using the dyed balls inside the shell of a plant called Agate. Like so many things in the jungle, indigenous cultures believed and used these plants for medicinal benefits. Agate was once believed to help fight yellow fever.

I can’t attest to that remedy, but we bought another potion from the Shuar botanical garden in Puyo that works like magic.

A small drop of Sangre de Drago on a pestering mosquito bite – or 10, like I had after the first night in the rainforest – will make the itching stop in seconds and the mark will disappear by the next day. If marketed, this stuff would put Calamine Lotion out of business.

It’s this type of environmental understanding from the indigenous cultures that could be lost forever if we don’t protect places like Cuyabeno.

Moving on … we sped away from the lodge to a remote lagoon with waterlogged trees near its banks. Manatee and piranha swim here. We didn’t see the former, but we caught a few of the latter.

The chance to fish for piranha piqued my interest when we read over itineraries before picking a tour agency and lodge. I was ready to pull one in.

We splashed our rudimentary poles — fishing line tied to bamboo rods — into the calm lagoon water to get the attention of these feisty fish.

Victor, our other guide, led the group with three catches. Guido and Courtney each had one. Cathy nabbed a catfish and Pessa hooked another piranha, but it got away before she could lift it into the boat. I was the only one shutout. Guido and Victor teased me that the women proved themselves to be better hunters than me.

Guido prepared the piranha over a bonfire at the lodge later that evening. He wrapped it in three large green leaves and placed it into the coals, just like the indigenous groups cook it. When the leaves cracked, he knew it was ready. I was surprised at how refreshing these small hand-sized fish truly were. It was a treat, even though I didn’t catch it.

Day 3

We said ciao to the Colorado chicas and set out on a four-hour hike into the rainforest.

We broke a park rule and ate the lemon ants that reside inside a type of tree here. The taste was bitter, but undoubtedly lemon.

We saw colorful caterpillars, two species of monkeys, a brief sighting of a tarantula and a tree that wraps itself around another tree and kills it. This is one of my favorites: jumping stick. He looks alien. 

Guido then stopped suddenly and shushed us. What was it? My imagination went to the most elusive creature here – the jaguar.

Nope. It was nothing more than a sound, Guido said, and we kept walking.

The second time Guido’s ears perked up, he was onto something big. There were sounds of squealing and thumps from animals walking. We inched closer.

“Pig of the jungle,” Guido said with wide eyes. We inched even closer. There they were, a pack of wild boars no more than 40 yards away. Guido said there could be about 80 to 100 in this pack.

We heard the squawking of sporadic fights and hooves pounding the ground.

“It sounded almost like they were vomiting,” Pessa later recalled.

Through the thick undergrowth, I caught a glimpse of them. They were gathered at least four pigs wide. Some of them had protruding tusks and topped 100 pounds. Then, they stampeded away in the other direction.

We went to where they had congregated. They left behind countless hoof prints and a musky stench.

In the afternoon, we visited a Siona “community.” This was nothing more than a remote tourist trap. We made some yucca flatbread in a makeshift space for this purpose only. The community was more than 30 minutes away. We conversed sparingly with the woman that made the bread and a girl who tried to sell us some jewelry. Nothing more. The biggest disappointment of the excursion.

The most revealing thing at the “community” was hearing Guido share our story of seeing the pack of boars. This otherwise quiet and diminutive man shared it again with the Ecuadorians at the lodge. We found the sighting awesome, but his willingness to tell the story again and again, showed us how rare it really was.

Day 4

Our final day in the rainforest began before the sun showed up. We rose at 5:30 a.m. to be in a hollowed-out wood canoe when the Amazon woke up. I eagerly brought the recorder for the sake of proper documentation. [I, again, wish I could share the sounds, but technical difficulties won’t let me. You must use your imagination.]

The top four sounds were:

 1. A chorus of crickets competed for the title of most deafening. It reminded me of the crackle coming from a TV when the cable used to go out.  Above the din of Guido paddling, a cacophony of birds also chimed in. 

2. This recording set the stage for the white-throated toucan. Although we couldn’t see it from the river, we knew it was close. It’s colorful get-up and talkativeness made me think it was interested in a party.

3. A quartet of parrots diagonally crossed the river, leaving us with a brief glimpse of their emerald bodies and an even higher pitched chirp than the toucan.

 4. Back at the lodge came the king birds singing tunes. They traded octaves in what seemed like mating calls. Who wouldn’t want to get with that?

Between calls, Pessa would question Guido about their origins.

“What was that?” she wondered.

Sometimes, his replies weren’t exotic.

“A small chicken,” he once said. Or another time, “oh, a pigeon.”

The perfunctory boat ride back to the trailhead bridge provided the best sightings of the four days.

Midway through the three-hour ride, I spotted the underside of a gray dolphin. Guido cut the motor and we tracked three of them for about 10 minutes. We spotted their tailfins, top fins and body during the 10 or so glimpses. One time, I caught a view of a face.

Later in Quito, the owner of the tour agency we booked through said seeing dolpins are rare, only in August. We were lucky.

Next, we spotted four Saki monkeys high in the trees.

“It just keeps getting better,” I told Pessa.

In goodbye, we coasted underneath a low-hanging tree with a sleeping boa constrictor tangled in its branches.

It really did keep getting better.    

G