Hooray, Military Checkpoints!

There are no relevant pictures for the title of this story, because I’ve found one of the easiest ways to get on the nerves of a group of foreign soldiers is by taking pictures of them. I learned that one in China. Now, I realize I haven’t written here in a while, but most of you know that Chloe and I have been driving around Baja California, Mexico for the last four months or so. It’s been quite an adventure, so it will take a while to get all of my stories written. Here’s Entry One:

The first time I went through a military checkpoint was the first time I went to Mexico – perhaps five years ago. I was on an overnight bus from Nogales to Mexico City, and was woken up in the middle of the night by a patrol searching the bus. I was kind of terrified, actually. There are few things like being woken up by a man in uniform with an assault rifle, poking you in the shoulder. In addition, he didn’t speak English. I didn’t speak more than a word or three of Spanish. They took all of us outside of the bus and searched every bag. They didn’t seem to believe I only had a tiny backpack with one pair of pants, but it was over quickly.

It’s a stranger experience, and much more common, if you’re driving your own car. Military checkpoints can be every 200km, and they’re often hidden around curves or in valleys. They’re looking for drugs and weapons. One minute, you’re driving down the road, blaring music and smoking cigarettes, wind in your hair, when the next you have to deal with the authorities. It’s kind of like the Border Patrol in the southwestern US, but with bigger guns and better uniforms.

Most of these soldiers look younger than twenty – military service is usually mandatory for eighteen-year-old males in Mexico. Most of them look quite somber as we pull into the inspection station, and ask us to leave the car while they search it.

Now – Mord, our truck, is quite old, quite dirty from bad roads, and filled with instruments, tools, art supplies, books, clothes, spare parts, and camping gear. There are machetes, fishing poles, and tow straps. Three jacks. A cooler and a box of kitchen supplies. Spices and herbs. Ramen noodles. Chloe has a full tattoo studio in one of the backpacks.

To put it more directly: Mord takes a while to search.

Mord the Ford

Mord the Ford

The search usually went like this. Two of the soldiers would start investigating the front seat as soon as we stepped outside. They checked the door, they checked the upholstery, everything. Then they would start to check the back seat, which was usually full of stuff. Meanwhile, another soldier would start chatting with us and asking questions. They wanted to know where we were from, what we were doing, and where we were going. (I tried to ask a few similar questions back at them, but that usually didn’t go over well.)

They rarely checked IDs. We’d sometimes have a hitchhiker or two in the back of the truck, and we were never bothered about that.

After perhaps ten minutes of that, the conversation would start to change. The soldier asking the questions would start to show more smiles and ask different questions. You could tell he would be getting interested, despite himself. “Did you catch any fish?” “Have you seen the whale sharks?” What instrument is that, and what do you play?” “How long have you and your girlfriend been together?” “Woah, she’s your wife?” “How did you get that dent?” “What is New Mexico like?” Smiling more, ourselves, Chloe and I would just smoke cigarettes and chat with them in Spanish.

At this point, the other soldiers would switch attitudes, also. Perhaps they decided we weren’t a threat, and perhaps they were just young and curious. Instead of ignoring us, they would come up with random things and ask them how they were used. Tattoo equipment – “How do you use this? Did you do his tattoos?”. Different herbs they found – “What do you use this tea for? Is it gross?”. Our alcohol stove – “How can you cook with it?” The guitar – “Do you know any Spanish songs?” This would continue in many different variations at every checkpoint. And then, laughing and smiling, they would wave us on.

Besides, traffic was usually building up behind us.

I found the whole experience kind of funny, and sometimes even a little heart-warming. We would arrive slightly scared, and leave laughing. This doesn’t tend to happen with police checkpoints in the US. I don’t think that our country likes its policemen being so friendly to the general public, for some reason.

I’ll have to tell you folks about dealing with the Border Patrol when we arrived in California. Another day, no?

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Egg Laying

We found our black widow laying a new egg sac:

I was hoping the young black widows would emerge before we left our house, but no luck. Some other renter will enjoy them!

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Things Eating Other Things: A Black Widow’s Lunch

We found this sweetheart outside our window in Oaxaca – one of the biggest black widows I’ve ever seen!

I like the moving mandibles of whatever her prey is. The window isn’t near our door, and you can still watch her from the inside, so I’m quite happy to leave her alone.

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Things Eating Other Things: Paraphidippus aurantius?

I walked out onto my porch and saw this cute little guy devouring a fly:

jumpingspider

The eye arrangement, movement pattern, and square “face” marked it as a jumping spider, but it was a lot harder to figure out what species it was. Apparently, around 10% of spider species across the world are jumping spiders, or family Salticidae. There are literally thousands of species in this family.

It took several hours of looking at pictures and reading papers, but it looks like it might be a form of Paraphidippus aurantius, also known as the golden jumping spider.

He didn’t stick around for long – jumping spiders have some of the best eyesight of any spider, and they tend to spook easily around movement. I just wish I could have seen him ambush the bug!

References:
http://salticidae.org/salticid/diagnost/prphidip/aurantia.htm
http://www.jumping-spiders.com/php/tax_drawings.php?id=1337
http://www.peckhamia.com/salticidae/salticidae.php?adres=specimen.php?id=1788

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Mosquito Control

It didn’t take long before we noticed these spiders inhabiting our temporary house in Oaxaca, Mexico. Most of them were around 5-6 centimeters in diameter, hanging out vertically on our various walls.

Selenopid crab spider

Selenopid crab spider

I hadn’t seen them before, so I asked our host about them. He and his son called them “Hermans”. They’re harmless to humans, but will wait on the wall until a mosquito flies by. They move with lightning speed – sideways – then grab the mosquito, inject venom into it, and wrap it up for a meal.

With some help from our friends online, we discovered it was a Selenopid, commonly known as the wall crab spider. They can be identified by having a row of six eyes above a row of two eyes, a double claw on each foot, and their sideways walk. Apparently, they even have their own website.

We decided to let them stay in the house with us – we always need help with mosquitoes!

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A New Direction for Yakbrother

We started Yakbrother, initially, as a travel blog. The idea was to keep in touch with friends and family by posting stories and pictures – you know, a travel blog!

But travel blogs get boring. It’s one thing if you document a short trip, but after a year or two, there isn’t much to say beyond “Hey, look where I am!” Like I said. Boring.

After talking it over, we’ve decided to focus on what excites us about travel: the natural world. Chloe and I met in a microbiology class. We studied botany and geology together in school. Every time we see a new insect, or a new plant, we take pictures and try to figure out what they are. We try to find insights into local ecologies. A spider in our bathroom doesn’t send us looking for a shoe, it sends us to the internet to figure out what superpowers it has.

So… We’ve remade our website. Instead of travel stories, we’ll be posting pictures of plants, rocks, and animals that we find – plus the results of our research. Of course this will still involve travel, but we’re going to focus on what makes us excited in the world.

Hope you enjoy!

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Tuesday Night Gunpowder

dancing

We made sure, for my birthday this year, to take off a week to do some exploring around Colombia. Since we work on the road, we rarely take vacations – it’s been several years, actually, since my last “vacation”. The goal for this trip was to head to the area of Parque Los Nevados, in the Central Range of the Andes, around the cities of Manizales and Pereira. We heard the area had many hot springs – which was indeed true!

The trip was made even more exciting by a visit from two of our Silver City, New Mexico friends – Avery and Minda. We packed up our bags and our instruments and headed out down the road.

New Mexicans

New Mexicans!

I won’t bore you with everything that happened. We did find hot springs, twice, and found an excellent tattoo shop to get a few Colombian souvenir tattoos. We played music everywhere we stopped, often with other musicians, and ended our trip before we even reached Pereira, since we were enjoying the towns we visited too much. It’s hard to say no to an extra few days in a nice place!

But there was one story that stood out. On the way to our hostel, after visiting hot springs near Villamaría, we were walking down the road when we came across a family playing tejo.

Have you ever heard of tejo? I’ve heard people talk about it, and I was hoping I’d run across it in Colombia. The game is played with two small clay fields and small metal discs that are thrown at the center. The best part is: in the center of the clay field, they pack gunpowder! This is probably the most satisfying way to play a game – explosions for a bulls-eye.

The other fun part is that it’s closely related to drinking aguardiente and beer – it’s often turned into a drinking game.

Drinking and explosions? Sounds like New Mexico to me…

Tejo field

A makeshift tejo field set up by the side of the road. The game is a lot like playing horseshoes, with more fire.

The family was immediately welcoming to us, explaining the game and laughing as we took turns. That’s one thing about Colombian families, one that makes for an amazing travel experience: they are almost always warm and generous.

True to form, after the game, they invited us in for chicha – the local home-brew, made from pineapples – and mentioned that they had heard us playing music in the hostel the night before. Would we go grab our instruments and play in their home?

Of course!

What followed was an all-night concert and dance fest with three generations of the family – and the family knew how to party! They wanted to know how to dance to bluegrass music (we showed them the “happy miner” dance), wanted to try the instruments, and showed us how to dance to salsa and reggaeton. Glass after glass of chicha, beer, and aguardiente were passed around as the dancing got rowdier and rowdier.

Somewhere around three or four in the morning, the parents realized that all the kids had to be at school in a few hours. This was a Tuesday night, after all. They invited us to come back the next day, and any day after that, when we returned to Villamaría.

I already can’t wait for my next vacation!

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La Tienda Del Rancho

delrancho

There’s a little tienda just down the road from our house. We go there for basic food supplies, cigarettes, and beer. They’re generally stocked with milk, chicken, beef, tamales, rice, garlic, onions, and whatever other daily supplies we need. In fact, it’s become a great place to walk to every day. There are usually a few patrons sitting on the nearby benches or stools, talking with neighbors or having a beer after work.

Negotiating markets is perhaps my favorite part of traveling. Talking with people here has definitely helped our conversational Spanish – no one speaks English in this country neighborhood. And, since all the food is behind a counter and must be asked for, my vocabulary for foods, spices, and other ingredients has drastically increased.

Today, I walked there alone for a break during work. At the counter, there was a white-haired old lady who beamed as I walked in. As we traded a few pleasantries, I noticed she had a shot glass of rum in front of her. She lit up a menthol cigarette, all smiles. I liked her immediately; any old lady happily drinking rum at three in the afternoon is alright in my book.

As I ordered my groceries and a few Club Colombia Rojas, we chatted about Santa Elena and traveling. She asked if I knew a few of the people around the area, but I didn’t. Before too long, my conversational Spanish was failing me and I couldn’t come up with the right words. She uttered a particularly confusing sentence, and I responded by saying I was sorry, but I was still learning and couldn’t understand what she was saying.

“No hablo muy bien” is a sure cop-out phrase, and I’m disappointed when I have to say it. She stopped me, though. She wasn’t letting me get away with it. “But,” she said in Spanish, pulling on the cigarette, “I’m able to communicate with you. That’s good.”

As I left, a few minutes later, she took a drink from her glass of rum and wished me “Feliz tarde.” “Que esté muy bien,” I responded as politely as I knew how, and we went about our afternoons.

I enjoy learning to converse this way. There’s something laid back about a little country bar, something you can’t find when you’re in a city. There’s usually someone who pegs you as a foreigner and politely wonders what you’re doing in the Colombian countryside. It’s good practice.

Note to self: never say “No hablo muy bien” again. Find another way to say something instead. The words are there in my head, just waiting to be called…

delrancho2

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Slow Cooking in Our Colombian Home

stew

For the past year, I’ve been vastly enjoying slow cooking. A huge chunk of beef, stewed in a crock pot or braised in the oven, has been my favorite meal for a long time. I’ve been eating it more than I eat steak – and if you know me, you’ll know that’s a lot.

However, we don’t have all the cooking resources we love when we travel. We still prefer to cook most of our own food instead of eating out, and learning to navigate food markets in foreign countries is one of my favorite pastimes. But we’re missing crock pots, clay ovens, ovens in general, and all those things you rely on for slow-cooking in the US. Of course you can find such items here in Colombia, but most houses aren’t furnished with them. We’ve had to improvise to eat our favorite foods while away from home.

So, lacking our normal kitchen array, here’s how we do it right now:

It starts the day before with a pack of muslos de pollo – chicken legs – which I’ve been roasting in a small toaster oven. These don’t always exist in Colombia, and was actually brought from our friend’s garage in the US. I’m using it while I have it.

It’s not the best toaster oven, so it takes a full hour to cook a few chicken legs in a juice of oil, garlic, onions, pepper, and a few spices. After we chow down on the chicken, we break the bones and put them in water with more garlic and onions to make a soup stock. We let that cook for a few hours on low heat and then let it sit covered overnight.

Low heat. That’s a problem on many gas stoves here. It’s very difficult to keep a pot of water from boiling, which is bad for most stews or soups. I’m under the impression that people generally cook their food here on higher heat, just like people in Asia. To cook something slowly, we have to work with constantly adjusting the heat *just* above the point where it turns off.

If I’m feeling particularly energetic that night, I’ll prepare the beef – usually a chunk of solomo, or the upper loin muscles of a cow – by chopping it into stew-sized pieces and salting them. Sometimes I’m lazy and don’t prepare the beef at all.

The next morning, I’ll make a stew base by frying garlic, onions, diced carrots, and sometimes celery. I let them fry for a good half-hour, until the onions are soft and transparent. Then I pile on the beef, add the chicken stock from the day before, add a beer or water, and then cover it. This also, it almost goes without saying, needs to be cooked on very low heat; I try not to let it boil.

A few hours later, I’ll throw in the vegetables. Carrots and potatoes are very easy to come by at the small tiendas here.

Five or six hours after I started, the meat will fall apart when touched. We make this once or twice a week at our house, and the two days of meals are prime. When you’re traveling long term, it’s nice to improvise to make the kind of food you’re craving.

Photo of delicious beef taken by Nikolai Gromicko. Of one of our last meals in the US!

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So Far in Medellín

cliff2

It’s obvious that we haven’t been paying much attention to this blog over the last month; honestly, we’ve been having too great of a time to devote enough attention to it. But this is another part of travel I’m discovering: let the environment influence you, and just go with it.

When we were in Asia, we were often around people who couldn’t speak the same language. We spent more time taking pictures and writing about our discoveries and odd stories. We didn’t make too many friends (although we still keep in touch with the friends we did make). Our bewilderment and awe, related to strange customs and strange languages, fueled a lot of blog productivity.

It’s different here in Medellín. For one thing, Spanish and Latin American culture is more familiar to us – though we still get constantly surprised. For another, the city and its surrounding area are simply filled with friendly, relaxed people. Our evenings aren’t spent going through pictures, they’re spent with good beer and fun music and getting to know friends better. During the day, we work and visit local tiendas and fondas, chatting with shopkeepers, taxi drivers, musicians, and locals, trying to tease our Spanish into some form of fluency.

Which, to be honest, is exactly what we wanted. Since last June we’ve been driving around the southwestern United States, living outside or on friend’s floors, and we were getting a little tired of it. Living out of a truck is a blast, but we needed a break. The whole plan was to fly to Medellín, find an apartment (which only took a week), and then sleep. Maybe for months.

Our first apartment was great, right in the center of Envigado. We were only half a block away from the parque, a place filled with vendors and good food and musicians. We started making friends almost immediately. I plan on living there again someday.

Our first place, perhaps the most modern-looking apartment we've ever lived in.

Our first place, perhaps the most modern-looking apartment we’ve ever lived in.

But you know us – the mountains are always calling. I mean, the Andes, am I right? After a month of living in the city, we moved about 3,000ft up the mountains, a two-hour drive, into Santa Elena. Santa Elena is more of a loose conglomeration of country roads and neighborhoods than an actual town. There is a square, with many little wooden outdoor bars and a few shops, but it’s a forty minute walk from our place. There are two small tiendas that are a ten minute walk away, and both sell basic groceries like rice, fruit, meat, and beer. One has massive tamales, each with vegetables and a full pork steak inside.

My friends – this area is gorgeous. We live in a two-floor cabin now, at the edge of a cliff looking 3,000ft down to the city below. In the morning, we are above the clouds. By nightfall, the clouds have usually burned away and the city lights are awe-inspiring to see so far below us.

The morning mist.

The morning mist.

So… I’ll try to keep up with the blog. I already have a few choice stories that need to be written down. If you don’t see a post for a while, imagine that we’re in hammocks, strumming the mandolin, and looking over the cliff below. You’ll probably be correct.

In the meantime, here are a few more pictures:

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On Cell Phones in Colombia

cellphone

We were exhausted when we arrived in Medellín, so we didn’t get SIM cards for our phones at the airport like we usually do. Instead, we bought a glass of whiskey each at one of the little carts (the bottles were on a shelf upside-down like flavor bottles at a café), then settled to wait for the bus. We were sure we could figure it out later.

This turned out to have been a good decision. We have both decided to not carry around our smartphones, for safety’s sake. I’ve already met three people who had theirs stolen because they used them in public, and some of those were at gunpoint, at a random traffic light, while they were in a car! That’s a situation I plan on avoiding if at all possible. Those events happened in the center of Medellín, not in peaceful Envigado where we live, but still…

In case you’re interested, you can easily get a SIM card for an iPhone from any Claro or Virgin Mobile store. You can’t get unlimited data here, but 2GB/month is around $50,000 CAP ($25 USD). In the states, my plan is for 3GB, a limit that I never reach.

So here’s our solution: we both bought tiny Claro phones with prepaid plans, from a kiosk at the local Éxito (equivalent to Walmart). The phones cost about $25 USD, and came with $5,000 CAP worth of minutes. Chloe grabbed a Samsung and I grabbed an Alcatel – both will hold music and have cameras, but it’s odd to use such a tiny phone after getting used to a smartphone.

One of the cool things about these phones is that they’ll accept calls from the US for free.

Our apartment has internet, so Skype will still work on our smartphones, which we leave at home. My New Mexico numbers will all still reach me here. But when we go out, we take our cheap little phones, which are much less of a safety concern.

And you know what? I kind of like giving up my smartphone when exploring the city. Conversation is more fun, anyway. Even getting lost is fun – you have to talk to strangers to find your way instead of keeping your eyes glued to Google Maps.

Not too shabby!

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View from the Top: Guatapé

zopilote

We were settling in for a day of work this Sunday, when a few people staying at our hostel asked us to join them on a trip to Guatapé, a small town in the mountains northwest of Medellín. They had a truck, so we couldn’t resist!

The main attraction of Guatapé is La Piedra Del Peñol, a granitic monolith that towers into the sky. You really have to see it to appreciate how massive this rock is.

Unfortunately, the battery in our phone was dead, unbeknownst to us, so we were unable to take pictures. But a fellow traveler, Merlijn from The Backpacking Chef, saved the day! This gallery of the views and the picturesque town nearby came from his camera.

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When the Going Gets Tough…

medellin

Things don’t always go right – on the road or off. In the last month alone, a thousand dollars worth of camping equipment was stolen from us in Albuquerque, one of our bank accounts was temporarily (but inconveniently) suspended, and I sprained my rib while using a punching bag. Ouch!

But it takes more than that to send the Eatons home.

We figured out all the banking issues, mere days before we left the US again. We drove through the snow on Tuesday to the Denver Airport, where we caught an overnight flight to Ft. Lauderdale. This was uncomfortable – we couldn’t sleep on the plane, and only slept fitfully during our five-hour layover.

An aside: if you can help it, do not fly Spirit Airlines. They’re cheap, but the price keeps going up as they nickel-and-dime you. A drink of water costs $3 on the plane. Extra bags cost upwards of $30 – $100 if you check it in at the gate. But at least they let our instruments through… We both made it onto the plane with our 30 liter packs, a travel guitar, and a mandolin. That part was a relief!

All this and the mandolin fits into the "one carry-on" bag requirement for Spirit Airlines.

All this and the mandolin fits into the “one carry-on” bag requirement for Spirit Airlines.

So we got to Medellín in the early afternoon. Finally. Exhausted and hungry. The first thing I did was lose my jacket somewhere in immigration, which I didn’t realize until after I passed through. Finding it wasn’t easy with the little bit of Spanish I know… We had given up and were about to leave when an officer tapped my shoulder and handed me the jacket. He gave me a lecture (which I didn’t understand much of) complete with wagging finger.

Next, we got on the wrong bus. We realized it at the last second and caught the right one, to San Diego, Medellín. We thought our troubles were over at last, and relaxed for the beautiful mountain trip from the airport to the city. And, folks, the city is gorgeous! Perfect spring weather. A little humid but not bad. Consistent low 20s in temperature. We caught the metro to El Poblado, the barrio where we had reserved a hostel for the first few nights.

Except, when we found it, they didn’t have our reservation. They were booked solid. We walked, increasingly tired, until we found one with an open room – huge and expensive. Oh well. We passed out for the next 16 hours.

Today, we found out the hostel had simply confused our names, and when we didn’t “show up” that afternoon, they sold the room to someone else. Oh well.

But it takes more than that to send the Eatons home!

A little park in front of our hostel.

A little park in front of our hostel.

With more sleep, and more time on our hands, we found a beautiful little place called Grand Hostel, only a few blocks away. The lady behind the counter was ridiculously friendly (as indeed are all the people we’ve met), and answered many questions for us. We got a small private room for only around $25, and now we’re relaxing on the patio!

Our office today!

Our office today!

My rib still hurts, and I still need sleep, but you can’t beat a rum and coke in a hammock in this gorgeous weather, surrounded by friendly Paisas and travelers. Next step: Spanish lessons on my iPhone. Ahhhh….

Today’s soundtrack, from the Colombian band Monsieur Periné:

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More Than Travel Partners, Now!

mawwiage

Well, folks, it’s been a little while. We’ve been traveling around Texas, and about to start the next journey – details to come.

But we have a great excuse! We snuck off and got married! Chloe has been an amazing friend and travel partner – the best I’ve ever seen. I’ve never met someone who I can work and travel and live full-time with, without the stress getting to us. She’s amazing.

We decided to elope, instead of a big party, and had a retired judge marry us up in Estes Park, Colorado. It was a cold day, but the mountains and snow were beautiful. Our friend Nikolai took a video of it and handled the pictures; he was the only witness.

Maybe it’s selfish to have such a small wedding, but… you know. Both of us have always been the type to sneak off and do things our own way. That’s why we get along so well.

We tattooed our rings and spent the next few days relaxing at a lodge in the snow, soaking in the spa, and cuddling. Life is good – but it’s time to leave the country again.

Like I said, details to come.

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Back to the Wolf Sanctuary

Playing with Contessa, a wolf dog, back in 2009.

Candy Kitchen is one of my favorite places in the world – and it’s a place few people have heard of. It’s a tiny community, with the neighbors spaced far apart, somewhere between Grants and Zuni in New Mexico. I lived there for several years, with few amenities (the nearest actual grocery store is 60 miles away, my house never had actual hot water, and the floor was dirt). But it’s gorgeous and full of wildlife – a great place to relax away from the cities.

We’ve been neglecting this blog a little as we’ve travelled around the Southwest this fall. We spent some time in Bisbee, camped throughout the southern Arizona mountain ranges, went to Tucson, and eventually made our way north to spend a week in Candy Kitchen. We have old friends all through this place – their generosity is unparalleled and it’s a heart-warming place to stay.

One of the main attractions of Candy Kitchen is Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, my old employer (the picture above is from when I was a caretaker). The sanctuary is a home for wolves and wolf-dogs, all captive-born, who need a quiet place to live out their lives in comfort. Usually there are around 60 animals, and the wolves have been joined by dingos, singing dogs, and other assorted canids. They’re working on enclosures for a group of coyotes who are coming from the midwest.

Chloe and I took the tour of the sanctuary on Tuesday, and were talked into coming to volunteer on Wednesday. To any of my old friends who used to work here, our assigned task will be familiar: meat separation!

Chloe separating meat donations for the wolves.

Chloe separating meat donations for the wolves.

A butcher shop in Albuquerque sends their scraps as a donation for the wolves, several times a week. But the wolves can’t eat all of it; the fat needs to be picked out, as well as any bullets, shattered bones, hooks, mold, or extensive trauma. Each bone or piece of meat needs to be looked over before throwing out or feeding to the wolves – and we had seven barrels of meat to go through!

Surprisingly, it’s not a very gross job. Some of the meat looks delicious, and you’ll get occasional surprises like a trachea or set of testicles, which are great to throw at other volunteers.

If you ever get a chance, head to Wild Spirit – they’re always happy to show you around. You’ll never forget the sound of the wolves howling all around you!

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