Homecoming, censorship, and some very strange search trails…

Folks it had been a long time since I’d last seen my dog, but she was waiting for me when I landed at good old Esquel airport under sunny skies with light wind, as always, from the West. Patagonia! It had been too long. Eleven months I was away, and those of you who follow this blog can imagine from the travels undertaken in that time that it felt like much, much longer than it was. But here I was, and just in time to start the season. So far it’s been awesome. Plenty of water, and plenty of fish – just the way I like it. So far I’ve been mostly down in Rio Pico, guiding on all the waters around Tres Valles since a lot of my programs are running out of that lodge at present, and we’ve had an awesome bunch of clients and awesome fishing (not to mention some good old fashioned days on horseback). A bit of an odd cold snap in December and early January but that is not necessarily a bad thing, and the weather has ameliorated itself now anyway into the usual sunny skies and pretty light, so everyone is happy. This next item is pretty funny: I’ve been censored in Russia. Like, for real. I sent Khadizhat (who is in Russia at the moment) the link to that recent Itinerant Angler Podcast I did and when she tried to pull it up she got this: Says it’s pretty common there. But I was impressed! With myself, that is. If Putin feels threatened by my fishing prowess, it must be even greater than I thought it was. And so, I am out on the water almost every single day pulling on the oars and netting trout, and there’s not much else to tell. Sounds like a good time for another edition of the good old “Weird searches from Google Analytics reports that apparently landed people here on the blog” Enjoy!

I’m just a little bit fishy”– Well, I hope not! I hope I’m a lot fishy. I mean, it’s my job. Actually, I am a lot fishy, but not in any of the ways these weird searches below seem to be pointing to.

Afghanistan Trout Fishing” – I have heard that there were trout there, but if you are looking for an expert, I’ve not been yet.

عکسهای طالبان افغانستان” – Which means, according to Google translate – “Afghan Taliban Photography” – Seriously? Where is this stuff coming from? Between getting banned from the internet in Russia and this kind of searches popping up on the NSA’s data crawlers, I’m going to have black helicopters following me around any minute now.

Justin Witt, ok” – There we go! Please forward directly to NSA…

Before preparing a tea” – Before preparing a tea,… before preparing a tea… Well, I say go fishing. Before, after. Heck, tea is just as good streamside as it is at home anyway.

Adult video underwater handstand” – Oh boy. Here we go again.

You’d tube animal sex” – I guess these people actually do exist (I apologize if you are one of them). It looks like they just sit around all day in some dark little cubicle or basement and look up the weirdest things they can think of, which is usually pretty weird, and then somehow end up on my blog instead. Hopefully though at that point they see the light, walk outside, take the straightest line possible to a fly shop, and become born again into a world that makes some kind of sense.

Wrestling fetish underwater” – Is there seriously content on my blog that could somehow have led to this?

Testicle Castrating Mom Fetish Story” – Laughing too hard to type again…

Now everybody write me back and let me know how you are doing; I am headed back down to the estancia tomorrow but have internet almost every night; and I hope to hear from you soon!

In the land of Fidel and Raul, a recent trip to Cuba

Travel always has a way of making me feel simultaneously appalled and enamored of my ignorance.  Appalled in the sense that the sheer tonnage of what I do not know anything about can feel overwhelming, and enamored, because all that really means in the end is that I get to enjoy the learning of whatever I can reach of it between this moment and the one in which I eventually die.  My first clue that this trip really was going to be something different came when I called the Cubana Air office in Nassau to book the flights.  “Hello?”, said the lady who picked up the telephone.  I gave her my name, told her the dates I wanted to fly, and it was as simple as that;  she put me on the list.  No credit card deposit, no passport numbers, no “how many checked bags”,  just a nice “see you this Friday” and goodbye.  Honestly it was kind of heartwarming.  Just a few days later boarding the aircraft, a twin engine prop plane the likes of which I hadn’t been on since I think a flight out of Finland what now seems like a lifetime ago, it was more of the same: we chose our own seating, some buckled up and others didn’t, I left my backpack on the seat next to me, and it was all just no big deal.  I could get used to this, I thought.  We flew pretty much right over the Lodge while crossing Andros, and at an altitude far greater than that of the Otter I am used to seeing it from.  So I couldn’t help but for a moment think again about the relativity of perspective, not so much in terms of velocity (although the entire flight to Havana would take an hour and twenty minutes, the exact amount of time it takes me to jog eight measly miles down on the island every other day) but in terms of perspective in the broader sense.  I was looking down at the immense and intricate spread of coastline, canals, and tidal ponds that I spend most of my days guiding clients through now, but from this altitude it was very easy to see the whole of the thing; whereas from the poling platform of a flats skiff, it is just as easy to get lost.  This sort of thing always makes me think of the tiny creatures all around us every day which are possessed of extremely limited mobility and hardly any field of vision, like the ants, or the dust mites in our pillows.  But of course thinking in cosmologic terms, we are hardly any different.  This is hardly an original observation, but it holds my attention sometimes nonetheless, often to a degree that is annoying.  It can be quite easy to envy the ants when one is lost in the effort of trying to manage all the minutia of daily life like getting fed, and paying the bills, while at the same time preoccupied with electron valences on one end and the expansion of the universe as a whole on the other.  But, as usual, I digress.  Arriving at the airport in Havana I went through all the usual processes and lines to get in, but somehow this only took around five or so minutes, and then walked out to the curb to find my good friend Colin waiting there for me with an enormous smile plastered across his amiable face.  I’d not seen the Captain, as I call him, in several years.  In fact not since a particular back-country exploration he had done with me and Tweed down in Patagonia, which we all remember quite fondly but which from the curb there in Cuba seemed a million or so miles away.  He looked good though, all two meters   of him, and before I knew it we were stuffed into a rental car and careening our way through the streets of Havana with his good friend Mario the domino master.  The Captain has been coming down to Cuba in his off season and while not engaged in other far flung travels for the last fourteen years or so, and Mario was born here, although he now splits his time between Cuba and the United States.    It is hard not to have the first thing you notice in Havana be the cars.  Up in the states, or for that matter just about anywhere else in the world, when you see a 57’ Chevy driving down the road you slow down and take a good long look.  But Havana!  Havana is just chock full of these sorts of cars!  Chevy’s, Fords, Chryslers, the whole catalogue in fact, all of them manufactured in the 50’s and not so much “restored” as “spotlessly maintained”.  At least half the cars on the streets, and really the majority of the taxis, are what we would generally call museum pieces in my homeland.  Our first stop then, just to take it easy and settle in a bit, was the house of a couple I now call Tío y Tía (Uncle, and Aunt), in whose upstairs guest bedroom I would sleep the majority of my nights in the new country.  Super nice people, and accommodating in a way that we normally only expect from close family, hence the natural transition into nomenclature that corresponds.  Their house is located in one of the nicer neighborhoods sort of between downtown and the district where high ranking government officials tend to live, and only seven or so blocks from the seashore, which I walked to frequently in the mornings.  One senses rather immediately in pretty much all areas of Havana that there really is no danger to watch out for.  Petty theft occurs, and as such most of the homes have gates and fences, perhaps even with some barbed-wire at the top, but in terms of actual robberies, or violence, crime is practically non-existent.  In fact, for all that the government in Cuba could be considered perhaps quite a bit more intrusive than in places like the US, I have to say that I probably saw less than ten percent as many armed police officers throughout my stay there than I would have in a comparable American city over the same period of time, and one percent of what I always see in western Europe.  I actually didn’t even end up carrying my passport around with me, or any form of identification whatsoever, the majority of my stay.  Not something you can really get away with in Argentina, or hell, even back up home for that matter.  And on that note, I’ll go through sort of a disclaimer here:  I’m going to try and avoid going into the whole question of analysis and judgment concerning how the Cuban governmental system works, or doesn’t work, and what all of that might mean in terms of the communism vs. capitalism question.  For one thing, I am far too ignorant of the history of how it all went down in Cuba to even make any educated guesses about how the revolution and development of Castro’s government might have happened for the better of the worse; and for another, my sample size even in the first-hand experience of visiting for a week is of course far too small.  While it seems true one has the opportunity to get much deeper into the culture of Cuba in the space of a week than in just about any other place I have been, that still doesn’t constitute a platform from which to start opining, at least not for me these days.  So I’ll record my first hand observations in terms of what I actually saw, heard, and experienced, of course in a subjective sense (there’s no such thing as objective observation anyway, not even in physics) but without the addition of judgment.  One of the first things I noticed about my experience in terms of the culture in Cuba itself was how lucky I was to be with Colin.  Not in the sense that I needed another American at my side, but in the sense that if I had not been with him and as such the benefactor of his many years of experience in the country, it never would have occurred to me to simply walk up to any and all situations I encountered and engage myself in them.  We just don’t do that in the states.  And we don’t do it hardly anywhere else, either.  But in Cuba, if you are strolling past a classroom of elementary school kids in the middle of a lesson, and feel like popping in to talk with them and their teachers and see what sort of interesting things are going on, you can!  It’s as simple as that: you just walk in, say hello, and ask them what they are up to.  Next thing you know they are telling you all about it, and the conversation takes a dozen fascinating turns, until you feel like moving on.  Same thing with open residential windows on the street, elderly folks sitting inside them in living rooms watching baseball on the television.  You just walk up, stick your head in the window, watch a minute or so of the game, and the next thing you know you’re discussing philosophy with the grandmother!  The Captain showed me this in a deliberate way over my first few days, and as a result we enjoyed many excellent exchanges in places ranging from government housing offices to tire repair shops to the street corners in between, and the Cubans that we talked to all seemed to think it was the most natural thing in the world, hardly something about which to even comment.  Meanwhile, what few other foreign tourists we saw were for the most part doing what I always have done in the past, walking around and snapping photos, or shopping, or staring into their little lonely planet guidebooks.  The Captain’s been all over the world and tried out this “inside job” technique everywhere he’s gone, but says it is nowhere else he’s been as natural a phenomena as it is here in Cuba, where pretty much everyone is simply sociable, all the time.  But there were other things to see and do as well, and I must say Mario and the Captain intended to show them to me.  We drove all around the city, looking at interesting points like the enormous and intimidating Russian Embassy (pretty much the only intimidating thing I saw on the entire trip), the fort where Che Guevara shot enough prisoners after the revolution was already won that Fidel sort of realized he would need to send him on his way, since that sort of thing, oddly enough, didn’t fit within the new President’s concept for the future of the country, and even a bronze statue of John Lennon seated on a bench in an out of the way park, which was an interesting one to say the least.  The Beatles’ music had at first been “banned” in Cuba, I am told, but then later when their work had kind of come full circle they were embraced.  And when this statue was first christened it had a pair of actual eyeglasses on its face, of the style John Lennon always wore, but those tended to get stolen.  So these days, believe it or not (I do, because I saw it), there is a little elderly gentleman who is paid by the government each day to sit on a park bench just across from the statue, and whenever the odd tourist or local onlooker should appear, he slowly makes his way over, takes the spectacles out of a small case in his shirt pocket, and places them on the statue.  When the visitors leave, he removes, them, and returns to the bench.  I tell you, you really can’t make this shit up.  We drove out of the city quite a ways at one point early in the week as well, through countryside dotted with farms and cows which it is actually illegal to slaughter (long story) and eventually to a mountain range where we visited the island’s first coffee plantation, built in 1801 by French refugees from Haiti.  Then coming back to the city we attempted a visit to Papa Hemingway’s old place, which was closed for repairs, but I got a peek at Pilar anyway through the fence, and she was what I had mostly come to see.  Papa was of course a boat man, like myself, and it’s a subject which occupies a great deal of my mental energies these days as I consider the attributes of different types of sailing craft and a possible upcoming change of lifestyle that has been waiting in the margins now for far too many years.  Other than the travels and explorations we also did a lot of sitting around on the Tío y Tía’s front porch with their Little dachsund, Cici, which was a wonderful activity in and of itself, and I was startled just a bit one morning to find in the local communist party newspaper, Granma, that there had been reports of bison hastily evacuating Yellowstone, this phenomena thought perhaps to be a sign of the impending eruption of the super-volcano there, which is the only one on earth not currently set beneath an ocean.  It was a short little paragraph, but I told the other sitters on the patio that if in fact the Yellowstone volcano did erupt, that would be the last piece of news ever printed in the government fish-wrapper, or for that matter any other paper in the world.  Later in the week two nights were spent accompanying Mario and his family to a resort on the northern coast a couple of hours east of Havana, and that environment was a stark cultural contrast to everything I had seen elsewhere in the country.  Lots of foreigners, beach chairs, enormous buffets, and all the usual Oceanside tourism scene.  I met some interesting people from other countries, chased a couple of big barracuda with my underwater camera, and had a few good conversations with elder Mexicans about the history of their own country; but apart from that the days there were mostly spent eating.  Then far too quickly it was time for my flight back to Nassau, and I left my final morning from the Tío y Tía’s house being driven to the airport by a retired personal bodyguard of Fidel’s in a mood that told me in no uncertain terms I wasn’t finished with the place, and would be back.  On my next trip I hope to travel most of the island over a period of at least a few months, and hopefully get to know the farmers better, as well as the land herself.  Mario tells me there are villages that no roads reach, where the fields are still plowed with oxen, and perhaps even salmonids in some of the high creeks that spill down from some of the four mountain ranges that scatter across the land.  He says the locals tell him about “truchas” which they say are wonderful to eat, so perhaps it is true?  We’ll find out.  Soon enough.  And in the meantime I am back in the Bahamas, ready to get out with my clients in the flats skiff yet again, and surprised beyond all belief that in my absence I actually won the lodge-wide March Madness Bracket, even though I’ve never seen an entire basketball game in my life.  There was even an envelope full of five dollar bills on the table with my selection sheet to prove it.  Now everyone write me back, and let me know what is going on in your neck of the woods; I’ll be on the water almost every day now until the end of May but look forward to hearing from each and every one of you soon nonetheless.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, from the Jungle to Trevelin

Hi Folks, I’m home!  It’s been a long trip, but sitting at the kitchen table this morning looking out over my snow covered Andes I feel home, and that is a feeling worth having, at least for me.  It’s something I was giving some thought to up on Lake Titicaca the other day, out on an island called Amantani.  Here the eight hundred or so families that make up the island’s population have lived for many generations working the soil, and fishing, tending their animals, and helping their neighbors when a new adobe house needed to be built, or a terrace installed for planting.  It’s a simple system of economics, sort of straddling the line between Eden style trust in the environment, and Amish style communitarian manipulation of that environment, and judging by the broad smiles and quick laughter of the Island’s inhabitants, a system that has served its people well.  There is no crime, no police, no functioning church and apparently no need for one, no bank, no telephones, no television, and no traffic report on the radio.  There is a radio station, but no vehicles, or roads, so…  What there are, are a lot of well maintained foot paths, and perfectly tended fields, and spotless little houses with ten million dollar views.  My opportunity to get to know it actually came through a program that places tourists in these communities’ homes, in a guest bedroom so to speak (whichever one the family has moved some children out of for the night), and at the family’s kitchen table as well, for a sort of inside look at what their lives are really like.  The program has been around for a while I guess, but isn’t quite yet popular enough to have made the whole thing turn out cookie-cutter. The family I stayed with receives guests only four or five times a year, so its still a pretty big deal for them each time a new goofy looking stranger shows up at the port.  It’s kind of a cool thing really, but there’s a rub.  It’s sort of like the rub that occurred when Eve ate the apple, or when the first band of hunter gatherers back in the fertile crescent said to themselves one day “you know this is cool, but if we start staying put and farming we’ll have even more…”  And so, on my last day, after having enjoyed the lake (no bites) and wandered around the village and its surrounding hills in awe of the seemingly perfect community, having paid money to come there and experience it because I am from a place with all the ridiculous complications of the very economic insanity that allowed me to have that money to begin with, I get hit with the apple, in the head.  My now dear friend whose house I just spent time in is asking me to take a look at the alpaca rugs he and his sons make, and to consider helping him to market them online.  Online?  Wait a minute.  Where am I?  I sit for a minute at the table, fingering the beautiful alpaca skin and thinking through my response.  “And why do you want to do this?” I ask.  So he can give his children a “better life”.  This from the man whose home I am paying to be a guest in, whose children I have just spent the last several days being envious of, and who I now feel very, very sorry for.  Because he has eaten the apple, and there is no going back.  So anyway – other stops along the way included a really cool little town called Ollantaytambo, which has awesome food with incredible salsa and hot lemonade in a variety of little local restaurants for less than two bucks.  Oh yeah, and cool Inca ruins.  In fact, the whole city is built literally atop cool Inca ruins, most of the homes having Inca architecture stonework running about halfway up through the structures.  The streets are narrow, and stone, and the whole place has a feel to it of age, the good kind of age, the kind that makes you and your ideas of nationality seem very, very young.  There was even a neat lady on the plaza named Justina, whose finger-weaving I shot video of for what seemed like only barely enough time to get the tiniest idea of what the thing was actually like for the eyes.  The only truly frustrating thing about this area is that the rivers are crappy.  And when I say crappy, I don’t just mean the fishing.  They are full of everything the towns and cities that sit along them consider waste.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a material designation with some serious reach.  This is scary, and frustrating, when one is traveling through such spectacular country and so in awe of its beauty on so many levels.  But it is what it is.  Luckily for the world these rivers are all headwaters of that one great cleanser down below, the Amazon herself.  And cleanse she does.  That what she’s good at.  I just wish we didn’t have to work her so damn hard.  Lima I probably couldn’t say enough bad things about.  So I’ll keep my mouth shut.  Except to tell the story of kicking in the front grill of a car that almost mowed me down.  Not much attention is paid to crosswalks and traffic lights in Lima, not even in the (relatively) more civilized bario of Miraflores, where as I crossed the street one night a gentleman trying to run the red light screeched to a stop more or less where I had been only a half second before his car ceased motion, from which position I had leaped to avoid being mowed down.  And,..well,.. I don’t know what came over me – I just roared, and before I knew it my right foot had crashed through his stupid little plastic front grill.  Honestly it was simply an animalistic reaction – fight or flight, and if I had any choice in the matter I didn’t realize it at the time.  We made eye contact then, and I was sure he would get out of the car and there’s be a big hullabaloo; but no, not at all.  When I finally moved out of his way he just drove on, staring straight forward.  Guess he picked flight.  Eventually having left La Paz on a plane that went to Santiago, and then arriving in Buenos Aires via another plane, I moved on to the last part of my journey, across a yet unexplored by me (yes, there is still plenty) area of Patagonia, via the Patagonian Express!  This train used to connect quite a lot of what we’ll loosely call the “economy” of the area in which I live and run my business, but like most places that have switched everything over for some odd reason to trucking, the days of the train are long gone.  Now we have service just once a week in each direction between the coastal town of Viedma at the mouth of the Rio Negro and the city of Bariloche.  Viedma is actually a neat place, and one I had not previously known.  Walking across town the morning before my departure I even ran across this nice fellow, standing on a corner with an elephant mask and playing one of my all time favorite accordion pieces (yes, I have an all time favorites list of accordion music), the soundtrack theme from Amelie!  Trains though, are cool.  Like, seriously cool.  For less than the cost of a bus ticket I got a private room with a bed, and nineteen hours later got off at the station feeling fresh, rested, and happy as hell to see my good friend Hernan standing next to my truck with a grin on his face.  What a trip!

So anyway, I’m in the office here for the next month or so I think, then headed up to the states for my first visit in three years.  Anybody who wants to look me up and say hello should be able to do so in Georgia early in September and or late in October; otherwise in New Orleans (there are redfish there, and sharks) in between.  In the meantime write me an email, all of you, and let me know how you are doing.  I look forward to talking with you soon!

Elvis has left the Jungle

Hello everyone.  How goes the world?  Mine is fine.  I’ve been deep in the Amazon these last few weeks, spending some time with friends, and fish, and serpents, not to mention Genghis Khan (don’t ask, well that is unless you really want to know).  But it’s been wonderful.  There is just so much to learn here!  I’ve had my fly line cut by piranhas, seen enormous grubs cooked over coals, watched a rooster feel sympathy for a turtle, been rained on until it seemed the sky and the river were one, traveled miles and miles and miles in a tiny wooden canoe, swam, hiked, slept, and even witnessed the unspeakable accuracy and power of Maestro Don Alberto Torres Davila’s deadly staff, as wielded against the head of a viper two meters long and sliding sideways through the grass.  But alas, now I am headed south again.  I’ll be on Lago Titicaca in two days.  Look for another update sometime soon, and in the meantime, here’s the photos that I’ve taken along the way.  In the meantime though all of you please write me back; I look forward to hearing from you soon.  

Machu Picchu, by the skin of my teeth

Machu Picchu is actually one of the most visited tourist sites in the world, with up to two thousand people per day walking its paths and photographing its grounds year round.  This may sound like a turn off, especially if you are anything like me in the sense that you generally look for the path less traveled (or for places without paths at all), but let me tell you here and now folks – this one is worth it.  The site is amazing, in practically every sense.  From its location and scenery to its history and general energy, I could hardly recommend it highly enough. 

There are some challenges associated with getting there, especially if you are not particularly wealthy, since access is basically granted either through the wallet or the leg muscles and lungs.  Those with the bucks can take a train either directly out of Cusco or from several points between there and Aguas Calientes, the small town at the park’s entrance, but as of my writing there are only two companies to choose from for this service and they seem to be in cahoots with regard to a mutual neglect of competitive pricing.  Another option is to walk the Inca trail, a several day backpacking trip along the route originally used by the Inca themselves, but this one too is pretty expensive, illegal without a licensed guide, and generally booked out two months in advance.  So what’s left is the back door: arrival at what is called the hydroelectrica on the river Urubamba, either by foot from wherever you started or via seriously harrowing taxi transfer along a one lane winding gravel road with thousand foot drops off the left side most of the time and heavy truck traffic coming the other way as you round just about every tight curve, your driver blaring his horn more or less constantly in an attempt to avoid what seems like an all too likely head on collision, then the walk (+/- 2 hours) along the railroad track from where the road ends to the entrance of the park. You might be able to guess from my description which route I chose on the way in, and also why I decided to go ahead and kick out the cash for a train on the way out.  In the end I am glad I did it the way I did, but to be honest as the taxi slid to a stop less than one meter from the grill of a tandem truck in the middle of one of the curves with the cliff edge just inches from the tires and me looking over it, head out the window, I knew it was a once in a lifetime experience for me.  I would walk back out if I had too.

Arriving at Aguas Calientes after my escape from the cab and the walk down the rail line I was very happy to find that while rooms for the night were available for $1,500+US  there were also decent places to sleep for fifteen Soles ($5.50US), and that while many of the restaurants offered “American Menu” dinners at $50US a plate, in the market I could eat better food and drink the same fresh squeezed juices while sitting amongst locals and park staff for around seven Soles ($2.50US).  I was also surprised to find that the river, which I already knew to be extremely polluted downstream of Cusco, sported spectacular looking rapids, and also held trout!  Walking along its banks downstream from town that evening I encountered fishermen pulling smallish rainbows from the pools with the same coffee can setup some of my friends in Patagonia use.

The next morning I headed up into the site itself (another choice between expensive bus, and walking a long stone stairway path) arriving to find brilliant weather and what has to be some of the most impressive topography on Earth.  It is no wonder Pachakuteq, the Inca (which actually refers just to the “king”, not to the whole culture) at the time of Machu Pichu’s construction beginning in 1438, chose this site for his masterpiece.  Too bad about his timing though; it was inhabited for less than one hundred years before Manko Inca, fighting a losing battle against the Spaniards and in the midst of repetitive outbreaks of the same European origin viral epidemics that had been decreasing his culture’s population already for decades, ordered the city’s evacuation and the closure of all its entrances.  After that the jungle took back over, and the site remained more or less undisturbed until Hiram Bingham’s “discovery” of it in 1911. 

Since that date the place has been through a lot – excavations, reconstructions, tourism “development”, long drawn out fights over artifact ownership, and now, two thousand people a day walking all over it.  But still, it’s really, really cool, and I just enjoyed the hell out of it.  Check out the pictures and then come down here and see it for yourselves folks – I highly recommend the experience.