fortykay.com

it's 40k kilometers around the world's circumference

Inspirational species diversity

Coming to Ecuador inspired me to read Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.  And at the end of his argument that evolution takes place through a process called natural selection, he writes:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.” On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin, 1859

It is humbling and incredible to think that evolution encompasses all life for over 3 billion years.  Although evolution is often pitted against creation, there is something wholly, not to be confused with ‘holy’, religious about the evolutionary process.

In a recent read of the “Evolution of God” by Robert Wright, Wright describes religion in many ways, but one that stuck with me was a definition developed by William James: religion consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.  Given our short lifespans, it does not seem a far stretch to call evolution an ‘unseen order’.  And although a Lamarckian inheritance might be closer to us being able to conspicuously adjust ourselves to the evolutionary order, I view the Darwinian inheritance theory to be much more harmonious.

And harmoniously adjusting ourselves is a critical component to James’ definition.  Being humble while adding to and protecting the world’s beauty is how I believe we can fit into the unseen order described by Darwin’s famous theory.

Jorge de la selva y el Rio Napo

The views from the Napo River are of the same jungle we trekked through yesterday, but this new perspective makes them seem even wilder.  The species of trees and plants easily number in the tens of thousands, and the texture that such diversity paints along the banks of the river is other worldly.  At times we find ourselves lost in our raft games led by our guide, George of the Jungle, a.k.a. Jorge de la selva.  These games include getting stuck on rocks, surfing, spinning in circles, being human hood ornaments and more.  At other times, we navigate exhilarating rapids.  And then at others, we pause, and we get to look around, take in our surroundings, and try to absorb as much as we can, not including inhaling the water through the rapids.

Shimmying with vipers and bats

To set the scene, our first full day in Ecuador is in the Napo Province on the edge of the Amazon jungle.

Pushing away Jurassic leaves, we walk over rooted rocky paths through a humid rain forest where we hear the sounds of water overhead but because of a dense canopy, none is really felt.  At first glance, the hike’s excitement comes from dodging “bullet” ants whose bites sting for up to 24 hours and admiring vines that are perfect monkey ladders.  The path is a bit slippery which challenges my balance now and again, and I find myself running into spider webs seemingly none with spiders attached.  Once we get down to a slow-moving stream, our nature walk quickly becomes more of an Amazonian trek.

The so-called wellies that we were given are starting to make more sense.  We walk through the calf-high stream and suddenly stop when Jose, our guide, comes to a halt.  It’s a baby viper snake.

Jose finds a long stick, splits the end into a fork, and traps the snake’s head in the “y”.  Not sure exactly what his plan is as he wrangles the snake with his stick in one hand while wielding a machete in the other.  After about 10 seconds of chaos, the snake wriggles its way out of Jose’s hold and starts swimming downstream.  I learn that when a frightened viper swims, it keeps its head above water creating a very intimidating s-shape as it goes.  It finds a fallen tree trunk and climbs up, but not too high.

As it sits there watching the path, Jose stands between the snake and us hikers while we tip-toe around.  Luckily, we’ve learned that we have a full 2 hours to get to a hospital after being bitten before we’d have to amputate a limb.  So, worst case scenario, we’re probably screwed.  The guide’s sweat seems only to be from the weather and not the stress, but all of us are holding our breaths nonetheless.  We remain on the lookout for the rest of the hike, but are pleased not to be greeted by any other slithering reptiles.

Next on the tour, we approach caves of bats.  While I’m enjoying my full Bruce Wayne awakening moment, I find Lindsey in a fetal position far back on the trail.  Apparently, Lindsey suffers from chiroptophobia.  I thought we’d shared our phobias before marriage, but I guess we continue to learn more about each other every day.  Marriage truly is a gift.

I manage to only get slammed into by two bats, one of which comes in with quite some force.  So much so that it ricochets back towards Lindsey who ducks just in time; actually, I think she was down the whole time, but so goes the story.  Lindsey, from her squatted position, avoids all contact from these creatures.  Jose tells us repeatedly that these are just fruit buts, but that still doesn’t help alleviate Lindsey’s fear that they’re human flesh-eating nightmares.

And if the final phase of the hike wasn’t going to be difficult enough, we need to now shimmy up a crease between 2 shear rocks keeping a look out for the blind bats just waiting to poop on us.  With our feet pressed on one rock and our back against another, we make slow and steady movement upwards.  And because of my healthy fear of heights, I psych myself up to conquer this, but frighteningly our trip-mate right just ahead falls from over 7 feet up.  After a slow-motion fall, I hold my breath waiting to assess the damage.  She jumps right up with spirits still very high.  But my adrenaline is now at code red.  I try to slow my breath as this moment isn’t about me, it’s about her.  Luckily, besides a couple bruises she’s actually totally fine.  I’m not convinced if I attempt the same fall, I would get the same fate.

Without looking too far down for fear of falling or too far up for risk of getting bat poop in my eye, I just keep making progress.  Relieved when we get to the top, this is just the first 20 feet of shimmying, and we have another half mile before reaching solid footing.

We survive, the viper survives, the bats survive, and as we wrap up our first full day in Ecuador, we gain a whole new appreciation for the Amazon.

Honeymooning in Venice

Wining and dining in Portugal and Venice

One of the true highlights of this trip are its meals.  And not only because the food, the wine, and the atmosphere of so many of them are beyond special.  Breakfast, lunch and dinner are all times that Lindsey and I get to completely slow down, be together, and just talk about our honeymoon, our wedding, and our future plans.  I’ll try to capture our favorite spots:

Alma by Henrique Sa Pessoa – the small tastes at the start of the meal might have been my favorite, but the sardine and suckling piglet still make my mouth water.  We highly recommend this small Lisbon restaurant.

O Paparico in Porto – knocking on a door to enter into a restaurant that brought us back in time, it almost doesn’t matter how good the food is because the experience starts off so well. The food doesn’t disappoint either.  A couple favorites from here are the terrine and the clams in a pork sauce.

Pedro Lemos – We get the corner table so that we can watch as the restaurant fills up because our 8:30pm reservation is a little on the early side.  The standout dish from PL is the seared tuna with wasabi pearl onions.

DOC by Chef Rui Paula – Sitting right along the Douro river, we split several apps and mains, and this may be the best octopus we’ve ever tasted.

Six Senses – Right at our hotel in the Douro Valley, we have one of the best lamb shoulders we’ve ever had (not sure I’ve ever had one before).  The view isn’t bad either.

Trattoria alla Madonna – We hear this place hasn’t changed in the last 50 years, and decide to try it out on our first night in Venice.  The fish risotto, branzino, and tiramisu can’t be missed!

Osteria Acquastanca – A surprise hole-in-the-wall on the island of Murano.  It was quiet, cool, and the food, especially the gnocchi, is homemade and great.

Antiche Carampane – Super small and Italian and away from the tourists of Venice, this spot had some delicious squid ink tagliatelle followed by some bite-sized soft shell crab cooked perfectly.

Al Covo – A beautifully done Americanized restaurant in Venice.  The excellent service was the most familiar to us, and the food was great with our favorite being a meat rigatoni dish.

Like a Disneyland ride

The pictures tell the story.  This city built with canals as streets, gondolas as its taxis, and a beautifully decaying charm, creates a wonderfully romantic atmosphere.

Murano glassblowing

For as touristy as we know it will be and as it ends up being, the glass blowing demonstration while on Murano Island near Venice is spectacular.  We find ourselves two seats in a hot studio that is somehow much hotter than the very hot day outside.  The actors of the show are a master glassblower and his assistant.  In very little time, the master turns Murano glass pieces into a cup.  All of the colors in Murano glass are not painted, but are of the glass itself; therefore, the color will never fade or wash.  Then in only seconds time, the master glassblower shapes a solid piece of glass into a horse.  The precision, the ease, the teamwork of the master and his assistant, and the design all combine to make a very entertaining demonstration.

Transported back to the Renaissance

I’ve never been much of a history buff. The past already happened, irrelevant beyond memorization for exams. But Venice? Venice captivated.

We arrived by private boat, speeding through the ocean then slowing to the 5mph speed limit to grace the Grand Canal. Our hotel entrance was unabashedly grand, a contrast to our departure by foot where we were greeted by alleys so narrow you could barely see the sky. We both had a fear stricken moment wondering if all of Venice would be this claustrophobic, but then the alley opened to a street with a corner café. We eagerly got lost, taking in the beauty of a crumbling city, covered in salt from the sea. Venice felt special right from the beginning.

The next morning, we navigated the streets, leaving twice as early as Google advised, to meet Lorenza Smith. Our tour guide for the morning was a Venetian, author of Venice: Art & History, and professor in New York – overqualified for our Day in the Life in the Renaissance agenda. The general content of the tour I was sure I’d heard in Latin class long ago, but this was different. This tour brought the city to life for us, the magic we’d sensed served to us in stories of the most opulent and enduring Empire ever built.

It’s comforting to believe that history is in the past, that the terrible or foolish or inane things that happened were because people were unevolved, unsophisticated, animalistic. But in Venice, the likenesses to today were undeniable, right down to the beauty routines. Venetian women would spread their hair out on a wide-brimmed hat, mixing concoctions to lighten it in much the same way as my friends and I used to spray Sun-In into our hair in the summer in the hopes of developing blonde highlights.

Venice was spectacular. It was a living museum full of new life, bodies from around the world, just as it had been in Venice many centuries before.

Douro adventures

With the backdrop of the Tour de France happening in a fellow European nation not too far away, we spend our first morning in the Douro cycling through the vineyards.  Moving between vines, we appreciate that not all wine regions are the same.  The terraced Douro valley is particularly steep and manual.  The only way to strip the vines of their grapes is by hand – no machine can traverse these terraces.  We learn stories of people carrying incredibly heavy baskets up and down these hills.  We first imagine a peaceful ride through the area, but we soon learn that the slopes and the loose gravel make this morning more of an adventure and less of a stroll.  Luckily, the views have us stopping often to rest and take photos.

We seek adventure; however, we don’t always appreciate how much adventure we’re getting ourselves into.  We sign up for a three-quarter day canyoning trip near the Douro.  We’re picked up from the hotel after breakfast and driven through much of the countryside of Portugal.  We arrive at the side of the river and change into our wetsuits, harnesses and helmets, which we believe is more for form than function.  However, after only a couple meters into our excursion, we jump off a small cliff into the water.  Given my healthy fear of heights, the adrenaline high begins here and doesn’t stop until we arrive back at our car four hours later.  In-between, we repel down waterfalls, climb up waterfalls, scramble around rocks, cliff jump into river pools, and use moss-covered rocks as slides.  Not for the faint of heart.

As our reward, our guide brings with him a homemade, traditional Portuguese picnic with corn bread, cheese, sausage, and homemade wine, port and grappa.  Once we relax, we realize that we are very hungry, and truly enjoy our late afternoon picnic.

The magic and a little science of port

After learning more, we can appreciate almost any true craft, and port making is no exception.  Which grapes to use, when to stop fermentation using grappa-esque liquor, if and how to age the drink, what to age the drink in, and how long to wait before drinking.

After spending over a week in Portugal, we learn and try many kinds of Port: white, ruby, tawny, vintage, late bottle vintage, and others. One tasting that will not blur with any of the others is from a very small producer in the Douro Valley named S. Leonardo.  We climb up through the vines to the top of a hill on a very warm afternoon.  Inside a small stone building, there are large barrels carrying carefully crafted vintages of port.  Listening to the owner talk about his craft and his port, we are taken to generations past when we taste port that has been aged for 10, 20, 40, 60, and 100 years.

Port that has been aged for many many years takes on new and wonderful characteristics.  The 100 year old port had flavors of caramel, chocolate, a little coffee, cherries, woodiness, and nuts.