International Song Festival in Viña del Mar

Tonight I became a MONSTER! No, I didn’t change into a zombie or get bitten by a werewolf, but I did participate in one of the wildest music festivals I’ve ever been to in my life. Every year, in Viña del Mar, Chile, there is a music festival/singing competition. How it works is a band (sometimes no name bands, sometimes up-and-coming bands, and sometimes established bands) will perform in front of a massive audience of 20,000 people in the Quinta Vergara Amphitheater. The audience decides if they like the band or not by cheering or booing. That’s why they call the audience el monstruo, because if they don’t like you, they’ll chew you up and spit you out.

This festival kind of reminds me of what I heard about the competitions at the Apollo Theater back in the day. If they audience liked you they’d cheer and if they didn’t like you they’d boo. A lot of famous people got their start at the Apollo, and this festival does the same thing by giving artists a shot at fame and stardom — and others an opportunity to re-evaluate their musical careers.

Franz Ferdinand at Viña del Mar festival 2006 picture by Nestor Gallegos

I really liked the way they put on this international song festival. They split the artists into two categories, pop and folk. I’m not really into folk music, but it was easy to choose the events geared more towards the pop audience and popular culture. I got a really nice program so I could follow along with the artists, and their music was for sale if we liked what we heard. I found it to be an amazing platform for new and established artists. This festival is broadcast around the world and the artists get to share a stage with some of the biggest names in music today.

I finally took my seat when the first band got onstage. I liked walking around and talking to the people, but it was time to be a MONSTER! I knew the audience would be super critical, so I prepared myself for the worse. Thankfully, the first few bands were really good. They had catchy hooks and the beats were insane. Everyone there agreed and cheered for those guys. The fourth band wasn’t so lucky. They must have been nervous. The lead singer knocked over the microphone. When he went to pick it up he tripped over a cord. The audience laughed, and I know the dude was embarrassed. As soon as he opened his mouth to sing, el monstruo unleashed its wrath. He didn’t sound that bad, but he wasn’t that great either. You should have heard some of the things they were yelling. The poor band ran off the stage, where I know they cried. Thankfully after that, we took a break.

By the end of the day’s competition, el monstruo was tamed by this band from Canada. They were really good. We didn’t stick around for all six days of the competition, but the concept was really cool. The environment was alive and the music flowed through the air as if it were part of the breeze. I loved it! I’d like to come back for all six days next time. I know a great band back home that could rock this festival, but I’m scared of what el monstruo will do to them. It doesn’t hurt to try, but a tomato could cost you an eye. OK, I must be tired now because I’m rhyming. Good night!

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Mitad del Mundo

Today we went to Mitad del Mundo. It’s a place that marks where the equator crosses through Ecuador. It’s a pretty place. There’s a huge sundial in the middle of the grounds, and there’s the line marking the equator leading up to the sundial. There weren’t that many people there today, but it did seem like everyone wanted to straddle the line on the north and south sides and take pictures. Of course we wanted to do the same thing! It was a great shot.

As we were taking the pictures, I couldn’t help but wonder if these people knew that the line they were standing on was actually inaccurate. Did they know they should be standing about 260 yards south of where they were? Another question that was burning in my mind was: if the equator is an invisible line that cuts the world in half, then isn’t the fact that someone actually drew the line a little strange? Maybe I was thinking too much about it, but I still think those are great questions!

Mitad del Mundo Monument at Quitsato, Ecuador

I know I’m a little weird, but I counted 780 steps south to see if there was another line marking the actual equator. There really is! It’s not nearly as pretty as the Mitad del Mundo, but there is a red line that marks the actual equator and a small, much shorter sign that declares the spot. It’s surrounded by tall aloe and cactus plants, so if you didn’t know it was there, then you’d never think to look in that spot.

Signal at the "La Mitad del Mundo" landmark at Quitsato, Ecuador

A guide of sorts was standing near the line. I don’t think he was an official tour guide, but he was talking to a group of tourists. He was saying that the gravitational pull in this particular spot was very strong. To demonstrate this, he tried to walk heel-to-toe on the line marking the Equator. He was completely off balance and nearly toppled over. Then he picked a spot that wasn’t on the red Equator line and walked perfectly fine. Of course I didn’t believe what he was saying, so I tried it myself. OMG, it was true! I really couldn’t hold my balance on this line. It felt like someone was pulling me in each direction. It was strange and cool at the same time.

I wish we had time to stay and explore more of the two sites. We had to get back to our hotel. We’ve got big plans tonight in Quito. I’ll tell you all about them later.

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Ecotourism

I learned a valuable lesson in ecotourism today. I thought it was all about doing sports in a natural environment so whenever I went white-water rafting or four-wheeling, I was participating in ecotourism.  But those are just outdoor sports; they are a part of ecotourism, but that’s not all of it. Ecotourism is much more than that. It’s about connecting with and respecting nature, the local cultures, and doing volunteer work. It’s about experiencing nature without destroying any part of it. Wow! What a lesson! That really wasn’t what I was expecting when we got to Costa Rica.

step trail in Jungle

This morning we ate gallo pinto for breakfast. It’s just rice and beans, but I thought the name for it here was awesome. Gallo pinto translates to “painted rooster.” Where do they come up with these names? After breakfast, we met a tour bus in front of the hotel. The tour guide, Sergio, said that we weren’t far from the spot we were going, but there were a lot of trucks going to and from the port, so we’d be stuck in traffic for a little while. It looked like rush hour traffic back home. I do think the scenery was a lot prettier than back home, though. We passed by a lot of banana and pineapple plantations. It was so green!

Kayaking

We made a left turn somewhere and ended up in a small town. Sergio told us to get off the bus because we had arrived. I asked him where we’d arrived because I didn’t see any water, ATVs, jeeps, trails to hike or nothing of the sort. That’s when Sergio schooled the group about what ecotourism really was. He said that before we could enjoy the fruits of nature, we must pay our respects. First we were going to plant trees to help the environment and to beautify the grounds of a small park in town. Then we were going to help fix the roof of the only school in town. Lastly we were going to travel a few miles to help clean up the beach. I was happy to do all these things. We met some of the local people, who were happy to talk to us and take pictures.

We saw kayaks when we got to the end of the area we were cleaning. I was hoping that our hard work for the day had paid off and we were finally going to get to the sports. Don’t get me wrong, it warmed my heart to help those townspeople. I would love to go back and see them again. But I was ready for a different kind of fun. Turns out I was right. We kayaked down the river. There were all kinds of birds flying around. At times I had to concentrate hard because the water got a little choppy, but it was a fun ride. After the kayaks, we hiked back to the bus. Some people swore they saw spider monkeys, but I didn’t see any. I just kept seeing different species of birds. We passed some gorgeous waterfalls and took more incredible pictures. All in all, it was a great experience!

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Darién Gap

Most of us are familiar with the Pan-American Highway. It is a series of roads that stretch from the tip of Alaska (Fairbanks) to very bottom point of Argentina (Ushuaia). When it’s completed, it will be over 20,000 miles long. But the part that I didn’t know is that the highway isn’t complete. There’s this thing called the Darién Gap. What is the Darién Gap? I’m glad you asked! I’ll tell you the story of how we found out.

So we were driving south in Panama, following the map the travel agent at the hotel gave us, and we approached a village called Yaviza. This is a tribal village, and the people are blissfully out of touch with modern society. I wanted to stop and take pictures and talk to the people, but it seemed like the others didn’t want to, so I snapped pictures from the window. Now, I was starting to notice that the dirt road we were traveling on was looking less and less like a road. Then we approached a military checkpoint that was blocking the way. I was thinking to myself, “Dude, are we going the wrong way?”

Tribal hut at Yaviza village in Panama

We pulled up to the gate and got out of the car. One military guy told us that we couldn’t go any further unless we had a permit from La Palma. Another military guy asked where we were going and why we were going there. A third military guy starts looking through the windows of the van. This was all happening so fast, and I was feeling a little nervous. Nobody else spoke up, so I explained that we were from the United States and we travel around the Spanish-speaking world performing challenges and getting to know about the different cultures and places the Spanish-speaking world has to offer. The first two military guys walked away as I was talking, but the third stayed to explain the Darién Gap.

Darién Gap jungle view

Apparently, the roadway is incomplete. There is one small part that is all swamp and marshland on the Panama-Colombia border. You need a permit to cross it, and only a few people in history have ever crossed it by land…and survived. It’s only 99 miles long, but it’s very dangerous. The military guy was saying that most people will put their car on a ship that goes around the Gap and will either fly or take a boat to meet the car on the other side. I started talking to myself again. I said “Self, why would that travel agent send us on the road without a warning about the Darién Gap?” At that point we thanked the guy, got back into the car, and went back to the village. It’s time to plan a new way around this obstacle! Anyone up for an airplane ride?

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Panama Canal

OK, so you can’t come to Panama without visiting the canal. It took ten years to build, and I was hoping they took their time and got it right because I am terrified of water. Somehow the group convinced me to take a ride on this huge cruise ship so we could see how the canal worked. I’d never been on a boat in my life, yet I let seven other people talk me into getting on a ship. I’m such a sucker, because they bribed me with the meal of my choice afterwards.

So, the canal connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It’s a set of artificial lakes that are closed off and reopened when the ships come through. The ship enters what’s called a lock and then the reservoir fills with water, lifting the ship up to the next level, like an escalator. Then the ship floats farther down and goes through the same process a few more times. At the last lock the ship is dropped back down to sea level. But here’s the catch the canal is super narrow, so the ship’s captain has to get it right the first time or he or she will slam into the walls of the waterway. The crew members said there are about thirty accidents a year through the canal.
Panama Canal

After knowing all this, I was on a ship that had to go through the whole process. I was good until we got to the first lock. I freaked out a little bit when the water started rushing into the lock, but I couldn’t really feel the rise of the ship as we went up. I’ve felt worse movement on a rollercoaster. After that first lock, I was good until we got to the last lock. . I thought we were going to go up again, when all of a sudden we dropped down. Please don’t laugh, but I passed out. When I woke up, I was back in my room and there was a medic holding smelling salts under my nose and someone else was fanning me. Talk about embarrassing! So that was my first and will be my last tour of the Panama Canal.

Ship on Panama Canal

I must admit, the canal is an easy way to get around, although it’s not a fast process at all. It took about a day to complete the process. We were lucky to have had good weather so we could pass through without problems. They said over thirty ships can pass through the Panama Canal on a good day. If there’s bad weather or an accident, then only a handful of ships can pass. And don’t believe it’s cheap to pass through the canal. Some ships have to pay as much as $150,000 to pass through. But once, a swimmer passed through the canal. They charged him 36 cents!

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