Ecuador got off to a somewhat rocky and inauspicious start when I was surrounded by 6 young hoods and accosted for my camera just hours after having arrived in Quito. The location was Plaza Foch which is packed with tourist and police, but evidently is one of the more dangerous areas you can wander around at night by yourself with a camera around your neck.
By yelling, screaming and simply refusing to give over my camera without a fight or a big scene, I was able to avoid anything more serious than a ripped jacket. I was also able to notify the police when I later spotted some of the main culprits walking around as if nothing happened just a few blocks away.
Unfortunately, because they did not actually steal anything, I’m afraid the guys were most likely released from custody that very same night to continue their reign of bullying on unsuspecting travelers. Nonetheless I recognized my luck at having my Cannon still available for our first day of shooting the very next day and while I had an exciting story to tell I’ll be the first to admit I was a bit foolish in having my camera out at night in the first place.
But I must say I will probably do so again, when circumstances are similar and I want to get a good shot. I firmly believe you can’t spend your whole life with your camera packed safely away in your hotel or hidden away because someone might actually be willing to rob you for it.
At some point you have to live your life and enjoy your trip, but common sense must tell you have to weigh the risk vs. the reward and be prepared to lose your camera or worse. If you don’t risk anything you may as well stay at home and never go anywhere or do anything. But if your reading this and planning a trip to Quito, be very vigilant, especially at night around Plaza Foch and other areas.
We received what we thought to be a 2nd bad omen when early into our first day of shooting in the historic old city of Quito (at 52 blocks the largest preserved old city in South America), a bird, or a flock of birds more likely, did their business all over me, my shirt, my producers shirt and our camera bag. Normally I’d laugh this off but this stuff was the ugliest, foulest smelling bit of feces I’ve ever come in contact with (and I grew up on a farm). I didn’t have another shirt with me so we all had to wash in a nearby public restroom and I had to change into my previously ripped, hooded jacket and we carried on shooting, continuity be damned.
My producer, Renzo, is Colombian and he said that in Latin America a bird plopping crap on you was considered a sign of good things to come. I certainly did hope so because the last 24 hours had been tough.
Indeed, things did quickly get better. Our shoot in the rest of the Old City was wonderful as we shot such beautiful historic sites as Plaza Independencia, La Plaza Grande, The Government Palace Building and more. I took advantage of the situation and bought a hand woven replacement shirt at one of the stalls where they featured clothing made in nearby Otavalo, a city famous for its textiles, market and indigenous culture . We also met a lovely couple who were weavers and demonstrated how to hand weaving process works for our cameras.
Later we were joined by Cheo, a local, young communications student from the coastal city of Esmeraldas who had volunteered to help us out. We made our way to the Teleferiquo or the cable car which took us up for an incredible if chilly view of Quito high above one of the area mountains.
We made it to the back down to the old city and the lovely La Calle Ronda, an area of cobblestone streets, cafes and restaurants in time for dusk and we got some great shots off there before dark and then heading over to the more modern part of the city to shoot at the famous rock bar, “The Garage”. We were there to shoot my buddies from the local punk band DMTR (Demeter) who agreed to put on a special performance just four our cameras.
All in all it was a solid 1st day of shooting and given the way things had begun I had a feeling our luck was changing. I mean the camera wasn’t stolen, I ended up washing my shirt and getting a cool hand made replacement in the process. Maybe the old Latin American superstition about a bird doing its business on you was true after all? Only time would tell but so far, so good… I guess!??
Today was the official first day of our 2nd episode featuring Uruguay and Argentina. We start things off in Montevideo, Uruguay where Renzo (Supervising Producer) and I (Executive Producer/Host) have been pre producing for a couple of days now.
Moses (Cameraman/Editor) arrived around 6AM Montevideo time after an all night flight from Bogota. I’m sure he’s exhausted so we arranged for him to crash at the hostel in an unused room where, selfishly, he wouldn’t disturb mine or Renzo’s beauty sleep!
Still, at 9AM Montevideo time (6AM NYC time) it’s a pretty early wakeup call and Renzo and I head out the few blocks down from our hotel, the Posada Al Sur, to shoot at the famous Puerto Marqueta. We quickly spotted the incredible Parilla restaurants that have been featured in every travel show I’ve ever seen on Uruguay.
Alas, we won’t win any awards on originality on this one, as we too will be shooting me stuffing my face with all different types of meat at the famous Parilla. After the BBQ last night at Peyo’s (Rudos Wild) house and the gigantic parilla lunch today, I vowed once again that I’m going vegan just as soon as I get out of Uruguay/Argentina!
We headed back to the hotel to grab Moses and to meet my friend Camilo from Rudos Wild who had graciously agreed to show us around El Ciudad Vieja (the old city) a bit.
We hit all the hot spots of Ciudad Vieja. In addition to Puerto Marqueta, we shot Plaza Independencia, Palacia Salvos and a few artisan shops . We learned about Mate From some of the local vendors, the ubiquitous tea everyone in Uruguay seems to be drinking, brewing or carrying around.
We had some technical issues with the audio on the camera in downtown Montevideo and I think it was a result of the signals in the air down there being scrambled because this particular issue didn’t pop up again the entire trip.
Nonetheless it forced us to cut our shoot short so we bid adieu to Camilo and headed to one of the city beaches to get some B-roll (footage) of me soaking up some rays and ingesting some much needed Vitamin D! I’m telling you, this hosting stuff is really hard work!
Then it was off to rehearsal for Rudos Wild where we interviewed the guys and helped them shoot a music video for “No Toleramos” (We Won’t Tolerate”), one of their best known songs and one of my favorites of all time. Luckily I didn’t have to hold the camera steady and could rock out right along with the guys.
As a matter of fact, I did, this time I had the words to Social D’s “Cold Feelings” printed out, so no forgetting the words this time. We had a little extra time so we did a version of “Don’t Drag Me Down”.
It’s late when we finished and we had another early start so we headed back to hotel for a quick bite to eat. We stopped off along the way to pick up a big old drum Renzo had specially made by a local, world famous percussionist. How the hell is that going on the trip with us I’m not sure.
The next day we were scheduled to shoot some more Montevideo footage and then catch a bus to the lovely and historic town of Colonia del Sacramento but I took the camera and shot a few stills of some of the kids hanging out in front of our hotel in Ciudad Vieja. I’m pretty sure they do this every night!
In case you don’t know them, World Vision (or Vision Mundial as it is known in Latin America) is one of the world’s premiere charitable organizations. They work closely with kids and families in the U.S. and in almost 100 impoverished and developing countries to help them break the devastating and tragic cycle of poverty.
Back in December, when we were shooting our first episode of Raw Travel for Colombia, I had the pleasure of touring their Bogota office and interviewing Edgar Florez, National Director of World Vision Colombia.
More recently, I had the honor and privilege of witnessing World Vision in action. Their dedicated army of staff and volunteers registered kids and families in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Medellin, Colombia, Comuna Ocho (Community 8). My cameraman for the day, Raul, a U.S. born Colombian-American now living in Medellin picked me up at 6:30AM (evidently volunteering requires getting up early), to meet with Myriam, World Vision’s Regional Coordinator for Medellin.
We were joined by Edgar (not Edgar Florez), a U.S. educated Colombian and extremely experienced translator who regularly volunteers his services for World Vision. Though Raul speaks fluent Spanish and English and Myriam could understand English, it was a great comfort not to have to rely on my cave man Spanish the entire day.
After a short meeting at their offices, we had a delicious, typical Colombian breakfast and headed over by taxi to Comuna 8. Comuna 8 is on the outskirts of Medellin, way up in top of the mountains. The view is absolutely incredible and airplanes from the airport were actually flying below us!
Unfortunately the incredible views, views that in the U.S. would be reserved for the wealthiest, were offset by the fact that Comuna 8 is controlled by Gangs (there are still over 250 currently active in Medellin)and crippling poverty.
What does this mean for the citizens and visitors of Comuna 8? Well for us, as visitors, it meant we’d have to wear World Vision Shirts in plain view and our taxi driver would have to obtain permission for us to visit and prominently display a “Volunteer” tag on his windshield.
For people doing business in Comuna 8 (bus companies, food and beverage suppliers, etc.) it means they have to pay “fees” to each gang that happens to control the particular area they work in. But it’s the residents that pay the heaviest price, they pay weekly “protection” fees to their respective gang “landlord” and have restricted movement during certain hours.
While we were there, there was little evidence of this oppression or even evidence of gangs, other than we were told when and where we could safely pull out the camera to shoot. Also someone pointed out graffiti that marked a particular gang’s territory. We learned that we’d need to leave before 4PM because even the residents risk personal safety if they venture outside of their block after 4pm.
Someone also pointed out to me the infamous “borrachero” tree that grows wild all over Colombia and creates scopolamine, the “zombie” drug, sometimes used by criminals to rob or rape unsuspecting victims. They assured me the flowers from the tree itself were perfectly safe and naturally occurring all over Colombia. I must point out that while this drug is a real threat and no urban myth, I have never, ever had any personal safety issues when visiting Colombia. Common sense goes a long way all over the world it seems.
During our tour, every time I saw a young boy of 9, 10 or 11 (some smoking cigarettes) , I couldn’t help but wonder if they were destined for a life in the gang or could an organization like World Vision have an impact on this kid’s life? I was told later that the gangs often use young kids around this age as mules to hide their drugs and guns, correctly believing they’d be less suspicious to any authorities when the crackdowns and raids in these barrios occur.
World Vision works in partnership with the community, enlisting many volunteers who live there locally. Without this partnership it would be impossible to operate effectively and help the children and their families.
Myriam recruited one of World Vision’s local volunteers who lived in the neighborhood to show us around and tour the barrio, thus ensuring our safety and ability to shoot our cameras uninhibited.
We shot a lot of great footage as many families invited us into their homes to see how they lived. One family had just delivered days old twin babies. When I walked in the father was giving one a bath while the mother was drying the other off and the adorable sister not so shyly watched us.
I was moved by the tenderness of the father. Myriam informed me she considered him a model father. I later decided I wanted to become a “Sponsor” for these twins (less than $20 a month each). They clearly had the love, now they just need a little money. I think it’s going to be a pleasure to see them grow up and develop the next 15-20 years of our respective lives.
I can’t wait to visit them as they get older and help them in any way I can, but I can’t help wondering about all the other kids without sponsors. Is it right that some win “the lottery” and others don’t? I’ve learned a lot about effectively helping impoverished people, especially after reading a great book called “The Life You Can Save” by Peter Singer. We simply cannot wait for the perfect opportunity to save everyone or nothing will ever happen.
But if those who can (i.e. most people who will read this) will simply try to save someone, then the worst poverty on the planet can actually be eradicated in a matter of years, not centuries. Wow, think about a world without poverty? What are the possibilities for us all then?
Thanks to Billionaires like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and millions of other “regular folks” things are changing. But everyday that we wait, tens of thousands of children die of easily treatable and preventable disease. While the U.S. does contribute greatly to charities, the vast majority of donations go to philanthropic organizations right here in the U.S. (often to local art organizations like the local symphony or museum, certainly not to actual starving people).
Our foreign aid tax dollars don’t go to the poorest countries on the planet either. They go to our allies in the war on terror and to places like Iraq and Afghanistan for political purposes, even though this gets lumped in and counted as humanitarian aid.
In other words, while the U.S., on the surface, seems to be a generous nation when you really analyze it, we are quite selfish. We spend a tiny, tiny percentage of our income and most of that ends up where it is needed least, in the U.S.
We have to ask ourselves “are U.S. lives worth more than others”? What is the cost of saving a U.S. life (estimates are in the millions) versus someone in the worlds’ poorest countries (in the thousands or even hundreds)? Even less expensive is bettering the lives of those in the poorest nations. For example, just $50 can give someone in a developing country cataract surgery and a new life where they can work for themselves, rather than simply beg for spare change.
We need to change our view of the world and understand that “THEIR” problems are “OUR” problems, not just from a humanitarian point of view but from an economic and security point of view.
I firmly believe that the affluence the U.S. has enjoyed the last few decades cannot continue to exist securely and safely for the long term as long as the majority of the people on the planet (many just miles from our own borders) are forced to try and live on less than $2 per day and make heartbreaking decisions like which child will go to school and which will have to work to help the family survive.
I saw in person that organizations like World Vision are truly making a difference. Myriam knew many of the parents and children in the community personally and after registering the families, each family received a gift “bowl” of goodies, like flour, cooking supplies, and little things that we take for granted but mean so much to a family living on the fringes of society and the edge of survival.
One lady had received help with fixing her house and a new bed after the rains had destroyed her old one. She proudly toured our cameras around while singing the praises of World Vision.
Medellin’s local government is to be applauded as well. They have a new and modern health clinic that offers medical treatment at greatly reduced cost to families in the Comuna 8 (in the meantime my health insurance premiums in arguably the most affluent society in the world climb 15% annually for less and less coverage).
They are building an Eco Park that will draw tourists from all over the city and possibly the country and help bring local tourism revenue as well. This strategy has proven effective in other at risk barrios in Medellin like Santo Domingo, where a new library and metro cable station was built and now is one of the more visited sites in the city.
A good economy is probably the surest way to break the power the gangs have over the Comuna 8 and the combination of World Vision, brave volunteers from the community and an enlightened government in Medellin could be just the powerful combination necessary to break the decades old cycle of poverty and gang control.
If you’d like to find out more how organizations like World Vision help so many children and families on our planet whose lives are sometimes (and sometimes all the time) at risk or at best can be described as a living hell, then please visit their website at www.visionmundial.org or www.worldvision.org . Also check out www.thelifeyoucansave.org for other practical ways for helping others.
You can view more photos from our tour of Comuna 8 HERE.
Today we visited thefood market which is primarily Afro-Latino. It’s a muddy, unhygienic mess because of the horrible rain and flooding. I’ve been to markets like this before in Brazil and other countries and it takes some getting used to seeing the raw meat just laid out bare on tables, without refrigeration and crawling with flies.
The one thing I always seem to notice is how everything gets used, we’re not just talking pig’s feet here, we’re talking pig brains, bull nuts, you name it they got it at the market.
And that is why the locals come here. It’s a cheap place to buy meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, but not just food, you can also buy toiletries, toys and you can get a haircut or buy some music, recharge your cell phone (or buy a cell phone).. it’s like a mall, not as nice by a long shot but way, way cheaper and full of mini entrepreneurs selling their wares and wheeling and dealing to make their living.
We get a decent amount of footage shot with Luis Towers providing the guidance, but once again just as we’re getting rolling, the rain sets in and dampens the rest of our shooting schedule.
Moe and I head out at night to a new part of the city, Boca Grande, and eat Mexican (a nice change of pace from the typical Colombian food we’ve been having) and get some footage of the Chivas, Colombian party buses. Boca Grande is not as charming as the old city but it’s a nice change of pace from the constant touts and vendors hounding you to buy buy, buy!
The Next day, we shot some more in the old city during the day. We find an English speaking tour guide Rolando, who agreed to be on camera with me and gave me the lowdown on a couple of historic spots in the old city including the famous Plaza Santo Domingo, where back in the day, slaves were bought and sold but today feature touristy restaurants with outdoor eating with live entertainment like traditional Afro-Latino dancing troupes, etc.
We get a few more establishing shots in before rain once again interrupts our plans.
We chilled for a bit at the hotel and then headed to a cool little restaurant owned by my friend Flavia called “Bazurto Social Club” on the edge of Getsmani for dinner. We were in luck because that night they were featuring live Champeta music, which was perfect to get us in the mood for our trip to San Basilio Palenque the next day. Tomorrow was to be a long day, so we hit the hay early, but not before doing some damage on the dance floor. While Moe and Renzo were dancing for fun, I was doing my “please no more rain” dance. I hope it works.
1st day of shooting and we get an early start meeting with Paula from Medellin Tourism office. Paula has a whole agenda planned for us so we start the trip off with an intense schedule that includes stops all over Medellin.
We begin at Barefoot Park where I am forced to remove my shoes and wade around in the water, grass and sand and get in touch with Mother Earth. The park is tranquil and the weather is splendid but I am in desperate need of a tan. I probably haven’t been this white in months… why didn’t we start in Cartagena?!
I’m pretty nervous and not used to the camera following my every move. This is going to take some serious getting used to.
We head from there to the Metro Cable and take the cable car up to the barrio Santo Domingo, and to one of the five new libraries the city has constructed in poor areas throughout the city. The views from the Metro Cable are stunning! And looking down gives you a glimpse of barrio life from above. It’s a must do when traveling to Medellin.
After touring the library, we break for lunch and meet one of Paula’s counterparts, Cristina, from the Medellin Convention and Visitors Bureau. We have a delicious lunch and head over to Parque Explora to take in the science museum. It’s full of schoolchildren and the most memorable part was going in the earthquake simulator which simulates a 6.0 Richter scale earthquake. To be honest it wasn’t that bad, but that is of course without buildings collapsing around you.
By the time we finished Parque Explora it’s getting late so we fight rush hour traffic and head over to Pueblita Paisa, which is a reproduction of a typical little town in Colombia. The view is incredible but it’s too dark to shoot much so we’ll have to come back tomorrow to get b-roll.
We head back to the hotel and I grab a quick workout before we head out for some legendary Medellin nightlife. Our first stop is Woka in Parque Lleras, where we order a drink called La cucaracha or something like that and the bartenders set the bar on fire. Good TV!
From there we head to a couple of really cool clubs and end up the night in Sabaneta at a place called “Dulce Jesus Mio” (My Sweet Jesus), that is a real trip. It felt like Halloween inside the bar with so many people dressed up in costumes, but to be honest I was so exhausted that I couldn’t really enjoy it. I just wanted to go to sleep. It was 3AM and I’d been up since 6AM the previous morning. All in all, a pretty intense first day! Travel ain’t easy!
Getting ready for our first day of shooting tomorrow and it’s going to be ROUGH. What a way to start off a 20 day shoot, and travel schedule with a 15 hour day our very first day! Welcome to showbiz right? As I’m well aware this is not a very glamorous business 99% of the time. Actually, you could say the same thing about traveling. It’s a lot of grunt work and grit along with moments of pure joy and enlightenment that sustain you, and make it all worthwhile tenfold.
I’d be lying if I said I don’t have some mixed emotions about being in front of the camera after all these years behind the camera. It’s got to be authentic or I just won’t be able to do it.
I’m a pretty confident guy, but just to be safe, I’m really hoping that by shooting this a bit documentary style, I’ll get over the self consciousness of having cameras follow me around after a couple of hours.
The love of travel and the creative process of producing will keep me going. Of course, the real challenge won’t be until edit when I’m forced to look and critique myself over and over and over. Ouch! I sure like critiquing other people’s work better, ha, ha!
But I’m excited to get started. Colombia is a great country and most travelers in the U.S. at least aren’t aware of all it has to offer these days so we are really excited to bring this information to people.
Tomorrow, bright and early, we’re shooting with Laura from Medellin’s Dept. of Tourism…she’s done a great job of putting together a jam packed agenda for us. After that, it’s rehearsal with local punk band Los Suziox.
And we end the evening at the wee hours of the next morning, partaking in some legendary Medellin nightlife. As I said, I’m super excited and I’ll rally, but tomorrow is going to be exhausting. I better get off here and get some sleep tonight…for a change.