March 20, 2013
If you think flying is stressful, just imagine how the experience must impact an innocent, unknowing dog or cat when packed away in the cargo hold of a commercial jet. Air travel, in fact, is not just stressful for animals. It can be dangerous, no matter how smooth the landing, timely the departure or friendly the flight attendants. Conditions in the cargo hold of commercial jets are not always friendly; temperatures can fluctuate wildly, noise can be tremendous and air pressure can drop significantly, and pets that are checked into this dark space beneath the passenger cabin sometimes die. In 2011, thirty-five pets died while (or shortly before or after) traveling on commercial flights with U.S. airline companies. Nine animals were injured and two lost entirely. And in 2012, 29 pets died, 26 were injured and one was lost. These numbers should be considered in context; the U.S. Department of Transportation says that two million animals travel on commercial flights each year.
More pets have died in recent years on Delta Airlines flights than on any other airline, according to mandatory incident reports provided by U.S.-based airlines to the Department of Transportation. In 2010, 2011 (PDF) and 2012, Delta Airlines was responsible for 41 of the 97 reported animal deaths. Multiple publications have reported that Delta carries more pets than competing companies, which could explain the seemingly high rate of incidents reported by the airline. A media relations official with Delta Airlines declined to comment for this story.
United Airlines reported 12 animal deaths in 2012 among six airlines that reported incidents.
Almost never is corrective action taken following these incidents. Indeed, fault may often lie with the passenger—such as when animals with pre-existing health problems are checked as baggage.
Kirsten Theisen, director of pet care issues for the Humane Society of the United States, believes air travel is simply too stressful for most animals, especially when they are placed in an aircraft’s cargo hold.
“Flying is frightening for animals,” says Theisen. “They can sense the pressure changing and they can tell that something is happening, and that’s scary. Flying is frightening if you don’t know what’s happening.”
Theisen recognizes that many people today wish to include their pets in family vacations, but she strongly suggests leaving animals at home, in trusted hands, if at all possible. Theisen says reports of pets being lost, injured or killed in transit are increasing, if only because human travelers are increasingly taking their animals along for the ride.
“More and more now, families consider their pets to be members of the family and want to include them on trips,” Theisen says. “Unfortunately, airlines don’t consider animals a member of your family. They consider them cargo.”
Theisen recommends that travelers with pets “do their homework” before flying. She points to Delta’s website, which provides lengthy and detailed information on the possible hazards for pets traveling by plane. Delta, like many airlines now, prohibits pets as checked baggage between May 15 and September 15, when high temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere produce extreme dangers for pets stashed below the passenger cabin. Delta also says it will not carry pets in the cargo hold during periods of extreme weather, whatever the season. The company’s website also states that it will not accept animals as checked baggage if the high temperature at any location on a flight’s itinerary is forecast to be below 10 degrees or above 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
In other words, just that an airline accepts your animal as checked baggage does not mean that conditions will be comfortable or safe for an animal checked as baggage.
Unforeseen hazards can arise once a plane is loaded and prepped for takeoff. On airplanes that have been delayed after leaving the terminal and parked on the blazing tarmac, temperatures can escalate dangerously. Pets have also died due to low temperatures. In 2010, two dogs and a cat perished due to extreme cold in transit, according to the Huffington Post. One of these animals was a hairless kitten named Snickers. The cat’s owner had paid a $70 fee to ensure her pet’s swift removal from the plane. However, it reportedly took baggage handlers 50 minutes to remove the kitten’s kennel from the cargo hold. Snickers died shortly thereafter.
Nearly all animal incidents reported to the Department of Transportation involve pets in the cargo hold. But in 2012, a pug died inside the passenger cabin on a flight from New York City to Salt Lake City that was delayed before takeoff. KSL NewsRadio of Utah reported that a flight attendant told the dog’s owner to keep the pug’s carrying case under the seat throughout the 45-minute delay. The dog reportedly began panting in its confined space and, later during the flight, was discovered to be dead.
Pugs, in fact, are one of several breeds now prohibited on many airlines because of their natural vulnerability to respiratory stresses. They are among the brachycephalic dogs and cats, commonly called snub-nosed, or pug-nosed. Brachycephaly is considered a disorder in humans and many other species, while for a number of dog breeds, the condition is a natural variation. In addition to pugs, boxers, English bulldogs, American pitbull terriers, chow chows and about a dozen other breeds are brachycephalic. At least four cat breeds—Burmese, Persian, Himalayan and exotic short-hair—may also be defined as “snub-nosed.” These animals, more frequently than others, may have breathing problems or difficulties when placed in the stressful conditions of an airplane’s cargo hold and face a relatively high risk of in-flight suffocation as a result. Of 189 flight-related animal deaths reported by the Department of Agriculture between June 2005 and June 2011, ninety-eight were brachycephalic breeds, according to The New York Times.
Delta, American, United and many other companies have strict regulations regarding brachycephalic cats and dogs on their flights. A company called Pet Airways launched in 2009 to cater to pet owners, and about a quarter of the airline’s animal passengers were snub-nosed breeds. Pet Airways did not last long, however. The company, which received some poor customer reviews on Yelp, was showing signs of financial distress by early 2012, according to the New York Times. The company has since ceased operations.
Owners of non-pug-nosed breeds should not be caught off guard. In February 2011, a 3-year-old Labrador retriever reportedly arrived safe and sound an hour past midnight in Singapore on Delta Flight 281. The dog was placed in a baggage storage area, was reported to be in good condition at 5:35 a.m. but was found motionless in its cage at 6:20 a.m. In late July of 2011, a 6-year-old yellow Lab died while in the cargo hold of a Delta flight from Pensacola to Baltimore, with a stop in Atlanta. On the second leg of the journey, the aircraft was delayed for hours in Atlanta and was eventually cancelled entirely. The dog was later found dead in its kennel. A year later, in September 2012, a 2-year-old golden retriever named Beatrice died of heatstroke on a United Airlines flight from New York City to San Francisco. The dog’s owner, supermodel Maggie Rizer, wrote on a blog that the airline acted with dishonesty and callousness after the dog’s death—though the airline reportedly refunded the $1,800 that Rizer paid for Beatrice’s travel. Still other animals bite or chew themselves bloody, presumably unnerved by the stresses of travel. Still others have been lost entirely—like two cats in 2011 whose kennels were discovered open and vacated upon arrival at their destinations. Neither has been reported found.
Current regulations require that airlines—those based in America, anyway—report all incidents involving animals. But Theisen explains that a troubling loophole excludes from this requirement any animals traveling for commercial purposes. Thus, animals that are injured, lost or killed while in the hands of an airline need not be reported if they were being shipped from a breeder to a retailer, or to a new owner, or to a dog show.
“If your dog is at that moment technically not a pet, then it doesn’t need to be reported if something happens to it,” Theisen explains. She adds that the deaths, injuries and animals missing numbers reported by the Department of Transportation are certainly not comprehensive and that many incidents slip quietly, and legally, under the radar.
Suggestions to Keep Your Pet Safe When Flying
- Visit your veterinarian to be sure your pet is fit to fly.
- Don’t fly your pet during the hot summer months.
- Arrange for direct flights. Transfers increase the chances of delays, which can cause stress to animals contained in the cargo hold, and other mishaps, like a pet being sent to the wrong destination.
- If possible (it depends on the animal’s size), purchase your pet a space in the passenger cabin.
- If you must check your pet into the baggage hold, remind airline staff and baggage handlers that there is a live animal on board to ensure gentle handling. Also ask baggage handlers during your check-in that your pet’s cage be placed in a well-ventilated space, and be sure your pet has water.
- Don’t fly snub-nosed cats or dogs. These animals die on airlines, often of respiratory problems, more frequently than other breeds.
- Leave your pet at home if you will be returning soon, and look forward to a happy reunion of wagging tails and hearty purrs.
March 12, 2013
“Faces From Afar” is an ongoing series in which Off the Road profiles adventurous travelers exploring unique places or pursuing exotic passions. Know a globetrotter we should hear about? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s healthy. It smells and tastes like sweet tropical butter. It can be used hot or cold, on food, in your hair and on your skin. And it’s readily available throughout the coastal tropics.
Yet almost nobody in Ecuador uses coconut oil.
Instead, vegetable oil saturates the local culture as the cooking grease of choice. It is sold in giant bottles for several dollars and used by the pint for frying plantains, potatoes and meats, and Ecuadorian kitchens and street food stalls sometimes reek of stale, burned oil. But one American man is striving to invent a new culinary tradition here. Carl Nordeng has lived in Ecuador for several years and for the past 18 months has been doing something industrious and novel: He’s making and selling coconut oil in the little, picturesque village of Vilcabamba. Nordeng uses wild coconuts harvested from trees near the northern town of Esmeraldas, and his facility, consisting of a small collection of equipment, is situated in a grove of mango and avocado trees that provide shade in the early and late hours of the day.
Nordeng first visited Vilcabamba about five years ago. In his early 30s at the time, he was a health aficionado interested in natural healing and cleansing methods. He met a woman here whom he would eventually marry, and he began returning regularly, from his home in Washington State. Nordeng wasn’t infatuated with local cuisine. He found it bland and too greasy, and he also felt sure that refined vegetable oil—a staple component in Ecuadorian pantries—was having negative effects on the nation’s health. Diabetes is a leading killer and crippler of Ecuadorians, and Nordeng blamed the prevalent fried foods. In the interest of maintaining his own health during his sojourns to Ecuador, Nordeng cooked frequently—and he rarely returned from the United States without a few jars of coconut oil, which has shown effective as an antifungal agent, strengthens the immune system and can help the body positively manage its insulin levels—a point relevant to a diabetes-stricken nation like Ecuador.
“It was the foundation of my diet,” Nordeng says, adding that he could not find the product in Ecuador and that he was not willing to give it up.
After only several trips with an extra-heavy suitcase, Nordeng began to research the possibilities of making coconut oil himself in Ecuador. Upon learning that it wasn’t particularly challenging—the trick is simply to eliminate the water from the flesh and then squeeze out the oil—he soon went the next step and began to make the fragrant white coagulate in his kitchen in home-sized batches. He tried several methods until settling on his current system—a simple three-step process of grinding, toasting and pressing. He built his own equipment and, 18 months ago, sold his first bottle under the label “Oro Blanco.” Today, Nordeng grinds out 20 liters of coconut oil daily. All is sold within Vilcabamba, mostly to North American and European tourists but also to a growing number of locals.
Nordeng says he hopes to expand sales to Ecuadorians, but at $15 a jar, Oro Blanco oil is currently far too expensive to be a household staple in Ecuador, where the average salary is $7,500 per year, according to Average Salary Survey. Nordeng is now paying more than $1 per coconut and splits and scrapes clean as many as 250 per day. He says he is trying to secure a source of quality fruits from Peru, where the cost may be less than 20 cents per coconut.
Even if he can reduce the retail price of his product to just several dollars, Nordeng wonders how easy it will be to convince locals born and raised on foods fried in pans of vegetable oil to make the transition from one oil to the other.
“It would be hard to instill coconut oil into centuries of tradition here, but based purely on the flavor, it seems like it shouldn’t be a deterrent to people,” Nordeng says. “It’s not like we’re trying to sell them something gross.”
Nordeng labels his coconut oil “cold-pressed extra virgin.” This means that the oil is extracted without the use of heat, which can damage some of an oil’s natural compounds. The label also specifically guarantees that the oil is from fresh coconut flesh—not derived from secondary coconut byproducts, like the compressed “cakes” of coconut shavings that come from Nordeng’s press by the dozen each day. He may eventually provide these for bakers or granola bar producers, but for now his neighbors use the gritty—and, frankly, delicious—waste material to feed to their animals.
Coconuts, of which there are hundreds of varieties in the species Cocos nucifera, occur throughout the earth’s tropics. Coconut oil is commonly used in Pacific island communities, as well as in southern Asia. In Ecuador, coconut palms grow from the coast all the way to a mile or more of elevation in the Andes, as well as in the Amazon basin. The fruits are very popular as snacks; street vendors nick a hole at one end, insert a straw and sell the fruits for a dollar to customers who drink the water and, occasionally, take the trouble to crack open the coconuts and access the rich flesh that clings to each shell’s interior. But coconuts rarely get as far as the kitchen here.
In the United States, too, where coconut oil sales are booming, the product had to overcome a negative reputation, for it had been pinned as a culprit in widespread health problems—a reputation that still persists. The major argument against coconut oil has been its saturated fat content—though this particular fat is lauric acid, said by many to be one of the “good” saturated fats. This food blog, Organic Facts, discusses coconut oil’s effects on levels of cholesterol, of which some are considered “good” and others “bad.” Coconut oil, according to nutritionists, increases the good cholesterol and decreases the bad.
Nordeng notes that the legend of longevity in the valley that he has called home for five years is “a myth,” as discussed in “Off the Road” in February. Nordeng says many people leave the village before they reach old age, while others die young.
“People are literally killing themselves here by using tons of this rancid vegetable oil,” Nordeng says. “I’m providing an alternative.”
February 20, 2013
In the Valley of Longevity, in southern Ecuador, visitors find the quiet and legendary town that has inspired travelers for decades—Vilcabamba. Once just another of a thousand beautiful Andean villages, this community of about 4,000 people is today one of the hottest destinations for outsiders seeking their own little piece of Shangri-La. The town, of affordable goods and productive soils, promises new life—not to mention long life—for both vacationers and expats, and in the past two decades Vilcabamba has become an uncanny magnet and New Age watering hole for soul-searchers dabbling in everything from agriculture to shamanism to hallucinogens.
But as one nears the village center along a cobblestone road that diverges from the highway, the legendary Vilcabamba seems too quiet for its reputation. Dozens of people sit idly in the square—well-to-do tourists, hippies with dreadlocks and bead necklaces, a few locals, men with week-old scruff and worn sandals—all of them waiting, it seems, for things to happen. As I cycled into the plaza, a friend of mine from Cuenca, Mick Hennessey, from Utah, was seated on a plaza bench, alertly watching the slow activity. He saw me and waved. “There’s nothing much going on here,” he said, seemingly reluctant to make such a decree so early. He had arrived only three hours before me by bus. “Sure is pretty up there, though,” I said, pointing at the mountain ridges surrounding this Valley of Longevity, so named for its supposedly high concentration of centenarians.
Another tourist, Nathan Resnick—an American currently living in Cuenca—spent several days in Cuenca hiking in the hills between nights at the Rendezvous guesthouse. He was glad with what he found.
“I was expecting a lot more and was pleasantly surprised that it didn’t exist,” Resnick said.
The town is surrounded by fantastic green ridges on the skyline and lush woods that make a paradise for backpackers, botanists and bird watchers. It is also the last chance for food and gear before entering Podocarpus National Park just to the east—home to bears and wild cats and countless bird species.
But according to some locals, Vilcabamba is unable to meet the needs or hopes of many who visit each year.
“People come here to solve their problems, but they never actually leave anything behind and so they bring all their baggage with them,” one man—a Canadian who has lived in Vilcabamba part time for a decade—told me about a block from the plaza, after we met and shook hands in the empty street. And so, he went on, health problems and mental maladies accumulate here with the immigrants. In particular, he said, conspiracy theories and UFO reports saturate local gossip. This interview by Uncornered Market of a resident Vilcabamban reads almost like a transcript of our conversation.
I quickly detected a very dark shadow hanging over the town. Only three days earlier, a woman had been raped on a trail in the woods just northeast of the town—the third such incident in just weeks. The alleged assailant was reportedly still at large. This January 25 blog post on Passionfruitcowgirl describes a dramatic attempted rape in what the author calls “Evilcabamba.” Another blog, Patryantravels, published a post last August titled “Paradise Lost,” which dwells on the steady rising tide of crime, both petty theft and physical assaults, that have damaged the pretty face of Vilcabamba. Among these recent events is the dramatic kidnapping for ransom that occurred in September on a nearby mountain trail, where a honeymooning couple was assaulted by three armed men wearing masks. The man was ordered to return to the town, retrieve several thousand dollars and deliver it back to the bandits, who said they would otherwise kill his wife. The couple survived the encounter—though the town’s reputation has taken a blow, and attentive eavesdroppers here can pick up on conversations in every direction about robbery, rape and the absence of the police.
Even as long ago as the 1970s, things seemed too good to be true in Vilcabamba. National Geographic, among other publications, had reported an unusually high number of centenarians in the village, but Dr. Alexander Leaf, of Harvard Medical School, was growing skeptical of villagers’ claims to be well over 100—and in one case as old as 134. He called upon two American professors to come help determine the truth. They did, and in 1978, after pressing villagers for information and facts, Richard Mazess of the University of Wisconsin and Sylvia Forman of U.C. Berkeley released their findings. The entire legend of long life was no better than myth—and as bad as outright lies. There was not, they reported, a single person over 100 in the Valley of Longevity. The average age of supposed centenarians was actually 86 years old, and one man who claimed to be 127 years old in 1974 was actually 91 at the time.
The blur between fact and fiction in Vilcabamba may—or may not—have something to do with a local hallucinogen called aguacolla, made from mescaline extracted from several dozen species of cacti in the genus Trichocereus, collectively referred to as the San Pedro cactus. T. pachanoi is the most commonly used for medicine and (let’s be honest) sport. Shamans and village doctors have used the cactus for ages, and the drug today, though illegal in many countries, is provided by licensed shamans and in the Andes is a popular draw for tourists seeking the journey—trip, that is—of a lifetime.
“What was it like?” I asked an American man on the plaza who had partaken in a group experience the night before at $70 a head. He was waiting for a cab, planning to head back to the camp for anther go. “I’m still trying to figure it out,” he said, seemingly thrilled as he hoisted his suitcase to the curb and waved to a taxi. “All I know is there was a whole lot of vomiting.”
“That sounds amazing,” I said.
As the website for Sacred Medicine Journey, a local shaman service, advises its prospective participants, “You may feel some discomfort, but the benefits are worthwhile. Remember that this is not recreational.”
The floodgates to weirdness seem to have opened wide in the 1960s with the arrival of the late Johnny Lovewisdom and his followers. Lovewisdom was an off-kilter spiritual guru and leader who was drawn to Vilcabamba by the “longevity” legend. Born as John Wierlo, Lovewisdom practiced a variety of unusual lifestyle diets throughout his life. Among his lasting legacies was his advocacy of a raw, fruit-only diet, though he eventually allowed yogurt and other fermented items into his body. Lovewisdom, who reportedly struggled with a number of uncommon health problems, also advocated water-fasting, sun diets and breathanarianism, which holds that humans can subsist on spiritual energy alone.
“A woman told me in town to be careful here because there is so much negative ‘energy’ in the air,” laughed a young German man as we ate breakfast at the campground kitchen of Rumi Wilco Eco Lodge, the cheapest place in town at $3.50 for a tent site. He was leaving that day for Peru via the Zumba border crossing just 80 miles south. The man was a skeptic of the Vilcabamba lore, and unlike thousands before him, he was not seduced by the village’s call.
Though the continuing crime wave and growing insider disenchantment with Vilcabamba have darkened the village, the innocent weirdness introduced by Lovewisdom remains. One morning in the driving rain at Rumi Wilco, a tall and lanky Dutchman—a raw foods fruitarian, it happened—undressed to his underwear on the lawn between the kitchen and the guest cabins and began a bizarre and comical calisthenics routine, punctuated by clumsy overhead jabs of the arms and poorly postured yoga stretches. He finished his workout with several minutes of running ten-foot-wide circles through the mud—one more eccentric seeking grace and happiness in the Valley of Longevity.
The sky remained gray for several days, and if there were people here who really could subsist on sunshine, as the eccentric Lovewisdom believed possible, they were probably thinking about a sandwich. And if they believed everything that the local mythology promised, they would almost certainly die younger than they hoped to, in the beautiful little village of Vilcabamba.
February 7, 2013
I left my baggage at a hostel in central Cuenca and rode east, on a small quiet highway that climbed into the beautiful green hills and would eventually lead over a small mountain range and straight down into the Amazon rainforest. My goal for the day was to go as far as the pass and look down toward the world’s greatest river basin, or the fog blanket upon it–but I didn’t get that far. About 10 miles out of town, in the quiet farm country, as I passed a small home on the left side of the road, a pair of dogs came charging from the front yard. This was nothing new; many dogs are pests and nuisances to cyclists here. But when one dog didn’t stop at the usual four-to-five-foot buffer distance and, instead, came right in and sank its teeth into my ankle, I yelled out and stepped off my bike, astonished I’d actually been bitten–the second dog bite of my life. The dog let go and scurried down the road while a woman came rushing from the home, yelling at the thing–her family’s best friend, I’m sure.
“Control your dog!” I snapped at her, rolling up to the dirt bank leading from the road to into their yard and staring at the woman as fiercely as I could. I pulled down my sock to have a look at my heel. “There’s blood! Does your dog have a rabies vaccination?”
The woman said yes.
“Do you have papers or documentation?” I asked.
She said yes. I asked if I could see the papers. She said they were lost. Her teenage girls had begun to laugh and giggle at me, and the grandmother who had come out of the house also wore the shadow of a smirk on her face. Nobody apologized or asked if I needed help.
I requested alcohol to clean my wound, which was oozing blood, and after the two women haggled nervously for a minute, I lost my patience and rolled back the way I had come. I needed to get medical attention. One hundred yards down the road, the same dog–a brown-and-white mongrel with pointed ears and wicked eyes–came at me again. I picked up a hunk of cement and threw, just missing the animal as it fled into the brush. The family sullenly watched the entire exchange. I rolled on.
The presence of dogs in Ecuador, as in all developing nations, baffles me. They’re often no better than rats, far less useful than goats and meaner by miles than pigs–yet the people feed them and maintain the dogs’ health just enough to keep them alive. They sport bleeding bald spots and rib cages like washboards, and about 50 percent cannot resist the urge to chase people on bicycles. Most dogs here don’t seem to be strays. That is, they usually appear to belong to a particular household–but why? Do people love these dogs? Name them Max? I doubt it.
As an experienced cycle tourist, I have a mixed relationship with dogs. I have loved several like siblings, and it tickles me every time I see a well-groomed, friendly dog on a leash here–but that gang of mongrels loitering by the roadside 200 yards ahead strikes dread and loathing in me. I often scheme how I might exact the most satisfying revenge on the dogs that harry me down the road through almost every village, snarling ferociously as though I had done something to outrage them. Carrying rocks in a front basket seems an easy precautionary tactic–though I don’t currently have a basket. Firing a three-pronged pole spear loaded with a rubber hand loop at one end would be extremely satisfying. The other day, in the outskirts of Quito, one of the usual “ribcage mutts,” as I call them, charged me and gave me hell for crawling past on a steep grade. It then fled toward a doorway as I launched an orange at its rear end. The owner, who probably hadn’t ever bathed his dog or picked up its poop in a used newspaper bag, poked his head out the upstairs window and yelled at me that I had antagonized the dog by not walking my bike. The exchange made me wonder if, perhaps, some people here do love their dogs even though they neglect them three-fourths of the way to death.
In the village of Turi, overlooking beautiful Cuenca below, I stopped at a small store and bought a vial of antiseptic for 50 cents and gave my leg a rough cleaning outside. I joined two local boys outside the school, each on their laptops using the free wi-fi, and went online to read what I could about rabies. I had a happy hour beer appointment with another traveler at 6 p.m. in Cuenca and I didn’t want to visit the hospital unless entirely necessary. Before I even connected, a car pulled up in the square and out stepped three beautiful nurses. I put away my laptop and rolled over. “Hello. I was just bitten by a dog,” I said, showing them the wound. “I cleaned it with disinfectant, but can you help? Do you think there is risk of rabies?”
“Yes,” one said. “You need attention.” The women invited me to follow them to the town’s health clinic, where they weighed me, took my blood pressure, measured my height and asked for my name, age, passport number and civil state, taking notes on a clipboard the whole time. Finally, they cleaned the bleeding wound and wrote me an order form for rabies vaccination at Cuenca’s main medical center.
“Is there any cost?” I asked as they began to gesture their farewells. “Nothing,” one said to me, shrugging. ‘We are a public hospital.”
In Cuenca, I found the main hospital closed, for it was after 4 p.m. I spent the late evening researching the perils of rabies and found myself terrified after a few minutes of reading off my laptop. Rabies is extremely deadly. If a person exhibits the first sign of the disease–tingling or burning around the wound–they are usually already goners on an unstoppable downward spiral toward a painful death. At this point, treatment is only given to ease the suffering. Only a handful of people have ever experienced rabies symptoms and still overcome the disease. Usually, to save a bite victim’s life, the vaccine must be delivered prior to the development of the virus in the spinal column and brain. The more I read, the more afraid for my life I became–and angry at the family that never even said they were sorry for their dog’s actions. I noted from several online sources that many authorities will prioritize the testing for rabies of a dog that has bitten someone. This examination is not a forgiving one and may require dissecting the dog’s brain–which got me thinking about my revenge.
“Would you like me to show you where this dog lives?” I hopefully asked the doctor the next morning at Medical Center Number 3, on Calle 12 de Abril. “It’s no trouble. I would be happy to take you there.”
“No,” he said confidently, then ordered me on my back on a cot.
An assistant asked me to pull up my shirt and explained that this would be the first of seven injections into my abdomen, one a day for a week–which spoiled my plans to camp for two or three nights in the lake-studded wilderness of Cajas National Park, 20 miles west and a vertical mile above.
“We close at 4 each day,” the assistant said. “Make sure you’re here. If you miss a day we must begin the whole series again.”
They tossed the needle in the trash and said, “Hasta mañana.”
Rabies treatments are not conducive to the spontaneous travel lifestyles. In my case, I was required to remain in and around Cuenca for six days. I only dared leave town on a bus–and I checked ahead to be sure that Loja, my next destination and 130 miles south, had a vaccination center so I could complete the series. I am now immune to rabies for the next two years, which gives me a powerful sense of indestructibility. Still, I’m thinking about that wicker handlebar basket full of rocks.
Rabies: What to Know, What to Do
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, rabies is carried by mammals and may be passed to a human by a bite or even just a slab of the tongue, as the virus occurs in an infected animal’s saliva. Aside from dogs, other common carriers of rabies include cats, bats, foxes, raccoons and skunks. Anyone who comes into contact with a wild or unknown mammal should be considered at risk of rabies and receive treatment immediately. Symptoms appear following the incubation period, which may take just 10 days or as long as several years. There is no cure once symptoms appear. These may include fever, numbness, tingling and hyperactivity. Death usually occurs within seven days of the onset of symptoms.
Rabies kills more than 55,000 people per year, mostly in Asia and Africa. Travelers to at-risk areas–rabies occurs in most countries–should consider getting immunized before going.
Warning Bats–one of the most common carriers–can deliver a bite without the victim even realizing it. Take no chances. Get vaccinated if you suspect you’ve had contact with an infected animal.
Drinking Alcohol During Rabies Vaccinations As the doctor injected my second dose of Fuenzalida-Palacio vaccine last Friday he said, “No beer, whiskey, nothing.” Oops. “I had a little wine last night,” I said. He shrugged and said, “No big deal.”
Well, what is the deal? I wanted to know because Cuenca has its own brewpub with two imperial stouts on tap, and this was also Super Bowl time in a town swarming with gringo football fans. In other words, I planned on having a few drinks that weekend. According to The Travel Doctor, only two vaccines–that for Japanese encephalitis and the oral vaccine for cholera–come with restrictions on alcohol consumption. Numerous other websites and forums address the same question that I had–can one drink alcohol during post-exposure rabies treatment? Though some travelers have been advised by hospital staff not to exercise, drink alcohol, tea or coffee, or have sex for four months following the first anti-rabies shot, this seems to be entirely unfounded advice.
January 30, 2013
About 15 miles north of Quito, a palatial iron gate on the west side of the highway opens onto a long, stately driveway leading across a prim and trim government property, past statues of acclaimed national leaders and, after about 200 yards, to the base of a nearly 100-foot-tall brick-and-mortar monument, grand enough to produce tears, called the Mitad del Mundo—“Middle of the World.” A yellow painted stripe representing the line of zero degrees latitude even runs up a walkway and bisects the monolith, which was built in 1979 and stands today as a premier tourist attraction, and a grand and glowing tribute to one of Ecuador’s proudest features: the Equator.
The problem is, they built the thing in the wrong place. The Equator is actually several hundred feet to the north, as determined by modern GPS technology that wasn’t available to the earlier surveyors of the region. As long ago as 1736 scientists were exploring Ecuador, with, among other goals, the aim of defining and marking the Equator. At some point, the current Mitad del Mundo line was painted proudly on the ground. But in recent decades, the embarrassing truth emerged: The Equator actually, and without a doubt, crosses the highway just up the road, where the property owners surely rejoiced upon hearing the news (and took their own GPS measurements, as they claim they have done) and have since built their own rather campy but perhaps more accurate attraction.
As for the grandiose government monument just to the south, what’s built is built, and, as the saying goes, no publicity is bad publicity. And so the yellow painted line that leads into the museum at the base of the Mitad monument is still declared to be the waistline of the Earth and draws hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. Here, they walk the line, straddle it, try and balance eggs on it and shake hands over it.
But I didn’t do any of those things. I didn’t enter the museum, either—not because admission was $3 but because I didn’t see the point. Nor did I see any point in getting coffee at the Equator, buying “Mitad del Mundo” trinkets at the gift shops on the Equator, eating lunch at the Equator, sitting down for a beer at the Equator or petting an alpaca at the Equator (the little camelids roam the premises). Because I wasn’t on the Equator and it all would have meant nothing. Carved into the monument is the site’s elevation (2,483 meters) and longitude (78 degrees, 27 minutes and eight seconds west—or so they say). But these somewhat arbitrary numbers are made even more so since, well, this isn’t the Equator.
Still, I did as many visitors to the Mitad do and had my passport stamped by the lady working the museum admission booth so that I could prove to the folks back home that I had actually stood on the Equator—well, almost.
“Does the stamp say ‘Mitad del Mundo, Mas o Menos’?” Alistair Hill joked minutes later, just after I met him and several other British travelers on the steps before the monument.
Hill and his girlfriend Jess Swan, both from England and now backpacking through South America for several months, gazed up at the hulking, majestic thing. They had heard the rumors that the attraction was not all it is claimed to be but made the trip from Quito anyway, splitting a cab four ways for $40.
“How did they get it so wrong?” Hill said. “Why didn’t they just flush a toilet on each side to make sure they had it right? It makes you wonder if the Meridian really passes through Greenwich.”
Hill’s friend Chris Leigh joked, “So, what else in the world have they got wrong? The South Pole? The North Pole? The Tropic of Capricorn? That’s probably 100 miles out of line. Turns your world upside-down, doesn’t it?”
But for all the pomp and circumstance, gravity and grandeur of the Mitad del Mundo, that a huge mistake has been made is freely admitted today, and the officials who work at the site readily tell visitors who inquire where to find the actual Equator.
“Turn left at the gate, and it’s 100 meters on your left,” the guard at the entrance told me as I was leaving.
You have to watch closely, but you’ll see it—a sign reading “Museo Solar Inti-Nan.” The sign assures you that you are now at zero degrees, zero minutes and zero seconds—neither north nor south of the middle of the world. The sign adds that these figures were “calculated by ‘GPS.’” It comes off as a smirking insult directed at the government site just down the road, but the sign is only being honest. A humble dirt trail leads visitors up a ravine, across a small bridge and into the outdoor museum area. While guests are free to wander at the Mitad del Mundo site, at the private museum visitors are quickly asked for $4 and then ushered into a small tour group, whether you want the service or not. I joined Amy Jones of Texas and Stefania Egas of Quito, and our English-speaking guide led the way. Much of the tour, through wood huts and artifact collections, has nothing whatsoever to do with the Equator. We saw a pen full of guinea pigs, a shrunken human head, a soggy dead boa constrictor in formaldehyde, a collection of totem poles and an exhibit featuring native folks of the Amazon.
But we finally got to the feature attraction—the Equator. It is represented by a red line, along which have been mounted a sundial, a spinning globe, nail heads on which one may try and balance an egg and—the grand fireworks of the tour–a full wash basin used to demonstrate the way that draining water supposedly swirls in a particular direction in each hemisphere. There has been much debate about this phenomenon. The Coriolis effect, a function of motion and the curvature of the Earth, is real, a phenomenon by which free-moving objects in the Northern Hemisphere appear to veer toward the right and those in the Southern Hemisphere to the left. At zero degrees latitude, the effect does not occur. This is why, for example, hurricanes wither and dissipate when they drift too close to the Equator.
But whether toilets and sinks, at their small scale, can demonstrate the Coriolis effect isn’t clear, though most experts say that the Coriolis effect does not visibly affect moving water over such a short distance as the diameter of a sink or toilet. Yet our young mono-toned tour guide, drably repeating a show she had probably given many times before, made it happen. On the Equator, after she pulled the drain plug, the water shot straight through without a swirl in either direction. Ten feet to the south, the water drained in a clockwise gyre. And just to the north, the water went down in a counterclockwise whirlpool. I suspect there was trickery at play—possibly by a hand furtively dipped into the basin and slyly setting the appropriate flow direction when we weren’t watching. I walked away frustrated, if not wowed, and I admit: The 100-foot-tall monument of the government, though a big fat mistake, is a greater site to see.
But just when we think we’ve got the whole matter sorted out and the Earth perfectly bisected, I discover this blog post from a science-savvy traveler named Adam Rasheed, who claims we’ve all been duped twice over. In 2006, Rasheed wrote a blog entry for a science and technology firm called Global Research in which he described visiting both of the equatorial sites, being skeptical of the private museum’s claims of legitimacy and promptly taking equatorial matters into his own hands using a GPS device. Rasheed concluded that the true Equator was still farther up the road, and here he and a friend built their own equatorial monument of plastic drink bottles and rubbish. Whether Rasheed had it right seems, by now, doubtful—not that it really matters. Because if Ecuador builds the 5,000-foot-tall spire that a New York architect proposed be erected on the Equator, then that would be the destination most worth paying to see—whether they place it exactly at zero degrees latitude or not.
Perhaps there is only one thing certain in this foggy fuss over the Equator: The more monuments and museums the merrier. If you think you can improve upon the existing measurements, let us know in the comment box below.