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South America

South America

[ppp_non_patron_only]Travelling in South America was both a fascinating and disappointing trip. It came immediately after 2 years of life in San Diego. Whilst the countries visited, their cities and cultures, the people and the geography were extraordinary and beautiful, I was restless, something didn’t sit well. While I had experienced some hitch hiking in Mexico it was only for 5 days and the nature of exploring and transport in South America was on a different scale. It probably sounds oxymoronic that I like my comfort having come from a very uncomfortable, whilst inspirational training experience. Regardless, to me a pleasant hotel would always triumph over seedy and cheap places that a travellers budget would allow. Flying out to Caracas first via Miami and then by bus to Ecuador while passing through Columbia. The plan was to stay in Ecuador for a while, maybe a a few months before[/ppp_non_patron_only] heading down further to Brazil and Rio de Janeiro. This would be achieved by travel into the Andes, then downwards to sea level on the inland side and into the Amazon basin itself. Jungle cities like Iquitos in Peru, made famous by Werner Herzog in his film Fitzcarraldo and Manaus, the Brazillian city a good 1500km down river from Iquitos were on the cards. It just sounded fantastic. Ecuador, however, would prove to be the last destination as the distances were as vast as the US without the infrastructure needed to get around quickly and comfortable.

The bus Journey from Caracas to Quito took 72 rough hours, punctuated with stops along the way to refresh and replenish. The scenery was spectacular, lush green foliage was abundant, the small towns and communities growing on the mountain slopes and into the valleys. The latin pop music at first fun and then repetitive until it all merged into one incessant noise. It was telling that when I closed my eyes to try and get some sleep, I would instead review the jo work we had been practising at the Dojo in my head over and over again. The parts to it were easy to remember but getting the sense of movement, rhythm and now imagined contact was something else. Some of the visualisations were the seven moves that would eventually be part of the exercises called Sansho and developed by Chiba Sensei. I was supposed to be on an adventure yet could not stop think about my training. That being said an adventure was still ahead of me.

Ipiales was the last town in Columbia before crossing over to Ecuador and getting ever closer to the Equator. The Columbia of the late 1980’s was riddled with Cartel violence. You could feel the tension in some areas but it was a different experience that I would get to see in this small town. The plaza area was eerily quiet as I wondered why there was no one around. I was searching for accommodation when the near silence would be rudely broken by a bull running into the square. This was not your beefy bull fighting specimen but the horns looked dangerous and could easily impale you. The poor animal was scared as a parade of people were chasing it from one of the adjacent roads leading into the square. With surprising speed it headed in my direction where I quickly climbed up a Victorian style cast iron lamp post. Getting up high enough to be safe. I was half amused but wondering if I had arrived into a Columbian version of the Wild West. The commotion died soon enough as the square emptied of people and a bull, having been chased out into another side street. The earlier quiet had returned but not for long when a far more aggressive group of people arrived from multiple streets and the tension following tension could cut the air. There were two distinct groups of people each behind their respective man, egging them on to fight. The two protagonists were sticky with sweat, the slimmer guy looking scared and reluctant, the solid fellow was more assured, certain even. It felt like someone could get killed or at least badly hurt. The stronger looking guy ran close to where I was sitting on the park bench, picking up a beer bottle conveniently available on the ground. He would break enough of it on the park bench leg I was sitting on giving him a deadly jagged weapon. No doubt he had the red mist and was out to get him. No wonder the other guy looked terrified. As fast as all these events were playing out before my eyes, a new player entered the scene, well actually two military policemen. Dressed in military attire and classic white domed helmets and armed. They didn’t need any weapons as one of them jumped into action with impressive speed. Up into the air and delivered a spectacular side kick into the bottle wielding protagonists ribs. It was beautifully executed, classic karate, except he had his army boots on. The young man crashed to the floor in agony but the pain wasn’t over just yet. The officer then stepped hard on his wrist, the one holding the bottle making him release it, which he then immediately kicked away to a safe distance. It was almost musical in rhythm and execution. There was no arrests, no breaking up of the crowd or even a thorough reprimand. Instead a few words were uttered followed by a hand and head motion. “You can fight now.” He decided it was a fairer fight now but no doubt the more aggressive guy likely had a couple of broken ribs.

Once in Quito I would find a hotel/residence in a middle class suburb at the foot of the local mountain called Pichincha. A massive nearly 5km tall volcano cradled beside the city. The Dutch guy running the place would welcome travellers, mainly from Europe and the USA. He specialised in mountains and explorations into the jungle and we would discuss the possibility of climbing the worlds tallest active volcano, Cotopaxi. Meanwhile 40 hours a week of Spanish language lessons would keep me busy for a couple of weeks. I would find a bokken sized and shaped tube in the hotel. It was apparently used to blow poisonous darts at Amazonian primates by the indigenous occupants. They were perfect for solo training which I continued to do in the hotel. There were many exercises I could do for fitness but I soon realised that at 9000ft I had not yet acclimatised. In the evenings I would explore the city centre when one night I spotted a folded leaflet blowing  in the wind. Aikido was not far away in my thoughts as I wondered if there was any Aikido in Quito. It just so happened when I picked up a folded leaflet that was blowing in the wind, that I would see the unmistaken image, a cartoon drawing of Aikido made popular in the book Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere. It was an Aikido advert and was somewhere in a street called La Avenidas de la Americas, The Avenue of the Americas, the same street I was standing on. The next session was on the following day, curious to see what it was like I decided to head out to the dojo venue first thing in the morning. I had packed a light weight gi and hakama for the trip, just in case so maybe I would be training soon. If the class was to my liking I could ask to join in. The location looked like an office complex and I would walk up a narrow stairwell where a young Belgian woman was already waiting. She explained the nature of time keeping here. They and the teacher would arrive depending on how much they drank the night before, it was Saturday morning now, and that usually meant they were late or no show. I learned that there was local time and English time. Local time was subject to variations. Eventually they arrived and the teacher allowed me to watch. The class proceeded and it was disappointing. The hung over teacher would correct the basic backward break falls and make the beginners do it wrong. The opposite of what they should be doing, which was already correct. There was a part in me that felt a sense of responsibility to help but this was not my dojo and I was a stranger. The smart thing would have been to ask if it was possible to train here and then see how it went. Instead I was distracted by the view through the window where the elegant and striking peak of Cotopaxi was visible in the distance. The decision to climb this beautiful volcano was made at that moment and Aikido would have to wait another day. The Andes were majestic and Cotopaxi was known as the tallest active volcano in the world. The Dutch guide back at the hotel would arrange everything and a small group of us would head out to make the climb. The journey by bus to the mountain was extraordinary. The closer we got would reveal the scale of this one of many volcanos that were dotted around Ecuador, calling her The Valley of Volcanoes.

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Eventually the bus would arrive at what was the base camp. A gloomy looking corrugated iron building, with only the most basic of comforts. Beds, a sink, a simple kitchen and toilet. I walked up the steep slope to the snow line. My calves would already start to burn. The air thin and crisp. For practice and to try and acclimatise for this climb, I ventured up Pichincha, a not insignificant climb which I managed but Cotopaxi was on a different level. From the slope you could see other mountains climbing out of the plateau, particularly Rumiñahui at 4700m and yet she would be over shadowed by Cotopaxi. The instructions from our guide was to sleep early and be up by 12am, midnight. The reasoning was to get to the top early, this was important as the ice and snow would soften when sunrise would come, making the ground slippery and more dangerous for the decent. I was also told that I would be the last in the group as we would all be tethered to each other during the climb. That meant there was no one behind you, just a black void. Psychologically it was a challenge but it would not come to be. That night I couldn’t sleep as the winds blew hard, howling around the base camp, which was now freezing. I went a jaundiced yellow as my head ached so much that it felt as though a 6inch nail was thrust behind my left eye. I got up at the right time and started to do stretches but I didn’t feel well at all. I didn’t feel excited about going up but before deciding anything I asked the guide. He was direct. “You could go up but it could be dangerous” “How dangerous?” I asked. He made it clear that it could get worse, that altitude sickness can kill. My best option was to rest as much as possible and then head down the mountain in the morning where the oxygen levels were higher. My mountain climbing adventure was over. The ego would then come into it. I felt beaten before I started. The feeling that the mountain won and despite my considerable fitness at that time, it was not enough. I only made it to 4800m and could not complete the remaining 3600ft, or 1km to the top. Adding insult to injury and back at the hotel, a German couple had successfully climbed Chimborazo, a taller mountain by some 300m. That in itself was impressive and more so when I was told they were of pensionable age.

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