There’s a little doggerel verse that Ecuadorian children employ to taunt someone who’s late.  Now and then you might hear it rising in a playground chant:


Cuy asado,
En la paila de tostado.

Which is to say:

You’re late,
Roasted guinea pig,
In the roasting pan.

OK, it suffers in the translation.  But trust me, it makes no sense to begin with, and not only because it’s cheerful children’s gibberish.  In Latin America, no one gets in trouble for being late.  It is, after all, the land of mañana.

The more complete description is “fiesta, siesta, mañana”—party, nap, and then there’s tomorrow.  The hemisphere is chronically, unapologetically late.  The worst social misstep is to arrive for a party precisely on time.  Everybody knows that.

So today, let’s consider a few other things you might not know, or have forgotten, about Latin America.


Angel Falls, Jlazovskis at en.wikipedia

Angel Falls, in Canaima National Park in Venezuela, is the world’s tallest uninterrupted waterfall, with an overall height of 3,112 feet, and a plunge of 2,648.  It was the setting for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World,” featuring dinosaurs scrambling around the plateau above the falls.  It’s all but impossible to reach these days due to the near-collapse of the Venezuelan state.

Colombia produces 90% of the world’s gemstone emeralds.

Despite all those mountains and jungles, Latin America is one of the most urbanized regions in the world. Eighty percent of the population of Latin America resides in cities.

Plaza de Toros


Brazil makes your breakfast.  It exports the most coffee, sugar and orange juice in the world.  (In fairness, though, much of the sugar cane goes for ethanol production.)

But Bolivia’s got your lunch.  Bolivians love the inexpensive food from local street vendors—so much so that McDonald’s abandoned the country in 2002.  Analysts blamed marketing failures and an anti-American government.  Last year, McDonald’s announced a tentative comeback: a single location in the eastern city of Santa Cruz.  But really, try the street food.

Rio de Janeiro’s Carnaval is the world’s largest street festival.

Because of the weakened soil of an ancient lakebed and a growing population consuming copious amounts of groundwater, Mexico City sinks 10 inches every year.  Estimates vary, sometimes wildly, and the subsidence is worse in some places than others. But it’s definitely not improving.

In Honduras, it rains fish during the heaviest season of rain between May and June.  Thousands of fish.  It’s happened near the city of Yoro for generations.  While the phenomenon is often attributed to waterspouts, or miracles, the more likely explanation points to fish washed out by downpours from underground caves and rivers.  Clue: the fish are blind.  Still, no source has been pinpointed, and the townspeople enjoy a fish fry or two every year.

Costa Rica has not had an army since it was abolished in 1948, following its last civil war.  For many years police were known for carrying only screwdrivers—to remove the license plates of scofflaws—but those halcyon days are gone.  Police carry guns, while a 70-person Special Intervention Unit is a commando force that is technically civilian.

The Amazon rainforest spans nine countries – Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana.  If that rainforest was a country, it would be the 9th largest in the world.

There are 77 uncontacted tribes living in the Amazon Jungle.  (If they’re uncontacted, how do we know?)

The world’s most southerly city is Ushuaia, at the tip of Argentina. It’s a colorful town of about 55,000 souls.

Ecuador was the first country in the world to give Nature constitutional rights that can be defended in court.


Charles Darwin came up with his theory of evolution while visiting the Galapagos Islands.

The Uyuni in Bolivia (not Bonneville in Utah) is the world’s largest salt flat—4,086 square miles versus 40.

Along Lake Maracaibo on the Venezuela-Colombia border, Catatumbo lightning is in the Guinness Book as the most prolific.  It is certainly the most spectacular.

Peru is said to have more than 4,000 varieties of potatoes, and was probably the original source of all potatoes.  Sorry, Ireland.

Chimborazo volcano in Ecuador is, in a way, the world’s highest peak.  If measured from the center of the earth, it’s much taller than Mt. Everest, because the earth bulges at the equator.  But that’s not how mountains are measured, so Nepal wins again.

So about that business of being late.  With all the foregoing achievements, quirks, and superlatives, it’s clear that Latin America’s lateness should never be mistaken for laziness.  It is, I believe, more of an expression of what is truly important, and maniacal punctuality is just not at the top of the list.

Many years ago, I read an article claiming that the three most important words are, “It doesn’t matter.”  Upon careful analysis, most things really don’t.  A brutal triage based on those three words usually leaves only the things that truly merit attention.  Like family.

And excludes those that truly don’t.  Like punctuality.

With practice, it soon becomes child’s play.

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Borinquén: Paradise Lost

I spent some time in Puerto Rico at the end of 1970, just three months, and even after all these years, I hate to see it battered by Hurricane Maria.

Hurricane Maria

From the time of the native Taíno people for whom the arrival of Columbus meant near-extinction from European diseases, to its forward position as an outpost of the Spanish Empire in the New World, to its status as a neglected Commonwealth controlled by the US, the Island of Enchantment has long been on the ropes.

Now trees are uprooted, whole towns flooded, buildings collapsed.  An electric utility that was already bankrupt before the hurricane arrived is in shambles, with power knocked out to the entire island and no glimmer of hope in sight.

I was there for Peace Corps training, in the south coastal town of Ponce, already a decade after West Side Story analyzed the pros and cons of leaving for New York.  I saw neither Sharks nor Jets.

But there were propellers.  We arrived from San Juan on Prinair, the national airline of very small planes that always encountered powerful thunderstorms above the mountains in the center of the island, then gliding into Ponce and narrowly missing the power lines and smokestacks of the Don Q rum distillery.  Or so it seemed to us, the young and immortal trainees.  We had no idea that Prinair flight 277 had crashed the previous year near the city of Fajardo, killing all 19 aboard.  In fact, I learned of it just this minute.

The Peace Corps training center was a dusty former convent, with spartan classrooms and offices all surrounded by an adobe wall.  After a few days of Spanish immersion, we were assigned to different barrios, handed a sheet of useful phrases, and sent out on our own to find a family to live with.  “Will you also do my laundry?” was one of the phrases.

I was assigned to Barrio California, a run-down jumble of tin-roofed houses on a steep street with a million-dollar view of the Caribbean below.  After a day of searching in the tropical sun, knocking on the last door, I found a family to take me in.  The Sepúlvedas, Angela and Ramón, ran a bar and snack shop with a coin-operated pool table, and lived upstairs with their four children.

The bar was called “El Borinqueño,” based on Puerto Rico’s old Taíno name of Borikén, meaning “Land of the Valiant Lord.”  I soon learned that the very name would make the average Puerto Rican swoon with patriotic fervor. 


For the duration, after spending each day in intensive Spanish training at the convent, I came home to an enormous dinner that I ate alone, the family having long since finished the traditional hearty Latin lunch.  There was always a dinner plate piled high with rice, and beans known as habichuelas, along with chicken or fish, soup and vegetables.  Once there was a round white object that looked like a boiled beehive.  To this day I have no idea what it was.

Just as the meal started to settle, Angela would start a jumbo sandwich for me down in the bar, where a glass of water was always kept over the doorway “for the Virgin Mary.”  The concoction had thick cold cuts and onions, tomatoes, and cheese, stuffed in a bun and smashed between the plates of a hot sandwich press.

It was just too much food, and one night I persuaded one of the teenagers to explain to their mother that I couldn’t handle the extra sandwich on top of everything else.  I wasn’t yet confident of my Spanish.  As she listened to the explanation, a tear ran down her cheek.  I felt terrible—until I realized it was caused by slicing the onions.

I was swept up and welcomed into that barrio like a member of the family.  Across the street, a 90-year-old woman known as Doña Sila enjoyed catching tarantulas with her bare hands as they inched up the front of her house.  I learned about públicos, the cars like beat-up taxis that followed routes like a bus, and cost only ten cents.


Ponce Fire Station

It was a poor neighborhood, and the kids might have patched and tattered clothes, but never without a razor crease.  With them and other trainees, I visited the historic fire station in Ponce, the El Tuque municipal swimming pool with a sand bottom, and the phosphorescent bay at La Parguera, where a motorboat at night left a sparkling trail like diamonds in the ocean water.  I read a few years ago that the town square and fire station had been well preserved—at least until the hurricane came.

One morning I woke up thinking in Spanish, and knew I was going to make it.

We had a weekend rain of our own back then.  A tropical storm came roaring off the Caribbean, with rain thundering on the tin roofs, and incidentally driving thousands of those tarantulas out of their burrows in the ground and up the walls of houses.  It continued into a second day, and along with a nurse, we deployed the Peace Corps fleet of vehicles—a truck and an old school bus—to assist seaside villages.

We crossed a bridge nearly engulfed by raging water.  When we returned hours later, the bridge was gone.  We followed a rutted road through a sugar cane field, the 15-foot canes whipping menacingly in the wind like scimitars.  In one village, a surge of surf had washed almost everything away, and the nurse tended a baby girl, born in a thatched hut on stilts at the peak of the storm.

And this wasn’t even a hurricane.  We were told that more than thirty inches of rain fell that weekend, but I doubt if anyone really knew for sure.

I exchanged several letters with the Sepúlvedas over a year or two, and then someone said they had moved, and I never heard from them again.  For me, they had already kindled a lifelong love affair with Latin America.

It will be months before the lights are back on in Puerto Rico.  Then its leaders can return their attention to the island’s almost total economic collapse that Hurricane Maria has only made exponentially worse.

It’s enough to make Puerto Ricans long for simpler times, without the entanglements of empire, when the Taíno ruled the Caribbean, and did it without electricity.  They deserve better.

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Pole Position

RoadNearby driving schools have discovered the rural, two-lane blacktop near the place where I live, lined with sugar cane and rocky pastures, deciding it’s the perfect circuit for nervous student drivers in compact cars.  Some days there are four or five in a row, like a Shriners parade, and more approaching from the opposite direction.  They are timid and slow, in the manner of new drivers the world over, and at a railroad crossing or speed bump, at least one of them always kills the engine.

It reminds me of shopping at the local supermarket.  (Work with me here; it’ll make sense soon enough.)

I remember observing the chaotic crush of Christmas pedestrians on Oxford Street in London some years ago, and wondering whether their disorganization might be due to the mix of people who, back home, drove on different sides of the road.  Indeed, humorist Dave Barry is fond of observing that in Miami, “every motorist drives according to the laws of his or her individual country or planet of origin.”  At the same time.

Ecuador has its share of driving jokes.  One goes: “You are stuck behind a slow truck on a blind mountain curve with a double yellow line in the center.  What do you do?”  Answer: “Go ahead and pass, but it could be scary, so you might want to close your eyes.”

In point of fact, there is an informal system whereby a magical “third lane” opens up for a passing car that’s cutting it too close, but with plenty of punitive honking and flashing of lights in the bargain.


Traffic laws and practices do vary from one country to another.  In Egypt, people are said to drive using only the horn.  In Ecuador, there is really no ingrained principle of “Slower Traffic Keep Right.”  When cars approach a toll booth or traffic light in multiple lanes, the drivers spread out like the Blue Angels in a swarming starburst pattern, picking the lane that’s six inches (15.24 cm) ahead of the others.

And that brings us back to the subject of supermarkets.  Most Ecuadorian markets are the traditional kind, with heaps of produce, meats, clothing and hardware, and the teeming crowds are more like those on the London sidewalks.

But the newer supermarkets have developed in ways that seem to mimic the highways, with patrons doing anything to inch just ahead of the rest.


Beware the woman with a small armload of groceries, and no cart, in a modern Ecuadorian supermarket.  Or a boy of twelve, clutching a single loaf of bread.  They are scouts, of a sort; operatives of a family that has infiltrated the store.

This system only works because shopping is a familial affair, often with at least three generations piling out of the car and deployed in the aisles.  It’s a communal outing; why not put them to work?

The supermarket experience is already slightly surreal.  Products disappear for weeks, even years, and the stock clerks will tell you “it hasn’t arrived,” which means they don’t know.  One told me that sour cream “will never be carried again” when it ran out, but it was back the next week.  And the cashiers are always out of change.  For reasons that may never be explained, the front office scoops it up many times a day.

In the checkout lanes, customers jockey for position as they would at a toll booth.  Many a gringo (including this one) has been fooled by lining up behind the cart with practically nothing in it—until the extended family arrives from their raids all over the store, arms loaded, to fill it up.  It is the Trojan Horse of grocery carts.

Maybe it’s just another example of viveza criolla“native cunning.”  Or perhaps it serves as a reminder that the real deals, and memorable human interactions, are to be found at the more traditional markets in every town.  I visit them at every opportunity.  The chicken lady in Cotacachi.  The profusion of fresh seafood on Wednesdays in Ibarra.


If only there were some practical way to combine the experience of the toll booth with that of the supermarket.

Oh, wait.

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Big River

You might call it a watershed moment.

I remember the first time I laid eyes on the South China Sea, having invoked its name countless times in news stories I read on the radio about the Vietnam War.  Seeing it was a somber occasion, especially in the azure serenity of peacetime.

But when it comes to actual watersheds, nothing quite compares to a first encounter with the Amazon River.  One-fifth of the entire planet’s fresh water flows through its sprawling basin, ten times greater than the Mississippi’s discharge; its rainforests are the “lungs of the world.”

Here in Iquitos, in northern Peru, the past and present are defined by the mighty river.  The city is half-stuck in the legacy of the 19th century rubber trade and still isolated by the jungle that made its forgotten fortune.  It’s the opposite of landlocked, surrounded by a moat of sinuous rivers and rainforest in every direction, more like an island.

In fact, Iquitos is the largest city in the world that has no access to roads at all.  There is a small airport; otherwise, it’s nine days by the sort of river freighter where you sleep in a hammock on the top deck, and dream of yellow fever.

Even at the end of nine days, you’re only at the connection to the first road, at Saramiriza, and still not much of anywhere in particular.


With no roads out of town, there are almost no cars—Where would they go?—and local transport is by stubby, battered buses and swarms of “moto-taxis” that careen through the streets in the sweltering tropical heat.  Some claim there are as many as twenty thousand of them.  Maybe, but that would mean that about one in every twenty people operated one.  On some chaotic days that seems entirely possible.

Iquitos is the creation of the rubber barons, who would also qualify as robber barons, and their time was great while it lasted—for them.  Not so great for the indigenous people they brutalized and enslaved.  Caucho was a hot commodity from the middle of the 19th century, and European investors and adventurers made a handful of Amazonian cities like Iquitos into modern colonial citadels, right up until the time it all collapsed around 1912.  That was when the first synthetic rubber was developed, and when cheaper competition arose from rubber plantations in Asia and Africa, using seeds smuggled out of Brazil by the British in 1876.


Iron House

Most of the barons soon cleared out of Iquitos, leaving behind their city carved from the jungle, including ceramic facades and oddities such as the “Iron House” that is routinely described as being the creation of Gustave Eiffel (except it isn’t).  Others among the immigrants stayed for the rest of their lives, infusing European architecture and culture into their adopted country.  They built an opera house presenting classical music—just not the one portrayed in the semi-historical 1982 film Fitzcarraldo.  That one was in Manaus, Brazil.

Iquitos today shows a touch of the shabby genteel, its glory days long gone, but new ones could lie ahead.  President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski has promised to connect Iquitos with a road by the time he leaves office in 2021.  Most residents seem to doubt it, and many oppose it, but it would surely bring transformational change.

For now, time almost stands still.  At the horizon, where the Amazon’s main channel lies just on the other side of the trees, a column of smoke reveals a practice unchanged for centuries.  It’s known as la chacra, in which the riverbed of sand and silt so dramatically exposed in the dry season is planted with crops, like cassava and melons, which in turn will be snatched out of the path of returning floods in October.  And those floods will bless the terrain once more with rich organic material from the forest.


La chacra essentially creates a “third season” between fishing in the river and hunting in the rainforest, with heirloom seeds for the purpose handed down and shared among families for generations.

It’s a method that could only work this well with the Amazon’s rise and fall of nearly fifty feet between the rainy and dry seasons at Iquitos.  The surge is enough to raise ruined riverboats, run aground far inland, and deposit them somewhere else each year, like bath toys.

It’s good to know the people aren’t slashing and burning the jungle—just cleaning up minor brush from the dry riverbeds for planting.  Too bad about the smoke, but the indigenous people don’t have bulldozers.  What they do possess is the crafty knowledge that the soil from cleared rainforest is of poor quality, while the river delivers its renewable gift each year, automatically.

Nowhere in this town are the fifty-foot floods felt more directly than in its Belén market, which is also an entire neighborhood.  Built on two levels, the lower one is inundated like clockwork, for eight months of every year.  Much of the rest floats on balsa logs, rising and falling with the river, and residents make bridges of planks to connect the houses.



Inside the market on the upper level, the abundance is a sensory overload.  Mysterious fruits and vegetables from the jungle, and fish from the river, including enormous rolls of salt-cured paiche, and fresh piranha.  There are chickens, turtles, and wild pig.  There are drinks made with a species of black corn, and a tropical version of eggnog.  A whole section is devoted to herbal medicines and elixirs, and a certain degree of magic.

Those who call Belén the “Venice of the Amazon” have never seen Venice.  But it does share the distinction of a long history, long before the rubber traders came, and before the earliest explorers, because people have always gathered along rivers to sell their goods.

Iquitos has gradually diversified since the end of the rubber boom, into tourism, timber, fish, minerals, and agricultural crops.  There could be a road someday.  Change, like everything in the Amazon, moves slowly in the simmering heat, and Iquitos naturally clings to its history.  To discover its future, it may have to forfeit some of its faded charm.

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Bone Dry

A nearly full moon rose over the pitch-black Chilean desert as we barreled along in a rattling van.  I’ve never seen such detail in the moonrise in my life.  It was a breathtaking sight, made even more dramatic when the lights failed on the van.  Four times.  The young driver was unconcerned.  He had the straight two-lane highway all to himself, and practiced a tactic of bumping along until the electrical system bounced back to life, and salsa resumed on the CD player.

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We had left the airport at Calama, a gritty town devoted to copper mining and lithium extraction—the stuff of iPhone batteries—and headed toward San Pedro de Atacama, 100km across the driest non-polar desert in the world.  Some of the desert gets only 15 millimeters of rain a year, or about half an inch.  Geologic records show that other parts of its 54,000 square miles haven’t seen even a millimeter of precipitation in four centuries.

But here’s the thing: it’s not even hot.  The Atacama Desert is classified as “cool coastal,” which means the days are pleasant and the nights chilly, while the surrounding mountains of the altiplano are bone-aching cold.  It’s those mountains that block any approach of rain from the sea.


The town of San Pedro de Atacama is quite old.  Records show that mass was celebrated in the original Catholic church as early as 1557, officiated by one Cristóbal Díaz de los Santos, for the indigenous population.  But in the last 15 years or so, the village’s dedication to tourism has become absolute.  Its narrow streets are lined with adobe buildings, mostly single-story, and most of them house either tour agencies, hostels, restaurants or gift shops.

Also, the church was restored in 2015.

The surrounding terrain is an other-worldly wonderland of salt flats, volcanos, windswept crags under a cerulean sky, frozen alpine lakes, canyons with ancient petroglyphs, and widely scattered settlements with hardscrabble patches of quinoa and corn so barren, the villagers appear to be farming the very rocks themselves.

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Not much can live here, even by desert standards.  Exceptions include vicuñas and guanacos, both related to llamas, and a kind of desert fox.  The tamarugo tree, found only in northern Chile, may be able to survive on dew, while it also puts down roots 40 meters into the earth and can flourish in salty soil that would kill most trees.

I took a tour one day that left an hour before dawn, and the bus broke down before breakfast.  We were already in a place far from any cell phone service, but the guides summoned a replacement using a satellite phone, and it caught up to us by the time we’d feasted on fruit juice, bread, salami, boiled eggs, avocados and tomatoes.

We pressed on, leaving the blacktop for hard dirt roads and climbing ever higher to the altiplano, above the snow line, stopping at a raw, arctic scene in a howling wind—the kind that rocks a bus—and bereft of any human footprints in the endless expanse of snow.


We moved on.  A road to one icy lagoon was closed by deep snow, but we hiked to another.  The famous red rocks that invite comparisons to Mars (and lure NASA to test Mars rovers here) weren’t very red in winter, with the snow cover.  It took a fellow traveler from Bosnia to point it out.  He and his wife had prepared, with online photos on his cell phone showing striking red colors in the summer.  The guide shouted to me that he had never seen such a powerful wind at that location.  He had to repeat it later, because I couldn’t hear him for the wind.


We ended the day at Laguna de Chaxa, a monumental expanse of shallow salt water (and layers of salt a thousand meters thick below ground) that attracts flamingos with its brine shrimp.  But the flamingos, too, were scarce that day.

So the landscape, like animals in a zoo, doesn’t always cooperate.  But it’s all so stunning in the brilliant, low-angle light of winter in Chile that gilding the lily isn’t necessary—as if a lily could live in an environment so desiccated that little more than the tamarugo tree really thrives.  There are geysers and thermal pools.  The absence of light pollution or cloud cover makes the Atacama the perfect place for two observatories and a multinational radio astronomy project called ALMA.

Returning to stroll the streets of San Pedro de Atacama, I immersed myself in the babble of languages—there are almost no Americans.  There were backpackers, families, travelers of all kinds, young and old, and it all seemed almost unnaturally pleasant and peaceful.

Finally, a hostel operator told me the secret: dancing is illegal.

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Well, it’s slightly more complicated than that.  There are no discos, no clubs, no bars, no place to dance.  Alcohol is served, but only in restaurants.  And restaurants must close at midnight; 2 a.m. on weekends.  But somehow it doesn’t seem prudish.  Most visitors are so focused on the next day’s tour that they’ve long retired by then, usually for a pre-dawn start.  My Bosnian friends must have taken every tour available in their week here, sometimes two a day, and I don’t think that’s unusual.   Most of the vehicles on the streets are shiny tour buses.

I spoke with a carabinero patrolling in a police truck, who confirmed the local ordinances.  He said there were occasional reports of illicit bashes out in the desert, but they were often drug-fueled parties and dangerous to young people.  In town, he said, the most typical crime was the theft of a bicycle.  I mentioned the laws to a waiter at a café and he said cheerily, “Yes, isn’t it great?”

It is.  There are plenty of party towns, from Montañita, Ecuador to South Padre, Texas, and it’s nice to know there’s at least one very special place in the world where Spring Break will never, ever happen.

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Flower Power

The hippies are back.  If they ever left.  They’re alive and well and living in South America.


As if straight out of Haight-Ashbury, with tie-dyes and bandannas, earrings and billowing pants, they congregate at intersections on the Pan American Highway to put on a 30-second show between lights in exchange for coins.  They may dance, ride a unicycle, or gyrate with hula hoops.  They juggle clubs, balls, flashing machetes and flaming torches.  A few perform magic tricks.

Others board buses to sing for the passengers, or make jewelry to sell in local markets.

They are the only people I’ve ever seen hitchhiking here.

A hirsute and peaceful bunch, they might easily have migrated from San Francisco—until you hear their accent.  They are mostly from places like Chile and Argentina, and they’ve come north instead of south, to Ecuador, considered to be one of the most hippie-friendly countries in the world.

How do we know?  There are hippie websites.

Doc calls Ecuador “the hippie capital of South America…because of its beautiful ecosystems…handmade clothing and jewelry.”  Hippies camp in parks where it’s allowed, or pile into backpackers’ spartan hostels for a few dollars a night.

San Francisco, meanwhile, has become the counterculture pariah: a high-tech, high-cost metropolis, fifty short years after the Summer of Love.

In the 1960s and 1970s the Hippie Movement disdained war and conventional institutions to embrace peace, love, and personal freedom, along with the expanded consciousness of psychedelic drugs.  For many, the Altamont Free Concert in 1969, just four months after Woodstock, marked a slow beginning of the end for the Flower Child generation.  On the other hand, the Grateful Dead continued until 1995, and some communes still exist today.

A great many hippies of the era eventually returned to the middle class, whence they came.  I once met a former “Deadhead” who had become a successful surgeon in Los Angeles.  When asked if he’d left a life on the road for something more noble, he said, “I don’t know about nobility.  I just got tired of it.”


And what is a hippie, after all, but a hobo, with updated fashions, and pot instead of a pocket flask?  American hobos of the 1890s onward—not to be confused with tramps and bums—were vagabonds in search of work.  Just not too much of it.  (A tramp would work only when forced, and a bum not at all.)

H.L. Mencken wrote, “Tramps and hobos are commonly lumped together, but see themselves as sharply differentiated. A hobo or bo is simply a migrant laborer; he may take some longish holidays, but sooner or later he returns to work. Lower than either is the bum, who neither works nor travels, save when impelled to motion by the police.”

The end of the Civil War led discharged soldiers from both sides to hop freight trains in search of a better life in the West, and the Great Depression of the 1930s added to their number.  It was a dangerous life.  Beyond hostile train crews and the risk of freezing, many a hobo ended up “greasing the tracks”—hobo slang for being run over by a train.

Sometime after World War II, hobos gradually came to be known simply as the homeless, while their forebears took on something of a more romantic character with the passage of time.


The hobos’ elaborate system of symbols was legendary.  With a piece of chalk, one hobo could be warned by another of thieves, crooks, dogs—or tipped to a free meal and a place to sleep.

Today’s hippies and “alternative travelers” circle the globe, not only in South America, but in places like India, Cambodia, Australia, Denmark, and Morocco.  They are the hobos of the twenty-first century, sharing secrets of the road online that would once have been marked in code on a picket fence.

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Sweet Dreams

It’s happened again, this time in the southern expat-rich Ecuador city of Cuenca.  According to the online newspaper Cuenca High Life, “Four Cuenca men were taken to a local hospital Saturday morning after friends found two of them unconscious in their historic district apartment. Police say that the men had been robbed of cash and other belongings.”

The men appeared to be the victims of some ladies who weren’t what they appeared to be.  (Or, upon reflection, probably were.)  The cause of the men’s distress was almost certainly scopolamine, the knockout drops derived from a common, weirdly attractive bush that have become the drug of choice for hustlers and much worse.



It can be a date rape drug used on unsuspecting women, but increasingly—as in this case–the criminals are women who target men in bars and private homes.

It’s a time-dishonored practice.  The general concept has a long and shady past with its roots in the saga of an Irishman named Mickey Finn, a pickpocket and thief who owned the Lone Star Saloon on South State Street at the turn of the century in Chicago. The Chicago Crime Scenes Project calls him “After Al Capone…probably the most famous criminal name in Chicago history.”

If Mickey Finn didn’t invent the method, he probably perfected it.  It wasn’t that complicated.  When he opened the saloon in 1896, he teamed up with “Gold Tooth” Mary Thornton, a woman of ill repute.  Slipping a dose of chloral hydrate in a barfly’s drink, she and other accomplices would soon haul the stuporous victim to the back, rob him, and throw him in an alley, where he would awaken the next morning with no memory of what hit him.

The authorities took a dim view of the scheme, and even though he paid protection money to the First Ward Alderman, Finn was arrested and the saloon closed in 1903.

But 15 years later, more than a hundred waiters were arrested in Chicago for the apparently widespread practice of poisoning the drinks of poor tippers.  Although it was a different chemical, it was sold at the waiters’ union headquarters as “Mickey Finn Powder.”

The legend lived on.

The expats’ plight gets more publicity, but Ecuadorians themselves are being victimized too.  There was the recent story of two young men near here, in the provincial capital of Ibarra, who struck up a conversation with two women.  It’s the last memory they had before waking up in their car the next morning, ten miles away, with their cell phones and cash stolen.

Colombia gold

Neighboring Colombia, though, has become the epicenter of weaponized scopolamine, and its street cousin burundanga, also known as Devil’s Breath, made from the borrachero shrub.  There, in addition to its use in nightclubs and bars, even more sinister characters have invented the “paseo millonario,” a charming term meaning “millionaire’s promenade.”  With the victim reduced to a zombie-like state, he is driven around (it’s almost always a man) to ATMs, obediently giving his passwords until his accounts are emptied.  His purpose served, he may or may not be killed.

A Wall Street Journal article in 1995 said, “a person will be offered a soda or drink laced with the substance. The next the person remembers is waking up miles away, extremely groggy and with no memory of what happened. People soon discover that they have handed over jewelry, money, car keys, and sometimes have even made multiple bank withdrawals for the benefit of their assailants.”

Several years ago, in Bogotá, I was out on a Sunday morning in search of breakfast when a well-dressed man approached me.  He said he was with the secret police, showed me his card, and asked if I had a passport.  I told him I kept it in my hotel, and he offered to walk me around the corner to a place that could make a duplicate.  I quickly declined and went back into the hotel.

I don’t know whether I was in for a “paseo” or not, but the next day a military official at the US Embassy told me the Colombian secret police don’t dress like that and would never offer a card.

The scopolamine scourge, like most epidemics, lends itself to hyperbole.  It probably cannot be administered through a drug-soaked business card or pamphlet, or by being blown into a victim’s face, despite many claims to the contrary.  It is usually dumped into a drink in powder or liquid form, and alcohol would speed its effects.

Colombia has quickly become a far safer country than it was even a few years ago, especially with the FARC peace agreement in place, but it’s still not Chicago.  I wouldn’t be caught dead in Chicago.

Or, upon reflection, I might.

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