Friday, August 9, 2013

Why two blogs?

I suppose it was inevitable. Sooner or later in the course of 50+ blog posts I was bound to say some things that ran afoul of the International Erosion Control Association's management team and membership. After all, IECA is in the business of serving erosion control professionals and businesses that provide erosion control products. The negative opinions I have occasionally expressed about the policies of foreign governments or obnoxious travelers I have encountered as well as my sometimes "salty" language are not exactly what IECA had in mind when they suggested I do a blog about my 2012 around-the-world trip to attend erosion control-related conferences and meet with erosion control professionals.

In my very first post, "Intro to My Trip" (July 19, 2012), I pointed out that I am an opinionated SOB and didn't "plan on toning it down for this blog." While I have done my best to stay positive most of the time, I'm no Pollyanna. Those of you who have done much traveling (particularly if you have ventured overseas without the benefit of a tour guide) know about the annoyances that go along with beautiful vistas and nice people you encounter along the way. I've shared some of the negatives because I hoped that readers would find them informative and entertaining. Your feedback has told me that I was largely correct.

Still I've been uncomfortable about getting too blunt in my blog posts since my principal purpose has been to promote IECA's charitable arm, the SOIL Fund, which provides support for erosion control projects primarily in developing countries. So when the IECA administration took me to the woodshed for being naughty one time too many, I came up with a solution which they enthusiastically support: TWO BLOGS.

Here is how it's going to work. Henceforth, the "Erosion Control Around the World" blog ( will stick to erosion control issues outside North America including reports of erosion and sedimentation problems, the work of erosion control professionals, relevant conferences/workshops, and erosion and sediment control projects. This blog will continue to be associated with IECA and the SOIL Fund and will carry their logos. The IECA Region 1 administration in Denver, Colorado, USA will provide editorial support and will continue to provide a link to the blog on the SOIL Fund page of their website (

The new blog? It's called, "Perspectives of a Wandering Geographer" ( and will include stories (and photos) not related specifically to erosion and sediment control. These posts may include information on the history, politics, and physical/cultural geography of the places I visit. I'll write about travel experiences, good and bad, as well as the people I meet. I will also share my "self-edited" opinions. The "Erosion Control Around the World" blog will include links to these stories but the blog will in no way be associated with the International Erosion Control Association or the SOIL Fund.

A few thoughts about the title of this new blog. Ever since I received an M.A. in geography from the University of Montana 40 years ago, I've often struggled with what to call myself professionally. Many people with geography degrees have this problem. What do geographers do anyway? Are we experts in reciting the state capitals backwards and forwards? The answer is that people who have studied geography wind up in a great variety of professions and businesses. In my own case, environmental science has been a good fit for me especially since I have an undergraduate degree in geology and an associate degree (which I earned many years later) in environmental technology. However, when I travel, I look at the world from the perspective of a geographer. I see the spatial pattern of the physical and biological environment (the climate, geology, water resources, landforms, soils, and ecosystems) as well as the human interaction with that environment (including human culture, economics, population, transportation, and so forth). It is this perspective that I bring to my writing, photography, and my general view of our planet and human civilization.

As always, I welcome your email feedback (

Colombia: Narrow Escape from Field Trip Bus

Following the conference of the International Soil Conservation Organization (ISCO) in Medellin, Colombia, we had a choice between two one-day field trips on Friday, July 12. One trip visited a coffee growing area around the city of Venecia and the other looked at profiles of volcanic soils and commercial flower cultivation east of Medellin. I chose the latter because I’d seen enough of coffee cultivation during the pre-conference field trip. The choice provided more excitement than I’d expected from the trip description.

Medellin, site of the 2013 ISCO Conference, is located in the Central Andes Mountains of northwestern Colombia.

We met at 7:00AM next to the Plaza Mayor convention center in Medellin where two buses (one for each trip) awaited us. As soon as I figured out which was the bus for my trip, I grabbed a seat next to the window on the right side immediately behind the door. I wound up with an empty seat next to me as there were only about 20 of us on a bus that held about 30. As the green and white bus headed east on Calle 49 (49th Street), I slid the window open and started shooting photos of the neighborhoods we passed. However, I soon decided to close the window between photos because of the bus’s exhaust fumes. Calle 49 became a steep upgrade and the bus was apparently belching a lot of smoke as I noticed pedestrians holding their noses as we passed them. Since I was near the front, I couldn’t see how bad the exhaust actually was but other riders later reported that it was black and nasty. Calle 49 eventually became a narrow road leading out of the valley where the city is located (elevation 1500-1600 meters or about 5100 feet). We continued to climb up the steep mountainside past forests, little farms, and modest houses with dramatic views. 
7:14 AM Joel Monschke, a civil engineer from Richmond, California, boards our ill-fated bus.
8:11 AM.   Climbing up the steep grade out of Medellin, older neighborhoods and new apartment buildings such as this one eventually give way to small farms and rural homes perched on steep hillsides.

Suddenly, as we rounded a corner, the engine became noisier and smoke started to seep from around the edges of the plate over the engine which was located immediately behind the driver’s gearshift. My mind flashed back 27 years to Botswana (southern Africa) where I had seen the same thing happen on a bus I was riding back to the capital city. So I immediately knew this bus engine was history and our field trip was over. The engine noise soon turned to the clanging sound of metal on metal and we quickly coasted to a stop. I was unpleasantly surprised that the dead engine continued to smoke and the fumes started wafting back into the passenger area. I opened my window to get some air and grabbed my pack figuring it was probably a good time to get the hell out of there sooner rather than later. The driver seemed oblivious to what was going on behind him and someone shouted to him twice, “Open the door!” before he obliged and we orderly descended the steps out into the fresh air.

8:34 AM  Our driver seems oblivious to the smoke starting to emanate from the engine compartment to his right.
Smoke was now pouring out from under the bus. The driver climbed under the front of the bus and sprayed the engine with a fire extinguisher. He and another man directed a couple of fire extinguishers at other smoking areas around the front of the bus. I had scampered up a small hill on the side of the road for a better view of the action. I noticed an American colleague, Joel Monschke, run behind the bus, open up the luggage compartment, and retrieve his suitcase which he had brought along because he had a flight home later in the day. Joel was soon to find out that he was damn lucky that the driver had not locked the luggage compartment.
8:35 AM  With everyone safely off the bus, the driver crawls under the front of the bus to attack the smoking engine with a fire extinguisher.

The smoke subsided somewhat and I figured the now empty fire extinguishers had brought things under control. Not so. Seven minutes after the engine blew, smoke started pouring out of the bus and a minute later flames began shooting out the windows. The front window soon cracked to pieces from the heat and a tall plume of black smoke headed skyward. I kept backing away from the bus but a couple colleagues moved to within about 50 feet to get a closer look at the action. I ran up to them and suggested they might want to move back. “If the fuel tank explodes, this could really get ugly,” I warned. I have the impression that people usually don’t take my advice but in this case they did.

8:36 AM  It seemed like the fire extinguishers were working as the smoke died down at the front of the bus.
8:39 AM   Without much warning, the smoke intensifies.  Flames are now visible below the bus.
8:41 AM  Holy inferno! Our bus has sprouted fiery wings! Diabolically, the headlights have come on.
Actually, I figured there was less than a 50-50 chance of an explosion. I recalled from my hazmat training that diesel fuel is less explosive than most petroleum products. Nevertheless, I was taking no chances and moved back a couple hundred feet making use of my camera’s zoom lens to record the fire’s progress. There never was an explosion although at one point there was a loud bang which I later assumed was the cap blowing off the fuel tank as it was missing when I looked at the tank after the fire was out. One of our Madagascar colleagues later told me she saw a long hydrocarbon stain along the road below where the bus engine gave out. I’m assuming all the oil had leaked from the engine.

Within five minutes of the initial flare-up the entire bus was engulfed in flames and it was obvious that nothing would be left except for twisted metal and ashes. A colleague who had been sitting across from me somberly reported that he had left his daypack in the rack above the seat. His passport and some money were in the pack. I felt really bad for him. I don’t think any of us figured on an out-of-control fire when we got off the bus to avoid the smoke.
Left: 8:43AM  A huge plume of black smoke billows skyward.
Right:  8:47AM  The entire bus is engulfed in flames.  
I had my backpack and camera but where was my nice cloth camera case? No, it wasn’t on my shoulder or in my pack. SHIT! In my haste to get out, I’d left it on the floor below the seat. My spare $40 battery was in the camera case. I usually would have had my battery charger and computer download cable in the case, but for once I had left them back in the hotel room. My passport and some of my credit cards, ATM cards, and some money were in the combination safe in my hotel room (I only had a photocopy of the passport on me); my other credit and ATM cards and some Colombian pesos were in the pouch around my neck, and some of my US dollars were in my money belt. Neither I nor any colleagues had been burned or otherwise injured. Hey, life was good.

8:48 AM   One by one, impatient drivers start to make a run for it. What if the fuel tank exploded as they were scurrying past?

8:54 AM   Not much left by now. Lucky the fire didn’t spread to the trees just off the road.

Within a half hour of the engine starting to smoke, the fire had consumed just about every burnable part of the bus when “los bomberos” (the firemen) arrived. I don’t really fault them for taking so long to get there given the heavy traffic in the city and the steep, winding road they had to negotiate. Hoses came out and they proceeded to spray the bejesus out of the bus carcass. A plume of white smoke billowed from the hot metal frame. In another half hour, it was all over and a few of us cautiously approached the remains. What a friggin’ mess. What were once a passport, camera case, etc. were now indistinguishable ashes. I had learned that a colleague seated behind me had also lost his camera case. The field trip leader, a local soil science professor, had lost a bunch of equipment that he was bringing along to help us examine soil pits.

9:03 AM   Los bomberos (firemen) have just arrived from Medellin to go after what’s left of the fire.

Police set up cones and directed traffic around the toasted bus once the fire was out. An ambulance arrived right after the first fire engine. The American colleague who had lost his passport had a blood pressure condition and got it checked by the ambulance paramedic. It was elevated (180 over something) but not of concern. Outwardly, he was very philosophical and appeared a helluva lot calmer than I would have been under the same circumstances! Another colleague checked the list of foreign consulates on his map of Medellin but found that the US does not have a consulate there. Our colleague with the nuked passport couldn’t get out of Colombia and back into the US without his passport or another official US document. Using his cell phone, we called the US embassy in Bogota, Colombia’s capital. The colleague with the missing passport handed me the phone as he couldn’t hear the embassy operator very well. Oh “flock”, they had put us into voicemail. “Hey, we’ve got a bit of an emergency here,” I told the machine. “An American citizen lost his passport in a bus fire and has a flight back to the USA tomorrow. Please call this number as soon as possible.” Jeezus, you call the US Embassy and all you get is voicemail! I made a mental note to send an indignant email to Secretary of State John Kerry (for all the good that would do!) but a counsel officer called back within less than a half hour. Yes, they could get him a temporary passport but it was Friday and they would be closed on Saturday and Sunday. Plans were quickly made and a bilingual Colombian colleague decided to accompany our unfortunate colleague to Bogota. The two of them and another American colleague hailed a cab and headed off to the airport in hopes of catching the first flight to Bogota, their only option as getting from Medellin to the capital by car would take the better part of a day. Fortunately, he didn’t need a passport for an internal flight. A couple days later, I learned that everything went smoothly. They were able to get to Bogota Friday afternoon, secure his temporary passport, and get back to Medellin in time for his Saturday flight (Whew! Don’t ever lose your passport!)

9:33 AM  She’s all ready now for the tow truck.
10:19 AM   I’m pointing to what’s left of my seat.   Note bus panel on the ground behind me which reads, Su mejor opción (Your best option) – Oh, really?

We learned that another bus was being sent up the mountain to take us back down to the city. Our three very perceptive colleagues from Madagascar talked over the situation and decided that we would all be pretty bummed out if we went back to Medellin and hung around our hotel rooms for the rest of the day. Why not get our minds off the fiasco and continue with at least part of the trip? They approached one of the conference organizers with their idea and he came around to us individually and asked if we wanted to go on with the trip in the new bus. Why not, we all agreed. So after more than a two hour interruption, we climbed aboard the replacement bus and continued the trip.

10:59 AM  We’re off again on another bus.

We made two long stops. The first was at the Paysandu Agricultural Center in rolling tropical highlands at 2520 meters (8266 feet) elevation. We saw cows being milked with modern milking machines but that wasn’t the purpose for our visit. Instead we gathered around a large, previously excavated pit to look at and discuss a very interesting soil profile. The original A and B horizons (topsoil and subsoil) developed in slope deposits of weathered metamorphic bedrock more than 18,000 years ago. They had now decomposed to white and orange silty loam respectively and were covered by about a meter of layered volcanic ash deposits representing several periods of intense volcanic activity to the south over the past 18,000 years.

Andisol (volcanic soil) profile at the Paysandu Agricultural Center.   Volcanic ash deposits overlie the white band (a former topsoil layer) in the center of the photo.

Some of us “paid” for this soil science lesson. As soon as we arrived at the farm, word went out to the local gnat population that fresh meat had arrived. The little bastards were so small and quiet and their bites initially rather painless that it took a while to realize we were being devoured. I eventually doused my exposed skin with insect repellent and provided some of the stuff to a couple colleagues but by then we had welts on our necks, hands, ears, etc. and they started to itch like crazy.

Lunch was brought into the experimental farm and we then rode a few kilometers to a commercial operation supplying high-quality cut flowers to US and Canadian markets. There wasn’t much of connection with the soil conservation theme of the conference but I found it quite interesting from an economic geography perspective. Upon hearing that the flowers were flown in carefully packed, refrigerated containers to Miami, I wondered how on earth the business could compete with local North American greenhouses. My skepticism gradually faded when I put together the following:
1. Labor costs in Colombia are considerably less than in the US for this very labor-intensive business.
2. In most parts of the North America, greenhouses have heating costs if they operate in winter and need to be constructed from metal-framed glass. The tropical highland climate above Medellin (year round spring-like weather with no frosts) is ideal for growing flowers. Only polyethylene sheets on slanted frames are needed to protect the flowers from tropical rainstorms.
3. Irrigation water is abundant and cheap. The flower operation has a large stream-fed pond on the property.
4. They are located only a couple miles from Medellin’s international airport so local transport costs are virtually nil.

Large-scale production of flowers for export to the USA and Canada.
Despite the loss of a passport and some other items of lesser value, I think this group of Colombian, Malagasy (people from Madagascar), Mexican, Spanish, Venezuelan, and Norte Americanos sort of “bonded” over the experience. When I met another group for a three-day field trip the following day, the burning bus was the “hot” topic of conversation and everyone was eager to see my photos.

I’ll have more to report on the conference and Colombian geography and environmental concerns in future posts.

Lisbon to Denver: Home at last after a day from Hell

This last blog post from my around the world trip may piss off some readers.   Once again, I remind you that the opinions expressed in this personal blog, Perspectives of a Wandering Geographer, are my own and are not endorsed by any groups with which I am affiliated!

Bye, bye lovely Lisbon! TAP Flight 103 heads into the clouds over the Tejo River Estuary with the magnificent April 25th Bridge directly below us.

Top: The “joys” of trans-Atlantic travel - cramped in a seat in coach for eight hours and a tasteless lunch.
Bottom: My last flight was the worst. Damn, it was great to finally arrive back in Denver! Basemaps from Google Maps (
12 October 2012 on United Flight 1139, Newark to Denver
I’m finally on the last leg of my ‘round-the-world in 92 days gig. Oh boy, is it torture. First of all, I just came off an 8 hour flight from Lisbon so I’m not exactly in the most chipper of moods. The Denver flight leaves 40 minutes late (the flight deck came on the speaker just after we pulled out from the gate and announced that we were #25 for take-off). After all, it’s Friday night and everyone and their dog probably wants to get the flock out of New York. Can you blame them? Then I’m stuck in a middle seat near the back of the plane. Serves me right for not remembering to check in on line from Lisbon this morning. Then, at the beginning of the flight I get pissed off because I can’t turn off the audio and video for the obnoxious little TV screen on the seat back in front of me. Thus, I’m bombarded from 15” away by United’s adverts until I rip the back off the in-flight magazine, fold a flap at one end, and stick the flap in the slot above the screen. That doesn’t get rid of the sound but at least I don’t have to look at the picture. I paid a couple hundred bucks for this seat and I find being forced to view advertisements as outrageous as the concept of watching ads on cable TV that you pay for. Kinda like double taxation.

Top:  Landing in Newark, I could see the new World Trade Center Tower in Manhattan (upper left corner of photo). Bottom: I crossed the Atlantic on this TAP Portugal jet.
It’s bad enough having to fly in steerage, but I despise middle seats. Now, I’ve developed an etiquette toward middle seat passengers over the years – whether I’m in the window seat (my usual preference for day flights) or on the aisle, I always let people in the middle seat have the arm rest. The poor bugger in the middle seat has it bad enough as it is. The least one can do to help relieve some of their claustrophobia is be charitable and give them a little extra space. The young woman in the window seat is doing a good job of following this little courtesy. Poor thing is doubled up over her tray table trying to get some sleep and mostly doesn’t move.

No such luck with the older woman on the aisle. She’s a bit on the large size and seems to be one of those friendly small town types who are oblivious to other peoples’ space. We exchanged comments about the plane leaving late earlier and she just had to touch me on the arm. Gawd, do I hate it when strangers deliberately touch me. So later, I was trying to do a cat nap and she kept moving her arm around frequently grazing my arm. Not a hard bump but just enough of a sensation to wake me from my cat nap. Believe me, I was giving her as much room as possible. I gave up the arm rest to her but she kept violating the air space on my side of the arm rest by an inch or two. I have narrow shoulders and I squeezed my arms as tightly into my body as possible and pushed myself over to the side next to the sleeping girl in the window seat and as close to her as possible without violating her air space. No avail. Then the fidgeting woman got one of those over-priced box lunches and proceeded to scarf it with noisy gusto while continuing to brush against me with her right arm every minute or two. I finally gave up on the cat nap. She’s finished her chow, is now reading a magazine, and continues to violate my space every time she turns a page. Thus, I’m writing this little essay in self-defense.

I mean, what do you say to someone like this? “Excuse me, but could you please stop violating my space.” I hate being rude. I hate hurting peoples’ feelings. I do my best to avoid confrontations. So usually I just suffer in silence. In this case, I drew back away from her and looked at her arm a couple times when I received unwanted contact hoping she would get the hint. But she’s fucking clueless. She’s probably from a big happy family where everyone hugs and touches their family and neighbors and she just couldn’t understand how someone could be so overly-sensitive, right? And now, she periodically does a big loud har-har-har-har laugh while chatting with her husband in the seat across the aisle from her. Guess it’s time to put the ear plugs back in. I took them out earlier after the screaming baby behind me apparently went to sleep. Another of my least-favored flight situations is to get stuck in the vicinity of a screaming, germ-spreading baby.

Hmmm, maybe I should have been more perceptive and offered to trade seats with the husband earlier so they could sit next to each other. I never come up with such creative solutions until it’s too late. However, I do such a good job ignoring people that I didn’t figure out they were together until a while after take-off. Oh well, only 2 more hours of this bullshit…assuming no more delays. Judy told me earlier by phone that there is some unsettled weather going on in Denver. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we got diverted to Colorado Springs or worse yet, Kansas City!

We certainly have hit our share of turbulence along the way– the fasten seat belt sign has been on for at least half the trip. Ride ‘em cowboy. Oh, so now there is an announcement that the captain wants people to return to their seats because of upcoming turbulence. And this hasn’t already been turbulence? Of course, my unwelcome neighbor gets up to go to the jon right after the announcement. Maybe she had her hearing aid turned off.

Next thing you know someone will barf and really enhance the atmosphere back here in the tail of this bouncing beast. At least the baby isn’t crying anymore and the annoying woman has quieted down a little. For small things I should be thankful – like Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag prisoner, Ivan Denisovitch, who figures he’s had a good day in prison when he scores some extra food at dinner.

Only an hour to go now. I can stand just about anything for an hour – even dental surgery.
That's all folks! Well, not exactly. Although this is the end of the story of my Around-the-World trip, I plan to continue to post stories. Look for a new one every few weeks. - Will

Portugal: A Pleasant End to a Long Journey in Lisbon

I had wanted to take a train from Madrid to Lisbon, the final stop on my around-the-world trip. Unfortunately, I learned that there is only one train per day between the two cities and it’s an overnight journey. That meant I would not see any of the countryside along the way. The upside was that, for me, it would be an adventure to take an overnight train, something I hadn’t done for more than 25 years when I had crisscrossed southern Africa by rail.

If I was going to be on a train for 10+ hours overnight, I had one non-negotiable condition: I would have to have a sleeping compartment. I couldn’t make a reservation for the train before leaving Denver because one cannot book Spanish trains more than 60 days in advance. Thus, about 58 days before my planned Madrid-Lisbon trip on October 10-11, I tried to book a seat on-line when I was in China. Every sleeping compartment seat (1st class or 2nd class; single or shared) was already booked. No way was I going to sit up all night in a regular coach and arrive in Lisbon feeling like a blurry-eyed zombie. So I went on line and found a seat on an Air Europa flight for only $121.50 from Madrid to Lisbon in early evening on 10 October 2012.

It was easy. The flight took only 1 hour and 20 minutes. The Metro in Madrid has a line to the airport and the Metro in Lisbon went from the airport to within about 5 blocks of my hotel (there was one change along the way). Throughout my trip, I had wanted to do the “right thing” environmentally by taking trains rather than flying but, in this case, convenience and comfort won out.

I had been long intrigued by Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, especially after having listened to an account of the city’s role in World War II (Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, 1939-45 by Neill Lochery, Blackstone Audio, 2011). If you’ve seen the movie, Casablanca, you may recall how refugees from German-occupied Europe were stuck in Morocco (ruled by the French Vichy government) and schemed to get exit visas in order to make their way to Lisbon, then on to the US, Canada, or the UK. Portugal was officially neutral during the war, and its clever ruler, Antonio Salazar, masterfully did business with both the Allies and Axis powers and fattened the Portuguese treasury in the process.

My little hotel (a third-story walk-up) was conveniently located near Rossio Square in the busy heart of the city. I have a very limited Portuguese vocabulary and had to remember to use Continental (rather than Brazilian) Portuguese pronunciations. For example, in Brazil “Ds” are pronounced like “J”s, so “good morning” is pronounced, Bon GEE-ah, whereas in Portugal the greeting is pronounced like it is spelled, Bon dia. Actually, I didn’t need to speak much Portuguese as most people I encountered in Lisbon spoke some English. And, if you read Spanish fairly well, the signs in Portuguese are rather easy to figure out.

Fountain in Rossio Square with the National Theater in the background
Park in the center of the Avenida da Liberdade in Baixa (lower town) at night

I was up early on the morning of the 11thand spent the morning walking the Baixa (lower town) down to the Tejo estuary (an arm of the Atlantic Ocean). Much of Baixa was rebuilt after a massive earthquake destroyed most of Lisbon in 1755. After lunch, I climbed steep streets to the Alfama neighborhood and toured the 12th Century Castelo de São Jorge (rebuilt in 1938). The views of the city and the estuary from the castle were fantastic. Crossing back through the Baixa, I climbed another hill to the Barrio Alto (high quarter). By late afternoon, my feet were worn out but managed to take me up one more steep street in the evening for a delicious dinner at a Nepalese restaurant.

The following morning, I took the Metro back to Portelo Airport located only about 4 miles north of Lisbon’s city center. My flight on TAP (Portugal’s national airline) left for Newark, New Jersey at 12:30PM. By evening I would finally be back in Denver.

Coming next: My hellish flights back to Denver

Architectural “samples”, Baixa 
Tourists climbing aboard one of Lisbon’s colorful old trolleys

Castelo de São Jorge above the Alfama neighborhood

View north from Castelo de São Jorge

View southwest from Alfama toward the Tejo River estuary

Left:  Narrow residential street in the Barrio Alto with the Ponte 25 de Abril (April 25th Bridge) in the background.  Right:  Colorful residences in the Barrio Alto.

These Lisbon students were collecting money for a local hospital.  In return for the coins I donated, they sang me a Portuguese song and let me take their photo.