Family in Coca, Ecuador

Dual Citizen in Coca

Problems with my passport mean I need to travel to Ecuador as citizen of the European Union.

My backpack is packed so perfectly - nothing wasted, everything I need, that nothing can go wrong. 

I wake up at three in the morning to get to the airport as early as possible for a long day of travel. 

But when I get to the airline counter, I reach into my backpack and grab my passport, and the the clerk says, "sorry, you can't go.  Your passport expires in less than six months."

No, this can't be happening.  What do I do now?  Okay, she says, we can book you to Seattle, you can get an appointment with the passport agency, and just maybe you can fly out the next day, you want to do that?  Yes, I say, of course, recounting the months of planning deteriorating into chaos. 

"Wait a minute," I tell her!  I need to call my wife.  How long do I have before it's too late?  "Twenty five minutes.  How far away does she live?" 


Ring, ring, ring.  "Jane, I know you have the flu, I know you didn't get a lot of sleep last night, but I need you to wake up our son and be at the airport in twenty-five minutes with my other passport!”

Twenty-five minutes later with my German passport in my hand, the clerk says, “Oops, your itinerary has just been bought up by someone else.  You should go standby, your flight is boarding now!  I’ll get you through security…you owe your wife a big Valentine’s Day present!”

Man in Coca, Ecuador

The next morning, I am on the bus in Coca, Ecuador, the gateway to the Amazon, when it occurs to me that for the first time in my life, I'm traveling as the citizen of another country.  Somehow, traveling with my German passport has changed everything, although I can't quite explain why.

There is something about the way the city of Coca smells. Is it citrus and diesel?  It makes the place so intoxicating.  it's just a small city of 30,000, and I'm just passing through, but I can't help but be so grateful to be here at the historical gateway of exploration in the Amazon.

When I was growing up in the United States in the 1970's, I was growing up on the cusp of the weird post-modern age, where parents would raise their kids like helicopters and lawn-mowers, buzzing around them and mowing danger out of their way.  But both of my parents were immigrants, so we grew up as free-range kids, without all the helmets and planned-activities.

I realize, that by traveling as a German, I’m traveling as a free-range adult, without all the worries and fuss. 

That night, at the bar at Sacha Lodge, I am sitting in a chair, reading a book about explorers.  Behind me, two British couples, who apparently don’t realize I am also at the bar, begin to lay in on Americans, and what an awful lot they are.

I stop my reading for a moment to listen, thinking what an odd subject to be discussing in the Amazon, and then I get back to my book.

For a year and a half, I have been telling stories to my son about a Mouse Captain, who sails a mouse-sized ship, fights pirates and goes on various missions throughout the various island nations in which he inhabits. But after nearly five-hundred of these stories, I realized I could not go into 2012 without the evolving the tale to include a larger cast of characters.

I decided that Captain Mouse needed a crew, to make the stories more engaging to a child who was getting closer to age 5. Naturally, in an age of peace and low rates of piracy, a Mouse Captain would be enlisted by his king to head a mission of exploration and discovery in the yet unmapped South Seas.

Coca, Ecuador Street Scene

Details from Coca, Ecuador.

But what would the crew of a Mouse Corps of Discovery look like? To find inspiration, I began to try to learn about real historical scientific exploration crews.

Considering that I was traveling in the Amazon, I could not help to pay particular attention to the various voyages in the Amazon. I needed a botanist for my mouse crew, and I had already decided that the botanist would have to be from the pocket mouse genus. It just seemed fitting.

The next night, I again overheard the British couples talking at the bar. but this time they were egging their guide to tell them more about who the worst travelers were. The guide had little good to say of Spanish travelers, but the British couple then went on to talk about German travelers, how they were always unsmiling and dead serious.

Having become somewhat of an expert on historical explorers, I had to disagree with this assessment. In the early history of Amazon exploration, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the Irish did their best to colonize the Amazon.

We might not have known so much of how these explorers and missionaries went about kicking the crap out of Indians as they attempted to subjugate their way through the Amazon were it not for a German naturalist and explorer, Alexander von Humboldt, who, horrified at how religiously-motivated travelers treated natives, wrote that all men, "...are in like degree designed for freedom."

Bromeliads, airplants and vines dangle on the steep Guacamayos Ridge Trail

Von Humboldt was a Pomeranian botanist who spent his youth collecting plants and shells. Unlike the European explorers before him, Humboldt seemed at ease in the Amazon, seeing awe, order and beauty.

Most importantly, he saw a unity between the sciences that formerly had been little explored. Humboldt became the grandfather of the idea of consilience in science, and he is known as the early inventor of the study of the unifying science of biogeography.

I look over at the British tourists, who are covered in beige technical fabrics, and still wearing their lightweight technical-fabric sun-hats, even though the sun went down hours ago. I realize, with these British couples outfitting themselves against the Amazon, is the particular way that so many nations, explorers and travelers view this part of the world. We grew up with stories of piranhas and tarantulas and anacondas. Stories of dark jungles that kill, demonic places infested with disease and murder. This is not how Alexander von Humboldt viewed the Amazon. He viewed it as a mysterious and beautiful place, populated by people equal to him.

Von Humboldt is now considered one of Germany's greatest heroes, and in all of Europe, his life is celebrated and memorialized. But while he was an explorer and a scientist, he is also an archetype of the age of Enlightenment. As a friend of Thomas Jefferson, Humboldt had become the botanical equivalent of Kant.

In my experience, German travelers always seemed relaxed, friendly, and inquisitive, and not like the British describe at all.

That night, I finish my rum and put on my headlamp. With a backpack like this, nothing can go wrong. I walk out into the swampy water with my boots on, looking for frogs. And sure, there is a tarantula, and yes the trees have thorns, and, oh yes, that was a snake. But just don't touch them, and change your perspective, and the Amazon becomes what you make of it. In the words of Alexander von Humboldt, archetype of the enlightenment and good-natured German explorer, "I am more and more convinced that our happiness or unhappiness depends more on the way we meet the events of life than on the nature of those events themselves."

I think maybe I have my inspiration for a pocket mouse botanist. A day later, I meet the British couples, who are drawn to my large-format camera. I tell them the story of how my wife had to rush my passport to the airport, and how I really like traveling as a German. Did they know I heard their stories the night before? But I decide not to rub it in, and instead, I tell them to get their rubber boots on, and to follow me, I have something you will really want to see.

Explore more in the Neotropics

In Colombia's desert state of La Guajira, I learn about the Wayuu people's long history.

A defense of colorful language as we ascend the Santa Marta Mountains in Northern Colombia.

Into the mangroves, coastal scrub and pink lagoons of Mexico's Yucatan Coast.

The Osa Peninsula is a wild gem of protected lowland forest, teeming with life.

Notes on global biodiversity, from one of its prime hotspots in the Peruvian rainforest.

Notes on diversity and adaptation in the flooded blackwater lakes of the Amazon.

Notes on the joy of travel and the strange, modern cargo cults of the airways.

Thoughts on a life of sports and green energy in Costa Rica's Guanacaste province.

An exquisite adventure along the Guacamayos Ridge Trail in the Ecuadorian Andes.

What does it mean to travel as a citizen of a different country? I find out how the hard way.

Why are river islands unique, and important? Notes on the role of river islands in the Amazon.

Notes on the poison frogs of Isla Bastimentos in the Bocas del Toro archipelago of Panama.

A night-time ferry to a deserted island in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago.

Exploring isolated streams in the El Valle caldera, and notes on the amphibian epidemic.

Riding through Honduras' North Coast on an antique coconut train.

In the Panama jungle, I write letters to an American pastor who rails against evolution.

Travels in the San Blas Islands, home of the semi-autonomous Guna Indians.

Road trip stories from lazy, sun-drenched rivers in Southern Belize.

Notes on the ancient highways of the Mayan world, from a perch in Peten, Guatemala.

Notes on sustainable development from the dry forests of the Nicaraguan Pacific Coast.

Notes on travels in the colonial city of Granada, Nicaragua.

Sketches and notes from Lima, Peru in Copic markers, watercolor and sepia washes.

Sketches, Moleskine notes and illustrations from San Jose, Costa Rica.

Notes on the the diverse habits of the Andes, and the surreal denizens who inhabit them.

Exploring the Mombacho Volcano along Lake Nicaragua, including the rugged Puma Trail.