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Joseph Conrad

By Joseph Conrad, writer and traveler par excellence

Graffiti, Quito Ecuador


Art … may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect…


[My task is] by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see!

Escribiendo El Viaje


If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm – all you demand; and perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.



The Rains of Quito

Las Lluvias de Quito

Quito sits in the middle of the world on the equator – Ciudad Mitad del Mundo. The climate is changeable. If you don’t like it, wait five minutes, Quitoans say.

A new Ecuadorian friend recommended I visit La Capilla Del Hombre (The Chapel of Man). The museum sits in the Bellavista section overlooking Quito. I walked from my hotel near the Diego de Almagro. People warned me it was a hike, but despite being at a birthday party1 till 2 AM I wanted a little more urban adventuring. Ecuadorians know how to throw a fiesta, by the way.

Google maps shows routes by foot, taxi or bus. It does not show elevation. The museum sits high over the city. A little urban adventuring turned into a considerable urban ascent.

I saw some nice graffiti.

Urban steps like back home.

 And an urban cow.

 Entrance to the museum is eight dollars USD. Ecuador switched to U.S. dollars Several years ago to stabilize its economy. After some initial pain Ecuadorians I’ve met say it has generally worked.

The Capilla Del Hombre museum is a tribute to the work of Ecuadorian painter Oswaldo Guayasamín and the Ecuadorian people. The museum features his work and the work of other artists as well. There is a separate building aside from the capilla (chapel) itself. The docent at the entrance asked whether I wanted a tour en Inglis or in another language. I found myself on the ass-end of a group being regaled ad infinitum with the details of every object on display.

The guide was doing his job. But I’ve gotten a little tired of words lately. I use more than enough of them myself, both written and spoken, personally and professionally, to try and find a narrative to our sometimes crazy lives.2 Maybe we think if we talk (or write) long enough it will all make sense. What I desired was to soak up a little tranquility and appreciate the art and the space. Isn’t that what I hiked up the hill and paid for?

I saw an open door. There was no rope or sign indicating it was restricted. I left the group and went in. I found myself alone in Guayasamín’s studio. I immediately found the tranquility I was looking for. Canvases, tubes of paint and works in progress surrounded me. The docent came in and said for security reasons I had to go back and stay with the group. I explained In bad Spanish that no one had told me this. I said I knew visual and other artists back home and enjoyed the creative process. I said my wife had died in the past year and I wanted some quiet. I said this with a smile. She said there would be another tour in English in ten minutes.

While other visitors filed in and waited, I sat and watched a video in the lobby. I wanted to be alone with my thoughts – or with no thoughts at all. Solitude is an increasingly subversive act of modern life whether in Estados Unidos or in Ecuador. Our crowdsourced society cajoles, pokes and inveigles us to share (or submerge) our innermost ideas and precious attention in the constant media stream, turning our lives and experiences into commodities for sales and marketing.

I decided I’d had enough of the group experience. I left the museum and walked outside. Among the greenery and outdoor sculptures, I felt better. In the distance mist wreathed the Pichincha Mountains that rise above Quito and that Guayasamin depicted in his paintings.

I followed the path and entered the chapel itself, a vast space with Picaso-esque sculptures and paintings by Guayasamín and other artists.


Any human being who has a heart and isn’t overly-medicated knows the feeling before tears erupt. One of the most stupid and compassionate questions to ask someone is ‘Why are you crying?’ Half the time we’re not aware ourselves, at least to start. Pressure built up in my chest and behind my eyes. As I wandered through the chapel, tears started to flow – what in our family my father called waterworks .

I liked the view and the graffiti on the way to the museum. I liked the unexpected cow. I liked Guayasamín’s work. I went to the museum because a friend suggested it. I didn’t expect to see reminders of my dead wife’s face in the paintings on the walls.

‘Please don’t cry,’ my new friends tell me. ‘Don’t be sad and dwell on the past with us in this new place in this new year. They tell me this because they care about me and enjoy seeing me happy. But my tears were not pathological but cleansing.

Our society increasingly denies and medicates sadness and insists on normalization and conformity of our feelings to the mean3. Art retains the power to evoke our unruly emotions and memories, joy and pain, that do not conform to its rules.

I emerged from the museum to the mists of Quito around the Pichincha mountains. Nowadays this includes smog from the herds of cars in Quito’s streets. A fine rain started to fall. I was starving and felt lightheaded. I’d bought water but knew I had to eat. I stopped for lunch at a small place. For 2.50 USD I had meatballs with rice and yucca, along with ubiquitous and wonderful Ecuadorian salsa picante. I came out feeling much better .

I descended the steep streets back to the traffic and bustle of the city.

The rain turned heavier, temporarily washing the grit and fumes from the air. It left the atmosphere clear and fresh.

Feliz Año Nuevo. Happy New Year. – CDL

1Fiesta de cumpleaños

2And yet here we are again.

3The statistical mean, as well as in the sense of low and unkind.

Urban Expeditions

Hola Snake

Hola, Gringo. You look tired

I shopped for clothes in Quito. It exhausted me worse than my jungle trip.

An urban expedition can be dangerous. Did you see any wild animals?

Taxis and cars that don’t stop and herds of shoppers stampeding for sales.

There are benefits to living in your own skin. If I get tired of a style, I shed it and grow another.

Like some people shed their personalities.

Humans are a remarkably transitory species.

Like the weather is Quito.

Whether or not I shed my skin, a snake is a snake. It is my nature.

Like some people.

You insult me. I have a friend in Quito. A lounge lizard.

I danced salsa at a club the other night. Sixty dollars for one mojito each for me and the lady I was with. But she was muy bonita, and there was live music and the salsa muy caliente. Maybe he was there.

He sings numbers like Snakey Breaky Heart, Don’t Come Slithering Around My Door and Reptile Love, among others.

Muy picante. Totally worth it.

Humans have strange habits. I’ve heard of this Tinder. Why would you want to set yourselves on fire before mating?

It’s an expression.

Si. I forgot Humans are hot blooded. Like your chica dancing queen?

She is a beautiful middle-aged lady – the energizer bunny of salsa.

Horizontal or vertical?

A gentleman does not tell.

But you are a gringo, not a gentleman.

I am trying to set a good example.

Better than trying to set someone on fire to show them you care.

Human love can be an incendiary.

So roast a marshmallow or an agouti. All that drama.

Si. Like an Ecuadorian telenovela: all those tears and mascara running. It makes the women look like lemurs.

And the men with heaving nostrils. Snakes are much more sensible.

Well, you are cold blooded.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have feelings. We’re just more straightforward when we entwine.

If you don’t mind my saying, you are sentimental for a reptile.

Mama Anaconda asked about you. She would like to wrap her coils around you.

Everybody needs a hug.

What a way to go.

I think Mama Anaconda needs to find someone her own species.

I will give her your suggestion.

Maybe she can try Tinder. I can help her write her profile: ‘Mujer serpiente seeks gentleman snake in the grass. Bring a fire extinguisher.’ – CDL


Hola from Ecuador

Image: Fer-de-lance

Hola, Gringo.

Hola, Snake. I see you have a friend.

This is my cousin the Anaconda.

Hola, Señor Anaconda. Como esta?

I am well. But I am a lady anaconda.

I’m sorry. I could not tell.

It’s okay. I only care as long as another anaconda can tell.

So you have finished your time in Pilchi?

Si. I am back in Quito and then will leave Ecuador.

How did you you find your stay in the jungle?

Mi gusta. The people in Pilchi were very friendly and welcoming. They respected and appreciated me.

My friend and colleague Pauli and her team are doing a great job building a settlement for the medical brigade coming to the village in February and for subsequent volunteers.

Didn’t you miss Facebook and Snapchat and constant news of every little tiny thing?

I felt peaceful and happy living basic life in the jungle. I played my harmonica, shared chicha with Maxi the community leader and its members.

I canoed in the lagoon with Pauli and our guide Raul. I joked in bad Spanish with Selso, Julio and their sons.

Did you see any wildlife? – Assuming that playing your harmonica, drinking chicha and joking with your compadres in a language you barely know is not wild enough.

In the lagoon we saw river otters, turtles and many birds.

You did not fall in I hope?


I stayed entirely in the canoe. No scuba diving. I heard there are piranha and anaconda – no offense Mama Anaconda.

None taken, lindo gringo.

Hmm. I think Mama Anaconda likes you.

I hope not for lunch.

I’ve just eaten, thank you.

Pirhaha are little fish with an overbite and a big opinion of themselves. They think they scare everyone. They scare themselves looking in a mirror because they are so ugly. You should be much more scared of the caiman.

I did not know there were caiman here. What is a caiman?

A relative of the alligator. Their eyes glow red at night. Definitely not a sailor’s delight.

Yes. Pauli said they lurk beneath the path on the way to the villiage from the Rio Napa in the swamp where Mama Anaconda lives. She and Mama Anaconda are friends.

I thought you said su amiga Pauli the witch does not like snakes.

There are exceptions to everything.

Si. Señora bruja brings me agouti and capybera to the swamp. She has a salad. We have lunch and gossip about Rumpiado Serpiente Corazon de Amazonas — a telenovela of cold-blooded jungle love. We also talk about our children and share advice and sympathy. She is a good friend.

Buen provencha. Perhaps the snake charmed the witch.

It’s good to have a friend.

The rest of the world should get along so well.

What about the compadres who work for Pauli on the Volunteer Village project. Do they get along?

There is a lot of respect and humor among them. There are always problems in projects, but they listen to her and get the job done.

Here is a picture of Julio at the work site, a skilled carpenter, mechanic and all around cool guy.

He looks okay for a human being.

Selso, the crew leader, el maestro, has a beard like the dense, dark Ecuadorian rain forest. He trims it with a machete. The government of Ecuador is thinking of making it a protected national park. His son has tattoos.

Nice ink. Though mine are better. Where did he get them done?


The other muchacho on the crew has dark, luxurious hair which he combs often in case a linda chica shows up in the jungle.

Es lindo chico!

Okay, Mama Anaconda. I went to a tattoo conference in Quito once. I ate at a fast food restaurant and got a bad case of the runs. You can imagine what that does to a snake. You can keep your civilization. I’ll stick to agouti and capaberra in the jungle

How can a snake who does not have feet get the runs?

Ha. The gringo is a comedian.

Si. My two weeks in Ecuador have been well-spent. I can now tell a bad joke in Spanish.

Better than being one.

And la serpienta is a standup comedian even without legs. I’m sure I’ve provided entertainment to some people. If I return to Pilchi, fifty hectares of land and a wife are  possibly waiting for me. I can have many children and all the yucca I can grow.

The gringo made an impression teaching the village kids, eating yucca and roasted worms and drinking chicha. So what are you waiting for? Go. They will call you ‘professor yucca’.

My friends and colleagues at home would think I’m crazy.

People where you live spend their time arguing on Facebook, talking into their handheld devices and typing on little tiny keys. Here Mama Anaconda talks to your friend the witch in the swamp who loves the jungle and names her car Vladimiro. What is crazy?

It’s good to have friends who understand and appreciate you wherever they are. Chevre. Chao.



Entertainment for the Journey

I’m preparing for an upcoming trip to Ecuador in December. I tend to overthink, and am learning there are some serious snakes and spiders in the jungle there, including the Fer-de-lance and black widow. But if we can’t entertain ourselves during the journey, never mind others, what’s the point?

Image: Fer-de-lance

Hola, Señor Fer-de-lance! (Courtesy BBC Nature)


Interview With an Ecuadoran Snake

Hola, Señor Snake.

Hola, Gringo .

Como estas ?

Muy bien. Y tú ?

Okay. Thanks for asking .

Are you on a holiday. ?

Yes. A friend invited me to accompany her.

Be careful where you step.

Gracias. You are a courteous snake .

De nada . We try to make guests feel welcome in the jungle . Did you get all your vaccines? I could administer any you’re missing with my built-needles.

Thanks. I’m good. Some people are afraid of snakes.

Some people are afraid of their own shadow.

Yes, there seem so many things to be afraid of these days. My friend says she hates snakes.

Strong words. But that’s nothing to me. I just exist here, doing snake-like things.

Do you bite?

Only a little,  if someone steps on my head.

But you are very venomous.

Lo siento. It is my nature. I use my venom to catch and eat small rodents like agouti — preferably accompanied by a glass of Syrah.

Not fava beans and a nice chianti ?

No! What do you think I am? I generally don’t much like people either .

I hope you’ll make an exception for me.

We’ll see.

My friend said some folks here call her a witch .

Then she should be okay. She can cast a spell to keep me away. Is she a good witch or a bad witch?

She says she can be very bad: muy malo.

Make sure she does not cast a spell on you and turn you into an agouti .

Too late. The spell is cast. Here I am thousands of miles away in the jungle bringing medical care to local people. At least it’s for a good cause.

Did your friend bewitch you to lure you into her lair ? Like a spider.

No, I think she likes me. I call her querida bruja* for fun .

She is like a lady witch doctor , perhaps.

Kind of . Though she is a very interesting witch — she leads eco tours and runs a farm.  She goes rafting .

Sounds like she has a real pair of ovaries. Does she intimidate you?

Not too much. And who wants boring?  And If she turned me into an agouti, we couldn’t have interesting conversations.

Yes. Conversation is important.

You have some some serious spiders here by the way, including black widows, tarántulas and very unhygienic spitting spiders. But no. I came because I wanted to.

You are from the States ?

Si. Pennsylvania .

The keystone state . Two main cities: Philadelphia , city of brotherly love , and Pittsburgh , city of three rivers .

You are an educated snake.

Gracias. I have my degree in herpetology.

I know other snakes where I come from, like timber rattlesnakes.  I come across them when I hike.

I know a nice family of timber rattlesnakes el Norte, in the central part of  Pennsylvania. We stay in touch by Facebook and WhatsApp.

Being a snake, you have no opposable thumbs. How do you dial your phone?

Google voice activation works well enough . So when are you leaving Ecuador?

A few weeks.

What a pity . Back to all that cold . Away from your friend .

That’s the way the world works now: everyone is connected but apart.

Yes. Strange. If I may be personal, you seem not always positive.

It’s my nature sometimes. And it’s based on experience.

But you entertain me. Will you visit again?

I’m here to show up and enjoy the journey now.  I’m not thinking about the future . Sure. Maybe.

If you visit again please look me up. I’ll keep the light on for you.

Will you put a mint on my pillow?

No. An agouti .

Gracias .

Just watch where you step and lay your head. You never know what you might encounter in in the jungle. See you later.

Not if I see you first. Ha ha.

Hasta la proxima.


# # #

*Dear Witch

Image: Agouti & Syrah Wine

Better Together (Photo credits: Agouti: brian.gratwicke, Syrah: Ricardo Bernardo |


It’s a Wonderful Lonely Life

The search for community and love with our fellow human beings (at least the ones who are not trying to kill us) is a hallmark1 of the season. This accounts for the popularity of films such as It’s A Wonderful Life. Nevertheless, the effort to pathologize normal human emotion and behavior marches on. On December 1st the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported a 3-million dollar CMU study funded by the NIH on ways to help older adults feel less lonely. In the same issue it reported a federal suit against the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services for improper incarceration of mentally-ill prisoners; including the use of solitary confinement. There is some connection here — or perhaps disconnection.

It is part of life to lose friends and loved ones through death, time and alienation. But apparently the way to address the problem in this age of connected isolation2 is no longer to have people who know and accept us to talk to us, pat us on the back, share a cup of coffee, kiss us on the cheek, or more (if we are romantically inclined). It’s to learn to meditate the loneliness away. Quoting David Creswell, the expert overseeing the CMU study, the Post Gazette states:

… the number of lonely older adults may be increasing, putting their overall health at greater risk, but the way to help them isn’t necessarily to connect them to more people.

The Carnegie Mellon University associate professor of psychology, funded with a $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health announced Monday, hopes that training people in better relaxation and coping techniques will reduce their perception of being lonely.

Each of us is wired with a different need and capacity for being alone. The solitude of Thoreau and Muir and eastern religious mystics is not for everyone. Indeed, in this hyperconnected age of crowdsourcing, solitude itself has become suspect. Therefore, it’s enlightening to know that a problem that philosophers like Buddha and artists from Nietzsche and Kafka to Van Gogh have struggled with for thousands of years is simply one of perception. 

You’d think the widespread adoption of social networking applications like Facebook and Twitter over the Internet would help. But, as Olivia Laing writes in The Future of Loneliness in the Guardian:

 … the contact this produces is not the same thing as intimacy. Curating a perfected self might win followers or Facebook friends, but it will not necessarily cure loneliness, since the cure for loneliness is not being looked at, but being seen and accepted as a whole person – ugly, unhappy and awkward, as well as radiant and selfie-ready

It can be difficult enough to endure or learn to accept loneliness if we are mentally whole and emotionally intact (a relative proposition). How much worse if we are imprisoned and isolated with schizophrenia, depression or bipolar disorder. Yet in the absence of community resources and adequate policy, the mentally ill are generally shunned by society3. Mentally prisoners who have completed their sentence in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania often remain in jail. Some have been placed in solitary confinement.  

The Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania announced the suit Monday on behalf of Stephen Kline, 25, a onetime Allegheny County resident who now is an inmate at Mifflin County Jail; Gabriel Gamble, 30, a patient at Torrance State Hospital in Westmoreland County; and Matthew Christy, 26, a patient at Warren State Hospital in Warren County… 

The suit claims the state does not have enough beds in community-care programs for all of those needing autism and mental health services — more than 1,000 are waiting — and that people in jails and state hospitals face special obstacles to community care.

In 2013, the Disability Rights Network sued the Department of Corrections, alleging that the state misused solitary confinement for mentally ill prisoners. The state took corrective action..

Literature and popular culture abound with references to the plight of loneliness: 

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, Alan Sillitoe
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers
Alone Again, Naturally, Gilbert o’ Sullivan
Only the Lonely, Roy Orbison

Have we forgotten Robin Williams and his death only last year? As his character The World’s Greatest Dad states:

“I used to think the worst thing in life is to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people who make you feel all alone.”

We conveniently overlook the fact that gathering to celebrate the season of light and fellowship around the winter solstice originated in the need to to prepare for the long dark night together. Our hopes and fears is not just a phrase from a Christmas song. Can you identify the following excerpt from another holiday favorite?

When you’re alone, alone in the world…when you’re alone in the world.
Blown away leaves get blown in the world…swirled away leaves get swirled.
Listening to your heels as you walk, making a lonely clack.
You don’t know how it feels when you talk and nobody’s voice talks back

I challenge you to read or listen to this without feeling a tear coming on.

All Is Forgiven

In It’s A Wonderful Life George Bailey’s penury, loneliness and imminent arrest bring him to the brink of suicide. At the end of the film when hope is restored (along with the missing eight thousand dollars), George’s brother, Harry, toasts him as ‘the richest man in town’. Harry does not toast George’s mastery of meditation and relaxation techniques to cope with loneliness. He toasts the fact that George’s friends and neighbors gathered around him in his time of need. They didn’t update their Facebook page, send tweets and begin Kickstarter campaigns. They showed up. — DA

1With a small h.

3Often due to policies designed to protect their rights. Listen to the enlightening WESA 12/10 interview with PA Congressman Tim Murphy , himself trained as a mental health professional.

4Click the link to read and hear this song with lyrics by Jules Styne and Bob Merrill (who went on to write music for Funny Girl).

Woody & Marjorie: Hard Traveling

On Labor Day weekend 2015, the Omni William Penn hotel in Pittsburgh presents a celebration of Woody Guthrie’s songs and stories to honor Southwestern Pennsylvania workers past and present. ‘Woody & Marjorie: Hard Traveling’, combines live music and readings centered around the lives of Woody Guthrie and his wife Marjorie Mazia.Woody Guthrie was an iconic musician of the 1930s and 40s. Marjorie Mazia danced with the Martha Graham Company in the 1940s. Guthrie and Mazia had a passionate relationship marked by creativity and true devotion, despite his restless wanderings and the losses and struggles they faced together. The show pays tribute to the uniqueness and continued relevance of his work in helping us find the individual and collective stories that connect more than divide us.
Woody Marjorie  HT Image Contrast
‘Woody & Marjorie: Hard Traveling’ is presented in partnership with Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies as part of a special Omni Labor Day package that includes Saturday dinner or Sunday brunch in the hotel’s Terrace Room. Recommended for ages 16 and up. For more information about the show please call 412-353-3756. For event information and reservations, please contact the Omni William Penn at 412-553-5235.

‘Thin Man Comes to Pittsburgh’ 2014 LR Performance Photos

Please see a slideshow from our 11/22/2014 and 11/23/2014 live radio performances of The Thin Man Comes to  Pittsburgh at the Omni William Penn. Photo credits: Jessica, with cast photo by Randall Quesnelle

11/22/2014 ‘Thin Man Comes to Pittsburgh’ Package Sold Out ; Show Tickets Available

The Omni William Penn sold out dinner packages for our upcoming 2014 performance of The Thin Man Comes to Pittsburgh for Saturday 11/22 and Sunday 11/23. Show tickets are still available. Please call 412-553-5000 or e-mail Also, the show was featured on 10/24 in the Post Gazette’s Radio Notes.

'The Thin Man Comes to Pittsburgh' 2014 Poster

‘The Thin Man Comes to Pittsburgh’ 2014 Poster

Two Events Booked in Late 2014

‘The Thin Man’ Comes to Pittsburgh live radio returns to the Omni William Penn November 22nd and 23rd after a sold-out performance in 2013.  As with last year’s show, this year’s event coincides with Pittsburgh’s kickoff to the holiday season.  It includes dinner in the hotel’s Terrace Room, a drink in the Speakeasy and live performance. The show is an adaptation of the original Thin Man film, and features a local cast and live music.

Preceding Thin Man, Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies will present a new play August 2nd at the Cabaret Theater in Pittsburgh’s Cultural District.  The show, with a title TBD, is inspired by one of the first and best screwball comedies of the 1930s, with a story updated for the New Millennium. An entitled heiress runs away from her wealthy CEO  father and member of the one-percent to reunite with her fiancé, a media celebrity and reality show star.  On the way she meets a newspaper reporter who has quit his job to become a blogger and aspiring social media guru. As the two travel together, the reporter is determined to exploit the celebrity couple’s story for his own ends. Hijinks ensue when he and the heiress fall in love.

The show will appeal to Gen Y, Gen X, Baby Boomers and anyone else navigating fifteen minutes of fame on the way to romance and relationships in the 21st Century.  Can true love prevail amidst unmitigated wealth, blocked roads and daily tweets?

Advanced Labor receives fiscal sponsorship through Fractured Atlas a non-profit arts service organization. For more information on these events,  please e-mail outreach@alctudies or call (412) 353-3756.


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