A Compliment From a Curmudgeon

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For most of our travel lives we have been freelancers - independent travelers. Weaned on Europe on $5 a Day in the 1960’s there was scant need to pay others for what we could do ourselves. It was more than that. Our son, Graham, nailed it once when he heard me arranging a trip. “Dad,” he said, “if you have everything planned, you will never have any adventures.” That is at the heart of independent travel - the serendipity, the unexpected adventure. We discovered that the best way to experience a place and its people was to get lost. Otherwise one merely sees ‘things’.

There are places however that are difficult to get to on one’s own - not impossible perhaps, but better reached with those with local experience and knowledge, and most important who can provide the access. The Okavango delta in Botswana comes to mind. Our travel agent selected a reputable company that provided us an outstanding experience a few years ago. It was not their fault that we nearly got killed by a hippo - at least they didn’t tack on a surcharge for the near-death experience. Sailing a tall ship through the Aegean islands demands at a minimum a tall ship, so we signed on to the Wind-Star for an unforgettable cruise. All our Colorado River-Grand Canyon raft trips were handled by an excellent outfitter. We are not immune to group travel or guides when circumstances demand.

When old friends, Alan and Dawn Kisner, recommended a trip on the upper Amazon River in Peru, we had little hesitation about signing up. They assured us that the company, International Expeditions, would deliver as they had been on a number of trips with them over the years. Now some might question my judgement as it was Alan who first introduced me to a gorgeous, nubile teenager eons ago who became my first and only spouse. But I have forgiven him. And although the price appeared a little daunting, especially since we are now part of the declining income-retired set, one has to trust old friends.

Let me rush to the bottom line without many of the details (those will be detailed later). The overall trip was wonderful, but International Expeditions, their staff and their service was truly exceptional - best expressed in Afrikaans - “buiten verwagting”, translated as ‘beyond expectations’. It was the the kind of service, level of professionalism and attention to every last detail that one could easily become addicted to. Now I understand why they chose this travel company.

Nothing was over the top, but all was first class - accommodations, transportation, food etc. What made it truly exceptional was the quality of the staff; two full time, knowledgeable and wildly enthusiastic naturalists; an expedition leader who worried about each client and every detail, remaining patient with the barrage of ridiculous questions and unusual demands; a smiling cabin crew who delighted us with fanciful origami folded towels on our return from each excursion; a great kitchen staff who introduced us to excellent Peruvian cuisine; a bartender who mixed a mean pisco sour; and boatmen who could navigate, sans GPS, through a maze of constantly shifting waterways and fix an entire propeller assembly on the fly. An unexpected bonus was a professional wild-life photographer who taught us all how to get the best out of our equipment in any given situation, and underlined that digital photography can be high art. Ofttimes we would merely wait for his photographs to see what we just saw.

Every evening five crew members displayed the musical training and innate talent of Peruvians which blossomed into a high energy half hour performance. This enthusiasm was infectious on both the boat and the river. Johnny, one of the naturalists, stock phrase was “I think I am going to die” whenever he saw something that was unusual or a first time sighting for him, despite a decade on the Amazon. One day we spotted three tiny night owl monkeys hiding in hollows in a tree. These are by definition active at night and are seldom seen during the day. They must have been as shocked as we were as they curiously observed us with cameras burning megabytes of memories.

It must be noted that we had to trust the naturalists’ veracity when they pointed to a bird in the lower stratosphere proclaiming it to be the two-toed, multi-banded, yellow-tailed white-breasted toucan, or listened intently to a distant call and announced with convincing authority that it was the early morning call of an immature male blue-black grassquit. And whose name was Manuel. I will confess that I did not get the best look at the ears of the chestnut-eared aracari. The guides sense of humor, passion for sharing their world and their concern with the speed that it is changing and being lost, was not lost on us.

We chalked up over 140 bird species - not all of which did I identify with complete conviction - almost a dozen New World primates, the tiny and very colorful poison dart frogs, a sexy pink toed tarantula, and the expected anaconda (a later essay awaits). We fished for, caught and ate red-bellied piranha (reputedly with aphrodisiac properties - await breathless for the next essay) and photographed assorted other critters.

In time however the names of all the creatures we saw will fade. What will not fade will be the memories of the staff and the experience they not just provided, but enhanced. International Expeditions has earned this critical curmudgeon’s highest accolade - an unconditional stamp of approval. While many pay lip-service, very few companies and organizations select exceptional staff and truly value their human resources. This one clearly does.

Denis Benjamin a.k.a. The Cle Elum Curmudgeon