24 September 2016

Notes from the Land of Adventure

Every traveler faces moments when the bumps and bruises threaten to overwhelm the wonder of it all--because it isn’t always wonderful. We live for the great moments and the fullness of our adventures in retrospect and while it is always the road that brings us to these moments of doubt, it is the road that brings us back.
It was 4am and I was lying on the floor of a shed that called itself a bus station. The metal gates were shut and locked and through the vents of the aluminum walls street lights shone both dim and harsh. I was twisted up in my own clothes and deeply tired. After forty-eight hours of border crossings and buses I was on the far side of limbo and losing patience with every exhale. Trapped in my own little tragedy I failed to register the other inhabitants of my cramped enclosure. But then I saw them; a dozen Ecuadorian women in traditional Ecuadorian dress, sleeping on the floor—waiting just like me. Their colorful shawls, the jaunty hats pulled over their eyes, their children nestled in the comfortable crooks; these women were in the early morning hours of everyday life. I was the thing that did not belong. I was a stranger out there in the world. I tried to sleep but sleep wouldn’t come. A million miles from home I watched the images of Ecuador shifting and snoring. Exhaustion, filth, muscles bunched and sore; none of that mattered now.

Travelers never tire of finding the same people wrapped in the colors and textures of different cultures. 

I was standing at the edge of a crater awed by the lake below. The wind was whipping up the walls vicious and cold. Everything was vast from up there and it felt like the world couldn’t get any higher. My friends were behind me. We were backtracking because we had taken the wrong trail—a dangerous trail and as a consequence every new bend felt wrong. In the distance a sheepherder was sitting on the hillside surrounded by her flock. I was elected to ask for directions so I climbed the hill and sat beside her. She was young, late twenties maybe, her face chapped and scarred from constant exposure to the mountain winds. She was wearing a bright purple and red shawl wrapped tightly around her body. I greeted her in Spanish and she paused before answering, taking me in with wide wary eyes. I smiled gently and asked her if we were on the right path. I asked her how much longer it would take to reach the town of Quilotoa. She answered with a nod and mumbled numbers. I had the answers I needed but I wanted to stretch the moment so I asked her simple questions about where she grew up and the sheep grazing around us. She softened and answered with words. We fell into a brief but easy conversation.

I will never forget the time I sat on the top of a mountain in Ecuador and had a conversation with a sheepherder in a language I barely know, and maybe she will remember the blue eyed gringo that stayed longer than he needed to. Unwrapped we were just a man and a woman chatting about nothing, but when two people treat each other as unwrapped gifts it matters. I am almost positive that sheepherder sent her son to protect me. Not long after we left her hillside a little boy appeared out of nowhere. He was maybe four years old, wearing a worn blue jacket and a woven winter cap. He had the same wind chapped face and wide wary eyes as his mother. My friends were behind us and they told me later that every time I got a few feet ahead the little boy would sprint to catch up. Anytime the path splintered I asked him for help and he shyly showed me the way. When the town of Quilotoa appeared in the distance he drifted away, knowing that I was safe and no doubt wanting to get back to his mother to tell her all about the things we had said.
Travel friendships exist on a different timeline; they bloom quick and lasting from the richness of shared experience.
 At the top of the Quilotoa Loop on what was quite literally a dark and stormy night, I huddled in a frigid room with my new friends Alex, Connie, Humphrey and Kate waiting for a tiny woodstove to warm the room. It was a night for stories but the stories saved in our phones were too soft, no match for the winds battering the windows around us. Half joking I said, “I can read you one of my stories.” I expected uncomfortable laughter and instead they bounced in anticipation. Suddenly my throat went dry and I flushed with embarrassment. Did they really want to hear my stories? Did I really want to expose that side of myself? If they had been work colleagues or barroom acquaintances I never would have. But I trusted them, I had just met them, but I knew I was safe. So I read them a story. And then another. It was a great night—a shared experience between friends who knew that even if their paths never crossed again they would always have the adventure that brought them together.

All travelers are addicts jonesing for the high of places that cannot be explained. 

Cordillera Blanca, Peru. The Santa Cruz Trek was one of the greatest travel highs of my life. My friend Taylor who did her field school studies there later asked, “Is it not the most magical place you’ve ever seen!?” I can’t think of a better description than that. It is as grand and varied and impossible to fit into three dimensions as the world gets. And my friends and I did it the hard way. Rhys and Tim had been traveling with me since the border of Peru. Josh and Helen joined us in Huaraz, a mountain town near the base of the trek. We shunned the organized tours and their luggage carting donkeys opting instead to rent our own gear and pack our own food (not nearly enough food it turned out). Over the next four days we hiked more than 30 miles at high elevation through dry river beds, icy mountain passes, and lush river valleys. We made campfires at night, listened to music and told old stories to the joyful amusement of new listeners.

Every day was an adventure but Day Three best encapsulates the ups and downs of our journey. We woke up early to a dead fire and ice on the ground. The sun was creeping over snow capped mountains but its warmth was nowhere near. Our camping stove had died the night before and would not be revived. We relit the fire and warmed water just enough to make room temperature oatmeal. With grumbling stomachs we hiked a short but steep hillside to a glacial lake ringed by behemoths of stone and snow. The sun was beginning to warm our prickled skin and the view instantly burned itself into memory. From there we backtracked to the trailhead and were already breaking apart. Who hiked with whom alternated throughout the day but after the lake we were never together as a group. After three plus hours of moderate hiking we began a nasty high altitude ascent to Punta Union, the highest point of the trek. At nearly 16,000 feet Punta Union offers views of some of the highest mountains in the Andes, glacial lakes, and wildly differing valleys on either side. Standing at those heights I felt both enthralled and frightened because how could I possibly hold onto anything but a faded version of what I was seeing. It started to snow and below we could see that the snow was falling as rain. We covered up and began the long slog down. By the time Tim and I reached Camp One, Rhys and Josh had already pushed on toward Camp Two. I was angry because the sun was close to setting and Helen was god knows how far back. Tim went to find the boys and I stayed to wait for Helen. An hour later I found her coming down the path, we picked up the pace and joined the others as dusk was turning to dark. The boys had picked a spot between the two camps at edge of a rushing river—a good spot, as much as I hated to admit it at the time. We talked in an unexcited way about how exciting the day had been. Exhaustion had temporarily sapped what we knew would become reawakened joy. Dinner was an utter failure; a pot full of half cooked, flavorless lentils that proved inedible even in our near starved state. With smoke driving us away from the fire we quickly choked down dry Top Ramen and shivered ourselves to sleep.

The trek was difficult and at times frustrating, but it was a challenge to be proud of. We didn’t have daypacks and donkeys. We didn’t have guides cooking us dinner and making us tea. We did it all on our own. We drifted at times but we came back together closer than ever. We held each other up and moved each other forward--overwhelmed by the rush of a magical place.

Every traveler occasionally misses routine; a kitchen to cook in, a familiar bed, the exotic comforts of normality.

We had explored ancient ruins, traversed Andean peaks and partied until the sun was high in the sky. We wanted to slow down and revel in the repetitive do nothingness most people are dying to escape, so we made a temporary settlement at a quiet hostel in Arequipa, a beautiful colonial city in southern Peru. Arequipa is known as La Ciudad Blanca which sounds romantic but is actually some imperialist racist bullshit. When the Spaniards invaded they forcibly removed the indigenous people and used sillar, a white or pinkish volcanic rock, to build white stone mansions and Jesus houses; white people living in white buildings—La Ciudad Blanca.

Choosing the right place to stay is difficult. Party hostels are barf receptacles for culturally ignorant vacationers and the truly local places are typically empty hotels that provide loneliness but rarely towels or toilet paper. Travelers look for the sweet spot in between—a place where they can get a good night sleep, chat with the staff in the local language and meet a social crowd of likeminded wanderers. When you find the right place there is an assumed level of safety; leave your phone charging or your computer on the bed, buy a round because you know it’ll come back—travelers always take care of travelers. Our hostel in Arequipa was right there in the sweet spot and together we represented a global contingent; The United States, Germany, Argentina, Australia, Netherlands, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and more. The language never stayed the same for the entirety of a conversation but we understood each other well. We were travelers who wanted to live cheap and enjoy shared meals. We were strangers in a new city who couldn’t avoid the allure of a night out. The boys and I stayed in Arequipa for nearly a week and aside from a walking tour of the city we avoided all things touristic. We went to the gym, shopped for necessities and tried to catch up on our various personal projects. It was a nice little home. And then our home was invaded.

The road is forever unpredictable.

Towards the end of our stay in Arequipa this fat boisterous dude named Leopoldo Ribeiro Neto showed up. He was Brazilian by birth and claimed to live in San Francisco working as a lawyer. Homeboy knew one speed, 100 mph. He cooked fantastic meals for everyone and led the charge to go out at night, plying the whole crew with Tequila shots. Everyone loved this dude; except maybe this Scottish guy who had lent him cash until a Western Union transfer came through. The two of them had been traveling for a few days and it seems Leo’s shtick was getting old. From the beginning I figured the guy was at least mildly full of shit, but I never anticipated what was coming. Leo started talking about all these airline miles he had accumulated and how they were set to expire in a few weeks. He offered to buy tickets for a few us at the hostel. We would only have to pay for the taxes and fees. A few people jumped at the opportunity. Leo booked the flights and promised to forward the confirmations. He let everyone know how much they would owe, anywhere from $100 - $300. Meanwhile the Scottish dude had a flight to Cusco that afternoon—a flight that Leo had booked. Leo was working overtime to get him to delay and stay in Arequipa for a couple extra days, but the Scottish dude wouldn’t budge. He said his goodbyes and took a taxi to the airport. No one for whom Leo had booked a flight had received their confirmation so persistence was getting less gentle and Leo was getting visibly itchy. He mumbled something about dropping off laundry and never returned. Josh, whose skepticism had been mounting throughout the day, got online and researched our oddball housemate. It turns out Leopoldo Ribeiro Neto is a notorious conman who has been scamming people at hostels all across South America since 2007—the airline ticket scam being his go to move. Not long after our Scooby Doo unmasking the Scottish dude returned from the airport—the flight of course had been nonexistent. All told the poor guy had been scammed out of nearly $500. No one else paid Leo for fake flights nor had anything stolen, but everyone felt exceedingly icky. While no great loss, I did lend that fat bastard $20 at the bar. If I ever find you Leo…

Speaking of which… A few days later we returned to Arequipa for a one night stay on our way to Cusco. I spent the day in a café working on this very blog. Getting a bit brain numb, I decided to call my bank and take care of a boring but necessary errand. While I was on the phone half listening to the call center guy, I glanced out the window and saw none other than Leopoldo Ribeiro Neto! He was walking by with some new rube, casual as f—k, still wearing the same stupid orange shirt. I hesitated, paralyzed by the impossibility. Then excitement took over. This was my chance to confront that fatty and get my twenty bucks back. I hung-up on the call center guy and leapt to my feet spilling a potted plant all over the floor. I left everything at the table, hastily apologized to the staff, and ran outside. I reached an intersection and looked around frantically, but the weasel was nowhere to be found. And he wasn’t in any of the nearby shops. I checked them all. Unsatisfied, I returned to the café and spent the rest of the afternoon distracted by every flash of orange.

The world is finite but travel is not. New places, old places seen in a new way, the oxygen of anticipation forever feeds the flames.

South America is feeding me now. I am traveling slowly and yet I cannot travel slowly enough. Everyday offers a new mountain to climb, a new city to explore, a new jungle to tip-toe through as I live out boyhood make believe. I am meeting new people, absorbing indigenous and European histories and learning a new language. All the travel lessons I learned long ago are true on this new continent as well; the wild unpredictability of the road, the beautiful predictability of people being people, the blooming of friendships and the bumps and bruises easily overcome. And yet it is all so new that I have hardly had time to write. I will try to do better, but please understand that the flames of anticipation are burning bright. Machu Picchu is soon; Lake Titicaca, the Bolivian salt flats and the mighty Amazon too. If I delay it is only because I am in the land of adventure blissfully consumed by the stories I will one day tell.    

"Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another. Indeed, he would have found it difficult to tell, among the many places he had lived, precisely where it was he had felt most at home."

Paul Bowles - The Sheltering Sky

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