Monday, June 13, 2016

Airplane Thoughts

I've had a lot of time to write lately. Hours on airplanes and swirling thoughts that became a bit easier when I put them on paper. Here are some of the pieces from different plane (and train) rides:

Sucre -> La Paz

I thought when you traveled for a long time you came back a different person. I figured each day away shifted something. That first you'd learn the little things: don't wear your hiking boots to the airport, owning a corkscrew is a good way to meet people in a hostel. Then you'd start learning more things: how to trust that you can figure out the bus from the airport in the newest language, how to talk to strangers, how to ask for help. And eventually you'd start learning bigger things. How to be alone. How to not feel rushed. Why you travel. What you want next. I thought it would be perceptible. Instead it feels like a gradual sharpening. Almost like the lenses they put on your eyes when fitting new glasses. You don't feel different but little things have changed. You forget that packing your bag every day isn't normal. That wearing the same pair of jeans every day for months isn't standard. That not everyone drives a different road each day. You laugh and marvel when you establish a "normal" cafe for breakfast when you finally stop a few days. You forget the unusual and dwell on the fun.

Sure it's annoying that there are no outlets and the wifi crashes and you have to wait for the bathroom…but you have friends to go see dinosaur footprints with.

The slamming door when someone returns to your dorm at 2am? Part of being in a hostel.
Six currencies in your wallet? Totally normal.

I got so used to going through customs that I forgot to check if I needed a visa before entering one country.

And things that maybe shouldn't feel normal. Not having seat belts in the taxis. Ignoring shouts of "hey girl" on the corners. Walking past old men and women who have spent their lives working harder than I have and knowing that they think I'm rich.

And things shift and clarify. Spend enough time alone and you realise how much you love to read. Spend enough time with people from other countries and you start reading the news every morning. Spend enough time feeling likes there's so much more to learn and you eventually realise that you're no longer questioning whether you want to return to school - only how soon it may happen. And occasionally something shifts in an instant. You meet someone and have a conversation and you feel some of the shades lifting in your mind.

And yet through it all some things don't change. You still laugh too much. You still fret about getting off at the right bus stop. You still miss eating toast for breakfast.

You wonder if you can go back to the life you miss.

Sometimes it crashes. Sometimes you start realising that you're getting better at this - that you trust your spanish skills, that you've made new friends, that you stopped second guessing everything, that you feel - dare I say it? - confident. And it crashes. You get sick and you get scared and in an instant the plans change. All those ideas. Gone.

You shatter. Just like the old you did. And you wonder how it can feel the same after so much has changed.

But maybe you have changed a little. Because somewhere deep down a little bit of you knows that you can figure this out. That you'll make new plans and go somewhere else and you'll start laughing again. That little bit of you starts rebuilding even while the rest of you aches.

La Paz -> Lima

Lake Titicaca from the plane

…Maybe traveling is sort of like picking where to go to college. It's a way of finding a bubble where you're likely to make friends. Maybe you can't dismiss that. Yet something in me chafes at that. At not trying to see what's beyond that bubble…and not letting the world amaze you…maybe I dislike the bubble precisely because it makes things easier. I don't want to be scared.

...The smallest thing can shift. The short conversation. The laughing high school kids on their way home. Having a mountain view take your breath away. Holding on for dear life as you stand in the bus aisle and listen to spanish pop music. The absurdity and improbability of a moment in my life, coupled with the recognition that it is someone else's normal. The paradox of the world feeling so vast and yet so small at once. I don't think I could give up chasing these moments even when the price is loneliness.


It feels like it should be easy. Not like it is easy. Everything changed. The southern cross isn't visible anymore. I can understand all the signs and conversations for the first time in 8 months and it's exhausting. It's spring, or maybe summer, and the flowers are out and it's warm and humid and there's salt in the air. The people playing soccer wear uniforms. You can ask for a glass of water at a restaurant.

I forgot how to ask for the check in English. I sat there trying to remember the word after stopping right before I started saying la cuenta.

I miss it. It's beautiful here and interesting and it was a smart decision but I still miss it. I walked through the farmer's market and realised that I wasn't scared to eat anything but I also couldn't argue about prices. And its funny how different it feels from anywhere I've been - I thought it would be familiar to be in any place that speaks English.

I smiled today. Wandering through the farmer's market and listening to musicians on the street. Realizing I don't have to do anything. I feel almost guilty sitting around reading. Somehow it felt justified to sit around with people, but less so alone...

It's so hard to believe that a week ago I was flying across Bolivia. That view from the plane touching down in La Paz. It's so far away. Maybe you don't change while you travel. Not dramatically. But maybe you get faster at readjusting. Maybe just a little, bit by bit. You find your normal in writing on a park bench and reading over coffee instead of sleeping in your own room.

You think you'll find it too quiet when you go home?
You think you can relearn how to have a routine?

I didn't want to leave. I keep saying that like it should change things. I rarely want to leave, but normally it feels like the right time. Everyone tells me I have to learn to listen to myself. They say that like there's some magical right answer you just have to dig down to. No one says that the hard part can be following through. I didn't want to leave. But I did. It was the smart thing to do. No one said I would be sent reeling by languages, climates, time zones, drinkable water, and lacking the excitement that has guided every twist in project and travels so far.

And one more of those things I didn't expect. That despite all the frustration at computers in South America, I still adjusted enough to have trouble typing on an English keyboard again…

Ireland - thank you for being patient with me. For the unrushed afternoons of watching the river flow by over the edge of a book. For the smiles on the street that I'll start returning soon. For the promise of beautiful places to explore as soon as that excitement starts welling up again. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Bolivia Broke My Heart

 It was easy to fall in love with Bolivia. Even before I entered the country it stole my heart. I was sitting on the bus driving from Argentina into Chile and I looked out my window at the high peaks with the new dusting of snow and realized that I was looking at the route I'd follow in just a few days towards the Uyuni salt flat. It was one of the rare moments I stopped fidgeting in my seat on the long bus rides and just stared out the window. Everything in this landscape is vast. The plains stretch out for miles and the mountains stretch towards the sky. It's hard to comprehend the scale, especially when the road beneath the mountains meanders at 5000 meters elevation.

A few days later I returned and crossed the border. A haphazard house stood at the crossing and the line wound out the door, mostly foreigners on jeep tours headed towards Uyuni. My friends laughed as I waited and waited to get my visa written and handed over my precious american dollars (hard to come by close to the border). A few minutes later we were bouncing towards the first of the high altitude lakes on the journey.

It was three days of beautiful views. Lake after lake, each one a different color. More flamingoes than I could count. Endless expanses of emptiness stretching towards the end of the world. A smoking volcano. The rock desert that inspired Dali. New friends and familiar faces. A Bolivian who drove this route (there was rarely a road) more than once a week. The priceless moment when I had to translate that the only bathroom for the next few hours was the "Inca toilet behind that rock." The highest geysers in the world. A hostel made of salt blocks. Chess and card games played in mittens.

Highest geysers in the world

Sunrise on the salt flat

And the salt flat itself. In the predawn light it felt like driving on the frozen lakes in northern Minnesota in the winter. White as far as the eye can see with a few hills on the islands to break up the flatness. Except here the islands had cacti. And the mountains that seemed so close never got closer as we raced for an hour across the salt. We watched the sunrise, climbed to the top of the island and tried to see the edges, took goofy perspective photos, dared each other to lick the salt (I think I was the only one who did), and tried not to get blinded from reflections.

Dinosaurs and giants....this place is dangerous....

By the time we arrived in Uyuni I was already mentally rewriting my plans to spend more time in Bolivia.

Then came the drive to Potosí. A few hours of winding in and over the altiplano with spectacular views of the mountains and canyons punctuated by swerving back into our lane when faced with oncoming traffic and braking for llamas on the road. Potosí itself sprawls up the hill towards the Cerro Rico, the hill and mines that sent silver around the globe. With a quiet colonial center but a distinctly hectic market around the bus station, Potosí was my favorite city in Bolivia. It was a city with a clear reason - everything revolves around silver. The richness in the colonial buildings and the old mint, and the poverty as the mine peters out.

New friend in Potosí

My visit to the mine was the capstone to my travels in Chile, where I mostly traveled between mining towns but never got too close to the rocks. Here, however, I could go underground. And I could buy dynamite. I'm not afraid of small spaces. I'm not afraid of the dark. But I have never been so relieved to feel the air move as walking back out the tunnels towards the open air. It was dark and hot and small and hard to breath. It was an hour walking with a bent head (I'm lucky to be small) through puddles along the tracks. Then just two of us started climbing up to where the miners work. It was full on scrambling: climbing with one foot on each wall and eventually a rock face with a rope hanging off it. We tried chiseling holes in the rock. We tried picking up the bags of rocks to be hauled out to the surface. It was fun and intense and almost like a game. For two hours. It was terrifying to think that kids are making this trek everyday. Breathing the dusty air and working for hours on end and hauling bags of rocks down the rope I gripped with two hands. We emerged towards daylight. I want to say some cliche about breathing the sweet fresh air. But actually, the air smelled terrible because there was fresh llama blood on all the buildings from the sacrifice the day before. I felt somewhat chastened though, reminded of how fragile I am. Dusty and coughing and exhausted and starving.

That afternoon was another stunning bus ride from Potosí to Sucre. Across the altiplano and descending into the valley as the sun set. I stared out the window and wondered at the women walking with the sheep. Or sitting and knitting as they chatted. The man walking off into the hill, perhaps looking for his llamas. All these lives that were so different than mine. And I was so excited: I was here and I had time and I could dig into this place in the next few weeks. I was in love. With a landscape, a people, a chance to explore, and the colorful intricate weavings seen on every corner.

But Bolivia broke my heart instead. I arrived in Sucre, the white city of the Americas, and promptly fell sick. I joked about reverse altitude sickness while I worried about how to explore when I was so tired. And I slept and practiced my Spanish and delayed leaving Sucre. It was almost relaxing, to read my book and play chess and try new cafes for breakfast each day. To taste our way through the chocolate festival and laugh at the dancing zebras that monitor traffic crossings. But I would be tired by the time I walked three blocks. And the days stretched and I still hadn't gotten to explore the market, the textile museum, go hiking to the waterfalls.

Incas vs. Conquistadors
Bolivia is full of dinosaurs
There was one more tease - a beautiful day visiting the market in Tarabuco. A smaller town a few hours from Sucre across another winding road with views off the edge of the world. Tarabuco is known for its incredibly detailed weavings. Some with a rainbow shining between white figures telling stories of weddings and carnivals. Some of entwined animals in red on a black background. And the more common geometric blankets in a full spectrum of colors. The bustling vegetable market, the quieter animal market (we considered buying a cow but decided the bus was too crowded), and the narrow streets of clay buildings.

And that was it. I did too much. I tried too hard to be my normal energetic self. By the next day I was back in bed, hating myself for being weak, and facing the harsh reality that if I didn't go somewhere that required less energy to live I was risking another bout of mysterious long term illness. And just like that, my plans changed again. I bought a one way ticket to Ireland, in hopes that somewhere completely different will sort me out again.

The list keeps growing. I have towns I want to see, styles of weaving I want to learn, Spanish verbs I still can't conjugate properly, and mountains I want to climb.

"You're going to Ireland?"
"Yeah. On Tuesday. It was a bit of an impromptu decision."
"Are you excited?"
"Sort of. I don't want to leave."
"Then why?"

How do I answer that? How do you convey the gripping fear of being sick for another few months to someone who has never had worse than the flu? How do you say that sometimes you just don't get better without change and hard work? How do you say that you hate yourself for not being able to go do things? For looking at the mountains and wanting to climb them and knowing that it won't be this trip?

The mountains won't go anywhere. And me? I've spent all year learning how to have fun with no plans. This is just one more adventure.

But Bolivia hasn't given my heart back yet. It aches to look at the mountains around La Paz and wonder when I can come back. Even as I wander through the witches market and the plazas my smile falters. As I sit confused at the Cholita wrestling, staged fights between Aymara women that are meant to be comical, I try to laugh. But instead tears come to my eyes and I blink them back before my friends notice. And again.

Broken hearts take time to mend.

But I wouldn't complain about a little luck from a leprechaun to speed up the process.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Why Go?

In the post I wrote today I referenced an essay I wrote for a friend about the hard moments of traveling alone. Maybe it's time to share that essay.

I stood on the beach and tears ran down my face.

I haven't been hugged in weeks. I miss laughing with my friends. My family is all together except me.

Messages read: "I accepted a job offer." "I got into graduate school." "My boyfriend proposed."

How did I end up here? What am I doing with myself? Are you ever going to stay still?

Amidst these swirling thoughts, so why are you doing it?

It comes down to one simple question: is there anywhere else you'd rather be?

Because even with tears streaking my cheeks I immediately answer NO. I shout it at the waves.

Repeatedly I've been asked if it's difficult to travel alone. Of course it's difficult to travel alone. That's like asking if you have to go uphill to reach the top of the mountain. The little things are hard - carrying your backpack to the bathroom at the train station because you don't want to leave it alone. Awkwardly reading a book at dinner. Shoving aside shyness to meet new people. Keeping every train schedule and bus transfer and address straight in your mind. Walking home alone at night in a new city.

And bigger things: having no one to rely on if you're sad or sick or embarrassed. Consistently putting yourself out there to make new friends in spite of feeling like its a bit superficial. Staying enthusiastic when you never share experiences with anyone. Feeling like no one knows you - and the tangible side of that - not getting hugs. Understanding that human contact matters. Feeling isolated when everyone speaks a new language. Laughing at yourself when you stare at two bathroom signs with letters that don't even form pronounceable words and wondering which one to open.

So why go? Why do it? What makes it worth it?

The places. The people. The moments. The challenge.

For me, I fall in love with places. And with moving beyond places. With following the road around one more corner, the train to one more stop, with chasing the random lead on a knitting store across multiple countries. The freedom of being on your own schedule. The unexpected friends you make when you're rich in time. The discussion of computer programming at Sunday tea with the knitting guild. The friend of a friend at the campground. The surprisingly insightful stranger-turned-friend who asked to tag along on your bike trip to the beach. Want to go listen to music in the park? Want to hike up the hill and watch the sunset? The leisure to read in your hammock. The meditative introspection of wandering alone through an art museum or winding around alleyways and corners in a new city.

People constantly express their jealousy of my travels. "You're living the dream." "You must be so happy." "How are you so lucky?" I've asked myself that question: how am I so lucky? How did I get here? It racks me with guilt when I'm unhappy because I realize that I'm lucky. But there's a reality behind this lifestyle as well. Moments of crushing loneliness. Of taking a deep breath and speaking in a new language and praying I understand the response. Of wondering why I walked away from everyone I knew and everything I was good at. For months my only consistent companion has been a little voice in my head that alternates between, "It'll be ok. You can do this." and "What were you thinking? What have you got to show for these months?

All I have is me.

A handful of photos and journals and stories. New friends. A few new skills. A wavering confidence in adaptability. An appreciation of those people who have held on to me from across the ocean. An occasional blissful peacefulness with myself. An ever growing value in exploration.

At least I'm here.

I'm standing on a beach in the rain. I'm crying. I'm heartbreakingly lonely. My friends are at work, making a difference to the world. My friends are getting engaged, becoming the world to each other.

And me?

I'm standing on a beach in the rain. Questioning everything about myself and my decisions. But I'm here. It hurts because it's so beautiful. And maybe it's beautiful because I'm so alone.

The beach is quiet. The sunset is peaceful. A million little moments. The little plane was exciting. The boat ride laughably interminable. The snow swishes as I ski and I pause when I glance up and realize the sky is awake. Someone chats with me in a cafe. I climb the tower of a castle. I send a postcard west. I light a candle in a church. I laugh with a new friend who's name I never learn because somehow it's irrelevant to our conversation. I pitch my tent on a white sand beach. I swim in the ocean. I roll in the snow during a sauna. I wander a bit further.

How did you get here? I don't know.
What are you doing here? I don't know.

Would you rather be anywhere else? No.

One More Day

A few months ago a friend asked me to write her an essay about why I travel - what's hard as a solo traveler and why I go anyways. My first thought was, "because I fall in love with places." And that is certainly true. This week it was Pisco Elqui, a little town way up a canyon to the east of La Serena, Chile. I sat on the bus as we drove up the canyon, my smile growing by the mile. I loved it, wholeheartedly, from the moment I saw it. The fact that town consisted of four streets. The fact that much of town was shut down for the winter. The irony that this valley is famous for getting around 320 days of sunlight a year and it was cloudy enough I couldn't see the high mountains. The women selling ice cream who laughed once they realized I would come back everyday. The rooftop bar selling pisco sours made only with local ingredients.

When I checked into the hostel I paid for two nights. I stayed longer. There was this glittering freedom to being able to wake up each morning and think, "I don't want to leave. Just one more day" and stay. Because it didn't matter, I could stay until I knew where I was going next. Or perhaps, until I climbed to the highest point above town (six days). It was limitless. Each day was mine to spend.

I keep hearing my friend's voice in my head, singing to me, "...Take. Your. Time." It was a day at university, just before he left for a semester abroad, and we were sitting around listening to a new musical soundtrack. This time was different. First, I recognized one of the singers, despite not knowing the musical, The Last Five Years. This is one of two times I have said something about music to this friend that impressed him. Second, I didn't have my knitting. So, we sat around and played war while we listened. Aimlessly flipped over cards and swapped piles just to avoid sitting still. At one point my friend looks up and tells me I'll like this song. I listen more carefully, and I do like the song, which is a story about being given more time, enough to take a chance and follow a dream. Now, in general, I did not find this a particularly insightful song. There are plenty of songs about following your dreams that don't involve magic clocks. But I have returned to this moment many times simply because it was such a perfect afternoon, it just slipped away happily with a good friend. Maybe that's why I still listen to the song so much.

Time is a funny thing, it's the type of thing that is infinitely appealing when you don't have quite enough of it. But when you suddenly find it on your hands, it can be hard to know what to do with it. To feel like you're using it wisely.

Sometimes using it wisely is laughing while your new friends complain that the restaurants are closed and then debate what to make for dinner until the store owner laughs. And sleeping in and having the second cup of tea. Eating ice cream on the swings. Following all four roads that lead out of town in search of a hike. Those days that pass away happily, relaxed. Those slow moments that I consistently undervalue.

"You must have been warned against letting the golden hours slip by; but some of them are golden only because we let them slip by." -James M Barrie

My last day I hiked up the hill above town. I started walking first to one point, then the next, and eventually just decided I was going to the top regardless of the threatening clouds and relatively few hours until dark (I have never said I make decisions well). It was just me and the sagebrush, zigzagging up into the sky. Fleeting glimpses of the high peaks during breaks in the clouds. A reminder that this town was small and the world was big. I finally reached the point, and was startled and saddened to realize it was a false summit. Just the tip of a field that stretched up to a higher ridge. Despite the pangs of summit fever begging to continue, I turned around and started down, trying to make it back before sunset. Slipping and sliding back down the gravel slopes. I stopped once and just laughed. Grinning and shouting my glee across the hillside.

Fremont likes it here too - he wasn't that excited about the tropics

It was sliding down that hill that I realized I was ready to move on. That my feelings of limitlessness were reaching their limit. I had gotten what I wanted: sleep, an excellent pisco sour, time to read my book, a glimpse of the southern night sky, and a wander in the mountains. A chance to sit and watch the world spin and catch my breath. A new tentative set of plans (let's see how long these last). A lot of laughter. And a few more of those fleeting golden moments.

Including a sunny afternoon here with music and a game and a friend. This time the game was the focus; my friend was re-teaching me the rules of chess. We sat on the porch in the sun, listening to music, and I lost first one game and then another. And it was golden, another perfect afternoon, slipping away happily.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!

A bit of a whirlwind tour of Panama - an extended flight layover one might call it. But very lovely! The shock of a modern city, a trip on the canal and a long visit to the viewing platform for Miraflores locks, a few days of snorkeling, boats, hammocks, and sloth watching in Bocas del Toro, and a chance to see both the molas and the polleras proving once again that great textiles come from small places.

woven tightly enough to hold water
the polleras! and beautiful dancing as well
Panama Canal
I still think the way to go through is in a kayak...
Bridge of the Americas
Biomuseum - my favorite part was the lifesize model of a giant ground sloth
Breakfast in Bocas del Toro
It´s only a few minutes walk to town...
who said sloths sleep all the time?
I think I´ll miss this place
Panama Viejo - the old city ruins
molas! the abstract ones are my favorite
...but these are impressive too
Next time maybe I´ll stay here