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