Mount Huayna Potosi


As I sat on top of the mountain a sense of triumph and accomplishment grew inside of me, but it was different than any other emotion I had ever felt.  It was powerful and intense.  It was also strange because I had achieved something that I didn’t even know I wanted to do until the day before.  But what really made my sense of pride different was that as it swelled it collided with the reality that I had to go back down.  It was tainted; it was overshadowed by the terrifying work that lay ahead of me.

I walked around the summit and took pictures as the sun exploded through the blanket of clouds below into a glorious dawn.  The stark cold beauty of the summit was irradiated with orange light that warmed the air and danced on the snow.  The world changed.  It was breath-taking but it could not fully distract my mind from the awful task that awaited me only a few hundred meters away.


An hour before reaching the summit our guide warned us “It gets harder from here.”  My oxygen deprived body was already approaching its limits and I though, how can it get any harder, but when I saw it his words made sense.  Its perfection shocked my tired brain.  It was colder and harsher than the sub-freezing air that attacked my skin because what I saw attacked my brain.  It was something the sinister part of my mind would conjure in a brutal nightmare. But unlike in a dream it was just there.  It did not change or twist, there were no monsters waiting to pull me into the abyss, my legs and balance did not fail me.  All I could think was, oh okay I am going to do this.

It was a spire of ice stairs less than a meter wide that climbed the spine of the mountain.  It was the only way to the summit.  On the left side was a 100 meter tumble over sharp rocks.  I would not let myself think about what was to the right but I could feel the vast emptiness there.  I instinctively knew that it was an extremely long way down.  I thought that if I have to fall, go left, there is a slim chance I could survive a fall to the left.  If I go right they will never find my body.  I looked up the icy stairs into the pale grey sky and before my mind had a chance to betray me I scrambled up on all fours.  It was over in a few seconds.  I reached the relative safety of a narrow ice path that would take us the last few hundred meters to the summit.  Normally the thin path would have been terrifying but after the ice stairs it was a glorious safe haven.

On the path we took a break and the guide began to tell us that the drop to the right was over 1000 meters and that it was incredibly hard and dangerous to climb up that side.  I did not look over the side but I knew that there were clouds between us and the ground.  I wanted to tell him to shut up.  I wanted to shout that I got it, this is fucking dangerous, I can tell by the fact that I can’t even see the ground because there are clouds below us.  I did not say anything.  I just politely ignored what he was saying.  He was not trying to be a dick and I still needed him to get me down.


During that last break before pushing on to the summit my tired mind drifted and I marveled at the strange series of events that had led me to a narrow ice path not far from the top of a mountain.  A few days before I had returned to La Paz from the jungle and I was not sure what to do with my last few days in Bolivia.  I thought that the jungle was the last thing that I wanted to do.  I was ready to head to Argentina but decided that I would just listen to The Universe and see what It wanted me to do.  A day later someone mentioned that it was possible to climb one of the snow-capped mountains visible in the distance from La Paz.  I thought about it for a second and realized that Bolivia would be the last place on this trip where I would be able to climb a mountain and then it dawned on me; why is it that I have never climbed a mountain?  I had made up my mind.  I asked around and did some research but I had been set in motion, I was going to climb that mountain before I left Bolivia.

On the first day we hiked up the lower part of the mountain to the base camp were we ate dinner and went to bed early.  After three hours of sleep we got up at midnight and had breakfast.  When I walked out of the simple wood building to begin the ascent I was greeted by a full moon and a layer of clouds in the valley far below that glowed a heavenly white.  The serenity of the scene gave me a little extra fortitude as I listened to one last song on my iPod.

My three-man team strapped on our crampons, roped our harnesses together, turned on our head lamps and left the base camp at one thirty in the morning.  We were roped together for safety.  In reality it meant that if one of us fell the others would probably follow.  We were the last group to leave and a few hundred meters up the glacier I accidentally slashed the strap on my right crampon with the spikes from my left.  It popped off and the guide had to help me put it back on.  This is not a good start I thought, maybe I should have taken the three-day trip so that I could have practiced using the crampons and ice ax before beginning the ascent.  I really had no idea how to use the gear and therefore had no confidence in it.  Every step I took was unsure.  I could never tell if the crampons had a good grip.  In some areas I could see rocks and gravel under the ice.  Those parts made me extremely nervous.  Even with no experience I knew that steel spikes slide on rocks.

Our guide led the way and set a blistering pace.  He seemed to be taking my declaration the night before that, I wanted to be the first to the top, seriously.  We soon passed the other teams that started before us.  The team that had been in the lead seemed to know what they were doing and were moving at a good pace.  When we passed them I thought that we would stay just ahead of them until the summit but their head lights quickly faded into the dark below us.

As we move higher I could feel my mind becoming lazy.  My attention slipped bit by bit.  I screamed at myself to focus.  I told myself that paying attention could be the difference between getting to the summit or sliding a few hundred meters into the blackness, but I could not get my brain to function.  The altitude, cold, exhaustion and lack of sleep weighed down my mind.  I was becoming less capable.  The only solution was to stop and rest.  The second we stopped I began to freeze.  The sweat in my jacket and on my head immediately turned against me.  As soon as I sat in the snow I realized that the pants the guide had given me were not waterproof.  My ass immediately became wet and cold.  I watched my guide ramp the butt of his ice axe into the snow and then sit on the top.  I tried this only to find that it kept my ass relatively warm but was painfully uncomfortable.

For hours that was how we went.  When we moved I was exhausted and my mind became complacent.  When we stopped I was cold and miserable.  There was very little happiness.  Occasionally we would walk over a crevasse.  We always went to the narrowest part and jumped the half meter wide gap.  But just knowing that there was hundreds of meters of empty space below me sent a surge of fear through my body that exhausted me more than the altitude ever could.  Nothing is more draining than a legitimate fear of death.

As we got closer to the summit I could sense the black presence of the mountain looming above me.  I strained to make it out in the darkness.  It seemed to get impossibly steep near the top.  It was a menacing rock tsunami.  It was hideous gnarled giant.  It was beautiful.


When our guide told us it was time to leave the summit and head back down I was ready to get to work.  I was not ready when he told me that on the way down I had to go first.  On the way up he had led our three-man team and I had been last.  I hoped for a second that he was joking but he was too serious and his English was not good enough to joke about such a thing.  I said okay but that he would have to give me some direction along the way.

As I set off down the narrow ice path I felt alone even though there were two other men roped to me a few meters back.  At one point the path got narrower and the long drop, which was now on my left became extremely close.  I veered a little to the right towards some rocks that gave me something to hold onto.  The guide asked me if I was afraid of falling.  I wanted to say yes mother fucker, shouldn’t I be?  But in reality I barely notice him.  At that point every step forward that did not result in a fall to my death was a victory.  Victory by victory I moved towards the real challenge, the ice steps.

When we arrived I looked down at the thin ice-covered ridge.  Somehow it had gotten narrower while we were at the summit.  I tried to focus my vision on the stairs but my eyes betrayed me and moved to the left.  There was nothing to see for thousands of meters and then pretty white clouds that gently lay on the mountains below.  I leaned up against a brown bolder and looked back at the guide.  I don’t think I said anything, the look on my face was enough.  He stomped his left crampon and then his right and then slammed the sharp butt of his ice ax into the snow and said “Left, right, ax, one, two, three.”  It was not a revelation.  It was not magic.  It was common sense; always have two points of support before you move the third.  But more importantly it was enough to make my barely functioning mind believe that there was a proven technique that could get me safely to the ledge below.  I didn’t hesitate or ask for more details.  I had enough.  My vision narrowed and the viscous drops disappeared.  All that existed was that first step.  I slammed my left crampon into the top ice step with all the strength the massive adrenaline surge had given me.  Bits of ice shattered into the air as the steel spikes bit deep into the step.  I said out loud “Left.”  Then I slammed my right crampon into the same step and said with a grunt “Right.”  The ax followed “Ax.”  I was on the top step.  “Left, right, ax” I nearly shouted.  I was on the second step.  Step after step.  I smashed my equipment into the ice and grunted my ditty.

Half way down the steps I had a moment of clarity.  For a second I felt pretty good about still being alive and then I thought how terrible it would be to fall off then.  To have come that far and then fail.  It wasn’t even about living at that point it was about failure.  And worse failure after making such progress.  My focus was broken.  My tunnel vision lifted and I saw the infinite drop to my left.  I looked to my right.  It was steep but I was passed most of the sharp rocks.  It was so much more inviting than the abyss.  Maybe if I just slide off here I could stop myself a few hundred meters below before I got really hurt.  It was a moronic and nearly suicidal idea.  I forced it from my mind and went back to what had gotten me that far.  “Left, right, ax.”  I shouted.  I could hear the fear, exhaustion but also determination in my own voice.  Again and again, “Left, right, ax.”  “Left, right, ax.”  “Left, right, ax.”

I reached the safety of the ledge.  I took a few steps away from the abyss and leaned up against a large boulder.  I will never be that exhausted again.  The rough surface of the boulder supported me as the adrenaline abandoned my body.  After a minute I remembered I was not the only person on the mountain.  I turned to see how my partner was doing.  He moved carefully down the steps with slightly more grace than me.  He joined me on the ledge by the boulder.  We exchanged smiles of relief and then watched the guide make his way down.  Even he moved with pains taking care and at methodically slow speed.

Once we were all on the ledge we knew the hardest part was over.  We set off with a renewed confidence and energy.  There were still many steep and icy faces ahead of us but they would seem easy.

As we tramped down the mountain the temperature rose.  I took off layer after layer of clothing until I was in a t-shirt with no hat or gloves.  The warm sun light sparkled on the snow and ice around us.  The world was warm and yellow and white.  When we took breaks I comfortably relaxed and marveled at the stunning surroundings.

The steep down hill movement battered our knee.  The snow and ice melted in the sun making the footing more treacherous but as we moved lower the angles became less severe.  We passed several crevasses that I had only vaguely realized were there in the darkness on the way up.  In the bright sunlight they were beautiful blue tombs.  Yawning and patiently waiting for careless climbers to make then an eternal home.

When we finally made it to the bottom I took off my crampons and scrambled over the last few boulders back to the building at base camp.  Inside the other climbers who did not make it to the top waited.  Only half of the climbers that attempt Huayna Potosi make it to the summit.  They asked me if I made it to the summit and what it was like.  I excitedly told them about the sun rise and the ice stairs.  After a few minutes things got quiet.  I sat on a wooden bench; the most comfortable wooden bench in the world and waited for the exhaustion to over take me.  It never came.  The realization of what I had just done solidified inside of me and left no room for fatigue.

As I sat there, I remembered one of the guides telling us about the woman who had died the year before climbing the mountain.  She had made it to the top and was almost to the bottom when she lost focus or slipped or a rock shifted.  She tumbled a hundred meters over sharp rocks.  How horrible I thought, to be that close to finishing and then die.  It reminded me of the flawed sense of accomplishment I felt at the at the top.  I realized that the summit is not the goal.  At best it’s the half way point.  The goal is home.

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The Bus Test

Every few days I put on my traveling boots and stuff everything I have into a backpack that is obviously shrinking.  Then I get on a bus for a period of time that before this trip would have seemed insane.  If the trip is more than 14 hours I´ll buy a travel size bottle of Grant’s Scotch to help pass the time.

Once I´m settled in my seat and the bus is rolling I eat my disgusting dinner or breakfast of warm Coca Cola and a candy bar.  Then I put on my iPod and listen to a play list of slightly melancholy yet up lifting music.  I watch the city or jungle or mountains or desert roll by.  I try to imagine the lives of the locals selling food on the street.  I feel bad for the skinny dogs eating trash along the side of the road.

After a few songs my mind drifts.  I wait.  I know exactly what is coming.  My mind replays the last few days or weeks.  Impossibly vivid scenes flash through my head.  I see with perfect clarity the curve of a smile.  A potent smell that is no longer there fills my nostrils.  A strange accent that I have not heard in days rings in my ears.  An emotion that has long since faded vibrates again in my chest.  My nostalgic conscience rips me from my seat.  I disappear from the bus.

I think about all the things I did.  I contemplate the places I saw.  I remember the people I met and shared drinks and stories with.  I know that I will never see them again and with most of them that is fine.  And some I will soon gladly forget.  But there are a few that I will never see again and it saddens me more than I want to admit.

Each memory, emotion and story launches a brutal question into my mind.  I hate some of these cold challenges but I embrace others. Some answers are hard to admit and bring chills of regret or a sinking depression while others come easy and are accompanied by a smile and a sense of warmth that far surpasses anything the Scotch can provide.

Did I make the most of it?  Did I do anything that was terrifying, no, straight out of a bad dream, no a nightmare?  Did I make any new friends?  Did I see any old friends and if so are we still cool?  Did I walk into a situation arrogantly and end up humbled?  Did I make somebody else happy?  Did I dance on the bar?  Did I act like a boy or a man?  Would I take any of it back?  Did I take the weight?

After a few hours the final question comes. It is the only one that really matters.  Am I just a tiny bit wiser, stronger or better than the last time I got on a bus and took the test?  Sometimes I don’t know the answer and sometimes it is a crushing no, but today I’m going to say yes.  Today I passed.

The amazing thing about the bus test is that you don’t even need a bus to take it.  All you need is a memory, a few quiet minutes and a soul.  Honestly evaluating and harshly judging your own actions and life might sound insane to some.  Those are the people I will soon gladly forget on this trip.

All to soon I will stop taking ridiculously long bus rides around this amazing continent, but I will never stop taking the bus test.

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And I Could Have Been Watching the NFL

The clouds hung low over the Lima skyline.  I despised the clouds and the city that they were attempting to obscure.  After a solid month of sun, surf and partying, at Loki Mancora I was not happy with my current situation.

Of all the places I have left on this trip it was easiest to leave Mancora.  I loved Mancora.  Sometimes the universe smashes you in the nose and knocks you to the ground.  And sometimes it picks you up and gives you a big hug.  Mancora was a warm, sunny, rum infused hug.  But after a great month there was no doubt in my mind that I had done everything that I wanted, and much more.  It was time to move on.  As I sat on the bus leaving town vivid memories flashed through my mind, I smiled and shook my head.  I felt nothing but a profound sense of fulfillment.

The weekend in Lima had been fine. I had met up with a friend from Ecuador and also hung out with a new friend from Mancora but on this Sunday afternoon I was alone in a city that I hated.  I like being alone.  But I was bored and tired and I had just paid too much  for a mediocre meal.  After a month of highs I had finally hit a low and it hurt.  I felt hollow inside.  I wanted something but I wasn’t sure what, maybe a good wave or a friend that I had not seen a in a while or a girl or the sun or Medellin.

Without warning a thundering noise rolled across the park and collided with my ears.  It only took me a second to recognize the pulsing sound of many skillfully played drums.  Intermixed with the deep serious sound of the drums was a high-pitched whistle.  It was the perfect opposite of the drums and the sounds complimented each other beautifully.

It took all my will power not to run through traffic and over flower beds to get to the joyous racket as quickly as possible.  Within a few measures I arrived on the scene.  In the middle of the park was a theater formed by layers of stone seats descending into a concrete bowl in the ground.  All the seats were filled and the rim of the theater was surrounded by people.  At the bottom of the theater were a dozen drummers.  They all had different types of drums but they all faced the same direction.  In front of them was the leader.  He had a drum too but also a whistle.  He would play with them and then hold up his hands and drum sticks in a symbol.  After he few seconds when he was sure that his minions had seen his play calling he would blast the whistle three times with the rhythm.  On the third blast all the drummers changed to a new beat.  The drummers swayed in a basic salsa step to the music as they played.  The crow bounced and clapped to the music.  After a few songs some people in the crow could not take it anymore and they poured down the steps to the bottom of the bowl and surrounded the drummers.  They danced and clapped next to the thundering music.  Old men and beautiful young girls danced amongst the drummers.  Middle aged couples twirled to the rhythm.

The pounding drums battered my depression into oblivion.  The whistel´s shrill sound awaked my sleeping sense of wonder.  The unexpected joy made me stop missing Mancora.  All I could do was rejoice in the moment and let the happiness that I was sharing with a hundred strangers wash over me.

After months of traveling I sometimes forget where I am and what I am doing and then something amazing happens.  And it shakes me from my slumber and forces me to see the beauty around me.  Stumbling upon a spontaneous dance party on a Sunday in a park in Peru made me feel more awake and alive than I had in, well only a few days, but it still felt great.  Once again this journey had laid a glorious, unexpected gift in front of me.

I am not sitting by waiting for things to happen like I once did or I was once forced to do.  I am moving and sweating and trying.  I am putting myself out there and making myself vulnerable and reaping the rewards and paying the price.  I am here.  My eyes and my mind are always open.  I am searching and on days like Sunday I am discovering.

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An Orphanage in the Desert

The orphanage sat at the end of the road in a sun-baked field that was speckled with garbage.  Hundreds of black plastic bags were caught on the scraggly dead brush and they fluttered in the desert breeze like flags of war.  The landscape reminded me of Iraq, which in a strange way made me feel comfortable.  I liked the harsh beauty of the dry cliffs, the pale blue sky and the relentless sun.  The orphanage was surrounded by a sturdy bamboo fence that had been painted a rainbow of pastel colors.  The colors created the desired effect of looking hopeful in the face of the hash reality that surrounded them.

Inside the compound the bright paint scheme continued onto several simple wood buildings.  The director showed me around the compound and introduced me to the staff and the children.  The kids suffered from a range of diseases like Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy,  and schizophrenia.  Many of them had multiple conditions and almost none of them could speak so they communicated with shrieks, grunts and smiles.  They would never be anywhere near normal.  They would never experience anything remotely like a regular life.

The director handed me a book that contained the children’s stories.  What I found inside turned my stomach.  The children had suffered some of the most horrific abuse imaginable.  Many of them were the result of rape so their mothers resented and abused them.  All came from families that were unable or unwilling to care for them.  One girl was found naked, living in a chicken yard and she had pulled out chunks of her hair from stress.  And that was the least disturbing part of her story.  The idea that the kids were devil children or a curse from God was common.  Some of the children were born with minor conditions but their families neglected and abused them until they were beyond repair.

For a few days I spent time with the kids painting the compound.  The painting was really just busy work that gave the kids something constructive and challenging to do.  It was messy and not very productive but they really enjoyed it.  One day we took some of the kids to the pool of an American couple who lived a few miles outside of town.  One girl was terrified of the water and refused to get in the first half hour, but once she got in she became calm and relaxed.  The others were happy to get in right away.

As I watch the children I marvelled at how deformed they were both mentally and physically and yet how perfectly in tact their humanity was.  The kids loved to joke and laugh.  As I joked with them there was no fear that I was laughing too hard or too long or that I was not really getting the joke.  The laughter I shared with them was the purest and most sublime I have ever experienced.  It created a white-hot joy in my chest that vaporized residual anger and resentment that I had forgotten was there.  Because they were absolutely free to be themselves, no, not free they were bound to be themselves, I was free to do the same.

As I watched one of the boys who was normally confined to a wheelchair experience pure ecstasy as he splashed the pool water I realized that despite their disabilities they had a greater capacity for joy than I will ever have.  I remembered their stories and marvel that they did not hate and mistrust everyone.  Instead many of them greeted me as if I was a long-lost friend with an honest hug.  They had  a greater capacity for forgiveness than I will ever have.

I have a herculean ability to stress and obsess about things.  But I found it impossible to worry about things that were suddenly revealed to not be important in their company.

I can be a judgemental prick.  I am constantly evaluating and measuring up other people.  Sometimes this is necessary but I take it to a cynical extreme.  As I looked at the kids with their twisted limbs and distorted faces, the only person I found to be seriously flawed was myself.

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Surfing life in Mancora

I walked onto the beach early in the morning.  My exhaustion was destroyed by what greeted me in the grey morning light.  A rocky point jutted out into the Pacific and a nice left was consistently rolling off of it.  There were not many surfers in the water.  As I looked for a place to rent a board and I began to think about extending my stay past the proposed week.  Half an hour and six long rides later the sun began to burn through the morning clouds and I knew that I had found exactly what I was looking for.  I was where I needed to be.

The surf break in Mancora is caused by a field of boulders that extends into the Pacific.  The waves start breaking around the same spot every time and if there is a little bit of a swell you can ride the wave 200 yards all the way to the beach.  One draw back to this is that the spot where the waves start to break can get really crowded when the surf is up.  But more importantly you are surfing next to and sometimes over rocks.  It was pretty intimidating to look down into the greenish water rushing under my board and see pail round rocks waiting for me to make a mistake.  I had a hard time judging how deep the boulders were.  I’m pretty sure they were about eight feet deep; pretty sure.

I had spent 18 hours the day before, on a series of buses, taxis and finally a tuc tuc, getting from Montanita Ecuador to Mancora Peru.  Montanita had been a disappointment.  I heard it was a tropical surf paradise but it had been cloudy every single day with strong winds that ruined most of the surf.  It had not just been cloudy; it had been Ohio in February cloudy.  The kind of clouds that sucked all the color out of the world and made it ugly.  The kind of clouds that drained my energy and hurt my soul.  For various reasons I had spent over a week in Montanita and for various reasons I was happy to leave.

Over the next few days I walked around the small desert town of Mancora with a smile and the sun on my face.  I started taking Spanish classes two hours a day.  One day I volunteered at an after school program through the hostel.  We spent an hour playing games with the kids.  Is it still volunteering if you have more fun than the kids?  The volunteer coordinator mentioned that the hostel needed bar staff and since I was already thinking about staying in Mancora for a while I took the job.

Now I tend the hostel bar four days a week.  It is actually fun and easy.  The only hard thing about the job is watching your friends have more fun than you on the other side of the bar.  Occasionally I ask myself if am I too old for this shit?  I ask myself this question every few days and when I ask it there is a massive smile on my face that immediately answers the question and makes me feel silly for even asking.  Some day dancing on top of the bar to 80’s rap with beautiful Dutch girls will get old.  Today is not that day.

One of the “benefits” of working here is that you “get” to live in one of the staff dorms.  When I walked into the staff dorm that is affectionately known as “The Jungle” I was disgusted and I immediately felt at home.  It smelled and felt like the Phi Delt house.  Loki Hostel is much like my old fraternity house but with a powerful sun overhead and a beach out front.

I work just enough to have fun and appreciate my free time.  I surf whenever there are waves.  I run on the beach and study Spanish.  I meet people from all over the world who tell me stories that bore, shock and amaze me.  My only complaint is that I am so tired.  There is always something to do and I am usually doing it.

In someway by staying here for a while I was looking for some stability.  I have found it but not really.  The beach and hostel do not change but the faces and stories do.  They roll through here, some are amazing, some I don’t even notice, some are beautiful, some I will remember for a long time, but they all eventually disappear.  I tell myself that I am tired of new people and then I sit at the bar and talk to the first person I see.

The work, the people and the parties are really just a distraction.  I am here for the surf.

If you miss a good wave it is probably part of a set.  You need to paddle back into position as fast as you can.  Turn toward the beach and when you feel the water drop and get eerily smooth in front of you it is time to look over your shoulder and see what type of beautiful beast is rolling towards you. If you are in the right position, have good timing, paddle with everything you have left and have the courage to drop in, you just might have the ride of your life.

If you wipe out; at least you went for it.  And don’t worry because at that very moment there are rays, waves, of light leaving the sun that will soon heat the earths atmosphere and create wind that will give birth to more waves.  And those waves will roll towards you and as they do, they will perfectly mirror the shape of a life well lived.

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A Walk into the Night

I walked down a dirt road in the Ecuadorian forest as dusk began to fall.  I followed the beautiful girl down the road.  A girl that I had been with but whom I was no longer with. I liked her but I wasn’t sure if I would ever be with her again or even if I should.  At first I didn’t want to go on the walk because it sounded boring.  Also, it was the girls idea and after several strained days I didn’t feel like letting her get her way.

We went to see pigs on a tiny farm.  The girl loved all animals except mosquitos.  I liked most animals but not pigs.  After the farm we walked into the forest to find a donkey that the girl had seen a few days before.  The girl loved animals.

As we walked down the South American road fireflies began to flash around us in the fields and forest.  A chorus of insects rose on either side of us in a joyous greeting to the approaching night.  Bats gracefully streaked above us in the slate grey sky.  More fire flies appeared and the world sparkled with yellow orbs.  The perfect tranquility of the end of the day washed over me.  It cleansed me of days of worry and frustration about the girl.  The sour memories faded into the evening behind me.  The nagging uncertainty about the future was swallowed by the night in front of me.  All that existed was one pure moment, a bright yellow flash in the dusk.  I got chills up my spine as my eyes began to water from pure joy.  I was so happy, to be there, at that moment, with her.

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Keep moving

My head was beginning to pound as I walked out of my hostel in Medellin for the last time.  But my hangover was nothing compared to the heavy depression in my chest.  I had left the club at five in the morning and taken a bus back to the hostel where I had 45 minutes of sleep.   The previous day never really ended but I was staggering into the next.  I had no physical or emotional energy.  I was about to take a cab, to the metro and then the metro to the bus station where I would get on a bus for ten hours.  As I stumbled onto the metro with hundreds of beautiful, smiling Paisas dressed in their simple but elegant business attire, I thought, ‘It’s not too late.  I can still go back to the hostel and stay here for a few more days.’

‘No, this is right, I should leave.  This trip is not about settling down or finding the perfect place or making lasting friendships.  It is about moving and searching and finding the surreal and the sublime.’  I didn’t believe it though.  It was a poorly constructed pep talk filled with lies.  I threw it at the pillar of melancholy and fear that dominated my mind.  It ineffectively bounced off.

Once the lame speech faded my true thoughts slowly began to flow.  They were weighed down by fatigue and rum, but mostly by sadness.  The grey morning light filtered into my mind and illuminated the previous month and a half’s events as they began to flicker like an ancient home movie.

This is what streamed through my head.

Traveling is life distilled down to its purest form. There is no boredom, mundane job, artificial comfort, PowerPoint, apathy, extraneous relationships, tedious TV, emotional insulation, spreadsheets, or false independence.  All the impurities have been removed.  And like other highly refined fuels or substances it can be explosive and caustic.

I can’t take another ten hour bus ride over winding Andean roads where the bus driver passes slow trucks on blind corners while talking on his cell phone.  I am so tired of massive packs of Australian boys who treat every bar like a rugby field and every ally like a urinal.  I hate whiney Americans who complain that it is so hard to find organic whole wheat bread in Colombian and then a minute later light a cigarette.  I have had a hacking cough for over a week now and my chest is starting to feel heavy, maybe I should get more than three hours of sleep a night and drink less rum.  The next ice cold shower I take from a metal pipe with no shower head might kill me.  I am going to defenestrate the next Englishman who complains about hearing too much salsa in the salsa capital of South America.  I am going to eviscerate the next German who claims that electronic music is better than salsa.  I should stop going to bed covered in sweat from hours of dancing.    I don’t want to make any more truly good friends only to leave them a few days later.  I am tired of speaking Spanish with such a shitty accent that the adorable Colombiana sales girls, giggles at me and then shakes their heads.  I still have several cases of altitude sickness, diarrhea and food poisoning ahead of me.  I hate how big my bag is when I leave the hostel in the morning to catch the bus but love that I still have clean socks when I get dressed at night.  The constant altitude and scenery changes make me lightheaded.  These ten hour bus trips exhaust me even though I am asleep most of the time.  I feel like I have been travelling for six months and it has only been six weeks.  I am so tired.  I am sad.

I wearily pulled out my Lonely Planet.  It was heavy in my shaky hands but I managed to flip to the color map in the front.  It was blurry for a second but then came into focus.  The continent of South America arrogantly stared back into my blood shot eyes.  I had covered less than two countries.  I had at least eight to go.  I was only part way over the Andes and I was going to have to cross back over them at least once more.  I wasn’t even that far into Colombia.

A scared and timid voice whined ‘I’m not so sure I can keep going’.  My weary eyes followed the planned route South.  They naturally settled on the soft blue ink that represented the Pacific Ocean.   ‘I haven’t even seen the Pacific yet.  I miss her and I will surf her again soon.’ I thought.  A chorus of powerful and passionate voices screamed ‘Yes!’  The weak old voice let out a wheeze and died.  I began to relish the daunting task ahead of me.

The surreal high deserts of Bolivia and Chile are calling me.  The amazon basin is ahead and I need to see a Jaguar.  The pampas is only a little further South and I want to see an anaconda.  I should visit my old friends Huanchaco, Lima and Cuzco.  I still have to see if the night life of Buenos Aires and Rio can compare with that of Cartagena and Medellin.  I must see Iguazu falls.  I will surf the Atlantic for the first time in several years.  I’ve got countless friends to make and then leave.  I have many more Colombinas to dance with.

The metro slowed and stopped at Estacion Caribe.  It was my stop.  The Estacion del Norte bus terminal was close and I knew how to get there.  These places that were strange and slightly distressing eight days before had become comfortable and easy.  The doors slid open and I picked up my bags.  I no longer wanted to stay.

I am getting stronger every day because the impurities haven’t just been removed from my life they have been removed from me.

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Life lessons from Roberto and Pablo Escobar

While in Medellin, my friend and I took the Pablo Escobar tour.  It was one of the most insane and surreal experiences I have had on this trip.  We went to his grave, the building where he was killed and finally to his brother’s, where we met Roberto Escobar.

We learned that when Pablo Escobar was 15, he decided that the most important thing in life was money.  He swore that if he was not a millionaire by the time he was 22, he would kill himself.  He started his criminal career by stealing grave stones, sanding off the names and then reselling them.  But, it was hard work and he did not make much money.  Next, he went into drugs.  He started selling marijuana.  He made some money, but since marijuana was common in Colombia it wasn’t enough.  Although he never used cocaine, he realized that it was the drug that would make him rich.  He started selling it in Colombia, but there was not much of a market for it.  Finally he decided that if he got his cocaine to the US, he could make some real money.  At the time cocaine was not well known in the states and airport security was lax so it was easy for him to flood the US market.  When the authorities finally caught on and cracked down on the flow of cocaine going through the airports, Pablo changed tactics and built his own airstrips in Colombia and the US.  He achieved his goal of becoming a millionaire by the time he was 22.

There is a famous mug shot of Pablo taken when he was first arrested at the age of 24.  He was caught with 20 kilos of cocaine, and for this massive amount he spent only four months in prison.  In his mug shot, he has a maniacal smile on his face.  He looks a little like Jack Nicholson in the shining.  His expression screams, “You think you got me, but I’m going to fuck this world up.”  And that is exactly what he did for the next 20 years.

Despite his brief incarceration, Pablo’s wealth and power continued to grow.  His ultimate goal was to have Antioquia province, where he grew up, break away from Colombia so that he could become president of the new country.  But first he would need to get into politics, so he built free housing and gave jobs to a poor area near Medellin; in return the people elected him to congress.  As Pablo’s public profile grew, people began to ask questions about where he got all his money.  He claimed that he got it by building houses, but soon many of his cocaine labs were discovered.  Two days after the discoveries the minister who was asking a lot of the questions was killed.  Pablo was forced to go on the run.  At one time he owned more than 2,000 safe houses around Colombia.  Finally he decided to turn himself in, but only under the condition that he would be able to do his time in a prison that he had built for himself, and that he could never be extradited to the United States.  In his prison, he got to pick the other inmates and the guards.  Also, the police were not allowed to enter the prison.  They could only guard it from outside.  The government agreed and Pablo went to his own private prison, where he continued to run his cartel.  He also had friends, family, business associates and under age prostitutes snuck into the prison.  When he found out that two of his associates were stealing from him, he had them brought to the prison where he personally chopped them into pieces.  Eventually, the officials found out about everything that was going on and told Pablo that he would have to go to a real prison.  To avoid this, he had a relative tip off the authorities that he was escaping through a tunnel that he had built in the prison.  The police stormed the prison and began searching for the tunnel.  While they were looking for the tunnel Pablo walked out the front door of the prison.  A day later the police found the tunnel and realized that Pablo had never used it, but he was gone nonetheless.

For the next year and a half, Pablo was on the run.  The Cali Cartel, his old allies, turned on him along with many of his former associates from the Medellin Cartel.  For the rest of his life Pablo was hunted by the police, the military, the Americans, the Cali Cartel and his former friends.  Things were so unsafe that Pablo sent his family to Argentina, which was the only country in the world that would take them.  He also told his brother, and right hand man, Roberto to turn himself in because he would be safer in prison.

On December 2, 1993, the day after he turned 44, Pablo was killed.  He was shot multiple times while running across a rooftop next to one of his safe houses in a desperate attempt to escape.  The bullet that killed him was fired at close range into his ear.  Some speculate that he killed himself to avoid being taken alive, but others say that he was executed by the police, the Americans or even his enemies dressed as police.

At the time of his death Pablo was waging a war on his own country and had killed thousands of his countrymen.  He eclipsed his goal of becoming a millionaire; he was the seventh richest man in the world.  But he was on the run and hadn’t seen his family in over a year.  His rule was to only speak on the phone for two minutes at a time because he knew that the Colombian government, with the help of the US was listening and trying to triangulate his location.  On the day he was killed, he spoke to his son for eleven minutes.  This mistake led to his death.  The monster was slain because he missed his son and talked to him for a little too long.  I wonder how many millions or billions of dollars he would have paid to give his son a hug on that day.

The wounds that Pablo inflicted on his country have only just begun to heal.  On this trip, we met several Colombians who remember clearly the days when they would not leave the house because there were so many bombings that it wasn’t safe to go out.  Our friend’s boss’s father was killed by Pablo because he was running for president and said that if he won he would take on the cartels.  Another friend’s father was a pilot on the Avianca flight that Pablo blew up in an attempt to kill the other presidential candidate.  The candidate was not on the flight but everyone on the plane was killed.

Pablo’s grave is in a beautiful green private cemetery.  When we visited it, we learned that on the day of his funeral the massive cemetery was filled with Colombians, not because they were mourning him, but because they wanted to see and touch his body to make sure he was really dead.  The rules of the cemetery state that all the grave stones must be small and simple.  In the Escobar family plot is a stone with a different name than Escobar but the same death date as Pablo.  It is the stone of his most trusted body guard who was killed as the police stormed the safe house where Pablo died.  For his loyalty he was buried near Pablo.  The grave stone we saw was labeled “Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria” but it is not the original.  The original was stolen several years ago, which only seems fair.

I as I looked around the rolling green hills of the cemetery I was amazed at the beauty and serenity of the place.  In the distance the dark green Andes rose into grey clouds that would soon poor rain on the city.  I stood at the head of Pablo’s grave and looked through some manicured trees at the city below and the mountains rising again beyond.  I wondered if Pablo had some kind of spirit or residual consciousness that was looking at the same view as me.  I thought that it was too pretty of a view for him.  I quickly decided that I didn’t believe there was anything left of Pablo, at least not there and walked back to the van.

The grand finale of the tour was a trip to Roberto Escobar’s house.  Roberto is partially deaf and blind because a mail bomb went off in his face when he was serving his 11 year prison sentence.  He only got 11 years because he supposedly only dealt with drugs but had nothing to do with any of the thousands of murders.  He is a short and extremely intelligent old man.  He has always been interested in bicycle racing and science, and has a degree in electronic engineering.  When he was in high school, he built the first radio and TV that his family owned.  He was also a world class cyclist and cyclist trainer before he went into the family business with Pablo.  Roberto is also an extremely charming man who warmly welcomed us into his home, which he had turned into a weird shrine to Pablo.  He loved to flirt with the girls on the tour, girls who were only a few years older than one of his daughters.  He had jokes and stories that he tells to two tour groups a day, five days a week, but they were new to us and I laughed out loud several times.

There are bullet holes in Roberto’s house because a year ago four men attempted to kidnap Roberto for ransom.  A few minutes before the kidnappers arrived he received an anonymous tip and ran into the woods near his house to hide.  The cops arrived and a shootout ensued.  While Roberto hid in the relative safety of the woods the police killed all four would-be kidnappers, but several police officers were wounded.  The idea of the police storming Roberto Escobar’s house and shedding their blood to protect him seemed more than bizarre to me.

Several times we were told that Roberto doesn’t have any money and that most of the proceeds of the tour go to charity.  But at one point we were taken into the formal dining room where one of the walls was completely covered with a mural of a giant brown horse.  The tour guide explained that it was a painting of the family’s prized horse who was kidnapped and castrated.  It bled to death so Roberto had the horse cloned.  The new horse is healthy and is a year and a half old now.  Roberto has no money, but he is able to clone his dead pets.

Near the end of the day, Roberto’s three children, two teenage girls and a ten year old boy stopped by to visit him.  It was extremely strange to see this old man who was once the second most wanted man in Colombia and part of the most powerful crime syndicate in the world, affectionately talking with his lovely and apparently normal children.

Before we left, we got a chance to ask Roberto a question.  We were told that nothing was off limits.  My friend wisely chose not to ask him a silly or specific question but instead asked him what advice an old and an experienced man such as himself would give to a young man.  Roberto’s face lit up.  He loves to talk, so he thought for a second and then issued his five rules for success.

  1. Study hard
  2. Think before you speak
  3. Do what you say you are going to do
  4. Always do business at your place because it gives you an advantage because you are the boss at your place
  5. Never do business with alcohol in your system

After getting this sage advice it was time to leave.  My head was swimming with all the strange, dramatic and surreal things I had learned that day.  And then Roberto told us the most bizarre thing we had heard all day.  He claimed that he, along with the help of several doctors, had invented a cure for HIV.  In one to two years it will be approved and then no one will ever die from AIDS again.  Although I seriously doubt it is true, inventing a cure for AIDS might be the only way that Roberto could atone for the destruction and terror that he and Pablo unleashed on the world.

A crack in the bullet proof glass of Pablo's Chevy truck from police gunfire when Pablo ran a check point. The truck was a gift from the Cali Cartel to Pablo when they were still allies.

A picture of Pablo on a motorcycle given to him by Frank Sinatra

A hiding place in Roberto's house

Tim and Roberto Escobar

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Homenaje a Medellin

I am selfish.  I am so selfish that I almost didn’t write this.  In fact I’m still not sure if this is a good idea.  Medellin was absolutely incredible.

It is perfect exactly the way it is, and  I am terrified that once word gets out, it is going to be overrun and ruined by Americans and Europeans.    There are already way too many English, Australian and German backpackers in that city. Once the Americans find Medellin they will try to turn it into another Costa Rica.  That is why I don’t want to write this.

I guess it is too late to turn back so here goes.  Medellin sits in a valley that is five thousand feet above sea level and it’s surrounded by lush green mountains that tower several thousand feet above the city.  The Medellin River runs through the center of the town and there are several other mountain streams that flow into it.  In Poblado, the area where we stayed, there is a stream that flows through the tree covered neighborhood.  Even though it runs through a city of over three million people it looks like a jungle stream and has thick vegetation and massive stands of bamboo growing out of it.  Medellin is the perfect balance of modern city and tropical mountains.

In Medellin, the temperature was perfect every day.  It rained often but the rain usually passed in the time it took to finish my rum on the rocks.  Once the rain disappeared the sky turned blue again and all that was left of the storm were delicate halos of clouds that caressed the tallest peaks around the city.

There were three lovely parks in Poblado that we walked through every day.  The neighborhood was covered in beautiful old trees and if you looked up through their leaves you could see the city crawling up the green hills and Andes Mountains soaring beyond.  The surroundings were so tranquil and beautiful that they gave me a sense of relaxed delight as soon as I walked out of the hostel.

Medellin had a great light rail system that ran next to the Medellin River and made getting around town easy.  Over the course of the last eight days, Phil and I explored a great deal of the city.  Literally every few blocks we would see something or someone and turn to each other and say “This place is awesome!” or “I’m moving here!”  Even after a week we were still doing this.  Around the fourth day my proclamations that I was going to move to Medellin became serious.  I love the ocean, California and surfing but someday I am going to live in that city.  Occasionally Phil would say, “How am I supposed to go back to Toledo after this.”  I would calmly tell him that that is exactly the point of this trip.  But in the back of my mind I was thinking, ‘How am I supposed to go back to Hermosa Beach after this?’

The Paisas, people from Medellin, seemed to get so much joy out of life.  They were always smiling, laughing, kissing and dancing.  In Medellin, any place with music playing and five square feet of free space was a dance floor.  And trust me, these people could dance.  No, that isn’t right, they couldn’t not dance.  On several occasions I watched a waitress waiting for food or a tray of drinks and her feet were subconsciously moving with the music.  Whenever I met a Paisas, they welcomed me to their city with big genuine smiles and a flash of positive energy.  They knew they had something special and they like to share it.

Before I got to Medellin I was told that the most beautiful women in the world were there.  I figured that there are beautiful women in every big city and Medellin probably had its fair share.  I was totally wrong.  It is an incontrovertible fact that the most beautiful women in the world are from Medellin.  They all had spectacular eyes, smiles, bodies and skin, but there was also this glossy aura around them that cannot be described and that I have never seen anywhere else in the world.

I feel like a kid who has discovered a secret and magical playground.  It is so wonderful that I have to tell someone about it, but I’m afraid that if word gets out all the big fat kids will show up and break the swings and the slides.  It would be horrific to find something so miraculous and then destroy it by running my big mouth.  Making a mistake like that would be impossible to live with.

No, wait.  I was just kidding.  Medellin isn’t that great.  In fact Medellin is a terrible place.  If you go there you will get kidnapped and shot.  For the love of God, save yourself, and stay away!

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Escape the backpacker bubble

I walked out of a terrible dance club at two thirty in the morning.  It had not been a good night.  We drank for a while at the hostel with a bunch of backpackers who I had gotten to know over the previous few days.  Some of them were cool but some of them I was beginning to like less and less.

As a whole backpackers and travelers can be pretty interesting and cool people.  I have met some amazing people on this trip but there are some who just want to do the same things they do back home but for less money and in better weather.  And what most of them do back home is get obliterated every night.  After a rough night on the town many backpackers feel too awful the whole next day to do anything besides sleep and then have food delivered to the hostel.  Once they feel better they start drinking again and then call a cab so that they can avoid the incredibly pleasant ten minute walk to the bars.

I knew I needed a change when the taxis showed up and there were fifteen backpackers standing around and several people started shouting “Does anyone speak Spanish, the drivers can’t understand English!”  At that point I decided to take my basic Spanish and camino mi culo blanco al bar.  Phil and I checked out several places but eventually ended up meeting some people from the hostel at the loudest, most obnoxious club that I had been to on this trip.  We hung out for a few hours but around two thirty the little bit of fun that we were having had completely evaporated so we decided to leave.  We walked out onto the street and decided to turn left, away from the hostel and towards the park and the other bars.

Not going home was a great decision.  We walked a block up to Parque Lleras where there was a band playing in the park.  It was four guys, one was playing a drum, one was playing a metal guiro and one was playing an accordion.  They were all singing.  The music was some kind of enchanting Colombian folk song.  I turned to Phil.  His eyes were wide with excitement.  “Yeah, let’s hang out here.” I said.  I ran over to the only store that was still open and grabbed some local beers and a carne empanada.  Then I sprinted back to the park and sat on the concrete steps to watch the show.

It was a beautiful scene.  The park was brightly lit and the many trees cast intricate shadows in the warm yellow glow of the street lights.  There were several groups of Colombianos hanging out and enjoying the wonderful music.  Occasionally a couple would get up and dance to the music.  A sense of comfortable joy permeated the park.  It was an impromptu celebration of the night.  I sat on the concrete steps in what must have been the most comfortable ambiance in the world at that moment and ate my empanada and drank my beer.  A sense of pure contentment filled me as I tapped my feet and bobbed my head to the music.  Every few minutes I would turn to Phil or he would turn to me and say “How great is this?”  At one point a pair of white pigeons flew behind the band.  It was the kind of symbolism that if used in a movie would be cheesy and excessive but when it happened in real life I just had to accept and cherish it.  It was a lovely scene and a great moment and then it got better.

A Colombiana came up to us and asked Phil if he had a light.  She talked to us a little bit in pretty solid English and then said “I think you would have some fun if you come down and hang out with my friends.”  It was just incorrect enough to be authentic and endearing.

We walked a few steps down and joined a group of Colombianos sitting right in front of the band.  Most of them didn’t speak any English but they were all very friendly.  I spent about forty five minutes practicing my Spanish and learning about Colombia.  One question that they asked me was “Why are you here?”  On a night like that it seemed like a ridiculous thing to ask.  I tried to explain that I was travelling and that I wanted to see the world but the real answer that I should have given was “Right now this is the only place in the world I want to be.”

Around four in the morning the Colombianos told us that they had to go.  We said good bye and began to walk back to the hostel.  For the entire fifteen minute walk I shouted at Phil and mumbled to myself in Spanish.  At that point my Spanish was really flowing.  It was a lot of fun to see Phil’s reaction to the profound truths and wisdom I shouted at him in a language he didn’t understand.  He caught one word every few minutes but laughed at my passionate delivery.  I also continued to speak Spanish because it felt like the short beautiful experience would not end until I switched back to English.  Eventually we got back to the hostel, Phil tricked me into speaking English and I went to bed.

The night left me with many unanswered questions.  What kind of amazing music did we listen too?  Are all Colombianos that friendly and interesting?  How am I going to ever be able to leave this wonderful city?  But one question that I know the answer to is; where am I going to be tomorrow morning around three.

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