Mom Don’t Freak Out

And my mom just freaked out.  But seriously everything is fine.  Everyone is fine.  We even still have all our stuff.

Last night three of my friends and I were celebrating Carnival like normal.  We started in the beautiful historic district of Pelourinho where our hostel is located.  Pelourinho has the more traditional and family oriented Carnival.  It’s a neighborhood of pastel colored colonial buildings, plazas and old churches.  Every 15 minutes a parade of drummers and dancers rolled up the cobblestone street in front of our hostel.  We started by watching several parades and then following one of the best up the street.  We danced up the hill with the music and stopped briefly in the plaza to buy some caipirinhas.  We continued towards a massive square where several streets and tens of thousands of people converged.  In that part of Salvador the small parades of drummers and dancers were replaced by double-decker buses with bands on top that slowly drove up the street with hundreds of revellers around them.  When we tired of one band we would stop and wait for the next bus that was only a block behind to catch up.

We had danced up the same street the previous night and after a few minutes it was obvious that we were the only tourists for many blocks but the street was well-lit, the atmosphere was friendly and there were military police in full riot gear every hundred yard so we felt pretty safe.

Last night we weren’t very far from the main intersection when a group of men in front of us turn towards us and created a wall.  A split second before they started lunging for us I realized something was wrong.  They grabbed at the two girls first which really freaked me out because sexual harassment in Brazil often borders on assault.  Then several others grabbed at the front pockets of my shorts.  At that point I was actually relieved that it was just a loosely organized attempt to steal our cameras or money and not an all out assault on the girls.  Of course I had nothing in my pockets and even if I had their clumsy attempts would have failed.

I turned to my left and faced one of the guys who had just been snatching at my pockets.  He took off running.  I didn’t think, I just sprinted after him.  He was wearing a bright red Under Armour style shirt that made him easy to follow.  He weaved through the crowd and for a second I almost lost him but suddenly he was within arm’s reach and I grabbed the neck of his shirt and pulled him back and felt the fabric tear as he snapped towards me.  I spun him around and without thinking put both my hands around his neck.  I was summoning all my adrenaline fuelled strength for an Undertaker style choke slam onto the asphalt street when I looked into his confused face.  He was the same height as me but I realized that he was about 15.  I hesitated and felt how small his neck was in my hands.  My rage subsided.  I didn’t know what to do so I shouted something like “Don’t fuck with us!” and then shoved him away.  I turned and stomped through the crowd back to where I thought my friends were.

I had lost track of where everything started.  I was pretty sure I was in the right place but my friends were no longer there.  I felt alone and vulnerable.  Every person around me was under heavy suspicion.  I wasn’t sure how many thieves there had been in the first place and I wondered if they were still around or if they had gone to get reinforcements.  I stalked back and forth in the street looking for my friends and glaring at every Brazilian male under the age of 50.  I thought about just walking the three blocks back to main area that was full of police and families but I didn’t want to leave my friends.  A minute later I saw my buddies with some Brazilian military police looking for the would be thieves.  I walked up to them and used my Spanish and some terrible Portuguese to tell the cops what had happened.  Of course the would be thieves had melted into the crowd.  We thanked the cops for their help and decided to head back to Pelourinho for the rest of the night.

On the walk back we excitedly talked about the indecent.  What disturbed me most about it was that we had no idea anything was up until they moved around us and started grabbing at us.  I always pay attention to what is going on around me but when you are in a crowd and you don’t speak the language you are never able to have high situational awareness.  I hate to think what would have happened if it had been ten determined adults instead of seven or eight teenagers.  Chasing the would be thief was stupid.  I should have stayed with my friends.  But when I caught him I did make the right decision by not tossing him to the ground because I had no idea how many of his friends or cousins were around me and I could have found myself severely out numbered.  Also putting a teenager, even a criminal teenager in the hospital is not something I want on my conscience.  And most importantly for my own safety, not creating a disturbance was wise, because the second the military police, think South America’s version of tan storm troopers, see a commotion they rush in with batons swinging.  Earlier in the night I saw one especially massive policeman with a baton that was comically oversized.  It was dark brown and looked like a novelty cave man club.  He essentially was carrying a log that had the bark removed.  This guy made Hacksaw Jim Duggan look like a pussy.  Once the police have cuffed or knocked everyone out then they might try to figure out what started the incident.

Upon arriving back at our hostel to drop off our cameras we discovered one of the most amazing drum parades yet.  We were quickly overwhelmed by the exuberant music and danced up the street with the musicians.  The insignificant incident earlier in the night was forgotten and once again we were fully engulfed by the joys of Carnival.

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Coming Home

I was hot, sweaty and frustrated as I walked down the sandy Uruguayan road.  I was also wearing jeans and boots which made my condition much worse.  The night buses in South America are freezing even when the outside air is warm so I always wear jeans on the bus.  Also wearing my jeans made my ridiculously full bag slightly easier to pack.  But as I wondered around the small coastal town of Punta del Diablo I just wanted to find my well hidden hostel and change into shorts.  I followed several hand painted signs which led me in a giant circle.  Finally I stopped and asked for directions.  An American who was on his way in the same direction gave me a ride to a place that I had walked by ten minutes before.

I checked in, dropped my massive backpack and put on my board shorts for the first time in more than two months.  Two months, was way too long.  Then I walked out onto the second floor deck of my hostel and stared at the blue Atlantic.  Something deep inside of my chest snapped and a heavy weight that I had forgotten I was carrying began to slip.  I looked at the rocky peninsula to the South with a small white lighthouse confidently perched on it, and another strap tore.  I watched as the waves gently rolled toward the yellow sands of the beach leaving delicate, ephemeral trails of foam and smiled, and the last ropes that held the burden broke and it fell away from me and silently disappeared into the dark.  A light joy filled me.  More than dropping my sweaty pack or getting out of my filthy jeans and even more than the feel of the cool ocean breeze on my skin; the sight of the ocean relaxed and soothed me.  It was the antidote for a toxin I didn’t realize I had ingested.  I was in a place that I had never been to before but I was home.

On this trip I have visited so many amazing places.  I have befriended spider monkeys in the jungle.  I have explored some of the greatest cities in the world.  I have seen surreal high desert lagoons that were home to thousands of wild flamingos.  I have searched for my physical and metal limits high in the Andes.  I cherish all these experiences but there is nothing that nurtures my soul like the sublime beauty of the ocean.  At that moment, on the wooden deck in Uruguay, I decided that for the rest of the trip I would not leave the beach for long.

Later that evening I went down to the hostel bar and ordered a Cuba Libre.  Within a few hours I had made several new friends and by midnight we were all telling stories, laughing and drinking with determination.  Sometime later, it was after the point of caring about silly things like clocks, bar tabs or accidental drownings, an obviously insane person recommended a swim in the ocean.  I was not the only one obsessed with the sea.  Soon we had all changed into our swim suits and were walking towards the black water.

A few moments later I was floating weightlessly in the warm waters of the Atlantic.  I thought to myself, this can’t get any better and then I focused my eyes on the dark sky above me and saw the luminescent cloud of the milky way emblazoned from one horizon to the other.  My new friends splashed and laughed around me but for a few seconds I was gone.  I was simultaneously part of the black ocean waters and the blazing stars.  The incessant voice in my mind, that always plans and worries about the future when it’s not visiting and analyzing the past, fell silent.  I just existed; just barely.  Moments later a wave rolled over me and I flipped several times before I came up shouting and laughing.  I went back to joking and playing with my friends but occasionally I looked up a the sky and mumbled a quiet, reverent obscenity.

Eventually we decided it was time to go back to the bar for another round of drinks.  As we walked up the beach towards the glow of our hostel the night breeze gently pulled droplets of water from our skin and one of my new friends said “I haven’t felt this amazing in a long time.”  I muttered a lame “Yeah.” but I could not have agreed more.

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What Really Matters

The golden South American sunlight penetrated the ocean and turned it a rich azure.  I sat on my surfboard and marveled at the absolute perfection of my surroundings.  I looked up and down the seemingly infinite coastline that extended out of sight to the North and South.  The sun warmly caressed my face and shoulders while the cool water swirled between my toes.  I looked to the horizon and contemplated the powerful beauty of the ocean while I anxiously waited for the next set.  A gentle breeze effortlessly flowed from the vast expanse of the ocean and cooled my wet hair.  I breathed in deeply.  The familiar salty tang made me light-headed and relaxed.  A sublime peace descended on my consciousness. This is why I have traveled thousands of miles I thought.  This is all that matters.

The peace was shattered when my mind betrayed me and drifted away.  I was no longer surrounded by the flawless tranquility of the ocean; I was in a loud night club, then a hostel lobby and then a Spanish school.  My eyes still scanned the horizon for the next wave but my mind was searching my memories.  I thought about people I would never see again.  I remembered vividly exact conversations on sailboats, beaches, dance floors and in late night bars and hammocks. I heard laughs and saw smiles.  I recalled reaching a profound understanding of some of life’s great truths with a girl who had been a stranger only hours before; a girl who I had nothing and everything in common with.  I smiled as ridiculous and surreal inside jokes floated to the surface of my mind.  I remembered an excitement that was entirely too intense to have come from the sparkle in a girl’s blue eyes but none the less it had been there and it had been very real.

On a trip to see gorgeous places, ancient history and exotic cultures I realized that sights and experiences are important but people are absolutely vital.  And not just people, but incredible, intelligent and adventurous people and being cool with those people.  Some of the best times and worst times on this trip have been in the same places doing essentially the same things but when interesting, passionate and vibrant people appeared everything changed.  When I was working at the Loki hostel in Mancora every few days the personality of the hostel completely changed with the arrival and departure of the guests.  It went from dull to exciting with the boisterous appearance of a group of Irish or Dutch.  Everything became fun and exciting with the birth of new friendships.  Bocas del Toro, Bogotá, Montanita, Mancora, and Buenos Aires were some of my favorite places and everyone of them was made great by the people I shared them with.

Not all the people that I’ve met have been great.  There have been way more loud idiots and obnoxious fools than I thought there would be. There have been too many Aussies who were in South America for the sole purpose of doing as much cocaine as possible.  Entirely too many of the English that I met must have been related to the queen because they had the accent, sickly skin tone and arrogance of a member of the royal family.  There were Americans who, no wait there were no Americans because South America was too dangerous and scary.  Many travelers were lost or damaged and unable or unwilling to deal with life back home.  They were running and most of them didn’t know from what.  There were those that seemed amazing at first but then I realize that I just liked the idea of the person or that I liked the story that the person created when they entered my life.  But as I sorted through hundreds of sad, boring and stupid people I found dozens of great friends.

The thrill of discovering new friends was equaled in intensity only by the sadness of losing them all too soon.  I hated that I met some of the greatest and most intriguing people of my life but was only able to spend a few days with them.  On several occasions after an especially difficult good-bye I told myself that I didn’t want to do it anymore and that I was done making new friends.  Usually the next day I would meet another incredible person and we would become friends.  Not becoming friends with an awesome person would be a much worse tragedy than becoming friends and then losing them.  And so the cycle continued uninterrupted.

The ripple on the horizon pulled me back to my pristine surrounding in the ocean.  My memories fell into the water around me, silently splashing into the ocean and then sinking into the cool waters of my mind where they would be safe.  At first I wasn’t sure if the swell was going to develop into anything but as it raced towards me I realized that it was growing into a nice wave.  My mind was clear as I spun around on my board and paddled into position.  I looked over my left shoulder and a burst of energy shot through my body when I saw the glorious shape and size of the wave rolling towards me.  I got this, I thought as I paddled towards the shore building speed and feeling the water swell underneath me.  I timed my takeoff perfectly and smoothly glided down the face of the breaking wave.  I made a slight turn to the left and climbed up the face of the wave gaining speed as I did.  A burst of joy exploded in my chest with the force of the acceleration.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw the emerald wall of water rise up and prepare to crash down on my head.  The race was on; I crouched lower on my board and got every bit of speed possible.  This is going to be close I thought.  I shot ahead of the wave, narrowly escaping a nasty wipe out, and then made a hard right turn back into it.  I found the sweet spot in the wave again and began to walk towards the front of my long board.  I skillfully steered the board with slight pressure from the balls of my feet.  I was a foot from the nose of my board when I looked up and saw that I was getting close to the beach.  I walked towards the back of the board and enjoyed a few more seconds of the ride before ending it by attempting a clumsy back flip off the board into three feet of water.  I erupted from the shallow water and laughed with joy as I climbed back onto my board.  My entire being vibrated with pure ecstasy.  I powerfully paddled back towards the break with a massive smile on my face.  It had been a long ride and I had a lot of distance to cover.  Slowly the joy receded and my mind returned to my friends.  I missed them and wished that they had been there so that we could have enjoyed the waves together.

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Mount Huayna Potosi

1

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.

2

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.

3

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.

4

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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