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The Great Escape: Traveling

March 1, 2019. Note: I decided to update this post after discussing Brianna Wiest’s blog post, “Travel is Not How You Find Yourself, It’s How You Escape Yourself” with a friend. Thank you Brianna, for the thought-provoking post.


The Perfect Instagram Post. Isla del Sol, Copacobana, Bolivia.

It’s an escape, and something more, folks

Occasionally I hear this sort of question from people when talking about my current trip of seven months in South America: “But isn’t this just an escape for you?”

Escape from what, I begin asking myself, feeling instantly self-conscious and nervous. A city I didn’t quite fit into? Perhaps. A job market that no longer suited me? Yeah, probably. Life post-divorce? Certainly. The cold and dark of Minnesota winter? Hell, yeah! (Question: Shouldn’t I try to escape those things?)

The truth is, the first few times I heard someone ask me whether I’m “just escaping”, it stung, because it was subtly critical of a decision I’d made. That is, the decision to follow through with a dream I’ve had since college, or even before then: to travel long-term around the world and to live abroad.

I can see why others might think of my trip as an escape, and it has been a distraction in some respects—but a very helpful and transformative one. Transitioning from married life into a new and single life post-divorce, one marred by too many moments of raw loneliness and awkward, sometimes painful dating experiences (I’d never dated before getting married), has been surprisingly challenging. Spending time improving my Spanish and considering different ways to teach English abroad has been a superb way for me to indulge myself and my career, and get my mind off of divorce, and the fact that I feel old for the career stage I’m in. Traveling has allowed me to fill my mind with new faces, experiences, and triumphs, and let go of some less-than-pleasant memories and rigid, negative beliefs that I’ve wasted a portion of my life.

Spent a pleasant, rainy afternoon exploring the historical parts of Buenos Aires with my Spanish teacher, Alberto.

Patronization is alive and well

Traveling long-term can be the beginning of something radically new in your life. Or it could be a long-term binge vacation. Honestly–whether it is simply a long-term distraction of drinking and reveling in exotic bars, cycling through Instagram’s greatest hits and shuffling from one hostel to the next…or a healthy life choice (that may incorporate elements of the latter, of course!) depends exactly on who you are.

My friend Najet in front of a UNESCO protected cathedral in Cordoba, Argentina.

Recently I asked my friend Najet if people back in France, where she is from, considered her lifestyle abroad as a form of escapism. She said yes. Yet I have seen firsthand her chaotic life as a reporter in Medellín, Colombia, where she is based. It doesn’t look like escapism to me; it simply looks like she found her niche. Which she had to travel to find.

Nomadic Matt–one of the most popular travel bloggers around–has faced the “escapism” branding. As he explains it in this wonderful post, people accuse him of running away from being an adult. Which makes me wonder: Why is traveling inherently wrong? Does it have to be considered “escape?” What if you make money while traveling, or settle in a place you find your niche in…?

I get the sense that perhaps people saying that I am “escaping” may also wish they could do what I am doing. And this is certainly something more complicated–I am privileged to have the means to travel as I do. I am by no means wealthy but I had just enough money post-divorce to pack up and go on a 7-month trip through South America. My budget will allow me enough padding to get me started again when I decided where to settle. Even still I’ve met travelers with no funds; they are the truly nomadic folks who work as they go.

More often I believe that people who say my this simply don’t quite understand the purpose of long-term travel. They believe that whatever happened to me, my job, my Minneapolis life, must have been so awful that I now need to “escape.” This was the general discussion I had with Najet—this idea that we are escaping something in our respective homes by traveling for months, and living abroad. I suppose it’s a question of perspective and also patronization.

As in: I am not doing what I “should” be doing. Or handling my life correctly.

To that I shrug (somewhat wearily). I’m used to being patronized. I’m a woman who grew up in a conservative small town in Minnesota. I’ve had family members tell me I’ll come around to being more politically conservative someday because what I think now is wrong—I’m young (and therefore silly). I’ve had religiously inclined friends express concerns over my lack of faith in my adult years, explaining that if I have kids (which I may not have—which is, of course, another aspect that is “wrong” with me) I’ll probably want to attend church again, and that really, there is no sense in the world without a God. (Therefore I have no sense).

Magnificent Iguazu Falls, from the Argentinian side.

I actively work toward trusting my intuition and intellect—and it seems to me that what path I’m on now is the one most fulfilling to me.

There certainly is a tradeoff for this kind of nomadic existence, whether it lasts a few months or years: financial instability, smelly clothes, illness on the road, just a backpack to call my home. I do not have gadgets, a house, children, pets, a kitchen…all those things which give us wonderful learning, comforts and joy. And yet, I couldn’t feel more content with this phase in my life.

And I’d encourage anyone (but perhaps not everyone) to give it a try.

Go! Go! Go!


Refugio Frey, San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina.

To bring this back around to those who decide to take the long-term plunge. I’d encourage you to think of long-term travel as an exploration and a transition period—a time to think and reflect on who you are, and what you really want to do. That’s what this journey has done for me. And it needs to be long—really, really long—because after only one month you haven’t changed, you’ve been on vacation; after three months, when you’ve gotten sick or your heart is broken by that person “back home” (this is a very common trend, my friends—even happened to Che while on his motorcycle journey), when you’re uncomfortable by all these strong emotions and foreign foods and bad water that sends you to the toilet every ten minutes; when all this makes you want so badly to return to the place you came from (but needed to leave, for whatever reason)—that is when you must keep on going.

You’ll want to return to comfort but you can’t, it’s only a mirage at this point.  After five months you adjust to the new self, the moody but buoyant adolescent emerging through the experiences you’ve endured and enjoyed. You’ll reflect proudly on the triumphs you, and only you have brought upon yourself.

As Cheryl Strayed wrote in “Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar,” if you feel the need to go, GO! (She said this in various forms, and once I get the page numbers, I will share them! Or, Meg Egg, if you happen can find the pages, I’d be grateful; or even better, I highly recommend everyone read this book).

You must get outside of your current reality, which is perhaps suffocating you in ways you can’t understand—and won’t understand, until you are out of it.

Copacabana’s Cerro Calvario, Bolivia.

If you travel for all these reasons, this is not escape. In a way, it’s a full-on confrontation. When I lay in the jungle for two weeks without Wi-fi, I confronted all the junk rolling around in my psyche. There were so many opportunities for me to consider who I was, and whether everything I’d done in my life had been a mistake—I’d hardly consider this escapism.

For some, long-term travel, or living abroad for a while will give clarity and reason to go right back to what they were doing. Perhaps they will know exactly what it is they need to tweak, a change they couldn’t see before, when they were stuck in their daily rhythms. And for others, like myself, it will give the strength to keep walking into a new life, the one we’ve had in our dreams far too long.

And it’s also true that for others–perhaps traveling is just one more mode of consumerism, bringing nothing but the joy of purchase for a short while.

Sometimes flying is exactly what you must do.
Condor, Sacred Valley, Peru.

So then, is traveling for seven months considered the Grand Escape? As in, on March 13th, 2019, will it be my time to return to “reality”?  Sure. I’m escaping into new realms, new ideas, new dreams—and a new location to call home. I’m discovering realities that utilize my love for language, offer places to live in sunshine and jungle year-round, and give me a sense of meaning. It doesn’t matter where you end up living, in the US, or Colombia, or China—what matters is that you feel you have the ability to change your life, to escape that old one. For me, travelling has always been the key.

PS: Thank you Jenne and Matt, for allowing me to finish this blog in your wonderful home in Dourados, Brazil, and use your excellent Wifi. You and your family abroad have been an inspiration for me, and a restful haven.

Jenne and Cici in Bonito, Brazil. We are Escape Artists! (You can too, in whatever way you want to be).

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Street Music in Santiago, Salt Flats and Contradictions

Ancient saguaro cacti, Uyuni Salt Flat tour.

I don’t know why, but it’s been hard to get myself to write this week. Perhaps it’s because so much has happened since my last post, or perhaps it’s because I’m content to be hanging out in Santiago, Chile, sipping espresso and reading poetry—contentment sometimes being the killer of writing. Or perhaps I just needed a break; after all, pondering my future and all the possibilities that await me when I return to Minnesota in March often wakes me in my hostel bed at night—you can only think and process a finite number of ideas, memories, hopes, and dreams at once, much less write them all down.

To catch you up: After spending a few days in Maipo Valley (located about an hour in bus south of Santiago, Chile), I’m back in Santiago, Chile, at a quaint café called Café Forestal, soaking up both sun and a laid back, artsy city vibe. Staff here make a tasty mocha using almond milk and very dark chocolate—thumbs up.

What is Santiago like? Besides sunshine, views of white-tipped mountains and a plethora of comfy coffee shops, there are musicians. Here, skilled classical musicians—flautists, opera singers, string players—flaunt themselves in the afternoons and evenings amidst colonial architecture for change in a basket. A saxophonist serenaded café customers near the Plaza del Armas. There’s so much music I’ve been inspired to buy an instrument small enough to travel with from an Aymara man from San Pedro de Atacama. It’s called an ocarina.

Music, books and coffee in the Lastarria neighborhood of Santiago, Chile.

Just the other night, my friends and I listened to a chamber group of college-aged string musicians in the street of Lastarria; their specialty was the waltz. There was no conductor; they simply picked a tune and all started playing together. That evening I’d bought a cigarillo flavored with organic chocolate tobacco, and I must say, I was in my element, enjoying the music and that earthy flavored cigarette.

Chamber musicians jamming streetside.

Another reason I haven’t written, I suppose, is that I’m constantly researching the next place I’m traveling to–and Patagonia looms wild and large as the next segment of my itinerary. When on a trip like this one—seven months, seven countries—you are on the move every few days, and you must constantly plan ahead. I like it and I don’t sometimes. It’s exhilarating and it’s exhausting and it challenges your ability to live in the moment.

Let’s move back in time two weeks to San Pedro de Atacama, located in the north stretch of Chile just across the border from Bolivia. Here I stayed a night and went with friends to observe the stars where the tour guides used a badass powerful laser to show constellations and nebulae. Stunning, that was.

In the days leading up to stargazing, I was riding in an SUV for three days across Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni. This place feels like another planet–not Earth.

Moises, our guide, is good at taking silly perspective shots.

Surprisingly, three species of flamingos hang out in these otherworldly parts, in the steaming, poisonous, audaciously colorful lagunas filled with the chemical arsenic, along with minerals. Geysers and smoking volcanoes are plentiful.

Both nights my traveling comrades and I stayed in salt hotels; you walked barefoot and could feel the white culinary pebbles crumble. Salt is everywhere, obviously. And in the middle of a salt desert, you definitely had to pay for a hot shower.

Backtrack to Potosi, Bolivia. My friends and I toured the Cerro Rico mines, where silver and other metals have been mined for hundreds of years. To watch miners who voluntarily choose to do this work, sometimes starting it in their teens, effectively guaranteeing a shortened lifespan due to the hazardous conditions of working in a mine (most develop silicosis, for example) was, needless to say, a sobering and informative experience.

Before Potosi there was Sucre, the pearl white gem city of Bolivia and its original capital, where chocolate shops adorn many corners, well-kept parks and gardens are ubiquitous, and a large dinosaur footprint park looms just outside the city.

When it was time to go, we had trouble getting out of the city as it was shut down for protests—some citizens are not in agreement of extending Evo Morales’ ability to be elected again—though given the results of the court ruling, it seems the people have decided for him after all. As a close friend from Colombia elucidated for me: His situation seems to be one of contradiction; he wants to nationalize and protect his nation against foreign interests that would exploit resources and take income away from his people; but in order to develop the country there must be roads built through indigenous, sacred areas.

Contradictions, I’ve realized, are the truth of life. If I cannot embrace contradiction and its ubiquitous presence, I am living in a dreamworld. I don’t have to agree with the contradictions that abound in life, from politics to my own personal psyche, but I have to learn to live with them.

The juxtaposition of opposing realities and ideals reminds me of an earlier sentiment I’ve experienced, the reality of wanting two opposing things at the same time: to be stable and to travel; to be free and single and to have a partner to share my life with; to be alone to think and to be in company with close friends. To continue traveling because I am in love with places and cultures different from what I know; to go back to Minnesota immediately because I am sometimes utterly exhausted.

At times I wonder if I am going mad; I wonder if any of these oppositions will come to resolutions, or if my life is meant to be a juggling act. And I also wonder: Do others feel this way? Or is it only me leading a pack of contradicting wolves in my head?

Christmas will be spent with my traveling friends Priya and Peter along with others in Santiago, Chile. So far it looks like we’ll indulge in some fine Argentinean wine, a chocolate cake (if I find an oven!), and other goodies, perhaps out in one of Santiago’s many leafy parks.

I have to confess, though I’ll be missing my family I haven’t missed Minnesota winter once (GASP!) during this time. I certainly look forward to celebrating Christmas Eve in Chilean summer sunshine.

Your fan,

Cici

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Quito: Third Time’s a Charm

Colonial, historical splendor, with mountains: View from the Secret Garden Hostel in Quito, Ecuador.

1st Try Quito: Dusty, Overcast, Lonely

Perhaps it is a silly thing to say, but generally I fall in love with the places I visit, usually for different reasons: Costa Rica for jungles, monkeys and beaches; Mexico for sublime tacos, architecture and history; Colombia for lush green mountains and an excellent experience meeting friends and practicing Spanish at a Spanish language school (see here for the school I studied at); and etc. But Quito and I had a series of misunderstandings the first few times I passed through its bustling white-washed, cracked concrete.

Weepy Jesuses always fascinate me, given I grew up Protestant. The Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Merced, 18th Century

My initial impressions of the city, after arriving tired and exhausted from an overnight flight into an eerily empty hostel, and after spending a few days getting myself arranged for the Amazon, were: Windy, dry, overcast, dusty, square white buildings, cream tones, concrete, buses, clothing black and navy, some white and jeans; white fine bread that disintegrates in your mouth when you are hungry, long bus rides for only 25 cents, tiresome bargaining in taxis, men staring me down such that after a few days I begin to fantasize about shaving my hair entirely and dressing in extremely bulky clothing, lots of cigarettes being sold on every corner, women selling fresh juice and bags of mandarins from the street, a loud, packed street called Amazonas nearby. And it goes on. Not all of these impressions are specifically negative; some are quite positive (lots of fresh fruit and cheap bus fare!).

However, as a person who thrives in forest and green leaves, the dryness and aridness of Quito’s streets, buildings, and landscapes did little to attract my attention. I was also preparing to go into the Amazon that first time in Quito and admittedly had some fear wrapped around me those days leading up to my trip to Puyo and beyond. And given there was only one other person in my hostel, I had no one to go exploring the city with, or even to talk to–thank goodness for Whatsapp and my dear friends back home for filling in the void while I stayed in that lonely hostel.

Sick and Tired the Second Time Around

For my second visit to Quito I stayed at Vibes Hostel in the Mariscal Sucre neighborhood, a crashpad after spending a few weeks in the Amazon. Again, circumstances worked against a positive relationship between me and Quito–I was sick with a parasite for days, and couldn’t get myself out to do even the free walking tour or change to a better location. Vibes itself reeked of neglect, and I lamented my choice of hostel when it became clear the place was infested with bed bugs—never before have I seen bed bugs scampering about like that and biting me brazenly in the afternoon. Several mattresses were removed from different rooms while I was there. Furthermore, the Marsical Sucre neighborhood felt rough around the edges–always men about, not many women. After a few days I began to think about shaving my head again.

This sketchy neighborhood, which nonetheless seems to have the most hostels, bars and restaurants, generally clustered around the Plaza Poch, perplexed me. Or was the “sketchy” feeling just my own perception? I’ll admit, a distinct form of paranoia got stuck in my psyche while in the Amazon jungle which I couldn’t quite shake it for many weeks after. The grimy Vibes Hostel and the Marsical neighborhood did little to help me resolve it.

But it wasn’t just me. A fellow female traveler confirmed the hostel and the neighborhood were not appealing, and that she too felt uncomfortable walking around, even in good ol’ broad daylight. We both happily left Vibes and headed to the town of Mindo, where I’d rented a room with a view of trees for the month.

Third time’s a charm

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A Sort of Boring Walking Tour, but it was free, and I made friends!

Thanks to a friend’s recommendation, I booked my final nights before heading to Peru at The Secret Garden, located on Los Rios in Quito’s Centro Histórico. My my, what a difference a well-run hostel and a grand location make! The hostel, located in a colonial building, had its own myriad charms: narrow corridors and open spaces, many places to chill and work, and a rooftop bar and restaurant overlooking the mountains, the Virgin of el Panecillo, and just generally, lovely, historical, Quito. Amusingly, my first day there I got lost trying to find my room in the multi-floored, brightly decorated hostel with two sets of staircases and narrow stone corridors. I felt like a little kid playing hide and seek.

It was while staying here that Quito’s delights began to reveal themselves: small details like almuerzos to be found in cafes with whiteboards declaring the specials of the day, usually soups, meat, rice and salad, a fruit juice and a dessert; and steaming, thick, sweet and fruity colada morada served up for Dia de los Muertos.

Basílica del Voto Nacional

Given I was not sick—except for the altitude-induced exhaustion and headaches–I went out with groups from the hostel and enjoyed finding chocolate shops, new spots to eat, old cathedrals, and more. We even took a taxi one night back to the Mariscal Sucre neighborhood, where, admittedly, there are many fun places to eat. Still, I’d hold on tight to your belongings in that area, and stay at the Secret Garden.

Posing as Sherlock with my only ad-hoc Halloween prop, my tobacco pipe. In front of the Secret Garden Hostel, Quito.

Quito, I’m glad we made peace and you showed me your magic.

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Scenes from the Amazon Basin

 I.

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I’m sitting in the corner of a young couple’s dirt-floor home, pondering the homemade grass basket beside me, while watching S— roll up a wad of fresh tobacco and blow blooming clouds of smoke over his brother, who sits on the edge of a bed with his wife and newborn son. I look down into the basket again, see a baseball sized object begin to shift and move slowly under a limp T-shirt.

“What’s that?” I ask, nodding down at the basket.

“La soledad,” is what I hear from S— say, who laughs playfully, and then continues his ceremony. His father was a brujo, a shaman, and I think of this as he waves his hand to spread the smoke. Afterward, as we head back to the bonfire he’s set up for me as a farewell, I ask him if this was a blessing ceremony for the newborn.

“No,” he says with his naturally easy smile. The night is settling around us, and the toads croak in various intervals. “Remember the bird that sings loudly at dusk? My brother is afraid of that bird.”

“Afraid?” I ask, trying to understand. I’d heard this bird often, and it has a loud, distinct call, like that of a loon.

“They say it is a powerful being, that it can perhaps harm a person,” S— answers. “I blow the smoke over him, so that he can go out and hunt again, without fear.”

“I see,” though I don’t, entirely. And I feel silly for thinking, earlier, that he was rolling up the tobacco leaves in a giant cigar for us all to smoke.

“Blowing tobacco is good for taking away fear,” S— says.

“I will try it,” I respond sincerely, because even though I don’t believe that smoke will take away fear, ritual and the placebo effect does.

We sit by a large fire for my farewell gathering, and the eldest in the community, Tio A—, begins to tell me the tale of the Jrijri, the two-mouthed animal spirit that guards the wilderness of the Amazon. I shiver.

After, Tia E— shows me how to dance in the Achuar way. A complicated hopping, small steps, her hands placed firmly on her hips. I cannot get all the little steps in, and lament my poor sense of body rhythm out loud.

Everyone applauds anyway, and we drink chicha, a traditional fermented yucca beverage.

It starts raining, and one of the men informs me, solemnly, that the river is rising, and that I cannot leave the following morning in canoe, as planned.

II.

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I’m walking in the pitch black through the forest with three young children leading me.

I’m walking back from S—’s house, where I’ve just finished eating supper, a meal of boiled eggs, plantains, and yucca, and a fresh heart of palm salad, all served in enormous banana tree leaves. The jungle is loud and large moths and small bats whir above and around our heads. We have no lights on; I simply follow their sure little feet as they easily feel the mud and planks and stones beneath their bare toes. At one point, one of the girls stops, and we look to see two glowing green eyes brightly shining through the foliage beside us. The youngest sibling, a boy just learning to write, strides into the leaves, retrieves the large glow beetle, and puts it into his older sister’s hand. We continue on, without speaking. They do this three times, collecting three Pyphoruses.

One of the girls tries to catch a giant glow moth with her sweater. It swerves and dives too quickly for her heavy cloth net.

III.

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A dog is screaming somewhere, the dust is blowing through the walls of my hut, the microscopic flies are biting me, the air is always on fire. I am planning English lessons.

I ask a couple walking by, who have just returned from the jungle: “What is going on? What is the animal?”

The man explains with an apologetic smile while holding a branch of green plantains over his shoulder, “A dog is dying. It has an incurable disease.”

The woman beside him, carrying a basket on her back supported by a strap slung across her forehead, glances at me while shifting the heavy weight on her back.

“Thank you,” I say, and the two continue on.

An awful screaming, a dog child, for dogs have become nearly human. Late into the night, screaming. My skin prickles with the sounds which do not let my mind rest. I find out the next day it is my neighbor’s dog, and his child won’t let him put the creature out of its misery.

The dog lies on its side on a blanket under the house on stilts. It stops screaming when I approach it.

There is silence by the fourth day, when I leave the community.

IV.

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A scraggly black and white chicken arrives in my hut the first day I arrive, sneezing and snorting. I am afraid it has a disease and keep it outside. But it sneaks in, and when it sees a beetle, it squawks in delight (so I assume) and rushes after it, just like a cliché chicken cartoon, its head bobbing forward.

I laugh hard; I don’t shoo him away again.

His name, naturally, is Pinto. Painted Chicken.

When I discover a colony of tiny golden rice-sized termites growing under the cardboard box I brought most of my food in, I push it aside and let Pinto feast. I watch, mesmerized by the precision of the birds beak, how it can pick up every single tiny termite within a matter of minutes. Every day I make my breakfast, open the door, let Pinto in, and push aside the cardboard box.

How strange when one day there are no termites.

“They found us out, Pinto,” I say to the chicken, and drop a handle of rice kernels on the ground for him.

One day a neighbor says all the chickens are dying.

Over the course of the week, the chickens die. They are lying in feathered heaps around the huts and clapboard houses.

Every morning, however, Pinto arrives, sneezing and snorting, and cleans up whatever insects I find for him in my hut. He begins to sit and prune himself while I read in the afternoons.

One evening I’m reading and out of nowhere the chicken flies up into my lap. He tucks its head into its feathers. When I tentatively pet it, it closes it eyes.
Unexpectedly, I tear up. I don’t let Pinto sit on my lap again.

V.

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Mundeesh

It is dark and the toads have begun to sing, and fire flies are dancing in the night air outside the hut. I can see the moon through the wooden slats that make up the wall of my thatched-roof home.

“Cici, come,” my neighbor C— says to me through my wood slat door. “I have something to show you.” He smile is wide, slightly mischievous.

“OK,” I say, and I get up and follow him, wondering what surprise is in store for me this evening.

We go into his family’s kitchen. In this community, most kitchens are thatched roof huts, and consist of a wooden table with stools, a large fire made from three logs that touch in a triangle shape in the center, where the fire lives. His son is waiting by the long-logged fire, also a smile on his face.

I sit down and wait.

C—picks up a banana leaf and shows me a fresh pile of plump, cream colored grubs. Like those in the movie “The Lion King.” Palm tree grubs. Or, as I find out later: palm weevil larvae.

“Mundeesh,” C— tells me in his language, Achuar. Then, in Spanish: “Gusano. It is a delicacy. They pay lots of money in Quito for this.” He sets the banana leaf on his lap and picks one up. “Do you want to try?”

I stare at the chubby cream-colored grub, the size and look of a very swollen Caucasian adult thumb. It has a dark brownish-red head.

“A delicacy?” I ask, somewhat weakly.

“Yes, try one, if you want,” C— says. “Raw first. Then we will roast them on a spit.” He puts one in his mouth and chews.

I— his son, grabs one and puts it in his mouth.

After watching the young boy finish his, I pick one up. Its skin is thick and leathery, and I can feel a pulpy juice inside. Its shiny beetle head is about the size of a pencil eraser. There are little hairs—grub hairs—springing out from the thick skin. I put it into my mouth and bite down.

Again and again I chew until the skin breaks, and the pulp spreads across my tongue. A slightly sweet insect pulp. I have to spit the skin out after a while, as I am unable to chew it. The head pops under my molars and I hear the crunch, as if I’m chewing on a half-popped corn kernel.

I sit and practice English with C—while we wait for the roasted version of the delicacy. Roasted, it tastes mostly the same, except the pulp is thicker and warm.

I fall asleep that night, thinking of that sweet pulp on my tongue, and dream of cream colored grubs in my belly.

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Mindo Chocolate & the City of Trees

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One of the many waterfalls in Mindo Cloud Forest.

Vast stands of dark green trees fill my body with joy. Literal, transcendent joy; the kind that relaxes and clears your spirit. Welcome to Mindo, Ecuador, a city of clouded trees, concerts of frogs, and chocolate factories.

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Morning Clouds over Mindo.

After spending three weeks in Medellín, Colombia, and then two nights in busy, dry, bustling Quito, Mindo has been a welcome respite, and a reminder of the kind of place which brings me a literal, visceral peace. Riding the tarabita (cable car) over the misted forest to a hiking trail filled with cascades, I could hardly muster a movement except to let my jaw drop, a cliché but a true one, so positively stunned with awe I was by the thousands of tree inhabitants of this place.

Tree inhabitants! A city of trees, so verdant, so enrobed in mist. I didn’t mind the rain after I began the hike; given the arduous nature of the hike, a light mist brought relief.

I’ve had the privilege to visit many crowded tree cities, and while walking this trail my mind immediately connected to the store of images of all the other forests I’ve visited: jungles in Costa Rica and Guatemala, the hovering giant Redwoods of California, towering pines in Oregon, the cedar, birch and pine stands in northern Minnesota, and finally, the gnarled, mystical oak groves of my youth.

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Take the Tarabita for a ride over a verdant city of trees.

Perhaps it is true that being in a place that so resonates with your soul can more easily bring you clarity where before there was just an internal mess; for me this was true. When I sat down for hot chocolate, a bolt of understanding unfolded in my mind of what I needed to do in the coming years, of what I hope to achieve in this one life I have been given.

Yet we live lives of juxtaposition. While in one part of my being I felt peace, in another, I felt restlessness, and unease. Tomorrow I’m headed into one of the last empires of tree: the Amazon basin. When someone asked me why I was going there (so many bugs, and it’s hot!—to which I always reply, hello, I’m from Minnesota, where we inhale clouds of mosquitoes in the summers), why I wanted to visit, I answered: “I want to see the Amazon before it’s gone.”

Pessimistic answer, I suppose, but what else can I say, when deforestation continues to destroy and encroach on this precious parcel of forest? When mining companies and logging companies continue to buy up land from indigenous communities, their economic clout no match for a community whose lives flourished before, but now, relative to the economic status quo, are considered low-income, with few means, other than the growing ecotourism trade, to keep their communities in tact?

As I continue to travel and interact with other travelers, I observe more keenly how complexly rigid our world is, and how difficult to change, whether that be the wages of the cacao farmer for “fair trade” and “organic” beans (see below for more on this), or the campesinos in Mexico trying to change their lives for the better but are blocked by corrupt government practices once they are considered “leftist”.

Poverty continues to exist for the vast majority of people in the world; misery was the precise term a French journalist described the situation to me in Colombia; a desperate way of living for many that cannot change under the system of commerce and trade implemented by the corporations that control our lives.

A system under which cacao farmers never taste a finished chocolate product made from the fruit they grow; a system under which locals who welcome foreigners into their homes and lands will likely never visit their guests in their own countries and experience the wonder of travel for themselves; a system in which TVs fill restaurants and parade images of cars, homes, and the splendor of consumerism before the eyes of those will never have a chance to own those very things.

I look to the silent mass of trees for an answer, and though I receive their peaceful blessing for a moment, and a bit of clarity on my own life’s direction, I do not get any answers for the human condition, other than to offer what tools I have, my language for those who want to learn it; and to continue traveling as a guest in another’s home, a guest who is grateful for the opportunity to visit other lands and peoples. I am constantly reminded of the necessity to live with the kind of integrity molded and informed by the people I meet and the circumstances I observe, circumstance which include some of the world’s harshest realities.

Visit Mindo Chocolate Factory for more information on the cultivation of cacao in Ecuador. Jose and his wife Barbara own the factory, and buy fruit directly from farmers in the area around Mindo. While their products are not packaged “organic” or “fair trade”, they deal in Direct Trade, a practice most chocolate farmers and chocolate producers are moving towards, as the labels “fair trade” can be bought and often do not reflect fair wages. Cacao farmers tend to live on very little, even though their product is one of the highest demand products in the world. Additionally, farmers tend not to be able to afford the “organic” label as it requires a yearly payment to maintain, but large groups of farmers sometimes can get the certification for their farms in bulk. See here for Mindo chocolates, which you can purchase online in the United States.

 

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La Soledad, and Traveling Society

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El Poblado in Medellín, otherwise known as the tourist district.

One evening as my new friend Max and I were climbing the steep hill lined with lush plants to our student apartment, I asked him what he liked to read. He mentioned feeling both “social and lonely” while traveling, and for this reason, preferred reading spiritual texts while abroad. I was astonished that this laid-back, good-looking Californian man just beginning the prime of his life felt this way. My response: “Me too. But isn’t that life? Social and lonely?”

Leading up to this discussion, Max had asked me whether I liked traveling solo. I said, absolutely yes. To travel alone is like jumping on a boat and sailing; you get to stop as often as you like, at whatever island or port city, and spend however long you want there, with whomever you meet, often marvelous people you wish you could stay with for a longer time. Traveling alone drives you to go out and meet people, to form webs of community where none existed before, and for me this is nearly always a rewarding experience.

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We foreigners trying to learn salsa through observation. Son Havana, Medellín

Nevertheless finding yourself alone is alarming at times and comes unexpectedly: an evening out becomes an evening in with cerveza and a book when you realize you forgot where you were meeting a new friend, and that friend doesn’t respond to your Whatsapp messages. [The new friend, E— from S—–, is stressed because she lost her cell on the metro to ladrones, her mind being a bit out of sorts after having spent the afternoon with a handsome Australian from her hostel.]

But being alone, in a state of solitude, is not the same as loneliness. 

Solitude, at least for me, is usually a pleasing experience. There’s ecstasy in being alone, of sailing solo, of having complete freedom in every sense of the word; you go where you want to go, you meet who you want to meet; you change your itinerary at your whim. For those of us who have felt tied down, perhaps by family obligations, illness, or a relationship which ultimately led us to an inner dissolution of spirit; by financial constraints which keep you in a job that is equally dissolving; or by self-entombment, the incarceration by our own beliefs that we don’t deserve to be free, to be content, to seek what is best for us. If we are lucky enough to break free for a time we will find ourselves in a bubble of ecstasy, living life between the company of constant traveling society and a great solitude. At least, that’s how we feel, those of us afflicted with Wanderlust. Unless solitude flips into a state of loneliness, which is bound to happen from time to time.

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Traveling Society: Yasmin, Karine, Katrin, Hongda, and Chris.

When I asked my teacher Óscar  what he thought of loneliness, he looked up from his notes and said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world: “La soledad es la consciencia de la carencia del lenguaje.” [My rough translation: Loneliness is the awareness that language is imperfect.] I smiled at this concise description, knowing it was only the tip of an iceberg. Óscar is a brilliant man; one who has with scientific precision examined ideas, situations, and events from every possible vantage point and is prepared to give you a fully prepared opinion.

His answer, unpacked: loneliness stems from the difficult in fully sharing oneself with another human being, since all forms of language are ultimately inadequate, always a substitution for what lies underneath. His example: If you say, “I feel lonely” and I say, “I feel lonely, too”, are we feeling the same feeling? Not likely. Our feelings of loneliness have differing histories.

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Sandra, one of my teachers at Total Spanish, and I discuss our obsession for books, writing and cats. (El Gato, above, approves this message).

For those of us afflicted with Wanderlust, states of pleasant solitude and aching loneliness come and go. It’s part of the journey. For us, hostels and language schools are Heaven-sent. Total Spanish is a Spanish language school (see website here) in Medellín which provides a place of kindred minds, the perfect way to join a community for a short period of time.

At Total Spanish I’ve had the privilege to take four hours of private language class with several teachers, who happily discuss to my heart’s content whatever topics come up (while drilling me on grammar, including the subjunctive tense). I find with one teacher, Julianna, a fellow aficionado of psychology and self-growth, a bright woman possessing impressive knowledge of her country, language, and relationships.

Sandra, another teacher, and I find ourselves deep in conversations having to do with women, el machismo, and feminism. Being specific in our attraction toward men, we also wonder how we can find men with “el cerebro muy sexy”. As we are both brainy women ourselves, it’s not always easy encountering men who can live up to our cerebral powers. Shortly after our lunch, my eyes don’t shift away when I notice an elderly Colombian couple silently holding hands in an elevator; their at the moment word-less bond a prehistoric comfort I can only dream of at this point in my life.

To accept the occasional presence of loneliness is a necessity; and perhaps the community at large so strictly prohibits feelings deemed “negative” that I don’t have enough practice with feeling lonely—when loneliness hits, so does the desire to flee from it, to other countries, to new people, to books.

In the end, loneliness, like certain depressive moods, can activate one to action: after three weeks here in Medellín, after spending time making new friends, I can’t really say I feel lonely. I feel surrounded by a wonderful community of writers, teachers, and like-minded travelers. Traveling, in my opinion, offers a distinctive way of viewing life experiences. Being lonely is a universal experience, no matter where we are in life.

Cheers, my new friends. I hope to see you all again someday~