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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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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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A Jungle Story: Bugs and a Boa

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A friend pointing out a wandering spider (not as deadly as its cousin the Brazilian Wandering Spider, thank goodness) before killing it.

My Ecuadorian housemate back in Minnesota and I had numerous discussions about the Amazon jungle and what to expect when I went to live there for six weeks.

“There are bugs, Christine,” she told me one night as we were snacking on popcorn in the kitchen. “And they will bite you. All over.”

I remember scoffing playfully. “Yes, there are spiders, scorpions, tailless whip scorpions, moths, butterflies, and other insects in the jungles, but they don’t have clouds of mosquitoes and flies like here in Minnesota.” I was thinking of my time in the coastal jungles of Costa Rica, where bugs were like large animals to watch and enjoy rather than swat away.

My roommate Chela has lived in jungles for extended periods of time. She listened, and then responded, somewhat gravely: “Yes, but there are tiny bugs that bite and sometimes carry parasites that get into the skin. You must wear repellent, and you should ask before you go if they have this parasite in the community. You will need to use good netting at night.”

“Chagas?” I asked. The travel doctor had told me not to Google that one, so I didn’t. (Still have not).

“Yes, that, but also Leishmaniasis,” she said.

Leishmaniasis. The open ulcer on the arm of an American woman I met years ago came to mind immediately. She lived in the green jeweled Caribbean coast of Costa Rica,  where she and her husband cultivated cacao, and made delicious chocolate. She’d called it “jungle disease.”

We talked into the night, back and forth, about what to expect in the Amazon. About bugs and parasites. I felt fine with all of them, knowing if I ended up contracting a parasite I could get treatment afterward. We only stopped when the subject broached snakes, and especially, the fer-de-lans, or, in Spanish, the equis.

“Well,” I sighed. “Let’s not talk about that one.” The ultimate pit viper, they call it.

“You’ll wear rubber boots,” she said.

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Jungle roommate.

The snake arrived the third night in my thatched roof hut. I was just stepping into my hut after using my latrine, still pondering the tailless whip scorpions that lived on its inner wall, an arachnid couple with sizeable but harmless pedipalps and thread like front legs that float and taste the air around them for prey.

Two moving orbs near the front of my hut, in the roof, reflecting my headlamp’s weak beam, caught my attention. I turned on the lightbulb (yes, I had a light bulb hanging in my hut!) and to my alarm, beheld a moderately-sized snake steadily coiling about one of the log beams holding up the roof.

I stared at it for several minutes, and once it noticed me, it created a “U” shape on the beam and rested its head in it, and observed me in return.

I didn’t know whether it was venomous, but its head did look somewhat bulgy on either side, which indicated it might be a viper. Two options came to mind: a) I could leave it be, get into my tent, and hope it went on its way, or b) I could pick up the machete sitting on the table next to me, swing and chop it half.

My adrenaline prompted me to grab the machete, but my brain said: But Cici, you don’t know how snakes react. What if it lunges at your face?

Though it was very late, I walked down the path to my neighbor’s house and, regrettably, woke him up. He came back with me, groggy, but aware that a foreigner like me needed assistance with such things as snake visitors in the night.

“Did you kill it?” he asked me.

“No, no,” I said. “I don’t have much experience with snakes, and I didn’t know how it would react if I approached it.”

We went inside and he walked calmly up to the snake. “It’s a boa.” He turned, relaxed.

“Ah!” I cried in relief. “A pet, then.”

He chuckled and left, and I went to bed.

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A giant carapa tree.

Sr. Boa killed all the bats, one by one, every other night between 9:00 and 10:00pm. I would be sitting at my table, reading, preparing English lessons, and glance up to see him sitting there patiently in a spring-form “S” shape just outside of the noisy bats’ nest. Quite frankly, when I saw him strangling his first victim, I was glad. While I don’t mind bats, and appreciate the fact they eat insects, I didn’t like them living in my hut—they pooped on my things and screeched nonstop sometimes, disrupting my ability to sleep, read, and think.

And when the bats were gone, I never saw Sr. Boa again.

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Living in Mashien, Ecuador, was a fully-rounded experience, challenging but rare. I will always be grateful to the community for inviting me in and sharing their way of life with me. If you are interested in learning about volunteering in this community, please contact Napo Mashian at fundacion.ikiam@gmail.com. The community hosts volunteer English teachers and those who have skills and interest in developing ecotourism projects.

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In next week’s post, I’ll share more experiences of the jungle in the form of disparate scenes, without explanation, to give you a sense of what I experienced—the rugged adventure, the flora and fauna, and some of the discomfort that comes with being in a new place and culture.

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Literary Interlude: An Update on my Travel Reading.

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I’m sliding into a low dip on my trip right now–I’m undergoing a change of itinerary, dealing with foot pain, surviving bed bugs at the hostel, food poisoning, and a headcold. Thinking about books makes me happy, so I’m going to share with you what I’ve been reading in the past couple weeks.

Born in Blood & Fire: A Concise History of Latin America, 2nd. Ed., by John Charles Chasteen. This compact history of around 350 pages was helpful in orientating my knowledge of Latin America and its development since the time of the Encounter, when the Arawaks of the Caribbean first encountered Columbus arriving in his ships. It is, unfortunately, a difficult and often depressing read, filled with the history of slavery, massacres of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, slaughtering military dictatorships backed by the US, and ultimately, the current situation of poverty in most of Latin America, which tends to be a direct result of trade systems dictated by the US and other countries, and the problem of perpetual national debt. I finished this book while staying with an indigenous community in the Amazon basin—and reflected how, even though in the States I tend to live a fairly simple life, the fact that I had a room and a couch and running water and a kitchen and so much electricity and Wifi and savings meant I lived in a completely different sphere from the majority of the world’s population.

The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa. I couldn’t put this book down and finished it in two days. One of the most compelling reads in many years. I wondered why the translator chose not to leave “bad girl” in Spanish. The voice of the narrator is addicting, endearing, loving, and my eyes teared at those moments when the plot cut through the heart and mind. Extraordinarily psychologically astute, it is a love story of a malformed attachment unlike any I’ve ever read. For those of you who need to know: there are allusions to violent abuse scenes that are at times extremely difficult to read.

Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Guevara. I’m struck (and somewhat jealous?) by the way men can travel—I’d never feel safe riding a motorcycle, and crashing in people’s sheds, yards, and homes while exploring any part of the world. Or jumping on a ship to Easter Island as stowaways…Not exceptionally deep literature, but enjoyable to read while I travel South America, and a good prelude to the Che biography I have queued up.

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan. This just happened to be on my Kindle; wasn’t part of my South American literature list. Started it late one night while in the Amazon jungle, in my tent, listening to the bats sweeping out of my hut into the night air for their nocturnal insect feast. One phrase describing the mood of a married couple who have just witnessed a harrowing tragedy, remains lucid: “Emotional comfort, sex, home, wine, food, society—we wanted our whole world reasserted.” (Pg. 39) It brought me back to thinking of “home” and what this actually means, especially while I spend time in an indigenous community, watching families eat, work, play together. A wonderfully intellectually rich book; however, beware—this is, in my opinion, a psychological horror story. It will make your skin crawl, as the cliché goes, in an unconventional way.

Has anyone else read these books? What did you think?

 

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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~

 

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The Plunge: Cali’s Music Festival, and an 11-Hour Bus Ride through the Andes

Sometimes it’s best to just take the plunge and not worry about what you’re getting into. Less than twelve hours after arriving in Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, I grabbed my backpack and headed out with two sharp Fulbright English teachers to the bus station and boarded the supremely air-conditioned Bolivariano bus for an eleven-hour ride to Cali, Colombia, for a musical festival.

Bringing a plastic bag in case you forget your Dramamine is recommended when bussing through the Andes. Likewise, try not to be jealous when you notice, after you’ve just lost your dinner into a plastic bag at Hour #9 around Hairpin Curve #26 that your literary traveling companions are contentedly reading their books, and not gripping the seat in front of them.

Sickness aside, el paisaje (countryside) of Colombia is absolutely stunning, and it was hard not to take video after video of the hazy afternoon sun setting over clouded green mountaintops. The middle-aged pediatrician who sat next to me happily talked about his country, his life as a pediatrician, and showed me the details for the music festival on his cell phone, lending another pleasant facet to the long ride.

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I ended up saying farewell to the English teachers after arriving, and the next day explored a bit of central Cali with a new friend from the Netherlands, who like me, was seeking—perhaps subconsciously—the roots and shape of our self-identity through new experiences. We spoke extensively of our home cultures, our upbringing, and mused over our obsession for extended travel. For both of us, there had been a sense of not belonging, and feeling like an outsider in our communities. My inkling is that this sense of Not Belonging has something to do with developing self-identity; once a person has this, there is a security that allows one to root into their home places. Our discussion kept reminding of Alice Merton’s song, “No Roots”. There is complexity in the desire to travel, and there is complexity in the desire to be rooted and stay in a place.

After lunch we made our way to the Festival de Música del Pacífico Petronio Álvarez, a five day affair attended by around fifteen thousand people. An enthusiastic 17-year-old Colombian I stood next to during the concert explained how this was one of the best festivals all year in Colombia, and he heartily hoped I was enjoying it. (Which I was, mightily). Africans brought as slaves to the coastal areas of Colombia in past centuries developed their own culture and musical styles that have become an integral and beloved part of Colombian culture. The festival is a competition of musical groups from the Pacific, all of which delve into the traditional rhythms and musical themes of that culture.

While I tried to my best to dance in rhythm to the addicting, heavy percussive beats that mesmerize the entire body, at times I stood still and let myself absorb the stunning nature of the festival; a celebration of human beings, a smattering of Americans, like me, and Europeans, like my friend from the Netherlands; of thousands of Colombians of Spanish descent, Colombians of indigenous descent, Colombians of African descent, all partaking in music, food, and dance, all celebrating the unique cultural expressions that have developed over time in this most surprising and diverse country.

On my long bus ride to Medellín the following day, I couldn’t help but think back on the conclusion my friend and I briefly surveyed over that savory bowl of Colombian fish soup. For those of us who, for whatever reason, felt we didn’t fit in, that our traits, our curiosities, our intense personalities were at odds with our prevailing culture, traveling offers a place for us to seek others like us, who mirror ourselves and offer understanding and an intellectual haven of sorts, and gives us a glimpse into the ways in which other cultures proclaim their identities in proud fashion.

Traveling moreover offers a space to get us outside of our deeply rutted brains, to offer a radical way to understand who we are while also forging relationships with people and places that will always be dear to us.

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Stay tuned for the next week’s post on the (controversial) Pablo Escobar tour, lovely Medellín coffee shops, and Spanish school.

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What is Home, anyway?

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Hostel Sue, in the La Candelaria District of Bogotá.

My sense of home has evolved much in the past year. I’ve been considering it more than usual this past month after I gave up my attic apartment and put all my things into storage and started darting between friends’ homes. The question finally presented itself while I was backpacking with my dear friend Malory last weekend in the beautiful northwoods of Minnesota. We’d set up our tent, had our chairs ready to go, and I’d even brought my expedition hammock to try out. We had, basically, a living room in the middle of a circle of cedars, on the edge of the boulder strewn Manitou River. It felt exquisitely homey. So I had to wonder:

“What is home?”

Is home a pile of books, a mound of ideas floating, playing in the air before me as I sit daydreaming on a couch or an overstuffed chair, a cup of tea or coffee, a bar of dark chocolate? Music from the piano, a woven rug laid before a flickering fire in the fireplace? A comfortable bed, a kitchen table? The sound of laughter from your friends and family in the living room?

I used to live in a lovely little house in South Minneapolis with a black cat and a German Shepherd, with a backyard and a garden. Even while I was grateful to have a home, the experience eventually suffocated me, for reasons I won’t go into now. While heartbreaking to leave it all, the leaving was inevitable. I had some sort of growing to do, a restlessness to wring out, and a journey to undertake. Some might say a journey of the soul, and I would believe that, even though I consider myself more a material philosopher than a mystic.

As I sit here, my first night in Bogotá, Colombia, at Hostel Sue, I understood completely for the first time that I am absolutely free for the next seven months to create Home wherever I am. Even at a random little hostel I find ad hoc through an app.

The same walls that provide comfort for those who choose to live in a house in South Minneapolis had become my shackles, my cage; the lack of a physical space that is my own has produced a deep joy. I don’t question it; I simply accept. I say this even while I dream of a home someday again with a piano, books, a table, friends, and a freshly uncorked bottle of wine about to be served.

That reality will come in time, I’m sure, but not for now.

For the next seven months, “Home” is my backpack, my mind, my heart, my ability to create spaces for myself where I am, the digital spaces in which I communicate with friends and family back home; the communal spaces here, where I will meet new friends.

As my dear friend Malory reminded me regarding the privilege and joy of travel: We enter the Homes of others–whether this is their country, their backyard, their school, their house or their apartment–with humility and open curiosity; and we leave filled with gratitude and a widened knowledge of humanity and the world.

And so, hello Colombia; thank you for receiving me and providing a land and space for my home this month. I eagerly look forward to partaking in your culture, your landscapes, your history.

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My old Home in South Minneapolis, Minnesota. The crew, whom I miss dearly (but they are in good hands now).