This afternoon I dreamt that I was in graduate school and had two papers due the following day.  Two papers, each about twenty pages long.  Pages that I’d not even begun.  Just as, in the dream, I thought I’d pull an all-nighter (it would’ve been my first) and meet those deadlines, I remembered that I had to also work at the restaurant that night.  It was out of my hands; I’d have to write to my professors and request a later deadline, probably while citing some problem of a “personal” nature, something I’d never done before ever.

When I woke and realized that I had no papers to turn in because I wasn’t in grad school, in fact, had finished over three years ago, I felt relief but then something else.

I’ve never not finished a project I’ve set out to do.  When I lay out my own self-discipline, I come through.  When I tell myself I’m going to do something, I don’t let myself down.  Going to run six miles in the morning before a twelve-hour shift.  Done.  Going to train for a half-marathon.  I have two halves under my belt.  Going to take an art history class because I’ve always felt that my otherwise well-rounded education was lacking in this area.  I’m sitting in a classroom at NYU weeks later.   Going to eschew pre-baked pie crusts that were always good enough for my mom in an attempt to make a pie from scratch.  Yep.  My crust wasn’t picture-perfect, but it was sure damn tasty. Going to move to NYC and get a job in book publishing.  Five weeks later I had that job.  Going to quit that  job a couple of years later because I’ve got better things in mind (temporary nomadic existence).  Check.   Going to reject the normative lifestyle in favor of traveling around South America, where I’ll learn Spanish, meet locals, and keep a blog.  Yup, I did that, and here’s the blog.

But what about what I said about being a writer?  How’s that project coming along?

“How’s the writing?” is a question I get a lot and one that, regardless of who the deliverer is, makes me bristle.

If I take an afternoon siesta (a practice I grew quite fond of in Argentina and Bolivia especially) and the question pops up later, I often feel guilty.  Never mind that I might have woken up early, gone to a Yoga class, cleaned my apartment, gone to the Farmer’s Market and made a  hearty soup for lunch before I find myself thinking it’s a fine idea to take a little snooze before my shift at the restaurant.  Never mind that I may have just made a bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee and started a new book.  I like my naps.

But, of course, it is my own fault.  No one is doing anything wrong in the asking.   If I arrive back from my journey fresh and alert and refusing to reenter the 9-5 atmosphere that I left, and I get a job waiting tables (where the money is good and the hours are mostly easy and the politics are nearly absent) and I tell everyone I’m “going to do something with my writing,” then I am accountable.

If only I could take the conversation that stops on my writing as encouragement.  And not an aha or as a way of checking up on my productivity, then I’d be less anxious.

Not long ago I confided in my incredibly patient and supportive boyfriend that it was nice that he thought I was a good writer bound to be “famous” (aren’t our lovers supposed to say these kinds of things?) but that maybe he was just saying that because really he was worried that if i didn’t “make it as a writer” I’d end up waiting tables for the rest of my life and leave him wondering how it was he’d ended up with just a waitress.  (Which is not what could ever define me anyway.)

“You could be folding cardboard boxes for a living, and if it made you happy, then I’d be happy,” is what he answered, somewhat surprised at my vulnerable confession.

And though I had a nice feeling, I did not trust it completely and continue to analyze the meaning behind his gentle prods (“working in the cafe today?”) as loving support or dissatisfaction in my non-working days while he is at the office.  But this too is all in my own head.  So if I hit that bottom and pick myself up like I did so many times on my solo trip across another continent, I will breathe easier and write better.

Maybe.

If my friends aren’t getting engaged, getting married, or getting pregnant, then they have careers.  If I’m not interested in being a full-time mother one day, then shouldn’t I be pursuing a career path?  Shouldn’t I know by now?  Have all the answers to these scary, looming questions?

I joke that the only things I miss from the 9-5 lifestyle are health insurance and paid vacation, but certainly the security was reassuring, the ability to nonchalantly discount outside passions such as writing because there just wasn’t enough time.

Even if the only pressure I have comes from within, I still must answer to it.

If I am happy–and I am, regardless of the Yelper who wrote that I look like I need to take happy pills, ha!–then far be it from me to look to anyone else for approval.

And if I make my writing a project, a real priority, with goals and self-prescribed deadlines, then it will be done.  On the other hand, if I decide that writing beyond this scope and in my journals is not for me, then that is fine as well.

I’m not even thirty.  Isn’t mine the generation of changing careers?  Of redefining career?

Yes, I do realize that even as I conclude this post, I’m offering plenty of disclaimers.  At least I can admit to it. :)

 

 

I’ve been back in the country for three weeks now—after ten months abroad—and one of the strangest things (as far as culture shock goes)  is putting toilet paper in the toilet.  Everytime I go to the bathroom, I feel somehow not right about depositing the tp directly into the toilet rather than the waste bin, which is how it’s done in the great majority of places I visited in South America.

As I walked around New York City the first few days, passing people talking on cell phones and talking to each other, I thought how funny that they’re all speaking in English, how weird that I can understand everything without even trying.

But the more I walked, the more I started overhearing people talking in Spanish, and then, I grew envious.  I wanted to get in on the conversation.

Grocery shopping in Fairway, I listened as two of the employees spoke in Spanish, and I milled about them, attempting to think of something to say.

“Donde esta…?”  (Where is…?)

But, I chickened out.

On the subway, a young couple sat next to me and exchanged words in what was unmistakably their native tongue, and I longed to turn to them and ask where they were from.  Almost just to show off.  Prove that I might not look like I spoke Spanish but that I actually spoke it quite well.

But, I remained silent.

On my second day back in The United States, I went to the bank and there I engaged (and impressed) the bank employee with my Spanish conversation.

More recently, however, I failed to impress an Argentinean friend who was in town on business.  Although he didn’t criticize or correct my Spanish, he said in perfect English, “Wait, can we talk in English for a second?” as I was in the middle of giving him directions.

I’ve always been able to take a hint.

Understandably, people have been asking me about my trip and how it feels to be back.  While I can barely proffer an adequate answer to these questions that in reality require quite lengthy responses (I prefer my stories to come out naturally over the course of time), I’ll take them any day over the biggie, “So, how have you changed?”

Let me get back to you on that.

While I’m certain that my experience of independent travel has shaped me in ways I will continue to discover days, months, and years from now, I am unable to comfortably digest the bold inquiry at this moment.

Happily, I fell right back in with my family and friends, one close friend agreeing that my first night back I made several “spot-on Stacey comments.”

This made me smile.

So, I’m me but only different to posit a completely useless understanding of my “great” transformation.

Even though I’m thrilled to be back in my favorite city in the world, I am not completely comfortable.  Riding the subway wasn’t a problem (though shelling out $89.00 for a monthly unlimited Metrocard was), nor was finding my favorite cup of coffee (Abraco on 7th between 1st and 2nd).

Making a decision about how to fill my stomach—this from a self-professed foodie—has proven challenging though.  I ate a bagel and cream cheese the morning after my return, but then I didn’t eat for the rest of the day simply because I couldn’t decide what to eat.

In Buffalo with my family, my dear mom handed me some cash and told me to go to my favorite grocery store to stock up on the things I’d been missing.

I returned with organic milk and my favorite cereal and met my mother’s confused look as she peered into the grocery bag on the counter.

While I’d like to develop my restaurant list once again, I don’t know where to start, and I am unreasonably frustrated with myself for feeling out of the loop about the current theatre and museum exhibits (something which can easily be fixed by opening up the current New Yorker).

Because I was constantly on the go in South America, I had a routine of sorts.

Pack backpack.   Travel to bus station.  Buy ticket and board bus.  Read about new place then hope for some sleep or chill out time with music.  Arrive.  Find accommodations or meet Couchsurfing hosts.  Peruse map.  Find delicious street food (none of it varying too much).  Explore new city/town/village.

Repeat.

Of course, no two places were the same, and I’d be hard-pressed to truly categorize my trip in such simple, easy terms.  But, I had a routine.  And a backpack.  And few obligations.

Here, I’m in limbo.  I am looking for a place to call home, ready to start working.  Instead of lugging my backpack around, I’m carrying my laptop looking for wireless Internet and thinking it’d be so much easier if NYC had the plethora of Internet cafes that even the smallest pueblo in South America has.

Yesterday, I went up and down about five times, finally having a good cry in the sauna at the gym where I’m utilizing a free week and trying to politely refuse a membership.

I just feel weird sometimes, and as much as I would like to elaborate on that vague statement, I cannot.  Not because I don’t want to share (for if you’ve been reading my blog, you know I’m comfortable with sharing) but because the weirdness (which comes and goes) is so strangely unsettling, that words cannot describe it.

Maybe this is what they mean about culture shock.

Mompos, Colombia did not win my heart.

Maybe I didn’t give it a huge chance.  I’ll admit that when I arrived I was exhausted.  It’s not the easiest place to get to as it is sits on a piece of land surrounded by a river, and to arrive, one must take a bus (which I did bright and early from Cartagena) and then await a ferry.  After the 45 minute ferry ride, there is more time on the bus until finally Mompos presents itself as a sweltering, relaxed pueblo where the residents sell cheese, ice-cream, and ice from their homes.  In small Colombian towns, it is not unusual to see handwritten signs on house doors and windows advertising various products.

While I have gotten used to seeing the curious offerings, I have to remind myself that this kind of thing just does not happen back home. 

Would you buy bread from a woman walking around NYC with a bread basket on her arm?  Well, I probably would but that´s only after becoming so familiarized with it in South America.

When I was in Silvia, an indigenous village famous for its Tuesday market, I stopped at a home offering homemade yogurt, and it was the best damn yogurt I’ve ever tasted.

In Mompos, I did not do much.  Confession:  I slept from 6:15 PM until 8:00 AM the first night.  Maybe it was the heat that wiped me out; I know it made me highly irritable, which had the effect of making me anti-social.

Before my long sleep, however, when I ventured out into the hazy evening, I discovered a family offering fresh fruit juices, and as I still had a list of fruits to try before the end of my trip, I stopped, ordered a jugo de zapote and took my place in the rocking chair on the front porch.

Although I can’t tell you why, rocking chairs are THE thing in Mompos.  Most people leave their front doors open, and in the first room, easily viewed by anyone passing by are rocking chairs, often set up in a circle.  If the house has a small patio or porch, it’s common to see the folks of Mompos contentedly rocking away outside.

I gave Mompos another shot the following day after my rest, and I returned to the same house for another fruit juice, jugo de tomate de arbol, a favorite of mine by now.  Generally, a small square of paper taped to a window or a door suffices as advertisement, but this particular household had gone a little further and created a more professional-looking sign.

For less than a dollar I drank nearly a blender’s worth of fruit juice.

I stayed in Mompos a day and a half, and though it was an interesting stop on my journey, I probably would have skipped it altogether had I known about the difficulty of getting out.

At 5:15 AM, the senor of the hotel knocked on my door as requested, so I could wait for the minivan to pick me up, take me two hours to the nearest bus terminal in El Banco, where I’d wait an hour for an eight hour bus to Bucamaranga, from where I’d take another small bus to Giron, Bucamaranga’s chill neighbor.

At 5:50 AM, Mompos was buzzing, and I was able to procure pastries for my trip from a walking vendor and enlist the help of the kind senor in bringing me a tinto (cafe).

As I waited for my ride, I people-watched from a rocking chair in the hotel’s entrance.  Children were already playing in the streets.  Couples walked hand-in-hand.  The usual people selling “minutos” (literally minutes from their own cell phones) perched on their corners.

The weather at this hour was pleasant, and I can see why the Mompos folks were out and about, taking advantage of the respite before the sun becomes oppressive and cruel.

Considering that the dilapidated van was running on fumes and had no air-conditioning, I understand the early morning departure time.   As the first passenger picked up, I had the pleasure (read: agony) of riding around Mompos’ dirt roads for over an hour, getting jostled and bumped around until we were full and officially on the way.

An hour at the bus terminal, where I offered a piece of bread to a young begging boy (though I suspect that he gave it away to one of the roaming, owner-less dogs because by itself, it wasn’t very tasty), and finally I was on the bus meant for Bucamaranga. 

The eight hour ride took ten.

We stopped countless times, letting people on and off.  Food vendors, normally an expected part of any long bus ride in South America, were few.  Luckily I had a few snacks.  Movies were American but dubbed in Spanish, and when I asked about the possibility of English subtitles, I was quickly rebuffed.  My Ipod was dead, and I could’t focus on Jude the Obscure.

Last long bus ride, I told myself.  This is it.

Instead of becoming more comfortable with the discomforts of traveling, I was actually, to my surprise, becoming uncomfortable.  I had thought that months of adapting to less-than-ideal situations would have toughened me, given me strength to endure the travails of backpacker traveling, but in this, I was wrong. 

Sure, I could sleep nearly anywhere (no air-conditioning on the coast despite night time temperatures of 80 degrees didn’t bother me).  I could deal with cold showers and the occasional bathroom cockroach.  Every night in spite of spraying myself with strong mosquitto repellent, I endured bug bites, woke to itching and swelling bumps on any exposed part (which, given the heat, was every part).

I was used to washing my dishes in cold water.  I didn’t fret about street food (still my preferred way of filling my stomach ).  Again and again, I opted for public transportation within large cities to reach my destination, and I gritted my teeth as I squished myself and my bulging backpacks past the turnstyle that was typical on intracity buses.

But, save for the street food–often a part of my day that has me smiling widely and thinking that this is why I travel–I don’t have to admit to liking the obstacles and the challenges and the discomforts far from home.

I haven’t turned into a super-crunchy hippy-type person (though I mean no offense).  I hope to want for less when I return to New York City next week, but just last week, tired of my backpack’s offerings, I went shopping in Cartagena. 

I can live with little.  I am low-maintanence.  I can backpack around a continent by myself, learning the language as I go, learning the way as I go. 

I’ve proven this in the past ten months.

And it’s been one hell of a journey, one that I’m not yet prepared to capture in a blog post.

I made it out of Mompos, and I’ll make it back to NYC where I belong.

You never know quite what you’re going to get when you Couchsurf, and in my latest CS stay, I really wasn’t sure what to expect as I was to stay with the parents of a member of CS and not the CSer himself.

A couple of weeks ago, I’d written to Alexander in Cartagena seeking a couch, and he’d responded that although he was studying in Germany, he was sure his parents would love to have me.  His mother was waiting for my call.

And so it was that I ended up in la casa de Gloria y Albero, the best people I’ve met in Colombia–and, in fact, maybe in all of South America, with a few exceptions.

The sweet, happy couple welcomed me into their home, the first morning following an overnight bus ride from Medellin, invited me to join them for el almuerzo (pescado frito, patacones, cerveza y gaseosa), and told me repeatedly that I was a part of their family during my stay.  “Como una hija (like a daughter),” they said.

One day, Albero and I biked fifteen kilometers to Playa Blanca (where we met two vacationing Italian couples), a beach with blue, clear waters (much unlike the grey tones of Cartagena’s sea) and straw huts offering accommodations in hammocks and plates of fresh fish and arroz con coco, cold beer, and the opportunity to enjoy the freedom of doing not much at all.

And then after enjoying several days of Gloria and Albero’s hospitality (cafe tinto in the afternoons, ensalada de fruta one afternoon, almuerzos deliciosas, desayunos), and Spanish lessons (they corrected me often, and I embraced the corrections, intent upon learning the right way of speaking and not just speaking to be understood mas o menos), I said that I would like to prepare an almuerzo on my final day with them, and I said that I wanted to make pescado frito y patacone (a type of platano that is cooked in oil and then smashed and sprinkled with salt and lime juice before meeting the oil again) and a salad.  The latter I had covered, but for the former two, I’d need Gloria’s assistance.

Gloria readily agreeing, we set out for la pescaderia en la manana (she said it was best to go in the morning, very early), and on our way we passed fish vendor after fish vendor, scraping scales, chopping heads off, calling out to potential buyers.  But Gloria advised me that buying from these vendors was not a good idea, and she pointed out the pelicans that hovered above, waiting for a chance to descend.  She always, she informed me, went to the same pescaderia, and so on we walked, past Colombianos selling papayas and yucas and bananas, past breakfast stands where I smelled fresh fried things like arepas con huevos (two maize tortillas filled with an egg and deep-fried to a golden perfection) and buneulos, another deep-fried delicious treat.

We hadn’t eaten yet, Gloria nor I.  But when I suggested arepas con huevos, she made a little face, and I could see that eating in the market was not her thing (in spite of the fact that she enjoyed living with Albero simply, as she herself had told me, not having the taste for the expensive and often pretentious way of doing things).  But the market in Cartagena was the most disorganized, dirty market in the whole country, she’d shared.

“Pero, siempre como en los mercados y nunca estoy enferma (But, I always eat in the markets, and I’m never sick),” I said, and after buying the fish, Gloria agreed to meet my desire and said that we would look for arepas con huevos.  She walked past a couple of kiosks that looked acceptable to me and finally stopped at one, still looking skeptical but willing.

Moments later, as we walked through the disorganized, chaotic market with our bag of fish and a small bag of limes, Gloria confirmed what my taste buds were shouting, “Esta rico.  Mmmm.  Frescita y caliente.”

“Si, con carne!” I said.

Gloria and I cooked together and when Albero came home for lunch, he was pleased with our efforts, and I was happy to hear Gloria tell him about the arepas, even going so far as to recommend that he go the following morning!

Later, when I wanted to go to the market again to purchase fruit for my trip to Taganga, a small fishing village full of backpackers and, therefore, over-priced food, Gloria steered me in the direction of a grocery store.  Because she needed cafe, I dutifully went, but as I found no fruit to my liking, I arrived back at the house, announcing that in the morning before my trip, I was going to go to the market.

By this time, Gloria was smiling, Albero was wanting to hear what I thought of the market, and I was hoping to explain clearly the pleasure I derive from my market visits.

Sure, we have farmers’ markets back in NYC, grand, open-air spaces touting fresh fruits and vegetables, homemade pies and breads and cakes, flowers and crafts too, but there’s nothing that can compare to the markets of South America.  Nada.

And while in some places, notably Cartagena where the tourists all attach themselves to the old city and where I saw not a single extranjero in the market, I must call upon my courage to face the intense stares, the murmurs of appreciation (“Ah, mami.  Mona.  Que linda!  Ay, hermosa), and the lingering glances of desire I meet as I walk purposefully looking for something to eat or searching for the fruit stand that has everything I want, it’s all worth it to experience the local flavor.

I should note that I am keen on heeding the advice of locals who steer me away from places that they consider unsafe (as in Pisco, Peru, where I was practically forbidden to go to the market by myself), but as Gloria’s reasons for directing me away from the market didn’t involve issues of security, I felt comfortable going on my own, satisfied in knowing that I was seeing the real Cartagena and not just the stuff in the movies or the guidebooks.

And in the end, after our arepa experience, I think Gloria was happy to have had a little taste of the Cartagena market as well.  And maybe she’ll return and take a chance on another arepa.

I hope so.

 

There’s an obvious advantage to meeting the local people when you’re traveling.  You get to step out of and away from the often-structured traveler’s trail and experience life as, well, as the locals live it.

And this is exactly what happened last week in Salento, Colombia when my new friend, Andres, invited me to a party at a finca (coffee farm), a party he said that only happens once a month.  Well, then. 

We returned to my hostel, gathered my other new friends, foreigners like me, and squeezed into an old Jeep for a precarious twenty minute ride.  Because I had a somewhat-prized seat in the front, I couldn’t tell how many people we had hanging on for the ride, but later I learned that we maxed out at thirteen.

We had roadies for the road and no clear idea of how we’d be getting back into town, though Andres had assured me that we would, indeed, be getting back in town.  I was all for roughing it (had been doing some variation of that for the past nine months, after all) but the thought of being stranded on some farm far from the center of town with no promise of a place to sleep wasn’t sitting well with me.

A smart guy, Andres had sold the fiesta to me as one of drinking, dancing, and hanging out someplace cool, doing something different and unique, but he had gotten the attention of the boys when he described the cockfights.

And it is the latter that was, it seemed, the draw of the finca party, the entertainment, the main event. 

No matter.  I mainly ignored the actual fighting and proceeded to make friends with the other partygoers, at least the partygoers who were willing to steer their eyes away from the matches and attempt to understand my imperfect Spanish among the riotous cheering surrounding us.

I met a couple of Colombian military and persuaded them to let me touch their guns. 

I became fascinated with the ten-year-old Colombian boy who I felt was up way past his bedtime, all for the sake of watching two roosters demolish each other. 

When I objected to what was going on in the ring– “No me gusta…” I told Andres (when he asked me what I thought) though in English to my fellow travelers, I had a whole lot more to say–I received a short speech (from my US buddies) on how this was obviously a Colombian tradition and should be respected even if I didn’t agree with it.  Yeah, yeah, yeah.  I wasn’t making a scene; in fact, I was having a grand old time.  I was just more interested in mingling than gambling.

In the end, it was Andres, the Colombian, who was ready to leave the party before the rest of us.  We talked him into staying for an extra hour, but then, as transportation back to town was scarce, we had to listen to reason and stake our spots in the overcrowded jeep.  It’s a small miracle we all made it back unharmed, this time with Andres on the roof and countless bodies standing and holding on, while I once again occupied a spot in the front.

The next day, when the new hostel arrivals asked me what I’d been doing in Salento and I explained about the party on the finca, their eyes grew rounder and they inquired about how they could find their way into a finca. I had to tell them that they’d be hanging around Salento a long time if they wanted to drink beer on a finca and watch cocks fight.

But who’s to say what other chevere (cool) thing they might fall into if they fell in with a local.

Was it worth it?

I asked this question again and again.  Every time I met someone who’d been to the Galapagos Islands off of mainland Ecuador, I sought an answer to the question.

They all said yes, urging me to go, then telling me in no uncertain terms to just do it.

But when I asked how it was worth it, no one really had any answers.  None that satisfied me anyway.

So I wasn’t convinced.   I did some googling but came up with nothing that led me any closer to making a decision on this costly trip.

In the end, emergency cash in hand–lots and lots of emergency cash in hand– (as I still don’t have a debit card), I booked a flight to the islands and set out about finding a last-minute boat tour.

In spite of the fact that my boat tour defied most of the guidebooks’ try-to-avoid suggestions (for it was an overlapping boat tour that employed freelance guides, there was a fuel stop, a change of cooks, captains, guides, and group), I had an absolute ball.

Even though everywhere I looked, my eyes encountered far grander, luxurious boats, er yachts, I grew to love my little boat, Rumba. (And not just because, as the only female among 14 guys, the crew began calling me La Reina (the queen)…)

So there was no hot water.  Or barely any water to shower with at all.  So the cabins were teeny, tiny spaces with no air-conditioning.  So the only indoor common area was crowded and basic.  So there was no bar but only a cooler full of beer.

There was food, good food, and plenty of it.  Our cook for the better part of the trip, George, made magic in the galley kitchen.  One evening he turned out a torta de banana so fabulous, I had seconds–twice!  We ate fresh fish for lunch everyday, salads of pickled onions, avocado, sweet tomatoes.

We snorkled at least once a day, and I swam with sharks and sea lions and couldn’t count the number of manta rays I saw swimming about.

We watched penguins mate in the water, passed by blue-footed boobies, Galapagos doves, and land iguana that seemed less than impressed with our human presence.

On Isabela, before my boat trip began, I visited the tortoise-breeding center, walked the length of the beach until I reached La Playita, and noticing not a single (human) soul, went skinny-dipping in the middle of the afternoon.

On the last day of the boat tour, the morning activity involved a walk on Floreana Island, where Post Office Bay is.  It’s been a long tradition on the islands for visitors to leave unstamped letters and/or postcards in a wooden mail box, and as tourists leave their letters (hoping for hand-delivery, one day!), they can also take postcards to hand-deliver.  As our group looked through the addresses, I gleefully pocketed postcards addressed to places in Queens, Amherst, NY (where my parents live!), and Boston.  I can’t wait to return and personally deliver the mail to completely unsuspecting people.

In closing, was it worth it?

Without a doubt.

But really, it’s just one of those things you’ll have to see for yourself.

Last night I watched an episode of House and two episodes of The Good Wife.  I ate a simple meal consisting of bread and an avocado, and I nursed a beer.  I had my own room for $7, and as I’m not too keen on walking around by myself at night in a reportedly dangerous country (Ecuador, but who are we kidding, all of  South America is dangerous), I took advantage of the privacy–and the TV–and attempted to lay low while I had the opportunity.

The truth is, I’ve been losing steam and fast.  Traveling now for eight months, I still have pages of things I want to see, do, explore, climb, taste, say, but when I wake up in the morning, traveling feels like an obstacle, one that lately I don’t care about overcoming.

I didn’t think Ecuadorian buses could be worse than Bolivian buses, but they make me want to fly to Bogota and get on the first flight to Newark International.  However, since I am without an ATM card or a credit card, I can’t actually do that.

Ever since my bag got stolen, I fear a round two, and so I’ve taken to interesting measures to keep my things safe.  One bus ride had me carrying a practically empty camera case (I heard that stealing and then selling tourists’ cameras is a profession in and around Quito) with my actual cameras in various other belongings as if to say, “Go ahead, take my camera case.  Enjoy the batteries and the scarf that are substituting for the real thing since I’m on your case, man.”

This morning, I duct-taped $300 to the pocket of my shorts.  I’ve another $200 duct-taped to the pocket of my favorite hoodie.

And when a woman with a baby looks at me funny, I hug my new $4 bag tightly to my chest, even though the only item of value in it is my current reading material, Lolita.

Issues of paranoia aside, I’m so damn tired of being stared at when I walk down the street.  The whistles, the hisses, the few lines in English, “Oh, baby, I love you…” cause me to tense up, pick up my pace, turn corners, cross the street, and eat dinner in my hotel room.

Forget about running to destress.  I tried that yesterday.  Didn’t get very far.  The curious little children are one thing, the leering men another.

I’m not entirely unhappy.  This morning I endured pressing stares before I found a delightful breakfast in the market: a humita, empanada con queso, y cafe con leche, all for $.90.

Yesterday afternoon, I assisted a young girl in the Internet cafe, patiently answering her computer questions, inwardly pleased that she’d chosen me, the obvious blonde gringo.

That was after I discovered a shop full of indigenous-made jewelry, where I lingered for nearly an hour trying on earrings, thinking of various friends’ tastes for color and/or grandeur.

And today, when I stepped off the bus in Puyo, attempting to gather my things and find a place to rest, the concerned bus driver (I don’t know, maybe I looked confused or scared) asked me where I was going and helped me into a taxi, instructing me not to pay more than $1.

I have Couchsurfing hosts lined up in nearly every city I intend to visit in Colombia (having recently admitted to myself the pleasure derived from receiving affirmative responses to my requests for a couch).  I have my sights set on a trip to the Galapagos Islands (I must find out for myself if it’s worth the NYC dollars), and I have just two months left of travel.

Which sometimes feels like an eternity.  I desperately miss my family and friends, and my mother’s words that she won’t really be happy until I return home safely are almost enough to make me just go home already, but they’re certainly enough to make me cry.

Last week when I nearly got bucked off a horse, I maintained composure, that is, until two of the girls on the trip offered that it was ok to cry.  They also said that it was ok if I wanted to get off the horse and get in a taxi back to the hostel.  Their reassuring words were enough to keep me going that day.

I’m not lacking for company.  Two days ago,  I was couchsurfing in Cuenca with another CSer from Ireland.  Brian and I walked around the city together by day and played drinking poker by night.  Before 11PM though, when I know Brian could have kept on drinking, I was so exhausted that I called it a night.  (I’d taken a two hour nap that same afternoon.)

I don’t know if it’s getting my things stolen, and with that, losing a sense of security, or if it’s just the time, or if it’s a combination of both, but I’ve been feeling listless, lonely, awkward.  Maybe it’s a phase.  A mood.  Just a slump.  Sure to pass.

Surely, it’s got a bit to do with attitude, no?

Carnaval is being celebrated in Quito this weekend, and I’m staying with Pablo, who has been extremely accommodating to my changing plans and helpful with offering me assistance on the Galapagos trip.

As I’d hate to bring anything other than buena onda with me (lest I receive a negative couchsurfing reference!), I’m going to sign off now, brave a restaurant amidst the onlookers before I retreat to my room with TV and private bathroom (at $6, I know I should appreciate the little things) and  prepare for South America’s most famous festival.

 

 

 

 

My birthday with Limenos

After a super fun birthday in Lima, where I drank tequila like I was turning twenty-one and not twenty-nine, and danced salsa on a makeshift dance floor, I set out for Ecuador.  Instead of crossing the border at the coast as I’d planned on doing before  my bag was stolen, I chose a different route, a crossing which The Lonely Planet called “wonderfully remote.”

Sounded nice.  Splurging on a coche-cami seat instead of the usual semi-cama for the first part of the journey (18 hours Lima to Jaen, Peru), I was ready to move forward, get over the robbery, the lost items.

The first leg of the journey led me to the second, which took me in a shared car (colectivo) to San Ignacio, where I waited for another colectivo to fill up before going to La Balsa, that “wonderfully remote” border between Peru and Ecudaor.

After waiting for nearly an hour and a half–the cars will not leave until they are full of passengers, which means two in the front, besides the driver, and three in the backseat–I counted my Peruvian Soles and decided to offer to pay for a second passenger just so we could just go already!

It worked.  So well in fact that when the driver stopped to pick up a lone woman by the side of the road, he forced her to squeeze into the backseat among three other full-sized adults.  I chuckled to myself, realizing that he intended on getting the full fare for two passengers from me, thereby leaving me to continue the ride alone in the front seat.  He was a clever one (and greedy too), that’s for sure, for certainly if he’d had the woman sit up front, I’d have argued that I didn’t need to pay for two people after all.

At the border, which turned out to be remote but not at all wonderful, I trudged through mud in my flip-flops to get my passport stamped in Peru.

What I walked through to leave Peru legally

Crossing the border into Ecuador, I received an odd look from the border official, a grunt, which I believe was his way of asking me how long I intended to stay in Ecuador, and, finally, an entry stamp.

After waiting an hour for the next means of transportation to arrive, I hopped aboard the ranchera in the photo below.

Two hours on a dirt road in this vehicle=what the hell did I sign up for?

We arrived in Zumba, where really I should have spent the night.  Instead, hell-bent on getting to Vilcabamba, that charming oasis that promised relaxation, massages, hours by a pool, a breakfast with real coffee, horse-back riding, and sleep in a real bed, I bought another bus ticket and held my personal belongings close.

At 3:30 in the morning, I was woken by the bus guy and put out at the side of the road.  There were no taxis in sight and all I had was a memory of an email from the owner of the hosteria I’d booked:

Hostel owner: “Well, Stacey, there are no taxis after 9:30 PM, but you can walk–it’s only 35 minutes–we’re on the main road, can’t miss us!”

So uphill I trudged, my headlamp lighting the way.  I stopped at the first hostel I encountered and jumped the fence when no one answered my persistent bell-ringing.  The sleepy and annoyed (and rightfully so) owner said he had no beds and directed me further uphill to Hosteria Izhcayluma.

Up I went.  And up some more.  I stopped to pee on the side of the road at one point and considered the possibility of camping out by the side of the road until first light.

But I kept on.  Smart girl I am.  Yeah, sure, arriving in the dead of night with no map or clear understanding of where I was going.

When I saw this sign, I nearly cried tears of elation.  “You can do it, girl,” I told myself.

And, “You got this, Stace.  Just a little more.  C’mon.”

And so it was, a few minutes later, that I found myself fast asleep in a hammock because there was no one in the inn when I arrived.

My (free) bed

It happened to my friend Ben in Mendoza, Argentina.  And it happened to another traveler-friend, James, on the streets of Arequipa, Peru.  And to another, Dan, it happened in a cab in Nicaragua.  It even happened in Buenos Aires to my good friend Denise, who was only vacationing for a couple of weeks. 

And then it happened to me.  I got robbed, or, as my father unsympathetically said just after he sympathetically Western Unioned me $500, I put myself in a lion’s den, so how could I expect not to get eaten?

One moment I was eating jaune de pollo (a whole lot of rice with a tiny piece of chicken in the middle, typical Jungle food I’m told), drinking beer, and laughing at a restaurant in Trujillo, Peru, the next, I was minus a bag and reduced to tears and choppy English.

It took a while for the shock to wear off, and when it did, I felt defeated.  Crushed.  I’d made it so far: seven and a half months of travel with nothing much worth crying about, save for the beach cover-up/favorite sweltering -weather-going-out-top that I’d lost somewhere between Buenos Aires and Valporaiso. 

What I lost (in no particular order of importance):

-sunglasses (an excellent boutique purchase in Santa Fe, Argentina)

-food: a mango, green apple, bag of trail mix

-Passport (full of brag-worthy stamps)

-NARS lipgloss (a recent Christmas present from my pal, Carolyn)

-two tarjetas de credito (credit cards)

-ATM card

-engraved journal (a recent gift from Denise, a fellow SA statistic)

-Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine

-water purification tablets

-a tampon

-moleskin journal, about 1/8 full of my words, including contact information for Pisco Sin Fronteras’ volunteers

-bus ticket to Mancora

-credit card holder (purchased in China last year)

-$150 soles, roughly $48 USD

-$2 USD, which aren’t worth a damn thing here due to their wear and tear

Because I had myself and only myself (mas o menos) to move forward and deal with the situation, I turned my anger on Peru.  All of Peru.   And all of its people.

Heading back to Lima to obtain a new passport, etc., I went through the motions of traveling and picking up the pieces (bestowing any and every Peruvian that met my eyes with a withering look of hatred, even as I inwardly reprimanded myself for such obnoxious and immature behavior).  Had I not learned anything thus far?

I had no one to blame but myself.  And the thief, of course.

I thought about leaving, returning to the States, checking out of the lion’s den, until I realized that the hardest part–navigating my way around enormous Lima mostly by bus because taxis are a luxury (alone), waiting online at the US Embassy(alone), finding out the passport photos I’d had taken a day earlier were the wrong size (alone), vehemently pleading a case for my temporary passport to be good for three months instead of one (alone), filing a police report (alone), visiting the Immigration Office to obtain a stamp that would allow me to leave Peru (alone), trying to asses if the woman outside the Immigration building is telling me the truth about a form I need to buy from her or if she’s scamming me (alone)–would have to be done regardless of whether I cut my trip short or stayed on.

Getting robbed, at the end of the day, or at the end or in the middle of a journey across South America, wasn’t that big of a deal.  I know this.  It’s almost like a rite of passage.  Through my misery, I joked with my friend Rachel, who was relating her story of being mugged in Bali, that maybe you hadn’t really lived unless you’d been robbed.

But did it really have to happen four days before my birthday?

I think I would have cried a little less if I’d had someone to lean on physically, if I’d had, as my dearest friend Eileen put it, someone to rub my shoulders, make a list of the things I needed to do and suggested we sit down for a beer and take a deep breath before moving on to the next thing.  Just someone to tell me in my own language, in person, that everything was going to be ok.

But though I’ve done it alone, turns out everything is ok.  Ahora (now).

No doubt in part because of the oodles of support I received from concerned friends and family back home, support which often had me walking down the streets of Lima with a fresh face of tears.

And so I soldier on, much to my mother’s chagrin, my Peruvian grudge no longer, thanks to a flirtatious cab driver, who lowered his fare and then lowered it again after he listened to my speech (in Castellano so good he thought I was from Argentina!) about how it was wrong to charge extranjeros more than locals, until finally he gave me his number and offered to take me to the bus station free of charge when I was ready to leave Lima, a birthday gift he said.

And of course, there is the family who welcomed me into their clean, sweet-smelling home with a fridge full of food and hot showers, based on nothing but the recommendation of their Couchsurfing daughter, who is currently studying in Paris, and who, apparently, read my grieving request for a couch and contacted her family in minutes.

Asi que (So) Salud (cheers) to ten more weeks on foreign soil.

Pisco Sin Fronteras welcomed me with a hearty breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, fresh bread, ham, cheese, fruit salad, coffee, and tea and then put me to work.  Real work.  Work like I’ve never experienced before.  Some might say man’s work, though not me.

The organization, which originated shortly after the devastating 2007 earthquake, builds houses and sanitation facilities from start to finish, offers community service projects such as swimming lessons and inter-cambio language exchange, and provides a home and food for its volunteers at a low cost, unlike many other volunteer programs, which ask for a lot of money up front.

During my twelve days of volunteering, I learned how to use a power drill, a jackhammer (my dad could hardly believe it), and a pick-axe, and those are just the tools I remember the names of!  I worked with cement and dug trenches.  Chiseling a floor one day, I cooked dinner (with the help of two others) for the fifty volunteers the next.

I got bitten by so many mosquitoes that I swore my 100% DEET was worthless.  I talked with people who’d lost everything in the tragedy, and I listened to their stories and responded with as much compassion as I could, wondering if one day I might return to see the progress of their homes, their community bathrooms, their pueblo.

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