Waterfalling is the word to describe searching for waterfalls. I love waterfalls for their simplicity and vibrancy. I have visited many spectacular waterfalls on three continents, and each has been uniquely different. It is not just the waterfall itself that I love; it is also the story of adventure as I embarked on the journey to find them. In Bosnia, I visited the second highest waterfall in Europe, and also formed a close bond with three other amazing women along the way. My adventure to Puerto Iquazu to visit Iguazu Falls on the border of Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil was my final stop after five months in South America before returning to Bogota, and I felt like I was gazing over the edge of the world and my life. Now during this pandemic, I am sorting my way through the terrain of the Ohio River Valley woodlands, and observed Lughnasadh with a flower wreath at Charleston Falls in Miami County, Ohio. Waterfalls are spaces that offer significant healing for us humans. Let’s keep learning from them.
While traveling, I always stay in hostels. However, travelling certainly looks different as we pass through this time of pandemic. Bunk hostels are no longer open, and the common areas are off limits. I have seen some hostels that are open, such as the Cleveland Hostel, but the space is significantly cut back. Like many others, I know that I am hopefully anticipating when it is indeed safe and acceptable to travel like we had been before time stopped in January 2020.
Hostels are the perfect way to connect with other travelers and to acquire free resources like city maps and knowledgeable staff. They are also typically centrally located within walking distance of train and bus stations, and other lively areas. The fully stocked kitchens with free food shelves and free breakfasts are another bonus. Hostels do have down sides though, and one of those is sharing space with strangers, and navigating their messes, their noise, their expectations, and their social dynamics.
Some hostel spaces are conductive for socializing. They provide large common areas for group seating, they offer in-house alcohol service, and someone/a man is always lingering in the co-ed 20 bed bunk dorms waiting to strike up a conversation with whoever will listen. These hostels are perfect if you are traveling with your 15 closest friends, and if you don’t mind the smell of stale beer on an unknown man’s breathe in the bunk below you.
However, as a female who frequently travels alone, I’ve learned how to identify hostels that are more likely to create social spaces conducive for casual conversation with healthy and conscious travelers. I don’t want people (primarily men) to assume that I am actively searching for some type of companionship. As an INFP, I am perfectly content wandering the planet alone. I am experienced enough as a solo female traveler to know what to look for when booking a hostel.
ALCOHOL. What is the relationship between the hostel and alcohol? Does the description point out its close proximity to bars or the party district? Is a bar located inside of the hostel? Are people in the online marketing materials obviously drinking and partying? This factor can really make or break the experience in a new location. Think about the problems that alcohol invites: disrespectful behavior, sloppy kitchens and bathrooms, late nights coming into and out of the bunk dorms, unconscious noise, and unintelligent conversation. Don’t get me wrong, a beer or three is one thing; but all night and all day intoxication is another thing entirely.
GENDER EQUALITY. How are women depicted in the online marketing materials? Do women work as staff at the hostels, or are all the images of men? Are the bathrooms separate, co-ed, or gender neutral? What are the social expectations regarding non-males in the culture, and how does the hostel environment maintain or challenge that paradigm? Read the reviews. When I was booking a hostel in Belgrade it at first met my qualifications. It had a rooftop patio, no alcohol service, and was owned and managed by a local. However, I changed my mind when I read the reviews. An American woman in my age group who was traveling alone reported feeling uncomfortable because she was the only female visitor, and all the staff were men too. That sounds awkward and isolating at best, and subtly hostile at worst. Hostels create and define community like any other shared space, and if you identify as anything other than a straight male, it’s worthwhile to find a host who will create a welcoming environment.
COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT. Does the hostel support local merchants and residents, or are all its resources through corporate-owned tourist companies? Which events are on its visitor calendar? Does it offer any service learning opportunities or volunteer projects? Is a local managing and operating it? Although chains like HI provide perks and abundant traveler resources, supporting a locally-owned hostel enriches the economy much more directly, and contributes to positive community development. A larger share of the profit stays within the family who owns the property, especially if only local currency as cash is accepted. The downside is that a local owner might not speak English, or speaks only very limited English, but what’s the purpose of international travel if not to struggle with communication?
When I travel, I like to meet open-minded travelers who like myself are seeking opportunities to understand themselves and the world through a healthy, conscious, socially progressive, and compassionately inter-sectional lens. I understand that others travel for different reasons, and the party hostels get plenty of guests. But if your dreams are hitched to a more mindful star, these tips are worth the research.
Travelling immediately creates a personal vulnerability that dislodges us from our familiar and comfortable space. Disorientation must be an accepted item on the packing list to carry as international and cultural borders are crossed. Having navigated overnight bus rides and long walks through new cities with directions scribbled on scraps of napkins, I learned how to sustain myself from the most basic personal care, like brushing my teeth or a hot shower. When access to our typical nourishment is unavailable, well-being requires resourcefulness, adaptability, and the alchemy of gratitude for what has been discovered instead of feeling only the hunger of what is missed.
I am not a nationalist, and I stand beside my critical evaluation of systemic race, class, and gender oppression in the United States; however, social analysis aside, I totally loved returning to Chicago from three months in Central Europe and the Balkans, to bask in a Panera Bread with free WIFI and blasting heat, savoring a tomato soup bread bowl and a large, whip cream covered hot chocolate. While travelling, I missed access to whatever quantity and quality of food I desired, and felt physically hungrier in the Balkans than at other point in my near memory. I am a very open minded person, and will try almost any type of food. Only once in my travels have I declined a food offering. In Poland in 2017, I was not mentally able to eat pig lard spread on a piece of bread.
Regardless of my flexibility, I have definitely been hungry on my various travels. I think a few factors contributed to this. First, I travel on a tight budget and in some cities I have had a difficult time finding food that was not served at an upscale restaurant. Second, since I stay in hostels, I was limited to where I could cook and store food purchased at a market. Many of the refrigerators were packed beyond capacity with old, rotting food. At few times, food that I had purchased and labelled with my name was eaten. Once, food that I had bought and prepared for my long day of travel was ruined when a bowl of cheese water spilled on it. Keeping food at the hostels was nearly impossible. Finally, as my journey moved beyond the one month milestone, I began to miss diversity in my diet, and at times wanted to eat no more bread, no more young cheese, no more yogurt, but maybe an avocado, arugula salad, or a baked sweet potato. I do not consider myself a picky eater, but I know what I like to eat, and I definitely appreciate the large quantities of food available in the US.
Bratislava was one city where I had a difficult time finding affordable food. Bratislava uses the Euro, so I was already at a financial disadvantage. Also, I was only staying for one night before heading south to Ljubljana, so I did not want to purchase more than one meal. I arrived in Bratislava already quite hungry, having traveled a long day from Budapest, and walked to my hostel from the bus terminal which was about 45 minutes while carrying my pack. Although the Bratislava city center is a beautiful and historically preserved ancient walled castle grounds, the assumption is that tourists show up with Euros falling out of their pockets, ready to eat, drink, and party. I checked menus at perhaps 15 establishments before accepting that the prepared food was out of my reach.
Fortunately, I found a small market near my hostel, and bought a supply of food for dinner with a snack to eat on the bus ride to Slovenia. The snack was pretzel stick with hummus. For dinner, I ate rich berry yogurt, a green juice blend, and a mystery salad that turned out to be white fish, black olives, celery, and oily mayonnaise. I also purchased a carbonated water flavored with pear, cucumber, and mint. The entire buffet cost about $12 in Euro, or $16 in USD, after international transaction fees.
I discovered burek in Split, Croatia, and lived off of the flaky bread stuffed with spinach and cheese for the three days I stayed there. Split is a city with many tourists arriving daily from the cruise ships, and every restaurant is dramatically over-priced to reflect the market. I met other travellers who had ventured through Split, and they agreed that food was difficult. One Australian couple admitted to having spent about $50 Australian dollars on a couple of poorly crafted burritos, and they jokingly confessed that it was so far their worst purchasing decision along their year journeying around the world. The burek became my go-to food. The spinach and cheese, or the sour cherry, option each cost about 15 kuna each, or about $2.50. Three burek supplemented with some fruit like apricots, pear, or plums would get me through the day.
Sarajevo was where I ate the best. My guest house sat at the top of a steep hill, and a marketplace was at the base. It was an easy 15 minute walk. Also, I had private access to a refrigerator and cooking unit. I was able to store food and prepare it for the five days I stayed. I stocked up on fruit, cheese, yogurt, sausage, nuts, chocolate, packets of cappuccino, bread, and a lightly alcoholic (2.5%) carbonated grapefruit and mint beverage. During my entire time in Sarajevo, I spent about 75 marks on food in total, which is about $47 USD, and a little less than $10 per day.
Speaking of alcohol, I sampled two different types of local liquor. Hungary offers palinka, a fruit brandy made from fruit mash like plums, apricot, berries, and pears. In Bosnia, I tried a drink called raki, which was like moonshine and the distiller boasted that his was the only one around made from pine needles. I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed either liquor, but sometimes I find myself searching the corner store for a forgotten bottle of Palina.
What is the point of travel if it doesn’t change us or challenge us? For my 35th birthday in Prague, I ate a roasted rabbit. If someone offered me rabbit in the US, I’d politely decline. Somehow, while watching the pedestrians traverse the steep stairs through the Jewish quarter in the City of 100 Spires, I felt like a wild hare of a bed of greens with a side of buttery mashed potatoes was the ONLY appropriate food to eat. It was delicious.
I don’t know what other people or INFPs experience, but from my perspective, everyday life can be rather challenging. Every noise is too loud, every light is too bright, every smell is too strong, and I can read the emotional undercurrent in every face around me. While travelling, some spaces have been nearly unbearable. I’ve endured those experiences by sinking as deeply into my own self as possible and waiting for the external environment to change until either it is less painful or I can leave.
These are the items that I always pack with me to help create a more positive travelling experience as an INFP. For those of you unfamiliar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality inventory, INFP is one of the 16 categories of personality type. It is on the more rare end, comprising only about four percent of the global adult population. The acronym stands for Introvert, Intuitive, Feeling, Perceiving.
When I travel, I stay in hostels for a few reasons. If I stay alone in guest houses, I would never have any incentive to talk to anyone else who speaks my language. That would be TOO easy. Staying in hostels gives that extra layer of challenge. Also, they are inexpensive. I travel very low budget. While travelling in the US, the hostels that are slowly popping up across the States are far less expensive than staying in hotels or in Air BnB locations. Finally, I believe it is important to consistently meet other people who will expose me to their ideas, their thoughts, their stories, and yes, sometimes even their toxicity.
I have stayed in multiple hostels across the countries of Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania; and in the cities of Prague, Krakow, Budapest, Bratislava, Llubljana, Guadalajara, Vancouver, Toronto, Victoria, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Diego, Portland, Bozeman, Chicago, Manhattan, DC, Cleveland, Nashville, Sacramento, Columbus, Charleston, Savannah, and probably more that I can’t recall at this immediate moment. Without churning the memories in my mind to calculate the exact number, I estimate that I have stayed in at least 120 different hostels. This is my hostel survival kit.
Before my first long-term experience through South America, I picked up a clothesline at REI and was SO happy I had it with me. Laundry facilities were difficult to find outside of the cities, and I did a lot of hand washing. Also, in the humid climate the towels after showering would have never dried without that clothesline hung in front of the fan. With the clothesline, I did not have to give any energy to worrying about my damp clothes growing mold in my pack.
The sarong is a highly versatile item. It’s an extra blanket in overly air conditioned environments like buses, air planes, and some hostels; a towel at the beach or riverside; a privacy curtain across the front of the bunk beds in the dorm room; a skirt, a scarf, or a pashmina; or a pillow when folded. Sarongs are lightweight and dry quickly, and worth the $25 to buy one online.
Plastic Bags in Multiple Sizes
Think like three grocery-type plastic bags, three sandwich bags, and two freezer bags. I use these for food storage at the hostels, or to pack food before a long day on the bus. One plastic bag definitely always has laundry in it, and then I keep an extra on hand in case something I own is exposed to bed bugs. Disgusting, but it has happened three times. Also, in really muddy or rainy weather, I have used pieces of plastic bags as an extra barrier between my socks and my hiking shoes. While travelling, if I accumulate more bags than what I bring with me, I don’t throw any of them out until I return back to wherever home is at that time. Many times, they are all in use somehow.
Mason Jar with Lid
Here is another simple item with many uses. Coffee to go. Soup to go. Oatmeal to go. Water. I didn’t trust the cleanliness of the glasses or bowls at the questionable hostel. I collected stones at the river and needed a place to store them before I acquired another plastic bag. The hostel had (very) limited water usage and none of it was hot, and I needed to maximize my water usage. To keep the mason jar from shattering in my pack, I stuff my sarong into the center of the jar, and then fold the outer edges of the sarong around the outside of the jar.
I have five go-to essential oils that I bring when I travel. Lavender is a given. A few drops on my pillow and my eye mask helps me sleep at the hostel, and also dispels any unpleasant odors. I tend to get anxiety on crowded buses and airplanes, and lavender relieves the symptoms a bit.
Tea tree oil is a natural disinfectant. I use it while hand washing clothes, or I pour a drop into my shoes at the end of each day. Nobody wants their boots to be the pair that stinks up the dorm room. Also once I made the error of neglecting to wash the oatmeal out of my mason jar for a few days, and the tea tree oil alongside soap and water de-funked it enough to continue using it.
Frankincense is good for the skin, and each morning, I rub a drop of it directly onto my face. It helps moisturize my skin, eliminates bacteria, reduces anxiety, and also diminishes the appearance of aging. I’m not a vain person, but I never want to return from a trip abroad through a distant land to hear my friends and family say, “wow her years as a nomad are starting to catch up to her.”
Peppermint relieves tired feet and stimulates circulation. I use food grade Young Living brand peppermint oil, which is safe to add to drinking water. One or two drops in the morning reduces fatigue and helps me recover from any travel-related headache or tiredness. I am not much of a drinker and honestly can’t ever recall feeling “hungover,” but I have shared my oil with other people at hostels who report that peppermint relieves the symptoms of too much alcohol. If you are planning to ingest peppermint oil, be careful to purchase food grade pure essential oils that are safe to consume.
Another food grade oil from Young Living that I use is their Thieves Vitality oil. The Thieves Vitality blend is a powerful immune-boosting combination of Clove, Lemon, Cinnamon Bark, Eucalyptus, and Rosemary oils. It’s named for a band of thieves from 15th century France, who robbed the graves of those who died of the Black plague. These thieves protected themselves from the disease using this same herbal combination. The world is a fairly dirty place. Since I travel alongside the locals, I touch the same surfaces with my hands and breathe the same air trapped in the subways and metros. I am vaccinated against the Hepatitis viruses, typhoid, and yellow fever, but even the common cold can create misery when sharing a dorm, a kitchen, and a bathroom with fifty strangers. Thieves Vitality oil has helped me stay healthy under stress.
As an INFP, these items help me balance the external overwhelm of travelling so that I can continue to learn from what life is teaching me. They are inexpensive and simple tools with many versatile uses, and have improved the quality of my journeys so that my gentle internal world is not distracted with a harsh and formidable external environment.
While exploring one of the most charming neighborhoods I have seen in Cincinnati, I was reminded that history is viewed through the eyes of the victorious aggressor. That’s why Grandmother’s Foot is now called Montserrat, and why there is no longer a temple to the sun at the top of El Panecillo. In the swift current of human time and warfare, knowledge erodes like sediment, washed into a lost ocean.
Columbia Tusculum is the oldest neighborhood in the City of Cincinnati, and the second oldest white settlement in the Northwest Territory. The Northwest Territory was founded in 1787, and included what would become the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota. It’s formal name was the Territory Northwest of the Ohio River.
Benjamin Stites and the Disappearing Horses
A white man named Benjamin Stites learned about the area when he was on a hunting expedition in Kentucky. A group of Native People allegedly stole some horses, and he and others began to pursue them. The Native People built a raft and crossed the Ohio River, near the mouth of the Little Miami River. Stites never recovered the horses, but he decided that the location he explored would be an ideal location for his settlement. He returned to his family in Pennsylvania, and immediately negotiated an agreement with a New Jersey Congressmen named John Cleves Simms. Simms purchased a large piece of land in the newly established Northwest Territory, and sold Stites a 20,000 acre parcel at less than a dollar an acre, near the junction of the Ohio and Little Miami Rivers.
Stites gathered a settlement party of 26 people from New Jersey. Although they anticipated hostility and conflict with Native People on their journey, they encountered none. They had heard rumors of 500 Native People waiting for them to arrive but their scout canoe saw no one. The party of settlers arrived safely on the morning of November 18, 1788.
Living in Fear
Although relations with the Native People were pleasant enough in the early days of the settlement, they soon turned sour. History records the murder and kidnapping of the white settlers, earning the area the dire nickname of “Slaughterhouse.” A history book describes a cabin constructed only the year after the arrival into the territory in 1789:
“Its narrow doors of thick oak plank, turning on stout wooden hinges, and secured with strong bars braced with timber from the floor, formed a safe barrier to the entrance below; while above, on every side, were port-holes, or small embrasures, from which we might see and fire upon the enemy. Of windows we had but two, containing only four panes of glass each, in openings so small, that any attempt to enter them, by force, must have proved fatal to an assailant.”
The Battle of Fallen Timbers
In 1794, the US army staged the Battle of Fallen Timbers along the Maumee River in Northwest Ohio. This would be the final battle in the Northwest Indian War between the Native People affiliated with the Western Confederacy and their British Allies, and the United States. The leaders of the Western Confederacy included Chief Little Turtle of the Miami, Chief Blue Jacket of the Shawnee, Chief Buckongahelas of the Lenape, Chief Egushawa of the Ottawas, and others that history has rendered invisible. At least one tribe, the Chickasaws, fought alongside the US as allies. Although the battle itself was only about an hour, it’s consequences resulted in the forced displacement of the Native People from what is now the State of Ohio.
Settling into the 19th Century
After the victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, the white settlers in Columbia Tusculum felt safe to construct their homes with less safety measures. However, as they began to expand their settlement, they realized they were building on a flood plain of the Ohio River. They relocated to the foot of Tusculum Hill in 1815, and most of the existing neighborhood survives still today. The oldest home that is still occupied nearly 225 years later is at 3644 Eastern Avenue and was built in 1805. It has evolved over the years, from a modest log cabin to its current Gothic Revival architectural style.
Many of the houses are on the National Registry of Historic Places, including the rows of “Painted Ladies” that line Tusculum Avenue. The Painted Ladies are Victorian era homes, adorned in brilliant and bright colors that contrast sharply when compared to the more modest dress of our 21st century, prefabricated homes. However, the newer homes in this neighborhood are modeled after the Painted Ladies, maybe to maintain consistency of appearance. Today, this neighborhood is like the SF of Cinci; any home for sale costs upwards of half a million dollars, an impossible price for the average Cincinnati local who earns a median income of $43,000.
We will never know what happened to the horses that Stites followed from Kentucky to the spot of land near the Ohio River and the Little Miami River. Did he really believe the Native People had stolen them, or were they an easy scapegoat? We will also never know the story of conquest from the perspective of the Native People who lost their land and thousands of years of cultural heritage and knowledge within a few years time. If we have learned anything from the lessons that 2020 has offered, it is that we can’t trust the story fed to us from the leadership. But I guess my most pressing question is who in the world is buying a house that costs half a million dollars?
In 1949, a literature professor at Sarah Lawrence College coined a term that summarized comparative mythology and its relationship to the human experience. Joseph Campbell began to describe the narrative process of a protagonist venturing into the world to fill a need, who then faces and overcomes conflict and adversity, and finally returns, triumphant, as “The Hero’s Journey.” It is a narrative of struggle, resilience, and victory.
The Hero’s Journey is 12 steps, within three stages. The three stages are the Departure, when the Hero leaves their ordinary world; the initiation, when the Hero ventures into the Unknown; and the triumphant Return. When we apply the more detailed and thorough 12 steps to our own lives, particularly when we set the intention to grow from our travels, we embrace the magic of mythology and our destiny to design meaning for ourselves during this glimpse of time on Earth.
Personal growth and travel both require us to confront the unknown. Like the Hero, at some point we are aware that the lives we are living are no longer providing what we need. Something needs to change. We need to adjust our experience, and cross borders into other lands. That space may be inside of our own psyche, or across the distant mountains, or both. When we journey across the Earth, what we experience is a projection of our expectations, and a mirror of our own fears. As creative beings invested in a mythology of experience, we can apply the Hero’s Journey to our process, and use it as a guide to grow deeper.
When I finally followed the 10 out of Los Angeles in July of 2018, my Ford Fiesta (where every drive is a party) was packed with a few bins of belongings stacked neatly between clothes and camping gear. My dog Nahla rode shotgun, curled into a furry ball on a pillow like a princess. I crossed the Imperial Valley eastward on a road that melted into a heat oasis between mountains of piled rock. It merged into an alien landscape bristling with Joshua Trees and tumbleweeds. I imagined my future extended before me, equally out of focus, and perhaps as barren and inhospitable as the sun that scorched the dust and asphalt.
Leaving Home to Return to the Familiar
Although I was returning to a theoretically familiar place, I knew I was venturing into the unknown. I was leaving my social and professional network, and the life I had built in Northern California for 14 years. No more Harbin Hot Springs or Sierra Hot Springs. No more respite from the heat in the Yuba River, the Trinity River, the Salmon River, the Feather River, or the Sacramento River. No more camping in the Siskiyou-Trinity Alps. No more Bigfoot. No more slow Saturdays with coffee at the Weathervane, an afternoon swim at the Capital Athletic Club, and an early evening pint at the Fox and Goose. No more running into friends at the park. Northern California and the Pacific Northwest will probably continue to be the place where I felt like my most authentic version of myself, where I felt most like I spoke a language aligned with the other humans.
Every Path Includes a Detour
The whirlwind whisked me through 15 states and eight foreign countries. After leaving Los Angeles, I ventured north through Nevada and into Utah. I explored Zion National Park before continuing along Idaho’s Salmon River Byway. In Montana, I rested at the Lost Trail Hot Springs, got lost on back roads in the mountains to luck into one last available camping spot at dusk to discover it was actually the site I had reserved and so was not lost at all, and ate my first hot meal since Los Angeles at a brunch cafe in Missoula.
In Wyoming’s Big Horn National Forest, I hiked Medicine Mountain to gaze in wander at the active Medicine Wheel, met a traveler from Russia who wore her traditional village clothing and who carried a glass bottle of water in a woven basket, and camped in a hail storm shivering with cold and fear of the bear that lurked outside my tent silhouetted against the full moon light. I arrived at my brother’s place in Bloomington in time for his birthday, and with two weeks to unpack before boarding a plane to Budapest from Manhattan.
Opening to Opportunity
Had I not said “yes” to the opportunity to travel, I would not have met Oben a Turkish doctoral student in Budapest; Jeff the Taiwanese teacher in Bratislava; Bella and Pauline from Brussels in Zadar; Oliver the French chef in Ljubljana; Nikki and Cade from Australia who had been traveling for over a year with only a small backpack between them in Sofia; Ole the Norweigan prison guard; Thomas from the Netherlands in Belgrade venturing into a journey to discover his heart and his talent; Janet from New Zealand in Bucharest; Peter in Csikszereda with tattoos on his arms written in runic Hungarian script; Botond and Maria the Romanian middle schoolers who laughed in embarrassment at their attempts to say the English words “squirrel,” “walrus,” and “seal”; and the many others who etched their shared destiny onto stars in my own version of sky.
On August 16, 2018, before leaving Indianapolis on a Manhattan-bound train, I wrote:
My life is an unanswered question. The future is unwritten, and has yet to rise from the ash of the past. I welcome it, however it appears, and I welcome this time to create it, to invent myself again, and move forward into a brighter freedom. My life is what I want it to be; I am whoever I want to become. The events in the past are gone, and they have no more power over me. It is a new morning. The great rain has washed it away.
Today my life is singing crickets, the moist air of a humid summer, trails through verdant meadows and dense forest, and the promise that what I initiate into being through my energy, my focus, my creativity, and my desire will return as gifts on the horizon. Even if within this moment of pandemic and social unrest, I do not see them from where I currently watch, if I keep moving forward, I will reach them. Life is an adventure with a multidimensional view, and another storm is brewing on the eastern horizon.
Some of the most influential teachers are people I have encountered through travel. Although these individuals were not attempting to teach, the experiences that emerged as a result of our intersected paths offered important opportunities for me to expand my understanding about myself and the other humans around me. Even brief moments give insight.
Jose the Hostel Owner
We arrived into Pucon at the peak of Chile’s high season. The Santiago hostel where we had been stayed since arrival was swarming with European and Brazilian travelers, who gathered in the small kitchen and crowded common areas to coordinate adventure trips into the Atacama, down to Patagonia, or out to the Conguillio National Park. We were a bit over halfway through our journey, and we had not anticipated the expense or the tourist population density we encountered in Chile. After looking ahead at our schedule to our next border crossing into Argentina, we decided the best course of action might be to leave Santiago for a bit to explore the south as we were able, knowing that we would return to the capital city to wait for our ticket to Buenos Aires.
We had heard rumors of this place called Pucon, nestled at the banks of the Villarica Lake beneath the shadow of Villarica volcano. This town is also the gateway into the Conguillo National Park. It reminded us both of Aspen or Taos, with its boutique gift shops and high-end coffee bars. Our hostel was a short walk from the bus station, and we found it easily. It was owned by a man named Jose who spoke English very well, and who was recovering from a broken relationship with a woman named Amanda. Jose cozied up to us quickly during our two nights there, and I was immediately suspicious about his motivations and intentions.
The exact details regarding what unfolded over the next three days are unimportant. It is likely that I would remember them out of order anyway. However, my bank card and a handful of Chilean and American cash vanished from my pack while it was locked at the hostel. I am not in a position to say for certain who stole it, but I did notice that someone in particular was watching me carefully while I stowed the money before locking the cabinet. Fortunately, I had a second bank card associated with a second account, and my bank froze all transactions immediately and rejected an attempted charge to buy $400 worth of shoes from a shoe store down the street from the hostel.
Trust my own intuition when I sense another’s shadow.
An English Speaking Crew
Prague and Krakow were both quite chilly in late May, but since I had been flying directly from 92 degrees in Sacramento any temperature less than 80 would feel cold. For several days, I had been wearing ratty jeans with frayed hems beneath my dresses in an attempt to stay warm, which is a fashion move I had not attempted since leaving Arcata where every Humboldt Honey wears as many frumpy layers as possible. Anywhere beyond the Redwood Curtain though, and this look raises eyebrows. It was particularly questionable as I was waiting in line to enter a club in Krakow called Frantic. It is not the type of place that I would choose to go, but I had found myself intermingled with a group of the other English speakers at the hostel, a crew of 20-something-year-old Australians and Canadians.
I felt like their annoyed older sister. At the first bar, I reminded them not to put their feet onto the furniture, and had to ask them several times to speak in a quieter tone, until of course we were directed to leave. At Club Frantic, I was particularly embarrassed to notice that every other woman was wearing tights and heels, while we had on hiking boots, torn denim, and even flannel tied around our waists. I camped out in the corner, sipping reflectively on my Mojito (a Polish specialty?), and observed the social dynamics.
The English speaking crew had positioned themselves in the center of the dance floor. Most of them had been drinking heavily, and one of the Australian girls tried to climb the DJ booth but a Canadian gently begged her to calm down. I watched for a bit while they continued to call attention to themselves, more and more, until a pack of security guides hustled onto the floor. Before I could respond or react, another guard approached me at my table and informed me that, “it is time for my group to leave,” and did I need assistance out? Although it was polite of him to ask, I told him I could find the door myself. I was almost ready to head out anyway to catch sleep before my bus back to Prague.
On my walk returning to the hostel, a large crowd of people had gathered to listen while a musician played Oasis, “Wonderwall.” At the chorus, everyone chimed in to sing together, “There are many things that I would like to say to you…but I don’t know how…” The next morning over breakfast, I learned that the English crew had been forcefully removed from the club without being allowed to get their belongings from coat check, resulting in several lost passports. We had been too obvious in our language, our actions, and our behaviors.
My native knowledge of the English language is a privilege, but also a responsibility and a liability.
The Other American
On my 50 day journey through the Balkans and Eastern Europe, I met very few other Americans outside of Budapest until I arrived on-site at my volunteer project in a small mountain village in northeast Romania. Although I was assisting middle school youth with English-language homework, I was sharing accommodation with other volunteers assigned to other projects such as animal rescue, special needs education, and community gardening. My daily schedule was different than most other volunteers, so I typically had the common areas to myself, other than the community gardening volunteer. She and I usually made morning coffee and prepared our lunches for the day at the same time. She was another American, a retired single woman who had spent a career in corporate HR. Being American and female is pretty much where our similarities abruptly halted.
I still haven’t fully figured out if I found her so disagreeable because of misaligned personality differences, or because she was an objectively offensive person. I found her communication style loud and abrasive to the point that I felt dizzy when she spoke at me. Also, at times, she expressed anger at me for innocent things I had done and instead of communicating with me in a professional way, she shut down and claimed that it didn’t matter what she thought of me. Our emotional entanglement felt like we had a long history together, although we had known each other for only a few days.
The most significant struggle between us occurred when she caught a virus. Instead of acknowledging her sickness, she refused to rest and instead bragged about how strong she was for working through her illness. A few days later, I felt myself fatiguing and I considered not heading to my worksite but resting instead. I only had a few more days on the project before my 13-hour bus ride back to Hungary, and I didn’t want to be sick on that trek. Instead of listening to my own needs, I allowed her to influence me and I went to my site. Two days later, I was extremely ill and it was a virus I carried with me all the way back to Chicago. My ears are now permanently damaged, and I always wonder how many others I infected on the bus, plane, and train in the following days.
My body is all that I own. I must protect it, and no one else can tell me how it feels or what to do with it.
I have also met countless other people who have taught me important and powerful lessons through their generosity, gratitude, openness, flexibility, positivity, and their own willingness to accept their lives as an opportunity to learn and grow alongside me and the seven billion more. In this constant state of impermanence on the planet we call earth, we are all travel guides for each other.
During my journey through central Europe and the Balkans, I frequently rearranged plans. When I first outlined my loose itinerary, Zagreb was on the map. I cancelled it entirely after hearing from Oben, a Turkish doctoral student in Budapest, that Belgrade was more worth the experience. I was not certain that I wanted to go to Serbia, but rather preferred to explore Kosovo. However, I ventured to Belgrade, by-passing Zagreb and Pristina. I departed Belgrade two days early because I could not handle the intensity of the parties and cigarette smoke. A Dutch Gemini named Thomas and I considered traveling together, but he was going northwest, and I was going southeast, so we parted ways.
After four days that felt like a long winter in Nis, Serbia, I crossed the border into Bulgaria. I met Olivia, a British teacher on assignment, and we wandered the pedestrian streets and drank cold-pressed juice. From there, I planned to venture east and kayak in the Black Sea. I had wanted to see Plovdiv, Europe’s oldest city. Established in 6000 BC, Plovdiv is 3000 years older than Athens. However, when I arrived in Sofia, I was nearly a week behind schedule. I was expected to meet someone at the train station in Miercurea Ciuc, Romania, at a very specific time and day. I needed to make some decisions.
What if we all approached our lives like a backpacking journey? If we are able to evaluate life from the temporary situation that it is, we might begin to feel more free in our decisions. We might place more importance on our own dreams, desires, and fulfillment, instead of what others might think of us. We might feel less afraid of failure, and more open to rearranging the pieces of my life to create something new. A minor redirection now will substantially alter the course of movement over time. We are each responsible for our lives. If something doesn’t fit correctly, rearrange the pieces.
It may take more time than is preferred to lay a new path. I probably could have skipped Bucharest entirely. Three weeks in Santiago, Chile, was far too long. Was Cartagena, Colombia, fun after five days? Not really. But I didn’t throw up my hands and say, “Well, I guess I’m in Cartagena forever now.” Such a powerless fate is ridiculous. Instead, I tried to make the best of circumstances, and organized a plan to depart.
Travel requires constant flexibility, adaptability, and acceptance. So does the rest of life. The experience of travel forces those lessons. We immediately accept the temporary arrangement of every beautiful and inspiring person and place we meet. We might even appreciate those moments more because we are consciously and actively aware of the impermanence. When we meet distasteful people, we walk away. If we land in a place that doesn’t fit, we leave. During travel, we learn how to be open to new experiences, and to accept transition and flow. Through the release of expectation, we move forward into whatever and wherever is next with understanding that no matter which road greets the morning sun, it continues beyond the horizon into the unknown.
When we travel, we communicate a message to the universe that we are open to new people and places, who carry with them new ideas and experiences. The more open we are and the more often we reinforce the behavior of someone who is open, the more fulfilled and enriched our lives are with growth, opportunity, and insight. Through travelling we accept whatever challenges, obstacles, difficulties, and longings we will encounter, and venture forth, knowing the journey may be treacherous, but acting in faith that whatever we experience will bring us closer to the truth that we are on this planet to learn.
A short story by Diane Johnson called GreatBarrier Reef describes this transformative power of travel. The female narrator, an American from California, has agreed to accompany her Australian boyfriend on a five day journey to the Great Barrier Reef. Her shipmates repulse her, the food churns her stomach, and she is miserable in the meager accommodations. Furthermore, she encounters two other American passengers, a married man and woman, and she resents being trapped at sea with others of her kind.
To add to her frustrations, the ship stops at tiny islands where the passengers shop at tacky tourist stands. Unable to contain her resentment further, the narrator pulls her boyfriend into her misery:
Each morning, each afternoon we stopped at another island … The crew hands the heavy, sack-like people grunting down into rowboats, and hauls them out onto a sandy slope of beach. Up they trudge toward a souvenir shop. This one had large shells perched on legs, and small shells packed in designs on picture frames, and earrings made of shells, and plastic buckets, and plastic straw hats surrounded with fringe, and pictures of hula dancers.
“I don’t care, I do hate them,” I ranted passionately to J. “I’m right to hate them. They’re what’s the matter with the world, they’re ugly consumers, they can’t look at a shell unless it’s coated in plastic, they never look at the sea– why are they here?”
We Confront Our Own Inner Darkness
In her inner mind, the narrator feels guilty about her inability to enjoy her experience. She feels like a petty, small, and materialistic American who is ruining her good-natured boyfriend’s journey to see one of the Earth’s wonders before it is extinct and gone forever. I must admit that I have occupied the same small-minded and judgmental space. In every resort town I have traveled through, I have resented the wealthy Westerners who waddle slowly down the always narrow and cobblestone alleys, dragging their designer luggage behind them. On the local buses, I have cringed at the sound of American or Australian travelers speaking way too loudly, and have wondered, “Don’t they realize that everyone on the bus can hear their conversations?” Feeling superior during these times, I snuggled into my self-absorption and pretended that I was better, or at least not American.
As the five-day journey approaches day three, the narrator begins to learn about her fellow travelers. It is a small group, and she is not able to stay isolated inside her own dark ruminations the entire time. She learns that two of them are brother and sister, and the brother’s wife was recently passed. They were exploring the Great Barrier Reef together to aid the grieving process. A single man was recently retired, and he had saved for twenty years to take this journey. Seeing the Great Barrier Reef had been his lifelong dream. Four of the passengers were a group of friends who had lived freely for 40 years, caravanning around the planet, describing Split, Yugoslavia (Croatia) as, “the most beautiful place in the world.” Having been to Split myself and wandered the ancient hallways of Diocletian’s former palace, I must agree that it is on the top five list.
We Overcome Dangerous and Scary Situations
The narrator attempted to hold onto her chilly demeanor but as they approached the Reef, a massive storm threatened to swallow their relatively small ship. She realized that this was a legitimately dangerous situation, and as the ship dove through the waves, her thoughts turned toward blame. “All J’s [her boyfriend’s] fault. If I ever saw the children again, it would be a miracle, or else them saying in the after years, Our mother perished in the high seas somewhere off Australia. What would they remember of me?”
When the crew began to consider turning back, she was overcome with stubborn contempt that they would travel so far, that she had been trapped for days with her shipmates, and they would not arrive at their destination. She feared her struggle would not receive the simple reward she had sought. It this space of worry, she also felt the concern for the other travelers with her. They also had accepted the journey. They had their dreams and they too had eaten the tinned peas, and they too were thrown across the gulley with the waves and the water beating the side of the ship. At that moment, her thoughts were directed beyond her own misery, and it was in this space of compassion that she began to allow her journey to change her.
The storm subsided as quickly as it had arrived, and they did arrive at the reef. The narrator was shocked to witness the coral as a sighing and sucking sponge. She had imagined a wall of jagged and sharp fragments, not the “eyeless formations of cabbagey creatures … yearning toward tiny ponds of water lying on the pitted surface, pink, green, gray, viscous, silent.”
We Recognize a New Perspective
As she gazed completely still into this nearly alien life-form, she allowed the lessons of the journey to seep into her mind. She was careful not to step on the coral in fear of injuring it, and she was also aware of her toxic mind and her “bad-natured passions” seeping into the water at her feet. The Hindu concept of ahimsa entered her awareness. Ahimsa is the decision to not harm any living beings through action, word, or thought. She realized that she could heal her harmful and toxic behavior on the journey to the reef through a conscious action to do no more harm now, toward her fellow travelers, the coral, or herself. Leaving the reef to return to Australia, she felt “healed of a poisoned spirit.”
It is not the travel alone that transforms us; everything must originate in our own self first. But the acceptance of a difficult journey is the initiation into transformation. It communicates that we are willing to face the unknown, we are willing to confront fear and uncertainty, we are willing to risk our familiar routine for a chance to breakthrough into beauty. Let the adventure begin!