Travel Guides

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.

EditedPuconVolcano
Pucon’s Villarica volcano.

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.

Lesson learned?

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.

The Central Plaza
Krakow’s Central Plaza.

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.

Lesson learned?

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.

Volunteer Accommodation
The volunteer house.

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.

Lesson learned?

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.

An Experiment with Impermanence

Fully awake (1)

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.

Four Ways that Travel Changes Us

We Accept 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 Great Barrier 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. 

Split
View of Split, Croatia, from Marjan Park in September, 2018.

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!

Perspectives on Budapest

Before visiting Budapest, I had no real expectations or idea about what I would see, feel, or do. I did take some time to learn a few bits of the Hungarian language, which allowed me to more easily connect with the locals. Once I opened the dialogue with their native words, they were accommodating and switched to English. The young people spoke nearly perfect English, and I learned about the recent history out of communism. Budapest felt like a very free city, and it wasn’t until my final trek to the bus station that I realized I hadn’t seen a single law enforcement officer or military personnel during my week there. I don’t know what daily life is like as a resident of Budapest, but I do believe that Americans have some growth opportunities to learn from the resourcefulness, creativity, and expression apparent in this city.

Szimpla Kert

Inside of Ruin Bar
A quick view inside Szimpla Kert, Budapest’s most famous romkocsma, or ruin pub. This particular ruin pub was constructed inside a closed factory that was scheduled to be torn down. The owners decided to turn it into somewhat of a community center instead. Now it offers a farmer’s market, a few places to eat and drink, and spaces that Hakim Bey might call, “temporary autonomous zones.” I think these ruin pubs could be positive inspiration for those of in the States who are tired of the empty big box retailer buildings and the unfilled strip malls. Szimpla Kert is filled with post-modern art, permaculture decor, quality food, electronic music, and life.

Szent Istvan Bazilika

Basilica
St. Stephen was Hungary’s first King, and his right had is supposedly stored and preserved inside the church. I didn’t take the tour, but this is where I arranged to meet a person from Couchsurfing who wanted to show me around the city.

Public Fountain in front of Gellert Thermal Bath

Public Mineral Water Fountain
The public water fountain offers anyone the opportunity to fill their bottles with the healing mineral water, famous in Budapest. The waters are said to help with pain relief, stomach and digestive issues, skin problems, and general stress and malaise. I sampled three different thermal baths, which I will write about in another entry. Gellert is located on the Buda side of the city. You can see Liberty Bridge connecting to Pest across the Danube in the background.

Szechenyi Lanchid

Crossing the Chain Bridge
The Chain Bridge crosses the Danube River to connect the two cities of Buda and Pest, representing the link between the East and the West. This is considered one of the most popular tourist destinations in Budapest, and based on the long line of people walking across, I believe it. This is the Pest-facing view of Gresham Palace.

St. Ivan’s Cave

Castle in the Hillside
Also called Gellert Hill Caves, or Gellerthegyi-barlang, St. Ivan’s Cave is named after the monastic hermit who lived there and healed the sick from the mud and the thermal water that flows through the cave system. This cave was then used as a Nazi army hospital during WWII. Under communism, the cave was sealed and the space was closed. It opened again in the late 1980s, and was restored in the early 1990s. Today it is now used again as a sacred space for Catholic monks.

Pedestrian Side Street near Vaci utca

Pedestrian Street
Vaci utca is a huge pedestrian shopping district. It is lined with elegant cafes and upscale shopping. I’m not particularly in the market for Zara or Swarovski, but I walked through to take a look. In my opinion, these streets are much more aesthetically pleasing than the American inner-cities packed with traffic, homelessness, over flowing trash cans, and people plugged into headphones. The district was reminiscent of San Francisco, without the wealth gap and substance abuse.

Nagyvasarscarnok

Public Market
This is the Central Market Hall. The building had been badly damaged during the World Wars, and was restored in the 1990s. On the basement level is pickled vegetables and fish, on the second or ground level are spices and produce, and on the third level are crafts and eateries. I bought some grapes from a vendor, and the language barrier was a bit challenging. It was also very crowded. I didn’t stay long, but I left with a few bunches of grapes and 500ml of fresh squeezed grapefruit and orange juice.

 

 

Perspectives on the American West

Northern California

The Lake as Art (1)
Lassen National Park, glistening in late July snow and bubbling with mud pots.
Monitor Pass
California State Route 89 after passing the summit at Monitor Pass, heading toward Highway 395. At an elevation of 8,341 feet with a 9% grade from Markleeville, Rte. 89 and Monitor Pass is considered one of the most hazardous roads in California.

Southern California

Mojave Desert
Owens Valley, California, nestled within the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the White Mountains, and the Inyo Mountains, is one of the deepest in the United States. On the southern end of the valley is Owens Lake, which was drained in 1926 to give water to Los Angeles, and is now a dry endorheic alkali flat.

Utah

Utah's Dixie
Utah’s “Dixie” rests between St. George and the entrance to Bryce Canyon National Park. Although the Virgin River Anasazi were the first residents, the area became home to the LDS Church cotton mission during the Civil War. Rumor says it was named the “Dixie” to commemorate the cotton production.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Dramatic shadows contrast upon unique sandstone rock formations within Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

Idaho

Sawtooth Scenic Byway
Idaho’s Sawtooth Scenic Byway passes through fertile farmland and alongside vista points of lava and wind-blown sage.
Salmon River Scenic Byway
Idaho’s Salmon River Scenic Byway parallels the Salmon River from northeast of Sun Valley, until the Montana border. Few towns dot the landscape, but horses watch on as I take a break from the road and the cliffs.

Montana

Phillipsville, Montana
Phillipsville, Montana, is a surprising tourist village along Montana’s Highway 1. It’s well-kept historical downtown is quaint, and good for a quick break and walk.

Wyoming

Bighorn National Forest Tundra
The 1.12 million acres of the Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming includes two mountain peaks that rise over 13,000 feet, and both forest and tundra ecosystems. This gravel road through the tundra ends at the trail head to hike Medicine Mountain. The Lakota, Crow, and Cheyenne people all consider the Bighorn mountains to be sacred spaces.
Deer Family in Grassland Bighorn National Forest
After a chilly and exhausting night camping in the Bighorns, I stumbled upon this family of deer grazing in the meadow. Some sources suggest that the deer is a symbol of intuition, regeneration, and the ability to move gracefully through life’s obstacles.
Buffalo, Wyoming
Downtown Buffalo, Wyoming. Groups of bikers were passing through alongside me, heading eastward toward the annual rally in Sturgis, South Dakota.
Devil's Tower National Monument
According to the oral history of the Crow people, the grand monument now called Devil’s Tower grew from a rock that sprang into the sky to protect two young girls from becoming bear food. The deep groves on the side of the monument are bear claws. The Arapahoe, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Lakota people all have versions of a legend as well, and the bear is a common thread between all the histories.

Nomad on the Move

It was a week ago to this day that I closed my position at the environmental justice non-profit in northern California, and said goodbye to friends, coworkers, and the life that had become familiar for two years. I felt no sadness, as my return to my own personal wilderness was manifest from a plan sketched in my mental notes a year earlier. It was closure and peace, and in the final months of my time, I visited old friends from grad school and connections from my Red Cross days, people I had not seen for years.

A comfortable awareness of transition eased the relationships along, and in each interaction, I felt profound gratitude that my life had shared space with these individuals for a moment in time. As I shook hands and said goodbye to the Executive Director at the non-profit where I had worked, he said, “thanks for stopping by,” and that went on to explain that’s how life is; we come into one place, meet people, gather experiences, and then continue onto somewhere else. Spoken like a true nomad.

The day after my job was done, I wasted no time getting on the road. I packed my car with what remained of my belongings, trimmed down to the essentials of camping gear, clothing, a single bin of household goods, and my dog, and crossed Monitor Pass south of Tahoe to pick up California’s legendary Highway 395.

Big Pine Creek Campground (1)
Camping in Big Pine.

I paid $5.00 per gallon for gasoline in Lee Vining beside the ancient Mono Lake, phoned a friend back east while borrowing WIFI signal in a McDonald’s parking lot, and camped beneath the distant roar of thunder in Big Pine. The next day, I detoured far south to Long Beach to relax at a friend’s house with her beautiful family, and she and I laughed together as my dog played tag with her three year old son. We planned our professional futures, discussed the class struggle, and noted the temporality of life itself.

Now with an expansive desert between myself and California, the moments feel antiquated, like they unfolded in another lifetime, and this body has already lifted itself from those roots. From where I sit on this outdoor patio at a vegan coffee shop in downtown Ogden, Utah, I see only the mountains before me, and their new challenges to overcome. It’s northward from here.

We all know, intellectually, that life is short, that time slips away, that unfulfilled dreams never die, and that in the end we will want more love and not really care much about money. Those truths are more difficult to grasp and build as tangible foundations on our earth in the chaos of economic volatility, global injustice, and the president or some other celebrity’s latest inflammatory tweet. Let’s slow down, find whatever gives us faith, and enter the wilderness. If we are afraid to cross the desert and the mountains, we will never know what’s waiting on the other side.

Lessons from Five Months with a Backpack in South America

A few years ago, I spent five months backpacking through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and Argentina. I covered roughly 10,500 miles on the ground, traveling between sweltering below sea level jungles, to breathless high-elevation mountain tops. Although I stayed in hostels and showered if possible, it was difficult none-the-less to live out of a backpack for about 150 days and nights, especially when roaming through so many climate zones. While I learned plenty of tangible skills, the deepest lessons are philosophical, and I am still integrating them into my life years later.

imageedit_28_2271186035
Leaving Minca, Colombia.

Negotiate a balance between control and chaos.

Circumstance is an unknown variable in the formula of time. Although we might think we know our next three moves, elements beyond our scope of action could interfere. Reality is a shared manifestation between our own desires and the wishes of countless other factors. Keep the vision loose, and observe obstacles on the horizon. Outline contingencies and alternative paths when important outcomes are at stake; if nothing much is at stake, allow for cosmic alignment to guide the decision. On a day of abundance, flip a coin. On a day of scarcity, measure all possibilities and choose the most conservative option. Some things can be known, but the future is untold.

Release attachments.

Life is a temporary arrangement. We are accustomed to believe that a place is “ours,” that we have a home and it belongs to “us,” but even those people and those spaces that we inhabit once the adventure is closed will someday fade into the archives of our moment of time on this planet. We are all travelers, but some of us move more often and move faster than others. We are all nomads who haul our belongings behind us, but some of us drag a much smaller heap. The less baggage we carry, the easier to accept our own impermanence. No matter how beautiful the sunset over a canyon, the morning dew upon a meadow, the touch of a lover, the laughter in an impossible friendship, the moment will end. Appreciate what it is, a fleeting blessing. Accept it, and carry on.

Prioritize.

Choices between competing options are an inevitable consequence of the attempt to live fully, to dream grandly, and to grow abundantly. It is impossible to accomplish everything, to meet everyone, and to experience the destinations along all the paths through life. A full cup gives as much nourishment as one that overflows, without the waste. Decide what is most important to see, to do, to become, and travel fully in that direction. We can always look back, but that creates a risk of becoming stuck travelling one length of road over and over again. It is an expansive world. Try to focus.