Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Close one door to open another. South America, the Final Chapter.

It wasn’t working. So much was left unsaid, unwritten, untold. How was I supposed to move on without closing out a chapter? It didn’t flow. It didn’t make sense. I stared at the computer screen, the empty Microsoft Word Document in front of me. Where were my thoughts?! My inspiration?! I distracted myself by opening the file folder on my desktop aptly named, “Desktop stuff”. It is something I keep for the things I can’t seem to get rid of. Old pictures, quotes and other junk I can’t find a home for. One small “notepad” document stuck out to me. The “Final Blog” document boldly stood proudly among crap I just couldn’t delete. It dared me to open it. Click. In it I found the conclusion I was looking for. I guess I’ve got to close one door to open another.

And so, I present to you, the door that has been closed this whole time; The final South American blog post that never was. May this push the door to Thailand's written adventures wide open.


Final Chapter:

I sighed as I spoke to the receptionist about bus tickets. My pack rode heavy on my body today. I was cutting my r&r on the coast of Ecuador short. I had been very ill and finally felt like I was well enough for the ride to Quito where I could get some real medical attention. Along with nasty flu-like symptoms blisters were forming on my hands and feet. It was time to go. As the sun set and I hunkered on the curb, crouching on my backpack, I watched the bus pull up. I found a seat and organized my things around me familiarly, as I had done so many times before. I was putting my earbuds in as I looked up and saw him. With an exasperated sigh I could tell what was coming. This man walking down the aisle would take the seat next to me. He just would. I was tired, sick and emotionally exhausted. I was tired of being asked why I don’t have a boyfriend and propositioned simultaneously. I turned up my music as he plowed into my neighboring seat. for the first 45minutes of our 19hour bus ride he stared a lot. It was clear that he was trying to get my attention, and I was making it clear that that wasn’t going to happen. About 2 hours into the ride we were pulled over by the police. We were all escorted off the bus which meant I had to take off my headphones. Upon re-entering the bus I tried to get my headphones on faster than my neighbor could start a conversation with me; this time I failed.

“where are you from?”
“do you have a boyfriend?”
Really? What the fuck is wrong with people? My patience was already out the window and blindsided this guy with all the Latin rage I could muster.

“NO. I do NOT have a boyfriend. “
“why not?”
“it’s complicated.”
“I won’t make things complicated.”
“I don’t want you to be my boyfriend!”
“why not?”
“its NEVER going to happen.”
“come on baby, I’ll be a great boyfriend. I bet you have lots of boyfriends here in South America.”
“IS IT BECAUSE I’M UGLY?! IT’S BECAUSE I’M UGLY ISNT IT.” To which I responded by raising my eyebrows in a snotty way and slowly turning the other direction. He soon fell asleep and had a horrible, gaping-mouth look on his face that made me want to scream, “YES IT’S BECAUSE YOU’RE UGLY.” But I took a deep breath and, full of adrenaline, stared out the window. Only 10 hours left, I thought.

Deep in the mountains the bus began to slow and I saw the twinkling of lights ahead. We crawled down the road and the scene became brighter and brighter still. There were people in medical attire carrying and organizing mysterious remains covered in sheets lined up behind the charred remains of a bus, shockingly similar to the bus I was sitting in. It stood, twisted, black, smoking in the night air; A skeleton of its previous state. Doctors and police swarmed around it. My mouth gaped open and steam formed on the window in front of my face as we crept past this disastrous scene. Even when the scene around me darkened again and we picked up our pace I still remained, hand over my mouth, staring out the window. I could try and push it down, bury that emotion deep, but instead I let the feeling that had been overwhelming me for so long boil over. I cried because I was tired, because I had essentially been living on buses for the last 2 weeks. I cried because I didn’t know where I was going or why I felt so sick. I cried for the people that had lost their lives and the awful smell of burning that now wafted through our bus. I cried because that bus looked just like our bus and the charred remains on the side of the road would look just like mine. I cried for their families and friends, for the survivors and the deceased.

And then, by the grace of God, I slept.


The End:

On the last day of this journey, how do i feel? People keep asking me this and every time i hesitate and wring my hands a little while i answer. I'm happy to see my family and friends, but if I could return to see them and then leave again that would be ideal. I'm sad to leave these places, I'm sad to put this experience into my past. I'm upset that I have made friends with people I will never see again but I cherish what they have done to change my life. I am sad to leave this lifestyle and I am sad to leave this true independence.
To the people I have met along the way: I wasn't exaggerating, you really have changed my life for the better. I can reflect on every positive and negative relationship I made during the last 8 months and I can see they all have had their part in forming who I have become. But more than that, you have put my faith in fellow human beings back into my life. There was a time when I thought people were inherently malicious and careless. What I have seen the last 8 months has flipped that on its head. I have been helped, befriended and comforted exclusively by complete strangers. Some of those strangers went on to become friends, some still remain unknown. I arrived on this continent alone, without knowing a soul, that feeling was overwhelming. But people had my back. People were excited and welcomed me to their countries, cities and homes. Strangers gave me phone numbers with the expressed intention that, "if you ever need ANYTHING or have any questions please call me. Oh, and if you’re in town next Friday: do you want to come to my son's 9th birthday party??" It was fabulous to feel that I had support in a land unknown. So, thank you strangers. Without you, I would still be lost in the streets of La Paz. I would still be chasing the bus carrying all my worldly possessions down the Colombian highway. I would have been homeless that one night. I would still be in the Panamanian ghetto. I still would be lonely.
I will miss you deeply, South America: you have stolen my heart. Your culture is one I've never seen, your people different from anyone I've ever met, and your natural beauty gets me EVERY. TIME. Damn girl, you got some fiiiine waterfalls, jungles and glaciers.
Now I sit on the bed of my last dormitory, mere hours away from all things “airport”; Hours from English speaking territory, hours from family, from friends, from familiarity. Every hour, at this point, seems to take me farther and farther from a place that I hold so close to my heart. Maybe it’s because that's where I found my happiness again. What I need to remember is to not leave it where I found it. I need to not forget this on the nightstand when I’m packing my backpack tomorrow morning. But, this is not just my keys, my visa or my passport. This is something exceptionally more important. Wishing on stars and running the same routine in my old life day-in and day-out wasn't working. I have found the secret to happiness. What I see now is that happiness is a choice, you get to choose your outlook on life and, through thick and thin, I choose happiness.

Farewell sweet South America. Nos vemos. Besos. Chau.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Bolivian flight discounts

Half way through my tour through Bolivia I thought I was going to be spared the nightmarish transportation experience I’d heard so much about. It was the day our bus drove through a massive cloud of pepper spray with all the windows rolled down that I knew I was wrong.
The bus jolted down the road as the fat man next to me slowly crept into half my seat. I hugged my bag and tried in vain to sleep. When we arrived in Trinidad the next morning I blearily debarked the bus and grabbed my backpack. I found the only open kiosk and asked how much to Guayaramerin. A man with a severely overgrown pinky nail tried to explain it to me but all I could think was ew. Gross. Gross. Sick. Ew. Every time he swayed it back and forth in front of my face. It was hard to concentrate on his voice but what I gathered was that the road to Guayaramerin was not good. Ugly, he would say. He said, this time of year you would be lucky to make it there. If you did make it it could take up to ten days. And that is how I ended up at the Trinidad, Bolivian airport.
I approached the Bolivian military airline counter, knowing it would be the least expensive. He quoted me the price, of which I was $BS 25 short. That is roughly 3 us dollars. He told me not to worry and replaced my money with a ticket. I followed the line of people out onto the tarmac where I waited to board the plane. The man from the counter soon appeared and called me out of line. He ushered me to the group of 3 pilots near the nose of the plane. He explained that I had been given a discount. All three nodded in agreement and propped up the ladder. Those of you who know me well can probably imagine the look on my face when I realized they were putting me in the cargo hold of the airplane. The history of my fear of flying is long standing, and even though I don't have panic attacks anymore before I board an aircraft I am still not a huge fan of flying. I was literally laughing out loud as I climbed the ladder and squeezed into a green mesh hammock style seat amongst the suitcases. As soon as I was tucked they pushed the ladder in over the top of me and sealed the door. Craning my neck to see the top of a precarious wall of boxes and luggage in front of me I wondered what I my chances were of surviving this sans concussion. There wasn’t enough room for my knees and I had to sit at an awkward angle. There was another woman in there with me who looked up and said “why do I always get put in here?!” with a sort of panic in her voice as she made the sign of the cross on her chest and began to pray. The plane bumped along and every once in a while I would grab the ladder for stability or push a suitcase back into its place. I mostly kept my head in my hands trying not to be sick in the overheating cargo hold.
Climbing down the ladder, happy to be breathing fresh air again, I welcomed myself to Brazil and then promptly realized I don’t speak the language.
I've included a haphazardly concocted photograph of that prize of an airplane ride. enjoy.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Welcome to Amazonia

As we descended into the mist I repeated it won’t be like last time, it won’t be bad. This time will be better, I reassured myself. I felt the familiar panic as the jungle-claustrophobia that gripped my stomach pinned me to my seat. The small, toothless child that sat squeezed in between myself and her mother spat chunks of slimy potato on me as she ate. Alright. Here we go. Jungle, I’m back.

The work was hard. Every day I returned from the jungle beaten and tattered. I lived with rats slept on hay. The fear of snakes rose when a highly toxic one was found in the kitchen. We tried to keep the doors closed. The stray tortoise would wander into my room and I’d have to haul his heavy ass back outside. The toilet didn’t flush and the shower had no hot water. And the sweat bees. Sweat bees are an insect sent from hell to make you leave the jungle and never come back. As a local told me, it’s the jungles defense mechanism, nature’s way of saying “GET OUT”.
Sweat bees, as the name would suggest are insatiably attracted to your sweat. They will climb down your shirt to burrow into areas where you sweat the most. They will burrow through your hair to get to your sweaty scalp. But this isn’t the worst part. The worst part is there shameless attraction to eyes. More than any other part of my body the sweat bees had it out for my eyes. Diving down they’d hit the tear duct and scurry under my eyelid before I could catch them where they would undoubtedly die as I plunged all 10 of my fingers into the frantic task of finding and removing the nasty little fucker. The fact that they die there is the biggest problem with sweat bees. Even in death they defy all that is good in this world. Upon breathing their last, disgusting, sweat bee breath they release an odor that smells like the cleaning agent used in outhouses; this odor attracts more sweat bees and you, my friend, are fucked.

I was assigned to Spider Park, the location where a group of almost 30 spider monkeys lives. The site is hidden in the jungle so the locals cannot find and hurt or torment the monkeys. The Locals do not have a good reputation at the park.

Each morning and afternoon I would trek out to Spider Park with 20 pounds of fruit or 12 liters of oatmeal strapped to my back in a bucket. The climb was steep and sketchy, it was nothing more than a dried up waterfall (unless it was raining, then it was just a waterfall). We were told not to blindly grab anything because there are so many bullet ants in this area of the jungle. But sometimes clinging to rocks or grabbing roots were the only things keeping me and the rocks below from colliding. Once we reached the summit it was time to open cages. As the monkeys saw us coming excitement grew until the cage doors were released and an explosion of black arms and legs leapt into the trees above.

Touching moments with the spiders were not uncommon; they are group animals and willingly accept you as one of their own. One particularly hot afternoon I took the food bucket as a chair and climbed into an enclosed part of a jungle viewpoint where I would find shade and hide from the incessant “sweat bees”. Pacing my breath, as I often did when I was overheating or dehydrated, Bibi climbed down from a tree and walked over to me. Briefly putting her hand on my leg before fully committing, she climbed into my lap, wrapping all four of her arms and legs around me and, as a final measure of security, her tail. She buried her face in my armpit and there she stayed, squeezing me tight. I squeezed her back, running my fingers through her hair and talking quietly. Even when I stood up later she didn’t budge, she held on tight to my torso as I maneuvered to grab the bucket. It was then that I saw Goria, the alpha male, walking steadily towards me. Bibi had retreated to a nearby tree and I slowly put the bucket down, took my seat, and bent over so my head was in my lap; It’s better to not make eye contact with him. Goria is the largest of the monkeys and is known to be aggressive. His slack-jaw under bite isn’t so bad until its full of food and he is running full speed at you screeching monkey murder, pieces of papaya slipping down his face, stuck in his teeth, his mouth open wide to bare his massive teeth, arms in the air. Jesus. But today I was lucky, he just slipped his piss ridden tale across my face and up over my hair and continued on his way. I need a shower.

There are two resident capuchins in Spider Park: Lulu and Danielito. Capuchins are, sometimes simultaneously, adorable and psychotic. They are emotional animals who want nothing more than your attention. Lulu in particular wanted my attention. Often when I was sitting at the mirador she would climb up to sit on my shoulders and pick things out of my hair, chatting monkey chatter all the while. Then she would see the sweat, just a tiny trickle down the side of my face. She stopped biting my ponytail and pulling sweat-bees out of my hair and touched the line of sweat with her finger. She licked her finger. Then, quickly, fully pivoting so we were face to face she began licking my face. Starting at my forehead and only stopping briefly when I strongly advised she stay the fuck out of my eyes and nose.
The problem is that the stronger the bond you have with a capuchin is the more likely they are to bite or attack you. They become more confident with your relationship and as soon as you tell them “NO, you cannot have the lid to my bucket!” they freak out. One day Lulu grabbed an earring of another volunteer and I grabbed her hand to stop her. Her mouth wide, screeching loudly she pounced on my head, pulling my hair and trying to bite me. The other time I took something away from Lulu she climbed me like a latter, gripping my t-shirt with both hands opened her mouth to bare her teeth and feigned like she was going to bite my boob! She was looking up, making direct eye contact while screaming bloody murder; you could practically HEAR her saying, “I’M GONNA FUCKIN DO IT! I’M GONNA BITE YOUR TIT! IM GONNA DO IT!” and I’m running around in circles screaming “do NOT BITE MY TIT LULU. LULU I SWEAR TO GOD IF YOU BITE MY TIT. BAJO. DOWN LULU. BAJO BAJO. NO. NO BITING TITS. NO” until she figured she’s sufficiently freaked me out and ditched me for the nearest tree branch to sit and scream at me from a distance as if I’d just killed her first born.

Every day the work load wore me down. On the third day I cried on the climb up the waterfall. On the fourth day I was way too deep inside my head for my own good. As I walked through the jungle carting a shit ridden broom with me I looked up to see another volunteer losing her mind. She had been there 20 days and everyday seemed to get harder for her to stay. She collapsed at the upper bank of cages. She was curled up in a ball, swaying back and forth and sobbing. There is a no crying / no hugging rule at Spider Park, apparently it can be misinterpreted as aggression. I slowly climbed the hill to where she was and quietly sat down beside her; I put my hand on her shoulder and sat in silence while she cried. Mikaela, a mother spider monkey with a small infant monkey clinging to her stomach, descended the branches of a nearby tree and walked over. She sat down on the other side of the girl and put her hand on her other shoulder, and there we sat; the distant calls of the spider monkeys was all that disrupted the silence that consumed our moment. It was a true and genuine display of understanding and empathy. All of the animals up there have experienced such hardships in their short lives; it would be hard to prove that they cannot empathize with pain and sadness.

The work wasn’t appreciated; all that mattered was your money. There were a lot of politics in the park that weren’t right, backwards thinking. The safety standards were non-existent and for these reasons I ended up leaving early. I felt like I had failed by leaving early but I couldn’t really justify staying somewhere I wasn’t happy during my travels. I miss the monkeys more than I thought I would. I miss Monkey hugs, holding monkey hands and tails, happy monkey greetings and loud monkey laughs. I will miss the curious and empathetic look in their eyes. For this I am sad to leave but, as always: onward and upward.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


El Calafate is a sweet town, positioned 65 miles east of the Perito Moreno glacier, right smack in the middle of gaucho territory. Calafate is the “Cheers” of Patagonia; where everyone knows your name, and your business, and your great aunt’s brother’s wife’s business too.

99% of the people I worked with were wonderful and I will remember them forever. I will also, unfortunately, remember the 1% as well. Let’s sum up my relationship with this individual with his last works spoken to me the night before I left: “SSSHHHH mother FUCKER.” Ahh, it really couldn’t have ended in a better way.

Living in El Calafate is slow paced and I soon found work politics filtering into my everyday life. You find your place pretty quickly in an isolated community. Soon I was forming relationships with the other volunteers, employees and owners; their story was becoming mine. But, in finding a place here I ended up realizing how distant the call was from the real world back in Oregon. The 9-5 world is not calling my name, or if it is I’m hightailing it in the opposite direction. My travel itch became more and more intense the longer i sat behind a desk answering questions and caring for traveling adults who act like helpless children.

We collectively cooked meals to share with the staff which, in turn, brought all of our different cultures to one dining room table. On Thanksgiving we went all out. I made sweet potato casserole, pumpkin pie, apple pie and a load of homemade stuffing. We had 3 turkeys, mashed potatoes, mac & cheese and potato salad too. We invited the hostel guests and had an international Thanksgiving of 30 people from around the world. The night was filled with people who were thankful for a community so far from their own. As the wine bottles were drained musicians slowly surfaced and the evening was filled with music.

And just as suddenly as it all started, it was over. I was walking out the door into the great unknown, once again. I was panged with an unexpected sadness. I held it together saying goodbye to almost everyone, but when I got to the front door to find Silvina walking up the steps after not hearing from her for almost 2 weeks I almost lost it. I knew for sure I would be leaving El Calafate without saying goodbye to my first friend here. She and Natalia took me to the bus station and I grew sadder as Natalia instructed me to write to her and asked if I would ever come back. I hadn’t seen this coming, I knew I would be sad but I felt more like I was losing a bit of family that I may never see again. I took a moment to compose myeslf on the bus, and once i did, I thought about the open road ahead of me and the endless possibilities. I hope (and expect) to see the people i met in El Calafate again, but this girl has got to roam, and so off i go once more.

Also: penguins. Almost a million fuckin penguins. I love them. I could have done without the bizarre guide who, besides pouring 100 degree fucking water all over my lap, decided to open the morning with a conversation about a woman’s role as a mother and men instinctively not knowing how to parent or being expected to do so. Oh good. It was an interesting 2 hour car ride.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Buenos Aires, you crazy

After 3 days on a cargo ship and 4 days camping in a hammock in the jungle there was only one logical next step. I flew to Lima and hopped on the next bus…to Buenos Aires. It took 73 hours to get there but by calendar days it took 4. I left lima at 7pm on Saturday and arrived in Buenos Aires Argentina on Tuesday at 8pm. Up until this point my bus experiences had been rather luxurious. The chairs sometimes reclined to a full bed, they provided blankets and pillows and I got three meals a day. Oh, and they play bingo for free fuckin’ bus tickets. Four days of this would be a piece of cake. Then the bus pulled up. From the outside I could still lie to myself, repeating scenes of comfortable bus rides through my mind, telling myself the windows are too tinted to see what the inside REALLY looks like. I boarded. My chair reclined at a whopping 110 degree angle, thus leading to 3 nights of painful slumber with some small, dandruff ridden Peruvian teenager spooning me on my left hand side.

The oldest woman I’ve ever seen in my entire life was on that bus. Thank God I was sitting in the back and she in the front because she had completely lost control of her bladder and spent the next 4 days peeing on herself. Even after the explicit warning given to us by the bus driver to NOT under ANY circumstances take a dump in the bus bathroom, she managed to make a massive mess of it on the FIRST night. I woke up at 6am to a blaring speaker above my head repeating disappointedly in Spanish, “well, unfortunately last night somebody violated the bathroom… we would like to remind you that if you need us to make a special stop, just let us know.” The bathroom was a feat within itself. It was in the back of the bus so if you could manage to keep your balance even just standing in the bathroom, you were one of the lucky few. The toilet seat was heavily spring loaded so to maneuver this contraption I would stand on the seat, cover it in toilet paper, turn around with one of my feet still perched on the seat and simultaneously sit down and pull my foot out from under me. Getting off the toilet also required some ingenuity that consisted of standing up faster than the toilet seat flung back onto its place on the wall as to not get hit on the ass by a nasty plastic donut.

We arrived at the first border crossing late on the second night. Hours before, while one of the bus drivers was walking past me down the aisle he laughed and pointed at me and a Colombian couple saying, “now YOU guys are definitely going to have problems crossing the border.” He told us that we may have to bribe the border officers to let us into Chile. We were both prime drug trafficking targets, I guess. Triple checking my information card I got out of the bus and was herded into an outdoor, caged in area with metal tables. There were about 15 of us in the barred area and 150 standing at the regular border control entrance. All the bags from under the bus were piled on the sidewalk except one, my lone backpack was personally escorted into the cage and put on a table. We lined up outside a door and when it was my turn I was escorted into a room alone with an officer. The series of rapid-fire questioning went from intimidating to bizarre.
“where are you from?”
“united states”
“how long were you in Peru?”
“a month and a half.”
“How old are you?”
“4..i mean 24.” (Thanks Spanish minor.)
“why were you in peru?”
“what did you do there?”
“I went to Lima, Cusco, Mancora and Iquitos mainly.”
“do you have a boyfriend?”
“what? Uh, no?”
“why doesn’t a pretty girl like you have a boyfriend?”
“uh....I’m too young and free spirited to have a boyfriend?”
he seemed satisfied with my ridiculous answer and, bewildered, I left the room only to be shuffled off to another line, and then pushed into another small room with 2 other girls. We were in a bathroom now, this time with a woman officer. I thought of all the logical reasons I would be standing in a bathroom at border control with a female officer wearing rubber gloves; none of them were appealing. She put my purse on the toilet and sifted through it, she asked me a question that I didn’t understand to which I replied “yes. Wait, WHAT?” realizing this was not a good time to fake my way through a conversation. She asked the rest of the questions in English and let me leave. Is this all for show? What was the point of barricading me in that bathroom? Is this all just to provoke fear? I followed orders to wait in the next line, when I got up to the counter the woman behind the desk held her hand out for my passport and papers. She got out a pen and paper and did some simple math, turned the paper towards me and said, “you’re visa here ran out 7 days ago. You were supposed to leave last week.” I feigned for a second that I didn’t know until I realized she wasn’t going to give me any easy answers. So I cut the bullshit and just said, “soo…I can pay you? “ she agreed and off again I went, corralled back into the caged area outside. This time another male officer unloaded the same series of questions on me as the first, including the part about the boyfriend. But, he also added that I should just stay in Peru to find a nice man to marry. I told him my visa was expired. He took apart my entire backpack, put it all back together, I got back on the bus and off we went.

The Argentinian border crossing was a longer, slower line but there were no private rooms and the man behind the counter didn’t say a word to me. The downfall of this border crossing was that the previously noted, oldest-woman-in-the-world got in line behind me and had NO personal space boundaries. She fully pressed every part of her body against mine. She smelled like piss. I inched toward the person in front of me in hopes to sneak away from her, this was to no avail. My movement forward was her queue to push into me harder, I started moving a little to the left and forward until she had completely pushed me out of line! Then, without missing a beat, she pushed up against the next person.

We lost 4 people at the Argentinian border. For one reason or another they were not allowed in and we left them curbside as we bumbled off into the Argentine distance.
On our way into Argentina one of the bus drivers took time out of his day to walk down the aisles handing out pills…he didn’t tell anyone what they were for until he was asked. They were pills for altitude sickness, he said. I am so sure you cannot just take one altitude sickness pill it is ridiculous.

We drove for hours, maybe an entire day through Argentina without seeing anything except vast expanses of desert. When we did reach a town we were immediately pulled over by the Argentinian police. They helped themselves to the baggage area under the bus and began opening things. We all crowded around the windows to call out descriptions of the bags they were searching: “who has the Winnie the pooh bag?! They’re opening a Winnie The Pooh bag!” they tossed the contents onto the dirty edge of the highway as the owner looked on helplessly. Everyone on the bus looked concerned, even my new 4 year old best friend Angie kept squishing her face up against the window saying “la policia hacen cosas malas. Estan muy malas.” (“the police do bad things. They are very bad”). The Peruvian stance on police is clear, they are not to be trusted. But it was when they required everyone to leave the bus when I saw faces really drop. We stood outside the bus for a while waiting to be allowed back on. One man was making a deal with the officers while they filtered through his luggage. They were separating his things under the blind assumption that he was going to Argentina to sell them. In the end he got to keep half of his things, the police loaded up the other half into their car. When we finally were allowed back on everybody ran to their things, unpacking objects and counting money. Several people called to me, “check to make sure nothing is missing! Check all of your stuff!” I guess a common tactic is to empty the bus and steal the passenger’s valuables. Checking to make sure all my things were still in my bag Angie strode by shaking a snack box where she had hidden her altitude sickness pill, sing-songing about all of her new bus friends and how bad the police were.

By the time I got off the bus in Buenos Aires my entire bag and its contents were soaked in somebody’s spilled bottle of juice, my feet were swollen twice their normal size and I was ready for anything Buenos Aires could throw at me.

Buenos Aires:

I stroke of massive good luck must have put us all at the same place at the same time. At the America Del Sur hostel in one of the oldest neighborhoods of Buenos Aires I met an incredible group of people. The group gained and lost awesome people over the two weeks I spent there and each person I met contributed to an amazing experience. We ate too much meat, we drank too much liquor and it was faaabulous. We staked out the local places to eat: Hugo made us incredible empanadas, Jose made us fantastic ravioli and some guy down the street made the biggest meatballs I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Think: grapefruit.
I became accustomed to buying my liter of “vodka” for $3 at the local supermarket. I say “vodka” because I was informed later by our friendly receptionist Nacho (while he poured himself an entire glass of it), “how can you DRINK this stuff? Its not even vodka! Its just watered down rubbing alcohol!” That was around the same time that he found a bottle of rubbing alcohol, and we shared a small glass of that as well.

My timing for being in Buenos Aires was perfect. We were in the Plaza Del Mayo on the night of the presidential election for Cristina Fern├índez de Kirchner’s inaugural speech. The night was pure latin American chaos and exuberance. The parades of people with M80 mortars, fireworks and drums blocked streets from all sides of the Plaza. We walked down the middle of a main avenue as people dressed in costumes paraded around celebrating the election. Her speech was positively received by the people with a great passion, booing and cheering at appropriate times. Every once in a while they would begin chanting “Hijo de puta! Hijo de puta!” although I missed who they were referring to… When the Argentinian people feel passionate enough about something to form large groups it gets intense. The celebration looks like a mix between the most ridiculous party you’ve ever seen and Armageddon.

We were also present in Buenos Aires for the conviction of Alfredo Astiz, also known as the “blond angel of death”. He was a lieutenant at the torture center where so many innocent lives were imprisoned and executed. After 30 years this is a small amount of justice for the families of “los desaparecidos” (‘the disappeared’), but a justice none the less. We went to the Plaza de Mayo for the first gathering of the Madres de los desaparecidos (mothers of ‘The Disappeared’) after he was convicted and sentenced, it was an emotional site to see all the families gathered with picket signs of photos of their lost children. They gather and march there every Thursday, but this Thursday had even more significance. Alfredo Astiz and 17 other men had been punished for their crimes, this Thursday was their moment to celebrate this small justice that had been served.

Buenos Aires is a beautiful city, but as all big cities are, it is not without its faults. Two guys I met, on separate occasions, were lulled into a bar with the promise of free admission later only to be trapped inside and robbed. Another friend was standing outside the hostel and blindsided by some random guy who, out of nowhere, decked him a couple of times in the face. Having no forewarning, and with his hands in his pockets, there was nothing he could have done. They guy ran off, stealing nothing, and left my friend with two different sized pupils for a week.

Now, I’ve moved south to a small town called El Calafate, a few hundred miles from the southernmost tip of South America. As soon as I stepped off the plane I felt like I was breathing for the first time in my life. The air is crisp and clean and the scenery is beautiful. We are very close to a few glaciers, one of which I got to visit. Amazing, beautiful, incredible, unlike anything I’ve ever seen..
I’m working here in El Calafate for a month as a receptionist / arts and crafts extraordinaire at a hostel owned by a woman named Natalia who is wonderful, accommodating in every way and absolutely hilarious! It’s gonna be a good month.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Jungle Fever

The jungle is insane, its beautiful, amazing, fucked up and dangerous; but its not the big scary monsters in it that will get you (although there are plenty), it’s the small stuff. It’s the tiny stuff, or the things you can’t even see that will really fuck your world up. It’s the millions of bugs, it’s the parasites, it’s the heat and humidity. It’s the bacteria in the river water that he’s cleaning the dishes with, it’s the tarantula hanging above my head on the boat ride, it’s the lethal milk leaking from the trunk of the “death tree”. It’s the blood Nancy is shitting or the massive amounts of fluid I’m losing. Its her fever, its my fever, it’s the “jungle doctor” that will get you in the end. It was midnight on the second day of jungle camping that I said, “this is bad, should we go? I think we need to get out of the jungle. Are we going to be ok?” Nancy had a fever and I was burning up too. We were both shitting our brains out and couldn’t eat a full meal. Our cook, Jose, besides being in love with me, was obviously insulted that we weren’t eating more.

Jungle, day 1: Nancy and I left Nauta at 10 am for the jungle with our cook Jose and our guide Miguel. Miguel was fascinated by tourists and jungle lodges and never missed an opportunity to point them out. As we’d pass a boat of tourists he would turn and shout back at us, “look, tourists!! Tourists!!” Ah, yes the elusive white person and his strange and fascinating habitat! It is the ONLY reason I came to the jungle. 1.5 hours down the river we hung a left onto a smaller, denser branch of the jungle. The noises of the animals were louder here and the insects were nothing less than violating my personal space boundaries.

Now, I’m not claustrophobic but I will admit the first time we got out of the boat and went into the jungle I got seriously light headed and a little anxious. Maybe it was the giardia or maybe it was the fact that the forest was closing in around me and the bugs were ravaging my white jungle-virgin skin. On that note, I have giardia. I’m pretty sure it came from the “treated” water they were pouring down our throats but I could have been from the fact that I watched him fill up an entire raw chicken with river water, swish it around, and pour it back out. But this, my friends, is another story… Back in the jungle my tunnel vision was creeping in and I was trying to get as close to the ground as possible without actually touching it because it was teaming with things I was sure would kill me, meanwhile Miguel is cutting down a tree for food. Day one of the jungle: I hate it here.

Jungle, day 2: our campsite is set up but Nancy and I are only getting sicker. Jose is upset that were not eating more of his food and Miguel is pacing with his machete ready to find some crazy shit in the jungle. We eat breakfast and leave early for a hike. By the time we got back I was drenched in sweat, completely dehydrated, trying not to shit my pants. After lunch we went piranha fishing, which I am pretty ridiculously good at, and which also made me temporarily forget how sick i felt. The fishing poles were nothing more than long sticks with fishing line tied to them. We’d load up our hook with piranha meat, stir up the water a little bit and plunk the end of the line in the water. Immediately they start ravaging the end and, at this point, since there is no reel or any mechanical aspect to the fishing pole, you start yanking the line out of the water. Note: This is now my weapon of choice if I were ever in an epic battle. I was flinging fucking piranha EVERYWHERE. Nancy was dodging them for her life, Miguel was cracking up and I was hooking piranha’s left and right and literally launching them 20 feet behind me into the jungle.

Later that night after we ate, Miguel and Jose told us the story of the jungle demon. This devil takes on the form of someone familiar to you and calls your name at night in the jungle. You follow him but every time you get close he runs further away, still calling your name. He basically leads you way the fuck out into the middle of the jungle where you die because…you’re in the jungle. The only way to tell that this demon is not really who he appears to be is because he has one tiny deformed foot or claw or something that he can’t change. So I guess if your friend is ever calling you into the depths of the jungle…tackle him and take his shoes off?

The other thing they really enjoy talking about is the way all the tourists have died in the jungle. You would think this would be the last thing they would want to tell you late at night when you have a fever and nothing but a hammock and a mosquito net to keep you safe but ooooh no. One guy hit his head on a rock in the water, one guy got heat stroke, then there are the electric eels in the water. On and on and on and on.

*“tomorrow we have chicken for lunch” Jose says before going to bed. It wasn’t until the next day when I went to investigate the commotion on the boat that I realized why we didn’t need a refrigerator to keep the raw meat cold; the raw meat was flapping around the boat trying to hide under the bench seats.*

Safely in my hammock, Nancy had just run at lightning speed in only her underwear and giant black rubber boots to use the jungle bathroom. I hear a voice say, “Lindsay, I love you. Stay here in Nauta with me.” Oh. My. God. It was Jose. This has to be a joke, I start to laugh nervously and say “nnno. I’m leaving, I have lots of places to go.” I thought that would nip this little problem in the bud; I was wrong. He started BEGGING me to stay. Where is this coming from?! I told him he wasn’t in love with me. He told me I was the most beautiful girl in the jungle. I couldn’t stop laughing. Where the FUCK was Nancy?! This is bizarre. I’m telling you Jose, begging a girl to stay in the jungle AFTER she says no is never going to work. Sorry buddy. After this night we had a couple other weird encounters even though I tried to steer clear of him. After a hike that left me absolutely soaked and feeling like I was going to barf he told me I look like I sweat honey. What? I wish you all could have seen me that day. Even Nancy started laughing at that. I was 3 days into a jungle camping trip and 6 days from the last real shower I’d taken. There is NO way it was a good look on me. I said nothing, I’m pretty sure I was having heat stroke, I was in no mood to cater to stupid fucking comments like “your sweat is like honey”. All I could do was roll my eyes and suck down as much nasty “treated” giardia water as I could handle.

Day 3: I found 3 tarantulas on our night hike. Now I’m really afraid to use the jungle bathroom. Also, a giant rain storm starts and the thunder constantly rumbles for hours. A BIRD SIZED MOTH ATTACKS MY HAMMOCK. I’m not kidding, it was the biggest moth I’ve ever seen. Out of nowhere this giant, red eyed moth starts attacking my mosquito net trying desperately to maul my headlamp. I’m screaming, Nancy’s scream-laughing yelling “TURN OFF YOUR HEADLAMP”, eventually after flailing around helplessly in my hammock for a while yelling terrible things I flip off my headlamp and the devil-moth leaves immediately.

Day 4: Today is the last day. There are monkeys in the trees above us as we leave on our last hike. Its warm and muggy but this hike is beautiful and I fill my camera’s card full of photos, I might even go as far as to say I was feeling GOOD on this hike. That was until we got to the death tree. Miguel told us to step back away from this massive, thorned beast as he held his machete up to ready to slice the tree open. “Why?” I asked Nancy, why do we need to stay back? Miguel said, “one drop of the sap of this tree will kill you instantly.” WHACK. He hit the tree hard, water hit my face. “Que?!” Milk poured from the wound in the tree and he explained that if it touched your body you will form blisters that contain the toxic poison that, if ingested, will kill you immediately. It was at this point that the hike began going downhill for me. My heart sank and it was all I could do to convince myself the water that hit my face came from the tree above and not the stupid death tree. For the next hour I repeatedly asked Nancy if there were blisters on my face. Finally we reached the swamp we had to cross to see the Victoria Regia water lily that is so large a small child can sit on one without it sinking. It was only one misstep that ultimately was the fall of my afternoon in the jungle. One wrong step inches away from solid ground, one tiny mistake in a small swamp with a large margin of error that led me to put too much weight on a foot that had no solid ground underneath it. My foot disappeared into the thick, rancid smelling mud. Next my boot disappeared, then the sludge slipped into my boot, my knee began disappearing when Miguel turned to Nancy and said simply, “yea. She’s not gonna make it.” Not going to MAKE it?! Really?! After 4 fucking days out here, this smelly patch of shitty mud isn’t going to suck me into the jungle abyss. I yanked my leg out, almost lost my boot in the process. I stood up on a tree branch, VAMOS. ‘Not gonna make it..’ Let me tell you, I SAW those damn water lilies, took a terrible picture of them too! Also, fyi I have no blisters on my face and I’m not dead, so that’s a bonus too. Another bonus is that I’m out of the jungle, thank you God.

On the boat ride back to civilization we stopped at a beach where we were told we could bath, but not in water deeper than our ankles because of the piranhas. Ok.. getting ready to take my “bath” I turn to ask Nancy something when I see it: Jose has stripped down to nothing but his tighty whiteys (which are actually neon green and blue) and is hauling ass down the beach flailing his arms around frantically screaming something none of us can understand. I think for a second to ask him if everything is ok, that feeling instantly passes and all I can do is die laughing with Nancy on the bank of the amazon river as flocks of birds frantically take flight to avoid Jose’s bizarre afternoon “jog”.

If I told you I would do it all over again, would you believe me?

I wouldn’t change a thing.

Miguel telling amazing jungle stories

MONKEY MONTAGE (and one butterfly):