Archive for the 'Goals/Dreams' Category
Sunday, March 15, 2009
I’m feeling a little like my tennis shoes these days: completely worn out. My shirts are sprouting holes, the circles under my eyes have dug a permanent trench, and I’ll scream if I have to plan one more detail. But I also feel a new sense of optimism, hope, and renewed energy as I think about returning to my life in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It’s hard to believe that tomorrow, after 245 days of travel, we are homeward bound. After working towards a goal so singularly for nearly two years, it’s difficult believe that, in a poof, it will all be over, a little like Cinderella at midnight.
When we began talking about this trip 10 years ago, we envisioned it as an opportunity to see as much of the world as possible, to feel the winds of adventure pushing at our back. The end result has been so much richer. We’ve learned not only about the world we live in, but about ourselves and our inner lives. The process of travel and self-discovery ultimately became more important than the sights we were seeing; the inner journey became as significant as the outer one. And that process was primarily propelled by the people we met along the way – from small chance encounters to deep friendships that were forged. We were especially inspired by the other round-the-world and long-term travelers we met, for who we shared a special camaraderie and understanding. The greatest gift of this trip was being exposed to different walks of life through different people, which helped us to realize where we belonged on that magnificent spectrum.
Before we left, I was in a deep rut. I was unhappy with nearly every aspect of my life, but I didn’t know what to do to change it. I was stuck. I had two major questions that had been nagging at me for years that I hoped this trip would answer. Can location affect happiness? Should I accept my life as it is or continue struggling for something better? It soon became clear to me that answering these questions was the key to moving forward, and the trip was the perfect medium in which to do so. By stripping away the known, I was able to see myself clearly, perhaps for the very first time. I’ve spent the past 10 years moving around, trying to find a place were I would feel content and at home. I’ve now had an opportunity to experience so many different cultures and places, and have concluded that I’m just as happy at home than in the world. I think I finally understand, deep down, that we create our own happiness. And while there are certainly places in this world where we personally feel more or less happy, we are responsible for creating our sense of home.
Another part of my unhappiness was feeling disconnected from myself; at the beginning of this trip, I would have had a difficult time articulating something as basic as the things I liked. I wasn’t sure where my life was heading, or what I even wanted from my life. I finally realized over the course of this trip that I had been agonizing over the fact that, like most of us, my life didn’t turn out as I had always planned or expected. And rather than simply investing my energies in living the life I had, I worked feverishly to recapture what I felt I had lost, or to create the life that I thought I should have. But neither of these imagined lives were connected to my spirit, leaving me to feel empty. My friend, Heidi, wisely told me, “Sometimes we mistake restructuring for settling.” I am finally beginning to see that so many of the wonderful things that have happened were never in the cards (I never dreamed, for example, that I’d travel around the world and log 22 countries before the age of 31). I am finally ready to start living the life I have, not the life I thought I would have. While I will always continue to strive to be a better person and find my purpose, I am finally letting go of who I thought I should be and accept who I am.
What will the next chapter look like?
I know the big question on most people’s mind is, “So now what are you going to do?”
A big part of my emerging self is realizing that I’m happier with less, and when I get home, I plan on maintaining a life that is stripped down to the bones and discerning what I really need. I plan on starting a garden and creating some of my own food source. I want to clean my house from top to bottom. I want to get in the best shape of my life. I also realize that my spiritual life has been sorely neglected, and the first way I plan on reconnecting with my that self is through a regular yoga practice, something that has been continuously recommended over the years but that I have outright ignored. The Buddhist culture in Bhutan really spoke to me, and I plan on exploring that philosophy more through classes at a Buddhist center in Albuquerque.
Where will this all lead, career-wise? I have absolutely no idea. In recent months, I’ve begun to formulate an idea of helping people lead better lives through incorporating mind, body, and spirit. If I could sneak in food, writing, and travel, all the better! I don’t know if I’ll ever write professionally, but I’ve been a lifelong letter and journal writer, and have seen the power of the pen. I’d like to be able to help people work through their spiritual problems through writing. How this jumble of ideas will manifest itself in a paid job I have no idea, but I presume it will involve creating my own path, something I’ve been fighting for years but finally need to accept.
Part of the life I always imagined for myself involved having a high-powered career in which I would do “big” and “important” things. Through the people I’ve met on this trip, especially Hellen from Lake Titicaca, I’ve finally realized that that person I envisioned is not me. I’ve always had so many eclectic interests that I’ve struggled to settle on one thing, which I perceived as a detriment. However, I’m finally understanding that having diverse interests is part of what makes me me; that I will probably never have one career; and that I will probably do many different, interesting things over the course of my life.
So what have I learned these past eight months?
I can live without a television, but not the Internet. Don’t trust anyone who routinely refers to things as “brilliant,” unless they’re from the UK or Australia. I’m stronger than I think I am. Traveling during high season sucks and should be avoided at all costs. I have more patience than I ever dreamed possible, but I still need more. I hate hot weather. The less people have, the more they have to give. Most people’s travel advice is dead wrong; there is no “right way” to travel. I never want to wear a suit to work again on a regular basis. I have more time and money to give than I thought possible. A good meal can turn any day around. The greatest gift you can give a child is to expose them to other cultures through international travel. Things never go as planned, but always seem to work out. Simple is better. I appreciate the freedoms, rights, and organization of the United States like never before. I’m happier with less. It takes at least a month to get acquainted with a country. You don’t need to pack that much. Maikael truly loves banana milkshakes. I have a ridiculously high tolerance for bullshit. I never realized how deep my passion for food ran. Language should never pose a barrier to travel: you can bumble your way through any situation. American tourists are the only people in the world to wear trucker hats. Always trust your gut: it is nearly always right. Nothing – nothing – is ever easy.
What Will I Miss?
Of course, ending a journey of this magnitude is met with a certain sense of sadness. I recently realized that, over the past eight months, I’ve tried something and learned something new every single day. While often maddening, my life was never boring. So what will I miss? Meeting new and interesting travelers. Trying the cuisine of the world. Cheap bottles of great wine. Dulce de leche everything. Soda in a bottle (the only way I’ll drink it now). Being able to stand at the edge of a cliff, or some equally dangerous thing, without a guardrail or warning sign. Feeling a part of the amazing community that is round-the-world travelers. My everyday life not being governed by so many rules. Kissing perfect strangers on the cheek. Big Kids Summer Camp. Being invited into other cultures and learning the ins and outs. Not having to worry about grocery shopping. Argentine steaks. Always having a new adventure on the horizon.
What Am I Looking Forward To?
On the other hand, there are a million things I’m looking forward to, like breakfasts that don’t involve dulce de leche. Knowing exactly what I’ll get when I order a chicken sandwich. Bathtubs, decent showers, and bathroom fixtures that make sense. Orderly lines that people obey. Not having to jockey for space on hot, overcrowded public buses. Eating hamburgers, french fries, and pizzas with my hands. Good Mexican food. Being completely, 100% understood. Exploring my own backyard. Starting a garden. Beginning yoga. Learning the samba. Getting in the best shape of my life. Perfecting my Spanish. Catching up on all the movies I missed this year. Starting a new blog? Getting my life back in order. Giving more freely of my time and money. Killing my cable. Reconnecting with friends and family. Having time to read again. Laundry not being an ordeal. Never cooking in a hostel kitchen again. Not having to spend another minute or dollar planning this trip. Translating everything I learned on this amazing journey to life at home.
So that’s it. The end of a huge chapter in my life, the completion of the biggest personal goal I’ve ever set for myself. When I set off on this journey, I knew it would change me; I just didn’t know how. I hope you’ll find a person who is more compassionate and giving; whose interests have grown deeper; who is a better friend, daughter, and wife; who cares more than ever about the world she lives in; who believes fully in the kindness of strangers. Thank you, dear readers, for accompanying us on this journey.11 comments
Friday, February 27, 2009
Going to Machu Picchu, especially for a budget traveler, is a very expensive undertaking. Unless you are hiking the Inca Trail, your only option is to take a round-trip PeruRail train, the one and only company offering such services (read: outrageously priced monopoly), to Aguas Calientes, the cost of which ranges from the $60 Backpackers’ Train to the super deluxe $500 Hiram Bingham express (the latter of which includes such perks as musical entertainment, a private guide, and a four-course meal on the return trip to Cusco). If you plan on staying overnight in Aguas Calientes, the gateway to Machu Picchu, a ho-hum hotel room runs $60 per night, highway robbery by Peruvian standards. Then, there is the matter of actually getting to the ruins. Admission tickets cost $40 per day, and unlike Jordan’s Petra, no multi-day passes are offered. We were shocked to learn that the 20-minute bus ride between the town and the site, the only option other than hoofing it up a steep hill for an hour and a half, costs $14 round-trip. In the apt words of Rene, our host in Buenos Aires, who visited Machu Picchu a few years ago, “It’s Disneyland prices.”
We had planned on visiting Machu Picchu over two days in order to really take in the experience, not realizing until we arrived the extent of the sky-high prices. The train tickets and hotel room had been paid in advance, so there was no going back early. We stood in the ticket office, agonizing whether we should enter for one or two days, a difference of $108 (nearly an entire day’s budget). To make matters more complicated, it was beginning to drizzle: who knew if it would be pouring once we got up there? In a moment of fate and impulse, we took the plunge and bought two-day tickets, hoping for the best.
Was it worth it? In a word, absolutely.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw a photo of Machu Picchu, the Inca’s Lost City, a sprawling stone complex perched high on an emerald hilltop deep in the Andes Mountains. It looked like something out of a fairy tale, so much so that I truly couldn’t believe that modern, everyday people could visit the site today. (I was flabbergasted to learn that, if a person was so inclined, he or she could actually walk to the site via a four-day trek on the Inca Trail.) Other than knowing it was built by the Incas, I had no clue as to what Machu Picchu actually was, but I was mesmerized by it, and when we began crafting our itinerary, it was one of the first items on the docket.
The train chugs into Aguas Calientes and deposits passengers in a deep sliver of valley, and as you make your way up the long, winding road towards Machu Picchu, it’s clear why it’s referred to as The Lost City of the Incas. When Yale University archaeologist Hiram Bingham “discovered” Machu Picchu in the late 1800s, he was actually in search of Vilcabama, believed to be the last Inca stronghold. Instead he found Machu Picchu, swaddled in overgrown foliage and in a state of neglect. When he found the real Vilcabama, it turned out to be much smaller than Machu Picchu, and he began to believe that perhaps Machu Picchu was actually the site of more significance.
What is amazing about Machu Picchu is that it was never discovered by the Spanish, no doubt due to its remote location. Most Inca ruins in the Sacred Valley consist of an Incan foundation with Spanish architecture slapped on top, so Machu Picchu is special in that it remains a “pure” example of Inca craftsmanship. Upon entering the site, a sweeping vista of the city below takes your breath away, a blaze of eye-popping green plazas and rugged stone walls, all set against the backdrop of towering emerald sugarloaf hills, as banks of clouds are swallowed by the valley below. The whole scene lends the effect of being perched on the precipice of the world.
No one knows the exact purpose of Machu Picchu. Some theories suggest that it was a transfer station for goods bound for Cusco. Others suggest that it was a central administration site. Yet others think it may have been a “summer home” for an Incan king, given the area’s year-round temperate climate. The romantics amongst us believe that Machu Picchu may have been the home to a clutch of chosen virgins for the God of the Sun, as evidence originally suggested a disproportionate number of women when mummies were excavated from the site.
Whatever its purpose, its size is impressive. The city looks manageable from a distance, but once one begins exploring, the scale and perspective suddenly shift: once you’re in the middle of it, everything feels impossibly huge. Gone are the thatched roofs that sheltered great A-frame buildings, but their bones remain. Narrow stone staircases lead from one “complex” to another. Great tumbling fountains dot the buildings – Incas were great worshipers of water. Huge terraced hillsides, once used for farming and erosion control, occupy nearly 60% of the site, now the grazing grounds of llamas imported by train from Cusco, poor man’s lawn mowers.
The Incas were great astronomers, and stone-carved astronomical instruments, such as sundials, remain today. One such instrument, purported to emit positive energy, sits high above the city (a corner of the dial was damaged during the filming of a beer commercial in 2001). There are temples and stone carvings that, when the sun hits it just so during the solstice, cast a shadow that resembles the shape of the Andean cross. It’s no wonder that spiritual gurus from all over the world flock here. “Even Cameron Diaz came on the summer solstice,” said our guide.
No one knows why Machu Picchu was abandoned. Some believe that the Incas caught wind of the advancing Spanish. Others believe that a drought plagued the city. Like Easter Island, there are the standard UFO theories. Whatever the reason, a city perched high on a mountain peak – a hidden place that you can walk to, if the mood strikes – is pure magic.2 comments
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Setting sail from the shores of Lake Titicaca feels like passing through a veil into another world. A series of small islands, just minutes from the mainland, awaits, with their own language, culture, and traditions. Scads of tour operators from Puno run daily tours to the islands, but the best way to experience these distinct communities is by taking the local boat solo and seeing life up close and personal for oneself.
We first boarded the local boat, a tiny skiff anchored in Puno’s harbor, to Uros, the famous Islas Flotantes (Floating Islands). We were the only gringos on board, surrounded by locals apparently on vacation. After passing through a gauntlet of spring green reeds, we reached what has to be the world’s coolest Coast Guard tower, a mammoth thing constructed entirely of reeds! Soon we were floating amongst the remarkable Floating Islands, patches of woven grass – some no bigger than a few meters wide – that float gently on the lake’s glassy surface. The islands were first constructed during Inca times, when a group of villagers, tired of the warring factions between Incas and Spaniards, created a refuge on the lake.
While the islanders traditionally earned their living through fishing, tourism now provides their primary income stream, which is evident from the moment the boat reaches shouting distance of the island. A group of women, dressed in colorful skirts and blouses, ran to the reedy edge to greet us, smiling, laughing, and greeting us in Quechua, the islanders’ first language. Before we knew it we were tromping on the slightly squishy “ground,” being shepherded to a bench constructed entirely of reeds to learn more about the islands’ construction (the root systems on the undersides of the reeds are bound together and anchored to the lake’s floor). Small group of families live together on an island, sharing resources and income generated from the beautiful handicrafts they create.
After spending the morning hopping lazily from island to island, our appetite was whetted to journey farther afield, so we made arrangements to spend the following evening on Isla Amantani, one of Lake Titicaca’s least touristed islands. We considered taking an organized tour to the island, which promised ease of planning, but opted to take the risk of going it on our own and arranging a trip through the local boat system. After dodging touts at the entrance to the public dock, we managed to find our way to the office that manages trips to the islands, with each island maintaining their own ticketing system (a benefit of buying directly is that more profit passes directly to the islanders, rather than a tour company taking their cut).
We presented ourselves to the dock early the next morning, quickly realizing that we really were on the local boat. We sandwiched ourselves between clutches of dark and weathered women dressed in brightly colored, traditional garb, from hand-stitched tops to flouncy wool skirts. One of a handful of tourists on the boat, we settled in for what promised to be a long boat ride. In traveling the world, I am constantly amazed at the patience that everyday people exhibit. Some napped. The women chatted in small groups, filling their skirts with handfuls of puffed Andean grains, snacking and laughing. One man, donning an outrageously colorful hat, sat reading Cosmic Conflict. Another woman listened to an old school iPod, a set of modern earbuds attached to an ancient transistor radio. A little girl with a sweetly round face and wide set eyes, wearing a blue chenille jumpsuit, started intently at us for hours, undoubtedly spooked by the white ghosts sitting across from her.
Four hours later the boat glided into a lovely stone harbor under sunny skies, and we were greeted by a group of women dressed in traditional clothing, with large, black shawls draped over their head, embellished with stunning embroidery. Each tourist was quickly assigned to a “host family,” waiting on the shore, for our evening’s stay. Sonia shyly shook our hands and led us along the rocky shoreline, zooming up the hill ahead of us as we huffed and puffed, still struggling with any type of physical exertion at 13,000 feet. Sweeping views of green farmland stretched in every direction, and I jogged ahead to ask Sonia what the deep purple plants sporting small pearls atop, looking like broccoli, were. “Quinoa,” she replied, simply. I should have guessed. There were also leafy potato, oca, and habas (lima bean) plants, arranged in tidy rows.
We quickly settled into our room, complete with a woven straw box spring, heavy wool blankets, and candles (although wired, there is no electricity on the island). We met Elvy and Delia, Sonia’s two darling kids who were smiley but shy and, like us, spoke Spanish as their second language. Lunch was brought to our room: quinoa soup, jewel-like potatoes, a fried strip of salty local cheese, rings of ruby tomatoes, and fluffy rice. Simple but simply delicious. Muna tea was served to help with the elevation, purportedly more effective than coca.
Eager to begin exploring the island, we asked Sonia direction to the ruins that dot the island. “Take the main road,” she said, and we laughed when a simple stone path emerged out of nowhere. “This is the main road?” I asked, incredulous. We made our way towards the modest town plaza, where small groups of islanders sat chatting, and poked our heads in the public health clinic (a list of islanders still in need of vaccinations graced the windows). Villagers passed up, always pausing to smile and say “good afternoon.” We continued up the hill: rustic rock walls corralled colorful crops, like stone stitches on a green quilt. Passing under impossibly old stone arches, I felt like I was living a scene from Mama Mia.
Night falls early in Peru, and after a long walk, we returned back home in the waning light, where Sonia was busy preparing dinner. We huddled around a roaring fire in the rustic adobe structure that served as a kitchen, asking her a million questions about food preparation as she grabbed handfuls of this and pinches of that and added them to boiling clay pots. Soon we were joined by Vidal, Sonia’s gregarious husband who asked us a million questions as we dined on free-form dumplings and a steaming bowl of diced potatoes, carrots, and rice. He asked us what we thought of President Obama, how to make a website, and where Switzerland was located. Apparently, an islander had recently married a Swiss woman, who had lived on the island for a few months, and returned to Switzerland to live. Talk about a world away! Dinner ended at 8:30, and although it was still early, we fell asleep quickly, listening to the complete and utter silence that enveloped us wholly. It was one of the best nights of sleep we’ve enjoyed in weeks.
After a quick breakfast of fried egg stuffed in a delicate pillow of Peruvian bread, paid our bill: three meals and a night of accommodations ran us $15! We dashed off to the dock, which would transport us to Taquile, a neighboring island with its own set of traditions, where we reunited with the tourists from the day before, including a couple from Lima and a lovely family from British Columbia. As cattle ranchers, it was the first trip the family had taken abroad since their children, aged 10 and seven, were born. I so admired this experience they had given their kids, and couldn’t help but wonder what their memories from this very memorable overnight stay would be. It also renewed my faith in not only the ability but the joy in traveling internationally with children, who seem to be a magical talisman in connecting with locals. After a brief stop on Taquile, which was dampened by a soggy day, we spent the four-hour boat ride back talking with the Canadians and the limenas, language not posing much of a barrier. Hellen passed around photos from their ranch, and extended an invitation to stay with them in the future. I couldn’t help but think, once again, how we had met the most interesting people and had the most fun during one of our least expensive excursions. It was Big Kids’ Summer Camp all over again.
As we reach the end of this trip, my thoughts turn a great deal these days towards my life back home and how I want it to be different. I have been reminded so many times during this journey of how much I have, and how little I need to be happy. In fact, the less I have, the happier I seem to be. My greatest hope is that I can carry a piece of this feeling back with me.
Photos from our trip to Amantani and Taquile Islands are posted at the end of our Lake Titicaca album. Enjoy!6 comments
Editor’s note: This post was a joint writing effort between Maikael and Elizabeth, although primarily told from Maikael’s perspective.
Sunday, February 1, 2009
It’s not everyday that you get to realize a long-held dream. Nearly 10 years ago, the travel section of my Sunday paper highlighted Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. The spread captivated me with stunning pictures of the larger-than-life mountainous outcrop in southern Patagonia, the article promising a wind-blown, otherworldly landscape with unique rock formations, snow-capped peaks, glaciers, and turquoise lakes. The setting, the remoteness, the harshness captured me on a deep level; I wanted to walk amongst these mountains perched on the edge of the world.
We entered the park on a charter bus, a two and a half hour ride from Puerto Natales, accompanied by an Austrian woman, Claudia, who we met at our hostel, and who would hike with us over the next three days. As we disembarked, we discovered there was another seven kilometers of service road to walk before even intercepting the “W” trail. However, when we found an enterprising company offering minibus service to the trail head for $4, we jumped at the chance. A French girl from our hostel, who can only be described as an escaped insane asylum patient cum gypsy, balked at the minibus fee, deeming it “too consumerist.” We waved enthusiastically to her as we drove off, knowing she’d spend her one day in the park hiking amongst belching diesel and rumbling engines. Ah, wilderness!
I was nervous as we neared the trail head, fearing I would be disappointed by the unrealistic expectations that 10 years of waiting had planted in my head. After dropping our bags at the refugio, we raced toward our first stop, the eponymous Torres del Paine – Towers of the Blue Sky – whose spindly spires were illuminated in the brilliant afternoon sun. We picked our way through cool forests and crystalline streams, passing throngs of hikers on the trail. The towers dipped in and out of view, teasing us with a sliver of their crowns. The crowds thinned as we neared the towers, and it was clear why: the last hour involved an exceedingly steep climb up a face of massive boulders. With unsure footing and the wind pressing at our backs, we proceeded slowly, our moods becoming increasingly sour. This better be good, seemed to be the collective thought. Suddenly, the boulders disappeared and our field of vision was crowded with the most incredible view: the towers, massive hunks of jagged rock, framed by blue skies and illuminated by the waning sun, soaring a thousand feet above us. Waterfalls crashed down to an aquamarine lake, meltoff from a snow basin. We would soon grow accustomed to this color of water, but the first encounter was shockingly novel. Claudia was right: the place had a special energy. Although the winds howled and the cold immediately settled in as the sun glided below the towers, I could only sit and take it all in. It was hard to believe that this was only the beginning.
As we worked our way up each valley of the “W” over the following days, we were rewarded with unparalleled vistas, a result of the sheer scale that characterizes this park. Everything is vast and larger-than-life, from sweeping fields of swaying grasses to mammoth glaciers, to never-ending skies, glassy blue lakes, and soaring mountains. The scenery is constantly changing, a parade of natural beauty, and we were continually struck by the park’s diversity, as rocky moonscapes gave way to verdant forests, which melted into glacial valleys.
We hiked 53 miles (88 kilometers) over five days, but 20 of those miles were logged in a single day, all in an effort to drag our aching muscles towards Valle Frances, a glacier valley of extraordinary beauty. We spent the morning hugging massive Lake Nordenskjold’s emerald shoreline, as puffy clouds cast soft shadows over the clear blue water that we still hadn’t grown accustomed to. We shrugged off our packs at a campsite, certain that a lightened load would ease the six kilometer climb. But the first ascent was brutally steep: one portion of the trail offered a fabled cable rope to assist during poor weather conditions. A powerful Patagonian wind greeted Liz and I as we reached the first viewpoint, so powerful that a gust challenged my balance and knocked me down. We took in the hugeness of Glacier Frances, an icy expanse lodged in a charcoal mountainside, and watched several avalanches over the course of minutes, as streams of snow tumbled off the hillside and bellowed through the valley.
We trudged on, escaping the fierce winds for the safety of the forest, and as the trail continued its ascent, Liz became more fatigued and eventually told me she would turn back. I can’t claim to be a good husband on that particular day; I had, after all, been waiting 10 years for this moment. I continued on without her, encouraging her to wait for me at the campsite, promising I would be quick and would meet her within minutes of her return. Now alone, I attacked the trail like an animal, grunting and sweating with effort, surely alarming the backpackers I passed like a runaway train until I reached the mirador at the end. Here I was rewarded with a 360 degree view of the valley below, surrounded by yawning rock spires, rivaling Yosemite’s. I was swept up in time, something that happens when I find myself in places of natural beauty. I lounged on my back, my arms cradling my head, and loitered some more, feeling great about life. Suddenly realizing that time had slipped by, I hurried back to Liz as fast as I could, sprinting through the deep forest. When I arrived, out of breath, I saw the sour look arranged on her face, as she pretended to read a book. “Do you know how long I’ve been waiting? Two hours!” I knew I would be in the dog house for this. “It was totally worth it,” I said, guilt intertwined with satisfaction.
When we began our trek, we had no idea that the park contained so much glacial activity. Imagine the excitement, following the trail to reach Glacier Grey on the western-most “leg” of the “W,” as the first iceberg, a turquoise sculpture of ice bobbing in milky blue Lake Grey, glides into view. You think it’s the only iceberg you’ll see, as if you’ve made a great discovery, and proceed to take 100 pictures of it, only to find bigger and better ones as the glacier comes closer into view. Then, you reach a plateau on the trail, affording the first full view of the glacier. Your jaw drops. You gasp. Audibly. Bigger than you ever imagined, it empties into the lake in three sections, like slender, icy fingers, and the glacier stretches so far back that you can’t see where it begins, its backside shrouded in a perpetual storm. The “W” unfolds like a beautiful story, the trail slowly revealing more details. By the time we reached Refugio Grey, the distant chunks of glacial ice that had been so exciting earlier in the day were replaced by the sheer glee we felt as we stumbled upon a nearby inlet with a flotilla of icebergs that you could touch from the shore.
These were long, often windy, days of discovery, and the refugios provided a much-needed respite at the end of the day. All are situated in exceptionally beautiful locations in the park, employing simple, exposed-wood construction in an alpine style. Six to eight bunk beds in each room, with communal dining tables, promoted conversation, lending to the feeling that we were, once again, at Big Kids’ Summer Camp. Being able to peel away my “stink uniform,” take a hot shower, and enjoy a proper meal was a godsend. Our favorite was Refugio Grey, winning points for its off-the-beaten path location, cool vibe, and views of icebergs drifting by during dinner. (Other refugios, located near easily-accessible park entrances, operated and felt more like anonymous hotels, with slick decor, full bars, and a more demanding and pretentious clientèle.)
It’s impossible not to meet lots of interesting people on such an epic walk, and South America attracts a certain kind of intrepid person. We ran in to Kim and Ross on the trail, an Australian-Scottish couple we had met on the bus ride into the park, and they had just gotten engaged in the Valle Frances. Kim was sporting a ring that Ross had purchased months earlier in Peru, a true South American proposal, and being out of contact with the rest of the world, we were the first ones to hear the news! We also became fast friends with Jeff and Erin after meeting at dinner at Refugio Grey, the only other American couple we’ve met traveling around the world. And nearly every other hiker you meet on the trail is from Israel. All Israelis, men and women, serve an obligatory two years in the military and receive a stipend upon completion. Almost without fail, they use this money to take a big trip to either South America or Asia, and although we had read to expect this, it was still surprising to see groups as large as 20 Israelis pass us, spouting a plume of Hebrew in their wake.
While I love meeting interesting people, I also enjoy the solitude that comes with a long walk. It affords me valuable time to think about what’s important in my life. As Liz dashed forward and spent the day excitedly talking with newfound friends, I fell back, allowing me to get lost in my thoughts. As I’ve stripped away the many layers of my life back in the States, I’ve started to remember small things that I used to enjoy, but had somehow forgotten over the course of time as my life got the better of me. I used to play and listen to music, for example, which I rarely do now. I also enjoy the idea of architecture and building. I love the outdoors. Remembering myself has been one of the true values of taking a break from my everyday life.
As we exited the trail, stinking and sore, we were welcomed by a double rainbow over a aquamarine glacier lake. No joke. It was so simultaneously cheesy and romantic, Liz and I couldn’t help but grin at each other. Torres del Paine is known for schizophrenic weather systems, but Mother Nature had been on our side for nearly a week. It provided comfortable cloud cover when exposed to the elements or hiking up the steep valleys. It gifted us swaths of blue sky when reaching impressive natural monuments. It barely rained a drop. Call it The Thomas Luck, as we do, but in every way Torres del Paine exceeded my expectations, leaving me with only best experience and memories for years to come. We raised our hiking polls overhead and formed a perfect, celebratory “W” pattern, a fitting end to our journey.4 comments
Friday, January 23, 2009
“You are crazy. Let me say this with more gusto: C-R-A-Z-Y,” wrote my friend Cybele, and I agreed completely. The last time I set off on a multi-day journey into the wilderness I was gripped with fear and doubt, and Cybele confirmed that I had lost my mind by attempting New Zealand’s Milford Track. But having survived – dare I say, even enjoyed – the experience, I was ready to do it again. Now that’s what’s really C-R-A-Z-Y.
Tomorrow we set off for Torres del Paine National Park to hike the famed “W” circuit, so named for the shape of the trail, an anticipated highlight of our trip to South America. In fact, it’s what got us dreaming about visiting the continent nearly 10 years ago. I’ll never forget the dusty pink spires splashed across the front page of the Seattle Times’ travel section one Sunday, looking like some wind-swept no man’s land. They looked like the kind of mountains that Froddo struggled up on his way to Mordor. “Where’s that?” I asked Maikael. I couldn’t believe it when he responded, “South America,” a place I had always associated with steamy jungles and crushing heat. More than any place I had ever seen, it looked like the ends of the earth, and I found it impossible to believe that, not only could you visit those ragged peaks, but you could climb amongst them. We wanted to go there. Badly. As our bus idled at the Chilean border crossing yesterday, those same craggy spires looming in the distance, it was hard to believe we were finally here.
To prepare for our big adventure, our hostel, Erratic Rock, hosts a daily information session. Run by two guys from Oregon, Rustyn, one half of the duo, gave an engaging talk about the ins and outs of hiking the W, from how to get to the park to what to pack (and more importantly, what to leave at home). He often leads guided hikes into the parks for “richies,” people looking for comfortable, short stints into the wilderness. “But they’re tourists, not trekkers, and there’s a difference. They’ll walk an hour in, stop for a beer, give themselves a high five, and walk right back out.” I wanted to be a hiker.
In Patagonia, the wind is fierce. Rustyn reported gusts that can lift a grown man off the ground and deposit him in another location; holding on to one’s tent can quickly become akin to flying a kite. That’s how crazy the wind is. Still, despite the area’s notoriously intense weather, there is no special gear required. Rustyn is a proponent of adopting “the stink uniform,” consisting of one quick-dry top and pair of pants that will be our outfit for the next six days. At nights we get to change into comfy, dry pants, shirts, and socks. That’s it: no special Goretex or super dooper shoes. “Some Australians hike it in flip flops,” he assured us.
This experience will be different from hiking the Milford Track in many ways. While we’ll be out on the trail for six days, as opposed to Milford’s four, our accommodations will be deluxe in comparison. A series of refugios, which are souped up dorms, boast equipment rentals, full meal services, hot showers, and swanky bars. This was a major selling point for me, as we will have to pack very little into the park, making the load light and the walking all the easier. Hikers have an option to camp instead of staying at the refugios, the latter being a considerably more expensive option, but did I mention the hot showers and full meals? And we won’t be following the same path as we did on the Milford Track, meaning we probably won’t share the same sense of camaraderie with our fellow hikers. But did I mention the full bar?
I haven’t gotten cold feet. In fact, I’m a lot less nervous than when I started the Milford Track. Rustyn assured us that completing the W equals a lifetime of street cred in the hiking world. Even if we do enjoy a glass of wine every evening. And did I mention the hot showers?
We’ll be back to civilization the evening of January 29th!4 comments
Thursday, January 1, 2009
With its big city party culture, Buenos Aires promised to be the perfect place to ring in the new year, but our plans for an exciting, action-packed New Year’s Eve fell through at the last minute. “What do people do for New Year’s here?” we asked Betty, our hostess at the Casa de los Angelitos. As it turns out, not much. Most people spend the evening with family or friends at home, which seemed strange to me. Don’t Argentines party at any given opportunity? But that’s just the problem. They are so accustomed to late night revelry – remember, this is a country where the clubs don’t open until 2:30 am – that the idea of staying up until midnight seems a little pedestrian. Without a home to go to for New Year’s, we decided to make our own party. We considered seeing a tango show, but soon discovered that most of them were closed for the holiday, and most restaurants proved to be the same case, too. Finding ourselves still without plans at 5 pm, we decided to celebrate how we normally do: by spending a quiet evening at home over take-out and a bottle of wine.
We made a pilgrimage to the grocery store for wine and little bottle of champagne, then marched around the corner to El Espanol, which has quickly become our neighborhood joint. It’s the kind of place where you see the same people every day at lunch, and where the waiters are quickly beginning to recognize our faces. We’re usually the only foreigners there, a feat at the height of tourist season. All of their pastas, pizzas, and breads are made in-house, behind an expansive window where you can watch the bakers in little red vests feed dough into a complex series of machines like yeasty mad scientists. This was my home away from home in Buenos Aires, so I could think of no better place to order my New Year’s Eve dinner.
I needed some comfort food. I was feeling down, this holiday season having been a big disappointment from beginning to end. I placed a few New Year’s Eve phone calls to friends, which made me feel better. By the time I finished my calls it was 11:30 pm, and we made our way down to the lovely patio, which was emptied of guests who were out at parties of different varieties of crazy. We heated up our pizza and pasta (it would have felt less pathetic if we could have brought it straight home, piping hot, but the restaurant closed at 9 pm, and nobody eats dinner that early in Buenos Aires) and began to discuss the New Year. Usually we hash out some New Year’s resolutions, reflecting on how we’d like our life to be different in the coming months, but this year has been one big resolution, where a conversation like this takes place at least once a day. Instead, we discussed the things were were grateful to be throwing out from 2008, and the things we were looking forward to welcoming in 2009.
Goodbye, 2008. We’re glad that we’re done spending all of our time and money planning an epic journey. We’re glad to be rid of fear and old patterns. Hello, 2009. We’re looking forward to new dreams, new gardens, new challenges, and a new way of being in the world. We’re looking forward to getting back to our everyday lives.
As we were talking quietly amongst ourselves, a girl from a neighboring building dashed out onto her balcony. “Woo, woo!” she yelled. Then, the crash of fireworks began. “It must be New Year’s,” Maikael said. Although my watch said 11:57, it was midnight according to the portenos. What began as a solo performance soon developed into a full-blown symphony of noise. There is no official fireworks show in Buenos Aires, but you’d never know otherwise if you craned your neck skyward. Lights showered from above, as booms and crackles roared through the city. The cacophony was doubled by the portenos throwing open their doors and blasting music from anemic stereos. The show continued until past one, a heavy cloud of spent fireworks having settled over the city. With lax controls, the New Year was ushered in by the loudest firecrackers I’ve ever heard. “Those have to be bigger than M-80s,” Maikael said at one point. The next morning, our hosts assured us this was an unusual year. “Usually the fireworks go until five. But with the economic crisis, I guess people aren’t buying as many.”
We flopped into bed as the last fireworks fizzled out, forgetting to even crack open our bottle of champagne. The next morning we discovered that someone had polished it off, which somehow seemed like a fitting end to this dismal holiday season. Who knows where we’ll ring in 2010, or how the circumstances of our lives will have changed yet again. But I hope I’m surrounded by the people I care about – and I’m banking on the fact that the fireworks won’t be nearly as loud.3 comments