As I made my way through airport security heading towards Belize with a couple of classmates on May 20th, exactly a month ago, I confessed to them that I wasn’t all that excited about the trip. They were understanding, but mystified. Not all that surprising; one of them had never been on an airplane. To leave the country for almost two weeks and to venture to a country and ecosystem wholly outside of his previous experiences was a big deal.
I lacked enthusiasm in part because I have a life in Portland. It’s summer there, and there’s nothing like summer in Portland. It’s camping season. I’m missing lazy nights under a punch-drunk moon while I watch red-hued campfire smoke trail upward through the trees I’ve hung my hammock from.
And I know, too, unlike my classmate, what a fucking hassle it is to travel. I’ve been sick, in total, about a week out of the month I’ve been gone, with a combo of a cold and typical food/water-borne complications. I’ve dealt with the unpleasant, sometimes primitive, often filthy, restrooms in two countries and seven cities in the last thirty days. I expected to get sick, despite my best efforts at prevention.
I suffer through not one, not two, but three accidental spills of toiletry items in my bag. I am trained by previous experience; everything with the possibility of leaking stays on the outside of the garbage bag that my clothes and sleeping bag live in. The spills are an annoyance instead of a full-day lost spent trying to remove the smell of mouthwash from everything I own.
I know what it is to feel not just the physical stress of carrying everything I own on my back, or on my body, but also the mental stress that someone is going to walk away with my bags, or that I will lose everything I own. I have gone through the unpleasant embassy-lost-passport-replacement process before. I have gone through the-OMG-mom-I-need-you-to-wire-me-cash terror before. Once, I spent six hours at London Heathrow security, in a room with chains attached to the chair, convincing the border guards I wasn’t a terrorist or a migrant just because I was temporarily worth zero dollars.
Entire days of my life have been spent on planes and buses. My first bus broke down outside of Cusco and we sat on the highway for five hours until 0200 while the guide and driver tried to figure out how to solve the problem without alerting their boss. That’s not my craziest mechanical malfunction travel story; that prize goes to the emergency landing at SFO I experienced five years ago after the cabin wall started cracking and popping in my row right after takeoff. Or maybe the bus crash at a youth summer camp where I broke my nose. Toss up.
For many days of my trip, I haven’t known where I’m going to sleep that night. I’m relaxed enough about travel that I don’t feel compelled to book everything in advance. It’s easier to improvise when traveling solo, of course, but I’m also the only one that is available for brainstorming solutions when I arrive at 0400 in a new city with a backpack I need to store and a desperate need for a bathroom. I haven’t had quite the same impetus to hitchhike as I felt when I was 18; that experience was the most improvisational I have ever needed to be while traveling.
Travel makes a fool of me. I don’t speak the language; not really. Misunderstandings and a liberal use of google translate characterize my day-to-day. I’m lucky that people usually want to be helpful. I get ripped off. I overpay and over-tip. I know this even when it’s happening; I live with it. The exchange rate (1 USD to 3 Soles) makes it easy to justify. Or sometimes I don’t tip when I’m supposed to. I’m never quite sure what is for sale for the stated price. Was I supposed to bargain my haircut down from 10 soles to 7?
I grow weary. I knew I would. I have the same conversations with a rotating cast of characters mostly from Western or Northern countries. Amsterdam. The UK. Australia. The Europeans travel for months at a time. Where are you from? Where are you going? How long will you be traveling? What I should I check out in the next place I’m going? The locals tolerate me because I give them money. I am only an incidental part of their world, a necessary evil.
As I travel, I shed equipment and clothes and pick-up more appropriate alternatives. In Belize, I leave behind my snorkel gear. I always planned to. The inserts in my shoes aren’t working; I stop using them. I contemplate deserting the Peruvian guidebook I haven’t cracked once. It’s heavy. I avoid buying an alpaca sweater, as much as I want to. My down jacket is lighter. I know I don’t actually need more than one pair of pants. My life narrows down to khaki zip-offs and one of three shirts. I wash my underwear in the shower when I wash my body.
A month in, I settle into the rhythm. It takes me minutes to pack my backpack, even when I’ve exploded it all over a hotel room. I embrace not knowing exactly what my schedule is. My google calendar is largely blank. I wake up each day without a plan. I figure out what’s next as I go. When I have moments of downtime, I write, or read, or chat with folks back home. I miss them, but not enough to cut my trip short — though there were a perilous few days where I considered that.
The lesson that is driven home — the lesson I come to learn, to teach and to re-teach myself, is how little I need to be happy. It’s expensive for me to get here, financially and energetically. But once I arrive, I live on much less, outside of the inevitable tours I take. Last slight I slept in a cubby-hole of a bed. It was perfectly comfortable, aside from the bar music set to 11 that ran until 0100. My backpack lived in locker. I shared the bathroom with 7 other people.
And you know what? It was fine. Fine for a night, or a week, or a month. Some people live in little more space than that their whole lives through, or don’t even have a space they can claim or lock anything into. It takes time to adapt to a slide down the energy scale, but once I’m closer to something more globally average, I notice my profligate use of energy. The hot shower in Huacachina does not fade into the background as my due when I spend several days in Arequipa without one. Turning on every light in a room isn’t so normal when I notice that every shopkeeper in the main square of a city is open for business without their lights on. The exceptions — a tourist spot plugged into a generator — seems gross in comparison. What makes this burger joint so special?
The locals, I know, exist on even less than I do. I see communities of square concrete blocks, corrugated metal roofs kept on with nothing but some rocks. The empty squares of hole-in-the-wall “windows” gape at me as I drive by. I wonder how the homes do when it rains. Electricity is rare; indoor plumbing unusual, climate control, unheard of — even in most hotels. People walk or take buses. Or don’t travel. The cost of gas for Peruvians is roughly the same as in the states — the price of gas is pegged to an international standard. But income isn’t. To own a car is a tremendous burden. The lines on people’s faces tell of lives much harder than my own. Stray dogs wander the streets; the spare energy to round them up and adopt them out or put them down — or neuter family animals that are cared for — just doesn’t exist.
Still. In Cuzco, I watch hundreds of children dance in the Plaza de Armas, night after night, part in preparation and part in celebration of the Winter Solstice on June 24 and the Inca Festival of the Sun – Inti Raymi. Their parents come to watch and give them juice and snacks after they trickle to the side exhausted. In Huacachina and Arequipa, everything shuts down for fútbol. I understand when I can’t catch my waiter’s attention. The Peruvians watch their team beat the Bolivians 3 to 1 in the Copa América. There are parade drums in the streets before and after. The noon meal is life. Soccer is bread.
There is life here, joy here, down towards the lower end of the scale. I stumble over a young couple making out against a street light as I try to find dinner in Huacachina. A man I meet tells me of the conversations he has with his friends as we curl up in his unheated 3rd floor efficiency apartment on the edge of town, surrounded by stacks of books higher than my head. A traffic guard gives me a polite nod as I scramble across the street while she holds up a hand. Her job hasn’t been replaced yet with the technology and energy expenditure of installing traffic lights on every corner. Most cities I’ve been to only have a few such installations, even in center areas. I edge my way around a protest in Arequipa, avoiding the row of cops with stern faces and riot gear. A crowd laughs and cheers next to the crowded San Pedro market as street performers lip dance and dress in drag for their entertainment.
Could I live like this?
How can I not?