Monday, May 2, 2011

Leaving Bolivia

(top photo courtesy of Steve Nute)

Once back from The Island, I was fortunate enough to have three separate friends come and visit me - two from the States and one from Argentina. There was a celebration of my 2nd anniversary on the road, and a lot of good meals shared. After the last guest left I had nothing stopping me from packing up and finally moving on.

I have long struggled with the idea of leaving and it has been heavy on my mind for many months now. Ongoing conversations with myself continue daily, about continuing my travels versus the urge to stay put and nurture my freshly sprouted roots. The process has been much more difficult than I had imagined – and I am growing concerned about all the voices in my head.

My situation deserves no sympathy, I realize this and I know how lucky I am to be in this conundrum. I arrived here one year ago almost to the day, exhausted and with my wanderlust largely satisfied. I had gone a year without hearing my name called in public or without being touched in any real meaningful way. In many respects, I had rolled into town on an empty tank.

Things are differently now. I cannot walk across the plaza without hearing my name called, no, shouted at least once. Maybe it’s Angelica selling birdseed in the square or small Ronaldo needing help washing the roof of a truck. And the beauty of it all is that I have the time to stop and help fill bags of birdseed or to wash the roof of that truck. It is my way of taking time to “smell the roses”, and its a daily occurrence.

From my time volunteering with the working kids and just being around for so long I have acquired a large family of little people that supply me with a ton of laughter and affection. Thursdays I take a group of seven to the school for the deaf where we are all learning sign language so that they can talk to a young cousin that is hearing impaired. The outing is an absolute hoot, and I would hate to leaving with such a limited vocabulary.

I have another family in the countryside whose art and way of living fascinates me. I had originally sought out to meet them because of how different they seemed, now their home has become my sanctuary. Recently we have had several conversations about me leaving and my potential return. “Yes, I definitely will be coming back”, I say. On my last visit I was asked when that might be. The only reply I could give, and an honest one at that was, “whenever I feel that my travels are over, maybe one, two, or five years from now”. Speaking in Quechua, but the message perfectly clear, the 82-year old grandmother said that five more years would probably not work for her. The room went silent and it struck me then that it could never be the same again, not as it is now. My little friends would have grown and some of my older friends would be gone.

In addition to my new families, I also have a beautiful, intelligent and loving woman here that wants me to stay. It is has been hard to explain why I am choosing the unknown over her.

During this process, I have had to reevaluate what it is about traveling that is so important to me. I have always discounted the “what are you looking for” comment, and responded with something more like, “I am not looking for anything, its just what I like to do”, but recently those voices in my head have been asking, “why?”

For me, at this point, what I expect from travel is:

a) To experience diverse people and cultures,

b) To learn more about myself, and challenge my limits,

c) To participate in my surroundings, even if in small ways,

d) To allow an adventure to unfold everyday, and

e) Ultimately, I set out to see as much of the planet as possible while still physically capable.

Through the practice of writing this all down, I realize that I am fulfilling much of what's on this list by being here, but it is not complete. Regardless, it feels like a waste to leave. But then again, it feels like a waste not to leave - to go out and see more. “Right?”

That said, I have been actively trying to convince myself to move on, doing everything short of making flashcards of the following:

  • · As fascinating as the culture is here, it is a reminder of all the other interesting cultures yet to be experienced.
  • · Yes, these children are gorgeous, gracious and deserving, but so are so many more out there that you have not yet met. What about them?
  • · The seasons are lined up perfectly for leaving, but there is only short window of opportunity. The time to go is now!
  • · You gave up everything to do this. You owe it to yourself to keep going. It’s too soon to stop, and,
  • · You can always come back.

So, at this exact moment in time, the plan is this:

  • o I will work to shed the extra baggage that I have picked up during my idle time here, both around my mid-section and around my apartment.
  • o I will read about the travels of others like I did before leaving Seattle, encouraging my mind to leave first - body and bike to follow later.
  • o I will focus my attention and research on Brazil and Africa.
  • o I will spend my remaining time here saying good-bye, with full intention of staying in touch.
  • o I will anticipate a bout of Post Bolivian Depression, but will get through it. I will have new scenery, a new language and new culture to distract me.

Therefore, on May 29th I will leave Sucre on my way to Brazil. Within four days of leaving I will be at entrance of the Pantanal, the world’s largest wetlands (aka: swamp) where I will dig out my mosquito spray and expired malaria meds. Will proceed next to the capital city of Brasilia to explore the architecture of Oscar Niemeyer, followed by the beaches and bikinis of Rio de Janeiro. From there, down the Atlantic coast through Uruguay ending in Buenos Aires. Once there I will make the decision to make the leap to South Africa, or commit to starting a life in South America.

I suppose the moral of this conundrum, is be careful what you wish for. You might get it!

Thanks for listening, the voices in my head have quieted.

Secret Agent Man

A lot has happened, and nothing has happened since my last blog entry. I am still here in Sucre struggling to make my next move. But first, an update on my activities since the chime of the New Year:

I spent the month of February on an island in the Caribbean. My girlfriend, Silvia, accompanied me for the first two weeks and flew back while I stayed on for an additional two (the bike stayed at my apartment for this trip). “The Island” had long been on my list of places to visit as all my life I had heard family stories about what had happened there. Back in Guatemala I had bought the appropriate travel guide and started talking to my father about the trip. During our conversations on Skype we would go over Google Earth satellite photos on our respective computers. “Does that look the right place?” “Is that the bridge you remember?” Over a series of calls and sending screen shots of map images back and forth he was finally convinced that he had found the house where his father had died. My grandfather. Dad lived in the house as a 12-years old in 1953, while his father was stationed there with the U.S Army - until the time of this death at the age of 39.

It was an excellent opportunity to talk more with my dad about this pivotal point in his life and learn more about my biological grandfather. I ordered a digital recorder from Amazon so that Dad could reminisce at will and send me his thoughts via email. I was never that close to the grandfathers that I had growing up - I don’t think either of them had ever picked up a baseball, as they just were not those kinds of guys. Though they were loving and had their qualities. As a kid I always envisioned that my “other grandfather” would have been the type to teach me how to throw a curve ball while sneaking in a few bawdy jokes every once in awhile. He would have been that kind of guy.

I was enjoying the conversations with Dad, but at the same time I was in awe of the technology that we were using. Having taken much of it for granted before, I kept thinking about how far things have come in my own lifetime. Not that long ago (okay, quite awhile ago) President Kennedy and his staff were scanning over fuzzy black and white photos from U2 spy planes, contemplating if what they were looking at was a stockpile of nuclear missiles or a truckload of drainage pipes in route to a new road works project. Now, here we were talking clearly, with video, some 8,000-miles away from each other looking at the same maps almost in real time taking a virtual tour of a neighborhood in a foreign country asking, “is that it?” And, it was free!

Once ready, the trip had alluded in Guatemala and once again while in Colombia. I had largely given up on the idea, but then thought my time here in Bolivia would be my last chance before leaving the continent. Finally on the island, and after Silvia had left, I enlisted the help of a local that I had befriended, “my fixer”, and we set out in a 1953 Pontiac taxi to find our key landmark -the long defunct dog track. From there we walked towards the creek along the main double lane boulevard stopping once to ask for directions, showing my Google Map print out, crossed over a small bridge and walked up a typical residential street. There it was, after so many conversations and daydreams about finding it, there it was right in front of me. A house.

Outside of my quest to find the house, I had never really thought about what I was expecting to get out of the experience. Maybe I thought it would bring me closer to something that I had always felt cheated on, or maybe feel closer to my dad, but standing in front of the house I felt nothing more than if I had been standing in the front of the house next door, or if I were to turn around and face that house. I waited, but nothing came. Sure, I envisioned my young father and uncles playing in the creek, or riding the horse that kept in the vacant lot, but no parting of the clouds or bolt of lightning occurred, just a mild sense of accomplishment.

Walking away I noticed a woman sleeping in a rocker on the upstairs porch next door, obviously into her 80’s or more. It was the house were all the kids, my aunt and uncles, were taken when my grandfather collapsed of a heart-attack while loading a moving van - they were in the process of moving to a new house cross-town. Suddenly, there was a glimmer of hope of a personal connection. I had my fixer friend Vivian ask the younger man, assumingly the son, in the driveway how long they had lived there. “Only two years. Why?” Never mind.

It was meaningful project and I am thankful that I was able to go through with it, but it was also another example of the journey outshining the destination.