Thursday, February 19, 2015

Travel: torturous treat?



Feeling jet lagged and still totally shaken I wonder why this need – this obsession to travel. Why one more place? One more ‘new experience’? Insanity?

Sitting crunched up on a metal tube with aerodynamic wings flying somewhere high up where the time is something between the time zone you left and the one you haven’t arrived at yet, these thoughts treat my mind (which happens to long for some rest – any rest) as if it were a punching bag. Add to that the realization that the annoying tremor in my chair is not a child kicking my seat from behind but some tremor coming from the guts of the plane beneath me. Go a step further – or perhaps the right word is ‘deeper ‘- add turbulence. Now there’s no doubt left that I'm insane to not only put myself through this, but to actually actively seek this experience out.

Why do I do this, and not just once, but in the last three years at least four times a year I take a trip that often involves at least ten hours of flying. You see I work for an airline and travel benefits are one of the key ways that I feel I get paid. At the time I’m planning what I’m going to see, it all seems so exciting. Three weeks after the experience the anguish and stress is also drowned out by  ‘what a fabulous trip!’ sharing.

But right now – just under 48 hours after having landed back on beautiful Kauai and literally kissing the ground, I cannot reach that pre nor post euphoric state. Right now my understanding is fogged up. It’s as if I’m reaching through mist and grasping for anything to hold onto to help me understand why I do this to myself.

Not only not your own bed and what is known, but during this last trip to Ecuador, where we had the audacity to visit a country and not be able to speak Spanish, we really were strangers in a strange land. Maybe that’s why I travel: self knowledge. This trip showed me how arrogant I can be – after all, who in today’s world cannot speak the universal language of English? Well we learned the hard way that not even the Thrifty Car Rental customer service agent at Quito international airport shared this expectation!

And yet, we also learned that you meet fellow travelers who can speak the language and are willing to translate the menu or make the call to the car rental to extend your rental…or in a desperate spot, you switch on data roaming and use i-translate. I was born in South Africa where they say “n boer maak mos a plan” and in a tricky spot you do find a way. So maybe this is why I travel – to realize that despite the challenges there are ways to still get things done and even enjoy the experience – that I wouldn’t have had had I stayed at home in my comfort zone.

And back to the fellow travelers, because this is such a bonus gift when traveling. At Hotel Quito del Sol we met Chuck, a man in his early seventies who has climbed more high mountains in the world than we knew existed. The stories of climbing Mount McKinley not once but five times and how he and a friend got caught in a blizzard and had to take 4 hour shifts of digging to prevent themselves from being snowed in while the other one slept made me realize how little I actually put myself through. From sharing two meals with him, I also learned that I did not like one way conversations no matter how interesting the other person’s life is. This was also not only noted, but voiced. Growth for me.

While having coffee and a sandwich off the grand plaza, we met a vet from Montana, who oozed calmness and gentleness and was there to join her son and daughter in law, volunteering in Quito to explore Ecuador. With her was a vivacious womoon who shared how she’d been warned by her Vedic astrologer that her travel in Peru a month earlier would activate her Venus/ Pluto line. The indian goddess of destruction and transformation, Kali would be there. As astrology fascinates me I was spellbound as she explained how in a shaman led ayuasca ceremony she had invited her shadow feminine to show herself and the ceremony had helped integrate parts of herself she had denied for so long. I got to hear a positive story of Kali and the link to astrology.

So many people: Miguel whom we met on the roofdeck in Banos. Tall and very slim, wearing loose khaki pants and a brightly colored button down collared cotton that made me think of Guatamala….that and a cream beret that somehow seemed to be worn back to front. He sat on a white plastic beach chair facing the waterfall above the hot mineral pool maybe two blocks away, and alternatively took a few puffs on something he’d brought with him from Oregon (where he lived in a place with no real address) and took sips from a bottle of beer that he kept at his feet. He invited me to join him, and in no time I was captivated by how at age 63 he could definitely feel a new chapter beginning; he thought it would be to relocate here and teach African drumming – he’d been there for a month and had discovered no place to enjoy good African vibes. “Scuze me – gotta take a piss, can I bring you a beer on my way back up?”

Over the next few evening we talkedmoire story and I taped the prayer he shared with us on voice memo. He said that about twenty years ago, after a bad motor bike accident he was plagued by a pain in his shoulder and consulted a shaman, who told him to say a gratitude prayer for twenty days; it didn’t matter what the words were as long as it was a prayer of gratitude and as long as he did it consistently for twenty days. This was Miguel's prayer:
            There is no part of me that is not of the gods
            I am the preparer of the path
I am the rescuer unto the light
The divine light does indeed shine upon me
Shine through me
and continues to shine within me
in this moment
as with every moment
and with this breath
as with every breath
I’m the witness to feeling harmony and health
 And yes, the pain disappeared and so he has continued this practice...

While traveling invisible forces also conspire to create magical moments as if rewarding you for your efforts. For example one of the co-owners of le Posado del Arte in Banos is a wonderful slam poet, Jim: he shared about  their experience of buying a hotel right near an active volcano that hadn’t erupted in over 100 years until it erupted twice, two years after they had relocated. When Neil’s suitcase was stolen, (scenario to follow in next paragraph)  Jim hopped in his bicycle and sped off looking for the thief…and he called the polizia and explained in Spanish what had happened.  

In retrospect, even having a suitcase stolen is part of the adventure. I wonder if a clever marketing person could even package this as a travel activity like zip-lining or a bus tour. What happened was the crossing of paths of an opportunist and a moment of carelessness or naïve trust. Neil had taken his suitcase to place in the car; discovered he’d taken the hotel keys instead of the car keys; came inside to correct this; got distracted by a quick question; and no more than five minutes later when he popped back outside – suitcase gone! At first Neil was outraged, but again through experiences like this we learn that Ecuador is not Hawaii, where locking is unnecessary and where there isn’t such desperate poverty. Neil also learned that he didn’t really need much more than a pair of shorts and a shirt. Thankfully he had his passport and credit card in his pocket. It also meant I became super vigilant about locking and parking in well lit areas – something I never have to think about on Kauai. I wonder whether one can really learn compassion until things like this make us appreciate how different parts of the world really do offer very different gifts and challenges!

We had arrived with no guidebook and no map – after all until we reached Houston airport I was planning on visiting Buenos Aires , but a layover of over 9 hours followed by a flight of more than ten hours with new info that a 5 hour flight to Quito in two hours was also possible meant we abruptly changed plans. Both the Lonely planet guidebook and a good road map  came our way by way of zany interesting Miguel who lives in Oregon for less than $500/month and plays African drums, creates art and surfed with David Nuueva in 1967 in California and drove a 357 chevy camero with three buddies up to the Altomont concert with the Rolling Stones and hells angels etc; and Katya who lives in Mt Shasta, dances, travels and runs a non toxic hair dressing salon.

Not knowing how much things should cost, but wanting to spread the wealth and support the keen entrepreneurs trying so hard to sell you a scarf, a hammock, a taxi ride, I find tightens my whole being. It’s as if I’m trying to prevent myself from an onslaught. At home I’d check prices and compare or google them While traveling I just don’t have this luxury. One would think that after at least twenty trips I’d have grown use to this discomfort and accepted that being charged too much at times is just part of the game. Of course I often do come home with small treasures that cannot be found at home or even on the internet. Come to think of it if I didn’t travel recently to Ecuador, I might not even know about gorgeous hand woven colorful hammocks that cost between $18 and $25.  We paid $20. But we also paid $25 for a taxi ride that should have cost no more than $10, and how do you discuss this when  you don’t speak the same language!

We felt the altitude of being at 9000 feet where the air has less oxygen, we felt Ecuador’s breath change from having a cold bite on the high Andes to her warm and sleep inducing breath down at the coast where our feet played in the soft sand while our mouths gladly drank a cold cerveza. Before we visited I didn’t know that I would enjoy ‘pescado encocado’; a delicious fish stew cooked in coconut milk. I had seen the Incan people in their colorful shawls but it was only while visiting that I realized how small they were and made the association to hobbit and leprechaun and magic.

On arriving home, I said, “So wouldn’t we learn as much or even more by simply watching a video on Ecuador?”

“Skattebol,” said Neil, “watching is passive and you observe what others have chosen to share, but you do not show up and let Life have it’s way with you – delighting you at times, and at other times proving to you that you can handle and be enriched by experiences that merely reading about would only frighten you!”





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