The Return: (North) ‘Merica

Standard

Well, it’s late July.  Not sure exactly how time travels so quickly but if we could monetize that speed none of us would need to work ever again.  In this short time, I realized a few things.  First, I kinda sorta needed a job.  Second, a shower and haircut were imminent.  And third, I was BACK.  But what was this strange new world, (North) America?  Whatever it was, it was very welcoming.  In case you haven’t already seen the video, here it is.

For the first few weeks, it was a surreal and very glossy view.  Nothing seemed to fit reality.  Half of my heart and mind sat here at home while the other sat wondering why his twin had left him in South America.  So many incredible memories still do sit down there.  In between jagged peaks and flowing valleys and rushing rivers.  I don’t think I was struggling to come to grips with the realities back home because I was afraid of anything, I was actually excited to start work again.

No, there’s something else.  There’s something about a place that can have such a big impact on who you are and become.  I lived among 6 countries in South America and the Caribbean for 5 months.  I spent 248 hours in some form of transportation.  I visited 27 cities, towns, and villages.  Over 200 miles of hiking trails, roadsides, and city streets were crept across by tired feet.  I took nearly 10,000 pictures and videos.  But does any of this mean anything?

This was always an interesting question I tried to answer, what happens after the trip? I’m still not quite sure how to answer it, but I think I’ve come along a bit further than where my thoughts were on April 9th.  More than ever, it’s about people and how I decide to interact.  Making the most of every moment.  Appreciating EVERYTHING you have.  Because you never know when you might drop everything and search for 5 months for those very things you missed so much right under your nose.  It’s about spending life with the people and things that mean more to you than anything else.  It’s a cliche, but for a good reason.  I knew the cliche before.  Now I feel it.

 

A Reunion in Haiti – vol. 2

Standard

During the week, it was Alexa’s birthday.  She runs the childrens’ home and we all ran to a beautiful farm to celebrate the day.  The farm was organic and used ingenious methods to grow crops and other plants cheaply and efficiently.  It was so much cooler on the top of the mountain where the grasses grew green and winds whispered among the shouldering peaks.  The city of Port-au-Prince below was hot and dusty, a solid layer of beige hovering over it.  Flowers of varying colors scattered the farm as we toured the land.

It was a beautiful day that ended with a humble rooftop party filled with tasty homemade treats and dinner and lots of great people.  White lines of light swung on string around us in the wind as the sun set.  Through laughs and smiles we all enjoyed another successful day in Haiti.

We spent Thursday back at the childrens’ home doing some crafts with the kids and finishing the second coat of paint.  The room looked refreshed and we all spent time with the kids to round out the afternoon.  The following day was spent overseeing a classroom with some young kids taught by one of the people who had worked in the childrens’ home.  It was nice to see that lesson, but it was also an insight into the difficulties some of these kids, even the lucky ones who can go to school, must endure.

It was now Saturday.  The last full day in Haiti and also the last full day of my trip.  I couldn’t stop thinking about all of the people that I was just a number of hours away from seeing.  This day was spent on a trip to the beach with the entire group of kids.  It’s infrequent for the kids to get out of the house for safety reasons and so days like this are precious.  They ran straight for the water and had smiles as big as watermelons striped across their faces.

Jumping into the water myself, I found 2, 3, and sometimes even 5 kids all hanging on my arms and shoulders as I waded around in circles through the clear water.  For several hours, we just played in the water and stopped for lunch and played some more.  It was a beautiful sunny day and I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect day to spend with those incredible kids and for my last day of a miraculous trip.

Emotions swirled around me.  Incredible memories filled my mind as I asked my dearest Sarah some more questions and spent as much time at the beach as possible.  It was a difficult goodbye but of course an inevitable one.  Sarah and the rest of the kids waved as their bus road off into the dust.  We all returned to our rooms and packed our bags, happy, exhausted, ready for home.

After a week spent with beautiful people in a uniquely beautiful place, we shipped ourselves to the airport.  Minutes were splashing past me and I was doing my best just to enjoy the final hours.  Finally, we boarded and rose up into the clouds.  I was on my way home.

A Reunion in Haiti – vol. 1

Standard

140 days past.  Countless memories.  Countless people.  Countless blessings.  It’s pretty incredible up to this point that I haven’t lost anything…or worse.  My mind is everywhere.  Riding a taxi to the airport after a nice final morning walking the streets of Santiago with a friend brought so many thoughts to the fold.  My final hours in this new world, now a very familiar world, were waning down and I was trying to suck up each moment, each sight, each person I met with the absorbency of a thick dry sponge.

Funny enough, that’s how I felt before long in the dusty hot weather of Haiti as I touched down in the airport of Port-au-Prince.  I was the first member of the team to arrive and so me and Alexa, the Haiti Connections Director of the Wings of Refuge childrens’ home.  We went to a brand new cafe that has become a central meeting place for volunteers since I last visited this poverty stricken country.

After running a few errands, we returned to the airport to pick up the rest of the team.  I knew our team leader through some limited meetings, but everyone else was new!  Nothing new for me as I’d been in a similar situation the last 4 1/2 months, but there were plenty of differences in this final week of the trip.

This place, as opposed to all the others I had seen on my trip, was home.   When I returned to the childrens home I felt a coziness that I hadn’t felt since I first embarked to Peru to kick off this adventure.  Walking into the home, a few things had changed but the feeling was the same.  I saw the kids and there were mumblings.  I had doubts.  I wondered if any of them would remember my name or who I was.  How could I doubt.

As we went around the room and all introduced ourselves, I readied myself for my turn to speak.  But as I was about to say my name, I heard it around the room followed by whispers and giggles.  They remembered!  As we all socialized with the kids, I ended up running and playing tag with some of the younger boys before talking with Sarah and nabbing a picture with this young sweetheart.

For those who don’t know, this was the girl who stole my heart by giving me a birthday card on my 22nd birthday during my first trip to Haiti.  It was the precursor to my return for a second trip and the inspiration for this 3rd trip after a 4 year hiatus.  Being surrounded by all the kids on the first day was a dream come true.

Over the course of the next few days, we settled into our new home for the week and also helped a friend living there to move into his own apartment!  It was a big moment for him and we were all so thrilled to be a part of it.  We painted a large room in the childrens’ home and spent more time with the kids.  Running around you in circles laughing and screaming, they make you forget about everyone and everything else.

As we drove around the city those first few days, I noticed less rubble.  Less garbage.  A few more paved roads.  Just a few.  For a country that has been among the most impoverished in the world for many years, progress comes slow.  But progress seemingly does still come, especially with organizations working together to bring benefit to the people.

We met many of these organizations as one of the biggest pushes the childrens’ home has made since I last visited is to partner with other charities to bring greater awareness to various causes.  We visited jewelers who would make beads out of cereal boxes, old glass bottles, and clay.  Ingenious reuse of otherwise indiscernible trash.  We even got to make our own bracelet with a hammer, brass fastener, and some leather.  Far flung from my days of calculating numbers on spreadsheets.

It was a memorable start to an endlessly thought filled ending of the grand adventure that began a short 5 months earlier.  Only a few days remain, but in my mind, it feels like an eternity until I can finally return home!  More on those days in the final post of the trip!

Also, check out this post I wrote for the Wings of Refuge website and some more insights into my trip back to this wonderful world!

Riding North

Standard

An illustrious half week in Futaleufu filled with camping, rafting, and lots of outdoors led to some pangs of desire for urban life.  I had been in the lesser populated and incredibly beautiful nature I so desperately craved coming from the graveled earth of the NYC metro area.  But now, I wanted that city experience again.  In a small way, a taste of home.  It was a big secret, but I was just weeks away from home at this point.  Another 10 days in Chile and a long week in Haiti before my unforeseen return.

To get there, it took some more long bus rides and a few detours.  First, there was no bus connecting Chaiten and Puerto Montt, two of the connecting cities to get to the capital, Santiago.  I stayed in one of the only places open in the entire town in Chaiten, a lonely, dusty hostel.  It took some time to even find the place, but luckily it didn’t stop me from catching a group rate taxi to nearby celebrity, Chaiten Volcano.  This friendly peak was smoking ominously after a raucous eruption in 2008 evacuated the nearby town that I now inhabited.

Thankfully, there was no eruption on this day.  Instead, I had a crystal clear sunny day climbing to the outer rim of a bluff adjacent to the volcano.  It was a great experience and a beautiful day to be up close to a volcano that was still steaming at the top.

The next day, I rode a long set of buses and ferries along the Carretera Austral.  A famed country road stretching from the northern end of Patagonia up to Puerto Montt, where more traditional highways carried traffic up to Santiago and riding north to the furthest end of the Atacama desert.  It took nearly 12 hours, but I finally made it.  Well, sort of.  I had another 20 hour bus to Santiago.  But thankfully I could sleep on this bus as there were no transfers or ferries to wake me up along the way.

And so, I had finally made it to Santiago!  But I wasn’t finished.  I decided to take a stop in Pichilemu.  It was a famous surfing town in Chile and promised of relaxing days and vivid nights.  The vivid nights weren’t on display, however, as it was offseason.  It was a bit of a ghost town.  Making the most of my time there with lots of reading and writing and long walks on the beach, I spent three nights before making my way to Valparaiso.

I was particularly excited about Valparaiso.  Since I hadn’t really stopped in Santiago for more than a connecting bus, this was my first legitimate city in South America since Buenos Aires.  With the confluence of rising hills, deep blue water, pearl white sand, and color-blasted streets, this city had a character like no other city I’d ever seen.  Taking walking tours to view the sights and sounds of this quirky place, I fell in love immediately.  It quickly became my favorite city in all of South America.

Accompanying me in this city were a few adjusted locals originally hailing from Germany.  Along with some other fun people, we took the walking tour together and explored the beaches and nightlife deep into the morning.  Once again, people made the experience better.  No big surprise.

One of my favorite parts of the city was the famed home of historic poet and Chile’s proud Nobel Prize winner, Pablo Neruda.  It was such a unique home, taking the quirky qualities of the city surrounding it into its very architecture.  The top floor, just one room occupying the space, was a marvel for me.  I always imagined being able to write in a room at the top of a house overlooking the sea.  With this room it was a reality.  While I won’t be able to write like Neruda did in his esteemed life, it felt like a privilege just to be there.

It was a nice surprise to meet a few guys at Neruda’s home who ended up being from my very own hostel without even realizing.  We all shared a delicious lunch before making our own ways out of the city.  And it was from there that I took my final bus back to Santiago.  In a trip full of bus rides and endless hours of jumbling in public transportation seats, it was a nice feeling.

I won’t lie, I wasn’t sure how this trip would end.  I was worried something bad would happen (lost wallet or passport, canceled flights, just feeling lonely, etc), but I realize I never should have been so concerned.  After a quiet night arriving in the capital, I took a walking tour the next morning.  I almost didn’t go as I was running late, but making it in the final minute before it started, I joined the English speaking group.  We meandered through the markets and streets of a city full of life and stories to tell.

Meeting several people throughout the group, it seemed that we all had a friendly connection and got along very well.  We enjoyed the rest of the tour including a particularly riveting speech by the young tour guide in the city cemetery as we basked in the shadow of former Chilean President Allende’s grave.  The sight of this tour’s conclusion was a foreshadowing of the colorful opinions and insights of a man living in the remnants of a terrifying time in Chile’s history.  Hearing his story was touching and worth mentioning.

After this, we all sprang from the somber topics discussed to come together for a favorite party drink in a nearby bar before enjoying lunch with some of the people I would spend my final few days with.  And oh what a lunch that was!  Our waiter was as charismatic as they come.  He gave us a few belly laughs in between gulps of delicious seafood stew and shellfish and soups.  Some pisco sours and a particularly minty drink on the house to round off the lunch left us all pretty happy.

After visiting an interesting Chilean cafe and going our own ways, I paid for what was a very long overdue haircut.  Feeling refreshed, I met the friendly mother-daughter duo traveling together and their newfound friend for dinner.  We joked and laughed for the long dinner about nearly everything that we could imagine.  After one too many pisco sours, we scrambled back to our respective “homes” and turned in another memorable night.

On this, my final full day in South America, I spent most of the day with a group of three friends from the US as we explored a somber museum detailing the rugged history of Chile and visited a fancy wine restaurant.  Picking up my last load of laundry on the road, I met up again with those girls and then with the mother-daughter combo as we ascended the view-laden peak of San Cristobal.  It’s a large greenery filled hill right in the center of the city.  The sights from atop that hillside were only outdone by the company I had.  And the sights were unbeatable.

Well, that’s it!  South America in a few words!  Ok, so maybe more than a few.  But thankfully there’s more.  Learn about the final chapter of this saga in the next post!

The Road to Futaleufu

Standard

It was back to two backpacks now.  The nice part about hiking for 8 days is that you only need to bring one.  I left the other in the hotel.  Clamoring to the bus station, I rode to Punta Arenas.  Another coastal town about 4 hours further south.  It was here, the following morning, that I met again with the same couple from Torres del Paine as we were scheduled to go on the same penguin tour on Magdalena Island.

Oh, those penguins.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see them on the Galapagos Islands, but I couldn’t miss them entirely!  At the peak of mating season, there are apparently 60,000 couples.  I’m no math nerd (I AM an accounting nerd), but that means 120,000 penguins roaming on a small island no larger than one square mile.  Lots of penguins.  I only managed to see a fraction of that but they were just as cuddly and small as any number of penguins might be.

It was terribly windy and cold, but we mustered through the trail and snapped some pictures before returning to the boat.  We couldn’t make the second leg of the trip to the sea lions island nearby due to weather, but I’d seen those before anyway.  So we roughly zipped back to land and rode back to town.  That night, we shared a last meal before a small choking incident led to a quick goodbye.  And with that, it was on to the next chapter!

At this point, it was all transport.  I needed to get back to Esquel where I had been roughly one month earlier and I needed to get there quick.  My time was running down on this trip and I wanted to fit as much as possible into my final weeks!  Of course, all the while I was starting to set things up for surprises back home as I planned to return earlier than advertised…

So I started by taking a bus back to Puerto Natales, the base of Torres del Paine.  The next day I took a bus to Calafate.  From there, I took a long bus the following afternoon to Esquel.  It took 30 hours of buses over the 4 day period but I reached Esquel!  Unfortunately, the bus to the next destination, Futaleufu, was not until the following morning.  So I sat tight for the night and took off the next morning.

It was a vigorous process crossing the border from Argentina to Chile once again but after a 5-hour ride to cross 50 miles, I’d arrived!

Futaleufu is not a busy town.  It’s a basic place and it was shoulder season.  That meant that restaurants only sold a few dishes, sometimes just one dish.  But it was a very cozy town with beautiful green mountains and rushing rivers surrounding it.  And those rivers were the reason I was here.  The Futaleufu River is one of the best for rafting in the entire world.  Apparently, the world rafting championships were hosted here 5 years ago.  I was excited for my first stint riding class 5 rapids here!

I decided at the last moment to go camping.  For both financial and nostalgic reasons, I wanted to be out in the middle of nowhere.  I was reminiscent of the experiences in Torres del Paine and wanted a piece of that action again.  It was perfect.  Being shoulder season, there were no more than 2 other tents so I had the place to myself.

The following morning, I signed up for a rafting tour that went through the entire route of the famed river passing rapids with timid names like The Terminator and The Rock House.  It was incredible.  The deep blue water that was as clear as glass.  We rumbled through the rapids that included a class 2 rapid which we swam through rather than rafted through.  We were splashed and kicked and turned different directions but we paddled to our guide’s desire through each section.  We even took a quick break to jump off a rock ledge 12 feet high.  Unfortunately, the video of this heroic feat was never taken, so of course it never happened.

I remember feeling that the trip was short by the time we finished.  I was still ready for more, but after a few hours rafting on this incredible river we were done.  Just as climbing a mountain feels incredible once you’ve peaked it, finishing a rumble down the river feels much the same.  It was a beautiful day and I celebrated it by getting dinner at a restaurant rather than cooking it myself.  Pasta, either with pesto or tomato sauce was my choice.  I decided to live a little and get pesto.

A Final Ride in Patagonia 

Standard

We woke up in our last night of Torres del Paine national park feeling refreshed and a bit excited to be back in puerto natales that night. But there was plenty left to do before that!  We got up and had breakfast quickly before Ann and I walked down to the kayaking area. We walked in on the wrong house first but then found the right one with our doctor friends surprisingly sitting inside!

Apparently, for the second straight day the ice trekking excursion wasn’t possible because of icebergs built up near the area of embarking. So they decided to do he kayaking too!  We waited for a few others before getting ready.  Kayaking was amazing, we got within 50 meters of the enormous glacier that dominated our view.  

We skated across the icy waters with double kayaks and the best company. We were much more free to drift around during this kayaking trip than the last one in Argentina. It was a unique trip from the first and worthwhile to pay for it again for that exact reason. 

We paced back to the camp area, stuffed down some tuna sandwiches laced with balsamic (actually quite tasty), and swung our packs on our backs to make the final hike. It was a perfect day. I swung up and down our line of the group talking with different friends from the past few days.  I ended up catching up with the doctors who sped ahead and lasted the rest of the hike with them. We navigated some pretty wet conditions but were able to stay dry as we hopped around the trail. 

5 hours later, we made it. After 70+ miles over 8 days, we had finally reached the end of the line. It was an incredible experience with amazing people. We were all so relieved after being wet and cold and hungry for many long hours during the hikes. But that’s the best part, being rewarded at the end. In this case, I shared a cold beer with my weeklong adoptive parents as well as the world traveling group we befriended. I couldn’t have imagined the hike ending any better. But it did get better. 

After saying a bittersweet goodbye to those world travelers, we sat in line for the boat back to the bus stop that would take us back to town. It was here that, after 2 months of being in or near Argentina, I finally had my first sip of mate, a bitter herbal tea. For those unaware, it is a signature experience to drink mate and a significant piece of the social fabric. To be included in a round of mate is honorable and a sign of inclusion in a group. Or so I’ve been told. I received this gourd of mate from our porter who’d been carrying our tents and food all week. The smile I wore when he held it out for me to drink must’ve made the joker look sad.

And it didn’t go away, I must’ve been smiling the entire 2-3 hour ride home. When we got back to puerto natales, our group of the couple from Pennsylvania and Connecticut and the doctors all decided to meet for a late dinner. We met at a delicious seafood restaurant where we savored the seafood meals and recollected the memorable moments from our hikes. With lots of smiles and laughs, we said goodbye with hopes that we’d see each other again another day. And with those same thoughts I slept like a newborn fed with great memories.