Where Are You?

I am back to practicing yoga regularly. I can’t tell you how thankful I am for that, it creates such peace in my mind and body to give myself that hour and a half on my mat. I love my teacher, who likes to talk about spirituality, connectedness, and the heart while kicking our sweaty asses. Periodically through any given class, she will ask “Where are you?” Now I know that this is a call to be present, to come into your body and focus on the moment, the posture. But I can’t help myself. Whenever she asks that question, I travel in my mind.

Sometimes, I am in my little one person marmot tent and the wind is whipping the fly. Rain is beating down on it and I crawl deeper into my sleeping bag. I breathe the freshness, the purity of the air in Argentine Patagonia. I think about the day I had, wandering the trails at the base of Fitz Roy. I can see it all, the Technicolor blue sky with cartoon like white puffy clouds sailing by, the unreal glow of sunshine on the meadow, and the sharp ridge of rock rising up out of the ground, covered in snow.

Other times, I am in the living room of Refugio Tinquilco, with Pato and Maz. The fire is roaring in the wood stove and we are giddy with Pisco and full bellies. Pato or his son is strumming a guitar, singing melodies that pull your heart and take you to other places, other times. The place is filled with the comfort smell of bread baking in the oven. I am so content in this paradise; I try to think of ways to never leave. In my musings, when I ask if Pato will adopt me, he says yes.

Then there is Peru. The moon is full and it is as close as it’s going to be to earth in a very long time. I make a new friend sitting on ancient stones above a fountain. We walk through dimly lit, narrow streets of cobblestone, with channels cut into their edges for the water to flow, to a ceremonial ground the Incas used. On these magic, giant boulders we lie down and stare at the moon. After a time, our backs slightly frozen, we start walking back to town. On the way we pass by the door to a courtyard. Inside a band plays and there is a party. No one inside is dancing, but out in the street, we are.

Outside of these moments, I am building the next section of my life. I’m thoroughly happy to be doing that in what ranks in the top 5 of most beautiful places I’ve been, the Pacific Northwest. These memories are not tinged with sadness or longing. They are simply where I still am, part of the time. It is the lasting benefit of adventure. Whatever that word means to you, when you have a good one, you never really stop feeling it, it never really leaves you.

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Where does your vote really count?

Okay, first a disclaimer. Stephwithoutborders is being re-vamped. Don’t panic, it’s going to be alright. It’s just that at this moment I am not wandering, at least not in my physical body. I do, however, continue to wander quite a bit around the recesses of my mind and would like to share some of these other types of adventures with you. Hopefully we will maintain a lack of borders in the process, until I can get on a plane again and resume the more traditional wandering life.

Since we are nearing the time when all of us will go to the polls and cast votes for the people we try to believe in, (I mean it, all of us. I don’t care who you’re voting for…well, that’s not technically true, but I do allow that it is none of my business. I believe that it is of paramount importance that we all exercise this right. Don’t let down our ancestors who had to fight for it) it seems appropriate that I speak to you a bit from one of my favorite soapboxes. So please, imagine me standing on a soapbox, bullhorn in hand. I’m thinking jeans and pigtails, and so long as we’re imagining how about some cute country girl freckles too. Got it? Okay, thanks…here we go!

I think that more important than any vote cast on any ballot anywhere ever are the votes we cast every day. Every time I spend 50 cents or $100, I am not just making a purchase to satisfy my current desire. I am telling the whole line of people involved in getting the item I want into my possession that I vote for every step of that process. Now I’m not going to call out any names here or try to start a debate about good versus evil business’…unless you want me to…do you? I mean, I can, and I guess it could be entertaining…but no, at least for now that’s not what I’m trying to get across. What I really want to say while I’m up on this nice wooden soapbox (we made it wooden right?), is that I hope you think about all the ways you vote every day. If you want to buy something and you can pretty much figure out where it came from, I hope you ask yourself how you feel about that. Do you support the process? Did anyone suffer so that you could save a bit? Does that matter to you? (Please say yes.) Is it worth it to spend a little bit more to purchase an item that you believe in?

Now I know the money is tight argument. Somehow we all, always, think money is tight. I suspect it’s because most of us have never actually experienced money being tight. (Suggested cures: 1) learn about how people live in third world countries; 2) really think about what constitutes a NEED and what is truly just a want ) I don’t want to say that what is right for me is right for anyone else, mainly for the selfish reason that I don’t want anyone doing that to me. So I will just say that for me, I would rather go without than have something for less if I don’t support its origins or how it got to me. We do research before we go to the polls and cast votes for the people and issues that resonate with our core beliefs. Why not put the same effort into understanding what your wallet is voting for? It might surprise you to find out. With the depth of influence corporations have on our government policies, it just might be the more important vote.

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Bits and Pieces: Connecting with the locals

The most common interaction I had with craft vendors in Cusco went something like this:

“Excuse me miss? Miss you buy from me?”

“No thank you.”

“Miss, miss, why not, you buy from me?”

“It’s very nice, but no, thank you.”

This could go on for seconds to many minutes if the person decided to follow me up the street, convinced that my resolve would break.

I don’t begrudge people this method of interaction.  I get it, they are simply trying to make a living and I am one of the most likely people who can help make that happen.  I hated saying no, but unfortunately saying yes to everyone would have limited my stay to a day or two instead of two months.  What was frustrating, however, was my desire to connect to these people, to understand a bit more of their world.  I just couldn’t seem to get the conversation past the constant urge to sell.

One day I was sitting in Plaza San Blas working on some Spanish homework.  A woman came by with her hand woven belts to show me and asked if I would buy any.  I replied with my standard ‘No, thank you.’  She was very polite, and continued walking around asking other tourists.  Then she came back to my bench and sat beside me.  My initial reaction was ‘Crap! I already said no, I just want to sit here and study!’  But I have the polite gene in me, so I greeted her again, saying hello.  Then the strangest thing happened.  We started a conversation.  We spoke for about half an hour about her and her husband, her children who were studying in University, the town where she lived, and what her life was like.  She asked me questions too, and I shared with her a bit of my story.  The most amazing was at the end, when I had to go to class.  I said I hoped to meet her again and talk more, and she expressed a genuine desire for the same to happen.  And I left.  And never once in that entire interaction did the question of a purchase come up again.  I was elated.  I finally connected with a woman who talked to me just to talk to me.  Later on, when I wanted to buy some belts for gifts, I sought her out.  It was the best way I could thank her for the gift she had given me.

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Culture Shock

This never happened to me when I left my country.  In places I had never walked, breathing air I had not before tasted, where everything was new I somehow never felt out of place.  Now here I am, back on the soil of the country of my birth.  Among people who speak my native tongue, among customs and behaviors that may not make sense to me, but are familiar.  Here I am, for lack of a better word, home.  After all of this time I am finally experiencing culture shock.

As I sequestered myself in a bathroom stall in the Atlanta airport, taking deep breaths and trying to find calm in the chaos that had suddenly enveloped me, I had to laugh at myself.  This was the second time in nine months that I had hidden in an airport bathroom.  The first, you might remember, was when I hid from ridiculously tenacious cabbies in the Santiago, Chile airport at 4 am.  Now it was the crowds of people, the excess EVERYTHING, and the ‘what the heck am I going to do with myself next’ that caused me to feel overwhelmed.  I loved the calm freedom of moving about countries at my own pace, of knowing I didn’t need to decide on anything, and could simply do whatever felt right at any given moment.  I would also be lying if I said that I wasn’t excited for a bathroom where I could flush my toilet paper, and then wash my hands without having to actually touch anything.  There are some pretty awesome aspects to life in the first world.

After crossing multiple borders in South America with barely a glance at my person or my belongings, the first shock of returning was the reintroduction to security procedures for the U.S.  Leaving Panama, I had the regular security checkpoint.  Then a second metal detector and full carry-on baggage search at the gate.  Not a randomly selected search, an EVERYONE gets searched before getting on the plane.  In customs in Georgia, walking what seemed like miles through sterile beige hallways to a large room with lines of people and booths of customs officials, the signs reminded me of how this country operates.  Is it due to fear or preparedness that we interrogate, photograph and fingerprint would be tourists?  I don’t know.  I just know it’s a whole lot different than anywhere else I’ve been.  Most places just stamp the passport and say next.  Panama actually wanted me to take the full six month Visa instead of the two months I had requested.

Sticker would have to be the next shock I went through.  After leaving the safety of my bathroom stall, I decided a large beer and some food would be a good way to acclimate.  Of course I know airport food is expensive.  I just forgot HOW expensive!   I had grown accustomed to beer being cheaper than water.  Thinking I’d be really generous with the last $20 in my wallet, I decided to give all the change to my waitress.  Ordering a beer and a sandwich, I figured that would be around $8.  Nope.  The “meal” came to $18 and I ended up digging change out to leave her a proper tip.

The next shock of coming home was the stores.  I visited my family in Arizona and went straight from the airport to the grocery store.  Millions of items sat on shelves, all pretty much the same, illustrating the excess of American culture.  My sister asked if I wanted anything.  I quite frankly could barely handle even being in there, let alone trying to find something I may want.  Until I passed by MY deodorant.  Well, that changed things a bit.  I like the non-aluminum kinds, and they are virtually impossible to find in South America.  It’s the little things, like beer and Tom’s of Maine, that make the return a bit easier.

So what’s next?  I have no idea.  Really.  None.  If you have any thoughts on the matter, I’d love to hear them.  I have to figure some things out relatively quickly.     You know those pesky life things like income, where to live, who I want to be next.  How do I do those things and maintain my gypsy status?  As the adventure continues, I hope you’ll stay with me.  I’ll try to keep it interesting.

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Skid Marks in Panama (or Where the Road Ends)

This utterly silly post is a collaborative effort between myself and of one of my favorite families. There may have been a bit of alcohol involved as well. Thanks to Jana, Tom and Tristen for an amazing three weeks!

It started in the city they call Panama
When looking at hotels and dreaming of swans
Made of white towels on linens so fine
In $300 hotel rooms that were way out of line

We settled on a hostel instead
With not quite so soft of a bed

We continued our journey north to the clouds
To a giant old crater away from the crowds

(This is El Valle, the town is built in the crater of an old volcano. At first it was a lake, but then the earth shifted and the water flowed out, and now it’s a gorgeous valley.)

We climbed a volcano then had to get cool
So under a waterfall we swam in a pool

There we befriended Flacito, a little black dog
Who followed us home as rain poured through fog

On to Catalina where we all got the runs
Drinking mojitos and having lots of fun

On the island of Cebaco we snorkeled all day
Watching the fish and octopi play
Our hosts captured lobsters as red as our backs
Swiftly we headed back to our shack

In the cabana, tired and beat
Red from the sun and exhausted by heat
A pack was lifted and under we found
A giant scorpion Jana squished to the ground

Tom jumped on the bed, the sheets in a whirl
While Stephanie screamed like a scared little girl
We didn’t check, but we are pretty sure
Marks may have been skidded in our under drawers

Back to the mountains a bus whisked us away
To the idyllic little town known as Boquete

Hiking in the forest was the goal one day
But a lack of road signs got in the way
So instead we headed to a Peruvian restaurant
And drank…
After a night of Pisco we were all very tired
We toured a coffee farm to get ourselves wired

Little did we know Tristen was imbibing
At 16 years old, coffee had him flying
Back to the hostel with no sleep in sight
He created a website that bought us free nights
At first we were concerned but then saw the light
A teenage tech geek on caffeine was alright

With money in our pockets we headed to the sea
Dreaming of tropical property

At a very cheap price the place sounded appealing
But the heat and the bugs had us all reeling
Dolphins and pineapples tried to persuade

But peace with the heat could not be made
Sleepless nights left Stephanie grumpy
Let’s just face it she was looking kind of dumpy
Covered in bug bites and feeling pretty grim
It was back to the mountains to try and save her skin
To the mainland we sped in a dugout canoe
Past dilapidated dwellings and garbage a strewn

With a ticket for going the wrong way down a street
We left Almirante in defiant retreat

A couple wrong turns and some hairpin curves
Had us a bit nauseous and frazzled our nerves
Around a bend the road ended without warning
Tom hit the brakes and the tires were burning
We came to a stop only to find
Skid marks a plenty, on the road left behind

At that moment we entered the twilight zone
Down a road we had already roamed
Confusion set in, panic almost attacked
When we realized our destination was now at our backs

At this point we decided Costa Rica was too much
We couldn’t imagine dealing with a bus
Tired and thirsty we returned to the hills
And were sadly informed our little hostel was filled

The owner told us he had a hotel
He’d give the same rate, it was just up the hill
So off we went and were thrilled when we found…

Elephants, swans and flowers made of towels!

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Finding Magic

My nephew is going to turn twelve this year. He is one of those kids who is fascinated by the world and soaks up knowledge that outdoes many well-read adults. He has been waiting for pictures of Maccu Piccu, and I have been wishing I could share this experience with him. As I ponder this fine young man, and my life, and this blessed journey I have been on, I can’t help but think of the things I hope he finds and carries with him into his adulthood. Likewise, I hope that I can remember these gifts and keep them on whatever journeys life still has in store for me. In any case, Michael, this one is for you.

Some places you will visit in this world will astound you at first sight. But there are hidden treasures that you will find if you have patience and an open mind, and look for beauty wherever you are. Chile exploded on me in all its glorious blues, greens and greys. I was immediately enchanted, with the fascination of a first kiss. Then there is Peru. Peru with its raw energy, its roughness around the edges, didn’t give up its secrets so easily. The beauty and mystery of Peru lay covered beneath an exterior that was not polished for the tourists. While Chile flaunts it, finding magic in Peru requires (for me) more than the chemical attraction of lust at first sight.

Peru can show you how to dream big. In this world, the only reason many things seem impossible is because someone said they were, and people chose to believe it. It takes a special person to ignore the constraints people and society put on us, and to know that anything is possible.

The Uru people, who predate the Incas, live on reed islands that they make themselves on Lake Titicaca in Peru and Bolivia. They collect the roots of the totora reeds that grow in the lake and fashion them together to form the islands, which they then anchor to the bottom of the lake. They pile the reeds on top of the masses of roots and then place their living structures on the reeds.

This is a demonstration of how they make the islands:

For transportation, the Urus make boats out of the same reeds.

Uru woman harvesting Totora reeds:

Since their islands are constantly decomposing, they have to constantly rebuild them. Big dreams usually take a lot of effort but they’re a lot more exciting than any alternative I’ve seen.

Peru can show you that magic exists in this world, that there is more than what we can see, touch and feel. Here is a place where shaman healers still practice their craft, a place with energy so strong that your emotions seem to go on their own journey. Whether you are standing at dawn in the misty mountain tops, staring at ancient Incan ruins:

Walking to the Sun Gate where orchids drip down into the path:

Or wandering a small town where Incan aqueducts still carry water down the streets:

Whatever you want in this world, do not wait. Do not put off your dreams; do not hide your hopes. Find what makes you feel alive and what gives you joy and pursue it with reckless abandon. Always have multiple dreams. Seriously, I’m talking like 15 or 20! That way when one doesn’t work out, you don’t have to stop and be devastated. You can pick up the pieces and follow a different dream. Failures are gifts. They let us walk down another road we otherwise might not have seen. If I hadn’t lost the fight for my house, I wouldn’t be writing to you about Peru, I wouldn’t know its magic. Failures are our greatest blessing.

Love big, dream big and live big. Everything is possible.

What about you? What dreams have you lived, and what dreams are you working to build?

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The Peruvian Hustle

We’ve all experienced kind words or seemingly helpful advice from persistent and charming people. Those who glide us into their world spinning and twisting, making us believe it is what we want or where we need to go. The Peruvians have this dance nailed down. You might not even know you have taken part until it is over and you are left, breathless and slightly disoriented, wondering where you are. Welcome, my friends, to the Peruvian Hustle!

If you’ve never seen or danced the hustle, you might want to check out this guy. He’s pretty smooth:

There are two main types of the Hustle in Peru. First let’s talk about the coastal hustle. It’s a fast moving, fast talking sort of dance. It happens so quickly that you are left unsure why you are out of breath. The person dancing with you hardly lets you get a word in; they just keep moving their lips. The Coastal Hustlers will go to lengths unimaginable to gain your confidence and secure you as a partner in their dance. You will start to believe that this person would do anything for you.

My best example of the Coastal Hustle happened the moment I arrived in Peru. I met a friend at the airport in Lima, it was near midnight and our hostel was supposed to have a driver there waiting for us. We walked through customs, searched the group of people for our names and found nothing. Meanwhile an official taxista waved us over to see if we needed a ride. We told him no, that our hostel was supposed to be here. He asked where we were staying and we told him. This was mistake number one. The safe way to avoid the dance would have been to walk away and go back inside to look again for our driver, without giving the taxista any information.

Next the taxista pulled out his cell phone and with a kind smile said he’d call our hostel. He got someone on the phone and then handed it to me. The guy I spoke with said they were unable to get us since it was a holiday, Easter, and that we should take a cab. Mistake number two, believing that I was actually talking to the hostel.

Our super friendly taxista then led us to a car and helped us with our bags. We got in and started driving. BIG GIANT MISTAKE NUMBER THREE!!! We did not ask the fare before getting in the car. Always ask the fare before entering a cab. We know this. Blame it on tiredness; blame it on being too trustworthy, either way we were now fully engaged in the Coastal Hustle with no real opportunity of backing out of the dance. The fare, which he had written down on an official looking card, was three times what it should have been. The area around the Lima airport is notoriously dangerous, and getting out of the cab after midnight was not an option. He dropped us at our hostel and sped away as quick as could be. The girl at the hostel was surprised to see us, as our driver was still waiting for us at the airport.

Lawyer? Hustler? Is there a difference?

Also typical of the Coastal Hustle is the Coastal Hand Off. You are dealing with someone who is “helping” you, and all of a sudden you are handed off to a new partner. At first you may be confused, wondering if you’d been with this person all along. Trust your instincts, the hand off is a classic hustle move. At the end of the hand off you will have paid more for the service of being transferred to another human. If someone is doing something for you that you are perfectly capable of doing yourself, you have likely been handed off.

Adolfo was a sweet Coastal Hustler who started as our taxi driver in Ica and effortlessly handed us off to a hostel in Huacacina. He kindly signed us into our room, got the key and showed us the way. We paid much more that night than we did the next, for the same accommodations. Was it an Easter holiday surcharge or the Coastal Hustle? Probably it was a bit of both. He made up for it by giving us a good deal on transportation to Nazca. Hustlers aren’t necessarily bad people; they’re just trying to make an extra buck or ten.

Future Hustler?

Then there is the Mountain Hustle. This dance is slower, it unwinds at such a pace that you never feel like anything out of the ordinary is going on. The Mountain Hustle has two main components that should help you recognize it

The male lead will be calm and firm, assuring you that your plans will not work, but that he can help you. This often unfolds when inquiring about local buses, whose time frames are made to be seen as unpredictable so that you will pay more for a transfer van or a guided tour.

The female lead will use incessant flowery language and a soft voice to entice you to dance. We witnessed this on the floating reed islands of Uros, near Puno on Lake Titicaca. Here the women selling crafts practically whisper. “Amiga, amiga, don’t you like this? We survive on these crafts, we make them here on our island”, she said, with a pained look in her eye begging for sympathy and cash. And oh how we caved, and purchased a wall hanging for more than double the cost of the EXACT same one we saw later back in Puno.

Now that you know what the hustle looks like, let’s learn how to dance. This is a disco, so you pretty much shake your hips at all times. Are you shaking them? Come on…really move here!

Don’t forget your dancing shoes!

First, step backwards for eight counts, and then step forward for eight counts. When someone approaches you trying to get you to buy or do something, avoidance often works. Just hang back, wait, try not responding at all or pretend to be paying attention to something else. They will get bored and walk away.

Next do the rolling grapevine to the right for four counts (IE: spin right), followed by the rolling grapevine to the left, also four counts. Walk away. Learn to snake through a crowd without making eye contact.

Do the Travolta for eight counts. Well, if you really did the Travolta while someone was trying to scam you, they’d probably get scared and walk off. Acting crazy is great self-defense.

The eggbeater for two, the chicken for two…be direct. Be firm. Look them in the eye and stand your ground.

Then take one step forward: take control before the hustle starts. Ask local vendors or your hostel how much cab rides or certain items should cost.

One step back: If you start walking away after refusing a price for something, the price almost always starts dropping.

One step sideways: It’s like looking the other way. I’ve started wearing headphones and listening to music everywhere I walk in Cusco. It has eliminated 70% or more of the people trying to hustle me on the streets. If you try this, remember to look around more. Cars in South America typically don’t care too much about pedestrian right of way.

Then take a quarter turn left, and…repeat, probably for as long as you are here!

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