In February of 2015 Will sat on a hotel balcony in Puerto Escondido, Mexico and wrote a blog post. It was intended to kind of give ourselves a kick in the ass; we were teetering on the cusp of applying for residency in Mexico or doing something dramatically different.
Of course, we went for dramatic. Or at least I think we did. I do have a fondness for flair.
And you all know what happened next. We bought Moby, we bought way too much shit we thought we’d need and didn’t, and hit the road; starry eyed and brimming with confidence, the kind of combination that always means you’re just around the corner from a massive disappointment.
We’ve had several of those disappointments in the nearly two years since we left the United States and set our sights on Ushuaia, Argentina. We were robbed of nearly everything of value in Barranquilla, Colombia; the ubiquitous mañana kept us delayed in uninspiring places for weeks at a time; places we loved bore no resemblance to the way they had fit into our current story; we had to sacrifice a good deal of sightseeing as we were always chasing wifi in order to work.
Disappointment is inevitable when you travel, no matter how you do it. You need a damn selfie stick to get a shitty photo of the Mona Lisa because of the crowds. Your flight is delayed so you miss your connection and the airline graciously gives you a coupon for McDonald’s. A sudden storm means you’re trudging around Chichen Itza with no umbrella and wet shoes. If a trip goes off without at least one hiccup then you’ve got some wizardry on your side.
But it’s every traveler’s nightmare that a trip will be canceled or cut short due to circumstances beyond their control. Circumstances that were never, ever expected.
We have met so many different people from so many different places on this journey. Older couples who have a pension and a retirement to piss away however they please. Young people who have saved money and have a small window of time before they have to go back to work. Families who have decided that driving their kids around South America is better than any school. Seriously, you’d be surprised at the many different kinds of people who undertake this trip.
We have a lot of people tell us things like, “I really wish I could do what you do but we have kids.” I think of all the campgrounds we’ve visited that are teeming with kids, finding bath toys in communal showers, and watching superhero moms simultaneously keep one kid from drowning while effortlessly preparing scrambled eggs for five on a propane stove with another wailing kid attached to her leg.
It’s not your kids you need to worry about if you want to take a trip like this; they’ll be fine. In fact, they’ll be more than fine. They’ll be amazing little shits who will grow up to speak four languages and be the problem solvers of the world.
It’s your aging parents that you need to worry about.
My mom’s health has been declining for some time but it’s been gradual and I’ve never really had cause to worry. My daughter was living with her to help her out and everything was fine. I called her about once a week to chat and she always kept up with us on Facebook. I think she took a lot of joy in following along on our journey.
About two months ago I got a message from my daughter. She had recently taken the move to working full time and was out of the house for the majority of the day. She was worried that my mom needed more attention than she could give. She’s also a young woman with a life of her own. Her residence there was never supposed to be permanent; we just never discussed the time when she’d need or want to move out on her own.
What do you do when you’re somewhere in the middle of a trip of indeterminable length with your partner and one of you has to stop? How do you let go of the goal you plotted out together? This isn’t like a few months backpacking around Asia; one of you can leave and say, “I’ll see you in a month or so!” We have at least a year or more before we can feel comfortable saying that we’re done.
But the truth is that we are not done. I am done.
I leave for the states in 12 days. Will does not. A mutual decision was made; Will is going to finish the trip on his own. Our relationship is as good as it ever was, probably better, and I don’t anticipate that changing.
But I have to go.
I am sad. I am sad that I’ll miss Buenos Aires, one of the cities I was most looking forward to. I’m sad that I won’t go to Easter Island, something we had very seriously considered as part of this journey. I’m sad that I won’t revel in wine country or try my hand at polo in Argentina. I’m sad that I won’t be able to say, “I did it. I drove a damn truck to the southernmost tip of the Americas.”
But most of all I’m sad to be leaving my best friend behind.
The cynic in me tends to turn my nose up at silver linings but I do think there is one here. I’m excited to spend time with my mom. We have not lived close enough to each other for regular visits in years. I like her; she’s a really cool person who is fun to be around. While I don’t really love being in the states it’s been a long time since I’ve spent more than a few weeks there and it could be a lot worse than northern Utah.
But most of all I guess I feel a sense of privilege. We’re all going to get old one day; you, me, and everyone we know. If all of us had a person who said, “I’ll help” when the need arises can you imagine how great would feel? I can help my mom stay in her home. I can help my mom in her garden this summer. I can drive my mom up to Bear Lake for raspberry milkshakes. I can simply be there so she’s not alone.
That’s a privilege.
I’ve learned so much on this trip that I somehow wonder how I survived before. Pieces of my DNA have been fundamentally altered; that’s a given when you throw yourself into a sink or swim situation the size of two continents. I’ve become more brave, I’ve become more compassionate, I’ve become more humble, I’ve become more intelligent, I’ve become more of the type of person I’ve always wanted to be.
That’s a privilege too.
So that’s it. That’s all. That’s how it ends. I leave Rio for Utah and Will leaves Rio for the next place down the line. Where that might be is up to him now I suppose. And just like the moment we began planning this trip, this part too is indeterminable. What happens next lives somewhere in the great wide open.
But that’s how it always is, isn’t it?
As we work our way toward two years of camper life one of the things that I notice most is what we eat. Or, should I say, what we don’t eat. Our diets are mainly regulated by our proximity to places that sell food, how much of that food we can fit into our tiny fridge, and if the weather allows our fruits and vegetables to spoil in one day or four. In many ways it’s like living in a dorm. Ramen, peanut butter, pasta, and rice are on the menu almost every day of the week
This is not to say that inventive camper cooking can’t be done. Our friends over at The Next Big Adventure are prime examples of gourmet overlanders and I wish we were tagging along with them. I’d simply park myself close enough to their camper so they’d have no choice but to invite me for dinner every night. However, most nights we’re alone in various campgrounds and the aforementioned staples grace our plastic plates.
But, every once in a while we drag out clothing that passes as smart casual, make sure our hands are clean, take ourselves out of the hoi polloi realm, and make a reservation somewhere that offers tablecloths and matching cutlery.
Oh, and we have to remember to strut in like we belong there. We may be hobos but the maître ‘d doesn’t know that, especially when Will’s shirt has a collar and my nail polish isn’t chipped.
When we arrived in Brazil I was tasked with finding a restaurant where we could drop an obscene amount of money on food and take in my first look at Iguaçu Falls. Our choices were limited as most of the restaurant action takes place just across the border in Argentina. It didn’t take me long to decide on Belmond Hotel das Cataratas. Fancy, formal, and right beside the falls I knew that sparkling wine would be served in something other than a coffee cup and I’d likely have a real linen napkin for my lap.
However, getting there is another story.
Since the hotel is located inside the national park entrance is generally limited to hotel guests only. It took several emails and phone calls to ensure that my name was on some fancy list and that we’d have access to the private gate. That didn’t go quite as planned; in the end we had to ride the tourist bus like commoners but hey, since it was the last bus of the day we did have the whole thing to ourselves.
People in South America eat late. If you find a restaurant open at 7pm you’re lucky. The restaurant at the Belmond Hotel das Cataratas was no different. We found ourselves in the bar area, seated outside on a lovely patio, the falls roaring in the background. As a sipped from my glass (a real glass!) of a surprisingly good and very dry Brazilian Brut our server informed us that the kitchen didn’t open until 7:30pm. We had nearly two hours to kill. So, we did what anyone would normally do in that situation.
More sparkling wine for me, more beer for Will.
When it finally came time to place our order I was torn. I’d had all this time to peruse the menu and I still didn’t know what I wanted. Filet? I always have that. Duck? Oh man, I love duck but I wasn’t sure that’s what I wanted. In the end I decided on something wild, literally.
Wild boar with a tamarind glaze and a manioc puree.
It’s been a while since I’ve eaten any kind of game (that I know of) so I was really excited. When my dish arrived I was stunned. A perfect slab of boar belly was placed in the center of a beautiful gray plate, the edges dotted with mustard seed, glistening with tamarind, and nestled in a swath of manioc. This was no camper food.
I picked up my knife and fork only to realize that the knife was useless. This gorgeous slab of meat fell apart at the slightest touch. My first bite was almost a shock; there was the immediate sweet and sour of the tamarind, the smooth taste of pork fat, and that strong mineral flavor that comes from an animal that eats whatever the hell it wants until it dies.
I handed a piece to Will. “Yep. You can taste the adrenaline.”
That piece of boar now ranks as one of my top five meals ever and I’ve eaten some damn good food in my life. We also shared a bottle of Argentinian syrah that I chose from the wine list. Our server praised my choice, indicating that this wine is the sommelier’s pick for the boar. It was, indeed, the perfect wine.
We rounded out our dinner with a simple mixed berry cheesecake and watched the hotel staff prowl the hotel grounds in search of the jaguars that are known to lurk there. Maybe there was a jaguar. I don’t know. I was too busy with that cheesecake.
If there’s one thing that I love more than anything about living in a camper it’s getting out of the camper. Our evening at the Belmond Hotel das Cataratas was exactly what I want when we pretend to be fancy, when we order food we could never prepare for ourselves, and when we have a moment to feel like we haven’t just spent almost two years on the road.
But when the bus deposited us back outside the hotel gate and our taxi was waiting to take us back to the campground I was happy to go.
I wanted to sleep off that wine and boar belly in my own comfy bed.
I am not a physician nor do I have scientific training in tropical medicine. Please don’t take this as medical advice.
I’ll never forget the day I collapsed onto the street in Siem Reap, Cambodia, two weeks into a seven week trip through that country and Thailand. I had been sick for a few days but we decided to take the bus to Phnom Penh anyway, even though I was burning up with fever that morning. When I hit the ground I dreamily thought the heat of the pavement felt cool on my skin.
Suffice it to say I never got on that bus. Instead I found myself in a Siem Reap hospital, pumped full of fluids and painkillers, and diagnosed with dengue fever. I was released from the hospital after a day or so but it was still a week before I could travel and three more weeks before I started to feel better, really better.
That was almost 14 years ago. Since that time I’ve been the one who is always covered in repellent. I’m the one that hides behind screens at the merest hint of that maddening, whiny buzz in my ear. I’m the one that checks my body for the tell-tale rash if I feel ill after those bitches have pierced my skin with their virus laden proboscises. I’ve been lucky since that time in Cambodia but my luck ran out a month ago in Asuncion, Paraguay.
Mosquitos have been the scourge of the earth and a bane to humankind for millennia. In his book “Slave Trade” author and Georgetown professor John McNeill states that, until the mid-twentieth century, more battle troops were killed by mosquito borne diseases than were killed in actual combat. Malaria was the disease du jour at that time and troops who had not been exposed to the disease promptly got sick and died.
Mosquitos and malaria were also part of the reason why European colonists were unable to penetrate the interior of Africa until the early 1800’s. Quinine, a product of the Cinchona tree native to South America, was brought back to Europe by the conquistadors but it wasn’t until later that British colonists in India discovered that it aided in one’s recover from malaria. The bitter drink was made more palatable by adding sugar and water. Of course, the British took that one tasty step further and added gin to the mixture. What better way to feel like you’re conquering a deadly disease than to do so by knocking back a few G & T’s?
While Africa’s dark interior remained off limits the coastal regions were fair game and in the 15th century when the slave trade began Africa’s mosquitos were stowaways in large numbers. When this same trade expanded to the Caribbean and North America a new breeding ground was formed and those previously unheard of diseases flourished. Mosquitos are opportunists; give them some stagnant water and stable temperatures and they’re almost unstoppable.
Malaria was simply the start. As science progressed more mosquito borne diseases were identified and the numbers are staggering. There’s West Nile virus, equine encephalitis (yes, humans can get it from infected horses), dengue fever, Japanese B encephalitis, yellow fever, malaria, chikungunya, Saint Louis encephalitis, and zika. These are just a few of the mosquito borne diseases that humans contract but they’re the ones most world health organizations pay attention to.
So if you’re traveling to the tropics where these diseases flourish you might think about heading over to the clinic and getting a vaccination, right? Wrong. Currently, the only reliable vaccines available are for yellow fever and Japanese B encephalitis. A vaccine for dengue is available in limited supply in countries hardest hit by outbreaks but it’s not entirely effective. And if you’re in the market for a yellow fever shot you might be out of luck. A current outbreak of the disease in Brazil has effectively depleted the world’s supply of the vaccine. There is no vaccine for malaria but prophylactic medications like doxycycline can reduce your chances of contracting the virus.
As a traveler to mosquito heaven I am keenly aware of the dangers. I was vaccinated for yellow fever in 2011 prior to our trip to the Peruvian Amazon. As a previous dengue victim the vaccine for the virus was recommended to me (priority is given to the elderly, those with compromised immune systems, and people who have had the virus before) but it’s a three shot series over the course of 18 months and weighs in at a hefty 450 USD.
So, back to Asuncion, Paraguay. We had taken a break from camper life and were ensconced in a lovely little apartment. I woke up one morning feeling off and within a few hours I had a massive headache, a fever, and joint pain. I spent that day in bed gulping water and Tylenol and hoping it was just a flu. By the next day I knew I had to see a doctor. I hurled myself into a cab and headed to the nearest hospital. The moment I mentioned dengue to the reception staff I was hustled straight to an exam room. The doctor asked me about my symptoms and promptly sent me to the lab for bloodwork.
As I stated earlier I am no medical professional. However, while I waited for my blood to be scrutinized I did turn to Doctor Google. What they were looking for in my blood was the actual presence of the virus and a check of my platelet and white blood cell count. However, the test for the viral presence is a crapshoot; if the patient has the test too early after symptom onset it’s inconclusive. Antibody tests can also be inconclusive. The test can indicate an active infection or simply indicate that the patient has had the virus at some time in the past. My results were inconclusive for the virus itself, antibody presence was not tested, and my platelet and white counts were low.
That doctor’s diagnosis? Dengue fever. I was sent home with the standard treatment: fluids, rest, and Tylenol.
However, my symptoms never really progressed to the horror I experienced in Cambodia. After a few days I felt better and the fatigue dissipated within a week or so. When I followed up with a different doctor he surmised that I probably had Zika given the relatively mild symptoms. Perhaps I’ll never know what really happened.
But what I do know is this. If you're traveling in the tropics get your shots. Many countries in the world ask for proof of yellow fever vaccination and have the right to refuse entry to those without that proof. And for those who ask questions like, "Do I need a yellow fever card to get into X country" I simply reply to their question with a question.
Do you want yellow fever?
Because mosquitoes don't care about you. They only care about world domination.
Aguardiente is a Spanish word that translates roughly to 'liquor'. A more literal translation would be along the lines of 'fire water' and could also mean 'rotgut' in certain contexts. Every time drinking would come up in conversation with Colombians, they would refer to aguardiente as the tequila of Colombia, though admittedly that may be because of the way that I steered the conversation.
Clearly aguardiente is not tequila. I'm a bit curious why many Colombians insisted that this was their version of tequila. What does that say about tequila? Is it viewed as fire water or rotgut or rather, is this their liquor of national pride?
In the case of one of the most well known and ubiquitous brands of aguardiente in Colombia, Aguardiente Antioqueño, it is made from sugar cane and flavored with anise. It contains 29% alcohol by volume and comes in a traditional variety as well as a 'sin azucar' or without sugar version (that's not how alcohol works though is it?). It is not unpleasant or harsh and I was quite fond of its ouzo like taste but aguardiente seems to me to be more like an digestive or aperitif than a proper shot that I would drink a lot of and I never really warmed up to the drink in a way that would prompt me to buy a bottle or several. Agave distillates remain the go-to even at a higher cost.
With all of that said, I was extremely surprised to find a country that is absolutely full of agave and nobody (that I was able to find) distilling agave. Claiming that aguardiente is the Colombia's version of tequila and yet not distilling any agave is a mystery to me, but that's another story.