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.
When It Just Can’t Be Helped
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.
The End of the Line
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?
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.
I’m really enjoying my new style of writing. I find myself paying more attention to the things I see and the things I feel. It’s almost as if I’m experiencing this journey in a new light, as cliche as that might sound. So, here are a few of the things I thought about this week, a few photos, and an incredible video that I hope you’ll watch.
- The receptionist at the campground/hostel in Valle de Leyva, Colombia told me she likes talking to me more than any other English speaker she’s ever met because I don’t have an accent. She said that all Americans have accents but I don’t. She then proceeded to tell me that British and Australian people are even harder to understand than people from the United States. She also asked me why more French people don’t speak English. Her reasoning is that since France is such a strong country they should teach their children English. I didn’t know quite how to respond to that but when I told Will what she said he replied with “Because they’re French?”
- I have a lot of time to think, a lot of periods of extended silence and I take full advantage of that and let my mind wander. Lately I’ve been thinking about Ramadan and our time in the Middle East. We were at the Dubai Mall during our first experience with Ramadan. Even as non Muslims we were still not allowed to eat, drink, or smoke in public during daylight hours. However, at the mall’s food court the counters were jammed with people of all faiths. You see, food could be prepared but not eaten until sunset. We were still in line when the sun dipped below the horizon and the sight of hundreds of people tearing apart bags and boxes to get to that food is something I’ll always remember, along with all the other things I learned about Islam. Sometimes I really miss living in the UAE.
- In 2004 I spent two months in Thailand and Cambodia with an ex boyfriend. As part of my preparations for the trip I bought a McNett towel. I still have that towel. In fact, it’s the only towel I currently own. Sometimes I think, “Damn, that towel is 13 years old and I should probably be grossed out about it.” But you know what? I’m not. I love that towel. It works great and dries in a snap. But the real reason I keep it is because it’s the only tangible memory I have of that trip. When breakups happen couples argue about who gets what. Well, he got the photos (print ones, because 2004) and the Lonely Planet book in which we had carefully marked all the things we did. I have a few photos I was able to scan and put on Facebook but the towel is the one thing that reminds me most about that amazing trip, even though I got dengue fever in Cambodia.
- Yeah, Werner Herzog is kind of a weirdo but what’s also weird is how often his films have been a significant part of our travel lives. Will met him in Antarctica and Mr. Herzog also has a cameo in a film Will made while he was working there (Herzog was filming Encounters at the End of the World). Then we both traveled to Iquitos, Peru where Herzog filmed Fitzcarraldo. And, we were just in Valle de Leyva, Colombia where parts of Cobra Verde were filmed. I don’t know what this means because I really don’t like many of his films. Perhaps it’s just that his taste in film locations align with our taste in travel. I’ll likely never know. Note: Will has reluctantly agreed to let me share his film. Give it a watch. I think it’s hilarious.
- I’m sitting here looking out the floor to ceiling window in our fancy Bogota apartment. I see decidedly less fancy apartments marked by the laundry that’s hung from the dirty windows. There’s an abandoned building that looks like it might have caught fire at one point. Some of the bricks are charred. I can also see a tall office building and as I sat here sipping coffee at 8am it was kind of cool to see the lights start coming on as people began to arrive for work. If our apartment were on the other side of the building we’d have a view of the gorgeous mountains surrounding Bogota. I like this one better. It feels more real.
- I love television, good television. We have a fairly impressive library of television series with gems like Six Feet Under, House of Cards, and M*A*S*H*. But the one I turn to time and time again is The Office. If we’re getting to bed later than usual and don’t have time for a movie or a 60 minute episode of a series we watch The Office. When I’m making dinner in the camper I’ll put on an episode or two from a random season. If we can’t decide what we want to watch we watch The Office. And it’s never not funny. I’ve seen the entire series at least four or five times and I always laugh. Always. Will and I throw quotes at each other all the time and “that’s what she said” is part of our mutual lexicon. And don’t even get me started on the part where Kevin drops the pot of chili.
Thanks again for following along as I test out this new style AND stay tuned for a full post about how Will and I grossly misinterpreted a church in a salt mine.
We were leaving the Honduran border series of queues and offices, documents in hand that officially cleared us of any further obligation to the country when it hit me hard.
There was a dog, so thin that the bones of her pelvis were so prominent that they completely obscured her genital area. It was hot, even at 10 am, and she was lapping listlessly at a filthy puddle of something that probably contained very little actual water.
I doubt her little doggie life lasted the rest of that day.
It isn’t like I haven’t seen street dogs hours or days from death before. It’s simply a part of life in much of the world. However, after our time in Guatemala and Honduras it was that little dog that broke me, because we all know that when it comes to the impoverished the privileged of the world often tend to focus more on animals than they do people.
I’ve seen the do-gooders. I know some of the do-gooders. And while some do good things to help people it seems that more of them do things to help animals. Shelters, spay and neuter clinics, airline escorts for Mexican and Central American dogs and cats to go to their cushy new homes in the United States or Canada.
All while people are left to lap from the same dirty puddle.
People from all over the world visit Mexico and Central America all the time. They zip line in Costa Rica, frolic on the white sand beaches of Mexico, and dive in the crystal Caribbean waters of Honduras. But more often than not these trips are carefully constructed, staged by tour operators, and guarded by high resort walls. There’s nothing wrong with this; I truly believe everyone should travel and how they do it is their choice.
But what about the things that live outside those tours and walls? What about the people?
I’ve written about this before. Unless you’re a backpacker or overlanding like we are you rarely come into contact with the people who call your dream vacation destination home. Unless they’re mixing your margarita or scraping the callouses from your feet you don’t see them, you don’t ask about their life, and you don’t do these things because you’re on vacation and you deserve to enjoy yourself.
But also, you don’t want to know.
You don’t want to know that your bartender lives in a one room cinder block house. You don’t want to know that the woman carefully polishing your toenails can’t afford to send her kids to school. You don’t want to know that they too suffer, just like the dogs.
I’m as guilty as anyone of turning a blind eye. The simple fact that we can afford to make this trip put us squarely in the middle of the white privilege circle. But even the dead and dying humans on the sidewalks of New Dehli didn’t prepare me for driving the roads of Central America.
I romanticized this trip way too much right from the start. I envisioned wide open beaches, remote jungle villages, and endless adventure. While much of that has been realized too much more of it has not. This is aside from the realization that this mode of travel is really hard. What’s become so difficult for me is passing through these tiny villages, women toeing the edge of the road trying to sell us sacks of unidentifiable food, the desperation so clear on their face as we approach, then the anger when we don’t slow down.
I’ve taken very few photos over the last two months. My instagram feed is bare. That’s not to say that I haven’t wanted to. The haunted and wary eyes of the children that want me to buy gum are definitely photo worthy. These are the types of photos are meant to make you feel something, like the photo of the ash covered, shell shocked Syrian boy on the chair in the hospital. These photos are supposed to make you care.
But you don’t. Or you do but remind yourself how helpless you are and that you have your own problems or children to care for. These are not invalid excuses; we all have our own shit to deal with but the simple fact that we have the option to look away constitutes that white privileged guilt that, well, we’re all pretty much guilty of.
We don’t have to look if we don’t want to.
But on this trip I’ve had to look. Our windows aren’t blacked out, hell, neither are my eyes. There is simply no way not to see the tin and tarp shacks and the barely dressed toddlers in the dirt surrounded by scrawny chickens and heaps of garbage. It’s there, right in front of everybody.
Everybody who looks, that is.
So if you’ve made it this far you might be asking yourself, “Why the hell is she complaining? Why isn’t she doing something?”
I could ask you that same question but you might want to think carefully about your answers.
Do you tip your bartenders and servers in Mexico? Do you buy your ice cream from the man pushing the street cart or do you pop into whatever resembles the local 7-11? Do you avoid a certain city or country because of perceived violence and moan about how great it was in the old days without thinking of the people who have to live there? Do you slip your extra food to a street dog instead of the child who wants desperately to shine your shoes?
I’m not here to shame anyone. Most of the people I know are good people and some of them go above and beyond to serve communities at home and abroad. I’m also not here to set myself apart. I’ve avoided the old man with his hand held out for money, his head held down in shame. I’ve shouted unkind words in Spanish to street kids whose eyes are hardened as they aggressively tell me to buy tortillas after I’ve declined three times.
I sometimes don’t look out the window anymore as we pass through another rural village slapped together from scrap wood and detritus. I don’t see the dull eyes staring at our shiny American vehicle passing through, but I feel them.
I think I’ll feel them for the rest of my life.
Again, I have no answers. You have no answers. Today’s state of affairs around the world has left so many feeling helpless, even those of us in the guilt circle. But one thing we can say as individuals is that I did not do this.
But someone did. Someone left Honduras poverty stricken, someone left Mexico embroiled in violence, someone committed genocide in Guatemala, and someone reduced Syria to an unimaginable and unforgettable photo.
Let’s not mince words here; money rules our world. Corporations are eager to profit from the desperate and governmental officials turn blind eyes but they can certainly feel the money slipped into their dirty hands. Resources are exploited and people are discarded. It happens everywhere, even in your own backyard.
Yet despite everything I’ve said I see people around the world rising up, using their voices, demanding that something resembling humanity be restored in our world. I’ve met people on this trip who fill extra suitcases with medical supplies and books. I know people who live as expats yet do amazing things in their communities to help the local populations. The human ones.
I know people who realize that all is not lost.
So as sad and as frustrating as this all is I’m looking at you. The do gooders who actually do something good.
As for me, I’m digging deep and trying to uncover the real reason for this trip and my purpose in it. And I think part of that purpose begins with always looking out the window.
No matter how bad it is.