I've never had the patience for details so by default I'm a big picture kindof girl. As far as traveling goes, this part of my personality allows me to dream big and do great things while having very little expectations. And as far as expectations of the Inca Trail went I had none. And hot damn if the Inca Trail didn't provide the most gorgeous scenery I have ever had the privilege to see. I'm not sure why I'm surprised, and maybe I'm not, I just didn't think about it.
The Inca Trail is a well-traveled 4-day hike and almost every day of the year about 400 travelers, guides, and porters start the journey from the beautiful mountain town of Cusco.
I arrived in Cusco at 1pm the day before I left for the trek where I spent the day gasping for air, feeling flu-like symptoms and other tell tale signs of mild altitude sickness. I suppose if I even thought of a guidebook I would have planned my trip differently to allow time for acclimatization.
No, I wouldn't have.
My trip was perfect, ass kickin' and all.
The first day on the Inca Trail was spent hiking a gradual incline through a deep and narrow valley surrounded by edifices so staggeringly high and lush green it was hard to believe I was still on planet Earth.
I very randomly met three of Max Gordon's friends along the trail. It took four sentences to figure out that they were 26 years old and from Burlington, Vermont.
"Do you know Max Gordon?' and the rest is history.
I hiked with a company called Weiki Treks which made us all feel like we were some kindof royalty who enjoyed things like three course lunches and dinners, birthday parties, pancakes, mango flan, ceviche, and happy hours atop mountain peaks.
The six other people who I was serendipitously paired with for the hike were truly the funniest, coolest people I've met in a long time and the friendships were instant. I didn't just laugh every day; I crawled on all fours in laughter every day. My crew quickly devolved into a bunch of people trying to make each other laugh while we feasted in our portable dining room. The exhausting and beautiful walks in between meals seemed like something to endure so we could sit down and start laughing over popcorn and powdered milk mochas.
Day Two of the trek is aptly named Dead Woman's Pass. Our guide literally said to us, 'There are many challenges in life. Today will be one of them." (!?!?) It took us six hours to ascend the 4,000 meter mountain pass in the pouring rain followed by bright sun and increasingly less oxygen every step. You'll be shocked to hear that I didn't pack well because I did zero planning and zero research. My camera gear alone weighed 15 pounds and that was just what was hanging around my neck. On my back you could find a change of clothes for each and every day, a couple of books, my journal, and a cure and ointment for every possible malady that would never arise. Besides a rather humbling experience, Day Two offered hour after hour of getting to know all my new friends. We each told our life story, one by one, and I fell in love with everyone. It's also worth noting that I dominated that evening in both charades and the four hands of Bullshit we played while crammed inside a one-man tent with three other people.
Day Three was called The Gringo Killer, and I'll surely reference this day when talking nostalgically about my healthy knees. We ascended and descended 3,000 ancient stone steps in the cold and spitting rain for ten hours. My body hurt, I was cranky, I got my period, and I was thirsty. I laughed at lunch, but eventually had to sit down and cry for about 10 seconds. The tightness in my calves rendered me unable to bend at the ankle which felt as weird as it sounds. My new friend Abe aptly named his calves Donzel Washington and I couldn't agree more though I'm pretty pissed I didn't think of the moniker first.
Day Four had us up and at 'em at the non-hour of 3:30am. We had our first glimpse of what we were told was Machu Picchu, but we wouldn't know because it was 6am and the morning fog still had hours before burning off. We took many a tourist photo in front of a thick white wall of clouds which we found absolutely hilarious. We spent the next three hours making fun of ourselves until the fog cleared.
Machu Picchu proved to be so mind blowing and magnificent no camera could ever do it justice. In fact, I couldn't believe I was actually looking at it. The ancient city never found by the Spanish conquistadors is perched high amongst the giant fangs of the green Andes and is truly breath taking. We spent the morning hanging around Machu Picchu and I took something like 400 photographs. I doubt even one will do it justice.
After the hike was over and we made our way to the mountain town in the valley the afternoon and evening were spent either in a bar congratulating ourselves or remembering the good old days of four days ago when our knees worked. We played drinking games on the train home and horrified every English speaker within earshot of our Never Have I Ever game.
I hope I never forget those four days on the Inca Trail and how much fun we had and how hard we laughed. It ranks in the top experiences of my life and I never saw it coming. Three cheers for not planning!
A hot shower, laundered clothes, a good sleep, a day off, and a night out with friends had me ready for the next phase of my journey.
Off to the jungle I went.
A rickshaw picked me up from the hot and sweaty airport in Iquitos, Peru; A moto-rickshaw to be exact. We buzzed through the chaos of the city and through little villages where families kept cool and squealed in joy while playing in river waters browner than they were. I was giddy with the thrill of travel and being in a land so totally unfamiliar. I hung off the side of the rickshaw taking photos saying aloud, 'This is SO FUCKING AWESOME!' again and again.
The shamanic center of Nihue Rao is on a big plot of sandy land in the middle of the jungle where mosquitoes fight for supremacy with termites and spread malaria with force. The center itself is a scattering of Smurfs-Meet-Tarzan huts futily wrapped in mosquito netting. There is a cafeteria hut, a living room hut, one hut for ceremonies called the Miloka, and many private bedroom huts each with it's own sweet hammock and bed enclosed in yet another layer of netting.
I found Nihue Rao through my dear friend, Flora, who has turned the pages of my life story in many ways. Her soul mate, Cvita, is one of the owners here and without one second of research or even a second thought, I was signing up for a week in the jungle with her.
The first order of business when someone arrives at NR is to take a vomitivo which is exactly what it sounds like. It's a liter of a room temperature liquid that smells and tastes like fermented onion though it's made from boiling down some plant I've never heard of. I was told to drink it as fast as I could and then wait for 15 minutes until I cleared my system. This apparently makes for an easier time for the ayahuasca to work. I drank it, I gagged, I puked, I puked again, I had diarrhea, I was glad it was over.
I slept more in my first two days at NR than I have since I was a newborn baby. Eleven hour slumbers followed by two daily naps in my hammock totaled somewhere around 15 hours of sleep a day. The rest of my first days, when my eyes were actually open, were spent doing yoga, sweating to death, being eaten alive by mosquitoes, struggling with WiF, taking delicious cold outdoor showers, eating bland white food, dreaming about salt, and talking with the other handful of folks at the center.
People from all over the world come to NR to find insight from ayahuasca. There were many countries represented, many languages spoken, and without exception everyone was an extremely nice person. There was, however, a noticeable lack of laughter which was sorely missed after my time on the Inca Trail. I spent the first few days trying to remember why I even came and I wanted to be back with people who laughed easily and didn't take life too seriously. I was later reminded that it wasn't a hotel and that we all came there for a reason. People came to Nihue Rao to heal.
Ceremonies are held on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday nights so I was there for almost two days before I went into ceremony. Monday night's ceremony was a bit of a disaster and the ayahuasca didn't work on me. I just sat in the miloka and waited. I listened to other people either puke or freak out for three hours, and the only sign of ayahuasca in my body was the fact that I threw up in the bushes outside which is as miserable as it sounds.
An 18 year old girl arrived the day after I got there who looked like she was 13 and seemed terribly depressed, shy, and anxious. When I first saw her I think I audibly gasped. She told me that she was there with her own money and her parents blessing to find a way out of the depression she has been suffering with since she was 13. She claimed she had tried everything else and ayahuasca was her last resort. She seemed quirky and sweet, naïve and scared, and way out of her comfort zone. That evening's ceremony, her first time ever with ayahuasca, she got up off her mat around 10pm, ran outside and was either auditioning for Exorcist II or was seriously being possessed. We all listened to blood curdling screams from a little girl running back and forth, back and forth, through the jungle. It was not unlike a living hell and/or the worst possible scenario I could imagine. That was before she came back inside to remind us all that 'WE'RE ALL DOOMED! EVERYBODY IS DOOOOOMED!!" and when the shaman sang she yelled, 'MAKE THE DEMON STOP!!" That was while the girl next to me writhed in agony for an hour whispering fuckkkk fuckkkk fuckkk over and over.
And all this could be yours for the low, low price of $100 a day.
I endured the pleasantries of the miloka until 11pm when I went back to my hut and went to sleep just as the soft rain started to fall. I was happy to be in peace and quiet again and there's nothing quite like the sound of the rain on a thatched roof deep in Jurrassic Park. Sure beats overhearing a psychotic break.
The rest of my time at Nihue Rao was a trip in every sense of the word. The ayahuasca ended up working in so far as I hallucinated somewhere between 'Well, this is cool!' to 'Holy shit, I'm starring in Avatar.' What it never brought me was the kind of clarity or insight that ayahuasca gets it's medicinal reputation for and what I experienced in LA two years ago. I still believe that I was a bit freaked out by the utter exorcism of a teenager, and I think I tried hard to keep my wits about me. Every time any of my visuals became dark I stared at them in my mind and willed them to change; A valuable lesson in the power of the mind, no doubt. The only intentions I ever set for ceremony were 'show me whatever I need to see' and other vague cop-outs. For whatever it's worth, the staff at Nihue Rao never let the teenager drink ayahusaca again. She stayed for a week and left a week earlier than she originally planned. Zoloft to the rescue!
My deepest questions may not have been answered, or even asked to be honest, but the next three ceremonies provided some of the coolest visuals I have ever imagined. Whether my eyes were open or closed I saw layers upon waves upon tides of swirling patterns, fluorescent pink and orange drippy castles, pinwheel lollipop amusement parks, deep blue galaxies, fields of bulbous white flowers that blossomed into heart balloons, mask upon mask upon mask of gods and monkeys and wolves and serpents, topsy-turvey tunnels with brightly colored stalagmites, and whole worlds I could never find words for. I did see all my best friends and their daughters and I scooped them up for a group hug and burst into tears of love.
Every night in ceremony each one of us is called up from our mats to sit in front of one of the shamans to be sung to directly. I find this a particularly special experience and one night I was truly overcome by the beauty of life. There I was sitting in a hut in the middle of the jungle in a town in Peru that neither me nor anyone I know has ever even heard of. A song was being sung to me that has been learned not from books, but from the wisdom of plants. This very song has been sung millions of times across hundreds of years with the intention of healing people. And now this song was being sung to me so that I might find peace in my heart. I sat there cross-legged with my hands in prayer at my forehead bawling my eyes out. With tears streaming down my face I whispered thank you over and over and over again.
Friday night's ceremony provided one of those cliché hallucinations where I swore I would be lost forever in a strange mix of Charlie and The Chocolate Factory and the most nauseating carnival ride Tim Burton could imagine. I worked hard to soothe myself, but the freaky upside-down, round and round nature of my experience had me hurling my guts out. Throwing up is a very common side effect of ayahuasca and it happens to me every single time I drink it. However, once the vomiting is over the fun visuals usually start so it's not a highlight, but a necessary evil.
After an hour or so of me barely hanging on to my shit on Friday night, the last twenty minutes of my final ceremony was spent sitting knee to knee with Cvita as she sang to me on my mat. She sang the most beautiful prayers for my life and cleaned up some bad juju she saw floating around me. Then she wrapped me tight in an energetic bubble made up of some kind of shamanic Care Bear Stare to keep me safe and happy. As she sung to me, nose to nose, Flora showed up like a little fairy looking down on her two friends in such a beautiful moment together. She poured glitter all over us and then wrapped us up tight in a saran wrap-like cocoon made up of many shades of green. The only smile bigger than mine in that moment was Flora's.
All that I learned during the ceremonies was practically eclipsed by what I learned from my time outside of ceremony with the other people at Nihue Rao.
In each one of those soulful people I saw reflections of myself: the parts I don't like, the parts I'm terrified of, and the parts I do like. Every person there was trying to be a better version of themselves, this I know for sure.
In the end, as I rode a wooden boat across a swampy river away from the center and onto my next journey, I felt like a new chapter had been started. I sit here writing this story and I feel happy and light, open and safe. I feel free and excited. I feel alive.
Whoops, should've purchased a guidebook.
I heard Bolivia was one of the greatest countries in South America so when I was dreaming up my trip I wanted to be sure I made it there. The #1 recommended thing to see in Bolivia is Salar De Uyuni, the salt flats in the town of Uyuni, a town in the middle of nowhere. I looked at some gorgeous photos of the place and knew I wanted to see it myself. I googled, 'what's the closest airport to Uyuni?' and the internet told me that Calama, Chile was the closest airport so I booked my flight(s) to get there from Iquitos.
What I didn't understand was that though Calama is technically the closest airport to Uyuni there are NO FUCKING ROADS between the two places. Calama to Uyuni is an 8-hour off-roading experience through the volcanic waste land of Northern Chile and the moon. A long and frustrating story short, I was picked up by one driver in Calama and driven to the border of Bolivia where he handed me off to another driver. This amazing feat was all coordinated by the hotel I chose in Uyuni for the prohibitively expensive price of I-can't-tell-you. The driver who picked me up in Calama had lost his mind long ago, poor thing. He navigated the three-hour experience without taking his eyes off...me in the backseat. This was while he stuffed piles of coka leaves in his cheek and told me stories of how other travelers were scared by his driving. Still floating from ayahuasca I couldn't have cared less. I thought his craziness was entertaining and every time he decided to glance at the 'road' I shook my head with a smile and whispered 'fucking tapped' as I looked out the window at the passing active volcanoes. The guy who picked me up on the Bolivian side of the border was a kind and gentle man. He got me to my hotel safely, spoke no English, and kept me out of Bolivian jail. There we were at the shanty hut that is the Bolivian border control where I was told that I needed to buy a tourist visa for $135 USD. This wouldn't have been an issue if I had more than $80 on me or had ever even heard of needing a travel visa for Bolivia. I showed him my credit card with a fake tear in my eye and he gesticulated passionately and waxed on in Spanish. I bet he was congratulating me on my planning skills and attention to detail. Somehow my driver and the immigration guy settled on a plan to let me through if I pinky promised to go to the immigration office as soon as I reached Uyuni, the nearest town and the nearest ATM machine, five hours later. Cvita told me that she wrapped me in a protective bubble for Bolivia. I give her all the credit for this.
I arrived at my hotel that I, not surprisingly, booked in haste. I thought if I booked a fancy-ish hotel they'd be able to organize that ridiculous transfer which was exactly what happened. The hotel overlooked Salar De Uyuni and was made entirely of salt. Salt floors, salt walls, salt furniture, you get the point. It is an absolutely gorgeous space and chock full of Bolivian kindness, inconvenience, and culinary failure. Because they deal with rich folk, the hotel only books private tours to see the salt flats. This is in contrast to the usual way people see the flats: with six other really fun people drinking beers and taking pictures and having a blast. So there I was at a really nice hotel for the sole purpose of needing to book the transfer from Calama and I was on the rich kid solo track. Boo.
Salar De Uyuni is an impressive geological site and it's hard to believe such a thing even exists. It's over 400 sq miles of a white salt crust that was once a prehistoric salt lake. My afternoon on the flats was spent with my guide, Francisco, who was kind and crazy and tried hard to make our afternoon as fun as he could. He let me drive the truck over the flats, he sung my name most of the afternoon, and insisted I photograph him posing near his truck. All the while Land Rovers teeming with laughing people sped by us as Francisco and I tried to pantomime normal conversation. I focused on the photography and made the best of it. Later on, as the sun set over the salt flats, the ridiculous struggle and expense of getting there all made sense. I was awe struck by the beauty, the endless reflective expanse, and the deep pink, red, and blue that reflected off the salt. If you know me you know I never say this, but I love my photos of that evening. In the end I'm very happy I was there.
As soon as I landed in Calama I knew I couldn't make the return trip to catch my flight back to Lima so I immediately started making alternate plans. The only possible way out of Uyuni, which is actually on another planet, is by either prop plane (fuck off) or an overnight bus to LaPaz. Bus trip it was. Every single person on that bus was tossed like a rag doll for 11 hours as we traversed non roads to LaPaz through the middle of the night. I was sitting in my hotel room in LaPaz still hammered on Tylenol PMs at 5:45am. I had no idea where I was.
I was thrilled to finally be staying in the heart of a city and I loved LaPaz immediately. In fact, I love Bolivia. I love the people, the style, the hats, the shawls, and the skirts the women wear. I love what Bolivians look like and how they treat travelers. I love the landscape and it's other worldly beauty. Any struggle I had in this country was entirely my fault and again and again I was met with kindness and grace in spite of my stupidity. I spent my day in LaPaz walking the city from one end to the other, visiting museums, buying things I loved, and feeling the altitude. I watched the sun set over the city from the rooftop restaurant of my hotel. I ordered the llama medium rare.
I landed at dawn in Rio and my mind exploded in a kaleidoscope of green and yellow. It was oppressively hot, extremely bright, and overflowing with beautiful people, not a single one looking like another. I immediately felt more alive and energized than I had my entire trip and I knew Rio would be my favorite city of all time. I felt like I belonged.
After a napped in the shade, swam in the rooftop pool, and then got a Brazilian wax. When In Rome!
Marco, the airport driver/tour guide extraordinaire arrived at CCB at 3pm to take me on a half-day tour of Rio, and thanks to Marco I am now a historical and ethnographic expert on Brazil. I saw every corner of the city, quickly had my favorite neighborhoods, and had my face pressed against the car window for five hours. Just as the sun was setting and turning Rio into pink majesty, we arrived at the famous Christ Redeemer statue that overlooks the city. I looked down over Rio with it's staggering mountains bursting out of the endless ocean and I was overwhelmed with the beauty in front of me. Tears fell in spite of my effort to hold them back.
Marco dropped me off at CCB and as I was changing into the prettiest dress I own, I heard what sounded like the first 20 seconds of The Obvious Child by Paul Simon right outside my window
It was time to head out.
I walked around the corner into the heart of an enormous block party with hundreds of people dancing to a 20-piece band banging on drums.
'This is so fucking awesome!!!!' I yelled to no one.
Everybody was either dancing, singing, drinking, laughing, talking, playing an instrument, or selling something. I approached a guy making caipirinhas, Brazil's national cocktail, on a makeshift bar made of milk crates and ordered 'one, please' in Spanish. The guy standing next to me saw that I was an English speaker trying to speak Spanish to a Portuguese guy and asked me in perfect English, 'You want a drink?'. His name is Thiago and our friendship was instant, he immediately asked if I wanted to hang out with him and his two brothers. He reminded me so much of my friend, Brian Edson, and I loved him instantly. He was hilariously funny, really enthusiastic, his English was perfect, and he was effusive with his friendship toward me. I felt really lucky to have met him.
Thiago's younger brother was sweet, but his older brother, Bruno, melted me. Bruno is 34, attentive and kind, funny and cool, deep, generous, and gorgeous. We did not leave each other's side or stop talking for five hours. We talked about Rio, being business owners, California (he lived in San Diego for three years), and how we both had been to Burning Man. We talked about having children and what it feels like to watch our parents age. He bought us beers and street food and we made plans for the next day. He was so excited to show me his Rio, starting the day with his favorite hike to a waterfall, then to a market where he buys all his fresh fish, and then to the beach near his house. We talked extensively about our love of outdoor showers, and he insisted his was the best. He asked for my number, and instead I gave him CCB's business card. We decided that 11am was a perfect starting time for our big day, and we had a great kiss and an easy goodbye. I walked back to my hotel with stars in my eyes. I begged myself to fall asleep but couldn't wipe my smile off my face.
God, I love Rio.
The next morning I was giddy. I was on the sidewalk at 11:05 like a kid on Christmas day.
I waited until noon.
He never showed up.
I went upstairs and changed and asked Lance and Sergio to help me plan my day. I was crushed.
All day I wondered why I didn't get his number or what could have happened. I tried fruitlessly to shake the gnawing feeling in my heart. I begged myself not to cry.
I spent the afternoon on a tour of enormous favelas, the Brazilian shanty towns made famous in the movie City of God. It was an incredibly interesting tour and the favelas were fascinating and nothing like I imagined. I loved every second, and for the gagillionth time during my trip I was overwhelmed by the beauty of life.
I spent the rest of the day semi-catatonic in disappointment. I ate dinner alone and watched the sun set over an incredible city from a glass cable car. There is a big difference between being alone and being lonely.
I got home to CCB and walked directly into the shower. There are six rooms in the inn and not a soul was there. Lance and Sergio leave at 2pm every day and a code is needed to get in the front gate. While I was in the shower the bell rang three times. No one who normally does business with this inn was ringing the bell; they know better, and no one else was there. When I finally got to the window I watched two people in a black car drive away. I still wonder if it was Bruno ringing the bell. I also still wonder why we didn't exchange information when he asked me to.
It was Saturday night and high time I changed the channel. I walked down to the very same corner bar as I did the night before hoping for the best.
When I asked the bartender for a caipirinha he asked me something back in Portuguese and I'm sure I looked stunned. Again, the guy next to me saved the day, 'He wants to know if you want something to eat." he chimed in. I didn't, but I immediately wanted to talk with this guy who is the Brazilian version of my dear friend, Dod. I hadn't spoken more then ten words in English all day and I was hungry for conversation. Hugo and I were friends immediately and bonded and laughed over every single thing we said. We talked about love and life and Rio and politics and heartbreak, and his three year old son, Teo. We ventured outside of the bar and further explored Santa Tereza. Hugo was trying to get over a recent breakup with his girlfriend and he needed the company as much as I did.
We went to a neighborhood samba party and ended the night at a little bar listening to five talented guys play instruments I've never heard of (though Hugo swears one of them was the flute. J)
Hugo walked me to my door, gave me a great kiss, and said he'd pick me up at 10am the next morning for breakfast. He gave me his business card and friended me on facebook. I hadn't told him anything about the night before.
It was 10:01am on Sunday morning when I heard Hugo honk his horn lightly outside CCB to let me know he was there.
I smiled and ran downstairs.
Hugo is a funny, smart, cool, generous, sexy, laidback guy full of very kind and generous things to say to me. We endured Rio's record-breaking heat over breakfast, fresh juice, crepes, air conditioning, waterfalls, traffic jams, inside jokes, city views, botanical gardens, and hilarious laughter. Our chemistry built over the day, and our friendship was obvious and very special. He was, and is, a friend I want to be around all the time. He's the guy you miss five minutes after he leaves.
He asked me what Americans call the male Brazilian bathing suits and I told him ball huggers. He laughed so hard he almost drove off the road.
We played in the crowded waters of Impanema beach at sunset and he kissed me on my neck. Over sushi, with the reality of our day coming to a close, we thanked each other profusely for a beautiful day. Our absolutely perfect day ended in a steamy goodbye outside of CCB, and we promised to see each other again one day. His ex was calling him as I opened the car door.
Leaving Rio the next morning felt like torture and I could barely get the words out to thank Lance and Sergio for all they had done for me.
I promised I'd be back. I cried in the taxi.
(For the record: Hugo and his girl reconciled and were officially dating again by Tuesday. All is well. )