Slicing through a sun-heated papaya. Long orange strips with black seeds, tropical caviar, scraped out with a spoon and into the budding compost of the hostel patio. I´m mixing moments as I squeeze lime in pulpy sprays onto the papaya boats. Gimena taught me that secret, squeezes of wisdom from her Mexican mother. It was Gaston that taught me the next trick; a sprinkling of salt to cut the sweet and bitter. It´s how he eats melon and prosciutto in Argentina. But we´re in Colombia now and on the floor of the open kitchen we make an afternoon portrait of Caribbean tranquility.
The hostel owners, a lesbian couple and the unwitting main characters in the Colombian sitcom I´m daily writing in my head, are curled in the doorway, the head of one in the lap of the other. Luciana sits in the rocking chair, recounting a story of impressive coincidence concerning an Argentine traveler whose sculpted countenance recalls the greatest aspirations of Rodin. It´s the type of story that reminds travelers of why they travel and inspires even the most confirmed home-body to buy a Lonely Planet guide. It´s nearly 5pm and the heat is subsiding. Salty papaya passes hands and from the doorway someone calls out in disbelief as Luciana reaches the critical point in the story she´s already recounted to me standing half-immersed in the sea.
No puede ser!
It can´t be.
This is often how I feel as of late. There are a lot of disbelief moments, characterized by unconscious giggles or grins. Even the worst moment of the last weeks was quickly followed by laughter (it was that or crying). I thought sighing was something that only happened to exasperated mothers or girlfriends in novels, but I will now attest to the fact that sighing is a natural response to delightful overwhelm, and I have been caught sighing a lot lately. I´ll share a few of my finer sighs:
** soft-spoken German girl with bell-bottom pants taught me to crochet one night in a hostel. She had wine red string and I made a little hat for an eggplant that was on the table nearby. I lacked practice, thus deciding to spend the next day´s bus to the border of Ecuador and Colombia practicing. I ended up (through a moment of seriously poor decision making) stabbing myself in the hand with the crochet needle, the curved end wrapped round nerves and holding tight to the inside. I must have made a noise that accompanies moments of shock, as my poor unsuspecting seat mate was roused from his nap to the sight of my crochet hook dangling from my outstretched hand. We made quite the sight, attempting to dislodge the thing from my palm without causing alarm or permanent damage. By the end of the bus ride the needle had been extracted, a number of jokes about my crocheting prowess had been developed, and I was gifted a strange cucumber-melon fruit from a concerned woman in the next row. With my nerves all mushy in one hand and a melon in the other, we crossed into Colombia.
** Travelling with three Argentine guys allows a little lady traveling solo to do things she wouldn’t normally do, like hitchhike from the border of Colombia to the next town. We were picked up by an older man and his mother. He was just going to take us to the bus station, but we didn´t make it there. Instead we made it to his living room, sitting on imitation leather couches as a blender in the kitchen whirled out fresh smoothies. I sat under a tremendous portrait of the man´s daughter during her quinceañera, a decadent party thrown for a girl´s fifteenth birthday. It looked like she had just been married, only forgot to get her braces removed before the big day. We ended up staying at this little home for lunch, wherein the man´s beautiful wife plopped down a whole fried fish in front of me, garnished with tomato slices and lime wedges. We listened to the man´s life story over homemade french fries and vegetable puree soup. This man could talk, only taking pauses to sip sticky sweet purple juice. He almost committed suicide. He used to sell paint. He worked in a fish-packing plant. He was an alcoholic. His children spent 6 months in Australia. His wife was on a diet. He was an aficionado of Noam Chomsky. He asked a lot of rhetorical questions. It was the best possible way to spend our first day in Colombia.
** After carrying 12 liters each of water, a week´s worth of rice, bread, pasta, fruit and an assortment of musical instruments 5 hours through the jungle of Colombia´s northern Caribbean coast, we arrived at Playa Brava. It was night time and we descended the last half hour over the mountain to the sound of the waves below. We opted for the economical version of going to Tayrona National Park, meaning that in order to evade paying the entrance fee you hike through the night and the rain to a secluded beach where there´s no running water or electricity or food but where there´s drunk sun every morning and fresh coconuts lounging under every palm. It´s a decadent place enjoyed ascetically. We met Juliana there, the local caretaker who lives quietly with her reserved husband. She offered us sugared coffee one night and wove stories of her grandfather, El Kasike, a medicine man from another time and culture that she sadly seemed to be dragging back from a great distance. She told us what everyone used to know: If a snake bites you it´s because your carting negative energy. El Kasike knew, as Julian does now, that everything has energy in Colombia, one only need learn how to read it and prosper. It´s an ancient way to navigate and I fell asleep that night and dreamt of Juliana in a green dress. Her long black hair was braided and she had a baby in her arms. She placed it on the ground and looked at me, motioning me to pick it up. I walked towards her but the distance kept getting bigger and I never reached her. I woke up first that next morning and swam in the ocean alone. It was an empty beach and I had all the world to think of El Kasike and Juliana and what comes from drinking little cups of coffee in the Colombian jungle.
Quito, you are charming.
Public maps telling viewer they have 25 more seconds till they reach their destination (which happens to be a very large governmental building). If it´s not obvious by that point, the tourist in question may need more assistance than a map can provide…
Stores that say OPEN. WELCOME. while the mannequins get naked and the hangers hang free.
I`m not actually sure if this attempt at a public payphone is helpful or not, but it IS decidedly amusing.
Once again the pace of travel has outwitted my ability to write promptly, and thus I resort to snapshotting the last few weeks in la vida tenedor libre…
Chicos, estoy en mi salsa.
One of my new favorite phrases in Spanish fell grinning to the floor of the outdoor clothing market in Huaraz, Peru. I come from a family that has such affection for thrift stores and second-hand shops that we communally refer to Salvation Army as Sal Arme, believing our somewhat French sounding version endows the institution with the sense of majesty it so deserves. Fellow Thrifters would have shed tears at the bounty that lay before me, mounds of potential treasures piled high on blue tarps, completely devoid of organization. Shoes shared corners with underwear (brief aside, my love of thrift does NOT preclude innate skepticism and a mild disgust for second-hand intimates…) while Peruvian ladies snacked on corn cobs rubbed in queso, periodically calling out the price for pants between bites.
It was cruel to be so close to splendor I knew I couldn´t fit in my backpack. I had already made a concession that day to the great new weight of a tub of raw honey, purchased from a serious looking older woman in a tall hat. There was really little I could do but admire the seriously outmoded Peruvian florals that on any other occasion I would have taken home to my scissors and sewing kit to deconstruct. So instead I waved down the little couple walking round the market selling cake by the slice, one vanilla with a precarious red Jello topping, the other chocolate love. There was no threat of needing to fit chocolate cake anywhere else but my belly.
Huanchaco, Peru & Montañitas, Ecuador
Somewhere between my second layer of socks and soaked-through raincoat, I decided I didn´t want to be cold anymore. Mountains have their charm, especially for those that grew up amongst their familiar faces. However, everyone needs to try something new. I wanted to try beach.
For some reason I have for some time wrongly believed that one is only allowed to go to the beach if celebrating a honeymoon or as a model for a Quicksilver ad. Beach time just seemed so cushy and other-worldly, that you couldn´t just go whenever you wanted for however long you wanted. Wrong. This line of thinking has, up till now, been hideously prohibitive to advancing my beach education. Silly mountain girl.
The last 2 weeks or so I have been unabashedly bathing daily in salt and sun. Not only that, I have undergone a deep study of surfer culture, and must applaud its outright refusal of all my previous thoughts concerning the sea and its functions. The ocean is not a place to escape work and life, it has been proven by many a tanned chico to be the end in itself. I allowed myself to be the willing student in this study and learned many lessons:
1) Surfing can be hard if you have a fear of waves. Conversely, surfing can be easy if you have spent a sizeable portion of your childhood wobbling along tree limbs and gymnastics beams. Blending these observations, I ultimately make a well balanced -if not so intrepid-a surfer.
2) The ocean is not all fun and jellyfish. It has waves. Sometimes big waves that terrorize those more familiar with the tranquility of lakes and lazy rivers. I had my first lesson in how to almost drown in the ocean, and how to be saved by a lifeguard as the beach watches on. There´s a beautiful art that is knowing how to manage the ocean; knowing when to duck a wave or swim with the current, how to swallow salt without losing a stroke of the arm or kick of the legs.
3) The ocean is hard to leave once you´ve had it. I admit it took all my fond mountain memories to leave the little beach towns of Peru and Ecuador and head back inland. Shells stuffed in side-pockets and purchases of hand-sized papayas made the going a little bit easier. Though I will be back soon enough to show the waves they haven´t thrashed the beach out of me…