A New Year and New Beginnings

It is hard not to feel a sense of awe when you get to the sun pyramid at Teotihuacan. You drive from the modern day pyramids of Mexico city, glittery gold and silver and glass masses, down the valley and across a flat plain, weaving your way through slums and cacti and desert shrub until you see them, rising up out of the dust like beacons. Through the masses of tourists wearily stepping up the almost vertical staircase I get glimpses of what it must have been like, a millennia and a half ago , to have watched the procession of a solitary priest climb up, up, up towards heaven. He may have been accompanied by a slave, a human sacrifice that, it can only be guessed, would have willingly come with him, even found it an honour to stand on that point above the world and be assured a quick passage to the realm of the gods and an everlasting passage into the realm of men.

Walking up the stairs to the Sun Temple at Teotihuacan
Walking up the stairs to the Sun Temple at Teotihuacan
The Sun Pyramid
The Sun Pyramid

Teotihuacan was once perhaps the most powerful city of the world. Built some 1700 years ago, the rulers quickly gained a monopoly over the obsidian mines and created a vast trading network throughout Mexico to Guatemala. They ruled as kings and gods, creating imposing and impressive monuments like the pyramids of the Sun and the Moon, large bodies of knowledge about the solar system, and large mass graves containing the remains of many hundreds of human sacrifices to win over the favor of the gods. The place may be ancient, but for me, the story is still very modern.

Public Plaza at Teotihuacan. The central stage was used for public sacrifices.
Public Plaza at Teotihuacan. The central stage was used for public sacrifices.

I have just come from a short, shotgun visit to Vancouver and, after having my flight cancelled and spending Christmas at the airport in Los Angeles, have now spent the last few days with my friend and her family in and around Mexico city. It is a typical story of love at first sight; this country is bursting at the seams with history and cultures and subcultures and music and food. I am swept away by the jewellery markets, the wandering live bands, the colours, the people, the street food (how can one place have so many tastes!). There is just so much to feast the eyes, the heart, the soul and the stomach on,  it is one of those places where every picture looks like you edited it with the colour saturation on high, one of those places where falling in love seems effortless.

Just another street in San Miguel
Just another street in San Miguel
The Sun Stone, one of the most famous Archeological remains.
The Sun Stone, one of the most famous archeological remains.

New Years was spent on a small outcropping above the beautiful city of San Miguel de Allende watching the fireworks and Chinese wish-lanterns rise above the cobbled streets of the town. It was magnificent to sit there, with two very creative and inspiring people, having conversations about past years and new years, life and love and dreams and aspirations.My life feels full at that moment, the moment feels timeless in its perfection.

The main cathedral in San Miguel de Allende

The main cathedral in San Miguel de Allende

 

Ubiquious
Ubiquious

Even though today the stones of the pyramid at Teotihuacan are worn soft, the history of the place beat into the staircases by the thousands of visitors that come every day to stand and take pictures of themselves on top of the structures,  1500 years have passed and the still the desire to make oneself eternal, static is something this pyramid awakens in people.

In contrast, I feel transient.  I going back, or forward, depending on how you see it, to Nicaragua. Back to where my home is for the next little while, to my little town nestled in the foothills of the north. Forward towards new adventures and experiences, towards a new life, a new calling, a new year.

I hope all of you had a wonderful beginning to the year as well. Wishing you a happy new year filled with love, light, and inspiration.

How to get to my house

One of the things I am starting to love about living in a small town is how everybody knows each other. I used to be generally baffled when I would tell people I came from Canada and people here, completely earnestly, would turn around and say:

“I have a friend from Canada, Katherine Martynsky, do you know her?”.

I used to always joke and say “Oh you mean Kat! She lives just around the corner from me!”, but as Latin Americans struggle with sarcasm that almost never ended in my favour. The other day though I found myself in a taxi in Managua talking to the driver whose mother lives in Somoto.

“Oh really” I said “What’s her name? Maybe I know her….”.

When people ask me where I live here, they ask me not where I live but with whom I live. I’ll say I live with Doña Aura, and if that person doesn’t happen to know exactly who that is, someone else, shamelessly overhearing the conversation, will butt in with a “the women who works at the bank whose ex-husband was the cousin of Daniel who used to work in administration at the mayors office”. Oh yeah, of course. If they ask where the house is, I will generally say its two blocks south of the bus station and a block east. Or 5 houses over from that great Carne Asada place that is open late.

So when I walked into the kitchen the other day to ask what the address is so that my mother could send me a care package (chocolate) there ensued one of the funniest fights I have witnessed thus.

“From the hotel Bambi,” Doña Aura starts, motioning me to write it down,  “one block west, 45 paces north”.

“No Mami,” the daughter yells from her bedroom, obviously eavesdropping on the conversation, ” its one block east and the third house south”.

“No, south is that way”  Doña Aura says, pointing roughly with her hand towards the east.

“No its not”, the son Joel says, emerging from his bedroom to join in the conversation, “it’s that way’ he says, pointing in the opposite direction. At this point I stop being able to understand the Spanish through all the yelling. One of the cousins grabs his iphone and races outside, opening the compass to figure out the directions. The son and the mom have agreed on where the sun rises but are now debating if the sun rises in the west and sets in the east or vice versa and the daughter keeps on insisting that its better to just say 3 houses to the south because using paces is “too inaccurate”.

“No no no” the aunt Silvia quips in finally “why don’t you just say the address is two blocks east from the bus station, south one block the third house”.

At this point the other German volunteer, Malin, and I are holding onto our stomachs and laughing at the obvious confusion the question has created.

“But how do you guys get mail then?” Malin asks.

The answer, it turns out, is obvious. The mail man is Dona Auras older sisters first boyfriends cousin. He doesn’t need street signs or numbers. The address is simple. It is the house where Dona Aura lives.

The rodeo and an eruption of sorts

I saw a rodeo once when I was in Cuba. It was perhaps one of my favourite memories of the entire trip. I had been in Cuba for a 4-week field trip to study their agricultural system and our teacher had surprised us with the rodeo as a sort of going-away party. We were in the middle of Cuban cowboy country, our last official visit of the trip, and a few of the men and some women put on a show, expertly roping  and tackling cattle and riding ferocious looking bulls.It was hot as hell and everybody was waiting for the first rains of the monsoon season to start. Once the men started riding the bulls, the wind picked up – within seconds the sky darkened and huge,fat drops of rain splayed down. The men continued to ride these gigantic bulls, despite the rain and lightning, while we huddled with half the town under the bleachers passing around the bottles of rum our teacher had provided and enjoying the spectacle. Indeed it was a magical experience – utterly and completely different from my last rodeo experience in Somoto.

When one of the cousins here ( I long ago stopped trying to figure out how everybody in my adopted family is related) invited me to go to the bi-annual rodeo in Somoto last weekend I readily agreed, imaging something of the sort that I saw in Cuba.So we piled into the back of the pick-up truck and headed to the rodeo stadium. Now I should have perhaps known just by looking at the stadium that this experience was going to be different. The rodeo stadium or “plaza de torres” is this haphazardly built wooden and corrugated metal stadium-like thing that under no circumstances would pass any kind of safety inspection. It has one entrance door that is also the exit, no bathrooms, and wooden bleachers centred around a dirt circle in the middle with scraps of chicken wire to separate the viewers from the bulls. On top of that it is absolutely jam-packed with people and virtually impossible, once you arrive, to leave.

Plaza de torros in Somoto. Courtesy of the interweb

On the way to the stadium we stopped by to pick up one of the other cousins’ 20 month old kid. He casually mentions on the way there that the kid is actually a bit sick. With fever. And vomiting. And diarrhea. Having just finished a workshop the other day on intestinal parasites and infection vectors I am shocked; not only are you dragging a poor sick kid to the rodeo, you are also taking a highly infectious vector to a stadium jam-packed with people. However as I am coming to realize, this is a sad reality of small town life here. The cousin, 19 years old, has another 20 month old kid who he never sees. The mother of the first kid is 17. They are just two kids who want to go to the rodeo and have no one else to take care of their baby.

Of course when we get to the stadium and find seats I end up sitting next to the infectious kid who immediately starts fussing and crying. The mother tries to comfort him, breastfeeding him, waving a flashing neon toy in front of his eyes, and passing him between his father, uncle, aunt, and various other relatives to little avail. When the bull riders and cowboys finally enter the stadium I am momentarily distracted from my attempts at trying not to touch anything around me and avoiding breathing the same air as the kid while simultaneously trying to show that I am not in any way put off by the mucous-streaming, horrible-smelling, feverish wad of infection beside me.

When the bull-riders come out the stadium erupts in cheers. To my utter amazement one of the bull riders does a bow/jig, falls, and kisses the ground. He is utterly and completely wasted. As it turns out, all the riders and cattle-ropers are to some degree quite intoxicated. My fear of them subsequently being gored to death by the bulls is put to ease when the first bull rider enters the stadium on the back of a bull. The bull has its horns blunted and after five half-hearted bucks, stops, apparently bored.The rider dismounts, stumbles, and falls flat on his face.The crowd erupts into cheers.The cowboys take turns trying to lasso the poor emasculated beast who at this point is standing next to the gate, waiting to be let out. One of the guys in the arena (no idea why they are there in the first place) throws down his beer can, grabs a red cape and proceeds to try and aggregate the bull. The bull throws his head and paws the ground feebly, the guy races to hide between a wooden plank erected as it would seem exactly for that purpose. One of the cowboys has finally managed to lasso the hump of the bull. The gates open and the bull leads the cowboy back to the holding area. The crowd, also largely drunk by this time, erupts again into cheers.

The baby next to me suddenly starts to dry heave. The parents, as I now see, have bought from one of the moving vendors french fries covered in mayonnaise and cheese curds and are alternatively feeding the sick baby, themselves and a few relatives who also accept some fries.I swear I can see the infectious germs swarming around the french fries. The dry heaving gets worse and as the crowd erupts in cheers at the second bull-rider who slips in his drunken slumber from another non-moving bull the baby turns and erupts the contents of his bacteria-laden stomach on my shoe.

I look at my cell-phone clock. One hour has passed and there are still another eight bull-riders to go. This , truly,  is what hell must be like.

Going Home

At first all we saw was a crowd of vultures. “That’s probably where they will be, if there are any” said Denia, squinting  through the rising sun at the next bay over, spotted with what seemed like dozens of black vultures. As we picked our way around the cliff, running over the pancake like rocks in between sets of waves I was struck at the beauty of the natural reserve – white sandy beaches, perfect breaks and lush green forest. It was worlds different from the dirty brown/black beach where we had started our hour long walk.

When we came closer to the first group of vultures, Laura suddenly gave a shout and sprinted over to them, yelling and waving a stick. She looked around and quickly spotted the first nest. A tiny head poked out, squinting at its first ever view of this world. It’s tiny flippers laboured until it dug its way out of the hole. First one, then two, then ten, then about fifty turtles slowly emerged. They raised their tiny little heads as if gathering their bearing and then, as if struck by this magical, primordial instinct, they took off in the direction of the ocean, scrambling over sticks and mounds of sand until they finally reached the edge of the water to be engulfed by their salty home.And one of the most amazing things is that once one nest hatches, all the others do so you have hundreds of baby turtles all running for the ocean at the same time

baby turtles. Courtesy of flora and fauna international.
Baby turtles hatching on Chacocente. Courtesy of Flora and Fauna International.

Aristotle once said “In all things of nature, there is something of the marvellous”. Indeed the experience of watching baby olive ridley turtles hatch and make their way to the ocean had a lot of the marvellous, the spiritual and the primordial in it.

It also had a lot of the macabre and the ironic in it. For while these cute, tiny turtles are making their way to the ocean, the crabs and vultures and sea birds and fish are making a meal out of them. As soon as we saw the first nest, we realized that the other groups of vultures could only mean one thing and for the next two hours we dispersed, each of us finding a few nests to guard as the vultures and the crabs snuck around us and picked off individual turtles. Watching these turtles hatch instilled in me a much greater sense of respect and appreciation for sea turtles. Of a nest of about 50 I wouldn’t be surprised if only 5 of them actually make it to maturity, the rest being eaten by birds, turtles, animals or pummelled by the crashing waves.Which makes it even sadder to hear such frequent reports of turtles being caught in fishing nets and hunted for their shells.

What struck me more than anything was the longing and the primordial desire for the ocean that the turtles show from the second they hatch.  There is something so timeless, so eternal in their longing for the ocean that, for me at least, it epitomizes the concept of home. It is like they poke their heads out of the sand, sense the ocean and the very first thought that crosses their mind is “I’m going home”. I think in all of us there is an ache, a longing for home and it truly is a spiritual experience to watch that play out right in front of you.

My camera died but this video totally captures the wonder of the moment

As the sun rose higher in the sky and we ran out of water, the four of us convened to watch the last turtle of one of the nests travel the last few meters towards the ocean. It was once of those moments that felt to me like the ending to some book or movie: the four of us sitting in silence on this beautiful strip of deserted beach, the tropical nicaraguan jungle behind us, staring at the gorgeous and wild pacific ocean in front of us and meditating on the beauty of what we just witnessed. But movies are unrealistic and, as if to remind us of life’s cruel and natural balance, seconds before the turtle reaches the safety of the foaming ocean a sea bird swoops down and grabs the turtle in its talons.The four of us lurch forward with a yell, meters away from the turtle but it is too late – we watched, horrified and with the taste of irony in our mouths, as the sea bird carries off the baby turtle to its inevitable death.

At that point all you can really do is laugh, glance once more at this stretch of undeveloped beach, wondering if Nicaragua will get its act together quick enough to protect the turtles before they go extinct, and give thanks for being able to witness one of natures greatest (and arguably cutest) events.

Cutests thing. EVER. Courtesy of Denia

Cutests thing. EVER. Courtesy of Denia

 

The ride to El Astillero

I have mixed feeling about the internet, however I trust it enough to know that if you can’t find anything about a town on any kind of travellers blog or web page or travel guide it usually means one of two things:

1. The difficulty and time and effort of getting there usually isn’t worth actually being there, or
2. The place isn’t cute and quaint: it probably sucks and is quite boring.

El Astillero was both of those. In retrospect I have learned this lesson before. When I went on my year of travels after high school with my best friend Kat we found ourselves in the south of Vietnam with no idea where to go next. I literally pointed to a town on the coast and was like “let’s go there”. Kat said “sure” and off we went to a town so quaint, and so lifeless and so boring that the name evaded me the minute we arrived. It wasn’t a horrible experience by any means; it wasn’t really anything. An industrial fishing port in South-Central Vietnam. No hotels, no nightlife, no beach, no restaurants, no culture (sorry dad), no nothing. We spent the first half a day trying to find ANY place at all to sleep and the other half trying to find some place in the city that had restaurants. We ended up siting by a roadside stall eating pretty mediocre pho and staring at the concrete. The next day we packed at sunrise and got the first of only two trains out of there.

I think my memory must be getting bad because I pretty much did the same thing. There was a slight logic to my choice of El Astillero. See, I really, really, REALLY wanted to see turtles either laying eggs or hatching. The main beach for this is La Flor, 20km  South of San Juan del Sur. It is well documented, well guarded and very well priced for my meagre volunteer budget (40$ a pop which is 10% of my monthly income). The second most important beach is Chacocente, a very underdeveloped, less well documented nature reserve that happens to start 1km north of El Astillero. El Estillero was the closest village, north of the overpriced surf haven of Popoyo, so using my finger as a rough measurement I figured that the segment of road between the fishing village of El Astillero and the Pan American Highway was about the same length of the distance between Masaya and Managua, about 40km or so. Considering it was a dirt street I figured it would be an hour -max – from the Highway to El Astillero.

The little red dot is El Astillero - totally manageable, right?
The little red dot is El Astillero, the green half circle is Chacocente Nature Reserve – totally makes sense, right?

So we rented a car in Esteli and to some reason unbeknownst to me, I, the only person without experience driving in South America, ended up driving the 250km to El Astillero. Actually, the highway wasn’t as bad as expected. After driving so much in India you kind of get immune to suicidal passing manoeuvres, rogue cows and giant, unexpected potholes. Yes, the highway was fine, it was the 40km stretch of one-way, muddy, potholed, washed out ditch that resembled a road that got to me.

We arrived at the turnoff to the dirt road to El Astillero, 10km past Nandaime, just as the sun was setting. My 1 hour estimate was hopelessly off. Partially because it was dark maybe, and then because it started to rain perhaps, or because the “road” was a completely disastrous, muddy, potholed, gravel piece of Sh!#, but 2 hours later we arrived, still 10km from our final destination, at the river. Now I had read and we had been hearing about this river when we asked for directions (the road isn’t, contrary to what you can see on the map, a straight line. Oh no, in fact it has turn-offs every 1 km or so, naturally all without signs).  The website for Chacocente mentions that crossing the river during the rainy season is only possible with a 4×4. I was a bit scared at the prospect of fording the river in our little Toyota Swift at night in the middle of nowhere with the rain beating down and no light save our weak headlights but I was also tired and in desperate need of a cold beer. So when my Chilean friend at the back said “just go for it” I understood it as “power through”. I put the car in first, revved the engine, let go of the brake, pushed the gas and all hell broke loose. As the car slammed into the river, creating a huge swell of water, all the passengers started screaming and yelling at the same time (I swear I heard someone yell “we’re all gonna die” at one point). The headlights  died and, after a sickening crunch of metal on stone, so did the car, steam streaming out from under the hood and submerging us in the unforgiving darkness of the night. 

It turns out that when fording a river the number one rule is DO NOT power on through. You go slowly and carefully. Ooops, my bad.

In the end it really wasn’t as bad as I had thought.I had managed to submerge the engine completely in water, bottom out the car on a rock and stall it all at the same time. Luckily the momentum had managed to take me across most of the river and luckily for us, the only car we saw on that lonely 2.5 hour drive happened to be drive up at that  moment at the other side of the river, giving us light while our car steamed and spluttered and finally, to all of our very obvious relief, started again.

So with a slightly shaken crew our trusty toyota swift arrived not quite so swiftly at the collection of beach shacks on a dirt brown beach that constituted El Astillero. And you know what? In the end I was totally right. The town pretty much sucked and had absolutely nothing besides boats, a football field,  and two bars consisting of a simple thatched roof, plastic chairs and a cooler full of cold toñas. However as with many of these places, it is not the village  itself you are looking for, it is what lies beyond it- or in this case 2 km up the beach: miles of soft, white, sandy beaches, untouched by anything except hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of newly hatched baby turtles.

How. Friggen. Cool.

Hundreds of Baby turtles hatch at the same time at chacocente Courtesy of bbc
Hundreds of Baby turtles hatch at the same time. My camera died so this picture of turtles at Chacocente is courtesy of BBC

Bringing in the Big Guns

I think it was when the army came in that I realized the situation had actually gotten quite serious. Walking out of my hotel I saw them, tanks and guns over their backs, in their black leather boots, searching house by house. Thirty years ago they have been looking for a hidden Contra but today they faced a different kind of enemy: dengue.

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Soldier Fumigating. Courtesy of the Inter-rweb

For someone who for the most part has grown up in the relatively sterile North, I am unaccustomed to having pest-problems of such epidemic proportions. Mosquito bites are at most annoying, cholera outbreaks happen maybe once a century, and there are no crazy flesh-eating, body-paralysing bacteria to worry about.  However dengue in Nicaragua has officially become an epidemic, with 14 deaths nationwide and over 100 new cases in Somoto alone.

Dengue is also known here as “Quebranta huesos” (break bone fever) because of the intense joint pain experienced by patients. It is one of those diseases that unfortunately is linked with poverty as the larvae from the mosquito breed in stagnant water often found in things like open sewage, standing puddles or any place where water pools and doesn’t drain.  A large part of the educational workshops taught by my organization focus on educating the public on preventing stagnant water and thus breeding grounds for mosquito. As it stands, there hasn’t been a huge amount of success.

So when I started feeling a bit nauseous, with a slight fever and a headache last week I panicked. On the one hand I was trying to convince myself that it can’t be dengue, I didn’t have all the symptoms etc, on the other hand I was certain I was going to get dengue hemorrhagic fever and die here sad and alone.

When I started to feel worse, I chanced a visit to the local clinic. As anyone who has had the joy of experiencing health clinics in small towns in the global South will know, it is the kind of place where, if you ain’t already sick, you probably will be afterwards. Seeing as most of the people at the clinic were there because they HAD dengue, I spent a good three hours in my semi-delusional state swatting at anything that moved.

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Okay, it wasn’t quite this full. But almost. And all of them sick. Courtesy of the inter-web

As it turned out, I never in my life thought I would be this happy to find out I have both a parasite AND a bacterial infection. Yay! The parasite is potentially fatal and can lead to brain lesions and all kinds of nasty things but somehow it seems less daunting than having dengue.

And on a good note, this brush with death (well…) has left me more aware of how much I really don’t want to have dengue. In the end it might just be my saving grace.

How not to kill a scorpion

Tonight was not a fun night by any standard. It started off pretty good; I went for a long late afternoon paddle up the side of the lagoon and was finally able to see my first howler monkey and on the way back to my hostel I was graced by not just one, but a double rainbow making a perfect arch over the lagoon to the nearby Mombacha Volcano.

Then after dinner our hostel manager who is also an avid and active bird conservationist offered to take people from the hostel to see tarantulas. It had just finished pouring rain and on top of that, there was no electricity due to a broken pole up the rode.

So I donned my headlamp, ran back to my room to grab my walking shoes and stopped dead in my tracks at the GIANT TARANTULA sitting right beside my doorknob. Ughhhhhhhhhhhh. Excited by my yells, the hostel soon gathered to take pictures. Scared, I presume, the spider ends up dropping to the floor prompting me to scream my Sarah-Overly-Dramatic-Horror-Movie-Scream and making everyone around me jump a foot in the air. A great start to our hike where we saw about a dozen tarantulas and a handful or scorpions, which didn’t really make me feel any better at crawling into my dark, damp room with no window pane and open ceiling holes.

It takes me a while to get to sleep between the thought of tarantulas crawling over my face and the constant sound of music and firecrackers going off at a nearby party. Before I am finally able to drift off I of course have to go to the bathroom. Paranoid as I am by this time I use my headlamp to look for spiders and other creepy crawlies and lo and behold! there is a scorpion sitting right beside the toilet….ughhhhhhhhhhh.

Too late (and proud) to call anyone my tactic for the next hour trying to kill the poor thing goes something like this:

Panic. Run out of the Bathroom going ewwwwwwwww…..ughhhhhhh…….Look for someone to kill it for you. Try to remember movies where people kill scorpions. Go get your shoes. Be overly paranoid about a scorpion in your shoe and spend 10 minutes knocking your shoes against the wall. Put them on. Decide that you can’t actually step on the scorpion because it is too gross. Take them off. Realize that either way, having thick soled shoes on is a good thing. Put them back on. Panic a bit more. Debate if you could put something between yourself and the shoes to make it easier. Decide to use a book. Take ages deciding WHICH book to use. Decide on the one you have finished reading. Scare the scorpion while trying to throw the book on it. Panic while it runs around the bathroom floor and you try to get the nerve to step on it. Curse yourself that you didn’t step on it when it wedges itself in the doorframe. Debate what you could use to get it out. Squirt water at it from afar and wait until it climbs UP the doorframe. Panic a bit more. Decide that your strategy isn’t working and try to find something to just pound the F%$! out if it until it dies. Debate using your metal water bottle but decide it is too close range. Search the hostel for something until you spot a broom, previously used to kill the tarantula.Take broom, pound the F$#! out of the scorpion, toss it outside, step on it finally for good measure, and then go drink a righteously earned beer.

Sarah 1 – Scorpion 0

First Impressions

As I rolled out of bed this morning, slipping out of my mosquito net and into my flip-flops, itching one of my many bites from some undefined animal that either lives in my bed or has crawled through the window without a pane/the gap between the ceiling and the roof/ under the resemblance of a door from outside I was amazed at how easily I had adapted to this crazy country. I have only been here for 10 days and already feel like I have seen and done so much.

Masaya Volcano

Last week, after getting necessary paperwork done in Managua and visiting the neighbouring city of Masaya I went to the north to Somoto, where I will be based, to attend a bee workshop. It was interesting for a variety of reasons. Apiculture is increasingly being seen as a great micro enterprise in Nicaragua and in fact the honey production site had started as a youth development project. The attendees of the workshop were primarily women from small towns and it was awesome to hear their thoughts on apiculture, micro enterprises, and poverty reduction in general.

Somoto is cute. And small, reaaaaallly small. It is nestled in between these lush rolling green hills and near a large reserve with a beautiful canyon for which it has become a major tourist attraction lately.

The Girls snapping pictures each other in their honey-production outfits
The Girls snapping pictures each other in their honey-production outfits

Finally on  Saturday I arrived at Lago de Apoyo, a volcano crater lake. It is absolutely breathtaking, still quite untouched and very pristine which distracts from the absolute ghetto hostel that I am staying in and taking spanish lessons. I am not extremely picky when it comes to residences and while this isn’t the worst place I have every stayed, it is pretty close up there. Also not made better by the Belgian intern’s never-ending stories of tarantula and scorpion sightings around the hostel.

But it is what it is. After borrowing a paddle-board from a family down the road I paddled out into the crystal-clear lake at 6am yesterday morning. From the centre of the lake you can barely see any houses or signs of civilization and at that hour I felt like I had the world to myself. Lying on my back in the middle of the lake on a paddle-board, watching the parrots fly overhead and the howler monkeys howl and the sun rise from behind the volcano Mombacha it finally hit home. I am here. I am finally here. And man does it ever feel good.

My Peaceful morning ride
My Peaceful morning ride

A Retrospect

What stays with me after my two- wheeled adventure is a sense of peace. The memory of waking up to sunshine and no wind on an unknown beach with the sound of sea-lions barking and watching migrating whales as I pack my life into four panniers has permanently become one of my happy places. I like the fact that the adventure was solely mine in many ways: not only did I have limited internet and reception in general I also had no desire to share much of my journey with the outside world. Being alone in my head and with myself with one sole focus was therapeutic, and riding through the stunning landscape of the pacific west coast only added to the feeling of surrealism and transcendence.

The last few days of my trip had been hard. I had busted my knee near Bodega Bay and had limped, hitch-hiked and dragged my wretched and aching body and bike to the house of a friend. I felt like I had failed. But that feeling when I finally struggled up to the Marin County look-out point and zoomed down over the Golden Gate Bridge was perhaps one of the most euphoric of my life. It didn’t matter that I was broken and battered- I was there! I had done it! I was alive!

I'm aliiiiiveeeee
I’m aliiiiiveeeee

Three months down the line I don’t remember many of the horrible times I had ( an believe me, there were a few). What I remember more is what all of those times taught me. I was able to reaffirm that being self-sufficient is often just a matter of needing to be self-sufficient; the world is not a horrible place full of murderers and rapists and weirdos, it is actually quite a pleasant place full of people trying to make sense of the world in their own way; asking for help does not make you weak or dependent- it allows you to unlock the potential of another person, and allows them to show you their kindness and generosity; and finally I learned that for all those cheesy quotes about traveling opening your eyes and soul, there is much truth behind it.

So with that in mind I have made the following resolution: I wish to challenge myself, at least once a year, to create my own adventure. To challenge myself and step outside my comfort zone, do something I always envied other people for doing, do that precise thing that always makes me go “wow, I wish I could do that”. Be it climbing a mountain, doing a vipassana retreat, running a marathon….. ….Life, I figure,  is too short not to.

Day 14. The highway of death

On the highway of deathThere are some days that you think are gonna be good. They start out fine- delicious breakfast, restful sleep, sunny morning. And then they just end up sucking.

After a few rest days, first in arcata and then in covelo on Amy’s farm, I got back on my bike and rode from Willis down to the coast, about 40 miles. Now the maps I have been using are just for the coast and they show elevation, rest stops water stops etc. for this trip, because I had gone away from the suggested route, I had to rely on elevation maps from the Internet and people’s perception of the road.
Problem is, motorists have a very different perception of both what a road is like and what a hill s like. I found that out the hard way. When a motorist says ” mainly downhill and flat” it actually means ” a ton of never ending gradual hills that seem flat in a car but really kick your ass on a bike”. I came to this conclusion before I almost broke into tears at the foot of yet another what seemed like 600 foot miles long gradual uphill climbing hill.

I think I was also very emotionally drained from the crazy drivers who flew by me with only inches to spare and the treacherous red sand some idiot had spread on the shoulder which almost made me fall onto the road and hurricane-like crosswinds which battered more at my mental state than my body. But I survived, yay! And then I treated myself to 3 scoops of chocolate ice cream when I finally got to the coast so double yay! And when I woke up this morning to sunshine and coffee and gorgeous highlands and looked for my tattered and scared psyche I found that it was whole and happy and ready to go.