Berlin.

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“The Wave,” an off the beaten path hike at Coyote Buttes near the border of Utah and Arizona.

The last time I had written I had just returned to New York, and was reflecting on my time backpacking for more than half the year. I now write to you at the eleventh hour, again. I am leaving New York, but it won’t be a temporary adventure this time around. For the first time in my life I truly have no return date. I’m moving to the European continent to start a new phase of my life in Berlin, Germany.

My adventures didn’t end when I came back to the United States. In fact, I had a very busy summer, one of the busiest in recent years. After landing in New York I had some of June and the month of July to reconnect with my family and friends and with my beloved city before heading back to south america, where my mother, stepfather, stepbrother and I made a family trip to the Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. It was a bucket-list moment to be able to watch the opening ceremony live at Maracanã Stadium, and to attend a variety of Olympic games in the days after the opening. Although chaotic as expected, it was truly incredible to see the world come together in one of the world’s most beautiful cities. While I was in Brasil I made a last-minute surprise trip to see my family in Recife, and to see my cousin’s newborn baby. Even though I had just seen my family in February, I knew I couldn’t exactly say when it would be the next time that I would return to visit them.

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Opening Ceremony for the Summer Olympic Games in Rio.
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My mother and I at the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, the venue hosting the rowing matches during the Olympics.
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View from the Sugarloaf Mountain, overlooking Rio’s famous skyline.
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At the Opening Ceremony in Maracanã Stadium.

I was in New York less than a week before I found myself exploring the exotic landscapes of the USA. I took a road trip to California, Utah, and Arizona, where I realized I needn’t even leave my own country to immerse myself in hikers’ paradise. However exotic it may be to see vast, contrasting landscapes in places as Bolivia, Brasil, and Argentina, the beauty of the north american southwest and west coast rivals that of its south and central american counterparts. Five thousand miles on the road, more than 90 miles of hiking, and a busy three weeks visiting Sonoma Valley, Big Sur, Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe, and Sequoia National Park in California, Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park, and Arches National Park in Utah, and the Grand Canyon, Page, Horseshoe Bend, Lake Powell, and Antelope Canyon in Arizona, along with a one-night stop in Las Vegas. I felt so fortunate to have been able to take the time to visit the USA’s National Parks and to intensify my relationship with the outdoors. If I have a moment I will try and write a post about how to conquer the “American Road Trip,” an adventure markedly different from that of a nomadic backpacker, yet in a similar vein a time of personal growth and a test of physical and mental strength.

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16 mile hike to “Cloud’s Rest” at Yosemite National Park, California.
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Arches National Park, Utah.
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Camping at Lake Tahoe, California.
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Horseshoe Bend in Page, Arizona.
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Antelope Canyon in Page, Arizona.
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Bryce National Park, Utah.
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View from Observation Point, a 6 mile hike at Zion National Park, Utah.

I’ve neglected to mention one last piece to the puzzle that would explain with whom I was traveling with in various parts of south america, and who it was that came with me on my road trip on the west coast. Andy, the English backpacker who agreed to travel in northern Peru with me seven months ago, became more than just my travel partner. He and I are now dating, and it seems we couldn’t shirk that traveling spirit once he and I returned home to our respective countries. We decided to take the road trip together so that he could also visit the United States for the first time, and because frankly it wasn’t easy going from spending day-in and day-out traveling together to living in very different time zones. He is back in England now, and we’re both happy that in light of my upcoming move we will at least be a much shorter, 2 hour flight away from one another.

So where did Germany come from? In some older posts I had mentioned that I was considering going to graduate school and living in Berlin as early as the days when  backpacking in Bolivia in late March. After applying for and getting accepted to a graduate program in Berlin, I knew I was headed for Europe within the year. But I felt called to moving sooner than September 2017. I wanted to start working beforehand to settle into the city I would call home for an indeterminate amount of time. And in the back of my mind I also knew that if I began working within Berlin’s startup scene, I would have the opportunity to become more involved with the tech community there, and to then be able to lay out all my options on the table and make a more educated decision about what my next step should be.

Hustle: the best word to describe my two months spent this fall after returning from the west coast. And indeed I had been hustling, with a daily commitment to studying for my GRE exams, applying for jobs, and seeking out as many connections in Berlin as I could. People did have their doubts; I was told that I didn’t have much of a chance to find my dream job, and that I should expect to wait tables when I arrived. After all, I don’t speak a word of German, I don’t have EU citizenship, and there aren’t enough jobs in Berlin even for Germans. But I didn’t let any of those things deter me. I kept at it, and the initial hurdle gave way to one opportunity after another. It still amazes me how almost overnight, with a flip of a switch I became not just one of many job applicants but a singular, highly desired applicant. I was shown that with hard work, unwavering dedication, and not giving up truly paves the way for exactly what is supposed to happen, when it’s supposed to happen.

And now, just one day shy of exactly five months after returning to New York from Tulum, I’m getting on a plane once again. It took me some time to get my things together, as I knew I couldn’t pack with the mentality of a backpacker anymore. I was really moving, and I needed clothes that functioned in the real world and in the extreme cold. I spent hours ridding myself of years of personal belongings that have outlived its purpose. I said my metaphorical goodbyes to childhood treasures and keepsakes, and placing those items I wanted to keep in their proper places in my room. As I write this, I notice that my bedroom finally looks like home; I have yet to understand why it has to be right now, when I am ready to leave, that my room has become its most welcoming, its most authentically me. After all the mental and physical purging, I condensed my future life into one large suitcase and two carry-on suitcases, plus a small backpack to hold my computer.

Yes, this new phase of my life is scary and stressful and nerve-wracking. But in a good way. I’m about to jump head-first into a completely new urban cultural and artistic center, whose people will be chatting away in a language I don’t speak, in a country I’ve never lived in before, on a continent I’ve only lived in previously for a total of six months. I hope that Berlin will accept me in the same ways that New York has embraced me. I hope in the not so distant future that I will be able to comfortably call Europe home in the same way that I’ve called the USA home for almost my entire life. Only time will tell; as of now, I have no expectations and no timeline. Traveling has always tried to bring me back to the present and has nudged me to live in the moment. In many ways this will be a great way to put this practice to the test, in the real-world, and with more permanence. I’ll be given the chance to begin at zero. And without the vestiges of New York to find its way into the fabric of my daily routine, as it had done so each time I came home from traveling, in the truest sense of the phrase, I have a fresh start.

It’s overwhelming and amazing, as in this photo of me standing below the world’s tallest trees, in Sequoia National Park, but at the same time I wouldn’t want life to be any other way.

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Quito.

I haven’t written since mid-April for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I made my way from Mancora, Peru up through the entire country of Ecuador, and finishing in Quito, in ten days. There wasn’t much time to write. When I did feel called to write, I was reminded of why I couldn’t easily pick up my small Chromebook that I have been using the past five months to write my posts. I am writing to you from a computer at a hostel in San Jose, Costa Rica. Unfortunately, my Chromebook is now in the hands of an anonymous Ecuadorian who expertly removed it from my backpack. As I dozed off on a short, 3.5 hour bus ride from Baños to Quito, the man sitting behind me broke the lock to my day-bag that sat by my feet, removed my computer from its case, opened my money pouch to remove just the cash, and then closed my backpack before leaving the bus halfway through the ride, leaving me clueless until realizing what had happened in the middle of the night as I arrived in Ecuador’s capital city. It was the first time on the entire trip that I forgot to wear my cash and passports on my person. I am incredibly grateful that he left my passports in the pouch. I had heard multiple stories of theft on Ecuador’s busses, and of the general dangers of Quito itself, but I didn’t think that someone like me, someone who is so careful with her belongings, would be robbed at my feet. I wasn’t so much upset as I was frustrated with myself. I should have kept the backpack on my lap, hugging it in my sleep. I should have worn my cash and passport on me directly. I became a complacent traveler, forgetting simple safety rules in the context of my surroundings. Have I been traveling too long? I’ve realized now that maybe it’s not entirely a mistake I’ve made: it is merely the reality of traveling, of the types of people who are dexterous professionals who can easily pick out those who seem vulnerable at any given moment.
The other reason I haven’t written much is that I haven’t felt inspired by Ecuador as much as I had hoped. The rushed pace and the loss of my belongings at the back of my mind didn’t offer me the chance to slow down and reflect on the current state of my journey. But I can offer a quick summary of my thoughts in the places I visited.

My first stop was in Cuenca, the lovely colonial town that is known for its handmade Ecuadorian hats, a misconception known by most people as “Panamanian” hats. These Toquilla hats are in fact produced in Ecuador, using a traditional straw weave technique. From Cuenca I took with me memories of delicious coffee, quaint little artisan shops, expat-owned health conscious cafés, street art, and a generally livable and relatively safe city. Although expensive, just as the rest of Ecuador would turn out to be (the country’s currency is the US Dollar, making everything more costly relative to Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia), I wholeheartedly found Cuenca to be a nice city to explore for a couple days. A fun fact: one of Ecuador’s biggest exports is cut flowers, of which 75% go to the United States (another 10% goes to the Netherlands). In Cuenca I could see how the cut roses, sunflowers, and lilies were of top quality. I was also lured into one bakery after another in the city, the smell of fresh bread flowing into the streets; I realized how scarce high-quality pastries are in South America (except in Argentina, where the chocolate croissants left me feeling like I was in Paris again.)

Flower market in Cuenca

Ecuadorian hat factory and shop.

Saddles and horseback riding gear for sale at a local market.

Spotting street art on a rainy day.
Next I made my way by bus to Baños, a small adventure town at the base of the volcano Tungurahua complete with thermal baths to be enjoyed in the evenings. We rented an ATV and made our way up to the highly photographed swing at the “Tree House,” where on a clear day you can see the volcano as you’re pushed over the countryside while friends are snapping your next instagram photo. The ride to the Pailon del Diablo, an immensely powerful waterfall, was beautiful. Nuestra Señora del Agua Santa is the main neo-Gothic style church named after the vision of the Virgin Mary seen near the town’s nearest waterfalls. It is a place of pilgrimage, was built with volcanic rocks, and is lined inside with paintings depicting the Virgin’s miracles in Baños, which include saving the church from multiple volcanic eruptions. The Piscinas de la Virgen thermal baths, at the base of the miracle-laden waterfall, were a lovely way to end the evening, where you can move from an extremely hot bath to a freezing cold one in an effort to stimulate the nervous system and help remove any toxins from the body.

Swinging from the “Tree House” in Baños.

On a clear day you can see Tunguharua volcano in the background

Nuestra Señora del Agua Santa.
After I had gotten over the moderately traumatic incident that occurred from Baños to Quito, I found myself in a capital city where I felt unsafe nearly all the time. I hadn’t felt this energetic heaviness before on my trip, and it was a surprise how unease I felt, even during the daytime. Perhaps it was still too soon after the incident, but I actually felt the danger that I had been warned about. Other cities always turned out to be less foreboding than what I had expected, but not Quito. The historic center is the largest, least-altered and best-preserved historic centers in  North and South America, and was the first (along with Krakow) World Cultural Heritage Site declared by UNESCO in 1978. This historic center of the city was also not the safest neighborhood. Nearby Bellavista, with more restaurants, nightlife, and upscale residential housing along La Carolina Park, was far more enjoyable to walk around.

 

Basilica del Voto Nacional.
 
View of Quito from the Basílica del Voto Nacional
Otavalo, known for its famous Saturday market two hours away from Quito, was a disappointment. Outwardly a tourist shopping destination, it didn’t have the feel of an authentic marketplace I had seen in so many other cities in South America. Another well visited site taken as a day trip from Quito, the Mitad Del Mundo, was worth seeing for the photo opportunity, but if in a rush it’s easily skippable. The “Center of the World” is at 0’0″ Latitude, at the equatorial line. There are two sites: one that is supposedly the true equatorial line according to exact GPS coordinates, and another that houses a large monument and Disney-esque park activities.

The old town in Quito.

The Mitad Del Mundo.
However, Quito had some redeemable qualities. First and foremost was the Guayasamín Museum and Foundation, where we visited the late artist’s house and studio, as well as his Capilla Del Hombre, which housed some of his well most well known large scale paintings, of which I find absolutely incredible.

The artist Guayasamín’s home, now a museum in Quito.

Capilla Del Hombre
The capital is also the launch point to the hiker’s hideaway 50 km south of Quito called Cotopaxi National Park. I stayed for two days at a lovely hostel looking out to Cotopaxi Volcano, the second highest summit in the country at 5,897 meters above sea level. Unfortunately the volcano was closed for climbing due to recent volcanic activity, but the nearby inactive volcanoes were open. It was a beautiful area with lush countryside, and I was thankful for the brief but tranquil escape from Quito .

Cotopaxi Volcano

Hiking in Cotopaxi National Park.

Our lodge overlooking Cotopaxi Volcano.    
Ecuadorians are some of the nicest people I have met in South America. They were so friendly and helpful, and even the tourism police were extremely quick and compassionate when I had to fill out a police report my first night in the city. Overall, it was a country where I had felt only the extremes: at times I was terribly frustrated, unable to understand how on earth their country made it through the day, and other times I was just so happy to be there.

Night view of Quito.
Unfortunately, my time in Quito ended on a low note; at the airport, ready to take my flight to Panama City and then San Jose, I was almost made to miss my flight due to two completely absurd reasons not worth talking about here. It didn’t make my farewell to the country all that difficult. However, I am thankful that things could have turned out far, far worse than they had, and I am also grateful that I had traveled relatively painlessly throughout the whole of South America until that point.

And so, after arriving to Cartagena, Colombia on December 1st 2015, I left South America, exactly five months and six days later. I wasn’t ready to go home just yet, though. My original plan was to visit Costa Rica at the end of February, when I first imagined my backpacking trip to last only about two and a half months. I was a little behind schedule, but I would finally head to Central America to explore what Costa Rica’s “Pura Vida” is all about.

Iquitos.

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Sunset along the Iquitos boardwalk.
Iquitos is the wild west. It has an energy that I haven’t seen elsewhere in Peru, one that is scarily crazy and backwards, yet exciting and glamorous all the same. Iquitos is the largest city in the world inaccessible by road – you can only get there by flying, by taking a 3-4 day cargo boat from various amazonian cities in Peru, Brazil, and Colombia, or by taking a 12 hour fast boat. Yet when you arrive in Iquitos, you don’t feel like you’re trapped by the rivers enclosing it. It’s truly a city, bustling with rundown moto-taxis honking at one another, the rain seeming to splash upwards from the concrete during the daily downpour. The city is full of oddities. There are casinos and Hummers and various forms of police in the downtown and waterfront areas. You can find bars, clubs, vegetarian friendly restaurants, and beautiful colonial Spanish architecture along the boardwalk. But there is also poverty – an overall “sketchiness,” where strangers approach in the same casual way to take their tour of the jungle or to buy their drugs. There are stray dogs on every corner, grouped together and howling at whatever passes them, all looking completely disease ridden and hungry. There are kids that are devoid of gringo curiosity, rather trained to steal the gringo’s bags draped over their chairs at restaurants. There’s the famous Belén market that sells fruits and fish right next to dead turtles, caymans, monkeys, and tapir. In a funny contrast, just a few blocks away you’ll find an expensive supermarket selling sugar free biscuits and ten varieties of granola next to the in-store wine shop and air-conditioned cafe, one that we frequented on a daily basis for their set menu lunch. There is wealth that oozes of loose morals: casinos are safe-havens for the ever-present mafia to launder their money, and the presence of not only various Peruvian police forces but also of the DEA only proves that the movement of cocaine in and out of the amazon drives much of the wealth that can be found there. (You’ll notice the extremes that I had experienced in and around Iquitos in the photos I’ve posted here.)
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Abandoned boat in Iquitos.
Abandoned boat in Iquitos.
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The dichotomy of life and death is so easy to perceive in Iquitos. In just one day I went to the Belén market in the morning, where I saw dead endangered animals being sold as if it were entirely normal to eat animals that in no way have a place in our diet. I cringed when one woman holding a live turtle pierced it’s skin with a knife, getting ready to open it’s insides to present to shoppers looking to buy that evening’s dinner. I couldn’t bare to watch the skinned tapir head, the charred and hairless monkey hand and tail, it’s head nowhere to be found. That afternoon my friend and I visited Pilpintuwasi Butterfly Farm and Amazon Animal Orphanage, founded 12 years ago by an Austrian woman named Gudrun. Just an hour by taxi and then by boat outside of Iquitos, orphanage is home to various species of monkeys as well as a capybara, tapir, an ocelot, and a jaguar, all either brought to the sanctuary or rescued by the Eco-Police. It was incredible to see the amount of care taken to create a safe and healthy habitat for these animals as well as seeing how much it took to sustain various species of butterflies. Pilpintuwasi curates their entire life-cycle process, from housing the butterfly eggs to providing spaces for the caterpillars to grow, and then for the butterflies to survive and mate. We learned just how much work and time it takes to ensure a successful transition into a butterfly, and how short and beautiful their time on this earth is. And it was ironic and sad to see the same species of turtle in the water as I saw that morning in the market. I was able to see a small tapir while learning of its very slow mating process where a female has a baby once every five years and has a gestation rate of 13 months. Many types of Tapir are endangered due to heavy human consumption; it was no surprise that I had seen tapir heads, hooves, and their meat for sale at the market only hours before.

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An owl butterfly at Pilpintuwasi.
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Up close with a butterfly.
Up close with a butterfly.

Turtles for sale at Belen market.
Turtles for sale at Belen market.

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Monkey and an unidentified animal for sale at the market.

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Tapir head and hooves.
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I had never seen a jaguar, and at this orphanage I was fortunate to see one, although he had been kept behind bars for the past 13 years after it was brought to the owner as a cub. It’s incredibly ironic that most of the animals cannot go back into the wild, whether because they were born in captivity, are physically unable to survive on their own, or in the case of the jaguar, not allowed by the Peruvian government to be transported to an open reserve or to be released into the wild. These sanctuaries and rescue centers are incredibly important for the survival of these animals and for the species in general, while also serving as a place to educate the people of the destruction they cause by capturing, killing for food, or keeping these animals as pets. But they also present a difficulty to the casual visitor – we are still seeing these animals in captivity, and they will most likely remain as such for the remainder of their lives. The zoo is the evil stepsister, but they are related all the same. This goes back to my post on Huaraz and Huacachina about the environment: we cause this destruction. We abhor it and want nothing but to change it, yet we perpetuate it by taking part in the visiting of animals, the rainforest, by merely being visitors to these places. And these people who live on that land are equally responsible for destroying their habitat, and the habitat of the animals that live there.

A friendly monkey at Pilpintuwasi Animal Orphanage.
A friendly monkey at Pilpintuwasi Animal Orphanage.

Pedro the Jaguar.
Pedro the Jaguar.

A small tapir at the orphanage.
A small tapir at the orphanage.
The high rainfall during the months of November to May in the amazon also brings out the mosquitoes. Never before have I seen so many mosquitoes in one place. And wow we did suffer from their presence, their attraction to gringo blood. My friend and I booked a three day tour in the jungle, away from the chaos in Iquitos. I left with the most mosquito bites I’ve ever had in my life – there were so many all over me, I even had two bites on my eyelids. The amount of scratching caused bruises to form – it was a discomfort that was hard to psych myself out of. But it was worth it to see truly what goes on in the jungle. We went upstream 220 kilometers outside of the city, to the underside of Pacaya-Samiria Reserve, a 20,000 square km protected area that is the largest in the country. We stayed in a rustic lodge built on stilts in the water, and took the small motor boat every day along the river to look for wildlife and to stop on land to do some walking through the jungle. I expected to see monkeys, pink and grey dolphins, caymans, sloths, various species of birds, tarantulas, medicinal trees and plants, and a copious amount of spider webs. I didn’t see any sloths or caymans, as nature doesn’t guarantee all flora and fauna sightings that exist in the jungle. But what I didn’t expect to see to the extent that I did, in only a short amount of time, the destruction. The sheer horror I felt when I saw our “local” guide, who was just a villager with a small boat and a machete, cut through his backyard whenever a tree or plant stood in his way. The way he spoke about the animals as if they’re just a good sport to catch and kill for pets or food. The little respect he had for nature. Most of the jungle paths we visited had lost it’s luster, completely void of the lush vibrancy of a healthy planet. We stopped at a local village along the river to find the waters near their homes, all built on stilts, full of empty plastic bottles and smelling of rotten fish. In fact, we did see some dead catfish, their guts swollen, floating belly up in the water just by these people’s homes. I can say I did see a sloth in the jungle, however it was completely in the opposite way that I had imagined. As I approached the poor three toed sloth, he was tied to a wooden post on the underside of a woman’s house. His arm was held up by a knotted rope, and he had little place to move. Our group spoke to the woman, who told us with pride that she found the sloth and decided she would care for it by giving it food and keeping it as a pet, that way her neighbors wouldn’t kill it for food. I understand our need to respect the cultures and customs of others. However, it was impossible to hide my disappointment and my sadness. Indeed the jungle that we fly thousands of miles and pay hundreds of dollars to visit before it becomes obsolete is being destroyed from the inside – and frankly I am not sure that anything will be done about it. Not now, not ever.

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A captured pet sloth.

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Trash and plastic bottles outside a small village.

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Floating dead catfish in the river.

Cut down trees in the rainforest during our daily treks.
Cut down trees in the jungle.

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A rainbow over our lodge, situated near Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve.

Piranha fishing, where I caught some baby catfish.
Piranha fishing, where I caught some baby catfish.

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A monkey jumped on our boat, curious about our food!
On our last day we visited the Centro de Rescate Amazónico  (CREA), an amazon rescue center and Manatee sanctuary. In contrast to the sobering effect that our jungle tour had on our visions of the future of this planet, this place provided us with a small glimmer of hope. Here we learned of the great efforts that are being made to protect the manatees, macaws, monkeys, otters, turtles, and caymans, helping to rehabilitate them as they’re delivered to the center and subsequently sending them back to the wild when they are ready. CREA frequently accepts school groups. The local students, many of whom have these wild animals as pets in their homes, are known to give up these animals to the center after learning of the harm that they are doing to them by holding them in captivity. And so we see first-hand the importance of educating people of the world they live in, and it is indeed a precious place that they inhabit.

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A rescued monkey at CREA.

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Friendly manatee looking for food.
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As I write this, I am on a 19 hour overnight bus ride from Lima to Mancora. To my left is an orange sunset shining its light along the dry desert coastline, the highway bordering the sea. It’s a dry beauty, and the sun illuminates my face, giving me warmth as I reflect on the overwhelming amount of emotions I felt in the amazon just a couple of days before.

And it hasn’t just been about the battle between humans and the environment. I was confronted with a far more immediate and personal decision to make in Iquitos. I received an email my first day in the city from the Hertie School in Berlin. I had been accepted into the International Affairs master’s program. It’s funny how it happened the same way I was able to reflect in Manú National Park, the amazon region in the south of Peru (I wrote about my experience and my decision to apply for graduate school here). It all seemed to come full circle when I received that email – I knew that I had a huge decision to make, and it was extremely time sensitive, as the tuition deposit is due in exactly a month. And I still have not made my decision. When I realized that I was actually accepted, the utter shock on my face showed my surprise that such a prestigious school would take a chance on me as their wild card in their Class of 2018. I knew I was going to Berlin, but I had already made it up in my mind that I had more time, and that perhaps early next year I would be picking up my life and starting anew. It seems that things are moving a lot quicker – I now have a timeline again. If I accept, by September I will be moving, and much of what I thought about while spending hours boating in the amazon was precisely what that means for my life in New York. How I would be leaving my friends and family, most of whom have no idea that when I return in June, I would have just two months to see them. How I won’t be returning to the life I started to create for myself in NYC. I now arrive in Mancora on the coast of northern Peru — a town of surfing, beaches, and ceviche — to take the time to rest and find some clarity.

Chiclayo & Chachapoyas.

For the first time while backpacking South America, I made the conscious decision to travel with someone else. I thought long and hard about traveling with a companion, and it happened quite organically. I made friends with a group of six backpackers in Sucre, Bolivia, and happened to run into them in La Paz, and again in Cusco, Peru. They were a fun group from England, Belgium, and France, and were very relaxed about their travels. One of them expressed an interest in the same route I planned to take in the north coast of Peru and the northeast Amazon, areas that aren’t as frequently traveled by first-time backpackers to the country. And so, after getting to know this person through my run-ins with this group in various cities, I decided to give traveling with someone else a chance.

As a solo-backpacker, I have met many people in my travels that have turned out to become my good friends. But what I have done so many times in the past is made these connections and frequently kept in touch, but I never thought about having them actually accompany me in my intended route. Perhaps it’s because people haven’t been traveling to the same places as I’ve been along the way. But in this case, someone came along with flexibility to explore Peru, and without a set date to go home. and most importantly we seemed to share a similar traveling style.

So far we’ve visited the coastal city of Chiclayo and the mountain town of  Chachapoyas. As of now it has only been a short time since the two of us have been traveling, but I can tell that I am learning a lot from this experience already. It turns out there are quite a few practical benefits to traveling with a companion, and arguably it’s more interesting to do so with someone who doesn’t come from home, someone with an entirely different culture than your own. You can save money when splitting taxis, food, and accommodation. Making decisions are often easier when you have someone to talk them out with. Long bus rides go by quicker and are far less stressful when you know whom you’ll be sitting next to. They can watch your bags when you need to step away for a moment. Tours can be booked at a cheaper rate when there’s two people involved. Overall, you have someone to watch your back while you watch theirs. You have a friend to share in the sometimes stressful interactions with locals that you can later laugh about together. You have a witness to the indescribably funny and crazy moments along the way. You have someone to help you be accountable. That person can push you to do things you otherwise wouldn’t think of doing (in a good way, of course). And if you’re lucky, that person can be on the same wavelength as you. As time flies by, you’ll learn more about that person’s life, and in turn you’ll be given the chance to share in your own experiences. Because really, everyone has their own travel story to tell.

I am curious what I will learn from all of this, and will surely write about it once I am well on my way alone again.

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Tucume, the largest pyramid complex in the world, outside of Chiclayo. At this site there are 26 important pyramids in 540 acres. Constructed by the Lambayeque in 1000 AD, they were conquered by the Chimu in 1375 and incorporated into the Incan Empire in 1470.

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Sunset at Pimentel beach in Chiclayo.
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Kuelap ruins outside of Chachapoyas. The Fortress of Kuelap is one of the largest ancient stone monuments in the New World, and is at located 3,000 meters.
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Kuelap was built during the pre-Inca times, at around the sixth century A.D.

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In contrast to the Incas, who built their homes in a rectangular shape, the people of Kuelap built their domiciles in a circle.

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Huaraz & Huacachina.

Laguna 69, the glacial lake deposit from Chacraraju, of the mountains of Cordillera Blanca at 4650 meters above sea level. Huarascaran National Park is home to the highest mountain in Peru.
Laguna 69, the glacial lake deposit from Chacraraju, of the mountains of Cordillera Blanca at 4650 meters above sea level. Huarascaran National Park is home to the highest mountain in Peru.

Peru is one of the most geographically diverse countries I’ve ever been to. It’s one of seventeen of the world’s megadiverse countries (all of which contain 70% of the earth’s biodiversity). The country has three major regions: the coast (costa), the Andes (sierra), and the Amazon rainforest (selva). I experienced the drastic changes in climate not only in Manú, where within one day I saw the changes in flora and fauna as we reached the high selva and descended into the wet and rainy rainforest. But I also saw the sudden climate shift on the bus from Huaraz to Lima, and from Lima to Ica, where I had started my day next to the snow-capped mountain range in Huarascarán National Park, and by sunset I was exploring the hot and dry desert oasis in Huacachina. While in Huacachina, a small town in Ica province that is known largely for it’s sandboarding and dune buggy excursions catered to foreigners, I took a day-trip to Paracas, where I sealed my introduction to Peruvian geography. It was in Paracas National Reserve, a desert peninsula along the coast and the only marine reserve in Peru, where my subconscious thoughts about the environment were surfaced for the first time. I realized that I had been thinking a long while about my relationship to the planet and what it means as a traveler to experience the world within an environmental context. Being able to witness these extraordinary changes in my environment, and at such a fast pace, is overwhelming yet very powerful. It’s also really depressing. We are destroying our world, and as a traveler I am playing a significant part in it’s rapid environmental decline.

It’s interesting how as I’ve gotten older I’ve become more excited about nature. I was born and raised in the classic city setting. The extent of my exposure to nature was going to the beach on weekends and on holidays. I wasn’t isolated from the diversity we have on this planet – I’ve traveled extensively and have seen many exotic places. But I never considered myself an outdoorsy person, and so I didn’t explore nature from an “adventure” perspective. I wasn’t in love with the idea of camping outside and spending my days hiking in the forest. Nowadays, I crave being outside; last year I started hiking and since then I haven’t been able to stop. Although challenging, I felt at ease in Torres del Paine in Patagonia, hiking for hours on end each day. I felt invincible climbing the snowy Villarrica Volcano in Pucón in Chile. The 5,000 meter altitude of the Vinicunca mountains near Cusco left me gasping for oxygen, but when I reached the summit I felt such a sense of accomplishment rarely felt in my “city” life. And I see myself getting better and stronger each time I set out to hike. I didn’t think I would ever be wearing hiking boots in my life, and here I am proudly wearing them almost every day!

Vinicunca Mountains, Cusco.
Vinicunca Mountains, Cusco.
At 5000 meters above sea level in Vinicunca.
At 5000 meters above sea level in Vinicunca.

In my travels I crave seeing the world in its natural beauty partly because I am increasingly aware of its impermanence. What I see is not forever.

On our way back to Huacachina from our day trip to Paracas, a fellow traveler and friend said to me, “as we see the world, we destroy the world.” The more foreigners visit a place unknown to them, the more they destroy that particular habitat. It makes no difference whether we are luxury travelers or frugal backpackers. Our mere presence is what creates the chaos. And here in Peru it is evident that some of it’s most prized physical and cultural treasures are at risk of destruction.

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Sandboarding in Huacachina.
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Huacachina Oasis

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Every day tourists take photos as they jump into the air overlooking Machu Picchu. What they don’t realize is that this high forest is actually in danger of sinking. As they land from their high jump, checking to see if all their friends made it in the air and editing away to post on their instagram, they don’t realize they are contributing to soil erosion. The rumor that the Peruvian government is going to create elevated platforms that prevent the huge influx of tourists from stepping on the ruins themselves can quickly become a reality. Hikers leave trash at the gorgeous glacial lakes in Huarascarán National Park. Cultural destruction is evident in Cusco where the local Peruvian way of life has been substituted with the increasing demand for tour operators, massage parlors, souvenir shops, and a McDonald’s, KFC, and Starbucks, all occupying historical buildings in the main plaza square. In Iquitos, it has become increasingly common for foreigners to interest in partake in a spiritual and medicinal ceremony that has been performed by shamans for hundreds of years. People are taking note of this heightened interest in ayahuasca, and as a result there are some unscrupulous fake shamans taking advantage of people that are willing to pay hundreds of dollars to do something without truly understanding the cultural significance of such to the indigenous community. On a related note, people will also pay anything to learn from the partially remote indigenous communities in the amazon. The social consequences of tribal tourism are dire, as is the mission/religious-based “white man” influence on indigenous populations. For instance, while I was walking in the jungle in Manú I saw three young girls from the Machiguenga indigenous tribe dressed in western clothes, one in a Minnie Mouse t-shirt and another wearing clogs. My guide recognized that they were Machiguengas and was surprised they were anywhere near where we were walking. He began speaking to them in their native language, and he knew they were at least three days away from their home, as they lived much deeper in the reserve. We saw a young European man accompanied by several women approach us, quickly interrupting my guide and speaking to the young girls in Spanish, telling them to hurry along. We knew right away these were missionaries. These missionaries are not exactly the tourist travelers I am discussing here, but this is just another example of the long term effects of modern-day exploration.

In Paracas National Reserve, our guide brought us to an area where we could find thousands of fossils proving that the present-day desert was once a lake within a humid, jungle-like landscape. As we looked at these cylindrical remnants of a tropical water world, the guide began showing us how we could remove the fossils from the clay with water. He excavated a fossil in this method and then he promptly gave it to one to one of us to keep. Various people subsequently walked about and started doing the exact same thing. I was in total shock. I could not believe that this man, someone who is supposed to be proud of the diversity and rich history of the Paracas desert, was literally removing 36 million year old fossils from it’s proper place. Instead of preserving what is left, he is directly causing its destruction, and soon enough there literally won’t be any fossils left in their natural resting place. I realized then that we truly are our own worst enemies. We are the reason for all the destruction we so often try to prevent. And “gringos” aren’t the only ones at fault. As with the local guide in Paracas, no one escapes the blame. Sometimes it’s the residents, those who live in their world more than anyone, that cause more destruction than the visitors. Is it a question of education? Or is it just that we want to have, in a materialistic sense, a piece of something exotic come along with us, as a memento of our where we’ve traveled? Why do we have such an obsession with the material? This is not a modern phenomena – think of a beautiful library where hunters proudly display their kill, the lion and boar heads stuck on a piece of wood jutting out from the wall. I am growing more aware of how I used to carry extraordinary value to objects, and I am now feeling less of a desire to physically take a part of what I see and what I experience with me, although sometimes it can be tempting. We are fortunate to have photos to remind us of the beauty we saw, videos to show us those candid moments frozen in time, and our voices and memories to record our memories and reflections of our travels.

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A pelican in Paracas marina.
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Paracas National Reserve.
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The 36 million year old fossils embedded in clay.

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Huaraz.
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Puya tree. These trees are only found in Peru, and at this altitude (over 3000 meters). This puya is over 100 years old.

The more we push ourselves to explore every corner of the world, the more destruction we cause along the way. Yes, there is ethical travel. There is responsible, eco-friendly, sustainable tourism. But none of these travel concepts are completely immune. The sad fact is that even if we stayed put in our home town and didn’t travel, we would still be causing destruction. Because then we’d be hurting our own land, sometimes without even knowing it. So what can we do? I certainly don’t have an answer. And I certainly won’t stop traveling. Because I, selfishly or not, want to see the world. I want to hike the mountains, ride along the desert, lie on the pristine beaches, scuba dive in the oceans, and ride boats along the rivers of the rainforest. And in a very small way I can be more aware of the food that I eat, my lifestyle, and my consumption habits. And if we all tried to be more aware of our footprint and of our individual impact wherever we are in the world — maybe, just maybe, we can keep on traveling.
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Hiking to Laguna 69 at Huarascaran National Park.
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Laguna 69.
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Colorful mineral lake at Huarascaran National Park.
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One of the coolest trees I’ve seen, the queñual. The red/orange bark is flaky and soft. Queñual trees are only found at 3,500–4,800 meters above sea level, forming forest patches along the eastern and western slopes of the Andes highlands.

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Manú.

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After Bolivia I made my way to Peru for the second time (I wrote a post about my trip to Peru over a year ago, which you can read here). My intentions in Peru from the beginning were the areas of the country that are usually visited when there’s enough in someone’s vacation after Machu Picchu, Cusco, and Lima. These include the desert, the central Andes mountain ranges, the northern coast, and the northwest amazon (which includes the well known city of Iquitos in northeastern Peru). After arriving in Cusco I decided to take a four day tour through the southwest rainforest in Manú. Manú National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site biosphere reserve covering an area of 15,328 square kilometers. The park protects ecological zones that range in altitude, from as low as 150 meters above sea level to the Central Andean high selva, or jungle, at 4200 meters. Because of this topographical range, Manú has one of the highest levels of biodiversity of any park in the world.

Our first day we began our 10 hour bus ride at 6am in Cusco. We passed the town of Paucartambo and then descended the high selva cloud forest at 3400 meters above sea level all the way down to 500 meters to the jungle town of Pilcopata. As we rode through the highlands, beginning in the cold, dry, classically Peruvian terraced mountains that later became the flat, lush, humid, hot jungle, I had some time to watch the vast changes in landscape to reflect on my travels thus far, which had totaled three months and eighteen days.

A tamarin monkey jumped to my lap at the animal conservatory in Manu.
A tamarin monkey jumped to my lap at an animal conservatory in Manu.

In December, I realized I wanted to go back to school. I never thought that I would even consider graduate school, but there I was hiking in the gorgeous Patagonian mountains in Argentina and thinking about going back to the student lifestyle. And the more I thought about graduate school, the more I was drawn to studying abroad in Europe, specifically in Berlin. And so after I left Recife at the end of February, I decided I was going to apply for a Masters in International Affairs program in Berlin. I’ve applied and am awaiting a reply — I will know soon enough if my life is about to change drastically. I may be leaving New York in September to go to Berlin, and for two years, at least. If I don’t get accepted into this program, I will honestly be okay with it. It does not, however, change my intentions to move to Europe to obtain a masters degree. It may happen in the following winter or spring semesters, but it is something I feel I must do. I love New York City and I know it will always be there for me when I return, just as it was when I moved to Washington DC for my undergraduate degree, when I moved to Paris for my exchange program, and whenever I leave to travel for long periods of time. I am not afraid of packing up and settling into an unknown place. What I don’t know right now is the exact context of my moving to Europe. Will I be changing careers and studying international relations? Is this even what I want to do? Or will I be taking the slightly more comfortable route of receiving a masters in business at a lesser known school in Berlin that caters to foreigners? Or, will I move there to work for a startup, and study for a master’s degree part time? Depending on my moving timeline, what will I be doing in NYC to earn a living? Should I find a full time job or just work on some side projects?

As of now, I know that I will be moving to Europe for some time. I need this change. I left my apartment in Manhattan initially to sublease it for three months, which then turned into six months, and as of almost a month ago I told my roommate I wasn’t coming back to the city. My mother went to the apartment and moved out almost everything that I had left behind. Thinking about it now, I didn’t have the chance to really say goodbye to my life at that apartment that I called home for the last three years. I didn’t tell my doormen, I didn’t say anything to the local businesses that I frequented in the area. I left my life there while I was already gone, and maybe that’s the best way to do things anyhow. I am devastated that I won’t have a place to go back to when I return, and that I will have to come back to my mother’s home, which I know will be extremely challenging for me. I won’t have the freedom I had in the city; I won’t even have a car. But I know that is the sacrifice I have to make so that I can still travel and save enough money to be able to live abroad again. And, hopefully with the help of some friends, I can stay in the city here and there when I need to.

I am not at all sure what’s next for me in the very near future, and it’s often overwhelming to think about. It’s crazy to think that I am even going through this process in of all places in the amazon rainforest, more than halfway through my travels. Applying for graduate school is not an easy task at home, let alone at random cafes in Bolivia and Peru with terrible WiFi. Moving out of your home is not something to be taken lightly, and here I am moving out of my beloved apartment virtually, without even closing my front door for the last time.

And so in rainforest my thoughts kept coming back to what the real purpose has been for me to travel right at this moment in my life. I thought, this is what traveling is all about. It’s a lot of work. It’s a roller coaster of emotions. It’s one day of feeling absolutely free to the next feeling completely strangled. It’s yesterday having a clear head and moving in a straight line to tomorrow feeling cloudy and sensing you’ve only made the wrong turn and nearly falling off a cliff. At that moment in the car, I was feeling all the extremes at once; it was like I was revisiting the drastic weather changes in Patagonia all over again.  It felt like I was waiting for everything to make sense somehow in an instant, a sign that some higher power was in control of my destiny and was going to make all the decisions for me. I was searching for the moment where I would feel that same relief I felt when I realized on Christmas Eve that I wasn’t coming home in February when I was supposed to. It was such a bright and beautiful feeling.

So much has happened since that day, it’s hard to believe it was only a few months ago. It’s funny how when traveling, although we may be visiting a certain place at a slower pace than those who are going for a two-week vacation, we make decisions quicker. I’ve made big decisions more rapidly and with far more conviction than when I was stuck in the day-to-day at home. It’s because I am removed from that routine, and with that comes a far greater perspective, concentration, and clarity. I couldn’t have dreamed my travels would turn out the way that they have so far. And what’s even more scary and beautiful all at the same time is that I’m not even close to finished yet. I suppose that means I still have some more traveling to do – and some more big decisions to make. Stay tuned.

 

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A tapir wandering about the animal conservatory, our last stop before arriving in Pilcopata.

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Hoatzin birds at lake Machuwasi.
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Lake Machuwasi
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Paititi Lodge, a 30 minute boat ride from the Port of Atalaya, Manu’s last town accessible by land. Our lodge had a view of the Madre de Dios river, which we used every day to explore deeper into the jungle.

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We came across fresh jaguar paw prints imprinted into mud on a morning hike.
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We woke at 5am for a pre-sunrise boat ride along the Madre de Dios River.

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La Paz.

View of La Paz.
View of La Paz.
One of the main squares in La Paz.
One of the main squares in La Paz.

La Paz is full of quirks. And it’s an incredibly fascinating, grungy, diverse city. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, even though I was sick for about 24 hours after eating some street food (which is pretty typical for first-timers to La Paz). This post is more a list of fun-facts, not at all personal reflections, of which I decided to take a short break from writing about.

Even though constitutionally the official capital city of Bolivia is Sucre, La Paz is de facto, the world’s highest administrative capital, sitting high at 3,650 meters above sea level. It has a metropolitan area population of 2.3 million. Nuestra Señora de La Paz (Our Lady of Peace) is a relatively old city in South America; it was built on a river by the Spanish and officially founded in 1548. When the Spanish built the city they separated it into two sides, one for the indigenous population and the other for the European settlers. The indigenous where not allowed to cross the line that used to be the river; and so, the architecture varies quite a bit from one side to the other. Bolivia was the first country to claim freedom against Spain, but last one to actually get that freedom. After 16 years of war, and thanks to Simon Bolivar, Bolivia achieved it’s independence in 1825.
I was fortunate to take a really informative walking tour with Hana Pacha travel, where my volunteer guide Damien, a medical student, shared with the group some of what I am writing here.

For example, there are only 19 supermarkets serving the entire population of 2.3 million people. In Alto, a neighborhood in the greater metropolitan area with 600,000 people, there is only one supermarket. This is because in Bolivia, people do the majority of their shopping in La Paz’s numerous open air markets. It’s residents always prefer to support the local farmers and businesses, and all over the city it is evident that this is the case. And, shoppers have extreme loyalty to their sellers. Each street has one type of item, whether it be fruits, meats, grains, cheeses, and flowers. The sellers are aware they have competition beside them, but they know that their buyers have habituated to visiting one particular seller. Casera, or “special seller” is the word used when a buyer establishes a relationship with their preferred vendor. Contrary to what most people may think, buyers don’t bargain with food they purchase. It is actually considered an insult to the seller, who is most likely the actual grower of the food. After all, why would someone want to pay less than what the hard work in growing the food is actually worth? Instead of getting a discount, the buyer uses the word yapa, which means “a little more.” And so, the farmer adds a little bit extra food to the buyer’s purchase, which makes it a win-win for everybody. Bargaining is expected, however, for any other items other than food.

Many of the female vendors wear the traditional style dress, which includes a distinctive top hat. When women wear the hat straight across, this signifies that they are in a relationship. When worn to the side, they are single. The indigenous women with these high hats and puffy skirts are a reminder of the style of the European women who came to live in La Paz. Today, these women wear this outfit because they are proud of their indigenous heritage. Bolivia’s people today are 95% mestizo – mix of European and indigenous descent.

La Paz is known for it’s witches market, which has various products ranging from dried llama fetuses (which are always buried in the foundations of new constructions or businesses as a cha’lla, or “offering,” to the goddess Pachamama), potions, dried frogs, and medicinal plants. It is said that a woman or a man becomes a yatiri (witch) if they survive being struck by lightning. A man cannot pass down their gift, but a woman can pass on their talents to their oldest daughter, preserving the lineage for generations.

Potions and remedies at the Witch's Market.
Potions and remedies at the Witch’s Market.
Sign for a yatiri's services.
Sign for a yatiri’s services.

We stopped in front of one of the most fascinating prisons I have ever heard of. San Pedro prison lies in the center of the city, and is still in operation. Currently 2500 prisoners live in about 200 cells. What is so interesting is that the government lost control of the prison in the 1980s, and so there are only a handful of police officers guarding the entrance (it should be mentioned that Bolivia is home to the third most corrupt police force in South America, after Venezuela and Colombia). There are no police officers inside the prison itself. The prison operates differently than most. A prisoner pays an different entrance fee, depending if they are rch or poor. And so the “rent” for this cell can range from 12-15 Bolivianos a month (about 2 USD) to over 1000 US Dollars! These mega expensive cells have plasma tvs, internet, carpeting, and one of them has a hot tub. What is even more interesting is that the cell rent money goes to the previous owner of the cell, not to the government or to the prison system itself. The previous owner of the cell is the legal owner and the prisoner pays rent for use of his property. Prisoners have to pay for everything inside, including food, water, and clothes. People without money have to work, and oftentimes family members sell what is produced inside the prison outside within the city.

It gets even better: this prison is unique because of the privileges allowed by the inmates. Their families can live inside the prison with them, and all but the prisoner can come in and out without restriction. There is a public school next door where most of the students are actually living in the prison with their families. with most kids who live in the prison. Because life is so good for these prisoners (most of whom have only committed minor crimes such as drug dealing), there have only been 10 people to attempt to break out. There is even a bank right next to the prison building.  San Pedro Prison was definitely one of the most interesting things to hear about in La Paz!

A family going "home" to San Pedro prison.
A family going “home” to San Pedro prison.

In Bolivia, many of the houses are unfinished. This is because the law is that if you finish your house, you have to pay higher taxes (in Sucre, if you finish your house and paint it white, you pay less taxes, which explains all the white buildings).

We ended our tour at the hostel I happened to be staying at – Loki. The building that is now Loki used to be one of the first 5 star hotels in the city. Che Guevara spent 3 months hiding in this building, and Richard Nixon spent a few nights there. Not bad for a hostel!

View of La Paz from the cable car going to Alto.
View of La Paz from the cable car going to Alto.
View of La Paz and the Andes from Moon Valley.
View of La Paz and the Andes from Moon Valley.


Uyuni.

I recently spent four days exploring the desolate corner of southwestern Bolivia, traveling in a 4×4 truck from Tupiza to Uyuni. In just over 200 kilometers I was able to witness this area’s bizarre landscape: volcanoes, geysers and remnants of volcanic rocks, mineral and salt lagoons peppered with pink flamingoes and llamas, wild vicunyas running across the plains, and long stretches of desert followed by the famous salt flats of Uyuni. This post is just some photos of my time traveling through this incredibly diverse environment.

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Natural Rock formations in “Dali’s Desert”

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Uyuni’s old train tracks.
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Volcanic geysers
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Pink Flamingoes at Laguna Colorada, a salt lake in Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve, at 4278 meters above sea level.
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Baby llama at Laguna Colorada.
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Sunrise at the Salar de Uyuni
Inca Huasi (Fish Island) in the middle of the salt flats
Inca Huasi, home to enormous groups of cacti, in the middle of the salt flats.
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The Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat at 10,582 square kilometers and is at an elevation of 3,656 meters above sea level.
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The Salar was formed as a result of transformations between several prehistoric lakes. It is covered by up to 6 meters of salt crust, and is exceptionally rich in lithium, containing 50 to 70% of the world’s lithium reserves.

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Jericoacoara.

My pre-departure letter was where I first mentioned that my writing in South America were going to be part of a social experiment. I wrote that this blog is a device I intend to use in place of a private journal, so that I can learn the effects of exposing my writing to the public and with the internet as it’s medium. And thus far my writing has been honest, yet tame. However, while in Jericoacoara, the remote beach town 300 km away from Fortaleza in the northeast of Brazil, I experienced for the first time extreme reactions to my post about Recife, linked here. Staying true to the uncensored quality of this blog, I would like to elaborate.(Some commentary and photos of my time in “Jeri” are at the end of the post).

The post entitled “Recife” is the most provocative I have written thus far, yet if you read it now you probably wouldn’t agree with me. That’s because, being completely contrary to the self-imposed rules I’ve created, I had to delete some paragraphs. Before I hit “publish” I had written a much longer post, one that included commentary about my visit to see my maternal grandfather and my views about his marital status, observations of household values that were in reference to specific members of my family, and a reflection on the varying degrees of meaningful exchange I have with family and with travelers on the road. I slept on it and decided in the morning to trim these portions, but also with the intention of adding them back in at a later date, after the potential initial rush of family members read the post as soon as it was published. My intention was to subtly make the changes so that few would notice, and also to indirectly avoid any conflict or hurt feelings between the parties involved.

When the post finally went live on my birthday I didn’t think that anyone would have any concern with this unknowingly edited version. But, the edited version is not what is available now. I removed one paragraph, which I’ve pasted here:

“But I see it differently. I see it as a reflection of ignorance. The more I travel, the more I come back to this notion of ignorance. I see just how different my life is from theirs, not so much in the day-to-day but in the grander scheme of how different my life is just because of the place where I grew up. Because of how different my mother’s life became after she moved to New York.”

I will not describe exactly where this was placed, but it’s not difficult to figure out the context. What I can say is that it was removed after receiving an email from a friend of the family, one that I have known most of my life and who has always been a very important part of my “New York family.” I was told that the entire post, if read by members of my family, would be hurtful to them and that it was in my best interest to take it down immediately. I was also told that much of what I wrote needed to be shared personally with a therapist. I wanted to confirm if any of these sentiments were felt by the person who reads my blog the most and whose family is in question, my mom. And so after several whatsapp audio exchanges I decided to take only this particular paragraph down. I asked my mom if she was ashamed or embarrassed by my honesty and of what I wrote, and she said that she was not. Rather she didn’t feel comfortable with my using the word “ignorance” in the context I had placed it in. It was solely because of her that I removed this portion, but I also made her aware that my next post would be discussing this in great detail. Although very personal and detailed, my recollection of both this email and the exchange with my mother publicly to you, the reader, is all part of this experiment.

While I will not privately respond to this person, I will say publicly that I welcome all reactions to my posts and I encourage them to be made publicly in the comments section, the way others have done so far. After all, if any reader of my blog truly understands the point of it all by not only reading that pre-departure letter but by reading all of my previous posts, they would know that this is the blog’s purpose. There is a deliberate and thoughtful reason to why I write in this way. And as a result, I want to read not only the encouragement and the love but also the frustration, the anger, the shame. I want to create the dialogue that I wish I could’ve had with my family in Recife. I want to arouse in others the raw emotions that I yearn to feel every single day while I travel. I want people to know that travel is all about feeling things across the entire spectrum: the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the right and the wrong, the selflessness and the egotism, the strengths and the weaknesses. It is no surprise to me that along with this reactive email I also received extreme praise from other loved ones about this very post, both privately and publicly. The post was also re-blogged by a complete stranger to his blog of 800+ followers. It is a well known fact that with every piece of art made, every article written, every speech given, every opinion expressed, there will be varying interpretations. There will be conflict. There will be as much of a divide as there will be unity. And as such, all of the effects of my writings are welcome.

And so, the experiment continues.

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“Pedra Furada”

Jericoacoara Beach one of the most beautiful parts of Brasil that I have ever been to, and I was so grateful to spend four and a half days enjoying this paradise. To get there is not easy: you either take a 6 hour bus followed by a 1.5 hour 4×4 transfer or a private, 4.5 hour 4×4 truck from Fortaleza airport. The roads for the last 45 minutes are bumpy and unlit: the nature of one’s arrival makes almost all visitors feel as if they’re on an island. Jeri is known for it’s vast expanse of sand dunes and fresh water lagoons. Nearest to the town are sand dunes that hover a long stretch of beach and calm ocean, oftentimes windy enough for the kite surfers to play. These dunes are the backdrop to the lush greenery of the town itself. Everyone within town by foot; motor vehicles aren’t allowed except the dune buggys that are used for day trips to the nearby lagoons. In Jeri you’ll find fresh fish, açai and vegetable juices, yoga classes, and stores whose floors are covered in sand selling all sorts of beachwear. Along the streets women crochet beautiful summer tops and bikinis while tattoo-covered hippies sell handmade jewelry with feathers and stones. There aren’t any ATMs in Jeri, but I did go to a Thai restaurant run by a French owner who brought in a chef from Thailand five months ago. The food was so authentic it brought me right back to Chiang-Mai.  At 5:30pm everyone climbs the dunes to see the gorgeous sunset that is followed by a local capoeira group. Practicing to the music and songs of a berimbau and drums, the all white-clad dancers and musicians almost glow in the dark, evoking the traditional customs of Bahia. All night forró happens on Thursday and Saturday nights, with traditional Samba on Friday nights. Every night of the week there is a beach party with some local DJs, where you can order caipifrutas made from fresh maracujá, kiwi, abacaxi, caju, siriguela, and various other tropical fruits from endless number of drink stands at the beach’s entrance. It’s no wonder that you’ll find visitors from all over the world here to enjoy the warmth and spirit of the northeast of Brasil.

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the fallen tree
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Paradise Lagoon
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Panorama of the sand dunes
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Capoeira

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One of Jeri’s beautiful sunsets
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Horseback riding on the sand dunes
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View of the lush, green town center from the dunes
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Caipirinhas made from a variety of tropical fruits
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Recife.

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Palm Trees in Porto de Galinhas

This is the post I have been putting off writing for a number of reasons. One is that it forces me to confront this city through the eyes of what feels like two different people. The first is through the eyes of someone who has been visiting Recife at least once per year since she was six months old, and who lived here when she was young. The other is from the viewpoint of someone so far removed from the day-to-day lives of her family, someone who grew up in New York accustomed to the American way of life. I am confronted with so many emotions each time I come to Recife, oftentimes conflicting with one another and lasting well into my return to the states. With each visit it becomes more difficult to adapt and to blend in with my family’s habits and underlying ethos. I should mention that my mother knows all too well the roller coaster of scenarios thrown at me in Recife and of all the emotions that result from it, for she has been either present to witness my experiences or she has been my soundboard to listen to the variations of my distress when I come here on my own. I know she struggles with seeing her daughter go through a partial identity crisis as she probably feels many of the same things as I do as a woman who left her home country at my current age.

This trip to Recife is the first time I visit while traveling for an extended period of time. It was originally meant to serve has a 2 week break from backpacking –  a way to rest and not worry about where I was going to sleep or how I was going to get to my next destination. I would have homemade food and family members to drive me from one place to another. I would have clothes to borrow so I wouldn’t tire of the ones I had been traveling with. I would have the comforts of home.

I am nearing the end of these two weeks, and I find that this was the most difficult trip to Recife thus far. At first I thought it was a mistake to come here – I knew some of the issues that I would face from past experiences, and I was afraid being here would throw me out of travel-mode and make me too dependent on others. But in my heart I knew a break was needed; I had been traveling two and a half months and planned to continue another three to four months.  Being here has taught me a lot of difficult things about my place within my family and my association with being a Brasilian citizen. I’ve learned just how much my lifetime of travels have affected how I perceive my family and my country, as well as how almost everything else is interconnected and shaping me every single day.

My mom was the only child in the family to move away from home. She has been living in New York for 29 years, officially longer than the amount of time she lived in Recife. She became accustomed to life as an American citizen. She raised a daughter as an American – more specifically, as a New Yorker. I am an only child. I always felt the closest thing I had to siblings were my first cousins in Brasil. And so when I visit I have this expectation that because we are related and because I grew up spending time with them, that we have much in common and we will always have much to discuss. I see them the way I do some of my oldest friends, people that no matter how much time passes I can still talk to as if I saw them only yesterday.

However as the years pass and as we grow older, the more I see that this is not the case. My cousins have lived in this city their entire lives, and some of them have married and even one of them has an incredible little son. They are finding their place in this world. I am also finding my way, but our paths are moving in opposite directions. There is little I can hold on to, so little to talk about. Part of the reason is because I have a general sense of what they’re doing with their lives, but for some reason most of my family hasn’t any clue what I have been doing with my life beyond the photos I post to Instagram. Some of them are so out of touch they don’t even realize I am visiting them halfway between a six month backpacking journey across their own continent. Never-mind that most of them know little beyond the northeast of Brasil – I am not one to judge how far they’ve traveled or their reasons for traveling or not traveling to a particular place. What I do know is what I value in my relationships. I value conversation – a dialogue where we can learn from one another about where we’ve come from and where we are going next – both literally and figuratively. In a literal sense, no one seems to have an interest in where I travel to next on my journey. They don’t ask how my past two months have been, where I have gone, what I have learned. They don’t ask why I even chose to travel, and what I was doing beforehand that prompted this need to get out of New York. Perhaps it’s because they think they know me. They’ve seen me travel before, they know I have difficulty deciding what I am doing with my life. They know I am never tied down to any relationship, that I don’t have a child or even a pet to take care of. Maybe for them this is just the “same-old” for their niece, the same unorthodox routine for their cousin.

I have an increasingly more profound respect for my mom as I see what life could have been like for her, and what path she chose instead. I am steadily grateful that I was given the chance to experience so much just because of the city that I was born and raised in. And because I grew up in a liberal, open household. In a home where men and women are treated equally, where homosexuals are accepted exactly as they are, and where different religions are not only embraced but explored. Where doing things a little differently from everyone else is perfectly okay. Where speaking different languages is encouraged and where going to museums and shows are integrated into the monthly cultural calendar. Where travel is valued above all material possessions. I am acutely aware of how it could have been different.

Is my Brasilian family really home? My mother is my home until this day. My paternal grandmother was part of my childhood home. My father and his beloved partner of ten years were part of my childhood home. Recife is the other me that wants to try and be Brasilian too, who wants to fit in the mold of a Brasilian household. But it’s not really home. It’s a place where I can try and quench my thirst for nostalgia, for childhood, for preserving my Brasilian culture. Recife will always be here, and I know that I am always welcome. I come back each time with a blank slate, like a loyal dog that forgets its owner’s past faults and transgressions. Yet I keep thinking how every time I leave, I tell myself that I won’t be coming back unless it’s for an unmissable moment in my family’s lives, whether it be a wedding or a new baby. I always have hope that we have all grown up and reached a point where we can move towards crossing one another’s paths to find commonalities, but now I realize that my outlook may be too high. This is by no means my last time in Recife, but it is my last time here with the same expectations as before.

No one chooses their family. But they will always be simply that — my family. What I’ve tried so many times before was to reconcile the cultural differences and values I have with them and assume that we are not just family. Rather we can be a cohesive unit, one that can break the chains of ignorance together, one that can take the unique situation of having relatives from another culture and learn from one another. I wish that we could be friends, have commonalities, share what’s going on beyond the trivialities of our day-to-day. That conversations could crack the surface. Unfortunately I have not been able to do this at the level I had hoped. I feel sad that this is the case, but at the same time I accept that it is what life has given me. I can only take what I’ve learned and impart the same values that I hold true onto a future family of mine.

Despite all of this, my family is still there for me – whether I realize it or not, they think of me and care about me on a profoundly deep level. They are my blood and always will be. And they are truly incredible and beautiful people – despite our differences, I still hold them dear to me and I want to be as present as I can be in their lives.

Today is my birthday. The past few birthdays my thoughts seemed to center around this concept of family that currently I’m reflecting on in this post. It’s not any surprise that I chose to celebrate my birthday here. It’s as if I am deliberately celebrating this moment of significance in my life in a city and with people with whom I struggle greatly with. Birthdays are not just about the party: they are reminders of where we’ve come from and they guide us as we decide which door to open next.

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Celebrating my Birthday with my family
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Carnaval in the streets of Olinda

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Colorful houses in Olinda
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Street art in Olinda
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Porto de Galinhas
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Pipa Beach
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View of Pipa
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Low Tide at Praia do Amor, Pipa

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