Life Skills, Moving, On the Road, Traveling, United States

On the Road Again

It is mildly unsettling how relieved I felt when I walked through the glass doors of Seattle Tacoma International Airport last week. The slick floor and high ceiling; the hustle of people not wholly sure where they should go; the easy pace of check in, ID check, electronics removal and body scan – they all felt oddly like coming home, even though I was heading out.

Humping my pack through my last couple weeks in Turkey with a sinus infection in tow, I wanted nothing more than eight consecutive nights in a familiar bed. But once in Washington (State) half-unpacked and settling in, I was uncomfortable with my….stability. And cold. So I’m setting out on a wander again, one last hurrah through the East Coast and then a month in Sevilla, Spain, which I was loathe to leave back in February.

I first remember flying through SeaTac when I was 8. My best friend had moved from the Bay Area up to the San Juan islands, and my parents gave me a birthday present that, in retrospect, probably made me part of who I am today: a plane ticket to fly alone up the coast to see her for a week. I remember nothing of the flight from Oakland to Seattle. What I remember is the layover.

The friend I was going to visit, and I, in a very important stage of dental development, circa 1978

The friend I was going to visit, and I, in a very important stage of dental development, circa 1978

Back in the day when solo child travelers were few and far between, I was something of a curiosity, like tropical fruit brought from far-off lands to the cold recesses of England way, way back when. For three hours, I sat on a stool behind the counter of the small regional airline that flew from SeaTac to the islands in twin prop planes of fewer than 10 seats. Flight attendants and counter agents came to visit from the center section of the departures hall, where big airlines had multiple personnel at the counter, way, way down to the far end of small airlines and cargo companies. While I may have been the attraction for them, I couldn’t be bothered with their kindness, because I was entranced by the desk agent checking in flights before mine, entering secret codes in green type onto the black screen of the computer, and radioing down to the tarmac, an underground tram ride away at the north satellite, where the small planes arrived and departed.

Some people hate small planes and find them terrifying. I couldn’t be more the opposite: I never get over the thrill of them. My father flew one when I was younger.  I’m sure it wasn’t 100 percent cake and roses, but I remember loving flying with him, a hop to Bakersfield to check on a hospital he was managing, or all the way up to the San Juans, a long day of counting swimming pools by the houses below, watching urban areas change to trees, and mountains, and at last, Puget Sound. I love no small plane more than the float plane, and it seemed appropriate that I took my first of 47 flight legs of my around-the-world trip on one of these, from the San Juans into Seattle.

My favorite mode of travel (thanks Kenmore Air)

My favorite mode of travel (thanks Kenmore Air)

My week away didn’t end as well as it started: on the ferry back to the mainland, my friend’s mom asked me where my ticket was. I have no idea what I said in response to her, but inside, my gut sank south as she frantically searched the car, because I could clearly see that plane ticket, its flimsy paper layers backed in red carbon ink, sitting on the bedside table next to the bunkbeds a ferry-ride away. A new ticket had to be purchased, though this was back in the day when the old one could be redeemed for the proper value once it was turned in.

Regardless, that trip was the first of many I have taken to visit this same friend, who has lived in Korea, Japan, and many states, and recently returned to the San Juans with her husband and kids. And it was the first I remember of passing through SeaTac, which has changed considerably with the times.

Same friend and I, on the Great Wall of China, circa 2001

Same friend and I, on the Great Wall of China, circa 2001

SeaTac is a good airport to call home. It’s modernized – clean and light, it continues to remake itself to keep up with the pace of air traffic and the demanding needs of the modern traveler. Taking a cue from Austin, the main terminal now features local musical artists playing acoustic entrées to accompany whatever you grab from Ivars, or the brewery, or the competing coffee trio of Starbucks, Seattle’s Best, and Dilletante. Like SFO, SeaTac has started installing water-bottle refill stations near the drinking fountains for those of us who fear that reef of plastic bottles taking over the world’s oceans, and multiple recycling containers throughout the terminals.

Recycling in SeaTac

Recycling in SeaTac

Exhibits focused on local artists are sprinkled throughout the terminals in case you have time to stop and look a little.

 

Among Seattle's favorite native sons....

Among Seattle’s favorite native sons: Jimi Hendrix, on whose life as an artist there is a current exhibit in SeaTac

If not, most of them have a bar code you can scan with your smartphone for more detail later on. The shopping is a dangerous combo of items you may actually need (a jacket from ExOfficio, perhaps?) to crafty arts in Firefly or local souvenirs from the newly opened Sub Pop store (though one could argue Sub Pop merchandizing in SeaTac marks the moment when Sub Pop jumps the shark).

imageThough these creature comforts are more meaningful to me now than they were when I was eight, what I loved about SeaTac on this particular trip may just be the same thing I love about traveling in general: that feeling of camaraderie, of complete familiarity with total strangers. In this case, on a gorgeous Seattle day of sun after four days of rain, it is the people who pass through the gate area in SeaTac for a DFW flight – their LSU shirts and Longhorn gear, their well-crafted look (except for me, and the skaters who clearly are from the PNW), and the slightly southern air of it all that reminds you where you land it will be…well, warm and familiar in a different way, even if you don’t know where you’re going.

Life Skills, On the Road, Tourist, Traveling, United States

Where I’m From

Three months before I turned 40, I spent a month obsessively looking at new cars on craigslist. When I realized I was perfectly happy with my 12 year-old stick shift station wagon, I left the cars behind and decided just to pierce my nose, like I’d wanted to do since I was 14. Suddenly, I was freed from the socially-acceptable expectations of mid-life, and welcomed into the decade that would allow me to just be me. Midlife crisis narrowly averted.

Not even a full state from Texas, a crisis of an entirely different order arose. I took refuge from a torrential downpour at a café on the Taos plaza, and got to talking to a woman about her dog. Naturally, she asked me where I was from. A normally chatty human being who can carry on a conversation with anyone from the Pope to a wall, I was struck silent. I didn’t even stutter; I just couldn’t answer. I was faced with a geographic identity crisis.

For the eight, mostly uncomfortable years I lived in Dallas, I told people, “I live in Dallas, but I’m from California.” This is the technical truth – I was born in San Francisco, and consider myself a Californian – but it isn’t the whole story. I arrived in Dallas a full seven locations after I originally left my home state. As a result, I’m a committed recycler with aggressive driving skills, a very northeastern way of flipping the bird, a New Yorker’s style of walking through a crowded urban center ignoring everyone around me, a Northwestern desire to be outside even when the weather fills with rain and wind, and a Texan belief that my boots and a good buckle should work for any occasion. When I say, “I’m going home,” I could be referring to Seattle, San Francisco, or Dallas. But I don’t know how to tell someone where I’m from, because choosing one place feels like a lie.

I hoped this issue would resolve itself when I left the country, but it got worse. Complete strangers took a kind-hearted interest in the specifics of my personal history, and weren’t satisfied when I told them simply, “I’m from the United States.” People in other countries know a surprising number of US states; they also watch a lot of bad tv. Texas is on the map for Dallas (the original), Walker Texas Ranger, and George Bush. Telling people I’m from California garnered a lot of, “I’ll be back,” “oh…Ah-nald,” and, “California?…Hollywood?” So I tried Washington.

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Cold, beautiful west coast

Understandably, it’s confusing to foreigners that the state of apples, Starbucks, and the Olympic peninsula is both not the same as the capital city that shares its name, and is located on the other side of the country. I didn’t bother correcting people who responded to Washington with, “ah! Obama’s house,” until the questions about DC got too involved, and I would confess that I was actually from an entirely different place (though I’ve lived in both).

Washington State

Washington State

The irony of all this is that it actually doesn’t matter. In earlier eras, outside of Manifest Destiny, the Gold Rush, and great migrations, people rarely moved far from home. Now, we’re in a shrinking global community, where constant population flux consistently alters cultures, blending them across geographic boundaries, until good barbeque isn’t just found in the south and good bagels aren’t held captive in New York. The San Francisco of 2013, with its dot com billionaires and microapartments for a million dollars, isn’t the San Francisco of 1993, with its distinct neighborhoods, affordable housing, and hippy funk. (When people ask me if I’m moving back to San Francisco, I feel compelled to point out that San Francisco isn’t there anymore.)

And yet, for all this movement, for all this homogeneity of culture, place matters. When I go out for coffee, place matters. Am I walking there, biking there, driving there, or taking public transportation? Is it Dunkin’s coffee, Starbucks coffee, local coffee, organically sourced and priced up coffee? Or maybe it’s Turkish, Thai, or Vietnamese white coffee? Is it hot or cold? Is it smooth roasted, or bitter? Am I standing at the coffee bar chatting with neighbors, sitting at an outdoor café under a heat lamp, or grabbing it to go while I drive off someplace?

Place matters for the most simple things, because it’s the simple things that form who we are. The personality of a place shapes our approach to the world; it demonstrates for us how we absorb information, how we respond to stimuli around us, and how we view what we see moving forward. Thirty years ago, when I moved from the Bay area to Boston, this mattered a hundred times more.

I left a place of cold oceans with rough surf and foggy-day picnics on the beach, of yoga and recycling and home-made peanut butter, and went to the land of green pants with blue whales, classmates related to passengers on the Mayflower, and ‘one if by land two if by sea.’ As a result, though I longed regularly for the west coast of my childhood, I was raised using the T, rooting for the Celtics, watching my first baseball game from the Fenway bleachers, and busing out to Great Woods for one concert after another. There is no mistaking that these experiences gave me some of the independence that I enjoy when I travel, and that the longing to get back to the other coast, to see what was beneath me when I flew from one to another, gave me my desire to actually buy a plane ticket and do it.

New York subway

New York subway

So when I tell people I’m from California, I feel like I’m disrespecting half of my roots. And I feel like my roots have more than two halves. Didn’t summers on a small island in Puget Sound teach me to love reading, staring at the water, and the smell of fresh wind? Didn’t college in New York help me understand that I can only do cities  for a moment before I shut down? Don’t we continue to grow, to absorb place and its personality, and to change as a result, throughout our lives? I didn’t move to Texas until I was 30, but didn’t it warm me a bit, teach me a about expressing myself respectfully to people with opposing viewpoints, and help me understand myself better? Isn’t growth and absorption of place the only thing that explains Madonna’s fake British accent?

For all the shrinking of the world, place still matters. The more we create these hybrid humans who herald from multiple cultures, possibly without much leaving their own, the more confusing the question ‘where are you from’ will become. I, for one, am looking forward to it, so I’m not the only one suffering from a geographic identity crisis.

Crazy Dallas weather

Crazy Dallas weather

Life Skills, On the Road, Traveling

About a Girl

It will shock no one to know that the blog essay, “Don’t Date a Girl Who Travels,”  (originally posted in May 2013 and recently picked up by Huffington Post and Thought Catalog, among others) has been sent my way a number of times in the last few weeks. Always, the sender noted that s/he was thinking of me, out here wandering the world, living  out my own wildest dreams, and a few of theirs as well.

I kept it to myself that I find the essay totally offensive. After all, I was in Africa when it began arriving. Who cares about bad writing and publicity politics when there are cheetahs to track?

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Cheetahs that were tracked

Then I  was tagged in someone’s Facebook share of the article and a commenter included a link to a response that upgraded the original to something more than drivel. By that time, I was in a riad in Fes, only mildly interested to discover a hullabaloo on the internet about the original post, and a number of responses, many of which are equally superficial. Since the subject, via link, or comment, or email, has continued to come my way, I will take a solitary Madrid afternoon minute to tell you what I think.

How can I care about silly HuffPost politics when my riad room looks like this?!

How can I care about silly HuffPost politics when my riad room looks like this?!

If poor writing were the crux of the issue, I would snark and move on. But it isn’t, though that certainly led readers astray. Weak structure fails the satirical tone of the piece and readers are left unable to determine whether the author seriously thinks that a girl who travels, “doesn’t plan or have a permanent address…Chances are she can’t hold a steady job.” Or, as I think is her intent, does the author mean that someone who travels is independent, craves new experience, and prioritizes a travel opportunity over security?

Stephabroad.com addressed this in her rewrite, which took the original premise and turned it proactive, returning some ownership of the girl and her desires to the girl herself. Rather than focus on aging skin and instability, or try to convince a guy that it’s ok the traveler won’t go clubbing with him, Stephabroad notes how diligently the traveler seeks the world and what there is to learn in it, and how compatible that makes her with someone who shares these values, if not her habits. Written as it is, this version gives the girl credit for volition and experience.

And yet I still take umbrage:

This is not a girl about whom we speak. It is a woman. And we should all be less afraid of calling her such. She deserves it. In all versions of the piece, this protagonist makes her own money. She makes her own reservations. She carries her own pack and walks home at night down unfamiliar streets.

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A sort of dark and very unfamiliar street in Marrakech

On a regular basis, she makes decisions of calculated risk that would make a wall street trader cower. Her life is a gamble of safety and adventure, joy and sorrow, experience, loss, and gain. She who has hugged a foreign and likely filthy toilet bowl for a long night of purging the wrong market stall of food from her system, and survived to hop the next bus is no  longer a girl, she is a woman. She who holds her head high while a carpet dealer discusses the sharmouta who won’t buy, and lets that not dampen her opinion of the country she explores is not a girl, she is a woman. And she deserves the respect of being called such.

The semantic error – and our constant fear of addressing it – underlies a larger cultural issue with the piece: even when heralding the independence of a woman, the author can’t think of anything more original than a traditional gender paradigm (dating) to evaluate the worth of her gender. She is trying to convince men not to be afraid of her, and her ‘shortcomings’ which may make her slightly less palatable in traditional roles.

Are you kidding me with this?

Here’s a piece of news for you: the chick who travels doesn’t give a shit whether you want to date her. You don’t get to make this choice on her behalf. She already knows that, if you need convincing, you aren’t the one she wants. This life she lives is about the choices she makes, the work she puts in, the desires she chases. It’s not about convincing a traditional world to figure out how to accept her. The original writer knows this – she is a former corporate employee who took a career break and is now a surfer and yoga teacher. She just isn’t able to write it.

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The chick who travels, chasing her desires above the cloud cover in the High Atlas (photo credit: Paul Allen)

Unlike that original writer, I don’t speak for all women who travel. I speak for no one but myself, and here is my response: I am a woman, and I don’t want to be dated. I want to be adventured with. I want a man who can see the way the blue of an iceberg nuzzling against the shore of a lake in Torres del Paine thrills me to wondered stillness, and respect that being my moment of reflection. Sometimes, we will share these moments of awe. And sometimes, we will mutually appreciate them afterwards, in a warm pub over beer, and they will be no less valued. Awe, travel experience, and love can all be separate and equal.

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Iceberg blue in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

This article fails to recognize that part of the impetus to explore the world stems in part from dissatisfaction with the roles available to one at home. It isn’t just in countries where shariah prevails over women to wrap their hair in scarves that opportunity lacks. In the US and in many developed countries, social paradigms and their resulting power structures fail to recognize that women aren’t paperdoll cut-outs. Women who travel refuse to be tab-folded and dressed in outfits suitable for a  given occasion. (Although, like a paper doll, I have about six outfits in my wardrobe right now…) And so we take a chance to look around the world first-hand and see what our other options may be.

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Looking around (and under) the world for options (photo credit: Sander den Haring)

When I was young, my father used to tell me, “a girl without freckles is like a night without stars.” It is a sweet sentiment, when you are young. Now that I am on the night side of 40, I am endeared to the saying out of nostalgia, but the language, like that article, is problematic, because I am not a girl, and I don’t want to be evaluated on the basis of my face. My aged face, full of freckles, is in fact like a night sky full of stars, lit from within by a fire that started burning long ago, both fed and drained by travel across time and space. Its origin may be long gone, may be darkened by forces we won’t see in this lifetime, but in its present, it is brilliant and magical and strong enough to navigate oceans.

I am a woman, and this fact is more than just the failed semantics of a Huffpost article. It is a lifetime in the making. A lifetime of experience, of love, of adventure and heartbreak and bruises and bad train rides and good break ups and difficult jobs and random rewarding encounters. It is hard work and joyful leisure to be a woman, and regardless of who may or may not want to date me, regardless of who wants my journey for his own, I have my soul full of fires, lit over a lifetime. You can take that, or leave it, you decide. I’ll decide whether you are worth dating – or reading. Right now, I have a plane to catch.

Creating bruises

Creating a day of adventure and bruises.

On the Road, South America, Tourist, Traveling

How to Have an Adventure: The Final Chapter

Here is what I learn from the Salar: grown ups need to climb stuff more. It starts six minutes out of town, when we go to the Train Cemetery. It is swarmed with people from other tour jeeps. The light isn’t great for photos, so I’m glad I was here 16 hours ago on my own. Instantly, people of otherwise respectable age are atop broken locomotives, walking their lengths, posing against the slick blue sky, and swinging from a swing shaped like two dog bones suspended from the ribs of an old train car. It doesn’t stop there, and most of the time, I’m happily in the mix.

The dog-bone swing.

The dog-bone swing.

The first climb of the trip

The first climb of the trip

The salt flats are amazing, as you can see from the picturesWalking on the salt field is like walking on slushy snow, only more compact, and not slippery. So basically, nothing like slushy snow, except for its appearance.

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Salt – Very similar to and yet totally different from slushy snow

The air is hot and whipping with wind, and all you can see is a vast, flat, field of white, bordered in the distance by hills rising from nowhere. There is no road – only a ‘path’ of diesel dirt left by the million other tours around you, and followed by those who come behind.

We're on a road to nowhere....

We’re on a road to nowhere….

After a photo shoot on the flats, we stop off in a town that harvests salt. Which means this is where the truck that is manually loaded is manually dumped, and then, manually, the salt is loaded onto a pan above a remedial wood-burning oven and sifted by shovel so that it dries out.  It is then (manually, of course) mixed with iodine and bagged into small plastic sacks that are heat-sealed with a propane burner, and stacked for sale.

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Heat-sealing salt bags with a propane burner. Watch your fingers.

After the salt flats, our three-day, two-night tour goes to what is referred to as ‘la isla,’ so I assume we are taking a boat to an island in a lake somewhere. I’m forgetting, of course, that we are driving across what used to be the lake. ‘La isla’ is a cactus-covered red-rock out cropping in the middle of nowhere, rising from the salt flats with a completely independent vegetation zone.

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Cactus Island, in a sea of salt

You can climb on top of it, hike its perimeter,  take pictures, and, if you are me, lead Travel Companion mistakenly off the proper trail so that by the time you eat lunch and leave, she has lost her iphone and will never find it again. If you are more touristy and have money to burn, you can pay the roving land-cruiser some extra bolivianos to go parasailing behind his car. I stick to climbing on things and leading others astray.

Me, on top of a rock, making Seanna nervous

Me, on top of a rock, making Travel Companion nervous

At the end of day one, we drive to the edge of the salt flats, stopping for more photo opportunities, in which our group learns that (1) it’s very hard to take a picture of two people simultaneously off the ground and (2) it’s physically impossible to get off the ground without opening your mouth.

The success ratio of getting both parties off the ground in these shots is actually 2:17.

The success ratio of getting both parties off the ground in these shots is actually 2:17.

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We land for the night in a hostel with salt-brick walls and a floor made purely of salt, and since it is well insulated with…well, salt, and we’re terrified of freezing, we’re just fine with it all, even the spare hairs on the bed.  Outside, the wind howls across the the landscape, brushing a herd of vicuna into the low hills and lulling us to sleep.

I have no idea what day two has in store, since we are on a salt tour, and I’ve been told we’re at the end of the salt. I do know that somewhere in the next 48 hours, I’m going to get to see some flamingos, which I keep calling penguins. By the time they’ve known me for 24 hours, though, my tour team is unphased by my behavior. They know that when I say penguin, I mean flamingo.

Day two starts with rocks, and moves on to volcanoes, with a train track or two thrown in for good measure. Just to be safe, I climb on everything I possibly can, including in and out of the third row of the car, which Travel Companion has advised me to stop doing in one stretch at the risk of pulling a groin muscle. I do not climb the volcano, which is disappointingly far in the distance.

Climbing.

Climbing.

I am not alone in climbing. I am alone when I lie down on the train track to have my picture taken like a damsel in distress, minus the distress and the damsel-ness. Minus also an oncoming train and a wily cowboy to rescue me. I will blame this on sugar snacks before ten a.m. (I have a much better understanding of Cookie Crisp cereal after my Salar tour.)

Non-damsel in non-distress

Non-damsel in non-distress

At this point, it has become abundantly clear that any fear we have of our driver irresponsibly abandoning us in the middle of nowhere carries no muster. At almost every stop, Garcia wanders off to help another driver with a bad tire, leaky oil, or a jeep that plain won’t start. Aside from him being a skilled mechanic, we will never be alone. At every stop, there are at least four, and usually six to ten, other groups stopping to take the same pictures, and climb on the same rocks. Lack of solitude in the middle of nowhere makes for very indiscrete natural bathroom opportunities, which Travel Companion and I discover the hard way.

From salt and rocks we move on to a series of Lagunas. I forget the order of them but most are named after colors (Laguna Verde, Laguna Blanca – this one was the very last, Laguna Colorado).  Many appear to have great salt crusting on their banks, but this turns out to be borax. Each of them is home to some naturally occurring mineral that changes the color of the water. In the case of Laguna Colorado, sun and heat during the day bloom a red algae that, just for a few hours, turns great parts of the lake red.

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Laguna Colorado, with it’s red algae

All of the lagunas save one have flamingos, and my camera finger goes into autopilot, shooting everything in sight, knowing that maybe five of these will ultimately be worth the time. Bless digital photography: for all its weaknesses and the people it’s put out of work, it sure makes being an amateur a lot less expensive.

We eat lunch next to a large, full lake of pink and white birds, and are accompanied by some Andean gulls, which are seagulls with black heads. There is a little café and hotel with a sign advertising wifi, so the lone Brazilian gets very excited, and then is dismayed to learn that, ‘it is only turned on at night.’ The rest of us doubt there are even lights here at night, and the smell of the chemical toilet is so overwhelming you can’t breathe and pee at the same time, so I’m pretty sure that wifi thing is a ruse.

The Brazilian couple cuts up pieces of food and throws them into the air near the table so that the Andean gulls will fly up and form the perfect picture, and the rest of us find this highly amusing. It is so windy that we have dirt as a spice on our food (which isn’t hot dogs, but could use a little spice), but it is not cold. Garcia moves the car to try and make a wind block, but the effort is futile.

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Black-headed Andean gull, with lunch (ironically, I think it’s chicken)

A couple arrives on bikes. Reiteration: there are no actual roads. We have been driving through salt and sand for more than a day. Partly because yes, it’s fun, but mostly because THERE ARE NO ROADS.  They are not the first cyclists we’ve seen, but these have a sign on the back of one bike that says, “luna de miel,” – honeymoon – at which point I add this particular gentleman to the very long list of people I’ve decided I can never marry. I go stick my nose in their business and discover they’ve biked from Mexico and are headed to Patagonia.

We are astounded by these two and comment on them off and on for the next two hours until we stop at an unnamed rock outcropping (we haven’t climbed anything since this morning, and the natives are getting restless), where we meet a Swiss couple with two of the dirtiest children I’ve ever seen, one of whom is still wearing diapers, that have been cycling for three months and are also headed very far south.

This restless native on rocks. Swiss Family Robinson may be visible in background.

This restless native on rocks. Swiss Family Robinson may be visible in background.

If you haven’t read Part II  of this adventure, you may have missed the part where Travel Companion and I take a cab five blocks mostly because of the weight of water. If you are skimming, you may have missed multiple references to the constant velocity of wind, and the sand that is providing texture for everything from our hair to our food. I am in awe of the adventure this family is on. I forgive them for letting their five year old run around with a pacifier in her mouth. When she starts climbing up the rock face with us, both Travel Companion and I are unsure whether to encourage her or tell her parents. When she gets about six feet above ground, her father comes over and coaxes her down. Awe.

Tonight, we sleep together, our little jeep family in a large hostel room, each in his or her own bed with 14 layers of clothing. The howling wind comes in through the cracks near the window frame and threatens to lift the roof off the hostel. We are waking at 5 a.m. to see some geysers at sunrise, so we go to bed at 8:30.

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Little Jeep Family, all snug in our beds

The geysers are worth the wake-up call (which all of us heed except Garcia, who is nowhere to be found). The sun is up, but barely, gleaming on the horizon and powering through sulpheric steam…

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The sun coming up through sulpheric steam

while great hordes of tourists roam dangerously close to craters of bubbling mud that gurgle, then blast into the air.

Mud blasts off.

Mud blasts off.

There is a sign that says not to get too close, but nothing to prevent you from doing so. We ask Garcia when people have last fallen in. It was three years ago, and the man suffered severe burns on much of his body.

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Bolivian safety measures

The tour could end here. We are happy, cold, and done with the car. But there are more lakes to see, and despite having told us basically nothing about any of our locations except what they are called, Garcia would not feel he were doing his job if we were to bypass anything. So we head to the first lake we’ve seen with absolutely no flamingos. Why? Well, because the naturally occurring mineral here is arsenic.

Travel Companion and I at Arsenic Lake

Travel Companion and I at Arsenic Lake

I rename this one Arsenic Lake. It may actually be Asbestos Lake but it is lacking penguins and honestly not the best one we’ve seen so, whatever. The last is Laguna Blanca, which has such a smooth surface that it reflects the mountains of Bolivia like a mirror at the beginning of the day.

Laguna Blanca - the blank slate of lakes

Laguna Blanca – the blank slate of lakes

And then, we are done. Thirty minutes later, we are at the border. Travel Companion, Irish and I offload and go to the migration hut for exit stamps and then await the bus for San Pedro, where we hope Chile will bring a little less dirt and a lot less hair. The Brazilians change jeeps for a full-day drive back to Uyuni. Garcia drives off to upload another group of six and do the whole thing over again, and again.

On the Road, South America, Tourist, Traveling

How to Have an Adventure, Part II

I forgot the peanut butter.

In my defense, it’s not the kind of thing I’m trained to think of at 4:45 a.m., when none of the three cab companies I’ve called is picking up, and we need to get to the airport. Peanut butter is a camping staple; I’m not a camper. I’m more of an ‘I’m kinda outdoorsy but not actually skilled and currently overpacked for my round the world trip,’ kind of chick, and peanut butter is an addendum for which I’m not prepared. I will live to regret this.

Uyuni is forgettable for reasons previously mentioned. I will add only that, in our effort to find snacks to bring with us on the tour, we can find only two options. First is the local market, of which generally I’m a huge fan, mostly for photographic reasons. This one, however, has vegetables literally piled from floor to waist, most of which are potatoes and some of which I can’t identify.

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It also has very little fruit, very smelly meat counters, and cute but mangy dogs wandering through. In other words, I don’t trust this place. And Nurse Wratchet at Travel Companion’s Travel Clinic of Fear has definitely put the kibosh on – well, everything – which precludes us from consuming anything purchased in these smelly hallowed halls.

The second option is what advertises itself as a supermarket, but which is open only one of the four times we go by. It has a section called, “moldy bread.” It’s ten degrees hotter than the rest of town despite being indoors in a modern building, and is smaller than my last urban apartment. There are four types of dulce de leche in jars but no peanut butter and no loaves of non-moldy bread. When I ask two women who seem to be shopping, but who, it turns out, work there and are reorganizing shelves by putting their contents in a shopping basket and moving them around, they look flummoxed and then tell me that not only do they not have peanut butter, but there isn’t anywhere to get it in town.

We quickly pull together a number of sugar-based snacks (those of you who know me will think this would be my idea of heaven, but I’ve been eating so little sugar since I left home that half a Snickers made me high for three hours) and add six two-liter bottles of water (one each per day of tour), and get the hell out of there.

The next morning, we take a cab five blocks (Snickers bars and liters of water are heavy when added to my giant pack, Traveling Companion’s not large but very stuffed suitcase, two day packs, and the weight of our anxiety) to our guide company. It’s closed. A man comes and opens the door when he sees us standing there and then tells me to wait a minute and wanders off. A few minutes later, a woman arrives and tells me, in rapid-fire Spanish, that we are going across the street to her cousin’s tour company. “Es lo mismo – exactamente lo mismo,” she assures me.

It’s common for tour groups to be combined so that there are six people per jeep, but the bait and switch isn’t sitting well with either of us. The whole street is lined with people loading up into cars; I’d call it a military operation except for the lack of order and the abundance of unkempt hair.

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We really have no choice but to roll with it, and so we do. After about forty minutes of futzing around, we are loaded into a jeep with three Brazilians, an Irish woman, and a driver whose name is Reynaldo Garcia. When I ask him whether he prefers to be called, “Reynaldo,” or, “Senor Garcia,” I barely get the second option out before he responds, “Garcia, Garcia.” And then he says very little else for the next three days.

For the most part, we luck out. Although I have told Travel Companion four times that if the Brazilian make-out masters from across the aisle on the plane from La Paz end up on our tour, I’m pushing them out of the car in the desert, and despite the fact that two of our three Brazilians are a very affectionate couple, they are sweet both to each other and to us, and they do their making out quietly in the back seat. The Irish woman has been volunteering in Colombia for six months and is traveling down around South America on the cheap before heading home, and the other Brazilian is a quiet young tax attorney who checks for phone or wifi signal every time we stop, and otherwise keeps mostly to himself. We are blissfully free of alcoholics and chain smokers, and it seems all six of us are quite pleased to discover this. Murder in the Salar is looking less and less likely as we hop into the jeep and head out.