On the Road, Preparing, South America, Tourist, Traveling

How to Find an Adventure, Part I

Step one: Follow the advice of travelers you know peripherally, who don’t need to shower more than once a week, think sleeping in the same room with six other people is heaven, find patchouli to be a remarkably endearing scent, and may or may not want to get you into an entertaining mess.

Step two: Do not solicit advice from other, more similarly minded travelers, for whom sleeping without the hair of strangers left behind on sheets and blankets may be a priority.

Step three: go to a very much still developing country, find the least populated part of it, and hop on a tour.

Back up. Step two B: land in the highest airport in the world, spend three days taking Diamox and sucking on diesel and too little oxygen.

I believe I have mentioned this blog should have been called, “flyingbytheseatofmypants.com,” so it will not surprise you that these are the steps my shall-remain-nameless (totally fantastic) Travel Companion and I followed in planning our trip to Bolivia, whose primary purpose was to go on a salar tour. What, you ask, is that? I had the same question.

It turns out much of Southwest Bolivia used to be a great salt lake surrounded by volcanoes. Times have changed, but salt has not.  Over 4,000 square miles of the area is still a great salt field, worked manually by salineros who shovel the salt into piles, let the water (still not far below the surface of the ground) drain, then collect it in a truck and take it to be harvested and packaged for sale in Bolivia, and beyond.  A few meters below the salt lies the largest lithium field known to man, projected to contain 50-70% of the world’s lithium stores, currently in the process of being extracted to power our electronic addictions. All of this happens at close to 12,000 ft of altitude, under some of the clearest skies you’ve ever seen. They are so clear, in fact, and the white flat beneath them is so flat, that the area is used to calibrate altimeters of some Earth observation satellites.

Before we get to the tour, Travel Companion and I have to overcome a couple of obstacles. First, there is La Paz. Here, the airport is so high, it is actually called “el Alto.” All international flights seem to arrive between 2:30 and 6:00 a.m., for reasons I can’t understand, but which lead to a disproportionate number of people finding places to sleep in the small, humble airport until they can get into their hotels, hostels or onto morning flights to other places.  Lucky me, I found a random couch outside a ‘pay by the hour’ travelers’ hotel and happily took it. I donned my eye mask and ipod, and slept in cirque-de-soleil inspired contortion until six-thirty a.m. When the airport roared to life, I changed some money, grabbed a cab, and went to meet the owner of our rental apartment.

Because sometimes I am a moron, and because I was booking my Bogota – La Paz ticket when still in the midst of a severe state of travel panic (see The Terror), despite having read Travel Companion’s reservation six times, I still booked my ticket a day too early, leaving her to fend for herself (albeit with excellent instructions) to get a cab from the airport the next morning. As a result, when she showed up, I was a day ahead of her in the ‘adjusting to altitude and diesel’ environment, having spent about ten hours watching bad American HBO movies and eating peanut butter toast the day before. I’d also adjusted to Diamox side effects, like bouncing eyeballs and tingling extremities, especially hands, which make it difficult to sign your name, or unlock the apartment door.

Such is the state we were in when we headed out onto the diesel-fueled and diesel-fumed streets of La Paz to schedule the tour, at a Lonely Planet – recommended, bilingual tour agency with which I had been corresponding via email. I had been taking this whole thing casually, but my travel companion had been doing research, and she was scaring me. Apparently, it isn’t uncommon for tour drivers to be drunk the whole time they are driving. Since we didn’t want to pay $600 each for our three day tour, our driver would also be our guide and our cook. He wouldn’t be bilingual, and blog-rumor had it he would only cook hot dogs. Also, it was likely to be cold – REALLY cold – at night and we would need sleeping bags, which we didn’t have. What if, as the nurse at the travel clinic had warned her, my travel companion got typhoid? What if we had a drunk AND irresponsible driver and ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere, where no one found us until we had our own Bolivian version of “Alive” in full swing, minus the hot soccer players?

When we found the travel agency, we asked these questions as rationally and respectfully as we could. The kind agent tolerated my continuing to speak bad Spanish with her even when she answered me in English, and reminded us it wasn’t good for them if we had a bad tour. The last time they’d had a bad driver reported was in 2008. She recommended we bring some snacks and extra water, assured us we could rent sleeping bags from the agency, and booked our plane tickets to Uyuni for us. (We may not be willing to pay $600 for a better room, a bilingual guide or a cook, but we sure as shit weren’t taking an overnight bus to arrive the morning of our tour.)

Before we said goodbye, we were committed to whatever adventure we had just paid for, which would start with a 6:30 a.m. flight the next day. Unless the travel agent called to let us know it had been moved up to 5:30. In which case, we were pretty sure we weren’t going anyplace. We went to the grocery for bread and water, and returned home to our apartment for peanut butter toast.

On the Road, Tourist, Traveling, Uncategorized, United States

Heaven on Earth

I’ve been thinking about heaven a lot lately, driving around the United States and finding myself fully realizing the words to ‘America, the Beautiful,’ as amber waves of grain roll by my car windows. I’ve fallen into describing the awe-inspiring landscape as “heavenly,” meaning it brings peace, visual pleasure, and possibility into my frame of visual reference, and thought. In hotels, I’ve slept on more than one ‘heavenly bed,’ some because they are branded that way, and others because they bring the possibility of sleep and the chance to unbend my frame from it’s too-frequently seated position.  And from airplanes, of course, I’ve looked down at an ocean of puffy white cotton-like clouds outside the window and thought, ‘this is what they say heaven looks like.’ Yet upon my return to Orcas (the island I’ve made home base this fall) after a few weeks away, it occurred to me that if there is a heaven on earth, it is not a place or a vision, but a smell.

Sometimes heaven smells like wet seaweed

Sometimes heaven smells like wet seaweed

Smell transcends time and place. It can carry you from where you are now to where you were when. Think about it: the smell of fresh-baked cookies – anywhere – in a home or a bakery or wafting down a street in any small town or large metropolis – any where  in the world, can pull you from the moment you are in, to another moment, possibly long ago and far away, that is anchored by the smell of warm chocolate chips and dough that sinks back to hug them as they cool on a rack, and defined by the moment of peace or hope that it brought to you back in that time and space. Isn’t that what heaven is? The transcendence of the present to a larger realm of peace and possibility?

Sometimes heaven smells like fall

Sometimes heaven smells like fall

I am a person of place. I always have been.  I engage in a place by falling in love with its landscape. When I lived on the east coast, I often longed for the west coast with its cold ocean and high foothills. I longed for the hilly streets and old Victorians of San Francisco. I longed for the stillness of this island on which I’ve spent much of the last two months, and for the serenity of the view from where I now sit – over the grass, beyond the apple trees to the sound, to Lopez Island, to the sky above it and the Olympic mountains standing guard behind. For most of my life, I have associated this anchoring, this peace, with this place. I believed, for much of  my time living in Dallas, that what made it difficult was that city had no hills, not enough trees, too much strip mall cement.

And then a week ago, I drove off the ferry, cracked my window, and was in my heavenly home. The smell of clean air, laced with sea salt and rained grass, rushed in to welcome me.  In the distance was a top-note of wood-stove burning off fall chill and deep, deep beneath it were undertones reminiscent of the sun warming sugar out of last summer’s blackberries.

Suddenly, all the smells came to me. It wasn’t San Francisco I missed when I was on the East Coast. It was the smell of old book stores filled with history and revolution. It was salt floating on fog on early mornings when I waited for the bus to work. It was eucalyptus  trees carrying their native Australia to Tennessee Valley. Strip malls weren’t the problem with Dallas. The air was. Except when it was raining, and the air was filled with the electricity of a storm, Dallas atmosphere stagnated. There was no news being brought on the wind. You couldn’t tell where the ocean was by inhaling. There was no possibility blowing through.

And so, as I prepare to leave for lands that smell of dewy mornings in thin air, of the dirt road beneath your feet, the slow burn of trash in a neighboring field, the diesel of combis and collectivos that roar by, I’m taking some time to absorb this heaven. Lying in bed last night with a rain pounding wind down through the alder and rushing the scent of leaves and water through the roof eaves to where I lay, I inhaled deeply and held my breath, absorbing just a little bit of heaven on earth to bring with me on the road.

Heaven is the smell of true north

Heaven is the smell of true north

Moving, On the Road, Preparing, Traveling, Uncategorized

Goodbye to Good Gear

Good gear is essential  to a good trip. Unlike the life-or-death technical difference that defines good gear for, say, an Everest climber, for a traveler, 80% of the “good” in gear is born of the relationship you build with it over time.

For years, I traveled everywhere with an Eagle Creek shoulder bag that perfectly held a journal, guidebook, waterbottle and camera. It came with me to Korea, China, Italy. Somewhere in India, its zipper gave out, so I sent it back to Eagle Creek, who kindly fixed it for free, and I used it again – Guatemala, Nicaragua – until the waterproof lining began to peel off, the canvas weakened, and I had to give it up. The bag, which I still refuse to throw out, had reached its bitter, beloved end.

Good Gear Gone

Good Gear Gone

So I should have been prepared for what happened my first week on the road. To minimize what I lugged in and out of one-night stays, I packed my road clothes in a small, black Eddie Bauer duffle bag I bought circa 1998. To differentiate it from the crowd at baggage claim, I tied a white polka-dotted ribbon to the haul-strap on one end. It perfectly fits ten days worth of clothes, two books and toiletries for the road.

My first night in Taos, I pulled out my pjs and saw trouble. The black tank top in which I sleep looked as if it had developed dandruff on our 13 hour drive.

Duffle Dandruff

Duffle Dandruff

My jeans seemed to have lice. Had a spider hatched eggs in there? One item after another came out of the bag with the tell-tale signs of water-resistant lining peeling off the canvas like skin after a sunburn.  For four days, I wore my clothes in shame, and mourned the imminent death of this good gear.

By Santa Fe, I was consciously suppressing the urge to tell complete strangers, “I don’t have lice – it’s just my bag.” Something had to be done. I bucked up and headed to REI to buy a duffle, aiming to spend no more than $40. I had to dig – through aisles of backpacks with padded straps and toggled bungees that hold gear, through beautiful Eagle Creek duffles with hard bases and rolling wheels. At last I found a multi-colored, slightly retro canvas bag for $49. Longer than my old one, and rounder, its zipper didn’t quite run the length of the top. There could be an uncomfortable reach to pack-in and grab-out, but it would do..

There is nothing to say about this bag other than it just didn’t feel right. It wasn’t mine. It had to go back – but not before I found the proper alternative. So I headed to Alpine Sports, a small, independent store four blocks off the Santa Fe plaza that has been the solution to many a traveler’s clothing dilemma (including my own).  I walked in and asked about duffle bags, and there I fell in love.

I don’t know the name of the man who helped me. I can’t remember it – though I do remember he was the divorced dad of two-and-a-half year old twins. I just know that when he said, “all we have are those,” and pointed to a wall display of brightly-colored, sealant-immersed duffle bags with backpack straps and multi-colored zippers, it was as if the heavens opened and parted the Red Sea holding closed my wallet.

My Patagonia Love Affair

My Patagonia Love Affair

“But they’re Patagonia,” he said, knowing I wanted to spend under $50. I looked anyway. How could I not? I unzipped and re-zipped the pockets. I pulled out the display stuffing to discover a bright green lining inside. I checked the price, caught my breath, and listened as the clerk reminded me that if I bought one of these, I better like it because I wouldn’t need a new one for another decade. And then I went to have lunch.

While sitting at the Cowgirl BBQ, enjoying a harvest salad and Arnold Palmer with Spanky at my feet, I texted my better shopping advisors for advice. Before one could respond with, “do it, girl!” and another could forward the link for the Patagonia ambassadors page, I already knew what I would do. When you’re in love, you’re in love. No regrets.

Dallas, Life Skills, Preparing, Traveling

Packing It In

The problem with packing is this: it forces you to consider every item or habit you’ve stuffed away in the dark corners of your literal and figurative closets. It starts as a logistical puzzle (why do wine racks not fit in any normal sized box?) and inevitably (d)evolves into a psychological review at the worst possible time. What’s better than a personality assessment in the middle of a giant change?  Packing is the process of taking stock: Who are you? What have you done? What are you neglecting?

Forensically, here’s what one could deduce about me from the items that have now been pulled from my apartment and packed away in a climate-controlled 9’x23’ storage unit:

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