Another note on traveling alone, people are much friendlier and willing to talk when they see a solo traveler. I’m also different, more outgoing, solicitous and always looking to make eye contact with a smile and a nod. While I was traveling with Yishi and Dmitri, it didn’t seem like there was that much potential for forming and keeping friendships, or even extended conversations. A group of three is contained, self-sufficient and inflexible. It’s already an exercise in social skills to accommodate the desires, quirks and habits of three – to add more, and those just met, is asking for an awkward situation. Under those circumstances, I let potential acquaintances slide by with nary a nod. But, when traveling alone, you have the freedom to meet, mingle and adapt your schedule when necessary.
Yesterday was one of those days you look back on fondly. You know those days, a day that makes you forget the bad stuff, that becomes emblematic of the entire trip and leaves lasting impressions. I spent the morning chopping wood for the greenhouses with Floris, working up a sweat despite low temperatures and a slight drizzle. The moment when you really throw yourself into your work is the moment you begin to enjoy it. You strip away reservations – clothes can always be washed and sweating is a natural human condition. You begin to relish the polished feel of the axe handle, the cool rain and the satisfying thunk of splitting wood. Chopping wood has a steep learning curve; I’ll admit I’m not especially efficient or skilled. Sometimes it took me 3 or 4 swings to split a log, sometimes I gave up, relegating stubborn logs to a separate pile for the more adept. For all that, it’s quietly satisfying to keep at a hard task and watch as a small pile of split logs grows at your feet. Floris took wheelbarrows of wood into the greenhouses, feeding squat black stoves in order to heat tomatoes and other plants that need the heat.
Floris is a great guy. He’s the kind of guy you want your future daughter to marry – strong statement, I know, but well deserved. Tall, lanky and fit from years of long distance running, he works as an athletic trainer in Amsterdam and rents an apartment with his wife Helen (also a great gal, working at a financial institution). He’s one of those people you could never imagine angry or flustered and has a kind of inner Zen that always keeps his disposition cheerful. He’s got little wrinkles around his eyes from smiling too much and is always ready with a joke or quip, a rarity in the world of second language speakers (ever notice that? When I’m speaking Spanish, all I can convey are basic facts – about myself, my surroundings, things like that. Linguistic nuances and jokes are just beyond my grasp at the moment). He and Helen are on their honeymoon and speak Dutch to each other when they’re off on their own. You can just tell things are going to work out well for them.
Marie is another person down here that I really admire. When we arrived at Torres, she was the first person to greet us, all smiles and easy conversation. She is in the middle of completing a degree in Communications at Northeastern, but isn’t resuming school until the start of the next academic year. Over the course of that first day, we learned that she had been in South America for 8 months already, traveling and volunteering across Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile and, improbably, Columbia. I’m trying to imagine countries that are more dangerous for a tiny blonde American girl and it’s a pretty short list. But it’s exactly that kind of energy and independence that I admire most I think. From what I can tell, she’s had an amazing time down here, meeting friends and family along the way and adapting plans and work/volunteer opportunities to fit the realities of the local situation. She’s got the people skills and general savvy to get pretty much anything done. I’m starting to realize that traveling is a skill just like any other. It’s inspiring though because she doesn’t let any hangups stop her from doing what she wants to do. She’s very much of the school that one should just go out and do it and things will work out as they’re meant to. The strange thing is that I’ve encountered this attitude before and it encompasses an odd duality – a laid-back willingness to make the best of any situation and an inner drive to start shit.
Guilhem and Marime are two French 21 year olds that I arrived with. Both are studying agriculture related fields at a university outside of Paris and speak Spanish and English with a slight French accent. I find it a little unfair that French people sound sexy when they speak foreign languages, but for other nationalities, the best they can hope for is to minimize the accent as much as possible. Guilhem is tall, dapper and wears a scarf even while doing trail work. The young girls working at the hotel titter when he goes by and, in the course of chatting with some of the staff, it comes out that they think he looks like a Calvin Klein model. He’s obviously a really intelligent dude and has some of the best language skills of any of the people here, speaking voluminous amounts of rapid Spanish and English. For all these attributes, he’s a down-to-earth guy, very hardworking and just all around nice. Marime shares a lot of these qualities as well. She’s darkish, I can’t tell what nationality, with short curly hair and black rimmed glasses. More comfortable speaking English than Spanish, she’s always ready with a laugh and a touch on the arm to smooth over any linguistic misunderstandings.
Our little group is rounded out by Yao, Jan, Julie, Erve and Jono. Yao is in his late 20’s, originally from Vancouver, but worked as a schoolteacher in the UK for the past two years. He’s trying to transition to a career in the tourism industry, learning Spanish in order to add to his established language repertoire (English, Mandarin). He should be good to go with those three I think. We spent a chill afternoon on the grass outside the garden just talking about family and future plans – parents, siblings, upbringing, Asian things like that haha. He and I have a very older brother - younger brother vibe going. Its been really nice to meet people who are at different stages in their life - professionally, personally, the whole bit. Jan is a student from the Czech Republic who I took a little while warming up to. Maybe its that whole Eastern European thing, but he was a little distant, a little less friendly than everyone else and hence the initial difficulty. Julie is a compact, competent looking 33 year old from France looking to become a mountain guide. It seems that everyone here is at a life crossroads, the early 20 something year olds delaying an entry to the job market and the older group choosing new career paths.
Erve is a strong, tan 31 year old who worked installing air conditioning units in France. On the trail, he’s the first person we’d look to whenever a large rock needed to be moved. He told me that he plays rugby and lifts weights in his free time. When he left for his trek, he was carrying a 90 liter pack that was stuffed to the brim. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t even be able to stand under that load (for reference, my pack is 67 liters and probably won’t ever weigh more than 40 lbs). He’s worked all sorts of crazy jobs to finance his travels, from demolition and construction in Australia to beekeeping in Argentina. He’s the first and only smoker that I’ve ever met that is responsible about disposing of his cigarette butts (all the time, even when we’re out on the trail). After a couple cups of wine, he’s very talkative and liable to break out singing some French drinking song. Jono is a guy I didn’t interact with much, he left for a mountain climbing trek after only a couple days. He is about to enter a 2 year long high-mountaineering course and eventually wants to become a mountain guide.
Spanish and English are the languages common to all of us, but some are more comfortable speaking Spanish, so that’s the language we try to stick to. It’s exhausting though, trying to speak and understand Spanish all day. I’m never quite sure people understand me completely and sometimes I give up trying to communicate what I’m thinking even before I start speaking. On one of my last nights at Torres, we were all sitting around a fire enjoying the warmth and company. One by one, people drifted off to bed as it got progressively later. Pretty soon, it was just Marie and I speaking in English. We were talking mostly about home - future plans, past happenings and everything else. She made a reference to a Mad TV skit (I will cuuut you, thank you S&B for showing me that gem, I can now relate to American college kids all over the world) and at that moment I began to appreciate what a blessing clear communication is. Language skills are so important while traveling and can open so many doors for you, not only in daily life, but also in terms of interpersonal relationships. For example, Erve doesn’t speak much English, and I know that our relationship can progress only so far. There’s no way we’re going to be discussing anything of real substance with my limited Spanish. We won’t be able to form those little nuances that make for deep, interesting conversation. True, there won’t ever be absolute understanding between two human beings - after all, we’re bounded by the limits of the spoken word - but fluency in the medium of communication goes a long way towards achieving a better understanding between two people. Heart-to-heart is still just an expression and hasn’t yet been realized as a legitimate mode of communication. Marie and I were kicking around the embers while we talked, obstinately waiting for the fire to go out, but not really making much of an effort. Our conversation made me realize how much I missed home, the people, the modernity, the cleanliness, but most of all, the understanding that comes about as a result of shared language fluency. As the fire finally went out, we walked to our tents and paused a moment to look up at the stars. She said something along the lines of ‘it’s too bad you have to leave so early.’ And all of a sudden, I realized that I wasn’t ready to go yet. I wasn’t ready to trade new experiences, adventurous people, and diverse cultures for the creature comforts and security of my life back in the US. Its one of those moments that I’m always going to remember. I went to bed that night weighing homesickness against everything that comes along with traveling and … yep, still footloose.