April 20, 2014

Post Salkantay trek, Peru

Well, I did it! Just barely, but I managed to “conquer” around 60 kilometers (37 miles) on one of the most challenging treks I’ve ever done. Four days and three nights of difficult uphill, painful downhill, sunburns, rain, aching muscles, and freezing nights in a tent was rewarded with some of the most beautiful scenery that ends with a visit to Machu Picchu. If you like a good challenge, llamas, starry skies, snowcapped mountains, sleeping in tents, and good food, then this is a trip for you.

The trek started out with a steady incline at almost 10,000 feet above sea level, so the air was thin to start with. The terrain changed from dirt to rock and back again pretty much the entire way. Horses would occasionally run by unmanned, local families would walk past carrying supplies, and sometimes a different tour group would pass us (or at least me). There were birds, flowers, wild animals, and sunshine all along the trail. The people in our group (11 of us) were from Denmark, France, America, and Ireland, and they were all lovely.

In my previous post I mentioned that I felt a bit unprepared, and I have to admit that I questioned my ability to get through the whole trek on day one, when I got hit with altitude sickness. I was worried that it would be an issue for me, and almost wonder if I talked myself into experiencing it subconsciously. After walking uphill for a few hours in the direct sunlight, I suddenly felt like I couldn’t take in enough air, felt dizzy and panicky, and needed to sit down. Fortunately, our guide Primo had his “magic potion” with him, which is some mix of herbs that are supposed to help open up your lungs to take in a bit more oxygen. After resting for a few minutes and breathing in the mixture, I was able to get going again, slowly at first, but I made it through the rest of the ascent with no issues. Sadly, since I had a little trouble the first day, I decided to take a horse for two hours at the beginning of the second day, which is exactly what I had hoped wouldn’t happen. I’m not a big fan of riding animals because I find it terrifying. Especially up windy mountains, through rivers, and down rocky terrain. However, I managed to survive, and on day two we made it to the highest point, which was 15,000 feet above sea level. I give approximate numbers for things like distance and altitude because even the guides seemed unsure at times of the exact numbers.

The company we chose was Cuscoperuviajes and our guide was great. He put up with our constant slowness due to picture-taking, outfit rearranging, and water breaks. The tour included horses to carry up to 6 kilos per person and cooks that ran ahead of the group to prepare the meals and set up camp. It was almost freezing at night, and we were so tired from hiking at least 12 miles every day that I could barely make it through dinner without passing out. However, being up so high on a clear night allowed us a view of the brightest star-filled sky I’ve probably ever seen.

In the end, I felt that I was prepared enough as far as gear went. We packed for pretty much every temperature, had great shoes and socks, plenty of first aid stuff, bug spray and sunscreen, snacks, raingear, and camera equipment. I definitely recommend plenty of pairs of socks and warm layers for sleeping. Also, you are provided with a thin sleeping mat but no pillow, so I was glad I remembered my travel pillow. I packed extra snacks but was surprised at my lack of hunger while trekking. I wasn’t in my absolute best physical shape, but it only slowed me down, I still finished.

At the end of the third day, we were taken to the hot springs, which were beautiful and very much needed. The rest of the group stayed on for a 4th day that allowed for activities like ziplining, but me and my two friends took a bus and train to a hostel in Aguas Calientes. We were determined to go out for drinks to celebrate surviving the three tough days, but of course wound up being tired and went to bed early to rest before our big day at Machu Picchu. We were pleased that it wasn’t as crowded there as we had feared, and we were free to roam around one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, frolicking with the llama population.

I definitely recommend this trek, and visiting Peru in general. Cusco and Aguas Calientes were both really neat cities that you have to pass through to get to Machu Picchu. Overall we spent two weeks, and we didn’t see nearly enough of Peru. If anyone has any questions about the trek or getting around I’d be happy to help, you can reach me here or on my website. Thanks for reading, more photos below!

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Category: Backpacking, Destinations, South America

April 19, 2014

Up Cambodia without a phrase book

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Image credit

I am 15 minutes into my hike down the muddy little stream when a tree carving captures my attention. Sticky with sap and arcing brown across the bark, it seems to have been made recently.

I drop to my haunches and run my fingers over the design. After three days of living on the Indochinese outback without electricity or running water, I feel like my senses have been sharpened to the details of the landscape. I take a step back for perspective, and my mind suddenly goes blank.

The carving is a crude depiction of a skull and crossbones.

Were I anyplace else in the world, I might be able to write off the skull and crossbones as a morbid adolescent prank. Unfortunately, since I am in northwestern Cambodia, the ghoulish symbol can mean only one thing: land mines. Suddenly convinced that everything in my immediate vicinity is about to erupt into a fury of fire and shrapnel, I freeze.

My brain slowly starts to track again, but I can’t pinpoint a plan of action. If this were a tornado, I’d prone myself in a low-lying area. Were this an earthquake, I’d run to an open space away from trees and buildings. Were this a hurricane, I’d pack up my worldly possessions and drive to South Dakota. But since I am in a manmade disaster zone, all I can think to do is nothing.

My thoughts drift to a random quote from a United Nations official a few years back, who was expressing his frustration in trying to clear the Cambodian countryside of hundreds of thousands of unmarked and unmapped mines. “Cambodia’s mines will be cleared,” he’d quipped fatalistically, “by people walking on them.”

As gingerly as possible, I lower myself to the ground, resolved to sit here until I can formulate a course of action that won’t result in blowing myself up. (more…)

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Category: Adventure Travel, Asia, Destinations, Rolf Potts

April 12, 2014

Leaping Without The Pile in the Back of the Closet

The pile in the back of the closet

The pile in the back of the closet

Petrified, excited, invigorated, exhilarated, daunted…I felt them all in the weeks leading up to my first round the world journey. So many emotions, so little time. All the planning for this idea of taking a hiatus from the everyday was thrilling, yet frightening. From visa applications to inoculations (those weren’t fun) and new passport pages to hotel bookings the excitement continued to grow. But then it was six weeks before, one-month prior and days ahead of wheels up and the packing began. First world problem, no question; but all the worries came to a head with this-will I be okay without the ‘just in case stuff’ in the back of my closet?

You know that pile with the favourite t-shirt from university, the worn out jumper from sleep-away camp or those old standby jeans for the ‘I’m feeling fat’ days…where would you be without them? Was I really worried about stuff? We’ve all experienced that tug and pull in our own way. At this point, on this day, this was mine. Hindsight is twenty-twenty; was it really the stuff or was it something else? It’s what many who have made the leap to long-term travel have experienced with similar stories about managing on far less than in their pre-long-term travel days. But, I was stuck. Collapsing in a heap beside the flung open closet door staring at the ‘stuff’, I sat. The fashion consultants on What No To Wear would have thrown it out years ago since it’s been that long since I put my hand on it, but it was comforting to know it was there. Smaller after bouts of culling and donating, but, still there. I knew that pile held far more than clothes.

One backpack was all I allowed myself. If it didn’t fit it wasn’t coming. If it didn’t have more than one purpose or matched with three other things it wasn’t making it. I cried. Having looked forward to this journey for over a year, was I really crying over STUFF? Really? Wrapped up in this stuff were worries of everything and nothing. Would we be okay? What if something happened to someone I love? Who would keep in touch? What if everything changed when we were gone? The anticipation and worry manifested in that tiny pile in the back of the closet. The pile, that metaphor for the ‘what ifs of the world’ had taken hold and had me in its grasp. There were memories of time passed mixed with the notion of the unknown possibilities for a time yet to come. The crying continued. Logically, I knew how lucky we would all be if this truly was one of the most difficult decisions to make (perspective is a wonderful thing), but still, it was hard. On a precipice filled with greater meaning, this felt like one of those teachable moments. Either choice was fine, but I knew one led to a new journey in both destinations and personal growth while the other stayed stuck with the unchanging ease of ‘the devil you know’. Getting to the place to make the jump was a journey in itself and this felt like a turning point. Stay with the comfort of the pile or embrace the idea that you hold the key to the meaning of the pile? The rest is just that, ‘stuff’.

It didn’t make it into the backpack and after awhile I got up off the floor. I wasn’t yet ready to get rid of the pile but I was ready to close the closet door and leave room in the bag for the unknown future. The pile didn’t win. It remained, for the time being, in the back of the closet (to be revisited at a later date) and I took comfort in the knowledge that it was there. This journey to a place open to the risks and rewards of the frightening while slowly disentangling from the worries of the ‘what ifs’ is a continual one but each step does make a difference. Long-term travel was ahead with indeterminable adventure and experiences far greater than the stuff could ever hold. It is worth the risk. Maybe I wasn’t yet ready to discard the pile from the back of the closet entirely, but I was able to close the door and open a new one.

Traveler 1-Pile 0.

What’s your ‘pile’? What helped you make your leap?

 

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Category: Backpacking, Notes from the collective travel mind

April 9, 2014

Vagabonding Field Report: The coast of El Salvador

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Cost/day: $55/day

What’s the strangest thing that’s happened lately?

Between my husband and my son, they were stung three times during the one week we were in El Salvador!

Describe a typical day:

We’re driving most days, exploring the coast and searching for a place where we could possibly rent a house. Stopping at towns along the way, such as El Zonte, San Blas and Liberia, we check out the beaches and rental prices.

The roads are windy along the coastline in the north, with cliffs that offer vistas of the sea. Sunshine reflects off the ocean. The breeze blows, the windows are down and our favorite tunes are playing on the radio. It’s great to be alive, exploring this big, beautiful world!

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What do you like about where you are? Dislike?

Like: There are no speed bumps! After being in Guatemala for so long and their countless tumulos it’s refreshing to be able to drive without slowing down for speed bumps.

The people are super friendly, and love the children. They are constantly coming up to us every time we stop and asking questions.

We also found a great little place to hangout in El Cuco… a great campground with a pool and a short jaunt to the beach.

Dislike: We’re shocked with the prices here — food is about 20% more than Guatemala (we’d heard it was cheaper), and rental rates are outrageous! Prices are high, but the ‘niceness’ of accommodations are not. This was not at all what we expected. We can only surmise that rates are being driven up because the coast of El Salvador is very popular for surfers.

Describe a challenge you faced:

We’d hoped to find a house to rent for a month or two, but all rental rates were outside of our budget, and even if they hadn’t have been, nothing we found would work for our family of seven (soon to be eight.) Given my condition of being 6 months pregnant, I was disappointed by having my expectations unrealized.

What new lesson did you learn?

Expect the unexpected. You never really know what a destination has to offer until you hit the ground. Besides, everyone’s desires are different, so it can affect what their experience is like.

Where next?

We’re heading to Nicaragua where we hope to find a house on the beach that we can rent for a few months.

See more family travel adventures, connect with me on Facebook, or learn how to fund travel.

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Category: Central America, Family Travel, Vagabonding Field Reports

April 6, 2014

Review: Osprey Kestrel 48 backpack and how to choose a great backpack

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A good backpack can make or break a trip. Drenching rain, language barriers, delayed flights — you can weather all with humor and go-get-’em attitude.

But a good backpack is the foundation upon which your trip rests. It holds your entire life in one place. It protects it. Sometimes you wear it so often it feels like another appendage.

That’s why it’s important to take some time before your trip to figure out what kind of new appendage — or backpack — works for you. Next to figuring out which book to take with me, this decision was the most important on my two-week trip to Europe.

Review on Osprey Kestrel 48 backpack

osprey frontAfter lots of research, I decided on Osprey Packs Kestrel 48 backpack for three reasons:

But the true test came after wearing my pack for two solid weeks. Included in that time were some very long midnight wanderings in suburban Rome searching for our hotel, running through train stations and for vaporettos, and getting shoved under train seats.

What I liked and disliked about the Osprey Kestrel

Liked:

Disliked:

What to look for when choosing a backpack

1. Functionality

How are you planning to use your pack? Will you be hiking or walking a lot? Do you need it to be water-repellant?

If you’ll be walking with it a lot, pick one with an interior frame and hip belt to redistribute the weight off your shoulders. Water-resistance is a good thing to consider, so check for a rain cover. You can’t always control the weather, but it’s nice to know your stuff won’t get soaked.

2. Durability

You want a pack that wears its age and travels well. You don’t want to deal with broken zippers or rips on the road.

Look for fabric at least 400 denier nylon packcloth with a urethane coating (aka water-repellant). Test the zippers. Do some Google searches on “broken zipper + pack name” to see how it stands up.

A good place to check out long-term durability is reading Amazon’s reviews on the pack; you get a wide smattering of opinions to help your decision.

3. Access into the bag

Do you want to access the bag just from the top (top-loading pack)? Or from the top and bottom (called the sleeping bag compartment)? Exterior pockets or no pockets?

These are things to consider if you want to lock your bag. The more access points into your bag equals more locks you need.

4. Carrying Capacity

Ah, the clincher. Getting a pack that’s too big will restrict your ability to carry it on the plane. Getting a pack too small will curtail your purchasing abilities.

It’s a really good idea to check out the bags in person. After all, this is gear that interacts with your body. Like shoes, how it feels on you will impact how you feel about the trip.

Play around with the packs. Try them on. Figure out how it feels on your back and do a few spins to check your bull in a china shop prowess. The empty pack should feel light and not too bulky on your back.

For me, the perfect capacity size was 48: still small enough for carry on, but large enough for clothes and extras picked up along the way.

5. Backpack size

Backpacks come in three sizes: small, medium and large. The sizes are determined by your torso length, not your height.

Here’s a general guide to figuring out the pack size from your torso length:

Men’s and Women’s
Pack Size Torso Length
Extra small Up to 15½”
Small 16″ to 17½”
Medium/Regular 18″ to 19½”
Large/Tall 20″+

Difference between men and women packs:

Generally, compared to men’s packs, women’s packs are:

But really, it comes down to how the pack feels on you. Even though I’m a woman, I picked a men’s pack based on how it fit me and what it looked like. Oh — and that it had good pockets.

Read more by Laura at Waiting To Be Read.

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Category: Backpacking, Travel Gear

April 5, 2014

Rolf Potts on Budget Travel

Backpack on boat 2

Whenever anyone asks me why I still travel on a shoestring at the ripe old age of 38, I usually tell them about the time I learned how to play the bagpipes in Havana.

Granted, I could probably relate a more typical story about the joys of budget travel - some tidy parable of money saved and experiences gained – but when I mention learning the bagpipes in Cuba it sounds like I’m going to tell a joke, and people like jokes.

The thing is, there’s no punch line. My encounter with Cuban bagpipers wasn’t memorable for its mere quirkiness – it was memorable because it illustrates how travelling on the cheap can offer you windows into a culture that go beyond the caricatured stereotype of what a place is supposed to be like.

If it sounds to you like I’m an ageing backpacker who never quite grew out of his shoestring ways, you’d be exactly right. In many ways, my travel sensibilities have grown out of a journey I took 10 years ago, when I quit my job as an English teacher and took a journey across Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. I probably had enough money saved up to invest in a three-month trip. As it turned out, I learned ways to stretch my travel budget into a life-enriching 30-month sojourn – and in all those months of travel, my day-to-day costs were significantly cheaper than day-to-day life would have cost me back in the United States.

The secret to my extraordinary thrift was neither secret nor extraordinary: like many generations of backpackers and shoestring travellers before me, I was able to make my modest savings last by slowing down and forgoing a few comforts as I travelled. Instead of luxury hotels, I slept in clean, basic hotels, hostels and guesthouses. Instead of dining at fancy restaurants, I ate food from street vendors and local cafeterias. Occasionally, I travelled on foot, slept out under the stars, and dined for free at the stubborn insistence of local hosts. In what eventually amounted to over two years of travel, my lodging averaged out to just under $5 a night, my meals cost well under $1 a plate, and my total expenses rarely exceeded $1,000 a month. Instead of investing my travel budget in luxuries and amenities, I invested it in more travel time – and it never failed to pay off in amazing experiences.

It’s been almost eight years now since I finished that extended stint of vagabonding, but the experience is still very much a part of me. In financial terms, I have the resources to sleep in five-star hotels and eat in expensive international restaurants, but I’ve found I rarely choose such luxurious options. Given a choice between a $400-a-night hotel and an $18-a-night flophouse in Hong Kong, I tend to opt for the latter. Faced with the prospect of an all-inclusive dinner buffet in a Santo Domingo casino, I invariably find myself wandering outside to sample food from street vendors.

Ultimately, the charm of budget travel has always been less about saving money than making the most of my time on the road. Travelling cheaply has forced me to be engaged and creative, rather than to throw money at my holidays and hope for the best. Freed from a rigid, expense-laden itinerary, I’m more likely to be spontaneous, embrace serendipity and enjoy each moment of my journey.

Excerpted from Around The World On a Shoestring-The Guardian Feb. 6, 2009

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Category: Backpacking, Rolf Potts, Vagabonding Advice

April 1, 2014

Saskia: On Vagabonding & thanks to Rolf

Last weekend I was in NYC, meeting with Rolf, among other things. It was mentioned, in passing, to a girl I met over dinner one evening and she got so excited: “I’ve read his book!! It literally changed my life!” She gushed. Her enthusiasm for travel was palpable, and she agreed to let me film her talking a bit about what the book, Vagabonding, had meant to her… she also had something to say to Rolf, personally:

Would you like to contribute a video about what Vagabonding has meant to you? Contact me: jenn(AT)vagabonding.net

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Category: Female Travelers, Youth Travel

March 23, 2014

Preparing to hike the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu

I am writing from my sleeping bag in the Lima airport, getting ready to go to “bed” for the night on the food court floor. Today starts my two week trip to Peru, and I have an early flight to Cusco in the morning. In some ways I feel prepared (for instance right now I have a sleeping bag, ear plugs, and eye mask, while I see other struggling to sleep/fight sleep at food court tables), but in most ways I feel very unprepared for this trip. It was a spontaneous decision that myself and two girlfriends made just a few months ago, after finding ourselves on the same continent for the first time in over a year. Why not fly halfway around the world and hike Machu Picchu? I think a good bit of planning could have happened if we had really put our minds to it, but instead this will be an account of travel “winging it.”

It seems that the more I travel, the less I prepare. This is good in some ways, but of course could result in some major inconveniences. When I first left for a round-the-world trip in March of 2012, all I could think about for months in advance was plan, plan, planning. I even committed to the decision to save money and leave everything behind a full year in advance. Today, I find myself running to my flight as they are paging my name, only vaguely knowing the name of the hotel I am staying, not knowing the exchange rate for the country I’m visiting, etc.

Here is a photo of the things I packed before I left in 2012:

Here is a photo of my preparation for this trip:

This picture is a good representation of my current attention to detail in planning. Not at the top of my game, and maybe not completely recommended, but also not completely detrimental to a trip. Sometimes you just have to jump in without a plan.

Thanks to some internet research we came to the conclusion that a few basic tasks were necessary prior to arriving in Peru: booking a specific trek with a tour company due to limited availability, booking some basic internal flights before the price jumped, and knowing where to find the llamas (apparently they are quite bountiful). Some trips to our favorite outdoor clothing stores fitted us with sturdy boots, warm gloves, and plenty of layers for the high altitude weather. We used the company Cuscoperuviajes for our Salkantay trek. They were a bit cheaper than a lot of the other companies out there, and the reviews we saw were positive.

And the plan is to meet in Cusco.

I have a unique situation where I absolutely completely loathe flying, every single time. Unfortunately it doesn’t get better with experience. I also get anxiety and motion sickness on fast moving buses, and the thought of altitude sickness stresses me out. It’s not easy to want to travel so often but to be so scared of your means to do so. Sometimes you find yourself thrown into a situation by no one other than yourself, only to love and hate it at the same time. You might find yourself on a plane to get to the one place you’ve always wanted to go, only to wish you could call the whole thing off to escape the sudden onset of rough turbulence at 35,000 feet in the air. Climbing a mountain for four days to get to a World Heritage Site sounds like a great idea until you realize you aren’t really in shape for it and that you may suffer from altitude sickness and will be forced to ride on a disgruntled donkey along the edge of a cliff for hours on end. Travel has a way of pulling out the very best and worst of you, the most adventurous and the most fearful parts. But, you do it because you get something more out of it. You learn to depend on yourself in ways that you never thought you were capable. You have a new appreciation for where you are from, or maybe you find that you belong somewhere else. You meet people that inspire you to embrace life and adventure that you would have otherwise never met. Travel is one of the most enriching things you can do for yourself, and hopefully the people around you.

So all that said, here I am, waiting for an early flight, pushing all the anxiety I have to the bottom of my thoughts, and thinking about the positives. The photos I will take, the physical challenges I will overcome, and the new foods I will try. I’m thankful for my equally spontaneous friends and the chance to go see a new country and culture. Assuming I make it out alive, I’ll be back with an update on how it all went.

Has anyone else been to Cusco or hiked the Salkantay? Any advice on what not to miss or important things to pack would be welcomed!

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Category: Adventure Travel, Backpacking, South America

March 12, 2014

Vagablogging Field Report: Extreme Bungee Adventure in Guatemala

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Cost: $22/adults $12.50/kids

What’s the coolest thing you’ve done lately?

Extreme Bungee!! Get strapped into a harness and shot into the air with up to 4G forces pressing against your body… basically you’re a human catapult. That’s extreme bungee.

Describe the experience:

We are picked up by Lionel who owns and runs Xtreme Bungee. He drives us a few minutes outside of Antigua where he has an incredible human catapult machine set up.

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One by one, all the members of my family (except for the two youngest and me, the pregnant mommy) take turns being shot into the air, reacting with screams and funny facial expressions while G forces press against their bodies and free falls turn their tummies. (The video is hilarious!)

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What do you like about the experience? Dislike?

I loved watching my kids and husband as they experienced something new and faced (and overcame) fears and uncertainties in order to create great memories, build confidence and have unexpected fun!

I did not like the music that was played at the site. It was in English and inappropriate for children. However, the owner has since stated that he will be more aware of that in the future.

Describe a challenge you faced:

Convincing my oldest son that he could not have more than two turns!

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What new lesson did you learn?

Giving children an opportunity to get out of their comfort zone and try something new is ultimately what travel is about. It helps their confidence to grow, and expands their minds.

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Where next?

Next we’ll be heading to El Salvador.

See more family travel adventures on my blog, or connect with me on Facebook.

Rachel Denning Lake Atitlan 500

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Category: Central America, Family Travel, Vagabonding Field Reports

March 6, 2014

Is there really such a thing as “us” and “them”?

As we travel around the world, one of our most important goals is to connect with people and find out what common threads exist that bind humanity together. It is so very easy to categorize people and to explain away the worlds ills with generalizations and dinner table chats on politics.

But who are the individuals who inhabit our earth? Who are the people we talk about dismissively during those dinner table chats, sandwiched somewhere between the main course and dessert? How are they affected by the grander conflicts of our world? What do we have in common with them?

Does the key to changing our worst behaviors as a species lie solely in seeing people as individuals who are very much like us? 

Mayan women in procession

Recently, I had the honor of meeting a woman named “Katerina”, who chose to share her experiences during a very dark period in Guatemala history- a period many have categorized as genocide. Her experience is her own and her perspective is uniquely hers, though many suffered in a similar fashion.

The period in Guatemalan history Katerina talks about is very recent history. It was a period of brutality fueled by politics that affected the lives of every Mayan, every Guatemalan, at the time. Out of sheer panic over the possible spread of Communism, the US played a now well-known role in the events during this period, supporting a brutal regime and fueling anti-indigenous sentiment in the country. Guerrilla groups cropped up (some backed by Cuba) and, in their zeal to fight brutality from government backed groups, often tormented the local populace in their own right. The results were catastrophic with hundreds of thousands of people killed or “disappeared” and many more tortured and brutalized.

I was barely alive when this all took place but, as an American, I cannot help but feel remorse and utter helplessness over the horrific experiences Guatemalans were forced to endure due in part to my country’s politics.

Katerina said, in part:

“They would come in the night. They would burn buildings and start fights. No one had arms to protect themselves but they would still come. They would kill men, women, and children- they didn’t care. It didn’t matter if they were guerrillas or military, they were all the same.

My family was one of the lucky ones. There were police in disguise all over our village but my family had no one with the guerrillas so we escaped much of the problems. People where I lived were always afraid. The military was always demanding free food that we could not afford to give. They would rape our women; kill people as they went about their daily lives. My mother protected us fiercely and somehow, none of the females in my family was ever raped. The guerrillas were always causing problems and they were not much better than the military and police officials.”

Can you imagine what she is saying for a moment? Close your eyes and imagine strangers coming in the night and killing your child. Now imagine those strangers are dressed in the military uniform of your own country. Imagine that the greatest achievement you reach as a mother for over a decade was in protecting your girl children from being raped. Imagine, on top of all of this, that you have absolutely no idea what is going on.

Mayan Child

“In Chichicastenango, there were military and guerrillas everywhere. No one knew where these people were from, they were strangers. The guerrillas dressed in the typical, local clothing of the Mayan people in Chichi and so the military was constantly coming after the Chichi people. But these guerrillas were not from Chichi, they were strangers who dressed like the Chichi people to fool the military. No one in Chichi knew who they were. It was very dangerous for the local people.

In the time of the guerrillas, there were still a few foreigners coming in and out of Guatemala. A friend used to drive these foreigners from Guatemala City to the Panajachel area. Along the highway between Guatemala City and Pana, you can often see sacks filled with crops, lining the side of the road, waiting for pick-up. One time when this friend was driving these foreigners, there was a stretch of road that had sacks upon sacks but there was not one single person around. The foreigners asked the driver what was in those sacks because there were just so many and the driver told them it was likely potatoes.

They dropped these foreigners off in Panajachel and turned around to head back to the city. On their return, they noticed the sacks were still there. They went on for what seemed like kilometers. The driver’s helper convinced the driver to pull over and see what was in those sacks. There were just too many and there was still not one single person in sight. When the driver pulled over, he opened the bags and discovered the heads of indigenous people stuffed into those sacks. Who knows what happened to the rest of the bodies of those people.

Why would anyone do this? It was political. It was always political. We had no freedom of expression. We were stuck in the middle of violence that wasn’t ours. It’s always the same but now the problems we see are different. There are really no more guerrillas now but extortion is a very real problem these days. But it’s always political.”

Why would anyone do this? How could they do this to fellow human beings? Simple. They stopped thinking of Katerina and her community as human. The perpetrators created a political problem, a threatening philosophy that happened to wear indigenous Mayan clothing. Katerina and her community became “collateral damage”. Today that political problem wears a turban and has a beard. Collateral damage still exists and lately, it seems to exist far too often at Middle Eastern weddings full of children and families.

I wonder sometimes what clothing our political problem will wear tomorrow? Who knows. 

“The guerrillas and the military were all the same to us. They all wanted something, they all did bad things. The military would tell us we had to have documents [identification] an then the guerrillas would come and tell us “no documents!” They were always fighting. They decimated us financially. We are still struggling to support our families after all the fighting. We work harder to earn [the equivalent of] one dollar. Kids to take care of, no land, no work. When you live like this, you end up with no love for life.”

When you sit sit across the table from a woman like Katerina, sharing a warm empanada, and listening to her story, it is hard to view her, or her community, as anything but human. They are not a political talking point, they represent no ideology. Katerina, her family, and her friends are people. People who woke up one day to torture, rape, violence, murder, kidnappings, and abuse around every corner.

Travel brought me to Katerina’s table and her face is the face I will always imagine when I here the words “those people” fall off the lips of someone discussing politics at a dinner party. Those people have names, faces, feelings, and terrifying fears because of political ideologies. We create enemies, reasons to wage war, and imaginary barriers that divide humanity into “us” and “them”.

But there is no “us” and “them”. The very concept is an illusion.

Katerina is, at her core, absolutely no different than me. There is nothing at all stopping the horrors she faced from showing up on my doorstep tomorrow….. or yours.

Travel creates space for clarity. It pulls away the curtain of political ideologies and forces us to think for ourselves instead of internalizing the agenda of our next “leader”.

It creates the space to see our own hypocrisy and to see the simple facts in those situations we make far too complex, in a never ending search for justification.

Travel forces us to look “them” in the eye to see if our justifications, political talking points, philosophies, and biases hold up.

It creates the conditions where a citizen of, arguably, the most powerful country (currently) on earth can sit across the table from a descendant of one of the most powerful civilizations in history and discuss the very simple fact that there is absolutely no difference between human beings- no matter what corner of the earth they call home or what period of history their society inhabits.

When our common humanity is illuminated and we accept that there is no “us” and “them”, it becomes impossible to ignore the “collateral damage” anymore. 

“Me, I am lucky. I like my work. I work everyday between my two jobs and I get one day off every 15 days. I don’t drink, not at all, for 9 years. My kids, my spouse, and my family are more important to me. But what about the others? They work in ways they weren’t meant to for money they do not care about. The kids are forgetting our culture. They drink to feel better. What about them?

We still have problems after what happened.”

Yes. We certainly do.

In memory of

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Category: Central America, Ethical Travel
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