El Sendero del Jaguar pt.1

What a crazy life. How did I even get here? I’ve been hearing this question a lot lately. A question I stopped asking myself a while back. I tend to be more preoccupied with where I’m going next, although I am working on being more in the present.

After a month of learning new skills and exploring a bit of Oaxaca, I was kind of feeling like it might be time to move on. That’s when I got the email from a Couchsurfing filmmaker friend in San Cristobal de las Casas. She was about to begin a journey with a group of Mayan elders through the rainforest of Chiapas. They would be following El Sendero del Jaguar (the path of the jaguar), visiting a series of sacred sites to perform ceremonies. She would be documenting the entire thing, and asked if I could volunteer my help. Well, I was almost out of money, and had just accepted an English teaching job, but it seemed like the kind of opportunity I couldn’t pass up. After all, I began this journey with the goal of experiencing different cultures. With less than a week’s preparation I decided to join the Sendero del Jaguar, and packed my bags for Chiapas.

I really didn’t know what I was in for, and no one seemed able to give me an explanation. That is kind of how the entire journey went, to be honest. It was held entirely in Spanish, and, well, my Spanish skills are not so great. There were some people who spoke English, so when I really needed a translation I was usually able to get at least some information. It was a challenge, however, because the journey was largely a spiritual one, in which people were often distant and introspective.

The basis of the journey was the idea that on December 21, 2012 (you may have heard about this date before) the earth will be finishing a 26,000-year cycle. At this point a change will begin to occur, in which the old way of living (you know, where people torture and oppress each other and destroy the earth) will be replaced with a more harmonious way of living. This change will require the purging of old institutions, which will be painful and difficult for those who are not prepared. And so, these ceremonies were meant to cleanse people of their old karma and prepare them for this change- a sort of ascension to a higher level of consciousness. Or at least, this is the best explanation I can come up with. Let’s just say, a LOT of incense was burned.

You’re probably wondering, who does a journey like this? I wondered this a lot too. Some people clearly had indigenous roots, and so had been raised with these ideas and customs. But to be honest, the cross-section of people could have been picked from any office. Thus, as would be expected if you took a cross-section of people from your office and sent them through the jungle for 3 weeks, the trip was complete with drama, hook-ups, and near fights. I only mention this in case you might be thinking that a spiritual journey would be different from any other kind of journey (or that “spiritual seekers” would be different from any other random people). We were never lacking in entertainment. Could this be a future reality-tv show?

So now I’m back to civilization, and will be going through 4 hours of video to put together a few videos that will portray some of the really beautiful and interesting experiences and places of El Sendero del Jaguar. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy these few photos. There will be many more of those coming soon as well.

I’m glad to report that besides learning a lot about Mayan culture and spirituality, and getting some awesome video, my Spanish has improved a lot. I’m not any more clear about what I’m doing with my life, but at least I can say I’m really living it!

 

More photos at https://flic.kr/s/aHsjyMgeF5

Expedition Experience

A quick overview of my NOLS expedition…

7/9 First day out! While setting up the maps to view our route through the Winds a local named Dale approached to ask what we were doing (complete with beer in hand and dip in mouth!)

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7/10 Dear Lord, the mosquitoes! They’re solid black clouds!

7/12 Went fly fishing for the first time ever. Ate a delicious trout dinner. Yum!

7/13 Summited Mt. Geikie (12,378’)

7/15 Camped in the most beautiful campsite ever. Froze my butt off jumping into an alpine lake. Had to pee in the middle of the night, and the big dipper seemed to take up half the sky. Enormous!

7/16 Summited Dragon’s Head Peak (12,205’). Planned to also summit Pronghorn Peak, but the expected “grassy slope” turned out to be a 5th class rock face. Oops!

7/18 Re-ration day! We met the horses at 1pm. We received food for 8 days and our rock climbing gear. Packs were heavy as we hiked to our next campsite.

7/21 It just isn’t a NOLS course until you hold lightning position in the rain for 15 minutes. The lightning had interrupted our rappelling class, and I thought to myself “well, if I don’t get to rappel, at least I got a great quad workout.” But the storm passed and I did get to rappel. A lot.

7/22 Camped in the most beautiful campsite ever. I know I said that before, but that was because I hadn’t seen this one yet. We’re just below Angel’s Peak, next to a beautiful lake with little icebergs floating in it.

7/24 Base camp! We’ll be staying here for the next 7 days while we Rock Climb! ☺ Then we move onto glacier.

7/26 Re-ration day! This time we received food for 15 days, plus more climbing and mountaineering gear. Fortunately we only had to bring it all back to base camp.

7/28 Multipitch climb up Elephant’s Head peak with Gabo and Ximena. The views of Gannet and Fremont from the top were beyond amazing.

8/1 Hardest day of my life (at least that I can recall). Started with a hike to the top of Indian Pass (elevation gain ~ 1500’, pack weight ~ 70+lbs), then down again across Knife Point glacier (my first time on glacier!). Supposed to climb up another glacier to the next pass, but oopsy, no glacier. Damn you global warming! Instead we scrambled up the moraine (add another 1500’ elevation gain). Then crossed another glacier. Hail (ouch!). Rock fall (run!). Finally, camp at about 8:30pm. Stuff face with food to keep warm. Pass out from exhaustion.

8/4 Holy shnikeys, my tent mates and I were almost just taken out by a lightning storm. We were in the tent talking and snuggling against the cold when we started hearing a clicking sound. I looked up and saw a red electrical arc between the 2 tent poles. We all freaked and moved as far away from the poles as we could. I don’t know how long we silently held lightning position on our sleeping pads, but I eventually had to break the tension with a song. For future reference, singing ‘You are my sunshine’ is very calming during near-death experiences.

8/6 Today we started our independent student travel, which officially means the course is winding down. I’ve started fantasizing about “civilization”, and even made of list of things I can’t wait to do (#1 is take a shower- you can’t imagine how bad I smell).

8/9 We left camp at 4:30 this morning and were picked up at the trailhead at 7. The shower was everything I hoped it would be, as was the burger I chomped down for lunch and the coffee I drank while I checked my email.

8/12 It’s officially over. I’m back in Denver, and already checking things off my list (yoga class and a hoho cupcake at City, O’ City). I have to admit that I’m trying to shake a slight feeling of melancholy, and putting off going back to work as long as possible.

My NOLS Instructor Course

Maybe you’ve never been on a long term hiking expedition. Maybe you’ve never gone further than car camping. Heck, maybe you’ve never eaten s’mores that didn’t come out of your toaster. That doesn’t matter, because a NOLS expedition can blow your world open to infinite possibilities.
My own journey to becoming a NOLS instructor was one of the most intense things I’ve ever done. I had to run from rock falls, and was nearly hit by lightning. Here’s one of the more humorous stories from my adventure.

August 2, 2010
The end was near. We had been crossing glacier for hours (a slow process when you’re tied to 4 people and walking through deep snow), and all that lay between me and solid ground was an icy stream. I saw Audrey leap, fall, and fumble up the other side. “I recommend NOT doing that,” she said, “try up there.” The spot she pointed at with her trekking pole looked firm, stable. I envisioned myself gliding gracefully across the ice and up onto the snow. I began to move toward my desired crossing and sank thigh deep into slush. As the freezing water began to flood my boot, I tried frantically to pull it free. But the ice was a vice around my boot. I began stabbing the snow with my ax, trying to break myself free. Once I released the snow’s death grip on my now frozen foot, I quickly reviewed my options. Walking was unfortunately not one of them. It was time to crawl. I made my way on hands and knees until I reached the creek, at which point I was able to wade across. My steps dredged up a sickly, yellow-brown sludge. On the other side of the stream, I was back on my hands and knees, crawling up the bank. In my mind flashed an image from Austin Powers. Yeah, baby, yeah! Now be a cougar, be a cougar! As I finally stood I felt the urge to sing “I’m too sexy for this glacier, too sexy for this-Ahh!” I sunk again into the snow. “Screw you glacier!” -is the PG version of my exclamation. As I finally made my way up the snow, I looked back just in time to see Logan hop gingerly across the creek. Son of a-!
It wasn’t the first time I was laughed at during the expedition, and it surely wouldn’t be the last.

 

More photos at https://flic.kr/s/aHsjrHnFu3

Adventures can happen anywhere

So I was feeling kind of bummed about the incredibly slow rate at which I am paying off my credit card. Sometimes I think I’ll never be able to travel again. But wait…how could I be working so hard, but paying off so little of my debt. Oh wait, I know. It’s because I’m spending all my money traveling!

This might sound like a big duh! to everyone around me, but it really just hit me. I just returned from an awesome trip to Colorado and Utah. I visited friends in Denver, then took an 8 day river rafting trip through Cataract Canyon near Moab. A few weeks before that I visited friends in Vermont, and before that it was San Diego. This summer I will be backpacking in Wyoming.

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As I was driving through Colorado (freaking amazing, btw) I realized that I was finally exploring all those places in the US that I always wanted to see, and doing all the things I’ve always wanted to do (hello, whitewater rafting).

I’m lucky to live in a country with just about every kind of climate/land feature/cultural attraction there is. I may not be learning new languages (although I have no excuse for not becoming fluent in Spanish in Miami), or visiting exotic countries, but my life is still full of adventure.

Check out my pictures here

Riding a motorbike taxi in Tanzania

Have I mentioned how much I love couchsurfing.org? Through this website I found Simon, a really amazing guy who runs a school near Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and hosts tons of couchsurfers. I have to admit, though, I had a moment of doubt…

I thought Simon lived in Dar es Salaam. Turns out, he lives about 45 minutes outside. It’s a great little village, but I got a little nervous on the journey there. I met Simon at a bus station in Dar, and we got on a bus, which took us outside the city for about 30 minutes. Then we got on a smaller bus for another 15 minutes. Then we got on a motorcycle. By this point I felt like “Where is this guy taking me???” I reminded myself that Simon had over 100 recommendations of couchsurfing, but it didn’t ease my nerves very much. Then we arrived at the house. He actually has a special house next to his house for couchsurfers. Another couchsurfer was already there. It was set up almost like a hostel, complete with logbook for people to sign and write notes. It was a pretty sweet set up, and I immediately took a shower to rinse the adrenaline out of my system.

Simon has this sweet setup because a lot of couchsurfers volunteer at his school. Students go to his school for one year between primary and secondary school in order to learn English. The problem is the primary school is taught in Swahili, but secondary school is taught in English. Simon’s school provides kids with a way to learn English. I taught for a few days while I was there. I also visited Simon’s neighbors, had dinner with his priest, went to see a group of woodcarvers he works with, and just hung out with  the people in his village. Simon is an extremely popular guy.

Check out this video of us riding around town on a motorcycle taxi, https://youtu.be/U2PHNvD3HlY

Zambia to Malawi

While I was in Zambia I had the chance to sort of re-live parts of my Peace Corps service. From Livingstone, I traveled up to Lusaka with Richard, the owner of Fawlty Towers lodge. It was such a treat to have good conversation and a free ride (I also got to play with his adorable daughter, Maya). In Lusaka I spent the night at Chachacha backpackers (nice, but a very small, poorly equipped kitchen), then left early in the morning by bus heading east towards Chipata. Marshall, a friend from Peace Corps Madagascar, met me along the road to take me to his village. It was great to be back out in the countryside again. Villagers are always so happy to see someone new.

The next day we hitched a ride to Laila’s site, another ex-Madagascar volunteer. That’s where I really got to kick it Peace Corps-style for a few days, cooking outside on a little charcoal stove and taking bucket showers. We also rode bikes around to the surrounding villages, and went shopping for chitenges (sarongs) at the nearby market.

We went into Chipata, where I stayed at the Peace Corps house and met lots of the PC Zambia people. Early Sunday morning we began the trek to Nkhata Bay, Malawi. We took a taxi to the border, and then another to a nearby town. After a bit of haggling, and the usual confusion, we found a mini-bus to Lilongwe. A friendly Malawian on the mini-bus showed us to the good buses going to Nkhata Bay, and we left Lilongwe by 10am (which was Marshall’s goal for the day).

We arrived in Nkhata Bay at around 4:30pm to absolutely ridiculous heat. At first we started walking to Myoka Village Lodge, and ignored the taxi drivers offering a free ride (this is usually a scam). Thankfully, a British couple informed us that they were legit, because the uphill walk with our backpacks was brutal. It was dark by the time we made it to Myoka, so the owner, Gary, offered us a free room rather than set up our tents (you may be noticing how many amazing, generous people I encounter on my travels- isn’t it awesome?). Gary also informed us that this is “suicide month” in Malawi because it is so oppressively hot and humid. I have to admit, the heat is really bad, but swimming in the lake is amazing. I seem to be discovering all the wrong times to visit places. Myoka Village would be beautiful at any time of the year. They have free boat trips, and occasionally live music in the evenings. I really enjoy the vibe there.

Right here, right now, there is no other place I’d rather be…

Ok, that is definitely not true, but I like the thought that I’m watching the world wake up from history. I am in the world’s worst hotel room. It is located in Karonga, Malawi, 45km from the Tanzania border. The name of the hotel is Zgambota Lodge, and according to the Lonely Planet guide, it has “clean and basic rooms with nets.” The door doesn’t close, it smells like piss, and I can hear the rats in the ceiling over Jesus Jones.
A day of highs and lows…
Coincidentally, this day began with a hike through the mountains. Two days ago at Myoka I met Harriet, another traveler going north to Mbeya, Tanzania to catch the train to Dar es Salaam. Harriet and I decided to stop at the Mushroom Farm, a lodge between Chitembe and Livingstonia. We knew it was 10km off the main road, but someone had told us that you can call from Chitembe, and they will pick you up. When we arrived in Chitembe, however, there was no cell reception, and the walk was 10km up a very steep hill (also, we found out later that the charge for pick-up is $45). The only thing we could do was sit and wait for someone to pass by on their way up the hill. Fortunately a sand truck came by, and we were able to sit in the back. It was a rather harrowing ride up this narrow, bumpy road.

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The Mushroom Farm is set in a beautiful pine forest overlooking the valley and Lake Malawi. If you are in a car, and don’t mind spending a bit extra for food and lodging (dinner was 1000 MK, rooms were 4000 MK) then I would say go for it. It’s definitely not for budget backpackers, though. Harriet and I rented a tent, and camped on an overlook, which was amazing. We woke up in time to watch a cool thunderstorm come in from the lake.

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We hiked up to Livingstonia, and some nice waterfalls. After the hike we grabbed our packs and went to the road to catch a lift down the mountain. No trucks ever came by, though, and we ended up walking almost the entire 10km with our backpacks. It sucked, big time.
Just before we reached the bottom a car finally came by. Not willing to walk one step further if I didn’t have to, I flagged them down. This lovely young couple from Lilongwe gave us a free ride all the way to our next destination, Karonga. Just like that we went from being drenched in sweat with aching feet, to sitting in a comfortable, air-conditioned vehicle.
When we arrived in Karonga we were dropped off at the Safari Lodge, which according to Lonely Planet costs $8 for a double room. In actuality, it costs 3000 MK (about $20), so we asked for the location of a cheaper place and started walking. That is how we ended up at Zgambota. Despite its many problems, at 800 MK the price is right.
At this point we were both craving a cold drink as though our lives depended on it. The girl at the first restaurant we went to said that there were no cold drinks anywhere. The next restaurant was completely shut down. Two more shops, and two more “No’s” later I wondered aloud, “Are we in hell?” Did I mention how hot it was? Finally we found a nice little restaurant with cold drinks and delicious food. Having only eaten 2 mangos and a banana that morning, I had completely forgotten my hunger. After I chugged a Fanta, I was ready to eat. I ate a healthy portion of nsima (sheema- imagine a big, solid lump of grits) and 2 pieces of chicken (normally nsima shacks only give you 1 piece of chicken, so I must have looked really hungry).
Now I’m sitting in my piss room, so thankful for the pack of nag champa incense I always carry with me, and stretching my legs in an attempt to decrease the hurt that will come in the morning. I can only hope that rats don’t fall on me in the night, that mosquitoes don’t devour me, and that Tanzania has good things in store.

Quit your crappy job and travel

A few people have told me they want to travel but don’t have the money. Sorry, but that tired, old excuse for not traveling doesn’t work anymore. There are so many options available to travel for free, or really really cheap. Mind you, these vacations do not involve being served fruity drinks with little umbrellas in them, but they may involve relaxing yoga retreats and good, organic food.

Volunteering

WWOOF.org      Not only do you have a free place to stay, but you get fed too! Membership is only about $20 for a year, and you have access to descriptions of each farm. You contact the owner of each farm directly and discuss the activities that are going on, and the best times to work. Not all WWOOF opportunities are on farms either. Many are yoga retreats, where other people actually pay to go. There are adventure lodges, orphanages, environmental centers, breweries, and all kinds of different organizations.

Workaway.info      Similar to WWOOF, but less emphasis on farming, and more on language learning and cultural exchange. Either way, your trip is what you make it. Membership costs 18 euros for 2 years

Where to stay

Couchsurfing.org      Get this, there are cool people all over the world who want to let you stay with them for free. Why? Because they can say they have friends from (insert cool country here), and when they travel abroad they can stay somewhere for free too! This is just like another social networking site. You can see pictures of the person you’ll be staying with, and read what other travelers have said about them. I love Couchsurfing, and not just because I get a free place to stay (and often free food). I get to feel like a local, and make real friends in every place I visit. I also occasionally meet other people to travel with.

 

 

Getting Paid

Maybe you thought you didn’t have any marketable skills, but if you speak English (your are reading this, right?), you do! If you’re really serious about travel (and I think you should be), then you should look into opportunities teaching English. These are better than free because you get paid. Here’s the deal: some teaching jobs are posted online, but lots more are available if you network. I know most people want a job lined up before you go somewhere, but it just doesn’t work like that. Go to Couchsurfing meetups, check out bulletin boards at hostels, or just start asking around.

My strategy is just to get out there, talk to people, and hope someone needs some help with something I know how to do. Believe it or not, it happens quite often. I have had to turn down offers because I already had so much going on! This isn’t even a complete list; these are just the services my friends or I have used.