This is the part of your brain, the brain stem, which is responsible for basic functioning such as breathing as well as for your flight/flight/freeze response to, I’m guessing in my case pretty much everything. I kind of like the idea of going through life altering between states of minding my own business like a gecko in a sunny spot and responding to life with the passion of a fire-breathing dragon.
It also explains my approach to dealing with potentially fear-inspiring situations.
Let me explain with a case study:
Zip-lining at Parque Aventura San Martin in Baños, Ecuador.
The service provider, going by the name of José and 2 Dogs (although I have it on good authority that there are actually 5 dogs), showed us a video of the zip-lining adventure that they offered.
Basically, it was an AC-DC pumped-up action extravaganza showing how we would be zipping at breakneck speed over a massive canyon and through a gorge after which we will oh so casually cross a shifty-looking suspension bridge above a raging river, climb up a perpendicular cliff and then zip all the way back to civilization.
Reptile Brain: EPIC!!!! Let’s do this!!!!
Rational brain: Don’t mean to interrupt, but you’re terrified of climbing remember
Reptile Brain: I don’t see a threat. I only see epic glory.
Rational Brain: But…what about when you’re actually doing it?
Next day we were lining up to zip across the canyon.
Appearing pumped up and ready for action due to over-active reptilian brain chemicals, I was (unfortunately) the chosen one to go first. As I was being strapped into the harness, it occurred to me that I’ve never zip-lined before. I had no idea what to expect. I was being held by strangers, facing a gigantic canyon, seconds from being rocketed straight through two cliffs. Naturally, I went from gecko to dragon in a millisecond dropping a fiery hell of swear-words until I was unleashed.
And it was actually quite okay. Not even scary at all. I even got a few whoops in as I flew over the canyon.
Next up: bridge of suspended suspense.
After taking a few corny group shots once everyone finished zipping, it was time to cross the bridge. Seeing as we were getting photos taken, I had to go first again.
Nothing to worry about, just crossing a wonky bridge over a raging river with a metal cable as a security blanket. No biggie. Rather not think about the sizeable gaps between the platforms making the bridge a bridge. Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. Reached the end, phew.
Now there was a little ledge serving as a waiting station
We were a group of seven plus two guides and a camera man. The ledge could maybe fit four people. So there was not much time for the guide to give a step by step instruction on how to step by step climb up the via ferrata (iron steps hammered into the mountain side). He explained how to work the safety chains and left me with a “up you go”.
Reptile brain: Oh, f*ck. I can’t climb.
Rational brain: Told you so.
Reptile brain: Freeze
Rational brain: Only way out is up.
Reptile brain: I said FREEZE!
At this point, a line had formed behind me
The guide: “What’s up?”
Me: “I can’t go up.”
The guide: “Why not?”
Me: “I’m scared. I can’t remember how my limbs work.”
After some arguing and persuasion, the guide agreed to climb up with me so that he could handle my safety chains so that I could focus on figuring out how to put one foot up above the other.
Reptile brain: Oh man, left leg, right leg, don’t look down, breathe, left leg, right leg, never-a-flipping-gain…..smile at the camera (you kidding me?)…
Reptile brain: Breathe…nearly there, just breathe. We made it!
Rational brain: Told you so.
Reptile brain: And I told you epic glory. I’m the Dragon Master of San Martin! Oh look, another zip-line. Wheeeeeeee!!!
Let’s be honest.
If my reptile brain wasn’t in charge, I wouldn’t even have attempted the adventure. I would have rationalized my way past AC-DC to my fear of climbing. And yes, it was scary as hell, but I made it.
The San Martin canyon is not the bravest thing I’ve ever done.
Not by a long shot.
I can’t say for sure which part of my brain I used to find courage to face the worst task of my life. Or which part I used to endure the almost equally horrific aftermath. But I’d like to think that it is because I live close to my inner dragon that I was able to find courage where others could not.
Life List Entry: Zip-lined at San Martin Canyon, Baños, Ecuador
Disclaimer: This post has is not about Machu Picchu or hiking the Inca Trail; it’s about a string of random stuff that happened to me on the way there.
Not everyone gets to do the Inca Trail and see Machu Picchu
One might not have the means to travel to Cusco or one might be physically unable. Maybe you thinking the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu is too mainstream. Perhaps you don’t want to walk four days to see old buildings. Or you may have a relevant phobia such as a fear of llamas.
The main reason why folks who do have the opportunity to go and the interest to do so don’t get to do the Inca Trail is because they weren’t able to secure a permit 3-6 months in advance.
Now, despite having a permit and a fairly neutral attitude towards llamas, the fact that I made it to the Inca trail still feels like the end result of a collision of incredibly random events. An act of altruism, spotty knowledge of South American history and geography, a missed sailboat, and an avocado-eating Finnish dancer. But wait, I’m getting way ahead of myself.
Like any good story, this one starts with a bad plan
My original plan for conquering South America was to travel (mostly) overland from Cartagena, Colombia to Ushuaia, Argentina. En route I would live my dream to see Colombia, do a package tour with G-adventures in Ecuador because it looked cool, swing past Machu Pichu, somehow make my way down to Bariloche, Patagonia and finally Ushuaia where I would board a ship to Antarctica.
A grand plan that was ultimately unrealistic. Apart from somewhat underestimating the size of the continent of South America, the ultimate downfall of my scheme was overestimating my ability to keep food down on long-distance bus journeys.
Confession: Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail have never really been on my bucket list.
It’s not that I didn’t want to see it. It was rather a case of “Yeah, that sounds cool and all, but look at all this other stuff.” When I worked out my preliminary route for South America, my decision to book a permit for the Inca trail was driven less by a sentiment of must do than a why not do it while I’m at it.
Maybe, if I had considered my predisposition for travel sickness in relation to the size of South America when I dreamed up my grand overland scheme, I might not have planned for the Inca trail in advance, since it wouldn’t necessarily have been on my way. As it were, thanks to not thinking things through properly, I set out from sunny South Africa with a pre-booked ticket to see the lost city of the Incas.
Fast-forward several months to Cartagena, Colombia and the dawn of my great South American journey.
About half an hour after I checked in at my hostel, I met C at reception where he, fresh from London, was frantically looking to exchange dollars for pesos to pay the cab driver. When I realized that the girl at reception had no interest in helping him, I decided to help him out and in the process we became friends. What I didn’t know was that making friends with C nearly meant the end for my Inca trail plans.
One day, he told me that he met this sailor from South Africa who wants passengers to join him on his sailboat to Panama. Did I want to come along? Of course I did. What kind of question is that? But. There was a big but. Even though it would only have taken a week or two out of my schedule, said schedule was pretty tight. I would have to skip a significant part of Colombia in order to be on time for my tour in Ecuador which I had already paid for. I could go back to Colombia after Ecuador, but then I would not be in time for the Inca Trail. I couldn’t go back to Colombia after the Inca Trail, because that messed up my plans to get down to Patagonia (really a life-long dream) before I catch my ship to Antarctica. Not to mention that the South African Rand just hit 14 to the US dollar for the first time ever and money was getting tight. I told C that I didn’t think I could make it.
Having said no to this opportunity really bothered me.
Wasn’t the whole point of long term travel that you can decide to just jump on a boat and go to Panama if you want?
I spent a sleepless night trying to work it out. Okay, the sleepless part had more to do with the fact that my room was right above the hostel bar and that I was out of ear plugs. I tried to wrap my mind around my Panama dilemma. Something had to give, but what? The best plan I could come up with was to skip Machu Picchu. After a lot of consideration I figured that Machu Picchu is on most people’s bucket lists and I was pretty sure I would be able to convince someone to do this with me at a later stage. I made the decision: Forget the Inca trail, I was going to Panama!
Ironically, the next day, C and I found out that the South African sailor found a Brazilian dude to take my place. Having missed my boat to Panama, I was once again set on course to the Inca trail.
Some weeks later I crossed the border into Peru
At this point I had some very real and very unpleasant experiences of the twists and turns of the Pan-American highway and I have since given up on my overland travel plans. I swallowed my pride and forked out an exorbitant amount of money for a 2 hour flight from Quito to Lima to save myself the ordeal of a 36 hour bus ride. I spent some days in Lima and bought a bus ticket to Cusco where I would meet my G-Adventures group and set out on the Inca Trail.
Now the bus terminals that I’ve traveled from in Colombia and Ecuador were all small centers of commerce, so I was quite surprised to discover that Terminal Terestre Atacongo where I had to board my bus was pretty much a shed with buses waiting outside. I got onto the bus and found my seat number in the second row from the front. I remember being really proud of myself for remembering to check the seat numbers – I got told off so many times in Colombia for just sitting in random seats! I established a nest and settled in for the 20 hour ride to Cusco. A guy sat down next to me and I gave a friendly nod of acknowledgement, silently thankful that he was slim and wouldn’t be hogging my space. A woman sat down in the seat opposite the aisle and after a few minutes she tried to communicate something to me. I had little to no Spanish, but eventually figured out that she wanted me to swap seats with the guy next to her. I guess it did make more sense to have women sitting together on a long haul bus journey and agreed to do the seat swap. As I re-established my nest in my new seat, the guy in the seat in front of me turned around and offered me a slice of avocado, which I politely declined. All these little interactions quickly established a sense of familiarity among the first two rows of the bus.
Perhaps there was a little bit too much familiarity
The woman in the seat next to me, who so kindly suggested the gender segregation turned out to be somewhat of a snorer. Which was a little better than her habit to sleep with her hands behind her head and her elbows very literally poking me in the ear. The more I tried to make myself smaller, the more she stretched out into the additional space.
The next morning I woke up and was amazed to see that we were riding above the cloud line!
Soon we had a pit stop for breakfast and an opportunity to brush our teeth. I chatted with some of my fellow passengers, most of whom were also traveling to Cusco. A group of guys told me they were planning to go to Machu Picchu by train instead of the Inca Trail.
Up until that time I haven’t considered that I could see Machu Picchu WITHOUT having to do four permit-requiring days of hiking to get there. Somehow, in my mind, Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail was all rolled up into one. I guess it is like how many people talk about Darwin’s theory of evolution and the Big Bang theory in the same breath, even though the only connection between the two is that they both make Creationists uncomfortable.
Regardless of how I missed that little detail, suffice to say that I had an awkward internal moment where I realized my mistake. Suddenly I was facing all sorts of doubts. Was I ready to do a multi-day hike that included the so-called Dead Woman’s Pass? Did I even have the right shoes and backpack? What the hell was I thinking?
I’m not sure if I would have opted for the Inca Trail if I had thought about the train. After all, I am on a mission to complete all the epic rail journeys of the world. Luckily, the package that I booked for the Inca Trail included a return trip on the train, so I got to do both. But somehow I think that my lack of planning and gross ignorance of the options available to visit the archeological highlight of Peru got me on the right track.
Later in the day, the bus stopped.
I was in a riveting part of my book so I didn’t immediately notice. After a while I got off to join the rest of the passengers in getting some fresh air. Turned out that there were massive strikes in Cusco – our bus was going nowhere anytime soon.
This is when I started talking with the avocado sharer who turned out to be a dancer from Finland. I told him that I was a writer (which was true at the time) and for a while it was nice to sit on the grass next to a bus, talking about the creative process while the smoke from burning tires rose to the skies in the distance. Perhaps I didn’t have time to go to Panama, but I had plenty of time to get to Cusco and it was nice to just be someone else for a while. And if I could be a writer, then maybe I could be a hiker as well. One of my best friends was on her way to scale Kilimanjaro and she was most certainly not a mountaineer – if she could do it, I could do it.
Many hours later the bus finally made it to Cusco
Due to the strikes I had to walk all the way to my hostel – no taxis for me! I had a serious talk with myself regarding the weight of my backpack. Once at the hostel, I was desperate for a shower. Alas, I seemed to have forgotten my padlock key in Lima. Reception lent me a big-ass bolt cutter with the promise that they’ll send the handy-man up in a minute. I attacked the padlock with everything that I had, but no luck. Luckily the handy-man brought a bigger, better bolt cutter with him and managed to clip the lock in one swift maneuver. Show-off.
After one of the best showers of my life, I treated myself to some fine dining with really good red wine and a gorgeous alpaca tenderloin cooked to such perfection that I could have written a sonnet about it. And with that I was ready to take on all that Cusco and the valley of the Inca’s could toss at me.
I’m really glad that I did do the Inca Trail.
I think my Machu Picchu experience would have been a lot less rich without it. I’ll save my story on the trail itself for another day. For now, I’ll tell you that I loved the experience. Here are some pictures to prove that I did make it to the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu in the end.
Life List Entry: Made it to Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail
This post is dedicated to adventure biker Tibor, whom I met while backpacking in Kyrgyzstan.
My family loves two things: travel and bikes
My mother loves nothing more than the cobblestone streets of Paris and Rome. My father’s heart soars on solo trips during which he takes on obscure South African gravel roads on his 1100 GS. While I scratch out countries on my scratch map of the world, my father highlights dirt roads on his map of South Africa.
For a brief period, I tried being a biker. I bought my brother’s old 650 GS and my dad tried to teach me to ride on our farm. I did okay on the gravel road and even managed to ride standing up, but once I hit the tarmac my brain short-circuited. When I eventually got better at picking up a bike than riding it, I gave up and sold the bike. It wasn’t a total fail. Picking up a bike turned out to be a useful and transferable skill.
This weekend two bikers visited our farm
My parents turned our old manor house into an agri-turismo styled, biker-friendly guest house. It’s not a full time endeavor and sometimes we forget that the house is advertised as such. Yesterday, a biker couple called my mother and I was promptly put out of my room – the official guest room. I didn’t mind so much. After all, I haven’t stayed in one room for more than a week since May last year.
It can be awkward to open your house to strangers
We initially decided to make ourselves scarce so that the visitors can enjoy the peace and quiet of the farm. When the visitors arrived, my parents welcomed them and made some small talk. About bikes of course. Very soon small talk turned into long conversations. When my dad discovered that we might not have enough beer in the house, he came up with the ingenious idea that we should all go to the Darling Brewery for a beer tasting. The five of us squeezed into the car and set off to the Tannie Evita’s little town, chatting all the way. As we tasted great beers with quirky names (my favourite being the Rogue Pony ale) we shared stories about everything from our New Year’s Eves to devastating illnesses.
Now, I know the difference between being polite and really getting on like a house on fire
At a lakeside yurt camp in Bokonbaeva, Kyrgyzstan, I had a really hurtful experience when I realized that my fellow guests were only speaking to me because I was forcing them to. So I know that this instant friendship with our biker guests was real.
This made me think that bikers and backpackers are not so different
All of those people who excluded me from their conversations in Kyrgyzstan were there for short trips. The people that I’ve met that I did get on with were all backpackers on extended trips in Central Asia or round-the-world travelers like myself. Somehow these individuals were easier to connect with than the holiday makers. Okay, maybe the holiday makers were just trying to unwind and didn’t feel like talking to strangers (even delightful ones such as myself). Maybe backpackers are just starved for company and therefore willing to take the risk to engage.
More likely, backpackers are all kindred spirits who rejoice when they find each other. And I think it is the same with bikers. Just as you cannot understand what it’s like to float around from hostel to hostel with nothing to root you to the ground if you haven’t done it yourself, it’s impossible to understand what it’s like to be a biker if you’ve never been on one. If you’ve never smelled foliage from an open visor or rode standing up on a sandy road.
Backpackers don’t ask other backpackers why they want to travel to remote regions of the world. Bikers don’t ask other bikers why they take the long way to some hole in the wall. They know.
The camaraderie between bikers and backpackers are different than what you’d find between cyclists or vegans or martial artists or other groups of people who share a particular passion. Backpackers and bikers are driven by the pursuit of freedom that can only be found on the open road. When you find a kindred spirit who understand your particular brand of adventure, it’s impossible to remain strangers.
I’m not surprised that our guests this weekend turned into friends. Just like I’m not surprised that one of my dearest friends that I’ve made in Kyrgyzstan happened to be riding a 650 GS through Central Asia. It’s in our blood, after all.
About a year ago I signed up for a kayaking trip in Antarctica
At the time, I have spent exactly zero time in a kayak. According to the brochure, you didn’t have to be a pro, but you had to have at least some experience. No problem, 11 months is a long time to learn how to kayak.
As luck would have it, my mom’s best friend’s daughter raced with the Maties Rowing Club and their kayak base was on my way to work. One beautiful autumn afternoon she took me out paddling to show me which side was up. I immediately fell in love with the sport. There is something amazingly therapeutic about paddling and I have to admit that having the Stellenbosch mountains as a backdrop definitely added charm to the exercise. As an added bonus, it turned out to be one of the few sports that I actually had a knack for. I walked away from the session with a host of paddling tips and a key to the club house which (to my shame) I haven’t used yet.
My next paddling session was in Aruba
My guesthouse in Savaneta, Aruba overlooked a bay that was simply a slice of Caribbean heaven.
On my first day there I spotted some kayakers and immediately enquired. In the afternoon the weather picked up quite a bit and the sight of the waves had me more than a little nervous about my upcoming paddling session. But, alas, the kayak has been delivered before I could cop out. Luckily I met a wonderful Canadian lady who was an equal mixture of kayak-keen and nerves. Together we decided to just do it. It was her first time kayaking ever which made me the resident paddling pro. Lack of expertise aside, it was quite enjoyable. The scenery was simply amazing! My favourite part of the morning was listening to her life story – how she ran off to Mexico with just her dog and the clothes on her back in an attempt to deal the death of her son. She was now taking a much deserved break from writing her memoirs and had literally asked an airline agent to book her a flight to the furthest destination from Canada. Which, lucky for me, turned out to be Aruba.
Next up was beautiful Bariloche in Patagonia
If you think kayaking in the Caribbean can’t be beat you’re making a big mistake. This was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. The day was a bit on the windy side, but still good weather for Patagonia. I was the only paddler for that session and I told my guide, Paulo, (who happened to be an absolutely gorgeous pro-kayaker/rugby player) that I was scheduled to kayak in Antarctica in 2 weeks. As a result, what would have been an awesome kayaking trip turned out to be an outrageously amazing one-on-one kayaking class. I got a single kayak which initially scared the hell out of me, but once I hit the water I was in heaven. Half-way we made a pit-stop for medialunas (croissants) and hot drinks (coffee for me, mate for Paulo). We talked about anything and everything and I allowed myself to be smitten for the afternoon.
Afterwards, when he took me back to my hostel, Paulo confessed that it was his dream to kayak in Antarctica. I felt oddly moved by the idea that I was living someone else’s dream, especially considering that kayaking was his life and I simply chose to live his dream on a whim. With less than two weeks to go, kayaking in Antarctica was now about more than just me. It was for Paulo and all the other unnamed paddlers out there who longed to paddle around the frozen continent.
Finally it was time to board the MV Ortelius
All that stood between me and kayaking in Antarctica was the Drake Passage. And ice and wind and a 120 other passengers who also wanted to paddle. A monstrous storm on the Drake Passage delayed our arrival by a day and effectively robbed us of 2 paddling time slots. I made sure that the expedition staff knew that kayaking was a high priority for me and that I would be willing to sacrifice some of the other activities for a guaranteed spot. After an agonizing wait the activities list were put up on the board and we all crowded around like high school students trying to find out whether or not we made the team. And yes! My name was listed under Group A – the very first kayaking spot. Less than 12 hours before paddle time! In a rush of excitement I collected my kit: wet suit, booties, water/wind-proof jacket, life jacket and spray skirt.
The next day I woke up beyond excited. Unfortunately, the weather gods did not look kindly upon us and shortly after breakfast the announcement was made that Group A needed to return their kit to the hangar – there would be no kayaking that morning.
I was devastated
My dream – and Paulo’s – had just collided with an iceberg of Titanic proportions. To add insult to injury – I didn’t make the list for any of the other adventure activities. There were still shore landings and zodiac cruises to be had and I tried to remind myself that those are freaking amazing in and of itself. Even so, the tears were welling up and I was fighting a frightening battle to keep from bursting into sobs.
Later that day, the kayak leader appealed those passengers who got onto all the activity lists to donate their kayaking spots to those of us who had “lost everything”. My roommate immediately offered me her spot and I will always be immensely grateful for her generosity.
Over dinner I shared the good news with the group of great guys I have befriended on the Drake Passage. I later found out that, after seeing devastation written all over my face, two of them had been wheeling and dealing with their activity time slots all day to find a way to get me paddling. I was truly overwhelmed by the kindness of all these strangers.
On the final slot on the final day we were good to go
We got into the zodiac and cruised off to a suitable paddling spot in Paradise Bay – kayaks trailing behind. The conditions were perfect. The sea was flat as a mirror and the sky slightly overcast creating an otherworldly atmosphere as we paddled past icebergs. We were surrounded by spectacular shades of white and grey and black and blue. It was simply glorious.
I really hope that Paulo will be able to paddle in Paradise Bay one day. And I hope that when he does, that he will remember me.
As for me? I’ll be paddling in all the most beautiful spots in South Africa remembering all the great people who helped me on my journey to paddle in Paradise Bay.
A creepy encounter on one of the 7 natural wonders of the world? Amazing, of course!
This story starts in a hostel in Iquitos, Peru.
Iquitos is a small town. It has a nice waterfront and some interesting old colonial-style buildings. Mostly, it’s scruffy and infested with mosquitos, moto-taxis and dread-locked hippies on ayahuaska diets. In case you were curious, an ayahuaska diet is a way of purifying one’s body and mind before taking part in an ayahuaska ceremony. So basically you have to go on a clean, alcohol and drug free vegan diet and take a break from intimate interactions for at least a week. Once you’re cleansed you get to drink a special yucky herbal tea with a shaman – followed about 2 hours of vomiting and if you’re lucky – hallucinations that’s supposed to give you clarity about all the important questions in your life.
While all of that sounds absolutely delightful, most folks go to Iquitos to get access to the glorious Amazon river and the surrounding jungle.
I booked two nights in Iquitos with the hope of getting a good night’s rest, followed by a day of browsing for the perfect 3 day Amazonian jungle trip. My roommate at the hostel was a 23 year-old exchange student in Cusco who came to Iquitos to experience ayahuaska. She told me that her yoga-vegan-spiritual journey lead her to want this experience and how she was concerned that maybe it was too mainstream, because everyone seemed to want to do it. Hippies could be hipsters? Who knew?
That night she was going for the big event and I knew I could kiss my good night’s rest goodbye. Before she left she introduced me to the guy who organized her trip into the jungle. This guy, with the unfortunate given name of Hitler, apparently only arranged tours by word of mouth. I had a quick chat with him in the corridor during which he gave me a low-down on the tour. I was in luck, because he had a group leaving at 9 am the next morning. At $30 per day, all inclusive, I figured – why not. If it sucks, I’ll do another one. After a quick cash deposit street-side, I settled in for a night of worrying about my roommate, because her parents clearly had no idea where she was and someone should at least be worried about whether she gets home or not. Which she did.
The next morning we set of for the Amazon
Satisfied that my roommate returned from her ordeal in one piece, I hitched a ride with Hitler to meet the rest of the group. My excitement dimmed somewhat when I realised I have pretty much gate-crashed an exchange student party. I nearly copped out, if not for one redeemable American fellow called Nathan who seemed almost human (ironically, he was the youngest person in the group). I tried to blend in as best I could. I disguised my wrinkles with a sun hat and glasses and dutifully carried my bag full of expensive age-defying skin care products in silence while the young’uns joked about accidently buying anti-aging sun cream.
Being on a low budget trip we had to sacrifice luxury items such as life jackets and in-door plumbing, but an ample supply of hammocks and a very knowledgeable guide more than made up for it. On the first day we had a wonderful time playing with sloths and anacondas, feeding piranhas and swimming with pink dolphins.
Day 2 was Halloween
We started with a morning of playing with all sorts of monkeys on Monkey Island and was scheduled for an afternoon of piranha fishing followed by a nocturnal river game drive in search of Cayman alligators and boas. We had a bit of a late start for our afternoon program since our guide had to spend more than an hour in search of more drinking water for the group, only to return empty handed. We still had some water, but trust me, there’s nothing like the prospect of running out to bring on the mother of all thirsty throats.
Eventually we reached a good spot for fishing and settled in with our wooden fishing rods. The little critters were really biting, but after a few tries it was clear that I was feeding the piranhas instead of fishing for them. I settled for watching the sun set over the jungle instead.
When we headed back, it was pitch black and we all had our torches out, looking for snakes and other nightlife that might be visible in the trees. We didn’t see much apart from a few nocturnal birds, but it was still exciting.
A thunder storm broke loose that lit up the sky like broad daylight. It was spectacular! I wish I could capture it on camera, but we were getting thoroughly soaked. Unfortunately it didn’t rain quite enough to raise the water levels; at one point the water was so shallow that we had to push the boat. With every “uno, dos, tres, VAMOS!” we moved only a few centimetres, but progress is progress, right? We were soaked in rain, the water flooded our rubber boots and every now and then a massive flash of lightning would illuminate the sky to the point that we didn’t really need torches.
Once the boat was in the clear, we decided that it would be easier to just walk back. Our group got separated from the guide for some bizarre reason, so when the path started to turn towards the jungle we weren’t sure what to do. We decided to walk in the river instead since we knew that it lead back home. But a few steps in we were already waist high in the water and we had no choice but to follow the path into the jungle. We trudged the unfamiliar path for what seemed like ages. With each step the vegetation seemed to grow a foot higher and we had no idea where we were going. Finally we saw a flashlight shining like beacon in the darkness – home!
It always seems better in the daylight
The next morning I wasn’t surprised to see that our treacherous jungle path of the night before was actually just a muddy trail in the grass. Nevertheless, it was the best Halloween experience I’ve had since forever. Which probably has a lot do with the fact that I’ve never celebrated Halloween before, but that’s besides the point.
Life List Entry: Pushed a boat in a thunder storm in the Amazon
In fact, I’m almost more proud of organizing a 3 week independent Trans-Mongolian Railway journey at half the budget of package versions than of obtaining a PhD. To be fair, if you made a bucket to bucket comparison of the blood, sweat and tears shed to accomplish both feats, I think it would be a pretty close call.
I love making travel arrangements. Searching for flight deals, reading hostel reviews, pouring through travel guides and articles and dreaming up elaborate itineraries make me tick. I find joy in tackling these chores like a two-year old – messily and with enthusiasm, but most importantly – by myself.
I don’t mind using travel service providers like Kyrgyzstan’s CBT for treks or day trips or Russia’s HOFA for home stays. It’s perfectly fine to delegate – you are after all going on holiday. But the thought of spending weeks following someone waving a giant sunflower from tourist attraction to tourist attraction always had me heading for the hills.
This year, I signed up for my first multi-day organized group tour ever
Why did I give in? A friend who’s epic round the world adventures inspired my own trip suggested that I book a trip to do the Inca Trail with G Adventures. As I paged through their Book of Dreams, I came across an itinerary for discovering the highlands and jungles of Ecuador. In the end it was the offer of a jungle homestay that lured me into the web of organized group tours like a giant Amazonian scorpion spider.
I was pleasantly surprised by my 2 week trip around Ecuador. I think the combination of a fairly flexible itinerary, a chilled out tour guide and good group dynamic worked well for me. I had a lot of time for myself and there were plenty of other solo travellers in the group. I could easily have been stuck with a minute-by-minute travel plan run by Mrs Rottenmeier with a bunch of honeymoon couples.
4 Things I loved about the group tour
I’ve already written about the many benefits of solo travel, but let’s face it – some things are more fun with a crew. Like birthdays. No need to resort to putting a sign on your back that says “It’s my birthday!” in the hope that someone will congratulate you in person. Oh no, because when you’re on a tour – you’ll get a cake and candles and a 6 piece band to celebrate your special day. If you’re lucky you’ll have made friends who are actually happy to treat you like a birthday girl – even if that means doing a 14 km uphill trek in the rain.
Cheesy photo opportunities
You know what I’m talking about. The group jump shot, the jazz hands arrangement, perspective shots, yoga poses on the equator – any kind of pose really. Solo travellers are limited to scenery shots, selfies and the occasion awkward fake smile shots offered by strangers. But if you’re on a tour you somehow have a licence to be cheesy. And that’s awesome.
No need to plan or problem solve
Stuck on a canoe that ran out of fuel on an Amazon tributary river? Relax – let your guide sort it out. All you need to worry about is spotting monkeys in the trees. (This actually happened on my tour)
You get to see places that you probably would have missed on your own
It’s not that these places are impossible to see independently. Not at all. But I have to admit that there were a few things on the itinerary that I would have skipped if I had to do it on my own. Not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because I probably would have been too lazy to take the 3 busses and a pickup truck to get there. And I would have missed out.
And 3 things I didn’t like about group tours
People seem to lose the ability to take action
I’m not an expert in group travel, but what if, instead of staring at the ground for ten minutes when the guide asks us asked to split into groups of three, we actually split into groups of three? Surely stashing 8 women into two triple rooms and two twin rooms shouldn’t have been so difficult? I’m just asking questions.
Less control over your expenses
This basically comes down to restaurant expenses. Inevitably, if you travel in a group you are going to eat at more expensive places. And why not? Your guide wants to show you the best his country has to offer (and rightly so) which doesn’t include plastic chairs, harsh lighting and a massive plate of fried chicken and rice for $2. It’s important to share meals with the group – friendships are best nurtured over steaming dishes and ice cold cervezas. But if everyone else is spending Euros and Pound Sterling and you are stuck with a rapidly declining pile of South African Rands, it’s slightly more complicated.
No need to plan or problem solve
No, I didn’t accidently copy/paste this subtitle from the pro’s list. It’s nice to sit back and relax, but for me, half the fun is in the logistics and the other half in dealing with the unexpected.
Would I book a group tour again?
This exact trip? Absolutely! I enjoyed every minute and I made a lot of friends. But then again, I can say that for a lot of my experiences over the past 5 months. While I’m not completely converted to group travel, I will certainly consider it again in the future.
Life List Entry: Joined a 16 day group tour in Ecuador (and liked it)
Whether you are travelling for 2 weeks or for 2 years, it is always tempting to pack a small pharmacy – just in case you get sick. Sure, there’s room for a basic first aid kit: analgesics, plasters, anti-diarrheal, laxatives, malaria prophylaxis, anti-histamines, cold-and-flu, antibiotics, probiotics, anti-altitude sickness, anti-nausea – the list goes on. I mean, what if you end up in a Colombian hospital? Well, with the exception of antibiotics, I packed all of those things (plus a 6-month supply of chronic medication) and still ended up in hospital. In Colombia.
It was my own fault
I left a sweltering hot Cartagena de Indias on a 13 hour air-conditioned bus ride to Medellin. The thermostat on the bus was set to a comfortable – 5°C. The day time temperature at my destination must have been about mid-twenties. The rapid change in temperature wrecked havoc on my immune system and when I woke up to my first morning in Medellin I felt mildly under the weather. As the day progressed, my condition worsened until I was shivering with a slight fever. Or maybe I was shivering over the South Africa – Japan rugby upset. Either way, I wasn’t at my best.
That didn’t stop me from joining a new Kiwi friend from my hostel for a local football match. I was clearly sick – no appetite, headache, pain fever, nausea etc. But no, I’m watching football. It was great fun until the heavens opened up and we were caught in a massive downpour. So there we were, running around the stadium in plastic ponchos.
The next morning I woke up feeling (and looking) like a warmed-up corpse
If I had any doubts about having a fever – it was now gone. I fell out of bed when I tried to get up. Managed to pour myself some coffee and juice. Watched New Zealand beat up some or other team on TV, too weak to bother to go get my glasses. At one point I attempted to eat some left over nachos but, unlike pizza, nachos is NOT better the next day and I only managed to get two chips down. I got up to wash my fork, but the concept of washing dishes was too complex and my Italian room mate offered to wash it for me.
I spent the rest of the day in bed in wallowing in self-pity. My Kiwi friend did a pharmacy and yoghurt run while I mused about how you’re never truly alone.
The next day I felt better. The fever broke and I was able to get up and complete some admin tasks such as buying a bus ticket and a new camera to replace the one I wrecked in a freak hat-chasing accident. I actually felt quite well, I just had a dreadful cough and sounded like a chain smoker.
The Congolese guy at my hostel brewed a natural cough remedy for me – a horrible mixture of lemon, garlic and ginger. That was after he offended me by accusing me of being racist just because I’m a white South African (stereotype much?) and reprimanding me because I don’t have some noble goal driving my travels. Honestly, I don’t understand why some people insist on shoving their opinions down your throat. At least I had some cough syrup to wash it down with.
Still coughing I travelled onwards to Salento
Salento is a beautiful little colonial town in the Colombian coffee district. The owner of the guesthouse where I stayed suggested that I go for a 5 hour hike in a nearby nature reserve. This made me realise that I was still too sick for strenuous activities. I got worried about my upcoming adventure tours in Ecuador and Peru. What if I didn’t get better? I can’t hike the Inca Trail feeling like The Hulk is sitting on my chest!
So, I walked to the hospital in Salento
I managed to explain my ailment to the nurse on call with my offline translator app. She took my details and had me wait to see the doctor. Eventually, Dr Gomez came to get me and took me to the consultation room. Oh, it was the usual GP examination. Stethoscope against the chest and back, check the ears, say “aah” – all that stuff. He concluded that my lungs were okay and that I did or did not have a bacterial respiratory tract infection. He seemed sure of his prognosis, I just wasn’t sure what he said. He recommended oxygen treatment to address my difficulty breathing. So there I sat in a little room overlooking the coffee valley with a oxygen mask over my nose and mouth. After a long time, they added something to the mixture and told me to breathe into the mask some more.
Eventually I got a prescription for some medication and carefully translated instructions on how to take care of myself. I paid for the medication and tried to pay for the consultation, but they sent me away. Okay.
The next day I felt well enough to hike all the way to a coffee plantation
Now I’m back to feeling bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and ready for adventure. And to be honest, it wasn’t so bad to spend a morning in a Colombian hospital.
Life List Entry: Received medical treatment in a Colombian hospital
Anything magical, fantastic and arcane, really. Ghosts, wizards, witches and warlocks, vampires, unicorns, werewolves, angels, demons, voodoo dolls – the whole shebang. As a kid, I was really into astrology and palm reading. It was more about recognizing clues or features and then linking them to something else. Now that I’m older I recognize that these hobbies were just a form of data analysis – a large part of my day job that I really love.
I have never believed in divination. Only God knows what’s locked up in our futures – and He doesn’t need tea leaves or stars or animal intestines to figure it out. The idea of interpreting tarot cards – with the pretty and ominous depictions of cups and swords, hermits and empresses – felt exotic and somehow wrong. I knew that if I brought a tarot deck home, even though I just wanted to look at the pictures, I would be in big trouble. So I didn’t. And I stayed curious.
Nearly two decades later, I found myself in New Orleans
New Orleans practically drips with magic and horror. It’s the home of the 19th century voodoo queen, Marie Laveau. In the French Quarter you’ll find the LaLaurie Mansion, haunted by the tortured slaves of Madame Delphine LaLaurie. This house was also briefly owned by Nicolas Cage. In the Garden District you’ll see the home of writer Anne Rice – the mother of vampire literature. You’ll also find the grave of the vampire Lestat from Interview with a vampire (or at least the grave that the studio version was modelled on). There’s the house from American Horror Story: Coven – a television series about witches. While all these things are either works of fiction or remnants of centuries past, the streets of modern day New Orleans is littered with psychics, sitting at at tables decked with tarot cards and candles, just waiting to tell you all about your past, present and future.
I’ve made up my mind to have my tarot cards read
I had no expectation to have some divine wisdom revealed. I just wanted to see the cards. Get 20 years of mild curiosity off my chest. It would be fun. Little did I know how crazy my card reading experience would get. But, to explain what happened, I need to tell you about London.
London is a guy
No, his parents didn’t call him London. It’s just the town where he hails from. I’m bad with names. We briefly shared breakfast in a hostel in Chicago. Curious fellow. He’s in theatre and tends to talk as if he is delivering lines on stage. Very eloquent too. He had a slightly creepy something about him, something I couldn’t quite place. A week later, I bumped into him again at my hostel in New Orleans. That night, about 10 of us went out to paint Frenchmen Street red. It was my first night in New Orleans and I just loved it. Jazz everywhere. Good street food. London and I shared an awkward dance at the Spotted Cat during which I managed to knock over the mic with my heavy bag.
When we all left the bar to find some street food, London and I started talking. And I figured out what gave me the creeps. You see, London considers himself a magi. He claims that he can read palms and cards. Not only that, he truly believes that he had cursed some guy who stole his clothes. And I don’t mean that he called the thief unprintable names, I mean he dabbled in the dark arts. Or so he claimed.
Personally, I think the thief is quite safe from having his flesh rot beneath his stolen breeches. But in the spirit of the conversation, I told London that I wanted to have my tarot cards read. And he apparently knew just the guy who could help me out with that. Some voodoo king who was definitely not a charlatan and divined all sorts of things with great accuracy.
You’d think finding this mysterious psychic would be hard, but at 4 am that same night he was sitting just around the corner
Yup, there he was. A morbidly obese bald guy with nails painted black, sitting behind a table with a tarot deck. The randomness of the situation was just too great to resist. What were the odds of that happening? So I sat down for a reading.
What the tarot cards said
He instructed me to shuffle the cards and cut the deck it into three equal piles. I then had to choose the pile that I thought was mine. They all seemed the same. It was dark, so I chose the pile that was most illuminated by the candle light. He cut the pile into three smaller piles: one for career, one for relationships and one for the future. We started with career.
All the statements were very vague, but cleverly constructed so that it is possible to link something vaguely similar in your life to the cards. I was a little disappointed because he flipped the cards so quickly that I didn’t have time to look at the pictures. He said a lot of things that I might have been able to link to my work life. Stuff about company restructures and alternative career paths that were surprisingly relevant. But all the predictions were three months off. He clearly couldn’t see that I’d still be travelling when all these work- issues were supposed to happen.
We then went into relationships. And boy, did he get literally everything wrong. As in everything. Every now and then he would take my hands, stare deep into my palms and say ridiculous things. I tried to keep a straight face, but it was difficult.
The reading on my future was more of the same. He ran out of cards and moved on to the next pile. I wanted to say: “Hey, I didn’t choose that pile. How do you know those are my cards?” Finally, he took my hands and told me: “You have a deep love of music. Music moves you like no other. You should take up an instrument when you get back home.”
Say what? The only time I listen to music is when I commute. I go to concerts, but I never know the songs. When I took piano lessons as a kid, my teacher recommended occupational therapy. I have so little rhythm, I have trouble knocking on doors. Hell, I knocked over a mic just that evening.
I thanked the psychic, left a tip and walked home with London. Disappointed and perplexed.
On the way, we couldn’t help comparing notes.
I didn’t want to offend him, so I told him about the career bits and kept quiet about the rest. After all, it’s possible that I’m just really difficult to read. I’ve been told I’m a complex person. What did I know about magic?
But then London said: “He told me that music moves me like no other and that I should take up an instrument.”
Suddenly, the mysterious veneer disappeared. All the magic vanished from the world and all I could see was fairy tales and insecure suckers. I never believed in divination, or any of the other stuff for that matter. But somehow the real life story of a real life magi not being able to recognize a real life charlatan was like a bucket of cold water in my face.
I knew that I would cancel the New Orleans ghost/voodoo/vampire tour. I couldn’t stomach the idea of someone selling my beloved fiction for something fake.
Instead, I spent my time searching for a signed copy of an Anne Rice novel. I found one, but it was too heavy to carry and too expensive to mail back to South Africa. Pity that you can’t sign an e-book.
Even without magic, my time in New Orleans was still magical
At the risk of sounding like Albus Dumbledore, friendship and love are the strongest kinds of magic. And I found plenty of that in New Orleans.
For South Africans, this date announces the first day of Spring. While many Stellenbosch students are likely to be prancing around Victoria Street in floral sundresses in the cold and rain today, I am celebrating the half-way mark of my epic Round-The-World Adventure in sunny Miami. And today, I would like to reflect on what I’ve learned about solo travel over the last 3 months.
So, Solo Travel: Awkward or Amazing?
6 Reasons Why I Love Solo Travel
1) You can change your plans at a whim
When you travel solo, you can do whatever the hell you like. It’s all up to you. In the three months that I’ve been travelling I’ve made countless changes to my plans on a moment’s notice. Here are two of my favourites
Late Night Chats in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
I was planning on setting off to Arslanbab the next day. Just before going to bed I made idle chit-chat with a guy in my dorm. He told me about a National Horse Games festival in Osh that was taking place in two days time. And just like that I decided to go to the horse games instead and ended up travelling with him for several days. Not only did I get to see the horse games, I also got to take a trail blazing day trip to Toktogul, a town that hardly gets a mention in the Lonely Planet.
FOLLOWING WHIMS IN THE USA
While studying a map of Amtrak routes aboard the California Zypher, I decided to change my plan of travelling from Washington down the east coast to Miami via Savanna and to rather travel from Washington to New Orleans through the Deep South. Which ended up to be one of the best decisions of my life. I met amazing new friends – with whom I share amazing memories of eating messy Po’ Boys in Magazine Street, dancing to Jazz tunes at Frenchman, watching the Saints get beaten by the Texans, wiping tears while listening to Katrina stories and getting our Spiritual groove on Sunday morning at the Church next to our hostel.
2) I can eat and drink whatever I want.
If grabbing a bagel from the hostel breakfast table for lunch means that I can ride the Chicago Navy Pier Ferris Wheel – great! Or, if I want to indulge in pulled pork burgers and grapefruit shandy while appreciating some live blues at Smoke Daddy – I can do that too. Although, I can hardly think of anyone who would say no to that.
3) You can “do” sights and attractions much faster
This gives you more time to just relax and take it slow in a park or coffee shop or the rooftop deck of your hostel. I’ve already read 11 books this summer!
5) It’s easier to meet people.
When you travel in a group you tend to keep to your flock. But when you’re flying solo, you are more likely to engage with strangers. In fact, locals are more likely to engage with you. In Kyrgyzstan where white females traveling by themselves are exotic sights, the locals were practically falling over their feet to ask me where I’m from, why I’m not black if I’m from Africa and why “I am one.” And it wasn’t just personal questions. On a marshrutka ride from Karakol to Kochkor, I spent a good few hours chatting with a fellow passenger about goods made in China and Canadian gold mining companies. When we ran out of words, we just pointed at places on my map of Kyrgyzstan. He ended up inviting me to his house, promising that he would slaughter a lamb in my honour. Although this is a gesture of great respect in Kyrgyzstan, from a safety point of view it wouldn’t have been wise to accept. Besides, I hate lamb.
5) You Get to Staying in Hostels
If you travel solo and you want any type of social interaction, you pretty much have to stay in a hostel. I love it (for the most part). It takes me back to boarding school and university residences – both places that I have very fond memories of. A lot of hostels, like Generator in Paris, are so posh these days that you might as well be staying in a hotel. Yet, some of my most sociable experiences has been in hostels that felt more like student digs than hotels, notably Hostel Nomad in Bishkek, Capital View Hostel in Washington, DC and Auberge Nouvelle Orleans in New Orleans. I guess the social dynamic in a hostel depends a lot on the guests present at the time, but so far I think that if a hostel resembles a real home, guests would be more likely to interact like they would at home.
Actually, as far as I can tell, living in a hostel is similar to living in a house with small children: there’s shouting and crying at night, walls are covered in crayon scribbles, there are never any sharp knives in the kitchen and if you don’t want them to get their sticky hands on your stuff you have to lock it up.
Two things I have been sorely missing on my solo travels
1) Real Interaction With My Friends and Family
I am missing out on a lot back home. While I’ve been travelling, my friends have announced pregnancies and plans to buy property and I’m missing out on all of it. Whatsapp and Facebook keeps me in the loop, but it’s not the same as sharing the experience over a cup of tea. And no matter what they say about global villages, it’s darn difficult to schedule Skype calls if there’s a massive time difference. And reliable WIFI is not a given, not even in the USA.
2) Real Mental Stimulation
I know this sounds counter intuitive. I’m out in the world and constantly surrounded by new sights and experiences. Isn’t that stimulating? No, not in the way that I realise I need. To me, this is assimilation, like a child soaking up new languages and concepts like a sponge. It is wonderful and I treasure it and try to immerse myself in it.
But it’s not enough.
I am used to the hamster in my head sprinting at break-neck speed in his little wheel to help me solve complex problems, follow my friends’ insanely clever conversations and just orchestrating my limbs during karate training.
At the moment, my mental hamster has left its wheel completely and can be found grooming in the corner by the water bowl.
And I guess that is what is happening. My mind is being decorated with wonderous experiences, but it’s not actually getting any exercise. I’ve only started to get an idea of how intellectually intense my job had been, now that I’m deprived of it. This is a big issue that none of the articles on long term travel have warned me against.
However, it’s not an insurmountable problem. Earlier this week, I’ve had a wonderfully satisfying conversation with a park ranger for Amtrak’s Trails and Rails program. She’s a former meteorologist and, since I was on my way to New Orleans on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we talked for hours about the formation of tropical storms, tornadoes and all kinds of science-y weather issues. But these conversations are few and far between.
There are other ways. I have managed to snag a freelance job ghost-writing a children’s book. Fiction is a new mental challenge and it has been helping to get my hamster back into the wheel. I still miss science, though.
Don’t get me wrong. For the most part, I’m enjoying the down time. And I know that soon I will be back in Cape Town, with a hamster running in its wheel listening to the sound of horses galloping across the Kyrgyz jailoos while looking at a motivational poster of tropical waters surrounding Gili-Tragawan. So, I’m doing my best to assimilate as much as I can, while I can.
So, if you’ll excuse me, I am off to paint some pictures of Miami’s South Beach for my hamster cage.
Life List Entry: Travelled (mostly) solo for 3 months