Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Tales of an accidental backpacker
In the past 40 days I´ve learned that it´s possible to live with only two pairs of jeans and two T-shirts. I´ve gotten used to the way my face looks without make-up. My daily routine no longer includes body lotion and perfume. I´ve forgotten how my hair feels when blown out long and smooth with a hair dryer. I´ve gone days without encountering a mirror. Or checking my e-mail or logging on Facebook.
Yet through all of this I´ve never gone to bed without washing my face, brushing my teeth, and God bless my orthodontist, putting in my retainers. Sometimes that meant splashing river water on my face, getting out my toothbrush in bus station bathrooms splattered with vomit and diarrhea or scrubbing my retainers in a possibly snake-infested jungle fountain. And, may my dermatologist read this, I never stepped out into the oppressive mountain sun without lathering myself in sunblock and even donning an embarrassing safari hat I bought in the black market on the streets of La Paz before a spontaneous jungle expedition.
I can´t remember bathrooms with toilet paper and soap or with doors that even shut, besides lock. I sigh with relief if water actually flows from the faucet, always cold. I´ve accepted that sometimes baño means a hole in the ground with two footprints in front. I automatically hold my breath when I enter a bathroom and come out breathless like I´ve just finished a sprint. I´ll have to train myself to flush toilet paper again instead of tossing it in an overflowing basket.
Hot showers are a luxurious surprise. A hot shower with good pressure is an extravagance that I´ve encountered only once on this journey. I try to recall what it was like to drink water safe from the tap or buy produce from the market without fearing for my health. Or to accept change without worrying that it´s counterfeit.
I´ve learned to wash my socks and underwear in hostel sinks. I´ve discovered that almost no price is ever fixed, whether it´s a hostel, tour or earrings. I´m now wise enough to request a seat toward the front of the bus after suffering nights bouncing over the wheel on unpaved roads with cold air and exhaust fumes blowing in from the iced-over window that wouldn´t close. And I´ve found out that even if I have my bus ticket, I won´t be allowed to board unless I´ve paid for the right to access the terminal.
Every meal is served with coca tea, made from the same leaves as cocaine but sharing none of the illicit drug´s affects. (The people in this part of the world have been planting, chewing and drinking the plant for thousands of years, believing it to possess dozens of medicinal benefits essential for the hostile, high altitude conditions.)
I crossed the world´s driest desert in a jeep. I went into the jungle. I traveled down the world´s most dangerous road. I´ve seen geysers, volcanoes, lakes of every color, deadly mines, ancient ruins, pampas, some of the world´s highest mountains and deepest canyons and the world´s largest salt flat. I´ve rafted on canyon rivers, trekked in the Cordillera Blanca, canoed on tropical lakes and mountain biked in the Andes.
In six weeks I´ve had no less than five adventures of a lifetime. Please don´t think I´m bragging. I´m just in awe of my blessings. I´m fully aware that I´m utterly unworthy of any of this -- I´m not especially daring or outgoing. I wear makeup and love shopping and read fashion magazines. I don´t know East from West and bought my first big backpack on the street in Chile two days before I left.
And now I´m left the unrelenting urge to tell you all about it.