No Where, Now Here

I have enjoyed an interesting life. One that has landed me in dozens of countries, often, where I didn’t speak the native language nor was English a secondary language. I have found myself on every namable form of transportation, alone, in packed spaces. At times, I have had nothing but my inner-frame and a good pair of hiking boots between me and the setting sun, still hours from my destination for that night. I only feared for my safety a few times. Once, while wandering the streets of Seoul, long after the last bus had headed to the lot til the next day. Lost and fearful, I mustered the stern, traveled face of a vagabond, making eye contact with human threats only when it was apparent they were stepping away from the wall on which they leaned to block my passage. Whether they intended harmless harassment or posed a real physical threat, I’ll never know- I countered with a slight turn of the head, clenched my fists, stiffened my stance, shifted my weight to my right leg and placed my hand over an outer pocket of my inner-frame, as if to say, “Bring it. I’ll stab you lifeless and never bat an eye.” This terrified trickery has granted me passage through many dicey sides of many towns around the world. Often, the threat was clearly beyond my bluff. While on an overnight trip in Quito, Ecuador, awaiting the long trek deep into the Amazon the following day, I was returning from a (very) late dinner with some fellow researchers when, suddenly, we heard the unmistakable Hollywood sound of automatic rifles. Looking to the direction of too loud, too close loaded weapons, we saw, in the shadows, six gunmen, standing on a 6-8′ wall, rifles aimed, beads drawn. We stopped, We indicated, in Spanish, that we were headed for our hotel. Damn, I wish one of us could trill our “r’s”… They didn’t move. They didn’t reply. This was getting uncomfortable. Gringos with bad accents stumbling into what was likely one of the few places you could get yourself into this predicament in Quito. After a moment, they began mumbling amongst themselves, rifles still aimed. Finally, FINALLY, the armed man to our far left nodded at us, almost imperceptibly, to start walking. At least, we were praying that’s what he wanted, because that’s what we did, and we all lived to tell about it. Who knows what they were guarding…a bank? A drug deal in the darkness? A dignitary or a cocaine czar? We didn’t care about the whys, just that they’d found us (shockingly) absolutely no threat. I’m willing to bet that more than one of us was donning a cardigan- the versatile, hippy, travel kind, that you tie around your waist and only gets washed when you’re staying in a place for at least two days, long enough for it to dry between intermittent rain forest showers. Intimidating. I know. I wish the suspense offered better story resolution, but that’s where that ends. A nod of a head and a few researchers scampering back to our tiny hotel, on the wrong side of town. These examples being the exception, I have a library of safe, exciting, (in the ‘you’re-not-about-to-die’ way) voyages that have enriched my life and from the fertile soil that only travel can provide, shaped my mind and beliefs in beautiful ways. It’s a great place in this writing to note that, just accumulating stamps in a passport does not a traveler make. Not in my humble, yet valid, opinion. I know people who have been to multiple countries and couldn’t name three facts about the indigenous peoples if their life depended on it. They bypassed open markets filled with art and hand woven blankets in favor of a “Made in China” souvenir shirt and wandered back to the airport as unchanged as before they passed through customs. Now, if this is your thing, go for it. I’d rather see a person tour beyond the borders of the known and at least experience, with their eyes, differences in how others live than to not travel, at all. But, I will forever praise the beauty of marinating in other cultures, sans the familiar comforts and mundane menus afforded us daily. It is by arriving teachable and hungry that other cultures have taken me in and graciously hosted me, slowly transforming my lack of knowledge to at least a shallow understanding of their ancient practices and rituals. Once, I was afflicted with a horrible stomach bug (parasite) deep in the jungle, impenetrable by motorized vehicles. I was led by some villagers to the local medicine man. He spoke a dialect of a dying language, and I could only offer a rather embarrassing show of charades in telling him my intestinal upsets when he stood, barefooted with not much besides a loin cloth, multiple strands of beads around his neck and a machete. I eagerly followed him, along with the kind souls from the village who’d taken pity on my plight. He walked much faster than was comfortable to an ill and ill-adapted jungle traveler. He was on a mission. Following closely, we stopped abruptly and he hacked out a wedge from an enormous tree. As he did, a thick, milky substance ran from the laceration. He reached behind him with his palm up, and a woman placed a small piece of pottery in his hand. Into the bowl dripped the liquid and, while I knew what was next, nothing, NOTHING could have prepared me for the taste of that sap. It was more bitter than any mind can conjure and it stung. It stung my mouth, my esophagus, but somehow, not my stomach. I had no water to chase it, so, bowing my head and bringing my hands together in a show of gratitude, I was determined not to so much as grimace at the flavor lingering on my taste buds. Suddenly, the silence broke into laughter and I was certain they’d jokingly given me a harmless, foul tasting jungle placebo. They hadn’t. They all knew I was close to passing out from the intensity of that distinct medicine and laughed at my reluctance to show my true reaction. The laughter was contagious, and I found myself joining in, laughing harder and louder than probably anyone in the group. The medicine man smiled, his weathered face softened, eyes dancing, and he rested his hand on my shoulder. I instinctively placed my opposite hand on his and he nodded, still smiling. With no words, he was telling me he was as grateful for the trust I’d shown as I was for the relief I was already feeling from his aid. We made our way back on the narrow footpath, and he whistled. Seconds later, a bird returned his call. This went on the entire way back to the village. It was a form of entertainment, but, also, a way they connected with their environment, with nature, with the earth that provided every single thing they needed. It was a show of respect, that the tribe was grateful for the bounty afforded them right there in the heart of the jungle. Their food, medicine, shelter and clothes all were supplied by the soil from which it sprang. I climbed into my bunk that night feeling 100% and very tired. Before I closed my eyes, I took in the shapes that I would see a mere month of my life, and, I knew, never again. I clicked on my flashlight and stared at the tarantula that wandered out of its nest each night, just feet from my head. I thought of how comfortable I’d become with this fact, compared to the night I arrived and was told to “leave the tarantulas alone and they will leave you alone.” I followed this advice, and was amazed at my ability to coexist with these creatures. As I studied the path of the tarantulas moving about above my head, I felt utterly disconnected from my American loved ones. How would I ever convey my experiences in a way that was moving, touching and not shocking, or worse, horrifying? I was in the middle of no where. But, I was now, here. I awoke to the same breakfast of (powdered) scrambled eggs, complete with meal worms cooked right in, as they had no way to preserve food or protect it from insects, parasite and pain free. I have never stopped going to ‘no where,’ every time the chance presents itself, and I never, ever buy a t-shirt  bearing the name of the city in which I landed, unless it directly benefits the people selling it. Bracelets made in the countries I travel, however, are an entirely different story. If you know me, you know my collection is vast and each one required a meandering and beloved path to obtain it. I am sometimes told by people who know me well to share my stories. I hope this one inspires thoughts of dusting off the passport, spinning the globe and heading to the middle of no where. I hope you are able to spend enough time to become affectionately comfortable with that feeling that settles in every traveler’s heart that says, “I am now here.” You are free to move about the globe.  Peace, Warriors.

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