Embarking in Peru and reflections on the act of travel

My route through Peru, Bolivia and Argentina

I am writing as I sit on a shady veranda near Lamas, a small city on the mountainous fringe of the Amazon. I gaze out across a lush terraced garden at patchwork hills that are reminiscent of the small mountains of Vermont. But the musical trill of a multitude of birds alert me that I am not in New England. My journey has begun: a five thousand mile trip that will take me from the humid Amazon rainforest to the blustery Andes of Patagonia. After my time in the Amazon I will travel by plane back to Lima, where I will meet my good friend Charlie McGrail. From Lima we will work our way by bus and foot across Peru, the Bolivian Cordillera Occidental, and finally across the Bolivian border into northern Argentina. We then fly to Buenos Aires, and on to Patagonia (where I will spend the remaining months of my trip).

A few days ago I flew into the city of Lima where I spent a short night sleeping at a hostel near the airport. In the morning I flew into the Peruvian city of Tarapoto twenty or so minutes from the apartment where I will be living for the next three weeks. The director of a local non-governmental organization kindly offered a room in an apartment shared by two year-long volunteers. The organization is called Sachamama and the apartment is on the grounds of a compound called Hospedaje Sangapilla. Guests at the modest resort support the living expenses of the volunteers, workers and the sustainable agriculture and cultural preservation projects that Sachamama runs.

My mind is yet to bend itself fully around the reality that I have transplanted myself, and the rich environment and culture around me feel novel. In some ways I believe my consciousness has slipped back into the reality I inhabited two years ago, when I lived for several months in a tiny town on a steep slope of cloud forest in Ecuador’s Intag Region. At this time I was still adapting to the loneliness, adversity and freedom of living in a place completely foreign. In time, though, I began to embrace and exalt in the interactions, observations, and routine that had earlier felt unsettling. As I relaxed and began to shed the defenses of a traveler, daily experiences became imbued with meaning and prompted me to undergo an evolution in how I saw and comprehended myself and my surroundings.

When I left I for Ecuador I had just finished the fall semester at the University of Vermont and I had only a vague sense that I needed to make a change in my life and expose myself to a foreign environment. Upon my return home I began to understand that this trip had fundamentally changed me.  During my last year of college I began to crave the adventures and experiences that had cultivated this internal growth.

In the last few months before I came here, I began to ponder the exploits and evolutions that awaited me during my journey. I began to fundamentally question why I crave and expect myself to travel, and why I found my previous experiences in South America so engaging and powerful. Where does my motivation to travel stem from? What were the inner workings of my journey that shaped my perception of home and the outside world? How did my conception of the “other” evolve as I began to understand that all things that we perceive as foreign can inevitably become customary with time? The most vexing of these thoughts was one that had been asked of me. “Why are you here?”

This was a question that I could not (and still struggle) to easily answer. There are superficial reasons to visit a place, but there is also a deeper motivation, a less apparent mechanism that drives me to experience other modes of living and other lenses through which humans see.  In hopes of illuminating the core of this question, I resolved to investigate my motivations and reflect on the act of travel throughout the trip I have just embarked upon.  I plan to carefully record my experiences, being conscious of my impressions, reflecting on my thoughts, interviewing and observing fellow travelers. By viewing the traveler as an ethnographic site I hope to gain a better understanding of why we travel and what the implications of these journeys are for locals and visitors alike.

Much of my fixation on and desire to travel stems from the stories I grew up hearing from my father about his lifetime of journeying.  His matter-of-fact delivery of stories about being awakened by gunfire in Lebanon on the brink of revolution, catching pneumonia in Afghanistan, going without showering for over a year in Turkey, and being swindled in Morocco made travel seem compelling and feasible no matter how trying the circumstances. I grew up with the expectation that when the time was right I would embark on my own journeys. I always viewed this type of exploration as a necessary component of my development and an inevitable rite of passage. Before I left for South America I sat down with my father and discussed his reflections on his time abroad.

For my dad, travel was a means of escape. He commented, “the worst thing you can experience is the absence of feeling”. And “nothing” was what he felt as a teenager, due to the circumscribed pattern of a claustrophobic home, dominated by a overbearing mother who filled the vacuum of a loving but absent, workaholic father. The prospect of breaking away from his parents’ home in Columbus, Ohio and the romance of working on a big ship lured my dad into the Merchant Marines. While his first maritime jobs were on the Great Lakes, my father was hooked by the idea of exploring and immersing himself in the radically different routine and culture of life on the water (albeit in the same country). My dad’s first real trip abroad was at the age of 23, when he set of with his Japanese girlfriend to visit her family. While the relationship didn’t last through the trip, my father fell in love with the vibrance of the East, and his passion for travel was fueled.

However, his true odyssey did not begin until the hectic year of 1972. My father was living in the political turbulence of Washington, DC during the Vietnam War, and being sucked into the turmoil. Facing the prospect of either being drafted or recruited into the Weather Underground, my dad again sought escape. He began his journey in England, and eventually made his way overland from France to Afghanistan. Along the way a realization overtook my father that there was a pulsating spirituality that could be found in daily life outside the United States. He also discovered the simpler pleasures of a life on the road - successfully ordering something enjoyable off a menu he couldn’t decipher; learning what to leave behind and what to bring in the perfect Spartan backpack. A vacation that had begun as a necessity unfolded into a rich journey that continued to sustain my father’s curiosity as the months slipped by.

I asked my dad how many countries he had visited. He stared off for a while, and I thought he had not heard me. “Canada, England, Wales, Ireland, France, Spain, Morocco, Ceuta, Andorra, Lluvia”, the list went on. He listed thirty-four countries, some of which I had never even heard  of. I asked my dad what had kept him moving, what sustained his passion, what it was that he was enriched by or seeking. He replied indirectly “Have you ever felt so thoroughly alone that you wanted to weep?” A harsh ebb and flow came with being fully alive, in a way that allowed his environment to dictate his emotions. There was a vitality that accompanied his wandering, that stemmed from a way of living that yielded both pain and beauty—as when my father first learned to meditate from a monk in the Dali Lama’s home city of Dharamsala.

Now, with nearly a dozen of my close college friends embarking on journeys abroad, it seems that whatever restlessness my father felt three decades ago is tugging at us, too. What moves us? My father offered an explanation. “College is about the life of the mind. Expanding and engaging your consciousness and becoming a more knowing person. When you graduate it is hard to shut this growing and searching process off.”

I feel great gratitude for my curiosity, and I seek to follow it and let it grow. Eventually my father began longing to create a family and returned home, but his tales have sparked my own inquisitiveness about the world that lies beyond the pre-packaged American mold.