On the Road from La Ceiba to Tegucigalpa, Honduras // 10 AM
The rain that had filled the potholes on the red dirt road had gone, leaving only empty spaces. My motorcycle bumped up and down as I leaned right and then left, slowing down then speeding up, navigating the twisting road that followed the river through the jungle in Honduras.
I had spent the last two days at a small lodge overlooking a river just outside La Ceiba, giant stones hanging over small rapids that ran through a narrow channel of stone, mist rising from the jungle on the opposite shore. The northern secondary road I had planned to take all the way to Nicaragua from La Ceiba was really just a pot-holed dirt road, so I had decided to take the main highway all the way back to the capital, and head to Nicaragua the following day.
I pulled up to the main highway, leaving the jungle behind me. The roar of the traffic filled my helmet—dusty motorcycles tearing down the street, dilapidated pickup trucks without mufflers and roaring buses spewing dark smoke. Trucks rounded sharp bends while playing chicken with the oncoming traffic, barely missing motorcyclists who would dart in between cars to avoid the passing trucks. Bicyclists rode across streets seemingly unaware of oncoming traffic, pedestrians crossed highways with small children and strollers. Near speed bumps, taxis squeezed by 18-wheelers on the shoulder attempting to move ahead in the line of traffic. It’s like the Wild West, I thought to myself.
At a traffic light in San Pedro Sula, a group of eight small boys ran in front of my motorcycle, then ran back to the sidewalk, than ran out again in the span of ten seconds. I breathed a sigh of relief when I exited the busy city. It’s dangerous to ride a motorcycle anywhere, but in Honduras, I discovered a sort of lawlessness I’d never seen before.
Only a few days earlier, I’d seen a motorcyclist wreck on the same highway. The two lane road stretched up the mountain, and where there was only road, suddenly there was a twisted carcass, like an animal that had tried to cross and was hit. Even then, it seemed like a warning. A crowd of people on the side of the road carried the rider’s body away— a piece of the strewn machine. For the next few days, I remembered the shape of the motorcycle lying across the road, parts of the bike strung across the highway like entrails. Even though I knew it was a bike, I remembered it as an animal.
The two lane highway wound through small hills and gas stations, the side of the road dry and dusty. A banged up red truck was in front of me, long metal beams sticking far out from the bed of the truck. There was no one in the distance in the opposite lane, the road stretching on into the horizon. I moved into the left lane, accelerating around the truck.
All of a sudden, a green pickup truck darted in front of the truck I was passing from an opposite street perpendicular to the highway, driving across the road and stopping in the lane directly in front of me. I only had a fraction of a second before I hit, and swerved toward the tiny space left of the road in front of the truck, even though I knew I couldn’t possibly fit. I was riding at 60 mph, and I distinctly remember that tiny bit of negative space, and knowing I would hit. It was only a split second, but it seemed longer—my mind perfectly clear, the road stretching into the distance, the bright sun shining on the shoulders of my motorcycle jacket— and that small, open shape I aimed for.
All of a sudden, I was rolling. I rolled and rolled— I spun across the asphalt, seeing nothing. I could feel the yellow heat, the sound of the gravel underneath my body, and, the metal screech of the motorcycle as it slid across the road— hoping, even as I uncontrollably rolled, I wouldn’t be hit by it. I could feel the weight of the sound, the sharp high-pitched scream of something devastatingly heavy, like an anvil shot across the pavement, something only seconds before had been my ally turned into a 350 pound steel projectile that could easily kill me.
The first thing I saw through my visor as I opened my eyes was a clump of grass my helmet came to rest against. I immediately struggled to pull my helmet off, but couldn’t. At once I was surrounded by people in the bright light, hands behind my head helping me pull my helmet off. Hands started to pick me up. “Don’t move me, don’t move me,” I said in English. If I had a head or spinal injury, I didn’t want to be moved in case it caused further damage, which in itself was a ridiculous thought as I was on the side of the road in rural Honduras, and realistically no one would be arriving with extensive medical knowledge to safely move me to a hospital, spinal injury or not.
I lay on my back, the high-top boot on my right foot halfway on and halfway off, severely spraining my ankle. Something was wrong, but my body seemed disconnected from my brain— I felt nothing but extreme discomfort. I slowly opened and closed my hands. It didn’t feel like I had a head or spinal injury. I could feel hands unlacing the boot and taking it off. As I struggled to pull myself up to my elbows, thinking in a few moments the pain would subside and I could stand, that I would be fine, I saw the pile of open, torn flesh where my knee should have been. “Don’t look don’t look,” a man tried to push me down. “It’s fine,” I said, waving him off.
The skin around the knee is thicker than I thought it would be, I thought, as I examined the sliced open flesh, the lengthwise open piece of skin. Blood trickled out the side of the wound extending from one side of my leg to the other. A bone protruded from the open flesh, so foreign at the time, so utterly out of place when I looked at my leg, I didn’t realize it was my exposed patella.
“Nobody can hurt me without my permission.”
San Pedro Sula, Public Hospital // 2 PM
Hands grabbed at my torn jeans, scissors cutting through the torn fabric from bottom to top, snipping through pockets and belt loops, the metal edge of the blade cool against my skin.
“I didn’t like those jeans anyway,” I said groggily to one of the younger interns in Spanish.
I had arrived at the public hospital in San Pedro Sula after riding in the back of a police pickup truck, my right leg extended out in front of me, a dirty dishtowel draped over my torn leg. Someone in the crowd had called an ambulance, but after lying on the side of the road for fifteen minutes I asked a group of men to pick me up and put me in the back of the police pickup. I asked a woman in the crowd to bring my orange tank bag and red backpack, and the keys to my motorcycle— I didn’t care about anything else, those bags held all my paperwork and camera equipment. Hands underneath my arms and legs deposited me into the bed of the truck like I weighed nothing at all. I didn’t even look for my motorcycle, my world shrank in those few seconds the driver of the pickup decided to cross the highway without looking.
Ten minutes down the road, the police truck stopped. “There’s the ambulance, do you see it?” pointed the woman next to me in the pickup. I expected to see the equivalent of what I was used to in the United States, but what appeared was a stripped metal van. Two men brought a stretcher, slid it into the bed of the truck, and I rolled myself onto it, supporting my injured leg. They deposited the stretcher onto the floor of the empty van, where I bounced up and down on the roads to a private clinic. The medic, the first responder I had seen since the accident, chatted with me a bit, but clearly had no first aid experience. Twenty minutes later we arrived at a private clinic, where they wrapped my leg loosely in gauze, then put me on another stretcher and into another ambulance to transfer to the public hospital.
I lay on the cold table in my underwear, a papery green gown draped overtop my upper body. Two male doctors walked into the already crowded room, standing at the end of the table. One of them held my x-ray and poked at my leg with two fingers, making me gasp in pain. “Fracture,” one told the other. Ignoring me, they both walked out of the room.
“We need to clean the wound,” one of the interns told me, “It’s going to hurt.”
Minutes before, in the waiting room, a young man standing there came up to my bed as I waited, lying in the stretcher. “I love the American people,” he said. “I hope this terrible thing does not give you a bad impression of our country.” When they wheeled me into the examination room, he walked in with me. As they started to clean the wound, this young Honduran man I didn’t know held out his hand, and I took it. I lay staring at the ceiling tiles, squeezing and squeezing his hand as the two interns set the fracture, and cleaned the open laceration on my knee without anesthetic. “I hope you won’t judge our country by what this man did to you,” he said. I never saw him again.
“She is of the strangest beauty and the darkest courage, and when she walks with intent the earth trembles beneath her feet.”
San Pedro Sula, Public Hospital // Friday, 6 PM
My whole body shook underneath the paper gown, my teeth chattering and my right leg almost completely numb. I knew I was in shock, and I had lost a lot of blood, but there were no blankets or doctors in the dimly lit hallway where I was lying on a metal stretcher. My bed was against the wall at the end of a line of beds full of Honduran men who had also been in motorcycle accidents— most of them draped in swathes of white cotton gauze, white extremities in plastic beds.
I was waiting in the hallway to go into surgery with the orthopedic surgeon, to clean and close the gaping wound in my knee which was packed with dirt and gravel. “You need to get back to the states,” one of the nurses told me. “We don’t have the equipment to fix this here, you need to go to a better hospital,” he said anxiously. I knew I had a fractured fibula, something I could clearly see in the x-ray that lay next to me on my stretcher, but I wasn’t aware I had sustained a tibial plateau fracture— a serious injury that meant the main weight supporting bone in my right leg was fractured near the knee joint.
I wasn’t going to call anyone, refusing the repeated offers of medical personnel handing me their mobiles, but eventually I accepted. Using one of the nurse’s phones, I called my family back in the states. What I wasn’t aware of at the time in Honduras, lying in that hallway, was that call set off a chain reaction in the states. Cathy, a family friend, contacted her Honduran friend Antonio, whose family lived in the city I had wrecked outside of. While I lay in the hallway shaking in the dim light, his family had been searching every hospital in the area for me, asking if a foreign girl had been admitted from a motorcycle accident.
I was so cold, covered in gravel and dirt, my back raw with road rash. The dimly lit hallway ended in a door at one end, a corner at the other. I lay on a thin plastic mattress, an IV bag laying on top of me, disconnected. As I shook, naked underneath the thin gown, the young nurse I had seen in the examination room walked past. He took an interest in me, taking my vitals and gave me his mobile to call my family in the states, where I was able to tell them what hospital I was at.
“You might get into surgery soon, maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow, maybe the day after,” he said.
San Pedro Sula, Public Hospital // Friday, 11 PM
“Bend over, and we’ll inject the anaesthetic into the base of your spine. Count backwards…” I woke up to white, bright lights, a curtain separating my upper body from the rest of the room. “Como esta mi pierna?” I shifted groggily, then darkness.
My body was surrounded by frigid air. I could hear the sound of the metal bed rolling across the floor. I was moving. The florescent lights overhead shone through my closed eyelids, a haze of pink and cold and numb. I was in a large room filled with metal beds, naked save a thin green gown draped over my body. I looked to my left, a young man was lying there in a bed looking just as groggy as I did. I smiled at him.
A man walked over to my bed. “Hi, I’m Rafael, Antonio’s nephew. I’ll be back to check on you tomorrow morning and bring you something to eat.” He gave me a pair of athletic pants, and helped me pull them on over the new plaster cast on my right leg. I was so groggy from the surgery, I barely registered what was happening. I found out later, the only reason I had gotten into surgery that night was because Antonio had called in favors with his contacts, and Rafael knew the orthopedic surgeon.
A man came and wheeled me into an elevator, then down a hallway into a dark room. “Can you bring me some water please?” I croaked. At that point I didn’t know whether I was speaking Spanish or English, I had never been so thirsty in my entire life. I hadn’t had something to drink for 18 hours, since I rode out of the jungle that morning. I waited for someone to return. No one did.
The room was dark, several people at the other end illuminated by the shapes their bodies made against the glass. I was deposited on one of the beds in the middle of the room— a thin, empty plastic mattress. I lay against the plastic, bits of dirt and gravel sticking to my back from the accident. My hair stuck to the back of my neck, my leg sticking straight out on the bed in a half plaster cast. I was so thirsty I couldn’t think of anything else. I started to get desperate— there must be a water supply somewhere, I thought, but I couldn’t walk to get to it.
The room was flooded with light as a woman from the far end of the room left, leaving the door open a crack behind her. I struggled to sit up— my entire lower back and upper butt was raw and damp from being scraped across the highway, and my leg in a cast. I made it up to my hands, pulling my body slowly back with my arms.
A few moments later, the door opened again. “Disculpe,” I asked in Spanish, “Could you please bring me some water?” I was so desperate for a drink. “Please.”
She went over to her bed, brought back a bottle of water and a large cup, and poured me a glassful of water. I gulped it down, I didn’t even stop to breathe. She poured me another, and I drank that one just as quickly. “Thank you, thank you,” I told her gratefully in the dark, and slid back down the plastic mattress into the darkness once more.
I woke in the grey light, the large room visible by the light pouring through the glass window at the far end, green trees and a pale sky in the distance. There were four beds in the room, one to my left, and two more beds to my right. Each bed was adorned in what looked like personal belongings from home, patterned sheets and pillowcases, blankets and oscillating fans. One person sat next to each bedside, all women— they had slept there overnight in small plastic chairs, heads leaning against the foot of each mattress.
Three women gathered around the foot of my bed, asking me what had happened and why was I there at the public hospital. One of the women left the room, and came back with a patterned sheet, and before I knew what was happening, they had half lifted me up, pulled the sheet over the mattress, put a pillow behind my head, brought me a juicebox and a bottle of water, and angled one of their fans toward me.
I asked them where the doctors were, I hadn’t seen anyone since I was wheeled in late the night before.
“You won’t see anyone before Monday,” one woman told me in Spanish, “The medics don’t work on the weekends.”
San Pedro Sula, Public Hospital // Saturday, 6 AM
Rafael, Antonio’s nephew, arrived early that morning. I found out later he had worked an entire shift before ending work and coming to visit me, where he stayed the rest of the day. He pulled up a chair next to my bed, noting how the women in the room were taking care of me. He recommended I move to a private hospital where I’d receive regular, quality antibiotics. One of his friends worked at a private military hospital in San Pedro Sula, and later that day he pulled strings to move me there, even though it was full. He went to the hospital to arrange everything, confirmed the daily price of a bed and quality antibiotics (“Give her the best stuff you have,” he told them). While he was gone, his grandmother Rafaela sat with me at the hospital, trying to get me to eat something.
Shortly after Rafael returned, a man and a woman arrived with a stretcher and clipboards to take me to the military hospital. We were still waiting for the nurses at the public hospital to sign the release paperwork. I hadn’t had any antibiotics since surgery the night before, which was critical, because of my open fracture and how contaminated the wound was— during surgery the night before, the orthopedic surgeon spent hours cleaning gravel out of my leg.
All of a sudden, I heard shouting in the hallway, and Rafael came storming into the room. “We’re going,” he said, “without the release paperwork.”
I was transferred onto another stretcher, another ambulance, that bounced over speedbumps and potholes. We arrived at the private military hospital, a clean, sunny yellow place, where I was able to see the sky as they wheeled me under the awning and whisked me behind a curtain to put me on an IV with the strongest pain medication I’ve ever experienced. I tried to ask them to stop, but found I could no longer form coherent words.
I ate dinner with my bare hands— my movements becoming increasingly wild as I tried to find and hold the lettuce with my right fingers, my dominant left hand held captive by the IV pumping gasoline quality antibiotics into my veins. Eventually I gave up as my shirt was littered with lettuce and bits of dressing. I remember trying to joke with the nurse about it (which realistically at that point, was probably nonsensical babble) who gave me a strange look, then left.
They took an ultrasound of all my major organs as I tried to joke with the doctor, but again, I could barely form a sentence. Afterwards, I spend a fun half hour in the x-ray room with two Honduran men, where we darkly joked about motorcycle accidents and talked about riding in Honduras and the United States, and traded English and Spanish slang.
“Why aren’t you crying?” one of the men asked, as we took the fourth x-ray, while I twisted myself and my broken leg unnaturally on the table. “If you were a man you’d be crying,” he said.
One of the men told me how his young son had also been in an accident earlier that day. He had climbed onto the family’s scooter and taken it for a brief ride before falling off and hitting his head. His family was at the hospital with his son in another city at that same moment. “I’m so sorry,” I said, “I wish you could go to him.”
“Someone carry my son, now I carry you,” he said.
“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
I spent five nights at the military hospital. I barely ate or slept, the florescent lights illuminating the room every few hours, as the promised antibiotics regularly arrived. I was so dehydrated, several times a day they’d have to find a new vein for the IV, so by the time I left, both my hands were bruised and sore from being prodded by the 14 or so different IVs.
There was an antibiotic for the staph infection, then another for post-surgery. Once a day, two nurses would come in to clean the laceration and stitches. I would watch, fascinated at the process, and asked them endless questions about what they were doing and why. I drew a line around the enormous staph infection, and monitored it every day, to make sure it was, in fact, receding. Most of the time, I had no energy to do much of anything save stare out the large window to my left, which had a view of a small mountain covered in the greenest grass I had ever seen, the bright blue sky behind it.
In the early hours of Thursday morning, I left the military hospital to fly back to the states, to continue my recovery. The orthopedic surgeon told me I’d be walking in a month, but when I returned to the states I found out my injury was more serious and complicated than what I’d been told in Honduras. I didn’t know then I’d spend the next two months in a wheelchair, and the month after that on crutches. I didn’t understand that I’d lose a huge percentage of my body’s muscle mass from being so inactive, that I’d spend an additional three months once I was cleared for weight bearing trying to gain it back, and that same time period re-learning to walk.
Even though I’d never be the same again, in 7 months to a year after I left Honduras, I’d be able to ride my motorcycle again, to go running, to carry a backpack into the mountains on my own two legs.
“Maybe your country is only a place you make up in your own mind. Something you dream about and sing about. Maybe it’s not a place on the map at all, but just a story full of people you meet and places you visit, full of books and films you’ve been to. I’m not afraid of being homesick and having no language to live in. I don’t have to be like anyone else. I’m walking on the wall and nobody can stop me.”
― Hugo Hamilton
If I could go back in time and find the woman I was, riding her motorcycle in the sunshine, and talk to her, tell her what was to come, I would not. We save ourselves, every day, by fighting for what we need and what we dream of, and by searching for it. We have to build the life we want, even if it means building it from the remains of what we’re left with, after what’s been done to us.
When I was lying on the side of the road with my leg torn open, bleeding— I don’t remember pain, or anger at what had been done to me, I remember kindness. I was never upset, but endlessly calm about what was happening. Maybe that meant I was strange, or like so many people before had called me— emotionless— but I don’t think so. I was grateful. Even on the side of the road, I was so grateful to find kindness, to find people who wanted to help me even though they didn’t have to. They gave me something far more valuable than what I had lost in the accident. I had to trust in the people around me in Honduras, and they didn’t let me down— and that alone, to see people fighting for me, was something I had not experienced before, and it changed me.
We’re all looking for something— struggle helps us realize it. Love helps us realize it. Whether it’s belonging, finding our place in this world, or meaning in this life, all we can do is follow time through the days, and accept what we’re presented with grace and with openness. We endure and find the beauty in what life presents. This I knew, just as I knew the sun would rise, the light passing overhead like small fragments of time to shape us. To illuminate us in the dawn.
I Surveyed the Last 50 Posts from National Geographic’s Five Main Instagram Accounts. This is What I Found.
It was 11 PM on Thanksgiving Eve, and I couldn’t sleep. I was scrolling through my Instagram feed when I came across my third Ladzinski photo in a row. “That’s weird,” I thought to myself. I follow about five National Geographic Instagram accounts, and one of his photos was featured on almost every one. “Maybe he’s doing a big project?”
I started browsing @natgeotravel, then @natgeoadventure. As I scrolled, my eyes became wider and wider. Weren’t there any female photographers featured on these accounts? On @natgeoexpeditions, I didn’t even see any photos of women. Just photo after photo of men taking photos of other men, male athletes, male adventurers, male explorers.
I decided to conduct a survey. I’d look at the last 50 posts on each of the major National Geographic Instagram accounts, and see how well women were represented. Visualizing data makes everything clear. This is what I found:
(Download the infographic here. )
I rode across the bridge into El Salvador, and when the bridge ended there was an empty bit of road with buildings to the left down a hill, a little stand to my right, military men milling and people milling around. There were no clear signs that I could see, and I sat there for a minute on my motorcycle. No one said anything, no one paid me any attention, so I rode down the hill to the left in front of one of the buildings.
As I got off the biked, a few men were waving back on the main r0ad. One of them walked down the hill, and jabbed a finger into my shoulder, loudly talking rapidly in Spanish, his words hard to understand but his posturing clear. I side stepped his hand. “Where is the immigration building?” I repeated over him, in Spanish, dead face— over and over until he finally pointed up the hill and kept talking. I turned around and rode back to the top. This is going to be a problem, I thought.
I pulled up to a space behind a truck, with plenty of room for me to turn around. An unpleasant looking man with a clipboard kept gesturing for me to move forward, needlessly. There was plenty of room, and by moving forward I’d be wedged in between a truck. I moved forward anyway, trying to start the process amicably so I could quickly get my temporary permit and leave. Roughly 6 people sat in the row of chairs outside the small guard shack. The man with the clipboard came up and asked to see my Guatemalan and motorcycle papers. Weird, but okay. I handed over a two copes of the papers, and a copy of my license. He thought my license was my passport, he didn’t ask, he just assumed. I handed him a copy of my passport as well.
This paper is a copy, he told me, holding one of the Guatemalan documents. What does it matter? I said, this is El Salvador, those are for Guatemala. He kept insisting it was a copy. One of the military guys came over and tried to help facilitate. He says you need the original copy for this, he told me. Yes, I understand, but that’s all I have, and we’re in El Salvador.
You need to go back to Guatemala and get an import permit. Why would I go back to Guatemala, we’re in El Salvador. I didn’t know why I had to keep stressing this point. I had minutes before canceled my temporary import permit and left Guatemala, I certainly wasn’t going back. All of a sudden he turns over the paper and says everything is fine, because it was the original and wasn’t, in fact, a copy. You need copies of these documents.
I stopped asking why. It became clear they had no idea what they were doing, that they were using Guatemalan documents for their own purposes, either because there wasn’t any clear direction on what to do, or this was it. The military guy waked over with me to the tienda that made copies for 10 cents. He used to live in Washington DC, and we talked about the differences between the US and El Salvador. We walked back, handed the documents to the clipboard guy, and waited, talking outside. Twenty minutes later, one of the military guys came up to the guy I was talking to (who told me he was a sergeant) and handed him a paper. You need to fill this out, he told me.
It was very basic, it asked for my address, names, and a ridiculously specific amount of information on my bike like the number of cylinders and if it ran on gasoline. I filled everything out, then handing it back in. An hour later, I was still waiting, as were the same 5 people sitting there. No one moved, everyone was just hanging around the compound. I went up to the other guy sitting at the booth, and asked him where my papers were. The jist of it was, they’re with the other guy with the clipboard, who was nowhere to be found.
The sergeant came up to me, “We go to lunch! What do you take?” I told him I was fine, that I had food with me, and he loudly wrote his name on a card, with his number, and told me to call if I needed help with anything. He walked into the street with a group of the younger military guys, “Call if you need anything!” he shouted. I inwardly rolled my eyes. This was so typical, this kind of posturing, to make it seem like we had some sort of understanding with the possibility of more within a group of guys. I did not appreciate that kind of behavior.
Thirty minutes later, still nothing. I grabbed my helmet and tank bag and walked down into the buildings. The building were completely empty save two men behind a counter. “Where are my papers,” I asked. “The man at the gate has them, and I don’t see him here. What is the problem and where are they.” One of the men started chatting with me in English, telling me to list for the guy in the other room. I walked next door, no one was there. I walked outside, and ask the guard. “Where are my papers?” He got on his walkie talkie, and then the man from the other room approached. They have your papers at the gate, they said. They’re waiting. Waiting for what. There’s only one guy here, at the desk, and he’s at lunch. Seriously? I’ve been here for hours, there’s a family that’s been here for 3 hours, and nothing is happening because one man is at lunch? I want lunch, everyone wants lunch— but first, I want to leave— with my papers.
I was tired of waiting around, of the male posturing and bullying for nothing.
He didn’t even ask how long I would be in El Salvador, no one did. There wasn’t even a space for that on the form. It was a facsimile of a border crossing, like these guys had once been through the Paris airport and took that back to their country, but it was all showmanship.
The thing about traveling alone as a woman on a motorcycle, is that people usually fall into two categories— those who think you’re really cool, and those who are threatened by you.
I walked back up the hill, helmet in one hand, tank bag in the other. I was hungry, it was hot, and if everyone else was going to eat lunch I would too. I grumpily pulled my plastic food bag from underneath the cargo net and sat it on the seat of the bike. My metal cooking spork was deep within my saddlebag, so I made one peanut butter sandwich after another, scooping the peanut butter out of the jar with my finger, smearing it across the bread like a drifter, gobbling the sandwiches down. If I was going to have to wait, I wasn’t going to do it hungry.
The family sitting in the row of seats in front of the small guard shack watched me making my sandwiches and laughed— I think partly because it seemed clear I had resigned myself to the fate of waiting, and also because I looked like a dirtbag, dressed all in black traveling alone on a motorcycle, eating peanut butter our of a jar. “Quieres uno!? Tengo crema de mani!” (Want one? I have peanut butter?) They laughed harder.
After an hour more of waiting, my patience wore out. I don’t agree with Western entitlement, thinking everything can be improved and vocalizing it at ever turn, but these guys clearly didn’t know what they were doing, it was like a pantomime of a legit border crossing, and I was tired of waiting for them to throw their weight around. I grabbed my helmet and tank bag, and walked down to the immigration building. “Where are my papers?”
There was no one in the immigration room save the couple men behind the counter. The man who had my papers was gone. “Where are my papers? I gave them to one man, but now he’s not here. I’ve been waiting for hours.”
And before I could help it “My bones will be here, before the papers are.” The two ladies standing there looked slightly horrified, but the little girl giggled.
On the Road, Campeche, Mexico
Rocketing down the highway, drops of rain nipped at the tops of my legs. I leaned forward into the wind, as if propelling the motorcycle forward through force of will. The road wound through hills in front of me, enormous dark storm clouds gathering behind. I had been outrunning the storm for the last 20 miles— what had been a pile of dark clouds on the horizon had become a dark mass overhead, the edges tinted green when the sun would have been setting, the rest a writhing mass of turbulent shapes overhead. I didn’t know storm clouds well enough to determine what type of clouds I was seeing and what they meant, but I knew what was coming.
I was 10 miles away from Campeche, my destination that evening after a grueling 11 hour day on the bike. Most of the way had been spectacularly beautiful coastline with miles of white sand beach dropping away to my left into the perfectly green, clear sea. Bright green lizards scuttled across the road, butterflies floated at the edges and all sorts of birds swooped overhead. I had crossed bridges to islands, small fishing boats in the water below, and followed the flat winding road all the way from Oaxaca to Campeche state, almost 500 miles to the North-East.
I was so close— but even screaming along the highway at 85 mph, the wind streaming my hard behind me, I could seem to outrun the dark mass of clouds that was always there behind me.
Oaxaca City, Mexico
“Who were your role models growing up?” Brad asked me.
Brad Mendenhall of Cosmic Gepetto was interviewing me for a podcast about my experiences on the road, and what it was like as a solo female adventure traveler. Although it shouldn’t have, the question took me by surprise. It was my first podcast interview talking about my experiences on the road, and even though being a strong woman is a huge part of my life and image, where it stemmed from wasn’t something I thought about often. Growing up, my role models existed in the pages of the books I read voraciously— Matilda, Maniac Magee, Lyra and Hermione Granger, I read all of Roald Dahl books and read about his time in South Africa on the RAF, about the snake catcher who would be called when a green mamba had gotten into someone’s house. I’ve lived in books most of my life, but people were harder to identify with for me. People weren’t a constant like books were.
“My Aunt was a big inspiration to me as a child,” I said finally. “Although I only knew her as a child, hearing about her stories growing up gave me the inspiration to know I could do whatever I wanted, and that was enough for me.”
My mother’s elder sister, 6 feet tall and spectacularly beautiful, was at the heart of many of the adventure stories I was told as a child. Aunt Amy, an Amazon who would read me and my siblings tea leaves and tell us our fortunes as children. We knew all the stories about her, her narrowly missing being eaten by a shark in Thailand, how she would jump out of restaurant bathrooms to escape bad dates, how she swam through klongs (narrow sewage canals in Thailand) to skip school, and how she barely escaped being stung by a man of war on some exotic beach.
“Tell us the shark story again!” we’d yell from the back seat of the old green Impala my Mom used to drive. “Tell us about the jellyfish!” My Mom often talked about her fiery red-headed sister, and her wicked sense of humor. Up until I was 6 years old, my siblings and I would make day trips with my Mom and Aunt to a circuit of thrift stores, where we’d hunt for bargains. My Mom and Amy would treat themselves to a soda at 7-11, calling them brain burners. We were to young to know how little money we had then, so the brain burners and the excursions to thrift stores were always exciting to us. We’d make it into our own adventure, hiding in shopping carts, all of us wanting to be with Aunt Amy and hear her stories.
After the thrift store there would always be a treat waiting for us back at her house, a box of Entenmann’s mixed donuts: three powdered sugar, three cinnamon + sugar, and three plain. While my brother and sister and I would debate over which flavor of donut to eat first (powdered sugar), my Mom and my Aunt would sit on the front steps drinking iced tea, my Aunt smoking a cigarette.
“Aunt Amy! Aunt Amy! Aunt Amy’s house!” We would shout as kids, racing up the steep hill to the gate, the words running together to form a chant, “AntTamy, AntTamy, AntTamy!” My sister and I fighting over who got to ride in Ant Tamy’s shopping cart, showing her what we found at the thift store, and waiting for her approval of our bargains. Ant Tamy on her front stoop, Ant Tamy in her Volkswagon beetle, Ant Tamy with cancer.
After my grandparents died when I was 6, my family had a falling out, and we moved away. The memories of who I was in relation to my Aunt Amy at age 6 was something I held onto for 14 years, until I would see my Aunt again, when we found out she had cancer.
As I grew older, I held onto the person I was crouched in my Aunt’s shopping cart in thrift stores. The girl who reminded everyone so much of Amy herself, this person I didn’t know save my childhood memories, but who was such an integral part of me. This heroic goddess I had heard so much about, this beautiful, daring woman I hoped to be just like. I remember even at 6 recognizing I wanted my life to be full of adventure. All I’d ever wanted were those same adventures, those stories. I remember getting my driver’s license, and right after the test thinking, I have my driver’s license Aunt Amy! And, in the back of my mind, I could go visit her, now. I remember birthdays and life changes and successes, always successes, thinking of her. Comparing myself to 6 year old Dani thinking, I wonder how like her I am now?
“You may tire of me
as our December sun is setting
because I’m not who I used to be.”
Death Cab for Cutie
One Thursday night, I had a voicemail from my Mom on Skype, telling me Aunt Amy had been admitted to the hospital. “Larry found her unconscious in the morning when he woke up, we’re not sure what’s going to happen,” my Mom said. The flight home from Cape Town was long, usually around 24 hours. Even if I found a flight the next morning, I’d still be a full day away from home. “We’re not sure what’s going to happen,” my Mom repeated, the Skype connection breaking up.
The next evening, my Mom called again from Skype. I could hear the tears in her voice, and my whole body constricted. I remember the room going completely silent, holding its breath, as if the room had been waiting for this moment. “We’re all headed to the hospital now, the doctors told us to say our goodbyes.” I sat in my empty apartment for hours, in the dark, seeing the lights sparkle off in the distance on Table Mountain. My computer buzzed, another Skype call.
My Mom was openly crying this time. I could hear my family in the background. “We told her you love her, and wished you could be here,” my Mom sobbed over the phone. We were all together over the phone, during the last few moments of my Aunt’s life, before they pulled the life support. While I slept halfway around the world, she was gone.
Aunt Amy, Ant Tamy, my godmother, my inspiration, the woman who swam with sharks, a piece of my family, my history, was gone. Never again would I see her coming through the front door at Thanksgiving, or smell the scent of a cigarette on her clothes. I wouldn’t be able to ask her about her stories, or know her as an adult. She was gone, and I didn’t even get the chance to say goodbye.
The moon was high in the sky, a small yellow orb in the distance, matching the yellow lights that shone on the opposite shore. I could hear the sound of the waves crashing below as I descended the steep concrete staircase from my apartment overlooking the water to the narrow path below. It was such a beautiful night, the heat finally stifled by the arrival of darkness, the faint sound of mariachi emanating from the small town in the distance.
The narrow path below followed the perimeter of the bay, and I expected to find it empty, but it wasn’t. It was filled with couples, perched on every available space— tucked into the shadows of steep rocks, on the benches and small bridges dotting the path as the waves crashed beneath them. They held hands and strolled in arguably one of the most romantic spots I’d every stayed, and I felt self-conscious walking among them, the only single tourist in the town it seemed.
The driving force of my walk was to get another strawberry popsicle from a tienda on the main street in town— they were absolutely delicious, and in the 24 or so hours I’d been in town I’d already eaten 3. So it was that I had to walk back and forth through the couples lining the path, eating my popsicle, alone, licking the juice from my arm and trying to look cool even though I’m sure I only achieved a degree of awkward.
* * *
This week was defined by feeling solitary, maybe it was being in bigger cities rather than small towns, but instead of feeling invested in the people or places I was staying I felt like I was orbiting around their centers, drifting through the crowds like I was less a part of them and more akin to a pigeon pecking at the ground— I was there, but I didn’t quite belong.
It wasn’t as if I wasn’t meeting people or being invited places— I was. One gorgeous German redhead asked, “We should go out tonight,” then a beautiful man from Mexico City wanted to meet up for dinner. I was serenaded one night in a public square, invited to dance, grab a few beers— I received so much attention anywhere I went on the motorcycle, I was constantly having conversations with people about the weather, the trip, whatever city I was in. I felt like the Universe was telling me to dive in and I was pulling away. I had no reason to refuse an offer to dance, to go out, to meet a beautiful man for dinner, but I was refusing everything— like there was a part of me that knew I needed to dive in, to offer far more to this journey than I was, to step out from behind the camera and the woman on the motorcycle and the businesswoman to find more of myself in the heart of Mexico— but I hadn’t yet.
“Standing on the fringes of life… offers a unique perspective. But there comes a time to see what it looks like from the dance floor.”― Stephen Chbosky
* * *
The heat was so intense, my thick canvas jacket was soaked within 10 minutes of riding through town to leave.
I planned on wild camping that night— it would be dark before I could make Acapulco, a three hour ride to the south, and I had been dying to sleep on the beach under the stars along the pristine coastline I had been following for days. Just 40 miles outside Zihuatanejo, I drove by a small, sandy road descending to the beach in the distance. The first 10 feet of the road included a steep descent, with a deep rut down the middle, all made of loosely packed, gravely sand. I eyed the left and right side of the road, and the long stretch of seemingly deserted beach on the distance, giant barrels of waves crashing near the shore. I decided to attempt the right side of the path. I eased out the front brake lever slowly, and started descending the steep road. A little too slowly, I found out— without enough forward momentum, the rear wheel started to slide to the left down the giant rut in the middle of the road, forcing the front tire into another rut. I leaped off the bike, my right foot catching a little as the bike slid and then came to a stop. My bike was on its side, horizontal across the road, the front wheel pointed down the steep road.
Without missing a beat, I unhooked my cargo net covered my backpack and saddlebag on the rear of the bike, and unloaded several bags. The greatest thing about the Giant Loop saddlebag on the back is that it protects the bike on either side as well as holding all my gear. The bike was sitting a top of the right saddlebag, on a pile of my clothes inside.
With some of the weight off, I grabbed the back of the frame just in front of the rear tire, and pulled it toward me. It was now hovering off the ground, a food above the steep rut in the road where I now stood. I walked to the front of the bike, grabbed the front handlebars, and leveraging the weight of the bike over the rut, I threw all my weight back and pulled the bike up off the ground.
“Ahhhhh success!” I shrieked. I threw my right leg over the seat, and leaving the heavier bags on the side of the road to come back to, continued down the road.
Headlights swept past my tent. I didn’t move, thinking it was just another bike, someone else wanting to check out the beach and they’d drive on by. I saw the shadows of legs as someone walked in front the the light, then around my tent.
“Buenas noches,” I heard a man say, and then I looked out. There wasn’t one person outside, there were 10 enormous men, all dressed in the heavy black military uniform with guns slung over their shoulders. What I thought was a bike was actually two military trucks. They had surrounded my tent, shining flashlights over my motorcycle and tent.
“Buenas noches,” I replied cooly, staying in my tent.
“What are you doing here?” one man asked, in a thick accent.
“I wanted to camp on the beach.”
I could see the rest of the group of men behind me shifting around, looking at my bike and the surrounding area. The men looked enormous wearing their thick black jackets and helmets, the headlights from the trucks illuminating them like a scene from an arty film. I decided to stay in my tent.
“It would be better to stay in a hotel. There is one 15 minutes from here. Bad men come here sometimes, it’s not safe. I can give you our phone number to call if you have a problem.”
I pretended to write the number down, asking him to repeat it, although I didn’t have a functioning phone I wasn’t about to let on I was alone on the beach without any way to contact anyone.
“Are you alone?”
I thought briefly about lying, that was usually what I did when asked this question, but since he was kind and non-threatening, I told him I was traveling from Washington to Patagonia alone, and that I had stopped here for the night instead of riding to Acapulco in the dark.
One of the other men started chatting in Spanish to the man I was speaking with, telling him about another beach that was much more beautiful for camping. My heart melted a little at that.
“Where we are staying, 15 minutes away, the beach is much more beautiful, you can follow us.”
I was used to people telling me areas weren’t safe, usually for the sole reason I was traveling alone, but I was only 150 miles outside Acapulco in the state of Guerrero— the most notorious area in the entire country for drug trafficking, and I had been passing through multiple military checkpoints for days. Since I was obviously a tourist, it wasn’t a problem for me, and the men I had encountered in the military were always polite and professional. That was different, however, from encountering drug smugglers on a deserted beach in the middle of the night.
With that, I decided to pack up and leave. I didn’t know the area, and the vacant buildings on a deserted beach near a highway did seem like an ideal spot for drug trafficking.
“It’ll take about 15 minutes for me to pack up.”
He nodded, and pointed down the beach. “We’ll be down there.” I thanked him, and with that, they piled into the back of the two pickup trucks, and retreated into the darkness. Maybe I should have been afraid, but I wasn’t. Standing there in the moonlight on the edge of the sea, packing my things on my bike in the light of my headlamp, I felt strangely exhilarated.
“You can’t make decisions based on fear and the possibility of what might happen.” ― Michelle Obama
* * *
The MSF (the Motorcycle Safety Foundation) Rider Handbook has a section that talks about how to handle curves riding a motorcycle. “If you cannot see the exit, predict the curve radius tightens and hold entry speed farther into the curve.”
It struck me at the time, and now on the road, that handling curves on a motorcycle was a metaphor for my life. That most of the time I didn’t know what lay ahead, but I went into it with a good entry speed, held the curve, looking as far ahead as I could and held my speed.
None of us will ever know what lies ahead, but a lot of us won’t chance going into the curve. We’ll take the safer, less mountainous road, or the straight predictable path— the one we can see for hundreds of miles ahead. But in doing so, we’ll never be rewarded by the sinewy mountain roads that open up to a view of the crashing waves in the distance, or giant mountains towering over the road. We’ll never know what it’s like to camp on a beach alone, nothing but the moon and the waves and a great expanse of sand in either direction.
In that moment, in the dark on the beach after being surrounded by the Mexican military, I realized for the second time this trip how little fear is part of my life.
“If you cannot see the exit, predict the curve radius tightens and hold entry speed farther into the curve.” —Motorcycle Safety Foundation
* * *
I rode in along the dark highway for 20 miles after gunning my motorcycle up the steep roading leading to the beach— this time making it up and over onto the paved road in seconds— feeling empowered by the night riding, the wind cool and the air clean, the road unfolding before me illuminated by my headlight. Bugs slapped at my arms— I was too hot at the beach to put on my riding jacket, so I rode along the roads bare armed, the motorcycle growling over speed bumps, only the occasional sweep of headlights crossing my path.
I thought about riding all the way to Acapulco in the dark, but the experience on the beach had put a little darkness in my heart, so I stopped at the first hotel I spotted off the small two lane road. A tiny older man sat at the reception desk, the glow of a solitary light behind him. The reception desk was in the middle of a vast dining area, and what looked like an empty pool with a swim up bar in the corner.
I followed him to a room, hoping that, as expensive the price was, the room would be nice and I could take a shower. He opened the door, turned on the light, and I spotted cockroaches scuttling over the sink in the back along the sink. He discreetly tried to kill them, flushing their carcasses down the sink drain, then walking into the separate shower stall presumably to do the same. He showed me how to turn on the AC with a breaker switch, then smiling kindly, left the room. I was now alone to contemplate the horrors of where the cockroaches were coming from and if they would be in the bed at night. After a brief look into the shower stall and realizing one enormous cockroach remained, I decided to sleep in my bikini sans shower and leave at dawn.
* * *
“…the universe wants to be noticed. But what we want is to be noticed by the universe, to have the universe give a shit what happens to us— not the collective idea of sentient life but each of us, as individuals.” —John Green
* * *
I was on the road by 6 AM, dark clouds in the distance threatening rain. I could feel the chill air even through my thick canvas riding jacket, the air getting cooler and cooler the longer I road. I rode though the last big town until Acapulco, which was 80 miles away. I had just started down an empty stretch of highway when it started to rain, and then, it started to pour. I could barely see the road in front of me, and every few minutes I let go of the clutch lever to wipe the beads of water from my face-shield.
Great bolts of lighting struck in the distance, and in an instant, enormous puddles collected on the roadway. All of a sudden, I was no longer alone— 18 wheelers and buses and small vans were passing me, or stopped on the side of the road in the torrential downpour. I stopped for a few moments underneath a concrete bus shelter and re-check my bags to make sure no water was getting in. The was a 1′ wide strip underneath the roof in the bus shelter that wasn’t soaked, and I stood there, removing the interior part of my face-shield that was continually fogging.
I couldn’t go back, but it seemed like I couldn’t keep going either. I kept going.
I rode out the downpour, and arrived two hours later in Acapulco, completely soaked but victorious.
* * *
The hotel which assured me had wifi did not, so after a quick shower, I spent the rest of the day in the Woolworth restaurant working. Acapulco, a city I had heard so much about, was noisy and dirty and overwhelming, and even though I loved it for all those things in the short time I spent there, I was ready to leave the next morning. I woke up at 4:45, packed up my bike outside, chatting with one of the many military men who occupied Acapulco— their military vehicles parked at almost every intersection— and left the city in the dark. I wanted to make Mexico City in time to work West Coast hours, 245 miles away.
* * *
I had heard so much about Mexico City from other travelers— CDMX it was referred to, the cool acronym reflecting how great the city was itself. Mexico City is like the Colombia of South America— anyone who has been knows how amazing it is and shares their experiences with like-minded travelers— anyone who hasn’t defers to the reputation of the place, which in the US (surprise, surprise) isn’t good.
I stayed for 3 days at the spectacular CDMX Hostel and Art Gallery on the swanky Paseo de la Reforma, surrounded by amazing street food, and giant buses sporting ‘CDMX’ racing around the giant roundabouts filled with trees and statues and fountains. I locked my motorcycle up outside the hostel on the metal framing in front of the windows, and didn’t ride for two straight days. I did laundry, ran errands, shipped packages, ran every morning through the parks lining the main street, and ate lunch every day at a vegetarian cafe down the street.
I left Mexico City Sunday morning, and made the incredible drive through the mountains to Oaxaca in what seemed like no time at all, but was really 5 hours.
I blew through mountain roads, rolling around curves that opened up to enormous views of the enormous mountains in the distance. I road across desert after desert, riding through oddly shaped red hills, carved with small canyons that looked like anthills. I rode through a downpour and dodged falling rocks from the cliffs lining the road, an ambulance stopped on the side for a car that had been hit by rocks. I rode with other motorcyclists and passed gangs of them going the opposite way, everyone out riding on that beautiful Sunday.
I passed the strangest things— a smear of green across the highway that ended in two giant heads of broccoli on the shoulder, a hat perfectly positioned in the roadway as I came across it, the word ‘FUCK’ embroidered loosely in great, sprawling loops on the front, a red plastic bag floating high, so high up in the sky it drifted like a small red cloud.
And so it was I ended another week on the road, rolling through curve after curve after curve, holding the entry speed, and ready for whatever appeared in the distance.
I zipped around a bus that had been making frequent stops, following the river that wound up the road in the distance, passing small shops and a Tortilleria, where fresh tortillas were being made by a silver machine. All of a sudden, I was surrounded by dogs, and everything I ever read about dogs and motorcycles went through my head. “Do not kick the dogs, do not kick the dogs,” as the dog on my right lunged toward the bike and I simultaneously shrieked and accelerated, pulling my leg up and away from the dog’s mouth.
My motorcycle bumped up and down over the cobblestone road, and my phone was narrating the journey with its cries of ‘slight left’, but re-routing every mile so I wasn’t sure if I was 2 miles away or 5, and the road kept winding higher. Finally, I passed a beautiful little green building that said ‘Casa Rio Cuale’ on the front. I managed a u-turn on the tiny cobblestone street and came to a stop before a heavy black gate. I had arrived.
* * *
“Come se dice ‘barbed wire’?” I muttered to myself, making a mental note to look up the word in Spanish when I got back on wifi. My recommended early morning running route dead ended in a barbed wire fence— a route recommended by a woman 50 feet down the road.
“You should take that road, it’s a great run that loops around the town. Make a right at the green house. And don’t worry about the barking dogs, they’re friendly!” she added.
A right that ended in barbed wire. I sighed inwardly and turned around to continue on the route I had started on before. I ran back down the hill, passing by a small house on the right with two small chihuahuas perched on the road. “Hola,” I crooned to the dogs as I passed, when all of a sudden, an enormous German Shepard lunged at me from behind them, its teeth missing my thigh by inches inches as it choked itself on its own short leash.
I took off at a sprint toward the beach and ran laps around the town square instead.
* * *
Some weeks on the road are just hard. Nothing seems to go right, even when it does. I sometimes longed to open a locked door easily the first time, that familiarity of knowing how the key works instead of struggling with it. There were metal gates with deadbolts and handles, tiny wooden doors that push inward like the doors to a saloon, there was a door in one hotel that had to be turned three times to the right, and would turn endless times to the left without doing anything, and anytime I wanted to get into my room I struggled— one day at any place isn’t enough time to get to know all the quirks.
I longed to rely on the wifi, or to know exactly how long it would take to get to a place, and which was the best way to go. This week was one of those weeks. Every day it seemed I had gotten lost, or there wasn’t a place to stay in a town, and I’d arrive at my final destination flustered and frantically pulling out all my gear to hop online and start working as quickly as possible, sometimes barely making meetings. My phone died on the road several times, or overheated, I was chased by dogs on and off the bike, I got sick off a plate of chilaquiles (my second of the day because it was the only vegetarian dish I could find in the small beach town) and was covered in mosquito bites. Every morning I would wake up, my hands two claws from squeezing and releasing the front brake and clutch lever. I participated in a joint ride on the streets of Puerto Vallarta, the other party being two teenage boys on a small bike, and a man at a hardware store helped me fix my computer cable at no charge. The road gives and it takes.
I arrived at my last hotel to find it filled with the carcasses of dead roaches, each set of legs like a prayer for me to escape to a better place and get this week over with. I was on my way to the front desk to inquire about the cockroaches, grumbling inside, when I passed a a family talking and laughing, sitting in plastic chairs around a table laden with food and beer.
“Quieres tequila?” a woman called to me as I passed, holding up a glass.
I was there until almost 11 PM, drinking tequila and brandy and another alcohol I no longer remember the name of. “Try!” Elsa and her husband exclaimed, pulling out bag after bag of Mexican street snacks, homemade dishes, and drinks. Elsa sliced me mango and jicama, and along with her son, two grandsons, husband, daughter in law, and restaurant owner in-law, we toasted “Salud!” into the night.
“Fuck Trump!” Else exclaimed at one point, then her husband got up to dance on the lawn where their two grandsons joined them. Elsa’s son shyly approached me, “para tu moto”. It was a gift, a keychain in the shape of a frog that was also a bottle opener.
Elsa told me when I returned to Mexico, she could introduce me to some attractive Mexican men, and told me if anyone bothered me on my trip all I needed to do was just take a knife— she illustrated the movement with a flick of the knife she had just cut the jicama with— and tell them I’d cut off their balls.
“And feed them to the dogs!” I added, thinking it would be a good distraction for all the dogs that had been chasing me. Elsa laughed, and we toasted some more. I woke hours later in my bed in the pitch black, frantically searching for my motorcycle keys only to find them sitting atop the bed.
* * *
I wake up every morning at sunrise, and pull on my running shoes to go for a three mile run. Afterwards, I take a shower, find some breakfast, and work for the next 4 hours. I take a short break for lunch, work for a few more hours, then grab my camera gear and shoot some photos in the evening light, which I later edit, and set up social media posts for the next day. At night, I plan my route for the next day, return any personal emails or messages I hadn’t gotten around to, and plan stops for the next week or work on other projects.
If it’s a riding day I pack when I get back from my run, do some maintenance on the motorcycle, then spend the next few hours on the motorcycle riding to the next destination and arrive in time to work West Coast hours and work even later into the night. Like many people, I look forward to the weekend, and plan on longer rides or camping. Normally, I love this life. I love life on the road, managing my own work and clients, shooting photos, thinking about what projects I’m working on while riding, or ideas for future projects. Sometimes, while on the road I sing along with the faint music I listen to through earbuds tucked inside my helmet, shouting out lyrics as I ride.
Even so, I was grumpy. I was grumpy even though I loved it, even though I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing. I grumbled at the dogs, and when I had trouble making u-turns on tiny cobblestone streets, and I grumbled when I walked around in any populated city and was shouted at, or blown kisses, or whistled at by strange men. By the time I had arrived in Zihuatanejo on Sunday, I was ready for a break— and luckily, a break was waiting for me.
* * *
“It’s too hot to be walking. Walking is bullshit,” I thought to myself grumpily. I had just arrived in Zihuatanejo a day early after riding 6 hours from the tiny beach hotel I had spent the night at before drinking tequila with Elsa. I knew I was in a grumpy mood, and just needed some alone time to read a book in a quiet place, which downtown Zihuatanejo is anything but. The sun beat down relentlessly from its overhead perch, every part of my body sticky from sweat and the mosquito repellant I had slathered myself with.
“Hey lady want a beer?” a voice called from within a group of men at a corner bar, titters of laughter following.
A little later down the street I was whistled at from a rooftop, and half a block after that I heard a father asking his toddler aged son if he thought I was pretty, in Spanish. When it was obvious I understood the conversation, he repeated it for me in English.
“Yeah got it.” I entered into a brief daydream where I visualized kicking dogs and humans alike, before I continued on down the street.
As a birthday present earlier that year, my sister and her husband Matt offered to buy a room or a cool lesson on the road and be part of the trip. Earlier that week, they bought me an AirBNB for a night with an amazing view of the ocean in Zihuatanejo, and I would head there the next day. My own kitchen and a locking door, I thought, stuffing myself with strawberry ice cream along the walk to soothe my ruffled feelings. I love meeting people on the road, I love being on the road, but sometimes I dream of being alone and silent in a room I can lock, and forget the outside world exists if only for a while and reset. It was all I could think of walking along the streets and the crowds of Zihuatanejo. Mañana.
* * *
Some weeks doing awesome things are hard. Vent, move on, find a better way of dealing with it. It’s hard being an introvert on the road. Sometimes, ya gotta mentally kick all the dogs before you can continue on and appreciate the journey for what it is— a beautiful piece of time and space along this journey.
I had always wanted to come to Zihuatanejo after watching Shawshank Redemption as a kid. It’s the city Andy goes to after breaking out of prison— he refers to it in the movie, “You know what the Mexicans say about the Pacific? They say it has no memory. That’s where I want to live the rest of my life. A warm place with no memory.”
I sit on the beach in the evening, watching the fishing boats and people go by, knowing no one and belonging nowhere. The water in the harbor quietly moves to and fro, reflecting the light of distant houses and washing up onto the beach and falling back, taking my memories with it.
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
The two lane road wound across the desert, cacti popping up like telephone lines and scrubby trees dotting the skyline for miles. I leaned into turn after turn, opening up the throttle and throwing the bike right, then left, then right again. The early sunrise was golden, and at every turn glinted off my face-shield, the only sounds in my helmet the rush of the wind and the click of the gear shift lever as I change gears.
A short hour later, I rode into the town of San Miguel de Allende, the highway petering out in a steep descent of slippery cobblestones and bumper to bumper traffic.
“In 500 feet, turn left” chirped my phone, through my left headphone.
The streets leaned and dropped, my motorcycle bumping up and down. The traffic stopped, then started, then turned into a series of sharp, unmarked speed bumps, all the while tiny little alleyways with steep descents and ascents popped up seemingly out of nowhere. I quickly squinted at my phone underneath the clear plastic sleeve of my tank bag, but the sun was so bright, it was hard to see where the turn was.
The 2016 Suzuki tu250x weighs 326 pounds unloaded. With roughly 45 pounds of gear on the pillion, 7 pounds on my tank bag, and another 110 pounds for me, I balanced the weight from arm to arm, tiring after just a mile of maneuvering the bike at such slow speed. I made another left at the next street, and a quick right, narrowly avoiding a huge bus and navigating a sharp right on the cobblestones. There!
With a quick maneuver, I leaned hard to the left, quickly pulling the bike back to the right while blipping the throttle to extend the front forks over the low curb, and stopping hard on a tiny sidewalk the width of my forearm. I sat on my bike for a minute, laughing a little at the madness that every day brings on an adventure.
The two owners of the hostel came out smiling. “Why didn’t you just drive the bike inside?” they asked, gesturing to the small door and lobby, and a set of steps behind leading to a courtyard. “How silly of me,” I thought to myself, “Of course I should have just driven it inside the hostel.”
They pulled out two tiny metal pieces shaped like a crooked ‘L”, no wider than a smallish sandwich. “Here,” one of the owners said. “We’ll put these down, and just drive up the stairs.” He placed the metal pieces at the base of each narrow step. The stairs exited through a small metal door, which opened up into a small courtyard. They looked at me expectantly.
I’ve learned through experience when trying new, difficult things on the road, to embrace them with a passive face, and hope with all one’s heart everything goes well. I didn’t want to ride up those steps. I had just finished a hard ride through the tiny city that took all my concentration— but there’s a confidence we find when other people believe in our capabilities. Seeing the two owners watching me expectantly and smiling, I nodded to them, and rode the bike up the stairs into the courtyard with a serene face, my heart pounding in my chest.
The day begin as all good days do, surrendering to the challenges that await us on the road. My fate took the shape of riding down steps on the motorcycle to exit the hostel, and a short ride to a neighboring town— Guanajuato. The map Maps.me presented as I typed in the hostel name at 7 am looked like a joke— a spaghetti noodle pile in the centro district. I figured it was just the GPS acting up, and it would re-route once I got closer to the city. It didn’t.
Guanajuato was initially settled in the 1520s by the Spanish as a mining town. Its maze of crisscrossing roads and bridges and underground tunnels in the City Centro is due to diverting the Guanajuato River from flooding the town during the wet season. Almost all the streets running through the city center are one way, and I rode on a maze of roads, down through underground tunnels, plunging into darkness and emerging out into the sunlight just as quickly.
It only took 30 minutes to find the hostel through the city center, and after unloading my bags, one of the guys working at the Vegetarian Restaurant/Hostel where I was staying pointed down the road to where I could park my motorcycle. I was roughly 20 feet down the one way road, in the opposite direction of traffic.
“Just drive around,” he said, pointing down the one way street in the flow of traffic.
I looked at the bike, then down the road. I walked down the narrow sidewalk which ended in two metal posts I’d have to squeeze the bike through if I rode down the sidewalk instead— I wasn’t sure I’d make it. I considered riding the wrong way down the street, it was such a short distance, but the road ended in a sharp curve small trucks were trying to navigate, and it seemed like a foolish risk to take. Inwardly sighing, I resigned myself to again riding up stairs so to speak, and started up the bike.
“Turn left in 100 feet,” my phone chirped. The narrow cobblestone street turned a sharp curve and ended in 4 different small streets branching off. None of the streets appeared on my map, or had any of the same names as what my map was showing. I went far left. I ended in a travel circle with my phone telling me “take the first exit” which I did, then ended back at the traffic circle. Then again. Then again. After arriving at the same roundabout 4 times, I started taking random streets that seemed to head east. I rode through dark tunnels, over bridges, then through more dark tunnels where cars would suddenly appear from hidden exits, and the tunnels would end in hidden underground expressways, dotted with stop signs. One hour later, I arrived back at the hostel, 20 feet from where I began. I splurged on lunch and drank an entire pot of coffee.
* * *
There’s a word in Arabic, Fanaa فناء , that means the destruction of the ego or self, related to the Buddhist idea of the eightfold path and the highest state of meditation through stripping away the self. It also means the destruction of self for love.
Ego has no place in adventures, although it’s found often enough in explorers. The moment we start to feel like the moment, or place, has been conquered, is the same instant we stop being open to learning— and we lose. We lose the stories of other humans on the road while we’re talking about ourselves instead, we lose the knowledge of the best roads to take, or places to visit, by becoming overly invested in ourselves and our current knowledge, and we lose the ability to lean on others. We lose.
Only by being humble, by being open to experiences and stories, and accepting and actively thinking that we know so very little, can we truly be part of the road. The saddest thing we can do is hold on tightly to what we think we know, brandishing it like a sword. Without fanaa, we’re no more than sheep, traveling a grey line to what we expect to be at the end of the road.
* * *
I rode down a steep, sandy street into the heart of Sayulita, a surf town on the Pacific coast of Mexico. Heads turned as I rode down the street, my tangled hair thrown over one shoulder, my loose tank top over my sports bra.
I like to joke that I couldn’t get more attention if I rode into towns on the back of a Taun Taun. It would be easy to confuse the attention with accomplishment, to make the attention into something ego-centric, instead of what it is— doing something a little different people aren’t used to seeing— and there’s a responsibility in that.
I’ve met the most amazing humans this week on the road— who are all doing something a little different. Lucy in San Miguel de Allende, who has traveled all over the world, and is headed to Australia next. I met Cody and Sarah, two entrepreneurs on their honeymoon who have multiple properties in Melbourne they rent on AirBNB. I met Dana last night for dinner in Sayulita, from the Remote Year program, after she sent me a message on Instagram that she had been following me there for a year and had seen my motorcycle with DC plates parked on the street. I’ve had the most amazing conversations and heard some incredible stories of people doing the wildest things.
We all have unique capabilities and stories, some more visible than others, but hold no more or less value. In this crazy life, we can only move forward, forgiving ourselves for the things we didn’t do well, building on the mistakes we’ve made, quieting our restless hearts with promise of doing more, doing better in the future, and riding down that next stretch of highway to the unknown.
* * *
La Lancha, Mexico
I had reached the Pacific, that long stretch of blue and breeze running out to the horizon. I was walking along a winding path from the road to the sea, alone in the quiet of the woods, spying red crabs popping in and out of holes and small lizards scuttling in the dry leaves and dirt.
Carrying my surfboard, the path opened up to the ocean, the smell of salt on the air, and long, quiet beaches in both direction. Craggy rocks capped the beach at the ends, and several people sat along the shore at that popular surf break.
I paddled out into the clear water, one stroke after another, my fingers sieving the water. Nearing the first break, a white wave crashed around me, soaking me completely in the warm Pacific. I surrendered to the ocean, and began anew.
Nuevo Laredo, Mexico
I was waiting at the Banjercito office in the Migración building, having just crossed International Bridge II from Laredo, Texas into Mexico. I held my motorcycle helmet in one hand, and my tank bag in the other, simultaneously clutching a large ziplock of all my documents needed for my temporary vehicle permit to ride through Mexico.
“You should throw your motorcycle in the back of my truck,” the man in front of me said.
His wife, standing in front of him, tried to say something to him and he waved her off impatiently. “It’s not safe for you in this state. You can put your motorcycle in the back of my truck. Other states, sure, but this one— you think the police will help you, maybe 50%, but the rest, corruption. Maybe one saw you come in. Maybe he will follow you. It’s fine for me, in my truck, but you, on a bike…” He trailed off, clearly contemplating the horrors awaiting a female traveler alone on a motorcycle.
I nodded politely. I was used to people telling me it wasn’t safe. In fact, almost every place I’ve ever been people have asked if I was afraid— afraid of being alone, afraid of certain places or, what they really were asking and projecting, afraid of the unknown. When you’re a solo female traveler, you get used to these kind of comments and intrusive questions. I’ve found that passivity is the best way to handle them.
These fears are driven by skewed media outlets, gossip, and urban legends. They’re driven by blatant sexism (protect the women!) and culture— where instead of women being encouraged to explore the world, they’re told they need to be protected from it. I’ve been told by people in bordering countries that I’ll find nothing but desert the next country over, or, one of my personal favorites, that I’ll be killed or kidnapped. “I hope you make it,” they mutter, convinced of my demise for the sole reason of choosing to travel without a companion. I nod politely, and carry on.
* * *
5 days before, Sam Houston Jones State Park
I rolled the biked around a sharp curve, the smell of pine and warm sun breezing in through the vents in my helmet. Up ahead, a sign came into view around the curve— Sam Houston Jones State Park. It was a relief to be out of the bustle of New Orleans, and into the quiet of the forest. I pulled under an awning at the entrance to the State Park, a small bell sounding as I came to a stop. I climbed off the bike, and walked into the State Park office.
Two young girls were sorting money at the front desk. “You traveling alone?” one asked, looking at my riding jacket and helmet, and out the window to the motorcycle parked outside. “I’d be too afraid to camp alone,” she added.
“Nah it’s great you totally should, it’s a lot of fun. What’s going to get ya?”
The other girl handed me a written pass to hang on the post at the campsite.”Watch out for the raccoons ya hear, a guy was in here a little while back, asking for a refund because raccoons ate his tent. Don’t feed the raccoons al’right?”
I smiled at them both, walked outside to the bike, and rode off into the park.
* * *
It started pouring just as I reached the outskirts of Monterrey— a dirty, misty sort of rain that soaks the roadways and sends waves of gritty water into your boots. I could barely see through my face-shield, and the road-signs came up so quickly I didn’t have time to respond, and eventually didn’t bother with directions and just rode toward the city center— I was headed into Monterrey at least. My heart felt like it was in my throat as I rode down the highway, pelted by rain at 60 mph, surrounded by cars and buildings and busy road signs— then my low gas light came on. It was cold, I was completely soaked, and when I saw the Pemex gas station, I veered off the main highway onto a side street, rolling over hundreds of round miniature speed bumps checkering the roadway that made it feel like I was going to lose control of the bike, made a u-turn and and finally rolled to a stop under the blissfully dry awning of my first Mexican gas station.
The next 30 minutes were spent navigating the periphery of Monterrey, wiping water off my face-shield and clear sleeve of my tank bag while I tried to navigate streets. Lost for a time in the commercial outskirts, I rode across potholed roads filled with dirty rainwater deeper than kiddie swimming pools, crossed surprise railroad tracks— all the while inwardly cringing at every bump and turn on the slippery roadway. All of the sudden the rain stopped, and I pulled down a cobblestone street to reveal little restaurants, pink flowering vines, and a little cafe— Amatle Organic Hostel and Cafe— my home for the night. I got off the bike, and danced around like I had discovered the source of the Nile. I was in Mexico, and it was beautiful.
* * *
Sam Houston Jones State Park
I woke with a start in the pitch black. The sound of the trees rustled overhead, the wind running through the exposed screen of my tent— I had left the fly off. I heard the sound of breaking branches in front of the tent. I rummaged around for a light, inwardly groaning when I realized I had left my headlamp in one of the bags on my motorcycle.
Unzipping the tent, I walked gingerly across the ground in the dark, grabbing my headlamp out of my bag, finding it only by the dim glint of the motorcycle in the dark. I turned on the light to spy a raccoon dangling out of the tree, hands on my food bag, rummaging its hands around inside. I had hung a bear bag with p-cord from the tree in my campsite— not because of the threat of bears, but to keep the food (and raccoons) away from my motorcycle and tent.
I chuckled inwardly, crawled back into my tent, and fell asleep. It wasn’t until the next morning I thought of the significance of the moment, me stumbling around in the dark, the raccoon watching me.
When I was a younger, there was a part of me that was a little afraid to travel alone. Not enough to stop me from doing it, or to actively worry about it, but there was a part that wondered, “will this be safe?” or “will tonight be the night there’s a problem?”. More than that though, it’s the taunting finger wag all solo female travelers are confronted with, whether it’s walking home from a bar at night, spending a night in the woods alone, or traveling to another country— it’s the comments and condescension that say— “it’s not safe for you”.
I’m older and wiser now, and I’ve realized there’s far more danger in discouraging people to try new things, from telling them the world isn’t a safe place. The greatest danger I’ve found is the danger of ignorance, and complacency, and the spreading of myths— and passing these on to children and young adults. Asking “what will you protect yourself with?” first, instead of contributing encouragement and confidence.
I used to carry bear mace religiously in my bag, and while I still carry it with me sometimes, mostly I forget which bag it’s in or even that it’s there at all. It wasn’t until this trip, on this night, that I realized I wasn’t afraid anymore. I had endured the endless comments about my safety, the “turn backs” and “where’s your knife” and “why are you doing this” and all the other fear mongering for years, until my experience far outweighed them, and I came out the other side fearless. It wasn’t until I heard that raccoon eating my teabags, and stumbled around in the pitch black woods uncaring, that I realized something had changed— and it was me. On that night, my first thought before I was completely awake, was not that someone was coming out of the woods to ‘get me’, it was, uncaringly—”if that’s an alligator I hope it eats me quickly because I’m tired”.
If you tell a small human there’s a monster under her bed often enough, she’s going to believe it. She’s going to look for monsters everywhere, be afraid to go to sleep, and will cultivate that deep-seated fear something is out to get her. My greatest hope is that one day, overcoming the fear of monsters won’t exist, because she’ll grow up without constantly being told the world isn’t safe for her. This life isn’t about what’s out there waiting for us, it’s about what we bring to it. Tell her instead about building a raft and sailing it down a big river, tell her about walking through the woods in the dark and all the animals she can find there. Tell her that one day, she’ll find herself on a motorcycle trip south, on a great adventure, and in one place she’ll stop to find alligators and tent-eating raccoons, and if she’s lucky, she’ll even find part of herself she didn’t know was there until she left.
* * *
I spent the rest of the week in Texas, spending one glorious night in Houston, where I met up with my friend Mariana, who had Couchsurfed with me 3 years earlier and we had kept in touch since. I met Mariana’s Mom, her sister, her roommate Casey, and she showed me around the city and we talked about our love of travel. We sat in a park under an umbrella, the evening wind tossing our box of tabbouleh and hummus around as we caught up, in the way solo travelers often do, in harmony with the same good vibes and world views— with perfect understanding of the challenges and rewards, the work and the love for a life on the road.
I spent one tired night in downtown Austin, and I loved it. I ate the most spectacular vegan junk food at Arlos Food Truck (fried tater tots drenched with vegan cheese) and wandered around the area. I would have stayed another night, but the hostel price ($48 a night) set a new record of the most expensive hostel I’ve ever stayed in the world, and made me get creative and find a quiet spot outside the city.
I stumbled upon the Community Inn on AirBNB, where I found row after row of tiny houses perched upon acres of land in Austin. Community Inn is run by Mobile Loaves, and organization dedicated to getting the homeless of the street, and providing them with a community and meaningful work. My stay happened to be on Friday night, which is movie night, and just outside my teepee I had rented for the evening was a large outdoor movie theater, the projector run inside a small airstream overlooking grassy tiers. Not only that, a larger airstream on the road above sold snacks— beautiful little boxes of the most exquisitely salty popcorn I’ve had the pleasure of eating, and little s’more packets tied with a twine bow, to be roasted at the campfire pit behind the outdoor movie theater.
The next morning I rolled out early, trying to get ahead of the rainstorms in the area. I spent the night in Laredo, and before I knew it was crossing over into Mexico— one country down, 17 more to experience, and an endless amount of people to meet and know, experiences to have, things to be afraid of but try anyway.
It’s okay to be afraid. Being afraid is one of the most positive emotions we can have— it brings us wisdom. It brings us new experiences and to new places and ways of doing things. With our hearts in our throats, we pave new ways for ourselves. The more we encourage and support those around us to be brave, to be fearless, instead of projecting our own inexperience and fears onto them, the more sunshine we bring into this world. The unknown’s not so bad really.
The moon shone, a white orb in the sky above the parking garage rooftop in Asheville. Nelson and I sat in empty parking spaces, our adventure vehicles parked haphazardly across spaces in front of us, cherry tobacco smoke pouring from the corncob pipes were were smoking. It was Monday night in North Carolina, the kind of night that stays warm and makes you want to stay up late, a few clouds in the sky and the buildings illuminated by the moonlight and street lamps.
It was a start, a start to the trip south to Patagonia— meeting another adventurer and winding up here on the rooftop, with the sole purpose of taking the coolest photos of Nelson’s Taco (Tacoma truck) and my motorcycle, smoking mountain pipes and talking about the kinds of lives we wanted for ourselves and the world around us. It’s what I love the most about traveling, that ability to roll up to an unknown place full of unknown people and become friends, to surrender to the moments and try new things, and find new facets of yourself you might not have known were there in the humdrum of routine and home.
* * *
The trip started with surrender, the way plans often do. I was already starting out a week late, a week after the beautiful weather on the east coast turned to cold rain. Dark clouds had been in the sky all morning, but there were a few hours the rain was supposed to stop and I had planned to make my escape. I had gotten my Giant Loop bags just two days before, and was test driving the bike loaded for the first time as I was leaving, double checking (triple checking) the suspension and the tire pressure, before I headed down the road toward Gaithersburg— the skies ominous but the smell of freedom in the air.
Just outside of DC I hit rain— pant soaking, chill you to the bone rain, slapping against my jacket, against my face shield. My goals of camping in Shenandoah deteriorated when after just 2 hours of riding I had to stop for the night. Then again the night after, when I couldn’t quite make Asheville, and ended up staying in a tiny Virginia town with a taxidermied creature perched in the front window, welcoming visitors in.
After Asheville and corncob nights, I started to hit warmer weather as I rode south-west to Chattanooga. The two lane road rolled around a huge river with giant stones, passing through small rafting towns and MotoBike and I drifted between patches of sun and shade, always on the go.
Hours later, I pulled into a small gravel lot behind a big home in Chattanooga in a quiet residential neighborhood. En Root House, a newer hostel in Chattanooga, looked beautiful, and I had always wanted to visit this small town and vibrant climbing community in Tennessee.
Over the next three days (being delayed by a storm on the third day) I got to know the owners of the place— Lizzie and Cody, two young entrepreneurs who had gone to college together in the area, and ran a bicycle-powered coffee shop in Chattanooga before opening the hostel. Having a few beers at a local brewery and getting to hear their story was the highlight of the trip in Chattanooga.
I rode through Alabama, stopping for the night in Tuscaloosa at arguably the best AirBNB listing I’ve ever seen— an Airstream with pink flamingoes in the front yard. The owner was the most wonderful southern lady who put fresh flowers on the table, and had stocked the place with a great assortment of tea, and worried about my safety as I rode off the next morning, New Orleans bound.
I arrived in New Orleans yesterday evening over gleaming white roads criss-crossing waterways, only to be swept away immediately with a new group of people to a music festival in a park nearby.
It’s been a whirlwind week, filled with many firsts, and amazing people and places. A week always seems like a month adventure traveling— that person you knew yourself to be before blurs at the edges, and makes room for the person you are becoming. I believe in fate, and the way our small choices influence daily the kinds of people we meet, and when, and how. That’s what love is isn’t it? That give and take of energy, spread across this world, this life, this adventure.
Montañita, September 1, 2016
I woke up around 5 PM, my entire body feeling like I had been beaten with a club. I had spent the last few hours sleeping on and off, in between waking and throwing all the covers off because of my high fever, then waking up again freezing to try and drag them back over myself. I let out a weakened shriek— my cabana was full of people. A moment later I realized the ‘people’ were just my open laptop screen with Netflix playing. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind I knew this was a problem— hallucinations are never a good symptom of any sickness. I was .5 miles away from the main road where I could grab a taxi to the hospital, and I could barely sit up in bed. My fever was high, I registered in a distant way, it even hurt to move my eyes.
Facebook chimed— my friend Stephanie had just gotten back to town and wanted to know what I was up to. I reached one hand outside of my sleeping bag, attempting to respond single handedly so as little skin as possible would be exposed to the cold air. I told her how sick I was, and within 10 minutes she was outside my hostel in a cab, asking me what she could do, and we were soon speeding down the road to the hospital in the next town, Manglaralto, a quick 5 minutes away.
The hospital was a modest white concrete building in front of the beach, the sound of the waves a distant background noise. As soon as we entered the hospital a group of white-clad ladies directed me to one of the empty beds in the small room. A nurse came over to take my vitals, and told me they wanted to hook me up to a saline drip. Since the hospital is free, any additional expense or needed medication can be purchased from the pharmacy next door. They wrote me up a lab slip while Stephanie ran next door to buy me an IV, and the doctor tore the slip off a pad of paper and handed it to me. “El laboratorio es de dos esquinas hacia abajo desde el hospital.” The laboratory was next to the hospital, and the blood test would cost $5— there they would test me for Typhoid and Dengue fever.
* * *
Kosovo, June 2015
Snarling. Dogs barking in the distance. The sound of plastic crinkling outside. Something being dragged away, outside.
I woke up with a sharp intake of breath— listening. My body cocooned in my sleeping bag, I waited, my neck hurting from holding my head so still outside my sleeping bag.
I was wild camping in the back of a cabbage field in Kosovo. The pale light coming through my tent cover meant it was early morning, probably around 6. I had been biking through Kosovo the day before, a panorama of snow capped mountains in the distance while I cycled through a lush valley following the road through tiny villages and farms. It was getting dark, and the towns were so small there wasn’t any option but to find a good spot on the side of the road to sleep. As the sun slowly dipped below the horizon, I turned my bike down deeply rutted dirt road following a stream lined by small farms and sparse trees. The trees got thicker and the road narrower and wilder, and I stopped at the most inconspicuous spot I could find— the back of a cabbage field that backed up into a small copse of trees next to the river. I tucked my bike into the trees as best I could, and got out my tattered sleeping mat (which was essentially a thick piece of foam a Couchsurfer had given me in the South of France). I crouched on the sleeping pad, making dinner as dusk fell, waiting for darkness to set up camp.
When it was sufficiently dark I began the process of setting up camp, with the comforting feeling of regularity— doing something I had done hundreds of times before, making the small patch of earth in the back of a cabbage field home for the night. All of a sudden, flashlights swept across the copse of trees where I was now crouched, frozen. The road I thought had petered out into nothing turnout out to be a pedestrian thoroughfare in the evening for fisherman hanging out at a bridge I hadn’t noticed just across the road. I let out the breath I had been holding as the flashlight wielding group continued past.
I quietly unzipped my tent and crawled inside, and slept the deep sleep of a cyclist crossing countries, and woke up to the sound of barking dogs outside. There was something walking around the tent.
* * *
Montañita, September 1, 2016
The laboratory was a simple concrete room with a wooden bench sitting against one wall and a chair opposite, a small table with needles and cotton balls sitting next to it. A young boy cleaned my arm, and took the smoothest blood sample I’ve ever had taken. “Treinta minutos, y cinco dollars.” In 30 minutes I could go back and pick up my blood test, and it was $5.
We walked back to the hospital and they hooked me up to an IV via a 3″ needle into the top of my hand, and I sat for the next few hours with a bag of saline attached to my arm— the nurse coming back twice to give me an antibiotic. Lying on the bed for hours was punctuated by a bathroom run in which I held my saline bag in one hand and proceeded to get violently ill.
When I got back, Stephanie had gone to pick up the results of my test next door, and I pitifully tried to put on my jacket while attached to the IV. An older woman came over, told me to lie down so the saline drip would be faster, and tied my coat around me “como una bufanda!” she laughed (like a scarf).
Stephanie returned— my test results were negative. I had an infection, but it wasn’t Typhoid.
* * *
Kosovo, June 2015
The dogs were going wild in the distance, snarling and barking back and forth. I couldn’t see outside with the tent cover on, but I could hear something snorting and grunting just outside. Wild pigs? I had heard stories from other cyclists there were wolves in this region, and many stray dogs would form packs.
Snorting, shuffling, and then— the rustle of a plastic bag right in front of my tent. I slowly sat up, lowered myself to the floor of the tent, and delivered a swift punch through the thin wall of the tent where the creature was outside. A loud yelp emitted, and I heard it scamper away. Dogs, I thought.
I unzipped the front of the tent, and saw a dog running off to join two other dogs in the distance. I stretched, admiring the rows of cabbage stretching out before me, the misty clouds rolling over the top of mountains in the distance. The first rays of the sun glittered over the mountain, illuminating my tent. I quickly packed, and cycled back down the dirt road, like I had never been there at all.
* * *
Life is a series of risks— we never know when a serious illness might be Malaria or Typhoid, or when a group of wild dogs might be extremely aggressive and hungry. All we can do is take every precaution we can, never confuse our casual feelings with mindful deliberation, think critically about our decisions and the potential consequences, and when those days of suffering and hardship come, punch that wild dog in the face if necessary or have abuela help with the coat.
The best lessons are learned through hardship, through not knowing what lies around the bend in the road, through a journey not entirely planned and mapped out. The unknown is where we’re tested, where we’re forced to rely on others and ourselves, where we put ourselves in uncomfortable situations so we can come out the other side changed in some way, seeing the world illuminated in a new, pale light.
* * *
Montañita, September 8, 2016
Just a week after my visit to the hospital in Manglaralto, I decided to leave Montañita. Staying on the coast of Ecuador was a wonderful period in my life, concentrating on bettering my Spanish and surfing, meeting new people and exploring the beaches of Ecuador. Now, it felt right to leave, like my time there was over and I needed to move on. I messaged the caretaker of my cabana that I’d be leaving a few weeks early, bought a bus ticket to Guayaquil where I’d then grab the bus to Baños, and started frantically packing to leave the next morning.
* * *
I stepped of the bus from Montañita in Guayaquil, and grabbed my pack from underneath. I hauled it onto my back, and set about finding a bus to Baños. I stopped at 3 stations, each telling me they had direct buses then explaining a city I’d have to stop over at. All of a sudden three guys started shouting at me 20 feet away. “A Banos? A Banos! Cinco minutos!” They wrote a sign in sharpie, “Banos. Directo,” and started waving it around at me. I hurried over, and bought a ticket for a bus leaving in 5 minutes. I had just enough time to throw my pack under the bus and run to grab a hamburger, leaping onto the bus stairs as it was pulling away from the curb. Feeling like I had just won some prize, I found a window seat and celebrated— hamburger in one hand, bus ticket to Baños in the other. I was on my way. I didn’t know what I would find there, or where I would go next, but experience is the daughter of adventure and I had my ticket to ride all the way there, directly.