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.
Follow the Trip
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.
Follow the Trip
To celebrate the fifth anniversary of Lone Rucksack, in collaboration with Wilderness Badass, I’m giving back by giving away a set of my Canon camera gear to a fellow adventurer, along with some epic goodies from the amazing Wilderness Badass. With camera gear has been all over the world with some seriously good karma, and awesome Wilderness Badass gear— one adventurer will be totally set.
I bought this camera equipment in 2012, after I quit my job and decided I wanted more from my life than what I currently had. I bought this gear, and a one way ticket to West Africa, and haven’t looked back ever since. I photographed my first elephant with the camera, took it down the river in Chobe National Park in Botswana, climbed Table Mountain in South Africa, and wandered around markets in Ethiopia. This camera has taken me places, and I want it to take the next adventurer places too.
Let’s represent in the outdoors, let’s collaborate, let’s be inclusive and give each other a leg up.
How to Give Someone a Shot at the Adventure Package?
Follow @lonerucksack and @wildernessbadass on Instagram, tag a friend who deserves a shot and comment why on the post below. Comment by Thursday, May 4th at 3 PM EST for a shot to win.
The Adventure Package
Canon 5D Mark II Body
Soft Camera Case
Canon EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 Zoom Lens
Soft Lens Case
Manfrotto Tripod with Swivel Ball Head
(2) SanDisk Extreme 32 GB (60 MB/s) Compact Flash Cards
USB Compact Flash Reader
Battery Grip with (with 6 AA Batteries)
Wilderness Badass Premium Trucker Hat
Wilderness Badass Grizzly Sticker Pack
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.
The cab raced through the darkened streets, pausing only now and again to roll one way or the other to avoid a pot hole or swing around a traffic circle. It was 2 AM, and almost every storefront lining the street was dark, their metaled and graffitied doors closed until the next morning. All of a sudden, we were pulling up to a brightly colored wall with the word ‘Mogi’s’ painted on it, and before I knew it, my bags were at front of the door and the cab pulling away.
My stomach twisted as I thought about what I would do if no one answered the door in Guayaquil, Ecuador in the middle of the night, when a second later the door opened and a teenager appeared.
“We are waiting for you!” he exclaimed, and grabbed one of my bags and gestured inside.
Minutes later, I was brushing my teeth in what was arguably one of the dirtiest bathrooms I’ve ever been in. I had set my duffel on the floor before I switched on the light (rookie mistake) and had set my bag in a puddle of what I desperately hoped was shower runoff instead of pee. I grinned— it was good to be on the road again, that familiar feeling of traveling all night, and having to deal with unexpected. It was going to be a great two months.
* * *
Risk is a tricky word— it’s associated with those considered wonderfully cool in our culture, Alex Honnold types who defy convention and prove how spectacularly awesome they are. It’s also used to describe people we deem as inexperienced when they make decisions we don’t agree with. Experience and culture largely decide which side of risk a person falls, but ultimately, risk is an inherently personal decision, the only constant being that if we are not taking risks, we are not learning.
To paraphrase JFK, “We do (these) things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Everyone has their own risk thresh-hold to cultivate— for some it might being going to the movies alone, taking a new class at school or even ending a relationship, for others, it might be scaling a mountains, or night diving off some extraordinary coast. One of the most common questions people ask me when I travel is, “Are you afraid to travel alone?” and ultimately, “Isn’t what you’re doing risky?”. If some small part of me isn’t afraid, I’m probably not taking enough risk— it’s my way of gauging how much I’m learning and growing every day.
* * *
Guayaquil is the largest city in Ecuador, home to over 2.5 million people, located on the Guayas River. The city existed as a native village before it was ‘founded’ in 1538 by Spanish Conquistador Francisco de Orellana. I was overwhelmed at first by the city, a bustling metropolis with terrible traffic and even crazier buses. Once I had learned the art of flagging down the local bus (since I look like I don’t belong in a suburb of Ecuador, it took some extra effort) and learned the art of hopping onto a moving bus, I handed the guy next to the driver 25 cents, and hung on as the bus careened around the city, jumping out at the main bus terminal. From there I bought a metro card and hopped on another bus, counting the stops to downtown, and barely made it out of the packed bus doors before they closed.
I spent two days in Guayaquil, taking the double buses downtown and exploring the city during the day, climbing ‘Las Penas”(444 steps to a famous lighthouse and overlook— the best spot in the city to see the sunset) and drinking coffee on the Boardwalk running along the Guayas river.
On the third morning, I flagged down a taxi, and shelled out the extra $3 for a taxi ride to the main bus terminal instead of taking the bus. The bus terminal in Guayaquil is more like a market than a terminal. The gates are tucked into corners, and I would have spent a lot of time wandering around the massive complex if I hadn’t asked and found out the bus to Montañita was in a tiny corner on third floor. At 9 AM, I threw my rucksack into the underbelly of a massive touring bus, hopped in seat 36, and was on the way to my new home.
* * *
Arriving on Montañita was the oddest feeling. This was the first time I’d traveled anywhere with the intention of staying in one place for a significant amount of time— stepping off the bus onto the dirt road held more importance than I normally would have given it.
As the driver pulled bags out of the cavern underneath the bus, I noticed a small river heading out underneath a bridge to the ocean, just across the street. Bouncing music was playing somewhere in the distance, and bright umbrellas lined the horizon.
A woman with a Scottish accent walked up to me, “Do you need accommodation? I’m from Hidden House Hostel just down the street, and we offer dorm beds and camping.”
Ten minutes later I was setting up camp on the sand, fifteen feet away from an iguana and twenty feet away from a bar that served 16 oz dollar beers. I spent the next few days wandering the town and meeting other travelers from all over the world, and the nights hanging out at the hostel (usually in a hammock) drinking cheap beer.
* * *
At the end of the weekend I moved into my cabana, a beautiful space up the road called”Pachamar”, located down a small side street. A longboard sporting the name hung off a bamboo fence in front of the cabana, with two gates closed with a padlock. There I met Dany, the caretaker of the property, where he gave me the keys and showed me around the small kitchen and house. I was home.
The next week went by equally fast and slow— I started classes at Montañita Spanish School, a .5 mile walk from my cabana, up a steep set of steps off the main road of town. Now every morning, I stop by the same breakfast stall for fresh juice run by a young couple on ‘breakfast alley’ in the town, staples of which include Nutella crepes, and the most enormous fruit salads one can possibly imagine. I walk up the steep steps to school, where I have class from 10-12, grab a quick lunch from breakfast alley (go figure), surf from 1-3, and rush back to class from 3-5. Nights have been a combination of working late into the night at my cabana, chatting with friends on Skype, going out into town, or events with the school. It’s a lot of mental and physical work, and every night I’m exhausted— but the kind of exhaustion that comes with learning and change.
* * *
Life changes are all encompassing, blanketing everything in risk. If I didn’t take this risk, I wouldn’t know the taste of ceviche with my feet in the water in Montañita, or finally improving my Spanish after years of talking about doing so. My first day in Guayaquil was overwhelming, standing in the middle of the street trying to remember useful Spanish phrases, feeling like an idiot while people honked at me, feeling even more an idiot trying to figure out the metro card machine trying to get downtown— but success is 95% failure, and I’m embracing it.
Every adventure traveler has their own red-point for cleanliness— as a conversation starter, I like to ask this of fellow backpackers. Last week a guy in Ecuador told me his is taking a shower every day, he doesn’t care where he’s staying or if his clothes are clean, but he needs to bathe at the end of the day. Alternatively, I need to wash my hair at least every other day on the road— no matter how dirty I am, as long as my hair is clean I feel like a human.
Last year on my cycling trip across Europe, during the most extreme dirtbag expedition of my life so far, I went for days without showering (maxing out at 7 days), washing my hair at gas stations and in livestock troughs across the countryside. Unfortunately, after cycling 70+ miles every day, bathing my body as well as my hair became a necessity— as a solo female traveler wild camping, that was a much more difficult feat.
I recently received a box of Epic Wipes in the mail, and the perfect setup was born. I could wash my hair in streams every other day, and in the privacy of my own tent take a ‘shower’ with an Epic Wipe.
Epic Wipes are essentially massive baby wipes, they’re towel sized, made of biodegradable material (100% bamboo fiber), paraben and toxic free, and have a great, fresh pine scent (which I’m not sure is intentional, since they’re naturally scented, but either way they smell amazing).
I also found they’re great to dry out after use and tear into quarters for cleaning bike chains, to use as kleenex, or camp cleanup (after rinsing it out a bit post shower of course).
Since my Epic Wipe revelation, I keep one in my pack even on day trips and they’ve become a gear staple. Thanks Epic Wipes for helping all us adventurers do the things we love without the smell.
Cape Town 2012
There’s a certain spot in Cape Town where the road suddenly dips and there she is— the Mother City spread like a carpet to the sea, Table Mountain looming in darkness and the city aglitter.
In October 2012, I crested that hill for the first time, windows down and the summer breeze tangling my dusty hair. Just a few moments earlier I was exhausted from the long flight from Dakar, but after seeing Cape Town at night I wasn’t tired anymore.
Ten minutes later the taxi pulled up in front of my hostel, a sprawling building on a hill underneath the shadow of Lion’s Head mountain. I hauled my backpack and duffel out of the back of the taxi, paid the driver, and was buzzed in through the front gate into a crowded scene. To the right was an elevated patio complete with a pool table and crowd, beer bottles perched on ledges and flying cue sticks. Behind a long wall of glass there was a bar with sofas and armchairs where people were perched watching a rugby game while drinking Savannah and playing cards.
I dropped my bags in front of the reception— it was so late the desk was no longer open, and the security guard was struggling to find the key to the 4-bed dorm I was staying in that night. While I stood there, planning on getting a shower and feeling awkward in the crowd, a tall guy with a huge smile and a Zulu accent walked up to me. “Hey, want to come out with us tonight?”
His name was Lucas, and he was the bartender at the hostel. He had a slow, almost lazy drawl to his voice, like he was never in a hurry. He slowly scanned the room in that laid back way I would come to associate with Lucas, before coming back to me standing there in my harem pants and filthy tank top. “Let’s do it,” I said, grinning. When the guard came back with the key, I tossed my bags in the room, and joined the group heading out on the town.
It was the first of many nights out in Cape Town, but I vividly remember that first one. It was the first night in a long time I felt I was in a place where I belonged.
* * *
Loneliness and solitude are often present together, but they are not the same. Humans need communities and a sense of belonging, but not all of us can find that in an established society. Some of us find these things on the road, with people we don’t know well in wild places. We test our limits, find our very basic needs, and come to realize who we are when we’re forced to rely on no one but ourselves.
To live a nomadic life is to come to terms with loneliness, as well as solitude— it’s a lifestyle of being alone. It’s wildly exciting and difficult, it’s the decision to pursue a life of curiosity, to not see family and old friends for long periods of time, and be comfortable living in the realm of the constant unknown.
I’ve been living life as a nomad for the past 5 years now, stopping occasionally to work before heading out on another adventure. Being a nomad is something I think constantly about, what it means, what I’m giving up, and who I want to be as a person. When I first left the American workforce to try an alternative lifestyle in 2012, being a nomad was a new and novel idea— and while I was very aware of what I was leaving back in the states, I was new to what I would be giving up on the road.
When constantly evolving and learning and leaving, there are many beginnings, but endings become fewer. Less people become good friends, more people become acquaintances. I no longer feel the need to actively trade Facebook info or emails, because I’ve realized most people and moments are fleeting— but I appreciate them more as I recognize this. I’ve learned to chase after opportunities and experiences and love, and live in these moments— all while realizing they most likely won’t come again.
* * *
Cape Town 2012
The next few months were a blur of meeting new people every day, of hanging out with fellow travelers and my friend Lucas at the bar every night, and taking trips to other cities in-between.
Every time I came back to Cape Town, Lucas would be at that bar. I’d ask for a beer and about whatever music was playing and what was going on that night. He’d give me a hard time in that drawling voice about how I’d never find whatever music he was playing, because it was a rare song or a local group. We’d go out to whatever place was popular or had something going on that night, whether it was dollar shots or a great DJ or club.
When I moved into my apartment in Cape Town with my two roommates, Lucas showed up with pounds of Boerewors and pork for a Braai (a South African BBQ)— a Braai we had to have indoors because we didn’t have a patio or balcony. I still remember him in that tiny kitchen over a frying pan cooking up all that meat with a beer in his hand.
One night, hanging out at the hostel, Lucas played an intense song I’d never heard before— Asaf Avidan’s Reckoning Song, a piano version.
“Lucas,” I said, “this song is seriously amazing.”
“You’ll never find it,” he told me. “It’s a rare version.”
It was such a small moment in time, Lucas cleaning up the bar, while I sat there drinking a Savannah, listening to this song about lost moments. It was so simple, such an inconsequential moment, much like any of the moments I’ve had on the road with people I’ve met— but I think about that one particular night often, hanging out on a sofa drinking a cider in Cape Town— Lucas would play that song, and I’d think about my life and how I wanted it to be.
* * *
When we choose to move on, we always leave something behind. Unfortunately, because of the physicality of this world, we often think leaving something behind is as simple as forgetting a sweater in the park— something tangible that can be retrieved at a later date. When we leave a place or a person behind, that leaving forever alters that person and that place by our not being there. Then other people will come, and change them, so when we return it’s no longer the same as the moment we left.
This is the single, most important lesson I’ve learned from my nomadic life. It’s both the most beautiful and profoundly sad thing I’ve ever realized. It’s made me see the weight of my decisions and the value of people in my life, and made me think actively about what people I want in my life for more than just fleeting moments and beginnings.
We’re not always in charge of those decisions ourselves. Sometimes, life makes them for us.
* * *
A few weeks ago, I saw a post from a South African friend on Facebook — one of her friends had passed away suddenly. It was Lucas. I checked my messages, and re-read the last one he had sent me. I couldn’t reconcile that last message and the Facebook post. Lucas was in Cape Town. He was there, like he had been every time I had come back before. He’d be at that bar, I’d ask for a beer, and we’d listen to music and talk about whatever.
But Lucas wasn’t there. He was traveling with his girlfriend in Kenya, where he contracted meningitis and suddenly passed away. He was also pursuing life, with someone he loved, in an unknown wild place. My expectation of him being in Cape Town is just a memory frozen in time, of the person he was when we were both in South Africa— a beautiful moment that ended as soon as I left.
* * *
Nomadic life is hard. It’s not all idyllic sunsets and adventure and surfing on some exotic beach. It’s solitary, sometimes lonely. It’s about leaving things behind, it’s about trying to find where we belong in a world of tiny exquisite things and realizing those significantly insignificant moments create a bigger life. My time here is fleeting, and the people and places I meet along the way forever change me.
This lifestyle is about running toward something— toward belonging, toward understanding, toward knowledge or adventure. I’ve never regretted my decision to hit the road— I just never realized until recently some places can’t be gone back to. I wasn’t acquainted with that delicate, empty space where things once stood that could never be again. I am now.
What we do with time, how we use it to shape and change the people and places around us is a uniquely personal decision. Time is the greatest commodity we have as humans, our fragile existence circling the sun at the same speed, every day, under a smattering of distant, glittering stars.
For the last 333 days, I’ve been hunkered down in Baltimore, USA, after falling into a full-time job by accident. I wasn’t looking for anything permanent, just something temporary to make some money while I was in town last year for my sister’s wedding.
“We have an opening at Under Armour for an Interactive Designer, if that’s something you’re interested in,” the headhunter said breezily, passing me some forms to fill out. “It’s longer than a few weeks, it’s a four month temporary position, but if you’re willing to stay it might be a great fit.” I was seated at a long conference table in a spacious office with enormous floor to ceiling windows, on the 28th floor overlooking downtown Baltimore. The building itself had 8 elevators and a no-nonsense security guard stationed at an impressive looking desk overlooking the lobby.
After eight wonderful, adventurous months of sleeping in bunk beds and tents in developing countries, more often than not going without air-conditioning and commuting everywhere by foot or local bus, the office felt more like something Dani of 5 years ago would have enjoyed.
In 2008, I graduated college at the height of the economic crisis, when many of my classmates went on to grad school instead of the working world. My sister was getting ready to move to South Korea to teach English, and my dream was to wear a suit and heels, working as a designer at Under Armour or Kate Spade. I hadn’t yet realized what a lone ranger I really was, my need to work on something personally fulfilling, or my love for constant upheaval. I was young and ambitious, and the world was full of possibilities. After a year and a half of making great money working as a freelancer for private agencies and a lacrosse magazine in Baltimore, I landed an amazing job working as a videographer for an international non-profit in DC, whose mission was research focusing on poverty and malnutrition in developing countries. When I initially got the call back from the woman who interviewed me, she said they had filled the design position, but since I had showed her my video work, would I be interested in the video position opening soon?
I was there for only a few weeks before they flew me to Dakar, Senegal for ten days, and I fell in love with Africa. I learned enough conversational French to have broken conversations with cab drivers, and stayed up all night with friends I had met there, exploring the city after work. Several months later I made my second trip, to India, where I worked on a major international conference, managing a team of local photographers and videographers, staying up all night for days editing and uploading video and directing event staff to one conference room or the other. I loved it. It was the first thing I had done in a long time that made me feel 100%, completely alive. I was sleep deprived and overwhelmed at times, but everywhere I went there were interesting people to talk to and something new to see. I loved the people, and the markets. I loved the chaos and the traffic and the clotheslines hung at the construction sites where the families of the workers resided. I loved staying out all night with locals I had met through the conference, sipping Budweiser in bars that could have been anywhere in the world, save the robust crowd of young Indian men and women. I loved the dust that coated my feet and made the tub black at the end of the night, but most of all, I loved how for the first time in my life, I felt content with who I was.
I realized at some point in India, my stateside life was meant to take another direction than the one it was going. Those two weeks in India made me question in my very soul what it was I wanted, and I realized it wasn’t the life I had been living. The night I arrived back in Baltimore, I broke up with my live-in boyfriend of six years with whom I owned a house. At that moment, I shattered the life I had known for the past six years. I shattered the world I had created and worked for in my early twenties, everything I thought I had wanted. My family was crushed, my friends non-existent— I had spent the last six years working on my career, renovating a house, and being a girlfriend. It was the hardest thing I have ever done. I was 25 years old.
Back inside the headhunter’s office in Baltimore, I thought about the Under Armour position. I wondered if staying in my hometown for four months was something I actually wanted to do. I had been in town for months already, and was ready to get out and hit the road. I had planned to spend the next year on a vintage motorcycle, traveling from Baltimore all the way down to the tip of Chile, finally becoming fluent in Spanish and fulfilling my dream of exploring South America and getting to see Antarctica, all in one go.
Under Armour is an American sports performance apparel company started in Baltimore by University of Maryland athlete Kevin Plank. Every Baltimorean and Marylander knows of, and usually sports, Under Armour apparel for local pride. It’s somewhat of a local legend, a David and Goliath story of the underdog Kevin Plank, who came up with the idea of a material that wicks sweat and took on giants like Nike and Adidas who had already cornered the market on sports apparel. Under Armour became a smashing success, and in its short 18 year existence, is now a 2.3 billion dollar company, featuring athletes from world champion skier Lindsey Vonn and football player Tom Brady, to new additions like surfer Brianna Cope and ballerina Misty Copeland.
The 2008 recent graduate Dani would have leapt at the opportunity to work at such a prestigious local company, but the Dani of August 2013 wasn’t so sure. I had spent the past year and a half traveling internationally. I had trekked across the northern mountains of Ethiopia, and explored the markets in rural Senegal. I had lived in Cape Town, camped with elephants in Botswana, swam in Victoria Falls, and hiked a section of the AT. I had slept in tents, eaten caterpillars, seen insects the size of my fist, and made more connections and friends than I had at any other time in my life. I learned what was important to me, what kind of person I was and who I wanted to be, and, more importantly, what I wanted out of my life. I didn’t envision myself taking a 9-5 office job ever again, but here I was at a crossroads, with the life I wanted on one side and the job I had always dreamed of on the other.
But life isn’t so black and white. Sometimes creating opportunities is the humility to accept we don’t know what life is going to hand us, and turning down an amazing job offered so readily can be foolish and naïve— I didn’t know where this path could take me. I believe opportunities arise for a reason, and a job offer from Under Armour from 5 years ago would have been a dream come true. I felt that now, this job being handed me so readily, was no coincidence. I stopped contemplating my doubts, and started filling out the forms. “I’ll take it,” I said.
On August 22nd 2013, I made the shift from a duffel toting adventurer to a ‘professional’ with an office job, trading my cutoffs and surfing shirts to jeans and more office-appropriate tops. The culture change was swift. My days went from traveling, writing, and climbing, to meetings and colleagues and microwaving leftovers in the community kitchen. I re-learned team-oriented phrases like ‘team-huddle’ and ‘morning standup’. The day before I started, I dyed half my hair a bright, vibrant yellow and sea-green. I would be a professional, I would do a great job, but I would be defiant in my transition.
It had been 2 years since I left India and broke up with my long-term boyfriend. It was 2012, and I had continued working as a videographer in DC for another 2 years. It was springtime, and I had begun to feel the familiar pull of discontent, the desire to do more. I had done a lot in that time, I had traveled to Indonesia and Nigeria and Lebanon. I traveled to Ghana and interviewed John Kufuor, the former president. I shot video of mango farms in rural Senegal, and had met people from all over the world and learned about land grabs and GMOs and droughts in Somalia. I had had lovers in almost every city I visited, and many, many more friends. I knew what it was like to cruise around the streets of Beirut at 3 AM. I knew the sound of the waves against the shore in the famous fishing village of Toubab in Dakar, Senegal, and how it felt to drink a beer on the beach in Bali at sunset. I would always recall the stark outline of the machine gun laden guards in Nigeria, stationed in every taxi and outside every building. I loved my job, but my manager with whom had shared my vision and helped me build the video department had retired. I was proud of the work I had done, and what I had learned in that time— but I was ready to take another leap and work on my own projects. I wanted to see if I could make it on my own, to travel indefinitely and do freelance work as I traveled. What I loved most about my job was traveling to developing countries, where I’d spend days out in the field shooting video and meeting locals. It was an entirely different lifestyle and I wanted to completely immerse myself in it, not just spend two weeks at a time in the field and three months back in DC in an office.
I am humble enough to know how privileged I am to have been born in a middle class Western family, with the opportunities to do what I want without social, economic, or cultural restrictions. Looking back on my life when I first graduated college makes me realize even more so how important it is to chase your aspirations, how change is vitally important (no matter how difficult), and how humility can create opportunities. Leaving my long-term boyfriend post-India was the most difficult decision I have ever made in my life. Quitting my job as a videographer was difficult, but easier, knowing how change brings more experiences, and knowledge, and people into my life. So June of 2012, I decided to sell my house, quit my job, and travel the world. I was 27.
At Under Armour I began to learn about performance apparel and web e-commerce and other nonsensical-sounding things that ultimately have wonderfully practical applications. I made inspired notes in my moleskin constantly at work, brainstorming blog ideas and projects but, working full time left me very little time to implement them. I embraced the idea that I would learn a lot from this job, and there was purpose to it, and would ultimately take what I had learned on the road at some future point.
4 months passed in a quick blur of long busy days and climbing nights, and my contract was extended indefinitely. Around Christmas, one of the designers left for another job, and my manager offered me a full-time position with health insurance, a bonus, and stock options. The old Dani shivered in excitement, while the new Dani considered her options, the opportunity it provided, and accepted.
I’ve learned a lot over the past 333 days in Baltimore. I’ve made some amazing friends, and have become part of a fantastic climbing community. My sister got married, and my brother was accepted into the Peace Corps and moved to Georgia, fulfilling one of his dreams. I fell in love for the first time, only to watch it crash and burn months later. Several family members passed on, and several friends were married and started their lives again with a different identity, as a husband or wife. The tides have moved in and out and the sun has risen each day and I’ve watched it all with the knowledge I can do what I want and will be fulfilled because of this. Life is beautiful and sad and difficult, but if we face it bravely and openly and honestly, we can be and do anything.
On some mornings, the wind will shift as I walk across the street by the water where my office is, and on it I’ll smell the spice of a market in Africa, or the smell of the ocean on the Cape of Good Hope. And I’ll smile to myself, and my heart will say— soon. I am 29.
One of the challenges of backpacking in developing countries is land transportation— knowing what’s safe, what’s reliable, and how it varies from country to country— even city to city. One of these best things about adventure travel is learning how to let go of all assumptions, taking calculated risks, and realizing all the discoveries you’ve make by being open to the experiences and people around you.
Let this guide be your go-to for all land transport in developing countries and rural areas. Adventure on!
Taxis are typically the most expensive way to get around, but also one of the easiest from main transportation hubs (think airports, bus stations). They can also be unsafe if unprepared— always ask or research beforehand what the reputable taxi companies are. If you’re in a really rural area with limited options, make a calculated guess based on initial conversations, and always sit in the backseat with your luggage.
If you’re at an airport, ask at an information/company desk which taxi service is the best at the airport (preferably ask a woman), or research the area beforehand and ask your hotel/hostel which taxi service they recommend. They might recommend pre-arranged transport if taxis aren’t safe in the area, either way, you’ll know more info about the area when you arrive and can make an informed decision.
Think about whether you want your bags next to you, or in the trunk. I keep all my equipment (camera, laptop, phone, passport, money etc.) in one backpack which is always with me, and my duffel of clothes go in the trunk. If in a metropolitan area with a lot of people/vendors around the taxi, keep the windows rolled up so someone passing by can’t reach in and grab your bags.
Have exact change, and always agree on the price beforehand— your negotiating power is lost once you hand over your bags or get in the car. Know what’s a fair price by researching beforehand. Don’t go with a driver who is obviously trying to rip you off, keep repeating the price until they negotiate with you, or walk away and find another driver. Simultaneously, don’t get in a taxi with a fellow traveler who is trying to rip off driver off— spare yourself some grief and venture on solo.
2. Mini Buses (Inter-city transport)
I’m a huge fan of the mini bus— they’re packed, stuffy, and hot, but you’ll never meet so many locals and hear as many stories in such a short period of time. Some cities are safer to travel in local mini buses than others (you don’t want to be in a traffic accident in one of these), and they’re always called something different depending on the city. In Senegal they’re referred to as ‘rapides’, in The Republic of Georgia they’re called ‘marshrutkas’, in Peru they’re called ‘micros’, and so on.
From your hostel/hotel, have the receptionist write down your destination on a piece of paper in the local language/characters. Ask him/her about the best way to navigate to the minibus station, the phonetic spelling of the station itself (and even the phonetic spelling of the destination). Once you have these written down, you’re golden. (If you like to be even more prepared, ask them to write down the phrase “Where is the bus/marshuka/station?” in the local language/characters. That way, if someone doesn’t understand your accent, you can show them this piece of paper and they can direct you. It’s ridiculously easy, and I’ve navigated many cities this way, picking up conversational phrases by asking locals for directions, and meeting all kinds of people using local transport.
Watch your things. Don’t leave your passport or any valuable items in back pockets of jeans or backpacks where someone might easily grab them in a crowded space. Wear your backpack backwards, and if you have to throw a bigger piece of luggage on the roof or in the back, make sure everything of value will be carried on you in your backpack. Most people won’t try to steal your things, but for the small percentage that might, don’t make yourself an easy target and you won’t have any issues.
Mini Buses are usually very, very cheap, although sometimes as a tourist, you’ll be charged the ‘tourist rate’ instead of the local rate. I’ve been with travelers who take offense at this, but the fare is usually so cheap I’m generally happy to put a little more money into the economy with the small amount I tend to spend in developing areas.
3. Buses (Long Distance Touring Buses)
Buying a bus ticket in a developing country, particularly in Africa, means nothing more than you and your luggage will be traveling on a bus— it does not mean you have a reserved seat. People will crowd around the bus door pushing and shoving to make their way onto a crowded bus to find the last available seats— everyone else will be standing the several hour+ journey. There will be livestock, lots of meals eaten in laps, and it’s going to be hot— but it will be an adventure!
Have your luggage ready to be crammed into one of the luggage spaces below the bus, and jump into the human pile or be left standing in the aisle.
Buses are usually very cheap depending on where you are. If your destination happens to be more touristy (South-East Asia as opposed to rural Africa) there might be nicer options for a higher cost, which might be worth it for a reserved seat on a long journey.
Rickshaws are the most exhilarating form of transport— there’s nothing like speeding through a city on the back of a bicycle, or part motorcycle, the wind streaming through your hair and being completely exposed to the elements. They’re also the trickiest form of transportation in terms of price negotiation and safety. One memorable rickshaw ride in Delhi (called ‘autos’ in the city) the driver stopped the auto and asked if I minded giving an elderly woman a lift home as well, which of course, I didn’t mind at all.
I highly recommend all rickshaw rides, just make sure to negotiate and be aware of your surroundings. At night in many cities traveling solo, I might shell out the extra money for a verified taxi and forgo the rickshaw or minibus— but it really depends on where you are and who you’re with.
Rickshaws are usually very, very cheap, one of the cheapest forms of transportation you’ll find in developing countries, and are great for shorter distances in cities that don’t require a taxi. Make sure the driver is aware of the destination, and you have agreed upon a price before getting into the rickshaw.
Be as prepared as you can, along with being open to new experiences, and you’ll be safe and have some great adventures on the road.