That night, August 28, two months after I set out, things came to a head. After Lima my trip had become more emotionally difficult. After I entered Bolivia I had been consistently dreaming of calling friends and having them not hear me, not answering the phone. I dreamed of talking to people through glass, of being in a car driving away and not having them hear me over the engine. There were things I needed to tell them that they were not worried about hearing. This was not the first time I had had dreams like this. I had almost the same ones when I visited South Africa for the first time at age 16.
For the first time on my trip I was homesick. I do not know if it caused the physical illness or visa versa or if they merely fed on each other. The truth is that I was tired from the cold and the altitude. I also had been eating poor food and sleeping only a few hours a night. And I was cold every night. For some reason I was not taking care of myself and the dreams got worse.
That night my camera and wallet were either stolen or somehow left in a taxi, I will never know. It happened because I was worn down and my defenses were simply nonexistent. I wasn’t even aware that I was missing anything until the next day.
Initially hardest blow was my camera. It was something to fight boredom. It was a conversation starter. It was an amazing recorder of my journey and I lost over 400 photos of the festival alone. But most importantly through it I could objectify the world around me. “It’s a pretty picture,” I could tell myself as I snapped away. It was a filter and I used it to give a lot of my trip direction. I did not know any of this until I lost it and in it I had lost my confidence.
I felt as if I were drowning.
Whenever I get this feeling I remember taking my PADI diving certification. A SCUBA diver has neutral buoyancy in water and controls his upward and downward movements (his buoyancy) by expanding or contracting his lungs, in other words by breathing. It is breathing itself that allows the divers to move effortlessly through the water. You only sink when you exhale and you only rise when you inhale.
It is almost impossible to get a new diver underwater for the first time without lots of extra weights because the new diver refuses to exhale! I was no exception though with practice I learned to fight the instinct to hold my breath underwater. Then on my first dive I was down 18 meters, the limit for beginner divers, and saw a big shark about 30 feet away. The shark was really really big. There was nothing I could do to fight my reaction, though it was the opposite of what I should have done: my eyes bulged and I took a big breath and held it, shooting straight to the top like a frightened cork. I was smart enough to breathe out almost immediately but the damage was done and I couldn’t relax enough to go down again for another 10 minutes.
Here a knee-jerk reaction took hold of me in a similar way. I couldn’t ignore that something was wrong but as I wandered the streets with folks in traditional dress leftover from the festival, I was confused as to what I should do.
It is one thing to vacation for a month but it is quite another to travel for an extended period of time. In order to travel for a year you must break off a lot of everyday ties and close up shop back home for awhile. This adds a certain sense of weightlessness and planlessness that is necessary for a long trip to succeed.
I sat in a greasy spoon diner watching local folks suck on coffee and down greasy hamburgers and as I often do when I’m in a tough spot I began focusing on plans. From how I would get past the Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama to the question of forging onward tickets for countries that required them, everything was pulled into question. What would be my route to Brazil? Did I have enough money to travel for that long? I thought about how I needed onward tickets out of so many countries in order to enter them, would I have to forge them? If I wanted a new camera then the cheapest option was Paraguay, the shady smugglers’ capital of South America. How would I get there? What were the symptoms of Dengue Fever (which is rampant there)? In my weakened state everything was fair game.
I was lonely and alone in a foreign country. Perhaps this is what I had wanted from the beginning.