Summer 2016: from nomad to expat

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In May of 2016, I put into action an idea whose seeds had been planted nearly 10 years ago, when I first visited Italy for a semester abroad in 2006. I was just about to turn 21. That summer, I spent two months studying in Florence and took trips to Paris, Venice, and Rome; I also spent 10 days backpacking by myself in Ireland and Austria. I was left with the overwhelming feeling that the world was much bigger and different than I had imagined. How can I describe what a revelation it was to step outside my country and discover how small it really is? My eyes were opened to the limitations of my worldview.

But I couldn’t stay. I came back from Italy and graduated college, moved to DC where I worked for four years, and even moved across country and explored the west coast with Reno as my home base. I forgot my Italian. I made halfhearted attempts to keep up with drawing and painting. I took trips to Paris to visit my sister, who had moved there. I took road trips across the country, visiting more than half of the continental US. None of it was right.

I couldn’t have put it into words then, but I had a feeling that there was unfinished business waiting for me in Europe. I had begun an education into the world outside the US (other American travelers will know what I mean when I say it is an isolated country). Two months on the outside just wasn’t enough.

In the summer of 2014 I quit working for the company I had been with since college. I had known for a while that it wasn’t where I wanted to be forever, but I kept making excuses to stay, and two years turned into six before I knew what was happening. Finally I knew if I didn’t leave soon, I’d end up stuck there, so I made my own excuse, put my affairs in order, and left in July.

I had always wanted to take a long backpacking trip, after having met other young people who were traveling for 6 months or a year and staying in hostels. I tried it out for myself – you can read my travel stories in this blog. But it still wasn’t right. I was getting the real-world education I wanted, but it felt aimless. I know now that it’s a mistake to travel without a frame. If you don’t believe me, spend some time talking to “hardcore” travelers – people who have no home base, who have been backpacking for 2 or 3 years, who never stay in the same place for more than a couple of months. You’ll see an emptiness in their eyes. They’re miserable, even if they don’t know it themselves. Humans aren’t meant to be constantly mobile – at least, not alone. Think of the Berbers, or the Roma. They travel in packs. Solo travel is terribly lonely – and my experience was no exception.

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So what’s a single, 30-year-old American with an unscratched itch for the international lifestyle supposed to do?

Move to Berlin, of course.

Berlin is a popular city for expats. It’s legendery among travelers looking to stay in Europe past the Schengen area’s restrictive three months because of a permissive freelance residency permit, the so-called artist visa. It works like this: normally, to acquire a freelancer’s visa in Germany, one needs to work in a field where the is a demonstrated economic need for your skills (a need for engineers in a manufacturing town, or UX/UI designers in city that’s home to tech startups, say). For a visual artist this might normally be a challenge, since we don’t think of artistic disciplines as being economic drivers so much as cultural enhancements that rely on donations or social funds. However, Berlin’s former mayor Klaus Wowereit, who coined the famous description of Berlin as “poor but sexy”, also officially designated art as an economic need in the city. That has made it relatively easy for people working as visual artist to be granted freelancer visas here.

This visa is somewhat legendary among travelers, and you hear stories about people who have picked up this visa by cobbling together a portfolio (which may or may not be their own work) along with a few forged letters of reference. Berlin has gotten a lot more popular since that time, and a few new regulations on housing documents have made it a bit trickier to complete all the necessary forms these days. Still, my experience at the Auslanderbehörde can only be described as painless. Nervous and anxious, I scurried into my assigned meeting room with a German friend who had agreed to act as a translator. The casually-dressed, tired-looking official grabbed the folder full of documents I had spent the past two months assembling (sometimes with tears involved), pulled out a few at random, and shooed us out the door. His comment to my friend, “The North Americans always bring too much.” 20 anxious minutes later we were called back for what I assumed would be a brutal grilling of my personal history, artistic abilities, and financial solvency. Instead, the same official glanced up as he stamped the residency visa into my passport and mumbled a few instructions at us for where and how to pay. And just like that, I’m legally a resident of Berlin until June 2018.


 

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view from my kitchen

 

And what now?

I’ve gone from nomad to expat. I have a lease, flatmates, steady freelance work, and a growing social network. I’m working on my German, practicing Spanish, attending drawing workshops, and stubbornly riding my bike through Berlin’s cold autumn rainstorms.

I’ll always be a traveler, but to be honest, at the moment I don’t miss traveling. Loneliness is hard on a person. I’m more than happy to feather my little Berlin nest (at 12 m square, my room in the shared flat is best described as “gemütlich”) and deepen friendships in the way that is only possible when you hang around for longer than a couple of months. I meet lots of backpackers passing through when I show up to Couchsurfing meetups around the city. One day I’ll be ready to be one of them again, and when I do, Berlin’s trains, buses, and airports will be waiting for me.

Life Update, February 2016

Hello, readers!

It’s now the end of Feburary, 2016, and I’m writing from my family home in southwest Virginia. I’ve been home for nearly a full month. The trip – at least this particular trip – has come to an end.

This blog fell by the wayside a bit toward the end of my trip, which I felt guilty about but in a way was a good thing. I was so introspective when I first began backpacking.  I was being terribly self-critical about my writing and even the trip itself. I would spend hours overthinking my entries. Around the fall of 2015, which was the last time I wrote, I finally began engaging with my surroundings a little more and ended up writing less as a result. I guess traveling isn’t just an experience, but also a skill that you can get better at. So as I’ve gotten better at traveling, I’ve learned to enjoy it more, and I only feel a little bit guilty that this blog became a casualty of that part of the trip.

I’ll write a few entries in the coming weeks to round out the story of my trip – there are a few good stories, actually, and heaps of pictures – but first a quick update on my life right now —

I arrived back in the US on the 30th of January, fantastically sick with some kind of exotic Hungarian flu and nearly delirious after a couple of days of short nights and long plane rides. Fortunately, there’s no better place to be sick than your parents’ house, which is where I’ll be staying for the next few months. Mom filled me full of gluten-free soup and high-dosage American cold medicine and I was recovered after a week or so.

I’m staying at home until the middle of May. A sensible person probably would have taken this opportunity to rest and recover from 16 months of backpacking, and maybe do some quiet reflection on the nature of travel.  However, I am not a sensible person so I got up at 8am the morning after I arrived and immediately went to work.

But I have a good reason for jumping into work again, readers! Have you heard of the artist visa offered by the city of Berlin? Unique in all of Europe – as far as I can tell – this visa is a long-stay residency permit offered to self-employed artists. Gossips on the Internet are somewhat coy about the length of time they usually approve, but rumors range from 9 months to two years, with the option to renew. Short of going back to school – which I’m not ready for – I think it’s the best option for a visa that will keep me in Europe for a couple of years.

Staying in Europe for a couple of years – that was a major decision I reached while I was traveling, readers. I want to spend more time outside the US – America is so culturally isolated from the international community, and I have so much more to learn about the world – but I’m weary of moving.

Relationships are fleeting by nature when you’re nomadic – we all try to stay in touch through facebook and whatsapp and skype, and we do our best – but it’s difficult to foster deep connections digitally. Strong, lasting friendships forged over the course of years in which there are ups and downs and crises and emergencies and seasons and routines – those friendships are of a different sort than the short, intense connections we form while traveling. Both are important. But I think the first can only grow if we find someplace to stick around for a while, long enough to lean on others for support and be leaned on ourselves. I’m missing that sense of community, and I’m ready to feel needed somewhere.

(Just not back in the US. Not yet!)

So stay tuned for future updates, readers! Here at home I’m settling into a routine of hard work on my Fiverr store (fiverr.com/flymarfly), where I’m drawing digital portraits by the dozen. I’m also working on a portfolio website (flymaryfly.com) to showcase the pieces I’m working on when I’m not busy with Fiverr.

In the meantime I’ll be filling in the gaps in my travel narrative to bring the blog up to date. Stay tuned for more travel stories!

Travel Update : Summer 2015

Hello, Dear Readers!

 

It’s been almost four months since my last update. The TL;DR version is that I spent the summer finishing out my workaway in Granada, volunteering at a language school in Morocco, and developing my Fiverr store. I’ll return to Europe again soon!

 

Read on for the full story…

 

Last time I wrote I had just arrived at the hostel in Granada. I worked there for about six weeks, changing beds, making dinner and sangria for guests, relaxing very hard with good friends, and just beginning work on my Fiverr store. I miss the friends I made at the hostel, cheap wine and tapas in the cafes, the views of the beautiful Alhambra towering over the city, and the evenings I spent climbing the hill above the city where the hippies live in caves, up to the church where you could watch the sun set over the whole plain.
The Alhamba

the Alhambra monument on the hill overlooking Granada

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view of the hostel interior

 

After Granada, I made my way back to Paris for another brief visit that involved more time spent working, celebrating the Fourth of July drinking wine on the bank of the Seine, and keeping Joanna company as she spent the evenings in marathon paper-writing sessions. I was only in Paris for a week before I caught my flight to Morocco.

 

I should pause a bit to explain why I left Europe – as an American passport holder, I’m only allowed three months at a time in the Schengen zone (a group of counties in Western Europe free from border controls), and I’m obliged to spend another three months outside Schengen once my three months inside are up. Three months in, three months out – that’s how it works, unless you’ve arranged for some kind of working or studying visa or residence permit. By the time I left Granada I hadn’t worked out a way to secure a visa that would allow me to stay in Europe – plus I was broke – so I decided I would wait out my three months somewhere outside of Schengen – preferably somewhere cheap. I picked morocco after having heard nice things from friends who traveled there, and out of a sense of curiosity and excitement to explore a new continent.

 

I arrived in Morocco at the beginning of July, excited and awed to be on a new continent and on my first visit to a country that doesn’t use a Latin alphabet – most of the signs are in French, which I can only sort of read, or Arabic, which I can’t read at all. The newness of the culture hit me hard enough that I’m still processing my own impressions, so it’s difficult to write about how I felt then. Some things I remember are taking photos of signs in the airport written in Arabic, eating street food – bowls of snails cooked in a rich broth- hearing the call to prayer echoing around the city all through the night, and noticing how Moroccan women dress and act and their role in society.

 

Koutoubia mosque

the Alhambra monument on the hill overlooking Granada

A small bowl of snails costs 50 cents and comes in a broth that reminds me of beef-flavored ramen

A small bowl of snails costs 50 cents and comes in a broth that reminds me of beef-flavored ramen

I arrived in the middle of Ramadan, which meant that most people were fasting all day (no food, water, sex, or cigarettes from sunrise to sunset). At night they break their fast with a simple meal followed by a larger one. Most people stay up almost all night and rest almost all day. Marrakesh was already a busy, hot city during the day, and at night when things cooled off and everyone could go out and eat again it really exploded into life, from sunset up until around 3:30am when they ate the last meal of the night before the fast began again at sunrise. There were hordes of people packing the square called Janaa el Fna, full of its 30 identical restaurants with their aggressive maitre’d’s, snake charmers, musicians, people selling toys. I think the best place to enjoy Janaa el Fna is above it, on the top terrace of the Cafe de France, where you can get tea and coffee and fancy ice cream and stay for hours. If you’re lucky you can snag a table next to the terrace railing for the best view.

Janaa El-Fnaa square at night

Janaa El-Fnaa square at night

 

While in Morocco I took a tour to the Sahara desert, which sounds dangerous and exotic but is actually fairly tame, and pretty easily accomplished with the help of one of the hundreds of tour agencies in Marrakesh that arrange such trips. The edge of the Sahara (all that I saw of it) is beautiful, but I was disappointed that the “trip to the Sahara” really was that – a trip TO the edge of the Sahara, not through it like I imagined. We rode in on camels (which was uncomfortable but cool) about a kilometer, just far enough that we couldn’t see the nearby towns. No deep desert exploration. Still, it was beautiful, sleeping out under the stars and hearing the little desert noises.

 

Donkeys at a pass over the Atlas Mountains

Donkeys at a pass over the Atlas Mountains

the village of Ait Ben Haddou, a Berber settlement which gets used as a filming location for all kinds of stuff (game of thrones and Gladiator, to name a couple)

the village of Ait Ben Haddou, a Berber settlement which gets used as a filming location for all kinds of stuff (game of thrones and Gladiator, to name a couple)

 

Camels in the desert... standing on a field of camel poop

Camels in the desert… standing on a field of camel poop

 

After Marrakesh I visited Taghazout, a fishing village on the coast, before coming to Casablanca. There’s not much to write about Taghazout but it was really pretty and relaxing and I had a great time.
view from the terrace of the hostel in Taghazout

view from the terrace of the hostel in Taghazout

 

Casablanca – yes, THAT Casablanca, the one from the movie. It’s the financial capital of Morocco, and there are some very ritzy financial districts with large, modern buildings, a tramway system run by the same company as the tram in Paris, flashy cars, and one of the largest malls in Africa. There’s not much for tourists there apart from a gigantic mosque built by the previous king. I came to volunteer at the somewhat mysteriously named British Language Academy (as far as we could tell, no one working there is British and there’s no affiliation with any part of the UK..). In exchange for a couple of hours of conversation practice per day, I had a free place to sleep, shower, cook, and use the Internet. I used the school as a place to stay while I started developing up my freelancing skills.  In the end I stayed there two months.
the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, by the sea. Supposedly the second largest mosque in Africa and the seventh-largest in the world

the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, by the sea. Supposedly the second largest mosque in Africa and the seventh-largest in the world

 

 

I don’t want to write too much about this workaway yet – there were some major negatives and I have some pretty serious concerns about the conduct of the school’s director. But there were also lots of positives. I met interesting, unusual, smart people from all over the world who came and went as volunteers in the school. I learned lots about Moroccan culture from the students, fascinating insights that I never would have gained otherwise. I went shopping for fruits and vegetables in the old market and even made friends with some of the vendors. I saved a lot of money – food and entertainment in Morocco are really cheap. I loved learning more about Islam, and it was particularly interesting and exotic to hear the chanted call to prayer echoing from the minarets at all hours of the day and night.

 

The school itself was fairly basic, dirty, and generally falling apart – worlds away from the hostel in Granada. We held things together as well as we could and enjoyed what we could, ducking under the dangling remains of destroyed venetian blinds to sit on the windowsills that overlooked a little square where there was a taxi stand. During Ramadan the square never slept, and sometimes neither did we, since the streets were packed with people shopping and shouting and arguing and laughing and playing music until dawn. Once Ramadan ended the throngs of people thinned out, but not enough that we didn’t still have some entertainment in the form of surreptitious drug sales, arguments over taxi prices, loud drunks dodging traffic, and street merchants shouting “solde” (sale) over and over in front of their blankets full of illegal t-shirts and scarves and belts and shoes.

 

Casablanca has a beach, but as a woman I never felt comfortable going alone with the sexual harassment being what it is in Morocco, so I only took the trip once, when I was accompanied by male volunteers. I know they say you’re not supposed to let harassment get to you, or let it dictate where you go, but I wasn’t prepared for the intensity of the harassment in Morocco, or how little regard was paid to my polite, firm “no thank you” that the guidebooks say is supposed to deter “admirers”. My experience was more that saying “no thank you” was apparently code for “yes, I’m interested, please keep following/talking to/grabbing me”. It wore me down and sometimes limited where I considered going in Casa.

 

One of my favorite experiences in Casablanca was going to the fruit and vegetable markets in the Medina (“old city”, the part with all the really narrow, winding streets and alleys and historic buildings). I enjoy buying produce at markets so much more than soulless supermarkets, where the fruit has all been carefully selected for its beauty and washed and waxed to within an inch of its life. In the market you might have to pick through a pile of tomatoes to find a few that aren’t already rotting, but at least the guy who grew them is the one helping you hunt down the best ones. I would go with Sam, one of the other volunteers, and we’d visit a few stands searching for the best dates and olives, and picking out lots of fresh vegetables and spices for our backpacker’s version of a Moroccan tagine. One of the best discoveries was the green figs. At first I avoided buying them, thinking they were underripe purple figs, but no – they’re a different variety and they’re WAY BETTER, READERS. They taste like candy. We’d eat most of them and try to restrain ourselves enough to save a few to throw in the blender with some bananas and orange juice and make fantastic smoothies for breakfast.

 

Spices in the medina market

Spices in the medina market

 

About a week ago I finally left Casablanca for good, feeling okay with the idea of never seeing the place again. It’s not a city you really fall in love with, I think, and it didn’t help that the streets where we lived were particularly filthy and seedy. I’ve moved locations now and set up shop in a hostel in Chefchaouen, the blue-painted city in the Rif mountains. The climate is perfect and the terrace of my hostel faces the cliffs of the mountains. At night it’s quiet and sleepy, and the people are relaxed here.
the cats here are pretty relaxed too

the cats here are also relaxed

I’ll stay in Chefchaouen working, hiking, and relaxing, until mid-October, when I’ll return to Europe.

Art Update!

Hello dear readers!

It’s been a productive couple of weeks at the hostel. I’ve folded more bedsheets than I can count. I’ve learned the fine art of making cheap Sangria. I’ve survived sharing a bedroom with six other people. I’ve discovered that with the proper amount of planning, running around anxiously, and panicking at the last minute, I can successfully cook a tasty dinner for 20-30 people.

When I’m not living the daring and mysterious life of a hostel worker, I’ve been working hard on projects to add to my art portfolio. (Shameless plug – my website is http://behance.net/flymaryfly if you haven’t seen it already). I’m doodling digitally as well as in the sketchbook. Here are a few of the Illustrator drawings I’ve cranked out recently!

a drawing of Audrey Horne from twin peaks

Audrey Horne from Twin Peaks

Ed Norton's character from Fight Club

Ed Norton’s character from Fight Club

drawing of David Lynch

Director David Lynch

Yours Truly

Yours truly

I’ve also begun selling portraits over at Fiverr, which is a website for creators to sell their work freelance starting at $5. You can find the link to my portrait store here! Check it out!

Life Update from Spain

Hello again, world! Here’s an update on the life of this still-wandering nomad.

As I wrote my last post, I had come to the end of seven months in South America and was about to fly to Madrid.

I’m writing from Madrid again now, six weeks later. In the intervening time I traveled to Cordoba, Granada, Barcelona, and Toulouse; I stayed in Paris for nearly a month with my sister; and spent time with my parents during their first trip to Paris in 30 years.

I’m going to write more about that later. This is a quick update on where I’m flying now that the “official” trip is over.

When I quit my job last summer, I did it with the idea that I would make a carreer change – I wasn’t sure what the new career would be, but I knew I wanted creating my own artwork to be part of it – no more relegating artwork to a hobby. I had about $13,000 saved from the years I had been working after college. So before I started this yet-undefined new career, I went traveling, taking advantage of the unique freedom of having no official responsibilities – no job, no mortgage, no kids, no debt.

$13,000 puts you only slightly above the poverty line in the US, but it can take you a long way as a traveler, especially if you travel the way I did – staying in hostels, cooking meals in the hostel kitchen instead of eating out, hitchhiking, couchsurfing, and seeing things for free instead of taking expensive guided tours.

That money took me from my home in the US to Colombia, to Uruguay, to Buenos Aires where I stayed for nearly two months; to Ushuaia at the southern tip of South America; into Chile and the Torres del Paine national park; up the western border of Argentina where I will always remember my two days of hitchhiking through Patagonia; into Mendoza and across the border Santiago; up to Bolivia and across the highest salt flat in the world; into Peru and up Machu Picchu; through Ecuador; back to Colombia; and across the great Atlantic to Europe.

I made it last a long time – 8 months and counting. Now the money’s starting to run out and I’m beginning to transition back to a working career.

I’ve learned that it’s a mistake to write too much about plans that aren’t really formed, so I’ll share what’s certain in the short term: until the end of June, I’ll volunteer at a hostel in Granada, where I can work around 20 hours a week in exchange for free accommodation and some free food. This isn’t a source of income, but my hope is that I’ll be able to spend the balance of my time creating artwork to build out my portfolio, and, if I can manage it, doing freelance illustration and graphic design.

At the beginning of July, I have to leave the Schengen zone (which encompasses most of western Europe) because my tourist visa expires. Unlike a lot of countries, those in the Schengen zone don’t tolerate border-hopping as a way of renewing a tourist visa – I’ve got to stay out for 90 days before I can return or risk getting banned from Europe for a few years (this is the worst case scenario). I’m not sure yet where I’ll go or what I’ll do during my 90-day waiting period. I’d like to stay close to Europe, and in a country where the cost of living isn’t too expensive. Morocco is on the shortlist, but it’s not the only place I’m considering.

I can return to Europe in October – though who knows what will happen between now and then? Maybe I’ll discover a new place where I’d like to stay.

In the meantime, readers, if you know anyone who needs a logo or business card or wedding invitations or t-shirts or gifts or anything else designed, get in touch with me. My new portfolio is housed here (and updated frequently!).

And for the love of all that is holy, if you’ve got any leads on how a broke 20something American girl can get a work permit in Europe, drop me a line!

That’s the news for now.

Ecuador and the end of the South American leg

March 28 – April 6 2015

Ten short days in Ecuador, 24 hours in Bogota, and just like that, seven solid months of travel in South America came to a close.

I took a bus ride of nearly 20 hours from Trujillo in Peru to Guayaquil in Ecuador, a trip that was mainly unremarkable despite involving crossing an international border. I’ve crossed so many borders now. My passport is starting to fill up.

I visited Guayaquil, Couchsurfing with an awesome Finnish girl who makes macrame bracelets and had moved there to be with her Ecuadoran boyfriend. I was there 48 hours or so, most of my time spent with Viia, her boyfriend, and one of his friends, driving around Guayaquil, eating a typical Ecuadoran dish called Seco de Pollo, talking with Viia about travel and about South American culture, and, strangely, watching the season finale of the Walking Dead.

I took a bus up the coast from Guayaquil to a little beach town Viia recommended, where I watched ten or fifteen other backpackers got off the bus at the big surf town Montanita, kept staring out the window as we passed rows of identical kiosks selling the same cheap souvenirs you can find all over Ecuador, waited as the bus rolled further on to Olon, where I got off and took another bus 30 minutes further up the coast, past towns and into a country of tiny villages and quiet seaside bed-and-breakfasts, to Viejamar, an enchanted garden of hibiscus flowers and palm trees that happened to also contain a hostel – a few bamboo cabins, hammocks, and couches scattered among the palms and flowers and under the shade of the second-floor cabin where Rodrigo, the Chilean owner, spent his days surfing and occasionally administrating the hostel. The pool was on the other side of the kitchen and the gate was on the other side of the pool, under the balcony where you could watch the sunset and the locals surfing after work and feel the sea breeze, and on the other side of the gate it was sand and a twenty-second stroll (or a ten-second dash at mid-day when the sand was hot) to the little palm hut with hammocks and hooks to hang up my towel and then another two second dash down the wet sand and into the formidable waves of the Pacific Ocean. I stayed at Viejamar for five days.

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There’s an island about an hour from shore called Isla de la Plata, reached from the town of Puerto Lopez (close to Viejamar, between 20 and 30 minutes driving, depending on how fast the fishermen I hitched rides with wanted to drive). This island is like a small Galapagos, they say, because some of the same species live there. A column of massive, sharp-winged Frigate birds dominates the sky above the little mass of land, the birds circling slowly and silently in mesmerizing circles, not like vultures and not at all like frantic, haphazard seagulls. On top of the island we walked with a guide along a sandy path where blue-footed boobies nest. How have these animals survived, as curious as they are? Perhaps there’s a reason they only live here, and on the Galapagos, isolated from humans and other predators. They would come out of their nests to look at us, waddling practically in between our feet and turning their heads slowly and curiously. I’ve never seen a wild animal so curious and so unafraid, and so serene.

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We took the boat out into the shallow, clear water in the shoals of the island. Sea turtles swam up to our boat. Schools of parrotfish flickered under us. Everyone got out of the boat to snorkel. I never learned to snorkel so I dove without a mask, looking through the clear water at the coral colonies under us.

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From Viejamar I took an overnight bus to Quito, the capital of Ecuador, high in the mountains at around 2800 meters in elevation. That first morning after bad vibes at the first hostel I was supposed to stay at (unluckily named “vibes”), and after I found a much prettier hostel looking out across a wide valley to the high mountains beyond, I took one of the free walking tours in the old center of Quito. A girl from Guayaquil led a group of about 20 of us through the central market (I’m crazy about markets), through several plazas and past historic buildings, telling us wild stories about some of the crazy presidents in Ecuador’s past (and unfortunately, its present), showing us monuments to the fighters who were among the first in South America to rebel against Spanish rule. Quito is a beautiful, interesting city, and I barely began to discover it.

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I went to an Easter Vigil service in a building that is home to at least three different Christian churches (one English-speaking, one Spanish-speaking, one German-speaking). The service was small and disorganized, possibly because it was held in three different languages; but the pastors and priests made the most of it. I went back the next morning for Easter, feeling a little strange as i always do when I visit a congregation just to pass through. Churches I think are not places that people generally pass through. They are places you come to find family and heal wounds and plead for forgiveness and contemplate the meaning of your life. They’re definitely not a place for tourists. But a tourist I was and they were friendly and gracious about it, as people in churches usually are.

If you’re in Quito, the city in South America that rests on the official equator, you have to go and visit the official monument that marks the official equator line. It’s touristic and Disneyworld-ish, but you can’t come all the way to the equator and not go. So I went, taking a bus 90 minutes from my hostel in Quito, walking around and taking photos, and feeling a little weird in this surreal fabricated Disneyworld village, wandering around alone in the morning on the day after Easter when everything was quiet and most of the shop keepers weren’t even awake enough to try to pressure me into buying a tacky souvenir. And it was interesting to think, wow, I’ve been in the Southern Hemisphere this whole time and now I can just hop back to the northern hemisphere, like I’m teleporting home or something. And it was disappointing to visit the equator line and find that the scientific exhibits were closed, so I wandered around looking at a photography exhibit and an exhibit dedicated to the experiments conducted by French scientists who were responsible for measuring the bulge of the earth at the equator.

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And then it was time for another 90-minute bus ride back to Quito and convincing the receptionists at my hostel to help me with directions to the airport (is it that difficult to believe I would rather pay $5 and take the bus than $35 for a taxi? Apparently so.) and taking the bus which was cheap and fast and got me to the airport for my flight to Bogota.

And then it was barely more than an hour before I landed back in Bogota, back in the city where I started my journey through South America over seven months ago.

Huanchaco and Trujillo

Huanchaco and Trujillo
26-27 march 2015

26 March 2015
I wake up in the predawn light with my green Oltursa blanket tangled around me and my feet on the seat next to me which by some miracle remained empty all night. Around sunup I start to see the concrete and brick outskirts of a city, which grows to larger shops and warehouses by the time we reach the bus company’s office where Harmeet and I disembark. To exit the station we have to squeeze through a single door in which six taxi drivers are standing, jostling each other, blocking our way, screaming in our faces and trying to grab out bags. The further north I go, the more aggressive the taxi drivers become. We pace past them serenely and wait for the prices they’re offering for Huanchaco to go down and haggle a little further with a guy driving a rickety station wagon. He drives us through the thick morning haze, out of Trujillo, past the outskirts and the airport, past a huge clay brick Inka ruin, into a small beach town of low concrete buildings, nearly silent in the early morning.

Things are weird at the hostel where Harmeet has a reservation, so I make sure she’s checked in all right and head next door to a different hostel I had in mind, where the owner checks me in early with no fuss and leads me through a lush, shady garden hung with hammocks to a little stuffy room off the courtyard. I sling my backpack on a top bunk and sneak past a few backpackers sleeping with eye masks on to freshen up before I meet Harmeet again for breakfast.

We eat at my hostel, in the restaurant on the first floor with the door open to the ocean. While we’re waiting for coffee we see a wave come rushing in, surging over the little sandback and over the concrete planters, over the curb and halfway across the street. The rough sea seems to be washing this part of the beach away.

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Huanchaco looks a little worse for wear – the beach is rough and strewn with large, heavy rocks that clatter in the heavy undertow after each violent wave rolls back. In the morning as we walk south along the sand we see more sand banks eaten away by the waves. They say Huanchaco wasn’t always like this – I read that a few years ago someone built a breakwave – some kind of sea wall – further south and it’s been affecting the currents here, making the waves stronger and more destructive. There are banners up around town protesting the sea wall and in the evening a crowd of about 30 people stand shouting outside the municipal building and parade down the street, blocking traffic in protest.

There’s not a lot to do in Huanchaco except drink, eat ceviche, and surf. Harmeet and I aren’t here to surf, so we spend the afternoon and long beautiful ocean evening in bars and restaurants. The ceviche here is different than in Lima, the fish is denser and richer. I loved the ceviche in Lima, but this is something else, something even better. We bar hop a little, sitting first in a surf hostel with beautiful plush antique furniture, then in a little tiki-style bar. In between we stop at a street vendor for anticucho. I need water so I walk for the first time away from Huanchaco’s touristic main boulevard. One block from the fun, brightly lit and decorated beachfront bars it’s back to quiet streets with concrete buildings and little kiosks – typical residential South America, at least in my experience. It’s familiar. One block past this, things get a little rougher, more potholed, stray dogs looking a little more mangey. I stop at a kiosk planning to buy water, call to the attendant who must be in the back somewhere. I glance around idly as I’m waiting and make eye contact with a guy across the street who wanders out of the doorway to a house holding a little jar half full of liquid. He stares at me and slowly vomits into the jar, never breaking eye contact. I decide I’m not thirsty. “Couldn’t you find water?” Harmeet asks me back at the anticucho stand. “Things got weird,” I say.

27 march 2015
Harmeet and I eat breakfast at the vegetarian cafe Otra Cosa (an omelette and two coffees for me, crispy falafel for her). The owner, a friendly Dutch guy, gives us directions to a bus terminal in Trujillo. An actual bus terminal! This is what I’ve been missing since Ica, where I stopped finding big bus terminals with a bunch of companies where you can shop around for tickets to wherever you’re going. In Lima we had to pick a bus company, figure out where in that massive city their office was located, and go to buy tickets in advance. Harmeet and I pack and grab a bus to town, going to find this mythical bus terminal.

As it turns out, the terminal only hosts bus companies with routes going south, and it’s another two hours and three taxi rides back and forth across Trujillo before Harmeet has a ticket to Mancora and I have mine to Guayaquil and we’re finally sitting down to lunch in a little cafe near the historical center. Neither of us can leave until the evening, so we kill some hours walking through Trujillo’s colonial center, to a strange toy museum with dolls and antique toy cars and dollhouses and rocking horses and marionettes, back out to another cafe with divine espresso, and finally along a pedestrian street where we buy souvenirs and stroll with everyone else in the cool evening air and finally say goodbye when Harmeet squeezes into a taxi to her bus terminal and I wander around downtown Trujillo alone for a few hours before heading to my bus terminal for the midnight bus to Ecuador.

Midnight comes and goes at the bus terminal, but not my bus to Guayaquil, and at first I’m surprised and worried that the bus isn’t leaving on time. By the time one of the guys working at the terminal comes around to tell us it will be another three hours before the bus comes I’ve reminded myself that this is South America and almost nothing happens on time, and I’ve relaxed and tuned up my rusty Spanish chatting with the other two sleepy people waiting for the bus, Alan and Anna, he from Peru and she from Andalucia in Spain. We all sleep on the floor of the strange little waiting room until the bus finally arrives around 3:30.