La Güera Seeks Escape, Finds Freedom

Biking down the Cotopaxi volcano.

Biking down the Cotopaxi volcano.

Freedom is a concept that has both enthralled and horrified humanity for its entire existence. It is hard to define because of its fluidity, its tendency towards subjectivity. It varies between ages (both historical and chronological), cultures, ideologies, individuals, and any other subcategory of the human race. In John Stuart Mill’s famous essay “On Liberty”, he describes it as such:

The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual.

Perhaps in its most compact, concentrated definition, freedom is simply the ability to choose.

Having spent the last almost 5 months traveling, for the most part on my own, freedom, my own personal definition and more importantly its consequences, has been on my mind a considerable amount of the time. I have never felt more free in my life and most days that is an amazing and incomparable feeling. But freedom is not a synonym for comfort. In my freeness, there have been times where I’ve been sure I was about to be kidnapped or worse, where I had no place to sleep, where I couldn’t wish for anything more than people who loved me to hold me in their arms and take care of me. Like I said a few entries back, freedom often comes at the expense of security. But from the best to the worst moments and everywhere in between, freedom is the overarching theme of this entire journey.

Let me give you a little insight into my past and present life: seven months ago I was working at a job I hated five days a week from 8:30 to 5, for bosses who wanted only my silence and obedience and often used humiliation as a means to achieve that end. I spent my days staring at a computer screen making spreadsheets and searching for decades-old paper documents in archives organized as well as Bogotá’s bus system (which is to say not at all). I made only enough money to cover my bills and the minimum payments on my credit cards. For my efforts, the most vacation I could hope to get was 10 days per year. Every single morning I woke up and thought desperately of any viable way that I could avoid going to work that day. Don’t get me wrong, my life was still pretty great, but free was not something I thought of myself as being. Despite living in a city I worship, with friends equally deserving of adulation, I felt trapped and unhappy at least 40 hours a week and that is no way to go through life.

Seven months later, I feel joyful almost every day. I wake up most mornings and I and I alone decide what to do with myself that day, or, if I am on some kind of schedule, it is because I chose to be. I often think that if I were to die right now (which of course I hope doesn’t happen for, say, 70 years), I would be absolutely content with what I have done with this one life. Even in my moments of bowel-gurgling fear or crippling loneliness, there is a revitalizing quality to knowing that I have willingly made the choice to be here, not out of some “responsibility to society” or obligation or some mindless and robotic forward motion, but because of a willingness to risk everything in the search for my own joy.

But freedom has a price, like everything. To be truly free, you can have no ties to people or places or things, or at the very least, you must accept that they will come second to your freedom. But I am not willing to give up the people I love in order to maintain indefinitely my freedom. I am not willing to think only of my own happiness at all times at the expense of the happiness of others. There are a relatively large number of people in my life whom, if they asked me to come back because they truly needed me there, I would drop everything and run to. But they have not asked and so the exhilaration of freedom continues to fill me like some euphoric stimulant. I know I said a few weeks ago that freedom means not always coming when you’re called and I still hold to that, but there are things that rival freedom and love is one.

When I was 19 I got a tattoo on my back of a swallow flying out of a gilded cage with “La Libertad” in script below it. At that time in my life, freedom meant living on my own, enjoying the fruits of preliminary independence. But freedom’s meaning for me has changed since then, become deeper, and in this moment, I believe freedom is the ability to take advantage of opportunities that come up unexpectedly. To be free means to rely on your own body and spirit and intellect to find your place in a world in which most people, for a variety of reasons, remain in the same place they have always been. As Dylan Thomas said in his story “The Peaches”, “I was aware of me myself in the exact middle of a living story, and my body was my adventure and my name.” Sometimes you are offered things which to decline would be akin to spitting at the feet of Fortune. Sometimes these opportunities are in direct opposition to your “plan”. Sometimes to accept would be to change your mind again and again, at the risk of seeming fickle or indecisive. Opportunity cares not at all for any of these things. You take it as it comes or it passes you by.

On that note, I’ve been offered a room in a beautiful house in Cuenca, Ecuador, in the same country that I wrote about being reluctant to leave last week.

I accepted.

La Güera Está Chuchaqui, Waxes Philosophical

IMG_2671One month from today I will be home again. What does that mean? I’ll be back in the world of things I love and miss like banh mi and espresso and toilet paper you can flush. But it also means I’ll be back in the world of making a living, having a schedule, responsibility. My landscape will go from one of infinite variation to a static, albeit beautiful (oh, California), familiar one. Once again, most of the people I love will be no more than a phone call and a quick drive away. But who will I be? Can you go home again? I don’t know the answer. But my mind is all over the place, so I thought I’d share some of the things that have taken up my thoughts for the last four months. Some are things I’ve learned. Some are things I already knew but have been reinforced by my travels. Some are just thoughts.

  • I think I may have given myself a terminal illness. I used to think I had wanderlust. Now I know I do as it has infiltrated my body and I can feel it in the tips of my toes and the angles of my elbows. Now I know what I’m capable of, what of the detritus in my life is luxury and what is necessity. I know that I don’t need anything more than what I can carry on my back. Now I may never be able to stay in one place again. I am sick, sick, sick with the  desire to explore, to experience and I don’t think this illness is curable, or if it is, if I would take the cure.
  • Traveling alone is lonely. In spite of all the people you meet, there are many moments when you find yourself wishing for people who have known you for longer than a few days or weeks. I sometimes feel the need for a deeper connection, for shared history. But I have learned that it is possible to be both incredibly happy and incredibly lonely at the same time. This to me is evidence that they are not connected, as we as a society tend to believe. Loneliness breeds with or without happiness. I am often in a state of absolute joy in spite of my loneliness.
  • Why do people always want to possess you? To put you in a box with a neat, handwritten label that says “mine”? Why can’t we love or like or want each other without trying to tattoo ourselves on each other’s skin? I want to exist simultaneously with someone, sometimes intertwined but more often separate, changing each other but also allowing each other to maintain our autonomy. I want to be completely myself and be with someone else. I don’t want to mute parts of myself in order to better mesh with someone else. I want to be me. With you.
  • Sontagian list:

Things I like: long-haired men, the ocean, beaches at night, street food, maracuya shakes, long bus rides, salsa dancing, scuba diving, beer, sleeping outside, warm nights, going braless, authenticity, uncontrolled tear-inducing laughter, dialects, braids, bartending, graffiti, sexuality, naps, nudity, being barefoot.

Things I don’t like: mind games, assumptions, double standards, creaking doors, desk jobs, sunscreen, blisters, beauty ideals, shaving, malaria pill dreams, men who leer, drama, unnecessarily loud noise, haggling, instant coffee, the “gringo” price, cold showers, reciprocity fees, chuchaqui, objectification.

  • Things I believe in:
    -That not all questions require answers. Sometimes the question is enough.
    -That reading allows you to live thousands of lives concurrently with your own.
    -That there is no limit to love. Love does not run out, but it can change, and it is our reticence to allow it to do so which causes it to rankle and become embittering instead of empowering.
    -That there is no fundamental difference between any human on the planet.
    -That spending time alone allows you to learn more about yourself than anything else, and what you learn isn’t always flattering.
    -That sharing happiness with others only multiplies happiness.
    -That allowing yourself to love and be loved is the bravest and most frightening thing anyone can do.
  • My vision of myself almost matches who I am.
  • Freedom comes at the expense of security.
  • Freedom is not always coming when you’re called.

Thirty days to go. This has been one of the most terrifying and rewarding experiences of my life. I am irrevocably and profoundly altered because of it. A lot can happen in thirty days, but what a wonderful feeling to know that at the end of it are people who long to see me as much as I long for them.

P. S. Chuchaqui is the Ecuadorean word for hangover.