The Novelty Inherent in the Familiar

Discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes. –Marcel Proust

Downtown San Juan Capistrano.

Downtown San Juan Capistrano.

There is no beauty that is impervious to complacency. Seeing something every day, whether it be a loved one’s face or a rocky, foam-studded coastline, often causes us to lose the ability to “see” it in its truest form. We become accustomed to its presence and we begin to take it for granted. It loses all novelty, sometimes all interest. Once in a while, we might be reminded by chance of what we are lucky enough to have, but more often than not, it takes our removal from our normal surroundings to make us appreciate them again. It takes the sudden absence of a familiar face to remind us of our love for them.

I’ve been home for almost six weeks now, and some of the softness my body had lost to the weight of backpacks and wandering has come back to settle at my hips as a sign of the contentment of coming home and being welcome there. Though the crystalline edges of my joy have dulled somewhat, I have so far held on to the ability to see my home with eyes, if not new, than at least the eyes of a long-absent devotee. While descending into L.A. the day I came home, I excitedly pressed my face to the window and surprised my seatmates by yelling “look at it! It’s so organized and beautiful!” After cities like Bogotá and Guayaquil, cities whose infrastructures seem to lag eternally behind their quickly creeping expansion, where neighborhoods and commercial areas seem to metastasize out from the cities’ centers, continually blurring and altering the topographical shape of its borders, the sudden clean lines and grid-like appearance of Los Angeles were a welcome sight, despite the fact that I had never thought of it as beautiful before.

It’s not L.A. alone that has taken on a new sheen of beauty for me.  I can see the allure of other places now, other backdrops of my past, without their being dulled by privileged complacency. Downtown San Juan Capistrano, the city I grew up in, with its railroads and jacaranda-lined streets, its anachronistic insinuations of a time when cowboys and Indians and robed padres walked the same streets that house Starbucks and the Swallows Inn today, holds a charm for me now that was previously obscured by the mundane normality of seeing it all the time.

Even San Francisco, which I admittedly loved more consciously than my hometown, is enveloped in the shininess of novelty: its chilly splendor, its districts like an extended family, exceedingly unique, each to the other dissimilar except in their shared connection, its windswept coast and patchwork citizenry — everything is somehow sharper, more vivid, now that I’m seeing them again. Coming back to San Francisco made me feel almost instantaneously as if I had never left, but at the same time I was aware of how what I had experienced abroad had made me infinitely richer (although not in the way that would allow me to live here again). Even the virtually featureless expanses of middle California that I saw through my windshield on the six-hour drive from one end of the state to the other were suddenly beautiful to me, as if having gone away had unlocked my ability to see what had always been there.

It is one of the greatest curiosities of humanity that we are so adept at turning what was once new and exciting into the visual and emotional equivalent of elevator music. Traveling is a foolproof way of bringing the familiar back into focus, to remind us of why we live where we live, do what we do, love whom we love. And although I obviously think travel is one of the most valuable and enriching things one could possibly do, perhaps if we were only aware of our tendency to normalize our daily lives (and thus cause them to lose their brilliance) we could consciously choose to see our own tiny pieces of the world with like-new eyes without ever leaving them behind.

La Güera Continues a Tradition, Writes Herself a Love Letter


A couple of years ago I started a tradition. Instead of making a list of resolutions that I would most likely not keep, thereby setting myself up for disappointment, I decided that I would write myself a letter reflecting on the past year. To see one of my past letters, click here. It has been the most amazing year of my life, hands down, and I’m going to share my letter with all of you. I know I haven’t been writing as much (getting re-acclimated to home is no joke) and I’ll write about that soon, but for now, I just want to wish all my friends out in the world and those still traveling a happy new year. Here’s to one as good as the last:

2015. Christ. Each year that passes seems to bring us further and further into some science fiction future. But damn, 2014 was a year that will never be forgotten. You started the year amidst mediocrity: just bouncing back from a bad experience with a guy that affected you more than you cared to admit, at a job that caused you to question your own self-respect with a boss who did everything he could to force you into a carefully-controlled little box. But you were already taking steps towards changing everything. You applied and received a scholarship to a certification program for TESOL, you began working for Lyft in order to save money and get out of debt (keep working on that one), and you bought the plane ticket that would change your life. A few months later you got fired from the “hostile environment” you hated by the man you hated and were thus given an opportunity to gain back all your dignity by telling him exactly what he needed to hear (essentially a verbal middle finger in the air) as you walked out. That day, the school you had just graduated from offered you a job as a teacher and when you stopped at the beach on the way home from getting fired, there were fucking dolphins in the surf. I don’t know how many other ways the universe can show you that everything is as it should be.

Getting fired when you did allowed you to enjoy to the utmost your final two months in San Francisco. You partied so that your youth could stretch its legs after spending so much time cooped up at a desk, you danced so that your body could show the elation you felt inside, your every step crackled with energy as you careened towards the date of your departure to South America. Once you left the city and arrived back in Orange County as your last stop before take-off, you were given (and you took advantage of) the opportunity to get closer to your family and make sure that all of your connections were rock-solid before you left. You allowed things to happen that you would have once tried to control and suppress. Once you finally boarded that plane, you had no regrets, no fear — only hope.

Your travels were everything that you hoped they would be, and everything you never dreamed of. You found your strength and you found love — for places, for undreamt vistas, for friendly faces whose tongues spoke languages not your own. You once again called on your ability to make decisions on the fly, to find the courage to change your plans and your mind, to allow for other people’s faults in the hopes that they allow for yours.

It was not all roses, though. You need to be a little more careful with yourself and you have a scar now to remind yourself of that. It’s a lucky thing you like scars almost as much as tattoos because it’s one for the books. You know what you want now, but what you need to do is allow yourself to find it. You know what you want, so stop settling for anything less. Making the same mistake again and again will never yield the answer you’re looking for. Know that your “no”, in any situation at any point and with any person, is enough and justification is unnecessary. You don’t always need to be nice although it’s admirable that it’s your first instinct. But make it a critical instinct, not a blind one. Save the best of you for those who deserve it.

Finally, the things you want to continue to achieve. Be authentic: with your words, your gestures. Write more (start that book!). Read more, always. Reading is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to expand your mind, to challenge your thoughts, your beliefs, to see through the lens of another’s experiences. Continue to cultivate curiosity and follow it. Continue to break down your walls. Sharing more of yourself doesn’t make you weak, it makes you brave. One of your greatest achievements is your confidence in yourself, in your body and your beliefs. Ten years ago, you would have never believed that you would be a woman who liked, let alone loved, herself as she was, but here you are and it’s a beautiful thing. Continue to ignore the culture that tells you that you’re too solid, too “there”. Continue to make yourself seen and heard and felt. Keep your eyes and your heart and your mind as open as possible. There is nothing you can’t do if you have the discipline, the faith in yourself, and the confidence to work for it.

This coming year, you will once again be achieving a dream, the dream of teaching in a foreign country. Not many people can say that they are actively following their dreams. Be proud.

You are strong, beautiful, fearless. Let no one take that from you. Let no one treat you as less.

I love you.

La Güera Encounters an Old Frienemy


The other night, I was sitting on my mom’s couch, flipping between Space Jam and Pirates of the Caribbean and trying to quash a surprisingly insistent desire to be in the company of someone else. It wouldn’t have mattered really who it was, although the closer it was appropriate for me to press my body to theirs the better, but I was overwhelmed with this need for there to be another other with me. I cajoled and wooed a few people but to no avail and so I sat there and tried to figure out what the hell was going on. After so long on my own, why did I feel as though solitude was suddenly a liquid weight that was making me sluggish and, in a way, scared? After a while it dawned on me: I was feeling alone because for the first time in five months I was alone; really, truly alone.

On my trip I had been a single person huddled in the window seat of buses, an individual trying to devour new cities and their personalities through something akin to osmosis, one girl among many in dormitories that peppered the entire northern seaboard of the South American continent, but in truth I was absolutely never alone. And in that moment, with my mom gone to her boyfriend’s and my friends and the man from whom I want what I can not have unavailable, I was alone. Suddenly I was missing the presence of a front desk staff or that of familiar strangers lounging on couches or in hammocks in my periphery. I hadn’t realized that I had been in a constant state of being in the presence of others, but the sudden absence of it completely upset my equilibrium and made me want to hug myself tightly enough to leave marks on my own skin. I had come home to an old nemesis, a cousin to the kind I had felt while traveling: loneliness.

Solitude has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. Anyone to whom reading is a beloved pastime is familiar and friendly with it. But the comfortable solitude that necessarily accompanies reading aside, I have often sought solitude as a way to allow myself to feel things without the filter of other people’s perceptions, to bask in the universality of finding oneself alone in one’s own body, less than a mere speck in the grand scheme of the universe. I could not be without it, but solitude’s more insidious and subtle twin, loneliness, has always been more problematic for me.

While traveling alone, you often feel unprotected and vulnerable as a result of your singleness, more so I think if you happen to be a woman. Solitude and loneliness are the price you pay for the unforgettable experiences and seemingly insuperable vexations, the travel delays and accidental epiphanies. But somehow, for me at least, the loneliness I encountered on the road was manageable, vanquished by taking a walk in my new surroundings or curling up in a hammock and losing myself in a book. I think the fact that I was virtually constantly on the move, changing locations almost as often as underwear, was a salve for whatever pesky loneliness wormed its way into my heart. There wasn’t a lack of arms into which I could have fallen either (that age-old cure), whether they belonged to men who were looking for a temporary fix, competitive in their need, or to those whose goals were more long-term, which manifested in a possessive, often jealous desire. And I did fall once or twice, but I always kicked the sheets off the next day with a revivifying understanding that what I was looking for was not a cure for loneliness, but something much deeper. I neither wanted nor needed to find someone to “permanently” assuage my loneliness as it could only serve to complicate.

But every so often I would feel pangs of misplaced yearning, a sense of loss for something that I had never had any claim to. For instance there was a boy in Peru, to whom I refer as my Prince Charming, who took me in hand and kept me there when I had to get stitches in my leg. Before the “incident” we had learned bits and pieces about each other, including the fact that we were going in opposite directions. That’s something you become accustomed to when meeting people along the way, in hostels and on tours: there is a sweet temporariness to any relationship, an innate understanding of both the beginning and the end (though some things surprise you). You know before you’ve spoken a word that your roads will lead you different places, and this meeting is only one tiny topographical point on the map. But somehow, this boy I hardly knew held me together and instead of crying I spent the night laughing. Later on, wearing his shirt and breathing in the smell of him, I felt a sweet nostalgia for an imagined future. But it was only a passing thing, as opposed to a more clinging kind of regret.

While traveling it is easy for me to remember and find comfort in the fact that I am, at this point in my life, too wild and erratic and impulsive for someone to hold me still long enough to pin their hopes on me. It is at home, however, where that confidence falters a bit, the devil-may-care attitude fails to carry me through, and I begin to regret in a small but powerful way that I am not a person to whom longer-term relationships come easily, simply because of that pesky fact that you kind of need to be physically near a person for it to work.

Now I’ve been home for two weeks and in that time I have watched, to my chagrin, the shape of my itinerant loneliness change into something more sedentary, and therefore heavier. There is something about being back in familiar surroundings, where most things seem to have changed very little that tends to make my singlehood rankle, where suddenly something in my subconscious rears its ugly head and seems to say “Single? Still?” It is obvious to me now that my priorities are travel and experience and wonder as opposed to romance and the kind of comfort one feels waking up in the half-light of morning to the sound of someone else’s breathing and the warmth of someone else’s skin. Unfortunately, the fact that I have mentally decided this has little to no effect on my heart and body’s desire for the latter. This is evidence to me that there is truth in that hackneyed and often annoying refrain: “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.” In the end (and also in the beginning), it all comes down to choices and at least I can take comfort in the fact that I have made mine.

This loneliness, this feeling of need, is a price I am willing to pay for the marvels I have seen and for the limitless experiences that await only my courage.

The Self as the Horizontal Line that Connects Worlds


Coming home is always strange, and the strangeness of arrival multiplies exponentially the longer you are away. There is no action without a reaction, and so every single thing that happens to you while traveling changes you, usually in such a small way so as not to be noticeable as it happens, but at the moment your feet touch whatever ground constitutes that amorphous and abstract place called “home”, one simple truth hits you with the force of something that has been building speed for eons: you have changed irrevocably while your home has not.

I think you subconsciously believe that the world changes and develops with you–it does, but in such ways that we cannot see them in our solipsism–and so evidence to the contrary kind of sets us back for a moment. In my case, I feel profoundly altered after my five months abroad, so coming back home to find everything where I had left it was–is–jarring. And yet within hours of stepping off the plane in Los Angeles, it also felt as though I had fallen back into the folds of normalcy. It was as though without knowing it I had split into two people. The one (la Güera?) had, only days ago, popped a couple of Valium and threaded every available limb through her luggage in order to survive a 19-hour bus ride from Máncora to Lima on a bus designed for people with a leg span half hers, had licked the juice of beef hearts from her fingers as she ran for a taxi, had split her knee open as a consequence of mixing salsa dancing and blood bombs (as sinister as they sound). The other me (E. Kaelyn Davis?) had continued her life here without interruption, driving the 405 to the 5 freeway and back again (between her parents’ houses), calling in pick-up orders for banh mi and ramen and pad see ew, playing Scrabble and Mexican Train with her family, drinking IPAs and flirting shamelessly in seedy but somehow endearing dive bars.

It’s such an odd feeling, because if there really is only one me, how do I reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable worlds of Orange County, California, organized so cleanly into its city blocks, with its traffic laws so reverently obeyed (relatively speaking), and the wonderful, wild, and often chaotic world that I’ve inhabited the last half a year in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru? How can two such tangible and living realities, realities in which I have a place and a purpose, exist in one dimension of time and space?

I am no Stephen Hawking. I don’t understand the complexities of dimensional realities. I couldn’t even tell you now what the formula for the theory of relativity is. The only thing that I know is that there is only one similarity between these two places: me. Of course they exist without my being in them. Millions of people’s lives continue without my ever even suspecting that they exist. But it seems that we can only truly grasp reality if we are part of it. They say that the human brain is absolutely incapable of imagining its own nonexistence. We can not imagine not being. This is the essence of solipsism: the idea that the self is the only thing that can be known, truly understood, to exist.

This idea of there being two of me, one that contains me and the other as a sort of space holder, is comforting. Perhaps when I return to Cuenca in two months, I will feel as though I have slipped back into the Kaelyn that never left her subequatorial paradise. Obviously this is all a physical impossibility, but the people whose lives we are part of carry us around with them so we are never truly absent. Thus it is only a slight stretch of the imagination to visualize a kind of shade of ourselves inhabiting places we have walked, lived, laughed, waiting for our real selves, our consciousnesses, to come back and make them whole again.

Maybe this is what we mean when we say we’ve left part of ourselves somewhere. Maybe it’s more than just a figure of speech.

Just maybe.

The Jouissance of Worldly Love

The mountains surrounding Quito, Ecuador

The mountains surrounding Quito, Ecuador.

I have accomplished many things in my life, though it is no more nor less than many people I know. I have done many things that I have been told I was “supposed” to do: graduated from college, found “real” jobs, moved out of my parents’ houses. I have also done many things just for me, the most important of which is the impetus and theme for this blog: traveling through South America. But in spite of all the many things I’ve done, I have come to realize that I have never been in love.


Taking a dip in the Cuyabeno River, Ecuador.

Don’t misunderstand me; I have loved and do love many people. I have loved members of my family with the possessive, wonderful, though sometimes internecine kind of love that is so unique to those few whose love you were born into, if you are lucky. I have loved friends who have shared both good and bad times with me, who helped me home when I had made the bad combinatory decision of wearing high heels and drinking whiskey, who were game to spontaneously go out of town when I felt that I would burst from one more day of being in the same place, who held my hand when it was all I could do to hold myself together. I have loved men romantically, too. There is a difference there that is seldom talked about. You can love people without ever “falling in love” with them in that Meg Ryan rom-com kind of way. There’s the love that exists because you care about someone and they care about you, because they see your best and worst parts and love you anyways. There’s a kind of love that springs from the fact that they are the only person who can talk to you for hours on end about things you’re obsessed with (writing, nerdy fandoms, books, Buffy the Vampire Slayer [you people know who you are]). More often, for me at least, there’s the love that means you can not even look at a person without wanting to throw them against something and touch every inch of their body with every inch of yours. I know all these kinds of loves. But actually falling in love with someone? I haven’t done that. Why? Because it scares the ever-loving shit out of me. As Diane Ackerman said,

We think of it as a sort of traffic accident of the heart. It is an emotion that scares us more than cruelty, more than violence, more than hatred. We allow ourselves to be foiled by the vagueness of the word. After all, love requires the utmost vulnerability. We equip someone with freshly sharpened knives; strip naked; then invite him to stand close. What could be scarier?

I am not the most humble of people but, ironically, I think one of my greatest strengths is my ability to acknowledge and admit to weakness, and making myself vulnerable is probably my biggest weakness. So it is true that I have never fallen in love with a person, but to say I have never been in love is a gross exaggeration, for I have been and continue to be irrevocably in love with something much less transient and even more physical than that latter love I mentioned above: places on a map.


Rose and I in front of Sacré Coeur in Montmartre, Paris, in 2007.

The first time happened more quickly than I could have imagined. When I was 18, my mom traded houses in the south of France and in the process of taking two friends to the airport and picking one up, I spent a little less than a day in Paris. I spent that day eating macarons and drinking café au laits in restaurants some of my most idolized writers frequented. I climbed the towers of Notre Dame and, like a gargoyle, hung over the edge to look as far as I could see in every direction as I considered the mastery of the cathedral itself, which I was then reading about in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I wandered, and was momentarily stalked, through Père Lachaise cemetery, and I left the trace of my lips, on top of those of so many others, on Oscar Wilde’s grave. Everyone does these things, it seems, when they go to Paris. But for me, I left something there which I have never gotten back. Whether it got caught in the cobblestones of the streets, in the scent of roasting meat, in the lilt and arabesques of the language, some part of me became a part of Paris. I went back a summer later for a month and the feeling only became stronger, the hunger for the city and all it held only more voracious. Years and years have passed since I’ve been back, but when I think of that city my hearts seems to pull in that direction, like a compass towards the Pole. At those moments I feel a longing which so many poems and stories describe as the way one feels for a beloved that is out of the reach of one’s arms. Paris holds for me the memories of minds I admire, of written words that have helped form me, of stories that sparked in me my own desire to write. My love for Paris is one of the mind.


Teotihuacán, the “Place Where Men Become Gods”.

The next time I fell in love was even stranger than the first. Strange because although I barely knew Mexico (I grew up practically within sight of it), I had a deep-rooted craving to know more. Like an attractive person glimpsed in a crowd, I thought of Mexico and was caught up in what it would feel like to be there, to feel that language on my tongue, to run into its vastness and feel engulfed. In college, I went abroad for a year to Querétaro, the city that was Mexico’s capital in colonial times. Technically I went there to study, but I can think of little that I gained academically from my time there. In truth, I went there to continue my lips’ love affair with the language, my belly’s obsession with the food, my eyes’ infatuation with the bright colors of the culture and architecture, and my heart’s sight unseen yearning for all of Mexico’s accoutrements, both the bright and exciting as well as the dark and dirty undersides.

On the river in Xochimilco

On the river in Xochimilco.

Sometimes in life we meet people and we feel as if we had always known them, that somehow this is not a chance encounter but a predetermined reunion. That is how I felt with Mexico. I was meant to be there. It was far from perfect and I missed some luxuries that I had taken for granted back at home but at some primitive, savage level, Mexico and I were meant for one another. In the four years between coming home from Mexico and leaving for Colombia, I would sometimes be walking down the street in San Francisco and my ears would perk up and hone in on any utterance of that language that has become an amalgam of European Spanish, indigenous Mexican languages, and even smatterings of English, and again my heart would beat a little faster. Like hearing the voice of a love that has been lost, the Spanish language calls forth yearnings that feel strong enough to break me in half. Even here in South America, when I hear the Mexican dialect I feel a completely unexpected pang in my heart, a mixture of nostalgia and sadness and irrefutably and undeniably, a sense of being called back to something that I had fallen in love with long before I was conscious of it. I think of Mexico as my spirit country. My love for Mexico is one of the soul.

Fishermen bringing in the day's catch in Puerto Lopez, Ecuador.

Fishermen bringing in the day’s catch in Puerto Lopez, Ecuador.

Now here I am in Lima, Peru on my last day in South America. I fly home tonight at midnight. I won’t go into my feelings for Ecuador again (check out this entry for more), and perhaps I am not worried about feeling lovesick for Cuenca because for once I know I will be back soon, but in all this I have discovered something truly important. There is somewhere else I am in love with, and not just for the people in it. This time it is not love at first sight (Paris) or a fierce kind of love that was waiting for me to find it (Mexico). This time it is the kind of love that can suddenly blossom out of nowhere. The kind of latent love that you may have for a best friend, whom you’ve known for years, until suddenly one day you realize you want to do more than hold their hand in friendship.

Sunset in the Sunset District, San Francisco

Sunset in the Sunset District, San Francisco

With no warning at all, the love I feel for this place has gone from platonic to… something else. The last few mornings I have woken up (in Cuenca, in Máncora, in Lima) and all I have wanted was to be waking up in my bed (or any bed as I don’t currently have one) at home in California. California with its gorgeous coastline, with its metastasized suburbs, with its mountains like broken teeth and its lakes like bottomless pools of pellucid tears, its cities as different as anything could be, its hyperinflated housing and its beautiful, invaluable diversity. It is with my home that I have finally fallen in love. I know that I will continue to leave it, again and again, but I will never again forget my devotion to it.

Morro Bay, California

Morro Bay, California

It is easy to fall in love with places. They ask nothing of you except an open mind. By loving them, you do not also give them the power to destroy you. By loving them, you are only finding pieces of your own heart that you never knew were missing. And though one day I hope to find the courage to fall in love with a person, for now my love for places, for Paris and Mexico, for Ecuador and California, is enough.

My love for California is one of the heart.

California, la güerita is coming home.

Libresca (adj.): Bookish

No photos of me reading in South America, so here's one of me reading "The Poisonwood Bible" while waiting for our flight to Kenya from Tanzania.

No photos of me reading in South America, so here’s one of me reading “The Poisonwood Bible” while waiting for our flight to Kenya from Tanzania.

As a little girl, it often happened that my parents would suddenly realize I wasn’t behind them and look anxiously around, only to watch bemusedly as I crossed a busy street with my face partially covered with a book. I hid my own books (which varied from Goosebumps to Roald Dahl to books of poetry) in textbooks or open under my desk at school, so that formal education wouldn’t interfere with my own literary one. As a teenager, one of the biggest beefs I had with my stepmother was our inability to see eye to eye on whether or not it was acceptable to read throughout dinner, regardless of whether we were at home or at a restaurant. As a freshman moving into my first dorm, I brought with me more books than clothes. As an adult, my friends consider me a lending library without late fees. From the day I wrenched Go, Dogs, Go! out of my father’s hands to read it myself till now, books have been one of my main connections to the world outside my little insulated piece of it. A look inside my head would reveal that I carry with me the characters of books I’m reading, the words of authors I’ve loved, the stories that have had some kind of impact on me. The words of others have always had the power to anchor me to the present, entice me back into the murkiness of my own memories, or vault me into a barely imagined future.

There are many, many things I love about reading but one of the most interesting is how someone else’s story, whether real or imagined, can help you understand your own personal experiences in rich and unexpected ways. Before I ever set foot on a plane or in a foreign country, books were my passage to worlds I had never imagined, lives I could not have related to beforehand, ways of thinking that pushed up against mine like an opposing magnet. Now that I’ve actually been to different parts of the world, certain books have allowed me to delve deeper into whatever country or culture I found myself observing and, hopefully, participating in. The first time I truly felt this was when I read Ngugi wa’ Thiongo’s novel Petals of Blood* whilst on safari in Kenya, which is where the book is set. On the same trip, I also read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, and I felt my heart break as it opened itself up to a new and painful understanding of the White Man’s parasitic influence and history in Africa. Since I’ve been in South America, I’ve made a point of trying to read books that I felt would add some depth to my travels and I can’t believe the poignancy and absolute fucking perfection of some of the books I’ve read paired with the moments, places, and frames of mind in which I’ve read them.

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I think it is a good idea to know a little history about the country you’ll be visiting, to be an informed tourist. It gives you context, a frame of reference. It helps you understand the whys and hows and WTFs that so often accompany traveling to new places. For this reason I decided to read Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire trilogy, a history of the Americas that arcs from the creation myths of the ancient civilizations to the conquest (in Genesis) to independence (in Faces and Masks) to nationalization and the civil wars and military dictatorships of the 20th century (in Century of the Wind). It is written in a way that appeals to the fiction reader who does not usually pick history books off the shelf. Instead of the dry and lengthy texts one usually expects, Galeano tells this particular history in the form of short “stories” or anecdotes, usually no more than a page or two long. Each one concerns an event, idea, or person that makes up the patchwork of Latin American history.

His words and images came to me often: while visiting the Museo de Oro* in Bogotá, for example, or while picking my way through volcanic rocks to La Lobería on San Cristóbal, or most devastatingly in the Guayasamín* museum in Quito. It made each place I visited seem like more than just a static place in time, one place in one moment in which I (one person) was visiting. Suddenly it was like I was standing in one place, the present, while being given the gift of simultaneously looking behind me into the past. These were histories I had never heard of. Genocides and triumphs, violations and acts of heroism that were suppressed in the institutionalized practice of omission and hypocrisy that is grade school American History. Sometimes I would get so angry reading these accounts that I would have to close the book, feeling ashamed of the lengths to which my country has gone in order to secure its own success at the expense of others (mainly South and Central America). But that is exactly why I read. I want to know things that pain me so that I can better understand and empathize with the reality of the people I meet and the places I travel to. In this case, ignorance is not bliss, but blatant irresponsibility.


While reading this trilogy (which is wonderful and I recommend it, though it is not exactly a page-turner), I began to read other books that had been sitting on my reading lists for who knows how long. Possibly the most important of the whole trip was Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. This is Strayed’s account of her own solo three-month hike on the Pacific Coast Trail, which stretches across the coastal United States, from Northern Mexico to Canada. I picked it up because I had read some essays of Cheryl’s, but I was not in any way prepared for how much it would resonate with me. Despite the fact that the impetus for her journey was to find some escape and relief from the traumas of death, divorce, and addiction while mine was only to escape ennui and days spent in a job I despised, it was the fact that we were both women traveling alone, searching for something we could not define, that spoke to me.

Sometimes I would be reading and it would be as if her words had torn themselves away from their embryonic siamese twin in my head. At other times her words of strength and resilience and power would come back to me in moments of anxiety, like some enchanted mantra designed to keep me from submitting to weakness.

Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me.

These words, Strayed’s words, forced themselves through a fog of worry as I sat at the back of a twenty-five cent colectivo full of rough-looking men which was supposedly heading to the Peruvian/Ecuadorean border. While having a minor panic attack 80 feet below the waves off the coast of the Galápagos island of San Cristóbal*, these words wrapped around me like a warm current (or like peeing in your wetsuit): “I only felt that in spite of all the things I’d done wrong, in getting myself here, I’d done right”, and my panic faded. When she spoke of how laughably ill-prepared she was for her trek, I could think only of my own lack of preparation when I started out on my hike through the Colombian jungle north of Santa Marta, in search of the Ciudad Perdida, with all the right gear and none of the necessary experience. Perhaps most importantly of all, it was in this book that I first read the poem* excerpt that I later tattooed on my shoulder in Cuenca:

When I had no roof, I made audacity my roof.

I have learned what Cheryl learned: while traveling alone, you find that you yourself are capable of so much more than you had ever imagined.


Into the Wild was a book I had been meaning to read for a very long time. I had seen the movie so I knew the gist of it: man v. wild; wild wins. But it was the main character, Christopher McCandless’, desire for freedom and the unknown that called me to read it while on my own travels. Although I admire much of what McCandless accomplished, I took this book as more of a warning than anything else. His story, though it also includes moments of the kind of transcendence and self-fulfillment that so many travel books do, is ultimately a reflection of the darker side of travel. So much of traveling is absolute wonder, but there are infinite opportunities for things to go wrong, sometimes fatally so.

Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.

This book reminded me that though I may feel free, I am not invulnerable to accident, to malice. I have a responsibility to do everything within my power to deny the “siren song of the void” and come back to the people who are waiting for me.


Another old picture. Bringin’ booknerd sexy back.

Reading allows you to live the lives of other people who have had similar experiences to yours, to learn from their mistakes and successes. For me, reading these and other books during this time has augmented my travels in a way I don’t believe anything else could have. There have been moments while reading, on a bus from here to there, on a bench on the malecón in San Cristóbal, while lying in a hammock with a Pilsener within reach, where I have laughed out loud to read something that so closely mirrored, explained, or otherwise encapsulated my own experiences. I don’t expect everyone to understand this post, to be able to relate. There are people to whom reading is akin to breathing or eating, there would be no life without it. It is to those people that I am writing this blog, although I hope everyone else will take something from it as well. But there is one thing that I think anyone can understand: reading the stories of others who have led or are leading similar lives to yours… it helps you feel less alone when the sheer size and force of the world seems just a little too overwhelming.

*Click these links to see the blog entries where they are discussed more in depth.

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.

Hasta La Próxima, Ecu

La Lobería, San Cristóbal, Galápagos

La Lobería, San Cristóbal, Galápagos

Parque Nacional de Cotopaxi, about an hour outside of Quito

Parque Nacional de Cotopaxi, about an hour outside of Quito

Ingapirca: Incan ruins outside Cuenca

Ingapirca: Incan ruins outside Cuenca

Parque Nacional El Cajas

Parque Nacional El Cajas

Waterfalls in Baños.

Waterfalls in Baños.

Isinlivi, the tiny town I ended up in when I fucked up doing the Quilotoa Loop.

Isinlivi, the tiny town I ended up in when I fucked up doing the Quilotoa Loop.


Whale watching in Puerto Lopez

Robbie in El Cajas

Robbie in El Cajas

Volcán Tungurahua

Volcán Tungurahua

On the Cuyabeno river in the Amazon

On the Cuyabeno river in the Amazon

I had another big theme planned for this week, but I think I’ll ruminate on that one for a while longer and keep this simple. I’m finally leaving Ecuador. While originally planning my trip, this country was little more than the space between Colombia and Peru in my mind, and yet I’ve stayed here for three months, making it the country in which I’ve stayed the longest, regardless of the fact that it’s also the smallest. The only reason I’m leaving is because my tourist visa expires on Sunday. That, and my flight home leaves out of Lima.

I have loved every moment of my time here: the fuckups, the moments of anxiety, of awe, of absolute heartrending perfection, from sitting alone on the end of a rock jetty in the Galápagos to sitting in a beach bar playing Scrabble with expatriates to biking down a volcano. But everywhere I’ve been I have also been glad to leave, if only in delicious anticipation of the next unknown. Everywhere, that is, except for Cuenca.

I knew it as soon as I got here, which is why I extended my stay from a few days to a few weeks. Something about Cuenca struck some corresponding thing in me and it has continued to vibrate for the entire almost-month I’ve been here. I’ve only had this feeling once before, and that was Paris, a city which still inspires me, of which I still dream. There are many possible reasons for this: it reminds me of Querétaro (where I lived in Mexico), I have already found a niche in which I could be happy, and I have had more concentrated fun here than anywhere else…

All I know is that this will be the only place I’ve been in the last four months which will hold onto a piece of me when I leave it, a kind of nostalgic calling card to remind me of what I’ve left behind and what I could one day come back to if I choose. This will be the only city I move on from where I will feel as if I was saying goodbye to a long-lost friend whom time and circumstance were coercing me to abandon too soon.

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.