Be warned: this entry is less of a travel journal and more of my own thoughts on maturity, insecurity, judgments and giving up control. It is still certainly related to how and what we’re doing at this part of our lives, but it’s less travel related than most of the other entries. Continue reading at your own risk.
Our first attempt to enter Ecuador was short-lived. Our normal plan is to cross borders very early in the morning, but this time we decided to try around 2pm as we that’s when we got there. As we drove up to the border, we both looked at the crowd, looked at each other and then I turned Wilbur around without another word. It was chaos; the second most (next to Mexico entry into the US) crowded and hectic border we had seen so far. We ended up spending the night in a cheap hotel a few kilometers away and crossed at 6am the next morning. It still wasn’t easy, but much less crowded.
This is one of those time we were actually witnessing a « disaster » , this one being a human one : the Venezuelan migrants trying to get away from Maduro government. That for sure takes us out of our little american road trip comfort, and send you right back to the reality of our world. It’s powerful to witness events that are going to be in history books one day. To put us back in the context of our generation.
In the past few months, the death of Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, the 19th of Sept 2017 Mexico Earth quake, Election of Trump while in the US, etc etc..
The choice to avoid frustration (not try and rush ahead when it’s busy) and delay satisfaction (by spending another night in Colombia) is one of the ways I personally judge myself to determine if I am acting like an adult or not. While I was doing research on the topic, it turns out I’m far from the first to think this way. To paraphrase, one thing which sets adults apart from “non-adults” is more focus on meaningfulness (thinking about the future and relating it with the past) compared to happiness (satisfaction in the now).
I love the word happiness. It’s a fun light word. I love feeling happy. I do it the most I can !! I think I stayed stuck in the non adult part of life. I am living the now. I least I hope I am. I really realized that when I met Matt, the only person I know that had (and still has) a 5 years plan – a 10 years plan and a 20 years plan. On my side, I left Paris on the a Tuesday after selling my car to move to Singapore for a half day job on the following Saturday. Not very meaningful. But I was happy.
I don't think my life has some kind of sense, or meaning, or ever will. I just hope some of my actions towards my family and friends, and people I care about, have a meaning, to me and to them.
I’m not sure I agree fully with the logic, but in general it makes quite a bit of sense to me. I spend a lot of all this free time I have now in thinking about myself, my actions, my priorities and what I’m doing with myself. This time is a great privilege, and one I am constantly aware of as we travel. That morning we crossed into Ecuador? We spent a couple hours of our time waiting in lines, but there were hundreds of Venezuelans who had been waiting for two, three and even four days to try and cross the border. I am really am so incredibly lucky to be able to spend my time the way we’re doing now.
The beginning of Ecuador was a wonderful surprise. The same day we crossed into the country we needed to get to Quito, since Julia (a friend from Paris) was arriving the next morning and we needed to be at the airport at 5:30am to pick her up. Thankfully the roads (and fuel prices; oh wonderfully cheap gasoline, how delightful) are fantastic in Ecuador, allowing a comfortable speeds of nearly 100kmph! Even around highway turns! Can you believe it?! I turned on cruise control for the second time since Nicaragua.
The drive to Quito was also a very scenic one, and I was able to enjoy it more than normal since I didn’t have to pay as much attention to the road and the potholes which were wonderfully absent. Another bonus was a quick stop in Ibarra to have breakfast with Max and Marta. It’s become a regular occurrence to meet up with them every month or so, and these (especially face to face) friendships are a very important part of a satisfying life for me.
We met Max and Marta in Belize in November 2017. We shared a dormitory in a guest house during the week end of the Garafuna Ceremony. Instant love at first sight. Travelers, artists, lover, passionate people, (european !!!) and beer amateurs ! Since then we joined them again for a few weeks in Paradiso on the lake in Nicaragua, and they made the renewal of our wow a very special moment. And again in Panama City, we rented an airbnb together for a full week of food and drinks. Then we flew to Cartagena, Colombia together while Wilbur was on the boat. So this reunion in Ecuador was again something we were very looking for. The saying « Friends are family that you choose » takes all its sense with them.
Part of being an adult is being responsible for my own satisfaction, happiness, meaning and all those related and important things. I am also the one who needs to determine what those are to me and how to prioritize them. There is a rather famous book by Viktor Frankl who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning where he stated, “It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.” The summary of the book and further studies on the topic expand on the concept of adulthood that is very similar to what I’ve built for myself.
We spent a few days exploring Quito (and acclimatizing) with Julia before driving Wilbur (with three people inside! A first since his makeover in Walla Walla) south towards the city of Latacunga. Here we met up with Max and Marta again, and the five of us hopped on a couple hour bus trip to Isinlivi. This was the start of the Quilotoa Loop, where we would spend four days trekking through the central Andes of Ecuador. It was an awesome trip. We had never done any trekking with Max, Marta or Julia before, so it was fun to have time to talk with all of them as we meandered our way throughout the mountains.
And for me it was so much fun to have Julia entering our « travel world », so excited that she could see, feel, experience the way we have been living for the past year and a half. And that she could meet with our friends from the road meant a lot. Like 2 sides of my universe meeting in front of me !
I love the wilderness and being outdoors. This trek wasn’t exactly that since we slept in a hostel every night, but the scenery was amazing. The 2nd night the hostel even had a sauna and Turkish bath to enjoy! Certainly not roughing it. The social aspect is great though. It’s part of what I mentioned above, where a big part of meaning comes from the responsibility one feels to other humans. It adds a lot of meaning to life when you know you make a positive impact on the life of other people.
It is also interesting to learn more about other people, especially ones whom you also know. At the last day of the trek, immediately after we reached the edge of the Quilotoa crater and spent some time enjoying the incredible views, we were presented with a choice of three paths to the small village where we’d spend the night. It was already late afternoon and we only had a couple of hours to reach it before dark. No problem we thought, it was only a 1:30-2 hour walk.
Let me tell you about this application called maps.me. It's quite popular with travelers and a free download. It shows three routes to the city. We chose the bottom one because, why not? It turned out to be a literal track for animals. But it was too late to turn around or we would be walking on the other, unknown (at the time) routes in the dark. So we continued. There were no signs for any of the routes, so we thought this little app would recommend ones that are, you know, established trails. Thanks maps.me.
While I do like to tell enjoy telling stories and may possibly, once in a rare while, occasionally exaggerate, none of what I say about this two-hour part of our trek is that. The first 30-45 minutes was beautiful with amazing views over the lake. The late afternoon sunlight was perfect for pictures. We were so happy we had finally reached the volcano. Then the path turned very scary. As in hundreds of meters straight down on our left, with loose rock path. In some places we had to literally hold on to the rock while we tip-toed along a rock face. I was terrified. Not especially for myself, but for Clo and our friends who were with us. They’re people towards whom I feel responsibility and I want them to be safe and not get hurt.
Interesting experience indeed. I have to say, I was more annoyed than scared. Since our bus accident in Malaysia in 2014, I have had trouble taking the bus. I am scared as shit. Even city bus I don't like. Even in cars I don't feel safe. I have trouble trusting other « transporting me ». When I am on my 2 legs, I am in total control. I know what I am doing. Only myself can make me fall down the ravine. And I don't want to fall into the ravine. So I won't. In my mind it’s pretty simple. And that same day, in the morning, we took a 2 hours bus ride through the crazy roads of Ecuador in the middle of the mountain. And I made it. Without a cry. You seriously think that later that day I was going to be scared of walking on my 2 feet, as tiny as the trail could be ?
I think being scared for other people without the ability to do anything about it is one of the most difficult parts of being an adult. And I am saying this without having children, which I’m sure is an entirely different level of worry and concern. It’s tough knowing that things, activities and people whom you care for deeply are completely outside of your control. Luckily in this case we did have control over what we decided to do; not to turn around and continue onward. At some point we had two local children who had seen us take this path, come down to try and help guide us to the main route, but it was still very scary. One of us was afraid of heights, one who just hadn’t done much trekking; but we all stayed together, encouraged each other, helped each other and finally made it to the main path.
We enjoyed a few beers that night and slept like exhausted babies. We spent a couple of days in Quilotoa. Relaxing, enjoying hot (ish) showers, no hiking, some mediocre wifi, chatting, taking it easy. Then we took a bus back to Wilbur in Latacunga where Max and Marta went on their own path, and Julia, Clo and I continued to the city of Guamote. There’s a huge market there every Wednesday, which was very fun to explore. We continued onward to spend a few nights in the cute little tourist/resort city of Banos. After that we drove back to Quito for a day of relaxing, packing up clothes, exploring the city and then saying goodbye to Julia as she flew back to France the next morning.
I think Julia had a great time. I think she was curious about of way of doing this trip, and she wanted to challenge herself in different ways and being in the wild and this extremely different culture was the perfect thing.
I was very very very happy to have a visitor, and mostly that she was that visitor !!!!
Clo and I continued through the south of Ecuador over the next few days, not rushing but taking our time. I was very excited about the exit from Ecuador and entry in Peru, as we had chosen the most remote and hard to access border crossing. It didn’t disappoint. After about 8 hours of driving on a dirt cliff-side track, following the river gorge leading out of the Andes, we arrived in a tiny collection of houses and the customs office. There was only one customs officer, no line and he seemed happy to have something to do. After we did our immigration and Wilbur’s paperwork, he walked to the metal bar across the road and unlocked the padlock so we could drive through. Obviously not a high traffic crossing.
On the Peru side of the river it wasn’t much different. There were two immigration officers this time, and just as we left there was another family who showed up! They were Peruvians crossing into Ecuador and I think they were as surprised as we were to see anyone else at the border. We smiled, traded a few comments and hopped in Wilbur to continue our journey.
The first few days in Peru were magical. We continued in the valley as it became more and more jungle-like, which makes sense as we were in the outskirts of the Amazonas region. The roads were much, much better than we expected (they became paved almost immediately after crossing into the country) and the scenery was shockingly gorgeous. Our first destination was the ancient fortress city of Kuelap, which was built by the Chachapoyas culture in the 6th century. Last year they built the first tourist gondola in Peru, which allowed us to avoid a 90 minute drive on the side of a cliff and instead take a 20 minute very scenic ride. They are trying to get this place listed as a UNESCO site next year, and it seems rather obvious to me they will get it.
The small city around the gondola was a great place to relax. We spent two nights there between our day long term of the ruins, and while I love the driving and scenery, it’s equally enjoyable to stop, rest my butt and enjoy the peace and quiet. It’s especially true here because so far in South America most of the cities we’ve stopped at our relatively large, noisy ones; Tingo was a tiny and quiet city. Minus the dogs and roosters, but I’ve sort of gotten used to those by now.
The plan for the next week involved a slow drive back across the Andes towards the coast, and then down towards Peru. I say slow because the drive by google maps standards was about 24 hours, which meant when we incorporated construction, road conditions and our conservative driving style, it was closer to 30-35 hours. Lots of time on the roads. Thankfully it seemed like every time we came around another corner we were in awe of the incredible scenery. It became a joke between Clo and I how many times we would say “wow”. Each time was sincere and accurate.
Pretty incredible scenery all along.
After a few days, while we were (SO THANKFULLY) on the way down the other side of the Andes, we started hearing a strange noise from the one of the wheels. Uh oh. We continue on for a few minutes, but it’s rather distinct and seems to be metal on metal. Even worse. Very luckily we were only a few minutes outside of a… well, calling it a town would be a lie, so better to say a collection of a few houses on the side of the road. We pulled over next to a small comida (restaurant) and asked if they knew of any mechanica nearby.
Turns out there was supposed to be one a few minutes away in the small collection of houses we had already passed. Great! We walked back there and asked around, since none of the businesses here have signs. Asking around the people who seemed to be outside, we found out where the mechanica worked (a workshop behind his house). Unfortunately he wasn’t there at the moment, because he was up the hill somewhere playing football (soccer). Armed with a few vague directions, up the hill we went. About 10 minutes later we came across the field and asked around for the guy. Found him! He didn’t seem especially happy to leave his game, but came with us anyway.
This kind of stories makes all the charm of our trip. Moments we will remember !
We walked all the way back to Wilbur and slowly drove back and forwards to demonstrate the sound. He said he thought he knew what it was, so we drove very slowly back to his workshop. He jacked up the truck, removed the rear (where the sound was coming from) wheels and soon found the problem; one of the very worn brake pads had cracked in half and fallen off. Yikes. He said he would take his motorcycle and ride to the nearest town (about 30-45 minutes away) to see if he could find replacement brake pads. We went to have dinner while we were waiting for him to return.
Clo and I are both adults. We’ve been on the road for quite a while now, and are pretty relaxed and comfortable in dealing with unexpected situations. Even with that, it’s impossible to avoid judgement of the young man who has a mechanic shop behind his house and wondering what he will do to solve our problem. But what can we do? Not much. A big part of being an adult for me is being able to give up control and just let things happen. No matter what I may think of the situation and the person helping us, we certainly don’t know shit about him besides what our first glance may tell us. Giving up this illusion of control is a big part of why I am able to remain relaxed and calm most of the time.
For sure this trip gave us a full lessons on patience and trust. Between each other and with the outside world.
So we ate our dinner. Like most other dinners in this part of the world, it involves chicken and rice. A very pleasant surprise in Peru, however, has been the constant inclusion of salsa picante (hot sauce) with every meal. Awesome! It’s usually a garlic and chili flavored version, which always makes the meal more tasty. And to be completely honest, I quite enjoy grilled chicken. I still haven’t gotten tired of it. In tiny little towns like this, the prices are also quite nice, and we rarely pay more than $4-$5 for both of us to eat a full meal.
Almost three hours later (thankfully for my time in Asia, I am quite comfortable with the concept of time estimates and schedules being very flexible) the mechanic showed back up. No fitting brake pads at the nearby city. By this time (around 8pm), we had collected a crowd of five local guys of varying ages who were very curious what was going on at the mechanics shop. Upon discovering the lack of fitting brake pads, a lively discussion ensued. About fifteen minutes later, a solution was decided upon; one of the guys had a pair of (mostly) un-used brake pads from a different truck. Why not cut them to the correct size for our truck and see what happens?!
Okay. What other options do we have? Maybe this isn’t exactly my idea of a mechanics shop, but there is no lack of enthusiasm and ideas. About an hour later, the new (ish) brake pads have been cut to the right size and they install them. We do a small test drive and it seems good! What did all of this effort and hours of work cost? $30. Awesome. Now let’s hope it lasts as we drive the next 250km and nearly 3000m of elevation to the next big city of Trujillo. Before that, though, we need to sleep, so we park along the side of the road a few meters away from the mechanic and try to ignore the downshifting tractor trailers passing in the night.
In Trujillo, as the mechanic there did not have replacement brake pads available in the city, we decide on another temporary solution of resurfacing the pads on our old brakes. They say it will be fine until we get to Lima, as long as we drive carefully and don’t use the brakes excessively. About that… we decide to go back into the Andes and head to the Huarez region, alongside the spectacular Cordillera Blancas. The route there is another unique drive, snaking our way up a river gorge on a mostly one-lane road with nearly fifty tunnels of varying size. During the two days we drove this, I honked the horn more than I ever have in all thirty-seven years of my life. Every few minutes I would honk, as we went around a blind corner or entered a tunnel. Even Clo, who frequently says I should honk more, got tired of it. Victory!
We spent a day exploring the city of Huarez, then drove for a couple of hours up to 4200 meters where we spent the night in the middle of nowhere, then the next day we spent all day trekking to the relatively unknown and gorgeous Laguna Rajucolta, where we watched a glacier slowly calve into the lake. It is exactly experiences like this which are the reasons why I wanted to have this lifestyle for a couple of years. We drove up the mountain past farms where people were still tilling the fields with oxen, and we slept where the stars were more brilliant than most streetlights. It was incredible.
It was about here when I really start feeling we were going way too fast through this part of the world. Intellectually I knew a long time ago we would be doing this in South America, since we decided it was either that or spend another year here. But it was in Peru where it really hit me. I think I could easily spend six months in Peru alone and barely scratch the surface of what there is to see and do. The scenery, the nature, the food (finally it’s spicy again!), the temperature, it’s all so perfect for me.
For sure we are going too fast around here, there is so much to see, so much to do. You see and feel Time differently when you travel long term. Of course taking 2 years to drive the Americas is a long ass road trip, but at the same time, we would need so much more to do, see, explore everything that we want. And being 2 very different human beings with different expectations and taste and needs... we would need even double that time to fulfill Matt's desires and mine!
We left the Andes and headed down to the coast, where we started driving towards Lima. Contrary (and very happily) to what we expected, it wasn’t hot (or even warm…) by the ocean. I had been dreading a repeat of Central America and the hot, humid nights. Nope! Quite cool and extremely windy, actually. We spent a few days driving to Lima and knowing happily we were barely using our brakes.
We were in Lima for about a week. Clo was there for a project of hers, and I was there mainly to relax and as it turns out, spend nearly half the week having work done on Wilbur and his shoes. It turns out he needed to have the rear brake drums replaced and a few other small things. Wilbur has expensive shoes. On the plus side, it was nice to get it done and it was a way to spend time in the city. I am not a huge fan of big cities and besides solving the truck issues I mostly hung out in cafes, watched people, watched movies and relaxed.
This is also why we stop in big cities since Colombia. I started a photography project about Women that make South American Cinema and it's pretty fascinating. I have the chance to meet with actress, producer, filmmakers, and so any more Women from the industry, it's quite challenging, and interesting. Here is the Instagram of the project if you want to follow!
After Lima we continued south to a very unique oasis surrounded by huge sand dunes. It was super touristy but super beautiful and impressive. Then back up into the Andes! We drove to the nearest route to Machu Picchu and then spent a full day of hiking (about 30km in total) to see the very impressive ruins. It was exhausting but beautiful.
After Machu Picchu, contrary to the normal route, we continued on to Cusco. We relaxed there for a few days, a very nice break. Then on to rainbow mountain (otherwise known as … Wikipedia it, buddy). Very tough hike. Then we continued along south in the altiplano towards Lake Titicaca. Such a gorgeous part of the world. Our average altitude for nearly two weeks was 3900m and above. Amazing! The nights are freezing, the sun is scorching during the daytime and the views are breathtaking.
I had wanted to drive to La Rinconada, which is the highest human settlement in the world at 5800 meters. Unfortunately on the morning we planned to drive the last few hours to the mining city (it’s a rather large 50,000 people all living and working in a hive of gold mines), we encountered some horrendous dirt washboard roads and started hearing some strange noise from our wheels. We ended up stopping at a small mechanic shop in a medium sized (at this stage in our trip, it means a few thousand people) town. He jacked up Wilbur, took off the offending wheel and found a small spring in the hand brake component had lost all it’s tension. It took about an hour and cost us $3.50 to have it fixed. Crazy! We were quite happy to have it solved, though.
We decided to head back to Titicaca and avoid the terrible roads up to the mine. We spent a couple of nights along the lake and then finally crossed into Bolivia at yet another tiny border crossing. Well, we technically left Peru and then drove nearly 20km to the first city in Bolivia where the immigration office was located. In both cases we were the only ones exiting or entering; so awesome!
There is so many side stories, so many pictures, .. as we get closer to the end I hope we can remember all the details, all the adventures, all the peoples, all the garages we stopped at! all the food we ate... We still have 6 months in South America but for some reasons it seems like the the end of the trip is coming so fast! Planning plane tickets, and whipping containers for next year already... What an adventure this life of ours is. Loving every single bit of it.
It’s crazy to think we only have six months left in South America. This part of the trip definitely seems to be going by quickly.