I love airports.
I love the way you arrive at dawn, the sky growing rosy with the anticipation of a new day, your cheeks ruddy to match the clouds, your eyes beaming like the freshly rising sun.
You´re at the brink, you’re a poised arrow, every molecule in your body quivering with the ecstasy of freedom and imminent release. You´re ready, so ready you can feel it burning in your chest like a firecracker.
Airports are the junction between gritty traveling and clean, posh sophistication. You sit with your loaded backpack, mind gearing for the impending arrival, the grit, the unfamiliarity, the challenges, the stimulation and chaos. Around you, facades of stylish perfume shops glitter; slick white walks rise lofty, adorned with crisp advertisements. Flight attendance clip past with starched white suits, vogue, hair slicked back, compact.
This is exciting. Your little luggage bag, your belongings- only what you need and exactly what you need, right here, on your body. You can go anywhere. You ARE going anywhere.
You sit next to the glass, a floor to ceiling window wide to the horizon. Gazing at your immediate destination, the sky. The silver bird you´ll ride rolls below on the tarmac, strutting, shiny, powerful and mysterious.
Smooth jazz floats on the air. You expand into the comfort and convenience and sterile cool; you are forced to relax. Suddenly everything falls nicely into perspective. You are here, in this moment, at the airport, in this empty space between Have Been and Will Go. There is nothing. There is you, your bag, and the infinity of the sky. This beautiful balance point of time, this calm, white bubble of
Today my affixation with airports will be put to the test. Eight hours in Comolapa International Airport in San Salvador, El Salvador. Two of which I spent sleeping-´in the grimy corner of Puerto de Salida 14, many flights prior to being my takeoff point for Lima, Peru. I passed out on the cold, hard, unforgiving linoleum floor, head resting on my trusty yellow Northface backpack, neck tweaked in an unnatural angle. Curled up in fetal position amidst droves of international travelers queuing, streaming and mobbing to desks, through official glass doors, voyaging into their metal beasts. Making for home or beyond after their pleasantly reasonable layovers. Me, I´m gonna hang out here for a while.
I popped out of a dream choked sleep bright eyed and alive, and now have finally squandered out a nice spot to camp out, over looking Gate 14 (although I don´t really need to be paying attention for at least four more hours).
Ahh, the calm, the solitude, the cleanliness. The wide open spaces and white walls, the slick, shiny floor, vast walls of glass spilling light into a mirror on the empty floor, quivering reflection leaking to the edge of my chique café table.
I sit, I read, and then I write. Every half an hour or so I take the five minute walk to the baño. And in a steady stream of preciously crisp green bills, I buy needlessly expensive food. First, I had to get an espresso drink. For the last three and a half months, my caffeine consumption has been limited to the drudgery of Presto instant coffee power, powder creamer, and heaps of sugar to smother the bitterness. A couple times, I was treated to luxury: Jelmer had bought a bag of real coffee- the kind that is straight ground bean and necessitates preparation of various forms. In his case, boiling water and grounds together in a small pan, and then sifting the coarser grounds out through a tea strainer. Cowboy coffee. It was heaven.
Here, when I saw the word ¨mocha¨ on the menu, my stomach made a little flip of excitement. My fancy espresso drink was even adorned with the delicate caricature of a bunny rabbit. I worked as a barista for 4 months, and foam art is NOT easy.
The next stop was equally exciting: Subway! Five dollar footlongs! I was a little dismayed when the only cheese was ¨queso Americano¨, but the real disappointment came when the cashier rang me up for 10 dollars. Double the amount of back home. I hadn´t even bothered to check the price, but it was too late, the sandwich had been made.
I´m buying fancy drinks, fancy sandwiches, gum, even a chocolate muffin. I´m acting like it´s my mission to spend as much cash on food and caffeine as is humanly possible to consume in 8 hours. It´s not, by the way.
I think I deserve it, though. I´m tired. My relaxing week had screeched to a sudden, violent halt. I was basking in leisure; spending my days sketching and going on runs and sleeping in till 12. My sheer torpidity had blossomed to such a grotesque level that I could barely bring myself to lift a finger to wash my dishes, and unabashedly assumed that any and all of my hikes would be canceled until my departure. Two had already fallen short of the minimum clientele, and I only had one more- Volcano boarding, my least favorite trip, on my last day, literally my last day at Quetzaltrekkers.
It was so inconveniently and annoyingly placed on my schedule, that there was just no way it would actually happen. Right? There was no one signed up and it was 5: 45. The office closes at six. I was on office shift, sketching a mountains scene, contemplating all the time I would have the next day for packing and last minute errands around Leon. Since we figured my trip wouldn´t go, Raf and I had planned a joint despedida that night- Friday night. On Saturday, half of us would be gone on hikes. So we had all this stuff planned out. Raf had gone to the supermarket and bought drinks, party snacks, and butt loads of fruit for… Fruit Ninja!
Fruit Ninja means standing in the courtyard wielding a sharpened machete like a baseball bat, or alternatively up above your head like you´re about to Whack-A-Mole, while ripe, juicy watermelons are tossed at your head. The idea is to slice the projectile cleanly in two, but it´s harder then it looks, depending on the size of the fruit in question. Mandarin oranges, for example, are a challenge. I got a papaya, a big one, and I cleaved it in such a clean swipe that I decided it was the perfect opportunity to quit while I was on top and let people live with the false impression that I possess any bit of hand eye coordination. And leave the mini grapefruits to the baseball players.
I took on the role of photographer, and spent the next rounds trying to capture the action while orange pulp and watermelon juice showered us in sticky sprays and splattered on my camera lens. The worst was when Andrew decided to use a two-by-four instead of a machete and demolish a watermelon on pure force of impact. The entire melon exploded into billions of tiny shards and drenched us- and the entire room- in a sticky sludge.
But let me backtrack. It was the last 10 minutes of my office shift, and Fruit Ninja was then only a vision. At 5: 52, four silhouettes of backpackers passed through the darkening doorway. You need at least four to make a profit on Volcano Boarding. They all wanted to go volcano boarding. I was so shocked I didn´t know what to say. I must have asked them five times if they were serious but they really couldn´t be more serious. They were single minded on volcano boarding. When they left I stupidly banged my head on the wooden gate in frustration and made a sizeable mark (yup, still there).
I was frustrated and upset, too much so. In my melodramatic mindset this meant no despedida, not time to pack on my last day, no time to say goodbye to my Leon buddies; it meant I couldn´t take the bus on Sunday morning because I´d have to do all my last minute preparation that day. (I had to be at the airport on Sunday night). Of course I should never have expected not to work on my last day. This trip had been on my schedule for two weeks, and by my unwillingness to take the trip I was effectively refusing homeless kids roughly fifty dollars.
I had a little cry and then empowered myself. I took out money to go to the supermarket. Just as I was walking out the door, Andrew informed me that the supermarket was closed. Of course it was closed, it was Good Friday.
First I panicked, then I was relieved. They have to cancel the trip, right? We can´t take clients volcano boarding without food. Wrong. Andrew and Rebecca were dead set on making this happen. I slumped on the couch, drained, as the group discussed and argued solutions for the food crisis: The El Hoyo trip was in deeper trouble then I was; they needed about 5 times as many groceries.
A conclusion. We would delay the trips by 2 hours, to depart at 10. We would wake up at 7:30 to make it to the supermarket at 8, and do all the food prep in the morning. Ok. So I had to contact my clients. Couldn’t reach them. Literally could not find the phone number for Hotel Ivana, wherever the hell that is.
As I scrambled around flipping through phone books, directories, even the Lonely Planet, the doorbell rang. Three kids stood on the sidewalk, looking up at me forlornly with pleading puppy dog eyes. They wanted to go volcano boarding. It was 7:30. Were they serious?! The consensus- which I was not a part of- was to let them come. I hadn´t done any food prep, so why not? It only meant I had to make 3 more boards, prep three more gear bags, clean and fill six more water bottles, and want to punch anyone and everyone in the face.
Mike saved me by suggesting we get out of the house and get some street food (he was concerned about my plan to have only Clif Bars for dinner). It was a relief. We walked to the central plaza and ate greasy, ketchup smothered pizza baked on sugary bread under the Semana Santa Festival lights. A Peruvian band played traditional and upbeat Andean songs. Glowing carousals swirled in a million colors, kids whooping on its dainty horses. Food stalls everywhere. It was a real carnival. Everyone was here, congregated to celebrate Good Friday to the fullest.
In a rush of emotion I felt disgusted with my selfishness that evening, my resistance to a little bit of work after nearly a week of not much to do but my own projects, things I really shouldn´t have been concentrating on because they subtly gnawed into my dedication to the volunteer work I had come for. Two completely unexpected, horrifying thoughts I´d had in the last couple weeks arose sharply in my mind: One, when I, for the first time, had counted the hours I´d worked in a day and wondered how much I could have been paid. And two, when I had come back from a hike, and the majority of my clients had somehow finagled discounts; the profit had come out low, 30% or something. I had shrugged and announced carelessly to Raf that I didn´t care. He replied with ¨You´re saying you don´t care about the kids.¨
But I do! What´s wrong with me? I decided to take this last trip with every remaining ounce of energy and vigor my fatigued body possessed. I would do everything. Would party hard at the despedida, go volcano boarding, and host my own despedida the next night, finish all my personal projects, and get out of Leon just in time for my flight.
Why are the ends of things always hectic, chaotic, and looming with the need to stuff every last moment with meaning, with every last thing you ever wanted and forgot to do and more? Why can´t I ever have a calm and relaxed farewell?
Miraculously, I flipped my mood 360 degrees and had a great night. And yes, played fruit Ninja. More surprising, my good mood lasted me through the next morning, through volcano boarding, and even through scraping all the boards in the evening. By the time I´d finished everything and had taken a shower, it was around six and I crashed. I had gotten something like four hours of sleep the night before. Thank the Lord, Lynn had come back from vacation that day, and true to her caring and do-good character, she whipped me up a ferociously caffeinated cappuccino to rival the best barista.
Awake again, I started to plan my half of me and Raf´s two-part despedida. My grand idea: Fruit Fondue. It´s been done before, but I don´t think it´s possible to have too much fruit and chocolate.
My last night went something like this. A romantic dinner at Mediterreano, Leon´s most elegant and ambient restaurant. With Lynn and Patty, the new beach manager, all fancied up in Lynn´s dress. Then the party. Because of the absence of those on El Hoyo (Aymie, Jelmer, Mike), and those on vacation (Annika, Janet), it was a different group from the previous despedida (hence having two). Lynn was back, Aislyn and Nate came, and brought Aislyn´s brother and his girlfriend. Her bro, Eddie, was possibly the funniest person to pass through Quetzaltrekkers doors during my time there, and really made the night.
I ate fondue in a continuous stab-dip-devour motion until my ribs threatened to break, then the caffeine finally wore off and I passed out. And then up early and sketching. Not stretching, sketching. I had to finish a book project I´d been working on- I´ve been commissioned as the sketch artist for a compilation of short stories. That´s about all I an disclose her, but I will say that the last story I was to sketch had a certain spiritual aspect to it that made the author of the book and I eager to finish symbolically n Easter Sunday. I sketched from nine to four and got it done. I had to push back the time of my taxi twice (I decided not to risk bussing so late on Easter), and finally was ready at 8 to meet the cab outside Via Via.
Packing would have been a disaster had Raf not convinced me and then supported me morally in chucking out at least half of my things, for which I´m very grateful. After shoving down a last spoonful of the quiche Patty graciously crafted for her very first and my very last Family Dinner, I stood with my 18 kilo pack creaking on my back, the sounds of a worn leather saddle. This pack that now feels so much more familiar than ever before, a trusty old friend. Splattered and stained with the blood of seven volcanoes.
It felt light after so many uphill climbs lugging upward of 23 kilos. My Quetzaltrekkers family encircled me in a group hug to say goodbye. Everyone was there- it was Family Dinner Night, so of course they were; I couldn´t have planned my departure on a better night. Patty, the sweetheart, even slipped me an aluminum wrapped slice of her chocolate cake into my hand, because I was going to miss dessert.
I was full of love and suddenly couldn´t stand to leave them. This was the family I´d known for the last 3 and a half months, the place I´d come to call home. The city that had grown familiar, the restaurants and shops and personalities and funk, even the chaos.
I walked out the door feeling as if I´d forgotten something. I had certainly left a lot behind. How strange that you can´t jus hop over and visit a place like this? Quetzaltrekkers was an intense and beautiful spell, one I´ll always remember. Maybe I´ll visit some day. But I know very well that it won´t be the same. Every volunteer I´ve come to know and love will be gone in two months or much less; in another couple months even Andrew and Rebecca will have moved on. If I return, there won´t be a single familiar face. That´s the nature of this place. Shifting, shifting. It´s a wonder they can maintain any continuity.
Me, Jules and Raf´s goodbye pictures.
Instead of putting up my country´s flag, which is customary, I figured the Seattle skyline would be more personally appropriate :)
Me, Jules and Raf´s goodbye pictures.
Instead of putting up my country´s flag, which is customary, I figured the Seattle skyline would be more personally appropriate :)
I spent the taxi ride in silence, zooming along a blackened highway glistening with the artificial stars of passing cityscapes, open windows letting wind rush in and smooth my hot skin and perspiring brow. A nearly full moon rose slowly, big, luminous and orange as 80´s music pulsed full volume. The driver asked me if I liked the music, I told him I liked the moon. Aside from our few shared word I savored the gooey chunk of chocolate cake, felt the breeze, the music, the night, and lived in my head, thoughts and emotions bumping and blurring into each other with vivid intensity.
I didn´t try to make friends in the airport or on the plane this time. I think after 3 and a half months of engaging tourist and small talk every day, working as, essentially, an entertainer and a crowd pleaser, people organizer and sweet talking saleswoman, I’m a little burnt out. Travelers. At one time they were, in my mind, like earthbound gods, globe roamers of infinite wisdom and knowledge, teeming with life experience and bursting with adventure. I mean, travelers still amaze and inspire me. But they are no longer a rare and shining gem in my life. I´m kinda used to travelers now. Hey, I´m working on becoming one myself.