At the risk of waxing too personal (but not that kind of waxing), I want to tell you about the person you see in this picture.
She is terrified. She is uninformed, ill-prepared, and, not speaking the language, practically mute. And in this picture, she is taking a boat from the town of Livingston, Guatemala through the Bahía de Amatique, to Punta Gorda, Belize in November of 1992. It’s a small boat, and there are five of them, the captain, a friend of his, a guy going with his and his wife’s passports to get them stamped, the woman you see in the picture, and a friend of hers who she traveled with for several weeks. And later in the journey, out of view of land, the waves are sometimes taller than the boat, and they pull across the troughs of grey water, she thinks, “does anyone even know we’re out here?”
She was my first travel-Eileen incarnation, the first time she ever said, “there’s something more, and I want to see it.” She was 21, and she bought a ticket (for $199, and that’s not a typo) round trip from JFK to Mexico City. In between these flights, there were six months of–judging by her journal–absolute blather, self-doubt, boy-craziness, and intestinal woe. There were also moments of who-gives-a-shit, and I-can-do-this, in between the wonder about where to sleep next, and, on one occasion, lamenting having managed to take a bus six hours to the wrong place by transposing a syllable in one of the indigenous Honduran place names.
She went to Central America because an ex had gone on archeological dig in Honduras. Because Central America was there. Because it was close, and cheaper than the summer-in-Europe trips a few of her wealthier friends’ parents financed for them between college and the rest of life. She would pay her own way, and Central America seemed it would be more interesting, more unexpected, more audacious. Certainly she would not be writing about a picture of herself in front of the Louvre. She did not know she would ever blog.
And so she got a bunch of vaccinations, and pored over boots and insect repellent and backpacks in a bricks-and-mortar store, and read this guidebook you see here on the train to her mother’s house, and men on the platform would ask what she was reading, and when she told them, they would scoff, and she would hold her ground, and say, “you’ve never been, so what do you know?” and they’d tell her horror stories made up of late-night movies and free association, and even her boss at the software company would tell her she was going to get “jungle foot rot.”
And then, despite all of this, she would take off, because it seemed like the right idea at the time.
And six months later, full of the pomp and hubris that only a 22-year-old “world traveler” could have, she returned, thin beyond her wildest imagination, the product of illness and subsequent fear of food and, at times, feeling crushingly alone. And she returned to a life unchanged, people who had about 20 minutes of tolerance for stories about Central America, and men too old to look at her commenting on her tanned, muscular legs on the subway, and the strange sadness that comes with having said goodbye to a place forever and marching forward.
I know I will not find this place again. There have been twenty years of change, and (I understand), there are now many multi-storied buildings in Managua, which, minus one hotel and the Sandino outline, were absent when I was there. Every place will have morphed, though I have written down (and photocopied) information about where I went, and might revisit some of them. I hold a hope that I might glimpse an angle, get a whiff of a smell I haven’t smelled in 20 years, and figure out the parts of the story that I didn’t write in the journal, because in 1992, I was (I tell myself now), age appropriately, self-obsessed.
But in actual fact, I know I will not find these places, because not only have the places changed, but my vision has changed. In Spanish we talk about the prism through which you see the world, as opposed to the lens. I like this image, because though lenses can change your focus, prisms break up the stream of light and turn them into something else. They take a whole, and strain it into pieces that help you see the parts that comprise it.
I know I won’t find the place I once was. But I can’t help hoping that one of those pieces is that incarnation that you see above. And that I just might meet her.
I leave for Nicaragua tomorrow night. Happy New Year.
Fantastic Eileen…happy new year!
Excellent post, beautiful photo and a fantastic truism – “the prism through which you see the world” – I have small crystals from an old chandelier in my window, an Xmas gift fr a friends a few years back and they’re the best gift ever – they produce small blasts of color across the wall when hit by the afternoon sun and when I study them closely they do fragment the space around me and offer more views. This is a great post to end the year with.
Thanks so much, Maria, that’s so nice of you to say! I’m glad it resonated with you.
I loved reading this, Eileen. I’ve got that sadish, happy warmth and dimpled, contented smile to accompany it – remembering. Saudades… I appreciate your skill to express those marvelously terrifying moments which form us (and the prism).
Can’t wait to hear what you find.
Thanks Nancy! Since English doesn’t have saudade, I had to write a whole blog post about it, I guess. Thanks for your positivity, and knowing what I mean about the prism.
This is quite possibly my most favourite of all your posts ever. Hands down. I am drowning in memories reading it, and smiling like a nostalgic thing the whole way through.
Good luck in Nicaragua. I hope you find the pieces of the time before there in the fabric of what you are about to make anew.
We’re even Richard, because that’s got to be my favorite comment you’ve ever left me. Lucky to know you. You get what I mean about place. I hope I have something interesting to report. If not now, then in 20 years!
Beautiful writing Eileen. A great read. Happy new year!
Thanks Lani! Your new year will bring so many changes. I wonder if you’ll find your pre-abroad, pre-two-kid self in Canberra? I know at least you’ll find vegemite, in spades. Until we meet again!
The prism metaphor definitely fits. Enjoy Nicaragua!
Thanks Stephanie. I never imagined myself retracing my steps, and yet, here it is. I have a thing with place and self. I hope that the prism metaphor carries me through. And that it changes all of our perspective, just a little bit.
Not often discussed how much our perspectives change over time and when we revisit something we once loved – it just doesnt have that same feeling. I find it hard to get used to this sometimes, but instead of forcing something to be a certain way, to just accept the fact that change is inevitable – maybe not necessarily a bad thing.
Hey Turner, thanks for dropping by. Something I find fabulously unique about all of us is that what we choose to do with the past varies by person. Bury, ignore, revisit, capture, yearn for, etc. So many different pasts, and so many ways to play them. Feliz año nuevo! Eileen
Wow! This is a really great post!!!! I made that backpacking trip thru europe after college in the late 70’s that we all took. Now, retired, I am about to embark on another life adventure. I have so been reflecting on that trip, planning a return, but knowing that the world has changed so much, including myself. I also hope I can rekindle the awe of that young man I once was. Again, thank you for this great post- and enjoy Nicaragua!
Hey Patrick, thanks for your comment, and your story. Awe-recapturing sounds like a great goal. Please let me know how it goes. And thanks for pointing out that I may be suffering from a case of early-onset nostalgia! E
This reminds me of a bridge in Toronto that spans the Don River. Emblazoned across the top of it is the phrase “This river that I step in is not the river I stand in” and I’ve always interpreted it to be a reference to the fact that places and people are constantly evolving.
The river is an awesome metaphor itself. Inexorable, powerful, stubborn. Nice one, and thanks for sharing that quote. Reading more and thinking more definitely in the plans.
Happy 2013 Gal and keep the great writing coming !
Thanks, mike. Hope things are going great in your corner of the world.
Beautifully written. I could relate so deeply to every word of this. Glad to have found your blog and looking forward to reading along.Happy New Year!
Thanks, colleen. Welcome aboard!
Thanks so much for sharing this beautiful reflection. While the new sights, smells and sounds of the road are certainly interesting, I love the transformations of self the best. Cheers to you in the New Year!
I just came across your blog by accident and what a delightful post to read. It captures so much of the innocence we all possess in that first journey to the unfamiliar and discover our inner strength.
For me it was South America as well. A year in Brasil (I still spell it that way for a reason) and the curious world traveller just waiting to escape the boundaries of a small town life where most people took the traditional journey of life, found courage to be different.
The road since then has been an adventure for most parts.
Once that inner traveler is awake, there’s no way back.
Traveling at a young and tender age is the best education for a curious mind and prepares a person for a life lived to the very fullest potentials.
Thanks to that first step, I eventually met and fell in love with a South African man who has opened up a whole other side to the country most people so easily misunderstand, as have I introduced him to Iceland, my country of origin.
Even with the backpack stored away for now, we continue to learn about each other’s cultural difference and experience the best of both worlds.
Thanks for a wonderful article and I must add, how lucky you are to call Chile your home. I hope you enjoyed your time in Nicaragua.
Happy new year and happy travels!
I knew immediately you were from Iceland from your last name. Iceland was also part if my earlier travel palette, once in summer, and once in winter. I look for Iceland sometimes, in the south of Chile, in new zealand. But like any place else, the only place that is iceland… Is iceland! Thanks for sharing a bit of your story, too!
Eileen – I just discovered your blog today through this post (kudos to nomadicmatt for posting it on facebook), and I am truly inspired by the raw emotion that you are able to capture in your writing. Cheers and may your 2013 be unforgettable.
Beautifully written. You will again have an adventure, never to be repeated.
I was that girl, too! Your post brought me right back to her bravado, her insecurities, and her abandon. Thank you….such a gift on the first day of a new year! So glad that Matt led me to your blog. Have a fabulous time in Nicaragua.
I to traveled young having my 21st birthday in Bangkok some 36 years ago. And ended up around the world, overland, much on foot, bike, hitch hiking… Before the word backpacker was made. And I too am still enroute to return to Africa “to give something back that Africa gave me after walking half of it some 30 years ago”.
I hope I can be descriptive as you have been in your writing.
Yes, a byproduct of travel is about finding yourself.
But life is now about doing something with it.
“the overland traveller goes around the corner to see who there is to meet around the next corner” max.
I love how you’ve captured the “gateway of naivety” as something semi-lamentable but totally necessary for the perspective—not to mention its place as the starting point in the grand timeline of adventure.
Thanks for sharing!!
Zak, this comment gave me chills, and fueled a long walk on the beach. Well-done. I needed to live through that to get to where I am now. But you said it more eloquently. Thanks!
What a way to end one year and start the new. I love how writing can help to show us the prisms (I will start using this!) through which we see the world. Happy New Year!
Like many others, I was transported back into nostalgia–my first solo trip to Chile. Haven’t had the good fortune to return. I love how you recounted not just the pleasant and not-so-pleasant parts of the journey, but the mixture of the two that make up real life on the road. I’m glad you made it through one of the more harrowing adventures: re-reading your old journal. Not sure I could touch my old, self-absorbed musings with safety gloves and a helmet.
Happy New Year, and have a great trip!!
Happy New Year Eileen! Very well-written. Nostalgia and re-tracing of steps is an interesting exercise, quite often intensely dissatisfying but sometime extremely rewarding! Good luck! 🙂
Lovely post Eileen! I remember being there too (not physically in that spot, of course, but in that mental-emotional space). Have a wonderful trip and Happy New year!
the last two paragraphs and a stanza gave me the chills. watch out for mosquitos and jungle foot rot.
happy new year
Have been thinking about you, Ben. And I’d love to talk about your perspective. You’re not much older than I was then, but in some ways, quite a bit wiser. Here’s to patio-sitting in Feb a la vuelta, if you’re around. There’s always so much good conversation fodder.