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The World Is My Oyster

By: Camey VanSant

By Aviv

Over the course of the last 50 days of traveling through Peru and Bolivia, I have arrived at the conclusion that, in this singular year, I am the most free I will ever be in my life. So much is just fact. Other than the laws and travel regulations of each country I visit, the Duke GAP Year Program policies, and calling my mom every one to two days, I am not beholden to anything–no schedules, no deadlines, no teachers, no class, no job, no nothing. I have realized that every year following this one will certainly see an expansion to that list. Perhaps that may be an overly negative interpretation of the natural progression of life and adulthood, but the point of such an outlook is to make me appreciate, relish, and, above all, reflect on my experiences this year. Truthfully, I have not been waking up every day celebrating all that I am free from, that would be disenchanting; rather, the real joy has been exploring all that I am free to do–the places I can visit, people I can meet, food I can try, escapades I can embark upon. It is there that the real fruit of my travel has been. It is there that adventure really begins.

The first destination of mine was Lima, Peru. I arrived there with no plan, and yet, paradoxically, that is the best plan that one could have for traveling. It is the only example that I can think of where a haphazard, cavalier attitude is the most reliable method to yield success. Success being desirable, enriching traveling experiences. I checked into my accommodation, Waikiki Hostel, quickly hurled my backpack onto my bed, and rushed out to walk around the city. Now, it is a near impossible task to attempt to describe what it was that I felt when I took my first steps around Lima. That is because what I was physically doing was unremarkable, and, to the innocuous pedestrians whom I passed by, I must have looked perturbingly strange. I was striding along the sidewalk with eyes gleaming in awe of everything, unable to refrain from giddily smiling, ear to ear, like a kid in a candy shop. Every step I took felt invigorating. All of a sudden, a simple decision to turn left or right on a street felt like a triumphant declaration of my independence. In my head, I was thinking something like this: “I am more than 4000 miles away from home, all by myself, in a different country with no plan and plenty of
time.” I was a kid in a candy shop.

My time in Lima, however, was a short-lived 3 days. I explored some of the city, surfed twice, attended a historical walking tour, and went out every single night. In those moments, I was very satisfied but, in hindsight, it was nothing special, at least not when compared with what would come. After meeting a duo of Israelis from my hostel, I learned about a city in Northern Peru called Huaraz that supposedly offered some beautiful day treks. I was sold–I took the 9-hour overnight bus to get there the very next day.

I think if most people were asked the question “What is the most beautiful thing you have ever seen?” many might struggle to provide an immediate, enthusiastic answer. Until Huaraz, I was no different. Upon arrival, it took all but 40 minutes before I met a group of backpackers at my hostel. Waiting for the check-in system to get working, we all got talking and, rather swiftly, decided to sign up for the next day’s Laguna 69 Trek. The views were beyond beautiful, and the trek worthy of a story in its own right. However, the defining moment of the experience would be a flippant remark made on our return drive that expressed only a modicum of interest in the Huayhuash Trek, an intense 8-day trek through the Huascaran National Park. Our group debated back and forth with there being more hesitancy than zest, but the argument that swayed everyone, including myself, to the other side was that it was hailed as one of the most highly-rated treks in the world making us remiss to be so close to it yet not do it. Huayhuash represented the pinnacle of what I want the rest of my traveling experience to be because it is the exact kind of thing I would never otherwise participate in nor show enthusiasm for; yet, here I was doing it. So, I unpacked 90% of my clothes, bought a plethora of day snacks, toilet paper, and water, made sure to prepare my mom for the fact I would not be calling her for some time, and went on my way. I think it would be a futile effort to describe the sights I saw on Huayhuash. I am inclined to believe that there are not enough words in the English language that can aptly give justice to what exactly it was like. Here, the adage “A picture is worth a thousand words” seems rather helpful, but even the pictures unquestionably fall short. Still, they illustrate a clearer scene.

The memories I made on the Huayhuash Trek were countless. It was an adventure unlike any other, with some of the most pure, authentic good times of my life. Just as meaningful, were the friendships and connections I made. If you take any random group of separate individuals and force them through a physically and mentally arduous eight-day excursion with no phones, no outside distractions, just them and nature, they will leave as good friends. So good, in fact, that they may go on to travel for another month and a half together. And that’s what we did. I, with 4 other guys—now good friends—continued traveling through Peru alongside each other. It was the most unlikely bond I could imagine. They were anywhere from six to twelve years my senior, we all came from different countries (Ireland, Denmark, Belgium, and England), different backgrounds, different interests, but the one thing we all fervently shared in common that overrides any possible dissimilarity is we were all in for a good time. When it comes to friendship, that is all you need.

For the sake of brevity and maintaining a polished digital footprint, I can gleam over our subsequent weeks in Peru and touch on the momentary crisis it was to get to Bolivia. After completing the immersive four-day Salkantay Path to Machu Picchu in Cusco, we set our eyes on a new feat to conquer in Bolivia, the 6088-meter mountain of Huayna Potosi. We took a 13-hour bus ride from Cusco to the border between the two countries. Once we got to the Peruvian Immigration Office, I learned that I had overstayed my visa by six days. Unlike the usual 90-day tourist visa, I was only allotted a 30-day stay. So, I was separated from the rest of my group and told that I had to take a tuk-tuk back into the town center to pay a $12 fine at the bank and then I could proceed. For a whole bunch of extraneous reasons––long lines, slow processing, i.e.––the entire detour took close to 45 minutes until my passport was stamped, and I was free to leave. Then, with all my luggage, which is just a 15kg backpack and a guitar, I walked 10 minutes to get across the border but I was far from being allowed entry into the country. After spotting the inconspicuous and dilapidated immigration building, I walked up to the only immigration officer who was in no mood to help me after seeing my American passport. Citizens of the United States are required to have a visa to enter Bolivia. I knew this, and, more so, I knew I could get it upon arrival at the border, per Bolivia’s immigration website. However, the extent to which this service is provided was not clear, and, foolishly, I thought all the forms and papers would be available at the border. I was wrong. He handed me a list of everything needed for a visa: a paper of my financial statements, two 4×4 passport photos, a travel itinerary, proof of departure, and $160 among other things. Other than the cash, I had nothing. Suffice it to say I was beginning to panic because I had no data reception to contact anyone, I was all by myself in a place completely foreign to me, and I could not re-enter Peru if all things went awry. It was a two-and-a-half-hour struggle, but, in the end, I was able to find a nearby shop with a printer, wifi, and an assisting owner. Through emailing screenshots from my phone to their computer and arranging departure/itinerary plans, I managed to assemble an at least presentable assortment of the documents and forms they asked for. And with a new, much more receptive immigration officer at the counter, my visa was granted, and I was allowed entry into the country. With thirty minutes to spare, I rushed into a collectivo (public taxi) and headed straight to the port of Copacabana to catch the ferry with my friends to a small beachside village on Lake Titicaca where we spent a relaxing two days.

Huayna Potosi, I must say, is not something I would have signed up for if I was aware of the full scope of what it included, but, by the time I realized how dangerous and technical it was, it was already too late to turn back. Huayna Potosi is a 6,088 meter, or just under 20,000 feet, mountain that sits on the periphery of La Paz, the highest administrative capital in the world. As soon as you enter the city, Huayna Potosi comes into sight with its subduing icecaps, stirring a sense of allurement. Now, upon a basic Google search of the mountain, one can see that it is considered one of the “easiest” 6000-meter mountains and is a “straightforward” glacial climb. Most of my time in Peru was spent at high elevation (Cusco is also one of the highest cities in the world), so I was already well acclimatized to the height. I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro two years ago, so I am not a complete stranger to high-elevation climbs. Plus, to add an extra cherry to my false sense of confidence, the climb is only 3 days, 2 nights, and we get to sleep in mountain lodges. So, regrettably with no hesitation, my friends and I signed up for it immediately upon our arrival to the city. On the first day, we drive to base camp, try on all our climbing gear and apparel, and practice walking on ice with crampons—a first for me. It was a straightforward, easy time, and the second day was supposed to be just a three-hour trek to high camp. However, at around 12:30 AM, I woke up with severe stomach aches and crippling fever chills. It did not take long until vomit decided to add its two cents to the situation. And every time, I would have to jump out of the second level of the bunk, run across a 20-bed dorm, navigate a pitch-black corridor, find the bathroom, and then, only then, I could let out what had already accrued in my mouth. I’ll spare the vivid imagery. I hardly slept that night. Feverish symptoms, when it’s already below freezing, is a kind of misery I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. After four or so hours of this repeated, tortuous cycle, I eventually managed to fall asleep. I was certain that in a few hours, I would take a car back to La Paz because I was in no state to do this climb. But, I woke up feeling moderately better, just marginally enough, as if my body was tempting me to put myself through the most sufferable state I could be in while still doing the climb. And so, keeping in mind that I would only have to hold myself together for another half day more until we started for the summit, I pressed forward.

Other than the first practice day, I had never used crampons; actually, I have hardly spent any time at all with ice or snow, so I thought this would be a pleasantly exciting first experience with such. And it was. It was also a first experience with high-elevation, technical alpine climbing with no fixed ropes. That was less of an enjoyable experience, one I did not expect. It was actually extremely terrifying and much more dangerous than the agency advertised. What perfectly elucidates how unanticipated the alpine climbing was is that when my guide (each two climbers are paired with one guide) started climbing up the ice wall, the girl I was paired with laughed thinking it was a joke. I was too cold to find anything funny, but her laughs quickly turned into screams when her headlamp would illuminate how far down we could fall. Yet, we conquered it—navigating crevasses, brushing off snow from our boots, and teetering on narrow mountain ledges. It was a tough, gritty, and toilsome fight to the top. Only sixteen of the twenty original climbers summited, myself included. Seven hours of climbing just to be on the summit for not even two minutes. There is a cruel yet beautiful irony to that. Am I glad I conquered it? Yes, absolutely. Would I willingly sign up for a rematch? No, I’ll take my luck and run with it.

After that, it was a bittersweet goodbye, or more so “see you later”, with the guys I had been traveling with since Huaraz and off to Costa Rica for a week where I spent Thanksgiving with family. It was a much-needed breath of fresh air to sleep under the same roof as my loved ones after spending so much time away and on my own.

On my goal of reading one book a week while traveling, I’ve been fairly consistent. However, after finishing two books early on in the Salkantay and Huayhuash Treks, I was unable to start a new book until I returned back to my stowed-away luggage, so it put me behind a little. The list of finished books so far is: Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell, Fatherland by Burkhard Bilger, The Trial by Franz Kafka, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson, and The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. All great books written by great authors recommended to me by the far greater Dan Stabinsky, my dad.

I’d like to finish this ridiculously long blog post with a quote from a poem that echoed in my mind several times on Huayna Potosi. It played like a reassuring mantra during those final couple hundred meters when my endurance was wearing thin and confidence faltering. I think it is perfectly emblematic of my travels thus far:
“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

Categories: Aviv