So for my own bookkeeping purposes I’m going to continue this blog.  Any notion that I even went to South America seems like a dream– it’s too bad that things we leave in the past can’t be recalled fully in the present. I want to remember exactly what it felt like to squish muddied clay roads under my toes; I want to once again pick the ticks of a loyal street dog.

I’m also left wondering about these people that so fleetingly passed in and out of my lives, staying just long enough for me to fall in love with them as my brother, sister, friend, only to disappear from my life. What became of the children that I so often doodled with on 30-hour bus rides? How is Don Pancho doing? His mighty 99-year-old self may have 10 years left to chop wood and stew Ayahuasca.

Unrecorded memories of South America keep making their way into my brain, and now, a year (?!) after my departure I’m trying to record in web-permanence some memories that I have yet to write down on paper.

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To begin, here’s an essay that I recently wrote about my time in South America.

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Times like these made me feel so grateful to be in South America. The clouds licked at our faces and obscured our bodies, huddled in a warm mass under a gigantic wool blanket. Just a few hours before I had been waiting impatiently for a bus to show up in the town square of Ollantaitambo, a small town in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Across the cobblestone road I watched as a little old lady athletically hopped under the tarp of a mighty, 20-foot-tall produce truck; my heart quickened, and I knew that I had to hitch a ride if I could. Yellow backpack in tow, I asked the driver if he was headed to Santa Maria. He looked at me with shock and awe, as if to say “Are you crazy? You want to ride with us?”

Here’s the cast: one tiny old woman, perfectly wise and kind; a little girl, quiet and spunky; the uncle that still hasn’t gotten married, and the big, grumpy aunt that makes everyone laugh and shake their heads, smiling. The next twelve hours were spent in joyful community; each Quechua song that the little old lady would teach me was returned by my singing her one from The Beatles. As our little engine- that- could chugged ever higher up the treacherous pass, the frosty mountain air made the hairs rise on the back of my dust-caked neck. My socked feet were cemented to my hiking boots, (which might as well have been mud-pies.)  And I couldn’t have been loving it more, sitting on top of potatoes and beans stacked 6-parcels high in the back of a produce truck.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what gives this memory its symbolic value. Maybe it’s that hitching a ride in rural Peru gave me a sense of divine freedom that comes with experiencing something completely unfamiliar. Maybe it’s that I lived for these sorts of experiences, the memories that could never have been created if I were at university or if I were part of a guided, expensive tourist group. My decision to take a year off to work, save money, and embark on an unplanned, self-funded three month adventure through South America has been essential in helping me realize that I had been looking in all the wrong places for spiritual and philosophical inspiration, that God can be found as much in the smiles of strangers as in the mist surrounding clouded mountains.

In my hometown I was disturbed by the common expectation that one should sacrifice freedom for the sake of normalcy, and I quickly grew restless and felt the need to explore the world. In this way, my decision to journey alone to South America was an effort to right myself spiritually. I expected to be enlightened in a way that could give guidance to the years in college that lay ahead; what I found was that my adventure broke down the Western notion of independent enlightenment, and replaced it with one that is distinctly communal. In South America I did not find the kind of self-serving “enlightenment” that many associate with travel. Instead, I was surprised to have this expectation of a lonely journey for truth, so familiar to Western youth, destroyed by memories like my ride in a produce truck. South America never failed to turn on its head my expectation of an existential journey for truth—I now laugh at this concept and its inherent self-pity. In the United States, I found humans beleaguered by their routines; in my iconoclastic search for self-definition, I was among them.

In South America I found an immediate sense of the brotherhood of mankind. Many things that Anglo-Saxon culture would consider uncouth—public breastfeeding, naked children, affection to strangers—were commonplace in Peru, Bolivia, Brasil and Colombia. The attitude that made all human beings equal in our common experience of life was evident everywhere in my journey.

The South America I fell in love with burst at the seams with love and celebration of life. Celebration was on the smiling lips of children running butt-naked down a muddy Amazonian road to their swimming hole. Celebration was in the loving eyes of a mother breastfeeding on a crowded bus in Bolivia. Celebration was infectious in the incessant, morning-to-midnight dancing of families and their neighbors on stoops in Colombia. I’ve learned that I want to live with a full-throttle, urgent love of life. To live with our hearts, doors, and produce trucks open to strangers is the only way to create a society in which love is the first order of importance.