Thank Goodness for Hammocks, Beans and Muddy Rivers

Boats along the Orla

Boats along the Orla

The morning after I arrived in Brazil, I woke up with a screaming back ache. Being crammed into airplane and airport seats for over forty hours had taken its toll on me. The hard tiled floor I slept on didn’t help. But I was determined to not be a wuss. I crawled out of my bed, wiped the thick sheen of humidity off my skin and hobbled my way into the kitchen where my host was busy making fruit juice and beans. I was never much of a beans person, but I was about to become one whether I wanted to or not. Brazilians love their beans as do most countries south of the USA (even they love their beans in the southern states). Every meal would have beans in it. Beans, carbs and protein with no vegetables. My family laughed at me when I got back home because the very first thing I wanted to eat was a huge salad.

Since I wasn’t a bean person and had no idea how to even help her cook them, I decided the best way to help was to stay out of her way and wash the dishes. Arriving at the sink I received my first of many culture shocks. It’s never the big things that surprise me, but the little things. My first surprise was that there was no hot water. Hot water was such a foreign concept to my host Vanessa. The shower heads, I later learned, were electric (because water and electricity are always such a good combination) which warmed up the water for a shower but since it was so hot here, most people never turned them on preferring cold showers. One thing I know about myself…It doesn’t matter how hot it is outside, I still love a hot shower. But I swallowed my surprise, and started washing dishes wondering why Vanessa was giving me such strange sideways glances. I didn’t know there was another way to wash dishes, but apparently there is many different ways and I was definitely not doing it her way. Thankfully she was gracious to me despite my cultural clumsiness and I was soon enjoying my first taste of authentic Brazilian cuisine. Delicious. Lets just say I am definitely a bean fan now.

After lunch Vanessa took me down to the marina which she called “Orla”. For the second time since my arrival, my inner scaredy-cat jumped out of my skin as I watched all the small and large wooden boats pull up to the edge of the muddy Tapajos river. My vivid imagination turned all of the street vendors into pirates and drug dealers and I couldn’t understand how Vanessa walked so calmly among the men carrying massive loads of bananas, fish and other edible goods. Then I saw a few of them lying in hammocks on their boats and I became envious. Those had to be comfier than my floor.

After walking for four hours along the marina I came to a conclusion. I had not been kidnapped or mugged, or even really been acknowledged other than the odd pushy salesman. I decided to throw my first impression out the window and take a second look. What I saw was beautiful. What before had seemed rough and dangerous had somehow morphed into a stunning cultural mecca. Families bought and sold produce and fruits that were so bizarre I couldn’t even start to describe them. Artisans showed off their colorful handmade crafts, loud Portuguese music blasted from speakers and everywhere was the smell of food and dirty water. There was beauty here that did not rely on striking architecture, or majestic scenery. Instead here on the banks of this muddy river, I felt a strange sense of peace; I felt like it was a small piece of home despite it being a place where nothing was familiar. The first seed of the joy of discovery was planted in my heart.

    One of the homes I stayed in

One of the homes I stayed in

That night, laying in my new hammock, (Amazonian homes are built with hooks in the wall for hammocks. Instead of offering guests a bed, you offer them a wall and they bring their own hammock; convenient and fascinating to me), I pondered this new found joy. In my life before traveling, I had lost almost all of my curiosity. I had grown stale in my willingness to stay within the known and not push the boundaries into learning new things. New became scary and I had grown slightly disgusted with my own cowardice. Suddenly like a burst of light, I felt a surge of curiosity flow through me. How much more was there to discover? New language, new food, new culture, new everything.

I’ve created a monster. I have now cursed myself with wanderlust. Any longer than a year in one place and I get such itchy feet that I literally get claustrophobic staying in the same place. The fear is gone. If anything, my family wishes that some fear would come back, that way I would stay put a little longer. But that’s the price we pay for adventure and a free spirit. Curiosity is a gift. Man was created to explore and explore I will. But first I’m getting a good night sleep in my new hammock!

Nothing Like Diving Into The Deep End

It might not be a white horse, but it does sweep me off the ground

It might not be a white horse, but it does sweep me off the ground

I was never one to edge my way slowly into anything. As a baby I went directly from my first step to running flat-out. There was no slow walking in between. Same thing happened when I first learned to ski; skis pointed straight down the hill, daredevil to the teeth. So naturally the first time I decided to travel outside of Canada, I thought traveling to the heart of the Amazon in Brazil for two months by myself would be a great idea. As you can imagine from the first two examples, I obviously didn’t learn my lesson the first time. Running flat-out without learning to walk first involves a lot of head injuries. So does skiing without the brakes.

But, bold as brass and confident of my ability to handle any situation, I booked my ticket and off I went. I took a leave of absence from my job, gave my parents the ultimatum that I was going with or without their blessing (which they didn’t end up giving until after I got back from my trip) and failed miserably at packing two months worth of gear into a backpack. I had a minor (OK… major) panic attack when my passport and attached visa didn’t arrive until five days before I was supposed to leave. I had to send it back…twice…because the pictures weren’t approved despite having them taken by recognized passport picture issuers aka: Wal-Mart. But several dollars and a lot of miles later (I lived in a small, middle of nowhere town) I had my passport and Brazilian visa in hand. Talk about relief.

I arrived at the airport in the wee hours of the morning exhausted from no sleep as I had been way too excited to sleep for the past two days. I was so jittery that I just about dropped my coffee three times between the Tim Hortons and the security gate which was right next door. Now armed with caffeine and adrenaline I made it through security somehow despite my noticeable trembling. The most embarrassing part after finding my gate, is that I lost count of how many times I ran to the bathroom before I boarded the plane. I couldn’t decide if I was going to throw up or faint. Thankfully I did neither and boarded my plane in one piece, and thanks to my incredible acting skills (or so I told myself) I even looked cool as a cucumber doing it, which of course was a total lie.

What they say about jumping into the deep end being sink or swim is true. But where I thought I was jumping into a swimming pool, I was in fact jumping into the ocean during a monsoon. During the thirty-nine hours of my travels from Canada to Brazil, I got caught in a lightning storm, diverted to another city where we were grounded for four hours, just about hit by lightning coming into Chicago the second time, delayed on the tarmac for another hour and when I finally made it into Chicago O’Hare airport, famous for its ridiculously huge size, I was Spanish inquisitioned by a border guard. My connection changed gates no less than four times. By now I was going on three days of no sleep and my caffeine and adrenaline high had worn off leaving me dizzy from exhaustion. I made my red eye flight to Sao Paulo, Brazil but only got about two hours of sleep during the long flight. Arriving in Brazil I was again thrown to the monsoon sharks as they posted my gate wrong and no one spoke English to help me find it. I would hand them my boarding pass and they would keep sending me down to gate 1A. At gate 1A was a very grumpy man who kept yelling at me in Portuguese and waving me away. After learning some Portuguese during my trip I now know that he was telling me that it was the wrong gate, but at the time I didn’t understand and wanted to find a hidden corner, curl up into a ball and cry. I ended up finding the right gate, but even as I was boarding the plane, the boards still stated my gate was 1A. I boarded my plane through gate 1C.  Welcome to Brazilian air travel.

Several connections later, I finally made it to my final destination at a bright and early three am. I was picked up at the airport by the local missionaries and taken through the what looked to me to be the ghetto of Santarem. I had never seen extreme poverty before and three am on almost five days of little to no sleep was not a good time to absorb it with what it deserved. I closed my eyes and just prayed for a bed. What I got was a thin mat on a hard cement floor. My back would not thank me in the morning, but right now, it was a flat surface that didn’t move and felt like heaven.

Canadian breakfast of champions.

Canadian breakfast of champions.

having traveled a few times now, I’ve learned a lesson or two:

First lesson: always book way far in advance. It’s cheaper, it gives you wiggle room for sudden changes (like a passport that has to be sent back), and if you get cold feet, having it booked gives a lot more weight to your decision to go.

Second lesson: Learn at least a couple of words in the local language before you go. “Where do I go?”, “hello”, “Please and Thank you” and “where’s the bathroom?” go a really long way. Not only will you hopefully not run into the problem I had at Sao Paulo airport, but locals really love it when you try to learn their language. Luckily, you should be able to find at least one person who speaks at least passable English. I always struggle to learn a language when I travel because people are always brushing off my attempts at their language because they want to practice their English. But at the end of the day if you have no luck at that either, as happened to me, sign language is still the universal language of the world and you would be amazed at what can be communicated through it!

Third lesson: If at all possible, try to book flights with longer layovers. Yes they can be annoying and boring, but they also can be lifesavers in case of flight delays. and hey, if your layover is long enough, you might even have time to check out the area before catching your next flight. Spur of the moment adventures… I think so!

The Dream

Hiking the Narrows

Hiking the Narrows

Most little girls dream of castles. Castles, big poofy dresses and a handsome prince who sweeps her off her feet onto a big white horse (preferably a unicorn) and they ride off into the sunset. Most little girls don’t tell their parents at five years old that when they grow up they are going to live in a grass/mud hut and save the world. But there you have it…I’m convinced that you have to be a little weird to want to give up everything to travel the world for the rest of your life. And I’m not talking travel in the sense of hitting every resort in the warm places of the world. I’m talking backpack, worn out shoes, bamboo/dirt floors, bathing in the river and a stethoscope.

Wait,what?

Now I don’t have anything against castles or poofy dresses, in fact I’m rather fond of them. And I always keep my eyes peeled for unicorns (who knows what exists in the undiscovered places of the world), but my dreams were always a little different. And I mean different. My whole family comes from the 9-5 corporate world, with comfortable mortgages, RRSPs and marriage. And then there is me, the 25 year old perpetually single missionary nurse, who can’t sit still long enough to even consider buying a house.

I wanted to travel. I wanted to see the world for what it was, the good, the bad and the ugly of it. I wanted to revel in the good, change the bad and war against the ugly. I wanted to turn my backpack into a walking health clinic. Fill it with bandages, medicine and my stethoscope. And then I would backpack the world, staying in tiny local village homes, learning the culture and language as I went, using my nursing skills as trade for a bed and a meal.

And so I did…sort of.

I haven’t gotten to the stage where I’m brave enough to take out the safety net entirely and go “door to door”. I’m almost there, and I invite you on my journey from dream to reality. So far I’ve nursed in three continents with different NGO groups to get my feet wet and gain some experience in travel, international nursing and tropical diseases. I loved every minute and I will definitely be sharing with you some of my experiences.

So grab a backpack, a sense of adventure and your strong stomach and come join me as I backpack nurse around the world!