Old Friends & New Beginnings: Onward to South America

In almost a year of solo travel, I have met an array of fascinating people. Artists, intellectuals, creators, and vagabonds. Skeptics, romantics, belligerents, and purists. Thinkers, wanderers, lovers, and fighters. Traveling solo has led to a bevy of interesting encounters across the spectrum of humanity.

Indeed, there’s something profoundly raw about connecting with a complete stranger. Neither of you have a stake in each others’ lives; you know you’ll likely never see each other again. As such, divulging deep thoughts and feelings can sometimes happen in a single night. Occasionally, if you’re lucky, you come across that rare soul with a gifted mind whom will draw something out of you and change your life forever.

…but I digress. As wonderful as it is to spend time with strangers on a similar journey, there is nothing more comforting than seeing a familiar face on the road. Earlier this month, I had a chance to see not just one, but four familiar faces in the span of a week.

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After our volunteer work in the mountains was over, I took a few days to relax and reflect in San Pedro Sula. As I planned my next move, I reached out to an old Honduran friend to see if he was available to meet up. I was happy to learn that he was in Taulabe, a small town just three hours away from San Pedro Sula by bus.

The last time I saw Jose Luis was in 2008. He and I were 14 and 16, respectively. We first met two years prior in his hometown, Trinidad, where I worked as a volunteer with the Trinidad Conservation Project. Despite the language barrier, our friendship bloomed during that first trip in 2006 and blossomed in 2008.

Now in 2017, we reunited at a most impressive natural landmark, the caves of Taulabe.

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Jose Luis, my friend, my brother. He’s all grown up now, but I’ll always remember him as that skittish 14 year old in Trinidad.

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When we met in 2006 I was initially drawn to Jose Luis’ humor and animated personality. Nine years later, as we walk through the ancient labyrinth adorned with colorful neon lights, I am happy to find this has not changed about him. Like putting on a comfortable pair of slippers, we slide back into the companionship that I remember from eight years ago. Within minutes we are catching up, reminiscing, and constantly laughing.

His outward, sunny disposition remains the same, and yet he has matured in many ways.

We talk about our lives, family, ambitions, and women, of course. I am not surprised to find out he has had his share of girlfriends (he was a smooth talking savage even at 14). But more than anything he values his family, faith, and community. He shines the same light I saw all those years ago, the one that made me take such a liking to him. It was delightful to see him again for an afternoon.

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One of us grew in the past nine years, the other didn’t. At least I figured out the whole hair thing.

Days later I said a tough goodbye to Honduras, the country that has given me so much over the past 6 months (and the past eleven years, really).

It was time for a new country and continent. I boarded a plane bound for Miami in lieu of my next destination, Ecuador!

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I had a few options for my roundabout, northward-to-get-south adventure. The cheapest way had me flying through Miami, I just had to decide between a four hour or 24 hour layover. The prospect of seeing another old friend made the latter an easy choice.

Touching down on US soil for the first time in a month meant I briefly had access to drinkable tap water and my sweet, sweet data plan. But the sweetest sight was surely seeing Colin pull up at the airport in his familiar mustang.

Colin is one of my oldest and best friends. Since graduating from the University of Miami he has remained down in vice city and, among other things, helped lead the important fight to legalize medical marijuana through the Students for Sensible Drug Policy. Now, in addition to taking classes at massage school, he works at a kava bar in Little Haiti, The Awa Kava Lounge, where I accompany him that night.

What exactly is kava you ask? As I would find out myself, kava is a plant that originates in the Western Pacific, the roots of which are ground up and served in a drink with sedative, anesthetic, euphoriant, and entheogenic properties. In places like Micronesia and Polynesia, the kava plant is highly venerated and its drink is used in medicinal, religious, political, and social settings. The culture seems to be taking off in Miami; when we arrive that night the lounge is bustling with activity.

Colin serves me up a batch that he brewed that morning. I down the cup in one gulp, per his recommendation. It tastes bitter and grainy, but this is nullified by a pineapple wedge. The sensation sets in pretty soon after consumption. I would describe the “kava drunk” feeling as relaxing and tingly, bubbly and buzzy. I feel inebriated yet completely in control. As far as social lubricants go, this seems to be a much more healthy option than alcohol. Organic, natural, and hangover free.

The next morning I get to see Colin work his brewing magic.

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Rocking his Pollos Hermanos apron (Gus Fring would be proud), he whips up a bucket of the good stuff and serves me one last cup before my flight. In addition to bartending and brewing, Colin also handles the the lounge’s creative marketing and events, which include flea markets and live music. If you’re ever in Miami, go check it out and try some kava yourself.

That afternoon I get in my Uber with a kava buzz and my sights set on a new continent. Hanging with Colin for a night and day was, much like the taste of kava, bittersweet. We see each other far too infrequently, yet when we do we easily pick up with our usual banter, deep talks, and ridiculous vernacular that has somehow endured since our elementary school days.

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Fortunately I didn’t have to wait too long before seeing yet another old friend. When I touch down in Quito, Ecuador’s capitol city, there waiting for me is someone I hadn’t seen since the summer after graduating high school, nearly eight years ago (holy heck that feels weird to say).

Francisco and I met in middle school and were football teammates in high school. Despite running in different crowds, we always got along great. In the locker room, on the field, in the weight room, in various classes and social settings. The last time we saw each other was at beach week back in the summer of 2009. Since that debauchery-filled week in Dewey, Delaware, our lives have taken two very different directions.

Later on in that summer of 2009, Francisco returned to Ecuador, his home country, and began his university studies in International Policy. Flash forward eight years and he has a great consulting job, a lovely wife, Paz, and a beautiful 10 month old, Luciana.

And then there’s yours truly, a grizzled, unemployed, wayward duck on a yearlong world waddle-about. When I embrace him at the airport for the first time in eight years, we are coming from two very different places. And yet, much like my previous two reunions, it felt like we had just seen each other yesterday.

Francisco drives me from the airport to my hostel (Community Hostel – awesome place that he recommended) and shows me a bit of Quito by night along the way. Later that week, he took off work and picked me up for an adventure to the Mitad del Mundo (middle of the world, where the equator line crosses its highest point in the world). We were joined by Paz, Luciana, and two new friends that I met in the hostel: Isabel, a Spaniard, and Lauren, from California.

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Our first stop was a museum which houses the actual equator line. It featured exhibits on Ecuadorian history, Amazon culture and animals, how to make chocolate from cacao, and more. Here, Francisco and Luciana are enjoying a display on the shrunken head culture of indigenous people, a practice that is now forbidden.
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A bro in each hemisphere.
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There were several activities to be enjoyed around the equator, including walking down the line with your eyes closed (difficult to do without wobbling!)
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Isabel and I celebrating having balanced an egg on the equator. Apparently this is nigh impossible to do elsewhere, though I can’t say I’ve ever tried.
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Luciana didn’t know much about what was going on, but she was incredibly sweet all day, and adorable for that matter.
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Approaching our second destination, the Mitad del Mundo monument. This location was determined by French explorers in 1736 to be the highest point along the equator, they claimed it to be the center of the world. Despite being about 240 meters off, their precision that long ago is damn impressive.
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Lauren, Isabel, and yours truly, braving the rain for a picture.

It was an awesome afternoon at the center of the world, though the ladies had to put up with a bit of mine and Francisco’s nostalgic reminiscing of our high school glory days. We capped it off with a delicious Ecuadorian meal of Yaguarlocro, a staple soup in the Andes made with potatoes, the stomach, liver and lungs of lamb (!), accompanied with avocado, onions and lamb’s blood (!!). Yes, it was tasty and filling.

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Yum

Later on in the week I reunited with one last old friend, Vivi. Her and I met through a mutual friend in college and had a few classes together as well. After staying an extra year at JMU to get her Master’s in Education, she attended a career fair on a whim and got a teaching gig just outside Quito. In what I consider a remarkably bold and inspiring move, she took the job, having never been to Ecuador, and has kept at it for over two years.

We met up at a bar called Bandido’s in the old historic district of Quito for pizza and craft beer (the latter of which is rarely seen in Latin America – such a treat!). I find it so refreshing to talk with an old friend about our respective times abroad. Though I have been moving around for a year, and she has stayed put for two, there is a lot of overlap in our general mindsets, changed perspectives, and evolving ambitions, that has come from spending so much time away from home.

The following week her and I went to a St. Patricks Day event hosted at the marine house in the US Embassy compound. We enjoyed Irish car bombs, beer, jungle juice, corn hole, and slap cup, all staples of our collegiate nights out on the town. Isn’t it funny how life comes full circle sometimes? At the US Embassy in Quito, of all places.

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The girl photobombing us, Sinead, is Irish, so I’ll let it slide given that it was St. Paddy’s Day.

On my last night in Quito, Francisco picked me up and took me to a restaurant with a fantastic, sweeping view of Quito’s skyline. There we were joined by Vivi and her boyfriend Santi. I couldn’t have imagined a better last night in Quito. An amazing view, two old friends, great food, and pitchers of Canelazo (delicious cinnamon-infused tea with a dash of liquor – an Ecuadorian mainstay).

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Seeing so many old friends in such a short time period was a blessing I can’t hope to describe. It felt good to share space with people that remind me of where I came from, especially having largely been away from the comforts of home over the past year.

Old friends are like a fine wine, they become more and more important as time goes on.

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