After 5 months of travelling and moving from one place to another, I started feeling a bit lost. I had no home - no friends - no family - nothing familiar surrounding me. On the one hand I was reaching out for new experiences and big adventures - on the other hand something was pulling me back, making me yearn to connect with something - anything familiar...a voice, a taste, a sight.
This moving about was beginning to feel relentless.
You see, being on the move was exhilarating but so massively disorienting and exhausting. Imagine yourself having roots, these long spindly bits of wood dangling from your feet - connecting you to, well - life, I suppose. When you travel you leave your roots behind, cut yourself off, and after a while you find yourself a drift, and drifting - for me, felt pretty empty. Moving constantly meant I didn't have time to reflect, to analyse, to improve or change. It was just stimulus after stimulus after stimulus...and where was I?
Billy No Roots
You disconnect from your roots for long enough, you may lose a sense of who you are. Getting back to a home, a routine, and feeling connected with myself and what was around me - that was all really important, I discovered, crucial in fact, to feeling happy.
Diving off a cliff and free-falling is a huge adrenaline rush - a mad adventure. However, 9 months is a long time to free-fall. How long before the adrenaline ends? How long can you go for without roots before, like a plant you shrivel up and die?
Well, even Indiana Jones returned home to his teaching job before moving on to his next adventure.
Images courtesy: IMDB, Disney
For me it's an interesting concept - this one of roots. Travelling has for the first time made me realise I even had proper roots to begin with. I thought leaving would be easy, as I didn't think I had anything to miss. I guess, as the old saying goes: you don't realise what you've got until it's gone.
So here's me - free-falling across the globe, feeling all disconnected, suddenly conscious of a deep throbbing void, reaching out for anything familiar, comforting, warm... wait for it - McDonald's. That's right - those Golden Arches of deliciousness! That was the first sign that something was going horribly wrong. And it got me thinking.
I was free-falling hard, and McDonald's was just my little way of having a mental break, closing my eyes and taking a big tasty bite of something that tasted familiar. Then I looked at my feet - no roots. Where was I? I began looking at other people and wondered what made them so happy? I looked at their roots.
I was glad I started thinking these thoughts by the time I reached Ecuador. In Ecuador - it all became so abundantly clear.
Crossing the Colombian Border - Misery
After three excruciating days of busing it across the borders of Colombia along a slightly notorious 'Ross Kemp Extreme World' Pan-American Highway, I arrived safely albeit grumpily in Ecuador. We had two days before meeting a big group of strangers for a Galapagos Island trip. I was not looking forward to it. Just get me a beach, a bed and some wine and a healthy dose of solitude - but we were committed.
After Colombia/Ecuador border control we boarded a bus for Otavalo - a small town just north of Ecuador's capital - Quito, famous for its textiles. Seamus' good friend Dorien from Amsterdam was in Otavalo on business, so we made plans to meet her for a catch up and some sightseeing.
The bus pulled over quite suddenly on a main highway and the driver motioned for everyone for Otavalo to get off. We did so in a rush, and as the bus pulled away we realised the following 3 things:
It was raining
We were in the middle of nowhere on a motorway
We'd left one of our bags in the overhead compartment on the bus.
I stared ahead as the bus disappeared into the rainy haze and smog, helpless - my limbs flexed and ready to run after the bus, my brain telling them to stay still where they were. From the corner of my eye I saw Seamus ask a tiny man with no teeth how to get into town. My head just emptied, and misery took a hold of me. The tiny man waved down a bus for us that would take us into town.
Otavalo is a largely indigenous town where the people are famous for weaving textiles, which are sold at the Saturday Otavalo market, considered one of the most important markets in the Andes. We were in a special place but in all honesty, I just could not be arsed.
The next day, my attitude changed completely.
Ecuador and the volcano love story
Seamus' friend Dorien is the founder and director of Bufandy - an urban ethnic design company which sources Alpaca scarves from a family of textile weavers in Otavalo. Dorien was drawn to Ecuador during her time there as a Dutch tour guide. She now visits Otavalo regularly.
"With Bufandy I aim to inspire local craftsmen to look beyond their borders for world-wide demand and help them make economic progress...We work with small-scale family businesses that have limited access to international markets."
The following day Dorien took us to the home where she sources her goods, and introduced us to the family - her partners in Ecuador: Fabien and Cecilia and their three children.
I stood for a while in front of the textile house, in the beaming sunshine and glowing cornfields. Ahead of us was a huge volcano, sitting still, haze-like, a painting - not quite real looking.
Imbabura, Cotacachi and Mojanda are the volcanoes that surround Otavalo, explains Dorien. Imbabura is of significant importance to the local culture and considered the sacred protector of the region. On the western slope, an area of loose earth resembles a heart. This area, known as the "heart of the mountain" is much beloved by residents - it is said to be enchanted, as no human nor animal has been capable of scaling or hiking across it.
According to local legend, Imbabura fought with Mojanda to win the love of Cotacachi, who became his wife. When Cotacachi is snow-capped in the morning, it is said that Imbabura has been with her during the night.
It was magical - everything I was seeing and hearing - from the haze like surrounding volcanoes that hung suspended like a painting on the horizon, the cornfields glistening in the sun against brilliant blue skies - it was like being inside a giant snow globe, a magical Garden of Eden-like sphere.
We walked on into the house and had a brilliant insight into the working lives of the Otavalenos, and when I left I looked out again at this brilliant landscape and suddenly felt my spirits lift a little. This vast countryside was beautiful, like any other countryside free of 20th Century paraphernalia - but it was a very different kind of beautiful - it had meaning - it was a source of someone else's happiness. Hundreds of people worshipped and nurtured and gave meaning to this land and it resonated.
The family I had met - the children - their smiles...I mean, if smiles had words, these smiles would say "isn't it beautiful here! I'm so happy and I'm even happier that you've come to see it!"
A few weeks later I was hiking on the Quilotoa crater and took a snap of an indigenous Quichua girl. The girl didn't know I was taking her picture. She just smiled at me as she was passing.
In Ecuador I came across a land of substance, of deep meaning, GENUINE happiness and for the first time I felt roots - not my own but everyone elses. It was like they were embracing me - just for a bit, giving me a slice of much needed life, feeding my soul.
In Ecuador - the Earth rules
The more and more I tried to remember and recreate and hang onto that feeling, I remembered other cultures that I'd come across who connected to the earth in some way.
In Cuba, a Vinales cigar farmer deliberately spilled the first drop of rum from a freshly opened bottle to the ground:
"To say thank you" he explained "to the Earth for providing for my family."
In Mexico, priests wore thick heavy wooden clogs and danced, stamping their feet heavily, drinking liquor from a communal cup:
"To wake up the Earth beneath our feet, to connect with mother nature and celebrate our days here."
In one church in San Juan Chamula, locals had brought in pine needles from the surrounding forests to carpet the floor - for worship.
In Zipolite on the pacific coast of Mexico, people would congregate daily and worship the sun that would rise and set along the same stretch of water.
When you travel for a long time you learn to appreciate, through others, how important the ground is beneath your feet, and that realisation brings you closer to Earth. Us humans - well, we just need to feel connected - feel rooted, and take ourselves away somewhere magical once in a while - a change of scenery, so we appreciate a sense of coming home again - to our roots.
Connecting with the Earth in some way, makes us feel more alive in the present, and more hopeful for what we have to return to.
You don't need to go all the way to Ecuador to feel connected to life - just take notice of wherever it is you are, and appreciate it for the snow globe that it is.
I am looking forward to planting myself in the ground again, feeling it bubble alive beneath my feet. I might even adopt the Cuban ritual of spilling a drink to the earth before taking a sip - just to remind me that it's there and how good it feels, knowing that I'm connected to it.
Like Indiana Jones, I'm looking forward to having somewhere and something to come back to - my very own snow globe - whatever it'll end up looking like, and taking myself away every once in a while for epic adventures.
There's only so long you can free-fall for.
"If I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own backyard. Because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with."
- Dorothy, The Wizard of Oz -