April 14, 2014

Rafting the Grand Canyon: Side Effects

The permit was for 25 days on the Colorado River (or as everyone in boating says, 'the Grand). Our group of sixteen put in at Lee's Ferry and took out at Pearce Ferry, with a few free days for hiking. Today, that seems like an impossibly long time to do anything. When was the last time you went truant for over three weeks? Camped out? Went without a shower?

Turns out, I was prepared for a lot of suffering that I didn't experience. I swam in the river instead of showering (does extra cold mean extra clean?) and consumed a gallon of hand sanitizer for good measure. At home I hike, camp, and do the dishes by hand, so not all was novelty. Except for one thing. We were fully disconnected from the outside world.

No emails, no phone calls, no status updates. I hadn't realized how much of my life had been recalibrated to serve technology. I am not here to tell you how bad that is. But I am here to tell you what happens on the rebound. On the river, you tell time by shadows slipping down steep canyon walls, feel the company of constellations and listen to bat serenades. Under these circumstances, normal shifts. Your hands wither and crack from so much sand and water, and no amount of lotion will save them. But you also become willing to forgo a few comforts (or habits as they might be) to live a little bit untethered. Eventually, even cold water feels good.

August 14, 2013

A Moment in Transit

I often think of flights, buses and connections as dead space. Sure I can catch up on a good book or luxuriate in a long, uninterrupted phone call to a friend while waiting in a terminal, but I don't expect too much out of the experience.

But I may am wrong about that since, particularly when travel gets hard, it gets interesting.

On a connection in Miami the other day I was forced to cross the entire airport. Think of a horseshoe: D is on one side, J the other. There is no shortcut. Between them, travelers must exit security and wait in line once again. Time ticks away. Suffice it to say, you are practically a prize-winner if you don't get lost or miss your connections.

First I followed the signs, until there were none. I asked the only person available, a woman mopping the floor, for J terminal. "Sorry no English," she said. So I had the pleasure of asking her in Spanish.

According to her it was at the end of everything. "Go and go and keep going. But first you take the Skyride two stops." A Brazilian with his small son arrived and asked for more details, then a couple of Argentine women. As we hopped on the Skyride (which whisked us about a thousand feet), I had to convince them that the first stop wasn't ours (the benefit of not being a native Spanish speaker: I actually listen).

Then I got to talking with these two spunky Cordobans, well-dressed and tan in the opposite season, dragging their purses and heavy duty free bags through the whole airport while gushing about their visit to New Hampshire and the lakes. It turned out we had a lot in common, and that the directions were good. I'd like to think that my shepherding saved us some time. Unfortunately, we had long since lost the Brazilians, who had taken the first sky ride stop.

Fast forward twelve hours and I am in Chilean customs trying to clear a bottle of crushed red pepper to make my next flight an hour away. As with every foreign edible in a country where agricultural exports are king, it causes something akin to a Senate debate. I announce my predicament to the customs official, who happens to be listening. He then does what no customs official has ever done: he whisks my cart out of inspection, jogs down the hallway and hails us an elevator to the second floor. He doesn't stop until he has me to the ticket counter.

And no, he doesn't leave his phone number.

I'm ashamed to then find out that my flight is delayed and I will spend another hour in the airport. But the goodwill in transit has had its effect. Sometimes, when you are lucky, the real connections are still there.