Tag Archives: Travel

have ptsd, will travel

Traveling, specifically traveling alone, has been the single most important source of healing for me since I was raped. It gives me a sense of independence and personal empowerment. My problems seem smaller, my dreams get bigger, I open myself to new experiences and manage to connect with people in a way I don’t feel capable of at home.

My first solo trip was to New Orleans at age 19. Throughout my twenties I visited several cities throughout Europe, and just before I turned 30 I spent two weeks in India. I am now in Mendoza, Argentina and have been traveling in South America for a month; I have about eight weeks to go.

This trip is the longest I have taken, my first one a backpacker’s budget, and the first time I don’t have a plan. So far, it is everything I had hoped for. I have made friends, I have challenged myself physically, and I have said yes when I was inclined to say no. But no matter how deep into the jungle, or far out into the desert I go, I can not actually escape my real life. And my real life includes PTSD.

I started my trip in Bogotá and spent a week in a hostel full of wonderful people. On my second night there, I woke myself up around 3am crying loudly. I noticed that I had woken my roommates as well, but they were gracious enough to pretend it had not happened. I could not fall back asleep because I was ashamed.

A few days later I went out with those same roommates, looking for a party. I am more than capable of having a good time, and I have been known to enjoy a few too many drinks. But all I could think about that night was that I shouldn’t “put myself in that position” again. Those are words used by people I love to describe the night I was raped. I had been drinking, so it was partially my fault. I have been advocating for survivors for a few years, I tell all of them it is not their fault. I should listen to myself, but my voice is drowned out by so many others telling me I should have prevented it from happening to me.

Our group split into two, and I ended up with a group of five men – all of whom seemed like great people – enjoying a few beers in a bar that wasn’t too crowded. In my peripheral vision I noticed one of the guys pick up my beer. He put it back down next to me and I asked what he was doing. He told me he thought it was his, and apologized. Someone made a joke about date rape, not knowing how it feels to someone who has been drugged and raped. With a joking demeanour, I insisted that he drink my beer. He didn’t want to (I would not want to drink a stranger’s beer) but I teased him until he did. He took a tiny sip and put it down and said he wasn’t thirsty. I don’t know if there were drugs in the drink, or if he just thought I was a crazy person. But my reaction killed the mood and we all went home soon after. I lay in bed awake that night, embarrassed by my behaviour.

A few nights later in Medellín, I went out again. One of the guys in our group made me feel uneasy, but I went along anyway. I had travelled from Bogotá with R, and I trusted him. I pulled him aside and asked if he would look out for me, making sure I wasn’t left alone with the others. He said of course, as if it was a given, and he didn’t seem at all surprised by my concern. His reaction was validating, but that night I lay in bed awake again, wondering why I stayed out despite a feeling that I was not safe.

Last night in Mendoza was the worst I have had so far, I didn’t sleep at all. I am staying in a 6 bed dorm in a hostel and yesterday, two new guys arrived: one from Turkey and one from Colorado. They are both friendly and interesting, we have traveled to many of the same places. But something is wrong. The man from Colorado scares me. It is nothing he said or did, but my gut is screaming at me that something is just…off.

He is sleeping on the top bunk, above me. Last night, he got up to go to the bathroom and I had a full blown panic attack. Sixteen years ago, and again 13 years ago, I was raped while I slept, both times by men I knew. I have been staying in hostel dorms for a month now, one night I even slept in a train station. Before this, I have not been scared. Last night I lay awake all night, I wanted to sleep but flashbacks haunted me whether me eyes were open or closed. Every time the man above me shifted in his sleep and the bed moved, my body tensed and I could not breathe.

I know, logically, he is not going to rape me; but it is impossible to reason with myself in these moments because I am not even here. I am 6,000 miles away. I am not a confident, independent, experienced traveler. I am a sixteen year old girl who blames herself for what happened.

In all of the trips I have taken, to countries all over the world including those known for high rates of sexual violence, I have never been scared like this. I will be in this hostel for two more nights. I considered moving to a private room, or even another hostel, but I can’t let fear push me around like that. I will listen to my gut and stay away from the man, to the extent I can. And I will sleep during the day and spend my nights awake in bed, wondering what other ways PTSD has yet to affect my life. Just when I think I have it under control, it manages to surprise me.

 

This post also appears on The When You’re Ready Project blog. I couldn’t decide where it fits, but I think the whole point is that you can’t separate being a survivor with being…well…anything else. 

The When You’re Ready Project is a community for survivors of sexual violence to share their stories and have their voices heard, finding strength in one another.

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Caño Cristales, The River of Five Colours

It is difficult to explain this experience with words, so I will only use one: magical.

I am actually using a few more words, in case you want to experience this for yourself. Scroll down to the bottom for the best pictures or check out the full album on Facebook

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When I began planning my trip, I knew I would start in Colombia – mainly because it was the cheapest flight from Toronto. I talked to a friend from Bogotá to get some ideas and supplement what I had read on blog and in guide books, and he told me about Caño Cristales. It is a surprisingly unknown tourist destination, possibly because of the effort and expense required to get there. It wasn’t even listed in Lonely Planet, nor is it in the first three pages of Trip Advisor results. I am glad my friend told me about it, as soon as I saw the photos I decided it was something I needed to see. So I added it to the top of my list:

  1. Caño Cristales, Colombia
  2. Salar de Uyuni (Salt Flats), Bolivia
  3. Iguazu Falls, Argentina/Brazil
  4. Cuevas de Mármol, Chile
  5. Torres del Paine, Patagonia, Chile

I spent several days trying to figure out how to do it in a way that was affordable, but it could not be done. I decided to go with a tour company, www.cano-cristales.com. It was the least expensive, but it was a great experience and I recommend working with them. The website isn’t easy to understand in terms of pricing, but as soon as I emailed them I got a response in perfect English that broke down all of the prices and options for me. They were very responsive as I planned my trip, and had no problem with me making a few changes at the last minute.

I paid just under COP 1,000,000 (CAD $450; USD $340) for two days and one night, with travel to/from Villavicencio. Needless to say, this, like the caves, was way outside my budget but something I deemed necessary. This is becoming a theme, and will likely result in me cutting my trip short before November. I am okay with that.

In hindsight, I would have paid more money and gone straight there from Bogotá. I saved about $150 by going through Villavicencio but it was the third worst city I have been to (behind Cleveland, Ohio and Lille, France). I won’t go into detail, just take my word for it.

I went to the tiny airport in Villavicencio early in the morning to catch a charter flight to La Macarena. I was worried about whether they would let me take full size liquids in my carry on, until I saw my boarding pass.

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We landed in La Macarena less than an hour later, at an even smaller airport with even more sophisticated technology.

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La Macarena is now on my list of favourite cities – probably somewhere in the top 10 next to Oviedo, Spain.

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There are only a few dirt roads in La Macarena but they are lined with shops and restaurants, two pool halls and several other businesses that appear to be doing well.

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My tour guide, Pablo, picked me up at the airport and saw me to my hotel. I had a late breakfast and we set out for Cristalitos. Not before picking up this stylish hat, though. You can’t wear sunscreen in the river, hence my look.

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We took a boat less than 10 minutes and arrived at the bottom of the trail to Cristalitos (another colourful river, but not the main one). There is a little shop next to a turtle sanctuary. They hatch them and let them grow big enough, then release them into the river. They also have a pet monkey. It shat on me.

 

We hiked up a short hill to Cristalitos. It was a bright and sunny day so the red algae was beautiful. We only saw two other tours (groups of only two) and could have easily waited a few minutes and had the whole area to ourselves

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We had brought along a tasty lunch in environmentally friendly packaging.

I didn’t swim on the first day, I was too afraid of the sun and swimming isn’t really my thing anyway.

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After lunch, we headed back to La Macarena. I hung out for an hour or so in the park in the middle of town. There is free Wifi, which draws everyone there as a gathering point.img_2603

I made a friend named Santiago who is learning English. We practiced speaking and I promised I would go to Alaska with him in two years.

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Next, I met Pablo to walk to the traditional Colombian dinner and program. They had singing and dancing, the kids were adorable and incredibly talented.

It was all fun and games until the little one asked me to dance. My teacher was patient and forgiving of my two left feet and severe lack of rhythm.

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The next day, we got up early for the main event: Caño Cristales. Another short boat ride, followed by a seemingly long ride in the back of a 4×4, and we were there. We arrived at about the same time as 20 other people, but didn’t see them again once we set out. There are several trails and since many in the other group were older and/or mobility impaired I think they took a different trail.

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Caño Cristales is much bigger and more spectacular than it’s little brother Cristalitos, but since it was an overcast day the colours were not as bright.

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I actually went swimming. That is twice in one week, a record for this aquaphobe.img_2670img_2686img_2690img_2691

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In my third week in Colombia, I managed to:

  • Cross two things off of my must-do list (this and the caves)
  • Confront my fears of swimming (twice) and birds so that I could have some great experiences
  • Break in my hiking shoes
  • Completely destroy any hope of sticking to my budget
  • Speak only Spanish for several days (with the exception of my friend Santiago, with whom I practiced some English in exchange for his help with my Spanish

Do I recommend Caño Cristales? Well, once I decided I had to see it, I had to see it. It was expensive, and it took me more than a day of travel on each side, but I am glad I went.

I do not recommend it for solo travellers, as the tours are private. I had imagined being in a group, but I got my own guide. This would have been wonderful if I were with friends or  a partner, but was a little bit awkward. I went for two days (the minimum) to try and keep the cost down. There are at least five more things in the area that I could have seen if I stayed longer, and I could have readjusted my visit to the river for a sunnier day. I would go again, if only to spend more time in La Macarena.

 

caves, at last.

 

The most popular day trip from Medellín is to Guatape, but I skipped it in favour of Río Claro for reasons that will soon become obvious.

Río Claro is a nature reserve about three hours from Medellín. I struggled for hours on the internet trying to figure out which bus would take me there, what my options were for lodging, etc. In Colombia, things are best done in person. I walked into the office in Medellín and walked out 45 minutes later with everything set to leave the following day. Ximena treated me like family. She offered to have her husband pick up my bus ticket for me, she made sure my onward bus ticket was waiting for me at the registration desk, she arranged for the driver to pick me up in between stops in the middle of the night, and she called several times while I was there to make sure everything was going fine.

The trip was off to a great start, and only got better.

 

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I took an early morning bus, arriving in Rio Claro at 11am. I checked into my room, which, at COP 90,000 was quite expensive for my budget. However, it was necessary for reasons that will soon become obvious. The price included meals, and I would be saving money by taking an overnight bus the following night, so I justified the expense. After two weeks in hostel dorms, even the bit of privacy was heavenly. One whole wall was open to the jungle, there were no bugs, and there was a thunderstorm at night.

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Now, for the reason I came…the Caverna de los Guacharos (Cavern of the Oil Birds).

I started to develop an interest in caves a few years ago based on travel related instagram accounts I follow. This fascination grew into an obsession, apparently. I didn’t realize how much I talked about it until earlier this year in Barcelona. My friend Nathan introduced me by saying, “this is my friend, Lauren, she is really into caves.” Nathan, and several others, were thrilled to hear that I finally got to go into a cave (actually, I went into a cavern – caves have only one entrance, and caverns have two).

The excursion is described on the website (using Google Translate) as follows:

Go through the bowels of the earth to live a unique and unforgettable experience. This cave carved by the Bornego broken, which still runs on its soil, is 400 meters long, with monumental halls of high domes studded with hanging stalactites nesting unknown “guacharos” (Endemic Birds of Colombia and Venezuela in danger of extinction). From the entrance to the exit long continuous naturally sculpted marble galleries are crossed. Observe the different formations and textures of its rocky walls, shadows and reflections of light after speleothems and folds, is an amazing adventure that will leave its mark on your memory.

To reach it you have to take a hike by trail, smelling of forest, the forest of elves.

The website uses the following photos to set expectations:

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Photos from Río Claro website

I imagined we would go for a little walk, wade through some puddles, and check out some stalactites. I have never in my life had an experience so undersold! I have no pictures of my own because I didn’t bring my camera, but it did, as promised, leave its mark on my memory.

We started out with a safety briefing that I didn’t really understand, but I figured it couldn’t be too complicated to just walk and follow the guide. Our “hike by trail” was in fact the most intense hike I’ve ever done. We had to climb up a very steep hill and back down, balancing on jagged and slippery marble rocks. I suppose it was technically a trail, but that would be generous. It was more like a route through the jungle. We went through a primary rainforest (a virgin rainforest), stopping along the way to admire a highway of ants carrying leaves, tropical flowers found nowhere else, and a massive colony of termites. It wasn’t the same without David Attenborough narrating, but it was amazing nonetheless.

If the website had accurately described the hike, I probably would not have gone. I’m not in great shape and I would have worried about hurting my back. I was indeed in a lot of pain the next day but it was absolutely worth it. And I learned a good lesson about saying yes to challenges.

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Ximena had advised me to purchase some water shoes from the Exito (grocery store). They are the ugliest shoes I have ever seen and the soles separated within an hour…but at least my normal shoes weren’t filled with guano.

 

About an hour later, we arrived at the entrance for another safety briefing. This time, the concern was for the safety of the Guácharos (“oil birds”) that live inside the caverns. We had to be careful not to hurt them by shining our lights at them. Guacharos are considered the missing link between bats and birds; they are nocturnal, use sonar, and they are terrifying. Indigenous people thought they were witches, and when you hear their scratchy cawing it is difficult to disagree. Did I mention I fucking hate birds? I fucking hate birds.

 

The journey started out as advertised: walking through a stream that was up to our ankles, sometimes shins. Pretty soon, we were jumping into pools of water up to our waist and I was thinking this is the coolest thing I have ever done. Then the guide said “Guano. Keep mouth closed. Don’t touch walls.” We made it into the main room (pictured above) and turned off our lights for two minutes to let our eyes adjust to the dark. When we turned the lights back on, we could see more of the detail and appreciate how incredible nature is. We were half way through the cavern.

There were two guides, one behind and one ahead of the group of twelve. After our stop in the main room, the first guide jumped into a pool and went in over his head. The water levels change so much, he is jumping in blind each time, even though he does this at least once per day. He bobbed above the water and said “profundo” (deep) and motioned us to come along. The rest of the journey involved more deep pools, swimming between narrow passages, and rushing water all around. He told us to keep our eyes closed as well. Guano. I don’t know if I was more disgusted by the idea of shit in my eye, or the image of Jim Carrey that was now in my head.

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Photo from Río Claro website

The journey ended with a rope ladder descending out of the Mouth of the Marble Cavern, and a swim back across the river (assisted by a rope). This photo is taken from far away, it is at least a 15 feet drop to the river below.

Going into the experience, I was a bit nervous that I would be disappointed after years of dreaming about caves, but no way. I am just as obsessed as before and now I have a story to tell. I’m glad the website undersold it, and glad I did something I would have otherwise been afraid to do.

I hate birds, I hate swimming, and I hate having shit in my eyes. But I fucking love caves.