On my final afternoon in Barichara, a tiny, beautiful, impossibly tranquil Colombian mountain town I have now decided is heaven, I dropped in to a sweet bakery and coffee shop for a rainy-day cappuccino. A Colombian woman, around 50, asked if she could park her bags and herself at my table. Of course. For me, meeting locals is really the whole point of traveling.
My new friend Shoya is a painter and also rents rooms to tourists. She would like to organize artistic tours of Barichara to show visitors the artistic side of the city: sculptors’ studios and the beautiful interiors of Barichara homes. My Brazilian friends Roma and Iracema and I stayed in a couple’s home, sort of an informal bed and breakfast worthy of being written up in Conde Nast Traveler, that only cost $17 a night. The interiors are indeed stunning. The ceilings are about twenty feet high and have exposed driftwood beams, the floors are large cobblestones, and every windowsill and bookshelf was adorned with a piece of unexpected art. My shower consisted of water that shoots over a piece of rock, creating the sensation of taking a shower out in nature.
Shoya and I talked about writing, sculpture and painting, and how to avoid suffering during the creative process, when the answer to a problem is not yet clear. It sounded like she had spent enough time in solitude painting. While she loves painting, the solitude is not always fun or easy. So she wants to spice up her life doing other things she enjoys.
Somehow conversation turned to San Francisco’s cable cars and the enjoyment of life. She asked me about the cable cars, and I said, yes, they are great but they are for tourists. Why, she said. I explained they don’t help me get where I need to go. And that in twelve years of living in San Francisco I never even took a cable car.
In my thirteenth year, I decided that I wanted to take a cable car. I wanted to enjoy life and somehow taking a cable car–doing a touristy thing in my own town–became symbolic of enjoying life. I told her I wanted to “disfrutar la vida,.” I finally took a cable car ride with my best friends Jenny, Liz, Sonya, and Adam, and Jenny and Adam’s son Kai as part of a scavenger hunt we organized for Jenny’s birthday. None of us had ever gone on a cable car before. The ride was magic.
My new Colombian sculptor friend immediately latched on to this phrase, “disfrutar la vida,” and become quite animated.
It’s not so hard to enjoy life, she said. You don’t have to buy a ticket to Paris. You just have to decide you want to enjoy life and make small dreams come true. Her friend has a dream that their friends will gather and cook five sauces to try with bread. That’s not so hard, she told me. so we are doing it, Wednesday. She had gone to visit a friend’s beautiful finca, or coffee farm, nearby, on that day, which she told me was “muy rico.”
In many ways, I think that’s what this trip for me has been about—proving to myself that life is first and foremost to enjoy. That it’s not about work first, or even worse yet, suffering. Work has been the way that I have proven to the world that I am valid. I couldn’t imagine an identity without some kind of output validating my existence, a very American way of seeing.
For the longest time, I have moved around with the belief that life is hard. Somehow this became an unexamined belief for me, that anything worth publishing or releasing to the world would require a lot of sweat and frustration, and that in order to enjoy the positive sides of a trip, for example, I would spend an equal amount of time in agony deciding the the best place to go. Every pleasure required a pain.
To make enjoying your life the center seemed hedonistic to me in previous incarnations of myself. I worked in a consumptive way on my books or magazine or Internet startup. I would meet people in San Francisco who had travelled extensively. I didn’t even get that there was a world of pleasure out there that I was missing.
Now that I have been traveling for most of 2010, my life has been focused on pleasure and learning and exploration. Not that traveling has been all fun. It hasn’t been. It’s been grueling at times, and confusing much of the time, but the whole experience has been so rich—denser in learning, new experiences, interesting conversations than staying in one place ever was.
A new Swiss friend (who is half Portuguese) told me about a Portuguese expression about “walking through life like a donkey.” Walking through life like a donkey means that you are blind to everything around you, focused only on work, chores, maybe the gym. You don’t seek out new fun, food or learning.
My life pre-traveling had some overtones of walking through life like a donkey. Cooking the same foods, going to the same bars, listening to the same pop song. I don’t want to be overly dramatic and say that I lived the most donkey-like life in the world, because I didn’t. My life was interesting and filled with some adventures. But come Saturday, I rarely planned some fantastic outing like the ones I am regularly going on now while I am traveling. I often was content to stay home and listen to public radio and do my laundry. I didn’t pursue a sport that I genuinely loved. I didn’t cook myself great meals to enjoy life.
When I go back I don’t want to walk through life like a donkey anymore. Or, as another traveler helped me articulate, I don’t want to go back. I want to go forward. I want to consciously decide to enjoy life every day when I wake up in the morning. I know that bringing the traveling spirit home may be biggest challenge of all, continuing to infuse life with newness and joy, and not get lost in my everyday habits. But I don’t want to predict that it will be hard. I want to expect that deciding to enjoy life at home too is possible.
I bought a beautiful piece of art at a paper atelier in Barichara, which they made for me so that I could carry a smaller size in my backpack. It’s a piece of driftwood with hundreds of tiny circles of colored artesenal papers floating on strings with beads on the end, paper they make at the atelier. It’s totally my aesthetic and when I saw it I was just transfixed. I am starting to imagine a new home where I can enjoy beauty on a daily basis with new art (not just the stuff I collected for ten years and didn’t even see anymore.) And where I can cook new recipes and listen to new music. Have friends over to eat and play games and watch movies and be silly. Sing Brazilian songs to myself. And plan future travels with a minimum of deliberation and agony.