Today marks my last day in South America.
Of sadness, relief, overwhelming gratitude, and excitement for what's next...
The Vegan Road Trip!
We finally begin our journey across the US on August 13th, after months and months of planning. We have our crew, our equipment, our ideas and our passion packed up and ready to go. I am so blessed and honored to be working with such amazing artists, and I am forever grateful to my hundreds of supporters - this was not possible without each of you.
As I'm sitting here in the airport in Lima, Peru waiting for my flight, I can't help but reflect on the last six weeks. All the people I've met, the incredible scenes, the animals; all of the intense trekking my body supported me through - and how each of these experiences have changed me. We think people and experiences change us in small or big ways, but having allowed myself to walk through the fear of stepping outside of my busy life and taking pause to really look around me, it became so clear to me that every encounter is both big AND small. Might I expound on this for a moment?
See, that man I really loved who left (there have been a handful in my lifetime) - he was so important because he taught me how to love, right? Perhaps he was more important than the other "smaller" personal run-ins over the course of my life, or dare I say the most important? Maybe. But that's a choice I made. That was my perception in my small, busy bubble. One of the most beautiful gifts of traveling alone, is that it forces you to be present: no one to take care of you, no one to split the decision-making load, no one to watch your bags when you need to just quickly run to the bathroom at the airport. When you are in the present moment with such feverish consistence, something in your body and your spirit shifts.
I cannot tell you the number of times I sat across from someone, with a smirk wondering "Why you? Why I am here with you, now? What are you going to teach me, and how can I be of service to you my new friend?" I had this thought while climbing the Salkantay Mountain, talking to myself, muttering expletives in between gasping for air, "Why did you DO this to yourself, Alex? Are you insane...You can't do this!"
Then I remembered this book I had just read, called "Wild," by Cheryl Strayed. A woman hikes the Pacific Crest Trail on the west coast of the United States, her life a shambles, looking for answers. My mom gave me the book months ago and begged me to read it. I didn't, and then for some reason I threw it in my bag just before my trip, and finished it in Bolivia just as I started my trek. Coincidence? Maybe, or maybe it was no small encounter that the book found it's way into my life exactly when I needed it.
I'm telling you this, reader, because this goes for the good, the bad and the ugly. I think we try so hard to find meaning in everything because if we can't find it then surely we've:
Wasted our time
Lost our way
You see where I'm going with this...
I was looking forward to the last part of this trip. From Lima, I would fly to Iquitos where I was sure to be enchanted by a magical floating village of colorful shanties on the Amazon, and where I would trek into the jungle to see the most amazing wildlife. My doctor at the Healthy Travelers Clinic promised it was a worthwhile stop, and since I have a tendency to trust everyone at their word, my imagination began to run wild.
Well, the fantasy and the reality were two different stories. Upon arriving in Iquitos, and at my hostel, I was greeted by the owner, Katoo, who was... a character. Think Captain Ron, only Brazilian and not a drunk, just a little...weird. Not weird bad, just...a little weird. After an hour, he convinced my new French buddy and me to travel with a small group into The Tapiche Reserve - some land he owned deep, DEEP in the Amazon jungle. Katoo had moved from Brazil to Iquitos four years ago, after winning a substantial prize from the UN to develop a program in partnership with the local community of loggers and hunters. In exchange for work, the locals, agreed not to hunt or cut down trees during their stay on the reserve.
Katoo is deeply passionate about protecting wildlife in the rainforest. Even his t-shirt proclaimed: "We don't catch wildlife." One of his biggest gripes with the tourist industry in Iquitos is the zoo, or animal sanctuary culture, where animals are held captive so that "Rich white people can come and hold them and get a picture for their mantle." (Roughly his words, not mine). I can respect this, I thought. I say animals are not food or clothes, he says animals are not toys. I'm thinking we are on the same page. How cool. What a "big" thing that our paths are crossing.
Now, I should mention there was a girl from Poland I met on the plane. She was so excited to get to Iquitos where she would be volunteering for a month at a place called Pilpintuwasi, a butterfly farm - host to many other animals too. When she shared this with Katoo, he basically told her she was participating in an animal Nazi regime. In one instant, he crushed this girl's hopes, but she was strong and I witnessed a wildly unproductive, defensive, heart wrenching argument ensue. For twenty minutes they danced in heated circles around the topic of animal rights: two self proclaimed animal activists arguing against each other with no purpose or end-goal except to be right. It's not that I couldn't relate, but for once in my life I didn't get involved because this "small" encounter was solidifying my new understanding of effective change: acceptance. We must accept people for who they are. We don't have to agree, but pointing fingers and blaming is just never gonna work. So you have to ask yourself: "What do I really want here? Do I want to be right or do I want be heard?" As in really heard. Which means I have to be willing to hear others no matter how much I may disagree with their opinions or even values.
My trip to the reserve involved a ten hour boat ride into the jungle. It was intense, a bit scary, beautiful, and fucking "butt crack" hot, to steal a phrase from a friend.
Let's just say my trip into the wilderness didn't make me want to be a vegan any less. It only opened my heart more to these animals who I believe are not here for me to do what I want with; they are my bros and my homies, my furry friends, my greatest teachers.
(This is Tortuga. He's about 50).
Before my trip I made my vegan diet very clear to Katoo and he did an almost perfect job making sure I had totally vegan eats; there seemed to be a mutual respect. At dinner one night though, he stated rather abruptly, "I have no problem eating animals." SCREEEECH. Now, this was obvious to me as I had been witnessing his intake of meat at each meal, but putting it to words seemed confusing and odd to me. Not to mention, my ears were getting hot - a little something my body does in reaction to feelings of rage. My first thought: "Fuck you man. You're a hypocrite." My second thought: "God you are seriously weird." My third thought: "What a douche bag. Good luck with your mission, you confused small minded punk."
Then I remembered the twenty minute ping pong debate from days earlier that went nowhere. Believe me, I wanted to rail at him. I wanted to tell him he had no idea what he was talking about when he exclaimed, "I know where my meat comes from." (even though he eats meat at restaurants, and therefore definitely does NOT know where it comes from). I wanted to scream that he was part of the problem, not the solution, and he should just quit life. I know, I got mean, but I was angry, and I almost couldn't contain myself. I went to my hammock and took a breather. As I swung lazily and peacefully, I remembered my mission statement for the Vegan Road Trip: "I don't want to change your mind, I just want to cook you dinner."
Well I couldn't cook him dinner, and I had been wise enough not to engage him in a useless argument, and then all of a sudden I had this epiphany: I don't have the answer. I need more time.
And that's OKAY. I'm not perfect, and it's not my responsibility to save the world. As long as I am practicing my ever expanding principles, I am affecting change. I can be a brave example of change just by being deeply committed to my own values and sharing my beliefs with people who want to really hear me. And ya know what? Katoo's mission - his life work - it also has deep meaning and value. He, too, is imperfect and that is also okay. It has to be, or else we will all be running around like chickens with no heads.
Moral of the story? Do your best. Be honest. Accept responsibility where you need to, and most of all: try to love as much as you can and do as little harm to the world in the process.
And don't don't forget to stay tuned for the Vegan Road Trip... We will be sharing tons of pictures and stories from the road!