By Lentus Ambulandus, inspired by a brief encounter with an ultra-vagabond
We were out cycling yesterday, near a place called Curarrehue, to the east of Pucón, Chile. It was an out-and-back ride, and as we approached our turnaround point, we came across a young man walking in the opposite direction. He was pulling a two-wheeled trailer, the type you might see someone towing behind a bicycle. Actually, I wasn’t sure whether he was pulling it or pushing it…there was a bar that came across his waist, so I suppose he could pull or push, as he wished.
The Walker and I made eye contact and nodded to each other as I rode past. He was extremely fit, had long hair and a healthy beard, and generally looked like a wild man. Gotta talk to him on the way back.
We hit the turnaround point, started riding back, and soon caught up with The Walker. I pulled up beside him. He had a rucksack and a few dry-bags under a loose-fitting tarp, and there was a reflective vest strapped to the back of the trailer for safety.
Me: Hey, where are you walking to?
Me: Hablas español?
The Walker: No. Japón!
I pointed behind him, and in front of him, and raised my hand in the universal “what’s the story?” gesture.
The Walker: Ushuaia [pointing behind]. Ecuador [pointing in front].
See map image above. All in favour of calling this guy a hero of Escapology, please raise your hand and say “aye”. Ushuaia (the southern tip of Argentina) to Ecuador is around 9,000 km. 1,900 hours of walking, if you didn’t stop, according to Google. Averaging 30 km a day, with a few rest days, give yourself a year. Oh, and by the way, now that he’s through Patagonia, he still has to go up through the Atacama Desert and Peru. He’ll probably go through Cusco, which means he’ll cover some high elevation along the way.
There wasn’t much more to say. I shook his hand, saluted him, and rode off.
As I rode, I contemplated what it must be like to just take off and walk across a foreign continent, pulling a trailer. Lonely, for sure. A very healthy dose of Stoic voluntary discomfort. “Freedom” comes to mind.
What will The Walker do once he gets to Ecuador? Go back to Japan and get a day job? How does one fit back into “regular life” after such a feat? Or does the experience so change you that regular life is no longer a viable option? Mind you, if I ever find myself in the (very unlikely) position of interviewing people for a job, and there are two equally-qualified candidates, but one has just dragged a trailer across South America, I know which person I’ll hire.
The whole event makes me want to walk out the front door, pick a direction, and start walking.
By Lentus Ambulandus.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, best known for The Little Prince, was also a pioneering pilot who wrote award-winning books about flying. Between the wars, he flew for Aéropostale, the company of brave aviators charged with transporting “the mails” to some of the most inaccessible places in the world.
Early in his commercial career, he flew routes between France and west Africa, at a time when both flying and west Africa were at their heights of dodginess. Here’s a quote from Wind, Sand, and Stars. The author is preparing to risk his life by flying across the Pyrenees in less-than-favourable meteorological conditions. He has this to say about those who stay on the ground, working their desk job day in, day out:
Old bureaucrat, my comrade, it is not you who are to blame. No one ever helped you to escape. You, like a termite, built your peace by blocking up with cement every chink and cranny through which the light might pierce. You rolled yourself up into a ball in your genteel security, in routine, in the stifling conventions of provincial life, raising a modest rampart against the winds and the tides and the stars. You have chosen not to be perturbed by great problems, having trouble enough to forget your own fate as man. You are not the dweller upon an errant planet and do not ask yourself questions to which there are no answers. You are a petty bourgeois of Toulouse. Nobody grasped you by the shoulder while there was still time. Now the clay of which you were shaped has dried and hardened, and naught in you will ever awaken the sleeping musician, the poet, the astronomer that possibly inhabited you in the beginning.
Choose flight, not clay. Choose risk, not routine or genteel security. And if someone you love is in danger of becoming a termite, grasp them by the shoulder while there is still time, so that they might become a poet.
By Lentus Ambulandus.
For the last several weeks, my wife and I have been staying in a small town in the Chilean district of Los Rios, a ten-hour drive south of Santiago. We chose this place because we found cheap accommodations, there’s a lake to swim in, and the area is ideal for cycling.
Coming here has been a sort of homecoming for me. I spent the first seventeen years of my life in a village of about 200 people in western Canada, and while our current location is a little more populous, not to mention a lot more Chilean, it shares many of the same inconveniences associated with small-town isolation. Need new clothes? Sorry. Want to buy a book? Not here. A pub? Ha! Our landlady complains that she has to travel nearly two hours to Valdivia to deal with anything official in nature. Should we have a major problem with one of our bicycles, we would have to do the same. When the power was out last week, we had to wait a day for the utility company to respond.
That being said, there are clear Escapological advantages to small towns. This environment seems a better, more tolerant fit for “getters-by” who are content to do what’s required and not a lot more. Housing is certainly not fancy (the Chilean building code is openly mocked here). Nobody seems particularly concerned with appearances, so there’s no need to dress stylishly…doing so would make a person look out of place. Given the near-complete lack of things to spend money on, you simply don’t spend your money. And for those who love nature (which is usually free of charge), it is always closer at hand in a small town.
Our days here are basic, consisting of sports, lounging around in the shade reading, and eating. This may seem a little too basic for some, and to be fair, I wouldn’t want to live like this forever. But just like camping and small dwelling spaces, small towns provide another way to recalibrate your stuff-o-meter, by showing you just how little you need to live well.
As 2015 draws to a close and you once again consider your resolutions for the upcoming year, perhaps give some thought to a period of self-imposed exile, to an environment that forces you to strip away the excess and rediscover how much is enough. As someone once said:
Perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove.
From a small town in southern Chile, I wish you safe passage through the remainder of the holidays, and a new year bursting with leisure.
By Lentus Ambulandus, who is getting ready to draw another line on a map.
My bedtime reading these days is While Wandering – A Walking Companion, edited by Duncan Minshull. A collection of stories, poems, and essay excerpts dealing with all aspects of walking, trekking, and vagabonding, it’s organized by theme: “Why Walk”; “Setting Off”; “With Nature”; “On The Road”; “You Walked?” and so on.
The chapter called “How To Walk” contains practical matters of critical importance: boots vs shoes, one spare sock or two, and a discussion of the best pre-walking stimulant (tea, they say, but I disagree…experience has taught me that coffee is best in the morning, followed by beer mid-day). Among those entries is one called “Maps”, taken from Stephen Graham’s The Gentle Art of Tramping (1926).
Have you seen enough of the world? Are you sure you will rest content at Kensal Rise of Père Lachaise when the time comes? Take a map to the world and a blue pencil, go back in memory over the whole of your life, start the pencil at your birthplace and begin to draw the line of your goings to and fro in this world. How you will rejoice in yourself if you can conduct that blue pencil chart across a great ocean, across Atlantic or Pacific! The longer and more bulging and more loopy the line the more you will feel you have lived. In the later years of your life you will be able to say: ‘I was born into the world and I have seen something of it.’
Happy rambling this weekend.
By Lentus Ambulandus, who tries to be indifferent to the many insults directed at him, including those that may be figments of his imagination.
Stoic Week, Day 4.
A few years ago, when I’d already left my job but my wife was still working, someone asked me “And what do you do these days, just sit around and spend all your wife’s money?”
There’s approximately 0.0% probability that the person was joking. They may have thought that I was being smug about not working, and decided to take it upon themselves to knock me down a peg or two. The more likely scenario is that they were reacting defensively to the presence of a philosophy that ran counter to how they lived their life. More on this below.
Whatever the case, the comment bothered me immensely. After all, I did feel guilty at the time for not working, so this came across as a particularly low blow. I fumed for days, becoming a slave to my emotions.
In another example, my wife and I have drifted apart from some people who we thought were quite good friends. Perhaps they don’t feel we have anything in common anymore, because our lifestyles are so distinct. We’ll never know.
We’re probably not the only ones to face a bit of negative backlash for adopting Escapology as our philosophy of life. Perhaps your mother is like mine, forever asking, with the best of intentions, when you’ll get a decent job again. What should we do in such circumstances?
We should turn to the Stoic sages.
The good people over at Stoic Week have provided a handbook that includes, among other things, a list of maxims that the Stoic can lean on in times of duress. If I’d known about Stoicism when the aforementioned insult took place, I may have been able to pull one of these handy Epictetus quotes from my mental drop-down menu:
Some things are under my control and other things are not. [i.e. what people say]
It seemed right to them. [to say what they did]
You are nothing to me.
And once again, I direct your attention to the outstanding “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy” by William Irvine. In a chapter dealing with the practicalities of becoming a Stoic (from which I shamelessly borrowed the title for the post), he offers some advice for those adopting a philosophy of life:
Anyone wishing to become a Stoic should do so unobtrusively. This is because those who hear of your “conversion” to Stoicism will likely mock you.
Why do people behave this way? Why do they mock someone for adopting a philosophy of life? In part because by adopting one, whether it be Stoicism or some rival philosophy, a person is demonstrating that he has different values than they do.
Furthermore, by adopting a philosophy of life, he is, in effect, challenging them to do something they are probably reluctant to do: reflect on their life and how they are living it.
Fellow Escapologists, we cannot control what others think of us or say to us. We can only control what we do, and how we react.
So let them mock us, if it seems right to them.
It is nothing to us.
By Lentus Ambulandus, from his self-imposed exile.
Stoic Week, Day 2.
[Note: you can click here to download the Stoic Week 2015 Handbook]
There is a school of thought among Stoics that a little discomfort can be beneficial. The temporary loss of the good things in life, or the suppression of pleasure, makes us appreciate the good and the pleasurable all that much more.
Taking things a step further, a brief foray into downright miserable conditions teaches us that we can, in fact, survive them. And the next time we find ourselves in similar circumstances, we’ll be stronger, more prepared, psychologically inoculated. My Platoon Sergeant reminded me of this many years ago, as he observed my futile efforts to prevent the gushing rainwater from flooding my sleeping shelter:
Son, if it ain’t rainin’, it ain’t trainin’. Dig.
But according to the Stoics, there’s something even better than being forced into discomfort: purposely creating our own discomfort. And from an Escapological perspective, I have to agree.
In his excellent “A Guide To The Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy”, William Irvine devotes an entire chapter to voluntary discomfort. Seneca contemplated bad things happening, in order to appreciate what he had. The Stoic rival Epicurus practiced poverty to determine whether he really needed what he had. But it was Musonius, says Irvine, who took things to a higher level:
In particular, we should periodically cause ourselves to experience discomfort that we could easily have avoided. We might accomplish this by underdressing for cold weather or going shoeless. Or we might periodically allow ourselves to become thirsty or hungry, even though food and water are at hand, and we might sleep on a hard bed, even though a soft one is available.
Practiced regularly, exercises in voluntary discomfort teach us what we truly need, and this becomes part of our Escapological DNA. For example, I really enjoy camping. After a few nights shivering in a sleeping bag on uneven, rocky terrain, I appreciate the next warm bed I sleep in, king-sized or not. And my first shower after five days without is always the best damned shower I ever had, even if the water isn’t particularly hot, or flowing from some fancy 16-inch rain shower head.
Travel–on the cheap, especially to developing countries–might also be considered an act of voluntary discomfort. It will teach you that anything in excess of 500 square feet of living space is gravy, and that most of what people consider “essential” is ridiculous.
Toward the end of the chapter on voluntary discomfort, Irvine discusses the Stoic concept of pleasure suppression. In what might have been an early warning that the pursuit of “more” can lead to a life of cubicle servitude, we have this from Diogenes the Cynic:
With a stroke of her wand pleasure coolly drives her victim into a sort of sty and pens him up, and now from that time forth the man goes on living as a pig or a wolf.
Stoicism: it’s a gymnasium where Escapologists can go to lift weights. Go there, get strong, and don’t let yourself become a pig or a wolf.
Mendoza, Argentina. Wine country. Mountains. Beef. Etcetera. It sounded so perfect.
“Let’s go there”, she said.
We went, on a bus from Santiago.
Hyper-inflation. Unaffordable meals. ATMs without money. Broken Visa terminals. Understandably frustrated Argentines.
We left, on a plane, because it was faster than the bus.
If our four days in Mendoza can be called a fact-finding mission, then it was a very expensive one. I’d have preferred to find out in advance that restaurant prices in Argentina (in Buenos Aires, at least) are 84.58% higher than in Santiago. 1 kg of tomatoes is 96.97% higher…this, too, would have been good to know. And are you aware that 1 Summer Dress in a Chain Store (Zara, H&M, …) is 117.82% higher in Argentina than it is on the other side of the Andes?
I pulled these stats from Numbeo, “the world’s largest database of user contributed data about cities and countries worldwide”. I’d seen Numbeo previously, but completely forgot about it until I’d been slapped in the face by economic reality in Argentina. Never again…
I have no idea how accurate Numbeo is, but it’s at least generally right, based on my recent experience. And it has more than just pricing data: you can also look up perceived levels of crime, health care information, and pollution indices.
Numbeo: useful, fun and interesting. A great time waster the next time you’re bored at work. A tool for planning your escape to greener pastures (hint: don’t go to Berlin…go to Prague).
By Lentus Ambulandus, currently strolling aimlessly in Santiago, Chile
In the opening chapter of his book Reflections of a Metaphysical Flâneur, Raymond Tallis supplies an eloquent argument in favour of walking as a catalyst for seeing and thinking. While Escapologists don’t require convincing as to the benefits of walking, a little reinforcement from an alternative perspective never hurts.
…the philosopher’s walk has much to commend it. Like philosophy itself, it has few infrastructure costs, involving neither getting nor spending, apart from a negligible outgoing on shoe leather. Crucially, it has no external purpose; you end up, after all, precisely where you began and nothing visible is achieved on the way…the number of unticked boxes is undiminished, the to-do list is unshortened. The walk does not even have the aim of promoting cardiovascular health…
For we are not talking about power-walking, but strolling, which sits on the happy midpoint between doing something and doing nothing, between generating and discovering a trickle of Elsewhere that moves so slowly that it does not wash away Here.
At its heart is the primordial recreation of looking: the exercise of the fundamental freedom of one who surveys a world from the tor that is his head. You take said head out of the house, along the streets and into the park, for the primary purpose of harvesting qualia, surveying the endless treasure chest of artifacts…
For, while the aim of the peripatetic philosopher may be to untie the seeming insoluble trichobezoars that have grown up in his sedentary mind, the walk may cause him to forget those hairballs, to loosen up into a metaphysical flâneur, distracted by what he sees when he looks purely for the sake of looking. Trees, birds, vehicles, people and houses all offer themselves up to the travelling gaze; and, when the walk is going well, some of these items turn themselves into conversation pieces…
When we walk, we see things that we would not otherwise see, and we think of things we’d otherwise not think about.
Posted by Lentus Ambulandus, on escape in Colombia
We recently visited the small city of Manizales, located a few hours drive to the south of Medellin, in one of Colombia’s coffee regions.
[Aside: next time we’ll take a bus instead of renting a car, as the extra mass of a large bus will offer protection for the inevitable.]
We are in the habit of booking accommodations in advance, to avoid the hassle of searching for a room upon arrival. This is always a crap shoot, of course, as we tend to rely on guest ratings at sites like TripAdvisor. We booked online at a hotel called Quo, near the city centre. Described as “boutique” (let that be a gigantic red flag going forward), it had rave reviews and a reasonable price point due to a weekend sale.
Everything about the hotel was new, ultra-modern, and a bit too “cool”, if you know what I mean. Between the receptionist (who shamelessly lied to us by saying that the staff would be pleased to attend to our needs 24/7), and the bellhop (who insisted on escorting us to our room, pressing the elevator buttons, opening the door for us, and orienting us to the room’s features), I couldn’t help but think of Sartre’s waiter. If we were to meet these people on the street, they’d act like any other Manizaleño, and not give us the time of day. But they were “in role” and doing what they thought was expected of them.
I became increasingly irritated with the bellhop as he showed us how to turn the TV on, how to work the electric (!) blinds, and where the bathroom was (oh, okaaaay, so it’s in that other room…). I struggled to hide my pleasure when the hotel-supplied iPad failed to work.
We went to the lounge for our complimentary cocktail, only to discover that the “free” list didn’t actually include anything of interest. There’s probably a marketing term for this sleight of hand. We asked to see the menu, which was so thoroughly modern that it was nigh impossible to read. Everything on the menu seemed to be artisanal, and had some sort of reduction drizzle. Perhaps I’m uncultured, but sometimes I just want simple food.
What does artisan really mean? I thought to myself. If everything becomes artisanal, will it still be artisanal? The plates were square. The cutlery was visually interesting and rather difficult to use.
We had intended to hike the next day in nearby Los Nevados National Natural Park, but the weather wasn’t cooperating, so we began to research coffee tours. We found a finca that not only offered tours, but also had a guest house. As luck would have it, they had one room left, and we were still within the time limit for cancelling our second night at El Gran iPad Boutique Faux-Artisan Hotel.
We drove the next morning to the coffee farm. Descending from the highway into a deep valley, we crawled along a gravel road, repeatedly scraping the underbelly of the car on boulders (perfectly acceptable treatment of a compact rental car). Our arrival was heralded by several barking dogs, in various states of filth. The guest house, surrounded by fruit trees and thousands upon thousands of coffee bushes rising up the steep slopes, was old and showing some wear. I was pleased to see hammocks lining the veranda.
Upon check in, we were shown the shared bathroom, which sported a single lightbulb for illumination and offered a waste bin for soiled toilet paper (so as not to block the septic system). Our small room had two single beds, an old fan in case the heat became unbearable, and no iPad. In the common area, there was an honour bar with cheap beer and wine. There was wifi, but it rarely worked, we were told. We met the cooks, who were busy preparing a simple dinner, which would be served at 18:30, no exceptions. If we got hungry in the meantime, we could pick and eat the fruit. And if we got bored, we could walk anywhere among the coffee on the 200 hectare property.
The difference between the finca and Quo, in terms of both experience and value, could not have been more absolute. The finca was an honest, hearty plate of meat and potatoes. Quo was a pretentious, overpriced, unremarkable snack, covered in drizzle.
We dined that night at a communal table with our fellow guests: a very nice Colombian family from Medellin; two American women who vowed not to return home until they were fluent in Spanish (sounds like they’ll be down here for a while…); and some parenting heroes from Belgium, who had decided to beat the whininess out of their two young children by dragging them from one South American hostel to another via public transport for a period of six months.
When we retired to our room, we discovered a small ant colony on one of the beds. We figured out that they had been falling from a small opening in the ceiling, so we shifted the beds to be outside the drop zone. At around 05:30, a rooster started crowing outside our window. When we couldn’t take it anymore, we got up and went for a walk among the coffee.
“This is our kind of place,” my wife said.
Posted by Lentus Ambulandus
“To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”
Henry David Thoreau, urging us to walk the walk. To move beyond the mere contemplation of escape, to discard our subtle thoughts in favour of action, and to live according to the principles of Escapology.