Over the past few months, the rains were strong in the eastern parts of Ecuador. Landslides buried roads, rivers swallowed bridges. We drove over a mechanical bridge, spanning a torrent of brown water rushing down the mountainside. Welcome to the Andes, home to the world’s few tropical glaciers, the páramo ecosystem, and where it can be raining on one side and dry on the other, and the source of the mighty Amazon.
Parking the Rainbow and sleeping next to a roaring river is a fascinating experiment with white noise. Whitewater puts you to sleep, wakes you up, and eventually becomes indiscernible from your thoughts and daydreams. Then you reach the point, where in order to hear the river, you have to stop listening to yourself. Rivers are more than just night music, they are deadly.
We heard reports in Baños de Agua Santa that several people are still missing, likely swallowed by the Pastaza River. As the waterway surged, people and houses fell into the drink. Then we were told that some of these homes had already been rebuilt following the volcanic explosions of nearby Tungurahua. Pachamama is tough; she provides for man, but also destroys. Losing your home to mother nature twice in a decade might make a man examine his faith in God, or at least guilt-trip an over-idolized god.
Twisted around the continent, the Andes Mountains are young (20 million years old) when compared to a mountain range like the Appalachian (480 million years old). They are unpredictable adolescents, prone to earthquake and volcanic outbursts and floods and landslide tantrums. The 7,000-kilometer-long mountain chain is just beginning to grow, evolve, and settle into its new home in South America.
Like a troubled teen, every year, the Andes dispense natural disasters, exploding weaknesses, sliding into the earth. If you live here long enough, in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, or Chile, the tectonic faulting and thrusting, the insanely steep mountainsides, the many fault lines, the pyroclastic pressure and torrential rain is going to find you.
I’ve lived in South America for 7 years, yet several earthquakes, volcanic explosions, and landslides later, somehow I don’t feel that my life is at risk. There will be no earthquake today, so goes the thinking. South Americans might not feel the same; my Chilean wife considers earthquake preparedness, from structural strength to emergency exits, just as I worry about water sanitation or getting the Wi-Fi password.
Natural disasters get a lot of attention. But driving a campervan is also a dangerous commitment. Even if you get down the Panamerican Highway with no floods or landslides, you’re exposing yourself to large amounts of risk when compared with life in an apartment on Quiet Avenue in Anywhere, USA. In fact, driving is the single most dangerous activity humans do every day.
Overlanding epitomizes the epic road trip, and risk factors increase by choosing scenic routes over straightforward paved highways, or trying to get the perfect campsite on the side of a volcano, or parking on a beach at low tide. Roads, such as those in Colombia, lack passing lanes, reflectors, lights, and fall apart, sometimes before your eyes. Plus, you are putting serious kilometers on the dashboard, all while trying to avoid potholes and poor drivers, fiddling with your GPS device, and disciplining your children bouncing around in the back seat.
A campervan road trip involves more risk than just traffic accidents. We are vulnerable in other ways. We bet all the comforts and security of the settled life against the uncertainty of the journey. We quit one job or ignore offers for another. We spend our savings. And those who travel as a family, as we do, put an inordinate amount of faith in relationships. Few couples get married thinking they might end up living in a campervan in Ecuador or Peru or wherever. Each of these so-called sacrifices is a layer of protection removed in order to move freely, to experience a type of freedom different from the typical two-week holiday. In the Rainbow, we are doing it with children, risking even more.
Back in Ecuador, the rain softened to a drizzle. Fortunately for me, in the town of Cuyuja, east of Quito, a famous basalt climbing wall manages to stay dry. The 60-meter face is the perfect mix of dimensions, texture, and long, flowing sport climbing routes. Beyond the base of the wall, the drizzle has turned everything into a moist sponge. In this landscape, Ignacia is left with the kids to find creative ways to enjoy rainy day activities inside the Rainbow, all while I climb with Diego, an old friend whom I haven’t seen for 10 years.
When we wake up the next morning, a “night butterfly”, which is how Elisa refers to moths, fell victim to the night’s rainfall, drenched and motionless in the window seal. At breakfast, we even comment the night butterfly’s fall from grace. After a half-day’s climbing in near-perfect temperatures, I return to the campervan to find Elisa overexcited about a miracle she had just witnessed.
Around noon, when the rainfall had ceased, the moth awoke from its drunken stupor. At first, the moth just flapped its wings, twitching like an insect with a short-circuit. And then suddenly he was gone, flying forth on his journey. Elisa screamed in joy and applauded the courageous moth that spent a night in the window seal of our campervan.
We chose to become the moth, fragile to the elements, but resilient. We too have shed the protective cocoon. We no longer have a house with walls, a fence and a gate, or a security guard in the lobby of our building. We also have no clear view of where we might spend our next night, next to a river, in somebody’s yard, or in a rainstorm on an exposed window seal. A virtue of this campervan life is the revelation of this fragility, which only then allows us to experience the intensity offered by this lifestyle. We are exposed. We live outdoors. Our skin and bones adapt to the van, adapt to the climate, and must accept the unpredictability of the Andes.
While living our daily lives of traffic, work, and family, we tend to overlook the need to expose ourselves to the elements. Exposure allows us to remove mythical boundaries, and expertly merge with the world. If you are a moth, can become water, and fly away when the sun comes out, the experience will enrich your life like you’ve never known. Taking the risk can be frightening, but risk-taking is one of few paths leading to new experiences.
If you do not take the risk now, then when?
Remember that no matter what happens, nothing can ever replace the experience.