When you’ve been on the road long enough, you start questioning your own wanderlust. You wonder whether your travels have transformed you into a better person, whether the road has given you a deeper understanding of the world, whether all those fleeting interactions have left you incapable of forging real relationships.
I found myself contemplating these questions as I hiked across the dramatic Andes mountains in Ecuador.
At the edge of the volcanic Lake Quilotoa, I gaze at the turquoise shades in the water changing with the drifting clouds. My thoughts drift along too, and I feel truly lucky to be born on Earth, because even heaven can’t possibly outdo this beauty.
In my mind, I’ve always been a drifter. But as I traverse the mountains outside of Baños, it strikes me that home is not a place but a feeling. A feeling that eludes me no matter how often I look for it.
Perhaps it eludes me because deep within, I don’t really want to find it. With a home nowhere, I have everywhere to go.
So I put out my thumb, and ride countless times in the back of pick-up trucks and in vintage cars, the cold mountain air chilling my bones, but the rush of adventure and the warmth of the locals making up for it.
What amazes me is that locals don’t always travel by road. The indigenous mountain communities walk and ride their horses on volcanic trails, commuting to work in their traditional dresses, basking in their breathtaking surroundings.
I quickly learn that the pre-colonial cuisine in Ecuador was healthy vegan food, and find modern-day variations in small cafes perched high above the mountains; quinoa tabouleh and tree tomato juice is a treat I didn’t expect in the Andes.
Even on a long hike around Lake Cuicocha, I compulsively pull out my notebook and scribble: To travel is to realize that the goal is not to get anywhere; it is merely to be where you are with all your heart.
There was a time when I was plagued by FOMO (fear of missing out) on my travels. I wanted to go everywhere, see everything. But over time, I’ve truly found JOMO (joy of missing out). As I wander around Ecuador, I have no fixed plans. I talk to locals, go on long walks, embrace unexpected adventures and find beautiful spots to read, write and just be.
Like getting on an unmanned cable car on a farmer’s assurance, to cross a deep gorge to the mountain on the other side!
I follow female shepherds from my indigenous Quichua community as they take their sheep and cows to graze, to mountain pastures covered in yellow wildflowers, in the shadow of the Imbabura volcano.
When we stop to chat, some seem bewildered to hear I’m Indian; when Columbus found the Americas, he thought he had arrived in India and christened the native people Indians. Isn’t it ironic that they mistake me for their native “Indian” community when I come from the land Columbus was looking for all along?
But I feel as far from India as I geographically am.
In fact, I feel like I’m here and now. I’m today. I’m this moment. I’m this thought. I refuse to dwell on what has been or what might be. And that’s what my travels have taught me – to live free.
When we look back at life, we won’t remember the times spent working on a laptop or watching movies on the couch or fretting over the meaning of life. We’ll only remember the times of incredible beauty and unexpected joy.
Like the time I found myself hiking on a ridge with deep gorges on either side, surrounded 360 degrees by the lush Andes. One false step and I’d become one with the mountains.
Una paloma blanca, I sing on a makeshift swing at the edge of Baños (not the famous end-of-the-world swing which is so popular, you have to queue for it). I’m just a bird in the sky.
As I stand up on the swing and face the precipice, I only remember the words of Moshe Dayan:
Freedom is the oxygen of the soul.
I spent a month traveling in Ecuador, exploring indigenous villages near Cotacachi, Laguna de Cuicocha, Laguna de Quilotoa, Chugchilan near Cotopaxi, Baños, Mindo and a bit of Quito. I’ll be writing a detailed travel guide soon!
Perhaps the best way to support Ecuador after the devastating earthquake is to travel to this incredible country. Go to safe/relatively unaffected areas and support the local economy.