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COMING OF AGE IN THE ANDES: A Shoestring Adventure Through South America #1

in Travel

''Do not imagine that the journey is short. One must have the heart of a lion to follow this unusual road, for it is very long. One plods along in a state of amazement, sometimes smiling, sometimes weeping.''

Farid Ud-Din Attar - The Conference of the Birds: A Sufi Fable

‘’So this is it?’’

‘’What do you mean Mattie?’’

‘’I mean…is this the whole world? ‘’Um…yes Mattie.’’

‘’What? How’s that possible?! This can’t be all that there is!’’

I had this exchange with my Mom when I was 5. I guess all the pictures of faraway places that she used to stick above my cot turned me a little curious for a 5 year-old. I grew up reading Asterix & Obelisk, Archie and Tin-Tin comics…but also National Geographics.

Pretty soon the world looked completely fascinating to me. I remember writing lists of all the countries I wanted to go to, and the adventures I wanted to have. I still do that from time to time. I even used to make up my own worlds...OK, I don’t think I do that anymore.

As a boy I got to do some pretty awesome things and see some amazing places. My brother Mark and I were hiking up mountains before we were jumping on jumping castles. Before I was a teenager, we had been on 4x4 cross-country trips to Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Lesotho…and all around South Africa. Those trips fostered in me a genuine love of nature…and adventure. I spent many nights laying on my back gazing at the stars, pondering life’s ‘big questions’. Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going?

My big questions were philosophical on the one hand, and socio-cultural on the other. And I asked myself why some people are poor, and why others are rich…and why people are treated in certain ways because of the color of their skin. It didn’t make sense to me. Before I read any history books, it frustrated and saddened me to see people suffer.

I remember one chilly evening when my Mom and I were at the shop in Newcastle (where I was born and spent the first 10 years of my life). As we walked out of the shop – carrying snacks and treats for the night – I saw a young black boy on the side of the street. He was dressed in dirty, torn clothes and didn’t have any shoes. In the one hand he held a small begging tin, and in the other a scrunched up bottle of glue…his morphine against cold, hunger, and desperation. He looked scared and sad.

‘’Why is that boy on the street Mom?’’

‘’Uuuu, he’s a streetchild Mattie.’’

‘’Where’s his Mom and Dad?’’

‘’Um, I don’t know Mattie.’’

‘’Well where is he going to sleep tonight?’’

‘’Probably on the streets here somewhere.’’

‘’You mean he doesn’t have a home?’’

‘’No Mattie…I don’t think so.’’

‘’That’s not right! We have to take him home with us Mom!’’

‘’Mattie we can’t do that.’’

‘’WHY NOT?!’’                                                                                                           

‘’Mattie, we are not taking him home, he doesn’t belong to us! Now get in the car!’’

‘’If he was a white boy you would’ve taken him!’’

My Mom didn’t respond, moved by my outcry yet quite taken aback and not really sure what to say. I was just 6 years old.

Throughout my childhood and adolescence I was deeply concerned with trying to make a difference to the lives of those less fortunate than myself. I got the amazing opportunity to start my high school career at Kearsney College in Durban; one of South Africa’s premier private all boys schools. I started going to the rural Transkei in the Eastern Cap to take part in community service trips. I taught informal lessons in schools, helped improve the schools facilities, and coached soccer, rugby and cricket. At the end of my grade 9 year I had amassed over 500 hours of service; the most by any student in the history of Kearsney College.

I was also part of a development initiative that gave boys from rural schools the chance to be coached at Kearnsey and play rugby against local, more affluent schools. If I wasn't already enough of a humanitarian at such a young age, I also approached the principal of Kearsney with various proposals aimed to allow students from the poor valley areas nearby to spend time at Kearsney and benefit from the excellent academic, sporting and cultural opportunities available. The main program that I came up with was called the ‘Starfish Proposal’, which I wrote toward the end of my second year at Kearsney. I’d like to share a few excerpts from that proposal with you.

Criticism of Kearsney College as a concave of white, rich boys has been too readily justified. As a school we need to address this area of neglect and figure out how we can use our own resources as means of rectifying this issue. It had been eight years since Nelson Mandela and the ANC revolutionized South Africa and its sociology, but still in schools like Kearsney black boys are not as deeply integrated into Kearsney life as white boys are. There is a tremendous amount of intolerance and lack of empathy when the average Kearsney boy is faced the prospect of sharing a school with different people.

Kearsney College: The Independent Boy’s School, Learning Today, Leading Tomorrow. How independent are Kearsney boys when it comes down to making an empathetic contribution to mankind? Are we doing enough to do ourselves justice? Someone once said; to whom much is given, much is expected. No one can change the time and circumstance granted to each human being, all we can do is to make the best of the time that is given to us.

For the record, my proposal was never initiated. I think the then principal was a little intimidated by some of my ideas and probably wasn’t too keen on encouraging such ‘revolutionary’ thinking. As much as I had benefited from the wonderful opportunities at Kearsney – most significantly all my community service experience – I decided to close that chapter of my schooling and move to Hillcrest High, a co-ed government school in the same area. The ‘learning today’ – at least academically – was great at Kearsney, but there wasn’t too much ‘leading tomorrow’ in my opinion. More personally, I was tired of the verbal and emotional abuse that I and so many others at the school had to endure, of the gross intolerance to human and cultural differences, and of the stark ignorance of our country’s social issues.

I gradually moved away from being so driven and serious – both at school and in my personal and social lives – and started giving myself more time to have fun and enjoy others’ company more. Along with some close friends I began experimenting with marijuana. The mild psychedelic effects of the herb helped open me up to some really interesting trains-of-thought. I started to realize that as much I was committed to making a difference in other peoples’ lives through humanitarianism, I also needed to commit myself to developing my personality and my thinking on life, the universe…and everything else. Whilst at Kearsney I had gone through a brief, yet very fervent phase with Christianity. And I had always been extremely concerned with doing the ‘right thing’, not willing to take any risks or do anything too spontaneous. It was time to relax a little, ‘let loose’ at parties and family gatherings, and expose my mind to different ideas.

I had always wondered where the hell the universe had come from, and what the purpose of life was. I started reading like mad, soaking up everything I could and spending hours and hours in deep thought. I read some of the great novelists; John Steinbeck, John Grisham, Wilbur Smith and Paulo Coelho among them. I also started delving deeply into books on spirituality and metaphysics; both ‘new’ and ‘old’ school. I read Neil Donald Walsch’s Conversations with God series, James Redfield’s Celestine Prophecy trilogy and Richard Bach; Illusions being my favorite of his books. I also started getting into Buddhism, and influenced by the Dalai Lama’s inspirational writings I began meditating. Rigorous debate and fascinating conversation bubbled around the dinner table, and with friends in and outside of school. The intellectual journey was exciting. My close friends and I were learning about how to work with ‘energy’, extra-sensory-perception (ESP), telepathy, and how to cultivate compassion, empathy and wisdom through mindfulness and meditation.

I cruised through high school not really knowing exactly what I wanted to do with my life. Travel. Go on adventures. Write. Study most likely. During my matric year I started getting into books on mountaineering, snow and ice climbing in particular. Chris my American stepdad had turned me onto the subject. In his youth he’d climbed in Alaska, Ecuador and Peru…doing some pretty radical solo and paired climbing…unguided and alpine style. The daring, heroic tales of climbing legends like Whimper, Mallory, Hillary, Messner, among others, really gripped me.

I knew that I wanted to travel the following year. Where, I wasn’t sure though. I just had to go somewhere different, somewhere mysterious. Somewhere where I could have a totally new and challenging experience. Somewhere where I could broaden my world view and perspective on life.

I was curious to hear more about Chris’s climbing life, and was treated during many evenings around the dinner table to intriguing accounts of his adventures…mostly set against times and places in South America. It was largely due to his influence that this became the only place that I wanted to go to. I wanted to see the Andes. I wanted to go to climb mountains. I wanted to have a real adventure. I was longing for an adventure. I couldn’t think of anything else. My life was great; I had wonderful friends and family, and really enjoyed playing sports and going out.

Yet it was all too easy, and predictable, and comfortable. It was time to push myself out of that ‘comfort zone’, and into a new realm of experience. If I look back on the idea now, I realize how crazy it actually was. Traveling to a completely strange place all on my own, and, without any climbing experience or experience in alpine landscapes, planning to somehow conquer some mountains. Yet it was the craziness of it, the ‘far-out factor’ that completely hooked me to the idea of adventure high in the Andes.

Chris sponsored my first bunch of climbing gear; a 50m rope, 2 harnesses, 2 figure of 8’s, and 2 carabiners. The first thing he taught me to do was how to ‘prussic’, a technique used to support a climber up or down a rope in emergency situations…situations where your life depended on the method. In the months leading up to my departure for South America, I practiced prussicking for a few hours every day, until I could do it with my eyes closed. My big adventure was looming nearer. My excitement was growing day by day.

To my great fortune, I already had one foot in the door. Thomas – a brother of my stepmom – had a hacienda in Patagonia. Soon it was arranged that I would fly to Buenos Aires and then bus across Argentina to meet Thomas at his farm in the peaceful alpine village of El Bolson. This was to be my base for the first 2 months of my adventure. The rest of my trip was very open-ended. I had no itinerary, no set plans, no ‘definites’. The only thing I absolutely wanted to do of course, was climb mountains. The uncertainty of what I was going to do really attracted me. No schedules. No deadlines. No responsibilities (well, not that I had too many of those!). This was my chance to get to know myself better, to challenge myself in new arenas.

I was so fortunate to have a family that was completely behind me, so supportive of my dreams and ambitions. I was never pressurized into immediately getting a job or going to university. Instead a gap-year option was actively encouraged and planned for.

After sailing through my final exams and enjoying camping trips and endless parties, I was started getting ready for South America. South America. It started developing in my mind as the next chapter – almost as a new book - in my life…the great adventure of my teens. I could barely contain my excitement. On the night before I was to fly to Buenos Aires, I had my best friends over for a good-bye celebration. I couldn’t sleep of course, and I remember trying to squeeze everything into my backpack just a few hours before the sun came up. I embarked on a trip to come of age in the Andes.

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