I FEEL GOOD (SOMETIMES I DON'T): TREKKING CHAPADA DIAMANTINA
As promised, I am back. Long since back, actually, but just finally getting around to writing this post. Unintentionally, I spent nearly a week in the interior of Bahia because I loved the place so much (so much so that I briefly regretted allotting Salvador as the second of two Brazilian home bases) but I'll chock it up to a learning experience and troubleshooting for (the inevitable) next time.
I was still in my South-American-maximalist-interior-design dream of an Airbnb when I decided to join a group to complete the 3-day Vale do Pati trek through the Chapada Diamantina National Park. The Portuguese/English speaking guide would be leaving on Sunday and since I decided last minute to join (and didn't want to pay for a night of relatively expensive lodging just to leave it early the following morning), against the reservations of the guide company, I took the overnight bus from the Salvador rodoviária to the center of Lençóis. I'd taken many overnight buses before so I wasn't worried about owner Pieter's warning that "you will only get a few hours of sleep" because I was uma mestre do budget travel, overnight buses sat at my feet...of a seven-hour ride, I would at least get 5-hours of solid, if occasionally interrupted, sleep.
You guessed it: WRONG.
In my Uber to the bus station, I was gripped by a painful stomach cramp and shortly after visited by my old friend diarrhea. My stomach writhed and cramped and I sweat and muttered (0/5 stars passenger) for the entire 10-minute ride. I dumped all my things at the narrow banheiro door and without paying the attendant (I paid her on the way out), and at risk of someone taking all my things, I left them outside the door and made it to the bathroom by the skin of my teeth. Caralho.
In general, I knew I would get over the food poisoning in a few days but in this case it was a big deal only because of my agenda for the next 24 hours: the 6.5-7 hour bus ride, the 2-hour car ride to the park and then a full day of trekking WITH a pack. And this wasn't US National Park trekking made up of a series of short trails or loops that all had bathrooms and restaurants waiting at the ends..once we began the day's trek it would be hours before we would even get to a place where I could use the bathroom. I was weary of taking Imodium because of the way it stops the body's natural response to bacteria/ingested toxins...but given the circumstances, the promise of limited availability of a bathroom, I decided to take two more.
The bus ride was bad to terrible. It was characteristically cold, but for some reason, even with a sweater I couldn't get warm. Despite the Imodium, I twice had to use the bus bathroom. After one of the times, I was so physically exhausted that while trying to drink water, I fell asleep with it open in my hands and it, for an hour or so, slowly leaked wetting my seat. I made it, but it wasn't easy.
Sleep-hours clocked: 3
Kilometers trekked: 0
Day 1 started at Hostel das Estrelas in the Alto das Estrelas region of Lençóis. The owners of this hostel have an offering where for R25, you can use their common living spaces, shared bathroom and have breakfast the morning before a multi-day trek. If there is one thing I love about Bahian culture it's their take on breakfast. I'm thinking it's a cultural tradition inherited from a historically hard-working people who needed lots of energy for the full day of (often labour-intensive) work ahead them. I have yet to be disappointed with an elaborate cafe da manha when promised free breakfast. Often there will be two or three cakes (goiaba, tapioca, coconut, carrot cake, aipim, to name a few), the regional cuscuz made of milho (corn) shaped like a mini bundt cake to be cut a shared with a table. This was good with scrambled eggs, the long fried (or maybe they're baked?) strips of either banana, plantains or banana da terra (I still don't know the difference between these), firm to cut through but still taste soft and sweet. Boiled banana (made from banana preta, or brown bananas), dulce de leche creme for bread, the Brazilian take on French loaves, sweet bread, a grilled cheese (queijo grelhado) made with French toast. I could eat a thousand Bahian breakfasts.
The Vale do Pati trek starts with a one-hour drive on asphalt to the beginning of the park, then an hour inside the park on a dirt road to the start of the trail. The group makes one stop in the small city outside the park to go to a grocery store for snacks (all meals are provided) and to use the bathroom. I still wasn't feeling 100% by time the car had made this first stop and this was feeling of shitiness was confirmed when I was again hit by a desperate need to go to the bathroom. As if part of some unending nightmare, the first store I went in to, the woman at the cash register informed me they did not have water, not only in the store, but their whole tiny city, so it was impossible to use and flush the toilets. We loaded back in the car to drive about 7 minutes to the next town where the two grocery stores, mechanic, and bakery all informed us—"não tem água na cidade." Dizzied by my need for a toilet, just as I prepared to go in the bushes, I was directed to when an older woman carrying a bag of groceries informed us she had water in her house around the corner. Perhaps an angel, I followed her up a hill to the front of her pink cement home and she led me to the back, then out the back door to a cement stand-alone room with a wood door that housed a simple porcelain toilet and a sink. My God, it's so nice to be the recipient of kindness.
My stomach churned the whole day, and I tried to find the right balance of Imodium. I was really struggling overall but managed to smile for this one picture below.
Sleep-hours clocked: 3.5
Kilometers trekked: 12
I began Day 2 after nearly 14 hours of sleep (with the stomach ache and exhaustion, I figured it was not even worth it to stay up long past the sunset at about 6PM) and I was feeling much better. It seemed that everything bad had passed, including the Catch-22 of feeling ill with constipation after taking too much Imodium. Day 2 was a day hike since we didn't have to carry packs, but occupied the same 8 to 9 hours as the trekking the day before. The goal was to reach the top of Morro do Castelo (Castle Mountain), a mountain (or literally, "hill") that offered some of the best views of Vale do Pati. This was, without exaggeration, one of the most difficult hikes I'd done in entire life (until Day 3...lol) and included heights, drop-offs, and rock scrambles and switchbacks all of considerable difficulty. Although I'm in overall decent athletic shape, I found it difficult and would consider it, not impossible, but VERY difficult for someone that was not accustomed to trekking or outdoor activity of this type.
The views, though, were extraordinary.
A moment stuck out with me that day was when I started to get a headache on our way down the mountain and I asked our guide if he had any headache medicine. He responded that he did not and suggested that I "pretend it wasn't happening." This was simple, if bad, advice...but there was some value to it. I'm not saying you should ignore your headache and end up having an aneurysm but what it really was an exaltation of the power of our minds over the perceived limits of our bodies. We (particularly suburban/urban Americans) are so not used to discomfort we think we cannot endure it. Just that morning I was thinking of an excuse to stay back at the pousada and ran down my list of ailments: my stomach hurt... I had a headache from dehydration or the altitude... my hiking boots were too big and all yesterday my feet were sliding forward and slamming into the front of the boot, bruising my toes.
But despite this, I was fine. Occasionally, I felt exhausted and that I wanted to quit but there were many more times when I did not and I felt excited and young and strong. It reminded of a quote by Christopher McCandless in Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild when he said it's important not only to be strong, but to feel strong.
Sleep-hours clocked: 17.5
Kilometers trekked: 25
Day 3 started and ended with more VIEWS. The route of the trek was a half of a circle that took us up, in, then out and down Pati Valley. Because we were either at the bottom of or above the valley all day, the views were spectacular from beginning to end. One of the best (and most famous) view points was this drop-off cliff that took about an hour to get to. It's pretty hard to capture how grand cliffs and canyons are in pictures but I tried to capture my love for the way they make you feel so small.
Because I was tired of talking to my trekking mates (y'all know me...lmao), I did a lot of reflection during the walking the day. I recalled so many days while working this past year, that I complained about every waking hour of my life—from swiping through the MTA turnstiles in the morning to throwing myself out the revolving doors at 5:00:001PM to schlep home for an hour and a half. And I told myself that when I left, I wanted to be challenged in my next endeavour in ways I haven't been before. I told myself and my peers this constantly and a little condescendingly, to force me into accountability. And I have been. Living in Brazil these past two months and particularly this last month in Bahia, it feels like everything I do is damn challenge. I chastised myself with this invocation that last day, my legs aching in dull soreness from the previous two days of trekking and cold showers. I had asked for this for test of body and mind, told everyone I wanted it, though in reality it was barely that. I only had to, slow and small as they might be, put one foot in front the other to accomplish the group's primary objective: keep moving forward.
We've grown up in a generation where everything is mad-dash sprinting forward—technology, wealth, fame—so slow and steady progress is frowned upon, if not explicitly shamed. To many idleness is the enemy of progress but I think it's a necessary condition. You can't pause time but you can slow it—by stopping to see how it passes, to be conscious of how you consume it. While you're stopped, everything keeps moving forward and if you pause long enough, you see collisions on a path before they happen, you assess the obstacles on your own, you decide what direction you actually want to go. On the last day, I made sure I took time to pause, to hydrate, to breathe. To listen to what had to be said by my body and the Earth.
The sun loomed over the horizon as we walked the final stretch to the car. I paused to watch it sink beneath the skyline and then finished the trek in the twilight.
Sleep-hours clocked: 25.5
Kilometers trekked: 43
And that's all folks, you'll hear from me soon!