A traveler tells an epic story of love and death and warfare as Will struggles to reassimilate into city life after weeks in the Amazon Rainforest. Text POD to (332) 877-9540 to join a wonderful community of travelers and definitely get a call from host Will Conway. Text MEMBER to that same number if you're interested in bonus material from the upcoming interview series (or click here).

Weird trivia and stuff Will wants to say

  • The experience of reintegrating after the Amazon came with this kind of weightlessness - this feeling of floating lightly about the world. It's weird: the experience of putting out the two Ayahuasca episodes (here and here) actually had the same effect. After I released "Ayahuasca: Found," I felt as open and free and disarmed as I had after the real experience. Reliving and rebuilding the experience - and then sharing it with the world - was its own kind of psychedelic for me.
  • For those curious for more information about the 2019 protests in Ecuador, Al Jazeera's Kimberly Brown wrote a thorough summary of the situation at the time. 
  • Kyo's name is not Kyo. That's not a name - at least not to my knowledge.

I hear with my little ear

Show transcript

[Sounds of a shower turning on]

A shower.

My first in almost three weeks.

I mean I dumped a bucket of water over my head at the compound in the Amazon. I swam in the river, too. And I guess there was kind of a shower on the slow boat, but I opened the door and a moth the size of a canary hit me in the chest, so I didn't go back.

Three weeks ago, I flew from Medellin to Leticia, and it felt like a dinky outpost. Like a campsite that happened to have running water and motorbikes, right there at the entrance to the Amazon. I felt the creature comforts slip away, and I looked back at sprawling metropolises like Medellin and New York City as these massive, unfathomable behemoths.

This is the edge of civilization, right here.

But then you leave the edge of the civilization, and you take a boat down the river to a tiny little village. Fifty, maybe one-hundred people. No electricity, hand-crank radios. Men fishing for their breakfast and feeding their family. For these folks, Leticia is the big city; the metropolis, the center of the universe. And Leticia is only accessible from a dock the size of a queen-sized mattress floating in the reeds, where a twelve-foot long dory with a weedwacker for a motor comes by twice a day.

But then you leave the village, too. And you follow a little 4’11 Peruvian man with a potbelly and nothing but an old liter bottle of Coca-Cola deep into the jungle, to a little lean-to. Snakes coiled in the trees. Screeching and cawing and yelping all night long. Katydids hissing. A mess of chickens clucking.

And then Medellin and New York City become unbelievable figments of your imagination. Complete distortions of impossibility. The idea of motorbikes buzzing down dirt paths in Leticia is incomprehensible, let alone the idea of a Chevy cutting off a taxi on the FDR. Forget about it.

The very concept that humans have the capacity to dominate nature is rendered utterly false by mountains of evidence in every corner. We're just two more animals in a vast wilderness of nothing and everything. It’s just he and I - this little man wearing a dirty St. Louis Cardinals cap and a huge smile and singing and chanting while I drink mulch and see visions of the impossible which, by the way, now seem far more probable than anything that came before.

That’s where I woke up yesterday morning. In a lean-to in a place on the map with no name, miles away from a village of sixty people that a Google search refuses to believe even exists.

And now I’m here.

Hot water and a bar of soap, in a porcelain shower in a hostel in Lima, Peru, population 9.7 million.

[Theme Music Begins]

This is Baggage Claim: travel stories no one tells.

I’m Will Conway.

Today, what's real and what's not, and why the hell can't we all just love each other?

If you're new here, welcome. Make sure you subscribe, tell your friends if you're enjoying it. If you really like it, text POD to (332) 877-9540 or text MEMBER to the same number for bonus content [or click here].

Updates on the interviews coming this week.

That's all I've got. Let's get to it.

[Theme Music Ends]

[Shower shuts off, water rushes]

Towels! So fluffy and warm. My God.

I pull on my jeans. Wander down the hall and back into my shared dorm, grab a shirt.

[Lights flick on]

Man, I’m really, really struggling to figure out what’s real. This place - or the idea of a place like this - was an impossibility this time yesterday. And now I’m here, touching it. My hair, damp and warm, my hand on the bedpost. A radiator hissing, a lamp buzzing. It’s real. It's tactile.

And now, that world that was so real yesterday? It’s nothing but a fading memory, a foggy figment. A series of vignettes, bright in the middle and fading on the edges.

So what, exactly, is real? Those things my rational mind felt most willing to dismiss - those flickering pine trees, those mysterious jaguars, the lady of yellow and blue and that trip in the jungle - they’re cherished so dearly by my emotional brain. And this reality right here to which my rational brain clings - this loyalty to moving myself through the world from Starbucks to CVS as people do, in the state of ordinary, mundane consciousness - my emotional self just knows it to be so false as to be a hallucination.

But fuck it. I’m happy. Happier than I’ve ever been. I can’t stop smiling.

[Lights flick off; sounds of an outdoor square]

I wander down to the courtyard in the center and plunk down in a lawn chair. I’m surrounded by people. 

There’s an American man - late twenties, blonde hair, aviators. Covered in tattoos. He says his name is Kyo. Like coyote, minus the tee, he says. And there’s another. Older fella, early forties. Bald.

Kyo asks about my takeaway from my experience in the jungle. I stall.

"You feel incredible now," he says. "But how do you make it stick? How do you make sure this feeling of love and compassion you feel for the people back home doesn’t just fade away in a week and you feel the same as you always have?"

I have nothing to say. He’s right. I've been thinking about that myself.

But then the older guy tells a story. An insane story, like one I’ve never heard, even from all these lunatics I’ve met cruising around South America like nothing matters.

He'd been living kind of a vagabond life in the US and eventually left for Mexico, and he fell in love with a girl in Mexico City. So he stayed for a long time. Too long, actually. His travel visa expired after six months, but he just didn’t care. He just stayed longer. And unbeknownst to him, Mexico put it on his tab, day at a time So a little more than a year in, his relationship fell apart for some reason or another and he tried to leave the country at the border with Guatemala, and Mexico says, "Hey, um, you owe us five thousand dollars." And he said he didn’t have five thousand dollars and Mexico said "Tough shit. You can't leave until you do, and it goes up every day you stay."

And so he did the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. He looked over the border agent’s shoulder, to the Suchiate River. At the time, refugees fleeing Nicaragua, three countries south, were wading through the river in the direction of Mexico, and Mexican federales were standing on the shoreline, waiting to intercept them, in what basically amounted to a game of international red rover. But no one’s going the opposite direction. I mean, who’s fleeing Mexico for Guatemala? It’s not a thing. So this guy looks at the river, sizes up the border agent, grabs his passport and sprints, with his backpack over his shoulder. 

The guy chases after him and the federales mimic like they're going to stop him, but they’re way more focused on the influx of Nicaraguans coming their way, and what do they care about some 40-something white American lunatic running into the river?

And so he makes it to the middle of the river, which is officially international waters, turns around and gives the border agent the middle finger, and keeps on going to Guatemala. But the thing is, the Guatemalan border agent saw the whole thing. So this American guy shows up, sopping wet and panting, and the Guatemalan agent goes… so uh. So what brings you to Guatemala?

And the guy explains his predicament, and in the US, he’d get turned around immediately of course. But the border agent says he’ll let him in if he makes it worth his while. And so our guy digs two sopping wet US twenties out of his wallet, his passport gets stamped, and boom, he’s done with Mexico. But he probably can’t ever go back. He thinks his tab is probably like $50,000 by now.

And Kyo like coyote minus the tee, asks the question I was thinking.

"Okay, that was Guatemala. You’re in Peru now. How’d you get here?"

And he says he took a boat from Panama City to Cartagena, and then he traveled Colombia, and then he just came, just now, from Ecuador.

"Ecuador?" I say.

"Ecuador," he says.

The President of Ecuador, Lenín Moreno, facing an outlandish budget shortfall created by the shoddy economic gamesmanship of his predecessor, negotiated a deal to obtain a massive credit from the International Monetary Fund. Included in that deal was the elimination of a long-standing nationwide fuel subsidy that had dramatically reduced the cost of gasoline in Ecuador for nearly four decades.

The subsidy was cut, and overnight, Ecuador’s price of diesel fuel doubled, and the cost of ordinary gasoline rose by roughly 30%. Transportation unions organized rallies, and Ecuador’s former president, in coordination with the socialist government of Venezuela, orchestrated massive nationwide violent protests. Within days, Molotov cocktails vollied into crowds of armed police in riot gear, the federal government relocated from its home in Quito to Guayaquil. The nation’s borders closed indefinitely.

The thing is, all this happened really fast. I actually made plans to go to Ecuador and track down that nun who said, “with the privileges you’ve been given, you have no right to fail.” So I thought maybe I’d head there, meet with her, and see if I could figure out what she meant by that. I came back from Brazil on the day the protests broke out, so no Ecuador for me. But had I left 24 hours sooner, I’d have probably been on the same bus as this guy.

As it turned out, the roads into Quito were closed. The bus stopped, and our traveler hopped off the bus. At this point in the story, he pulled out his phone. Scrolled through his photos.

"Here, look at this," he says.

And holy shit. Kyo's eyes go wide. So do mine. It’s a post-apocalyptic hellscape. Stacks of tires on fire blocking the road, police in riot gear, protestors throwing molotov cocktails. In the foreground, there’s a dead body, bloody and contorted, right there in the middle of the highway.

"It almost didn’t seem real," he says. "But it was."

Something clicked for me in that moment. Something about the joint reality of ordinary life and my experience in the jungle hit all at once. I need to live at the intersection of those two experiences. I need to cherish people with all the emotional intensity I felt for them in that hut in the jungle - and I need to apply it in the real world.

And experience is an experience. But showing up day in and day out as the person you want to be, that's what life is about.

"Gents, I’ll be back in a bit," I say.

And I rushed back to the shared dorm room, rummaged through my backpack and toss aside my copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude, pulled out a notebook. And I wrote letters. I wrote letters to everyone who meant anything to me. I wrote for hours. I forgive and apologize and just say hello, and I really loved.

And the next day, I sent them all.

[Lights flick off]

[Theme Music Begins]

That was Baggage Claim: travel stories no one tells.

I'm Will Conway.

Thank you for listening. It's amazing to have you here. 

If you like it, make sure you subscribe. And share it. Send it to a friend. 

If you want to be friends, just text me. 

Text POD to (332) 877-9540.

Or, if you want to be a member and get bonus content on the upcoming interviews, text MEMBER to that very same number [or click here].

Music is by my brother, Kit Conway, of the band Stello [listen].


See you next Tuesday.

[Theme Music Ends]

Will Conway


Former political software guy. Now a traveler and adventurer, which isn't a job, and host of the @heybaggageclaim podcast, which really isn't either. Travel stories no one tells.