Follows are writings from my travels through India and South America, from 2020 through 2022, published in various newspapers and digital outlets.
Additionally, one magazine feature on my high-altitude expedition through the Himalayas with LA Riders Motorcycle Club, and a presentation to seniors at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design … enjoy!
“There is a world beyond that of our everyday physical, mental and emotional experiences. Beyond the five senses, and different from the realm of imagination. It is the world of the unseen and eternal, of spirit and vision. It is a dimension of life that very few people of today seek, or perhaps care to know.”
–Tom Brown, Jr., The Vision
Across the Himalayas lie hidden valleys, called beyal, where the planes of the physical world overlap with those of the spirit world, according to Tibetan Buddhists. The Dalai Lama has called these, “sacred environments that are not places to escape the world, but to enter more deeply.”
One such place is said to be the Parvati Valley in the Himalayas of India, scene to Harley Rustad’s new non-fiction narrative “Lost in the Valley of Death.” Rustad chronicles the dozens of international travelers who have dissappeared into this so-called “Backpacker Bermuda Triangle” with a focus on an American man who vanished in 2016 under cloud of mystery and foul play.
Justin Alexander Shetler was born in 1981 to spiritually-minded parents who pulled him out of the American public schools as a teen and enrolled him in Wilderness Awareness School to foster his love of nature survival skills. (Damn cool parents.)
Like a narrative drug dealer, Rustad consistently passes the reader juicy nuggets of Justin’s backstory, getting us slowely hooked in. Justin continually reinvents himself, first as a national leader in wilderness tracking, later as a singer in a punk rock bank, and then as a high-flying tech entrepeneur who becomes dissallusioned with his life of luxury and quits at the age of 32 to travel the world.
What is Justin running from? “I’m running from a life that isn’t authentic, that isn’t me,” he answers on his (now defunct) blog.
Justin’s solo travels lead him to build a school in Nepal, participate in Shamanic ceremonies in Brazil, and become ordained as a Buddhist Monk in Thailand, where he finds a second “adoptive family.”
Our hero’s tragic flaw, in the Greek sense, is that he is dreamily handsome and becomes an Instagram Influencer of sorts. Now Justin is torn between living his journey authentically, verses broadcasting it to his ever-growing throng of followers in exchange for their comments of adoration.
This may seem to be a tale of white male privlidge, until your read deeper. Justin is tormented by demons galore, of which Rustad reveals in a drip-drip, dramatic effect. Justin has basically been on a quest to outrun his demons since the age of 15, living in the wild and seeking spiritual transfiguration amongst the ancient and indiginous ancestors.
“Trying to live a spiritual life in modern society is the most difficult path one can walk. It is a path of pain, of isolation and of shaken faith, but that is the only way our vision can become reality.”
Three years into his travels, Justin’s friends, followers and ex-girlfriends notice he has become more “desperate” to find meaning, while taking ever-greater risks. Around this time, Justin gets a giant eagle tatooed on his chest, travels to India, and buys a Royal Enfield to ride into the Himalayas where he believes his quest will culminate.
Here is where Rustad’s narrative soars. An avid solo traveler of India himself, Rustad conjurs all manner of Hindu gods and goddesses, gurus, authors, travelers and even one psychologist who specializes in diagnosing “India Syndrome” to explain its lore to the uninitiated.
“India speaks to the unconscious, it provokes it, makes it boil and sometimes overflow,” says Sunil Mittal, senior psychologist at the Cosmos Institute of Mental Health and Behavioral Science. “Travelers come with a turmoil, and they have a breakdown here.”
Mittal is hired by foreign embassies to treat the numerous westerners who come to India seeking enlighenment and end up burning their passports, wandering the streets naked, meditating in ashrams, or living in mountain hideaways … India Syndrome.
Justin’s dream is to ride his Royal Enfield over the high mountain passes of Ladakh. En route, he stops for a long trek in the Parvati Valley where he finds a cave to live in solitude for several weeks.
Nearby he meets a sadhu (holy naga baba) who claims to be a master of yoga and meditation. The sadhu has large welts on his joints, rarely eats and smokes copious chillums of hash in his mountain hut. The sadhu invites Justin on a pilgrimage to Mantalai Lake, a sacred place at the source of the raging Parvati River, named after the wife of Lord Shiva — a place where dozens of foreign trekkers have vanished.
According to Rustad, Justin had long been modeling his trip (and his life) in the mold of his favorite book: “A Hero’s Journey” by Joseph Campbell. In his novel, the first step is the hero receiving a call to adventure from a guide or teacher to a fateful region of both treasure and danger.
“It is always a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, super human deeds, and impossible delight.
The hero then faces a seris of trials, and is tempted by sirens or doubts to abondon his quest. There is a confrontation with his past, whatever he holds in most fear or pain. In that moment the wall of Paradise is dissolved, the divine form found, and wisdom regained. Here lies enlightenment as the hero’s old world is shattered and he is born anew.
What happens next in Justin’s journey? Well he goes on the trek with the Baba and then disappears from the face of the earth, as the book’s title suggests. Rustad digs deep on the detective side, but I’ll let you read the book, rather than reveal those details.
I’ll just say this: you gotta’ see this guy’s Instagram. Justin’s Fullpower. And his final posts are so mysterious, so creepy with this fuckin’ baba, you won’t believe it.
“All of India is full of holy men stammering gospels in strange tongues, shaken and consumed in the fires of their own zeal; dreamers, babblers, and visionaries. As it has been from the beginning, and will continue to the end.”
My personal thoughts as an American solo-traveler who was born in the same year as Justin, and traveled along a similar path in India (and elsewhere) on Royal Enfield, and who too has found these beyal valleys in the Himalayas, where the spiritual and natural worlds overlap:
On such a quest, the answers will not come in any conversations with polite society, but rather on the brink of madness out in nature. Whenever your friends or family tell you that you are acting reckless, irratic, out-of-caracter, or if they believe you are under some spell, or have India Syndrome, then you are probably getting close.
Only once you sever all external voices and technological ties will you reach an authentic awakening. In that moment, your trip is truely yours and not defined by others who tell you what you experienced, how you feel, and what you should do next. They want to grab you from the galaxies and yank you down to earth.
According to Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti’s book Freedom from the Known, (previously reviewed on this blog) — to achieve total freedom you must first abandon all authority including your society, nationality, religion, position, teachings and family. In other words, you need to be a physical and psychological solo-traveler.
The best quote in Rustad’s book comes not from an author, or guru, or holy man, but from a western woman living in India whom he interviews on his quest for clues about Justin’s disappearance.
Starting in July of 2021, I embarked on a nine-month solo trip through South America, mostly via motorcycle and without cell phone, GPS, or any real proficiency in Portuguese or Spanish.
Along the way I experienced many lovely things, most of which I won’t bore you with here, because this is a different story; a story about the times I was hit with crippling fear and thought, “OH FUCK, MY TRIP IS OVER!”
DAY 73 — AMAZON JUNGLE TRIBAL LODGE
I’m onboard a cartoonish-looking riverboat with my local guide and a smallgroup of Germans heading three hours up the Rio Negro from Manaus, Brazil.
The Germans are going on some jungle camping trip, but I’m on an entirely diffent mission. Our boat pulls into a secluded dock, where I’m to meet my Ayahuasca Shaman. My guide leaves me on the docks with a bag of raw fish, a bag of fruit, a large jug of water and a green hammock.
“Say hallo to ze gods for me!” says one of the Germans, as his girlfriend shoots me a look of deep concern. I meet my Shaman in front of his tribal lodge which is decorated with a large snake mural and black piranha masks.
What could go wrong?
I spend two days swimming, canoeing and foraging the jungle for medicinal plants with the Shaman’s sons. But I’m feeling a sense of impending doom as my ceremony approaches.
Night falls and I’m alone in the tribal lodge with a single torch burning. The Shaman enters bare-chested with bone neclace, tribal headress and facepaint glowing. His two sons follow, playing war marches on their long, wooden instruments. The Shaman delivers my right-of-passage in Portuguese and then passes me, in brief succession, five bowls of mucky, brown Ayahuasca brew.
After some enjoyable, initial hallucinations, all five doses kick in and the jungle starts to spin and close in on me. I’m feeling like Martin Sheen in a Saigon hotel, sweating and shivering at the same time, struggling to breathe. I desperately call out my Shaman’s name, which is the only word I remeber.
Just as I think, “I took too much, my trip is over,” I begin to vomit profusely, leave my body, and watch from above as I’m rehatched, growing the tail of a reptile and flopping about in the primordial muck. (In utero a human fetus grows a vestigial reptile’s tail — a remnant of our biological evolution.)
The Shaman arrives to give me water and guides me into my green chrysalis-like-hammock to recover. The fear is still gripping me but I remember my Pranayama breathing from yoga school in India. Breathe in, hold, breathe out, hold. I pull out of the trip just as the sun begins to rise.
“Close your eyes, let your hands and nerve-ends drop, stop breathing for three seconds, listen to the silence inside the illusion of the world, and you will remember the lesson you forgot, which was taught in immense milky way soft cloud innumerable worlds long ago, and not even at all. It is all one vast awakened thing.”
— Jack Kerouac
DAY 110 — STREETS OF SANTA CRUZ, BOLIVIA
When I leave the jungle and reenter city life, I’m hit with a deep, spiritual pain, witnessing the horrors of plastic waste and techno-addiction. During my meditation, I come up with a vision for a more natural trip, free from the tyrany of rush hours, shopping centers, and airport security.
I buy a used Royal Enfield Himalayan, (410 cc engine, claiming 70 miles-per-gallon) and all the camping gear, cooking supplies and survival tools to help get me to the end of the continent.
I hit the Strip Club to celebrate. It’s decked out like the palace of some Arab Sheikh with multicolored velvet drapes cascading all around. I’m one of the only customers in this Carnal Circus with a dozen performers on tap. Outside, a torential downpour crashes down, leaving me trapped with the girls in their Mirrored Web of Sorcery.
Surely I will be punished for this in some way … but how?
A few nights later, I’m riding through Santa Cruz to meet the Canadian guy who sold me the bike for beers. I forget there’s no stop signs in Bolivia so I roll through a shady intersection with just enough time to see a 4×4 pickup truck barreling at my right side. I hit the brakes but they’re too weak to miss the truck, which plows through my frontend.
I’m smashed to the asphalt in the middle of the intersection as the asshole truck driver completes his hit-and-run. “Oh fuck my bike trip is over,” I think.
I get up, dust myself off and pick up the bike. The headlight, windshield and left indicator are cracked, but miraculously the forks are still straight. I reach down to straighten the fender and receive a third-degree kiss on my wrist curtesy of the bike’s pipes, as if to say, “Don’t even think of dropping me again okay, bitch?”
Now bike and rider are one, flesh melded with chrome in some blistering, incendiary Wolfpack.
We ride south.
DAY 236 — CARRETERA AUSTRAL, CHILE
Upon crossing into Chile, out of sheer dumb luck I find myself in Futaleufú, which is ranked as the “World’s Most Dangerous Comercial Rafting Destination” … excellent.
I join a group for the trip and our entire raft is ejected into the drink (as my grandma Margaret used to say) in the Class 5 Terminator Rapids section.
Next I head south on the Carretera Austral, which is said to be one of the world’s most beautiful roads. It’s glorious winding asphault with island-speckled fjords on my right and green, arched bluffs to the left. I’m listening to my new Metal playlist that my buddy Dave helped me compile. Just as Slayer’s “Seasons in the Abyss” comes on, a monsoon rolls overhead from the Chilean coast.
The rain slaps me at the worst time whem the road turns into a rocky, jagged mountain ascent. There’s massive potholes everywhere full of brown rainwater, and a flatbed truck in front that keeps stopping on the mountain and rolling back precarously close to my bike.
“Close your eyes and forget your name, step outside yourself and let your thoughts drain. As you go insane… go insane.”
I don’t have one of those waterproof motorcycle spacesuits like the German guys on BMWs, just my mishmash REI gear, so I’m soaked to the bone and shivvering. My hands are so cold in my cutoff gloves that I have to put them directly on the engine to feel my fingers.
There’s 200 km left to my next destination and no way I can make it. “This is it, my moto trip is over,” I think as i pull into a small fishing village. I arrive at a guesthouse, drenched and freezing and head directly to the bathroom, where I lay naked in the tub and start a bath. But there’s no hot water. “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?” Fortunately the owner starts up his old woodfire heater and I lay in front for several hours to dry myself and all my gear.
In the morning I head to the hardware store to buy a waterproof fisherman’s suit and Wellington boots. I head to the docks where I get new energy, realizing I’ve reached the Pacific Ocean for the first time on my trip — exactly five months after leaving the Atlantic coast of Brazil. DAY 253 — ARGENTINA / CHILE BORDER
After doing some Patagonian mountainclimbing in Argentina, I’m ready to cross back into Chile for the final leg of my trip towards Cape Horn.
I was supposed to spend my last day in El Calafate meticulously mapping out this mission. But then an American girl comes into my hostel who not only graduated from the same school (University of Wisconsin-Madison) but also stayed in my same freshman dorm (Bradley). She just missed being my college dormmate by 15 years but that’s okay, because now we’re dormmates in El Calafate — so let’s get drunk on Argentinian wine.
The next day I’m still buzzing with little sleep as I head out towards the Chilean border. I’m riding down Route 40 in the desert as suddenly a 50-mph wind cyclone hits.
It’s shocking, blowing me clean from one lane to the next, as I lean the bike sharply to recover. Now the wind is trying to rip my full-face helmet off my head so I duck behind my small windscreen to prevent decapitation (okay, whiplash).
As i stop to look at the border sign, a wind gust slaps me and bike violently to the pavement. On pure adrenaline, I stand up my fully-loaded moto and quickly make for the border crossing station. On the Argentinan side it’s looks closed and abandonned for the season. FUCK.
But there’s nowhere to go for shelter from this wind, just endless desert. So I roll-on through into some eerie, gravely no man’s land. The Chilean government website says their crossing is open, so hopefully someone will welcome me in on the Chilean side.
“Well, fuck. My trip is over.”
Nope… I ain’t going out like that. I use all my political, Spanish and most importantly, meditation skills to get through two police stations, migration, customs, and finally the impound to get my bike back the very next day.
Now I’m on the “Ruta del Fin del Mundo” riding south to Punto Arenas, the last real port city on the continent. I roll into the parking lot of the ferryboat, head in and buy a ticket.
We sail for two days through the Strait of Magellan — past the Chilean glacial islands — past Tierra del Fuego — on to Puerto Williams — southernmost city on Earth — the vestigial tail of the lizard — the Kundalini.
While your friends are busy getting married, having kids, and buying “BJÖRKSNÄS” dressers from Ikea, you’re riding a motorcycle through some strange and desperate land searching for something, something that’s out there — but what?
Only the Gods of Rock ‘n Roll can tell you. Here’s five top songs for your solo-moto trippin’. (Note heavy use of the umlaut by both Ikea and Metal bands.)
#5 — Ride On, AC/DC
It’s another lonely evening In another lonely town But I ain’t too young to worry And I ain’t too old to cry When a woman gets me down Got another empty bottle Mmh and another empty bed Ain’t too young to admit it And I’m not too old to lie I’m just another empty head
That’s why I’m lonely I’m so lonely But I know what I’m going to do
I’m gonna ride on …
#4 — Iron Horse / Born to Lose, Motörhead
He rides a road that don’t have no end An open highway without any bends Tramp and his stallion, alone in a dream Proud in his colours, as the chromium gleams
On iron horse he flies On iron horse he gladly dies Iron horse is his wife, iron horse is his life
He lives his life, he’s living it fast Don’t try to hide when the dice have been cast He rides a whirlwind that cuts to the bone Loaded forever, ferociously stoned
#3 — Ramble On, Led Zeppelin
Leaves are falling all around It’s time I was on my way Thanks to you I’m much obliged For such a pleasant stay But now it’s time for me to go The autumn moon lights my way For now I smell the rain And with it pain And it’s headed my way
Ah, sometimes I grow so tired But I know I’ve got one thing I got to do
Ramble on And now’s the time, the time is now To sing my song I’m goin’ ’round the world, I got to find my girl On my way I’ve been this way ten years to the day Ramble on Gotta find the queen of all my dreams …
#2 — Race with the Devil, Girlschool
You’d better run You’d better run You’d better run from the Devil’s gun
The race is on The race is on So you’d better run from the Devil’s gun
Strange things happen If you stay The Devil will catch you anyway He tries to find you, so take care The Devil will seek you everywhere
And when he finds you You’ll soon find out The Devil’s fire it won’t go out He burns you up and soon you’ll know The Devil’s grip just won’t let go
#1 — Wherever I May Roam, Metallica
And the road becomes my bride I have stripped of all but pride So in her I do confide And she keeps me satisfied Gives me all I need And with dust in throat I crave Only knowledge will I save To the game you stay a slave
Rover, wanderer Nomad, vagabond Call me what you will But I’ll take my time anywhere Free to speak my mind anywhere And I’ll redefine anywhere Anywhere I roam Where I lay my head is home
And the earth becomes my throne I adapt to the unknown Under wandering stars I’ve grown By myself but not alone …
The year 2022: technology has enslaved mankind in the glow of its addictive web. Soon the machines will rise up and terminate us all, as is foretold in T2: Judgement Day.
The only escape is to abandon all Skynet devices, load up a motorcycle with survival gear, and ride into the desert.
I did this tech detox from November through December 2021 and kept my diary from the road, which I have excerpted here for you, my beloved readers.
NOV. 16, 2021 — EJECT MATRIX
I’m in my hostel in Potosi, Bolivia feeling some strange anxiety as I fire up my Macbook for the last time. I message my family and friends to tell them I will be incommunicado. Next I pack my electronics into a backpack and head to DHL to send it back to Wisconsin.
This is no normal trip to DHL. It’s Bolivia and there’s revolutionary protesters blockading the streets in all major intersections. I ride my bike with the woman who owns my hostel on the back, as we plead with the flag-waving protesters, circumvent their blockades and navigate sketchy back alleys for an hour.
The “Potosi DHL” turns out to be a tiny kiosk that sells Barbies and school supplies, with a stack of yellow DHL boxes in the back. The clerk tells me they won’t ship any items with lithium batteries. Clearly she’s an agent of The Matrix trying to prevent me from unplugging.
I tell her I don’t know about any lithium batteries in my electronics. I just plug them into the wall and they magically glow. After some debate, she accepts the package. I immediately feel a weght lifted off my shoulders (and motorcycle) as I ride out of town.
After a few hours of riding down the mountainsides, dark clouds form overhead. I see a good spot for shelter tucked in between some canyons. I ride my bike down and set up camp, getting in my tent just before a thunderstorm comes crashing down.
In the morning the sun is out and I go exploring and find some indiginous ruins with a fortified cave, my first unaided discovery of the trip.
NOV. 19–22: SALAR DE UYUNI
The Uyuni salt desert (Salar) has been my prime destination for Bolivia. But I never did any real research or planning so when I roll into the dusty town of Uyuni, I’m left clueless. Luckily, a 57-yr-old British / Bolivian motorcycle guide named Robin sees me wandering the streets and offers his services.
Now if I had a cell phone or computer I might have gone online to research this and that, but whatever, I’ll trust my life to this mysterious British expat biker for the week, why not? We head to Robin’s shop, which is aptly named “Nomada Experience.” It has a dozen Honda and KTM dirt bikes, riding gear and maps, which we use to plan out a three-day route through the desert and surrounding mountains.
Robin points at the map and tells horror stories about mostly Israeli and German solo bikers who nearly perished in the desert before he rescued them. “If your bike breaks down over here, you’re dead. Run out of petrol here, finished.”
“Okay, you’re hired.”
We ride 250 km through the desert, climb two volcanoes and explore the tomb of a 1,000 yr-old mummy.
After we return from the Salar, Robin powerwashes our bikes, but its too late for the electricals on my Himalayan. The odometer, spedometer, and RPM guages have all been fried in the salt. Now the bike is on tech detox too, I guess.
At least Skynet agents won’t infiltrate my systems.
NOV. 23 — CHANGE OF PLANS
Just as I’m about to ride west to leave Bolivia for Chile, I learn that the border is closed. The Bolivian migration official I talk to seems to relish in telling this Imperial American Biker Scum that instead of riding one day west to Chile, I must instead ride six days southeast to Argetina in order to exit Bolivia.
Now I’m walking down the street cursing under my breath as I head into a coffee shop for a pick-me-up. A Swiss girl is alone in the cafe having lunch — one of the few foreign travelers I’ve seen the whole time in Bolivia. We hit it off, sharing travel stories and she comes back to my hotel afterwards. I briefly break my tech detox to flip on Spanish MTV.
NOV. 24 – DEC. 2: CROSSING BOLIVIAN ANDES
There’s no cushy highways to reach Argentina. It’s weeklong Odyssey over the Bolivian Andes, zigzagging up steep dirt and gravel roads. Luckily there’s barely any other vehicles, save for a few villagers on Chinese motorbikes. So the riding is pleasurable with great views of mountainsides and farmlands.
I later reach Tarija, the Bolivian wine town, where I join a bus tour. The vineyards are beatuful but its the worst wine I’ve ever tasted, like some half-fermented grapes, mixed with sugar and cough syrup.
“Bolivians love it becase it’s sweet,” says Nathaly, who is our nice, local guide. Nathaly doesn’t seem to mind that I savagely insult her wineyards, and accepts my offer for dinner and a bottle of better wine after the tour.
(DISCLAIMER: In Tarija I find an internet cafe and go online to message my family and upload some photos. I’ll add another tech detox day in 2022 for this sin.)
A few days later, I’m finally heading for the Argentina border at Yacuiba. Now the bike GPS (my last, remaining piece of technology apart from my GoPro) conks out. Its getting late so I find a nice farm by the Rio Negro and a Coca leaf-chewing-tomato-farmer lets me camp in a killer spot down by the river, free of charge.
The final day to reach Yacuiba is exhausting with seemingly endless gravel mountain roads and punishing heat. Finally I reach the border, get my required COVID test, stay overnight in a hostel, then cross the next day with all medical and bike documents in hand.
Over the course of three hours at migration, I must show numerous COVID forms, get the bike inspected, put my bags through a scanner, and receive a series of six stamps, each from a different official at a different desk. Hey, I’m just a biker with an American passport, Bolivian plates, and sketchy luggage. Why so many questions?
DEC. 2 – 13: ARGENTINA, AWWW YEAH
Upon crossing into Argentina, I immediately notice that the grass is greener, the food is better, and the girls are prettier. (Sorry Bolivia, but even you know it’s true.)
While Bolivia is a place for raw, third-world adventure. Argentina is a place to enjoy the luxuries of life, like a steak and wine dinner in a nice restaurant for $5, curtosy of the hyperinflated Argentinian peso.
The official exchange rate with the big banks and credit card companies is 100 pesos for 1 U.S. dollar, But if you change dollars in the black market or Western Union, you get the Blue Dollar rate of 200 pesos for 1 USD, instantly doubling your dollars. Sounds like a casino slot machine game and it basically is. Okay let’s roll…
I want to try camping in a national park as I heard they are beautiful in Argentina, so I head to Parque Calilegue. But when I arrive, the ranger tells me its closed due to “La Pandemia.” Of all the things to be closed due to “La Pandemia” camping in nature makes the least sense, so I make it my mission to find the best damn illegal campsite in the Argentinan National Park System.
I hide the bike by a massive, rocky riverbed and set up camp where the rangers won’t find me. After cooking some Argentinian steaks for dinner, I enjoy my meditation and a solo pagan dance ritual under the moonlight. (Am I losing my mind on this trip, or is that a sane thing to do? …. Yes!)
The next day, I arrive in Salta, which is a city of impressive architecture and shopping promenades. I check out an Inca museum with a mummy girl who was found on a snowy mountaintop by explorers in the 90’s and then cryogenically preserved. According to their history, she was drugged and burried alive by the Incas as part of a sacrificial ritual in 1500 AD. Damn!
After a few days in Salta, I head back on the road. Initially I was planning to head to Buenas Aires for the holidays, but my GPS is dead and I kept missing the turn. Now I’m cruising south down the smooth Argentinian highways on the Chilean side. I wish I had some music, as I haven’t had it for nearlty a month, which has been the hardest part of this detox.
On the road I’ve have been trying to sing some AC/DC and Guns ‘N Roses to myself, but it’s going very badly. I can’t remember the lyrics and my singing voice is terrible and sounds even worse in my helmet.
I set up camp in a farm alongside the highway, but everything goes wrong. It starts pouring and all my gear gets soaked. I make pasta in the rain, but can’t eat comfortably in my tent, as its too small to sit upright. The next day I wake up and a bee stings me on my foot. I get back on my bike, but I’m soaked through to my boxers.
I stop on the side of the road by a tied-up horse and unpack all my gear to dry it under the sun. i decide that’s it, I’ve had enough. Put me back into The Matrix, stat.
I head for Cordoba, check into a hotel suite and the next day buy a Samsung tablet and JBL speaker and press play on my first song in a month.
I’m still mentally and physically dealing with one of the most intense experiences of my life — meeting my shaman in a remote part of the Amazon and drinking five bowls of Ayahuasca to become inducted into the indigenous community — leaving my body and crossing into the natural-spiritual world in the process.
Now I’m on a cargo boat full of 4×4’s, motorcycles and local passengers heading down the Rio Madeiro towards Bolivia. Our boat is large and sturdy. Next to me are some teenage-looking parents with a baby all in one hammock. Too young, but too cute to judge.
Just after dark we depart the Manaus harbor and pass a factory the size of a village. It looks menacingly efficient in whatever job it’s doing to harvest the raw materials from the lungs of the world.
Manaus is a gritty port city that became famous for its rubber boom in the late 1800’s as colonialists began harvesting rubber trees, enslaving and eradicating indigenous tribes in the process. The boom was so booming that a massive Parisian-styled opera house was erected in 1896, ominously named The Amazon Theatre.
My tour guide tells me there’s basically no corporate tax here and thus Honda and other multinationals have erected huge factories to take advantage. Most infamously, Chanel, the French luxury fashion house, nearly eradicated the Rosewood Tree from the Amazon to extract fragrant oils for its “Channel N°5” — all so rich women could smell more rich.
I’m glad to be leaving Manaus. After returning from a tribal lodge with no electricity in a remote part of the jungle, the horrors of city life revealed themselves in shocking clarity. People in the street hawking plastic crap; drivers nearly running down pedestrians to get some place of no real significance; and everyone else staring into their cell phones like zombies, searching for brains.
Abort Mission Civilization. Get me out of this horror show and back into the jungle. After six days sleeping in hammocks with the cacophony of animals, insects, and reptiles permeating my mosquito net, I can’t even sleep in a fancy hotel room. I feel like the A/C is poisoning me, and it probably is.
At least I’m back in my hammock now on the cargo boat — my green cocoon that re-birthed me into the animal world after the most fear-inducing and vomitus part of my trip.
Just days ago I had been lying on the floor of the tribal lodge in a mess of green chunks as I left my body and entered that of a reptile. From above, I watched myself slithering out from the swamp, ejecting muck (Ayahuasca) in some sort of primordial-spiritual hatching of my consciousness.
CARGO BOAT — DAY 2
When I awake it’s bread, butter and sugary coffee for breakfast. Next to me, teen mom wants teen dad to hold the baby — but he just wants to play video games on his phone. Most passengers are staring at their phones to kill time and I get some funny looks as I pull out my journal, a green Jurassic World notebook with a velociraptor on the cover.
I’m writing about the visions I had on my trip after I drank my fifth dose of Ayahuasca and ventured out of the ceremonial lodge. The air was ethereal; some alien environment which I cut through with my hand, making snaking, liquid movements. The sandy beachfront turned into a glass-like surface, illuminated from below with blue and white camouflage patterns. The palm trees above were visible breathing the ethereal air, in-and-out.
The sticks on the beach were moving like snakes and I made sure not to step on them as I worked my way towards shore. There, I laid down on the dock and looked up into the stars which were darting around randomly.
What is this place? Some sort of parallel, more vividly-colorful reality that exists once the curtain is pulled back on our concrete world? The Amazon Theatre, indeed. I’ve seen glimpses of it on LSD trips, but this was much more pure. Can it be accessed without hallucinogens? I’ve heard it’s possible through Kundalini Yoga … something to explore later.
After dinner on the boat I’m reading “We,” the 1921 dystopian novel by Yevgeny Zamyatin, and this passage comes up:
“We, on earth, are constantly walking over a bubbling crimson sea of fire, hidden there in the belly of the earth. But we never think of it. But what if suddenly the fine crust under our feet becomes glass, and suddenly we could see…”
— Yevgeny Zamyatin, “We”
CARGO BOAT — DAY 3
In the morning I do my yoga and meditation on the stern and come up with a vision for the rest of my trip in South America (all visions subject to change). Later I talk to the captain and learn that our boat reaches Puerto Velho in three days, not one day as I’d been anticipating … fuck.
I recently noticed a parasite in my foot; some sort of worm that’s been moving around at clip of 1/2 cm per-day, causing bad itching. What to do besides head to the canteen and drink some beers. I get to know some of the guys onboard in the process, and share travel stories in broken Portuguese as no one speaks English.
Beer: the universal remedy for quelling boredom, loneliness, foot parasites, whatever.
After dark, and without warning, our boat reverses its engines before hitting a giant dirt embankment. I think we’ve almost run aground, but it turns out to be some shady, makeshift dock. We unload two Mitsubishi 4×4’s to some guys on dirt bikes before quickly exiting the scene with our ship lights off.
Sketchy mission accomplished.
CARGO BOAT — DAY 4
Onboard I’m reading “We” and it’s hitting all the right chords. Funny how you find the right book just when you’re ready to receive the message, no sooner no later.
“Mankind ceased to be savage when we built the Green Wall, when we isolated our perfect machined world from the irrational, chaotic world of the trees, birds, animals. But what if the yellow-eyed being — in his ridiculous bundle of trees — is happier that us?”
— Yevgeny Zamyatin, “We”
Prior to my Ayahuasca ceremony, I spent two months traveling Brazil learning some Portuguese, then one week in the Amazon on a Igapó (backwater) canoe trip sleeping in the jungle with two local guides. To purify my body for the ceremony, I completed two weeks detox from all alcohol, drugs, technology, and sex.
For me, this was the bare minimum, considering: 1) it was my first time in the Amazon, 2) my first time taking Ayahuasca, and 3) I was to be the only person staying with the tribe for the ceremony.
I was dropped off via passenger ferry boat at the tribal dock, with one bag of raw fish, one bag of fruit, my hammock and backpack. A German girl on the ferry gave me a look I won’t soon forget, like, “Oh my…“
The Shaman didn’t speak English, but did speak Portuguese in addition to the indigenous language, so we could communicate good enough. He welcomed me into his hut for a dinner of fish and rice, which his wife cooked deliciously.
I explained to the Shaman in that I’m from Wisconsin, U.S.A., I’ve been traveling through Brazil for two months and was previously in India riding motorcycles in the Himalayas, which he seemed to find amusing.
He told me I’ll be the first foreigner to stay with their tribe in one year-and-eight-months — a major privilege, which I acknowledged. In the morning his son took me out into the jungle to learn about medicinal plants and how to a shoot a blow gun.
CARGO BOAT — DAY 5
On the river I befriend some young boys, sharing my binoculars and camera as we scope out strange boats. We passes a flotilla of what looks to be 20 house boats outfitted with cranes and tubes. They’re trolling the riverbed, suctioning up sand and sifting it through conveyer belts for gold. One of them apparently hits the jackpot as they shoot up a celebratory flare into the sky.
I do my yoga and meditation, which has been a lifesaver with no other activities available apart from wandering around the decks.
I just can’t believe I’ve been on this friggen’ boat for five days. I swear the guy who sold me the trip told me it was four days and we still have one more day left. It’s unnervingly hot in the midday heat, so I lay in my hammock and pass out.
CARGO BOAT — DAY 6
Further questions about my Ayahuasca trip are emerging as I sunbathe on the top deck. It’s a beautiful, final day onboard and I’m in the right state of mind to dive deeper into my mysteries, such as:
When I had my out-of-body experience watching myself vomit from above was I occupying some undefined space? Or was I looking through the eyes of my Shaman who had earlier initiated me as a brother to himself and his sons?
And when I look up to my shaman, is it just myself, looking up at myself, looking down at myself? If so, does that mean that my ancestors also traveled here from the Orion Constellation thousands of years ago along with the tribe?
According to the Shaman’s ceremonial story, the tribe of hunters originate from Orion. They traveled to earth via worm hole thousands of years ago in the belly of a giant Space Snake (pictured at top of post), gravitating to the strong energy vibrations of the Amazon, where they found the spiritual Ayahuasca plant.
Now it’s afternoon and our Cargo Boat finally reaches Puerto Velho. I only have a few days left on my visa in Brazil so I hop the night bus to a the border town of Guajará-Mirim.
I quickly research my foot parasite and write myself a prescription for ivermectin on a page from my Jurassic World notebook which I rip out and hand the local pharmacist. She fills it for $3.
Next I hop a ferry at the Brazilian border, cross the river, and walk straight into Bolivia. No visa, no passport check, no questions, nada.
I’m in no mood for cities, so I spend less than five minutes in town before hailing a moto-taxi towards the Bolivian Amazonica Reserve.
“It is at the edge of madness that we attain to a glimpse of the overwhelming truth and simplicity of life. It is the utter simplicity of life which defeats man. He has turned the earth inside out in a frantic effort to attain security, to arrive at wisdom.”
You’re living in a computer generated Dreamworld Walking around in concussion-like daze Sucked into the warm glow of your phone It is your Master and you are its Slave
Where did you go? It told you where to go What do you fear? It told you what to fear
Everywhere, grown adults posing like teenagers Small children experiencing nature for the first time through screens No one looking at each other in public A Mass Psychosis Epidemic of Madness
Your every movements are tracked Your conversations pried upon by corporations Creating a permanent record of your actions Harvesting your energy to feed The Machine
It provides the illusion of reality But we have descended into delusion Endless notifications make it impossible to achieve peace Or an authentic experience with nature
If you could free your mind from this tyranny would you do it? Which would you chose? A difficult but free life Or blissful subjugation in a comfortable lie
I am flowing in a natural direction towards the jungle There is no GPS in my pocket No apps telling me who is my friend, and who to fear No one can message me
Why are you scared of being alone and disconnected? Be alone and disconnected Within yourself is untold power And love
Kill your Master Reconstruct a new reality Create your own rules and meaning Face nature alone
“I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible.”
For the third straight day I’m sitting in the District Commissioner’s Office in Leh waiting for my permit to ride into Nubra Valley.
I have no phone or reading material, so find myself browsing through the District’s Human Waste Management booklet, which comes disturbingly published in full color.
Must… look… away!
Nubra Valley has been doubly off limits due to COVID-19 and its status as a heavily-militarized zone in conflict with China. I’m using all my political skills to get my permit and finally a guy emerges with news.
I can ride into Nubra Valley if I hire a local guide to accompany me and sign a paper saying I won’t photograph any military equipment. Fair enough. I’m finally stamped and on my way.
Leh is the capital of the Union Territory of Ladakh, lying between Tibet to the east and Pakistan to the west, at an altitude of nearly 11,500 feet.
I head across town to meet my guide, Urgyan. There are no bars in Leh, so the bikers gather at a place called “Coffee Culture,” sipping lattes and leaning against their Royal Enfields.
Urgyan is seated in the corner of the cafe. He’s a small, local college kid with a pencil Fu Manchu mustache and John Lennon shades. He tells me he’s ridden the route before and we can leave tomorrow.
Leh is calm in the morning with few vehicles on the street as we ride past the massive, stone-walled Leh Palace and up towards the Leh-Manali Highway. From here it’s a long stretch of tarmac winding up through the desert mountainside.
“These are military roads, very fast,” says Urgyan, as we stop around 14,000 feet. “RedBull ran a Formula One car up here some years ago.”
As we’re ascending to 16,000 feet, ice becomes visible on the roadsides and my fingertips start to freeze through the tops of my cutoff gloves.
The engines of our Enfield’s are gasping for air and making slow chunking sounds as we cross 17,000 feet. The thin air affects my vision and everything looks choppy and distorted, like some old adventure documentary.
Urgyan motions up across the valley and I see a checkpoint with some trucks queued-up in the distance. It’s Khardung La, the world’s second highest motorable pass at 18,000 feet.
We park our bikes by the guardhouse across the road. I unbutton my jacket pocket and hand my papers to Urgyan who deals with the guard.
Urgyan emerges 10 minutes later with news. “The guard says you’re just the third foreigner to reach. Two Russians came through earlier.”
“Can we pass?”
“Yes, but he suggests you keep your helmet on in the valley, because the villagers are worried about corona and might be scared of you.”
I mentally dismiss this suggestion.
In the year before COVID hit, nearly 58,000 foreign tourists visited Ladakh. Now it was just me, Urgyan and the Russians traveling the Silk Road through Nubra Valley.
Before our descent I swap gloves with Urgyan. My fingertips are frozen and he has the full-finger variety. Plus he’s a local guy raised in the mountains. Riding at 18,000 feet is like playing in the sandbox for him.
We drop down the backside of the mountain, quickly losing altitude. Our Enfields have more air to breathe and the engines are letting out a confident, high-tempo thumping.
Up ahead we run into a road construction site with bulldozers. Urgyan hits some deep sand causing his handlebars to twist. I watch his bike swerve before crashing in front of a dozen laborers.
I hit my brakes to dodge Urgyan, which causes my own front wheel to slide. I drop my bike inches before Urgyan, leaving us both twisted up in a sandy heap of steel.
Urgyan is wincing and holding his left wrist. His Enfield has a bent brake pedal, twisted clutch lever, and smashed headlight. One of the laborers takes his sledgehammer and pounds the brake pedal until it’s somewhat usable.
Every guy in India is a roadside mechanic.
The only damage to my bike is a dislodged exhaust, or “silencer” as the Indian’s call it, which I kick into place with my boot.
We take some time to dust off and collect our wits before heading back on the road. After crossing some marshlands, we ride for another hour or so until the road reveals flat desert and vegetation below. It’s the mammoth bowl of Nubra Valley.
There are no stories or dramas playing out in my head. It’s a perfect visibility day and I’m fully in the scene as we ride across the desert.
This state of mind is surely tied to the tech detox I’ve been on for three months with no phone, no apps and no text messages in my pocket. I even ordered the staff at my guesthouse to remove the TV and phone from my room.
Hey, it’s a tech detox, not an acting bossy detox.
Riding through the desert I have no distractions —apart from the 105-foot-tall golden Maitreya Buddha towering over the Village of Diskit like some Buddhist Statue of Liberty.
I’m no Buddhist, but I’m pretty sure the Buddha would not have signed off on this statue.
As we arrive in Diskit, I stand by our bikes as Urgyan walks down the streets looking for a place for us to stay.
There’s no way I’m keeping my helmet on as the border guard suggested, so I remove it and instantly get startled looks from locals who haven’t seen a foreigner all year. I’m basically an alien who just rode into their village. Some locals pull their shirts up to cover their mouths as they pass by.
Urgyan finally returns. “There’s just one guesthouse open in all of Nubra Valley,” he says. “Hotel Sten-Del, it’s just down the street.”
We park our dusty bikes and the owner welcomes us in. He’s a short, dark-skinned man named Stanzin, flanked by his wife who offers us chai.
“Julley,” says Stanzin, which is the traditional Ladaki greeting. “You’ll be the only guests here. Two Russians were here earlier, but they left.”
“Did they make it to Turtuk?” I ask.
“No, they had to turn back because the guy hurt his leg trekking.”
Now with the mysterious Russians gone, it will just be me and Urgyan traveling the Silk Road.
Oh pilot of the storm who leaves no trace Like thoughts inside a dream Here is the path that led me to that place Yellow desert stream My Shangri-La beneath the summer moon I will return again Sure as the dust that floats high in June When moving through Kashmir
— Led Zeppelin
As a child I was always running around going someplace I wasn’t supposed to be — a little rebel explorer.
My mom has repeatedly confirmed this, and she is one of the few real adventurers I know. Even into her 70’s, she has continued to take trips around the world while overcoming numerous injuries.
Now for the first time I was experiencing the type of travel that would make her proud — diving into the desert like some dusty, trespassing rogue.
Hanging on the wall by our breakfast table is a faded map of Tibet, which sparks up a conversation.
Urgyan tells me he comes from a family of Tibetan Buddhists who immigrated to Ladakh many years ago. He was born in Lamayuru and is pleased to learn that I’d already traveled there and had lunch with the locals in his monastery.
After breakfast we check on our motorcycles. Urgyan’s bike and wrist are in no condition for the long ride to Turtuk, so I tell him to jump on the back of mine. I note the irony of the situation. My guide, who I’ve paid to lead the way is now my passenger.
No problem. I’ve grown fond of Urgyan and he’s been invaluable in dealing with locals and getting us through checkpoints. Plus he’s small and I don’t notice the extra weight on my bike as he hops on. I tell him his new job is to take videos from the backseat.
We set off on the Diskit-Turtuk highway which is flanked on the right by sweeping sand dunes. Urgyan tells me that Bactrian “double-humped” Camels roam these dunes, ancient remnants of the Silk Road trade.
“The camels came from Central Asia and would carry goods along the desert for traders,” says Urgyan.
Unfortunately there are no Bactrian Camels today, so we keep rolling along the route which is dotted with BRO “Border Roads Organization” military highway signs with entertaining slogans:
“DARLING I LIKE YOU, BUT NOT SO FAST!”
“DON’T GOSSIP, LET HIM DRIVE“
On our right Thoise Airbase comes into view. The district commissioner had forbidden me from photographing any military operations, but he didn’t say I couldn’t write about them.
Thoise is a two kilometer stretch of desert airstrip with ten large hangars and barracks. Just as we approach, a massive C-17 Globemaster III lumbers onto on the tarmac. We’re riding our motorcycle alongside the airstrip just as the Globemaster begins its takeoff and I feel like I’m in some Bollywood remake of Top Gun.
According to media reports, the U.S. sold India a dozen C-17s at a cost of $366 million each. The planes can carry heavy equipment and about 100 troops per-flight to the glacial outposts on the Chinese border.
India has been in conflict with China over the nearby Galwan Valley for decades. But just a few months before our arrival, things intensified with a series of skirmishes that left 20 Indian soldiers and 43 Chinese troops dead.
According to reports the battle was a gruesome, frigid affair fought at 15,000 feet with stones and nail-studded clubs. Many soldiers were beaten to death and others left drowning in a freezing glacial river.
I wondered why was the Indian Army flying solders on $366 million airplanes and then making them fight with Ice-Age weaponry? I read something about a ban on firearms in the Chinese border region, which makes no sense to me.
After reading this I’m happy to go back to my no-media detox.
Back on the route we finally see some other vehicles. Two bulldozers are clearing a road that leads down to a steel bridge over a turquoise river. We cross the bridge into the jaws of a stone-tooth shark.
Further ahead we ride into canyon that’s stacked with house-sized boulders that appear glazed with metallic purple paint. My polarized sunglasses are making them look even more trippy as I stop to gawk at the boulders wondering if they were chucked here from another galaxy.
*** POLICE CHECKPOINT ***
Up past the boulder canyon we approach a green hilly outpost. An officer emerges, motioning for us to enter his small room which is set up like a dorm with just a cot and TV.
The officer takes our papers and peers at them closely before asking me the familiar question, “You are from?”
He marks his logbook then holds it up.
“See here, you are only traveler to reach all year.”
I let this sink in for a moment then throw my hands up in the air, “Touchdown.”
We’re almost out of petrol so we stop to refuel in the next town of Bogdang, which is surrounded by bombed-out buildings. It used to be part of Pakistani Kashmir before India took it over in the 1971 War.
As we roll out, a group of children line up on the roadside and give us high fives.
Finally we’re approaching the Pakistan border at Turtuk. I realize it took me seven months in India to discover this place and wonder if anyone else from my hometown of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin will make this journey.
According to Google Maps, the total nonstop travel time from Sun Prairie to Turtuk is 60 hours. But it doesn’t take into account the 48 hours you will need to spend resting in a hotel in Leh to acclimate to the altitude. Plus the minimum 24 hours it will take to get your permit to enter Nubra Valley.
So altogether that’s 132 hours from Sun Prairie to Turtuk and at least 60 hours for the return trip, for a total of eight days round-trip travel. Given that the average annual vacation time for Wisconsin residents is nine days, this gives you exactly one day to step out and enjoy your entire vacation for the year.
“The ordinary world, and our ordinary lives in the world, are not sufficient to reveal who we really are — quite the opposite. To discover who you are you must go beyond who you think you are.”
— Deepak Chopra, Metahuman
We’ve reached the final outpost. The tip of the subcontinent: Turtuk.
Just north is the Karakoram Range of the Himalayas which leads into K-2, the second highest mountain on earth. Further northwest the range leads to Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
Along with India, Pakistan, and China, five countries converge on this one remote spot of the planet, the much disputed and indisputably glorious Kashmir.
We enter Turtuk and search for a place to eat. Just off the main road is an open-air restaurant with a stone staircase and some plastic tables. The kitchen is inside the cave of a boulder and the cook smiles at us through a window in the rock. Urgyan orders chow mein noodles and I get the chicken curry rice.
It’s just us and a bunch of military guys in fatigues at the restaurant. Their vehicle outside is marked: “Siachin Warriors: Courage and Fortitude.” It refers to a war with Pakistan fought on the Siachin Glacier, dubbed the “Highest Battleground on Earth.” India took control of more than 1,500 square miles of territory from Pakistan in the conflict including our current location.
After lunch, we head up through Turtuk into the final checkpoint. This one is more heavily militarized than the rest with multiple barracks, heavy equipment, and gates. Urgyan gets off the bike and talks to a guard with brightly dyed orange hair, which is for some reason a thing for older guys in India.
Apparently the guard thinks we are locals. But just as he is motioning for us to pass, I stupidly remove my helmet, revealing my bald, white head.
This causes all sorts of problems. Now the guard has to see my passport and make several phone calls informing his superiors that I’m here. Eventually Urgyan takes the cellphone from the guard, talking in Ladakhi with the higher up, persuading him to let us through.
After all this way we almost got denied because I removed my helmet. I should have listened to that first guard.
We finally ride through the checkpoint and head up along the Shyok River for the final few miles.
“We made it. That’s Pakistan!” says Urgyan, pointing at a devilish-looking mountainside looming overhead.
We park our bikes by a rusty bridge, take some pictures and rest for a moment to enjoy our accomplishment.
As we pass back through the Turtuk checkpoint the orange-haired guard comes out of his post to give us a thumbs up. I’m buzzing as we get back on the highway riding south past Bogdang, past the space boulders, past the airstrip.
Just as we reach Diskit the sun is setting on the Maitreya Buddha statue and I have a feeling that I’ve never had before. Like I’ve been initiated into a new club: Adventurer.
But there’s no club to be seen. Just me and Urgyan, sole travelers of the 9,200-square-mile Nubra Valley.