When you travel to faraway places, you expect to feel displaced and disoriented. You expect the strangeness of an indecipherable language, of unknowable aromas and unimaginable sights. Even when homesickness strikes, and you search out something comforting and familiar — a pizza, for example — a part of you knows that no matter how close to the “real thing” it is, it will be just different enough to make your homesickness worth. It will have corn and oyster mushrooms on it, or the cheese will taste like butter; it will be a Bizarro Pizza.
What you do not expect to happen is to travel thousands of miles into the unknown only to experience something so intimately connected to the story of who you are that it doesn't just feel familiar, it feels like a flashback; an emotional echo rebounding through time, distorted, but clearly and eerily recognizable. This is what I felt when, after a helmet-less ride through Thailand's northern forest, I pulled up at the doorstep of The Cave Lodge, 9km north of the dusty town of Pang Mapha.
About 10 years ago, I visited Brasil for the first time. I flew into Curitiba, in the state of Paranà, where my dear friends Pati and Andrew picked me up at the airport and gave me my first taste of fresh coconut water. I had a one-month ticket and since I didn't have a lick of Portuguese and had no clear idea of what I was going to do, I was planning on relying very heavily on the two of them. The first excursion they had planned was to a place called Iporanga. It was a town bordering a a tiny sliver of the once great Mata Atlântica rain floresta that had blanketed São Paulo state. I checked my Lonely Planet guidebook and there was no mention of such a place.
When we arrived in Ipo, as I came to know it, we drove to the top of the town where a lumber yard had been turned into a hostel. Albergue Capitão Caverna, named for the cartoon character known in the States as Captain Caveman. It was a place unlike anywhere I had ever been. I remember orchids and other epiphytes tied into the branches of trees. I remember showers that provided hot water in demand and — if you didn't do it right — a frightening electric tingle that rebounded down to your toes. I remember little translucent pink lizards with eyes like papaya seeds. I remember hammocks, and banana trees, and a German Shepherd named Astor, and sweet black coffee, and a thin curl of moon rising above Morro da Coruja (Owl Hill). But what I remember most of all are the people. Jana, who ran the hostel. Luciane, who worked there. Queila, visiting from São Paulo. Guiné, a registered guide for PETAR (Parque Estadual Turistico do Alto Ribeiro), a state park preserving about 140 square miles of old growth rainforest.
Originally, we had planned to stay in Ipo for three days; one weekend. In those first three days, we hiked through the forest, dazzled by the diversity and sheer thickness of life, we swam in rivers and waterfalls, we ate arroz e feijão, and we visited a scant few of the over 300 caves that dot the park — Morro Preto, Agua Suja, Santana. Just the sound of these names, rolling around in my head, bring back memories so sensual that they eclipse the world I am currently inhabiting. This strangely proprortioned room in a guesthouse in Luang Prabang, Laos fades away into the impenetrable sound of an underground waterfall, into puffs of black dust rising from our footsteps, into the warmth of sunlight after hours in darkness. On what was to be our final day, we explored Alembary, a cave whose entrance I remember as an unassuming hole in a patch of grassy ground, its depth obscured by water. We scrambled into this dark mouth and plunged into icy waters.
On our way back to town, golden in the setting sun, we stopped at a cluster of ramshackle structures. We ate pasteis fresh from the fryer and sublime in their warmth and comfort. We drank caldo de cana, an emerald brew pressed from rods of sugar cane, in flimsy plastic cups. The sky turned lavender as we drove the rest of the way back to Ipo. In the distance a single mercury light blinked into existence, a tiny green star illuminating a square building and a stand of banana trees. An emotion welled inside of me, something deep and primal and unnameable in my first language. Desire and Hunger were the wrong color. Need was too mundane. Longing came close, but even this is too melancholy, too absent of joy and the blissful divine. In Portuguese, I later learned, the word for this ineffable feeling is Saudades.
I wanted to stay in that river valley, wanted to slouch in the redes that lined the alburgue's veranda, wanted to learn enough Portuguese to sufficiently express my love of and gratitude for this place. I wanted to hold on to this feeling forever, until the seed that had been planted in my soul had burst and taken root and given flowers.
That first visit to Iporanga changed my life. Somewhere on a dirt road in Brasil, a part of me awoke, took the steering wheel and pulled. The maps that I had been given became useless. In a very real sense, this is where The Endless Road Trip began.
To find myself confronted by this view, experiencing something so similar to Iporanga and yet so different, was an unexpected and comforting confirmation. The person that I was stood face to face with the person that I have become, and both incarnations were filled with gratitude. So much time has passed, so many things have changed, but some underlying, essential form remains. The tides have come and gone, but the ocean is still whole. Iporanga, Pang Mapha; threads in a grand pattern. Fragile, but infinite. Saudades for the world that is receding, Joy for the horizon drawing me forward.