We were surrounded on all sides by an immense curtain of white water. The cascades heaved over a sheer cliff, carving jade green pools in the jungle floor of Iguazú National Park, and drowned out every sound save one: the pounding of our hiking boots as they tore across the metal viewing platform at the base of the falls.
Holly, our resident sprinter, led the charge toward the exit, with Amanda and me sliding right after her. As updrafts of mist swirled around our feet, we skidded across the final footbridge and shot up a steep staircase, our labored breathing and laughter echoing against the basalt rock walls. Slowing slightly to wipe the spray from my face, I glanced down at my watch. We had less than ten minutes to make it to the top, or we might be stranded in Brazil all night.
According to the ranger (who’d raced over seconds earlier to see why on earth the three crazy American girls were still casually snapping photos when the park was about to close), there was only one more shuttle bus leaving that evening. So unless we’d brought camping gear or a wad of extra cash to bribe the Brazilian border officials, we’d better be on it. Sure, it would’ve been helpful if our taxi driver had mentioned the one hour time difference between the Argentinean and Brazilian sides of Iguazú (or Iguaçu) when he semi-illegally transported us across the border, but hey, where’s the fun in that?
We probably should have taken this impending travel disaster a little more seriously. But considering that we’d all but signed over our firstborn kids to our bosses in order to take this little adventure in the first place, we weren’t going to let a little thing like a potential immigration scandal bring us down.
In fact, our escape from New York City a week earlier had felt like nothing short of a prison break. When Amanda and I had first told our friends and coworkers that we were planning to take ten days off—in a row—in order to backpack around Argentina, we were met with some seriously arched eyebrows.
“Wow, I didn’t even take more than a week off when I got married,” one acquaintance remarked. “Better hope they don’t fill your jobs before you get back.”
Only Holly, another assistant editor who worked with Amanda at a women’s magazine, seemed to share our enthusiastic attitude about escaping the freezing winter and the endless projects tethering us to our desks. Even though Holly and I had met just a few times and couldn’t be sure that we’d get along for a single day on the road, let alone ten, she’d asked only two questions before anteing up the money for a ticket: “Which airline are we flying, and when do we leave?” For my part, I was thrilled to have a new coconspirator in my quest to find a more authentic “real world” than the one we were about to leave behind in Manhattan.
After moving to the city nearly four years earlier to take a job at a national television network, I had been dropped into a world of claustrophobic apartments, exorbitant rents, fourteen- hour workdays, mandatory media events, and gospel preachers Jen Iguazú Falls, Argentina/Brazil Nearly Two Years Earlier predicting doomsday on the subways. I quickly learned that the city had spawned a new kind of Darwinian struggle: only the most career-driven and socially adaptable would survive. In order to cope with the pressure, people generally took one of two paths: the first lined with Xanax, therapists, and cigarettes, and the second with Bikram yoga, feng shui, and green tea.
My personal survival method? Escape. Even now, dripping with sweat and frantically racing to make it across country lines, I felt that familiar burst of exhilaration that flooded me every time I booked an international flight or added a new stamp to my passport.
And though it had been a challenge to get on the road in the first place, Holly, Amanda, and I had done our best to squeeze every ounce of life from our holiday. We’d arrived a week earlier in the “Big Apple” of South America, cosmopolitan Buenos Aires, and filled our time wandering its cobblestone alleys, savoring sumptuous lomo steak dinners, stuffing our bags with street market finds, and exhausting ourselves at late-night tango dancing sessions that lasted until the night sky was slivered with pink.
Although our love affair with the passionate culture and sultry vibe of B.A. had only just begun, the three of us were ready to drop even farther away from city life. It was time to head for the jungle. After a two-hour flight on LAN Peru, our small plane touched down in the frontier town of Puerto Iguazú and it was good-bye strappy tango sandals, hello hiking boots.
Glancing down at my own shoes, now filthy from the day’s trek, I was amazed that I was still able to run, much less sprint up the final flight of stairs. As we finally broke out of the deep shade of the rain forest and onto the main road, we spotted the bus fifty yards ahead, packed to the brim with passengers. In a scene befitting a screwball silver screen comedy, the bus started to pull away at the exact moment we arrived. Holly, who by now I’d learned ran marathons for fun, fired up her legs and dashed even faster, waving a tanned arm above her head as Amanda and I screamed for the bus to stop. Thank the jungle gods that we’d popped out into the open when we had, because the driver somehow noticed us in the rearview mirror and chugged to a stop. Gasping for breath and dripping wet, we stumbled aboard and were met by a busload of cheering tourists, all clapping for our frenetic victory. Collapsing into the only empty seats, Amanda, Holly, and I passed around the one bottle of water we had left between us, laughing and congratulating ourselves on yet another skin-of-our-teeth arrival.
As I chugged another gulp of water and caught my breath, I realized that I felt happier and more grounded than I had in months. Suddenly the thought of returning home in a few days sent a ripple of dread through my body. Unlike Amanda and Holly, who’d been desperate for a reprieve from their chaotic, cutthroat magazine jobs, I had recently scored an exciting new position as a marketing coordinator for a music television channel that I was eager to resume.
For once in my adult life, my career and living situation were actually on track, humming right along—but things with my relationship weren’t going so smoothly. In fact, I was bracing myself for a potential train wreck.
After I had dated my boyfriend, Brian, for almost three years, the confidence to shout off the rooftops “Hallelujah! He’s the One!” still eluded me. Though many empathetic souls re- minded me that I was still young, a growing number of onlookers had begun to pounce on my uncertainty. “Shit or get off the pot,” they’d say, invoking the single phrase I loathed more than any other. I mean, maybe I was just comfortable staying in a seated position longer than other people. Can’t a girl simply enjoy the feel of cool porcelain without being judged? While my romance with Brian hadn’t followed the traditional cinematic structure—boy sees girl, they lock eyes, share a passionate embrace, and fall head over heels in love—it had grown out of something stronger: a true friendship. We’d met at a business lunch halfway through my “freshman year” in New York. Network television sales assistant meets advertising client—an industry cliché that always made us laugh. Soon we grew from casual acquaintances to after-work happy hour buddies to true confidants who organized late-afternoon photo shoots in Central Park, signed up for salsa lessons, and dined in cute garden cafés on Restaurant Row.
Before we knew it, we were a serious couple. And as the months turned into years, we never had a moment’s pause about progressing naturally from one level to the next. Becoming Exclusive. Meeting the Parents. Planning Vacations.
Discussing Living Together. I was one of the lucky ones, shattering the Manhattan urban myth that it was impossible to find a sweet, gainfully employed city guy who wasn’t afraid to commit.
But within the past few months, we’d hit the proverbial relationship wall. We had no real reason to break up, but also no real catalyst moving us forward. I knew that Brian and I would have to face the question of our future eventually, but at twenty- six (for another precious few months, anyway), I was more than content to take the safe road—present bus ride excluded. As we neared the park exit, the driver slammed into a pothole, sending me and my wandering thoughts sliding off the bench and into the aisle.
Fortunately, the travel deities, it seemed, had decided to cut us yet another break: in the parking lot, we spotted the same snoring taxi driver who’d originally transported us across the border using a series of dusty back roads and convinced him to do the exact same thing in reverse. A few por favors, 20 Argentine pesos (about $7), and we were on our way.
Even after our mad dash through the jungle, none of us were quite ready to call it a night. By the time we’d reached our hotel—located within the national park on the Argentinean side—Holly had come up with a better alternative.
Her green eyes glinted, and a mischievous smile crossed her face. “Hey, so now that we’ve gained an hour of time back, do you guys want to hike over to Devil’s Throat waterfall? When I spoke with the concierge this morning, he said it doesn’t take long to get there and the view is the best one.”
“I’m definitely down for that. Schmanders?” I asked, invoking Amanda’s college nickname.
“Hey, why not?” she said, sweeping her blond curls off her neck and into a loose ponytail. “And at least we know we can’t get stranded on this side!”
After smoothing on a fresh layer of sun block (my fair skin tends to freckle and burn even in the light of sunset), I grabbed my day pack and we took off running down the trail.
Giddy from our day’s adventure, Amanda, Holly, and I theatrically strutted across another set of Iguazú’s elevated catwalks, following the signs to Garganta del Diablo. We passed over marshy wetland grasses and under verdant green canopies until we finally reached the park’s main stage. Rather than staring at the thunderous, driving force of the water from below, this time we were perched high above the falls—at the same vantage point as the red breasted toucans we’d seen darting through the rain forest. From this height, we could take in the full scope of the cascades rushing over the horseshoe cliff, thundering into a foggy abyss below, and enveloping us in a perfectly circular ring of rainbows.
“You know, I wouldn’t have cared if we’d gotten stranded in Brazil,” said Holly, stretching one of her lean legs along the railing “I’d take this over opening mail any day of the week.”
Amanda grimaced and plopped down next to me on the bench where I’d settled near the main lookout point. “Let’s not mention work, please? I can’t even think about the massive pile of papers and e-mails waiting to eat me alive when I get back.”
“Oh, c’mon, Amanda. You know you’d rather be sitting at your desk working on that lifesaving article you’re doing on . . . what is it?” I teased her, pulling a half-eaten granola bar out of my bag for emphasis. “The grooviest snack foods? The most artificially flavored?”
“The Skinniest New Snack Foods,” she said miserably, grabbing the bar and acting as if she might toss it over the edge.
“But I’d happily eat full-fat foods forever as long as I could do it here. I bet they don’t even have a word for ‘deadline’ or ‘anxiety attack’ in Latin America.”
“I’m with you,” Holly said, coming over to sit next to us. “But at least we managed to escape for more than a week. That’s way more than most people get away with. And even if we have to work until midnight every night for a month, it’ll be worth it.”
“Yeah, I can’t believe we really pulled this off. Especially you, Hols. I mean, you hadn’t even saved up for the trip like Jen and I did.”
Holly shrugged and rolled her eyes playfully. “Well, I figured eating Luna bars for lunch every day and hiding flasks in my purse at happy hours was worth the sacrifice.”
From what I’d learned about Holly already this week, I had a feeling she wasn’t exaggerating about what she’d had to do in order to get on the road and travel. Though I’d done my fair share of scrimping since moving to New York, I’d thankfully never been in debt. I’d even managed to earmark a small portion of my modest television salary for overseas vacations.
Holly, on the other hand, had never really had extra money to spare and had been picking up odd jobs—berry picker, cosmetics color analyst, lead paint poisoning tester, college dorm toilet scrubber, pizza delivery girl—since she was a kid in order to stay afloat with her expenses. Yet somehow she’d managed to visit nearly twice the number of the countries I had, because she’d either earned study-abroad scholarships or paid for the trips out of her own pocket. She prioritized adventure and discovery over stability and structure—yet another reason why Amanda and I were so excited she’d been able to join us at the last minute.
“Do we really have to go back? Can’t we just set up camp and stay?” Amanda pleaded.
“Okay, fine, it’s decided,” I said, rising to my feet to face the girls. “We’ll build a tree house right here and live like the Swiss Family Robinson.”