Some years ago, when I began a lengthy journey around the world, I found myself in the Panama jungle, living in a tiny community of Ngabe people. I can't say precisely why I ended up there, except that someone who lived there had asked me to visit. But I can say why the visit turned into a very long stay: it was because of a book.
It wasn't just any book, it was Tim Cahill's book, Jaguars Ripped My Flesh. It was the first travel book I ever read. Before discovering his book, I hadn't even known about travel literature as a genre of writing.
I didn't bring it with me to that remote mountaintop village--it was given to me by the Ngabe people who lived there. There was a small library, full of damp and molding books donated by Christian missionaries and volunteer workers, and resting among them was Cahill's book, left behind by a Peace Corp worker.
The people in the village loved his book. They could not read it, since they did not know English, but they revered the jaguar and held a special place for any person who survived a jaguar attack. They presented his book to me as though it was a holy thing.
And it was.
I spent many afternoons outside the village tuberculosis clinic, reading it to a small crowd of patients and their children, who asked questions about what he was doing in each part of the book. It wasn't me explaining and retelling his stories--it was him. He was a real person, alive, sitting with us on a tree stump, hands moving as he told his tales.
I was afraid in the jungle. I had never been so outside of what was familiar: everything I knew and had learned was wrong among the Ngabe. I was not an expert at anything. I had nothing to offer. I was exhausted by trying to adapt, and I often wanted to leave those first few weeks.
But Cahill's book changed that. I saw a person doing things he was afraid to do. I saw him embracing challenges. And I realized I could choose that, too. I could be fearless, or at least walk along side the fear.
His book became my constant companion. I memorized long passages from it. I could hear his voice speaking the words, telling me to pushing myself harder. Stop fighting. Be more open. Learn.
And so I stayed. I stayed in that jungle for many months, until I forgot who I had I had been when I arrived.
About a year ago, I met Cahill in person. His voice was exactly like I had imagined it would be. Since that time, he has been a constant mentor, guide and friend. But really, he became that mentor in the jungle. His book changed my life. His stories changed my path. Because of his words I started a journey that I haven't stopped: living a life without fear. And he continues to inspire me to write well and deeply, to overcome, to refine my voice.
Tomorrow morning, I post an interview with Cahill about travel, writing, and his life. It's a phenomenal experience for me, to go from reading a book he wrote to connecting with him in such a personal way.
I am so blessed and so extraordinarily happy with life tonight.