Updated: Nov 14, 2018
Not everything is fun and games.
I cannot tell exactly where I heard this phrase - perhaps it was told to me by my mother or I read it in a book - but when I think about it, these six words can relate to almost everything. In a general sense, the phrase can refer to life. In a specific sense, it can refer to cooking a meal or maybe trying on shoes. In other words, to every upside there is a downside. This trip is no exception.
The following read will consist of the dirty, bloody, and not-so-pretty aspects of this trip. Both physically and mentally. Some of the experiences may surprise you, others not so much. My goal is to convey a much more “real” look into backpacking and the demanding aspects it requires. The pictures on Instagram or Facebook, that some of you Readers may have seen, represent the “pretty” seconds or minutes of taking a long backpacking trip. The rest is hard work. It is not just fun and games.
In a rough approximation, I have traveled nearly 10,500 miles since I left home. Throughout those miles I have taken countless buses, boarded five planes, three trains, rented two cars, crashed on a bike, and walked and/or hiked maybe 300 of those 10,560 miles. It has been exhilarating and exhausting at the same time.
Traveling long distances is a waiting game. Whether it’s by plane, boat, or bus, so much time and energy has been put into just getting to the next destination. Buses have been the main source in getting from point A to point B. My travel companion and I have become pros at navigating the massive bus stations, in which there are dozens of companies all offering more or less the same thing. We spread out and ask multiple companies about rates, time, and how comfortable the seats are. The whole process - finding the right bus company, waiting for the bus, spending hours on said bus - becomes a many hour ordeal. We are often the forced to plan our days and activities around the buss schedules. Prices for tickets have ranged from $3 to almost $80 and it’s often a gamble on how comfortable the bus will be if it’s an overnight ride. Some have been comfortable, many are cramped. We only took planes when the cost of the plane was roughly equal to that of a bus journey (factoring in time and costs for food). We also simply did not want to endure a 30+ hour bus.
There is certainly something appealing to backpacking, carrying everything you need on your back, but that’s exactly the thing: you carry everything you need on your back. My pack alone is around 25lbs. Clothing, a sleeping bag, a sleeping mat, med kit, shoes. Those are the basics and you need them. That weight may not seem like much at first but once you factor in walking with the weight it becomes a whole other deal. In the beginning of this journey, my shoulders and back were sore, as I didn’t know how to properly adjust my pack’s straps. Now, my shoulders and back tough and durable and my straps are always at the right settings. Often, when I need to carry my pack, I don’t carry it around for more than hour, maybe two, so it’s bearable. In Colombia and Ecuador, the temperature was quite steamy and I would sweat through my clothes walking in the heat and stare at my feet as they moved one step closer to our destination. Our packs have more than once been a bit too big for the trunk of a taxi cab and have become fairly uncomfortable co-passengers. After the taxi ordeals, it’s hysterical, but in the moment it’s a suffocating experience. The one thing I don’t consistently carry is food as usually there’s always a nearby place to eat or buy. However, that changed when I trekked in Torres del Paine National Park for four days - I learned the true backpacking pain. Everyday was six to eight hours of trekking, up and down steep hills on uneven terrain and battling the elements from rain to snow to insanely strong winds. And we had to carry four days worth of food and water and sleeping equipment. It was exhausting but I can’t wait to do something like that again.
Speaking of clothing - I can’t wait to wear sweatpants again - the minimalist style I’ve taken on over the past few months has been nice but if you want to backpack, Reader, be prepared to wear the same thing, over and over and over, again. Even when it’s dirty, and you know it’s dirty, you have to wear it anyway because there’s no laundromat in sight and even if there was a laundromat, you are probably out of small bills to pay for it. In packing for the trip I only brought practical clothing (hiking, durable, and waterproof) which I would say was a good idea. However, I do wish I brought a pair of jeans (which I did end up buying a cheap pair) and sneakers. I haven’t worn a normal bra in months, as I only brought sports bras, and when I go out to the bars I wear my dorky looking hiking sandals. I’m a hit with all the other girls in heels. There have also been some casualties. A moment of silence please for the tank top, pair of socks, and two pairs of underwear that I’ve lost. May you be living a better life, whenever you are worn again.
As for people, it’s been a whirlwind of cultures, stories, and beliefs. I can’t tell you how many interactions I’ve had. Almost all have been pleasant or indifferent. Some have been not so great. Aggressive taxi drivers trying to rip us off, desperate, often drunk, homeless people heckling us, or the religiously crazed screaming that we’d go to hell unless we repented. It’s certainly been interesting. Thankfully, there has never been a violent confrontation but sometimes we’ve wandered into areas where it’s sketchy. In Lima, Peru, we were trying to find the Barrio Chino district (Chinatown) and walked down a few roads that I wouldn’t recommend visiting in hindsight. In every country, we’ve stayed in some pretty rural areas and the poverty in these places is absolutely flooring at times. Simple brick or wooden houses with sheet metal for roofs. No running electricity or water. Hiking in Colca Canyon, Peru, electricity infrastructure was just installed in 2011. In cities , the juxtaposition between the rich and the poor is striking. Passing the streets in taxi cabs I’d see whole “homeless towns” - a mishmash of materials ranging from garbage bags to broken pieces of wood - under the freeways and in secluded corners. In Santiago, Chile, we took a walking tour that showed us the “real” Santiago. No glamorous houses, stores or cars. Nothing like the glossy tourism posters that lined the hallways of Santiago’s International airport which I’d seen the night before. Simple people living simple lives. In experiencing this all, more than once I’ve been taken aback. I’ve always known that these places exist, you read and hear about them, but it’s completely different to see in person. Children would run after us, asking for pesos or food. I’d give it to them at times
We’ve also had a few instances with lost or stolen items. In Colombia, I forgot both my sweater and coat in the upper compartment of the bus, only to realize hours later that I had done so. I was fairly upset. It was only the second week of the trip and I was kicking myself for being so absent minded. We spent the rest of the afternoon trying to get in contact with the company and the driver...to ultimate success! The bus had ended up traveling to our future destination (Popayán) and then drove back to Cali. A lucky turnout. In Máncora, Peru, we abandoned our rental tent (with a bunch of our stuff in it) because it was overrun by mosquitos. We left the campsite to find a hostel at nearly 3 in the morning. The next day we learned that our mini camping lamp had mysteriously disappeared. We managed to get that back too...by confronting the man who we thought was the culprit (turned out he actually was). Some days later we realized that my travel companions sweater had been snagged as well. We failed to retrieve that item. A few weeks later, we were on an overnight bus to Arequipa, Peru. In the evening the day we arrived we realized that our day backpacks had been rummaged through. My reading tablet and phone charging-brick had been stolen and my companion’s laptop and some money had been too. We were speechless. On the bright side, the tech wasn’t anything too valuable (old models, and the laptop was not my companions primary laptop) and easily replaceable. But it gave us a wake up call. We honestly are not sure how they managed to get the bags. They couldn’t have grabbed them from under the seat because it was blocked (the seats were made that way). We figured they must have somehow snagged them from while we were sleeping. However the method, it was an experience that caused a huge headache and made us much more aware for the rest of the trip. We were so groggy in the morning when the bus arrived that we didn’t even notice that anything was missing. I have since used a lock on the zippers up of my bag and I strap it to my feet when on night buses. I look forward to finishing the book I was reading on my tablet when I return home.
Pictures can tell a thousand words as they say. Like I mentioned before, many of the photos that I’ve posted on social media are the “pretty” aspects of the trip. More accurately, the trip consists of vast underdeveloped landscapes, cities choked by traffic, markets, and spaghettified telephone wires, broken sidewalks, huge flat estancias (massive farms), and an incredible amount of environmental pollution. In Huaraz, Peru, the small river that crosses through the center of town was covered with trash of all sorts - from plastics to dead chickens - and was not clear whatsoever. In towns I would sometimes carry trash around for a few miles as public trash cans were scarce or non-existent. I observed that the local people literally just throw trash on the sides of the streets. I later learned that cleaning crews come in the early hours of the morning and scoop it up. However, this wasn’t always consistent. Even while trekking in Huascarán National Park, I would occasionally see trash (beer cans, paper, plastic containers) at a rate much higher than other national parks I’ve been to. I would pick it up and dispose of it. Only in big cities - Lima, Santiago, Buenos Aires, São Paulo - have I seen specific trash bins for items like “papel”, “plástico”, etc. In the smaller and more rural areas, it doesn’t matter what it’s made out of, it all goes in one bin, or onto the street. I do not know if trash collectors sort it later. Something tells me that it’s not sorted. I’ve seen trash piled up in alley ways, on corners, around tree trunks: rotting food, broken appliances, metal, plastics. With the lack of proper trash receptacles the streets are often the local dump.
And now about the body and mind. My body has certainly taken a beating. In the second week I tried to jump onto a sidewalk ledge and busted my toe open. A few weeks later I was biking down a fairly steep hill in Baños, Ecuador. I used my front brakes too heavily, flipped over the handlebars, and severely hurt my elbow, my hands, my pride, and ripped my clothing. It took weeks before I was able to put any weight on my left arm and I now am a proud owner of a new scar. In Huaraz, Peru, I got food poisoning - my body revolting against whatever I ate for hours. Barely 24 hours later I trekked in Huascarán National Park for a four day trek, as we had signed up for the trek a few days before. I was incredibly tired the whole time and had a hard time keeping up with the rest of the group. My stomach would twist painfully every time I’d attempt to keep a decent pace. I would collapse into my tent every evening when we arrived at camp and had to be forced to come out and eat dinner. Throughout the journey I have gained bruises and scratches, been caught in thorn brushes, fallen down on trails, failed to find adequate food, had perpetual sunburn on my face for weeks, got altitude sickness. My shoulders and back muscles have tough and painful knots. I’ve been so hot that I’ve sweated through all my clothes, I’ve been so cold I put on everything I could. I wash my hands almost everyday and watch as dirty water swirls down the drain. My hair is brittle, my nails break often and the heels of my feet have cracked so badly that they’d bleed. Sometimes we’re on the move for a few days, others it’s every few days: it’s a constant motion of picking up, putting down and doing it all over again.
At nights my mind is alive with everything that I’d seen that day. When I witnessed the Ecuador-Colombia refugee border crossing, I whittled the night hours away, reading article after article about Venezuela’s Crisis. I did the same thing again in Santiago, Chile, reading about the Pinochet dictatorship and the CIA forces that made it happen. I write down things to look up later. I’ve questioned capitalism, poverty, South American stereotypes, and my own biases. I worry about what will happen when I return home - will I find a job? Will I reminisce about these past four months everyday? Will the magic of the trip remain or become mundane? How will this trip affect me? I miss my mom, my friends, my fat cat from home. I’ve cried at night sometimes feeling that I’m missing out and from a general sense of homesickness. I keep tabs on the news from home and around the world - the bigotry, hate, and ignorance. It makes me sad. I’ve been scared and in pain, worried and upset. I’ve spent nights not socializing trying to feed my introvertness. I’ve also been up until four in the morning partying. I had incredible urges to fix the things - poverty, environmental damage - that I’ve seen, to try and make them better. I research and take notes. It’s driven me to look for jobs that I feel would help alleviate some of the suffering I’ve seen. I still think of Daniel everyday, I hope he made it to Peru.
Backpacking is not about getting the “pretty” photos. It is far from it. There is nothing to romanticize about it. It is about immersing yourself in a very unknown land with only your basics. It’s demanding and rough. It’s a learning experience the entire time and it’s been one of the greatest things I’ve ever pushed myself to do. Blood, sweat, tears. That’s what makes backpacking not just fun and games.