How does one summarize four months of travel in a ten minute read? I had no idea how to start.
About four months ago I set off with a backpack and two friends to a continent that I barely knew anything about. Four months later I returned. I still have much to learn about the South American continent, but I certainly know a little bit more about the continent and what it encompasses than I did before. I was prepared in certain ways but unprepared in others - that’s what made it unforgettable. If you’ve been following my writing, Reader, you may notice that the title of this post bears the same name as my very first post about my travels. I did not intend for it to work out this way.
I remember groggily arriving at JFK International Airport on an early rainy morning two weeks ago. My joints ached and I lacked sleep. My travel companion’s parents were there to pick us up, and the next few hours of driving through New York City up to my hometown were an absolute daze. Later, I staggered into my silent and familiar home and walked to the center of my living room, kicking my shoes off and dropping my coat and my backpack in the process. I crumpled to my knees on the carpet. I was home. I wasn’t sure if I should yell, cry, or laugh. The house screamed of emptiness and I felt as if I disturbed its slumber - that the house was startled to suddenly have a guest. I felt like a guest in my own home. And that feeling didn’t wear off for a while.
I’ve been wanting to write. I knew I needed a “closing” post, but I was stuck. I stared at my screen, fingers hovering above the keyboard, waiting for the words to come to me. But they didn’t. Maybe there was a part of me that didn’t want to write because it’d produce a concrete reminder, an ending, of my trip. Maybe I was afraid that by writing the words it’d take the magic out of the memories of my experiences: each typed word chipping away at that magic, piece by piece, until it was gone. I didn’t know where to start, I didn’t know how to pour the love of my trip into words. It was painful. I wanted to keep the magic and I never wanted it to disappear. So I stopped trying to force the words and I waited. One day turned into one week and then two weeks. And now, I have found the words, and guess what? The magic is still intact.
Adjusting to my life at home was exactly like adjusting to Colombia - the sounds, the smells, the people - but it was overpowering but in a much more relaxed sense. Colombia was overpowering because of its chaotic way of life. Home was overpowering because of its utter lack of chaos. And, when I think about it, I guess that makes sense. I lived this unstructured, wild, and active lifestyle for four months, and then, suddenly, it stopped. I woke up in my own bed, I didn’t have only three shirts and two pairs of pants to wear, and everyone around me spoke the same language. I was bewildered and in shock. And I realized how easy I had it. Before I left.
However, “easy” may not be the best word. Privileged. Advanced. Convenient. Rich. Perhaps those describe it better. Regardless of the words you choose, I believe the message is clear. I am not saying that one lifestyle is better than the other. Each has its benefits and downfalls in its own way, and I am by no means attempting to belittle or insult either lifestyle, but I have become much more aware of the differences that make my daily life so different from the lives of those I met in South America. Access to water, to food, to healthcare, to power, to reliable infrastructure, to money, to education. Please note that I am not trying to present a perception that every place in South America is underdeveloped. This is not the case. There were, in fact, many places I went to (Buenos Aires, Argentina, for example, was an absolutely beautiful city that I would certainly live in given the opportunity) that were just as modern and convenient as any city or town that I had visited before the trip but they number small compared to the rest of the places I visited. More often than not, I was in underdeveloped areas and it had an impact on me. As a whole, I (and almost everyone I know), have had the immense advantage of convenience, to the commodities mentioned prior. From what I experienced, learned, and observed from my travels, that convenience is not standard. In the back of my mind, I knew this was the case in many parts of the world. But, like I mention in my Borders Post, it is purely different when one completely immerses themselves in the circumstances. My travels have made me extremely aware of the convenience that I live with. It’s not that I’ve never been grateful or have been completely unaware of how I live, but the difference I want to stress is that, for the first time, I don’t feel like I’m living in a bubble. No longer a college campus bubble. No longer in a small town bubble. The bubble has burst, and I feel a stronger connection to the world outside of mine. It’s bigger than just me or my friends or family. I have struggled with this cognizance and I have been unsure of how to approach it. For a brief time, I felt guilt. Guilt that I have taken advantage of the convenience I have lived with. But the guilt turned into gratefulness which turned into a determination that has consumed me. A determination to understand, to grow, to learn, and to empathize more than I ever have before. While I am exploring how to channel that determination in my professional and personal endeavors, my ultimate goal is to always be conscious of that determination and never forget the reasons that helped developed it.
Backpacking South America started as an idea. An impractical and wild idea. It took hold of my thoughts and never let go. It encouraged me to work towards a goal whose outcome I was really unsure of. When asked, I struggled to find a description for my plans after college. All I had was that idea, and I was reluctant to explain my hopes, in fear that somewhere down the road, my hope would disappear. I worked long hours and saved every dollar I could. I spent hours surfing the internet, reading the accounts of others and making notes along the way. One crucial night was spent with beers and a large printed out map of South America. My travel companion and I planned a preliminary route, marking up the map with a black Sharpie, and we more or less stuck to that route during the trip. I still have the map.
Three weeks before the trip, I was loading up some newly bought travel gear into my car. My 65 liter backpack was the jewel in the bunch. It now sits in my room. Dirt, scratches, and many blemishes cover its exterior. Flag patches of each country I went to are stitched onto it. It is one of my most prized possessions and I hope to one day add even more patches to it from lands I visit in the future. When I look back, I see the small steps that turned the idea from just an idea to a solid reality. And I am so proud that all those steps happened.
When the plane took off from Rio de Janeiro heading back to New York, I stared out the window. As I looked out over the dark covered land, the lights of civilization below became smaller and dimmer and, soon enough, the earth looked like a star filled sky. I became overwhelmed. Fat tears rolled down my cheeks. I couldn’t stop the flow of emotion. My brain became a slide-show: snow-capped mountains, green lakes, strong winds, desserts, cities, towns, dirt roads, paved roads, cows, sheep, llamas, monkeys, sad nights, drunk nights, happy nights, skies full of stars, skies full of rain, sunburn, wind burn, road burn, trash covered streets, trash filled-rivers, congested traffic, cars honking, motorbikes zooming, sweating, crying, bleeding, laughing, smiling, crashing on bikes, falling down trails, glaciers, ice, snow, 200 foot dunes, sunsets, sunrises, hostels, hotels, sleeping bags, tents, mosquitos, loud music, buses, Spanish, Portuguese, Quechuan, fried food, street food, bad food, expensive food, cheap food, aching backs, sore feet, Bogotá, Armenia, Filandia, Salento, Cali, Popayán, Ipiales, Otavalo, Conocoto, Quito, Baños, Cuenca, Máncora, Huaraz, Lima, Pisco, Ica, Huacachina, Cusco, Ollantaytambo, Aguas Calientes, Machu Picchu, Arequipa, Colca Canyon, Puno, Lake Titicaca, La Paz, Rurrenabaque, Pampas del Yacuma, Oruro, Uyuni, Salar de Uyuni, San Pedro de Atacama, Santiago, Valparaíso, Viña del Mar, Puerto Montt, Chiloé Island, Puerto Varas, Punta Arenas, Puerto Natales, El Calafate, El Chaltén, Río Gallegos, Ushuaia, Buenos Aires, Colonia del Sacramento, Montevideo, Rosario, Posadas, Puerto Iguazú, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil.
I clung to each memory, hoping that they would never disappear. I felt ripped from a land that I had grown to know and love. I will go back one day. After writing this post, I realize that the only way the magic will go away is if I don’t expand on my experiences: If I don’t write, don’t share, and don’t talk to others about it. If I don’t take what I’ve learned and apply it to new challenges. If I expand upon these memories, I never have to worry about them fading away. I think I needed two weeks to come to this conclusion, two weeks to adjust on either end, and to find the words. It has come full circle.
Reader, I hope you have enjoyed learning about my journey. This is not the end, it is merely a pause. I will write more in the future as my love for writing has grown. I do not plan to end the magic just yet. Stay tuned.