By Andrew Monro
I leaned over the toilet bowl again and retched until my diaphragm muscles burned; leaning back against the wall, the tiles of the bathroom floor felt blissfully cool. The alarm on my phone went off – time for another pill. I struggled with the childproof lid for a moment. Placed one of the small white discs on my tongue and knocked it back with a gulp of water. Reading the label on the bottle provided a brief distraction in the lull between the waves of nausea: ciprofloxacin. My family doctor, in the hopefully unlikely event I would pick up a bacterial infection while travelling in South America, had prescribed this broad-spectrum antibiotic.
It was Christmas Day, and I was lying on the floor in a house in southeastern Argentina with an appendix infection, praying that it was not about to rupture.
This was 2007: I was an 18-year-old Canadian high school graduate, and had decided, after a stimulating school trip to Ecuador in 2006, that I wanted to go back to the continent. This manifested itself as a six and a half month solo backpacking trip travelling through five countries, meeting dozens of people, experiencing the weird, the wonderful, and the occasionally frightening. 25-year-old me is now taking a moment to reflect and to tease out a few things about life, the universe, and the realities of travel, for the benefit of those who may attempt similar adventures.
Eighteen was a good year. I was, more or less, the idealistic go-getter that is stereotypically expected of the young and naïve. It would not be for a few years that I would learn and appreciate that the world was not as plainly nailed down as my worldview suggested at that time. Equipped with shameless idealism, a kiss and hug from Mom, and a backpack full of too much stuff, I boarded a plane in Vancouver, B.C., bound for Quito, Ecuador.
The Early Days
My first scare of the trip came up Mariscal Sucre Airport, no more than twenty minutes after having disembarked. I had hoisted my backpack off the luggage carousel, and was slightly perplexed; the things at the top of my backpack, well, they weren’t mine. There was a pair of black wellington boots, and a blue Nalgene bottle that looked to be loaded with medications. My first thought was that I had had things planted on me. Doing my best to look as suave and casual as possible, I placed the boots and the bottle back on the carousel and then marched as quickly as possible out of the terminal, gripped with fear. Later I would find a little slip of paper in my bag reporting that the Department of Homeland Security had hand-searched my bag. I supposed that there was now some unfortunate person out there missing his boots and his anti-malarial pills, but sighed in relief that the whole thing was just a customs official mixing stuff up, maybe. I fell asleep that night with the blare of a reggae club on one side, and the sounds of a German couple having vigorous sex on the other.
The early days of a long trip can often be the most challenging and the most exciting. Everything is new and shiny; you know little of where you are or of the people you are surrounded by. So many of the preconceptions you might have had about your trip are shattered as you grasp the reality of what it is you have actually gotten yourself into. Many of the most dramatic events of my trip took place in the first two weeks. On the 4th day I was less than 100 metres from a drive-by shooting – which ended up being a setting in which I would meet many of the friends I had in my first month– and at the end of the second I was threatened at knifepoint by an 8-year-old boy. This also may prove to be the most alienating time – everything you look to as familiar and use to support how you define yourself is gone. Some cannot fathom this feeling, others embrace it fully, and still others, like me, muddle our way between comfort and conflict.
Getting Lost in the Back of Beyond
It was around 2:00 AM, the rain was absolutely bucketing down, as is the tendency in the tropics, and I was being looked up and down by a customs official at the Ecuador-Peru frontier, whom I imagine was trying to figure out why a young white kid was at this remote border crossing in the Amazon at that god-forsaken hour. It was the beginning of my third month in South America, and I was soaked, and cranky, but in some strange way, happy to finally be lost. I had reached something of a mental and emotional low in my travel – the reality of being such a long way from home had sunk in, and my awareness of how little about the world and my weaknesses in the Spanish language were particularly acute. I was intensely aware of how isolated I was, and was feeling my age. Eighteen was exceptionally young, especially for a solo backpacker, for travelling in South America - the average age of foreigners I met was around 24. The surprised looks from other travellers and locals calling me bebe had gotten old by this point. But it was in Peru that I had finally figured a few things out: don’t trust taxi drivers, be prepared to wait while the bus driver decides its lunchtime and stops his fully-loaded bus for an hour while he eats, and don’t expect to find a decent cup of coffee anywhere. However, despite not being able to find the town I was in on my map, I had overcome my own resistance to not being in control of where I was going, and when I might get there.
Everyone that travels abroad for a significant period of time sooner or later experiences this kind of isolation that I had felt (that drunken weekend you spent in Puerto Vallarta doesn’t count, especially as the only interaction with locals you had was to ask the bartender for another cerveza). You may feel lonely, angry, sad, and irritable. Do not give up, this feeling is only temporary, and learn to laugh at yourself. It will help when you are crammed onto a bus next to a farmer who has his chickens stuffed into his coat and smells like bird poop.
L’enfer, c’est les autres
Having managed to make it out of the Peruvian interior down onto the Pan-American Highway, I watched the coastal desert roll by as my bus trundled down to Lima. The first thing you realise about travelling in Peru is that all roads really do lead to Lima. Central Lima was a weird oasis of Western amenities; I had not seen a Starbucks in over three months until I walked through the Miraflores neighbourhood of the city. Foreigners there were peculiar to me: they arrive in Lima, go up to Cusco, take hundreds of photos of the Incan ruins and llamas at Machu Picchu, and then buy overpriced cheap trinkets from one of Lima’s street markets on their way back to the airport. Many would leave without having learnt a single word of Spanish, and see nothing else of what I had come to feel was a beautiful country. It was jarring for me, and I came to find it an ugly spectacle, reflected in the colder, callous attitudes of the Peruvians I met along the tourist track in the south of the country. A feeling of being wistful for more inquisitive fellow travellers and warmer locals crept in; I bought a bus ticket and headed south two days later.
A mistake that I made at times like those days in Lima was that I was, to be frankly honest, a judgemental little shit. Too quickly perhaps were certain places written off because of people that I didn’t like or that offended my sense of what "real" travel was. I will not broach the eternal argument of the affluent as to what it really means to travel. One thing that anyone that goes out their front door should consider is to make an effort to appreciate that there are many different ways to do things. You will likely get more out travel by remaining patient and tolerant, however repugnant you may find luxury cruises or those ‘dirty backpacking hippies’ to be.
Halfway to the End of the World
It took two more days before the blinding pain of my appendix lessened, and I could stand up straight and breathe without pain again. I counted myself extremely lucky that if my condition had become critical, I could have been medivaced to state-of-the-art medical care in Buenos Aires. If I had been in the same situation in a remote part of the continent, I would have probably been done for. I made it back to the Argentine capital a few days later, just in time for New Year’s celebrations. These days were some of the best and happiest days of my trip. I had finally mastered conversational Spanish, and had opened up to and accepted my situation as a transient foreigner where I went. This was where I made the most enduring friendships of my trip - people who I still speak to, years later. Buenos Aires also happens to be a beautiful, vibrant city, and I will remember the hours spent long into the night as we sang, drank, and danced the night away as we entered 2008.
It had been worth it. The difficulties and struggles, both external and internal, that had challenged me throughout the first four months of my trip had transformed how I thought about the world and myself. Even looking through the journal entries that I kept of that time, the person I am now finds what I wrote much more relatable than what I had written prior to my time in Buenos Aires. It pays to learn the language, not only the actual words, but also the non-verbal communication that comes with it. To be able to communicate effectively is liberating and is worth the frustration and headaches it can give you.
On a serious note, when crisis strikes, remain calm. No matter how much pain and discomfort you may feel, you are still a long way from home. The hard decisions of what to do next will be yours and yours alone, and you need to be able to think clearly. That said, if you find yourself in a medically critical situation, be ready to get yourself out. I was lucky, but not everyone is.
Led Astray by Pretty Girls
In a rare moment of feeling awestruck, my breath was taken away by the view before me. This was Las Salinas Grandes, near Purmamarca, Argentina: miles and miles of perfectly flat grey-white, rising up to low hills on the horizon. It was the late afternoon, and a thunderstorm was moving in front of the setting sun, giving the appearance of curtains of gold sweeping over the plains. The cold wind was blowing hard, and I was huddled next to three pretty girls: Alejandra, Gabriella, and Thaïs. They were porteñas (residents of Buenos Aires) on school break, whom I had met a few days before, and they had persuaded me to come with them to see these salt flats – claiming they were much better than the more famous salt flats of Salar de Uyuni, in Bolivia, several hundred miles to the north. It was the start of my fifth month in South America, and despite feeling a certain amount of time pressure – I had to be back in Ecuador in a few weeks in order to catch my flight home – I had thrown caution to the wind and followed the girls into the unknown. I had never heard of Purmamarca or these salt flats, but I am ever so glad I did. Travelling solo had meant that I was used to deciding on my own where I was going next. It was oddly exciting to have someone else lead me, and wind up standing on a salt plain, looking at beautiful sunset with three beautiful women.
Others have said much about how no plan comes off exactly as intended. It is perhaps most important to remember this while travelling. While you may be super-excited to go somewhere, to see or try something, some moments, like sunsets and salt flats, only happen when you remain flexible and slow down to reflect. Modern tourism and a prevailing mentality about vacations and travel puts a huge amount of emphasis on fitting lots of "exciting stuff" into our time abroad. The idea of not doing certain things – I never did see Machu Picchu on my trip, as a result of not having enough time on my way back north – would seem to shock many people. Make your travel about where your path leads you, not about the expectations of what others believe you must do when visiting anywhere. You will not be disappointed, and it might even make some of the best memories of your entire trip.
After months of journeying through foreign countries, returning to life in Canada was the strangest and most unexpected experience of the entire trip. It was unsettling feeling like a foreigner in my own country. It seemed as though people around me were often in a rush, with disturbingly rigid attitudes toward the concepts of time, work, and play. No one took afternoon naps, except toddlers. Drivers were oddly accommodating of pedestrians and each other, and seldom used their horns. A meeting at 3pm started at 3pm, not 4:30pm. No one I knew had time to enjoy sunsets, dinners with family, and most would complain bitterly if the bus was ten minutes late. It was months before I felt comfortable being Canadian again.
This "reverse culture shock," I later learned, is a known psychological phenomenon: after spending an extended period adapting to life in foreign lands, we must adapt again to learn to live in our own culture upon return. The amount of time this takes is determined by a person’s personality, the amount of time spent abroad, and by how much the foreign culture is different from one’s own. This is also an opportunity to discover the things about another culture that you liked so much and integrate the best parts into your daily living at home. So go out, travel, learn, and bring the best back to enhance your life.