Solo Backpacking in South America

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BY EMMA MURRAY

I itched. I itched all over. My body, my soul, my heart, all itched. I itched in ways and places I couldn’t have imagined.

I needed to get out, to escape life as I knew it and clear my head to find some direction in my life. At Brown my energy felt trapped and made my focus on schoolwork fuzzy. I needed fresh air and new perspectives to burn this energy or at least learn how to harness it. With a one-way ticket to Ecuador, I trapezed into Dreamland.

I renounced many conventional comforts- namely no plan, no guides, only a hunger for the wind and new experiences at my feet. This worried and upset my family and friends; a solo woman backpacking South America for 6+ months. No plan? No ideas? Chévere. Great. The advice I most commonly heard: “Don’t die.”

*****

My trip came to encompass five goals: work on a farm, learn to surf, deepen my yoga practice, see Patagonia, and either confirm or slap to reality my romanticized vision of South America as a place I’d like to live.

I left out ambition to “figure life out” or reorient my future´s direction. These things were either going to happen or they weren’t. I needed space to be free and wiggle and clear my head; to learn to enjoy life rather than suck the living juice out of my activities just because that’s what I thought I ought to do. I wanted meaning in everyday life rather than a grand culmination of Aha! at the end. I had the energy to burn, and it wasn’t going anywhere at Brown.

With that I packed my bag with 4 pairs of underwear, 2 sports bras, 2 tank tops, 1 pair of shorts, 2 pairs of pants, 1 rain jacket, 1 flannel and my journal, a steady supply of pens, my flashlight, sleeping bag and tent, and a copy of Catcher In The Rye, a goodbye present from a friend. I sent some emails, most of which I didn’t hear back from, and headed to the world south of the equator.

*****

Quito, Ecuador: the highest capital in the world at over 9,350 feet is breathtaking in all literal capabilities. The thin mountain air pulls at your lungs and the shocking beauty steals whatever gasping breaths remain. Its sprawling metropolitan hub is tucked into the Andes Mountains, nestled perfectly, filling the grooves of the surrounding mountainsides. Instead of building up in vertical edifices or multi-storied infrastructure, the city has spread over the years, resulting in an oblong oval, miles long, but not so wide, of half finished buildings and questionable roads. It’s impossible to navigate without seeing a large-scale map.

I landed, wide-eyed gazing out the window at what lay before me. Hopping off the plane, I grabbed my backpack and jumped in a taxi. I held my breath until my GPS gadget (a parting gift from my father) blinked green, successfully transmitting my coordinates to my parents, just in case my taxi driver tried to kidnap me like I’d been voraciously warned. José turned out to be a lovely taxista, and we chatted the whole time, fortunately not the kidnapping type. And when I told him the address for the hostal I’d picked out roughly 30 minutes before landing from my guidebook (another parting gift), he knew exactly where N37-55 Los Rios was, because all I’d been thinking was what kind of address was that? 30 minutes later we pulled up right to the door on a deserted street.

“Gracias, José.¨ I didn’t have a reservation,¨I’m going to run in and ask them if they have space. Can you wait, in case I need to go to another place?” Now it was about 9 pm. Dark and foreign.

He laughed. Probably thinking: classic American. I ran in and found out quite unfortunately they didn’t have space that night, but the next couple nights, sure. I returned back to José; he almost expected me. “I know where you should go, much better hostal than this anyways.” I hopped back in, driven by the advice of this total stranger.

That night I fell asleep surrounded by 90’s wallpaper and wrote in my journal: For now, coming to grips that this might very well be a trip of loneliness and solitude, learning to be by myself and how to be alone. This was another goal that manifested in my thoughts and desires the last couple days before departure. I realized I needed to learn to be happy alone before I could be happy with someone else.

I had no idea at the time, how wonderfully alone-but-not-lonely I’d feel in the coming weeks.

The second day while out exploring I crossed the street, weaving in and out of cars, dodging other people, a chaos creating hub and drub and honks and hoots and shouts and screeches. Looking up, Austin Cole, a Spanish classmate from Brown was staring straight at me. I stopped. I almost got hit by a car. His face read: “What the hell?” I was so confused. Here, in Quito, another continent, another country, another city, a completely random street corner at 4:35pm on a Wednesday. What are the odds?

I finished crossing the street. “What the hell?”

He was in Quito doing work on his thesis; he’d just come from a meeting on the block behind us. Such odds. He was on his way to another meeting just then. “Well, do you have plans for dinner?” No, he smiled and we made plans. Somehow I managed not to eat a meal alone the first couple days.

I moved to the original hostal I’d planned the next day. It was cheaper and in a better location. There I met Itai, an Israeli backpacker who shared an interest in books and exploring and conversation. We clicked right away and he invited me to Baños with himself and his spanish classmate, Yoshiko, a gal from Japan. I’d wanted to visit Baños on my way down south to check out a farm. So, why not?

Three days after arriving in Quito, I repacked my backpack and headed happily with my two new friends. We made quite the trio; one Japanese, one Israeli and one American. Together we white water rafted, waterfall repelled, biked, hiked, go lost, refound, explored and relaxed in the famous baths of Baños, Ecuador. The public hot springs, heated by the next door volcano, gathered an eclectic mix of travelers, locals, old, young, families, singles. One man did tai chi on the side. A woman ate BBQ chips in the pool. Kids hooting, old ladies gossiping. We sat in silent observance, soaking in the minerals and the great scenes alike. We went back two more times.

After three action packed days Yoshiko left back to japan, her South American adventure at a close. Itai was a couple months into his journey and I had just begun. All of us were at such different points in our adventures, but serendipitously convened to dip small toes in each other’s lives.

As Yoshiko boarded the bus, crying and hugging us, Itai and I stood in the small plaza with no plans for the next hour or the next day. I leaned over to him. “How do you feel about camping?”

“I love camping.”

“Cool, I have a tent and a friend I want to say hi to in Cuenca.” I’d also vaguely heard rumors about a stellar national park just outside that city.

The next morning we boarded a bus to Cuenca, hopped off 8 hours later, found a cheap hostal and met Julianna, another friend from Brown for dinner. Friends in so many places.

Itai and I spent the next days backpacking Parque Nacional Cajas, a majestic landscape of mountains, lakes, jungle, swamp, and beautiful crisp air and sky. I got to know Itai only as two strangers glued together for a week straight can manage. It was an amazing connection forged by long hours on the bus, days hiking, late night drinks and long walks around foreign cities. We were two simple traveling souls eager to soak in new knowledge about the world. He showed me patiently the ropes of long term backpacking. How to pick good hostals, how to work the buses, how to minimize your Foreignness. At the end of our week together I amazed me that I’d only known him for so little. He could still be considered a stranger.

As we finally said goodbye and he headed back up north and I continued down south, parting ways for now, maybe forever, all I could think of was how glad I was that I had met him, how glad I had been open to changing whatever plans I thought I had to take an impromptu week long adventure with him. I knew if I had needed all the advice I’d been given,¨don’t talk to anyone you don’t know;¨ ¨Have a set day-to-day plan;¨ ¨Everyone is out to rape and take advantage and get you.¨However slightly exaggerated this may be, I would never have considered veering off course with a complete stranger.

More important than planning, more important than being overly cautious, is being open and aware, curious and maintaining common sense. Don´t be closed or judgemental. Decide for yourself whether the situation is good or bad. We all have a choice: to believe all humans are inherently bad and out to ruin us, or believe in the good, have faith that the average, ordinary person is there to help and inspire. Bad can be the exception, not the rule, if we accept the good in others and practice common sense. Evil must exist, but if we choose to focus on the good, good happens and magnetizes, and we can learn to accept bad things like a rainy day. You don’t jump outside, if at all, without protection when it´s hailing or lightening or thundering. You proceed carefully, or stay inside.

 




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