After returning to the United States from nine months traveling in South America, I want to reflect on that chapter of my journey before continuing on to New Zealand (my next stop!). I wrote a reflection post after traveling for one month and thought it would be interesting to discuss how extended travel has impacted me and what I have learned from it all. I had an amazing time in South America and did not want to leave, but I knew that if I didn’t leave now I might never leave and get to the next leg of my trip.
On What I Learned
From my newfound interest in antique toilets to understanding how I correlate appearance with confidence, I have learned a lot of things about myself in these nine months. I left with the goal of having many new experiences and I was certainly successful. I tried surfing, stand up paddling, sandboarding, farming cacao beans, making chocolate, cooking Chilean food, learning Spanish and Portuguese, taking a multi-day hike, interning in a Spanish-speaking office environment, backpacking itself, and more. And I loved every moment of it – even the things that I didn’t like, I love that I tried them. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and I did just that.
Getting out of my comfort zone also taught me a lot. This is not a post about how I have changed from my travels – I don’t think I will fully realize that until I’m back in the United States and can see the differences. But I do want to talk about what I’ve learned.
Before leaving, I was worried about traveling alone and whether or not I’d be safe. But when I arrived in Argentina – my first stop – I felt comfortable and safe. As I traveled, many people – both locals and fellow travelers – told me that I was so brave for traveling alone. I disagree. If I walk down the street alone in New York City, why am I brave for doing it in Santiago or Buenos Aires? I don’t live my life with a constant buddy by my side – so why do I need to constantly travel with someone else? I’m not brave for being a solo female traveler, I’m brave for leaving it all behind to travel long term. Everyone who does this – solo or not, female or not – is brave to me. There are many countries where gap years are common; the United States is not one of them. I left knowing one other person who was doing what I was doing – and returned knowing hundreds. Taking the plunge to do this was scary and brave, but once I was there meeting many others who were doing the same thing, I felt better. I wasn’t alone. I am also fortunate that so many people have supported me even though this journey is unheard of in the United States.
Another worry I had was about being lonely on the road. There were times where I wished I had someone to share my experiences with and truly missed my close friends. However, I felt lonely only a couple of times as I was constantly making friends. The funny thing is that when you travel, it’s faster and easier to form a close bond with fellow travelers than it is normally at home. For some reason, being together in a foreign place experiencing new things becomes a strong shared experience and commonality. Not knowing when you will see those people again has a real impact as it takes away the fear. It allows one to open up faster – to skip the small talk – because why not be honest and direct? It may sound bad, but I assure you that it’s actually wonderful and freeing. It creates lasting bonds with people you spent two days with. And if you show up a few years later on their doorstep surprising them with a visit, you know they’ll be happy to see you.
On the topic of friendship, this was the longest period I have been away from my friends. I had a hard time adjusting to the difference in communication. Different people have different communication styles – some communicate often with texts or phone calls whereas others wait for in person opportunities. Since I was traveling, this face to face communication wasn’t going to happen for a long time. This is what made me feel lonely – realizing that I had some close friends whose lives were foreign to me; I had no idea what was going on in their life. And I had to accept this. I am sure that this will still be hard at times going forward, but hopefully I have made progress towards accepting that it will be different with different people and that frequency of communication is not synonymous with quality of friendship.
Overall, I am a pretty confident person. So it really surprised me when four months into my trip, I started to feel self-conscious. I knew that the first two months would involve a lot of hiking, so I packed many athletic clothes. It wasn’t until two days before I left when I remembered I would also be in cities and added two dresses. So when March came and I stopped hiking and started to spend more time in towns and cities, I felt unprepared. I am low maintenance with my appearance, but I still like to wear cute clothes. Instead, I was wearing athletic clothing while everyone else was wearing cute clothes. It may sound silly, but it had an impact. I missed feeling stylish or presentable. It was also incredibly hot and my daily routine consisted of bug spray and sunscreen. I felt frumpy and smelly. I had purposefully brought few normal clothes with me because I did not want to ruin them – but I regret that. After two months, I was tired of smelling like sweat-repellent-sunscreen and wearing hiking clothes. I missed wearing stylish clothes. I missed using a loofah in the shower and drying off with an actual towel. I missed those normal occurrences that seemed like such luxuries while on the road.
But, on the other hand, I learned to separate the desire to be stylish from my self-esteem and confidence. I got over it because I had to get over it. Later, I told myself. Not never, just later. I wasn’t wearing a cute outfit because I didn’t have one. I was sweating, but so was everyone else. I would look in the mirror and think “Ugh, this outfit again? Well, here I go!” because I had no choice. I never realized I had made the connection between the two, but I apparently had. I learned that clothes actually don’t make the man. I may have worn the same basic outfits every day, but no one treated me differently for it. I still made friends with all kinds of people. I still went out to clubs and bars. And I still found myself getting hit on by the opposite sex. No one cared but me.
I learned that lots of things don’t matter – clothes, haircuts, lotion, makeup, shaving, etc. Also, I learned what does matter. Having a comfortable, safe, clean place to sleep. Drinkable water and digestible food. And, of course, the people around you.
I learned to value more a few things that before I had taken for granted. Where I grew up, all of our water was potable water. We don’t really think about it much as we leave the faucet running to do something else. But people in South America are very conscious about this. I had a few people ask me to wash dishes differently because they thought I was wasting too much water. Brazil was the only country I went to that did not have potable tap water and having to buy whatever water I wanted to drink had a real impact on me. Air conditioning is famous for being overused in America – we blast the A/C everywhere. It may be burning hot outside, but bring a sweater because if you go inside anywhere it’ll be freezing cold. This is not the case in South America. If there is A/C, it is often only in the bedroom and only turned on at night. A lot of buildings don’t have air conditioning at all. In both cases, being outside is more comfortable at times than being inside. I adapted to this and learned to sleep without A/C. Not only did I learn not to take these things for granted, but also to conserve more and be aware of these resources. They are not a right, they are a gift.
Another gift is the ability to communicate with someone in their native language. I loved learning Spanish and Portuguese. I am proud of myself for learning two new languages in the first five months – I may not be fluent yet in either, but I came a long way in a short amount of time. It is hard to describe the feeling of connecting and interacting with locals in their tongue; it is mix between accomplishment, freedom, and understanding. It is strange to hear such foreign sounds come out of your own mouth. Every now and then I would be speaking with someone in another language and I would stop to think about how strange it was that I knew what they were saying. My mind would step out of the conversation to marvel at the fact that this moment was happening and that I understood. It is much easier to learn through immersion. I was fortunate that I found few English speakers in South America – it forced me to learn. I was even more fortunate with Portuguese; there were two times in particular when I was traveling in Brazil where I made a lot of friends at a hostel and the only language we shared was Portuguese. It made me learn and I improved substantially based on those two experiences alone.
Before I started my trip, I was not happy. I was frustrated and disappointed in myself, among other things. I had done what I was supposed to do – gone to a good school, gotten a good job – but I was not getting any closer to achieving my personal goals. And I did not have the power to change things. I was stuck. I went on this trip because I love to travel and have always wanted to do something like this. I did not go on this trip to make myself happy. Fortunately, it did. After 1.5 months of traveling, I felt something change. I started to go back to my happy, silly self.
With this in mind, I spent the few months before returning to the United States terrified. Returning to the United States would be the end of the South America chapter. Does that also mean that this girl who backpacked around South America is in the past? Does a return to my old environment mean that I will return to my old self and that girl who backpacked around South America will be gone? These are questions that I feared answering… until I took matters into my own hand. What did I not like about that old me? I pinpointed what I was afraid of returning to and started to work on it. I had plenty of time during long bus rides to do this. I still have more work to do, but at least I can return home ready to face my fears.
So although this chapter ends, I know that I am a stronger, happier, and better person from it.
On Where I Come From
Every time I travel, I come away with a new perspective of society and the world I grew up in – the United States. I was raised in a diverse, comfortable, and safe suburb outside of Washington, D.C. Traveling allows me to compare both my country and my neighborhood to another and understand how society runs in that other country. I honestly believe that this makes me a better person. Undoubtedly, out of all of my travels, my time in South America has had the biggest impact in broadening my perspective and I want to address it separately for that reason. I want to preface this by saying that I grew up in a privileged area. Although I certainly learned about and was aware of these things, I did not fully grasp the weight of these issues until this trip. I was educated, but naïve.
One of the first things I noticed was the stark difference between how the United States stereotypes South America and the reality of South America. The United States views South America as a poor, unsafe, backwards continent. We learn nothing about South America in our educational system – even though they also suffered from colonialism and slavery. It is viewed by many as one big country with little to no respect for the different countries, cultures, or languages that make up the continent. Going to South America as a solo female traveler was seen as brave and even unwise. Europe is the “safe” continent. This is what I grew up with and although I had friends from South America, I had not taken the time to learn much about their cultures. Certainly a mistake I hope not to repeat. Therefore, I arrived with these stereotypes in mind. I was ready for the shock of walking into a third world country. Instead, I was shocked at the modernity of it all. I realize I went to the most modern and expensive countries in South America, but I saw few differences between my world and this world. In fact, in some ways these countries were more advanced than the United States. Every country I visited offers free healthcare and paid maternity leave. Some even offer free higher education. Buenos Aires had free Wi-Fi everywhere. There is a great bus system connecting the entire continent and I never had issues using public transit to get somewhere – in cities or villages. In fact, their credit card transactions are even more secure than ours. The United States is the richest country in the world where the American Dream lives on, yet we don’t offer any of these services.
I realize that life is different as a tourist as opposed to a local. Actually living in some South American countries would be much harder than in the United States due to economic and monetary instability and controls. But as a tourist, I wasn’t impacted. We, Americans, should travel more to South America. It has everything – culture, food, amazing people, cities, and natural beauty without a significant time zone difference.
Of course, there are problems in South America. The standard of living in the United States is higher. But that doesn’t mean that the United States doesn’t have the same problems – we just hide them better. In Rio, you know the names of some of the famous favelas (low income neighborhoods where the majority of crime occurs). In New York, you know that there are vague areas somewhere that you shouldn’t go especially at night. I grew up in the D.C. area before moving to New York City and even with Washington, D.C. I have no idea exactly which neighborhoods are unsafe – but I know that they exist. Certainly we have fewer low income neighborhoods in D.C. or New York City than Rio (Rio has 400), which helps us hide them. If we don’t see poverty, does it really exist? In South America, however, you know it exists. In Brazil, favelas are even connected to Brazilian culture. Some places in South America, including Rio, are known for being dangerous and violent. But I met a few people from other countries who were avoiding the United States because the USA is too dangerous. With the bulk of international news on the United States focused on our mass shootings, it is understandable that they would consider it unsafe. But as an American, it was hard to swallow the thought that others view my country as dangerous. It is the same story with stray dogs; there were stray dogs in most places in South America. It was really hard at times to see this – especially since they were all so sweet. But then I remembered that in the United States we may not have stray dogs on the streets, but we do have puppy mills and overcrowded shelters. Dogs may have been domesticated, but they are still animals. Perhaps it is better that they roam free with their dog friends instead of being stuck in a small space and potentially put down. The United States does a better job of sweeping this issue under the rug and pretending that it doesn’t exist. It is easy not to think about these and other problems in the United States if you aren’t actively involved in them. And although ignorance may be bliss, perhaps if these issues were more noticeable, they would be better addressed.
On a different note, I have also gained a broader perspective of history and its impact. I have learned about colonialism and slavery my entire life, but until this trip I did not fully comprehend its impact on the world. All of South America was colonized with Brazil as the largest importer of slaves in the Americas. 40% of all slaves sent to the Americas – North and South – went to Brazil. England’s influence in South America led to the founding of Uruguay as an independent nation; it was originally part of Argentina. Although England had limited territory in South America, its role as a colonial power still held weight.
All of this information made me realize the substantial impact of such small moments in history. What if the Europeans had never colonized the Americas? What if South American natives had sailed to Europe first? What would Argentina be like if Uruguay was still part of it? What if Africa had enslaved the Europeans? Or if slavery had never happened? What would Africa look like today if such small changes had been made? Or South America? Both countries are ripe with natural resources; would they have become powerful continents? Then there are more recent moments – for example, Argentina was the fourth wealthiest country in the world in the early 1900s. But in the 1930s the newly elected government started to nationalize companies and seize land from the wealthy. Argentina fell into an economic decline – which it still has not recovered from 80 years later. How easy it is for a small moment or event to cause such a decline – and yet how hard it is to bounce back. It may sound naïve, but again I don’t think I fully understood my history lessons until I saw the effects of these moments still playing out in front of me so many years later.
Another event whose importance I never fully grasped was the American Revolution. Traveling also strengthened my pride in being American. I may criticize the United States, but I am proud to be an American. In my one-month anniversary post, I mocked the United States for having an uncreative name. I understand why some people from other North and South American countries are offended that the term American only refers to people from the United States instead of people from both continents. I have even seen us referred to as “United States-ian” (unitedestadese) instead to avoid calling only us Americans. But now I understand why we were named the United States of America and that it’s something to be proud of. The United States gained independence in 1783 whereas Latin American countries did not gain their independence until the 1800s. The United States was literally the first set of states that were united under one federal government in the Americas. And our success in defeating a global power was hugely influential to the rest of the Americas – the success of the American Revolution showed the rest of Latin America that it was possible to become independent. So, although nowadays our name sounds uninventive and slightly offensive to other countries in the Americas, it represents the inspiration we provided to many other countries in their quest for independence.
On Where I Went
In nine months I went to five countries and three continents. Along the way, I had the privilege of meeting so many wonderful people. I truly believe that people are good and whenever I travel I am reminded of this. From the little things like people helping me with my bag, giving me directions, or letting me borrow things to the bigger things, I was awed by everyone’s hospitality and kindness. During my trip, I was fortunate enough to meet a number of people who live in South America and many of these people welcomed me into their homes. For example, I met someone in Buenos Aires who let me stay with him and his family in Rio de Janeiro. His family welcomed me into their home after I had just met their son once. His Mom and I played a communication game where she would speak to me in Portuguese and I would pray that I understood. Even with a language barrier, I was a member of their family. They treated me like one of their own – packing lunches for me as his younger brother spent two days playing tour guide as the rest of the family worked. I was amazed at such hospitality and generosity. And that is one of many examples. I was honored to be able to stay with a number of friends and their families while traveling – a friend’s girlfriend, friends from study abroad, a friend’s mother-in-law, new friends I had met elsewhere in South America, and more. So many people went out of their way to make me feel welcomed. I am truly touched and grateful for this.
South America surprised me with its vibrant culture. It seemed that every country had its own culture – perhaps certain parts of the culture were stronger in some regions than others, but the entire country was knowledgeable about it. For example, forro music in Brazil originated in the Northeast, but everyone in Brazil knows it. They know the dance, famous songs, and famous artists who sing it. Perhaps it is more popular in the Northeast, but it is a type of music that ties the country together. I was in Chile during their annual celebration of Chilean culture. There was typical Chilean food, music, and dances on display during the celebration. And everyone knew everything. I wish that we had something similar in the United States. There is no type of music or dance that everyone knows; no holiday that celebrates our national culture; no custom dances or songs. We have traditional American dishes, but that is where it stops. We have jazz, blues, bluegrass, country, and rock ‘n’ roll, but none of those genres have songs – or dances – that are known throughout the country and considered part of the broader American culture. Nashville may consider country music to be part of its culture – just as New Orleans may consider jazz to be part of its culture – but neither country nor jazz are part of the broader American culture. It is a shame that we don’t have a stronger country-wide culture because it seems like a fun way to bring people together.
Things I Will Never Forget
- Sound of a rooster (Bahia, Brazil farm)
- Gentoo penguin call (Antarctica)
- Smell of fermented cacao (Bahia, Brazil farm)
- Smell of penguin poop (Antarctica)
- Smell of my sweat/sunscreen/bug spray mixed together (Brazil)
Food I Tried
- Argentina: Kidney, intestines, dolce de leche, centolla (type of crab)
- Chile: Picoroco, ceviche, sea urchin, locos, chirimoya, copao (desert fruit), congrillo (eel)
- Brazil: Manioca, tapioca, caju, caja, graviola, jacca, guava, brigadeiro, beijino, fresh coconut meat and water, jabuticaba, pitanya, caqui, foot/tongue/tail/ears of pig, cacao fruit, cacao beans, acai, cupacu, mangosteen, umbu, ciriguela, acerola, feijoada, acaraje, mangaba, giobada, Minas cheese, pao de queijo, coxinha, cajuzinha, bem-casada (wedding dessert)
- Uruguay – Colonial cheese
Below, are both my least favorite and favorite places I visited in addition to a brief reflection on each country I visited.
- Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
- Buenos Aires, Argentina
- Ouro Preto, Brazil
- Trancoso, Brazil
Least Favorite Places:
- Caraiva, Brazil
- Salvador, Brazil
- Belo Horizonte, Brazil
- Bocas del Toro, Panana
I was stunned by the mystery and pureness of this continent. It is shockingly inaccessible with its giant black mountains covered in impossibly tall glaciers. It was terrifying how jagged and unforgiving the place is. At the same time, I was moved by its beauty and rawness and pleased at how full of life it is during summer. I think it is hard to describe Antarctica because it is equally hard to imagine it.
I loved Argentina. My love for Argentina undoubtedly started with Buenos Aires; this is now one of my three favorite cities in the world. It is a city with everything – art, theatre, music, dancing, food, culture, public transit, and people. Within the city limits you can find the Argentine government, professional tango dancers, and Argentine cowboys continuing the traditional life. It is a bustling city but it also offers the more laid back lifestyle expected in Latin countries. If it weren’t for its recent history of restrictive financial policy, I would live there in a heartbeat.
Excitingly, I was in Argentina during a big moment. For the past 15 years, the country has been governed by a husband and wife (fairly elected in democratic elections, the husband was President first and then the wife; the husband passed away a few years ago) who are both part of the Peronist Party. As a member of this socialist party, they implemented a number of financial and monetary controls. In 2015, Argentina elected a new leader named Mauricio Macri, who is not part of the Peronist Party. I was there when the new President took office and I could actually feel the effects. Arriving in Argentina, there was a black market for dollars which revealed the falsity of the fixed exchange rate. A month into my travels, the exchange rate was no longer pegged and instead market driven. Locals were finally allowed to access U.S. dollars. The black market did not completely disappear, but its necessity went away. Inflation is decreasing. Foreign investment is increasing. Hopefully things will continue in this direction. It was an exciting event to witness!
As for Argentina itself, I had a wonderful time exploring the many beautiful sites in this country. I went from a metropolitan area of 15 million people to the North’s cowboy mountainous desert to the lakes, glaciers, snow, and sea of the South. Along the way, I observed the different ways of life in each of the areas. It was the first place I went in South America and so I was surprised at how much natural beauty and variety I found in just one country. I did not yet realize how diverse this continent is.
Brazil wins the prize for my favorite country. Brazil has the vibrancy and color that other countries lack – it just feels alive. I liked its food the best out of all the countries I visited, but I was most impressed with its music. Brazil has invented at least four types of music – none of which I had been exposed to before my visit. Everywhere I went there was live music and dancing. It has this intoxicating local flavor and liveliness. It’s culture changes significantly by state and in traveling to multiple states, I was treated with an understanding of said differences. There is always more to learn and witness. In addition, the people are more than kind – they are your friend. They are so open and friendly that it would be hard not to become friends; I found Brazilians to be more open than most people. I befriended Brazilians on my trip at every corner – at clubs, in gardens, at hostels, and more. I adore Brazil.
I know I have mentioned that the variety in landscape is impressive for many countries, but Chile wins by far for the most impressive and varied landscape. In the North they have the sea, desert, Easter Island, the Andes, geysers, sand dunes, hot springs, valleys, and salt flats. In the South there are glaciers, lakes, snow, mountains, and more valleys. Volcanoes are all over. It was thrilling to see how much the country changes with just a quick drive. I never actually spent time in the middle of Chile though; I would love to return and explore that area. I am happy that I had the chance to explore both the North and South because there is a big cultural difference between the two. In Patagonia, I found the culture and food to be pretty similar across Chile and Argentina whereas Northern Chile was different. I got a better feel for Chilean culture and food there – perhaps because of the number of cultural sites in the North (whereas Patagonia was largely unsettled until modern times). It was interesting to see the contrast and I would not have gotten to know Chile if I had not spent time in the North as well.
Panama is an interesting country to reflect on. It was the last country I visited before returning to the United States and I struggled to like it. I do not think that it is Panama’s fault though; I think part of it was my own bias to prefer to travel to countries that are different from the United States. I love to see the differences between my country and another. Whereas in Panama I was constantly struck by the similarities – from the same eateries to the same currency. It was a Latin United States. Of course, given the historical influence that the United States had in Panama with the Panama Canal, it makes sense. But after appreciating the different culture and food in South America, I was turned off by the similarities in Panama. I was actually shocked by it. I was also shocked by the modernity of Panama – the buildings, transit cards, English-speaking population. If Panama had been my first stop on my trip, I may have had a completely different viewpoint. Perhaps I would have been obsessed with the differences and seen it as a stepping stone to other places in Latin America. Instead, perhaps it was a good way for me to begin adjusting to my return home and to realize how much I would miss the differences.
I spent only two days in Uruguay – less than 48 hours. This was mostly because, at the time, I was burned out from traveling and wanted nothing more but to stay in one place for a significant amount of time and live a scheduled, local life. This is what I did in Buenos Aires, Argentina in June. But I had good friends in Uruguay who invited me to visit them and Uruguay is easily accessible from Buenos Aires. So, I decided to see my friends and get to know Uruguay a bit. I learned a bit about Uruguayan history and the importance of both location and history in culture. Uruguay used to be part of Argentina, so a lot of cultural aspects are similar – the two countries argue over who actually invented tango, for example. Montevideo’s close proximity to Buenos Aires means that people in Montevideo speak Spanish with the famous Argentine accent. But to some degree, it did feel like a passport run – as though it was just to get another stamp – even though it was not. After spending so much time in each country, it was strange to only spend two days in Uruguay. I am glad that I went and visited friends, but I do not feel like I got to know Uruguay well.