It’s finally back to the US. After a fun couple of more days in Bogota, I caught a plane to Ft. Lauderdale and then to Chicago. I must admit though, Bogota wasn’t what I had hoped. It does have a nice part called La Candaleria, but it’s about all it has. La Candaleria has some small cobblestone streets, nice cafes, and even a cool old bar that serves Colombian chicha that you drink out of the shell of a large fruit. But the rest of Bogota is pretty ugly, nothing special. And being there during rainy season means a lot of rainy. Every day rain. You have to carry an umbrella all the time. If you don’t, it will rain (to be fair, even if you do, it will rain). Luckily I had some good company with the Couchsurfer, Isabel, and her parents, so I ended up having a good time there.
On my last full day there, I did see something cool just outside of Bogota. About an hour bus ride outside, there is a small city with a large salt mine, and inside is a cathedral. Called the Catedral de Sal (literally Salt Cathedral). In my travels, I’ve never seen something like this. You walk into a salt mine and start to gradually go down. The whole place is lit with changing lights and various colors. It’s hard to really explain what it’s like inside (but probably what you would think of a cathedral would be like in a salt mine)! A different atmosphere for a cathedral, obviously, and cool to have such silence and the feeling of remoteness in a church. Except when you hear a dynamite explosion from the workers nearby in the mines.
I must admit that I was really itching to get back home as the days winded down. I started counting down the days. If I were traveling more, I don’t think it would’ve been the same since I was content traveling, but when the time comes close, you start to think ahead a bit and get anxious.
So now to talk a bit about my trip. I am going to talk sincerely about this part, not going trying to scare anyone, brag, offend anyone or anything of that sort. I am just going to be sincere in how I feel! Just a warning before reading.
First, I am just going to come out and say it. The past 7.5 months (especially the past 4.5 months traveling) have been the best experience of my life. There is no doubt in that. And this is no offense to anyone else or any other experiences that I have had. I have had a good life…extremely fortunate with having a great childhood with a loving family, a great time with high school sports, lived my dream of going to the U of I, and getting the job that I wanted most out of college. I have been extremely fortunate in my life, and I am extremely thankful for all of it.
But no experience has been so satisfying with pure enjoyment every day of the week. Not just that, but I know that I have grown as a person, becoming more confident with the way I carry myself and more confident with what I want out of life.
I must say that in the past 3 years, I have changed substantially. When I was in college, I studied hard in hopes of getting a great corporate job and rising the ranks to become the next CFO to earn a lot of money. To buy a big house, to buy a nice car, big TV, all of that. In my time working, I slowly realized that the lifestyle of the big guys wasn’t for me. And I realized that if I wasn’t going to be the CFO, I wasn’t going to make as much money. The only way to combat not making much money…live frugally. So I started selling stuff and cutting down on expenses. I realized that the less I had, the more I appreciated what I did have. I sold my TV, I started getting into more into my music. I got rid of clothes, I really started to appreciate the clothes I did have. I sold all of my video games, and I started to appreciate more the words in the pages of the few books that I have. But I didn’t start living cheaply. I started living frugally. I started spending money I things that I thought were worth it. I might spend $60 on a nice dress shirt, but it’s going to give me much more use than 3 $20 shirts. And only buying what I needed (very few things what I just wanted). But the main point is that having fewer things made me appreciate more the things that I did have. That was one of the first steps.
Secondly, I realized that money was just one side of it. The other side was something more scarce…time. When I started working, I was working 60 hour weeks. And I wasn’t happy. This was the job that I had dreamed of out of college? If this is what I had dreamed of, what was life all about? To sit in front of a computer for the majority of the time I am awake for 5 or 6 days a week?
So I started thinking more about this, read a bunch, met a bunch of people, and finally had a plan. I was saving money, but that didn’t give me time. Most people who are earning money intend to retire early, or at least say so now. (I think this gives them a bit of relief to justify what they are doing with their 20s, 30s, and 40s. I think the percentage of people who actually retire early is about 10% of those who say they plan to). So I was lacking the time. From my reading, I found that some corporations will give time off without pay. A big corporation like the company I work for, they wouldn’t miss me much, and they wouldn’t be losing much by giving me some time off. So I took the biggest chance I had ever taken in my career, and I asked for 8 months off from work. A few phone calls, a few signatures, and surprisingly easy, I had my trip planned. I had big expectations for the trip, and I must say the first 3 months disappointed, but the last 4.5 months, needless to say, did not.
The volunteer experience was the disappointment, as I felt the organization exploits volunteers, most of the paid workers are there just to have fun, and that the organization does just not do as much as they could. I quickly got frustrated when I was spending my time and money to be there working for them but feeling like I was just being used as a workhorse. To be honest, I probably did get frustrated too quickly, and I quickly went into “only do what is expected of me” mode. I think I had a reason to do that, but I could have gotten much more out of it if I put more into it. But my instincts kicked in, and I took the time I could to do what I know best…travel. My trips to Arequipa and Lake Titicaca were the best times of these 3 months. I did, however, have a great time getting to know the host family I stayed with for the first month. The family is extremely kind and caring, and they made me feel at home there. Unfortunately, my Spanish wasn’t quite up to speed at this time, so I couldn’t connect with them like I probably could now. Even still, I will always think of them when I think of my time there.
So afterwards, I took off on the kind of trip I had been dreaming about since meeting some long-term travelers 4 years back. So I set off from Peru to Bolivia, then made it to Argentina, Uruguay, Antarctica, Chile, Ecuador, and Colombia. I made it to a lot of cool places that I never even dreamed of going to. From swimming with pink dolphins in the jungle in Bolivia, seeing tango in the streets of Buenos Aires, horsebacking riding in the red mountains of southern Bolivia, swimming in the ice cold waters of Antarctica, doing a 3 day trek in Torres Del Paine in Chile, hiking in beautiful Patagonia, biking around the lakes near Bariloche, Argentina, biking in the deserts in San Pedro de Atacoma in Chile, touring the vineyards in Mendoza, sandboarding and dune buggying around the sand dunes in Huacachina, Peru, exploring old town Quito, salsa clubs in Cali, Colombia, taking walks around South America’s most beautiful city of Cartagena, getting PADI Scuba certified in Taganga, Colombia, and then finally taking in the sun of the nearby Caribbean beaches. But for how good the unique sites are, it wouldn’t matter all too much if you didn’t meet some great people.
One of the best parts about traveling is meeting people. On average, I think I met at least 3 new people every day. You’ll always meet a good mix of locals and travelers. And it’s good to mix the two. You’ll learn something from both. Locals have their own culture, own ways of doing things, own views of the world. Travelers are obviously very like minded in at least some ways. If not, they wouldn’t be meeting each other in South America. Meeting travelers gives me new ideas for my travels, new ideas of how I could live my life, and can give me an insight to many cultures far, far away from where I am. Meeting locals gives me a hands-on understanding of how people are living their lives, how they live as a family, how they prepare their food, how they see the world, and most importantly, why. Most people in South America live with their parents until they are at least 25 or 30 years old. It’s not because they are losers, like we think of in the US. It’s because living outside the house is expensive and doesn’t make economical sense. Rather than putting themselves in debt and paying for an expensive apartment outside, they do the practical thing, suck it up, and live with their family for more time. There is nothing wrong with this, and in my opinion it’s actually a better option to live at home if you economically can’t afford to live alone. We, as Americans, should take note of the frugality of the people in these developing countries. Other example of understand the views of locals…After I told him that I am from the US, a guy in Bolivia once told me that Americans are horrible people. I heard him out. He told me that many American companies come to Bolivia and are taking all the natural resources they can take. Meanwhile, they bring all the money back to the US. Leaving one of the poorest countries in South America with destroyed land and no more wealth than before. As easy it would be to take offense to this guy’s statement, you have to understand where he is coming from and learn from it. You have to look at all sides of it. When the US is demanding the destruction of coca farms in Bolivia, Colombia, and other countries, you are leaving a lot of the poorest people without work. What are coca farmers going to do after their sole source of income is destroyed? There is obviously no easy solution to this, but looking at all sides is crucial.
Just seeing the lifestyle of so many cities and villages has taught me a lot. Outside of the major cities, people live life in what I would call a very laid back way. Family is always number one. People live life in the moment. You don’t see people on Blackberries running into each other on the sidewalks because they are too occupied playing a game or sending an “important” work email which just couldn’t wait until they arrived to their desk in 5 minutes. People walk a bit slower, taking in the sights and sounds of their cities. They stop and talk to their neighbor for 20 minutes without worrying about where they need to be afterwards. It’s a life that they would call “tranquilo”. Enjoy the moments, the small things. The sunrise, being outside, having a nice conversation with friends and family you happen to see on the street, eating breakfast slowly before work, dancing at any given moment when there is music. Obviously not everyone misses all of these in our countries, but I think in general we are too busy to enjoy all of the little moments (and I am speaking about myself as well). What’s life about if you’re missing all of the little things because you’re always too busy and in a rush?
Before starting my trip, I sold my computer in Peru for a few different reasons. First, I didn’t want to have to carry it around and always be worried if someone robs me. And second, I wanted to be disconnected as much as possible from technology, and honestly, from my life in US. I wanted to see what life is like without a computer to distract me from the local moment, and without an iPod to distract me from the local sounds. As far as technology, I had my basic cell phone (to allow me to connect with local people I met, mainly couchsurfers) and my camera (to give myself the best souvenirs there are). As for being disconnected from the normal life, I wanted to see what life is like without all of the support of family and friends and without having as much connection to home. I still did keep in contact, but just not as much as normal. With this, I wasn’t thinking as much in home and was able to live more in the moment wherever I was. Overall, I think this helped me become even more independent while being more isolated. And rather than sitting on a computer on Skype, I was out meeting new people. As far as not having an iPod, I didn’t distract myself with my normal music at all hours of the day. I was forced to listen to all the local sounds, anywhere from a grinding bus engine to a guy catcalling a girl on the street, from screaming bus ticket vendors to a mother talking softly to her sleeping child. Whether I liked it or not, I took it all in. Rather than listening to North American music on my iPod on long bus rides, I was listening to Spanish rock, Salsa, traditional folkloric music, etc. And without having the ability to listen to music when I wanted, I started to really, really appreciate music. It’s like with material things, the less I have, the more I appreciate what I do have. Now when I am listening to music at home, I am absolutely loving it. It has given me a whole new appreciation to music and all styles of music, especially what I have found in South America.
Learning another language has been a confidence builder like I have never had before. Traveling alone was a great confidence builder when I started back when I went to London, but learning a new language is a whole new level. Coming to South America, my level of Spanish was very, very low. With good reason, I was very timid. Every time I talked, I was going to make mistakes. Every time I listened, I was going to miss 95% of it. It’s very, very difficult. With so many volunteers around, I found myself speaking more English than Spanish. Little by little, I improved. Then, finally I was good enough to make a couple friends only speaking Spanish. After you are at a certain comfort level with someone only speaking their language, you improve very quickly. They understand that you won’t understand when they speak fast, when they use slang, etc. So little by little, you pick up confidence. You understand more and more. Finally, you are out traveling on your own. In a continent like South America, you fend for yourself. If you aren’t aggressive, if you don’t negotiate, if you don’t ask, you are going to lose time and money. When you are traveling, if you don’t talk to people, you aren’t going to meet anyone. If you don’t meet anyone, you probably won’t be enjoying it much. So you are forced to get out of your comfort zone. Every day. So much that your comfort zone becomes as big as a Little League strike zone. It’s going up to a group of 10 people in the hostel and introducing yourself. It’s asking for directions at the local store in Spanish, even though it would be more comfortable to just continue searching yourself. Each interaction like this builds comfort and confidence, what I think are important to have. And I don’t think this just helps in putting yourself out there. I think it helps total parts of life. Right now, I feel like if I set my mind to something, I can do it. I am going to learn French. I am going to learn how to dance Salsa. I am going to learn how to play an instrument. Things aren’t complicated. All it takes is dedication and practice. That’s all learning a language is as well. That’s really all of life. If you want to become an architect, you dedicate yourself to studying, to working hard in internships, to learning everything there is to know. If you want to travel, you dedicate yourself to saving money and obtaining the time you need to travel. Don’t think too much, just do it. You only live once, right?
Traveling has also made me realize, even moreso, how little you need to live. I carried around 2 backpacks for 4.5 months – 1 backpack of a normal size, enough to fit my camera, lens, and a few other things, and the other backpack of 40 liters (around 10 gallons). I ended my trip with 2 pairs of pants (1 that can turn into shorts), 3 tshirts, 4 pairs of socks, 4 pairs of underwear, 1 sweatshirt, 2 longsleeve shirts, a raincoat, 2 pairs of shoes, 1 pair of shorts, toiletries, and that’s pretty much it. Let’s be honest, most people wear twice that amount of varying clothes in one week. And most people have at least 10 times that in their closets. But let’s face it, I am still living. And as healthy as ever. And let’s face the truth, we don’t need that much stuff to live our lives. And everything that we buy comes from somewhere…somewhere in our environment. And many, many more times than not, the production of this product had a negative effect on the environment. Some things to keep in mind!
And continuing with the environment, I saw many, many ugly things with the way people treat the environment in South America. In too many parts, there is trash scattered everywhere. When you are riding in a bus, someone finishes a bottle of Coke, and without hesitation throws the bottle out of the window. Every time I saw this, I cringed. This is something you learn at an early age in developed countries, so it’s difficult to see. There are many ugly things in South America with the environment. Whatever kind of fuel the buses are burning and releasing into the air. The extreme contamination of the rivers. It’s difficult to see these types of contamination when the places could be extremely beautiful. There are mines in South America which have been so exhausted that they are afraid the mountain might fall down if they keep drilling. And just because we don’t see these things in our countries, that doesn’t mean we aren’t destroying the land in other ways with many productions. It’s a sad thing. We live off of our land and other parts of the environment. It’s where we get most of our food (and where our food gets its food), it provides air, it provides water. It’s beautiful. Why do we destroy it when we need it? In my opinion, a lot of the indigenous groups around the world had it right. The Incas in Peru, the Aborigines in Australia, the Native Americans. They all worshiped and respected the land. It seems to be the exact opposite in our cultures. Another thing to think about when you are making your next purchase. Do you really need this and where is it actually coming from?
I am focusing mainly on the good things of South America, but of course there are many other ugly things as well. The masochistic cultures where women are just not as well respected as in developed countries. The domination of marriages by the men; while women are taking care of the kids, men are out drinking with their friends (obviously not in every case, but in too many cases). Women having no way out because of lack of education. And the domestic abuse. A very, very ugly part of the culture. In the Cusco area, I don’t know if I ever saw a woman driving a car. In many parts, the women just do not have the same powers as men. Something that I hope continues to change for the better.
To end on a good note, I must say that I have learned more in the past 7.5 months than I ever did in college. I’ve learned more about myself and how I want my life to be. I learned that I really enjoy photography, dancing (although not too good at it), mountain biking, writing about my travels (much more-so than I thought before), multiple day hikes, and being in nature in general. I learned that I want a life not full of work with a little bit of fun on the side, but rather a life doing what I want with some work on the side. I know that popular belief is that life is only possible with the former, but I disagree with that. With dedication and planning, I plan to get there.
“Work to live, don’t live to work”.
I might as well tattoo that on my chest.