Traveling solo for months on end is tough at times. It is “vacation” but it isn’t. It is fun, exciting and overly stimulating at times, and sometimes not. Sometimes you get bored when you’re stranded somewhere for too long; you are stressed when a flight is missed or you have to change plans due to illness. Or if you get really sick and have to find a hospital—alone.
Twice I was a click away from buying a plane ticket back to Minnesota, even though I had no idea what I’d do once back there. In the first occasion, I was lying in a bed bug infested hostel bed, itching horribly from microscopic mites (AKA scabies) that had made my skin their breeding place, and an intestinal illness that had me running to the bathroom every ten minutes. My foot ached terribly as I’d somehow re-injured it in the previous weeks. My heart was broken by a friend back home and by the fact that I’d left the Amazon earlier than I’d planned, because it was too isolating and uncomfortable for me to be living there.
I experienced all of this physical and psychic turmoil alone in a hostel bed, my only companion a little bed bug hobbling its way across the white sheet.
In the second occasion, I felt exhausted and stressed from managing a rigorous travel schedule as well as making and maintaining friendships with folks I was traveling closely with. It is a challenge, no matter who you are with, to travel with friends (or partners, as I’ve learned) for weeks on end. During one segment of my trip I was sharing rooms with two other travelers, and we were seeing each other every waking hour of the day for several weeks. At another point, five of us rode in a car for 3 days, blazing across a barren salt flat. When we finally arrived in San Pedro, Chile, my introverted lizard brain made an impulse buy to fly to Santiago so I could be alone for a week, sinking into café shops and talking to no one.
Both situations warranted Whatsapp calls with close friends back in Minnesota. These friends did the wonderful job of reminding me why I was traveling, and asked me if there were ways I could better my situation. Basically, how can I solve this? Would it actually be better to be in Minnesota, and give up this dream of backpacking South America, just because I felt stressed in the moment?
I’m so happy I didn’t give up. So, very very happy. Traveling forces you to be assertive, kind, and firm in your needs. It’s truly a microcosm of the real world.
Meeting locals helps ground you in a new city and culture
One afternoon while I was sitting alone in my bunk bed at La Princesa Insolente, my first hostel home in Santiago, trying to figure out the best way to explore Chilean wine country, my friends started group texting about Tinder dates in Argentina. I joked: “How is it you have any time to do Tinder? To date? I’m sitting here trying to find a bus!” Travel planning fries your brain sometimes. They kept joking and sharing details of their dates and hookups with various people in their hostels. After pondering all this, I decided to sign up for Tinder and try it out, at least so I could get coffee and practice Spanish with someone from the city.
Although I liked the vibe of Santiago, and felt comfortable with just about every interaction I’d had with people there—I’d say I even felt at home, as if in Minneapolis—I never guessed I’d meet someone to date. In fact, some of my interactions with men in Peru and Ecuador left me completely cold and mistrustful of dating in Latin America in general (a hefty prejudice, I know). But it happened. I perused the Tinder profiles and paused on a young man’s profile who had written “seeking people who are intellectual and feminist, and like going out into nature on the weekends”. He had an easygoing smile and two adorable monkeys perched on his head. That seemed about right to me. After a swipe right, Sebastian and I matched, chatted on and off for the evening, and then met for dinner the next day. Our evening began at five with a beer, and ended with a stroll and a shared slice of hazelnut cake.
My time in Santiago was lighthearted and thoughtful after that. Sebastian invited me to hang out with his friends for an evening at the lake in Pucon, where we chatted and played cards for hours; he invited me to the beach, where we walked and ate seafood; we went out to trendy bars and restaurants. We even danced and sang karaoke one night—he sang Queen; I was going to sing Bob Dylan but they cut me from the list. Toward the end of time together, while we were sitting in a park listening to duos of teenagers perform rap competitions, Sebastian asked me, “Is this the longest relationship you’ve had since you got divorced?” He was laying on his side, smoking a cigarette he’d rolled himself.
Yes, actually, I laughed in response. And two weeks was about all I could afford to spend in Santiago, Chile, unfortunately, before moving on.
Surprise! Friends, all over the place
I’ve been traveling through South America for five months now, and have two more packed months before I fly back to Minneapolis, MN. What have I learned? This: the longer you travel, the more friends you collect, no matter where you go. So have no fear, solo traveler! You will not be alone.
I’ve repeatedly bumped into friends I’ve met in hostels or tours in a different city or country. Last night I got to catch up with Paul, a firefighter from Ireland on sabbatical for the year. He’s traveling the world, and happens to be traveling in the same direction as me: toward Rio de Janeiro for Carnaval. We initially met in La Paz at another hostel. While lunching in Valparaiso, Paul recognized me and came over to say hello.
In Buenos Aires, two girlfriends contacted me via Instagram because they saw I was in the city, and we all met for a steak dinner, which was fabulous. Feasting on succulent, tender char-grilled Argentinean steaks with fellow female travelers was a such treat. Such an occasion felt celebratory for me, and the result of me sticking to my seven-month long journey, and maintaining connections with people.
At the beginning of my journey, I had no idea where and with whom Christmas would be spent. As it turned out, both my friends Peter and Priya would be in Santiago for the holidays. The two of them bought food and cooked so that we could all enjoy a meal together on Christmas Day in the hostel. To Priya’s annoyance and the delight of me and Peter, Harry Potter played nonstop in Spanish for the day.
For New Year’s, Peter rented an Airbnb in Valparaiso—a splendid occasion, as the city puts on one of the best fireworks shows in all of Latin America. The whole city was alive for the evening; there were empanadas, papas fritas, and churros everywhere, people playing music and dancing, and of course, a lot of pisco!
Traveling for a long time takes some practice
There is a knack to traveling long-term. Just like moving abroad, it takes some time to adjust. Once you do, you get the most out of the experience. For example, you get used to hearing different languages and accents; you get used to (though you may not like it) wearing earplugs and sharing a sometimes hot and stuffy room with five other traveler strangers; you learn to accept your changing body as you realize it’s been a month since you’ve done any kind of meaningful exercise besides walking; you accept the strange welts on your body from insects you’ll never see; you understand that getting a crush on a man you’re having drinks with from the hostel will likely manifest in Instagram texting for a few weeks and then taper off, as real romantic relationships while traveling are nonexistent and I’d say mostly impossible, mainly because you are both there for the same reason, to wander and eventually settle in the place best for you, as a single person right now, not as a unit—
Moreover, traveling is not the same as being an explorer. One can explore via traveling, it’s true, and I do try to do this. This kind of exploration is more about a cultural learning and exchange. I am visiting other people’s homes, their cultures, and I must pay attention to that. How do I sound and appear to them? Am I rude? Am I attempting to understand their way of life? Am I learning something about them, and about myself that can make me a better, and wiser person? Finally, what can I give back, whether in something tangible in the moment, or in the future, through my behavior and profession? Those are the questions I grapple with as I travel through cities, towns, and countries.
I’ve alternated between longer stays (a month in Mindo, three weeks in Medellin, for example) and “superficial” stays, for just a few nights, in various cities where in that time frame the only thing to do is a city tour and eating out before moving on. The latter is hard for me; what is the point of breezing through a place and seeing it only from a hostel’s point of view? It led me to create this list, upon reflection:
Backpack traveling today is…
- Having an Instagram account on which to post wanderlust-inducing images, and to stay connected with other travelers
- Seeking Wifi at all costs
- Staying in hostels for on average, 10 USD/ night.
- Drinking a lot; going to clubs
- Tours: city tours, museums, adrenaline tours like bungee jumping, cultural tours like visiting ruins
- Spending loads of time on cell phones texting folks and scrolling Instagram pictures and booking the next flight and/or hostel
- Tinder: Most everyone I’ve met traveling uses Tinder to meet locals, either for dating, hooking up or making friends
Of course, traveling can be more than this, especially when you stay in one place for a while and do volunteer work. It’s my opinion that doing at least one homestay or volunteer work exchange is a good idea as it gives you a deeper link to the community you are visiting.
What are your thoughts on traveling solo, and on traveling in general?
Hugs to Peter, Priya, Marco, Michele, Najet, and Seba, for being a part of, and enriching my journey these past five months.