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Thoughts and Feels of a Long-term Solo Traveler

The double-edge sword of traveling solo…I get the entire slice of cake. Yum. (Later: Oh, are my pants starting to feel tight?)

Backpack friendships

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?

Andrea, a long-term traveler I met in Quito when recovering. She spent a lovely weekend with me in Mindo, Ecuador, and helped me start fresh.

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.

Seba wasn’t sure this was the right kind of pic for Tinder. Um, he’s wrong! Adorable monkeys? Yes please.

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 met Najet, a radio and TV journalist, in Medellín, Colombia last August.
We met again in Buenos Aires, five months later.

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.

Peter, a long-term traveler I met in Quito, dragged me up a gorgeous mountain in Bolivia.
I will be forever grateful to him.

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.

Enjoying a bus ride with Priya, who I met in Bolivia. We spent Christmas together in Santiago.

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.

Michele and I met in Cusco, and bumped into each other in Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina.

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.

The fruits of my friends’ cooking: a scrumptious Christmas Day meal.

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?

Marco and I testing out a very large dinosaur slide in Bolivia.

Hugs to Peter, Priya, Marco, Michele, Najet, and Seba, for being a part of, and enriching my journey these past five months.

~Cici

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Quito: Third Time’s a Charm

Colonial, historical splendor, with mountains: View from the Secret Garden Hostel in Quito, Ecuador.

1st Try Quito: Dusty, Overcast, Lonely

Perhaps it is a silly thing to say, but generally I fall in love with the places I visit, usually for different reasons: Costa Rica for jungles, monkeys and beaches; Mexico for sublime tacos, architecture and history; Colombia for lush green mountains and an excellent experience meeting friends and practicing Spanish at a Spanish language school (see here for the school I studied at); and etc. But Quito and I had a series of misunderstandings the first few times I passed through its bustling white-washed, cracked concrete.

Weepy Jesuses always fascinate me, given I grew up Protestant. The Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Merced, 18th Century

My initial impressions of the city, after arriving tired and exhausted from an overnight flight into an eerily empty hostel, and after spending a few days getting myself arranged for the Amazon, were: Windy, dry, overcast, dusty, square white buildings, cream tones, concrete, buses, clothing black and navy, some white and jeans; white fine bread that disintegrates in your mouth when you are hungry, long bus rides for only 25 cents, tiresome bargaining in taxis, men staring me down such that after a few days I begin to fantasize about shaving my hair entirely and dressing in extremely bulky clothing, lots of cigarettes being sold on every corner, women selling fresh juice and bags of mandarins from the street, a loud, packed street called Amazonas nearby. And it goes on. Not all of these impressions are specifically negative; some are quite positive (lots of fresh fruit and cheap bus fare!).

However, as a person who thrives in forest and green leaves, the dryness and aridness of Quito’s streets, buildings, and landscapes did little to attract my attention. I was also preparing to go into the Amazon that first time in Quito and admittedly had some fear wrapped around me those days leading up to my trip to Puyo and beyond. And given there was only one other person in my hostel, I had no one to go exploring the city with, or even to talk to–thank goodness for Whatsapp and my dear friends back home for filling in the void while I stayed in that lonely hostel.

Sick and Tired the Second Time Around

For my second visit to Quito I stayed at Vibes Hostel in the Mariscal Sucre neighborhood, a crashpad after spending a few weeks in the Amazon. Again, circumstances worked against a positive relationship between me and Quito–I was sick with a parasite for days, and couldn’t get myself out to do even the free walking tour or change to a better location. Vibes itself reeked of neglect, and I lamented my choice of hostel when it became clear the place was infested with bed bugs—never before have I seen bed bugs scampering about like that and biting me brazenly in the afternoon. Several mattresses were removed from different rooms while I was there. Furthermore, the Marsical Sucre neighborhood felt rough around the edges–always men about, not many women. After a few days I began to think about shaving my head again.

This sketchy neighborhood, which nonetheless seems to have the most hostels, bars and restaurants, generally clustered around the Plaza Poch, perplexed me. Or was the “sketchy” feeling just my own perception? I’ll admit, a distinct form of paranoia got stuck in my psyche while in the Amazon jungle which I couldn’t quite shake it for many weeks after. The grimy Vibes Hostel and the Marsical neighborhood did little to help me resolve it.

But it wasn’t just me. A fellow female traveler confirmed the hostel and the neighborhood were not appealing, and that she too felt uncomfortable walking around, even in good ol’ broad daylight. We both happily left Vibes and headed to the town of Mindo, where I’d rented a room with a view of trees for the month.

Third time’s a charm

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A Sort of Boring Walking Tour, but it was free, and I made friends!

Thanks to a friend’s recommendation, I booked my final nights before heading to Peru at The Secret Garden, located on Los Rios in Quito’s Centro Histórico. My my, what a difference a well-run hostel and a grand location make! The hostel, located in a colonial building, had its own myriad charms: narrow corridors and open spaces, many places to chill and work, and a rooftop bar and restaurant overlooking the mountains, the Virgin of el Panecillo, and just generally, lovely, historical, Quito. Amusingly, my first day there I got lost trying to find my room in the multi-floored, brightly decorated hostel with two sets of staircases and narrow stone corridors. I felt like a little kid playing hide and seek.

It was while staying here that Quito’s delights began to reveal themselves: small details like almuerzos to be found in cafes with whiteboards declaring the specials of the day, usually soups, meat, rice and salad, a fruit juice and a dessert; and steaming, thick, sweet and fruity colada morada served up for Dia de los Muertos.

Basílica del Voto Nacional

Given I was not sick—except for the altitude-induced exhaustion and headaches–I went out with groups from the hostel and enjoyed finding chocolate shops, new spots to eat, old cathedrals, and more. We even took a taxi one night back to the Mariscal Sucre neighborhood, where, admittedly, there are many fun places to eat. Still, I’d hold on tight to your belongings in that area, and stay at the Secret Garden.

Posing as Sherlock with my only ad-hoc Halloween prop, my tobacco pipe. In front of the Secret Garden Hostel, Quito.

Quito, I’m glad we made peace and you showed me your magic.

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Scenes from the Amazon Basin

 I.

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I’m sitting in the corner of a young couple’s dirt-floor home, pondering the homemade grass basket beside me, while watching S— roll up a wad of fresh tobacco and blow blooming clouds of smoke over his brother, who sits on the edge of a bed with his wife and newborn son. I look down into the basket again, see a baseball sized object begin to shift and move slowly under a limp T-shirt.

“What’s that?” I ask, nodding down at the basket.

“La soledad,” is what I hear from S— say, who laughs playfully, and then continues his ceremony. His father was a brujo, a shaman, and I think of this as he waves his hand to spread the smoke. Afterward, as we head back to the bonfire he’s set up for me as a farewell, I ask him if this was a blessing ceremony for the newborn.

“No,” he says with his naturally easy smile. The night is settling around us, and the toads croak in various intervals. “Remember the bird that sings loudly at dusk? My brother is afraid of that bird.”

“Afraid?” I ask, trying to understand. I’d heard this bird often, and it has a loud, distinct call, like that of a loon.

“They say it is a powerful being, that it can perhaps harm a person,” S— answers. “I blow the smoke over him, so that he can go out and hunt again, without fear.”

“I see,” though I don’t, entirely. And I feel silly for thinking, earlier, that he was rolling up the tobacco leaves in a giant cigar for us all to smoke.

“Blowing tobacco is good for taking away fear,” S— says.

“I will try it,” I respond sincerely, because even though I don’t believe that smoke will take away fear, ritual and the placebo effect does.

We sit by a large fire for my farewell gathering, and the eldest in the community, Tio A—, begins to tell me the tale of the Jrijri, the two-mouthed animal spirit that guards the wilderness of the Amazon. I shiver.

After, Tia E— shows me how to dance in the Achuar way. A complicated hopping, small steps, her hands placed firmly on her hips. I cannot get all the little steps in, and lament my poor sense of body rhythm out loud.

Everyone applauds anyway, and we drink chicha, a traditional fermented yucca beverage.

It starts raining, and one of the men informs me, solemnly, that the river is rising, and that I cannot leave the following morning in canoe, as planned.

II.

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I’m walking in the pitch black through the forest with three young children leading me.

I’m walking back from S—’s house, where I’ve just finished eating supper, a meal of boiled eggs, plantains, and yucca, and a fresh heart of palm salad, all served in enormous banana tree leaves. The jungle is loud and large moths and small bats whir above and around our heads. We have no lights on; I simply follow their sure little feet as they easily feel the mud and planks and stones beneath their bare toes. At one point, one of the girls stops, and we look to see two glowing green eyes brightly shining through the foliage beside us. The youngest sibling, a boy just learning to write, strides into the leaves, retrieves the large glow beetle, and puts it into his older sister’s hand. We continue on, without speaking. They do this three times, collecting three Pyphoruses.

One of the girls tries to catch a giant glow moth with her sweater. It swerves and dives too quickly for her heavy cloth net.

III.

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A dog is screaming somewhere, the dust is blowing through the walls of my hut, the microscopic flies are biting me, the air is always on fire. I am planning English lessons.

I ask a couple walking by, who have just returned from the jungle: “What is going on? What is the animal?”

The man explains with an apologetic smile while holding a branch of green plantains over his shoulder, “A dog is dying. It has an incurable disease.”

The woman beside him, carrying a basket on her back supported by a strap slung across her forehead, glances at me while shifting the heavy weight on her back.

“Thank you,” I say, and the two continue on.

An awful screaming, a dog child, for dogs have become nearly human. Late into the night, screaming. My skin prickles with the sounds which do not let my mind rest. I find out the next day it is my neighbor’s dog, and his child won’t let him put the creature out of its misery.

The dog lies on its side on a blanket under the house on stilts. It stops screaming when I approach it.

There is silence by the fourth day, when I leave the community.

IV.

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A scraggly black and white chicken arrives in my hut the first day I arrive, sneezing and snorting. I am afraid it has a disease and keep it outside. But it sneaks in, and when it sees a beetle, it squawks in delight (so I assume) and rushes after it, just like a cliché chicken cartoon, its head bobbing forward.

I laugh hard; I don’t shoo him away again.

His name, naturally, is Pinto. Painted Chicken.

When I discover a colony of tiny golden rice-sized termites growing under the cardboard box I brought most of my food in, I push it aside and let Pinto feast. I watch, mesmerized by the precision of the birds beak, how it can pick up every single tiny termite within a matter of minutes. Every day I make my breakfast, open the door, let Pinto in, and push aside the cardboard box.

How strange when one day there are no termites.

“They found us out, Pinto,” I say to the chicken, and drop a handle of rice kernels on the ground for him.

One day a neighbor says all the chickens are dying.

Over the course of the week, the chickens die. They are lying in feathered heaps around the huts and clapboard houses.

Every morning, however, Pinto arrives, sneezing and snorting, and cleans up whatever insects I find for him in my hut. He begins to sit and prune himself while I read in the afternoons.

One evening I’m reading and out of nowhere the chicken flies up into my lap. He tucks its head into its feathers. When I tentatively pet it, it closes it eyes.
Unexpectedly, I tear up. I don’t let Pinto sit on my lap again.

V.

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Mundeesh

It is dark and the toads have begun to sing, and fire flies are dancing in the night air outside the hut. I can see the moon through the wooden slats that make up the wall of my thatched-roof home.

“Cici, come,” my neighbor C— says to me through my wood slat door. “I have something to show you.” He smile is wide, slightly mischievous.

“OK,” I say, and I get up and follow him, wondering what surprise is in store for me this evening.

We go into his family’s kitchen. In this community, most kitchens are thatched roof huts, and consist of a wooden table with stools, a large fire made from three logs that touch in a triangle shape in the center, where the fire lives. His son is waiting by the long-logged fire, also a smile on his face.

I sit down and wait.

C—picks up a banana leaf and shows me a fresh pile of plump, cream colored grubs. Like those in the movie “The Lion King.” Palm tree grubs. Or, as I find out later: palm weevil larvae.

“Mundeesh,” C— tells me in his language, Achuar. Then, in Spanish: “Gusano. It is a delicacy. They pay lots of money in Quito for this.” He sets the banana leaf on his lap and picks one up. “Do you want to try?”

I stare at the chubby cream-colored grub, the size and look of a very swollen Caucasian adult thumb. It has a dark brownish-red head.

“A delicacy?” I ask, somewhat weakly.

“Yes, try one, if you want,” C— says. “Raw first. Then we will roast them on a spit.” He puts one in his mouth and chews.

I— his son, grabs one and puts it in his mouth.

After watching the young boy finish his, I pick one up. Its skin is thick and leathery, and I can feel a pulpy juice inside. Its shiny beetle head is about the size of a pencil eraser. There are little hairs—grub hairs—springing out from the thick skin. I put it into my mouth and bite down.

Again and again I chew until the skin breaks, and the pulp spreads across my tongue. A slightly sweet insect pulp. I have to spit the skin out after a while, as I am unable to chew it. The head pops under my molars and I hear the crunch, as if I’m chewing on a half-popped corn kernel.

I sit and practice English with C—while we wait for the roasted version of the delicacy. Roasted, it tastes mostly the same, except the pulp is thicker and warm.

I fall asleep that night, thinking of that sweet pulp on my tongue, and dream of cream colored grubs in my belly.

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