Latin America has always called to me in some inexplicable way. The steep and rugged Andean spine that spans down the continent of South America. The warmth of the luscious rainforest enveloped in tranquil beaches. The rich and diverse culture of each Latin American country, each so unique in character, exudes something magnetic that for years has drawn me to wander along its vast topography. I was barely 18 years old when I first stepped foot outside of my home country. Young, strong-willed, independent and confident. I journeyed off alone in search of adventure, only to discover that travel tends to open you up to your inner self just as much as you experience new faces and places.
I’ll never forget that first trip. The trip where I realized I was starting on a very long journey of personal discovery. The moment it hit me I was in a small touristy town in Mexico conversing with a local boy who worked at the hotel where I was staying. Well, perhaps conversing isn’t the best way to describe it. His lack of English and my non-existent Spanish left us playing an incredibly amusing game of charades. It was then, amongst my arms flying about in laughter trying to get him to piece together my story that I asked myself; how could I be here without being able to communicate? How much of this experience am I missing from not being able to truly communicate?
After that trip, I began my quest to learn Spanish in order to more truly experience the wonders of Latin America that entice me so deeply. Bound and determined, I applied for school in Santiago, Chile, packed my bags and flew solo to the southern hemisphere. The Andes were calling my name…
It was just after 6:00am when I awoke. The sun was just starting to peek over the clouds. I looked out from the window seat of Delta flight 0147 service to Santiago and, rubbing my tired eyes, caught my first glimpse of South America – just one incredible mountain peaking above a sea of clouds. I knew immediately that it was the summit of Aconcagua regally standing in the distance, bursting above the clouds as if it were the only earthly body worthy of being present amongst the heavens. I looked on in awe and knew; today was going to be a big day.
As I exited the plane and headed into the airport, it hit me like a ton of bricks. It was 8:00am and I had just stepped foot into the country of Chile. No reservation at a hostel. No idea how to get from the airport to the city. No Spanish. No plan.
“Hmmm, good thing I have a guidebook,” I thought.
Moments later a man came up to me, “Where are you from?”
“Montana, in the United States,” I replied.
We briefly conversed about the many months a year he spends in the US and how he was finally coming home to Chile. He then welcomed me to his country and left, with one piece of advice before he walked away,
“Just be sure to take the bus into the city. The taxis are very overpriced and not worth it. Good luck!”
And he was gone.
“Stupid!” I thought to myself.
Why on earth did I not bother to ask him ANYTHING?! I could have picked his brain for any number of things. Which bus goes into the city? How do I know when to get off? Where is a safe place to go?
“Too late now, you’ll have to figure this one out for yourself,” I told myself.
I made my way through customs quickly then found my way to the baggage claim. It seemed as though a welcomed eternity went by as I waited for my luggage.
“Anything to buy me more time before I head into the abyss of this large city,” I thought to myself.
There I was, a small town Montana girl. Short, blonde, and sticking out like a sore thumb with no language skills and no idea where she was going. Great planning! How did my mom ever let me out of the house?! As I grabbed my enormous bag containing all that I perceived I’d need for the coming year, I heard a familiar voice behind me,
“Have you decided how you are going into the city?”
It was the man from earlier. He smiled at me warmly and I shyly replied that I had not decided.
“If you’d like you could come with me,” he said.
Looking back on this moment and all the things I have learned in my years of travel, it is still amazing to me that I completely surrendered in this moment. Without thinking twice, I accepted his offer and loaded a public bus. No money in local currency and still not knowing where I was going. The strange thing is that the thought never crossed my mind to be afraid or even suspicious of this gentleman. I was making decisions on pure gut instinct.
We rode into the city and the man asked where I was planning to go once I got into town. I explained that my only real plan was to stop at the school where I’d be studying in a few weeks.
As we arrived closer to downtown Santiago, my innocent eyes couldn’t help but notice the stark lines between neighborhoods. On the outskirts of the city were homes built out of scrap metal leaning against each other for walls and nothing but the dirt as floors. Just a small street created the boundary to neighborhoods with stone walkways, fences and prominent metals bars on the windows.
“You’re not in Montana anymore,” I thought to myself.
Before I knew it, this friendly stranger had helped me off the bus, loaded me into a taxi and dropped me off at my university. He handed me his phone number and told me to call him if I needed anything during my stay in Chile.
I still had no real idea where I was when he rode away in that taxi, off into an abyss of cars and buildings. But I grabbed my things, walked inside and began the next step of an incredible journey.
That was more than a decade ago now and since those first moments of traveling abroad I have lived, worked, played and thoroughly explored many nooks and crannies of Latin America. I have stood atop mountains in the Andes and taken a deep breath along the Pacific from many latitudes. And along the way, I have stopped to listen to the stories of the locals. It has been these moments, when an old woman reaches out to shake my hand and give me a warm welcome or I stumble upon a breathtaking waterfall, when I have felt the heart beat of these great landscapes.
I have sat on buses packed to the hilt with people, goats and chickens, only to have the local guy next to me share his life story as I tried not to fall off the bag I was using as a chair in the aisle. I have ridden across the salt flats of Bolivia listening to the mother of a small local family share with me some of the challenges they face due to their home being located on an isolated island surrounded by a desert of salt…and all they want is to earn enough money to buy a TV. I have been welcomed into the home of an indigenous family deep in the rainforest with no place to spend the night due to torrential rains and inability to cross rivers, only to learn they were preparing for us all evening as the forest told them they would have guests.
In my eyes, to travel is to discover oneself on many levels. I have been stranded in the jungle, lost in the city…and found myself over and over again along the way.