It’s been two months since I’ve returned home from a four-month backpacking adventure in South America. I flew home to surprise both my mother and father on their birthday on May 6 (yes: same year, same hospital, no: not related) despite serving a spoonful of white lies in the weeks prior about inexpensive flights at the end of the month, when I could probably come home.
Surprising my inquisitive, detail-oriented mother was the imminent task at hand and my absolute victory was reason for a full weekend of birthday-turned-Mother’s Day celebrations, only to be continued with the return of my father from his California surf trip later that week. And my 23rd birthday. Needless to say, returning home and being home came at me nothing less than full force.
I’ve been bummed about this unwritten “conclusion” blog post regarding my travels, and a good friend said to me recently, “maybe you’re just not done concluding.” Maybe he was right.
Reverse culture shock was instantaneous upon my touchdown in Orlando, Fla., for my connecting flight.
I could fill my filter water bottle from– and what’s more, drink right out of– the water bubbler without concern for sanity or cleanliness? I could call or text anyone without having to search or beg for access to Wi-Fi? I am expected to put this toilet paper– wait, there’s toilet paper, and soap, and paper towels in every bathroom– in the toilet instead of a trash can? Can the pipes really handle that waste?
My most shocking observation was the contrast and complete social and cultural opposition of South Americans and North Americans regarding technology and electronics, and children. The two categories of precious cargo are at polar ends of sociocultural spectrums on both continents.
In South America, particularly in less industrialized and more traditional areas of Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Chile, I noticed an overwhelming
unsuspecting demeanor in parents. Children were running around at all ages and all hours of the day and night, often times alone without any
Kids are plentiful; particularly in highly religious countries like Ecuador and Peru that have strict abortion laws. And they are costly.
Less prevalent and in higher demand are technology and electronics. Unfortunately, pickpocketing is still an issue in many parts of South America and my boyfriend and I had heard our fair share of travel horror stories. Constant awareness and overprotectiveness of cell phones, laptops, tablets, music devices etc. were drilled into our young, blonde, English-speaking minds.
Some of my first instincts in the Orlando International Airport were to tell people that their bags were open. “Do you know your iPhone is hanging right out of your unzipped backpack?!”, I would think anxiously. The number of electronics exceeded the amount of people around me, and they were all being used or lying nonchalantly near their owners.
I refrained from revealing my rusty knowledge of United States of America norms and entered the fully stocked bathroom, only to see a mother shuffling her probably 8-year-old daughter through the three-person-throng from the stall to the sink with a fearful look on her face.
Following days and weeks brought more observations. I didn’t realize how accustomed I was to the beautiful, ever-dynamic landscapes of South America. Bolivia still offered the most spectacular starry sky I have
ever seen in my life. The Amazonian jungle of Ecuador, endless, looming peaks and valleys of Peru, Bolivia’s salt flats and deserts, the entire Patagonia region of Chile and Argentina, the rolling hills and waters of Brazil and the Andes mountain range that accompanied us for
much of it all; our planet had never been so utterly magnificent to me.
It was easy to find myself in awe each day. It was easy and convenient to shop at local outdoor markets full of traditional farmers and vendors, not to mention the economical and social impact it made. It was impressing to cover so much distance and explore so many places on foot, and not via car.
It was humbling to hear people speaking a different language than I did. It was beautiful mind practice every single day to pick up new words, listen for words that I had already learned or try to figure out what strangers were saying.
It was special and soul-opening to meet people chasing after the same dreams and adventures as me: the spirit of being alive.
It is seeing these changes around me and feeling these changes inside of me that required all of this time to process. It is returning to the same place with the same people and a similar routine and knowing that I am very different now, though it’s not easy to communicate or show.
“So, what’s next?”
It is summer-after-each-year-of-college inquiries multiplied by Thanksgiving and Christmas family small talk. It is a common question, born of human curiosity. It is intrigue that seems to grow exponentially in face of unconventionality. What does one do after backpacking for four months? There’s no chapter for that in the rat race handbook, and hey, I’m dying to know, too.
But at some point along the way, if even subconsciously, I determined the conventional life was not for me. I knew I wanted to travel after college and that I had many life lessons to encounter before I could share my gifts with the world. I know that South America was just the start of this winding and unsystematic path of mine, and that excites, though scares me at times.
The mind, soul and spirit I was created with and the life decisions I have made thus far have demonstrated and called for a different route. It is unknown and self-manifested, in the same way that they all are. I do not have the answers. And I’m coming to accept the terrifying and freeing truth that I never will. No one will. But I have dreams and strengths and ideas and gifts to bring to the world, and I’m the best possible version of me that I’ll ever be for what’s coming next.
And it’s already here, happening everyday. It’s now, it’s present, it’s ever-flowing and ever-growing. And my eyes, heart and arms are open for it.
I am 100% a proponent of getting out of one’s comfort zone. I believe in the truth that is humbling oneself, and growing pains and expressing oneself and taking actions in ways that may be unfamiliar, but honorable to the higher self that is calling.
That being said, I have not always been the first in a group to do something outlandish, and I am, in my most natural state, a creature of comfort.
The magic and at times, exhaust of traveling is that it pushes you endlessly further outside of your circle of “known.”
And on this continent of South America where I speak little of the official language(s) and dance even less of the local movements, there have been times where I’ve found myself feeling a bit out of place!
To counter these feelings of discomfort (paired with the mysterious, nearly constant feelings of light nausea- from brushing my teeth with faucet water?), I decided it was time to do something that really made me feel like me again. For any of you who have read this past post, you shan’t be surprised… I set my eye and heart on checking out the botanical gardens on my handy city map of Lima, Peru.
I grabbed my journal and a cold botella de agua and headed to my park, only to find that with my limited Spanish speaking skills, I could not confirm with the man at the information desk whether or not the gardens were still open and if they were indeed worth the 20-minute taxi ride.
Alas, my next move was simple: set up in Kennedy Square, a park full of bright scarlet sages and orange zinnias and- to my pleasure- stray cats and kittens!
Upon approaching the park I found a circle of people and some Latin music sounding. I was hoping to stumble upon a live concert, only to see pairs of elderly couples dancing salsa and meringue in a small rounded pit surrounded by the crowd! Feeling warmth in my heart, I decided to watch a few songs.
At the start of the third song, I was startled by a Spanish offer.
Granted, Spanish-speakers communicate ridiculously fast and my comprehension skills are below the average first grader’s, I could only assume that this man was asking me to willingly volunteer myself as token gringa in this dance party of wiser, older, more coordinated Latino hip-swingers.
While my own dear gringo man and world-adventure partner has been so kindly coaching me in meringue movements whenever we’re out (he’s a much better dancer than I am; I told him once and he’ll never let me forget it), I was by no means feeling confident enough to showcase my skills amongst these naturals.
“No, no, no,” I said in my best Spanish accent, shaking my head and gesturing at my full hands.
But whether it was my already existing cultural discomfort (what more do I have to lose!), the young Peruvian man’s incessant requests, the middle-aged woman grabbing the water bottle and journal out of my hands and waving me to go, or a combination of the three, what finally came out of my mouth was an exhaled, “Ok… Vamos!”
Into the pit I went, where I discovered the song required Cubana dance skills (which I also didn’t have) and I giggled half-nervously, half-without-inhibition for the next three and a half minutes, making smiley eye contact with other dancers and older folk who were sitting on the surrounding stairs.
Whether they thought I was crossing barriers of age, skin tone or dancing skills, or imposing on cultural traditions or merely a Sunday evening routine, we were all laughing.
Because, when honest with yourself, it is impossible to see someone throwing themselves humbly outside their comfort zone without it affecting you as well.
The good-natured heart in us all knows deep down the courage and strength that vulnerability takes, and the beauty of that alone is infectious.
I found that that song alone was enough to fuel me in my pursuit of comfort, which was really after all a need to feel the greatness that I have, and have had in me all along.
In doing something that felt a lot less of me, I felt a lot more of me, because I was feeding the parts of expansion, the parts of myself I didn’t yet know were there.
I thanked my partner and the kind woman who guarded my belongings and I walked across the park. I sat myself beside a bed of scarlet sages and cats, opened up my journal, and I smiled. Because I realized that no matter where I am in the world, I can find a little bit of me, and I can fall a little bit more in love with it every day.