Sometimes when we’re having the time of our lives, we don’t even realize it; we have no idea that we’ll look back on this moment years later and think “wow, that was honestly one of the best moments I’ve ever had”. We’ll make expectations for certain moments and hope they will exceed those great memories. But they won’t, because the best things ALWAYS happen unexpectedly or by accident.
South America was a magical, mysterious, faraway land that I’d be hearing other traveler’s stories about for years. On my first trip to Central America in the beginning of 2015, I did manage to make it to the Northern Coast of Colombia for two weeks, but that’s about as far as I got. I really only scratched a tiny bit of the surface, and knew that one day soon I needed to jump into the depths of the Southern Hemisphere.
At the beginning of this year I decided that fall (or shall I say Spring) was the time. I had my whole year loosely planned: Finish up a road trip in Mexico, move out of my house in California after having some friends visit, drive back to New York, go to Europe for a few weeks, work at the summer camp I went to as a teenager, maybe do another quick Europe trip, and dive head first into the Wild Wild South. I didn’t plan exactly where I was going, but I knew that I wanted to further my Spanish skills, go to visit a friend and the beaches of Brazil (yes, I’m aware they don’t speak Spanish there), and visit some old friends in Buenos Aires. I decided that on the way to Brazil I would even stop in Uruguay to see some “hidden” beaches! After a little vacation time in those countries, I would get myself to Peru or Bolivia and intensively study Spanish, where Spanish school is cheap, the culture is rich, and accents are easier to understand. The fall finally rolled around, I bought my ticket to Buenos Aires, and I was ready to go! Finally, I was going to South America!
But of course, as I said earlier, nothing turns out the way you plan. I chose to start in Buenos Aires because it was a city I had told myself I would visit for the past eight years. Mainly because I have a good friend who I met in 2009 at a Green Day show in New York who lives there. Turned out Green Day was touring South America and my timeline for going south coincided with this concert, so why not start there? See some friendly faces, a concert, and explore a city I’ve heard so much about. Getting down there is normally quite expensive due to a lack of budget airlines in Argentina, but I was lucky enough to have enough credit card points to take United's new non-stop service from Newark to Buenos Aires.
I arrived in Buenos Aires after a long 11 hours, tired, but excited to be there. I soon came to realize that I was staying in what is quite possibly the best hostel in the world, Caravan BA. They didn’t pay me to write this post, but I’ll tell you that it’s THE BEST!!! STAY THERE! The owners are a brother and sister who wanted to create a place that they would want to stay as travelers. The design of the hostel is nicer than my own home could ever be, they’ve got a whole schedule events for each week, a pool, yard, and two of the sweetest dogs ever, and I don’t even normally like dogs, so that is saying a lot! I felt right at home. The first two days I was exhausted and spent most of my time relaxing outside in the yard.
“It’s okay to do this, I just arrived. It was a long journey! I’m still jet lagged!”
But the days passed, and by day five I hadn’t even left the neighborhood, Palermo Soho, that I was staying in. I kept trying to make plans with my friend, but he was super busy with work and couldn’t escape from it until the night of the concert. Yet, when that night came, it ended up being one of the highlights of my month. I was eighteen and just out of high school when Damian and I met at Madison Square Garden in 2009. Although I had international friends who I talked to over the internet (Livejournal was my platform of choice), I hadn't met any of them in person yet, so this was the first time making a friend from another country. That summer was the first time I really got to adventure, travel a bit, and meet new people I never would've known had I not left my little suburban New York bubble.
While we became friends on social media, years would go by and we wouldn't message each other. But I knew that one day I'd make my way to Argentina and see my friend again. For me, the best part about traveling is meeting these people who you have an instant connection with, may not speak with for years, but when you see them again, you always pick up right where you left off. While the friends I've met traveling aren't my best friends, I’ve shared such a special bond with them all, no matter how brief, that I cannot imagine living without these types of friendships. I guess you could say that travelers stick together.
After the show, we reminisced about going to Red Lobster in Times Square (it was his dream to go), walking around Central Park, and parting ways at Grand Central where else but at the famous meeting point, the Big Clock. Stories of our lives between then and now were told, and because it’s Argentina, we were still able to get delicious food at 1:30am after the concert at a bar. After that night I thought, “things are going to be alright.” I knew I had a long way to go, a lot to see, photos to take, and people to meet. I'd be back to Argentina to spend more time with both Damian and my other Argentine friend, Fernando who I met four years prior in Turkey and had yet to see
And so I headed off to Uruguay, meeting a Dutch girl I’d met at Caravan. We met in Colonia, a lovely small port town that was conquered by the Spanish, stolen by the Portuguese, taken back by the Spanish again, finally independent, taken by the Spanish a SECOND time, and finally claimed by Uruguay, now an autonomous state.
We didn’t do much other than sitting at cafes, walking around, I caught a drum line marching through the city, and eating at some okay restaurants. It was nothing spectacular, but after some time in the city, we were both ready for a relaxing weekend in a small town. I wasn’t feeling that great physically or mentally, but I figured now that I had my first travel buddy of the trip, things would get better. We made our way to Montevideo, where of course I got my annual really bad flu-like cold that comes after the first week of Spring Allergies (I don’t know why I was convinced that November = summer in the Southern Hemisphere; it’s very much springtime). I didn’t see much of the city, but dragged myself onto a bus to Punte Del Este, where the rich and famous have beach houses.
“I may be sick, but I won’t be for long and taking a swim in the ocean will be good for me!”
Little did I know that it was cold, stormy, and windy as San Francisco summers (that's basically winter). There was no swimming to be had, but I managed to spend my last few days on a mini road trip up the coast, despite having spent the past few days in bed with a terrible flu-like cold. I drove through to this little inn in a town that is really just a long, single dirt road with seven or eight houses called San Antonio.
Again, I figured that things would start to look up once I was healthy enough to move again. And best of all, I could FINALLY START MAKING MY WAY TO BRAZIL! A place that I had been warned was not so safe, but had also had a desire to visit for the past two years ever since I met my friend Giovanna from Sao Paulo on a plane from Bergen, Norway to New York. We had plans to take a weekend trip through the Serra Gaucho (Cowboy Mountains) in the south, but last minute she had to work the weekend we had originally planned. No big deal. We could always meet the following weekend and take a trip out to her family’s beach house a few hours from Sao Paulo. But then it turned out her aunt had the house that weekend, so finally we planned the NEXT weekend, which was definite because her cousin was having a “chic beach wedding” on Ilha Bela and I was invited to go. This left me with plenty of time to kill in Florianopolis, a large island in the south. I was ready to get there. Finally, I felt strong enough to get myself on that dreaded overnight bus to Porto Alegre. From there I would fly straight to Florianopolis and once again meet up with Louise.
The overnight bus wasn’t as bad as I imagined, as I got two seats to myself. I even slept a bit, which is a big deal for a high maintenance person like me, who can’t even sleep on mattress too hard or thin. At 5:30am I woke up to a colorful sun rise out the window. Just a few hours from the border, it looked much different from what I’d seen in Uruguay. Instead of bland brown fields, I saw vibrant green forests, almost as if we’d entered the rainforest. My Brazilian friend later said not to say that out loud, because other Brazilians would think I’m a stupid American who didn’t know where the Amazon started and ended (the funny part is that I don't). I had a feeling that Brazil would be a great adventure and a place I’d come to love. But, nothing is as it seems in the world of travel.
After a long night I arrived in Porto Alegre, a metropolis nestled between the sea and green trees as far as the eye can see. From the bus station I ran to catch a taxi to the airport where I'd be puddle-jumping a few hundred miles north to Florianopolis, a large island known for it's beaches and hiking, which was indeed what I expected it to be. It was a good starting point because it has a lot of tourism and is known to be one of the safest places in Brazil. I was ready to explore, but emotionally and physically I was still exhausted. It became apparent that this wasn’t just a case of weary traveler blues, but my life long depression waking up out of hibernation. Now here's where I'm going to say something that people don't generally want to read on travel blogs:
People want to act like traveling is all fun and games.
People tell me that it must be "ahhhh-maaaazing" to get to travel so much.
But guess what? It's not always.
Don't get me wrong, I'm lucky to get to do this, but I'm only human. I can't find beauty in every little thing, I can't stop my outside emotions from affecting a trip, especially when I am a person who is prone to chronic depression. Until recently, I was very ashamed to admit this. Why? Because it's only been in the past few years that people who suffer from mental illnesses are taking a stand and sending this message to the world. The message is: 'mental illness' is not synonymous to dysfunctional or crazy or incapable of living a normal life.
Growing up in a time where I felt like my mental illness made me a freak, even today I'm pretty uncomfortable with talking about it publicly. Therapy? No way, you DO NOT tell people you do that. Meds? Of course I'll get made fun of if people know I take them. But that is a whole different discussion. Bottom line is: depression affects me at all times, no matter if I'm in Istanbul, New York, San Francisco, or Brazil. And when it's bad enough it can completely ruin my experience.
And as Thanksgiving approached, a time I should have been with my family, I tried to life my spirits. I cooked a few meals with Louise and we went out for two small hikes, ate the best shrimp I’ve had since Mexico, and took a tiny local boat across the lagoon which reminded me of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. Those two days were great, but a lot was still off. All I had the energy to do was stare at a wall, my phone, computer, or kindle.
"Hey, it’s okay if I just sit in a hammock and read a lot! I’m in a tropical paradise", I thought.
But really, it was more than that. I felt as if I was constantly thinking about and researching the next place I wanted to go, which is something that I normally do while traveling, since I don't like planning far in advance, but this time I was using it as an excuse to hide from the very people I normally levitate towards. There was only one or two times when I truly enjoyed where I was and appreciated the beauty of the world (or in this moment, Brazil).
"Cheer up, you're in South America!" my friend in Argentina said.
But it's not that easy. If you can’t appreciate these things, then there’s something seriously wrong. It means you’re not in the right mindset to be there. It means you've let your depression take over. And that's a hint that it may be time to go home, but I don't always follow my intuition right away.
“When I get to Sao Paulo and see friends, things will be much better!” I told myself.
Little did I know that my first night in Sao Paulo would change the fate of my entire trip.
It was 7pm and I had just switched hostels because the one I’d originally booked was not quite what I’d hoped it would be. The hostel I was now at was clean, quiet, and comfortable which is exactly what I wanted. The only problem is that it wasn’t near anything and I was hungry. I kept putting off going out in order to research the next step of my trip. By 10:50, I realized that if I left at that moment I could make it to the only restaurant in the neighborhood. I sat down, checked the menu, but when the waiter, who did not speak English (or Spanish) came to me, I was clueless. I’m a picky eater and having NO idea what you’re ordering is not good when you’re like me. And so I did what I always do when the going gets tough; I got up and left.
“I’ll just walk to the center of Madalena, where there will be lots of choices, wifi so I can translate, or maybe even an English menu!”
Now if you’re smart you’re thinking, “Why would you walk alone at 11 o clock at night in BRAZIL?”
I probably shouldn’t even mention this at risk of sounding like a clueless American traveler, but I could’ve gone back to the hostel a block away and gotten an Uber for 2 dollars. But after a stressful day I wanted to walk and clear my head. I’ve been traveling alone for over three years and I’ve been okay all this time. I thought that you can’t stop a woman from doing things alone just based on fear. But guess what? Turns out that you can.
As I turned off the main street to head up a steep, quiet hill, I thought “maybe I shouldn’t be walking here alone”.
It was dark. There was nobody on the streets, no houses, no passing cars. I saw two boys rounding the corner heading my way and cautiously thought, “hmmm, should cross as to not cross paths with them”, but no. I saw they were just kids, maybe twenty years old; they were harmless.
But, here’s the thing about that: the people that you think look threatening, are usually harmless. Those homeless folks covered in grit, old mentally ill men who won’t stop talking— they’re in their own worlds and may be bothersome, but it’s highly unlikely that they’re going to threaten you. It’s the ones who you least expect, like two boys walking and laughing as they walk down the street in a supposedly good neighborhood.
Those are the guys that also don’t really know what the hell they are doing and suddenly start talking to you, timidly holding a lime green gun, a good distance away from your face, but close enough to scare you.
Honestly, I though they were just asking me something. I didn’t even see the gun at first, as the one holding it was BEHIND his friend who was speaking to me (potentially saying something stupid as hell, not that I’ll ever know).
They were bad robbers. But, it didn’t matter if they knew what they were doing or not. The gun may have been fake, and I wasn’t convinced they were going to use it, but what else could two males do to a female alone on the streets of Sao Paulo? It was this thought, the thought of strange men touching my body and threatening to kill me if I didn’t let them that scared me. Not the threat of the gun alone. This is the world we live in. A place where woman are more scared of rape, than getting shot.
And so I put my hands up, gave them my three year old iPhone 5 and purse with two hundred rial (equal to about fifty USD). As soon as I gave it to them they ran like the wind. In the process of taking off my bag to show I had NOTHING else to take, I had flung my sweatshirt on the ground. After the guys ran I wasn’t really even sure what I was supposed to do, and so I just stood there for a moment, stared the ground, picked up my sweatshirt and walked away.
I walked. I didn’t cry at first. I wasn’t mad that they took my phone.
I was mad that I let two stupid males scare me once again.
To them they just took a phone, but to me they took my dignity. My pride. My self confidence.
I thought about all the males who have abused me, used me, made me feel guilty for not doing something I didn't want to do, and I just broke down.
As I walked down the street sobbing, a couple who was walking with a crew of at least fifteen other people, stopped me and asked what happened. Fortunately they spoke Spanish, and we were able to communicate a bit. I told them what happened and they walked me back to the hostel. When I got back, the girl at the desk didn’t seem very sympathetic and was just surprised it happened in this area. Here’s the thing about getting robbed and being threatened: you think you know what to do if you find yourself in that situation, but the reality is that you won’t. You won’t have time to think about all that you’ve rehearsed and all you’ll think about is how you “really really really really don’t want these disgusting men to touch you and please take anything you have, just don’t touch my body for even one second”
That weekend I was meant to finally reunite with my friend, but my trip so far wasn't going as well as I'd hoped it would, and this robbery was not making me feel any better. I wanted to see my friend, I wanted to go to the island where I knew I'd be much safer, but all of this required getting on multiple forms of public transit within Sao Paulo, and I couldn't fathom this idea. What if I got ALL my stuff stolen? I was smart enough to not bring my passport out, and still had a computer and camera. I could handle losing one of my credit cards, state ID, and three year old iPhone, but how would I feel if I lost everything else? Sure, it could happen anywhere in the world, but Brazil is definitely a high risk place for theft. After sleeping on it, I decided that I'd use my remaining frequent flier points to take the next flight back to Buenos Aires, where I knew that I felt safe in Palermo and had some friends who would comfort me.
I arrived late at night back in Buenos Aires, where my journey started just a few weeks earlier. I never would have imagined that this trip wouldn't even last a month and a half, but everything pointed towards ending it soon. I decided that the following week I would fly up to Colombia, which is at the top of South America, closest to the US, spend a week there visiting friends and then fly back to the US.
Two years ago on my first trip through Latin America I met Zoe in the northern coast of Colombia. Although she's originally from England, Zoe has lived in Colombia for two and a half years, after falling in love with the country, salsa, and a boy there. She's always been my expat-spiration and I knew that a visit with her might lift my spirits and end this not-so-great trip on a good note.
I took the morning flight from Montevideo on my new favorite airline, Avianca-- spacious economy seats, crepes for breakfast, and great entertainment-- and spent the next two days wandering the hilly terrain of the mile high capital of Colombia. It was my first time in Bogota, and I didn't expect to like it, but I actually had a lovely time there. I didn't see much of the city, but what I did see I liked. After the robbery I was terrified to take my digital camera out there so I only have film prints from Bogota (which I will happily post later).
The great thing about solo travel is that you get to do what YOU want, WHEN you want. But, after a while you sometimes get tired of navigating unknown terrain on your own. Being a guest at a friend's house is great because not only do you get to spend quality time with somebody you love and trust, but because you are their guest, they are usually thrilled to take you around and play tour guide in their city that is new to you. In my case, my friend took me to her friend's salsa show (Cali is the salsa capital of Latin America) and walked along the riverside that was decked out in holiday lights along with thousands of people getting ready for Christmas. We even took a ride up winding roads on Zoe's motorcycle to swim in a pool at a hotel in the mountains, high above the city that no tourist would ever know about.
While the majority of my trip may not have gone so well, the one thing that I savored was the chance to catch up with long lost friends from around the world. Some of my friends and family who haven't traveled much assume that I consider these people, "acquaintances" since we've only met a handful of times and don't know each other THAT well, but I beg to differ. While we may not see each other more than once every few years, I consider the people I've met around the world to be good friends. That's the beauty of these types of relationships; no matter how often you talk, you can always count on them to be around when you come their way.
All in all, I did NOT have a great time in South America. But, I don't blame anybody or any place but myself. I may have not loved Uruguay with a passion, I may have been angry with Brazilian men for scaring me off, and to be quite frank, even though I spent a collective two weeks in Buenos Aires, I hardly left the neighborhood I stayed in. Does that mean I won't return to South America? Absolutely not. When the time is right, I will return and hopefully have a much better trip. But, for now it's back home to California, a place I've missed dearly.