Last year, Laura Yan spent seven months in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.
So! How did you end up in South America?
It was a little arbitrary. I was working at a law firm in New York City, and I knew I wanted to quit my job after a year. I just had this vague idea that I wanted to travel. I'd never really done a long trip before, and so I started doing research, and was looking at pictures of llamas and Macchu Pichu, and was like, "I'd really like to see llamas and Macchu Pichu." Peru, and South America generally, just seemed like a really fun place to go.
And originally you planned for a three-month trip.
Yeah. I had the idea of going from Colombia all the way south to Argentina, which would've been a ridiculous itinerary. But yeah, I booked my return flight leaving out of Buenos Aires 3 months after my arrival.
What sort of life preparation did a three-month trip require? How much money did you have to save?
I estimated maybe $5000 for three months, including the flights. But from the beginning I knew my plans might easily change, so I was pretty broad and flexible about everything in the planning process, including the money; I had some extra in savings that I knew I could use if I wanted to.
I also sublet my New York apartment for three months. But part of the reason I ended up staying was that, about two months in, I got an email from my old roommate saying that the landlord wanted to sell the place, so we all had to move out. At that point I was having these thoughts that I could just… live there. I thought about getting a job, going to Argentina until the money ran out. So when I got that email, I was really glad. I was like, "Sounds great. Can someone put my laptop in storage?"
You traveled sans computer!
Yeah, it was really nice. If I wanted to get some writing done, I had a travel journal and an iPad mini that I didn't use until I lost my phone, which I mostly used to take pictures. I also had a Kindle. I read a lot.
What sort of bag did you have with you?
A 40-liter hiking backpack that looked like a normal backpack, just slightly bigger. It fit underneath every bus seat. That bag worked out really well; I think I'm always going to use that type of bag. If you have a bigger one, you'll just end up having to take more stuff.
Yeah. It's like when you lose your luggage and realize, hmm, I could just live in this one dress for the rest of my life.
Totally. Even with that tiny backpack I was always thinking, "Huh, I'm not really using these things." I had like seven pieces of clothing total and was still thinking that I wanted to leave some of it behind.
What were those seven things?
So I thought that it would be hot and tropical, so I brought two skirts, a pair of jeans, a pair of leggings, T-shirts, and one of those Uniqlo down jackets that you can stuff into a tiny bag. That was really useful, because I was in a lot of high-altitude places, which can get very cold. So I wore that pair of jeans every single day, and eventually bought a second pair of pants.
For shoes I had, weirdly enough, my Ferragamo flats that I'd worn five hours a day walking in the city. It's not usually what you see on a backpacking trip, but I was really glad; I felt like myself, not like a traveler. And I was wearing what most people just wear in their normal life in a city: jeans, flats, T-shirts.
Dressing like yourself, so underrated as a travel tip! So you flew into Colombia.
How did you plan your route from there? Did you have friends anywhere that you tried to meet up with?
No, I didn't know anyone. I ended up doing a month in Colombia, two months in Ecuador, a little over a month in Peru and three months in Bolivia. And actually, I traveled without any type of guidebook, so…
Yeah. I did some internet research, but in terms of the moves I was making and the places i was staying, I just sort of asked around. I'd show up in a town and not know anything about it, not have a map, and I'd ask someone to take me to the main plaza, and I'd find a place to stay.
That is rad. Were you mostly staying in hostels?
I did mostly stay in hostels, but different kinds. There were the touristy gringo hostels that get written up in Lonely Planet and they've got wifi and they're pretty nice. But then there were places in northern Peru and small cities in Bolivia, hospedajes, where you just get a dingy little room with a tiny TV and it's great. I stayed in a lot of those.
Were you in villages or towns or cities mostly?
Generally I spent less time in cities because I found the countryside environment to just be really amazing. I've always lived in cities and I love them, but to be in a little village at the foot of huge mountains felt thrilling and I actively sought it out.
Yeah, I love that really pleasantly lonely feeling that mountains give you. A loneliness that's very different from homesickness. Did you ever feel homesick?
A couple times. I was never really homesick for New York, which was unexpected; I was never like, I want to be back in my apartment. I was incredibly homesick for the food, though. At one point i was in this small town in Bolivia and hanging out a hostel for awhile because I liked the owners and was helping them do stuff. But the only food options were terrible, bland fried things, and I almost started crying thinking about any other food than that. It became overbearing.
But obviously it wasn't just the food.
Food really represents stuff while you're gone for a long time, though. Independence and control, sort of?
What did you eat the most there?
I ate a lot of ice cream. I stayed for like three weeks in a city in Bolivia that had really amazing ice cream, the kind that's made out of fruit, that's so fresh. It's the most satisfying thing.
Do you speak Spanish?
I do now!
But you didn't speak any when you got there?
I took it in high school, but of course I forgot it all. Before I left, I did Rosetta Stone and watched Spanish movies and thought I'd gotten back to a decent basic level, but when I got to Bogotá, I was so embarrassed; my accent was terrible, I couldn't understand the questions. I was so stressed out that I sent messages to all my friends saying I had no idea how I was going to get through this.
But, by the end of the trip it became second nature. I didn't need to think about things before I said them. I'm not fluent exactly, but where I never would've claimed that I knew Spanish beforehand, I definitely do now. And I've really fallen in love with the language.
Was this whole experience more or less solitary than you thought it would be beforehand, or on those first days?
That's hard to say. I mostly conceived of the trip as something that would either be this amazing, magical experience, or otherwise a period of overbearing, desperate existential solitude and loneliness. And I had those moments, in certain places when I was just like, "I'm here and I don't know anyone and I can't find anyone to talk to." Even when I'd talk to my friends back home, it was so jarring that it made things worse; they were talking about their job and brunch and the person that they're dating, and it was so far removed from my reality that it didn't make me feel less alone.
But also it was incredibly easy for me to meet people if I wanted to.
Meet-people meet people?
Sometimes, absolutely! People don't talk about foreign relationships that much in travel stories. But sex and relationships, that became like my hobby. Having foreign romances was how I opened myself up to a new culture. And it was interesting, as a single female traveler: I had my best and worst experiences that way.
Like at Machu Picchu, I had a little fling with a security guard, and that was part of what made that day so amazing. If I hadn't started talking to him, I wouldn't have stayed all day, seen the sunset, met the llama…
Whoa, I've got to hear this story.
So, Machu Picchu, I walked there the early morning. I went by myself, not with a tour group. I watched the sun rise and the fog lift, which was unbelievable, and I spent the day walking around and hanging out, just talking to people. Then a security guard started flirting with me, and then he took me to lunch at this restaurant–it wasn't like a tourist restaurant, but where all the people who worked at Machu Picchu went–and we had lunch, and he told me to stick around till the evening and we could go out after.
So I stayed till late. There was almost no one there by the end of the day, which was amazing, to be in this immense, ancient place and almost feel like you're alone. And it's hard to believe this actually happened, but the sun started to set, and it'd been raining a little bit earlier, and these rainbows came out of the sky. There were two, a double rainbow.
Yeah, I was like, this is not happening. And then I got to hold a baby llama, and I helped put it back in its house for the night...
A BABY LLAMA HAS A BABY LLAMA HOUSE AT MACHU PICCHU?
Yeah. It was amazing.
It's really nice to hear you talking about relationships this way. It's easy to close yourself off when you're a girl traveling alone. Even just the way people tend to look at you more...
Yeah, and also I'm Asian, which is unusual there. There's an Asian population in Peru and in other South American countries, but people seemed to talk to me like I was a very unusual presence, and just kept asking me if I was from Japan.
Your attitude is such a smart one, though. The best times I ever had in foreign countries were actually with total strangers that I might've not even liked very much, but who could show me something [DICK JOKE] that I could never have had access to otherwise. And it just so happens that the only people who will approach a girl traveling alone and be like "Would you like to come on this cool motorcycle ride" are men, and you've just got to figure out whether or not it seems safe or good or worth it.
Definitely. I even went on this cool motorcycle ride with a man I'd met the night before! I tried to stay on the lookout for good stories. Even when I was with a guy that I didn't really like, such awesome things were happening that it was okay. I never even really thought of it as a trade-off; I willingly dated a lot of shitty guys in New York.
Did you end up staying in places for a long time because of any of these guys?
I had the best romance of my life in Ecuador. I met this Canadian, another traveler. We had an amazing magical love affair, and I got him to go to the Galopagos with me, a trip that we hadn't budgeted for or planned at all. But when he was about to leave, after we'd spent a week or two together, I remember telling him, I was like, "This is once in a lifetime trip, let's just do it." He wasn't sure and I told him to flip a coin, and he said okay, and the coin said go.
What was the Galopagos like?
The most phenomenal thing ever. We were at the world's most beautiful and unique ecosystem, and I was there with someone that I was pretty much completely in love with. Those intensive short-term travel romances, you feel like you've gone through six months in three days.
Are you in touch with him? Do you want to be?
We've been sporadically emailing. He's still working on a farm in Ecuador, and I've thought about maybe seeing him again, but it's such a scary idea.
Were your romances mostly with other travelers?
Actually, mostly with the locals, which is why my language got so good. I highly recommend this as a way to get your Spanish up to speed; you have to have conversations that go farther than where you're from, etc.
Have you stayed in touch with anyone but your True Romance?
No, not really.
Yeah. Sometimes I feel weird about having such a self-contained trip, so detached from everything in my life; I didn't have a blog, I didn't write about everything. I just had it.
What are the types of days that you would have?
Several types. The sight-seeing type days, when I'd go on a tour, go on an adventure, a horseback ride, a pre-packaged thing. Then I had a lot of days that I just spent reading a book in a plaza, sitting in a park and people watching and not actively doing anything. Then I had days when I would just frantically research where I was going next and worry about what I was doing with my trip and my life.
Did this trip explicitly represent a life transition?
When I left, I figured I'd come back and just work at an office again. At the time I didn't think it was going to engender a dramatic lifestyle change. But I was wrong!
At what point did you realize that your long-term plan was shifting?
It wasn't a specific realizations, but maybe just an accumulation of miniature revelations, just staring outside bus windows and realizing that I'd never been as happy or as free before. Things were different, things were better. Meeting other travelers was influential, too: I met this guy who asked if I'd been to university, and I was used to New York where you ask "Where did you go to school" rather than if you did, and so I said "Of course," and he said, "You know, it's not an of-course question."
So I sort of came around to the fact that an office job really did not have to be the way I sustained myself.
Were you seriously tempted to just stay?
What made you come back to the States?
Well, my parents kept asking me when I was coming home, and my friends, and I had all of this stuff just in storage in New York that I hadn't really taken care of, which I wanted to get rid of before I really made a big move. And then I lost my phone, which was both my camera and my source of music, and I realized that if this was going to be a long-term thing I needed to be prepared.
Also, I knew going home didn't have to be permanent.
Was it weird to go back to New York after the trip?
So weird. Jarring. California, where my parents live, is one thing; NYC is another. From Bolivia to midtown: it made me want to leave the city right away, which is a feeling I'd never had before. I'd always loved New York, always wanted to live there, but when I got back it didn't feel right anymore.
So I packed a suitcase with the stuff I needed, and got rid of all the rest.
Then what did you do?
I saw friends in different places, but mostly I've just been having crippling indecision about what to do with my life. I know I want to go back but I don't know when or how. I keep searching for one-way flights but not booking them.
Currently, the vague plan is to stay in California for a while and see if I can get a job. It'll be a good way to save money. I'm thinking of going to Mexico next, working my way down through Central America. I think my next trip will be different; it'll be less traveling for the sake of traveling, more about finding a life that would work for me.
Has this new goal been surprising to your family and friends?
I think at least somewhat. Friends have said it's so funny to see how much I've changed. The things I spent my time and money on in New York — expensive cocktails, etc — I just can't believe now. My family, at this point, is just resigned.
How else do you think you've changed?
For a long time I had this fantasy version of myself, this really specific image that I went to New York with and just kept building on: this successful, sophisticated, fancy writing person. And that just sort of dissolved completely once I went away. I realized I put a lot more value on a sense of freedom, the ability to be happy and learn things and make mistakes and not be trying to attain this fantasy of myself that just doesn't exist.
And I think I'm more attuned to cultural differences now. I guess what I'm saying is that I became more of a hippie. I never had appreciated nature before, I was never even a little bit hippie-like, but now I find myself trying to have appreciation and love and understanding for things rather than trying to be superior and jaded and ironic, which is sort of where I'd gotten to by the time I left New York. I decided that that wasn't what worked for me, and that's maybe the most significant change of all.