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Friday, January 10, 2014

35

Seven Months Alone in South America

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.

Yeah, Bogotá.

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…

What!

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?

Definitely.

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.

No way.

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.

That's awesome.

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?

Oh yeah.

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.

You can find Laura on Twitter here. Photos from her Instagram

35 Comments / Post A Comment

drydenlane

Awesome photos and story! Sounds like a great trip. Laura, I'm a little curious, were you an attorney or working in another capacity at the law firm?

Baby llama forever

Laura Yan@twitter

@drydenlane thank you! I was not an attorney, just staff!

drydenlane

@Laura Yan@twitter Just curious. I'm fascinated by defecting attorneys because I sort of am one (though not completely by choice, ha!) Looking forward to hearing what you do next.

Kulojam

@drydenlane Defected attorney right here! Also not by choice - lost my job in 2009, decided to travel to Chile for a month and I'm still here almost 5 years later.
Are you interested in traveling?

drydenlane

@drydenlane Awesome! Yes, I would love to travel more, and long-term. I traveled quite a bit between college and law school. I've been trying to figure out how to make it happen, but I do currently have a non-legal job and I'm not sure I'm ready to make the leap to traveling and not working. I'd love to work abroad, but I've had a hard time finding opportunities doing that. What do you do in Chile? South America is really high on my list--I've never been.

Kulojam

@drydenlane South America is great! When I made the decision to travel/move here, I got my TEFL certificate online and then I started teaching at a private school and at language institutes and now I work as a financial editor at an outsourcing company.

1511863609@twitter

help, the page keeps flickering! why?

stonefruit

TIMELY! I'm going to Bogotá for a wedding this summer and I am already super-excited about it, but this makes me even more excited. I think we'll* be there about a week - do you have any recommendations? Or any warnings (trying not to be too nervous about the violence/drug war situation/USDS travel advisory)?

* of potential relevance: we includes my parents. They are pretty adventurous (have knocked around random parts of Russia, Ecuador, and Chile with me/my siblings due to our random study-abroad choices) and definitely well-off.

stonefruit

@stonefruit Oh rats, missed the edit window. "We" also includes someone who's fluent in Spanish (brother) and someone who can get by in Spanish (me).

Laura Yan@twitter

@stonefruit yes! Definitely don't worry too much about the travel advisory. Bogota is a big capital city, so take the usual precautions you would while in a big city. But otherwise Colombians are so so friendly and warm that I think you'll feel quite comfortable-especially if some of you speak Spanish.

My favorite neighborhood is La Candelaria, the downtown historic neighborhood. There are some wonderful museums there-the Botero museum was one of my favorites in South America, and you can spend more than a day wandering around. Go up Mount Monserrate on the cable car--lovely view of the city, and I think there are a couple of upscale restaurants there.

If you have a week you may have time to take a day trip to get out of the city! I highly recommend it, as Colombia's countryside is astonishingly beautiful, and it will make a nice change of pace from the gray and rainy capital.

natilla

@stonefruit This is THE FIRST time I have ever actually taken the initiative to post a comment on the pin, but I couldn't resist, because: I live in Bogotá and I <3 this city like crazy. And I get very excited when people come to visit! I've been here for over two years now, so I have lots of advice/thoughts/suggestions about awesome things to do around here. Feel free to get in touch if you want to chat about it!

klpencil

@natilla Hello! i wish I'd seen your comment earlier -- I'm planning on moving to Bogota to get my certificate to teach English at the end of April! I'd love to hear about what you're doing there and what you recommend and anything you want to share!

lasso tabasco

I'm curious- you say you budgeted $5000 for three months, but ended up staying for seven. How much money did this end up setting you back total?

vanderlyn

@lasso tabasco Yeah, obviously I don't know the specifics of the interviewee, but this whole interview kind of reminded me of the Onion article, "Man Calls Trust Fund Savings". Great interview, though.

http://www.theonion.com/articles/man-calls-trust-fund-savings,32893/

Laura Yan@twitter

@lasso tabasco I think it was a little under 10K total-including the unexpected and expensive trip to the Galapagos and my second flight home!

lasso tabasco

@Laura Yan@twitter Thanks! Great story, would love to do something like this. Good luck in deciding what comes next!

Malandro

I met a guy once (who was traveling in South America) who said the best way to learn a language is horizontally.
Also, could you pleaaaaase fix the spelling on Galapagos? GalApagos!

klpencil

Yay, my favorite feature!

And so timely! I'm currently planning to quit my desk job and move to SA. I'm moving to Bogota at the end of April to teach English / travel my wanderlust heart out.

From my mind-numbingly quiet office in Dallas on a Friday afternoon, thanks for the motivation.

Sam I am

@klpencil Can you tell me more? I think about this all the time. Which org will you be teaching with?

klpencil

@Sam I am Awesome! I don't have a teaching job yet, though. I'm going to start with getting my CELTA certification in Colombia (widely respected certificate which from all accounts makes finding a job much easier) and then wing it from there. My undergrad is in English and I'm currently employed as a writer, so I think that combined with a certificate makes me pretty employable. Either way, I have some savings piled up and so even if it doesn't turn out exactly like I'm planning (which, hello, it never does) all will be fine. It's something I've wanted to do for years now, and after a recent breakup and realization I'm going no where at my job, I decided it's time to do it.

Laura Yan@twitter

@klpencil sounds fantastic. I'm going to try my luck with teaching English in a Spanish speaking country soon too--and I won't even have any kind of certification. I think jobs are much much easier to come by when you're in the place you want to be. Good luck!!

whatsherface

@klpencil I did this! And for pretty much your same reasons too.

Went to Chile and got my TEFL certification online. Most places will require TEFL/CELTA certification so it's good to have. At least based on my experience in Chile, try to get into a school teaching a regular class because even though jobs with English institutes are easy-ish to come by, you will make barely enough to cover your expenses and probably spend most of your day traveling all over the city to get to your classes. These jobs in schools are highly coveted but your English degree should help a lot! The other option is teaching private lessons, once you've gotten yourself situated and started networking a little. I completely winged it and survived...and am still in Chile over a year later.

You will love it and hate it and will probably find a great (and supportive) community of fellow English teachers in addition to the wonderful locals you will meet. Good luck!!

klpencil

@Laura Yan@twitter I think you're right, but the CELTA is good to have if you want to do it long-term -- which I might! At what point does it stop being "teaching abroad" and just become... teaching? Haha. Good luck on future travels, I enjoyed your interview so much! I like your travel spirit.

klpencil

@whatsherface Good to know! I'm always glad to hear from people who have done this and still recommend it :) and so awesome that you're still there over a year later. I hope I have as much success!

Sam I am

@klpencil Thank you! Good luck to you!

brianadeckard

@whatsherface AGHH. This is my dream. I'm currently teaching English in Korea. I received my undergrad in May and this is my first time to teach. I don't have any certifications yet, but I plan on getting my TEFL this fall/winter. How did you go about finding a job in Chile? South America is constantly where my heart is! Haha. I've heard it's hard to make much as a teacher in South America. I don't mind living thrifty, but I have to at least make enough to pay off school debt.

whatsherface

@brianadeckard It was fairly easy to find a job once I got to Chile. There are so many language schools the toughest part is figuring out which ones will help you get a work visa, which ones will pay you on time, which ones will totally screw you over... The best way is to get into the country and talk to some English teachers (which will be just about any foreigner).

That said... YES, it is difficult to make much as a teacher in South America. The typical rate here is between $10 and $14 USD an hour BUT you might only teach three hours a day. If you have the drive you can load yourself up with classes but the best thing will be to find a full-time gig at a school where you might make $1200 a month. You will find that the rent in Chile is cheap-ish at around $400/month but food and everything (except wine! yay!) is on the expensive side. The cost of living is far less expensive in other S. American countries like Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia but I'm not sure what their teaching situation is like.

Their are tons of helpful facebook groups for expats or, if you can brave the snarky assholes, try allchile.net. Lots of amazing people here though, including fellow hairpinner Kulojam (posted above), who I have had the pleasure of meeting after coming here not knowing anyone or anything about the country. So I say try it! And if you need more info feel free to email me at whatsherface (at) hotmail (dot) ca

Esther Goh@facebook

"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."

Pretty much sums up the three types of days you have when you're travelling long term! You definitely need time off - weekends, if you will - over our six month trip I think we more or less had 1-2 lazy days every week.

(also, llamas? Mind. Blown.)

sterilemeryl

This was excellent. Thank you for the inspiration!

MariRachel

I *love* this, so much. Such a true account of what it's like to solo-lady travel, on so many levels. I had a similar experience in Asia last year - planned on going there for 1 month, stayed for almost 10 - and came back to CA to tie up loose ends. I'm heading back to Asia in a week, trying to navigate the big shift in life direction as well (crippling indecision, indeed). Booking the one-way ticket back to the place you love is scaaaaaaaaary (for so many different reasons) but: do it! You can always come home. Or go somewhere else. Hit me up if you ever come to Asia. Safe travels!!

Titania

I read these stories now, after recently ending a relationship with a 32-year-old man who is still paralyzed with indecision about what he wants to do with his life SIX YEARS after an epic backpacking trip like this, and I genuinely wonder if it's a good idea for some people. It feels to me like traveling for too long really skews your perception of normality in a way that is pretty unsustainable for most people, and there's never anyone there telling 20-somethings that the things they want right now may not be the things they want in their 40s...and those things they want in their 40s may not be available to them if they make certain choices now. He went through basically exactly the same cycle...a 3 month trip turned into nearly a year, a brief stint back at home to earn money, another four months out with no plans to return, and then he was called home by a family emergency, and hasn't been able to make it back out since, mainly because he refuses to lower himself to do the kind of mundane office work he ran away from in the first place after having his epiphany while traveling. This means that he has no regular income, and thus no ability to travel anywhere OR start a real life at home. He totally believes himself when he says that he wants to have a family in his mid-30s, but with years of earning power forfeited, it's simply not going to be possible for him to have the kind of life he's envisioning, which is the one he was raised with, funded by two very hard-working doctor parents.

Basically, I used to think this was something I wanted to do. But after seeing what it's done to almost everyone I know who's done it (not just this guy, who's the worst-case scenario) I no longer think it's a great idea for everyone, and I think the people who insist it is are justifying their own choices in a big way. I worked as a travel writer for three years, traveling about two weeks out of every month, so believe me, I understand wanderlust, but I'm living proof that there's a way to indulge wanderlust and keep your life's momentum at the same time. I'm not saying don't go, but I'm saying if you do, spend some of the time you're not having sex with strangers and petting baby llamas thinking about what you DO want out of a career and a life, not just what you DON'T want. Even jobs and paths that are what you want will have aspects of the things you don't want--that doesn't make them the wrong choice.

jessicascomet

@Titania Yep! This exact thing has happened to one of my best friends. Now he's having a nervous breakdown because he's 30 and his ex-girlfriend just had a kid with her husband and he can't see himself getting there anytime soon.

I've also traveled quite a bit. Travel is great if you can afford it. And taking time off from a job can be clarifying. But, I think a lot of epiphanies had while traveling can be easily had by trying to expand your life in other ways. For instance, many people in the US don't have bachelor's degrees! Don't need $10k and 7 months to figure that one out!

Kulojam

I really like this whole article, but especially this part: "...and you've just got to figure out whether or not it seems safe or good or worth it" and the traveler's dating tales. Romance abroad might not be right for everyone, but it is a usually fun way of really getting to know a place. For me, I've definitely made some errors in judgment, but I have kept myself safe and learned a lot. I don't think agreeing to go on a date with someone in a foreign country is all that different than meeting someone in a bar in NYC and giving him your number or agreeing to meet up with someone on OK Cupid. There are risks involved in both and you just have to do your best to stay safe and in your comfort zone.
A great read! I love travel tales.

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