“I return from my travels, I navigated by building happiness”

Well, I’m officially home.

I can’t believe how quickly my 92 days on the road came and went. How fast three whole months, a quarter of a year, simply flew by me.

I learned so much about myself and what I’m capable of over the last 13 weeks. I took on another language, I jumped out of an airplane, I dined solo more times than I can count, I got lost and misread maps in countless cities, and managed to maneuver myself through a 12 hour bus ride, border crossing, and to an emergency clinic with an un-usable right foot. There were tears and grins, nearly 4,000 photos, and countless belongings left at hostels all across the continent. I drained my bank account, and it was worth every penny.

I’m a writer and an abstract thinker, so numbers really aren’t my thing (ask my high school math teachers about that one) but I figured quantifying my trip with a few numbers might be fun, and it’s certainly a crazy way to look at my travels.

Days traveled: 92
Countries visited: 5
Number of new passport stamps: 10
Cities visited: 34
Distance traveled (mostly by bus): Approximately 13,197 km, or just over 8200 miles.
Modes of transportation taken: Taxis, cars, jeeps, buses, vans, tourist minibuses, boats, horses, a donkey, commercial airplanes, 4 seat airplanes, no-seat sky diving airplanes, and parachutes.
Number of bus rides: 33
Hours spent on buses: Approximately 220 hours
Number of flights:  2
Organized tours: 8
Items lost and left behind: My Reef flip flops, my very nice compact travel towel, a plastic tupperware full of leftovers, and many bags of food meant to feed myself on bus rides.

View SA travels as a larger map

As I adjust to being back in the US — the real world — I realize how many things there are that I already miss about South America.

Practicando mi espanol. I loved challenging myself to communicate fully in another language. I was thinking in Spanish, constantly asking questions in Spanish, even translating random song lyrics into Spanish in my head. I am hoping to find cheap language classes or a Spanish exchange program in LA, but I know it won’t be the same as full immersion.

Meeting people, constantly, from all over the world. I have new friends in Switzerland, Holland and the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, France, South Africa, England, Denmark, Australia, Mexico, Buenos Aires, Montreal, Texas, Alaska, and San Francisco. I met countless others from more countries and cities than I can name. I was constantly learning new things, exchanging information and gaining small glimpses into peoples lives. Sometimes it was sad, or weird, only knowing people for a few minutes, a few hours, or a few days. But for the most part, it was refreshing to have meaningful conversations with people I knew I might never see again, but could still share wonderful moments with nonetheless.

Constant change. Know the city layout? Starting to feel comfortable? Showered more than a handful of times in the same place? Time to move on! The longest I spent in any city after Ecuador was 4 or 5 days, and the constant difference in surroundings, pace, climate, activities, and hostels meant I was truly never bored.

Real Coca Cola. In the rest of the world, Coca Cola manufactures their products in glass bottles, and they use real sugar, not corn syrup. Coke tastes 100% better, and I will truly miss drinking it from those 500ml skinny glass bottles.

Mercados. I miss the local markets with indigenous women selling every fruit and vegetable you can imagine. For less than it would cost to buy a single box of raspberries at Ralphs in Los Angeles, I could buy enough fruits and vegetables to cook for a week.

The excuse to be disconnected. Don’t get me wrong, I love my family and friends, and I’m thrilled to have my iPhone back because it means I can once again be in good communication with the people I love. But being unplugged was a huge blessing – to remove myself from a culture where peoples faces are constantly buried in their smartphones was so healthy. I’ll miss that disconnect, because I know it’s a habit very easily picked up in the States. We all sit with our phones in our hands and don’t communicate with, or even look at, each other. When nobody has a phone to be texting anybody with, you sit at tables or on couches in hostels or cafes and you talk. You get to know people, you swap stories, ideas, learn about new cultures and places in the world. It’s not a novel concept, but it’s one that doesn’t happen quite as often as it should back home.

The lack of pressure to be put together at all moments. I missed my closet so much. My heels, my blazers, my sundresses, my beautiful, and delicate, tank tops I would never take on the road. But it was refreshing to put on a tshirt and jeans every day, not carry a single bit of makeup with me for 3 months, and very rarely feel the pressure to be dressed up or dolled up. Of course there were moments where I wanted my mascara and my jewelry and my skin-hugging denim, but I felt so much less pressure to put all of that on. And when you don’t have all that to hide behind, you present a more raw version of yourself. No one on the road has comfort in a daily beauty routine, makeup, a fancy car, or expensive belongings. All you have is you, and your worn (and reworn, and reworn) travel clothes.

Of course there are many things I absolutely do not miss about South America — cities being totally shut down for almuerzo mid-day and all day Sunday, always having to buy water, not being able to flush paper down the toilets, constantly forgetting things in hostels across the continent, the freezing rain of southern Argentina and Chile, and, of course, 12+ hour bus rides.

And now, it’s back to reality.

In the next two weeks, I’m searching for nanny jobs, nailing out my car and living situations, and then flying east to spend time with Boston and NYC friends, and then delve into the nasty projects of emptying my storage unit, selling everything I can, and shipping what I need back to the west coast.

Even though my trip is over, I plan to keep up my blogging, and have every intention of doing lots of freelance writing from here on out. If nothing else, I’ll be posting ideas I came up with on the road, possibly some of my travel budget spreadsheets, and some updates on how plans for future trips are going!

2,271 miles down – 2,159 miles to go

In my infinite census day boredom (I’m relatively terrible at doing nothing, its sort of pathetic) I added all of my South America destination cities to a public google map.

According to Google maps, I’m traveling a total of 4,430 miles through 4 different countries. So far, I’ve gone 2,271 miles, and I have another 2,159 to go.

Of course that doesn’t include the flight I’m taking up north to Rurrenabaque, a starting point to see the Bolivian Amazon in the Madidi National Park, or take into account that I’m going down to ToroToro National Park (a six hour bus ride from Cochabamba) and then backtracking all the way back to La Paz (I know, insanity) to catch my flight. This seems relatively insane (especially when you look at the map) but you can only access ToroToro via Cochabamba (and you can’t return to Sucre how I’d originally anticipated) and you can only fly to Rurrenabaque via La Paz. I hadn’t anticipated either of these bizarre Bolivian realities when I’d made my original plans, so now I’m facing the consequences in having to retrace my steps back to La Paz.

Thankfully, that squiggly line headed north is actually a 40 minute flight. Flying is recommended since the roads to Rurrenabaque are windy, not to mention often flooded and dangerous, so I’m paying the $90 each way to fly instead.

It’s crazy to look at a map and see all the distance I’ve covered and all the places I still have to go — it really puts my trip, and how much I’m seeing, into perspective. Aside from playing on google maps, Ann and I also made delicious homemade guacamole. No kitchen required!

Now I’m off to repack and watch some Newsroom!

Tienes un mapa?

Six hotels/hostels later (including my own) and I am still mapless. Who would have thought the city of Loja doesn’t believe in maps? Not I, that’s for sure.

I took a 4 hour (in Ecuadorian time, so really, 5 hour) bus ride from Cuenca down south to Loja this afternoon. The ride was, for the most part, easy and unexciting, sans the girl next to me who was doing some sort of needlepoint and kept elbowing me every 5 minutes, and the fact that our bus driver thought he was driving a race car, not a gigantic bus. But you know, totally normal for South America.

Once I got to Loja, I had a cab take me to the hostal I’d looked up online yesterday. For some reason, HostelWorld, HostelBookers, TripAdvisor AND LonelyPlanet had no way to book a Loja hotel of a decent price online. I hate arriving in cities without accommodation, but since I got in during the day with plenty of time in a very small city, I wasn’t too worried. Of course the hostal I showed up at was locked and nobody was there. A nice gentleman told me they might return in “one or two hours” so I walked next door into the Alcapulco Hotel.

My spanish conversation with the receptionist:

Me; Hola, tu tiene habitacions esta noche?

Receptionist: Si, si

Me: Ah, bien! Cuanto es por una por una noche?

Receptionist: Trece, por agua calliente, internet, y desayuno en la manana.

My brain: Treinta

Me: Ah, si. Una pregunta, tu tienes un mapa de la ciudad?

Receptionist: [points to the counter] Sî, aqui, pero solo esta una.

Me: En este barrio, hay otra hostals y hotels?

Receptionist: Si. Qué es lo que desea pagar?

Me: Quince, mas o menos?

Receptionist: Pero aqui es trece…

Me: Ah! Trece. Lo siento. Mi espanol is no bien, yo pienso tu dice trente.

For those of you who don’t know how to use google translate (ha), essentially I thought the receptionist said a room for the night was $30, not $13. Fitting perfectly into my $15/night, breakfast and wifi included budget requirements, I apologized and took a room.

Since my hotel didn’t have any maps, I took a wander around town, asking every open hotel or hostel in sight if they had one. No luck.

A quick screenshot of my itinerary over the next few days — Cuenca > Loja > Vilcabamba > Chiclayo (possibly via Piura, depending on the busses)

I wandered in straight lines so I knew I wouldn’t have trouble finding my way back (it was getting dark), and stumbled upon a plaza with women selling colada moradaguaguays de pan! I was very excited because in our Quito Spanish class, we read about some upcoming Ecuadorian holidays and traditions, including the Dia de los Difuntos  known to us in English as the Day of the Dead or All Souls Day. The colada morada is a berry-based drink, made also with cinnamon, sweet pepper and various other fruits, and represents the blood and pain of those who have passed away. The guaguays de pan are loafs of bread in the shape of babies, many decorated with icing to depict the face and clothing. For a whopping 70 cents I tried both – totally delicious!

Despues, I bought 3 oranges and 2 bananas for 40 cents (have I mentioned I love Ecuador) and wandered back to my hotel. I’ve resigned to spend the night inside, doing some research on Loja and Vilcabamba, my next destination, a quaint rainforest town very similar to Mindo that’s only an hour(ish) south of the city. I got a room at Le Rendez-Vous, an amazing sounding hostel I found via TripAdvisor.

I’m currently sitting in the lobby — the only place where the internet seems to want to cooperate — and listening to the child of the owner ding the service bell over, and over, and over (and over) again. Upstairs, there is a gaggle of kids I was previously sitting amongst, before I relocated for better wifi, screaming and chasing each other around the hallway, “walking” the younger kids with scarves and shirts as if they were dogs. Needless to say, not exactly how I pictured spending my night, but considering it’s Halloween season and Hurricane Sandy is approaching the east coast (Halloween and bad weather, two of my absolute least favorite things) I’m not exactly missing the United States right now either. I’m looking forward to my next two days of exploring Loja, then heading to Vilcabamba for horseback riding, hiking, and relaxing with my reader in a hammock!