Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Tales of an accidental backpacker

I´ve been wearing the same shoes every day for nearly six weeks. A pair of hiking boots. When I tie the laces a puff of dust releases into the air. These boots have crossed the world´s driest desert, squashed through muddy jungle, sunk into pampa swamps, braved the frenetic streets of South American metropolises and trekked around some of the world´s highest mountains.

In the past 40 days I´ve learned that it´s possible to live with only two pairs of jeans and two T-shirts. I´ve gotten used to the way my face looks without make-up. My daily routine no longer includes body lotion and perfume. I´ve forgotten how my hair feels when blown out long and smooth with a hair dryer. I´ve gone days without encountering a mirror. Or checking my e-mail or logging on Facebook.

My eyebrows need tweezed, my hair is desperate for a conditioning and my cuticles are a disaster. My back aches from lugging around my heavy backpack, which contains my current livelihood and I therefore protect at all costs. After weeks of traveling between 2,500 and 5,000 meters above sea level, I´m used to gasping for breath. My once oily skin is dry, and my once voluminous hair is almost flat in the thin, dusty air.

Yet through all of this I´ve never gone to bed without washing my face, brushing my teeth, and God bless my orthodontist, putting in my retainers. Sometimes that meant splashing river water on my face, getting out my toothbrush in bus station bathrooms splattered with vomit and diarrhea or scrubbing my retainers in a possibly snake-infested jungle fountain. And, may my dermatologist read this, I never stepped out into the oppressive mountain sun without lathering myself in sunblock and even donning an embarrassing safari hat I bought in the black market on the streets of La Paz before a spontaneous jungle expedition.

I can´t remember bathrooms with toilet paper and soap or with doors that even shut, besides lock. I sigh with relief if water actually flows from the faucet, always cold. I´ve accepted that sometimes baño means a hole in the ground with two footprints in front. I automatically hold my breath when I enter a bathroom and come out breathless like I´ve just finished a sprint. I´ll have to train myself to flush toilet paper again instead of tossing it in an overflowing basket.

Hot showers are a luxurious surprise. A hot shower with good pressure is an extravagance that I´ve encountered only once on this journey. I try to recall what it was like to drink water safe from the tap or buy produce from the market without fearing for my health. Or to accept change without worrying that it´s counterfeit.

I´ve learned to wash my socks and underwear in hostel sinks. I´ve discovered that almost no price is ever fixed, whether it´s a hostel, tour or earrings. I´m now wise enough to request a seat toward the front of the bus after suffering nights bouncing over the wheel on unpaved roads with cold air and exhaust fumes blowing in from the iced-over window that wouldn´t close. And I´ve found out that even if I have my bus ticket, I won´t be allowed to board unless I´ve paid for the right to access the terminal.

I wake up between 6 and 7:30 a.m., sometimes as early as 3 a.m. if an excursion requires it. I go to bed between 9 and 10 p.m., sometimes as early as 7:30 p.m. if I´m exhausted and there´s no electricity. My typical breakfast is bread and jam. My budged lunch and dinner usually consist of soup followed by rice, potatoes and chicken. (However, I tried llama in San Pedro de Atacama and ate lots of fried bananas in Bolivia.)

Every meal is served with coca tea, made from the same leaves as cocaine but sharing none of the illicit drug´s affects. (The people in this part of the world have been planting, chewing and drinking the plant for thousands of years, believing it to possess dozens of medicinal benefits essential for the hostile, high altitude conditions.)

I shake my head at the realization that I´ve been traveling through South America with a backpack for more than a month. It will be 42 days when I fly back to Santiago. Eighteen of them alone. I´ve been in three countries, 12 cities, 14 beds and one tent. I´ve suffered bone-chilling zero-degree temperatures with blustering winds on desert nights and steamy, 90-degree jungle days. I´m 1,667 miles from my home in Valparaíso, Chile with more than 900 photos on my camera´s memory card. I´ve had conversations with people from Sweden, Bolivia, Austrailia, Peru, New Zealand, Chile, Austria, Canada, Germany, England, Poland, France, Scotland, the Netherlands, Spain, Finland, Japan, Belgium, Argentina, Columbia, Mexico, Bulgaria, Switzerland, Israel, the Czech Republic and Brazil.

I crossed the world´s driest desert in a jeep. I went into the jungle. I traveled down the world´s most dangerous road. I´ve seen geysers, volcanoes, lakes of every color, deadly mines, ancient ruins, pampas, some of the world´s highest mountains and deepest canyons and the world´s largest salt flat. I´ve rafted on canyon rivers, trekked in the Cordillera Blanca, canoed on tropical lakes and mountain biked in the Andes.

I visited villages where electricity and running water have yet to arrive, where mules are used for transport and radios for communication. Communities where Spanish is a second language, if spoken at all, and Aymara and Quechua peoples still hold true to their pre-Inca and Inca dress, food and faith.

In six weeks I´ve had no less than five adventures of a lifetime. Please don´t think I´m bragging. I´m just in awe of my blessings. I´m fully aware that I´m utterly unworthy of any of this -- I´m not especially daring or outgoing. I wear makeup and love shopping and read fashion magazines. I don´t know East from West and bought my first big backpack on the street in Chile two days before I left.

Nothing was planned. This has been an unanticipated, undreamed of gift, the most spectacular trip I´ve experienced thus far, just in time for my quarter-of-a-century birthday.

And now I´m left the unrelenting urge to tell you all about it.


  1. And you should rightfully tell it all. Incredible journey and it is exceptionally refreshing that you are humble through it all! Keep on writing it is a pleasure to read and vicariously experience it with you!

  2. Thank you for sharing your incredible journey with us. You have been blessed! Looking forward to hearing more in upcoming blogs and seeing pictures.

  3. Outstandingly put sis. Eagerly awaiting visual images to bring to mind with those accounts and those elaborations still to come.


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