What Travelling Can Teach You
All my life I felt like I had to be in control of everything, and avoided taking any unnecessary risks – I call it an exceedingly high sense of self-preservation. Back when I was doing my undergraduate degree in Lisbon, and writing fiction in my free time, I never really did anything crazy and spontaneous. Yet, things started to change when I decided that I wanted to go to London to study English literature from a British point of view. This is not the most common subject for a Portuguese student to choose, yet I applied to a single MA programme because it was the only right choice for me. Getting accepted and moving to London by myself was the craziest and most incredible thing I had ever done, and, I won’t lie, there were a few moments of despair.
Overall, this was one of the best experiences of my life, and it was what really helped me get out of my comfort zone for the first time, and to keep doing it. When you achieve something you never believed you could achieve, you realize that your limits are not as strongly defined as you might have believed they were. Hence, I found myself setting new goals for the future, things I never thought I could do before. For 78 days, I would go backpacking with another friend in the US and South America, from October till December 2015.
I had always been very curious about South America, but I never got the chance to go there, or the money. For years I had been saving for some indeterminate goal in the future, but as I was working on my master’s dissertation, I decided that, after submitting it in September that year, I would have time to travel – to really travel, for a while, not just for a week or two. I thought, why not? I was lucky enough that one of my best friends was in the same position, and when I suggested the trip, she said yes. I was curious about Colombia, had always wanted to go to Machu Picchu, and the salt desert in Bolivia had always fascinated me, so this was the perfect opportunity. Planning for this trip really made my dissertation seem that much easier, because I had something great coming after.
Yet, no one believed we could do it. First of all, we were described as being ‘too first-world’ to go through with something like that for nearly three months – sleeping badly in 12-bed (sometimes more) mixed dorms, eating completely different food, living in worse conditions than what we were used to, having to deal with unexpected situations and even sickness away from our families… You name it.
Furthermore, many people believed that it was not a good idea for two girls to go travelling alone in such places and for such a long time, because we might not come back in one piece – and this idea, two years after our trip, is still strongly held by many. But we didn’t listen. It’s unfair that we have to worry about safety in a way that men don’t, because we are easier targets.
Still, that fear should never stop you. If something were to happen to us, people would have said: ‘They had it coming. I mean, two girls travelling alone in South America. They should’ve known better’ – but why? We deserve to travel and feel safe doing it as much as men do. We were both 23 at the time. We were not irresponsible children. Still, you hear and read a lot of stories of girls travelling alone where something bad happens, and too often we witness a process of attributing a part of the guilt to these victims, when the attackers are the only ones to blame. A girl should not be travelling alone, or going out at night alone, wearing shorts or dresses. They had it coming, it was obvious that something was to happen to her/them. Why? Obviously, we have to be careful and avoid problematic neighbourhoods at night, but this would still be dangerous if we had a man by our side. Everyone should stop blaming victims because they do things that their parents didn’t do. Travelling is the best thing you can spend your money on, regardless of whether you are a boy or a girl. It is what truly enriches people and makes them grow and have stories to tell. This is what I was after by doing this trip. Three months travelling is something that you will remember for the rest of your life. Thus, we did it, and it was incredible.
After reading several travelling blogs, and checking out what we really wanted to do in these countries, we made a general plan that was flexible enough to allow adjustments on the spot. A plan that let spontaneity in: we were going to the US, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and Brazil. A lot was left in the open, and we bought our plane tickets. However, people still doubted us, and were convinced that we would give up and come back home earlier. Suffice it to say that we did not.
It was going to be the experience of a lifetime, but we knew it was not going to be easy. Packing was hard and took a while – we were going to get all seasons of the year, from the hot, humid Caribbean Sea area in Colombia, to the negative temperatures in the Bolivian desert, so we had to include bikinis as well as scarves, sleeping bags and medications, and at the same time keeping it light in a small travelling bag. Of course, we each forgot a few essential items – for instance, I ended up having to buy a snow-jacket in Bolivia because I would have frozen to death in the desert otherwise, and it was really useful again in the Patagonian glaciers. Both of us have a bad temper, and had never spent that much time with one another, despite having been friends all our lives. From cultural shock to altitude sickness, anything could go wrong.
It was when we realized it was the good things we should be focusing on, rather than all the ways that our plans could go wrong, that we really started enjoying ourselves. Every step of the way we were surprised at the things we could do – from climbing the Machu Picchu mountain (twice as high as the Wayna Picchu. Yes, I did this and it was amazing – 100% recommend), to sleeping in hammocks (who doesn’t love a good five-star hotel?) in a remote camping site of Tayrona National Park in Colombia, to travelling countless hours by bus everywhere, including crossing lake Titicaca in a raft, to having lunch in the middle of the desert and sleeping in salt-made shelters, and doing a trekking of the Perito Moreno Glacier in Patagonia, we pretty much exceeded all our expectations, and got back home safely for Christmas with new friends, culture, and stories to tell.
This trip was life changing. Before going, I thought my limits were firmly defined, even after my MA programme in London, but during those 78 days I learned to enjoy spontaneity, and have greatly improved my abilities to cope with all kinds of unexpected situations and problems, becoming more flexible and adaptable – which, believe me, I had never truly been before. Travelling really helps you to be more easy-going in all areas of your life, and teaches you to never take anything for granted, and be ok with that. Things change, and you should be more resilient to deal with life when it doesn’t go according to plan, instead of getting a fit of anxiety. I still have a long way to go, but this trip definitely put me on the right path to improvement. If anything, I should do something like this again – I would love to. I still have a high sense of self-preservation, but it does not stop me from living anymore.