I’ve always wanted to write about my experience travelling across the South American continent but I’ve always been scared that I wouldn’t do it any justice. It was one of the most liberating and enlightening experiences of my life, one that helped me to grow in ways that I had not envisaged.
As a little girl, my Koko (maternal grandfather) and I would talk for hours about the world. I remember sitting beside him, reading the newspaper aloud, way before I could actually understand the meaning of any of the words I was reciting. Apparently this started when I was a baby, though of course he was the one doing the reading. We would spend hours trawling through the ‘Tell Me Why?’ series, as well as searching through encyclopedias and the atlas to discover more about our world. I remember the day the Berlin wall came down because he urged me to watch the television screen, stating that it was one of the most important moments in history. It didn’t mean anything at the time, I was just doing what what I was told. Of course now I understand the huge signifcance and like so many things he taught me, I am so unbelievably grateful.
I had so much fun learning with my Koko. But I think his intentions backfired. Instead of becoming lawyer for our iwi (tribe), a desire which he’d so often expressed, I decided to become a flight attendant in order to discover this world that he opened up for me.
For as long as I can remember I’d always wanted to go and get lost in the jungle. This was partly inspired by my favourite childhood film, ‘King Solomon’s Mines’, as well as my love for the native American panpipes which I discovered through the Nescafe adverts (which you can find on here, on Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a9Xkj4ssIM8). Mostly though, it was inspired by my taonga (treasure), my book titled ‘Tell Me Why: Lost Cities’, given to me by my Koko and which had a section about Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas. So at nineteen years of age I made the conscious decision to move from Porirua to Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city. It made sense that I would undertake my tourism studies away from home. How else was I going to get used to being away from my family? Two of the subjects covered in this diploma were the Spanish language and Peru. With all of these influences, it should be no surprise that it became my desire to travel to the South American continent.
At the ripe old age of twenty two, I packed my backpack for a four month journey across South America (along with a good friend and colleague). I would be lying if I didn’t say I was scared. I was absoloutly shit scared. Prior to leaving the country I’d felt as though more people were scared than happy or excited for me. This made me doubt my own ability to accomplish what I’d set out to do.
There were a couple of incidents which made me frustrated, yet determined to prove a point. One instance was with my grandfather. After all these years of teaching me about the world, he asked me not to go on my trip. He specifically asked if I would go to university instead, like my cousin. Each subsequent time I saw him, he would be armed with facts, figures and newspaper clippings (complete with the main points in highlighter yellow!) about the dangers of international travel, of terrorism, of kidnappings and whatever else could go wrong when you travel outside the safety net of our developed world. Of course I understood that he and others loved me so much that they just wanted me to stay safe, which meant staying put (at least in the same country!). The scaremongering worked, because I became truly scared of what I was about to embark on. I even cried on my last night. Feeling sick to my stomach with anxiousness I asked myself whether or not I was making the biggest mistake of my life. Was I really putting myself on deaths door like so many people had made me think?
On top of the pitiful level of spanish I learnt as part of my tourism diploma, I also took private lessons for three months (2 hours every Monday). Thanks to the many awesome team leaders who looked the other way as I wasn’t supposed to be studying on the museum floor, I was also able to spend large parts of my day studying Spanish. Moreover, I was really grateful to my cousins who allowed me to stay at their place after every lesson, even helping me with my homework (thank you!). But in spite of this effort, I still wasn’t sure how well my Spanish would fare. This further fuelled my doubts.
Isla del Sol, Bolivia
Despite the fear, despite the anxiousness and despite the self-doubt, I’m not sure I could’ve stayed content if, instead of discovering the world for myself, I simply stayed put. But if you’re familiar with that saying “feel the fear and do it anyway”, well, you know what happened next. With only three nights accommodation booked and a return ticket departing from the other side of the continent four months later, I got on my plane armed with a swiss army knife and St Christopher, the patron saint of travellers, and started my journey across South America.
And I needn’t have been so worried. Not about my spanish nor about having made the wrong decision to go in the first place. As soon as I disembarked from the plane, somehow my instincts kicked in. I told myself to ‘act cool’. Not cool in the popularity contest sense, but in the ‘I’m gonna try my best to look like a seasoned traveller and not like the scared, NZ girl that I feel I am’, kind of cool. I’m normally a smiley, bubbly person. But when you’re no longer in New Zealand it’s not always in your best interest to look happy and friendly, which can be mistaken for dumb and naive (aka someone to rip off). So I put on my best “don’t fuck with me, I’m a confident, seasoned traveller” face, walked past all the con artists and found the taxi driver with my name plastered on his sign. I even managed to engage in conversation with him. Whats more, it lasted the duration of the cab trip. Success!
Its hard to describe the feeling that I had when I first arrived at my hostel. As CHEESY as it might sound, I have Leonardo Dicaprio’s character Richard, from ‘The Beach’, to thank for giving me the kick up the butt that I needed. At c.11pm-12am at night I checked into my hostel and after travelling to the other side of the world, god knows I was tired as hell and just wanted to go to bed. But I faltered. As Richard would say, ‘fuck it’. For the very first time in my life I was in another country by myself, where I didn’t know a single soul and where I could be or do whatever I wanted to. It was one of the most liberating feelings. So I set the tone of my trip by taking the bull by the horns and headed toward the bar, by myself, to drink a well earned beer and talk shit with perfect strangers (thankfully I’d had a bit of practice doing this when I lived in Queenstown, New Zealand’s premiere ski resort and the world’s adventure capital).
After all the work and effort that it took to prepare for my trip, not to mention all the stress and fear that I put myself through, I’d finally arrived and felt that I deserved to enjoy it. So on that first night, in a hostel, in Lima, I drank beer and I made friends with strangers I’d never see again. Most importantly, rather than letting fear and anxiety determine my journey, I threw caution to the wind and chose to accept the excitement, unertainty and liberty that comes from leaving the safety of one’s homeland to discover the world.
I have a lot of people to thank for loads of my successes in life, but with respect to South America there are five people in particular. Firstly, to my travel companion. I am so lucky to have found someone like minded, yet who complimented my weaknesses with strengths that allowed me to see and experience things in ways I wouldn’t have previously considered. I thank her for helping me see reason when I wanted to do stupid stuff and for being someone with whom I always felt safe and secure. Thanks are also due to my Chilean tutor who is no longer with us. Without her efforts to teach me Spanish, I’m not sure how successful the trip would have been. I remain especially grateful to her translation which helped us out of a tricky border control issue. Words can’t express just how thankful I am to have had my Koko open the door to the world. But ultimately, I have to thank my parents. Despite their concerns, my parents allowed me the freedom to stay true to myself without making a big deal about it. So thank you.