What 14 months in South-America taught me

I spent 14 months in 2018 and 2019 traveling around the whole continent.

Having ended that trip a couple of weeks ago, I wanted to do a little reflection on what lessons I learned from traveling through these countries. I am glad that I had so many opportunities to live with host families and locals who’ve given me an authentic look into their life.

In no particular order:

Patience

Calling myself a patient person might still be an exaggeration. But there is something about things taking more time, whether that is the bus ride, your friends arriving for a party, the queue at the supermarket or the repairman that was supposed to fix your internet and shows up a week later. It has taught me that life will get things done when it thinks they should get taken care of, not when you personally believe it should be done.

I’m not going to lie, I celebrated the speed of German cashiers when I came back, but I hope this experience will leave a trace of ‘patience’ in me in our fast-paced, ‘time-efficient’ world.


Unusual ways to fix things

This was something I first smirked at, and later highly appreciated. I encountered so many situations where something broke, and instead of quickly proclaiming – ‘That’s it we need to buy a new one,’ I saw people going at lengths and with great creativity to repair things. From what I saw, I got the feeling that people care a lot more about keeping an item functioning and in a good state than simply replacing it with a new one.

Making things from scratch

I’ve always been a person who liked to make food from scratch. I find the ready-made meals and other products full of ingredients I don’t want to put into my body. There are times though when I’m happy to simply get something from the deli, something to take out from the supermarket. That wasn’t the case in most countries in South-America. In most countries, except for Brazil – and surprisingly – Paraguay, there weren’t any deli sections, and you had to make all food from scratch (unless you went out to eat, of course, or went for fast food).

I learned how to make legumes from scratch, having previously mainly purchased them in a cooked form, mostly canned (I really never learned to make them except for lentils before…).

Haggling

This is something I used to absolutely hate! I remember being in Asia for the first time, 10 years ago, and I realized that you had to haggle to get the item for the price you ‘should be paying.’ It was agonizing for me, and I felt ‘betrayed’ and ‘ripped off. These days I’m almost assuming that through a friendly chat, I might be able to get a better price for something, and I’m proud when I manage. I have seen how you can find prices that are fair for both sides, so I now take it as it is (when it’s applicable in a country, of course).

Small talk

Small talk – something I will probably never completely get used to. I can definitely hold a bit of small talk; however, the German in me will always think that it’s so inefficient and not necessary.  I really had to force myself at times, when instead of merely paying and leaving a place, people wanted to chat for a second and ask me questions, make some comments about the weather/what I was purchasing, etc.… I wouldn’t say that I love it, but I have accepted how it can be part of some cultures and that in order to appreciate this culture one might have to work a little on their small talk skills 😉


Being careful of reviews

The last year taught me to be wary of reviews. I always really believed in rating and reviews for restaurants, tours, etc.… and in a way, I still do. However, I realized how a lot of businesses give their customers incentives to leave them with good reviews. Many walking tours I went to, for example, would urge us, in the end, to leave them a rating on TripAdvisor. I was on a tour where we were brought into an office, given wifi, and promised a keychain if we wrote a review right there on the spot. Talking about customers’ honest and unbiased reviews here…

Also, you really have to be careful of people who give you travel advice. Most people do want to see the same things more or less, but you still have different tastes after all. If someone tells me that I absolutely have to visit a city because it’s great and then I find out it’s because it’s great for shopping and nightlife, two things I’m not super interested in, then I’ll not take that review too seriously.  

The importance of family connection

Family time. People here are big on their family gatherings, being with the family as much as possible, even if it means just dropping by for a few minutes to say hi and have a quick chat.

I’ve been brought to bus stations several times after workaways with the whole family standing there, seeing me off. Young adults still live with their parents if there are not married, and it seems very normal. Sundays are for meeting up with your family, having a BBQ, chatting, catching up on the latest gossip…

People were always shocked when they heard about how little I see my family. Also, compared to their families, our extended family would not constantly spend time together as many people live in different places scattered around the country.

I don’t feel homesick most of the time, but it was interesting for me to see how close families can be and how much they depend on each other. Personally, I like how independent I am, and most of the time, I don’t need support from my family, but it taught me that that is not the case for everyone, and it helped me to understand where people are coming from a little better.


Nature can provide you with so many helpful resources

Another thing that especially my workaways (work-exchanges) have told me is that nature provides you with so much more that you could even think of.

At one of my workaway, I learned that there are so many edible plants that we are not aware of, and that could enrich our nutrient intake at no cost (because people see them as weeds, flowers, or grass). When I was in the Amazon, I went on a hike through the forest, and we were shown a tremendous number of different trees and shrubs that had medicinal, nutritious, constructional value (up to ants that smelled like an insect repellant!)


You don’t always have to fly to cover large distances

Flying between South-American countries is expensive. Domestic flights not so much, but still, how could you resist the cheap bus prices as a backpacker?! Where I was agonizing about an 8h bus ride before that feels like peanuts right now. Once you’ve done 20h in a bus and survived, everything else feels ‘fast.’ 

I’m also glad that I can travel without having to pollute the environment so much. My dad had always told me from a very young age (before this was all over the internet), that flying is very bad for the environment.  Therefore I really tried to limit the flights I took over the last year, knowing that I could go by bus to pretty much any place (without cities in the Amazon, that you HAVE to fly to (Iquitos, Peru; Leticia, Colombia; Tabatinga, Brazil..)


I found gratitude for having grown up in a country where recycling is the norm.

I have spent many months walking around areas where I felt that recycling and not throwing trash on the ground/into the river/ocean was not totally ingrained in people’s heads (though I definitely noticed efforts in certain places to educate people!).

This was very upsetting for me, but I also found gratitude that I grew up in an area where I was aware of these issues from a young age. I am proud that I was taught to take a reusable bag with me to a store, always politely refusing the plastic bag that my groceries were supposed to be bagged into. In South-America, I would try and always bring my own water bottle and reject all the single-use plastic cups that were offered to me (I would instead fill up my bottle with water, even at parties, BBQs – I did not want to support the trash!). I always told park rangers who would point out that we were not to throw trash on the ground that I would NEVER think of doing that. It was a given for me to either take my own trash with me and dispose of it later or to take it to a trash can (really not a given in most countries in South-America, sadly…). 

Realising the necessity to speak a foreign language

Whenever I asked Brazilians whether they spoke Spanish pretty much, everyone said ‘no.’ To me, this was shocking as pretty much half of the continent, and 90% of the countries on it speak Spanish. So why wouldn’t people learn it?!

I realized it was about (not) seeing the necessity of learning it. I do feel as if in Europe or at least in Germany, people are more aware of the fact that speaking another foreign language might help them in their future than on other continents. My idea is that we see the need more as there are so many different languages on the European continent. As soon as you start spending your holidays outside your own country, meaning maybe just a few hours’ drive away you’d wish you spoke French, Italian…. Or at least English.

I do think many people realize the need to know English; however, I was surprised that that was the sole focus.



Lastly, I wanted to say that I have felt a lot more shifts in my mindset, and I am going to write more about that once I have acknowledged them fully and seen them manifest outside of my travel lifestyle.

Edit: I’m currently writing on a travel insights series, reflecting on my old (elaborate) Facebook posts and what these thoughts mean to me back in ‘normal life’. You can find the first post here or an overview here.

My little refuge in Jardín, Colombia

I’m sitting on my balcony in Jardín, a small town in the Colombian coffee district. I’ve been here for almost 3 weeks which is an exceptionally long time for me to stay in the same area. Generally, after 3 days in one place, I already feel like I am settling. I’ve been moving around so much, that any day, where I don’t have to pack up my backpack feels like a day of rest and a reason to celebrate.
That might sound like a crazy lifestyle to some but when you’re traveling that way you don’t even consider other options. After all, time is money and you want to make the most out of your time as possible.
Still, needless to say, there is a point when your body starts acting out, telling you to give it a break. A time, when your brain reports to you that it is overstimulated by new sensations, people, places, food, languages.
Which is why I am staying at this place for a full 5 weeks.
I remember panicking when I first reserved for one whole week because it felt like such a long time in one place. Contrary to my feelings and thinking that sounded insane, I then contacted the owner saying that I might even stay two weeks (you can see my wavering). And finally upon arriving, I booked a third week and then a fourth and fifth because once out of the travel ‘circus’ I realized that this place was exactly what I needed.


A small house with 2 floors, 3 tiny bedrooms all for myself. The kitchen downstairs takes over most of the space on the ground floor and the top floor provides an area to lounge on benches with thick cushions on them. The house is made of red bricks, which have been turned into white-washed walls on the inside. The latter are accompagnied by a dark wooden interior and blue curtains, making it look like your grandma’s house in the countryside, radiating warmth, peace, and tranquility. I chose the smallest bedroom as it had the best view of the outside. As nice as the interior feels, the surroundings are what makes this place special. The house is in the middle of the countryside. A small countryside road leads through a small settlement of about a dozen houses. The bus that runs about once an hour, some moto-taxis and some tractors are the only traffic noise you hear. Thus you feel somewhat connected to the nearby town yet in enough peace and tranquility not to be bothered by it. Other than that the natural soundtrack to this place features the following: The clopping of a horse once in a while walking up the road, a guy with a cowboy hat sitting on it. The crowing of the roosters at 4 in the morning. A small dog barking around 5 pm every day, as if noticing something menacing. The drop of a dried leaf of a palm tree, making for one of the most startling noises here.


With the arrival of dusk, birds will dominate the sky and their small cries mixing with the constant noise of the crickets will make for my evening concert. Sitting on my balcony, I am enjoying the view especially at this time of the day. Blue mountains tower in the back, their often slightly hazy sight, sometimes covered by fog, sometimes by clouds give me a feeling of stability. Having that same view every day makes me feel safe, knowing that I will see something familiar when I wake up again the next morning. I have a hard time spending my time other than with this view, thus my balcony is my little oasis of peace in this world right now.


My gaze falls onto the grazing cows while writing this. To their left, I am looking onto huge palm trees, full of plantains. To my right, I can see over the valley with more palm trees, mandarin orange bushes in front of my house and flowers. This is a very colorful area. The houses in town are as colorful as all the flowers than line the way. They boast of life and happiness. And just to add another cherry on the top, this landscape is filled with a dozen of the most colorful kinds of birds I have ever observed in the wild.
I remember going birdwatching, getting up at 6 am in a small mountain town in Ecuador, just to walk around for 4 hours, seeing one type of bird from close-up which wasn’t even that spectacular. Had I only known I would see the most colorful birds from my balcony every day in Jardín. Red-bellied black birds who’d always appear in a pair, sitting on the electricity line every night. Yellow-bellied birds dashing in and out of the trees. Blue-bellied birds hiding between the trees, flying in and out so quickly, that I can only catch a quick glimpse of them, wishing they’d sit still for a second or that my meager camera on my phone was able to frame this memory.

Once it gets dark, the scenery changes and framing any memory gets even more challenging, if not impossible.
On clear nights, the sky will be covered in stars. On nights like those, I cuddle up in a blanket and lay on my back on the balcony, staring through the wooden railing which is partly shielding off me otherwise panoramic view. Nothing has brought me more happiness at this place than seeing this. I felt like a young child, staring at the stars from the small window in my bedroom, looking far away, hoping for a happier future than what I felt life was like at that moment. There is nostalgia in this in my current moment but also more gratitude knowing that I did find a ‘happier’ future in the ‘end’.
On other nights, a completely different yet as mesmerizing, spectacle presents itself here in front of my eyes – lightening. Lightening to me has always had something menacing. I’d always sit there, anxiously waiting for the clap of the thunder. Here in Jardín, lightening comes on its own. It breaks through the clouds, illuminating the otherwise pitch-black view in front of my eyes and then disappears as quickly as it appeared. It’s completely quiet except for the sounds of the crickets. And then the lightning hits again, quietly.

Being here, I have felt for the first time as if living in my ‘dream home’. This place is the closest I’ve ever come to find it. Which gives me hope because it shows me that my dream doesn’t only have to be a dream.


I wrote a part 2 to this story. You can find it here.