I felt a sharp pain in the fleshy area between my toes and cursed myself under my breath. Looking down, I spotted a colony of orange-red army ants scurrying over my exposed feet. When I first disembarked from our river boat, there had been a small voice in my head telling me that it probably wasn’t a good idea to try to walk through the jungle in flip-flops, whom, at this point, I was very sorry to have disregarded. After a painstaking fifteen minutes, we finished the walk. The whole time my guide glided between trees, rapidly clearing a path with the deft use of his machete, an instrument he was so familiar with that it very well may have been an extension of his own arm. And, of course, I followed behind, limping in a horribly ungraceful fashion.
Eventually we arrived at a small series of ponds where we planned to fish that afternoon. I sat down on the aged wood of dock that had been constructed by the local community years before and removed my shoe, searching for the source of the pain. Sure enough, one of the ants had become trapped between the strap of my flip-flop and my skin, and accordingly, it had lodged its pinchers deeply into the meat of my foot.
Curious as to why I was sitting down staring at my feet, my guide, Angel, came over and asked me what was wrong. I only pointed at the insect. He chuckled and reached down to help me pull it out. The pinchers were deeply lodged and it was an incredibly unpleasant experience. When all was done, he chuckled and placed the head and pinchers, the same ones used by locals to suture deep wounds, still intact, into my hand. “Bienvenido a la selva,” he said. “Welcome to the jungle”.
Over the course of the next four days of my introduction to the jungle, it became one of his favorite phrases. When I fell into mud up to my belly button, “Bienvenido a la selva.” When I wrapped my hand around a tree covered in thorns, “Bienvenido a la selva.” When I tripped over a log and fell into a small creek, “Bienvenido a la selva.”
Eventually his welcoming phrase became so synonymous with my mistakes and ignorance, that whenever something bad happened, I could almost hear him say it before the words came out of his mouth. And now, despite having been away from the jungle for over two weeks, whenever I have some sort of misfortune, all I can think to myself is “Bienvenido a la selva.”
In a way, the world itself is a jungle, full of perils and mishaps lying in wait. And while the usage of that phase acknowledges that, in it there is still a light-hearted tone. It basically says, “You are going to make mistakes. It’s unavoidable, especially because you’re new to this place. Regardless, you can still make it your home.” And when you travel, that’s actually the attitude that you need to have. Errors will be made, misfortune will occur, that is the way of things in the jungle and it’s the way of things in the world, if you want to be happy here, you have to accept it, and learn from it. I loved my time in the jungle because I thought it was funny how analogous it was to my whole experience so far.
The moment I stepped off the plane that first early morning in Chile, exactly 100 days ago, I was in a completely new world and just as ignorant as I was my first day in the jungle. I didn’t know how to travel, how to communicate, and what I was going to get out of this fellowship. And I made mistakes. Since that time I’ve been scammed by taxi drivers. I’ve lost credit cards. I’ve accidentally insulted people. I’ve lost clothing and equipment, and I’ve overpaid for random things. And those are just external mistakes, there are also internal mistakes that have to do with how I spend my time, how I find a sense of fulfillment, which I will talk about later. But for all of these mistakes, I can’t help feel that “Bienvenido a la selva” applies to all of them in a way.
As I sit here in the Medellin airport, nestled in the mountains of Colombia, waiting to board the first of my 5 flights over the Atlantic that will eventually deliver me to Cape Town, South Africa, I feel a need to reflect on the mistakes I’ve made in my first three months of travel. Firstly in the interest of not repeating them, but secondly for you, my reader, so that when you embark on your own adventure such as this, perhaps you can avoid some of my mishaps. Although to paraphrase former President of Uruguay, Jose Mojica, it seems that often man is incapable of learning from the mistakes of others and always has to discover things for himself. So perhaps my second goal is futile, after all, I remember receiving a lot of the advice that I am about to give, and not listening to it in turn.
First and foremost, I think it is important that before traveling, it is important to try to distinguish what exactly the journey’s goal is. What kind of trip is desired? A relaxed vacation in a foreign paradise? Something more profound? The goals of travel largely distinguish the type of journey that an adventurer will undergo.
Imagine that people on journeys can be classified by their position on a grid. On one axis you have vacationers and backpackers. The other axis runs from tourist to traveler. Let’s try to break these definitions down.
Vacationers are not traveling for an extended period of time, usually not any longer than a month, and they have obligations waiting for them back home. A vacationer travels as a sort of escape. From what I have seen, often their priority is relaxation and partying, there is very little interest in seeking out difficult circumstances or challenging themselves because this brief period is their only respite from an often mundane and exhausting job or series of obligations that are waiting for them back home. Not every vacationer does this, but a lot do. And I think it’s kind of funny. It’s ironic that when people vacation from a monotonous job, they often vacation monotonously, every day at the beach, every night in the club with drugs and alcohol.
Backpackers on the other hand, are in this for the long haul, generally traveling anywhere from a month to years on end. They are less occupied with the things that are going on back home and often don’t have any concrete plans for when they get back. At this point in their lives, they are lucky enough to call travel their full time job.
It’s an interesting cultural note that I rarely meet American backpackers, which makes us distinct from many other developed countries. I recently spent a week traveling with a girl from Amsterdam, who also just finished University and is also on the track to become a doctor. She told me that approximately 80% of her high school graduating class had already embarked on some sort of extended backpacking trip. In the US it is entirely different, outside of the friends I have made in this fellowship, I can’t think of anyone I know from my high school, or even from University that has independently done the same. It’s funny because when I departed on this journey, I thought it would make me extremely unique, but after meeting so many people on similar path, I realize that I was only a black sheep in the culture of my home. I wandered away from the bleach-white masses, thinking I was heading off to face the world alone, and I actually happened upon an entire herd of black sheep just like me. They just happened to be from different countries.
On the other axis you have travelers and tourists. The major difference between these has more to do with one’s travel goal. This was something that I discussed at length with one of the previous Bonderman Fellows, Christian Bashi, when I first started planning my trip. His definitions may be slightly different from mine so please don’t assume that I am speaking for him. I just want to give credit to him for initially pointing out the distinction to me sometime early last winter.
To me, tourists tend to stay in the same places as other tourists, their itineraries are planned months in advance, and for them, a trip well spent is one where they check off every item in a Lonely Planet travel guide. Tourists seem to prefer places that remind them of their own western comforts and they conglomerate in places that can accommodate these desires. The Huacachina Oasis in Ica, Peru and the Walled City of Cartagena, Colombia come to mind as particularly strong examples of these “tourist traps”. Both of these places have enormous boundaries that separate tourists from the realities of the country that they are in. In the case of Huacachina, it is enormous sand dunes. In the case of Cartagena, it is a literal wall. A tourist could spend their entire journey in these places, relaxing on the beach, and sipping coffee in a quaint café each morning and feel perfectly content only seeing the world through the eyes of the countries tourist board and from the windows of their comfortable accomodations.
Travelers are the opposite Tourist traps bore them, usually after the first day. They crave more. Travelers want to cultivate genuine experiences that are unique to wherever they find themselves. They don’t just want to take a graffiti tour; they want to paint street art in the allies of Valparaiso. They’ll catch a random bus in Santiago and see where it takes them. They don’t just want to taste wine, but they want to hand pick grapes in the vineyards of Mendoza. The prospect of joining a protest against Monsanto in the streets of Cordoba excites them. They’d rather follow a doctor in the ICU of the public hospital in Cusco than eat in a fancy restaurant. They dream of wandering the wilderness of the Ausangate Mountain like the first explorers to reach the Andes did. They cherish brief interactions with street dogs in the poorest neighborhoods of Ica. They’d prefer to explore the nature reserve of Paracas by themselves with nothing but a mountain bike to taking a guided tour. They’ll sit in the streets of Lima with a homeless man and talk about what went wrong in his life. They’ll become close with their jungle guides in Iquitos, and play with their new friend’s pet monkey a few days later. They’ll take a three day barge down the amazon instead of the sixteen hour boat, because traveling by hammock with chickens and families, palates of Powerade and bricks, is more exciting and more enriching. Maybe one day they’ll catch a cargo ship across an ocean instead of paying for the flight, not because it’s efficient, but because for them it is far more interesting and ultimately more fulfilling. Ultimately, travelers go through the world like they’re on a roller coaster, riding the highs and the lows and collecting the amazing stories that naturally occur on a tumultuous odyssey.
I want to stress that objectively each one of these groups is has its merits and its downfalls and not one of them is any better than the other; however, I’m sure that my descriptions of each probably sounds a little bit biased. That’s because a person who really embodies the spirt of the Fellowship will fall into or at least attempt to fall into the latter group as a traveler-backpacker, conducting the journey in that way really allows you to get the most out of this opportunity. Looking back at first essay I wrote for this fellowship, to travel in that way was my original goal. Additionally, all of those specifics desires of the traveler-backpacker that I just listed are things that I have done or wanted to do during my time abroad.
That being said, I have made mistakes. I have not been a perfect traveler-backpacker, and the instances in which that wasn’t intentional are some of my biggest regrets, because I do believe that that kind of journey is the most fulfilling. At times I have found myself in all of these categories sometimes perhaps more excessively than I would have liked. Other times, my insertion into the realms of vacationers and tourists has been intentional. And It does make sense for a traveler-backpacker to insert him or herself into each of those roles, just to say that he or she had the experience. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with going out to a party hostel and having a night out with other travelers, or visiting a tourist trap, or spending sometime relaxing on the beach, or exclusively interacting with other English speakers for a day. All of these things are unique experiences that have value, as long as you don’t become trapped there. But at a certain point it becomes gratuitous and at that point your sense of fulfillment begins to diminish. Too much time spent in hostels, too much time relaxing, and you stop genuinely appreciating that personality and beauty of wherever it is that you are.
I’ve been there, in fact over the last month or so I have struggled with that a lot. I’ve had days where I didn’t want to leave the hostel, where I just lied in bed and binge watched Netflix, and it sort of became a vicious cycle. I’d waste my day and not meet any new people, or line up prospects for my next adventure and then I’d have no reason to get out of bed the next day.
But my first month and a half was different, perfect in a lot of ways, my travel was incredibly fulfilling and every day, I would be struck with a sense of wonder and awe. I think some of this could be attributed to the fact that I was still new to traveling, but I think the primary difference comes down to my living situations. For the first month and a half of my journey, I didn’t touch a hostel. I did a Workaway, I stayed with locals from Couchsurfing, and because of that I always knew what to do. I had easy access to activities. But in hostels, you don’t have that easy access to a local guide. You have to be a lot more proactive and research what you want to do, and sometimes you just don’t feel like it. I’ve had plenty of those moments. And that’s where my biggest mistakes have been made.
That being said, I’m incredibly happy with how South America has worked out for me. I ended up spending a month and a half longer here than I originally intended. Despite my errors, despite the fact that I’ve probably squandered some of my time here slothing around in hostels, I don’t have regrets, because it’s impossible not to make errors when you’re in an unfamiliar place.
Now my goals are simply not to repeat the errors of the past: to avoid the scams that I’ve fallen for, and try my best to use my time wisely, and spend more time Couchsurifing and in Workaways. Every day I want to strive to make the most of this experience, and I’m going to do my best to share it with you every step of the way. Of course, I haven’t learned everything that there is to learn about traveling, and I’m sure many more novel mistakes are bound to come my way. But when they do, I’ll simply chuckle to myself and mutter under my breath, “Bienvenido a la selva. Bienvenido al mundo.” Welcome to the jungle. Welcome to the world.”