As I board the plane to leave Aruba, I have to finally admit that the adventure is over. For now, at least. But what an adventure it’s been.
I crossed paths with so many great people, who carried along with them such interesting stories. They were all over the spectrum: kids who just graduated from high school taking a gap year before starting school, shorter-term travelers on winter break, college graduates delaying the real world before it even started, entrepreneurs with online businesses who only needed an internet connection, and retirees enjoying their newfound freedom abroad.
I saw many amazing places. In fact, the most common question I get is “What was your favorite place you went”. It’s a logical place for the conversation to start, so I don’t blame anyone for asking, but it’s not a question I’ll ever try to truly answer. I walked and ran and hiked and swam and rode and flew through so many distinct environments, it’s not fair to try and compare them. How would you even go about comparing the hike to Machu Picchu to a week in the Amazonian jungle? The solitude of Patagonia to the madness of La Paz? The metropolis of Buenos Aires to the desert oasis of Huacachina? I don’t; and there’s really no need to do so. I just tried to appreciate every different place for the unique experience it offered.
But I’ve written in plenty of detail in the past about the new friends I’ve met, and the beautiful places I’ve seen. What I would really like to reflect on is what I’ve learned, how I’ve grown, and how I’ll use it to move forward. If I just went down to South America to party in hostels and chase women for 9 months, would it really have been worth it? Well…I mean…it sounds fun. And there was plenty of fun to be had. But for the personal and professional sacrifices I made, I wanted to be sure to get more out of this experience. So, bear with me as I ponder the meaningful changes I’ve witnessed.
I can comfortably say I speak Spanish. I don’t speak it perfectly, or even fluently, for that matter. If a group of Spanish speakers are talking amongst themselves, there’s a good chance I’ll miss a lot of what they say. But I can have one-on-one conversations with people who otherwise would not be able to speak with me, and that makes me feel good. Listening to the taxi driver’s story is a lot better than sitting in silence. And when called upon, I was somewhat able to translate for English speaking friends who hadn’t quite picked it up yet. When I arrived in Santiago in August, thinking I was ready to start speaking Spanish, I was humbled quickly. So, my goal became to speak Spanish. For real. And I can call that a success. Learning a new language made the trip much more enjoyable, and is a skill that will benefit me as much as I seek out the opportunity to allow it to help.
I have an improved sense of independence and self-confidence. Not that this was an area that was majorly-lacking, but it’s always reassuring to take a leap into the unknown and thrive. It’s comforting to be able to show up in a foreign city, where I know no one and have nothing but a backpack and a hostel reservation, and survive. I can walk into a social situation as a stranger, and leave as a friend. And when I hit a snag, whether it’s a wrong turn, missed bus, or broken ATM, I can adjust on the fly and solve the problem. I’m not a well-oiled machine; I still can get turned around and I still can be awkward or nervous, but I’m heading in the right direction.
I have learned not to worry or stress about two major categories: short-term inconveniences and things out of my control. Subway station closed? Throw in some headphones and walk it. Caught in a pop-up rainstorm? It’ll end, and your clothes will dry. It’s almost like free laundry. Tired after a rough overnight bus? Nothing a nap can’t fix. I admit that this probably naturally comes easier to me than others, but I do believe it’s a skillset that can be practiced and improved, and that practice won’t stop just because I’m back in the states.
I’ve lessened the importance I place on wealth and material things. That doesn’t mean that I’m returning as a hippy who wants to only live off the land, or that I won’t continue to strive for financial success, but being without a lot of your things for an extended period helped me realize their status as a want instead of a need. There’s an old writing called ‘’Moral Letters to Lucilius” where Seneca discusses something similar to this. He encourages practicing a few days a month in poverty, or simplicity. Whether it’s eating only ramen, beans, and rice for a weekend, or wearing jeans and white t shirt for a week, so you realize how it feels. And I’ve seen this; once you experience a taste of poverty, and the sacrifices you need to make, you aren’t so scared of that scenario, and it frees you up from the fear that you may get there. I don’t know exactly how much I spent over the last 9 months (and I’m not sure I’ll ever go through the exercise of calculating it out), but I could ballpark it at under $1500/month for everything. That includes lodging and food, but also buses, flights, excursions, and nights out. For one, I just want to put that out there in case anyone reading thinks they couldn’t ever do something like this due to money. But also, to highlight how I lived. It often wasn’t glamorous, and I wasn’t always a beacon of health, but I did it on a tight budget, and if I ever need to, I could do it again.
All that being said, I come back to the US with a much stronger appreciation for some of the first world comforts I took for granted in the past. A few examples:
- A full selection of appliances – I won’t have to google how to hand-wash clothes anymore, and a wrinkled shirt can just get a few minutes in the dryer instead of an iron
- Strong, readily available Wi-Fi – the Wi-Fi availability in South America might actually be better than I expected going in, but the strength and consistency left a lot to be desired. Now I can download Netflix whenever I damn well please
- Free water (with plenty of ice cubes) and quality napkins in restaurants – I’ve never been a big fan of buying water, but it becomes a necessary evil in some countries where the tap isn’t the safest refill spot. It’ll be nice to walk into a lunch spot, get a water with lemon, and leave unscathed
- Price tags in stores – knowing how much something cost, and not have to worry about if you’re getting the gringo price
- Wide varieties of food – Listen, I love meat and potatoes and pasta and rice as much as anyone, but after 2 months of it, I’m excited for some southern-style breakfast, decent Indian food, or my sultry mistress, Taco Bell
- The ability to flush toilet paper down the toilet – 4 months of tossing used tissues in the bathroom trash can will harden a man. I even did it the first few times back in the states until I realized where I was. Definitely a bad habit that I need to break.
There’s plenty more I’m sure, but it’s safe to say I’m returning to the States with a very strong love of home.
I’m coming back to a fresh start, with some exciting plans in my future, that I’m sure I’ll write about along the way. Coming in clean will allow me to break old bad habits and start up good habits, hopefully before I settle into old routines. So, I will attempt (again) to stop biting my nails. I will start back up a regular yoga and meditative practice. I will eat enough fruits and vegetables. And if I’m really strong, I’ll waste less time on the internet.
I’m happy to be home, surrounded by those closest to me, with an exciting life ahead. The exploration doesn’t stop now. Let’s do this