I have always considered myself an expert and independent traveler and a person that knows how the world works. To justify my opinion of myself, I have always referred to my studies and to my many travels, throughout Europe and beyond, whether of a few days or a few weeks. I thought that having studied international human rights law would give me a good picture of how things really are in the majority of the world; I even believed that as a traveler having a strict schedule would allow me to enjoy a trip better; I loved planning obsessively each bus ride, each activity – whether I was on a city weekend in Spain or traveling for 3 weeks in Argentina. When I quit my job and I started traveling through Latin America, for six months first, then for another four months, a new reality unfolded in front of my eyes.
I have learned a lot in the months spent traveling through the continent that I fell in love with. I have learned a lot about myself, about traveling, and about the world in general. Some of the things I have learned are funny, some others have a deeper meaning and helped me put my life back into perspective. So, here are the biggest 10 lessons that Latin America taught me.
1. It is not necessary to plan everything.
The first time I traveled to Cuba, I was so concentrated at following my plans to do whatever I had planned to do, that I spent the first ten days of my trip arguing with Cubans. I thought they had all united to plot against me so that they would stop me from doing what I wanted. I could not understand why they would discourage me from going to certain places I wanted to visit. Then I eventually ditched my plans and started traveling with no real schedule, in a more spontaneous way and fully enjoying what I really liked. So, in a country with no wi-fi, with no computer, facebook and no chance to make real bookings, I improvised. And it was liberating.
2. It is all a matter of perspectives.
If I happen on a crowded bus in Europe, I get off and I get annoyed. If the same thing happens in Nicaragua, I find it hilarious, I take pictures and most likely talk about it in a post. Same thing with the timings. If a train is two minutes late in London, it is irritating and I want to be reimbursed for the nuisance. If I find out that the bus I am meant to take in Peru is not leaving that day, for unknown reasons, I shrug it off and spend an extra day in the village.
3. One kilo over 12 really hurts my back.
Each time I leave for my travels, I carry less and less stuff. I have finally understood that I hardly need that many clothes, shoes and any of the things that really seem indispensable when I am home. Traveling through Latin America has taught me that I don’t need that much, as long as I can have clean clothes, and that an extra kilo in my backpack is actually hard for me to carry. I’d rather travel light.
4. I can adapt to (almost) anything.
I have peed in any possible kind of toilet. When you gotta go, you gotta go. Whether it is in the bushes, in a latrine, in a hole in the ground, nothing stops me. Same for the shower – from freezing cold and corroborating to intermittently hot and cold, to boiling some water over the stove when it simply is too cold to take a cold shower. When I need to, I can find ways to do things.
5. I still hate cockroaches.
I did say I can adapt to almost anything. Cockroaches are among the things I will never be able to adapt to, despite many attempts. I fled hostels in Nicaragua and Costa Rica because they were infested. And when I found a cockroach inside the mosquito net covering my bed in Panama I packed my bags and left there and then, without knowing if I would even find a place to stay as I was in the middle of nowhere. One can’t control a fobia. I have come to terms with that.
6. One person’s dream may well be another person’s nightmare.
There is nothing worst when traveling than getting to a place hoping to find paradise and finding out that it is hell instead. I spent months fantasizing about the wonders of Bocas del Toro, in Panama, to then be totally disappointed when I finally made it there. How is that possible, when most of those I know who have also been there think it is incredible? On the other hand, I have been to almost unknown places, of which I knew little, and fell in love with them. I have understood that I can only trust others’ opinions so much: what makes one’s heart beat, doesn’t necessarily make mine do the same.
7. I can actually trust strangers.
Each time I leave for one of my adventures, family and friends worry about me. The typical question they ask when I finally get back home is whether I have encountered problems, whether I felt in danger, whether Bolivia/Nicaragua/Colombia or whatever other country is as dangerous as people say. I must have been very lucky, because I have never felt in danger, or perhaps it is just a myth that certain countries are dangerous to travel to. I think that using regular precautions – the same I would use back home – is enough to stay safe. Perhaps even less: I have met fantastic people in Latin America, as I would never meet in Europe.
A few examples? I was in a small village in Costa Rica, waiting for the bus, on new year’s day. I really needed a toilet and could not find one, so I asked at a small kiosk if they could point me to one. A lady who was also waiting for the bus heard me say that and she offered me to go to her home, right on the other side of the street. Nothing like this would ever happen to me back home. When I was in Cusco (Peru), I was sick with a throat infection. A local lady at the market made it a point to find some eucalyptus leaves for me as she said they would help. She most likely had to search around town, and when she finally did, she would not let me pay a cent for them.
8. Potable water is still a privilege.
All over Europe and North America, we can drink tap water. Nevertheless, we buy bottled water and we have endless commercials highlighting the benefits of low sodium water, of the one that sources in the mountains, of the one which uses recycled plastic for the bottles. In many countries, water is not potable. People either have to buy expensive bottled water (if they can afford it) or must boil tap water for a long while to kill all bacteria. In Guatemala malnutrition is not due to lack of food or low quality food, but to contaminated water that causes severe infections and dissenteria. We take for granted a basic human right that in many countries is still utopic.
9. We should be proud of our identity and defend our traditions.
In some Mexican states, in Guatemala, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru indigenous peoples wear the symbols of their identity. It can be the traditional clothes or hats, a long braid, or anything else. These people are proud of their culture, they fight to protect it and to pass it on to future generations. I like innovations, but I don’t appreciate the sneaky attempts to annichilate the identity of a people – integration doesn’t mean assimilation. This is something I learned in my previous life, when I worked as a human rights lawyer.
What I learned in Latin America is that traditions can actually be profitable too. We should follow the example of Guatemalan women who created cooperatives to keep their traditional jobs and who are being quite successful. Perhaps, the solution to Europe’s financial crisis is a return to traditional jobs and customs?
10. There are people who have nothing, and yet they are happy.
I saw people living in sheds who laughed and had a good time, because they know how to enjoy what little they have and they appreciate the company of their family and friends. An example? I never liked Christmas – looking for presents, the endless meals, the relatives I don’t necessarily want to see. When I spent Christmas in Ometepe, Nicaragua, I was caught up by a thunderstorm. I sought refuge in someone’s patio. A whole family was sitting outside, playing the guitar and singing. I opened the gate, said “Merry Christmas everyone” and they just gave me a chair and kept on doing what they were doing. They had close to nothing and I doubt they spent the day exchanging presents. The same house hosted people, dogs, chickens and a pig. Yet, I saw way more happiness in that family than in many others that have a comfortable life.