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  • Adina Samuels

South America, for a Moment

“Where are you from?”


“How long have you been traveling?”


“Where are you going next?”


After 9 days sleeping in hostels in Colombia and Peru, if I had to ask or answer any of those questions one more time, I would have…


“Yes, just nine days,” I said, over and over again. “I know, it’s so short.” I listened to travelers from Germany and France and South Africa and New York and Israel and Bali and…


as they told me how they dawdled their way from one side of the world to the other. 


A curly-haired 24 year old from the UK, Bella, had been traveling for 365 days. I met her on her last day in Bogota, hours before her flight home. 


“So why did you travel?” I asked. 


“No one’s ever asked me that before,” she said.


She told me how she learned about herself and made it through difficult times. She told me how she loved Cali, a city made just for salsa dancing, and how she was tired, and ready to be home. 


I asked her what’s next, and she told me she’ll study teaching. The sparkle in her tired eyes dimmed at her imagination of a life back home, a life lined by dark leafy trees on London streets. 


A towering 24 year old from Israel, Yonatan, had left home just before the war began. 


“Is it weird for you?” I asked. “To be here, traipsing around, while your friends are on the battlefield?”


“Weird…” he repeated, as if translating the word in his head in Hebrew. Eventually, a response. “I told them they shouldn’t report to reserves!” he scoffed. 


He told me he spent a week trekking the Salkantay Trail–the last “gringo” to visit, he said, had been in November–four months earlier. He said this with a kind of pride, and I imagined him striding along with a tall walking stick, nodding his head to stray alpacas and closing his eyes against the cold gusts of winds at such high altitudes. 


He showed me a video of himself after a long day of hiking, cowering beside a mountain face against pouring rain, almost crying into the screen. “It was so painful,” he said. “And so beautiful.”


“Nine days!” Thelma, a French girl with a dyed-orange fringe, exclaimed. “You’ve probably done more here than I have in two months!” she laughed. I watched her as she walked alone, headphones in her ears. She had that air of sophistication so many French people possess, a kind of coldness, an upturned chin and a nose in the air. Maybe it’s Edith Piaf, I guessed, a soundtrack I imagined suiting the romantic air of the ancient city of Cusco. More likely it’s Taylor Swift, I thought.


----


When I told my friends and family at home that I was traveling to South America for nine days, they were all so glad that I had set aside so much time for such an exciting holiday. 


I had planned an itinerary that barely left time for sleep. Wake up at four in the morning, walk to a bus, take a bus to a train, take a train to a hike, hike to a mountain, and do the same in reverse. 


I wanted to see everything and do everything. And I wasn’t going to let minor things like getting seven hours of sleep or having clean clothes get in my way. Breakfast? I didn’t need it. 


And while I did hike among the llamas and alpacas, see the Machu Picchus and the waterfalls, taste the unique fruits and ceviche, dance to salsa and bachata, swim in the warm Pacific and natural hot springs, get around in broken Spanish and body language, I…


Still felt unfulfilled.


And I didn’t understand how these travelers–these young people–were so content just wandering to wherever their hearts desired.


Am I just neurotic?


Are they really having a good time?


Why wasn’t this jam-packed adventure enough for me, if simply sitting on a sunny hostel rooftop doing a crossword was enough for Lea, a 20-year old from Brazil?


I realize I already knew the answer. 


If I had the opportunity to book a one-way flight with a backpack and a passport for an endless amount of time with no purpose but to just be, I might just turn that offer down. 


A privileged thing to say, I know. 


But what I also know is that the point of travel for me isn’t to see a whole lot of nice places. It isn’t to talk to strangers I’ll never see again.


I need to be rooted in a sense of purpose. A month-long intensive Spanish language course, a half-year volunteering stint, a summer journalism internship… Something to make me feel like I’m not just consuming, but also learning, immersing myself in something new, giving back…


That’s not to say that wandering travelers are bad. I’m not trying to look at this through a moral lens, especially when so many countries (like Colombia and Peru) depend heavily on tourism. 


It’s simply what feels good for me. 


The challenge now, is that as my responsibilities grow and my real life sets in, I know that these long stretches of time to pursue those purposeful missions will become fewer and fewer. I’ll have to rely on the shorter trips to bring me that same sense of fulfillment. 


But how?


...Maybe more travel will give me an answer. 




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