I am trying to live my life in a state of gratitude. Some days are easier than others. And sometimes, when I think about the past, I realize how truly grateful I am.
No traveler lives completely in a vacuum when traveling. I suppose it is possible to travel somewhere and so strictly follow a schedule that it is nearly impossible to get lost or need help, but that’s never happened to me. I have had to ask for directions at minimum on every single trip I have ever taken. Sometimes it has been much more involved than simple directions.
We hear all the time that the world is a dangerous, scary place. In fact, the most common question I was asked is “Won’t you be scared/Weren’t you scared?”
No, I am not, and No, I wasn’t.
I may have been a little nervous at times, but I was never scared. Okay, maybe I was scared a little when I was kidnapped by two guys between the Peru/Ecuador border when they were trying to extort $250 from me. Maybe I was scared a little when I was caught by rouge waves that held me under water when I was learning to surf.
But I was never scared of the people. Even amongst strangers, I [almost] never felt like I was in danger.
I kept my guard up in the beginning, but I soon realized that I needed to learn to trust the people I met along the way. I think that is just part of me. I am used to being alone [only child and all] so I don’t always think about needing to rely on others. I have learned how to do so many things for myself. Time and time again, I needed to rely on the kindness of strangers to get me through. So this Thanksgiving, I want to thank all of those strangers who went above and beyond to help me in my journeys – from people whose names I never knew or soon forgot to those who I am now happy to call my friends.
Thank you to Missa and Jamie who helped me celebrate my birthday in Rome with a bottle of Chianti, a plate of pasta, and a birthday cards and flowers from the market. It was so nice to not be alone on my birthday.
Thank you to the elderly lady on the train from Rome to Naples or at least I thought it was to Naples. It was actually headed to the other side of Italy. I would have figured it out eventually, but she saved me time and money. I don’t speak Italian great [and even less in 2006] but I know Spanish and between my Spanish and her Italian, she got me pointed in the right direction and I made it to Sorrento during daylight hours.
Thank you to the women in at the Ecuadorian border. After being kidnapped and missing my bus, two women in their 40’s asked me if I needed a ride somewhere. They were headed to Guayaquil and offered to take me anywhere along the route. I had a great time, met some amazing women, had an awesome lunch, and relaxed for the first time that day. After seeing the ugly side of human nature, it was a blessing to see the good.
Thank you to Javier…the teenager who came and picked me up on his moped after I couldn’t get the bus driver to stop. I ended up about 2 km past my intended destinations and carrying the 65L backpack plus the daypack loaded down with my tools for jungle-work would have made a sucky end to a very long day.
Thank you to Massimo…who taught me to cook on a gas stove. I have always either cooked on an electric range or a grill and gas tended to scare me a bit. Thanks to Massimo, I didn’t starve during my weekends alone in the jungle lodge.
Thank you to the lady in Trujillo who made sure I didn’t get cheated by the taxi driver.
Thank you to all the people who have hosted me during my travels. By not spending a ton of money for accommodations, I have gotten to visit so many more places, see how people really live–not just as a tourist, and spend time in places I would have never dreamed about staying.
Lynnley in Charleston, Corinna in San Francisco, Cameron in Seattle, Emily in Vermont, Jeanette in Florida, Angie in Chicago, Emilie in Chamonix, France, Marta in Bratislava, Slovakia, Tomas in Wroclaw, Poland, Alex in Mendoza, Argentina, Steve in Stafford, England, and Sophie in Kokkola, Finland. All strangers at one point; all friends at another.
It’s birth-week. I am one of those people who prefer to celebrate the entire month, but especially the week of. I am hitting the age where people are asking questions such as “Are you ever going to settle down and get married?” [Maybe] “Are you ever going to have kids?” [ NO] “Are you ever going to get a house of your own?” [hopefully sooner rather than later]. I am sure all of these questions are not intended to make me feel bad about my decisions to forgo a conventional life, but are just out of curiosity. At least, that is how I choose interpret it. So in honor of my 30-ish years on the planet, here are 30 ish things I have learned from traveling.
Mountains, hiking, clouds, history, photography…these are just a few of the things I’ve encountered while exploring the world.
With each new country I visit, I become acutely aware of how many there are left for me to see. The world is a big, amazing place, and I will likely never run out of places that I want to explore.
2. Solo travel is not that scary
I am an introvert. It takes me awhile to get to know people. I don’t always talk to strangers. I don’t like to make plans. I used to think that solo travel wasn’t for me. I didn’t think I could enjoy it. I didn’t think I could handle it, to be honest. But I underestimated myself. I am a different person when I travel. Still somewhat quiet, but being alone makes it easier for other people to approach me. And I DO talk to strangers, and I can make friends. Now, it’s hard to imagine traveling any way other than on my own.
New York City comes to mind. Yes, it has everything. Yes, it is the center of American culture. Yes, it has amazing museums, history, architecture, Broadway, ect, ect. It was interesting. It was enlightening, but I didn’t love it. I think it was just too much. Of everything. I am glad I went. And I don’t think I’ll ever go back on my own. And that’s OK.
4. Technology has changed the way we travel
My first trip aboard was in 1997. When I learned I was to be in England all summer, I went to the local [English] library, researched day trips, and weekend trips. I went to the train station and got a copy of the timetables from Stafford. I wrote letters and sent postcards and used the phone infrequently because international rates were so expensive. I used a lot of film. Now, I can do most of my research from home on the internet. I take photos on my digital camera and upload them to my website wherever I have a wireless connection. I travel with a Kindle and a digital camera. I use my Kindle to read tons of books, my cell phone to Skype people at home, and Facebook is an amazing way to keep in touch with new acquaintances and old friends.
5. The world is not as scary as the media would lead you to believe
I no longer watch the news on a regular basis because if I did, I’d never leave my front yard, but if you’re like most people and get your opinion of the world from the news and movies, you probably view it as a dark, dangerous, and scary place. A place where terrorism is widespread, people kidnap tourists for ransom, and the likelihood of being robbed, maimed, or otherwise harmed is alarmingly high. The reality, of course, is that the world is not actually scary at all, so long as you keep your wits about you. At least, no scarier than some places in the USA.
6. A country’s history is not indicative of its present or future
If that were the case, I would have never visited Colombia. Or Serbia. Or I may be planning a trip to Mexico. Certain parts of the world have particularly dark pasts — war, genocide, communism, terrorism… But the truth is, NO country can boast a completely peaceful history. [Especially not USA] Instead of judging a place by its past [and perhaps avoiding it because of that past], it’s better to look at a country as it is right now. Don’t write a destination off just because of something that happened there 10, 20, 50, or even 100 years ago. By the same token, don’t automatically choose a destination you loved 10 or 20 years ago without taking into consideration today’s current events. People change. So do countries. And governments. And policies. [Let’s just say I would be planning a trip to the US if I didn’t live here].
7. I am incredibly lucky to have the passport that I do.
Yes, it was a pain to get my Bolivian visa, and $135 to boot. Yes, I had to make a trip to the Brazilian consulate in Atlanta to get my Brazilian visa [another $150], but there’s no doubt about it– my American passport is a very valuable thing. With it, I am able to travel virtually anywhere in the world. Even though I have to have visas for some countries, I realize how lucky I am to have been born in the United States and have all the rights and freedoms associated with my citizenship.
8. Being an American does not have to be a negative thing
I know some Americans who are ashamed of where they come from — especially when they travel. They say they are from Canada, or wherever. I have done this once, but only after someone assumed I was a Spaniard -I didn’t correct him. Big assault rifles were involved. People were ‘escorted’ off the bus. They didn’t get back on.
This one is particularly difficult for me. I have state pride. I often readily admit I am from South Carolina, one of the United States, but when I just say USA, a lot of people say California? or New York? When I say that I am closer to Cartagena than California, people don’t believe me…until I break out a map. But I am getting better. Most people I’ve encountered around the world love Americans. They don’t necessarily love our government or world policies [and to be fair, I don’t necessarily love our government or world policies], but they love us and are open to learning more about us.
South Carolina has beautiful mountains with many creeks and waterfalls in addition to a gorgeous coast on the Atlantic Ocean.
9. You cannot judge a culture that you know nothing about
There is just enough true about stereotypes to make them true. Having said that, I believe that having an open mind will help you realize that stereotypes never fully represent anyone. You cannot judge a culture if you do not understand it — and basing your understanding on a stereotype does not equal understanding. Before you pass judgment on traditions or beliefs, take some time to get to know the culture you are judging first.
10. It’s OK to keep returning to a place you love
Even though the world is huge with endless places to discover, I’ve realized that some places will keep pulling you back. I visit the SC coast at least once a year. I will probably go back to Argentina and Colombia at some point in the future. You will leave bits of your heart in different corners of the globe, and those places will call to you periodically. And this is OK. You don’t always have to go somewhere new to be a “traveler.”
I’ve been to London 5 times, and plan to return every single time I visit Europe. It is a magical city.
11. Having an open mind will take you far
It’s OK to have a plan. It’s better to scrap the plan if something better comes along. Traveling with an open mind will allow you to have amazing, unforgettable experiences. Forget what you think you know, and life will be much more rewarding.
12. We are not so different after all
At the end of the day, things like language, skin color, religion, and culture differentiate us much less than we think. No matter where you go in the world, people want the same things: To be successful. To be happy.To care for their families. Keep this in mind whenever you start thinking “us” and “them” thoughts. Because, at the end of the day, our dreams and goals are not that different. Even if we have different definitions of successful and happy.
13. People back home may never understand
You are the only one who can truly appreciate your travels. When you return home from a trip and have all these amazing memories and experiences buzzing around in your head, chances are your friends and family back home won’t be nearly as interested to hear about your adventures as you’d like them to be. They won’t care you taught health classes in Spanish with the Caribbean looking over your shoulder. They make look at the photos–once, but while you were off traversing the world, they were carrying on with their normal lives. [One friend had a baby. Another got married. And those with kids already–well, those kids weren’t babies when I returned home.] They may never understand, and I’ve learned that you just have to come to terms with this.
14. Every destination has something to offer — you just have to find it
I didn’t love New York City. Or Lima, Peru. Or Santiago, Chile, but I found something in each place that was cool. In NYC, it was the zoo and Central Park. In Lima, it was its proximity to the coast, and in Santiago, it was just hanging out in the main square people watching. Maybe I’m just an overly positive person, but it’s my belief that every place — no matter where — has something interesting to discover about it. I try my best to discover these redeeming qualities about a place wherever I travel, and I think it helps me enjoy the whole travel process more.
15. When the universe sends you signs, pay attention
Over the past few months, I feel like I’ve been getting a lot of signs from the Universe, pointing me down this path or that one. And, finally, I’m starting to pay attention. Whether it’s related to travel or not, if Fate or God or the Universe or whatever is sending you signs, you’d better be listening.
16. You and your excuses are the only things holding you back
People often tell me how they wish they could take a month off to go somewhere. My answer: Well go. Their usual reply: I can’t. I’ve got ___________. Maybe that’s true. Maybe its just an excuse. If you want to travel but currently aren’t it’s probably because you are making excuses. YOU are the only thing truly holding yourself back. You can make time by prioritizing and planning ahead. You can save money by staying in hostels and using deal websites like skyscanner.com. You can manage the responsibility smartly. You can bring children with you. And you can overcome the fear.
I love traveling abroad. It has a certain amount of glamour associated with it, but over the few last years I have traveled to Washington, DC and New York City, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Seattle. The entire USA has so much to see from the Grand Canyon to Florida Keys to Crater Lake to barrier islands. I could never leave the USA and still see something amazing on every trip I take.
18. Being nervous is natural
Being nervous is natural when it comes to traveling. I’m not any braver than you are. There have been several times when I’ve seriously considered canceling a trip or an activity at the last minute because I was scared. [OK, I actually did cancel a couple things] Scared of the unknown because travel is full of unknowns. It’s pushing through this fear and nervousness that really make you brave.
19. You really can make lifelong friends while traveling
Yes, it’s true that traveling long-term often means having to say a lot of goodbyes. Frequently. But it also allows you to meet a ton of amazing people who love traveling just as much as you do. Occasionally, you’ll form bonds so strong that things like distance and time won’t matter. With technology today, maintaining international friendships is easy. And having friends all over the world is never a bad thing.
We were neighbours in Peru; then I vistied her in San Francisco and Seattle.
20. Getting lost can sometimes be a blessing in disguise
I get lost all the time–even in my own hometown. Sometimes, though, losing the map and just allowing yourself to get lost can be a great thing. As long as you don’t find yourself lost in a bad neighborhood or otherwise dangerous situation, being lost can help you discover a place in a unique way that you just can’t do by following a map or a guidebook’s suggestions. You’ll stumble across tucked-away restaurants, funny street art, and scenes most people probably don’t see. You may even get to talk to some locals about non-travel stuff!
21. Being able to read a map is crucial
Despite smartphones and Google Maps and all that, being able to read an old-fashioned paper map is still a great skill to have. Why? What if you end up somewhere without internet access! Or travel without a smartphone. [I never take my smart phone out of the country]
22. Hostels are a great invention
I love hostels. I love that I can have a room without having to pay for the entire room. As a solo traveler, I loathe paying for an entire hotel room that charges the same price for one as it does for two or four people. They are affordable, usually centrally located, and allow you to easily meet other travelers wherever you are. Sometimes they are really nice, too.
23. A travel style can change
Just as there’s no one travel style that works for everyone, there may not even be one travel style that works for you all the time. As you grow and age and gain travel experience, your style may well change. And there’s nothing wrong with that. A backpacker can stay in a 4-star hotel, just as a comfort-seeking traveler can rough it in the bush.
24. Don’t compare your travel style to anyone else’s
Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that they know the “right” way to travel. There’s only the way that works for YOU. Whether you’re a budget backpacker or a luxury seeker, just travel the way that you want to and ignore everyone else. In the end, you will be a much happier traveler.
25. No one cares about my eating/drinking habits
I’ve never been a very adventurous eater, and I don’t drink alcohol [anymore]. I always figured people would judge me for this. But I’ve learned over the past few years that trying weird new foods can be fun. And I’ve learned that most people accept that.
26. Travel gives you wisdom. On so many levels. Culturally, socially, historically. I can’t think of an area where travel hasn’t helped me in some way.
27. You will learn patience when you travel
You have to. I am a fairly patient person to begin with, but traveling and especially taking public transportation in out of the way locations you have to be patient.
28. Say ‘yes’ even when you want to say ‘no’
I have said ‘yes’ to lots of things while traveling that I wouldn’t have agreed to at home… Saying ‘yes’ to a date with a matador. ‘Yes, please’…Signing a lease on an apartment in a foreign country. ‘Yes’ twice–actually…Spending the night in a stranger’s house ‘Ummm, yes’ [not without hesitation]…Eating strange foods ‘yes…um ok’. It is easy to say no, especially when you are out of your comfort zone. Say yes. As long as you don’t die, it will at minimum be a learning experience.
29. People are generally good and it’s OK to talk to strangers
You don’t always have to be on the go in order to meet people. I love nothing more to park myself on a bench/cafe/ect. and just people-watch. Sometimes I even talk to them [gasp!] If you’re like me, you probably grew up listening to the “don’t talk to strangers” mantra and watching videos in elementary school about ‘Stranger Danger’ . But perhaps we should rethink that golden rule. I am living proof that talking to locals and fellow travelers when you travel can only enhance the experience.
30. We don’t need as much as we think we do
Packing seems to be a major headache for a lot of people. I pack basically the same whether I am traveling for one week or six months. You don’t need all that stuff you think you need, and technology comes in smaller and faster packages every day.
31. It takes time to transition to new things
In my first weeks traveling in South America, I felt lonely and unsure of how I would continue to live this new life for so long. Then I transitioned to my new life and the new rhythm of it all and it was okay. I realized that I needed ‘transition’ time every time I changed cities and said goodbye to new friends or even hotel rooms. I would get to my new destination and would feel a bit uncomfortable and a little bit lonely. But I knew if I gave myself a day or two, those feelings would go away and I would have new reasons to enjoy where I was and often times, I found I liked it even better than the last place. This is one of the reasons why SLOW travel is better than flying through an area just to say you’ve seen it.
32. It’s OK to ask for help
Several times I have been forced to ask for help. I hate it every. single. time. I hate having to ask people to watch my cat or check the mail. I hate having to ask for directions in a new place. I hate having to ask where the nearest store is, but you know what? Most people are happy to help.
33. It’s not always about the money
Traveling is almost always more expensive than staying home, but there are ways to make it more affordable. Once I showed up in a resort town on New Year’s Day night without a reservation or a place to stay. I went to hotel after hotel. It started to snow. I was getting very depressed. And cold. And hungry. I finally found a place that had one room left for 200 Euros. I didn’t want to spend that much money, but I took it. It was the best 200 euros I could have spent at that moment. A hot shower and a warm bed did much more than take the chill off; it rejuvenated my soul. And I was much more able to enjoy the rest of my trip.
34. Travel will change you in ways you can’t imagine
There are the things you can think of–such as making you a more educated world citizen, having stories to tell at any occasion, and realizing that people are people no matter where you are. Sometimes, when the timing is right, when the events line up in just the right way, you can recognize the moment that the change happens. Sometimes it can be profound – you can find a life’s purpose. For me, it was running my very own health clinic in Peru. This one volunteer project has changed the course of my life. Sometimes it’s small, like discovering you like gelato or pretzels or ceviche. Sometimes, it is just remembering who you wanted to be instead of who you are today. These changes, big or small, alter us as individuals if we let them. And the really cool thing is that it can become contagious.
I’d rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on Earth. Steve McQueen
I have always been an independent sort. As I kid, I often ‘ran away from home’. I never went very far –usually exploring the outer reaches of our 25 acres. Many times, I had my school backpack and stuffed it with a sleeping bag, snacks and a book and had a good day. Summers were great as I often set up a tent somewhere on the property and was ‘away’ for a few days at a time. A couple of times, I built a little raft a floated it on the creek pretending to be Tom Sawyer. As a child, my fondest wish to be a boy scout. Our town didn’t have a girl scouts, but that didn’t stop me from checking out books in the library on ‘wilderness survival’. I taught myself cool things like how to build a fire, how to set up a tent, and how not to get attacked by bears.
Up until my mid 20’s I considered myself to be pretty outdoorsy, enjoying to spend as much time outside and under the sun as possible, hiking, biking, communicating with nature and all that crap. But somewhere along the line, things changed. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly when this happen, but I think it had something to do with getting my first big girl job. Working 6 days a week with minimal vacation time sucked the life out of my soul, and after about 2 years, I couldn’t do it anymore. It had been 2 years since I’d had a vacation so just after my two year work-anniversary, I took off to the North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
The Outer Banks is awesome. The northern half where Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is by far the more popular part of the Outer Banks. Ocracoke Lighthouse is gleaming white. It was built in 1823, the second oldest still in use in the nation. It’s not a tall as Hatteras or as famous but nevertheless it is an awesome site!
Ocracoke Island sits 23 miles off the North Carolina coast and a quarter mile south of Hatteras Island. It usually measures 17 miles long and a mile wide. The deserted, windblown beaches of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore make up the northern 90 percent of the island, and a small village of hotels, restaurants, shops, homes makes up the southern 10 percent. It’s a great place to get away from it all.
Going to the Outer Banks helped me re-assess my priorities in life. Did I want a life of relative security and stability? Did I want a life where taking a vacation was more of a headache than a means of relaxation? Hell no. I didn’t want that when I started, and after two years I didn’t like where that life was leading. Subconsciously I guess I realized how unhappy I was with my life, and deep down I was yearning to get back to my childhood roots, and to the last time I was really happy with life. I needed to get dirty, sleep under the stars again, and paddle about around on a body of water on a regular basis.
And where did I have this profound, existential realization? In a tent, under the stars off the coast of North Carolina in an area where the one of the most infamous pirates in history roamed.
I sure know how to pick my moments.
There is something incredibly cliche, but true about laying out under the stars, way out in the middle of nowhere, hearing waves crash on the shore that triggers some scary deep thoughts, right? Right? Please say this is not just me.
Seeing the sun rise over the ocean…
watching dolphins play in the ocean…
observing patterns in the sand…
These were the kinds of moments I had been missing over the past few years. Taking a step back away from all the craziness, all the rush, all of the stress that is involved with chasing the “American Dream” and realizing that simple, peaceful quiet moments abroad are often the most meaningful and profound. I exited the rat race at that moment [even thought it still took a while to start chasing MY American Dream].
It’s been 8 years since I’ve had that revelation. In that time I’ve traveled to more than 40 countries. I’ve had short adventures and long ones. I’ve become a registered nurse. I’m on my way to becoming a nurse practitioner. As I paddled around and explored the barrier islands off South Carolina’s coast, I felt the stress of the last few weeks melt away. I was light years removed from the stress of the last few weeks. With each stroke of my kayak, I felt so far removed from the hustle and bustle of life, I could feel a smile creep on my face for the first time in a while.
I live in an area where travel is not prioritized. Most of my neighbors/co-workers, ect, think ‘traveling‘ is either going to the coast–whether Myrtle Beach, Charleston, Hilton Head, or gasp! Florida or going to the NC/TN mountains. I have been to both, but I prefer to use these areas as either a day trip or at most a weekend getaway.
There is a lot more to the world than just the Southern United States.
That kind of travel is fine–for some people. Some people never want to leave their home state [I’d wager those are the very people who NEED to leave their home state, but I digress]. Some people just want to be off work and lay on a beach. It’s their vacation; they can use it however they want, but in my opinion that’s not traveling. Neither is a week in Cancun, or the Bahamas, or Jamaica or DR or any other place where you don’t have to get involved.
Some ‘travelers’ turn their noses up at pre-planned adventures or set itineraries. I say that’s better than nothing. It’s not my favorite way to go, but especially if I am in an area where I don’t speak the language, I may sign up for a day trip or tour bus just to get my lay of the land. Usually these pre-planned adventures allow the ‘traveler’ to check off boxes or scratch off one more place off their ‘bucket list’, but what they don’t allow for is the type of travel I consider ‘real travel’–travel that has the potential to change your worldview and who you are at your core. Would I have ever considered going back to school to become a nurse practitioner had I not volunteered in a health clinic for a couple months in Peru? Probably not. Would I have decided to keep my focus on children had I not volunteered in a pediatric hospital/orphanage? Probably, but working in the peds hospital/orphanage cemented my desire to work with children.
Long-term travel–especially solo travel– allows more opportunities for self-discovery and self-reflection, but really any type of travel can be an avenue for reflection. Is it harder to do at the family vacation spot? Absolutely. Is it impossible? No way. Can someone really have a life-revelation on a 9 day mission trip to Haiti? Yes. Is it likely? Probably not. My point is if you truly want to do something to change the direction your life is headed in, then you have to change your direction.
So why do we even leave home?
To be somewhere else of course. It all starts with a desire to be somewhere that we are currently not . For several reasons. Maybe you want to go to the Caribbean in January to get away from the snow. Or to Patagonia in July to see snow. Maybe your job sucks and you want to be ‘anywhere, but here.’ Maybe you just broke up with a significant other and everything you see reminds you of him/her. There are a myriad reasons why someone would want to ‘get away’ for a while; most of them are not so alarming.
I have often thought of why I am different when I am traveling. Part of it is because I HAVE to be more outgoing on the road or a may die of boredom. At home, I have my friends, my cat, and my furnishings. If I want to stay home, no one is going to make me go out and I don’t really feel as if I am missing anything. But if I am in Alaska during the winter, and I don’t feel like going out, I may miss a once-in-a lifetime experience. Part of traveling is exploring and discovering new things and it’s so much easier to do that in unfamiliar territory. Would I have ever eaten anticuchos aka meat on a stick anywhere in the USA? Not a chance. But in Peru, when there are 10 stands set outside a football stadium, and the vendors sell them instead of hot dogs, yea, I gave it a shot. And they were tasty little morsels.
I think when it comes down to it we leave home to search for something more. More within ourselves. More understanding of others. More understanding of ourselves. More stories to tell. More experiences to share. Travel makes us richer; sometimes in ways we can’t understand until we aren’t traveling anymore.
I often wonder if I will ever have the desire to ‘settle down’ or if I will always have wanderlust. I know–at least for now–I will do all that I can do in order to satisfy my urges.
I am known for being *somewhat* spontaneous at times. Other times I suffer from an the lack of ability to make a decision as simple as what I want for dinner. What can I say, I’m a study in contradictions
After a spontaneous 100 km trek to Machu Picchu, I headed south towards Bolivia. On my own once again for the first time since arriving in Peru, I wasn’t quite ready for solitude just yet. Through the traveler grapevine, I’d heard of home-stays on Lake Titicaca, and thought that would be something worth checking out. Onward to Puno.
Puno, a small town in the southern Peru, is bordered by Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable body of water. The town, at 12,500 feet above sea level is breathtakingly [and I mean that literally] beautiful. It is alive with bright colors and friendly people. Boats lined with neon colors and shops filled with alpaca sweaters and scarfs give color to the town. The Uros Islands, the man-made floating reed islands, can by spotted from the shoreline and people from all over visit to get a taste of the island traditions.
Puno is a quiet, quaint town with all of the attractions located on the main plaza. Spanish is widely spoken as the town’s main source of income is tourism, but the town still has indigenous ties and as such, Aymara is spoken by most citizens.
Puno is small and as such most visitors only stay for a day or two. The main draw to the town is the opportunity to visit the islands and do an overnight tour with a local family. You can, of course, visit the islands on a day trip, but as it is relatively inexpensive to do an overnight home-stay, I recommend you do the overnight stay.
The overall experience is pretty touristy, but informative. We arrived to the first island and were greeted by the “Island President” who explained that each island only has room for 5-10 houses, so the families that reside on each island form small committees and work together to remain afloat.
The president demonstrated how each island is anchored down by heavy square blocks of reed roots so they stay in Peru and don’t float to Bolivia. He also explained that the islands are made up of layers of reeds and a new layer has to be added to the ‘island’ every fortnight. Each island has a committee, and the committee divides the chore of laying out new reed layers between the residents.
The local economy consists of trout fishing, quinoa, yucca, and potato farming, tourism and artisan handiwork. Most of the people who live on the islands also have a house in town where they stay during the week and travel to town by speed boat; island residents are not as segregated as they seem.
After a lesson in Uros culture and reed house construction, we were divided into groups and invited in the houses to see an example of island living. The construction was simple and each house is one giant room. Each house is powered by clean energy– an individual solar panel soaks up the bright mountain sun all day and is used to provide electricity to the house. In the past candles were used, but you can imagine that the fire + straw combo was a bad idea…
The houses contained artisan work and the couple that was showing us around sat silently stitching in the corner. I felt as there was some pressure to buy something but as I wasn’t headed home, and didn’t need anything, I resisted. I got a few dirty looks, but I try not to buy things I don’t need just for the sake of buying it. Maybe had I visited the Uros Islands prior to setting up my apartment in the north, I would have been in the market, but as it was, I was going to be backpacking for at least six weeks and I like to keep my load to a minimum.
From the house-shop were we were ushered onto a reed boat to be transported to the next island where fresh trout was available for lunch. The reed boat and lunch are technically optional because it costs an extra 10 soles to ride and lunch prices depend on what you order, but with an exchange rate of nearly 3 soles = $1, lunch of trout and quinoa was well worth the $3.50.
Reed boat construction is rather fascinating. The reeds are rather flimsy and they soak up water quickly so at first glance not the obvious first choice for a vessel to navigate the frigid waters of Lake Titicaca. But someone had the truly genius idea of filling the frame of the reed boat with empty plastic water bottles. Thus adding a layer of security to the reed frame and second, and just as important, finding a way to recycle some of the overwhelming number of plastic bottles in Peru.
Best piece of advice during this tour… take minute, set down your camera, find a quiet corner of the island and just sit. Sit and appreciate the beauty of nature. Be. Take time to appreciate the massiveness of the lake, the warm [almost hot] high, mountain sun, the bright blue water and the incredible floating island energy that surrounds you.
Until I get going, I will reflect back on some of my past travels and travel mishaps before I started this blog. This first post recounts my first visit overseas, my first alcoholic drink, and my first attempt at understand a ‘foreign’ language… Yes, I’m calling English a foreign language because in the beginning I couldn’t understand anything that was said.
I am 19 years old and about to get on a plane for the very first time. My carry-on bag [a multi-colored Prince duffel bag at that] is too big and too heavy, but I manage to stuff it up in the overhead bin. I’m a little bit nervous, but mostly excited. I’m not all that sure what I am going to do once I get to England, but now, I’m boarding my flight.
This is no ordinary flight. My first flight happens to be an international one–from Atlanta to London. And I am flying alone. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. I saved every penny earned from my job at the hardware store so that I could accompany my boyfriend of almost a year to England. I got my very first passport, bought a plane ticket, and I am going to England–even if I have to go alone. Boyfriend can join me later. I am going to enjoy the ride.
Flying is awesome. Free alcohol is better. What better way to have my first taste of alcohol [vodka and orange juice in case you’re wondering] than at 30,000 feet flying across the Atlantic. Gotta love KLM–Royal Dutch Airways and their 18 year old legal limit for consuming alcohol.
The plane landed at Gatwick. The only airport in London I know in Heathrow. Getting into London isn’t as straightforward as it seems. First up Customs. Then passport control. Then there is finding your way into central London. As for me, I just follow the crowd.
My first conversation with a Londoner [ticket agent] goes something like this:
Me: I need a ticket to Stafford please.
Them: kdjfkdjkijgnv joiufigm jkf fgfdkjare
Me: I am sorry. I didn’t understand you. Can you say that again, please? [As a foreign languages major, I have learned that saying ‘please’ is one of the most helpful things you can do to help yourself when trying to communicate in a foreign language. And this was just as foreign as my first year studying German]
Them: jfkdkfiglkgnkdj dkja k Houston Station.
Me: OK, thank you.
Me: [thinking]: Where the hell is Houston? I thought I was in London.
I slink away not knowing where I am or how to get to where I am going. And my bag is getting heavy. [It’s not a proper suitcase. Or a backpack. It’s a tennis bag.] Who’s bright idea was it to carry a duffel bag instead of a suitcase? Oh yea… not mine…
Next conversation [another ticket person]
Me: I need to get to Houston Station, please.
Them: Houston? There is no Houston. Perhaps you mean Euston Station? Where are you going, miss?
Me: I am going to Stafford, England.
Them: [smiling] You definitely need to get Euston Station, and then you will be able to board the Brit Rail Train to Stafford.
Me: Thank you. Is it far… this Euston Station? and Stafford for that matter?
Them: Oh no… it’s just three stops on the tube. Would you like to purchase your ticket to Stafford now? It’s about 3 hours away by train. Past Birmingham but not quite as far as Manchester.
Me: Ok… thank you… Yes, I would like to buy the ticket now… just one way… I am not sure when I am returning. My boyfriend is meeting me. We were supposed to travel together, but something happened at work and he couldn’t get away.
Them [smiling, again]: Here you go… enjoy your visit…