HOW THE HELL DID THIS ALL START?
On my 36th birthday, everything looked pretty stellar on paper. I had a good job, amazing friends, more than enough money, and a lovely boyfriend. But I couldn’t sleep at night. I felt disappointed in myself all the time. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was missing out on something bigger and that I was not living up to my potential, whatever that meant. That nagging “is this it?” question kept tapping on the door of my subconscious… as it had been for quite a few years.
So in the run-up to my 37th birthday, I split from my boyfriend, quit my cushy job, and bought a round the world ticket with the expectation that I would bum around for 4 months and then end in Australia where I would look for a job again. Never in my worried, feverish little dreams did I imagine that 4 month trip would tun into 15 months and that I would end up in Chile, not Australia, looking for a job in a country where I didn’t speak the language. Am I completely mad?
I recall a conversation with a particularly cool girl in Hong Kong. When I revealed my plans to go to South America, she chimed in that she too had done that. She spent 6 months traveling around the samba continent and came right back to her job in Hong Kong. This terrified me. That is exactly what I did not want. I did not want an extended vacation, I wanted to reengineer my life. Granted, I had not a clue what that life might look like at the end, but I knew I just didn’t want “this.”
Goals, goals, goals. People are always harping on about having goals. Write them down. Say them every day. Stay focused. I had no goals other than to just not be where I was. I figured I’d magically come up with a goal along the way. Maybe I just needed time to think. Time to dry out from the hectic party lifestyle I’d been leading. Clear that cloudy mind of mine.
I’d never backpacked before. And I hadn’t stayed in a hostel since I biked around Cape Cod when I was 13. This was an experience. No more 5-star hotels with room service and that wonderful person who would arrange all your toiletries on a crisp white towel while you were out. No Mercedes Benz driver holding a sign for you at the airport. You are on your fucking own. In South America (cue jungle sounds).
Touchdown in Cuba!! What the hell am I doing? For the first three weeks before heading to South America I had one of my best friends from Hong Kong with me, so this was a nice way of easing into things. We stayed in casa particulares (people’s homes where they’d rent a room to you for the night). We walked around a lot. Took 2,000 photos (no exaggeration) and laughed about how much our lives had changed in just a few short weeks. Cuba was amazing in many ways. I’d read a lot about the country and Che Guevara in particular during my “buck the system” days as a student in London, so I had a vague idea of the history, but certainly the reality of being in a place is so different from reading about it in your shitty walk-up in Islington.
After our whirlwind three weeks traversing Cuba by bus, we both flew back to Mexico City, the real starting point for the South American extravaganza. We were both flying to Buenos Aires from there, but we had different flights. She left about 10 hours before me. I can’t begin to describe how I felt when she left the hotel room to catch her flight. The door closed and I was on my own. This is it. Panic. I’d see her again when I got to Buenos Aires, but just for one night. She flew directly to Ushuaia a day later and I had zero plans. I hadn’t even researched Argentina. At all. I knew they danced tango and had good steak and Malbec. That’s it. What an amateur.
My first full day in Argentina was a complete disaster. I got robbed. Of everything I owned. My locker got broken into in the hostel and they took EVERYTHING. Both my big and small backpacks with all my clothes, shoes, camera, iPad, underwear, hat, toothpaste!! I’d been out for a walk so at least I had my money and phone with me and one of my passports, but they got everything else. That bitch even packed up my toothbrush which had been sitting out. So there I was in Argentina beginning my massive trip with my purse, sunglasses, a white cotton tank top, dirty khaki shorts, and flip flops. Hi Argentina!! I’m HERE!!!
A few people asked me if I was going to “go home.” What? That is not an option. I had left my apartment and put all my furniture in storage. I had no job. What would I do??? Slink back to Hong Kong with my tail between my legs “I suffered a big setback… and I gave up like a little crybaby.” No. Failure is not an option. I’m doing this.
Make no mistake, I did cry one night after 8,000 glasses of wine supplied by a strange American at lunch and when my insurance company told me I needed to supply all the original receipts to get any money back (check your policy wordings before you leave…. says the monkey girl who worked in insurance for 8 years and still didn’t check). So there I was, out USD6,000 and about to rebuy everything in Argentina, who had set the USD-ARG peso at 1:5. Bullshit! I’m getting angry again just writing about it.
But just when things were really shitty, I changed hostels (to be closer to the mall) and the people were so nice to me after hearing what happened, they gave me their food and clothes. An Australian girl gave me a skirt, a Belgian girl gave me a jacket, a Dutch guy gave me his t-shirt and an extra towel, and a wonderful Israeli girl helped me through it all with her awesome friendship. Buenos Aires wasn’t so bad after all.
For me, a person who is loathe to ask for help or even admit when I need it, their kindness was an unexpected lesson in humility. They expected nothing back. My initial response was to say “no thank you” because I knew I could not reciprocate on any level, and I didn’t want to “owe” anyone. But they insisted. And as I later found out, sometimes you just have to accept help for what it is. You aren’t Superwoman and no one expects you to be. Sometimes we need help.
So after purchasing a lot of overpriced Argentinian clothing and making some friends at the ice cream shop at the mall (have you fucking tried Argentinian Dulce de Leche ice cream??? You will die) I boarded a bus to nowhere Patagonia and my trip began for real.
Originally posted in: I Quit For This by Melanie O’Toole
Thanks to our friend Melanie for sharing how her multi-year travel adventure began! Her story inspires us, as her journey did not go as planned, yet she found ways to make it work, and well keep up the humor.
Give her a follow and see how her 4 month trip has turned into a 3 year adventure and still going!
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