New York.

Arrival.

What began in my head was a two and a half month trip to Colombia and Patagonia, in Argentina and Chile. I would return home in late February to begin my job search in New York City, and return to life as it had been before. But that didn’t happen. The year 2016 became a six and a half month adventure through twelve countries in South America, North America, and the Central Caribbean.

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Saying goodbye to New York! My first photo.

People ask me what was the highlight of my trip, and I have trouble answering this. I suppose I’d have to categorize my favorite places by their best features, whether it be the culture, food, dance, the interactions I had with the local people, the times I had absorbed the beauty of the physical landscape, or the types of adventures I had with certain people. I often reply in terms of sheer beauty of Patagonia in Chile and Argentina, and the salt desert in Uyuni, Bolivia, were the most incredible. In terms of all around nightlife, sights, and culture, I enjoyed my time in Colombia the most. Iquitos, Peru and the surrounding Amazonian rainforest were the most insightful in terms of the environmental ephemerality of our world. The sunsets were endless, and I experienced the best ones in Punta del Este, Uruguay, Jericoacoara, Brasil, or Mancora, Peru. I saw more monkeys and other wildlife in the jungle regions of Costa Rica than anyplace else on my trip. I tested my physical limits in Antigua, Guatemala and I went through emotional roller coasters in Ecuador. Cuba shocked me to my core, but in a good way.

All the places I traveled to for 6.5 months.
All the places I traveled to during my 6.5 months abroad.

So what happened exactly? What comes to mind first is what my body went through in these months. I shattered my gut, at times having no choice but to eating food that I knew just didn’t sit well with me (and only truly feeling better once I returned home). I was hospitalized once from a bad experience with food. I had variety of infections, a skin fungus, sunburns, scabies, mosquito bites that at one point required a half a tube of cortisone a day to alleviate the itching, mosquito bites that turned into massive bruises, and a right knee injury that stayed with me from the time I hurt myself in December until now.

A backpacker can take a lot of discomfort, and traveling can give us an incredible amount of perspective, especially when coming upon certain luxuries that some people take for granted in their daily lives. I learned to carry toilet paper with me wherever I went for the basic reason that toilet paper is a necessity in bathroom use throughout much of the world. I learned to “use the toilet” in a variety of places: in a hostel, an outhouse, a hole in the ground, or on any given patch of grass or behind a rock. There were times when I slept in a bed at a hostel, sharing a room with 2 people to at most 14 people. But I also slept in a tent, a hammock, on a couch, in a closet, on the beach, on the floor, or in a bus. Sometimes where I slept it was too cold, sometimes it was too hot. I slept at altitudes ranging from sea level to 4500 meters above sea level. I rode shared small gypsey busses for durations ranging from 5 minutes to 12 hours. I slept in long haul busses, at the longest for 23 hours in one time and in seats ranging from the lowest economic quality to a decent 140 degree incline, and even once in a luxury 180 degree lie-flat seat. II spent 4 days without showering. A cockroach lived in my bag for a couple of days without my knowledge. Sometimes electricity was not in the day’s itinerary. Wifi was a gift, one that at times was malfunctioning but highly appreciated when available. And of course one cannot go traveling that long without any experiences with theft; I had my money and belongings stolen twice, once in Peru and the other time in Ecuador.

What did I learn? Well, I made a lot of travelers’ mistakes. I learned that in long-term travel, it is not advisable to book anything in advance, past the next 3-4 days. You never know where you’ll end up, or if you’ll want to stay a day or two longer in a particular place. This goes for plane tickets, hostel reservations, bus tickets,and short, 1-3 tour bookings. Speaking of tours, I learned that group tours for long periods of time are not for me. In fact, it was one of the few regrets I had during my trip, not having explored Patagonia on my own, the way I saw the rest of South America. I learned that I had overpacked medications for every possible scenario: unless you have a prescription medication you’ll need to take every day, most likely all medications will be available at a local pharmacy. And I found that they were far cheaper there than anywhere in the United States and Europe. For example, malaria pills are not only really inexpensive in South America, they also don’t require a prescription. I was also much too cautious about the potential altitude sickness I would have arriving in Bolivia, and so I started taking Diamox right away, which ended up doing more harm than good for me. Just simply resting, taking it slow, sleeping at a decent hour, eating well, and drinking lots of water are all you’ll need to prevent altitude sickness. One mistake I didn’t make was overpack.  I used all of what I had packed (here is my post on what exactly came with me in my backpack). Although I only had clothes for cooler climates, so I ended up throwing away some of those while I was in Brasil and buying more clothes fit for summer, for I knew I would be making my way up the continent by the end of my trip.

Yet all these illnesses, mistakes, and general discomforts combined are all still a minor piece of the totality of my travel experience. Because what, really, did I do? I danced salsa in Havana and tango in Buenos Aires. I bathed in the miraculous volcanic hotsprings in Baños. I partied with the locals in Montevideo. I hiked up a snowy, active volcano in Pucón. I saw the witches market in La Paz. I scuba dived in the cenotes of the Caribbean coast of Tulum. I surfed in Manuel Antonio. I went paragliding in Medellin. I danced in the famous Sambódromo for Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. I visited the ancient Mayan ruins in Tikal. I witnessed extreme geographical diversity as I hiked to a glacial lake in the high mountains of Huaraz and sand boarded in the hot desert of Huacachina, all within 36 hours.

This is what I did, plus a whole lot more.

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Volcan Villarrica in Pucon, Chile.

Waterfall hike near Montezuma, also on the Nicoya Peninsula.
Waterfall in Montezuma, Costa Rica.

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Paragliding in Medellin, Colombia.

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Perito Moreno Glacier in El Calafate, Argentina.

At the Sambodromo in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil, for Carnaval.
At the Sambodromo in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil, for Carnaval.

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Sunset in Punta del Este, Uruguay.

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Huacachina, Peru.

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Treetop swinging in Banos, Ecuador.

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Acatenango Volcano, Guatemala.

Havana, Cuba.
Havana, Cuba.

Diving through the Casa Cenote, one of the longest cave systems in the world.
Casa Cenote, Mexico.

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Uyuni Desert, Bolivia.

It truly amazes me how little I expected my travels to turn out the way they did. The turn of events and the expectations I had have shown me that each choice I made, whether they were as small as what time to move on to my destination or as impactful as deciding to continue traveling, have led me to where I am sitting right now, at this very moment, typing this post.

As I reflect on my journey I see that today it’s been 1 month and 19 days since I’ve returned home. I purposefully took this amount of time before writing anything, as I’ve decided to fully integrate myself back into living here, and to be careful not to make any judgements about myself and my surroundings until I’ve fully settled. Truth is, I can’t possibly feel fully settled; although I’ve recently returned home, I’m in a state of transition. I know that at some point in the next year I will be moving to Europe, more specifically to Berlin, to go to graduate school. I’m not living in my old home in Manhattan anymore; I’ve moved back to my mother’s house on Long Island. It’s a transition into living under someone’s roof again, and with that comes a balance of learning to keep your own space while also respecting the rules of someone else’s home. And without that freedom or that mobility of city-life, I am physically and mentally forced to take a step back, slow down, and not put myself through any pressures of being everywhere at all times.

I was lucky to have a beautiful reintroduction to New York City, with an evening flight from Cancun where outside my window I saw lightning storms, a gorgeous sunset, and a view of the Manhattan skyline. I immediately burst to tears when the plane touched down; it was as if I was holding back all my emotions until the moment when my arrival was physically real and final. I remembered when I landed at JFK in January of 2015 after traveling to Southeast Asia, when I couldn’t hold back my tears at knowing I had come back too soon, pulled back before I felt complete. But this time, I think I cried because I knew it would be quite some time before I would have the opportunity to travel long-term again. I was overwhelmed with knowing that I was going to start, at a fairly fast pace, a new phase of my life, and one that wouldn’t keep me in the United States much longer. True, I would be traveling someplace else in the near future, but in a different sort of way. And despite the sadness, I also felt a release of that past phase. It was an emotional shedding of the old and an acceptance of the unknown future.

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Views from my flight coming back to New York.

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When I first saw the New York City skyline from the car a few days after settling back in Long Island, the hairs on my arms raised and I felt goosebumps across my skin. New York truly is a beautiful city. And the first stop I made was to my old apartment in Battery Park City to pick up a few things I left there. I greeted my roommate and stepped inside; that moment was entirely surreal to me. Nothing had changed. I walked over to my window, watching the sun setting over Jersey City, the Hudson River reflecting the pink glow in the sky, the piers dotted with mega yachts and people running and biking along the boardwalk. I smiled as I remembered my time spent in the apartment, and the knowledge that I couldn’t move back did tug at me. I felt for one moment the desire to sit on my bed and say, “Okay, living with you seemed like fun mom, but, I think I’m going to go and find a job tomorrow and start living here again. See you later!” But that moment passed. Because as much I tried to feel like I was home again, I couldn’t. It felt incredible to go back and see just how much I made my life in New York, in that apartment, my home. But I was a visitor now, and if I had to go back in time and choose whether I would go on this journey for as long as I did, or remain in my apartment as a local, I would do exactly what I had done ten times over again.

That was at the end of June. And now it’s early August, and I am getting ready to leave the country yet again, this time to Brasil for the Olympic Games in Rio. This time not as a solo backpacker, rather with my family on a vacation that was planned nearly two years ago. Just a week ago, I was sitting outside in my backyard reading a copy of E.B. White’s famous essay, Here is New York. Interestingly I had the book sitting in my room for over four months before I even left the country in December, and yet I only picked it up now to read for the first time. At after each and every page I wanted to put the book down, get someone’s attention and cry out, “How has no one ever made me read this before!” It made one thousand percent sense to me, what E.B. White had written. And even more so being that he wrote his reflections on New York City (namely Manhattan) from the perspective of an outsider, someone who had gone to the city young and bright-eyed, lived life to its fullest there, and has since left the craze for a quieter, more comfortable life in the country. I was amazed that what he wrote can describe the city right at this very moment, even though it was written in the summer of 1948, as he describes it as both “changeless yet changing.” It’s interesting to me that I found myself reading this after deciding to formally leave New York and after deciding to try living in Europe for some time. I think that if I read this essay when I first purchased the book, while living in that apartment in Battery Park City, I wouldn’t have felt the same connection with White as I do now. Because now I guess you could say I am an outsider, too. And with a whole bucket list of experiences to back me up, from not only my time in South America but from all my travels since I was a child, I am absolutely ready for what’s next.

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Hang-gliding in Rio de Janeiro.

Tulum.

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The last stop on my journey. My flight from Havana to Cancun is a leap of extremes; I enter North America in way of a transition back to the comfortably western, accommodating, and developed world that awaits me in New York. I depart Havana without having used the internet for more than one hour in eleven days and arrive to instant access to free wifi at the airport in Cancun. The limited supply of baked goods in the bakeries of Cuba were transformed to supermarkets providing varying types of cookies, cakes, and any sweet treats imaginable. I went from one world to the next on a mere 45 minute flight. I wasn’t prepared to arrive in a part of Mexico where there are more Americans than Mexicans, where American brands infiltrated every corner shop on main street, and where you can eat just about any type of cuisine you desired, from Thai to Italian to BBQ. Thankfully, my exposure to Cancun was limited only to the airport and to a brief stroll through downtown Playa del Carmen for a bus to mini-shuttle changeover. Although Tulum as a neighborhood is far less affected by the United States, it still gave me a shock, not only coming from Cuba but coming from six months of the hardships and discomforts I often experienced in South America. Indeed I was heading towards home, and Tulum, fortunately or not, was that last little thread I hung by to remind myself that I was a backpacker pushing through a whole lot of grit for half a year.

Initially I felt a little down by being back so close to the lifestyle I had departed from while traveling. But Tulum is a lovely town, although lacking of an “I’m in a foreign country that is Mexico” feeling. It’s a town of transplants from the United States and Europe, and most of them have a warm, inviting, and free-spirit hippie vibe about them. Tulum downtown is small, and after four days there I felt like a local. There are your typical pharmacies, souvenir shops, and alcohol vendors, but you can see the influence of foreigners changing the landscape of the town: fresh juice shops, street stalls selling coconut water, loads of wall murals painted with colorful, Mayan-inspired art, homemade gelato and ice cream stores, a shop selling only varying types of organic iced tea, scuba diving schools, and bicycle rentals. Mexico is cheaper than New York, and certainly not as backpacker friendly as much of South America; however, the prices of such luxuries I missed while traveling, like a green juice smoothie or dairy-free ice cream, were significantly less than in New York City, and I was grateful to have these little niceties accessible again.  

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For those with money to spend and a need for more of a beach/yoga retreat, the accommodations along the beach are where you’ll find ample opportunities. Only about fifteen minutes by car from downtown, these resorts and hotels line up one next to another, although in a way entirely dissimilar to Cancun. Instead of large, all-inclusive resorts with fancy gates and infinity pools, these hotels incorporate all the nature it occupies, with trees and sand making its way into the design of the space. The water in Tulum is a gorgeous turquoise, the sand is soft, and palm trees are plentiful. The hotels creatively incorporate the serenity that people seek when they come to Tulum, largely for a healthy yoga and meditation experience. It’s a single road that connects all the hotels, restaurants with vegan offerings, and stores that sell bohemian clothes and high-end leather dreamcatchers. The highly participated nightlife consists mostly of DJs playing deep house music on the beach, and those devoted to the festival scene congregate here at various times throughout the year.
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Knowing the way in which I like to travel, I can say that if I was in Tulum just for a vacation, I wouldn’t like it as much as I did while I was there in this context. As an outsider it truly seemed like a carefree, beach version of New York City, if we had no worry about making enough money or having a successful career. It’s a place where people go to escape but also have the option of bringing their diet and active lifestyle with them. And I was okay with that. There were times when I traveled when I wasn’t eating well merely because that type of food wasn’t available. I wasn’t getting enough sunshine and fresh air because a city was enveloped in smog. I would be so cold that my muscles ached. And here, I could absorb the piercing heat and the sunshine. I could relax and take one last inhale before heading back to the unknown that awaited me.

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I snorkeled with the green sea turtles, I swam in the clear, warm Caribbean waters, I ate fresh fruit and drank coconut water every day. I visited the Mayan ruins of Tulum. I went cavern diving in two beautiful cenotes. This was a highlight for me; never had I scuba dived in almost complete darkness and in fresh water where the water is completely still, where you have 100% perfect visibility. In these caverns I saw the world of caves under water, almost as if you were looking upside down. I saw just how complex these caves can be, how the stalactites and stalagmites are even more beautiful below the surface.

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Tulum ruins on the coast.

Diving through the Casa Cenote, one of the longest cave systems in the world.
Diving through the Casa Cenote, one of the longest cave systems in the world.

I’ve written this post so far as memory. Truthfully, I am back in New York now (my thoughts about being back will come in another post). However, I would like to share what I had written on my very last day traveling, the day I was to leave Tulum for a flight out of Cancun and back to New York. I wrote it on my phone with the intention of including it in this post once I was able to.

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A perfectly modern, western transition back into society. Tulum has certainly felt more like a vacation; I would say Cuba was the last time I felt like a backpacker, or at least the last time I truly acted like one.  It’s amazing to realize all the types of discomforts we are able to bear when we travel, and how little we seek out the comforts of a Tulum-type of place until, perhaps, the very end, when we know we are going home and all we want is to make things as seamless as possible.

And I’ve been transitioning socially as well, messaging friends to let them know of my arrival. I could have ignored their messages but I figured it would be best to slowly start speaking with them. I’m not sure I am ready to see some of them, honestly. But anyways, it should be alright.

So anyhow, today is the last day, and I needed to document this day as it is important to me. It’s the last day of the my past that I hope will shape my present. That I may slow down my walking pace, seek to not judge others and new people, embrace the travel spirit, blah blah blah. You know, all that life changing stuff we hear about from returning backpackers. But seriously, I am fully aware that this is a time of my life that was so precious, a gift I cannot help but be so proud to have received. I realize that not everyone can travel the way that I did.

There was so much of the normal trials and tribulations of a backpacker that I experienced while traveling through South and Central America, but I also left much behind me as I began to pave new paths for my future. I had to leave my apartment without actually physically being there, never having closure of my life in NYC and without a guarantee of coming back. I gave up job opportunities, and an immediate chance of employment at a tech startup in Berlin. I realized that I wanted to go to graduate school. So, I did research, chose a school in Berlin, applied for that school (by writing my essay in a Starbucks in Cusco), got accepted, took some time to see if I was really ready to leave town this coming September after a busy summer, and decided to defer my admission for one year. I am going home with no plan; all I know for now is I have about a month in New York while my cousin from Brasil will be visiting and my grandmother will be spending one week at home. So it’s a full house and a full summer, as I am leaving again for Brasil in August to see the Olympics in Rio. All of a sudden I’m a busy girl again, with places to go and people to see.

I suppose this way is better than being alone and without direction. But I still feel I am still without a true direction, and that makes me nervous. It also makes me laugh, because I met so many people traveling who were doing the exact same thing as I was. They were trying to find themselves through travel, trying to find the answers they were looking for. But as of right now I really don’t know where I will be in 6 months. The goal for right now is going to Berlin to work and then attend graduate school. I am absolutely certain that I need a break from the city that has worn me out, from New York. Being away from the city for so long made me realize that as much as I miss some of its comforts, culture, and glamour, I would truly rather give it all up, again, to see the world the way I saw it in South America.
To feel such rawness and extremes of emotions, to go through as many blissful moments as I did obstacles, all at once overwhelming, humbling, and powerful. To meet people that have inspired me and have made me look at myself in new ways. To see extraordinary beauty. This is travel. This was my six and a half months. All I can say is that I am excited yet terrified to be going home. As I have said and believed in time and time again: the universe provides, and what I am meant to be doing in my life is going to happen just the way it’s supposed to be.

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