What were the best (most useful) things we brought

Sheena and I spent a lot of time thinking about what to bring on this trip. Maybe we should have spent a little less, since some of the last minute, least thought-out purchases ended up being the most useful. Here are a few that almost everyday we’re glad we brought along.

  • Camelbak All-Clear UV Water Filter – Thanks Mom and Dad! Best Christmas gift ever! This thing is amazing. It costs about $100, but we think we would have spent about three-times that in bottled water throughout Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador (parts of Colombia too) without it. We’ve never been sick from drinking the filtered water from the tap, and it’s super easy to use. The advantage over other systems (like Steripen) is that you screw the UV-cap directly onto the bottle and agitate. No spillage – no hassles.
  • Tokina 12-24mm, F/4 Wide Angle Lens – I bought this one week before we left, when a photographer friend stared at me, mouth open, after I told him what equipment I was going to bring. For our first month in Patagonia alone, the purchase was worth it. The Tokina works flawlessly with my Canon SLR body, and I saved about $100. Highly recommended!

Wide angle shot of the reservoir surrounding Guatape, Colombia

  • AYL Portable Speaker – It’s small and easy to use. The charge lasts a long time, then easily charges back up with USB. The sound quality is great and always surprising how loud it can get considering it’s size. We use this for music and watching movies on the laptop.
  • Charles Schwab Investment Checking Debit Card – Sheena did all the research, while I got on this one at the last possible minute (seriously, I shipped this overnight to California days before we left). This is the one card that we found which has no Currency Conversion Fees, and refunds all ATM fees. We’ve saved more than $400 by using this card. Many banks down here only let you take out $100 at a time, and will charge you up to 5%. Then your own bank might charge you the same! We are so happy we have had this card with us. It’s a bit of a hassle to set up, so do it more than a week before you leave..

Thoughts on Coming Home

In some ways, I can hardly believe we’re boarding a flight in a week to go back to the States; in other ways, I really just CANNOT wait! There are so many things I’m looking forward to (mostly food-related), that it feels difficult to wait even these last several days. But I also know that there are many things that I’ll miss about South America, despite how much I’ve complained during this trip.

It’s been very interesting to realize just how routine “going without” can become. No one I know would voluntarily wear the same pair of socks four days in a row, but since we have so few pairs and doing laundry is not a common occurrence due to inconvenience and cost, we have done so. It’s not pleasant, nor does it smell good, but it’s something that had to be done, and so we’ve learned to deal with it.

Having never done a trip longer than three weeks before this year-long adventure, there have been a lot of learning points for me. I’ve learned not to expect too much–what I would call buffalo wings, will probably come out of the kitchen as nothing like buffalo wings, so I’ve slowly become inured to the disappointment. I’ve learned how to pack my backpack so that it holds a lot more than it did when I first started out. I’ve learned what I can handle, or, more importantly, what I can’t handle, without going off the deep end. Travel has, of course, changed me, but I hope I haven’t become one of those tiresome people who talk about travel as if it’s the best thing in life, even better than water, probably (ugh, spare me!).

No, I can think of better ways to describe travel without putting it on some kind of pedestal high above every other possible ambition in life.

It’s a sacrifice, but so are careers, relationships, houses, children… anything worth having, really. You don’t view a horrible time as some kind of life lesson or beautiful experience that reminds you of the universe, you just forget about it and move on. And you will have horrible times, don’t doubt that. You will, in fact, hate travel sometimes, but be assured that these times are quite few, even if you’re a cynical, withered, old viper like myself. It can open your eyes, but don’t be surprised if you meet some exceedingly ignorant travelers along the way. Be open to experiences, but please don’t think you have to eat fried ants just because they’re there and “you have to do it”. There are limits. And lastly, it’s not for everybody, but don’t be afraid of it, because you’ll never regret it.

So here, willy-nilly, are several lists of things that have been floating through my head these past few weeks as the end has loomed up.

Things that I’ll miss about S. America vs. N. America:

  • The ability to buy just one tablet of any drug at the pharmacy (or, indeed, one stick of celery at the supermarket, etc.)
  • Central markets. I know we have Pike Place Market in Seattle, and other Farmer’s Markets (the closest equivalent to the mercado central down here), but it’s really just not the same!
  • Set lunches/dinners
  • Stray dogs, animals everywhere. The sheer number of llamas, alpacas, vicuñas, dogs, cats, pigs, cows, sheep, horses, and birds that we’ve seen is astonishing. There’s nothing quite like peeping over a fence and seeing a litter of piglets bouncing around and off each other in maddening cuteness. I will miss having a pet dog for the day, or having a hostel cat curl up in your lap for an hour or two.
  • Fruit/produce stands on the corners of streets. It’s like having your own little Farmer’s Market just down the road, for exceedingly cheap prices!
  • Ease and economy of travel. Since Craig and I have been trying to plan our travel up the West Coast from Los Angeles to Seattle, it has only come to us even more forcefully how incredibly difficult and costly it is to travel through the States. Imagine a bus that left every 30 minutes from LA to San Francisco, that cost only $6, and was fairly comfortable. You can’t!
  • Speaking Spanish all the time. Just when I was starting to get pretty good…
  • Meeting new people all the time.

Things I won’t miss about S. America or just traveling in general:

  • Having to bargain for every. little. thing! If you imagine bargaining as fun, just try doing it every day for everything (bus transportation included!). It gets dull.
  • Feeling ripped off – the flip side of not bargaining and why we feel the need to do it.
  • Not having my own bathroom (and having to wear flip flops when I shower).
  • Needing to acquaint myself with my surroundings every few days.
  • Researching and booking hostels–a never-ending task.
  • Only having six shirts, one pair of jeans, one pair of leggings, one pair of shorts, two dresses, one hoody, and two pairs of underwear. If I never see these clothes again it will be too soon.
  • Meeting new people all the time. This, also, can get pretty tiring!
  • Being away from family and friends.
  • Trying to sleep through the sounds of donkeys braying, roosters crowing, dogs barking, car alarms going off, thumping bass music from the club next door, etc.
  • Having to constantly avoid stepping on dog poo on the sidewalks.

Things I wish I’d brought and have subsequently had to buy (or not, as indicated by *):

  • Boxer shorts
  • Black leggings (I have bought no less than 4 pairs on this trip, having had to get rid of other pairs for various reasons)
  • Waterproof camera case, but I think Craig and I should get a proper waterproof camera someday
  • Extra pair street socks (so 4 total)
  • Hoody (Patagonia was SO cold!)
  • Trucker hat or cute sun hat
  • Insulated water bottle*
  • Usb drive w/ movies & music
  • Binoculars*
  • Sarong that can be cute scarf too (never entirely successful with this)
  • Bobby pins (just a few)
  • Shower cap
  • Cute flip flops (since my ballerina Crocs didn’t work out)

Things I’ve lost:

  • 1 pair street socks
  • Headlamp
  • Tent poles (UGH.)
  • Beanie
  • Headphones (but retrieved later by Mayra from Mi Pequeña Ayuda, for which I am forever grateful)
  • 1 sock liner – Is there anything sadder than a lone sock without its partner? Yes, probably, many things…

Things Craig has lost (he wins):

  • Two trucker hats
  • Earplugs

Things I can live without but would rather not have to:

  • Hair conditioner
  • Face wash
  • My clothes (a quarter of what I’ve carried around is hiking clothes, which I don’t even wear much)
  • Washing said clothes after a single use (this would have gotten veeeerry expensive… and tiresome)
  • Having more than two pairs of underwear (I need to stop harping on this, don’t I?)
  • Knitting stuff (and I could only live without it for about four months)
  • A good kitchen
  • A private room – Nothing like being jolted awake by the person in the bunk below you thrashing around… although we’ve thankfully escaped that constant menace of backpackers having sex in the dorms! The term “Get a room!” really has special meaning here…
  • Hooks. Possibly the easiest thing to add to any hostel room, but sadly lacking in most. Luckily, there are usually chairs, curtain rods, paintings that you can put on the floor, etc…
  • A bathroom that doesn’t have the holy trifecta: toilet seat, toilet paper, or soap. Inevitably, there’s always something missing.

Things I can’t live without (especially while traveling):

  • P-style!! I can never say enough good things about this.
  • Shower flip flops (I have this thing about my feet…), and no, they don’t JUST have to be for the shower
  • Knitting stuff, at least not after four months… and probably only in colder climates, if I think about it more…
  • Small travel towel. A big towel is not needed at all; I can only think of one instance where a hostel did not have towels available at all (and because they weren’t dry yet), and only two or three hostels that actually charged for towels
  • Kindle, which Craig can attest to since he’s always trying to steal mine
  • About ten million stuff sacks. You can never, NEVER have enough stuff sacks
  • Baby wipes (they saved my butt–literally!–when I had that blowout during the Uyuni jeep tour)

I’d better just stop this last list before I get carried away. There are, in fact, many many things I can’t do without, but since they include such mundane items as nail clippers, I’ll spare you the gory details. Needless to say, it’s dead boring.

What I won’t miss

As our trip nears it’s inevitable (and possibly overdue) end, we’re thinking a lot about what we learned along the way. There are lots of things that we’ll miss about life down here, many things that we would have done differently, and then quite a few daily experiences that we’ll manage without. Concerning the last item, here’s my list:

  • Bus rides – I think this one is obvious. We’ll count up how many buses we’ve taken later, but my guess is it’s somewhere around 100. These are mostly long distance, inter-city buses, but then there are those small micros that we took for day-trips, or just to get across a city, that aren’t represented in that number. Probably, we took some sort of “bus” every other day, for one whole year. Ouch. Yes, sometimes they were comfortable, but those were usually the super long distance ones (i.e. more than 8 hours long). Being slightly nauseous, without sufficient leg room, and constantly worrying about our bags getting stolen, for hours and hours is just not something I will miss!
  • Living out of a backpack – During our trip we were drawn to certain places/cities more than others, and ended up staying for longer periods of time. This was always a welcome break from the constant unpacking and repacking ritual, but it always made leaving even harder for me. My stuff would be spread out everywhere, nothing fit like it used to, and it was generally hell to have to get everything back in my bag. Damn, I will not miss that.
  • Staying in hostels – Hostels can be lovely. I mean, truly, I wouldn’t prefer to stay in any other accommodation while traveling (well, OK maybe a home stay sometimes). But some things wear on you. There are almost always annoying things about a hostel. Maybe the bed sucks (or more likely, the pillow). Maybe the other guests are inconsiderate. Maybe your room is right on the main road. The quest for a perfect hostel is almost at mythical levels for me. We always talk about “that hostel in Sucre” and pine for something like it. Sleeping in my own bed, with my own pillow, will be something close to nirvana.
  • “The Queuing Problem” – This one is a bit more involved. To describe my nomenclature, I’ll talk about queuing first. In 90% (yes, not everywhere) of the places we’ve been in South America, queuing is a nightmare. You have to actively fight to keep your spot in line, as others are constantly trying to sneak past you. I was waiting in a bakery once, and I was clearly the next person in line, when an older lady just started ordering. I even called her out on it, and she said something like, “uh huh, isn’t that sweet” and then finished her order… To me, this is indicative of a larger “eat or be eaten” attitude. When you walk down the sidewalk, better keep your head straight ahead or someone is going to run right into you. They don’t care about you. There’s no awareness for the safety or well being of others. If you cross the street, better time it right because that car is not going to slow down. It’s what I imagine New York City to be like, except it’s a whole continent. My favorite “quirk” under this category is how people disembark transportation. When you are 2 or 3 minutes from the terminal, everyone gets out of their seats and starts lining up in the aisle of the bus. They do it in airplanes too. And they don’t let you out of your row easily. I don’t know. Basically, I just don’t understand, but I’m really looking forward to getting away from it!
  • Dealing with cash – In Seattle I would rarely have cash. Every once in a while I’d grab a $20 so I wouldn’t have to wait for my card to be run in a bar, maybe. But down here almost everything runs on cash. And sometimes you have to plan ahead when towns don’t have ATMs. This means carrying around large amounts of money all the time. We even trucked around several hundred dollars in US currency so we could get a good exchange rate in Argentina. It was a strange feeling to be comfortable with that much cash spread out among my belongings, not worrying too much about the safety of it below our bus…