At the beginning of solo trip, you may feel like Dorothy arriving in Oz — you’re on your own and disoriented, but before long, you’re surrounded by an unlikely cast of characters who help you through your journey. Quite often, these people make the trip just as much as the destination itself. In Colombia, I found a particularly remarkable collection of travelers as I meandered along the yellow brick backpacker’s trail:
Meeting people on this trip started early; before I even left the US, I’d already met two travelers who were on their way to Colombia. Then on my flight from Miami to Bogota, I sat by an elderly man who was eager to chat. He had great stories to tell; the stories of someone with decades of wanderlust under his belt. He was an engineer who was originally from England and had settled down in the San Francisco Bay Area after working on projects around the world. He told me how he’d worked in a dusty little village somewhere in Nigeria and later in Colombia during the country’s years of turmoil. Now he and his half-Colombian son were returning to the country for the first time in a few years for a relative’s wedding. As we reached the edge of Colombia, he pointed out various places to me below: the Rio Magdalena, Barranquilla, and the rose farm greenhouses near Bogota which reminded me of the movie Maria, Full of Grace. Sitting next to this man was one of the best introductions to a country I’ve ever had; it was so personal and full of heart.
On land, I had a quiet first 24 hours in Bogota, but by evening of my second day, three of us in my dorm room had become a unit — an Austrian, a Brazilian, and me. As many people from the country tend to be, my new Brazilian friend was racially ambiguous, and she explained that she had European, African, and indigenous roots. We were surprised when she told us that in her youth, she had spent a year living with the indigenous tribe that comprised part of her heritage. In her family, regardless of how modern of a lifestyle they were living, it was customary to send the eldest offspring to live with tribe. As she told us about her time there, it was difficult for us to imagine this young and modern business woman from São Paulo living in the jungle in the traditional way that her tribe had been living for centuries. Not only did my new Brazilian friend have a interesting history, she was also the most boisterous of the bunch, constantly making us laugh with her dramatic and humorous ways. As the Austrian and I said goodbye to her when we left for Villa de Leyva, she said to us, “You already miss me, don’t you?!” Indeed, we did.
The first morning after we arrived in Villa de Leyva, as I was searching the grounds for a decent WiFi signal, I noticed a woman with sparkling eyes who appeared to be about twice the age of most backpackers there. She seemed to have internet access so I joined her at her table, but quickly abandoned my plans to email once we started chatting. I was swiftly entangled in a memoir in progress — the compelling story of this woman’s life. She was from New Zealand, almost sixty, and a widow. She’d found some way to retire early and after taking care of her elderly parents in the Kiwi countryside, she moved to Spain and made it a home base while she traveled to other places. She’d been to Iran twice in the past year and raved about it and wished that she we was able to get more than just a 2 week visa. She told me how she had developed a new adoration for the desert and we bonded over our appreciation for the unique beauty of dry and desolate regions. Her fascination with the desert had led her to the Gobi Desert and she’d recently done a two week trek. When I asked her why she’d chosen Colombia, she told me that a dream had inspired her to come.
As I chatted with this woman from New Zealand, a man from Egypt who I’d talked with briefly at breakfast came to join us. He told us how he’d been traveling in South America for months, but he had just returned to the continent to finish his trip after leaving briefly to visit Arkansas. Naturally, we wondered why a man from Egypt would leave a South America trip to go to Arkansas. He explained that he’d gone there for a job interview with Walmart. No one was impressed by this admission. By then, more people had joined the conversation and everyone was outspoken about their distaste for the brand; its poor treatment of employees, its shady approach to entering foreign markets, and how it inspires reckless consumerism. He explained to us that he was up for a high level job in the ethics department. We softened, but we were still skeptical. In Egypt, he had done similar work and helped instill integrity in a formerly morally bankrupt company. I got the sense that his motives were pure and that he genuinely wanted to work towards transforming Walmart from within. But as one traveler commented on the challenges of his potential future job with Walmart, “Big job, small department!”
In San Gil, there was a nonstop flow of compelling travelers to hang out with. My favorite of the bunch were a mother-daughter duo from Cleveland. The daughter was living in Ecuador and her mother had joined her in South America to travel around for a few weeks. The dynamics of a mother-daughter duo budget traveling together can be very entertaining and the mother’s buoyant sense of humor about life on the road in Colombia kept everyone in stitches. After San Gil, they were part of the crew on the long night bus to Santa Marta and they helped make a crappy bus ride much more bearable. From Santa Marta, they did the Lost City trek together, a 4-6 day hike through steamy jungle and across rivers. The mother was 65 and expressed minor apprehension about the trek, but mostly she seemed ready to go and ready to sweat it out in the jungle. I saw them the morning they left and wished them good luck as I headed off to Parque Nacional Tayrona. Later in Medellin, I met someone who was on the trek with them and said that they’d both held up just fine and had a great time.
After a day in Tayrona, I returned to my dorm to find a familiar face. We figured out that we’d briefly met in San Gil when she arrived on the day that I was leaving. She emitted independence and spirit and we became quick friends. She was an Australian who was based in London but hadn’t lived there for awhile because she’d been living in Afghanistan. What? She was a diplomat and had been stationed in Afghanistan and she talked about her time there as if it were as run-of-the-mill as desk job in London. She was hoping to get a job in Sudan next.
I met another person in the same dorm who I didn’t talk to as much, then I saw her again at another hostel in Cartagena. She was from Chile and soft spoken with a quiet determination. We spent an evening roaming around Cartagena and it was nice change to explore with a native Spanish speaker. Over dinner, she told me about her job at home as a biologist and how she did research on the detrimental impact of mines in Chile. She talked about how residents in mining areas are constantly torn between saving their land and the opportunity to make money. She also mentioned how as damaging mining can be, Chile has the structure in place to regulate it whereas other poorer or more corrupt countries in South America are more prone to get taken advantage of by foreign companies. I appreciated the opportunity to get a perspective on a heavily debated subject from a person who is at the front lines of it.
One evening in Medellin while I was having dinner in the hostel dining room, a new arrival started a conversation with me. He looked to be somewhere between 70 and 80 years old. He was wearing khaki colored safari gear that probably would’ve looked absurd on most people, but he pulled it off because he looked like the kind of person who’d spent his life as a nature guide or traveling dusty roads in remote places. He had on a hearing aid but still had trouble hearing so I often had to repeat myself and shout when he asked me questions. When I asked him questions about his trip, I was surprised when he told me that he was traveling for 18 months. He planned on spending half of his trip in South America and the other nine months exploring Africa. He’d already spent a great deal of time on both continents but there was still more to see. Talking to him was a great reminder that there’s never an age limit for adventure and you should never think you’ve seen it all.
Toward the end of my trip when I arrived in San Agustin, my German travel buddy and I saw a guy riding his bike up at the same time we were approaching the hostel in our cab. At first, I figured he was just biking for the day, then I realized biking was his method of transportation. He had spent the last few months biking through Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Colombia, and this was the very last segment he would be biking. He had a wonderful self-deprecating humor and over the next few days, we heard many humorous tales of traveling by bike in one of the world’s most mountainous regions.
There’s a certain madness to many people you encounter on the road; the good kind of madness that drives people to follow their passions and live extraordinary lives. You feel more alive in the presence of such people and that anything is possible. While I may start to crave the comforts of my stationary home at the end of a trip, there is no place quite like my home on the road, a migratory home filled with and enlivened by vivacious and inspiring travelers.