This should have been a story about me taking on the world…
Going on an adventure and backpacking in South America was a dream since high school, back in those times when I was enrolled in a course to be a Tour Guide. During this course we learned about our continent, studying its history and geography. I fell in love, and discovered places I didn’t know were so close to me. South America is a such beautiful continent, but interestingly most people around me (and I can easily say the rest of the entire country in Brazil), only think about travelling in Europe or The United States.
I can’t blame them for not looking around and seeing what they are missing, given they have this notion that other places outside of South America are more interesting. Faraway hills are often greener perhaps! I had this belief myself but, over time, I have learned and embraced what was at my footsteps. I told myself I would spread the word and make as many people as possible to see how amazing South America is – and be proud to be part of it.
In January of 2012, going against all those arguments of ”Why don’t you go to The States?”, ”What are you going to do in Bolivia, there is nothing in there!?”, I went on adventure that changed my life forever. We have to think outside the box and stop listening to and doing what other people think is best. Especially, when they say certain things to you even when they haven’t visited and experienced these beautiful places themselves.
It was my first big trip abroad. I had been in Paraguay and Argentina before that, but only for a short time and in cities very close to the Brazilian border. Backpacking in Bolivia, Peru and Chile was the kind of trip and freedom I had always wanted. To finally go there and see what was waiting there outside of my comfort zone was a life changer.
I experienced different climate temperatures, food, cultures, time zone, having a different roof over which I slept nightly, landscapes, dealing with different currencies, fear and, the Spanish language, which I had only studied in classes. Challenging myself with new experiences and adventures; learning about myself and the world around me.
An independent trip like that requires a lot of planning and research. To be a backpacker is to have lots of freedom to do whatever you want, but you also need to plan carefully to avoid unnecessary risks along the road. This is particularly important when it is your first time and you are inexperienced in the world of independent travel.
I read a lot information in different books, and in an intrinsic travel guide for backpackers in South America, written by a Brazilian travel publisher. In the beginning of 2012 travel blogs weren’t that big, at least for me anyway, and my source of information online was in a Brazilian backpackers forum. While this was very helpful, you had to be very patient to go through all the pages. Nowadays, things are so much easier when it comes to preparing for a trip like that. But, I have to say, it was pretty fun back in that time to go deep and plan all the details that I needed. And only now, because of this, is it clearer for me to see the importance and benefit travel blogs can have.
I made sure that everything was going to be OK, even though I didn’t book any of my accommodation in advance. I had only a return flight ticket to Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia and a backpack bigger than me full of my clothes and so many belongings that I later realised I didn’t need. I had an itinerary of the cities and things I wanted to see, and a list of hostels in every city I would explore. I was going to take buses from one place to another. I also brought extra money, just in case. After all, it was Summer time, and it means rain season. I could have got stuck in a city due to a landslide on the road, and that’s actually quite possible, especially on Bolivian roads.
What I could never guess was that my problems were actually starting before I left the country. It was the first day of the year. Normally the traffic in São Paulo is crazy. However, usually around this time people are on holidays and it’s easier to move around the city. As it was an International flight I travelled to the airport about 3 hours beforehand to avoid any hassle. I left home with plenty of time to get there, even though I thought traffic wouldn’t be a problem. Better safe than sorry, right? How wrong I was…
I wasn’t expecting to get stuck in traffic. I mean, not the typical heavy traffic jam I was so used to, on the first day of January! I thought there might have been an accident and soon it would be cleared. As I had left home very early I wasn’t panicking just yet. One hour had passed and we were still in the same situation, with traffic moving very slowly. When we turned on the radio to find out what was happening, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing
The International Airport of São Paulo is located in the city of Guarulhos, which is very close, depending on which part of São Paulo you live, mind you. From my home the time was only 30 minutes (less if the traffic is good) to get there. The radio reporter was saying that there was a church inauguration being held in the city of Guarulhos and thousands of people were expected to be there, coming from all over the country. Their buses were stopping along the road just at the entrance to the airport because there weren’t enough parking spaces for them around the church. You’ve got to be kidding me!
The hours were passing and we were still stuck in the same place. We had to do something; I saw a man carrying his bags, also trying to get to the airport, walking through the cars on the middle of the road. I didn’t think twice. We had no option I thought, let’s walk to the airport! It would be easier if we were closer, but we were still a few miles away. Oh man, that was a long long walk – especially if you have a 14kg backpack on your back!
You know when you see yourself in a bad situation and wonder ”What else could happen right now? Nothing, I’m sure”. Oh well, try again. It started lashing rain on our way to the airport. Imagine, walking, carrying those heavy bags. Exactly the way I wanted to start my adventure in South America, right? In hindsight, we can only laugh thinking back at moments like this, right?
We had passed through all those buses parked along the middle of access road when, finally, we had a clear picture what was going on. There was no police to help organize that whole traffic, not even a single one, people were just doing whatever they wanted. People needed to go to the airport? Oh, that’s a pity, but I have to park my bus just right here, in the middle of the road.
After that, the road was clear, I was drenched wet and very sore because I hadn’t attached my backpack properly on. It was a relief for me to see the road was better after that point and we would be able to take a taxi to finally get to the airport. As soon as we got there another nightmare arrived: the check in was closed 5 minutes beforehand. I saw the airline lady going away. I ran to her, desperate, out of breath, and looking like I just came from a war.
She wouldn’t let us depart and gave us no information as to whether we could arrange and book the next flight. Nothing, just nothing. By this time the airport was in complete chaos, lots of people had also missed their flights. Meanwhile we got to know more people from the same flight as us, and we decided to all go together and talk to the airline staff, or at least find someone that could solve our problem. It wasn’t our fault, and missing the flight like that was very frustrating. Long short story, we could’t depart and we had to go back home.
I was very upset, thinking that I should give up, and it was a sign that I better stay at home and that exploring the world wasn’t for me. Luckily, I am mostly positive, and in the next day we went to the airline office to book the next flight. They were very helpful to us that day and changed our flights, dates and everything with no additional costs, they also apologised for the rude staff from the airport who didn’t helped us initially.
Think, if all of this already happened before we even started the trip, what else was waiting for us there? I can say we had some problems along the way, but I can also say it was one of the best things I experienced in my life.
And I will happily share all of that with you in the next chapters of my (mis)adventure in South America. Stay tuned!
Lesson 1 from my first day as a backpacker: not everything goes exactly how you planned.
>>> Had you guys a bad start on a trip before? How did you cope with that?