It’s early morning and there’s a slight chill in the air as a small group of people and I gather around the main plaza in Salento waiting for a ride to the Valle de Cocora. “Listo!’ shouts the jeep’s driver and we all descend upon a small jeep and quickly pack ourselves into the small cramped space. As the jeep slowly ascends a steep mountain road, a young blond woman sitting next to me makes small talk with two men sitting across from us in spanish. I can’t really figure out what they are talking about, but I think it has something to do with the man who couldn’t find a place to sit in the back of the jeep and was forced to stand on the jeep’s bumper for the duration of the trip, and whether his safety’s in jeopardy.
Suddenly the conversation switches to english and one of the men seated across from us asks if we are traveling together, “no,” the woman seated to my left says, “we don’t know each other.” I nod in agreement, we don’t know each other.
The two men seated across from us are Argentine and boyfriends; they’ve been traveling throughout Colombia for about a month. The woman next to me is from Michigan and has been traveling for about four months. We continue making small talk and listing off the cities we’ve all visited until one of the Argentines gets up and steps over the jeep’s gate and joins the other man riding on the bumper. He squats down to let us know that it is indeed safe, and that the view is amazing.
As the jeep arrives at the entrance to the Valle de Cocora, we all pile out of the jeep, pay our fare, and I head towards the trailhead anxious to start the hike. Before too long someone behind me shouts out “New York, hey . . . New York!” I turn, and see the blond woman from the jeep swiftly catching up to me. Before we formally introduce ourselves I find myself apologizing for sweating so profusely. She smiles a wide-friendly slime and says “don’t worry about it, it’s hot out here. My name is Alicia, what’s yours?”
Alicia and I spend the rest of the day hiking along side wayward cattle, through swarms of butterflies, and crossing streams on rickety unnerving wooden bridges. We share stories while sitting on top of a mountain looking out on some of the most beautiful wax palm trees I have ever seen. Below is Alicia’s story.
Name: Alicia Krzyczkowski
Home: Michigan, USA
Occupation: Looking for a job post-grad school
Languages: English, Romanian, and a little Spanish
How long have you been traveling? 4 months
Where did you start and where have you been? Lima, Peru, Ecuador, & Colombia
Where do you plan to go after Salento, Colombia? Bogotá, Colombia. It’s my last destination in Latin America.
When do you return home? In one week (eek!)
What is it that you are most looking forward to about returning home? People. Being on the same continent as my parents and friends. (Although I’ve been traveling with friends.)
So why did you choose to take this trip? Uh, so I was coming off my grad school experience, which was not the greatest in many ways. It was a year that I didn’t really learn what I wanted to learn. So, I didn’t really get to contribute anything. A bit of a year-long bummer. And two friends that I did the same program with felt the same way. So, after we graduated we took a short weekend trip to Bosnia-Herzegovina and one of us just sort of brought up that since we all had to do a job search, perhaps that search would be more fun if we were in Latin America. At first, it seemed pretty absurd given that I had very limited savings and desperately needed a job. Uh, then it occurred to be that this would probably be the only time in my life that I would get to take a trip like this. It was four months long, with people I like. Also we are not full-timed employed and it’s someplace I have always wanted to go, so, it was the time and place to do it.
What has your best experience been? Actually, I would have to say . . . so there is small town in Colombia called Aracataca, which is where Gabriel García Márquez was born, the writer of One Hundred Years of Solitude. And, we had been more or less staying on the “gringo path” throughout our three countries and uh this time, my friends were doing something else, so I took the opportunity to go to this very small town off the beaten path. It was great. It was really the first time I felt that I was immersed in the Colombian culture. It was clearly a place where tourist were not par for the course. I was sort of . . . a point of interest for everyone, which was a bit weird for the first day. It was definitely a fishbowl situation. After that, I realized that as much as people stared, as soon as I said, “good morning,” or “good afternoon,” or “how are you?” They would break into a smile and either start a conversation with me, or wave, or whatever. And so it was basically five days that I felt I had the most genuine contact with Colombian culture. It’s the most Spanish that I’ve spoken. Just a really beautiful experience getting to read the book that was more or less written about this town, while in that town . . . it was magical.
So, have you done a lot of traveling independently of your friends? Yeah, in the course of four months I would say, close to a month has been independent of my friends. They are on a slightly different budget because they are at different places in their careers. So they went to places like the Galapagos Islands and the Amazon. Places I wasn’t able to go. And so, I ended up having some free time on my own and it was really lovely.
Any apprehension traveling alone as a female? Yeah, you have to be aware. This is not my first time traveling so I have a pretty good radar for stuff like that at this point. It’s just a matter of taking small practical precautions: knowing where you are going, having enough money, traveling during the day whenever possible. And my number one tip, would be to sit next to an old lady and chat her up the whole way, because no one is going to disrespect you if you are speaking to someone who looks like their grandmother.
And have you had, what you would consider to be a “worst” experience? Well, my computer was stolen, which was almost entirely my fault. I had a bag that tipped over and I didn’t realize it and someone saw and opportunity and literally grabbed it, so that happened. It was inconvenient more than anything else.
Has the trip met your expectations? Yeah, I mean like I said, it wasn’t a fully planned thing. It was just an opportunity that came up . . . so, I didn’t really set a lot of expectations for the trip. I just wanted to get out of the weird head space that I was in. I wanted to do something different. Be somewhere different. And it has certainly surpassed everything I thought it would be.
Have you learned anything about yourself that maybe you didn’t anticipate or that surprised you? Yes, actually. I have been traveling with friends, like I said, and we’ve had lots of quality time together. So, I have sort of been called out on some of my behaviors, some of my bad habits, like I’m grumpy as hell in the morning. Or, I can be a bit snappy when I get into a bad mood, so I’ve been called out on my bad behaviors, which has been pretty amazing actually, because often in our adult lives – in a professional setting you won’t be called on stuff like that. With friends, they either tolerate it or don’t spend as much time with you. So, in many ways its held a mirror up to me. Particularly coming off this year-long experience, I didn’t really feel great about. So, I’ve been aware that I haven’t been the best version of myself but traveling around with people who have been brave enough and loving enough to call me on some of that, has really made me work on some of my lesser points.
So, what are your stronger points? I don’t know. I think I’m pretty comfortable throwing myself into completely novel situations which, I never thought was weird before but, I release the more I talk to travelers that its something not everyone is able to do, so its something I appreciate about myself. In terms of just getting things done when they need to be done, yeah, I can do that. And again, I think limited language ability and novel situations, you have to step up and that’s something that I’ve been able to do.
And, what would you say has been the hardest obstacle you’ve encountered on the road? It’s actually really minor but I am a vegetarian, and so, it’s actually been a bit of a challenge to find nutritious food in some places. At the same time, its been a bit of a bummer to miss out on what looks like really delicious really traditional food because almost of all it in Latin America is meat based. It’s like meat based with more meat on top. So I feel like I have missed out on some cultural exchange stuff, as well as, the minor inconvenience of having to look for food everyday.
Have you had to compromise on your vegetarianism at any point? I have a little a bit, yes. I was in the Peace Corps before so I learned to be a bit more liberal with my vegetarianism, so for example, we are at place that only serves meat, but they do have some sort of soup, I will ask for the soup to be “vegetarian” and some lovely lady will scoop the balls of meat out of it before serving it to me. So, yes.
Any regrets? Yeah, I would say sometimes when I was traveling alone, I took that to an extreme and I would be a little more introspective or closed off than when I was traveling with my friends. That meant that often I would meet really interesting people during these weeks or five-day long stints when I was alone and I would get invited out to dinner or drinks and I wouldn’t go because I was just taking the time to step back from it. But I do think that I missed some opportunities to talk to some cool people.
Where do you plan on traveling next? Oh man, for sure I will travel again. I would like to do something I bit different. I have never been to Africa, so South Africa, Morocco, yeah somewhere in Africa and if not there, I could definitely go back to Southeast Asia, which I find enchanting. But Latin America will be on the rooster as well because, I’ve only seen three countries here.
You mentioned you were in the Peace Corps, do you think that gave you any skills or framework to bring to this trip? Yes. I think Peace Corps is different for everyone, but I think the one thing that it does almost universally for people, no matter whether they last the whole two and a quarter years, is that you learn to get really comfortable with a certain level of discomfort. So, throwing yourself into a situation where you don’t speak the language where people are going to be curious about you and where more often than not you are going to be in situations where you don’t have all the competencies that you need . . . and just becoming comfortable with that, because it happens so many damn times in a row. So I really found myself jumping back into that mind-set because when you travel you can either cling to your comfort zone and if something makes you uncomfortable you can opt out, or you can take the other avenue and completely dive in, throw yourself into a situation where you have very limited vocabulary but you are still trying to have a conversation with someone or . . . just really random situations. I think Peace Corps helped me take the approach where you just dive-in and just become comfortable with the fact that something stressful is going to happen to you every day and just embrace it, and see the beauty in it.
So I know you have been out of the country (USA) for five years, with your master’s degree, Peace Corps, and some traveling. You mentioned earlier that you are looking forward to seeing your family and friends, do you think they will perceive a change in you after this? And if so, what do you think that will be? It’s something I think about a lot because it has been so long, I went and saw my best friend in Spain this past summer, for the first time more or less since we graduated in 2006. And, um I did get a bit paranoid that she would see some differences in me, or that we wouldn’t be compatible anymore, which was not the case, and was a huge weight off my mind. But at the same time, I sort of feel like I have changed and she mentioned that I’ve become more confident and grown up a little bit, which I think is normal in any five-year period. But I do worry a bit that I have evolved and become comfortable with things that others haven’t. And so going back, I think its going to be a matter of starting relationships not over from zero but examining them and watching them evolve because I don’t anticipate that its going to be just picking up where we left off five or six years ago.
FInal Question. Yes!
Any advise for people who are considering taking a long-term backpacking trip in Latin America? Do it! In terms, of precautions and preparations just get your vaccinations, throw whatever you think you need in a bag and do it, because its unlike any experience that I’ve had before. And a long-term, especially in Latin America – a continent and a region that is so warm, and people really have treated me so kindly all the way through; I would recommend it absolutely to anybody.