Women of the Salt Flats, Part 2: The Freedom to Trust in Life

Nicole: I’m nervous.

Don’t be . . . it’s just a conversation. It’s really just about your experiences about the reasons why you wanted to take this trip. And that’s the first question.

Nicole: This is a very personal question.

——

There are people who believe that the things that happen in our lives happen for a reason. That we are put in certain places at certain times to met specific people who have some insight or wisdom to share – a piece of the puzzle we may not have even known we were looking for. . .

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While there are others who say that the events that happen in our lives, no matter how coincidental are just a series of unconnected unrelated events that occur randomly without some greater design – devoid of any rhyme or reason. They say that it’s our need as humans to connect these events and endow them with significance in order to give ourselves comfort that our lives do in fact have some greater meaning – that we are here on this Earth with a purpose.

The optimist in me, the idealist who embarked on this journey is full of hope that the people I encounter, the experiences that I gather will somehow culminate in some universal truth – some clue that will unlock life’s great mysteries. And that when I return home I will do so with a sense of conviction in my newfound purpose – that I’ll know concretely what I was meant to do with the rest of my life.

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The halfway mark through my trip in South America, my quest to find my place in this world, finds me sitting on park bench in the plaza of a somewhat unremarkable town on the lip of the Solar de Uyuni in Bolivia. After a three-day jeep tour through the salt flats sitting and jostling around the back of the a of jeep with shoddy suspension has left me with a sore behind and a lot more questions than answers.

In fact the pessimist in me is wondering if absolute truths even exist. Though I have been surrounded by incredible people and beautiful landscapes I can’t seem to silence the constant chatter in my mind, the incessant second-guessing and wondering if along the way I’ve taken the right path – made the right decisions. Should I have taken the four-day tour instead of the three? Should I have gone to the Amazon instead of coming to the Salt Flats? Why didn’t I talk to that girl who looked so lonely in the hostel a week ago? Surely what I’m searching for lies in one of these choices I somehow overlooked. It must, because it’s not here in this tiny desolate town in the middle of nowhere. There’s nothing here but a bunch of trains left to rust in their own graveyard, endless valleys of salt and sand, and the constant sea of tourists arriving and departing as quickly as they came – the tide in which the locals base their entire economy.

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Luckily there are people who come along and snap me out of these introspective moments and bring me back to the bright and beautiful world around me – instead of lingering around the inner recesses of my mind. People like a Nicole, a 33 year-old woman from Switzerland who radiates such a warm and positive energy – you feel blessed to just be around her.

Nicole, though she might not put it into these words exactly, is also on a type of quest – whether for personal knowledge, validation, or even a sense of purpose – only she really knows for certain. But from my time with Nicole and the other members of our tour group cooped up in the small jeep gave us a lot of time to talk about our lives, our experiences, and how we all relate to one another. The type of conversations that are best had between strangers. Strangers who soon after become friends.

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At this moment Nicole is into her third month of travel wrapping up a long stay on the islands of Hawaii and getting ready to board an airplane that will take her to the final destination of her trip, Japan. The time we spent talking in a small cafe where the owners left us undisturbed and never bothered to take our orders feels like a lifetime ago. But during that period of time, before our group and one other group that we met would come together for a final dinner before we all scattered across Bolivia to continue our various journeys, Nicole gave me an insight into life; there can be no right nor wrong choices. Too look back into the past and wonder what life would have been like if you had made a different choice, discounts all the other unrelated events that followed after. Had I gone to  the Amazon before coming to the salt flats or opted for a longer tour over the one I ended up taking, I never would have met Jacob, Zau, Nicole, Teresita, or German. Whether things happen for a reason or just simply happen, meeting this group of people, even for the briefest of moments was the best thing that could have happened to me at that moment.

Here is Nicole’s story:

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Name: Nicole Kleinschmidt
Age: 33
From: Basel, Switzerland
Duration of Trip: 3 months
Languages: Swiss German, German, English, a little French and a little Spanish

Nicole: I’m nervous.

Don’t be . . . it’s just a conversation. It’s really just about your experiences about the reasons why you wanted to take this trip. And that’s the first question.

Nicole: This is a very personal question.

You don’t have to answer . . . answer what you feel comfortable with . . . this is about whatever you want to share. But, the reason you wanted to take this trip is the first question and why you wanted to come, specifically to South America? Actually, I wanted to do a long trip for a very long time, but I’ve been in a relationship and my partner didn’t want to go traveling for a long amount of time. So, I didn’t do it. Now, since I’m free . . . I’m not in a relationship anymore . . . I felt like it was the right time to do it.

And why did you choose South America over another popular backpacker destination like Southeast Asia? I’ve been to Asia many times. I was in Cuba last year and just felt . . . I don’t know . . . I felt like going to Buenos Aires to learn tango. That was the main thing in my head. I want to learn tango. So I choose Buenos Aires for tango and then it was like South America.

Do you learn to tango? Yes. Would you say . . . I don’t even know the right word . . . would you say your fluent in tango? Oh, no. I was only there for two weeks and I had four lessons, but I had a really good teacher and she made me feel like I could dance. It was really fun.

So I know you started your trip in Buenos Aires. You took tango lessons and I think Spanish lessons. Can you give me a rough outline of the rest of your trip up to here . . . being in Bolivia at the salt flats and where you plan to go after leaving here? So I started in Buenos Aires for two weeks learn tango and take Spanish lessons and then I went with a night bus to Mendoza for a couple of days. In Mendoza I went to the Alta Mountains which was a very nice trip and then I went to Cordoba with the night bus . . . went up to Salta with the night bus again. I was in Salta for three days, but it was rainy, but still nice and then I flew to Iguazú, the Brazilian side just for a day. Then I met friends and we went to Bonita which is in Brazil and from there I decided to go to La Paz. So that was actually a spontaneous decision. When I got there I met a girl named Zau at the airport in Lima and she wanted to go to the Salar de Uyuni and I decided to go with her.

Had you planned on doing anything in Bolivia besides going to La Paz at the time? No. Actually I wanted to La Paz so that I would be in the high altitude and then I could go to Peru because my main focus was to go to Cusco.

Ah and do Machu Picchu? Yes.

And then once you visit Machu Picchu where will you go? So now I’m leaving I will go back to La Paz from Uyuni, from La Paz to Puno . . . which is by Lake Titicaca and from there I saw you could do a two or three-day trip to Colca Canyon near Arequipa. From there I will go to Cusco and then to Lima. That is like my rough plan and then when I leave Lima, I’ll go to Tampa, Florida and then from Tampa to Hawaii and finally to Japan.

Is this your first backpacking trip? No. Where else have you backpacked? My first backpack trip was when I was 16 and I did . . . its like with a train. You can buy a train ticket and that was through the whole of Europe. I did that for a month with a friend of mine.

Why do you like traveling? It’s always been a kind of passion . . . when I’m too long at home I just get this desire to go away and do get new impressions and see the world from a different angle. And to take to different people and maybe meet people who have the same desire. I don’t know . . .  I just always feel free when I’m traveling. I always feel free and that’s what I’m looking for.

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So what does that mean to you . .. being free? Does that mean when you wake up you don’t have a plan, you just let whatever happens happen? Yeah. And especially with this trip. Well last year I was in Cuba, two weeks, alone. But I was there with a language school so that doesn’t really count for me. So this is my first trip alone and I really tried to see what happens and go with the flow.

What are you impressions about traveling alone and as a female? I feel really good and safe. But I’ve been in Argentina which is a very easy place to travel especially for women.

Why do you think that is? Because its one of the wealthier countries in South America. It’s all really smooth. You take a night bus for example, it says it goes at eight . . . it goes at eight and its very comfortable. I never felt insecure. No. And the men, they are kind of special because they have this mix between . . . they are gentlemen and really macho at the same time and really very helpful.

And were your friends and family concerned  about you taking this trip? Yup. They were. They were like actually saying this that I didn’t think were so nice actually . . . “oh, you can’t do that, you’re a girl – alone in South America. . . you’re blonde etc.” That was not so cool. But, yeah they may have just been concerned.

Can you tell me a little bit about the people who you’ve met? When I was in Buenos Aires I lived with a host family and it was very nice . . . they had a 15 square meter room and they put up a thin wall so they had two rooms and could have two people and I shared this room . . . well I had my own room, but it was a shared room to be honest because we could talk through the wall . . . I shared it with another girl from Switzerland. She was like the first person I met and she was really cool, very open. She had quit her job . . . a very spiritual person also. Then I met two guys from Argentina and then another guy from Australia . . . he was also kind of spiritual. And that really interests me because you can go deeper into conversations and it brings you points or to questions that I’m normally try to avoid.

At home you mean, or just in general? Yeah, for me . . . I’m on this trip and I have to think about how do I want my life to be? What kind of work would I like to do? Where are my passions? And especially this guy from Australia was like asking these questions just right away and I was like hmmm. Okay. Because when you’re traveling you’re occupied with so many things. You find to find a hotel. You have to find food. You have to do laundry, you have to think of what your next move will be. And I kind of avoid going deeper.

A question that I like to ask people, and if it’s too personal you don’t have to answer it, but is there something about yourself that you learned from being on this trip? I think that . . . well just trust in life. A friend said to me before I left, “just trust in life.” I really feel like she’s right because everything feels like a river flowing. And I feel this . . . just go with the flow.

Can you give me an example from your trip that illustrates that? I think this trip now, because I met Zau at the airport. We had a conversation and she was all excited about Uyuni and I was like that could be interesting, why not. I’m just trying too . . . i mean I already had a hotel, so I had to pay two nights even though I wouldn’t be staying there. The old Nicole would have said, “I’ve already booked that and I’m going to do it.” I don’t know i just did it and that’s good.

And what did you think of the salt flats? For me it was nice, but I wasn’t too excited. I really enjoyed the company and I feel if it would have been a bad group the trip would have sucked. We were sitting in the car a lot. A lot. And the salar was really impressive because the size . . . I think its bigger than Switzerland, but you’re there, you see it and within ten minutes I felt like okay I’ve seen it. It’s all white. There’s nothing to do there. . . and the rest you just have some points, which is nice . . . but it’s so much traveling in a car. But yeah, on my trip I’ve met so many people who were excited about the salad de Uyuni – its like the best trip they’ve ever had. For me, it was nice, but not super super exciting.

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If somebody you were talking to was planning a trip very similar to the one you’re doing right now – what advise would you give them? Don’t plan too much. Don’t plan too much! I feel for me, I’ve planned too much because I have to go here and then I go there and there. Buy one ticket to get to South America. Have one good starting point, because it made me feel really safe because I knew I would fly to Buenos Aires and have two weeks and have the language school. . . I actually thought that I would meet people there to travel together. But they were all too young . . . or didn’t interest me. Just plan step-by-step.

So far has this trip met your expectations? No, it’s better than my expectations. I was scared when I was at home thinking I would be lonely or I would be lost and that hasn’t been the case at all. I feel alive.

Thank you! You’re welcome. Now I need to snap a picture of you! Oh no.

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