As I continued my quest to see if I could find the missing clues to find . . . well . . . my place in this world, I made my way from Sucre to Bolivia’s largest and most affluent city, Santa Cruz. After collecting my backpack from underneath the bus and hoisting it on my shoulders it was clear that Santa Cruz shared little in common with the other cities I had visited in Bolivia. In fact, it seemed almost out-of-place – as if it didn’t quite fit or belong to the rest of the country. Gone were the ubiquitous women with the long double braids joined and fastened together with elaborate beaded tassels, small blower hats, and multi-pleated felt skirts. In their place: a parade of women modernly dressed in jeans, pants, and shirts that could have easily been purchased from any major department store back home. This was a city with money and the people were more than happy to flaunt it.
Perhaps this shouldn’t have come as a surprise, Santa Cruz has one of the largest oil reserves in the country and is also considered to be one of the major centers of cocaine trade (in fact, the NYT just published an article about the increasing violence in the city, which they attribute to drug trafficking). It’s a place that also happens to be the most critical of the nation’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales – a place that would be entirely happy if they could succeed from Bolivia all together – wash their hands of all the poverty and form their own nation. Though, in all likelihood, the chance of that happening is about as good as Montreal succeeding from Canada.
Santa Cruz also happens to be the place that I met Hendrik. Though Hendrik didn’t want to provide his last name, and asked that I not photograph him, he shared his story with such honesty and candor that I wish I had his ability to articulate my thoughts so concisely and eloquently. And though we have many differences, I was struck how similar our stories seemed to be. It was as if a version of myself had been living in Germany had reached the same conclusion about needing to leave behind a career, friends, and family to see a part of the world at the same time I reached that conclusion in the States. Specially, this part of the world.
While visiting the Salt Flats, Henrik had a health scare which caused him to cut his trip short. Two days after meeting him, he was going to fly back to Europe. I was keen to find out what he had learned from his time in South America in hopes that it would shine a light for my own path. And perhaps, if Hendrik had a clue to give me it was this: “for me, it would have been such a pity not to see all these beautiful and extraordinary places in my lifetime. I’m very grateful for that.” Sometimes, it’s as simple as that . . . beauty.
Here is his story:
Name: Hendrik (Declined to provide last name)
Length of Trip: 5 months
Languages: German, English, French, and Spanish
Can you tell me why you wanted to take this trip? I can take my time right? Of course. I worked for the last ten years without a break in offices. And seven years was nearly with the same company which was quite a good company. I liked my job, but just sitting in the office everyday, everyday, everyday in artificial light doing similar stuff is not how I thought my life should go on forever. Two and a half years ago I started doing yoga – doing mediation. My job was often that I would come home around six, really tried from work and as many people I would sit down in front of the television with a beer and that was my relaxing evening to get ready for the next day of working. And in yoga when you mediate this is also very relaxing but in a totally different way. You go sit down and your quite and you look inside of your side, which was impressive. And I thought, why the hell haven’t I done this before? If you look inside yourself it helps you to get to know what you really want in your life. So I started to go with the idea that I really needed a change in my life. First I started to ask my boss if i could reduce the time that I worked, and I thought that he would kicked me out of his office, but I was allowed to reduce my time. So I had more time to think about things and the future and about half a year I was I was craving to do something else and yeah that was the growing the idea. Not doing the same stuff over and over again. And I love traveling, but it’s difficult if you have to work. You have just short holidays, which is like taking a snapshot of the country and not really getting to know it.
You started in Europe and you worked for an organic farm? I say that I’m a capitalist, I worked as a capitalist. I studied business and yes when I first quit my job – I didn’t go directly to South America to travel, but I started at a yoga ashram in Germany and did that for two months. And actually it wasn’t that good of an experience. It was a pretty aggressive place which you wouldn’t expect from a yoga ashram. After that I went to an organic farm. Yes, because all my life I worked in a virtual world with artificial light and I just wanted to get my hands dirty and do like a real man’s work.
Why did you want to come to South America? After my studies, I’ve been to Guatemala and this was the first time in Latin America and since then I always had the idea to come back to Latin America to see more of this continent and area. It took me 13 years till I was brave enough and able.
Where did you start in South America? And can you tell me a little bit about your itinerary – where you’ve been and what’ve you done? I started in Buenos Aires in November and there I took a week of Spanish lessons to remind me about some words and grammar and then I went down the Atlantic coast to Bahia Blanca which was pretty boring and shocking because is just soy beans to the right and soy beans to the left all the way until the horizon. You have 800 kilometers of soy beans which is not for the Argentinean market but mainly for the European market. So they destroyed a huge areas here, just for the production of meat – just everything is genetically manipulated and they use round-up so they are poisoning their land as well. I’ve been a little bit more to the coast, but the Argentinean coast doesn’t really have any beautiful spots. I’ve also been on the Patagonian trail and crossed the whole country to BR. I spent some time in the lake district there which was in December and a very rainy month. I crossed into to Chile and met very friendly people in one of the most beautiful villages I’ve ever been in. I was invited to spend Christmas and New Year’s eve with a local family. It was a postcard place, you have river and a lake surrounded by mountains and it’s really clear. Just beautiful, I really loved this place. Then I’ve been to the lake district and Chile, which I liked very much. Took a long bus to Santiago de Chile and then Mendoza and Rosario. Then I went to the north to the fantastic water falls of Iguazu. I then took a plane Salta and entered Bolivia and went to Uyuni and the salt flats.
Do you mind talking about the experience that you had with your health when you entered Bolivia? No way, if I can help other people who might have the same experience – if they want to go the salt flats or climb any high mountains be damned careful. This is my urgent recommendation. I started in Tupiza on a four-day jeep tour of the salt flats. Tupiza is at 3000 meters and the next day you go up 1000 meters and the day after that you go up 5000 meters. It is recommended by doctors that you climb a maximum of 300 meters a day if you are over the altitude of 3000 meters. So, yeah that was three or four times more. I hadn’t heard of any problems of other travelers before and I read quite a lot of reviews on Trip Advisor. But I got very sick on the mountains. On the first day no one in our group could really sleep which is like a symptom of altitude sickness. It was hard to breathe and the second day in the evening I was close to panicking. It was even harder to breathe. I had like a really hot head, it felt like a bump and my body was shaking and freezing. It was terrible and I was really afraid because once you’re up there is no way to go down quickly again. You are like imprisoned. My driver and cook were nice, they helped me all they could. They gave me some medicine to smell and some coca leaves, but yeah this is not enough if you have this. At the end I could sleep the night and I felt a lot better because we were going to 3700 meters. And yeah I thought that would be enough. I visited the salt flats and felt okay and one day after I got very ill again. I could feel my blood getting thick. I could fill my arms and legs getting swollen and this is like an emergency situation. I read all this from the German embassy information about what happens if you climb too quickly. They even have rooms to cool down the dead bodies at the German Embassy in La Paz because some people just don’t survive. At first, I tried to get an airplane out of Uyuni because all the surroundings are very high there, but I felt it wasn’t possible so I paid a taxi driver to get to Sucre as quickly as possible because its only 2000 meters. There I went to the hospital and it was like a mixture of infection and the altitude sickness. They give me a mixture oxygen mask and infusion into my arm. I felt really bad, I was vomiting and diarrhea. Is that the word? Yes. Actually I was afraid I’d die. I like to travel to alone, but this thing – you just want to have friends and family around you.
You are leaving earlier than you were supposed too, how did this incident impact your decision to leave? I don’t know, it’s just that it feels like . . . it just changed. I just don’t want to go on. I can’t explain it better. Maybe its a mixture of this experience and that I’ve seen a lot in five months of travel and that’s why I feel its time to go home now. I just want to see family and friends again and be in a secure surrounding which I know.
Has the trip met your expectations in terms of getting away from you job and giving you an idea of what you want to do when you return to Germany? No, actually at the moment I have no idea what I will do when I return. I think, this is very subjective . . . is that you don’t have to change your life-like a hippie or something like a master traveler. Sometimes its just to see new things and have a change. If I go back to my job, I will go back richer with experiences.
If you could give advice to someone thinking about doing a backpacking trip what would you say? First, just do it. Just because I had one bad experience it doesn’t mean that you’ll have it too. All the good experiences they have a higher value than this one bag one. And traveling for me is like eating wisdom with spoons because you get in contact with so many different cultures and you also learn a lot about your own home country because when you live in England or the States or wherever you think that everything is normal, but it’s not. To get another point of view you have to get away from to see and to experience it. It’s not enough to watch a documentary or read books about it – you just have to feel it with your own senses. And, yes . . . well there are great websites where you can get in touch with other travelers who can give you great recommendations.
Any other thoughts you want to share about traveling? Well, I love this planet. We have a wonderful planet and I just want to see nice and beautiful places. Yeah that doesn’t mean everyone is thinking the same, but for me, it would have been such a pity not to see all these beautiful and extraordinary places in my lifetime. I’m very grateful for that.