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In the latest TBS Travelogue, Olivia Gee seeks life altering change in Paris and Europe, then Chile, but finds she’s still the same person when she returns home.
Travel is life altering.
It’s earth-shatteringly, mind-bogglingly awe inspiring. As you walk the backpacker’s dusty path, you will grow and change in ways you’ve never imagined.
…Except, if you don’t.
In the lead up to my four-month trip around Europe and South America, I attached personalised tags to bags, I bought hiking boots, set up scuba diving lessons and practiced my por favors and mercis. I was going to live the Bohemian dream, picking up stray cats and lost friends as I trotted the globe, transforming into a pillar of unflappable multiculturalism. As it turned out, I lost those tags, broke those boots, was too claustrophobic to finish my diving course and didn’t master any foreign tongues. The cat collection was a mild success, but that’s a story for another day. The recollections that I’d like to share now are of a more sobering nature. They involve the seemingly underwhelming aspects of international travel; disenchantment and mistakes.
When people talk about going abroad, it feels akin to CS Lewis’ wardrobe leading you to a magically alternate reality. You become a warrior and a leader, conquering your fears and rising to the occasion. The thing is, “abroad” is very different to “intergalactic,” and our fleshy selves face more psychological barriers than characters dancing upon pages. Traveling, while often spectacular, doesn’t always shape up to be our idealised adventure.
I began my 2013 travels in Europe with high expectations and not enough sunscreen. As I arrived in Paris, dishevelled but determined, I was met with heat, crowds and an unrelenting sense of familiarity. The view from the tower was immense and the macaroons were splendid, but I couldn’t banish a feeling of disappointment. At no point was there lilting background music to characterise my mood, nor was there anyone whisking me away to dinner in a crumbling yet romantic café. Paris was just another city full of expectant tourists and frustrated locals. All of them human and none of them talking beavers. My next six weeks in Europe often followed this trend. There were fun times had, but few life lessons gained and fewer truly “foreign” immersions.
So, as I crossed the Atlantic Ocean with my boyfriend, an avid traveller, I thought that perhaps in Chile my desire for difference might be met. No one in my limited circle of friends had ventured to Latin America – look how alternative I was being.
Our first days in Santiago, Chile, were lovely. Another city, but with a twist of excitement that stemmed out of strangeness. I was hooked on my English-to-Spanish dictionary and Pisco Sours. As we moved further south into a region known as Patagonia, however, the rain set in and things got messy. I hadn’t accounted for the fact that each Latin American country has a different dialect, and my heartfelt attempts at communicating in Spanish proved futile, and slowly dwindled. My European wardrobe was simply unsuitable for the snowy nights and rainy days. Worse still, neither my boyfriend nor I had realised that we had landed in the middle of a national holiday in Chile. We, alongside all the Chilean nationals, were searching for seats on buses, ferries and planes. The following weeks were characterised by the concerned moaning noises I emitted in response to the phrase, “no hay entradas” or “there are no tickets left,” and my boyfriend’s softly cooing words of encouragement.
As we moved back up the continent through Peru and onto Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Cuba, the snow melted into sweat. I cried with joy at the sight of sloths and the Andes, and in pain after suffering from a two week ear infection and falling from a white-water raft. We missed buses, got robbed, missed planes and got swindled. It was havoc. Unlike Europe, which was pleasant but somehow dissatisfying, Latin America was painfully manic but perfectly unusual. Yet after departing the continent, I remained frustratingly me. Apart from a slight tan and an ability to read bus schedules, I still hadn’t changed.
In reading all this, it would appear that I didn’t enjoy travelling abroad. Yet as I reminisce on that time, my strongest feelings are that of hilarity and amazement. I’m in no way saying that travelling isn’t a wonderful experience, but rather that it is an inherently different experience for everyone. As such, expecting anything specific out of travelling is a step in the wrong direction and can potentially tarnish a trip with disappointment. Personal growth shouldn’t be the aim of the game either – eat, pray and love some other time. To travel is to experience not yourself but humanity. Let the good and bad of travelling happen to you, rather than forcing smiling selfies in front of the world’s monuments.