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Hello friend! I surely hope you’ve been better than me.
Oruro is a god-awful, no-good lousy town. I make up my mind as soon as I jump out of the bus and the poignant smell of piss and trash hit me, a cocktail so typical to third-world towns and bus stations but which I have so far successfully avoided in Bolivia. It’s close to midnight, my mouth hurts and I’m alone in a new city that looks like a suburb to a violent Wild West village. I stomp past a woman yelling for passengers to the bus to Cochabamba, my next destination, and I long to jump on it and leave behind the empty, dark streets of this useless town, but I’m in need of a nice sleep and a thorough toothbrushing session even more, so I trudge along.
The hostel isn’t far, just some four blocks of walking. I keep my eyes open for shady characters and tense up a bit as I see a silhouette of a man emerging from one of the side streets, walking towards me, but as he passes me, I notice he is indeed a she and a fellow backpacker nevertheless. To be honest, although the streets are devoid of all life except for some stray dogs going through roadside thrash, I don’t feel threatened. I might be living in a post-Brazil safety bubble, but so far Bolivia has felt like an incredibly safe country to backpack on my own. As far as travel safety goes, I believe some lousy pickpockets do make their rounds in the busier cities, but I don’t feel like I need to hang on to my phone tooth and nail here.
After a few knocks on the door, a sleepy Bolivian guy opens the door and hands me the key to my room. My thoughts are so focused on the pain on my gums that I will not later even remember his face (although, some who know me might add, facial recognition skills are rarely my strong suit anyway). I’ve booked a private – a luxury that any backpacker who’s been on the road long enough can appreciate fiercely. Great thing it is, too, since I doubt I would be able to have a meaningful conversation with anyone right now.
My gums have been aching since Friday, and now it is Monday evening and the pain is driving me close to tears. With the help of WebMD, I have self-diagnosed gingivitis, and as every internet source suggested, have been brushing and scraping and flossing with the devotion of a member of a Toothfairy cult, but this suggested self-treatment doesn’t seem to have had any effect. I’ve never been one to shy away from things other people seem to find scary; darkness doesn’t bother me, heights thrill me, and the only reason I am wary around spiders is because I don’t know which ones are poisonous and I am not ready for the responsibility to be Spiderman. But now, alone in the night whose silence is occasionally broken by what I hope are sounds of firecrackers, in a simple Bolivian hostel room, the thought of going to a dentist terrifies me.
I am reminded of the words of the English guy I met in Brazil back in January. He said: ‘Bolivia is an incredible country, but one way or another you will get sick. Maybe it’s the food, the altitude or the dust, but you will get sick.’ I was expecting food poisoning but with my iron stomach didn’t worry about it too much; my usual travel maladies are just common colds that I seem to catch every time the temperature rises above +30 degrees Celsius. Well, it wasn’t a gone-off chop of chicken or even the (literally) breathtaking heights, but I had ended up fulfilling his grim prophecy anyway.
A part of me wants to stay in all day and binge on Youtube storytimes – a luxury that Bolivian wifi has not allowed me in weeks – but the adventurous part of me drags me out of bed and into the street. Oruro doesn’t seem much more impressive in the daylight. Cars honk at other cars, pedestrians, and just for fun as they aggressively squeeze into a roundabout, in a true Bolivian fashion defying every traffic rule that I was ever taught. The shady side of the street makes my fingertips cold; the sunny side is hot enough to melt the flesh off my bones.
I walk alongside a small parade of first-graders dressed up in dresses made of bin bags, candy wrappers and newspaper. I think the parade is promoting the benefits of recycling, but there is also a gorilla and a few pre-teen Harley Quinns thrown into the mix, so I’m not sure. My aching gums make me regret ever leaving the hostel. I leave the parade behind and climb up to a lookout marked by a small statue of a lighthouse. This seems to be the local make-out spot, I decide, as I watch the few couples necking by the safety barrier as if none of the other pairs in love were there. Even though back in Salar de Uyuni I half-seriously wished for a travel romance from a few shooting stars I spotted, it’s the furthest thing in my mind right now; in fact, with my sore, bleeding gums the mere thought of mouth-on-mouth action makes me wince in imaginary pain. From up above the town impresses me even less than it does from the street level. I’m tired, I’m miserable, and I’m missing my travel mates that I’d just let go a day earlier. But not home – even at this lousy moment I at most wish I could visit a dentist at my university’s health clinic, where the ladies working there are smiley and helpful and above all speak Finnish, but even then homesickness hasn’t caught up to me yet.
On my way back to the hostel I buy mouthwash and an ice cream to soothe my mind and mouth equally. A friend I met back in Santa Cruz has dropped by at the hostel, but after one cup of tea I excuse myself back to my room. Smiling hurts. I brush my teeth one tooth at a time, taking my time as if exploring the body of a new lover or making my way through and especially complex sushi buffet, and wince so hard when the mouthwash hits my mouth that I spill some of it on myself.
Maybe I am too harsh on Oruro; after all, it is not her fault for being just a town, not even a particularly miserable one in comparison to all the awful no-man’s towns around the globe. (I doubt I will ever detest a place as much as I detest New Delhi.) In a miserable state of mind, a traveller easily makes wrongful assumptions on their physical location. And sometimes travel is just that; instead of singing in the car as a foreign landscape rolls by like a painting, surrounded by friends from three continents, you get toothache and solitude. These days will come and they will go. In a few days my mouth will not hurt anymore (I hope… even though I might have to pay a visit to a Spanish-speaking dental doctor), and I will be a part of a new crowd, as exciting and foreign as the last one.
As I board my bus to Cochabamba Wednesday at midday, I feel slightly better. Maybe it’s the mouthwash I’ve been poisoning my mouth with; maybe it’s the Ibuprofen I’ve started popping like sweets. I don’t even look out the window as we roll out of the town. I’ve changed my mind again and decided to just keep on hating on Oruro. Adios, you no-good, pitiful excuse for a town. Thanks for nothing.
So you’ve packed your bags and quit your job. You’ve closed your phone plan and advised your friends and family that you might go days without contact with the freshest memes and news on terrorism while you’re on some far-away hike. You’ve filled your first aid-kit, bought a dozen tiny travel gimmicks that that one travel blog told you to get, and your tickets and itinerary are printed and in a see-through folder.
In a word, you’re ready to go.
Maybe it’s your first trip alone, or a first time spending longer abroad. Maybe it’s your first trip in general. You’re excited and nervous and a little scared but mostly happy to be dusting off this tired old country off your shoulders and fill your shoes with the sand of a new land. You’re harbouring dreams of tropical heat and larger-than-life mountains, of holiday romance and new friendships, of anything and everything that goes with the adventure. You’ve read enough travel blogs to know that this trip is going to be life-changing in some intense, intimate, personal way. You can’t wait.
But one thing you’re all too quick to disregard is that as you’re packing your life away into that tiny backpack, you’re also packing in the weight that you carry around in your everyday life. No matter how light you travel, you will always take your emotional baggage with you.
Travel is often – and best – described as a refreshing escape from the humdrum everyday, a way to explore and experience things you could never even dream of if you stayed still. But the prospect of adventure is not the only force that drives us out into the world. Many are also taking their travel time as an opportunity to do some personal growth, learn new skills and figure out a direction for a life that doesn’t seem to have a clear way ahead. I’m not saying it is bad to expect that travelling will help you answer some unanswered questions in your life; I fully support the idea that travelling can help you untie or loosen some knots. Travelling can teach you independence, humility, confidence, money management, problem solving, patience and so, so many more valuable life skills. And it is true what they say: travelling is a truly life-changing experience.
However: you can’t expect travelling to solve all your problems.
Sure, it is a great way to discover things about yourself. Sure, sometimes the change in scenery can help you see solutions to your trouble more clearly than at home. Maybe your usual symptoms even stay away for a while, fooling you into thinking that you could’ve packed away your issues in those cardboard boxes labeled ‘HOME’ or ‘DONATE’. But let me tell you: they are only dormant, and they will catch up to you. Your mental illness, grief, broken heart, debt, insecurity, criminal record, trauma, bad childhood and trust issues will still be there. Travelling is not a replacement for antidepressants. Travelling can’t turn you from an introvert to a extrovert. Travelling will not cover your credit card debt, and anyone who ever said that you don’t need money to travel must’ve been out of their goddamn mind.
It seems absurd that you’d feel sad while sitting under palm trees or peering up the biggest canyon in the world. You might even feel guilt over it. You’re supposed to be having the time of your life, and instead you’re broken down, crying your eyes out on a curb somewhere outside of a club with mere two dollars in your pocket and a phone running on dead battery, feeling sorry for yourself. So many others never get a chance to travel – it seems so ungrateful to spend time wallowing in self-pity. You also feel a tinge of shame. You thought travelling would make you a new person, someone more fun and smart and brave, but here you are again, the same old you and nothing’s changed.
It doesn’t help that everyone else seems to be doing so fine, making friends left and right, shining bright, posting amazing selfies with exotic animals on Instagram. This image created by social media and fascinating stories we hear in hostel bars and common rooms can be incredibly hurtful, but you have to remember it is only the polished image that people want to present to the world. I don’t think it’s a fake or a false image; I do think, though, that it is only one colour in a story saturated with many different hues. We rarely want to present ourselves as troubled or miserable – especially when we’re travelling, and we are expected to be happy all the time – so we shut out the negative and only let it out to a few trusted friends.
You’re feeling deceived, homesick and sad because you expected everything to be as great as dreams. After all, you’re far removed from real life, right? That’s where you went wrong, and that’s why the weight of your baggage has hit you even harder than it would usually. It blindsided you. ‘Abroad’ is not a magical fairytale land separated from reality; it is part of your reality, even though that reality might be intensely more happy and exciting than the reality you’ve come to know at home. It is a reality in which you are an incomplete, partly broken, lost and confused human being. And that’s OK. You’re not the only one. Everyone is lugging around their own little demon, even when they’re dancing on table tops and racing through jungles on a motorbike.
It is important to acknowledge and address your weaknesses. Presumably, you know yourself quite well – after all, you’ve lived with yourself your whole life – so you know what your issues are. Don’t let them surprise you and ruin your holiday. Instead, accept them as a part of your character. Intend to cope with them the same way you would at home. Talk about them to sympathetic travellers – after all, the fast-paced, fleeting friendships on the road grant a certain anonymity to discussion, and as we all know, it is often easier to open up to strangers than to people who know you. If you do, you will probably find out that your newly-found friends are also struggling with their own problems. Realising that you’re not the only one who’s sometimes having a crappy time can be a huge relief.
Travelling is a wonderful aid to self-discovery and to most, it is an important shaper of character. However, even as some aspects of your personality may become accentuated or faded, deep down you’re still the same person you have always been. There are so many ways that travelling can make your life better, but don’t expect it to solve all your problems.
Hi and thanks for reading! Do you agree with me? Has travelling helped you get over your issues or even solved them completely?
When my Plan A to go on a student exchange to Chile failed, I immediately jumped on a poorly-planned, impulse Plan B; I felt I needed to go to South America anyway, so I picked the only remaining option and chose a city in the south of Brazil. I got accepted and started to learn Portuguese with probably more enthusiasm than skill. And almost without fail, everybody who heard – my mum being the loudest – asked me:
‘Why are you going there? Isn’t Brazil dangerous?’
This concern clearly worries many travellers headed that way. When googling ‘is Brazil dangerous’, instead of statistics and factual reports, most of the search results are posts on travel forums, adorned with an unnecessary amount of question marks to emphasize the gravity of the question. The whole of South America gets a bad rep for theft, violence and cocaine, and amidst the prejudice stands Brazil, known for its corruption, favelas and samba (the worst vice of them all!), only beat by chaotic countries such as Venezuela in terms of shadiness. After returning home, my friends have jokingly been telling me that they’re glad I’ve got my limbs intact and my passport still in my pocket (I guess I deserve that part of the banter – example 1 and example 2). And the same questions about travel safety in Brazil keep on coming.
So, it’s time to tackle the unfortunate subject of safety and danger. With six months of living, travelling and immersing myself in Brazilian culture, here is what I found out.
Rio may be dangerous but I’m the queen of the city so
Stories wilder than the Wild West
If you want to go digging around for the truth about a country’s dark secrets, you always ask the locals. In this case, though, you rarely even have to ask.
As soon as I arrived in Novo Hamburgo and started making friends with Brazilians, I begun hearing warnings and cautionary tales. Safety in Brazil was often one of the first topics we discussed. They told me not to walk alone at night, not even to the university which was barely a ten-minute stroll away through a reasonably clean suburb. Even Uber drivers, as they dropped me home, waited to see that I got inside the gates safely before driving away. A few people even asked me, unbelieving: ‘Why would you come to Brazil? It’s so dangerous here!’
Of course I was intrigued to find out if any of these warnings were based on true events or whether the rumours were wildly exaggerated. So I asked around.
A Spanish backpacker I met in Rio told me about a guy who’d put him in a chokehold in the middle of the day a few blocks from Copacabana as another guy went through his pockets.
A couchsurfing host told me that, again in Rio, his phone got snatched out of his hand as he was trying to pay for a city bike with an app.
A Tinder date told me that once he’d been riding his motorbike in the middle of the night when two other bikes started following him, trying to corner him or chase him off the road, and he just barely managed to drive off.
A neighbour informed me that a delivery driver had been robbed literally just outside of our pousada’s gates as he was bringing pizza to one of the residents.
An Uber driver told me that once when he was stopped at a red light, alone in the middle of the night, a man with a gun in his hand tapped on his window and told him to get out of the car. He never got that car back, either.
A German girl, who sat next to me in a bus to Uyuni, told me she would really like to visit Brazil but was hesitant to put it on her list. ‘My sister went there for a conference some time ago, and she’s a seasoned traveller’, she told me. ‘She got robbed four times in a week.’
These are just the stories off the top off my head, but I’m sure that if I went through my travel diaries and the dusty little nooks in my brain, I would remember more.
The facts (Non-fake news)
You always hear stories. But what do the actual facts say?
In March, The Economist published an article revealing the most violent cities and countries that are not currently at war. Brazil has the unfortunate honour to dominate that list: half of the most dangerous cities in the world are located there. (One of the supposedly worse ones, Porto Alegre, is the one that I was living close to. Uh-oh.) ‘Brazil reigns as the world′s overall murder capital’, states the article. It also suggests that this is simply due to the country’s vast size: with a population of 207 million, Brazil is more likely to have more crime in general than its smaller neighbours.
Forbes researched the topic as well. Their alarmingly named article As Crime Wave Hits Brazil, Daily Death Toll Tops Syria shows that even though the rate of violent crime had decreased, Brazil still experienced 58,383 deaths from violent crime in 2015* – even more than war-torn Syria did, when you compare the number to Syria’s 55,219 victims. However, they do point out that violent crime seems to be a problem that is concentrated on small areas instead of being a national problem. In addition, The Global Peace Index determines the country’s level of peacefulness (which also includes safety in society) as “medium” for Brazil – which is the same as granted to other popular destinations such as Thailand, Vietnam, Peru and even the United States.
While stats and horror stories might discourage you from travelling, from a tourist’s perspective getting offed by a random criminal is not very likely. According to FCO, ‘189,269 British nationals visited Brazil in 2015. Most visits are trouble free.’ Most crimes committed against British nationals were theft and pick-pocketing instead of violent crime, although FCO do report high levels of crime especially in the bigger cities. However, neither the British, US, Australian or Finnish foreign affairs ministries recommend not travelling to Brazil nor flag it as a particularly dangerous country; they list all the usual dangers and recommend taking special precautions in order to avoid trouble.
Well, in my opinion…
I don’t claim to be an expert on Brazilian travel. Even though I spent a long time in the country and got to know the culture and my region well, my experience definitely differs wildly from that of the people who have actually lived there all of their lives, so it is only wise to take my words with a grain of salt. Having said that, though: nothing bad happened to me in Brazil.
I found Brazilians to be warm, welcoming people, who after five minutes of chatter would invite me to their house to dine with their family, and accepting the invitation didn’t feel weird because I knew it was heart-felt. Teachers would compliment me on my very shaky Portuguese, and the man working the tourist information desk at the Rio bus station walked me three blocks to the bus stop because it was five a.m. and he was worried that I might get lost or robbed. I spent a lot of Sundays at my friend’s family’s house, having dinner or lunch or just tea, and her parents made us exchange students feel like we were a part of the family – they even welcomed Emma, who didn’t know a lick of Portuguese, with the same warmth.
What about travelling around, then, you might ask? I travelled solo which made me a little nervous at first, but on the road I met lots of other solo travellers, both male and female, and realised that South America and Brazil do get played up a little in terms of danger. I explored the cities – big and small – and national parks both on my own and with travel friends. I took good care of my belongings, stayed aware of my surroundings and felt safe. The only time I ever felt a pang of concern was when my Uber driver got lost on our way to the metro station but didn’t tell me, and as we zoomed past the turn I knew we needed to take, I half-jokingly I texted his name and register plate to my friend just in case he was planning on kidnapping me. (Spoiler: he wasn’t.)
But I can’t deny that Brazil holds a certain atmosphere of tension. You can feel it in all the bigger cities, all over the streets like a discreet smell that your nose can’t quite pick up but which still irritates your lungs. You get used to its weight quickly but as soon as you travel out from under that dark cloud, the change is imminent. I felt it for the first time in Ilha Grande, a little paradise island south of Rio whose residents are pretty much solely tourists and business owners catering for tourists. It was safe enough to leave your bag on the beach while you took a swim without having to worry that someone was going to steal it. I felt it again in Montevideo, Uruguay. It felt like a knot had been loosened in my chest or as if a stalker had finally taken his eyes off my neck. I can’t explain it otherwise – you just felt the difference.
And of course small signs around you show, too, how safe the place is. In Brazil, houses are built with sturdy iron gates in front of them, which kept amazing Emma and I. Brazilians seemed to be just as amazed as we explained that only very rich houses in Finland have such gates around them, and in some suburbs people even leave their back doors unlocked when they go out for the day. (Of course measuring a country’s safety against Finland is a little unfair – after all, it is the safest country in the world.) I was surprised to see people still walking on the street with phones in hand – which you’re advised to never do as a tourist – but it is not as common as in many other places. Women, even though they’re walking seemingly relaxed and without looking over their shoulder, still hold their purses on the front of their bodies and casually hold their hand over them.
A lot of tourists still get robbed in Brazil. However, millions of tourists travel to the country every year and return after a trip of a lifetime unscathed. I have said it before and I will keep saying it again: a country is always so much more than just the terrible stories you hear about it. Oftentimes the reputation of a destination is based on out-dated information and tall tales that have taken on almost urban legend levels. (I mean, when I showed my mum pictures of Vietnam, she was surprised to see power lines since her idea of the country was based on what history books tell of Vietnam War.) Brazil may not be exactly a safe country, but I would never rule it as an unsafe one, either.
As a general rule, taking all the normal precautions keeps you relatively safe. Before you travel, you should google some of the best safety tips for the country, but here are a few basic ones:
Do your research on specific places where theft and robberies are common and if you can, avoid those areas. (For example, the walking path to Cristo Redeemer is notorious for robberies; it is better to take the cable car or a bus up.)
Only carry a little bit of cash and nothing too valuable. Look after your belongings at all times.
If you do get mugged, hand over your valuables. Don’t resist, since robbers are often armed, even though they mostly don’t want to hurt you.
Walk with purpose and your head heald high, and stay aware of your surroundings at all times.
Don’t store your valuables in the overhead compartment in busses.
Brazil is a wonderful country full of rich, distinctive cultures, great food, world-famous sights and warm-hearted people, and it quickly became one of my favourite countries. Don’t let unreasonable fear dictate where you travel – you might miss out on the greatest experience of your life.
Have you ever travelled somewhere that people consider dangerous? Would you visit Brazil?
*This number is different than the one given in The Econimist’s article. I’m not sure which one is correct, but my guess is that the real number is hard to estimate due to bad documentation.
This time the Back-to-Black Blues has already hit me three days before starting my arduous journey home.
Saturday, August 26, 11.35 a.m. I’m shuffling towards a lagoon that is supposed to house some flamingos but which, frankly, looks as dull as a bathtub, in the middle of a group that’s a mixture of families with excited children and backpackers who look slightly disappointed that the tour has so far not been even close to what we all expected. I’ve been alone all morning; it doesn’t bother me. I don’t even feel like talking to anybody, anyway. The wind bites hard in this eerie landscape that is oddly reminiscent of Mars – of course it’s not as nice as Salar de Uyuni was, I doubt anything will ever be as nice as that, but for the last days of my trip I’ll gladly take this cheap knock-off. My thoughts brush on the people I met during the past eight months, and suddenly longing swings me in the chest with the full force of a baseball bat. I’ve only got three more days left in South America. Three more days. How does time get away from us so quickly? I feel it was years ago since I stepped out of the plane in the sweltering hot Salvador, years since I stood in that kitchen of the first hostel in dire need of a shower, already learning gross details of my fellow hostel-dwellers before learning their names, bumping our green plastic cups of watered down caipirinhas together. It feels like years, and that’s why it has surprised me that the day of my return has drawn so close; I guess part of me was starting to feel like this adventure would never end.
I’m standing on that little opening, looking at white dots in the distance that might be flamingos or just cardboard cut-outs, and some lady is explaining to her son why they can’t go any closer. I’m trying to look away from them because I’m pretty sure I’m crying a little bit. I feel like shit. I keep thinking of our little group of misfits that was so dear to me in Brazil, scattered all over the globe – literally, all of us in different countries now; of the boy I met back in Cusco who made me wish I could spin around and track my steps right back through the route that I already took; of the places I missed on the way, the ones I saw and fell for, the ones I didn’t mind leaving behind. Then I think of home and it rises like a big, scary shadow before me. I am as reluctant to go as if someone had asked me to jump off a cliff. This fervour to stay surprises me in its fury; all these months, while being grateful and giddy to be in South America, I have also been planning what to do when I get home. Homesickness is a bit of a foreign concept for me, but this year I’ve been suffering from something close to it. And now my brain is telling me that going back is the last thing I want? I’m going home too soon; I should have been home months ago. Everything is confusing. I guess I kind of understand that little resistant voice. It’s the voice of adventure. It’s a voice so much stronger than that of real life.
Real life? Ugh, I’ve always hated that phrase. I travel so much that my trips have become part of that real life. I’m not just going on holidays, it’s a part of my lifestyle. Many of my friends have told me that I am brave to travel alone, but in reality I am so much less afraid of traversing far-flung lands than staying still. The world is not some big, scary place full of dark fears and strangers waiting to take advantage of you; it is a welcoming embrace, the next chapter in a page-turner bestseller, a source of endless inspiration and awe. Home is the opposite of it, the cruel funnel of life. If I slip, I fall all the way to the bottom and slide into the comfortable roles of a worker, a citizen, a mother, a wife. As long as I am lost, I can find my way. It is the mundane clarity that scares me. Over the past five years, I have spent almost as much time abroad as in Finland – I did the math one night as I was lying in a dark dorm room, unable to sleep because falling asleep would bring next morning on faster, and then I would just be speeding towards that airplane waiting to carry me home.
So no, travel and real life are not separated for me. The problem is just that travel me and home me seem to be living two lives, not separated from each other but bound together, but two lives in different colours all the same. As I stepped on the plane that took me away, I slipped into the skin of someone else, someone who resembled me but was a little stranger, a little braver. I travelled in her skin through foreign lands and fell in love with her in sunsets and among snowy mountains, and like a foreign lover I have brought her home with me to introduce to my friends and family. But as soon as I got back, I stepped into my old clothes, into someone more comfortable, into the girl that attends a Master’s thesis seminar and goes to the library once a week and drinks wine with her friends watching Sharknado and Star Wars, and suddenly my adventurist lover has found herself abandoned. She can only see the map outside of the borders of this country and she drives herself crazy, imagining wild places and romantic affairs, gluing herself to that imagery of an adventure like a sticker to a picture. The itch to go stays like ants under her skin, crawling through every pore, making her anxious and reckless and unable to stay.
As I go about my day, she paces from wall to wall in the apartment that doesn’t quite fit me like a home, restless, mad with longing, shoving me with her shoulder as she passes. ‘How can you be so calm?!’ she scolds me as I step in and shut the bygone day behind the door. ‘Are you not seeing all these places we have never been to? How are you not going crazy?‘
Perhaps unbeknownst to her, I am. I was crying as I walked through the airport, seeing all the familiar trademarks and products of Finland. Some of it was joy, unbelieving that all that was still there, a world untouched even though I had been thoroughly turned around and shaken and changed in some way that I couldn’t quite explain. But then that Spanish-speaking couple walked past and I whipped my head around, staring after them as a drowning man stares at the shore, and there were the tears again but this time accompanied by a stone in my stomach, the one weighing me down in this familiar land when all I could think of was the one I had just left behind.
I got on the train munching on some Finnish chocolate (because chocolate heals all). I was texting everyone I could think of that I’d arrived – I wanted to shout it out, make the train filled with drunken Icelanders echo with my screams of I am back from the greatest adventure of my life! Don’t you see how I have changed? Don’t you see how I’m different?
You always tend to feel a little blue after a long trip – post-holiday depression is the term people use, I think. (I like to call it Back-to-Black Blues, since I usually return to Finland at the beginning of the autumn when days are just starting to get darker and colder.) In your mind, you’re still free and relaxed, and going back to deadlines and beeping alarm clocks feels less pleasant than torture. You want to talk about your adventure all the time because it’s the only thing that matters but you feel you can’t connect with anyone because no one else has gone through the same amazing experience than you. Like Kellie Donnelly says it in her wonderful article The Hardest Part Of Traveling No One Talks About: ‘It’s like learning a foreign language that no one around you speaks so there is no way to communicate to them how you really feel.’ (By the way – that post should be an obligatory read to anyone coming home from a long trip!)
I’ve surely felt it before. After I came back from Australia, I stayed at home for weeks doing nothing, just watching sitcoms and imagining all the things I could be doing 12,000 kilometers away. Suddenly everything familiar feels so strange, as if you’d walked into your house to find out that someone had shifted all the furniture slightly to the left. All year I’ve dreamed of shopping at a Finnish supermarket – cheap pesto! frozen spinach! feta cheese! – but as soon as I wandered into one, I almost got emotional: they didn’t have any of the stuff I was used to cooking with in Brazil, and suddenly I was lost again.
It’s always like that right after coming home. You feel out of place even though you’re supposed to fit right in, and it makes you crave the road again because there the bars, the streets, the buses were filled with strangers whose ambitions fit snugly around yours. They were the people who understood you. I have never before been so not at peace with going back – then again, I have rarely been to a place that has felt so welcoming as South America did, as if it was a lover I cuddled up to just to find out our bodies fit together perfectly. I miss it wildly.
But as the train neared my current home town, as the familiar scenery rolled past the windows, I started smiling. Another lover locked his arms around me – home, a true home, where I feel like I belong. And as the first days have gone by and I’ve kept busy, meeting all of my friends and family and decorating my new apartment, I have found myself energetic in a way that I have never been before after a holiday. My crazy head is buzzing with ideas and mad dreams that drive me forward with such scary ambition that I can only hope to keep up with it. I have new ideas about the blog and how I want to change it, and I have even made a plan how to get out of Finland for most of next spring. I am motivated to even tackle the much-feared Master’s thesis that I’m writing this year. I don’t know how long this burst of motivation will last. Probably in its current form it will burn itself out pretty fast. So far I’m enjoying it, though.
So, when the fierce, adventurous spirit I’ve had to tame to fit the standards of society starts to throw a tantrum again, I can reassure her that she has not been completely forgotten. She will never be a calm lake but always full of impatient ripples, but I let her move beneath my skin because I know now how to contain her furious wanderlust. I am still young, and I know the world will wait for me and my restless spirit like a mother waits for her son back from the sea. I am calm because I know that there is a good future ahead, full of exciting aromas of far-flung places and new stories hiding just underneath the dirt of the road. But for now… I am calm because I know in good time I will have all that I so painfully long for now: the road, the love awaiting on it, the adventure, the place to call home.
But good time is just such a damn long time to wait.
Thanks for reading! I’ve been home for a week now and even though it is starting to look like travels will be a lot scarcer this autumn than I’d wish, I am excited to bring you some new, cool content on this site while I reminisce about my past adventures. So, stay tuned…
Do you even feel strange after coming home from a holiday? How do you cope with the post-holiday blues?
This postcard is going to reach you late. (Just blame the South American postal service and hope that it doesn’t take as long as it took for that care package mum sent me from Finland – I can’t believe I waited five months for a bloody cheese slicer.) Actually, I’ll probably arrive home before this card does. I’ve been doing the maths, adding up numbers like a diligent little first-grader since that is about the level of maths that has been required in order to complete my calculations. Let me just catch you up to speed:
About eight hours ago I woke up to a coughing fit that seemed to rattle my bones and the whole basis of the universe (miraculously, my roommate didn’t even stir). Although under usual circumstances waking up at 1 a.m. because your lungs are trying to emergency evacuate through your throat is very unfortunate, I was glad I did since otherwise I would have forgotten to enroll in the autumn courses. I’m enrolled in a Master’s Thesis seminar now. And to think back on the time working on my Bachelor’s felt like a Big Deal.
Exactly three years ago I met my long-term boyfriend for the first time. We’re broken up now, though. It’s almost a shame – spending an anniversary at freaking Machu Picchu would have made a hell of a day.
In two weeks, I will have been home for two days. Two nights slept in a new apartment high above the city, two sunsets that as North as Finland come deceivingly late this time of the year. Two weeks from now I will be re-starting in a job I swore I wouldn’t return to. But what can I say to defend myself? I am just another money-hungry millenial who really enjoys paying rent and eating three meals a day.
Now I know I took advanced mathematics in college, so numbers and I enjoy a certain mutual agreement between us that can’t quite be described as animosity, but these are the kind of numbers I’m not too fond of. Going home? Dwelling in the past? Stressing about future worries that have not even happened yet? Please unsubscribe me from that list. I don’t go seeking to feel sad before my time; it’s just that I tend to notice last things and with them realise just how little time I have left.
I am happy to be seeing Machu Picchu this late on my trip, though. It is a highlight I’ve been building towards, an end to a road that I have literally been walking on with just that one goal in mind (don’t worry, I did not just haphazardly toss that ‘literally’ in that sentence; I hiked the Salkantay trek, so I have actually been walking towards Machu Picchu for four days. And did I mention the part where I carried my backpack all the way up the hundreds of steps to the entrance? Yeah, I also really like guides who know where luggage storage is located). Even though I arrive to the top of the mountain pissed off, drenched in sweat and sleep-deprived, I find all that slowly dissolving as I depart from my beloved but painstakingly slow group and make the way up the mountain by myself. I spend the first hours just staring at the complex from different angles. All my negative feelings from before seem to be as far away as if I’d hopped on a plane to Europe to escape them.
Some people in my Salkantay group were worried that Machu Picchu might not live up to the expectations. After all, all of us already knew what it looked like from the kazillion pictures on Instagram, our travel friends’ photos and the postcards sold all over Cusco that look like they were designed by someone’s dad who’s just learning how to open his e-mails. I didn’t really doubt for a second. I have travelled far and wide and seen a lot of miracles, both manmade and natural, and every time the fact that i’m standing here looking at this famous thing holy shit hits me hard and makes me dizzy and happy. These ancient constructs that I chase around the world are like celebrities to me; I get star-struck.
On my way to the Sun Gate, I ran into another member of our trekking group who’d gone rogue, an English guy with a pineapple hat so ridiculous it was cool and more trekking in his boots from the past year than I had probably ever done. We sat up there in the sunshine, talking idly of the planes we’d almost missed and the kind of sports we used to do as kids, and the conversation flowed slowly but effortlessly. All the while we kept lazy watch over the complex, as if after five hundred years of standing still it might just uproot itself and sneak off if we let our eyes off of it. I remember thinking that I probably didn’t make as many friends this summer as I had thought I would. Then I thought, friends? Travel friendships can be such shallow, boring business. I didn’t want to hear another route plan or a light-hearted national stereotype which is what we result to when we try to be friends with everyone but have nothing in common. Maybe the few friends I ended up making were enough, after all, because they were worth it.
Machu Picchu is notorious for its smothering crowds, but up there at the Sun Gate with the tour groups long gone, I found temporary peace. People down, down there were so far it was easy to imagine they weren’t even there. But I was, ancient stone as my nonceremonious seat and munching on Oreos, and man, I never wanted to go down that mountain.
To end this card, I’m afraid I’m going to have to apologise for my erratic writing. I don’t believe there was much of a clear trail of thought here, and definitely no deeper truth or a lesson to be learned. But you know what, it is not something I’m about to beat myself over for; there is a storm brewing up in my mind (that sounds very dramatic, I know, but what do you expect when all everyone’s been talking about for a month is Game of Thrones?) and it is a hurricane mixture of all kinds of feelings between the joy of coming home and the desperation to just stay on the road no matter what.
I’m glad I’ve been there. Can’t wait to see you now though.
The Dutch girl I met in Sucre shuddered when she remembered the mining tour she’d taken back in Potosí. ‘It’s definitely interesting’, she said, ‘but it won’t be fun.’ Seeing that the mines are at the altitude of 4,400 metres and underground, I can easily understand what might inspire such a statement. But here I am – ready to descend into the depths of the Earth with minimal idea of what’s to come.
The tour starts at a warehouse where we don on protective clothing and laugh for a bit at how small my feet are and how big Sarah’s are. She has decided to join us today despite having freaked out about her possible claustrophobia for days beforehand. I do feel a little sorry for her, being tall and all, while I expect to fit into the mining tunnels like a hobbit myself.
After the wardrobe change we’re taken to the miners’ market where the workers buy all their supplies – namely dynamite, refreshments and protective gear. We are encouraged to buy something to bring as presents to the miners, and as we’ve been warned beforehand that this is just another way of making more money off tourists, Sarah, Scott and I hesitantly put some money together for two bottles of juice and one of water. Then our guide pulls out a small bottle, not unlike the one full of rubbing alcohol I used in the jungle to light up the fire. It’s what miners drink, our guide explains, and it’s 96% alcohol. He pours a little into the red lid of the bottle and spills some on the hard stone floor. ‘First you have to pour a little to Pachamama, Mother Earth’, he explains, then proceeds with: ‘Happiness. Love. Safety in mines.’
The lid goes around the circle. When it’s my turn to make wishes, I pour one out for happiness and another for safe travels. ‘And one for a boyfriend?’ the guide smirks. I laugh and reply: ‘Actually, that’s a good wish the other way ‘round. To no more boyfriends.’ I spill a drop out to seal my forlorn love life and throw back the lid. The drink is strong enough to make a grown man wince but since it’s made of sugar cane, its sweetness overpowers the punch of alcohol.
The van climbs up the hill to the entrance of the mines. Just outside the gate at a makeshift shack of a bar, men of indeterminable age are drinking Potosi beer from plastic cups. It’s Friday, after all. From up here you get a sweeping look over the city. The yellow, barren landscape is reminiscent of a sci-fi film, perhaps of Star Wars or Mad Max. I remember our arrival to the city. Arriving in Potosí was like arriving in a ghost town. Unfinished red brick buildings on the outskirts of the town made it seem barely inhabited, and the few people I spotted from the bus window bore the mask of seriousness as do the kind of people who work hard all their lives with little reward. Hard work is certainly well known in this place: sixty per cent of the population of Potosí work in connection to the mining business.
Our guide asks if anyone needs the toilet. ‘Inside the mines you can only pee-pee’, he says. The methane gases of excrement could prove dangerous in the claustrophobic belly of the mountain where men work closely with dynamite. For this, the workers don’t eat anything inside the mines during their 8-hour shifts. They keep themselves hydrated with juice and water, and they chew coca leaves to give them energy.
We dive into the mines, trailing after two men jogging alongside an empty cart. Even without its contents it looks heavy, and as I struggle to draw enough oxygen from the thinning air, I can’t help but admire the stamina of the men working here. Machinery inside the mines is very simple; most work is done by sheer manpower.
Now I have never been one afraid of narrow places, but as we rush to keep up with the miners ahead, I realise the combination of the high altitude and the scarf on my face are allowing minimal oxygen intake. For a rushed second I verge a panic attack, imagining what it would be like to suffocate to death here inside the dark hill. I pull down my scarf and even at the threat of dust and asbestos, I drink in the cool air of the mine. Maybe at this point it would still be possible to return to daylight, back to wide open spaces, but I keep in step with the rest of the group and soldier on.
We stop at a small chapel just inside the mine. Usually these altars are located outside since underground the lord of the other realm reigns – the Devil, or El Tio, ‘The Uncle’, as miners call him. His image adorns every leaflet advertising the mining tours. In these images, he is naked except for the rubber boots that every miner wears, a cigarette drooping from the side of his mouth, a bottle of sugarcane booze in hand and a bag of coca leaves laying at his feet.
Without our headlamps it would be pitch black. I shine mine down some of the corridors we pass, imagery of some distant horror movie vaguely on my mind, but amongst the very real dangers of being inside a live mine they fade away without touching a nerve. The mines form a labyrinth and I wonder how the workers learn to orientate themselves in the deceptive similarity of the corridors. Our guide seems to know exactly where he is going. As workers pass, he greets them enthusiastically by name, and hands them a bottle of water or a bag of coca leaves in passing.
The first obstacle of the tour comes soon as we gather around an open mine shaft. As I’m standing on the edge, the guide reaches out and turns off my headlamp.
‘Can you see the miner?’
Forty feet down, a pale light shines at the bottom. I arrange my feet extremely carefully as I move over the shaft. My boots are maybe half a size too big and I miss my beat-up hiking shoes.
On the other side of the shaft sits a man, 59 years old, a father and a husband, operating a winch that lifts potfuls of minerals from the bottom to the top. At one point, as the empty pot is making its way back down, he tosses in a green bag of coca leaves and requests two more for himself. As we leave him, the steady sound of the rope coiling around the winch follows. I imagine him there, alone at his little machine, sending the pot back and forth all day long with nothing more to keep him company than his leaves and the little light his headgear gives out. This is a job to drive a man mad.
Our next route, our guide warns, will be a little bit more adventurous. (Later I will learn that no other groups followed the same gut-wrenching, heart-in-throat way that we took.) We dive into a low, narrow tunnel, scrambling on hands and knees, and in passing I feel sorry for Scott and Sarah, both impossibly tall from my 5’4 perspective. My elation for being small is short-lived as we arrive at the first bridge. It is but two wooden planks wide apart over a hole that plummets ten feet, maybe more, into the ground. There are no safety railings, only your own hands against the stony ceiling. I look at it and can’t believe my limbs would be able to simultaneously reach all the points of support.
Even for the danger of sounding like a total wuss, I’ll admit that some time ago I was terrified of crossing rivers on stepping stones after a harmless dip into a glacial river in the Himalayas. This bridge reminds me of some perverse, wicked version of stepping stones, but of course a side step here will break your leg instead of just getting them wet. But there is no turning back. ‘Holy shit’, I mutter to myself, and I cross.
Down we go, deeper into the belly of the beast, and as I start to sweat under my overalls I can’t help but think that we’re riding on the tail of good ole Uncle straight to Hell. We descend a ladder that’s missing a step. Not for the last time do I get wishing that my legs were a little bit longer. We arrive at another bridge, this one dropping steeply at the other end where you have to climb down using minimalistic footholds. As I step onto the planks, all I can look at are my boot-clad feet inching towards the other end of the bridge; underneath, just darkness. I can only hope the look on my face is that of grim determination instead of naked terror.
Once I reach the end of the planks, I stop and hesitate. I look at the guide two metres down, already pointing at the first spot to put my foot at. ‘My legs are too short for this shit’, I moan, not unusually.
‘Sit down’, the Swiss girl advices. She has already crossed and is looking at me intently from the corridor behind the guide. We’re all watching each other’s’ steps but there is no sense of rush. Everyone’s faces seem to bear the expression of ‘what have we got ourselves into’. Legs shaking, I sit down on the narrow plank and dig my nails into stone. Slowly, carefully, I lower my small dusty foot onto the first foothold as pointed by the guide, then to another one, hands following suit, knowing that one slip-up will see me sprawled on the ground or falling backwards into the darkness of the mine shaft underneath. Finally my feet kiss the ground, and as I push myself away from that horrible spot, I give out a shaky, elated laugh, a survivor’s laugh. It’s hard to believe they would be allowed to run these tours if there was actual danger involved. It’s too easy to imagine slipping up and plummeting into the heart of the mountain.
We meet a man working alone, doggedly driving a metal pole to the stone time after time to make space for dynamite. He’s 20 years old, single, and he tells me that if I’m feeling dizzy, he can give me some more oxygen mouth to mouth. All I ever see of him is the back of his head protected by the yellow hood of his overalls. His hands, illuminated by the bluish light of his head torch, never stop working. I laugh and say that my mum would cry if I moved to Bolivia for a man. He promises to visit my family in Finland.
He works at the end of the line, so we turn back, squeeze through a space between two rocks so tight that my front and back press against the stone on either side. Then it’s scrambling on loose stone, under a ceiling so low we’re limboing on our asses, and back up a different route. Supposedly this is the easier path, but that only shows in the lack of open spaces to fall in. We’re basically rock climbing. Once Sarah turns around and pulls me up a particularly steep rockface. As we reach the ladder, I double over trying to reach for the rung above the missing one. Crossing the first bridge back doesn’t seem as bad now that I’ve already conquered it once, and knowing that the tour is almost over gives me strength to shuffle over that jaw of darkness once more.
On the other side we sit down to breath, and for the first time I mark the rapid beat of my heart. It’s running wild like a mustang galloping away on a prairie, but as I have been focused on keeping my balance, I have not had time to lend an ear to my earlier panic. My breath comes in difficult mouthfuls. It feels good to sit down for a while.
‘It’s not good to work alone’, our guide says. He knocks on the unused rails on the ground to demonstrate the way miners working close to each other communicate: three knocks to signify a soon-to-be explosion, and then, slower, eerie: signal for help. Sometimes the dynamite doesn’t detonate as it should, and then the miners have to wait 24 hours until they can go check it. Many a good miner has been lost in their impatience to rush to check a seemingly unexploded piece of dynamite.
I’m sure the tour is almost at its end, but the guide informs us that we’ve got about thirty more minutes left. (Later Scott will confess that this was nearly his breaking point. After the excitement of climbing over open mine shafts, we’re all eager to get out.) I detest this place. Its claustrophobic darkness, the uneven ceiling bowing uncomfortably low in places, its musty smell of dust and sand that permeates my lungs even through the scarf that covers my mouth and nose. I am finally starting to understand why tour groups are encouraged to bring presents for the miners. It is not a way to rip off my money, it is a way to show them our appreciation, make their incredibly hard job a little bit easier by bringing them goodies that they can’t pause their work to get. Throughout the tour it has become clear that this is not just any tour leading tourists through a regular attraction. We are at the actual place of work of these people, peeking at their work from the safety of our travel money and desk jobs back home. I might feel depressed in these dark hallways, but I am just passing through; these people work here every day.
We duck under a low-hanging barrier and come to two men working side by side, extracting minerals from stone. Previously Potosí was known as the biggest producer of silver in Bolivia, and nowadays the mines produce bronze and zinc in addition. ‘No children work in the mines here because it’s illegal in Bolivia’, our guide states, then asks one of the workers his age.
‘Fifteen’, he answers.
‘He is my son’, says the other man. It is usual for sons to follow their fathers to the mines, starting on school holidays and later making it their whole career. The life expectancy of a miner is short, just 45 to 55 years. We have already met various men pushing late fifties. It is hard to determine anyone’s age, however. The lines on faces that rarely see the sun are an identical mask.
We leave the dad and son behind and reach a new tunnel. The unmistakable stink of tobacco hangs in the air. It’s coming from a lit cigarette that one of the guides has stuck into the mouth of a statue. We have come to the chamber of the Uncle, the devil himself, and in the solitude of the labyrinth it is easy to believe that it wasn’t the guide at all but the effigy himself that lit up the cigarette. He sits surrounded by empty bottles of miners’ alcohol, a big stone cock peeking out between colourful paper streamers that have been thrown about his shoulders.
It makes sense that people working underground should confide in the lord of the netherworld. The devil is a male presence, a counterpart to Mother Earth that is this whole hill. Women are not allowed to work inside the actual mines so that Mother Earth wouldn’t get jealous and cause accidents.
The thunderous rumble of cartwheels against steel rails indicates that we are close to the entrance again. I bang my helmet into the thick black pipes that carry compressed air around the mines, so eager to get out that I barely remain cautious. The square of sunlight at the end of the tunnel is the sweetest sight. We emerge blinking, dirty, happy to be breathing outside air again. My hair under the helmet feels sweaty and hot.
I finally ask the question I swore I would not make inside: how many miners die here?
‘14’, says our guide.
‘In a year?’
‘In a month’, he replies. ‘Ten die when tunnels cave in, and four die for professional sickness.’ And even though the thought wasn’t on my mind, he must have thought it was, because he is quick to add: ‘But no tourists die here. Maybe some get scrapes and bruises on hands, knees, arms, but no tourists are ever injured.’
Back in the van we speculate whether this is true. Scott is half convinced that at least some broken legs or arms have come out of crossing those bridges but surely they wouldn’t want us to know. I’d rather believe our guide, an ex-miner, who throughout the tour has remained calm and cool as if nothing bad could ever happen, even in the deep belly of the unforgiving mountain.
The Dutch girl was right. It was not fun. But as we head back to the city, tired to the bone and faces covered in fine dust, I feel I have caught a glimpse of a life that I could never have understood before.
Holy bandwidth-speed, Batman! I swear I’ve been trying to upload this post for like two weeks but the unmerciful Bolivian wifi has just turned up its nose on my failed attempts at uploading pictures. I’m in Peru now and hopefully will continue to have better internet for the last four weeks of my trip.
Have you ever done a tour that was just no fun? Or would you go down into the mines?
I sometimes have to stop and think about how lucky I am. I am probably luckier than 99.5% of the world’s population. It blows my mind.
I am white, straight, educated, middle-class – a woman, yes, but from a Western country which pretty much guarantees there is no significant difference between sexes. (Not like, say Saudi-Arabia or India.) What’s even better is that I’m not from just any Western country – I’m from Finland! My passport is officially one of the most powerful in the world, and thanks to all-levels free education, I am debt-free. I am able-bodied to the extent that I don’t even have any allergies. I don’t even get motion sick!
I am not saying any of these things to brag. It is just to showcase just how lucky I am.
Now, for the past few weeks I have been watching my bank account with growing alarm as the funds steadily shrink. First it was the expensive flights back home from South America; then the unexpectedly expensive tours I did in Bonito; then the deposit for my new, all-too-expensive apartment that I’m not even going to live in for the next two months but which I had to accept in the face of a very real fear that otherwise I would not find a place to live by the time I got home.
My parents promised to pay for my rent for the time when I’m not living there yet and not receiving my usual student aid. Add two privilege points for those.
Living in Brazil has absolutely demolished my funds as I have throughout the past six months struggled to find freelance work, occasionally taking on some transcription work which with my slow typing and shaking fingers is absolutely not worth the money considering the amount of time I spend doing it – but it is money, all right. I am currently in Pantanal, yearning for the next Sunday when I get to fly to Bolivia which, as I’ve heard, is one of the cheapest countries in South America. I am desperate to save some money. However, I would never describe myself as poor.
Sure, I might have said it a few times, playfully, as a friend invites me to go to some event or restaurant or tour that I know in my rational mind I shouldn’t do… But then I tag along anyway, thinking that the translation assignment I completed last week totally makes up for the cost of the thing. But lately, calling myself poor even playfully has started to make me feel uncomfortable. If I have to say no, I’ll rather say: ‘Sorry, I have to save some money’, or ‘I haven’t got paid yet, I don’t have the money right now’.
The age-old wisdom is that if I can afford to travel for leisure, I am already ten times richer than the majority of people in the world. Even if I was living on cup noodles and too broke to get that busted zipper on my backpack fixed – I still have this opportunity that most people could never even dream of. Hell, some people don’t even have enough to feed themselves and their children every night. Why am I complaining about eating cup noodles again?
I have spent the last six months living and travelling in Brazil, doing a student exchange in the southernmost state of the country. The south, in general, is considered to be a lot richer than the north, but the same problems that are prevalent all throughout Brazil are still visible there: poverty, violent crime, low standards of life. I have friends who work twelve hours a day, just to go to classes afterwards and wade back home just before midnight to catch six hours of sleep before heading back to work again in the morning. I have friends who lived in apartments where they could only afford to furnish one room and never managed to get the toilet fixed after it broke. Some people I met love Brazil with patriotic passion; some are constantly dreaming of a better life in Europe, the USA, Australia, anywhere but there.
And while I adore Brazil, I have often wondered about the impact of my words when I declare my love for the country because everything that’s wrong with it doesn’t have a direct effect on me. Sure, I might fall victim to a crime, but I can leave the country whenever I want. If I run out of money, my loving parents will send me more. Half of my minimum wage is not robbed by high taxes, just to end up in the back pocket of some corrupt politician while I wonder why I can’t get cheap education or decent health care even when the state is supposed to take care of those. I love Brazil and I don’t think any amount of bad news could change it; but I also acknowledge that as a visitor – even a long-term one – my experience is wildly different from someone who lives in the country.
The fact that I can travel the world while some people can’t doesn’t make me feel particularly guilty. I don’t think it should. I was born with my privilege, and the only way to get rid of it would be what? To cripple myself and become a homeless meth addict? To some people, privilege seems to be a curse word; it’s the new, trendy ‘white man’s guilt’. However, having privilege does not automatically make you a worse person and you should not treat it like an offense. The sole existence of privilege depends on inequality in society, but a one-person war against their own privilege is not going to change the deeply rooted structure that stems from a long history of humankind. If anything, raging against your own privilege will just cause you unnecessary guilt and misery, and in addition make you look foolish – being able to pine over having privilege is probably the most privileged thing you could do, while others would give up everything – the little they have – to have half of the benefits you have.
Having privilege is not a bad thing. It is either something you were born with or a status you achieved with your own hard work. However, it is not a cause for celebration either; quite simply, it just is. The most important thing is to acknowledge your own privilege and how that sets you apart from those that don’t have it. It doesn’t mean that your life is perfect or you’re not allowed to complain or feel pain or dream of something better – just because you were dealt slightly better cards than somebody else, doesn’t mean you’re always lucky in the game. Just acknowledge the privilege you have and consider what it means to you. Don’t take the life you have for granted. Be humble and understand, why you are able to do what you do. Reconsider idiotic catchphrases like ‘Anyone can travel!’ or ‘Money doesn’t buy happiness!’ and promptly toss them in the trash.
Like they say: it’s not what you have, it’s what you do with it. Ask questions. Educate yourself. Make friends from all walks of life. Question your position in the world. Don’t abuse your privilege and don’t act condescending towards people who don’t have it. With the information you have, ask yourself: what can I do to improve the situation? How can I use my voice to others’ advantage? How can I make the world a little bit more of an equal place?
Here’s your keys – is your car a Ferrari or a beat-up old Buick? Whatever it is, drive safe. Good luck.
Thanks for reading! I’ve been incredibly busy for the past week invariably partying and sleeping as I prepared to leave the city I sort of called home for the past five months. Now I’m back on the road and more excited than I remember being in a long while. I have timed some posts for you guys so you don’t miss me too much when I disappear back into the folds of a backpacker’s life, but if you’d like more recent updates, you can follow me on Instagram (elinandro) or Facebook (link on the right column). Apparently wifi in Bolivia is absolutely tragic, so hopefully I will still manage to update…
Guys, I’m having difficulties starting this piece. It’s all in the title. What am I going to say, repeat it? Ugh. Fine. This is a post full of photos from Uruguay. Happy?
I had the opportunity to visit the two most well-known touristic points of Uruguay in late April (and I am well aware of how well I am keeping up with my posts). While I was still at home, I remember looking at the map and dreaming of the extensive travelling I would be able to do around the neighbouring countries during my five-month stay here. Piece of cake, right? Wrong! It’s one thing to know that the map of South America should not be taken lightly the same way as the map of Europe should be, and another to fully understand that. The bus journey from my humble dwellings of Novo Hamburgo to the capital of Uruguay, Montevideo, took 16 hours. 16! Not much exploring that was left of me after that.
Uruguay (pronounced as u-ru-gw-ai to those snickering in the back row) surprised me with its small size and sense of security. Here I am getting used to looking over my shoulder and eyeing every car that slows down next to me with suspicion, but Montevideo seemed to lack that feeling. Even though it has the look of a much bigger metropolis, it’s home to only 1.5 million people – about half of the population of the whole country. It’s almost as if I could sense the quality of life improve as soon as I crossed the border. Still, one thing reminded me of my temporary home in Brazil: Uber drivers still speed like crazy.
Punta del Este
Punta del Este is known for its beach houses, whose residents had mostly escaped the approaching winter in late April. The two most famous points are certainly the giant God’s (?) hand reaching through beach sand like that of a zombie’s in an old Romero flick, and the Ballena museum that looks pretty cool but which I, to be honest, couldn’t be bothered to enter as the views from outside of the museum grabbed my attention more.
Ah, cold, cold Montevideo. After months of enjoying the Brazilian summer, the +15 temperature of the seaside capital felt freezing (while now, getting accustomed to the South Brazilian winter, I laugh from under my three shirts and two blankets), but the sun was out on a spotless sky and thankfully continued to stalk us throughout our day-and-a-half expedition. Our first stop was Palacio Municipal with its free rooftop viewing platform. The lobby was teeming with people preparing for an upcoming city marathon. I, having survived the last 16 hours on basically crisps and sweets, slunk between the stalls a little bit guiltily.
After the viewing platform, our tired gang of Brazilians and intercambistas found a spot for lunch. I don’t think I have ever been as happy in my life as that moment when that tiny pizza was put in front of me. After that we took a stroll though the main street towards the old town in a feeble search for postcards (put Uruguay on the list as a country with a selcetion of postcards that look like they were made by a third-grader who got their hands on WordArt for the first time).
An important addition to any half-rushed city tour is to have a local guide. We found ours with Lorna, a friend of one in our group. I took a quick liking to the girl after she brought us to a lowly-lit hipster bar in the suburbs – don’t ask me for it’s name for I couldn’t tell you, but what I know is that they had some damn good dark beer. Missed you, baby!
Day 2 started out cold and by, in a polite Finnish manner, silently judging the person taking too long in the common shower. The hostel we stayed at, El Viajeiro, had wifi that sometimes worked and one of the best hostel breakfasts I have ever had. With a full and happy belly it was easy to head out to the city to check out some more sights, continue the ongoing search for decent postcards and ultimately the search for the disappeared Mexican (who, happily, was found almost two hours later).
The day ended like a perfect date in an American teen flick – with ice creams and a fabulous sunset.
On Sunday we waved goodbye to the city as our whirlwind tour came to an end. On our way to the tax-free shopping paradises, the bus had enough time to indulge everyone’s desire to have that super unique city name selfie in their holiday album. Below yours truly, posing at the moment but only thinking of the packets of alfajores she had stuffed her backpack with but later during the 16 hours back found herself hoping she had wasted a few more pesos on those delicious, delicious desserts.
Hope you’ve enjoyed your virtual journey through Uruguay! Have you ever visited or is the country still in your radar? If you’d like to check out my other photo diaries, here are Portugal and Edinburgh.
It’s been a while, eh? I’ve missed you, believe me when I say I have. Sometimes I think about all the familiar places and comfortable routine that I never got used to even after four years, and I feel a little pang of nostalgia for them. Saudades, as they’d say here. And even though people are never dependent on time or a place, to me you seem like place-dependent people because there only ever was that one place I knew you, that one place I came to call home very eagerly even when I knew it was just a temporary haunt.
Missing home came as a surprise for me. I have been further from home for longer times before; I have even been to places stranger than this. I suppose that after I leave, I will miss here too.
Often people have asked me what has been my favourite memory of this place. I always shrug and say it is impossible to answer that. I am being truthful. It hasn’t been some single memory that makes leaving so hard – it has been the people. I would, without hesitating a second, call them friends.
When I think about them, I think about dancing around the kitchen to Sandstorm; sunset popcorn (and even though Fix You never played all the way through, it’s still a pleasant memory); code-switching at dinner table, where the other half of attendees didn’t speak Portuguese and the other didn’t speak English, but how the countless dinners, lunches and coffees were still spent amicably. And driving home, always driving home – the radio taken over either by obscure indie or the freshest pop hits, screaming when we hit that one downhill that made it feel like we were diving deep into the city, the night slowly shrouding the skyscrapers in darkness and bringing out the little lights that always made me think of a much bigger city. Those times on the backseat when the talk had ceased for the day and I was leaning against the window and feeling happiness slowly stir in me. That bit of a Jose Chavez poem always pops into my head: This is it, / this is everything.
Don’t worry, I’m coming back, even though now the thought of leaving terrifies me a little bit. As soon as I get on the move, I will be all right. I’ll see you soon enough, and I hope I can say the same to the friends I’ve made here.
ps. You know the poem I mentioned? You can find it here.