words & images anastasia miari
There’s nothing like sitting in a beach hostel’s common area in South America listening to an obnoxiously loud American girl discuss her first ever experience with cocaine as a “life-changing experience.” It puts you right off the tired traveler’s “I’ve found myself” adage. I don’t want to listen to how much your “journey” has changed you. I want half an hour of uninterrupted Wi-Fi access so that I can see what I’m missing out on back home, please.
In reality, snorting cocaine does not make for a momentous occasion of self-realization. Neither does it open you up for “an entire other level of exploration.” No. Traveling, as I found it, is not about finding who you are. I was out of the UK for eight months last year, bussing it from Colombia to Argentina before lounging around in Greece for a couple of months, and I still haven’t really “found” what it is that I thought I was looking for.
Having lived and worked in London as a writer for four years, editing a fashion magazine, I decided I’d had enough. I hadn’t quite figured out what I wanted to do in life, realizing that a career in fashion writing probably wasn’t going to earn me a fortune. So instead, I packed it in and headed to Colombia for a mooch around with my younger brother. He’s a student, and similarly as misguided as I am. Naturally, he made a great travel bud.
On arrival in Colombia we were dumbfounded—not least because we hadn’t quite mentally prepared for the fact that NO ONE SPEAKS ENGLISH. The first couple of weeks bussing it from Bogota to the Colombian coast was a whirl of 19 hour bus journeys, elementary Spanish, sign language, diarrhea, constipation, and beer. Lots of beer. One of the first hostels that we stayed at in the fishing town of Taganga made us feel like outsiders. The group of dreadlocked Germans seemed to have been living there for months, pally with the hostel staff, and resistant of all two-day intruders. We were tired. We were hot. We were bored. We didn’t get the backpacker thing.
Then of course we took to the jungle-lined paradise of Tayrona, splashed in the sea and screamed, “We’re here, we’re here, COLOMBIAAAAAA,” out of giddy gratitude. The trip continued in much the same way. A slur of highs and lows until we found a group and really got to grips. We spoke Spanish. We said “Yes” to all invitations. We trekked. We toured and we drank ourselves silly. What changed wasn’t that we became more comfortable. No. We city-hopped every other day and sat on cramped buses for up to 24 hours. I even located a secret hiding place for my iPad on every bus ride, in case FARC decided to make an appearance. Comfort wasn’t a part of the process.
The change came when we stopped searching for something. In the simplest terms, we let the experience pass us by and soak us up. In setting out on a “search” for something, you constrain yourself. You put pressure on yourself to come to a realization by a certain time. You set out your traveling dates, and in between points A and B, you must find X.
Sitting at my desk in my new home, just off of Columbia Road in East London, I now realize that X is forever changing. Finding “yourself”—your “calling”—does not come out of one trip. I look at the people that I have stayed in contact with since my travels through LatAm, and each of them still seems as confounded about where they’re supposed to be in life as I am.
In my three months back home in London, I have had three career changes. Obviously, eight months away does not cure indecision. A girl I met in Montanita is now a good friend. When we met, we discussed the uncertainty of our careers back home. The beach has been swapped for Hampstead Heath. The conversation remains the same. The Australians I met back in Ecuador are still hunting for jobs. My Belgian friend came to stay a couple of weeks ago and is tentatively making steps towards getting back with the ex that she was traveling with. She’s still unsure about their future. My friend in Cape Town is waitressing (as she was in Argentina) and trying to make contacts to pursue a career in fashion. The Frenchman I met still can’t quite get to grips with the fact he’s going to have to step into a suit at some point soon. We’re all not “there” yet.
We didn’t “find ourselves.” That’s ridiculous. We found each other.