Before this trip I have never traveled alone. The week I spent in Bosnia and Herzegovina by myself some years ago doesn’t count, as that is practically my back yard.
I’m only three weeks into it but traveling alone in Latin America seems like a pretty sweet way of getting to know the region – and yourself. Besides the small things (like for example constantly updating the chosen ones among your family and friends where you are and where you’re going, just in case something happens to you), here are the main things you learn in the first days of traveling alone:
Taking your stuff everywhere
I haven’t thought of it before, but getting around with all your belongings can be really difficult. I remember the first time I took a bus in Mexico, it was from Cancún to Playa del Carmen. I looked like a mule, or – like an average backpacker: my big backpack on my back, a smaller backpack on my chest and that time I also had a tiny purse with my money and my phone under my small backpack.
So, I was at a bus station and still had another half an hour, of course I had to pee. In every ADO (Autobuses De Oriente, the main bus company in Mexico) bus station they have toilets you can use for 5 pesos with metal revolving doors letting you in once you pay. Imagine this: I slip the 5 pesos coin in the machine, step into the revolving door with all my backpacks on me and go: “Oh… oh no!” There is enough space for only one person, and even though stereotypically Mexicans are more on the chubby side – me and my backpack were not like uno, not dos, pero tres personas in the metal door. After some not so quiet sighing the lady who works at the toilets helped me lift my big backpack over the high metal fence (not so easy either) and I was able to get in.
At one point you have no choice but to trust random strangers. After the toilet incident I now always scan waiting rooms at bus stations for trustworthy-looking people I’ve never seen in my life and ask them to keep an eye on my big backpack when I go to the toilet. It’s the same at the beach. Since I don’t feel comfortable leaving my bag just there on the sand, going for a swim also requires “Hi, can I leave my stuff with you for five minutes, please?” And then fingers crossed you don’t see them running away with your iPhone while you’re dipping in a 29°C Caribbean water. On night buses though – they have a bad reputation in Mexico – I still pee with all my belongings on me. Not so easy with Mexican driving, I tell you.
Of course there is a thin line between trusting people and just being gullible, but how do you know where it is? I, for example, once lent money to a Romanian girl at the airport in Iran, because she didn’t know foreign bank cards don’t work there and she couldn’t even buy a visa to enter the country. She paid me back the next day. But last week I met a young girl who was tricked by a 60-year old Canadian guy in Mexico City that all his money was stolen. She wired him $500, which he was supposed to return and well… he never did.
Starting conversations with random people
I remember when I was traveling with my friend Clara two years ago; we just crossed the border between Panama and Costa Rica, quite exhausted, and were waiting for a bus, when we met this Canadian girl who drove on her motorbike from Canada all the way down to Costa Rica. The girl couldn’t stop talking! She told us what felt like everything that had happened to her on that trip in no time; she even gave us these tacky business cards she had made especially for the trip with some cliché travel quotes on the back. The moment the girl left I looked at Clara with horror in my eyes and asked: “Will I be like this when I travel alone?”
I don’t have tacky business cards with cliché travel quotes printed on the back, and I hope I don’t talk that much. But it’s funny how much easier it gets to make contact with people when you travel alone: either in hostels, in restaurants, in bars, on buses, at the beach, in the sea, on the street. I met some really cool people this way, and heard plenty of really interesting stories.
Of course you’re also more easily approachable if you’re traveling alone, especially if you’re a girl. That can sometimes be exhausting, and when you just want to be on your own for some time, it can also be straight up annoying. The other day I had dinner at the beach in Puerto Escondido. I really wanted to read a book and watch the sunset (talking about tacky), and in 10 minutes I was approached by:
(1) an abuela from Oaxaca selling bracelets (she told me my eyes are green; they are brown though);
(2) a Brazilian surfer who wanted to sit down and have a beer with me; and
(3) a Mexican dude who first asked me to take a photo of him in front of the sunset and then some minutes later returned for a photo of the two of us together in front of the sunset.
And all I wanted was to eat my ceviche in peace.