When I was four years old, I got a coconut as a gift from my father. It was so different from the fruits I had known. In communist Poland, where I grew up, it was impossible to buy any tropical fruit. There was only one exception — we were able to buy oranges from Cuba, but only on Christmas. And suddenly, now I had a coconut! I knew from religious classes that coconuts were fruits from paradise… But there it was, in my hand. So I asked my mum, who told me that yes, fruits are also on the earth in some parts of the world, where is a lot of sun, white beaches and turquoise seas… I started to dream about this kind of world, where is no winter and no snow, and where you can play on the beach and swim in the blue sea. And where all those gorgeous fruits that I studied in my encyclopedia were: pineapples, papayas, mangoes, grapefruit, bananas… That was the moment when I decided that when I die, I want to go to this kind of paradise – the one with all these beautiful tropical fruits.

For Joanna Nowak, it all started four years ago on August 23rd at 1:20 pm. It was then that her daughter, Gaja, was born, with grey eyes and curly blonde hair. It was also then that she began to dream of the impossible: to keep chasing her love of traveling… With her young toddler in tow.


For years, Joanna had put travel on the backburner, as she had other priorities — her studies, her job, her projects. She satisfied her travel cravings by jetsetting on her holidays and also becoming a Couchsurfing host, welcoming visitors from around the world into her flat in Poland for over ten years.

“There is a saying,” Joanna wrote. “If you want, desire something — you will do it. For many years I wanted to travel, but other things were more important to me.”

Her dream was to travel to Peru and it was a dream from another time, from years earlier when she had backpacked there for six weeks in 2012.

“I was traveling there on my own, just south of Peru, with only my rucksack,” Joanna said in a Skype conversation that we had over shoddy Wi-Fi in the early morning. “And I fell in love — I fell in love totally with this land, these people, the colors, the mountains… Everything.”

When she returned to Poland, she resolved to finally pursue her desire to travel — promising herself that her next holiday would be to Peru.

“…But then I got pregnant,” She says with a laugh.


At the time, though, she wasn’t laughing. Her long-term partner left and her life as she had imagined it — complete with holidays abroad and free-spirited travel — had come to a close. She was now, suddenly and unexpectedly, going to be a single parent, with all the worries and responsibilities that such a title carries. And she faced another dilemma: how could she combine her new role as a single mother with her dream of traveling?

“There came a time when traveling was the thing that I desired the most and, despite having a little baby, I did it,” She said with resolve. “I found a way even though everybody that I shared my plan with told me that it was absurd. ‘No,’ I said, ‘It’s not absurd, it is my dream, my choice and I am determined to follow it — in a safe way.’ My two priorities were the safety of my child and my love of travel.”

So, a year and a half later, she landed in Peru in early 2014 with an 21-month old child, a carefully thought-out budget, a rucksack and a loose plan.


“At first, I wanted to go there for three months — that’s what was on the ticket. These three months were for me to see if I could really follow my plan of traveling, if Gaja feels good there, and if I’m feeling good with Gaja.” She smiles widely before exclaiming, “And now, two years later, we’re here in Mexico City!”

Within her first week of arriving, though, the plan was already in shambles: her friend couldn’t host them and she couldn’t afford the car she wanted. Gearing up to return home amid the chaos, fate arrived in the form of another Polish expat: Andrzej Pietowski. He ran a small English language school in the south, where Joanna and Gaja exchanged work for food and a home. After two months there, Joanna felt prepared to take on the great unknown — Gaja by her side and rucksack on her back.

“My plan is usually general and very flexible, it can be changed in a moment,” She said, explaining how she chooses where to go next. “I’ve realized that ‘Improvisation’ is my middle name.”

On a strict budget of $12 a day (She rents out her flat in Poland), the two of them hitchhiked, couchsurfed and marvelled across South and Central America, relying largely on the kindness of strangers and the art of spontaneity to guide them.


“My dream is coming true thanks to Couchsurfing,” Joanna said, mulling over the past two years that have been filled with inexplicable human compassion and thoughtfulness. “There have been great people who have opened their hearts and homes to us.”

When they are staying in a person’s home, she tries to repay their kindness by helping out around the house, cooking some meals (though she laughs and says she is not so good in this area) and giving massages, as she is a physiotherapist. They leave each host with a thank you note from Joanna and a cheerful drawing from Gaja.

“It’s just a nice little thing to do,” She said. “You leave a note, an email, an address so that we can stay in touch.”


It’s now September 1st at 9:00 am and Joanna is preparing to leave one adventure to find another. We’ve been chatting for nearly an hour and I’ve just about exhausted my questions for her, but I have one more — a cliché, I know, but one I feel I need to ask: What has been your greatest moment of joy?

She laughs.

“I cannot pick just one.”


But later she writes me her answer:

“The greatest is when my daughter hugs me to say good morning, it’s holding her hand while walking and hearing her sing from the baby carrier on my back. The greatest was when we reached Choquequirao together. The greatest is a woman in a small village giving us her mango. It’s sitting in the shadow of ancient ruins and letting the spirit of the place touch you. It’s seeing vivid, wild jungles and the rough ocean and feeling their power. It’s the feeling that we are such a small part of this incredible miracle of life.”

“…But I still cannot find the words to describe this feeling of thankfulness.”


Stay tuned for another story about Joanna and Gaja, as we go with them further into the cities of South America. Follow along in real time on Joanna’s Facebook page, her blog and her YouTube channel.

4 Responses

  1. Avatar
    Dee Borgardt

    Hi, so good to hear of your travels and i’m glad your having fun! ! My name is Dee and i’m having a great time reading about you and your daughter!!!!

  2. Avatar
    Luisa Fernanda Chávez Paz

    It’s always nice to Hear from you and Gaia; But The best of all is the pleasure and joy I feel of having met you, both of you! And I will always remember that night saying good bye… you telling me: “If you want, if you desire something; you will do it!”


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About The Author

Mary Zakheim
Content Writer

When she is not figuring out what the middle button on her headphones is for, explaining the difference between Washington State and Washington D.C., arriving to the airport too early or refusing to use the Oxford comma, you can usually find Mary in the mountains, at a show or on her couch. Mary is a content writer at Fareportal and likes annoying her coworkers with weird GIFs throughout the day.