It has taken all of my concentration not to cry for the past hour so I immediately break down when a well-meaning Australian woman, who is on my full-day tour of Cusco’s Sacred Valley, asks where I’m from as we walk off the bus at our first stop.
“I’m sorry, I can’t talk right now,” I say. My voice comes out in shattered fragments as weakly suppressed tears finally break free and I rush ahead, embarrassed. She catches up moments later.
“Is it the altitude? It can take some time to adjust,” she says, concerned.
“No, no, I’m just homesick,” I reply. Talking is still difficult, what with the tears and the uncomfortable reality that, because the city is 11,152 feet above sea level, I haven’t been able to breathe properly since I arrived two days ago. All I want is to be alone so I can have a full breakdown in private.
This wasn’t how I was supposed to feel.
One week into traveling solo around South America long-term, I had expected to be full of energy, clamoring for new experiences and invigorated by a lack of adult responsibilities. Instead, I felt completely adrift with no overarching purpose. The melancholy I’d been avoiding with a relentless flurry of activities finally had me cornered and the realization that I’d done something crazy was slowly starting to sink in. I’d never been this homesick and started to wonder if I’d made a huge mistake. I was desperate for New York — the Greenpoint waterfront, friends and family, even biking through the oft-occurring wind tunnel along Kent Avenue.
The allure of backpacking long-term followed me for seven years — since I read The Lost Girls, a travelogue that recounts three friends’ year-long trip around the world. It made me dream, as do so many others, for a life on the move, an escape from “The Path” — school, career, family, death. Whenever I felt dissatisfied with the day to day or stressed by trivial concerns, the belief that I could one day live an idealized life abroad was always comforting. The reality of such a journey, however, was starting out far from perfect.
For three years, I obsessively saved as much money as I could from my first “real job” out of college. And then, in February of this year, I told my boss I wouldn’t be renewing my contract. In March, I ordered Lonely Planet’s South America on a Shoestring and in April I bought a one-way ticket to Lima, primarily because of the good deal I got on the ticket. I booked a hostel for after I landed and another in Cusco, as well as an unadvisable 22-hour bus ride between the two. In the remaining months before my September departure, I spent time with those close to me, bought an ever-expanding list of trip-related items, and figured out how travel insurance works.
Other than my first two stops, I purposely left my plans open-ended. I wanted the freedom to improvise and to experience the constant unpredictability that is so often absent from the everyday. I’d picked South America because of my interest in the culture and a hope to improve my Spanish. The trip, I believed, would also be a rare chunk of uninterrupted time to seek out new career opportunities and continue figuring out what exactly it is I want in life. It has been more complicated than I expected.
…the belief that I could one day live an idealized life abroad was always comforting. The reality of such a journey, however, was starting out far from perfect.
It’s a few days before my breakdown in Cusco. As part of a free walking tour in Lima’s Chorrillos district, a fishing-oriented area not frequented by tourists, Alex, our group’s eccentric, Latvian-born guide, leads us to the neighborhood’s local fish market. We linger only for a moment by the seafood-hawking vendors before heading toward the pelicans milling about the waterfront. The birds rush me as soon as Alex hands me a small, dead fish.
“Do I just throw it?!” They’re clearly impatient when it comes to food and I normally steer clear of any birds that come up to my thighs.
I think I see Alex nod and quickly toss the fish into the horde as the birds snap their long, orange bills. Death-by-pelican narrowly avoided, I erupt in relieved, disbelieving laughter. Alex is surrounded by the 30-pound carnivores seconds later. He stands calmly in the middle, fish in hand, as if their messiah, while the birds inch ever-closer.
We are all in awe when he emerges unscathed, seemingly unperturbed. It’s the kind of fleeting moment that is so memorable because it is so unexpected. I feel like I’m seeing a special slice of a city other than my own, that uprooting my life might have been worth it. If every moment could be this exceptional, I think, I could get past the loneliness and disorientation that comes with solo, long-term travel. But I know there will be more frustration than perfection, more confusion than satisfaction.
If every moment could be this exceptional, I think, I could get past the loneliness and disorientation that comes with solo, long-term travel.
I originally approached this adventure as an extra-long vacation, but after a week and a half, the thought of being rootless for five months (which was so galvanizing before I left) became unbearable.
This is not the first time I have traveled alone, nor is it the first time I have spent an extended period abroad. It is, however, the first time I have traveled for so long without an organized program to support me.
Long-term travel is not an escape; it is an alternative version of the everyday. What I didn’t realize until I embarked on “the trip of a lifetime” is that I’m more of a homebody than I thought I was. Despite being adventurous, I find comfort in some sense of stability and routine. I like having a vague plan at the minimum, I hate change and I’m a lot less flexible than I pretend to be. I enjoy meeting people on the road. As a textbook introvert, however, I take years to cultivate deep friendships and don’t open up easily.
But I decided to seek out something new, and I’m not a quitter. So I’m changing course and doing what I hope will make me more content, even if it wasn’t the original plan. After fighting the urge to hop on the next plane back to New York I’ve decided to spend a month (or more, if it goes well) in Córdoba, Argentina, the country’s second-largest city after Buenos Aires. I want to get to know a new place, to form a routine in a new environment. I’m going to be a temporary resident, rather than a permanent tourist, and see what it’s like to live in a city other than my hometown as an adult.
Long-term travel is not an escape; it is an alternative version of the everyday.
As I carried groceries back to my Airbnb after my first full day in Córdoba I knew I’d made the right decision. I could already see the glimmers of a new (albeit temporary) life — the freedom to explore in the mornings and the structure of Spanish classes in the afternoons. Everything about the city felt promising — cafes and public parks reminiscent of home, alongside cheek kissing in place of handshakes and mate gourds as far as the eye can see.
My time here won’t be perfect — I already have a nasty cold and the stove is on the fritz — but I’m no longer chasing an unrealistic ideal. I’m sticking around and letting some much-needed monotony back into my life. And that’s not something to cry over.