Category Archives: South America

status update: Bogotá day one

Update on day one of this adventure: I arrived in Bogotá last night after about a seven hour journey which was one of my more challenging ones, but nothing unmanageable.

I had read about the requirement to show proof of onward travel plans, but in the midst of preparing for the trip I lost track. When I arrived to check in at Copa Airlines, I found out it was not a mere suggestion. They let me through security but would not let me board the plane unless I could show that I have plans to leave Colombia. A quick forum search from the boarding area yielded the perfect solution: I bought a ticket on aircanada.com from Bogotá to Toronto. Air Canada has a 24 hour cancellation policy whereby you get a full refund, you must book from their website. I took my open laptop to the desk and showed the agent my ticket confirmation and was cleared to go. As soon as I landed and connected to wifi, I simply cancelled the ticket. It turns out, waiting until the last minute was the best option because anything bought more than 24 hours ahead would have been difficult to cancel. Note: always read the fine print! I found a $350 refundable ticket on Expedia.ca, but they would have withheld a $200 administrative fee for cancelling it. This wasn’t obvious anywhere in the purchasing process, I had to read the T&C and even then it was confusing wording.

My flight from Toronto to Panama City was excruciating. I was seated next to a very large man who took up about 1/3 of my seat. I felt for him, and didn’t want to make him feel worse than he obviously did. I didn’t want to make a big deal about moving but wish I would have asked the flight attendant for a new seat at the beginning. Instead, I was squeezed against the window for five hours. But I started my book, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez and watched the movie Dear Eleanor which I would give a 7/10 (minus three for Jessica Alba’s terrible acting).

My bag was the very last one off the plane and I had doubts it would arrive, but I was surprisingly calm about this. I had all of my essentials with me and would make do until it arrived. I think I squealed when it came out. I found a cash machine and took out enough to cover the taxi and the hostel, figuring I would find a better rate away from the airport. The man in charge of the taxi line quoted me COP 58,000 to get to my destination. I said in very broken Spanish, “No, I will pay COP 25,000.” My hostel had emailed me when I booked the reservation and said not to pay more than 30,000. He sent me to a different line where I got a cab who said he would take me for COP 28,000. I said no again, and he settled for 25,000. The difference of 3,000 is only C $1.35 but that wasn’t the point. I felt extremely proud of myself, and ended up tipping him 5,000.

I dropped my things at the hostel and wandered out for dinner. I’m staying in a busy neighbourhood but was feeling disoriented, it was dark and I didn’t want to pull out my map and look confused. I have a horrible sense of direction so I just counted intersections and only turned right. I sat down at the first quiet place, Estrella Polar, a Russian restaurant. The restaurant was empty so I was skeptical of the food, but it was early and I was tired. It turned out great, I had a vegetable crepe and a couple of local beers and collected my thoughts. I made my way back to the hostel and posted a blog entry, then tried to sneak quietly into bed.

So far today, I have been reflecting and writing. Here is where things stand: I am cold, I am old, I am vulnerable, and I am not sure what to do with myself right now.

I am cold

Bogotá is 16*C and rainy today — my favourite weather! It feels a little colder than 16*C would feel in London or Toronto, the elevation is over 8600 feet which is the highest I’ve ever been. So far, no altitude sickness but I’m taking it easy on the beers and drinking extra water. I could have done a better job of preparing, I mostly packed for hot weather. I have 3 long sleeved shirts and a pair of pants though, plus a light rain jacket and a thin scarf. I did look this up, but I was researching from Toronto where it was over 30*C and felt disgusting. I was so excited to not be sweating that I didn’t think about the fact that I might be shivering. I’m going to venture out this afternoon and enjoy the crisp weather.

I am old

I’m not actually old. I’m only 32. But my body is much older than it was ten years ago when I backpacked in Europe. I am staying at Hostal Sue Candelaria which is about COP36,000 (C$16.20) per night, on the top bunk of a 4 bed dorm. I woke up this morning snap-crackle-popping and having to stifle a groan as I climbed down the ladder.

Over the last several years my travel standards have changed a lot – it has been years since I climbed into a hostel bed. I almost always stay at nice hotels or AirBnB. But that is not the experience I am looking for here, and I could not afford more than a month on that budget. I think I will adjust soon, I need to get stronger and walking and carrying my pack will help.

At breakfast, I listened to the other guests chattering and realized that most of them are in their early twenties, traveling on gap years. I said hello to the guy in my dorm, after a bit of small talk he confided he hasn’t travelled much and then spent about ten minutes asking me for advice on things like SIM cards and public transportation. It gave me quite a confidence boost, realizing I am actually an experienced traveler. I don’t know about SIM cards or public transportation here, by the way, but he was impressed anyway.

I am vulnerable

Many people ask me how I travel alone without getting scared, and I tell them it is easy: it is just like going about your day in another place, people are generally kind and willing to help, and the worst case scenario is rarely all that bad. Last night, I was uneasy, and I wished I was traveling with someone else.

I speak almost no Spanish, just basic words and sentences structure that I learned in high school. I have been practising with the Duolingo App and trying to listen to background conversations I would normally tune out (e.g. safety announcements, radio/tv, other people). I have Google Translate downloaded for offline use, and I have a pocket Spanish dictionary. I want to learn, and plan to find a lesson while I’m here.

In Bogotá (so far), many people speak a little bit of English, but many do not. So far I have gotten by with a lot of repeated words, hand gestures, and carrying a little notebook to write things down. The people are incredibly patient and even if they do speak English, they are happy to help me struggle through Spanish so I can learn. This is all well and good when dealing with hostel staff and restaurants, but it simply won’t do if I find myself in a difficult situation.

I have been getting my bearings and have not been very outgoing so far, but I am going to try to join a tour later so I can make some friends.

I am not sure what to do with myself right now

I woke up this morning around 8am, had a quick shower, and came out for some free breakfast in the common area. Others started to wake up around 9am and I listened to them make plans for the day. Two Kiwi girls decided to get their noses pierced, an English guy signed up for the graffiti tour, and an American hurried his friend to get dressed so they could get out and walk around.

I started to feel rushed, like I needed to get out and about to see the city. I am used to spending 2-3 days in a place, so I feel guilty for wasting a morning. This morning I realized I have no timetable! I can stay here in Bogotá for as long as I wish. I have three nights in this hostel but can easily extend it or move…I could stay here for three months if I want to! I will see the city in my own time and at my own pace, and when I get tired of it I will move on!

It is now after noon and I have not left the common area. But I am going to go out and walk around, I am hungry and eager to see the city in the daylight. Plus, I have to get away from the two American boys helping each other design their Tinder profiles. It has been amusing but I just can’t.

How about this selfie? Do you think my hair looks better than the other one? Dude, when we go out today I want to borrow your sunglasses and have you take it so I don’t just have selfies. You can tell I used a selfie stick in this one, I’m going to try to crop it. Dude, use a filter so you look more tan, you look pale. Should I use an elephant one? It’s a great photo but I think some girls might not like it. I can add the koala one too so it looks like I’m friends with animals, but I also don’t want to look like a douche.

I am cold, I am old, I am vulnerable, and I am not sure what to do with myself right now. I can’t think of anything better, and I wouldn’t change a thing about how I feel right now.

putting the “pack” in backpacking

I have spent the last two to three weeks packing, unpacking, and packing again; taking out a stack of things and putting a few back in; shopping a bit, returning some things, buying some more. I have borrowed a few items and donated many. I think I am as ready as I can be. I have to be, I am about an hour from Bogota where I will land and spend a few days at a hostel before deciding where to go next. I bought a one way ticket (more on that later), put my things in storage, arranged dog care for Dougie, and wrapped things up at work. I’m not even sure how long this trip will be – I’m thinking about three months but I find myself talking about “if” I come back, not “when”. I will come back, when it’s time.

For the next three-ish months I will live out of a pack that I have to not only zip closed, but also be able to carry. I successfully condensed my life into a 40L pack (carry-on size) which just barely closes if I squeeze everything and wear my bulkiest items. It wasn’t easy. I kept asking myself: what if I need something and I don’t have it? The answer is: buy it, or go without – neither is a big deal. At all.

I researched packing lists online and put one together for myself (female-specific packing lists were most helpful, because duh; and I also found one for three months in South America by a woman). I followed these lists pretty closely, packing a little bit less because I plan to purchase things as I need them. I started packing while in London, and figured I would save a great deal of money by buying things in South America.

I have never done a long trip like this before, so I will have to report back on how well I did. Until then, a bit about my decision making process:

Favourites

Having moved to a new country three times, I know there are certain things I prefer not to live without and that aren’t available everywhere. I packed two extra tubes of my favourite sunscreen (Lise Watier Sun Smart), which is only available in Canada. I’m especially sensitive to the sun, I wear at least 30 SPF daily in Canada, and I know I’ll need even higher SPF in South America. But it’s my favourite.

I have way more over-the-counter medication than I will need for myself (cold medicine, natural sleep aid, pain relievers, hydrocortisone). I know that, as with my favourite sunscreen, the brands I like in each of those categories are not available everywhere. I think it might be overkill, and it will be the first thing to go if I have to make room.

Extras

It was hard for me not to pack at least two of everything. At home, I buy more toilet paper as soon as I open the back-up pack in the closet, and I don’t think I have ever had less than five unopened toothbrushes in my home at a given time. (I am not a hoarder, I am just a sucker for marketing and I like to stock up when things go on sale. Also, my dental hygienist/Mom still gives me toothbrushes for every special occasion.) Ditching the extras became much easier when I tried to lift my bag after the first round of packing. I was Reese Witherspoon in Wild, only not as cute.

I packed an extra rain poncho and an extra flashlight (I brought a headlamp for myself). I figure that those things are quite small/light and when you need one, you really need one. It is also likely that someone else has forgotten theirs, and it’s nice to be able to help out.

I packed an extra (cheap) pair of glasses. I broke my glasses earlier this year and they were quite expensive to replace – the cost is manageable, but it often requires waiting a few weeks for a new pair and I don’t want to slow down my trip to wait for new glasses.

Extras that did not make the cut included an extra bathing suit (see below re: Unrealistic Ambition) and sunscreen brands I’m not particularly attached to. I struggled finding high SPF sunscreen in India, but have asked around and should be able to find it in South America.

IMG_2384

Better Safe than Sorry

When I travelled in India, I was the only one in my group who didn’t get sick and I credit probiotics and having grown up on a farm. My sister and I played after school in the irrigation ditch that ran through cow pastures. Gross, yes. But I’m not as susceptible to E. Coli (knock on wood…no, seriously…I am not trying to tempt fate here, I’m just saying that what works for me might not work for you). Probiotics were insanely expensive: I spent over CAD$100 on enough for three months, but I consider it an investment. They take up a lot of room, but I’d rather be carrying a full pack than staying in my hostel regretting it. The woman at the health store talked me into buying Activated Charcoal, which helps if you have already caught a bug. The bottle says it also helps with hangovers…either that is a lie, or the world’s best kept secret. Honestly, how have I never heard of this before? I’ll report back.

I bought a Life Straw for purifying water. In India, I took water purification tablets with me and did not use them once. But the straw was cheap, light weight, and takes up very little space. It will come in handy if tap water is the only option.

I never leave home without a large bag of bandaids, moleskin, blister pads, and other foot care. Obviously, avoiding blisters is critical.

Unrealistic Ambition

At one point during my trip to REI, I needed a reality check. I was trying on hiking shoes and the salesman explained the features I would need if I were going to be climbing down a really steep cliff. I nodded along, agreeing those were worth a few extra dollars. And then I thought back to last time I was climbing cliffs…never! As much as I enjoy picturing myself a rugged hiker, I am just not. I want to be, and I might be at the end of this trip, but I need to be realistic. I’m not saying I didn’t buy the hiking shoes, I’m just saying they probably won’t see as much action as they were designed for.

In my mind, three months from now I will be like Katniss: a bad ass, mountain scaling, tanned and toned, cliff diving, body surfing, nature loving goddess. I will go to the beach and braid my hair.

In reality, I am pale A.F. and so sensitive to sun that I can’t go to the beach before 5pm. I’m afraid of the water. In the last decade, I have not taken more than two weeks’ break from my desk job. If I come back from this trip able to walk without limping and without a peeling sunburn, it will be a success. Maybe a little less Katniss, and a little more of a cross between Peggy Olson and Rose from Titanic.

bigpack

Game Changer

Use packing cubes! I picked up a few from Muji because they are cheaper than the Eagle Creek ones. But I already regret it, the zippers are weak, the size of the Muji ones is off for women’s clothing (too big, and things flop around), and I will likely have to replace them soon. I do have one Eagle Creek one, and it is far superior. Whichever ones you get, packing cubes are great when you’re sharing space (such as in a hostel): your stuff isn’t spread all over the place, you can quickly find what you need in the dark, and it is easy to re-pack when it is time to go.

I always travel with a journal, but this time I’m carrying two. One for documenting my trip, and a small notebook to scribble notes, recommendations for places to visit, and most importantly: to communicate. My Spanish is minimal, so jotting down the address of my hostel, being able to write out words I’m pronouncing wrong, or draw a map for directions will be helpful. Plus, it will end up full of great memories by the end of the trip.

Clothes

Clothes ended up being the easiest thing to pack and downsize. I already dress comfortably and practically, but usually in cotton. Since cotton doesn’t dry quickly, I had to do some shopping. I invested in a great pair of pants from REI that are designed for hiking/outdoor activities (quick dry material, zipper pockets, stretchy) and I have been wearing them for weeks. They are black so I look a little bit less like a tourist than with the khaki convertible ones. I bought shorts from MEC in a similar fabric, which I left behind this morning after wearing them for about an hour yesterday. I bought them a week ago because I wanted a longer inseam in order to avoid Chub Rub* but hadn’t worn them outside the fitting room. I wish I had, so I could have had time to return them; instead, I sent them to the donation bin. They were poor quality fabric that was scratchy, and the shorts rode up.

* Most women I know are painfully familiar with Chub Rub (a.k.a. thigh chafing). I swear by talc powder – I have tried deodorant and the glide sticks that runners use, but talc not only works but feels good. The thing is, sunscreen cancels out the talc and since I can’t forego the former, the only logical option is longer shorts/skirts/dresses.

I bought 4 pairs of merino wool socks, mostly Smart Wool brand but also some Darn Tough which the salesman recommended. I packed 9 pairs of the underwear I already wear daily (Hanky Panky, the world’s most comfortable thong and it is in quick drying lace). Shoes include hiking boots (just in case I climb a mountain), some Ecco walking sandals that are ugly but comfortable, the world’s most comfortable sandals – Sanuk, made from yoga mats – and some ballet flats. I don’t really need the ballet flats and debated leaving them, but threw them in at the last minute. My Papa and I had an ongoing joke about the number of shoes I travel with and I thought it would have made him smile; I will think of him when I wear them.

Shirts were easy – mostly yoga tops I already owned but a couple of cheap tank tops from H&M. I did bring some cotton shirts anyway – nothing feels better on a sunburn and I have enough that if one doesn’t dry it isn’t a big deal. I had originally included a long tie dye skirt but took it out. It took up too much room and fit into the Unrealistic category. I have owned it for over two years and worn it less than five times. If I want to be a hippie chick I’ll stick to harem pants (see: Chub Rub). I brought one bathing suit, two sports bras and one regular bra. Finally, I brought a 3-in-1 North Face jacket. The outer shell is waterproof, the inner lining is warm, and you can zip them together to make a proper winter coat.