Losing signal and finding connections
The rest of our travels passed in a blur of long bus rides, new experiences and adrenaline. We often went without wifi or service for days at a time and when we did have internet connection, it was not strong enough to work on my computer. Although this made it difficult to blog, it allowed me to take a step back from the comfort and personal value that I had been conditioned to place in my phone as a means to connect with the people around me. Not having access to internet reminded me that the way to truly connect with the world and with others expands far beyond a two by five-inch screen. This, it seems to me, is perhaps the most widely acknowledged yet rarely practiced idea relating to our relationship with technology today. We all make jokes about walking around like zombies with our heads bent into our phones and as soon as the laughter stops we go right back to refreshing our Instagram pages every ten minutes looking for posts and connections to people that we barely even know beyond the realm of social media. And why? Because it has become a social construct that is engrained so deeply within us that it’s difficult to truly understand it as a type of addiction until we are forced from it by one thing or the other. For me, I was amazed by how many times I would be traveling through rural Paraguay or Bolivia and I would unlock my iPhone and stare at the screen or start to open Facebook, knowing full well that I didn’t have service or internet connection. My hands moved automatically out of habit and it took a frustratingly long time to decondition myself but, once I was able to, I felt an overwhelming sense of freedom and simplicity in being able to enjoy each moment without distractions.
After Cartagena, we traveled from Bogota to Quito, Ecuador and from there to the Ecuadorian coast, a town called Montanita, which was the second stop on our journey that I truly fell head over heels in love with. The small beach town is filled with backpackers and surfers from all around the world who come for the waves and stay for the delicious simplicity of life there. The town’s economy seemed to essentially run on tourism with hostels, hotels and European/American-style restaurants on every corner. Although normally this would not have been particularly attractive to me, Montanita had the perfect mix of enormous curling waves, brilliant sunny days and soaring palm trees that made it easy to understand the fascination of tourists.
Each backpacker that I met brought new stories of short term travel plans transformed into long term infatuations. One bright-eyed man from Scotland told me that he had come to the coast intending to work at a hostel and surf for a few weeks and, as he sat talking with me three months later, he said that something about the energy of the environment in Montanita had kept him there. Staying there for only three days, I came to learn what he meant and I, too, became quite intoxicated by the perfection that surrounded me.
All too soon it was off to the rainy city of La Paz and then the salt flats of Uyuni in Bolivia. Exploring the salt flats was like visiting another planet and is definitely not something to be missed if traveling to Bolivia. As the largest expanse of salt deposits in the world, the Salar de Uyuni stretches for miles, white and immense, tricking the mind and emphasizing the relative smallness of man. The entire tour of the salt flats was truly magnificent, but the most astounding part was watching the sun set over the reflective pools of la Isla del Peces (Fish Island) where a thin layer of water covers the salt and creates a breathtaking reflection of the mountains and sky in every direction.
After Uyuni, we traveled to Paraguay to spend a few days in the capital city of Asuncion before traveling to the final and most highly anticipated leg of our journey – Iguazu Falls. The best way to reach the falls is to take a bus to Ciudad del Este in Paraguay and then a second bus or taxi to Puerto Iguazu, just across the border into Argentina. The falls are located in between Argentina and Brazil, but the Argentinian side has a better view of the falls and allows you to avoid paying for the expensive Brazilian VISA that is required for U.S. citizens. Entering the park of one of the world’s largest chains of waterfalls was reminiscent of the opening scene of Jurassic Park where the scientists fly over the park for the first time. It seemed to me like a different planet of ridiculously vibrant greens, exotic plants and animals and gushing turquoise water as far as the eye could see. For most of our hike, I absorbed my surroundings in a state of complete shock that a place like Iguazu Falls exists and complete confusion as to why I chose to deprive myself by living in the dismal-by-comparison Midwest for all my life thus far. The only downer of the trip came when a wild coatie stole my sandwich from my hand but, overall, having the opportunity to see one of the world’s greatest wonders was nothing short of incredible and I encourage anyone traveling in South America to go.
After a month and a half of traveling, I was anxious to get to Chile and begin my studies through IFSA and (even more so) to unpack my suitcase which, by that point, had collected about five pounds of sand and begun to smell like a high school boys’ locker room. We arrived in Santiago on the 17th of February and began our orientation with IFSA shortly after. It felt amazing to be able to get settled into my host family and finally return to a normal daily routine. Everyone has treated me with abundant hospitality and warmth and I was surprised at how quickly I began to feel at home in the Vina/Valpo area. I couldn’t have been placed with a better host family. They have made every effort to make sure that I am comfortable (and exceedingly well-fed) for which I am very grateful. I think that I am definitely in what the IFSA program directors refer to as “the honey moon stage” because every day that I spend walking around my beautiful new home of Vina del Mar or watching the sun set over the ocean, I feel like my heart is going to explode in my chest.