Some of the most influential teachers are people I have encountered through travel. Although these individuals were not attempting to teach, the experiences that emerged as a result of our intersected paths offered important opportunities for me to expand my understanding about myself and the other humans around me. Even brief moments give insight.
Jose the Hostel Owner
We arrived into Pucon at the peak of Chile’s high season. The Santiago hostel where we had been stayed since arrival was swarming with European and Brazilian travelers, who gathered in the small kitchen and crowded common areas to coordinate adventure trips into the Atacama, down to Patagonia, or out to the Conguillio National Park. We were a bit over halfway through our journey, and we had not anticipated the expense or the tourist population density we encountered in Chile. After looking ahead at our schedule to our next border crossing into Argentina, we decided the best course of action might be to leave Santiago for a bit to explore the south as we were able, knowing that we would return to the capital city to wait for our ticket to Buenos Aires.
We had heard rumors of this place called Pucon, nestled at the banks of the Villarica Lake beneath the shadow of Villarica volcano. This town is also the gateway into the Conguillo National Park. It reminded us both of Aspen or Taos, with its boutique gift shops and high-end coffee bars. Our hostel was a short walk from the bus station, and we found it easily. It was owned by a man named Jose who spoke English very well, and who was recovering from a broken relationship with a woman named Amanda. Jose cozied up to us quickly during our two nights there, and I was immediately suspicious about his motivations and intentions.
The exact details regarding what unfolded over the next three days are unimportant. It is likely that I would remember them out of order anyway. However, my bank card and a handful of Chilean and American cash vanished from my pack while it was locked at the hostel. I am not in a position to say for certain who stole it, but I did notice that someone in particular was watching me carefully while I stowed the money before locking the cabinet. Fortunately, I had a second bank card associated with a second account, and my bank froze all transactions immediately and rejected an attempted charge to buy $400 worth of shoes from a shoe store down the street from the hostel.
Trust my own intuition when I sense another’s shadow.
An English Speaking Crew
Prague and Krakow were both quite chilly in late May, but since I had been flying directly from 92 degrees in Sacramento any temperature less than 80 would feel cold. For several days, I had been wearing ratty jeans with frayed hems beneath my dresses in an attempt to stay warm, which is a fashion move I had not attempted since leaving Arcata where every Humboldt Honey wears as many frumpy layers as possible. Anywhere beyond the Redwood Curtain though, and this look raises eyebrows. It was particularly questionable as I was waiting in line to enter a club in Krakow called Frantic. It is not the type of place that I would choose to go, but I had found myself intermingled with a group of the other English speakers at the hostel, a crew of 20-something-year-old Australians and Canadians.
I felt like their annoyed older sister. At the first bar, I reminded them not to put their feet onto the furniture, and had to ask them several times to speak in a quieter tone, until of course we were directed to leave. At Club Frantic, I was particularly embarrassed to notice that every other woman was wearing tights and heels, while we had on hiking boots, torn denim, and even flannel tied around our waists. I camped out in the corner, sipping reflectively on my Mojito (a Polish specialty?), and observed the social dynamics.
The English speaking crew had positioned themselves in the center of the dance floor. Most of them had been drinking heavily, and one of the Australian girls tried to climb the DJ booth but a Canadian gently begged her to calm down. I watched for a bit while they continued to call attention to themselves, more and more, until a pack of security guides hustled onto the floor. Before I could respond or react, another guard approached me at my table and informed me that, “it is time for my group to leave,” and did I need assistance out? Although it was polite of him to ask, I told him I could find the door myself. I was almost ready to head out anyway to catch sleep before my bus back to Prague.
On my walk returning to the hostel, a large crowd of people had gathered to listen while a musician played Oasis, “Wonderwall.” At the chorus, everyone chimed in to sing together, “There are many things that I would like to say to you…but I don’t know how…” The next morning over breakfast, I learned that the English crew had been forcefully removed from the club without being allowed to get their belongings from coat check, resulting in several lost passports. We had been too obvious in our language, our actions, and our behaviors.
My native knowledge of the English language is a privilege, but also a responsibility and a liability.
The Other American
On my 50 day journey through the Balkans and Eastern Europe, I met very few other Americans outside of Budapest until I arrived on-site at my volunteer project in a small mountain village in northeast Romania. Although I was assisting middle school youth with English-language homework, I was sharing accommodation with other volunteers assigned to other projects such as animal rescue, special needs education, and community gardening. My daily schedule was different than most other volunteers, so I typically had the common areas to myself, other than the community gardening volunteer. She and I usually made morning coffee and prepared our lunches for the day at the same time. She was another American, a retired single woman who had spent a career in corporate HR. Being American and female is pretty much where our similarities abruptly halted.
I still haven’t fully figured out if I found her so disagreeable because of misaligned personality differences, or because she was an objectively offensive person. I found her communication style loud and abrasive to the point that I felt dizzy when she spoke at me. Also, at times, she expressed anger at me for innocent things I had done and instead of communicating with me in a professional way, she shut down and claimed that it didn’t matter what she thought of me. Our emotional entanglement felt like we had a long history together, although we had known each other for only a few days.
The most significant struggle between us occurred when she caught a virus. Instead of acknowledging her sickness, she refused to rest and instead bragged about how strong she was for working through her illness. A few days later, I felt myself fatiguing and I considered not heading to my worksite but resting instead. I only had a few more days on the project before my 13-hour bus ride back to Hungary, and I didn’t want to be sick on that trek. Instead of listening to my own needs, I allowed her to influence me and I went to my site. Two days later, I was extremely ill and it was a virus I carried with me all the way back to Chicago. My ears are now permanently damaged, and I always wonder how many others I infected on the bus, plane, and train in the following days.
My body is all that I own. I must protect it, and no one else can tell me how it feels or what to do with it.
I have also met countless other people who have taught me important and powerful lessons through their generosity, gratitude, openness, flexibility, positivity, and their own willingness to accept their lives as an opportunity to learn and grow alongside me and the seven billion more. In this constant state of impermanence on the planet we call earth, we are all travel guides for each other.