Travels and Tribulations

by Ethan Cohen

It was an unseasonably cool summer morning as I cinched the nylon straps of my 70 liter trekking pack. I had done this nearly every morning for three months, and my backpack had very much become my home. Its compartments, the actions of its various zippers and clips were, in some ways, the only constants in my nomadic life. As I walked down Avenida Ricardo Cumming in the heart of Santiago, I found myself reflecting upon my travels, which had begun a few short months ago.

Unsure of myself and the direction of my college experience at the end of my freshman year at Western Washington University, I decided to take a year off of school before transferring back home to the University of Colorado. My trip began in Cuzco, Peru, and over the course of four months I had traveled alone down the coast of Peru (with a three week stint in the Amazon rainforest), through the Salt Flats of Bolivia, the Atacama desert of Northern Chile, and finally inching my way down the coast of the string-bean country to the capital city. Over those months, I had tried desperately to grasp some concrete measure of my own growth, but it seemed that the sum of all of my completely foreign cultural experiences had left a question mark. I didn’t feel tangibly different as I had imagined I would. Sure, I looked different from months without shaving, and tan from miles trekked in the Peruvian highlands, but the palpable change in perspective that I had hoped to achieve was not yet clear to me. I was nearing the end of my travels. With one last excursion before returning to the states, I hoped that five days of trekking in the Patagonia region would complete the equation. I hoped that I would come back with something to show for myself.

Groggy from nights in cheap hostels and bottles of Pisco, I glanced at my watch and slowed my pace. Turning left onto Bernardo O’Higgins Boulevard, the city’s main drag, I took in the familiar fumes of diesel trucks and fry oil that had come to characterize Santiago in my mind. The awkwardly named street, like many of Santiago’s museums and monuments, celebrates the revolutionary responsible for Chilean independence in the early 19th century. The notion of independence runs thick through the veins of the city. A statue of former President Salvador Allende stands in La Plaza de la Constitución as a reminder of the bloody coup d'etat of 1973. The Chilean relationship with independence had come to fascinate me. I walked down Bernardo O’Higgins Boulevard toward the bus, running through the history and politics I had learned about during my stay.

The plan was set in stone. My brother had flown into Santiago from the states that morning. We would rendezvous at the airport gate before boarding a plane for Puerto Natales, a hub for travellers planning to trek in the remarkable Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. Hostels were booked, deposits paid, and I was looking forward to some company after four months of solitary travel. The bus that would take me to the airport was a short fifteen-minute walk from the hostel where I had been staying.

Equipped with my large trekking pack on my back and my smaller day-pack on my front, all was going according to plan until a load of pale gray bird poop cascaded from above, splattering my shirt and backpack as I walked. While at the time I didn’t view this ordeal as overly significant (after all, shit happens), I still felt it necessary to clean myself up before boarding a crowded airport bus. Luckily enough, a woman walking a few feet away from me had seen what happened and offered me a bottle of water and some tissues, both unopened. As she led me toward a public trash can, I felt a wave of deep affection for the caring people I had encountered during my travels, and resented myself for being consumed by anxieties about the dangers of solo travel. I placed my small backpack on the ground next to me, and with the woman’s help, hoisted my large pack onto the trash can. Armed with water and tissues, we set to work dabbing the syrupy bird crap from my bag. All was well. The bus would come in ten minutes, and I would soon see a familiar face for the first time in nearly four months. After a few seconds, a man leaning against the handrails of the nearby Los Heroes metro station caught my attention and pointed down the stairs into the cavernous Santiago metro.

“Su Bolsa,” he said. “Your bag.”

Puzzled, I looked at my bag sitting right in front of me. He pointed again toward the underground station and repeated, “Amigo, ella tiene su bolsa, she has your bag,” he said.

It was at this moment that I remembered placing my small bag on the ground to my left, and realized that the good Samaritan who had provided me with water and tissues was nowhere to be seen. She had my bag. She had my passport, my money, the journal I had diligently kept for months, and the tiny wooden box my mother had given me the night before I left as a good luck token. A stranger had all of those things, and she was about to disappear into a city of five million. I threw my trekking pack on my back and hurled down the stairs into the station. Jumping the turnstile, I hoped that I would somehow confront the thief and recover my belongings. As I descended to the platform, I saw the heartbreaking lights of a departing train. I was too late. In a matter of two minutes, I was undocumented in a foreign country with no money, as my brother waited for me at the airport. Our flight left in two hours.

Waking my father from a dead sleep, I called to give him the good news. Everything he was nervous about happening had basically happened. He didn’t take it well. The next few hours were a blur. I eventually got in contact with my brother; he would go to Patagonia without me, and I cancelled my passports and all of my credit cards. My parents made arrangements to wire money to an Australian in my hostel, and he picked the cash up for me at the downtown Western Union office. I brooded outside. While filing a police report, and using my very limited grasp of spanish to explain the situation, I realized that I had not been robbed by an opportunistic thief but rather had been scammed by a clever pair. I had become the oblivious tourist I had read about dozens of times in travel books and online forums. The odds of getting shat on by a bird are low in the first place. The odds of getting robbed are also relatively low. What are the odds of getting shat on by a bird and then immediately robbed? Upon my return to the hostel from the police station, Google confirmed my intuitions. Perhaps I had actually found a part of myself that I didn’t know existed: the part that had become a cautionary tale.

All along, my parents had planned to meet my brother and me in Santiago after our trek, so I was left with ten idle days before their arrival. In wandering around the city alone, visiting every free museum twice, and reading my weight in books, I found myself filling the hours with introspection. Wandering through the Museum of Human Rights, I studied carefully the Chilean resilience in the face of national trauma. The red roof and cobbled brick of Pablo Neruda’s house represented some connection between expression and freedom, and the bronze statue of Allende stood strong and stoic in the city’s main plaza. These museums and monuments were bliss during those ten days. I felt my disappointment growing less potent and welcomed a strange, newfound feeling of strength. 

Through my travels, I had become autonomous. I had faced challenges, danger, breathtaking beauty, and had become self-sufficient in the process. I had figured out how to get a new passport, how to eat with very little money, how to deal with unprecedented personal disappointment, and  was alone, thousands of miles away from home. In my autonomy, I had overlooked the fact that complete independence, in and of itself, was a massive achievement. Perhaps I didn’t gain any grandiose sense of enlightenment from the countries I had visited, Machu Picchu, or the Amazon jungle, but simply from the obstacles I faced while travelling.

As I sat outside the national history museum, I was reminded of Bernardo O’Higgins and Salvador Allende. I was reminded of the Chilean spirit in the face of oppression and violence. I was reminded that independence and democracy almost always come as a result of some seemingly insurmountable threat of everything falling apart. I reveled in the danger and beauty of this huge thing that I had planned and completed, felt the infinite expanse of opportunity that comes from the purchase of a plane ticket. And as I opened J.D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, I reflected on the times when I had felt most like Holden Caulfield, alienated and in search of a life. “Maybe I’ve found it,” I thought, glancing at my watch. Beholden to no-one, in a city of five million. I was alone, and in control, and had been for four months. The sun beating down in just the right way, I settled into yet another unseasonably cool Summer morning. Anxieties dissolved, and the minutes slipped by with ease, the way they do when you have nowhere to be. Perhaps that’s all I could have ever asked for.