27 Oct Five Ways I’m a Better Person When I Travel
When I hit the road, I change. One whirlwind trip through Bolivia showed me how, when I travel, I become…
1) More Adventurous
The feeling of possibility is my favorite travel companion. It’s always there, but was especially lively when I arrived in Cochabamba, Bolivia, at the age of 19, with an army-green backpack and an internship.
“What’s the most spectacular, life-changing thing to experience around here?” I asked my host family over a plate of potatoes my first night.
Luckily, I was in Bolivia, a country that boasts the Andes, the Amazon, and an indigenous majority. It’s also home to the Salar de Uyuni—10,000 square kilometers of salt crystals, cactus islands, and mineral lakes. As soon as my host family mentioned it, I knew I would be visiting the world’s largest salt flats, no matter how remote they were.
2) More Flexible
Just hours into the trip, I could tell something was wrong.
I had arrived with my group of travel buddies in Oruro, one of Bolivia’s department states, looking for a bus connection that would take us to the salt flats.
A cluster of distraught individuals, belongings swung over their backs in home-woven fabrics, pushed their way toward the ticket office. The hallway was filled with people and their belongings. Between rustles of clothing and clouds of breath, I heard the word “paro,” referring to protests that had shut down much of the country’s transportation. We were stuck, and no one knew when the roads would open again.
Hours later, a herd of alpaca-clad backpackers strung by excitedly. I motioned to my friends to follow. Within a few minutes, we were standing before the open doors of a bus, the driver asking for a small bribe to board.
I handed the money over without hesitation.
3) More Observant
We spent nine hours wedged between knees and backpacks, carving our way through the bouldered, weathered plains of the altiplano until we arrived in the Bolivian department of Uyuni.
We arrived just before five in the morning, stepping with brittle legs into the piercing cold. It has been nearly a decade, but I still remember the frosted ground exhaling plumes of fog, like those that came out of my nose with each breath. I still remember fire pits spitting feeble yellow flares in the gray light before dawn.
I can tell you how the Jeep we rented in Uyuni kicked up dust as we drove past Andean peaks with tufts of grass sprinkled at their feet. I can tell you how the ground before the volcanoes of Chile spat warm gases through tiny fractures in the earth that smelled like mildew.
I can tell you these things because they were incredible, but I can also tell them to you because, in my travels, I often think: Wow, I’ve got to remember this.
4) More Friendly
The laughter flickered like candles from one table to the next. The single salt-flat hostel was tiny, a shack really, a bright refuge of backpackers in alpaca hats.
Carlos had his camera out at the table, gingerly tipping its thick black body so I could get a look at the images on the display. Carlos was a Mexican photographer traveling solo, getting some field experience after taking photography classes in Buenos Aires. Well, he was traveling solo, looking for a spare seat in someone’s Jeep, until he bumped into my friends and me. We were happy to invite him into our caravan, and by the end of the day, he and I were nestled in the corner of the hostel, talking about art and life and our respective futures.
Carlos’s photos were playful. He took images of our scrambling bodies before looming volcanoes; he tipped himself out the side window of our jeep to snap tilted photos of our dust trails. He wandered after flamingos into the colored lakes.
I was impressed by his work, unsure if I’d ever find something I could be that good at. I asked him what drew him to photography.
“It lets me capture the perspective of my soul,” he said.
5) More Grateful
We rushed out of the hostel doors, drunk on Sangani liquor and dragging our sleeping bags out to the flat, dusty earth. We had to see the sky.
At 12,000 feet of elevation, the air was thin. On the ground, there wasn’t a single light for hundreds of miles, but above us were more than I’d ever seen. The sky was thick with stars, clouds of them, clusters sparkling blue and purple and white. The Milky Way was a thick, speckled brushstroke across the sky. And there were shooting stars, at least one every minute.
I lay there in a state of euphoric wonder for quite some time. But then I was hit by another feeling. It was potent and all-encompassing under the stars of that frozen desert. It cut my breathing short, seared through my nerves as it permeated my body.
This was a feeling I’ve encountered on many of my travels, one that’s constantly calling me back to the road: gratitude.
Explore Adventure Collection journeys that can make you:
GeoEx: Tribal Crossroads of India & Myanmar. Traverse a border that just reopened after a 75-year hiatus. GeoEx is among the first Westerners to make this crossing since World War II.
NOLS: Spring semesters in the Rockies—Wilderness First Aid and Wilderness First Responder. Ready to spend 87 days in the wilderness? You’ll be canoeing, canyoneering, horsepacking, kayaking, skiing, rock climbing and learning the ropes—often literally—of wilderness medicine.
Natural Habitat Adventures: Classic Polar Bear Adventure. “An expertly guided small-group adventure to see the world’s largest concentration of polar bears in their natural habitat.”
Bushtracks: Kenya’s Private Reserves Safari. “On a conservancy safari you are not bound by strict game reserve rules, which means you are free to go walking in the veld with people who were born there.” –Bushtracks, “Walking With Warriors”
O.A.R.S: “Pura Vida” in Costa Rica. In Spanish, “pura vida” translates to “pure life.” There’s the rush of rafting the Pacuare river and zip-lining through rainforest; there’s the awe of witnessing “the million-turtle nesting miracle” in Tortuguero National Park; and there’s the deep appreciation for the opportunity to feel life fully.
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