Nicola Chew spoke with Miriam Matthiessen, a first-year Philosophy, Politics and Economics student, about her five-month journey through South America during her gap year
Q: Tell us about what you did!
A: I was there for a total of five months. I left in February and went to Peru where I worked with an NGO for the first two and a half months. In mid-April, I started backpacking down to Buenos Aires. I began from Peru and proceeded to northern Chile, and finally to Argentina where I spent two weeks in Buenos Aires. I returned by another route to complete a loop, going through Bolivia before flying home from Lima.
Q: How did you plan your trip?
A: I didn’t actually, I only knew I was going to work in Peru, that’s all! I wanted to have a few months to travel but I was leaving it completely open. I actually did not plan on going to Argentina, but I met a girl from the US who wanted go back to Buenos Aires where she grew up, so we decided to go together.
Q: That’s sounds amazing, were you prepared at all to go on such an adventure?
A: The one advantage I had was that I could speak Spanish fluently, so I could communicate with anyone at any time. I wouldn’t have been able to travel alone if I wasn’t able to speak their language. That was always a source of comfort – if I ever had a problem or a question, I could tell anyone exactly what I wanted.
Q: If there was one thing you could’ve done differently, what would you have done?
A: This is going to sound weird, but I would’ve liked to have played it less safe. I guess because it was my first time in those places, I stayed at hostels that tourists usually go to. There are so many people backpacking through South America that it is really easy to fall into a backpacker’s bubble.
I mean, it’s great to have many people sharing common experiences, but it can also isolate you from the locals and prevent you from immersing yourself in their culture. That’s why I really valued working in the first half of my trip, because I was in one place at long time and I got to know everyone who lived there. With that, I think I should have gone to smaller towns where there were less touristy hostels.
Q: What is your top tip for people who want to backpack for a prolong period of time?
A: Don’t plan anything. If you’re inter-railing through Europe for three weeks, then you have to plan. When you have months, planning restricts you instead. The experience is not just about seeing places, but also meeting new people. I let the people whom I met guide me. However, don’t forget you have no obligations to them and that you’re free to leave whenever you want.
Q: Do you think your experience would have been a lot different if you had traveled with friends instead of traveling alone?
A: I would say that this is a matter of personal preference. For me, getting out of my comfort zone and going somewhere on my own gave me so much space to grow. I traveled with a girl whom I got along really well with for a month, but we did notice that we were less likely to go out and meet people when we were together.
I also don’t think people should assume that having a close friend with them will automatically make the trip great. I have very close friends who have very different interests, so it isn’t necessarily the case that we would have enjoyed traveling together.
Q: Lastly, do you have any horror stories?
A: I was with a friend in a small town in Chile called Calama. We asked the taxi driver to get us to the bus station for our bus to Argentina in the early hours of the morning when it was completely dark. He just stopped in an alley and said “it’s here” – there were stray dogs everywhere but not a bus in sight. He just left us there alone and it was a while before we managed to find the bus station. Just when we thought we were safe, it turned out that our bus was cancelled and we were stuck! Fortunately, the bus company put us on another bus to another town, and from there we got on a bus to our destination. It was one of those moments when you feel a sudden pang of fear, but things usually turn out fine in the end.
All image credits: Miriam Matthiessen