The Backpacker Diaries: A Junior Doctor’s Year-Long Journey Around the World
A continuation from my previous chapter:
The Strange Feeling of Coming Home After a Year Traveling the World
Chapter 2: Santiago de Chile, Chile
20th May, 2018
My journey to South America started with fear.
Fear about leaving the city I grew up in. Fear about leaving my material comforts and living with a few select possessions out of a backpack. Fear that I would lose the motivation to ever return to medicine. Fear of not knowing the language. Fear of all the horror stories I had been told about crime and safety in Latin America. Fear that I had made the wrong choice to leave my job. Fear that I would be simply bringing the grief of my sister’s death to a place I had no supports and knew no-one. Fear of being alone.
But if my wife was feeling the same, she didn’t show it. PK’s constant chirpiness exuded an unshakable hopefulness. Her happy smile was a light leading me through the mundaneness of customs and airport terminals…and soothed the fears in the pit of my stomach.
After a long-haul flight from Adelaide, we finally arrived at the first city of our journey: the capital city of Santiago de Chile. “Welcome to Chile, pay up!” was our greeting. Australians are charged a $117 USD “reciprocity fee” upon entry, presumably because of the similar greedy greeting that our government extends to Chilean visitors.
Feeling the sting in our wallets, we made our way through the hordes of taxi drivers in the main terminal. “Taxi, taxi!” they shouted, hoping to rip-off weary travellers like us.
We were expecting to be met by our Airbnb host but they were no where to be seen.
Eventually an unshaven and friendly Irishman named Dom approached us. He was our man, apologising profusely for his tardiness. I didn’t care. I am embarrassed to admit it, but it was nice to hear a welcome from an English speaker in a very foreign country.
“Wow, you guys packed light!” he remarked. I felt proud – I had gone to great lengths to ensure that we only brought the bare minimum of belongings in order to be lightweight and mobile: a single T-shirt, two pairs of underwear and pens sawn in half to make them more compact (I am embarrassed to admit that I am not joking)!
We sped off in his little car through the streets of Santiago. Dom was a friendly but hyperactive host, jumping from topic to topic as he tried to explain the city of Santiago in a single conversation. But I wasn’t listening.
My eyes were glued to the window. These were my first glimpses of South America and I was in a new world. My first impressions were of fruit-filled markets, tall and colourful buildings, bizarre Chinese imported cars and the sun setting behind the Andean mountains. It dawned on me that here exists a huge sprawling mass of humanity, far beyond the Western world I knew. It was like another universe to me. All of the pre-conceived ideas I had about Latin America began to collide with what I was seeing around me.
We arrived at our apartment in Barrio Lastarria, a historic and beautiful part of the city. Cobblestone alleyways, grand buildings and numerous restaurants and musicians abound. To afford staying here, the trade-off was space: our apartment was very tiny.
But this was the beginning of a truth I would take to heart in my South American journey: as long as I had a clean bed and a clean toilet, I was happy.
Our apartment was part of a very tall block of buildings: endless rows of similarly tiny apartments extending far into the sky over a communal square. There was no air conditioning and the heat could be oppressive, so the locals had their windows open constantly. We did the same. As a result, it was never quiet – noise from the different families filtered between the apartments across the square. Adding to the cacophony was traffic and barking dogs who roam with impunity in the streets of Chile, proudly proclaiming their freedom at all hours of the night.
But I was happy to be living amongst the people, not in some fancy tourist hotel. What is the point of going to a foreign land if not to learn from the locals by living with them?
I couldn’t sleep due to the worst jet-lag I had ever experienced. But as those first few nights went by, I began to notice a new life in me. Excitement is not the right word. Nor is the word healing. But perhaps a sense of coming alive. A sense of becoming aware of one’s surroundings and of entering a new chapter in one’s life.
Perhaps it was the journey into the unknown, or the journey into a new world. I think there is a hunger in the heart of man to see something new, to create new memories. My soul still clings to the traumas of the past, clamped down tightly on the darkness of my grief and hardened in order to survive the daily grind of hospital work.
But to see humanity afresh with a new lens… perhaps this begins the process of slowly wrenching the heart open again, bit by bit. I began to forget the fears that I had taken with me from Australia. Not conquer, but forget (there is a difference). I was thousands of kilometres from home but I was not running away from my issues. Maybe with physical distance, we are given space to reflect and look inward. We were at the start of our journey – lying before us was the open road, and the supreme feeling of an open future with infinite possibility.
Maybe what I am describing is the feeling of hope.
Next Chapter of The Backpacker Diaries:
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