Zen and the Art of Long-Term Travel (in South America)

Part of “The Trip That Changed the Way I Travel” series.  
Zen and the Art of Long-Term Travel (in South America)
The author, somewhere around the Liberdade district of São Paulo in Brazil.

São Paulo, Brazil, 2008

My original plan for a sabbatical in South America was to spend 40 days across Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru—countries whose very names conjured up images of the most exotic and hedonistic pleasures of life. But little did I know that this would be a life-changing trip for me, especially since it began as a casual idea suggested by a friend as a break from having worked non-stop for over eight years.

As I explored São Paulo, the commercial capital of Brazil, soaking in new sights, sounds, smells and tastes of a land and culture I knew so little about, I soon realised that the country—let alone the continent—was too vast to cover in such a short time. Honestly, I hadn’t expected the city to be more developed than Mumbai, from the design and aesthetics of the buildings to the massive roads and bespoke business dressing.

Within the very first week, I had made a great local friend via CouchSurfing. I had connected with him just to have a local contact, but when we met for lunch, he insisted his city deserved to be explored for no less than a month, and offered to let me stay in his house! It would have been crazy to refuse—even if this meant changing my tickets, bumping up my budget, and tossing my entire itinerary. I decided to extend my stay rather than consider returning to the continent any time soon, given the huge airfare cost. And so I stayed for three months in Brazil, a month in Ecuador, and another in Colombia—my second serendipity.

I picked up a basic understanding of Spanish after a month in the lush Andean valley city of Quito, Ecuador’s capital. While friends and family back home were worried about my venturing into Colombia as it was infamous for drug lords and insurgency movements, almost everyone in my hostel in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, pointed me towards Colombia. One couple had just returned from a trip across the country, and couldn’t stop raving about it.

The five-hour bus journey from Quito to Tulcan cost under $10—a pittance for the spectacular sights and local experience. Although I had done a land border crossing the previous year between India and Bhutan, this was my first time crossing two foreign countries—and alone. Immigration was a breeze, and the border crossing felt surreal, walking through “no man’s land” for about 100 meters.

The very first person I met in the Colombian border town of Ipiales turned out to be just the encouragement I needed. As I looked around a bit nervously after exiting a small café, a Quechua-speaking grandpa welcomed me to his country, held my hand and crossed the road to point me in the direction of the colectivos, shared vehicles that would take me to my next destination. It was as if he was standing there just to tell me “everything’s going to be ok!” As I smiled at him with gratitude, all the notions and apprehensions disappeared behind me and I felt like the world was one big family, for the first time.

Over the next month, I fell in love with Colombia and travelled all over the country. It was a unique mix of cultural quirks, landscapes ranging from mystic mountains to exotic beaches, salsa beats that still echo in my head, delicious food I’d drop everything to go back to, and above all—the genuine warmth and hospitality of the people.

A month after falling in love with Colombia, a country I hadn’t even planned to visit, I returned to Brazil and had another moment of serendipity: New Year’s eve Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro. It was the perfect celebration. Everyone was dressed in white, with champagne bottles in their hands and counting down to midnight to witness the most spectacular show of fireworks I’ve ever seen.

In 5 months and 1 week, this trip taught me two new languages—Spanish and Portuguese (which I picked up on my return to Brazil)—earned me friends that are nothing short of family, and I finally got the “art” of travel: openness to deviating from one’s plans and cherishing every single moment!

For other stories in “The Trip That Changed the Way I Travel”  series, click here. 

  • Kaushal Karkhanis is a creative analyst and travel blogger who has spent over 12 months travelling the world. He travels to discover cultures and gain new perspective while making friends along the way.

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