The German guy on the couch loudly clears his throat; the international sign for I’m trying to watch a fucking movie here. I finally snap to attention and realize that for the past two minutes I’ve been squealing like a schoolgirl while hugging my best friend Paula in what can only be described as a talon-like death grip. I quickly apologize and we head to our room on the upper level of the hostel.
I’d like to say I’m embarrassed by my display of stereotypical girly-ness, but I’m not. I’m actually shocked at how much emotion hit me when I saw her face, especially since I’d known about this visit for months now. Part of my I-am-woman-hear-me-roar solo travel identity was that I don’t get homesick. On the contrary; I thrive on the unknown, love living out of a backpack, and meeting a constant rotation of amazing strangers turned friends – but seeing my girl in the flesh nearly knocked me to the ground. I forgot how much I missed the people I left back at home, and to be honest, I was scared that there was now a crack in my Superwoman emotional armour.
Travelling solo is a lot like the first time you live by yourself. It sounds great but then proves to be a little lonely, with time you actually start enjoying yourself, and before you know it you’re so set in your ways that you wonder if you could ever live with another human being ever again. A roommate telling me to wash my dishes!? I do what I want! Similarly, when you travel solo the only question you have to ask is, what do I want to do today? If you’re hostel mates want to do something else, you just go on your own or find someone who does.
Being able to do what you want whenever you want is addictive – it can be a tough adjustment when friends come to visit – and if you aren’t careful it can turn you into an asshole.
“No. You can’t bring your backpack on the bus! Just stick it underneath, come on.”
I sound impatient, I sound kind of bitchy, and well, I am being bitchy. My friends are a little hesitant about putting their backpacks underneath the coach bus that will take us to the next city, fearing that it won’t still be there once we arrive. After months of backpacking and taking more buses than I can count, I don’t have a lot of tolerance for their hesitation. Nothing is going to happen, and if it does, so what? We’re in South America, it’s part of the experience!
It can be easy after several months of backpacking to be jaded – things no longer feel weird, it’s just the way they are, but quite frankly it isn’t fair to hold your friends to the same standard when they’ve just arrived. After catching myself a couple of times, I had to learn to see everything through their eyes – which means for the first time. Everything from having strangers hop on your bus to give everyone a sales pitch on ‘naturally mined gemstones’, seeing full roasted guinea pigs on the BBQ in the town square, or even having to pay for toilet paper in the bathroom.
I had to remind myself to give in a little, let go of my own travel pace and expectations – and let things happen.
“UH – GUYS! – THERE’S A GIANT DONKEY RUNNING UP BEHIND US!”
I’m the last one in our single file line of four, hiking down a trench cut into the mountainside in Vilcabamba, Ecuador. We’re walking single file because that’s all the room we have, the trail is narrow with dirt up each side – meaning there is nowhere for us to go to let the donkey and two horses pass us, plus with my broken toes there was no way to out pace them.
“I DON’T KNOW WHERE TO GO!”
Suddenly I see Paula grab onto some small branches, and flatten her body against the sides of the trail – as if she was becoming one with the wall. It was the best piece of unintentional physical comedy I’d seen – and if I wasn’t panicked about being trampled by a donkey I would have laughed my ass off – instead I copied her exactly. The animals passed us, and the Ecuadorean cowboy following behind them had a really good belly laugh at the sight of 4 girls, doing their best Wile E. Coyote running into a wall pose, flattened against the dirt walls.
“Oh my god there really was a donkey,” says Paula, matter-of-fact-ly once they’ve passed. And suddenly all four of us could not stop laughing. It was such a ridiculous moment in such a beautiful place.
I would never have seen the gorgeous town of Vilcabamba, Ecuador – with it’s hiking trails that made me feel like I was in Lord of the Rings – if I hadn’t let go of the reins and let my friends plan where we would go. I would never have stayed at the gorgeous Villa Beatriz guesthouse, complete with infinity pool overlooking the mountain range, if I hadn’t let my friends choose where we’d stay. It can be hard to let go when you’re used to calling all the shots – but you’ll be better for it. After all, they’ve been spending just as much time – if not more – researching where they want to go and you’ve got to trust in their judgement.
The rest of the 10-day visit seemed to fly by; we launched ourselves off of a cliff on the giant Vuelo Del Condor swing in Banos, we had the best hot chocolate I’d ever tasted in Cuenca, and I rode a horse for the first time in my life (with sore legs for the next two days to prove it!)
But more than all of the activities we did and sites we visited it was the small things I found comfort in the most. Whether it was spotting each other cash, literally giving the sweater off your back when someone was cold, or sharing crackers and giving back rubs on long bus rides – the familiar little gestures that you do without hesitation with people you’ve known for years.
That’s the stuff you can’t get when you travel solo, and I hadn’t realized how much I missed it. They’re the sacrifices you make to have a once in a lifetime gap year experience, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a couple days of withdrawal once they left. But, as any solo female wanderer will tell you, you’ve got to suck it up, mend your armour and keep on moving forward.
Oh, and at the very least when friends come to visit – because we’re all vain – you’ll have great pictures of yourself frolicking around in adventurous and exotic locations, which doesn’t happen when you’re solo and refuse to use a selfie stick. Photos or it didn’t happen, amiright?