When you’re travelling, your instinct begs you to demonstrate caution, be wary of your surroundings and maintain a certain distance from others, all as a form of self-protection against the horror travel stories that other backpackers kindly share of an evening in hostels. But contrary to this, what I’ve realised is that the whole process of living or even travelling abroad requires the opposite: travelling is about learning to trust other people, often whether you want to or not.
Let me show you why.
A few weeks ago, I took a taxi into the countryside to visit an ancient Incan ruin site. On the face of it, this may not seem particularly remarkable, but let me set the scene: I was staying in Mizque, a small town, four hours from Cochabamba yet what felt much further from the normal tourist trail.
I had spent the initial few hours of my arrival being pointedly stared at by intrigued locals, clearly unaccustomed to gringos – blonde gringas, at that.
But what was most unusual about taking that taxi into the wilderness, was that I was completely alone. For many solo travellers, this is the ultimate no-no: blithely taking a taxi out into the middle of nowhere, with no guarantee for your own safety.
Whilst I’d taken precautions to ensure that my valuables were either locked in the hostel or not obviously on my person, there remained the possibility that the taxi driver – who I had known for the space of two minutes as we had bargained over price – could have chosen to rob me. There would have been very little I could have done about it.
Yet this moment represents more than a trip alone to visit a monument.
Instead, it symbolises what I have learned about travelling and the trust inherent in every decision that you make. Whether taking a local taxi, or heading out for the evening with other travellers, each moment relies on that sometimes split-second decision to invest trust in another person.
Surprisingly, thus far my choices have mostly worked out successfully. My gamble paid off that morning: I made it to La Pucarita and appreciated the driver’s local knowledge as we chatted about Bolivia and its history on our route back to town.
You soon learn that travelling is about learning to trust other people: whether you like it or not
And this was something I had to deal with the following day, when I was forced to trust a stranger even more implicitly.
After boarding the bus to return to Cochabamba, we retraced our route back towards the city – me, with a growing feeling of dread as we approached a short section of road which I had really not enjoyed first time around. It shared an unpleasant similarity with Bolivia’s most famous road, El Camino de Muerto (The Death Road); namely there being barely enough room for one vehicle to pass without plunging off the cliff edge and into the distant valley below.
As the bus rumbled and bounced along the unpaved road at what I felt was perhaps unnecessary speed, I was able to control my panic until the unfortunate moment when we met two trucks on the far side of the valley. We had passed the most dangerous, death-inducing section, yet were forced to reverse to allow them to pass. When your normally composed and nonchalant fellow passengers (locals who must travel this section of road unfortunately regularly) start shouting at the bus driver and asking what the hell he thinks he is doing, then you know you have something to fear.
But we survived. And with every journey that I make, I continue to remember how important trust is.
Without it in Bolivia you most certainly wouldn’t make it very far, and might even find yourself huddled on the floor of your dorm room, rocking backwards and forwards as you relieve the horrors of your bus journey and your certainty, at the time, that the end was nigh.
Not to sound too much like I’ve joined a cult, I’ve realised that travelling is made for believers. People who believe in other people.
This is particularly the case for solo female travellers, whose sheer existence is often met by disbelief by Bolivians, many who seem far more concerned for your safety than you are. A local woman I met in Cochabamba was beyond worried when I told her I was soon to be heading into the jungle, and she spent a long period of time advising me not, at any costs, to enter the river as I would die. Home to anacondas, piranhas and a colourful variety of snakes, I had absolutely no intention of taking a bath with these hostile jungle residents and was amused by her concerted concern for my welfare.
On another occasion, an Argentinian traveller who I met in the formerly mentioned Mizque, was so surprised when I told him I was there alone, that he called me a liar and told me that I needed to be careful as there were pumas in the mountains and he’d heard of people getting killed travelling.
What I’ve realised is that buried within these neurotic demonstrations of concern, is a enormous difference in our cultures and a lack of belief that women are capable of travelling alone; one which I am glad to quash with every surprised conversation about my life.
Of course travelling requires more than trust: caution and sensible decision-making goes a long way.
A piece of sterling advice from my mum was that the best way to avoid people mugging you is if you walk the streets confidently and like you shouldn’t be messed with. Whilst I doubt that a cross expression on your face holds much sway against pumas, I have yet to find myself at the end of any scams or unpleasantness so maybe this does hold true. Maybe my mastery of the ‘teacher glare’ through five gruelling years in the classroom has been more beneficial than previously realised.
Yet the biggest part of the trust game is trusting yourself. Before I came here, I really had no idea that I could survive for so long on the other side of the world, in an enormous country which feels far more than its physical distance away from my own country and culture. Before quitting my job and booking my flights, it was never something that I really believed was possible. I came here on the off chance that it was: and now I trust that I can do this.
I may have sustained a head injury after a slightly misjudged jump across a canyon and, on another occasion, fallen into a cactus (with the resulting bruises making me look a bit too much like a crack addict) but in general, I’ve been surprised by how everything seems to turn out ok: often, surprisingly well.
Part of this is through avoiding becoming caught up in the feeling of immortality that can overcome many in the travelling community, or the overwhelming neurosis and fear of absolutely every eventuality that may or may not come to pass that I’ve heard from other travellers. According to one paranoid girl I met, Bolivia is due a pretty nasty earthquake, a thought which chose the moment in which I was hundreds of metres below the ground in the poorly constructed tunnels of the Potosian mines to re-surface in my brain. Unsurprisingly, said earthquake didn’t happen, and I live to tell the tale.
Travelling in Bolivia has made me realise that the only way you can ever achieve or overachieve your own expectations is when you are driven by that trust.
Trust is by far a more powerful emotion than fear, yet it is the latter which often drives us, or more often than not, inhibits and restricts us. I have fears about travelling of course, but what I’ve realised is far more healthy is to trust in your ability to face those, rather than succumb to them.
Since my few days in Mizque, I’ve taken a river boat along the River Mamore, deep into the Bolivian jungle. Although I was not planning on jumping into the water, I strongly believed in my ability to wrestle an anaconda, so….just kidding, mum.