Over the last four weeks, I have straddled the equator line, zip-lined through a rainforest on the edge of the Amazon and climbed to 15,780 feet above sea level on Cotopaxi, one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. I took 80 hours of intensive Spanish, learned how to make Ecuadorian soup with shrimp and plantain "meatballs" and had my first fluid and coherent conversation in another language.
But six months ago, I was sitting in a cubicle at a desk job in relative misery, anxious, heartbroken and depressed. So let me start from the beginning.
I went to college at Northeastern University, a school I immediately fell in love with because of its co-operative education program: an opportunity to spend six months working full-time in your field in between academic semesters. As an avid writer with my heart set on a journalism career, I knew the key to success in my field was gaining all the clips and experience I could get.
So over five years, I participated in three co-ops – at a small neighborhood newspaper, an IT media company and for The Boston Globe’s Boston.com. On the side, I co-founded and helped run the Northeastern chapter of Her Campus and was in charge of the extensive tour guide program at my university. I was career-driven and determined to write as much as I could. I even gave up a traditional semester abroad (which I was dying to do) because I wouldn't have been able to interview for a senior year co-op position.
As the end of my college years loomed, I used my co-op connections to my advantage and started a job immediately after graduation at TechTarget, the IT media company where I'd done my second co-op. A few months later, a nightlife blogging position opened at Boston.com, and I took the blog on as my second job.
I worked meticulously at both jobs for a year. Don't get me wrong—I was incredibly thankful for my jobs. I knew how lucky I was to be employed not just by one employer, but two. But in the span of that year, I'd faced two rough heartbreaks and was feeling antsy and anxious. I couldn't believe this was "it"—the rest of my life. I wanted to travel and see the world, and I felt stuck and depressed.
Everyone told me to wait it out. "First jobs are never perfect; the adjustment to the real world is really hard," they'd say. "Heartbreak just heals with time." But I knew it was something more than that.
So I started brainstorming and saving every penny I could, adding it to the savings account I’d built up over the last several years. I dreamed of a trip to Europe, a re-location to NYC. I contemplated applying for other jobs, even moving back home to Los Angeles. But in May, the stars aligned. One of my best friends from high school, who had been living in Chile for just over two years, was quitting her job in Santiago to relocate to NYC. Before she left, she was hoping to do some traveling through South America. Her sister was also quitting her job and starting graduate school in the fall, so the three of us made plans for a jaunt to Argentina and Uruguay.
With shaky hands and tears in my eyes, I took a huge risk—one that many people warned me against—and gave my boss my two weeks notice. It was one of the hardest and best things I have ever done.
My father’s proudest moment was when I, his only daughter, graduated from university. But not because I finally had a diploma in hand. It was because I graduated with a job offer, and he knew that I wasn’t one of the many recent grads who would be forced to move back home and desperately seek work. I was employed, and to him, that was success. So you can imagine his reaction when I told him I wanted to throw all of that away to go see the world. Thankfully, my mom was a little more supportive. She understood the depression and frustration I was going through, and though she wanted me to remain on the same continent, she understood I was feeling restless.
That being said, I’ve always been independent. I moved across the country at the age of 18, and have been living on my own for six years. I knew my parents would love me no matter what, and so despite my father’s disappointment, I took the risk.
I don’t think I know a single person who doesn’t say one of their life goals is to travel and see the world. But how many people really do just that? How many people quit their jobs, leave their worldly possessions, pick up their lives, and just go? Too few.
That being said, most American teenagers and young adults who do take a gap year, or gap months, dream of backpacking through Europe. They talk of buying Eurorail passes and seeing Paris, Amsterdam and Rome, of taking a summer off to explore the Grecian isles. And while there's nothing wrong with that, let me start by saying that South America is half the price. Europe is expensive and glamorous, with amazing meals to be had and expensive hotels to stay in. Everything in South America is, bottom line, cheap. It's meant to be roughed through—living on $30 a day here is no problem, and taking buses across borders for $10 each is as easy as ordering the menu de dia—the daily lunch menu of fresh juice, soup, and a main course for as little as $2.50.
I immediately fell in love with South America. But after six weeks in the southern hemisphere—three with my friend and her sister and three on my own in Peru and Bolivia—I got on a plane bound for Los Angeles, not ready to leave. My plan when I returned to the US was to face the real world again: work my butt off to get a job in NYC, sign a lease, and make the next steps in my journalism career.
But as I reunited with my family and friends back home and contemplated beginning my life again across the country, I just couldn't stand the thought. My career-driven self had a brand new thought: I have my whole life to work. Why wouldn't I go see the world now, when my only physical obligation was $98 a month to the UHaul in Middletown, Connecticut where my mattress and boxes sat in storage?
So that's exactly what I did. I planned three months of solo travel in South America. The first month would be spent on a traveling classroom program through Ecuador, taking 20 hours of Spanish classes a week and staying with local, Ecuadorian families to hone my speaking skills. The next two months would consist of making my way down the coast of Peru, into Bolivia, down through northwestern Argentina, and finally into Chile, where my return flight to Los Angeles is booked from Santiago.
For the most part, my family and friends reacted well. My dad was still hesitant about my decision, but at that point I’d already given up my job, so he simply shrugged and said, “It’s your money, honey.” Mostly it was my parents’ friends, my older family friends, who reacted so positively, which really solidified my decision. “Good for you!” they’d say. “Now’s the time to go, when you’re young and have nothing tying you down.” My own friends reacted with just as much enthusiasm, sending emails, Facebook posts and g-chats about how jealous they were that I was “living the life” and seeing the world.
Making the decision to pause my life and see one of the most spectacular, and underrated, continents of the world has been the best decision I’ve ever made. Sure, I miss my parents and my friends. Sure, I wish I wasn’t scraping every penny out of my savings account. And trust me, living out of a backpack with eight outfit options doesn’t exactly appeal to my inner fashionista. But I know the comforts of home—a guaranteed hot shower, all my favorite outfits and a refrigerator to call my own, not to mention my true friends and family—aren’t going anywhere. As I face challenges small and large: bug bites swollen to the size of my fists, misunderstood bus schedules, insanely challenging hikes and horrifically bad maps, I’m learning more about myself than I could have even imagined.
Looking back to when I was just out of a three-year relationship and struggling desperately to come to terms with my new single status, one of my old bosses told me this: "You’re the only guaranteed and stable partner you’ll have for the entirety of your life.” I didn’t want to listen to her then, but as the years have passed, those words ring truer now than ever. Of course, having someone next to you is a wonderful way to travel, and a huge comfort. But the bottom line is that I am secure and comfortable with myself, and I know that, if need be, I can face whatever challenge comes my way on my own. It’s one of the most incredible feelings in the world. What better way to achieve that goal than by seeing the beauty of the world?
You can read more about Rachel’s South American adventures in her personal blog, at blog.rachelkossman.com
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