Get­ting tripped on in South Amer­ica on a drunken dare, and why it was worth it

Where will drunk-book­ing a one-way ticket to Brazil take you?


In Oc­to­ber 2013, I de­cided to take a two-month solo backpacking trip to South Amer­ica. I just fin­ished my master’s de­gree in London and de­cided to take a breather be­fore head­ing back to the prover­bial “real world.” It was a chance for me to live out that com­ing-of-age movie I’d fan­ta­sized in my head, to re­dis­cover my­self be­fore

con­tin­ued on most prob­a­bly as a pen­cil pusher or a num­ber cruncher with way too many bob­ble­head fig­ures lined up along my cu­bi­cle’s desk.

The truth, re­ally, is much more pedes­trian than that. I was drink­ing at home with my Colom­bian house­mate and, over shots of aguar­di­ente, a Colom­bian spirit, he dared me to book a one-way ticket to Rio de Janeiro, which I did shortly be­fore pass­ing out. The next day, see­ing the e-ticket in my in­box, I took another shot and de­cided to push through with the trip any­way.

Three weeks after that fate­ful night, I booked a hos­tel via TripAd­vi­sor (a ser­vice I soon came to re­al­ize was a god­send to back­pack­ers), and I got on a plane to Rio with noth­ing but a cou­ple of shirts, some trekking gear, and a copy of Lonely Planet’s guide to South Amer­ica. I thought so highly of my­self, do­ing some­thing that stayed per­ma­nently on most peo­ple’s bucket lists. There I was, about to go on an ad­ven­ture of a lifetime.

It was a 30-hour flight from London to Ethiopia, and then to Togo, and then fi­nally, to Brazil. Hey, it was the cheap­est ticket avail­able at that time, so I took it de­spite the very bizarre route. When I fi­nally landed, I saw a man with my name writ­ten on a piece of flimsy card­board. I had ar­ranged for an air­port pickup, and as promised, here was the guy they sent to bring me to the first pitstop of my jour­ney. My eyes lit up. The trip was get­ting off to a good start.

I went up to him and tried to ini­ti­ate some friendly ban­ter. “Hi there, how’s it go­ing? Have you been wait­ing long?”

The mid­dle-aged guy, stocky with a thick mous­tache and a slightly in­tim­i­dat­ing air around him, shook his head and put his open palm a bit too close to my face. It was his way of say­ing that he didn’t know how to speak English.

I en­tered his gray, run-down Toy­ota Vios and spent the next 40 min­utes stuck in the bustling Rio traf­fic in the front seat be­side this driver—who didn’t speak a sin­gle word all through­out—pray­ing that he wouldn’t take me to a ran­dom favela.

After what was prob­a­bly the tens­est car ride I’ve ever been on, he dropped me off at my hos­tel, which was a stone’s throw away from the famed beaches of Copaca­bana and Ipanema. I tipped the driver 15 re­als (around five USD), took my back­pack from his trunk, and got down.

He said some­thing in Por­tuguese (which, to my ears, sounded like some­one speak­ing Span­ish with a mouth­ful of mashed pota­toes) while point­ing to the over­sized knap­sack hoisted on my back, wear­ing a puz­zled look on his face. I trans­lated it as: “What, that’s it?” “Yeah, I guess,” nod­ding and grin­ning back at him.

He laughed and got back in the car. He drove off, and I could imag­ine him at home with his big fam­ily. Over some glasses of cheap caipir­in­has, he was go­ing to tell them about that strange Asian guy that he had just dropped off who looks as though he bit off more than he could chew. It was rain­ing in Cordoba that morn­ing.

I had just checked in the hos­tel in the mid­dle of the city the night be­fore. Cordoba had a vi­brant at­mos­phere, and it was filled with stu­dents and other tran­sient back­pack­ers. It was sim­i­lar to the other South Amer­i­can ci­ties I’ve been to but there was a rougher, art­sier edge to it.

While check­ing in, I asked the re­cep­tion­ist, a chatty univer­sity stu­dent in her mid-20s, some rec­om­men­da­tions for things to do around town. She gave me a brochure of some moun­tains that I could go climb just out­side the city.

This sur­prised me. If some­one who looked like me ap­proached me ask­ing for a sug­ges­tion for what he can do on an af­ter­noon off, I would imag­ine say­ing some­thing like, why don’t you go on a walk­ing tour of the city’s his­toric churches? Why don’t you go watch the hit Span­ish ver­sion of the Ad­dams Fam­ily mu­si­cal, Los Lo­cos Ad­dams? Why don’t you do some­thing that doesn’t re­quire heavy lifting or any kind of stren­u­ous phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity?

Ad­mit­tedly, I was flat­tered and felt proud of my­self. The past three weeks trav­el­ing must have changed how I ap­peared. I must have seemed more rugged, vig­or­ous, world-weary. “Why, yes, I would like to climb a moun­tain and look for con­dors. Book me that guide and I’ll be up and ready first thing in the morn­ing.”

But the next day, it was rain­ing and the guide can­celled the trip. I was stuck with noth­ing to do and an in­flated ego, look­ing for a way to jus­tify it­self. I said, screw this. I won’t let a spot of rain get to me. I’m go­ing to that moun­tain and I’m go­ing to look for those con­dors, be­cause dam­mit I look like some­one who can!

So I did. I rode a bus and got dropped off at the base of the moun­tain in the na­tional park,


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