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,
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL