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A Worthy Endeavor

A young podcaster heads to South America to deepen his understanding of the world by talking to people who have discovered who they are by traveling far from home.

Words and photos by Bo Hawkes

My eyes were glued to the screen. The words “unable to process your request” flashed back to me in bold white font. I was in disbelief. This was month three of backpacking through Chile, Argentina, Peru, and Ecuador, and for the first time, I felt utterly helpless. There I stood, staring at a broken ATM in the rural village of Mindo in northern Ecuador. It was the only ATM in the valley. Moments ago, I had finished scarfing down a pepperoni pizza before I waved down the waiter for the check. La cuenta, por favor, I announced in broken Spanish. The waiter had returned with the bill and kindly informed me that the restaurant was cash only. My contented state quickly soured when I opened up my wallet to see just four lonely centavo coins staring back at me—the four coins for my bus fare back to Quito. Here I was in rural Ecuador with no way to pay for my meal. How had I let this happen?

My trip started as a whisper of an idea, a thought in the shower. Six months prior, in the dead of the New York City winter, as I swiveled back and forth in my ergonomic chair and glared at my computer, the call to adventure nipped me. At first, it entered my mind only occasionally, interrupting during a run or right before I fell asleep. Then, it developed into an urge I couldn’t suppress. I didn’t know where I needed to go or what I needed to do, but I had to find out.

The author at the top of Rainbow Mountain in Peru

I have been fortunate enough to have had opportunities to work on dairy farms in New Zealand, study apartheid in South Africa, backpack as a clueless 18-year-old through Thailand, and take a semester of language courses in Spain, but South America, was the last continent left on my tick list (Antarctica, don’t think I’ve forgotten about you). With the where decided, it was now a matter of the what, how, and why. I had been afraid of this part, but I decided it would involve the idea of meeting fellow travelers, interviewing them, and sharing their stories. I had been flirting with this concept through my half-assed efforts to create a podcast with the interviews of my close friends on the topic of their corporate jobs. Pulling someone else’s story apart, piece by piece, and getting to their why is something I enjoy. A backpacking trip through South America felt like the perfect opportunity to explore this part of me.

The decision to part ways with my apartment lease and job was decided. With the return of my security deposit in hand, I purchased a mirrorless camera and a one way ticket to Santiago. I had committed to the drop.

The plan for the trip was to conduct interviews as I worked my way from Santiago up to Quito. What I hadn’t planned for, however, was how much of the trip would push me out of my comfort zone. What transpired after I landed in Chile was more of a challenge than I could have prepared for, but also an eye-opening experience. I came to realize that the simple act of inviting others to share their stories with me opened up a world of vulnerability. Working up the nerve to ask complete strangers about their life motivations proved to be the hardest part of the journey. Doubt never failed to creep when I asked someone if I could interview them: “This is weird. Asking someone if I can interrogate them about their travels. I should just take photos of trees or something. I don’t need to do this, do I?” I learned through this process, however, that on the other side of the interview was such a strong sense of accomplishment and connection with the subject. Here are the people I met.

An abandoned motorcycle marking the way on the Quilotoa Loop in Ecuador

The One-way Ticket

Bradley from Newcastle, England, was my first subject. I became friends with Bradley through our shared bunk room in a hostel in Mendoza, Argentina. After splitting with his girlfriend, Bradley had quit his job and bought a one-way ticket to Brazil with the money he had saved to buy a house. During our interview, he talked about misconceptions about South America “You’re going to get robbed. You can’t stay in hostels because you’ll get robbed” was the advice he heard during the start of his travels. Bradley stood firm in his belief that if you go looking for trouble, you will find it. But if you look after yourself and act sensibly, you will be fine.

The Doctors

My second subject was a Brazilian couple from a small farming town north of Sao Paulo, whom I met while waiting in line for the bus in the Chilean desert headed to Arequipa, Peru. Little did I know they would prove to be my saving grace as I navigated the Chile-Peru border with limited Spanish. Their experience as doctors working in hospitals during the height of the pandemic led them to take time away from their jobs and travel together.

The Ramblers

Walking the streets of Cusco with with Simona and Pien

Simona and Pien came next. While sitting in a pizza shop in Cusco, Peru, with my cousin, who had joined me for the Peru section of my trip, we struck up a conversation with the two of them. “We’re young, wild, and free,” they told me. The two friends had grown up together in The Netherlands. Simona had recently begun working for herself as an environmental consultant, and Pien had left her job as a financial analyst. Simona later shared with us, in all seriousness, that her parents’ names were Mary and Joseph and she happened to be born on Dec. 25.

The Empath

My third subject was Sven. A doctor from the Netherlands in his late 20s, he shared his story of his travels through the Amazon by every possible mode of transportation, including boat, car, and bus. Sven’s experience witnessing the working conditions in the salt mine in Uyuni, Bolivia, hit him hard. His experience traveling contributed to his empathy toward others and ability to find clarity for himself. “You become more mindful of the things you have and don’t have,” he told me.

The Solo Traveler

Then came Emily from France who was staying in a hostel on the beach in Mancora, Peru. Her enthusiasm for traveling was hard to ignore. She shared how fascinated she was by solo travel’s ability to strengthen her intuition, independence, and self-confidence. She said that South America provided a break from the voices of others telling her how to live her life. I’m just trying to find an answer, but I am the only one who has the answer.”

The Climber

Acur from Mexico City was my next subject. After the pandemic, he began working on a startup with his friends to solve the issue of vacant work spaces, but was now enjoying time away to climb Mount Chimborazo. Acur was my bunk mate in a hostel in Cuenca, Ecuador, and he shared that his goal was to climb Mount Everest in the next few years. His Chimborazo climb was eye-opening. He spent six days acclimatizing in complete isolation before attempting the summit. During his climb to the top, there was a section where he slipped. “I thought I was going to die,” he confided to me. Worries about how he hadn’t been able to say goodbye to his parents overwhelmed him.

The Entrepreneur

Suzanne was my final interview. An Olympic whitewater rafter originally from the Netherlands, and now living in Switzerland, she is the co-founder of a restaurant and the founder of a Dutch online platform aimed at innovating the way entrepreneurs work remotely. Her experience in South America proved to be exactly what she needed in her quest to pay better attention to her intuition, which ultimately improved her business acumen. “The only thing that we don’t do is stop… and listen to ourselves,” she said.

The other day, scrolling through LinkedIn, I found a quote from David Perell that captures the common thread from the stories I heard during these interviews. “The people I admire most have a way of escaping the bubble of culture…without such an escape, propaganda wins. You’re swept away with the tide of culture and stop thinking for yourself. Modern delusions grow into an all-consuming mind virus.” The one thing all of these stories have in common is an escape from the bubble. Each subject, including myself, traveled to South America to spend more time with themselves—away from the “shoulds” and the norms of home.

Accommodation at Llullu Llama lodge after day one of hiking the Quilotoa Loop

If you want to listen for yourself and hear these travelers share the entirety of their stories, head to Bo Hawkes’ Worthy Endeavor podcast:

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