When I visited the Torres del Paine national park in Chile, I met a guy named Chris. He had been travelling through Latin America for the past five months, starting in Ecuador and working his way through at least five different countries. My friends and I asked him about the best food he had tasted, the most interesting people he had met and the most beautiful sights he had seen. I was fascinated by his experiences. To me, it seemed like he was living the dream most people only fantasize about — to travel around the world and see the greatest natural wonders.
Back at my hostel, I met even more people. My roommate from Virginia had just finished nursing school and was now hiking through Patagonia. A Dutch couple I met in the common area had decided to retire from their jobs in order to explore the area by bike. Another man from California had quit his well-paying tech job to travel. Finally, the guy watching over the common area had traveled to 28 different countries before he arrived in Chile.
To be honest, the more stories I heard, the less impressed I was.
One of the main reasons I decided to study abroad in Buenos Aires is because I thought it would offer me a unique experience. Not many American universities offer study abroad options in Latin America, so it seemed like a valuable opportunity. Though I had taken classes about Latin America in general, I didn’t know much about Argentina in particular before I came. I hadn’t thought about the traveling I would be doing outside of the city. Therefore, when my friends invited me to travel with them to Patagonia, I accepted their invitation with naive enthusiasm. Though I had heard of the region, I didn’t know a lot about it. That’s part of the reason I wanted to go: I thought it would be unique. In truth, I thought it would make me unique, though I’m pretty embarrassed to admit that.
Little did I know that I was part of a tradition of travelers, mostly from developed English-speaking nations (U.S., Australia and certain Western European countries) who take a break from their mundane lives to go to Latin America, backpack around and “experience the world,” as they say.
It stings a little to know you’re playing into a privileged stereotype, especially when you had no idea beforehand. Especially when you thought that’s what you weren’t doing. Having travel experience can be a way to stand out. It shows that you are worldly, independent and knowledgeable about areas with which a majority of people have never interacted. Thus when I met others with similar experiences, not only did the trip seem less special, but I even felt ashamed for even thinking that it would make me unique.
However, I later realized that Patagonia (and the rest of Latin America) is a popular area to visit because the sights are so utterly remarkable. Even though I was one of many people who have seen the Torres del Paine, when I looked at those mountains, I felt like I was the only person there. I felt like nothing else existed other than me and those mountains.
The fact that others probably felt the same way does not lessen the impact of that moment. Indeed, it would be selfish to want such an experience all to myself.
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