I’ve been in South America for just under two weeks now, and one thing has become abundantly clear to me.
I’m a dumb American.
Exhibit A: We were on a 30-ish mile loop in the Andes to check out a few backcountry huts (refugios) over the course of three days and three nights. The terrain itself was hard by my standards (roughly 5000 feet up and down over the loop, with many of the downhills on loose scree while the uphills were mainly scrambling/bouldering over larger rocks) but what made it particularly rough was that we had to bring our full travel packs—45 pounds with food and water included—with us the entire length. Where most who hike this loop bring, at most, water, food, a tent and maybe a sweater or hat (because the refugios provide cheap lodging and food for those who want it), we had every single thing that we brought with us to South America on our backs—fly rods, waders, wading boots, reels, cookware, a tent, and clothing for every weather event imaginable for a mountain environment in the fall. We had old men with daypacks passing us at a pretty respectable clip while we slogged up and down ridgelines with packs that were comically large—if not completely stupid. Everyone we passed or got passed by wanted to know what the hell we were carrying. We explained our dilemma probably 20 times over those three days—we had nowhere to leave our unnecessary stuff (mostly the fishing paraphanelia), so it was all on our backs. And here we were, with bruised hips and sore knees, carrying all this unnecessary shit 30 miles up and down and around some of the steepest terrain I’d ever (recreationally...firefighting is a different story altogether) backpacked in.
Many told us that the people of the nearby town of Bariloche were a trustworthy bunch—something we’d discovered firsthand while traveling through the town and meeting its residents—and that surely we could have found someone to trust our extra stuff with. This was a good suggestion, we just hadn’t considered it when it would have been helpful, so here we were.
After a while we just embraced the side-eyed looks of both sympathy and confusion (if not straight up laughter) and accepted that we just looked like a couple of ridiculous, overly-prepared gringas lugging an extra 20 pounds of fishing stuff into mountain lakes that don’t hold fish. I’ve also enjoyed the added embarrassment of not knowing pretty much any Spanish, while my travel partner Allison is conversational and has regularly helped us look less like silly American girls with heavy packs and more like maybe we do know what we’re doing, even if we (I) surely don’t. Having a friend who can speak and understand Spanish on hand is immensely helpful, of course, until I try to go off on my own to ask for the bill or a coffee refill or the Wi-Fi password—where I’m often met with confused glares while I pull out Google Translate or desperately look for Allison to come save me.
If there was some sort of moral to this story (beyond that I need to learn Spanish), it’s that it’s immensely humbling—as a first-time traveler abroad—to be met with situations I can’t alleviate by knowing someone, or knowing someone who knows someone. And then there is the discomfort in not being able to interact with people beyond the cursory “Holas,” and “ciaos” and basic manners and phrases. But I keep trying, and native speakers keep laughing at me, and eventually, after a decent amount of word-vomiting Spanish-sounding things that aren't real words, I laugh along with them—the tourist who doesn’t know the language or the bus routes or how many meters are in a mile or, especially, that people are generally good and trustworthy and willing to listen to broken Spanish because it simply means I’m trying.