This is part of my unconventional interview series, designed to demonstrate the wildly varied ways we can live, work, and chase our dreams. Please keep in mind that, since these are interviews, the opinions, methods, and websites contained within do not necessarily reflect my own views or experiences. (Which is, in my opinion, part of what makes them wonderful.)
First, tell us about you.
I’m Laura Johnston—an Australian student from Cairns living in Melbourne. I’m studying physiology with the hopes of getting into medicine and specializing in trauma. For work, I primarily tutor mathematics, along with some other casual jobs. In my free time, I live the general Melbourne lifestyle, volunteering in the community, attending concerts, hanging around cafes, and getting outdoors as much as possible.
Tell us about the journey you’re on now.
I’m currently on a year-long trip through Latin America. After starting in Mexico, I flew down to Colombia. My current goal is to hitchhike the length of South America…all the way down the west coast to Argentina. There was no real inspiration for this trip other than a general desire to explore and a fascination with the openness and happiness that I associate with Latin American culture.
What has been the greatest joy of your journey so far?
My greatest joy is the people I meet while travelling, especially hitchhiking. The mutual trust required to get into a stranger’s car and to let a stranger into your car fosters a very unique environment. I’ve shared rides with a cop who openly talked about taking bribes from gringos to fund his family trips, a truck driver who bragged enthusiastically for hours about finally going home to make love to his wife, and a sweet father who offered to buy me a campervan if I promised to never let anyone tie me down. In Mexico, I stuck my thumb out on the beach and ended up on the back of a jetski with a guy who later joined me camping on a nearby island. These kinds of open, spontaneous exchanges are more difficult to encounter in other situations.
What have been the biggest challenges? Was there ever a time you wanted to quit and go home?
While I love traveling alone and it has definitely forced me to grow, not having someone else to rely on can be challenging and isolating at times. The best and worst moments of my trip are when I’m stranded or lost or scared and I know the only way out of the situation is to pull myself together and work it out. In more serious circumstances, this can be an intimidating realization and when I don’t feel like I’m up to the challenge or things go wrong, the idea of going back to my comfort zone can be tempting.
What has been the craziest moment?
As I become more open to new experiences and new people, I find myself in more and more situations that would make my mum want to fly over, grab me by the ear, and drag me home. The one that comes to mind now is my trip hitchhiking down from Cartagena to Medellin. In the space of 24 hours, I was mugged, began truck-jumping with a group of local teenage drifters, and was eventually picked up by the police. Hanging off the back of a cargo truck, rolling down the highway through a moonlit valley and exchanging crazy grins with those Colombian kids is still one of my favorite memories.
How do you choose which country to visit next?
The good thing about traveling solo is not having a fixed plan or anyone to consult. When I find somebody who is driving down to the coast of Ecuador to surf, I can tag along and try to learn. If I like the sound of a town’s name, I can head there and see what I find. There’s really no method to what I’m doing at the moment.
How did you fund this trip?
In the year before I left Melbourne, I started picking up casual work and stretching my university grant as far as it would go. Even so, I’m doing this as low budget as I can. As I travel, I frequently camp, couchsurf, or find volunteer work in hostels. When I get further south, I’m also planning to stay and work on a farm.
How did you prepare for the trip? Is there anything you wish you’d done to prepare?
Other than saving, I didn’t do a great deal of preparation or planning for the trip. My one regret is not getting my driver’s license before I left. I would have liked to take a car or motorbike down the west coast. Though after crashing two bikes in Colombia, staying away from motor vehicles might be for the best anyway.
Do you have any tips for people considering a backpacking trip around South America? Any tips for hitch-hiking?
My first tip would be to be sensible and trust your instincts, but don’t be afraid. When you put your faith entirely in strangers, you can be met with cruelty, but more frequently you’ll be surprised by the small acts of kindness and generosity you find. As for hitchhiking, take advantage of online resources and local knowledge to find the main roads out of town and the best places to wait. If all else fails, grab a meal at a busy highway stop and talk to the servers. Often they’ll know which truck drivers are heading your way and will happily help you get a lift.
What have been your top three favorite Latin American towns/stops along the way so far?
This is a surprisingly easy question for me. The first is Baja California Sur, Mexico. I spent a month beach-bumming and hitchhiking along the peninsula and fell in love with the laid-back lifestyle and stunning beaches. Then there’s Guatape, a colorful lakeside town in Colombia that I went to for the weekend and then held me captivated for three weeks. Lastly, Real de Catorce in Mexico. This one is hard to explain unless you’ve been and felt the magic of the cobbled town.
What’s next for you?
Once I make it south, it will be time for me to head home, finish my degree, and start saving for my next trip.
[Editor’s note: Before you plan a trip to Guatape, please note that my personal experience as a woman in Guatape and Medellin was one of significant harassment. Plan accordingly.]
Your turn, readers. Even done a crazy spontaneous trip? Ever hitchhiked in a foreign country? What were your experiences?
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