Travel Solo, Not Alone
Hilary Bryn Thomas
© Copyright 2021 by Hilary Bryn Thomas
Hilary's journals, guidebook,
and maps. Photo by Hilary
this essay, Hilary Bryn Thomas captures memories of a journey fifty
years ago, when she traveled from Canada to Argentina by land and a
little by sea. She traveled solo, but not alone.
When I was fourteen years old, I wanted to go to Peru. I don’t know why Peru, but that ambition changed the course of my life. Geography was my favorite subject at school. I loved maps. I loved learning about the rest of the world. I yearned to travel.
Throughout my teenage years my curiosity about the world and my desire to travel grew stronger. I continued to study geography at university and, after graduating, I began to implement my plan to go to Peru. I found a job in Victoria, British Columbia, teaching geography. Practically on the way to Peru! I planned to stay for a year, save money and then travel onwards by land, visiting as many countries as I could along the way.
It took me three years to drag myself away from the wonderful life I found in Victoria. I loved everything about it. But my dream of going to Peru was as strong as ever. In October 1970 I boarded the ferry to Seattle on the first leg of my long dreamt-of South American adventure. I was going to Peru.
SOLO BUT NOT ALONE
I had been anxious about undertaking this journey alone, but had failed to find anyone to accompany me, until……
I met Kiwi, a New Zealander who had traveled around the world twice. He gave me some practical advice for the adventure of a lifetime. Kiwi assured me that it would be better if I were to travel alone, since this was the only way that I would really be able to engage with the local people and they with me. I was apprehensive, but Kiwi allayed my fears in a highly creative manner. He stayed up all night working on a secret project. In the morning, he gave me a gift he had made for me - a small teddy bear dressed as a complete replica of himself, with fabric cut from his clothes. Black jeans, cotton shirt, toweling poncho, black hat, a small backpack containing a sleeping bag made from a sock, an aluminum foil billycan, and a tiny passport, complete with picture and full details of ‘Wee Kiwi.’
My travelling companion! Indeed, he has accompanied me on every major trip I have undertaken in the last 50 years and is still with me. He has some new clothes but he is still my trusted friend and a reminder of my inner strength.
The other advice that Kiwi gave me was to keep as detailed a journal as possible. I filled seven notebooks in tiny handwriting. If I had not done so, this essay would not have been possible. (Note 1) As I read my journal for the first time in 50 years, I was amazed at how much I had forgotten. I asked myself if I really was the intrepid person who made that adventurous trip.
Leaving Victoria, I had expected to travel alone with Wee Kiwi but, at the last minute, a friend decided to accompany me to Mexico City. This was a bonus because it enabled us to hitch hike, something I would not have done alone. We met many kind people - everyone from truck drivers to hippies were willing to give people like us rides in those days. One frightening incident shook me up a bit, when the driver who gave us a lift, who turned out to be an inveterate show-off, fired his pistol across the cab of his truck in front of me as I sat in the passenger seat, aiming at the verge of Highway One.
TO CARRY OR NOT TO CARRY
I hate guns. This became a theme as I traveled. In Mexico, people I met tried to convince me that I needed to carry a pistol. They took me to a pistol range to learn how to use one. I was terrified. This experience only convinced me that my thinking was correct. If I carried a gun, I would be slower to draw than any opponent and would be shot in no time. With no gun I planned to use my best weapon – talking – to work my way out of any tight corners. This, of course, meant I had to become fluent in Spanish at the first available opportunity.
I am a trusting person and deep down, I believe that most people are good. In my twenties, I was naively trusting and was rewarded when I found that people are mostly good. Fifty years on, I admit that my trust in people has been diminished by personal experience as well as by a changing world. Unfortunately, I would hesitate today to encourage a young woman to travel alone in some of the places that I visited in the early 1970s.
Many of the foreigners were less trusting than I. In Mexico I heard that Guatemala was much more dangerous than Mexico, and in Guatemala, El Salvador even worse. Each country more dangerous than the last. From Panama I would not have gone on to Colombia had I listened. “They cut tourists’ arms off in Bogota,” I was told. There had indeed been one such incident some years before.
Four weeks out and, my companion having returned to Victoria, I was alone, but this did not last long. I soon learned it was easy to find friends and traveling companions, and even places to stay. This continued throughout my entire 22-month trip. Before I reached Peru, I had declined many offers of companionship, choosing to travel alone – with Wee Kiwi by my side of course.
In Mexico City I enrolled in a Spanish class. I met some friendly ex-pats, and soon I was ensconced in an American ex-pat community. This was extremely comfortable for me, for although I recognized that my eventual goal was to meet locals, I needed more fluency in Spanish first. I spent the first few months studying Spanish and living an unexpectedly glamorous urban life. After two semesters of study and an extended trip around Mexico speaking only Spanish, I was feeling fairly confident with my linguistic skills and ready to leave the comfort of my life in Mexico for Central America. I was reluctant to say goodbye to my ex-pat friends … but I was on my way to Peru.
TO TRAVEL HOPEFULLY IS BETTER THAN TO ARRIVE
Starting out in October 1970, my goal was to arrive in Peru by Christmas and go on to Rio de Janeiro by February 1971, in time for Carnaval. Traveling through Central America, my belief was confirmed in Robert Louis Stevenson’s maxim “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.” I abandoned all ideas of the final destination or ‘ETA’ of this journey. I wanted to experience every part of it as deeply as I could. My dream was to travel through Central America slowly, taking every side road possible. My dream came true. But I was not to be alone, yet. I met a British chap who planned to drive through Central America in his Volkswagen camper van. He wanted a companion; I wanted a ride. Perfect!
In 1971, to drive the Pan-American Highway (PAH) from Mexico City to Panama would take a truck driver about four days. We traveled hopefully for four months. We explored side-roads voraciously and visited every destination that caught our interest.
The first part of the journey took us through increasingly remote areas as we traveled South in Mexico towards Guatemala. As the terrain became more mountainous and the road more treacherous, we met indigenous residents who could not have been more friendly and helpful. And we certainly needed help. The VW van showed its age as we climbed steep hills and drove over the rocky, muddy terrain that was the Pan American Highway. It amazed us that this rough road was the main connection between Mexico and Panama and all the countries in between!
We had flat tires regularly and other parts of the vehicle lost the battle repeatedly. Our saviors? The local people. “Mecanicos” popped up everywhere; food was proffered frequently; beds in roadside homes were offered. The local people were curious and friendly, even though we often had little common language, our command of the many derivatives and dialects of Mesoamerican languages being sadly lacking.
PASCUA IN GUATEMALA
The timing of our arrival in Guatemala was excellent. We reached Antigua, the ancient capital and cultural center, on Good Friday. On this Holy Day, the Church of San Felipe de Jesus became the center of magnificent processions all over the city. Thousands of people in purple robes carrying statues of the saints walked alongside miles of beautiful colored and patterned carpets made of sawdust that had been spread along the way. Nobody walked on the carpets until, at the end of the procession, Jesus, red-robed, strode over the sawdust carpets and obliterated them. At three in the afternoon, many in the 15,000-strong crowd changed into black robes for a more somber procession, in which Jesus’ body was carried in a glass coffin. This continued until almost midnight and started up again at four in the morning.
The Pascua celebrations ran through Easter Sunday. We headed for Chichicastenango, the hub of the Mayan-Quiche Highlands. It was here that we saw the result of the clever overlay by the early missionaries of the Catholic culture on the traditional pagan beliefs and feast days. The town was full of Christian and pagan symbolism. In the Catholic churches people knelt and prayed by hundreds of flickering candles. On a hill behind the town, the same people offered candles, copal (incense) and flowers to a black image of a Mayan god. Aldous Huxley, who spent time here, is said to have described the indigenous people as “practising good Catholicism in the morning and good Paganism in the afternoon.”
BORDER ESCAPADES AND AN EARTHQUAKE
Having officially left Guatemala after five in the afternoon, and in order to avoid paying the tax that El Salvador charged for entering the country ‘outside business hours,’ we decided to camp in the no-man’s land between the two countries. So, with no papers for us or the van, we slept within sight of the Salvadoran police who staffed the border control point. In the morning we were refused entry on the grounds that we were ’hippies.’ The culprit was my companion’s beard. He was told he must shave it off if we were to be allowed to cross the border. So, first of all, we tried trimming it with scissors but that was not good enough. The police lent us a strop razor but neither of us knew how to use it, and he was unwilling to let even the friendliest police officer do the job for him! After three hours of negotiations, the friendly policeman whispered that we might try an alternative crossing three hours to the north. So, we drove away to find the next border post. This time the officials were much more lenient and we entered El Salvador.
In 1971, El Salvador was a relatively peaceful country. The civil war did not start until 1979 and the infamous gangs are a more recent development. There were tensions between the few wealthy landowners/coffee barons and the working classes, who depended upon them for work, of which there was a shortage, but we saw no strife.
In the capital, San Salvador, we were fortunate to stay with friends of friends in a comfortable home with hot showers and hundreds of classical music records. I spent hours listening to Vivaldi and Bach and the Missa Luba. I had not realized how much I had been missing my music. However, our serenity was disturbed on the early morning of our second day by a violent earthquake. It was fortunate that the city center was empty for a national holiday because there was a fair amount of damage but very few people died. We saw two skyscrapers that had swung towards and hit each other during the quake, each designed to sway, but in opposite directions!
ONWARD AND SOUTHWARD – WITH CARIBBEAN DIVERSIONS
We reached the Honduran border just in time to avoid the late fees. We had almost no money. It has surprised me, reading my journal, how often we traveled with little or no money. I had some travelers’ checks but cashed only a little at a time. We carried minimal funds for fear of theft. I had money wired to British Embassies or Consulates for me to pick up along the way.
We spent two days in Honduras, during which we left the Pan American Highway to visit the capital, Tegucigalpa. We had to purchase special visas to do this, since the normal visa only permitted direct transit on the PAH.
In Nicaragua, we left the PAH and headed for the Pacific coast. The highway was surprisingly well maintained, presumably by the sugar mill and cotton gin owners. Chinandega had the largest sugar mill in South America at the time, with its own railroad to its own port on the Pacific. In Leon, the original colonial capital, we found the famous cathedral occupied by protesting students. The route onwards to Managua followed the shores of Lake Managua for much of the way. The main thing I remember about Managua was the heat. It was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, even early in the morning.
Crossing the country from West to East, we headed for Puerto Escondido, where a bridge crossed the Rio Escondido at the highest navigable point for sea-going ships. We drove on to Rama, the end of the road. From Rama we took an overnight boat trip down the river to Bluefields, a fascinating town on the Atlantic coast. As we boarded, the boat was being loaded with coconuts and bananas, delivered in dug-out canoes. We began to see West Indian faces and hear English patois.
At dusk we started off down river. We sat on cans of Tropigas and watched for flashlights on the bank indicating that river-dwellers wanted the boat to stop. We saw tigers and alligators in the jungle on the shore. We slept in hammocks in the crowded and unhealthy crew quarters.
The mostly black population of Bluefields spoke English patois but it was often easier to understand them in Spanish. We ate breadfruit, a local staple. We had left Central America for the Caribbean! The river boat on which we traveled back was called the “Rompé Cabezas.” The only explanation for the name can be that you must be crazy (have a broken head) to travel on it!
From Nicaragua, our destination was San Jose, Costa Rica. We had been advised to sell the VW there because too many vehicles are for sale in Panama, where you could drive no further. [The Darien Gap, the narrow isthmus that links Central to South America, was dangerous and impassable.]
So, San Jose was to be the end of our journey in the red campervan. It took us over a month to sell the vehicle, in which time we learned what it was like to be tear-gassed when we came too close to a confrontation between protesting banana workers and the police.
With the van sold and many of our belongings given away, we got on a bus southward. From Panama City, we visited The Canal Zone, which was on land granted in perpetuity to the United States. The Canal Zone was abolished in 1979. The canal itself remained under joint U.S. Panamanian control until it was turned over solely to Panama in 1999.
For 75 cents each, we took a two-hour train trip from the Pacific to the Atlantic, to the ports of Cristobal and Colon. The railway line predated the canal as the link across the isthmus and the route was close enough for views of the Canal. At Gatun Lake, which forms almost half of the length of the Canal, the track ran along a causeway across the water.
From Colon, we had to find a boat to Colombia. After few false starts, we found the Betty B. bound for the island of San Andres. We learned that this was the least expensive way to get to mainland Columbia, with ships leaving the island regularly for Cartagena or Barranquilla on the country’s Caribbean coast. It led to our unexpected discovery of this beautiful, Colombian-owned Caribbean Island.
The sea journey took 28 hours and made me very seasick. I slept on a tiny ‘shelf’ in the crew quarters. The boat appeared to have a hold full of dolls and toys. Shallow digging in the hold revealed the real cargo - whiskey. A fair amount of this was consumed by the captain and crew during the voyage. It took half a day to get permission from Colombian authorities for us to disembark but finally we found ourselves in paradise.
1n 1971, San Andres had population of about 8,000. The beaches were very white, the beach boys very black, and the water many fantastic shades of azure. Palm trees waved over the low buildings of the small town of San Andres. A perfect vacation spot for Costa Ricans and Colombians. And for us! It had not yet been ‘discovered’ by the rest of the world. For two weeks we lived on our own desert island. We slung our hammocks between coconut palms on a tiny cay just off the beach that we shared only with thousands of land crabs.
San Andres was paradise and extremely difficult to leave. I had fallen in love, with the island and with a beautiful beach boy! But I was bound for Peru… We left on the Pomare II, a ship bound for Cartagena. The ship was a step up from Betty B., about twice the size and a good deal more stable.
ON SOUTH AMERICAN SOIL
I set foot on the South American mainland for the first time on the evening of August 1st, 1971. Our welcome was not auspicious. The bustling night life around the harbor was reputed to be dangerous and we felt it. My friend lost his diary – a major disaster. It was never found. We were fortunate to be able to sleep aboard the Pomare II, comfortable, safe, and free. We were surrounded by ‘barcos de contrabando,’ that plied an illegal trade quite openly between Colombia and Panama. Police and pirates were aware of this trade and took advantage of its wealth though bribery and theft, respectively.
The next day we took a very ancient, overcrowded bus to Santa Marta. After waiting hours for the ferry across the Magdalena River, we arrived late in the day. A major port for the export of bananas, Santa Marta was not very hospitable. It was hot and dusty, and we stayed in a cheap, uncomfortable hotel. Men pestered me as I tried to write my journal on the beach. I began to question whether I really wanted to continue my journey. I missed San Andres and even Victoria. But deep down, I knew that going back was not what I wanted and that I would continue my journey to Peru and beyond.
Our arrival in Bogota was immediately eventful as we watched students supporting a teachers’ strike clash with police in Plaza Bolivar. We checked into a small hotel with very cold showers. There was no hot water because of the petro strike. It was cold and rainy and we were tired, in part because of the change of altitude. Bogota sits at over 8,500 feet above sea level.
For the next few months, we lived a simple city life. I got a temporary job teaching six-year-olds at an International School. Vastly different from the university students to whom I was accustomed. It was fun and I saved money because they paid me ‘scale’ for my experience. When the job was over, I left behind both Bogota and my traveling companion who was starting the job for which he had come to Colombia. Wee Kiwi and I rode on a series of increasingly rickety buses through the gorgeous Andes mountains. In Cali I was invited to stay the night with a young woman I met on the bus. In the colonial town of Popayan, I walked for hours alone, around the town and out into the campo. Ending up in the poorest barrio, I chatted with women washing their clothes in the river and men grooming their ponies.
“If this is traveling alone, perhaps I am going to like it,” I wrote in my journal.
I had been ‘on the road’ for over a year and this was my first experience of traveling alone. I became philosophical about traveling. What drove me to keep on moving, always leaving the known for an unknown state of being? Every place I had stayed for more than a week or so, I had fallen in love. With a way of life, with friends, even with a lover. Why did I want to leave these? Adventure, Experience, Escape?
On the bus to Pasto, I stood for much of the nine-hour journey. The scenery was crumpled green velvet, in complete contrast to the crumpled brown parchment that we had become used to in drier climes to the north. The journey from Pasto to Ipales is a journey across the top of the world. The route climbed to over 10,000 feet. Almost vertical fields were cultivated, ploughed by oxen. This section of the PAH was a rocky track hanging off the side of a cliff, which was quite hair-raising in parts. Ipales, at 9,000 feet was cold and dark. A bed cost 15 pesos, 20 if you wanted blankets.
I entered Ecuador on December 21st . I found a small hotel in the ancient market town of Otavalo, today a popular international tourist destination. In those days a more local affair, the famous market was busy and colorful, with a wide range of produce and local crafts. Children took me to their school where they were preparing for a procession. The mixed Indian and Mestizo population paraded together to the church where I sat among them for a long mass.
I traveled on to Quito, but early in the morning on Christmas Eve, I caught a bus back to Otavalo. Hundreds of Indians were trotting into the market from the surrounding campo. They carried huge loads of produce on their heads, shoulders and backs and always trotted, never walked when they were carrying a load. And they chewed coca leaves to increase oxygen intake at this high altitude.
Wishing to spend time with these industrious and friendly people, I decided to catch a bus at random, ride it out into the campo until it went no further and explore. Thus, I landed in the small, mountain village of Peguche. The bus was crowded with people going home for Christmas. They smiled at me and spoke in a strange dialect. These are small people, not more than four foot six tall, and they made me feel gigantic. Their clothing was colorful and the women and girls, and even the tiny babies, wore beads. There were collars of gold patterned beads around their necks, and smaller red or orange beads wound around their arms and wrists. Once upon a time these beads were made of gold from local gold mines, the coral exchanged for salt with coastal Indians. Now the beads were plastic or glass, imported from Czechoslovakia, but still the number of beads a woman wore indicated her family’s wealth and status.
Alighting from the bus in Peguche, I walked up the stony track towards the village with a group of women who seemed to be discussing me – in their own language, Quechua. Una gringa sola was a fairly rare sight in those days. Once I opened up a conversation with them, the women peppered me with questions in their best Spanish, and then dissected the answers among themselves in Quechua. When just two women were left walking with me, the elder of the two indicated her home and invited us in. Now began one of the most remarkable and memorable celebrations of Christmas Eve I have ever experienced.
NOCHE BUENA IN PEGUCHE.
As I walked in the door, an older man approached me with a large gourd filled with chicha, the local drink of fermented maize. I took a sip and passed it back. It was then passed around the assembled company. After this welcome drink, I was invited to sit on the floor with the company already there and the señora with whom I had arrived. This small ceremony was performed each time a new guest arrived, which became increasingly frequent as the afternoon progressed. The men and a few female guests sat in the front living room. Most of the women were in the back room, which was partially open to the elements and served as the kitchen. There was a wood stove burning a belching sweet-smelling smoke into the living room.
After sitting for about an hour, taking a sip of chicha from the gourd every time a new visitor arrived, bowls of soup were brought out from the kitchen. It was a thin consommé with nettle-like leaves, corn, and potatoes. It also had peculiar lumps of meat in it that I was told were ‘oveja’ (sheep?). I sipped my bowl, carefully watching the other señora and seeing that she was leaving the meat aside. I hoped that she was not going to eat it. Wrong! She was saving it to the end as a delicacy. When her soup was finished, she put a piece of meat in her mouth and started to chew slowly. She chewed and chewed. So, I took a piece of whitish flesh from my bowl and started to chew it. I chewed and chewed the hard, tasteless lump until I could bear it no more. Surreptitiously, I slipped it into my bag. It was udder! Full of fat and good nutrition for people living high in the mountains, but to me, “udderly disgusting!”
It seemed that the whole village was visiting the house that afternoon. The men came laden with firewood, the women with huge ceramic pots on their backs. Each group settled itself – the women on the floor and the men on the long wooden bench against the wall. The women talked quietly to each other. The men shouted and laughed and passed around bottles and cups of aguardiente (firewater) between the bowls of soup and the chicha.
The aguardiente was strong and smooth and made a dangerous combination with the chicha. The women were passed the drinks too, including me, and it seemed important to return the cup empty. I noticed that the women often took a large sip and spat it out discreetly. After too many tragos, I resorted to this technique.
After more rounds of drinks, a second soup was served. This one was thick and brown and had bits of meat in it – here and there a small kidney or a heart. Each woman was given five or six bowls of this soup, but after taking a sip of each she would unwrap her shawl and deposit the rest of the soup into the pot that she carried. When each woman’s pot was full, she would get up and leave. The ritual continued as more guests arrived. The men also received bowls of soup, each with a whole, small animal floating in it. Now I knew the fate of the lively guinea pigs that I had seen running around the house earlier. Rigor mortis! Each man would give the stiff little body to his woman who would wrap it in a cloth she carried and place it in her basket.
Toward evening, as the number of guests diminished, I took my leave and found a bus ‘home.’
Back in Otavalo, I met three German women who were traveling like me, and we decided to go to Guayaquil to see if we could catch a boat to the Galapagos Islands. We must have made a pretty impressive sight together among all these small, dark people, since I was the shortest at 5’7” and the only one that was not blonde! Guayaquil did not impress me, being a typical noisy and dirty port. There seemed to be a lot of men hanging around the streets and staring at us. We soon learned that these were sailors who were on strike – hence there were no boats to the Galapagos. We decided to wait a couple of days to see if the strike would end and spent two restless nights in a shabby hotel that turned out to double as a brothel. Fortunately, the four of us shared a room in the attic and nobody bothered us.
There being no indication that the strike would end, Wee Kiwi and I left. On December 30th, 1971, I walked out of Ecuador. I was 28 years old and had been planning this day for exactly half my life! But by now I had learned with certainty that it was better to travel hopefully than to arrive. This lessened the impact of reaching my original destination. I was here and I would go on. This was the twelfth of the nineteen countries I would visit on my journey. But today, fourteen years after my dream began, I had made it. I was in Peru!
To be continued…
My journey did not end here. After spending a month in Peru, I crossed the continent by train from Bolivia to Brazil, then on to Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina before sailing home to Europe on a Spanish transport ship. Fourteen thousand formidable and fantastic miles by land and by sea. Twenty-two marvelous and memorable months of my life that changed me forever.
Hilary Bryn Thomas hails from Wales. She loves to travel, and she loves to write and take photographs. On her return to the United Kingdom from South America, she found a job in London working for a University Research Unit. Not geography, but communications. Over the next twenty- five years she pioneered, and became an expert in, the communications technologies that preceded the Internet. If you want to become an expert, she claims, you need to find something that nobody else knows about.
Her work in the field of telecommunications enabled her to travel the world. And in her spare time, she has continued to travel the world. She has written extensively but rarely been published. Now retired and living in New Jersey, United States, she has opened her journals and is writing about her life. The memoir is on the way!