death-road-cross“52 kilometers – that’s not so bad. It will be over in 3 hours, Yasmine. Take it slowly. This isn’t a race. Don’t you dare let your competitiveness kick in. Just focus on the road. Don’t look at the steep overhangs or the narrow, never-ending switchbacks.

Pedal! Shit, the mountain is so steep that pedaling is pointless.

Don’t look that far. Focus on what’s in front of you.

Okay, remember what the guide said. Brake with two pumps, once on each brake.

WHAT THE F*!&? That didn’t do much, do it again. Keep pulsing, this bike isn’t slowing down enough.

OH MY GOD, here comes a curve, press down HARDER!

Wheeew, you made it. Don’t celebrate yet, here’s another one. Brake more often. You know what, JUST BRAKE THE WHOLE TIME!

Don’t think about how you can no longer see anyone else. This is your life. You’ve been on your own for almost 5 months now, you’re not going to get yourself killed weeks before you come back home. Think about how much you miss your family, your friends, chai tea lattes (why don’t they have them in South America? Maybe a business opportunity?). Okay, just focus. You’re almost at the first check-point. You’re doing fine.”

My heart is beating, my shoulders are tense and I don’t dare fix the sunglasses that have slipped down my nose. I count to remind myself to breathe. I’m only concentrating on the road ahead of me, taking it one step at a time until it’s over.

Death-Road-Cliff-BoliviaOn October 10th, I did the most idiotic, challenging and stimulating thing I’ve ever done. I went mountain biking for the first time on the world’s most dangerous road, appropriately titled ‘Death Road’. A total of 52km (or 32.3 miles) of which 95% was downhill and teetering on the edge of sharp cliffs, we started at 15,500 feet and descended to 4,000 feet. Paralyzed with fear during the first half, I finally let go and had an adrenaline pumping, exhilarating time.

I first learned about the road from two members of the Salt Flats tour I just finished in South Bolivia. They raved about the excursion, from the ride to the scenary, to the people they met, and the company they did it with. Soon after, I heard about it from everyone. At this point in my travels, I no longer consulted guidebooks and relied on other travelers for things to do and places to go. Without even thinking, I put it in my mind I would do it as well so I signed up with a friend I was traveling with at the time.

I say it was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done because I had barely picked up a bike since high school, I had never been mountain biking, and I completely underestimated the premise behind the meaning of “Death Road.” You may be wondering, why keep going when you realized you were in over your head? That’s a simple, unflattering answer. I’m a stubborn individual and I decided I would reduce the risks by riding as slow as possible.

Before I get comfortable with the asphalt, we learn we’re going off-road for a couple minutes to bypass a tunnel and get back on. “That means rocks,” my brain tells me. “Just do it.”

The shift from the smooth road to the rough, rugged terrain is shocking at first. “Don’t let yourself feel it. Steer and react. Steer and react. Shit, that’s a big hole, TURN! Oh no, no, nooooo.”

“Whew, you did it! YOU MADE IT! Yippeeeeeeeee! Just 10 more km on asphalt, you got this.”

Then we’re told the rest of the path will be off-road, to be careful of trucks and cars coming the opposite direction because the main road is closed and there will be more traffic than usual.

My hands hurt from clutching the brakes so tightly. My crotch starts to feel the effects of the relentless shaking of the bicycle due to the rocks. I catch a glimpse of the deep drop-off at the next curve and I want to quit, to get into the van following us on and off and just meet everyone at the bottom.

“But you’re halfway there, Yasmine. Stand up during the rough patches, you’ll reduce the pain. Stop braking so much, just let go.”

“There you go! Let go juuust a little bit. Okay good, now wait longer before braking. Do it again. And again. Stop letting the fear consume you. Goddamnit, stop trying to control everything and let yourself go.”

And somehow, I did. It’s difficult to describe exactly what came over me and this is the part that gets muddled when I try explaining it to others. In essence, it was almost like I scared myself out of the fear if it’s even possible. I felt like the road was my control issues and the bike was me – the more I tried to contain it, the more unenjoyable my ride was. When I embraced the experience, I was able to look around at the majestic mountains and beautiful waterfalls around me. I felt like I released myself of something.

I let out a big “Whooooop!” I no longer felt the pain in various parts of my body. I felt alive, unstoppable, and on top of the world.

riding-death-roadWithout even thinking about it, I let out more screams of excitement. It was as if I was releasing the fear and replacing it with wonder, joy, and a fresh perspective. I was the one now in control. I had “biked” through the fear and put it behind me. I had vanquished its power.

What is fear exactly besides thoughts conjured up in our own heads? I realized the longer I thought about it, the longer it would take me to overcome it and the more I denied it, the stronger it became.

This magnificent feeling, this pure, unadulterated joy I felt as I went faster and faster, as I took in the stunning scenery around me, as I breathed in the fresh mountain air and felt it go through my lungs, as the little voice in my head went away…this was an emotion I didn’t want to go away. Ever.

I was disappointed when the next check-point came. I didn’t want to stop. Thinking back, I realize how incredibly fortunate I was. I had no business being on that road and the ordeal turned out to be the most life-changing and awakening experiences of my trip. It completely redefined my relationship with fear.

Curious as to what Death Road is like or planning a trip to Bolivia? Here’s a hair-raising Youtube video of the attraction:

cultural-differences-South-America

“Dropping my used toilet paper straight into the toilet!” That was the first thing I blurted out when my brother asked me, three months into my trek across South America, what I missed most about being away from home.

I recently came across a Quora thread titled “What facts about the United States do foreigners not believe until they come to America?“. It got me thinking about the cultural differences I encountered while I was away so I decided to make a list.

  • Going back to the topic of toilets – due to poor sewage systems, toilet paper was dropped in a trash bin by the sink whether it was #1 or #2. It took me a while to get used to this even with the signs hotels put up. Related, I didn’t see automated toilets or sinks anywhere.
  • As you may expect, hot showers were a luxury. This includes shower heads with good water pressure. Getting used to taking cold showers is something I never want to do.
  • In Ecuador and Bolivia, most locals washed their clothes by hand. I remember coming across a public watering hole with partitions where women gathered to do the wash. For travelers, there were laundromats that washed and folded clothes for $1 a pound.
  • Going to McDonald’s is considered a fancy date in Ecuador. On my last day in Quito, 3 classmates and I went to McDonald’s (I ate there every time I missed home – 4 times total throughout the trip). We saw a teenage couple walk in and the guy give his girlfriend a rose, then go up and order for the both of them. It was adorable.
  • Getting used to water not being free. In fact, bottled water is more expensive than soda and juice in most places. I even discovered glasses of wine in Mendoza that were cheaper. (P.S. I discovered two places where it’s safe to drink the tap water – Medellin & Valparaiso).
  • Coffee shops are popular in Chile, especially cafe con piernas (coffee shops with legs). Businessmen go to ogle women dressed in short skirts or dresses serving coffee. They also have what’s called a “Happy Minute,” where the women close the blinds, lock the doors, and strip dance for 60 seconds.
  • Coca-Cola has the South American market cornered. They are literally everywhere. Ah, and in glass bottles they tasted soooo good. There was one time where the cashier tried to explain to me that I had to drink it inside so they could recycle the bottle. I was running late to class so I bolted when she turned around. I explained what happened to my Spanish teacher and he returned it for me.
  • Bread, potatoes, and rice were stables in almost every country. In Ecuador, bread was served with every meal and sometimes I was served both rice and potatoes for dinner.
  • The speciality dish in Ecuador and Peru is cuy, or Guinea pig. It’s served whole with the head and everything. I didn’t have the guts to try it. Those who did said it wasn’t bad at all.
  • Despite what you would think, finding good pizza and Mexican food was difficult.
  • How the dead were memorialized. Talking about death wasn’t considered a taboo subject and locals (rich and poor) spent a lot of money on the gravestones. Some of the cemeteries I visited in Buenos Aires and Valparasio were like small villages.
  • Sex and nudity are also not considered a big deal. In Spanish school, I was shown a clip of a man biting a women’s nipple off. My teacher didn’t even blink.
  • In Ecuador and Bolivia, seeing farm animals in the streets was a common occurrence.
  • Also, in Ecuador kids played soccers on the streets when cars were not on the road.
  • Children accompanied the mothers to work, whether they carried them on their backs, had them hang out their kiosk/store or put them in a cardboard box (this really happened in Ecuador).
  • There are no such things as car seats for kids. Seeing families traveling by motorcycle in Colombia with a mother carrying an infant or toddler was a common sight.
  • The number of women and men police officers is almost 50/50 in Uruguay, Argentina, Chile and Peru. Most don’t carry guns.
  • In fact, gun violence is virtually non-existent. According to the locals I talked to, those who want to carry must provide a valid reason and pass a criminal background check.
  • How religious the people are and how even the biggest cities shut down on Sundays.
  • How warm and open locals were in every one of the six countries I visited. Whether I asked for directions or recommendations on places to go, people were genuinely concerned and it was easy to see they really cared. Also, while we consider questions like “How old are you?” and “Are you married?” within the first few minutes forward and nosy, they are quite frequent.
  • Houses were mostly made of cement, brick and other durable material – not wood.
  • The concept of time in South America is very different. A store could say they open at 10am but not come in til after 11am. I waited for an hour and a half at post office in Bolivia once and no one showed up at the counter.
  • There are no such things are disclaimers to go horseback riding, paragliding, bungee jumping, etc. You just go at your own risk.
  • American music is played everywhere, especially in Argentina and Chile. I was surprised at how prevalent it was, even when people don’t understand English.
  • People drive like maniacs and either don’t obey traffic laws or they don’t exist. In fact, vehicular homicide is the #1 cause of death in South America.
  • Air pollution isn’t regulated and it’s noticeably bad in some places like Quito, Lima & Santiago.
  • It’s a credit card less society and cash is the common form of currency.
  • It’s not customary to tip taxi drivers – it’s just a flat rate. Also, some taxis didn’t have meters so I had to negotiate a rate up front.
  • Universal health care in countries like Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Peru were standard.
  • Free college education in countries like Ecuador and Argentina. In Argentina, you don’t even have to be a citizen. You can live in Chile and commute to school in Argentina without paying a dime.
  • Poor people tend to live in the mountains among beautiful scenery while the rich reside in the polluted city center.
  • Food portions are smaller and most places serve combo meals with soup, an entree, dessert and even a drink. I liked it a lot.
  • Young people don’t typically have their own apartments, they live with their family or roommates.
  • I barely saw African Americans even among the travelers. I’m still unsure why to this day. 
  • I encountered many protests with people on the streets waving signs related to their cause, singing or parading around town. The levels of political unrest in Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Peru especially.
  • The sex hotels in Colombia and Argentina. Because it’s typical for young people to live at home until their 30s, they sneak to pay by the hour motels. I read that some even provide themed rooms with free drinks, toys and contraceptives.
  • The colonial architecture in Argentina and Peru were especially stunning and not just churches or public spaces. The details, colors, garygoyles, and Spanish balconies were a sight to behold.
  • Every major city had a main plaza named after a war hero. The commonality of public spaces was also clear. In Mendoza, they were purposely designed after a major earthquake to give residents a place to go to and inhabit if needed.
  • The way the environment was preserved in every country was also noticeable. The scenery in Ecuador, Argentina and Bolivia especially was utterly breathtaking.
  • Unlike the U.S., it’s not controversial when women breast feed in public. No one bats an eye except for the American tourists.
  • Stray dogs are commonplace in parts of Ecuador, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Peru. In most of those places, locals tended to them with care.
  • When I asked locals which states they wanted to visit, New York, California or Florida were the most common answers unless they had family elsewhere.

Which of those surprise you? Are there other things you noticed in South America not listed above?

"I haven't been everywhere but it's on my list"

From my hostel wall in Cali, Columbia

Update: I was featured on Buzzfeed’s “11 Inspiring Stories of People Who Left Normal Life and Embarked on an Adventure” post! Back in May, I announced I was quitting my job, selling my stuff, and traveling the world. I’ve been back for 3 months now and I just spent this past Sunday uploading the thousands of pictures I took and reminiscing about the trip.

To recap, I flew in to Ecuador, visited Colombia, was deported from Argentina, went to Chile, made my way back to Argentina with a one-day visit to Uruguay, headed to Bolivia and finally Peru. The trip was undeniably life-changing. I embarked on the journey for 2 reasons – 1) I finally had the means to do it after becoming a U.S. citizen in 2012 and 2) I’ve worked since I was 9 years old and I was burned out.

I came back with fresh eyes and a new perspective on everything from my goals, surroundings, being, and the human race. Shortly after I finished Spanish school, I lost track of what day and time it was. I eventually got to a point where I stopped looking at guidebooks, I no longer made todo lists for myself, and I didn’t have a schedule. It was spectacular and I miss it immensely. Here’s a brief summary of the things I did and the places I went (or you can view it in pictures by visiting my Instagram feed):

In Ecuador -

  • waterfall-in-ecuadorstanding-middle-worldSidestreet in Ecuador
  • Experienced two unforgettable acts of kindness the first day
  • I fully immersed myself in the language, spending 6 hours a day learning Spanish for the first 3.5 weeks while living with a local family.
  • I literally stood in the middle of the world with one foot in the Northern hemisphere and the other on the South and where the equator coordinates are 0 degrees latitude and longitude
  • I hiked up the Pichincha Volcano (almost to the top but not quite) and took one of the highest aerial lifts in the world
  • I visited over 40 waterfalls in Banos, a quaint little town which also had ‘medicinal’ hot baths
  • I took over 10 salsa lessons with an instructor who didn’t speak English but guided me as gracefully as he could in the basics and more

 

In Colombia -

  • ballpit in mall Metrocable in Medellin El Peñón de Guatapé horseback ridingGuatape-colombia
  • I visited Cali, the salsa capital of the world
  • I played in the biggest ball pit I’ve ever seen. Where? Surprisingly in the first floor of a beautiful mall in Medellin
  • I went paragliding  for the first time! Due to the language barrier, I accidentally agreed to air acrobatics as you’ll see in the video. Thankfully, it turned out to be a blast and I couldn’t get enough!
  • I attended a futbol (soccer) game in a huge stadium during a championship round. The excitement was palpable and unforgettable. I thought Philly fans were diehard and I learned just how much South Americans live and breathe their sport
  • I spoke at a local coworking space about entrepreneurship
  • I took the Metrocable to the suburban areas of Medellin. I highly recommend doing this during the day and at night to see glamorous views of the city
  • I celebrated 4th of July in a colorful, little town called Guatuape
  • I climbed all 740 steps of El Penon de Guatape (a big rock locals used to worship)
  • I stayed for the annual Feria de Flores festival, the biggest flower show in the world
  • I went horseback riding for the first time in Sante Fe
  • I conquered my fear of water and learned how to swim in a gorgeous resort
  • It was also in Colombia where I started drinking coffee, or cafe con leche to be more specific which I’m now addicted to

 

In Chile -

  • Valpo at night Valpo houses Valpo bay 1618074_10102126783261173_1087880482_o Skiing in Chile
  • I had my first pisco sour and alfajor – two indulgences I miss dearly
  • I climbed Cerro Santa Lucia & San Cristobal Hill to overlook stunning views of the city
  • I went skiing for the first time on the Andes mountains with a friend who came to visit from Philly
  • I tried Couchsurfing in Valparaiso and was lucky enough to meet a new friend who showed me all around town

 

In Argentina -

  • salt-lakes-argentina winery in mendoza belgrano del general iguazu-falls7-colored-mountain
  • I was originally deported from Argentina after I flew in from Colombia
  • After altering my plans to visit Chile first, I crossed over by bus and started in Mendoza where I happily did the typical winery tours and steak dinners
  • I met a local on that same bus who invited me to meet his sister. I ended up staying with them for a few days and she took me to the mountains with her boyfriend and friends. She spoke little English but took the time to communicate with me by gesturing and breaking things down in simple Spanish. One night, we spoke purely using Google Translate on the computer
  • I took a bus to Cordoba, the second largest city in Argentina and spent a few days exploring the colonial architecture
  • I stopped by La Cumbercita for a few days, a small mountain village with 300 inhabitants
  • I took a detour to Belgrano del General, a small German town where I felt like I had teleported to the Country itself. P.S. they also hold their own Octuberfest every year.
  • I stayed in Buenos Aires for a couple of weeks where I jumped around neighborhoods, watched tango shows, and ate phenomenal meals (soooo much meat!)
  • I went to Iguazu Falls, a jaw-dropping wonder of the world where the waterfalls were endless
  • I walked to the Tres Fronteras, where you can view Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina at once
  • I stopped by Salta where I took a Tren de las Nubes tour that went to the Salt Lakes of Argentina, Jujuy, Purmamarca, Humahuaca and more towns I don’t remember. The ride is absolutely stunning. Mountains, deserts, cactuses, llamas, donkeys, and the salt flats. We made a few stops to explore a local town, have lunch, roam around the salt flats, and we admired the famous 7-colored mountain

 

In Bolivia -

  • lake titicaca salt flats in boliviadeath-roadfruit marketLaguna colorado
  • The 4-day salt flats tour was incredible. We visited salt mining and processing areas, stayed in a hotel where everything was made entirely out of salt, saw beautiful lagunas (Laguna Hedionda, Colorada, Blanca, and Verde), hot springs, ruins, churches, and graveyards
  • A new friend and I visited a dinosaur museum in Sucre where we touched 70 million year old dinosaur tracks
  • It was in this country that I finally got used to dining alone. I also tried llama for the first time (not bad)
  • I rode down Death Road, the most dangerous street in the world. This was actually a life-altering experience that I’ll need to write about in another post
  • I stayed in the Pampas jungle for 5 days and saw crocodiles, monkeys, turtles, pink dolphins, snakes, and other animals I had not heard of before
  • I went to Lake Titicaca (bordering Bolivia & Peru), hiked the entire island, and spent the night in Sun Island

 

In Peru -

  • Machu Picchunazca-linesandboarding in peru
  • I went on a tour of  Colca Canyon (which is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon)
  • I stayed in Cusco for 10 days, learning about Incas and their history. I even met a shaman at Sacsayhuaman and participated in a spiritual ceremony
  • I spent a day at Machu Picchu which was as enlightening as I heard it would be. The pictures don’t do it justice
  • I was lucky enough to win a bus tour from Peru Hop that took us to Arequipa, Huacachina where we went sandboarding, Paracas where we rode a boat to view the wildlife, I flew over the Nazca lines in Ica, and we ended the tour in Lima which was my last city before going home in mid-November.

There’s so much I want to share – from travel hacks I picked up, lessons learned, lost in translation moments, how I only spent $15k, and general observations – that I’ll save them in another post. For now, I’m happy I spent the weekend going through my pictures, finally uploading them, and reliving the experience again by writing this post.

Are you planning a trip to any of the countries mentioned above? I’d be happy to help by sharing more details about my experiences. 

Other travel posts: 

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