After saying goodbye to the adopted 5th member from our group, I soon realised how quickly these past couple of months have gone. Before I set out to South America I knew that being the only girl would be quite a challenge for me. It wasn’t anything to do with the nature of the boys or how I got along with them. For me, it was having a companion who could relate to me a little easier. It would be as simple as having someone to go to the loo with and understand that it isn’t as easy for girls to just walk to the bush or wee off the side of a road. These were very prominent thoughts in my mind before my travels. Although there are times when an extra girl would be a lovely addition to the group, I have not felt as isolated or withdrawn as I thought I would.
Many people have come up to me while I have been out here, asking how I can cope being the only girl. One time I was dancing away minding my own business in a Bolivian nightclub, when a 30 year old, who I had met before at a hostel, struck up some light conversation and asked me about our travels. Abruptly, he quizzed me, ‘what are you doing? Four guys? How is that going to work out?’ Although I thought this was a bit strange, he was drunk and I didn’t let it bother me. However, I knew these were questions that I needed to answer myself. Looking back at the two months together, I know personally there have been ups and downs to how I have been feeling as the female figure in the group. Then I think, ‘actually, how isolated has this experience been? How difficult have I really found it? Am I pretty much one of the guys now?!’
At the beginning, I admit I found it hard to get to grips with how little I knew about football or the latest episode of family guy. then I started to learn how to use these times for myself, allowing me to write my diary or enjoy my own company. One of the great benefits of travelling with guys is that they just don’t care. I can walk off and have some time to myself and I won’t be questioned about where I am going or what I am doing, they just let me be me. This is within reason, of course. If I were to walk off on my own at night they would have a different reaction, a more protective one, making sure I was safe and that I feel comfortable in my surroundings. Having your own personal bodyguard is great, and it’s reassuring to know your mates are always looking out for you. Yet I see myself as travelling independently and just so happen to be with three boys.
I have met a few girls on the way and have been lucky enough to travel with them for a week or so. Meeting new people along our travels has been really fun and mixes up the group, even if it’s just for a short period of time.
When I look back on our experiences as a male dominated group, I reminisce the exciting times we have had together regardless of our gender.It is easy to focus on the small difficulties faced while travelling and forget the wider story of your journey. I’ve learnt to enjoy the little things and not take anything for granted no matter how cliche that sounds.
The best memories that come into mind involve all of us taking part as a group, and never did I once feel like a spare part or worse, the observer.
First: Moustache Trimming.
It seemed to be the ‘new thing’ for all the guys to grow a moustache. I honestly couldn’t tell you if it was a competition of ‘who can grow the better moustache’, or rather a competition of ‘who can scare away the majority of people we meet’. Either way, the boys made an effort and have succeeded in growing dark hairy slugs above their top lip. This obviously is something I am (sadly .. ) not able to take part in. But to me that didn’t matter, instead, I am a much more important part of this new predatory looking phase for the boys. I am the barber. Whenever the hair curled over the top lip, the boys will run to me with a pair of their mums nail clippers and plead with me to VERY CAREFULLY trim the lower part of the moustache. As time went by and I gained trust from the boys in my exquisite clipping skills, they let me move on to bigger and better things, like back hair, nose hair and even an eyebrow. Recently, one of the boys asked me, with slight hesitation, if I could cut his actual head of hair. This was a great honour for me as I have learnt that a man’s head of hair is very sacred and if cut wrong he will wear a hat until it has grown back to absolute perfection. We met a French guy in Mendoza who asked if he could have a picture with the moustache crew. I asked if he wanted me to take the picture and he said ‘no you’re one of the moustache guys!’ I didn’t know if I should take offence, but I appreciated him including me in the group as one of the slightly suspect looking males.
Second: The Terrifying Times.
If the boys ever boasted about how strong or brave they are, they know I would happily punch them hard in the arm to shut them up. I would do this because when we were all put together in a bus by the side of a 800-metre drop, it did not matter about strength or bravery. Either way, we all had the same fate as to whether we would fall over the edge or not.
Here, I am talking about a very questionable road in Laz Paz, Bolivia. La Paz has a famous road running outside the city called Death Road. Death Road is well known for the many deaths that occurred when it was the main highway out of the city. In the late nineties, an estimated 300 deaths occurred each year from vehicles falling off the side of the road. Now, tourists can cycle Death Road and thrive off the terrifying excitement when they look over the 800-metre drop next to them. Knowing that should they slip up at any moment, they too would join the many who have fallen off the side. We also cycled down this road and established just how scary it is to have little control over one’s life. In fact, Ali’s wheel managed to pop off during the bike ride, which wasn’t the most comforting thing to watch. However, he did survive and was more concerned about a photo with his broken bike rather than the consequences that may have occurred from it. Death road was scary, yet this isn’t the road I am referring to.
In 2013 a new road was built out of La Paz. It is wider and therefore safer to drive on. Although this is the case, the road still includes the 800-metre drop on the left-hand side. Driving to our next destination, we managed to get ourselves onto the new road and next to the sheer drop. Although biking Death Road is scary, you still have control getting onto the safer side of the road. In a double decker coach, there is no control, and you simply have to sit back and hope that the driver isn’t as crazy as his driving seems to be. Or, that the blow of the engine is healthier than it sounds. Or that the oncoming truck will be polite enough to not let us back closer to the edge to let it through, or even worse, put our back wheels over the edge to give it more space. Having said all this, we couldn’t have been any more of the gringo (western) tourists that clearly make themselves look stupid in front of the locals. While we all peered over the edge in absolute horror, the local Bolivians sitting next to us laughed as they watched our sheet white faces hate every minute of their day to day commute out of the city. I don’t care if the boys claimed they weren’t that scared because I know very well their faces were saying something else. If anything, it was the Bolivians who were the bravest and strongest in that situation. And we all were indeed a little bit pathetic.
^ The only photo of Ali and his broken bike.
Finally: The Amazon
We all managed to get ourselves to a small town called Santa Rosa de Vacuma, which is located near a river called Rio Beni. Rio Beni lies in the Amazon basin which is situated in the north of Bolivia. We spent three days touring the beautiful wetland around Rio Beni, searching for wildlife both in the river and on dry land. During the day time, we would cruise around the river on a small engine powered canoe boat looking for and finding a wide range of wildlife from alligators and river dolphins to sloths, capybaras and anacondas. The landscape around Rio Beni is about 80% water during the wet season, with the water rising between 10-15 metres. Our accommodation was built on stilts above the water with three alligators living underneath. One of the Cayman alligators measured 5 metres long and had been named Pepe by the longstanding tour guides. Pepe managed to make an appearance in the morning on our last day, lifting his weight out of the water to snap a piece of fatty meat hanging from some string that the cook was disposing of. The length of his body and ferocity of his bite was enough to send shivers down the spine. And to top it off, I discovered that there was a ramp coming from the area Pepe ‘lives’ up to the kitchen and then leading into my bedroom. Apparently, this is nothing to worry about because Pepe gets fed very often. It still put me off sleeping in that bedroom again. Despite huge alligators living very close to your bed, I had an incredible time in the Amazon. We swam with pink river dolphins, found a baby anaconda, went parana fishing, watched alligators fighting and relaxed looking at some very beautiful sunsets. All of this we did together as a group. We all held the baby anaconda, we all jumped into the dark, parana and alligator infested river to swim with the dolphins and we all flashed torches at night to find alligators. Not once was I put to one side as someone who might be too ‘scared’ to do anything. The boys all encouraged me to jump into the water, they gave me the baby anaconda to hold and made sure my flashlight was working to look for alligators. Although I was confident enough to do all the things above, I sometimes felt a little out of my comfort zone and the boy’s encouragement did help me dive into the dark river water and let the slimy skin of the dolphin brush past my leg. However, once I jumped into the water it was my turn to help encourage the next person to jump in. As a group, we all looked out for one another and made sure everyone was getting the same experience as everyone else.
Spending two months with the boys has shown that my position as the only girl in the group has been an advantage to my time travelling, rather than a challenge. I have been able to enjoy my time with the boys by being part of a group, yet I have also had time to myself. From moustache trimming to alligator hunting, each experience has been one shared together as a group. If I ever felt like ‘the girl,’ I would happily take this as a compliment and prove to the boys that I can be just as competent to take on a task as they can.