After spending two months tucked away in the sweltering humidity of the jungle in Central America, I jumped on a plane and headed for one of the highest capital cities in the world, La Paz. Not long after my arrival in my new home, after having cocooned myself in four duvets in attempt to escape the bitter cold of high altitude, it quickly became apparent that I could not have chosen a location more different from the rainforest to start my journalism internship.
The damp, incessant heat of the rainforest had now become a dry, inescapable cold and a persistent altitude sickness that left me hugging the toilet. The constant hubbub of non-stop voluntary work had turned into days of independence where I’m free to schedule my days as I wish. My surroundings, previously full of natural diversity, had become rows upon rows of brick buildings, with most life unable to survive such tough environmental conditions.
My transition from jungle to city life was by no means an easy one, and I still wouldn’t say I’ve completely settled in to my home for the next two months yet. However, this week has been an extraordinary learning curve, learning where I fit into such a fascinating community as a young, foreign women in the chaos of a Latin American city.
Don’t let fear stop you from enjoying yourself: get out and explore!
As a young woman exploring a big city alone, one of my biggest concerns about my year abroad was staying safe and not making myself vulnerable in a world where we are constantly bombarded with warnings about the dangers of solo travel as a young women. With blonde hair, blue eyes and as someone who uses the palest colour foundation they can find, I look clearly foreign in and amongst the vivid colour of the congested Bolivian streets.
As I make my way to the gym in the morning or as I head to my Spanish classes, I’m often met with inquisitive stares and car horn beeps; something that felt extremely threatening at first. Looking so obviously out of place attracts attention, but it was something I quickly discovered was nothing more than a harmless, curious glance. I can’t believe how safe I feel in La Paz – in fact, I’ve never felt safer in a city than here.
No matter how anxious exploring alone makes you feel at first, confidence doesn’t come naturally to many people and is often the result of months of practise. Fake it till you make it! Get out there, explore and embrace the culture of your new home. Viral news headlines on social media instil fear into young female travellers, making us believe it’s impossible to travel alone and be safe. As long as you are sensible, take correct precautions and never take risks, there’s nothing to stop you hitting the streets of your new city alone and making a real life for yourself in your home abroad.
Learn to enjoy your own company
Handing over my entrance ticket to the ticket inspector at the MUSEF (the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore), I was met with a strange look and a confused “¿Estás sola?” (Are you here alone?). The media has imparted a belief that going out on your own is “weird”, that it is somehow a reflection of an inadequate social life. I used to be one of those people that thought it was strange to go and sit in a restaurant, visit a museum or go to the cinema alone, but now I think: why not? There will come a time when you will have a craving to see an exhibition that no one else wants to go to. The option is to either go alone or not at all. So why should I let my worries about people’s perceptions of me prevent me from doing what I want to do?
This week, I’ve navigated the city’s public cable car system, visited museums and explored the city’s vegan café scene solo, something I never thought I’d have been able to do alone a few months ago. There will come a time when you don’t have someone to explore with and you will quickly adapt to a life of enjoying day-to-day life without being dependent on constant company. It’s also extremely empowering to know that you can navigate a city, ask for directions when you get lost and hail a bus and call to the driver when you want to get off without anyone’s help. I used to be that person who hated making phone calls to strangers and now I’m the one calling to the bus driver to get off when I reach my stop: “¡bajo a la esquina por favor!”
My advice for anyone starting on their year abroad is to embrace the culture of your new community as much as possible, no matter how far out of your comfort zone you have to go to accomplish it. Don’t let negative internal voices or a fear of the unknown stop you from making the most of your time abroad. The more you explore and the more you put yourself outside of your comfort zone to better understand a different culture, the more you will benefit from integrating into your new community.