Backpacking Before College With the Youth International Gap Program
Making Friends in South America
Article and photos by Margaret Ulrich
|"The Dream Team" of friends with the author on their gap program backpacking journey.
Once a year I send out a Facebook message to my friends Dash, Sam, and Elyse. I tell them a little bit about my life—where I am, what I am doing, who I am dating—and then I wait for their responses. Slowly they trickle in.
Four years ago we called ourselves the Dream Team. I cannot even remember when it started, somewhere between our week of conservation work in the Amazon rainforest and a boat tour of the Galapagos Islands. We started as just four kids of a 13 member group called Youth International, but during our three months traveling through South America we became serious backpackers and the best of friends.
These were also the first three months of all my other friends’ freshman years of college.
Deciding to Postpone College
Opening up the mailed response, there was nothing but a disappointing single sheet of paper from my first choice for a college. After feeling the pain of rejection I started rethinking college completely. Instead of seeing this rejection as failure, though, I saw it as an opportunity to explore my other passions.
Traveling was always an integral part of my life, as my aunt and uncle live on a sailboat in the Mediterranean and the rest of my family is spread all over the United States. I have been fortunate in my exposure to other cultures, but as most travelers find, it is also highly addictive.
Choosing Who To Travel With and Where To Go
My cousin had just traveled to South East Asia with Youth International, so I asked about her experience and decided to look into it.
The website for Youth International (YI) had photos of students my age, standing in front of the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu, and Darwin’s discoveries in the Galapagos Islands. I could not even read the details because I wanted to be there, at those places, right then.
Once I pulled myself together, I decided between the South America and Asia trips; South America was a better fit because I wanted to continue my Spanish language and cultural education.
In Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador we would volunteer for a week doing either:
- Building schools
- Rainforest conservation
and then visit each country’s most interesting attractions:
- Salt Plains
- Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
- Floating villages on Lake Titicaca
- Amazon Rainforest
- The Galapagos Islands
Paperwork, Shots, and More Paperwork
Although traveling can be quite spontaneous, most often it takes months of planning. There is a lot that has to happen before you step up to the efficient woman at the airport check-in counter.
I had to:
1. Apply online via their form.
Backpacking for three months is not for the faint of heart and the director needed me to prove that. After writing a compelling essay about how much I enjoy roughing it—I had car camped before and thought that counted—I was approved for the October-December trip to Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador.
2. Beg my parents to help me pay for it.
I had decided to attend a different university, one that would accept me in January and also one that offered me an academic scholarship. Because of this, my parents, lovely people that they are, decided to help me pay for the trip (I presented it as an educational experience, which I can honestly say it was).
3. Become a human pin cushion.
There were about 30,000 shots the health department recommended before entering the three countries I wanted to visit. Since my parents were already nervous about the possibility that I might be stolen, shipped to Colombia, forced to grow a mustache, and sell drugs, I appeased them by taking every precaution necessary to keep me safe: during the six months before my trip I got the yellow fever, rabies, hepatitis, tetanus, typhoid, meningitis, and polio shots. Some had follow-ups.
4. Get my ISIC (International Student ID Card)
This is a really important step to take before traveling as a student. It will help you get discounts on flights and certain attractions depending upon where you go. We used ours to get discounted rates to hike the Inca trail to Maccu Picchu (we will get to that story later).
5. Find flights and fill out paperwork
It all becomes real the moment you book your flight anywhere. When I filled out the last bit of paperwork for YI and sent them an itinerary of when to expect me I remember running around the house leaping and, in a tauntingly sing-song way, shouting, “I’m going to South A-mer-i-ca. I’m going to South A-mer-i-ca.” I would turn 18 during my trip.
Please Make Sure Your Tray Tables Are In The Upright, Locked Positions
My first flight took me to the west instead of south. The entire Youth International program met in the Colorado mountains for a few days of altitude adjusting and backpacking briefing. Everyone’s excitement and anxieties dominated conversations. I tried to listen to every piece of travel advice our leaders gave us, but the awaiting flight to Bolivia interrupted my focus more often than not.
Finally, after three days of meeting the twelve other people in a speed-dating style, we went to the airport as the collective YI South America group.
Foreign Doesn’t Even Begin To Describe
We could have arrived on the moon for all I could tell. Adjusting to the altitude and surroundings of La Paz, Bolivia was like being inverted in water. But just like they said in the briefing that I hardly listened to, my high school Spanish slowly came back to me and we began adjusting to a life of bottled water, shorter breaths, and eggs, lots of eggs.
The Good, The Bad, And The Itchy (Bolivia)
A few weeks into Bolivia, we traveled to the pampas (the wetland) in the rainforest near Rurrenabaque. We took motorized canoes down the river to see the Amazon sunsets, spot the eyes of caiman at night, and find the perfect area to walk around searching for pythons. All of these events happened with a constant high-pitched humming surrounding us.
Thus, the body bite—I had mosquito bites covering every square inch of my body. While trying not to cry at night because of the overwhelming itchiness a devout Buddhist could not even meditate through, I became friends with Sam, the girl who was wise enough to bring along (and share) a container of menthol to stop the itching.
The City In The Clouds (Peru)
The morning of November 14th was the most exciting morning of my life. We woke up at the crack of dawn to the coldness of Cusco, piled into a bus, and a few hours later we stood at the starting point of the Inca trail. It was surreal, primordial, and romantic hiking this ancient path to be rewarded by the discovery of the remains of an impossible civilization.
| The author relaxing after arriving at Machu Picchu on foot via the Inca Trail.
Each night on the 4-day hike, we would sit down for dinner, talk about the day ahead of us and climb into our tents to sleep. My tent mate, Elyse, had been my friend through the first month and a half journey, but there was something about whispering in the dark, discussing the sheer awesomeness of what we were doing, that brought us closer.
Time Out for Reflection and Comfort in Ecuador
We spent Thanksgiving in the middle of the rainforest in Ecuador. Walking by the light of the moon, we climbed the steps to a large hut with a thatched roof and open sides. The locals’ bar. Dash, Sam, Elyse and I sat around a table and took turns raising our bottles of coke and declaring what we were thankful for most. Sam, Elyse, and I said things like this trip, meeting each other, Oreos in the rainforest, catching piranhas and swimming with dolphins, and our families. When it was Dash’s turn he said he was thankful for nothing, especially not meeting us. He had to look away to keep from laughing. He was like our mean older brother, but we most definitely needed him to round out the group. To round out the Dream Team.
Making Lifelong Friends Abroad
Out of everything I did—living with locals, building a school, painting murals, experiencing the Day of the Dead—my favorite part was becoming friends with those three because my trip would not have been the same without them. Every memory I have is intertwined with something funny Elyse did or some trick Dash played on Sam. It was hard saying goodbye.
When I started college that January, I did not have the same jitters that most kids had about being away from their friends and family. I had already learned that I could get sick in a different country and I would still survive without my mom—I admit it was tough. I learned that I could make lifelong friends by meeting people with similar goals and interests. And if all else failed I could call up one of the guys from the Dream Team and they would remind me, "you just backpacked through South America, and you’re having trouble writing an art history paper?".
Traveling develops in you that confidence to feel like you can do anything. That is why I have continued to do so. As many places as I have visited, with all the different people I have met along the way, I will always favor my first trip as a high school graduate with the three friends who now feel like family.
Margaret Ulrich is a freelance writer.