“Are you ready for your trip?” is the question I was asked most often over the past few weeks.
“As ready as I can be” became my standard answer. Sometimes I got up the courage to say, “Not really.”
What people wanted to find out was whether I had packed, if I already had a place to stay, and what was my exact itinerary. For all but the packing, it seemed strange to explain that to not have everything lined up was, in fact, the idea.
That’s not to say I have no inkling of a plan—my general route and timetable are dictated by geography and budget constraints, and I have been in touch with friends (or friends/relatives thereof) in several places about meeting up and staying with them—but on a trip made with the purpose of opening myself to new experiences, knowledge, and people, it would be unproductive to make precise plans ahead of time.
It’s been both liberating and terrifying to decide that I’m going to leave myself plenty of space for improvisation as I make my way through the continent. If I find something that’s worth investigating in depth, I want to be able to stay in that place longer. If someone tells me that there’s a middle-of-nowhere town I absolutely can’t miss, I want to be able to take a bus there without compromising any master plan. At the same time, I know that this leaves me in quite the vulnerable position.
To not assuage, but rather validate my anxiety, the New York Times recently published a wonderful essay by Ilan Stavans and Joshua Ellison about reclaiming the humbling, self-revelatory nature of travel from the safe “self-serving escapism” of tourism. Among the passages I found particularly relevant:
“The kind of travel to which we aspire should tolerate uncertainty and discomfort. It isn’t about pain or excessive strain — travel doesn’t need to be an extreme sport — but we need to permit ourselves to be clumsy, inexpert and even a bit lonely. We might never understand travel as our ancestors did: our world is too open, relativistic, secular, demystified. But we will need to reclaim some notion of the heroic: a quest for communion and, ultimately, self-knowledge.”
Yesterday, however, the time was nigh for some concrete preparation. Having said my goodbyes, I spent the whole night carefully selecting and arranging a few essentials in the 50-liter backpack out of which I’m going to live for the next four months and making just the right playlist to fit into my little old iPod. By morning, all that was left to do before declaring, “I’m ready!” was to check into my flight from São Paulo to Buenos Aires online.
Simple enough, right? After a few unsuccessful attempts to access the Pluna Airlines website, though, I did some research and found this July 5 headline: Uruguay to shut down bankrupt flagship carrier Pluna. Wait, WHAT?! Indeed, Pluna had “decided to suspend all its flights indefinitely since ‘the company’s economic-financial situation makes it impossible to ensure adequate operations.'”
Calling Pluna’s customer service line at the São Paulo international airport, the solution proposed was pretty straightforward: find some other way to get there, write to Pluna demanding a refund, and keep my fingers crossed to actually receive the money (highly unlikely). Now I’m set to depart this Friday on Qatar Airways, which I’m sure is in no danger of bankruptcy.
Rather than be angry or exasperated, I find myself surprisingly amused. Maybe it’s because this is one of those typically Latin American problems to which everyone down here is desensitized. Mostly, it’s the realization that readiness is overrated.