It was dark and raining lightly in Salta, Argentina, when Marielle and I got off the bus, legs stiff from a full day’s journey across the border from Chile.
We had met another American named Lia traveling around South America during the endless wait at customs and we had planned to spend the next day exploring the city together. Our hostel was about a thirty-minute walk away, in a city neither of us had ever been to. Lia joined us, saying that she hadn’t booked a hostel yet and was planning on finding something when we got into town.
Marielle and I exchanged looks of the is-she-crazy variety, both feeling comforted by the fact that there were beds waiting for us in a fully-booked establishment highly rated by Hostel World. Lia was a petite dirty-blonde female in her early twenties traveling alone through South America, arriving at night in a strange city with no guarantee of a place to stay. I couldn’t decide if I thought she was totally badass or totally stupid.
After Marielle and I dropped our enormous backpacks off in our room, the three of us set off down the street to find Lia a hostel, despite her protests that she’d be fine on her own. She hadn’t even looked anything up, just figured she would find something or get a recommendation from a local, and it was in this way that we ended up wandering around the neighborhood we’d eaten dinner in and stumbling upon a tiny traveler’s hostel. We walked in with her, Lia still carrying her huge backpack, and she asked the friendly looking guy at the front desk if there was any availability. The whole space was modern, brightly colored and well lit, and it turned out they had plenty of rooms left for the night. Lia looked at us and shrugged her shoulders. “Funny how stuff works out, isn’t it?”
Salta was only the second destination on our month-long exploration of Chile and Argentina, and so this sort of everything-will-work-out-somehow attitude seemed more foreign to us than the cities we were traveling to. We had spent nearly an hour chasing wi-fi hotspots around our last hostel in San Pedro de Atacama in a desperate attempt to book the hostel in Salta, eventually finding that perching ourselves at one particular angle on the edge of my bed got us the best signal. It was my first trip without my family, or a program, and just the idea of getting on a bus and showing up in a city I’d never been to seemed like enough uncertainty—why add the extra stress of not being sure where we were going to sleep? On the walk back to our hostel Marielle and I swore we would never proceed without a plan.
But even as we left Salta the next night, we were beginning to break in our traveling shoes. Lia was headed in the opposite direction, on her way north as we made our way south, and had couch surfed with people in Bariloche who she said we should stay with. Already, the plans we had made were beginning to deviate onto an unknown and unexpected track. That was the thing about plans, especially the best laid ones people always talk about. You can decide to do things a certain way, in a certain order, for a certain amount of time, but along the way unforeseen circumstances, chance meetings, and evolving opinions cause shifts you could not have predicted.
We contacted Lia’s friend Julian and his roommate Alex, twenty-something climbers and snowboarders living in a sparsely furnished house up on a hill in Bariloche, who were frequent couch surfing hosts and took their duties out to the fullest extent—they did not just provide travelers with a place to sleep and a kitchen to cook in, but took advantage of their flexible schedules to hang out with their guests and make connections. What had originally been two days set aside to stay in Bariloche turned into four, filled with a long hike up to the famous Refugio Frey, mate and guitar playing on the beach with Julian, and family style dinners cooked in the house with three Australian teenagers on a kite-surfing journey around South America who were crashing on the floor.
As the journey went on we began to stretch and bend, planning less, opening ourselves up to what awaited us, what people we would meet along the way who would connect us with other people and other places, allowing our itinerary to be fluid and transforming. You can plan as much as you want, but you can’t predict the future, how you will feel and what you will do and where you will end up. Instead of fearing the uncertainty it is sometimes best to give in to it, to allow it to take you places.
The days of our trip dwindled down to single digits and we arrived in Puerto Natales, the town outside Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia. Marielle and I found ourselves walking toward town, with only a vague sense of where we were going, and no pre-planned accommodations booked for the night. Just outside the main square of town, on a street that sloped down toward the ocean, we found a backpacker’s hostel run by Torres mountain guides and asked if we could pitch our tent in their backyard. For a grand total of $4 we had a spot to sleep, access to the cozy kitchen inside and enough stories to last us well into the night.
It had only taken a few weeks for us to realize that Lia’s way of traveling had so many advantages, so many unexpected blessings and serendipitous plot twists that would not have resulted from a rigid plan. Marielle and I had changed as travelers, had let go of the reins a little and allowed the trip to guide us instead of the other way around, and it had brought us to places we might never have ended up otherwise, to places we would remember most when we thought back on the journey. It had previously been impossible to imagine ourselves walking into unknown places asking if we could set our tent up in spots not technically designated for setting tents up without any guarantee that things would work out. And yet here we were, sleeping off the patio of a backpacker hostel, with a greater sense of trust in the universe and in the way things somehow end up working out.
That there will always be uncertainty is certain, that the best laid plans crumble to pieces equally so. Releasing the need for control, the need to know, the need for reservations and itineraries and forethought can seem unthinkable, can appear at first to be stupidity. But really, it is acceptance that there are so many things you can’t know ahead of time, and belief that the world will somehow lead you where you need to be. Even if that’s somewhere you never imagined.