Photo: jeremykingnz/Shutterstock

6 Things I Lost in South America

South America Narrative
by Laura Yan Jan 9, 2014
The hummingbird skull necklace

A Spanish teacher in Guatapé, Colombia (a town of painted houses and a giant rock called El Penal), told me about her eco-hostel in San Rafael, a quiet town half an hour away. La Casa Colombiana turned out to be even better than Guatapé. I spent afternoons in a hammock, listening to the calls of the tropical birds around us, or playing fetch with a maniac German Shepherd.

One afternoon, I went for a swim in the nearby river. I took off the only piece of jewelry I traveled with, a rose-gold hummingbird skull necklace, and set it on a rock on the riverbank. The water was crystal clear and marvelous, though the current made it difficult to do much more than drift. When I got back to the hostel, I realized I’d left my hummingbird behind.

It was a wonderful conversation piece — I’d memorized the phrase “cráneo de picaflore” to explain it to strangers — and had been my tether to New York chic. Maybe it adorns the collarbone of a stranger now, or maybe it’s still at the riverbank, gathering moss on a slippery rock.

The camera

I ended up at Volcano Chimborazo by accident. A bus dropped me off in Riobamba, Ecuador, and instead of going on to the city I intended to, I decided to stay. I spent most of my time inside my room, reading Stephen King’s 2666 in just a few days. Then I took a horseback riding trip to Chimborazo to see the elegant, long-lashed vicuñas in the wild.

Soon we left the marked trails and dirt roads of and rode into the wilderness. Crossing the jagged, barren terrain made me feel like a time-traveling explorer. My guide took one of my favorite pictures of my trip. In it, I’m pointing at the snow-capped volcano behind me, smiling wide on a saddle made of thick llama fur. My horse even looks like it was posing.

Somewhere in Northern Peru, in a hostel where I carelessly left my bag unzipped, the camera disappeared. I’ll never have that perfect Couchsurfing profile picture, but at least the memory remains.

The condor feather

I didn’t find the feather somewhere deep in the altiplano wilderness, but a zoo just outside Bolivia’s hectic capital. It was quiet and mostly empty on the day I went. Teenage lovers and families wandered the grounds, pausing before pumas sprawled in the shade of trees, or feeding pasankalla (sweet Bolivian popcorn) to llamas who lined up for a treat.

Behind a chain-link enclosure, the Andean condors didn’t look like the majestic birds I’d imagined. Their impressive wingspans were folded closed, and their wrinkled heads made them look like silly old men, rather than ancient guardians of the land. But the zoo was the closest I’d get to a condor. I was excited when I saw a feather on the ground that I could reach through the fence for. It spanned nearly the entire length of my arm.

I kept it inside my guitar case for a few months. One day, in sleepy and dusty small-town Tupiza, I brought my guitar to practice in the plaza. When I’d finished, my feather had disappeared. Maybe it was for the best. The condor belonged in the altiplano, and I’m not sure US customs would have approved of the souvenir.

The iPhone

Cochabamba, Bolivia, is a modern city, one of wide streets and modern malls that reminded me of California. I was there for the second time because of my companions: Mattie and Nicholas, artesanos from Uruguay and Colombia with their dreadlocks, beat-up guitars, and malabares whom I met in Samaipata, the de facto hippie paradise of Bolivia. Being around them made me feel like something more than a tourist, and I harbored a crush on one of them. One night, we went to a jazz festival — Festijazz Cochabamba — where I found myself more interested in watching the audience than the musicians’ complicated guitar solos.

I was feeling alone and unwanted and homesick, the gringa with her iPhone and broken Spanish and empty laughs. I couldn’t focus on the music, so I wrote, desperately typing on my phone to expel my anxious thoughts. I wrote my unhappy reality into a moody short story. I felt relieved. When I got back to the hostel, my phone was gone. That night, trapped in a dark hostel room with companions who felt like anything but that, the loss was a sharp, painful sting.

The bikini top

I quickly learned to love the small cruise ship that became my home for 11 days in the Galapagos. I loved the seat at the front of the boat, where I could dangle my feet over the water and watch the gentle motion of the waves and spectacular sunsets every night. I loved the cabin I shared with my Canadian lover, where everything felt damp and smelled like salt water, but at night we could peak our heads out from the hatch and see the bright stars dotting the sky.

And I loved my black bikini that I wore every day. I bought it at Victoria’s Secret in New York a few weeks before I set off for my trip. It was classic, a little retro, and the right kind of sexy. It was perfect to lounge in when we climbed back on the boat, drinking icy Cokes as we played cards and dried off in the sun.

One day, I draped the bikini over the hatch of my room, and a heavy gust of wind blew it away. The bottom survived, blown into someone else’s cabin, but the bikini top was lost to the sea.

The travel journal (part 1)

I said goodbye to my Canadian lover in the green-walled attic room in La Casa Cuencana, in my favorite city in Ecuador. We spent many lazy afternoons in that room, kissing and talking and listening to the raindrops fall against the roof.

One day, after getting unreasonably lost in Parque Cajas, we hitchhiked back to Cuenca in the back of a pickup truck, laughing and clutching each other to stay warm. I convinced him to go to the Galapagos with me on the flip of a coin. We held hands as we watched the silly mating dance of blue-footed boobies and marveled at the phosphorescent plankton in the water at night.

But he left to volunteer on a farm in Vilcabamba, and I would continue my trip south. I tried not to break down as I packed for the last time. But there was one thing missing: my travel journal. I started to cry.

I bought a new journal that afternoon. It was one of the very few things that would survive the rest of my trip — pages filled with memories and tickets to ancient ruins, flamingo feathers, and the stories I’d never forget.

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