7months as a Deaf solo traveller in Latin America: A summative reflective interview

(First published in Limping Chicken here)

This blog was written in Orlando airport, where I have stopped en route home, with seven hours to kill. I have often wondered how I ought to go about this final blog post given that all of my blogs, both here in Limping Chicken and my own personal blog have been about the variety of interesting people I have met. I have decided to write it as an interview with myself, using the questions I have been receiving from friends lately. I don’t know if there is a term for this, and whether it will work for the audience. But here goes!

1) What was your favourite place?
Although Latin America has so many places that I have enjoyed, it is Uyuni in Bolivia that is my all time favourite. I had watched a programme abut five years ago about the salt flats there, and I was gobsmacked at how amazing the sights were. 12km square of nothing but white salt flats. Tourists come and go in 4×4 wheel cars and take hundreds of pictures, especially optical illusions.

When I got here I was so inspired I couldn’t wait to take a photo, reached out of the jeep’s window to take a photo selfie of the driver and I with the salts behind us. Lo and behold the phone flew out of my hand and the entire group had to stop and searched for it for 30minutes. I was in a state of disbelief, couldn’t believe how stupid I was! It was finally found although on the other side of the road. I felt bad for the group, but they were all so kind and said it was a brilliant team-building activity!

We toured Uyuni for 3 days including mud baths, island views (without surrounding water), and endless flamingos! We stayed in very basic accommodation on both nights and we shared a room together too. It was just amazingly different, as was the whole of Bolivia to me.

2) What was the most frustrating part of your travels?
I am torn between saying it’s the lack of consistency in getting wifi at a good speed, or the endless poverty that I encountered. I think my reflective blog on poverty was a powerful perceptive especially at New Year’s time when we all think about things. I just wish I could have done something productive to reduce the impact of poverty, it was very difficult for me to understand where people were coming from and to accept it when local people wished me well for my onwards travels. I often felt guilty in a sense.

3) Did you miss your friends?
I experienced some homesickness during the first couple of months in Mexico and Peru. I recall I started to have some minor anxiety “prangs” where I would look at my iPad’s calendar and think to myself that there was too much time ahead of me and that I should not have said I would be away for more than a few months.

But after Peru, as I arrived into Bolivia, my homesickness somewhat disappeared and I really enjoyed every day, every sight and experience thereon. I wanted more and more. I rode a bicycle on the World’s Most Dangerous Road in La Paz and fell off and hurt my arm – the scar is still there! I rode up and down mountains and learned about cycling itself (I’m useless!). I commuted across Las Paz on its wonderful Teleferico system which has about 8 different coloured cable car lines, aka our London Underground! The range of experiences continued daily!

Every day I had mobile phone contact with friends and family members. That doesn’t mean I spent hours texting and video chats with them, but it was always lovely to have these spontaneous chats and to know how my friends were. Often they would say how lucky I was and how they were envious. Sometimes I would feel good, other times I felt like some didn’t truly understand how challenging solo travel was for me, and that there were periods of times when I felt lonely. But in time I grew more and more confident about being alone, I actually enjoyed some of this solo time. I also met other friends in each country, new deaf friends, who were very kind to me and sometimes with me a little too much!

4) Did you miss your family?
I was in touch with my parents almost every day, always telling them when I reached my next destination. They were, and still are, my rock. They were so happy when I called them from my belated birthday party in my Mexican friend’s home at the beginning of my solo travels, they felt so relieved. I remember them being unhappy when I sent them a photo of a shared dorm in a low budget youth hostel in Morelia (Mexico) and I had to help them understand that this was a normal part of travels. We compromised that if I ever felt unsafe I would book better accommodation.

I had contact with my wider family every so often, we are all on WhatsApp and there were several occasions where I would spontaneously send a photo of me doing whatever with a “love u” message. I think my family’s support for my decision to leave my job and travel was very important to me.

There were a few moments of really missing them, especially when they were enjoying Mum’s cooking or when my nieces and nephews had stories or just sent lovely messages of love to me.

5) How do you feel 7months has gone?
It has been an amazing privilege, and I cannot believe its been 7 months, about 31 weeks in total. I definitely would recommend solo travels for people who just want a break from the daily cycle of life in the fast lane. The internet is amazing, there are PLENTY of blogs by travellers with top tips about each country you find yourself travelling in. You can do a google for example, “a week itinerary Uruguay”, so useful.

There were many great links/introductions with deaf communities across the Latin America. I was very lucky to meet so many lovely people and to experience their kind hospitality – not always accommodation but their hosting, their chats and laughs. In Colombia they really don’t like to leave you alone, its cultural. They want to be with you all the time! I loved being with them especially over the festive Xmas season. I loved being in Buenos Aires, Argentina at Gay Pride time too, lots of great fun! My Bolivian host family gave me the love and care I so needed when I experienced altitude sickness. In Ecuador another host deaf family gave me lots of support as I experienced how cold it was unexpectedly! There are many stories!

6) Are you ready to return to the UK?
I think I was/am, but here in Orlando airport I am already horrified with how much everything costs and how much left over food sits on tables in the various restaurants here. I have seen so much hardship, poverty and hunger over the months of travel. I really think that’s hit me hard and I think I will struggle for a while to adjust to how people waste so much in the Western world.

However my own money has totally run out (including borrowing money!) and therefore it really is time to go home. But if I had more money would I stay longer? I am not sure. I know in my last week I started to really not be bothered about seeing this or that view or a museum etc. I think I have seen so much over the months and that I would like to get on with my career plans.

7) What wisdom if any have you acquired?
That we are so lucky in the UK.

That deaf people across Latin America have huge employment issues and that whilst in the UK we have barriers they are nowhere near to what these are – which includes stark discrimination, sharply impacted by poverty.

That plans change, and flexibility is key. I think I used to be so detailed and hung up on logistical plans, e.g. if we agreed to meet at this place at that time then that would be it. Whereas from my travels, plans would often change or get agreed so spontaneously. For example I didn’t know when or what volunteering I would be doing in Bolivia until the day before!

I was warned ahead of going to Latin America that nothing is really scheduled, that there is always another bus that comes along. I think I really changed how I dealt with that style of planning, especially in recent months. For example, my friend Damian and I were meant to get a 5am bus the other day from Monterrico (Guatemala), we subsequently realised we had been signposted to the wrong location and missed it. We had to then get a boat across mangroves to then get a bus etc. My relaxed and smiling manner about this change was astonishing to Damian I think. Another example is my unexpected experience on a motorbike in Mompos, Colombia – an amazing day!

8) Did you meet anyone special?
Ahhhhhhh!!! Yes I met a few special people and enjoyed the dating game. I was very lucky to meet them and have wonderful memories of learning about their lives and sharing my life too. It was sad to say goodbye each time but we always knew we would have to. I think when I was in London I felt like I would never meet anyone again, I had been pretty much single for quite a few years. So these dates were quite a tonic! Lol!

9) Would you travel this long again?
It is very difficult to say. Obviously quitting your job and renting your house out and borrowing money is not something you can always do. I always said I would travel until my money ran out. I remember crying during a videochat with my good friend in the UK, telling her I couldn’t cope with such a small daily budget and that I was not enjoying myself, always watching the pennies. She advised that I didn’t stick to that small daily budget (which was designed around 6months’ travel) and that I have a good time but to be wise, e.g. don’t spend crazily, and to just see how I get on. She told me I could decide to go home when my money ran out and no-one would judge me by the length of time but by the depth of experience I had. Taking that advice on made me feel so good, and incredibly I travelled 7months instead of 6!

10) Tell us what a typical day was
Gosh! Seriously every day was so different, but here goes.

Up usually at around 5am, check my phone, scroll through messages and emails that have gone on the UK 5/6hours ago whilst I was asleep! Then usually a nice breakfast involving eggs and really rubbish coffee. It still astonishes me that the continent where the best coffee comes from (in my opinion), gives terrible coffee at breakfast or in the family home!

I usually then have some sort of activity, whether its sightseeing or a physical challenge e.g. cycling in a Luna park where the rocks look like you’ve landed in the moon, and I enjoy as much sunshine as possible. Lunch is often light and quick, allowing me to make the most of the day. I walk and walk for miles on usually without a map. Whilst I take the advice of various travel blogs about what to see, I tend to just wander off and usually by some fate, I find something amazing such as a women’s co-operative medical garden for the growth of natural homeopathy products!

Around a couple hours before dinner I usually am swimming, sunbathing or having a good nap.
Dinner ranges from street food costing 1.50 to a nice local place around 7-9pounds.
After dinner it depends greatly on who I am with. Some evenings I wander more. I remember arriving at this open concert in Cafayete (Argentina) on my own. It was an amazing evening, strong jasmine scent and lovely classical music followed by local wine and cheese. These things just happen, there’s no meticulous plan but you feel someone up there is looking after you!

11) What was the worst bit of the whole adventure?
This is a bit difficult to pinpoint. I hated the rain of course, but there were only a few days when it down-poured like mad (in Buenos Aires for 2 days solid). I also did not like Tucuman, a city in Argentina – I had no idea what was there to see and the weather was disappointing. I actually just stayed in my airbnb accommodation for most of the time and couldn’t wait to leave. Oh yes, I hated Puerto Vallarta in West Mexico, it had so many prostitutes approaching me and I left a day earlier, just couldn’t stand it.

12) How much have you spent? What item has been the most expensive? What have u largely spent on generally?
I aimed to spend 14k in total, including flights etc and I stuck to that; I am returning home having spent that much. I think the ferry to Uruguay from Buenos Aires was the most unexpected expensive purchase – approx 75pounds return.

My expenditure usually was on food, accommodation, transport (endless chicken buses!). I was rather strict with myself on buying souvenirs and gifts especially not being able to carry so much but also just could not afford it! I also decided to return to Buenos Aires from Chile for another 5 days after having already been there, which was an expensive journey but no regrets, it was lovely.

13) How did your blog come about?
When I said bye to my good friends in Las Vegas I had talked to them about needing to have some sort of personal project to mentally get on with; I could not imagine sightseeing everyday! I came about the idea of writing a book, not about travelling itself but about the people I would meet or observe. My arrival into Mexico on that day was a powerful memory, and one that I wrote about quite quickly. I shared it with a few good friends, and their feedback was helpful.

I wrote a few more articles and then took the plunge and created my blog. I had wanted to improve my writing skills by doing these blogs as I had not had much opportunity over the years to just write what I wanted to write. There was always this report to do, this strategy, that planning document, and that supervision note. I wanted to have the opportunity to write freely and this was a wonderful opportunity to do so.

I don’t really care how many likes a blog post has received – I think today many people read stuff but do not press “like” or comment. But over the months I have received private and public messages of really lovely compliments and praise for my blogs. I received a message from a 71yr old American living in Mexico, he had come across my blog about the Deaf Cat Café in Morelia, and it was just nice to hear from someone so random who had also visited a deaf café. He gave me a lot of encouragement on my blogging.

I enjoy writing the blog posts and have experimented different styles too. I definitely need to rearrange my blog itself soon so that people can find particular blog posts easily rather than having to scroll down for ages. I also need to improve my word count, goodness me I know!

14) How many photos have you taken?
7866 (my nieces worked that out for me!!) Every day I took photos with my iPhone, simple to use and convenient too. There were other travellers with mega cameras and lens etc. I know I have shared photos on my instagram (@wtyron, #tyrontravels) daily with a few exceptions. I did worry about this being too much but many friends and family have reassured me they enjoyed them.

I want to create a number of photo books when I get home, one per country. It will be quite a task to do!

15) You met many deaf people on your travels how did you manage to do this? What was it generally like?
Being deaf and gay is very useful for the solo traveller. You arrive into a country, you search on facebook or google for deaf associations, deaf people. You also search for gay people. You also search for people who are both deaf and gay. Latin America has a facebook group for deaf gay people and this was useful for me at times. When particular people introduced to me to friends they knew across each country this was so valuable. I remain totally grateful to them. At Xmas time I sent these friends all an individual Xmas signed video clip, thanking them but also wishing them a Happy New Year. All of them remain in touch with me to this day and I will never forget their kindness and laughter.

Sometimes I just wanted to be alone, to not have to use International Sign, to just stare out the window or ride alone. I was lucky that these friends generally understood and let me be independent. I think I had to be assertive at times to be left alone when I wanted to, especially in Colombia where I found myself with deaf people literally everyday!!

I always went about my foreign encounters ethically; I always paid for their dinner/drinks if they were not earning much. It was important to me to do this and I know they valued this consideration. Some of them told me about other European/American visitors who just never paid anything, which to me was unbelievable. Given their financial circumstances it is the most natural thing we should to do as a visitor from the Western world.

My blogs describe some of these people, ranging from the lesbian couple who owned a youth hostel in Tafi des Valles, to Johanna, a transexual living in Pasto, to Starly from Venezuela living in Argentina, deaf families in Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador, to the tour guide in El Salvador… the insight into these people’s lives from my own personal perspective as well as including some humour and empathy – it was a real honour to have met so many and to have received their permission to write about them too.

16) How did you pass the time when you had long periods maybe lonely etc?
Netflix!! So many films and series – really useful. I loved “Please like me” and “Sex Education” series, so many laughs.

Music on my iPhone, numerous thanks to Sinead O’Connor for many powerful songs that inspired me along the way.

Books – travellers often leave books in the hostel lobby to swap with other people. I have read so many books accidentally; I didn’t go to a book shop and pick a book but took whatever looked appealing in the lobby shelf and enjoyed several!

Walking – always without a map – to just see what comes your way but also to exercise off any weight gain especially from pancakes!!

Photo caption competitions – where I would upload a photo and ask friends to come up with the funniest caption – the winner gets a donation to their favourite charity. These were hilarious!

17) Why did you dye your hair blonde?
In California, before going down to Mexico, I felt like I had begun my midlife crisis properly! I’d left my job, rented out my house, sold my car and my apple mac. I was frustrated with my forever growing grey hairs on my sides and envied guys like George Clooney and friends who had lovely salt/pepper all over their hair. I was in the Castro, a very gay part of San Francisco, and just thought why not! I thought the best way would be to totally dye it silver/grey and see how it resulted. I regretted it as soon as it was done! It was a kind of purple to start with! And then the more sun I had exposure to, the more blonde it would be! I later on bleached it again totally blonde in Peru for a fraction of what it cost me in San Francisco!

And then later on I promised myself to not do it again; my midlife crisis was over! I still think the photo of me with my blonde hair with a blonde llama was special!

[insert photo]

18) What are your plans ahead?
One of my main reasons for doing this trip was to take time out and think about what I really wanted to do. I had been working non-stop for about 20years, 11 of these in a senior leadership role. I needed time out, I felt like a hamster in a wheel doing the same things every day and was losing my energy.

During my numerous bus journeys and boat trips and cycling trips I was so fortunate to have the opportunity to reflect and think about what mattered to me and what I really enjoy doing.
I am going to be looking for job opportunities that will help me along the pathway of becoming a psychotherapist with deaf people, especially young people. I will need to undergo relevant training and to work in the field. Wish me luck!

19) What would be your next place to travel?
I would really like to explore Japan and Korea. I also want to return to South America when I turn 50yrs old and see Patagonia – I could not afford to do so on this opportunity as a budget traveller – it is an expensive place to see and do.

20) What would you advise other deaf people thinking of travelling for a long period of time?
To simply go for it. You really don’t know how lucky you are with a British passport that allows you to explore so many places without restrictions. I think more importantly you should do this with an open mind, to see what comes your way, to wander endlessly, to smile with local people and to just accept the low and high days.

It is important to do the travelling for yourself, not to impress anyone, but to see the wonders of the planet Earth and to contribute ethically to it. Be a considerate traveller though, contribute as best as you can to the local economy, eat where the locals live, be generous with your local new friends, give your unwanted clothes/stuff to those who need it. Learn the local language as best as you can, but be happy to teach them English if they want to learn too. Read the local news, forget reading about stuff like Brexit!

Don’t forget to decide what you want to do with all the memories. I filled in a personal diary, took photos daily and shared some on social media, created my blog and its posts, but you should do whatever you want to keep your memories cherished, e.g. water painting.

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