A client of mine once said some people live their lives as if they were looking for a lost ball in tall grass. Watching people come and go at Puerto Limon Hostel in San Telmo barrio of Buenos Aires, Argentina over the course of the last month, I am inclined to agree. For those of you who are new to this conversation, I am a freelance writer who has come to Argentina to observe and write, first here in Buenos Aires, and eventually throughout South America. What is this continent all about? How does the Latin history, experience, and culture impact their thinking and choices? Argentina is a country built on immigrants, and they keep on coming. So let’s look at the diverse residents of Puerto Limon as a microcosm of Argentina itself.
I am going to divide the residents into two groups: those who live their life with purpose and those who do not. They can be millenials traveling on their parents money with $10,000 or more invested in their backpacks, cameras, and other totes. Or they can be surviving by working in the hostel for partial room and board. They may sport a PhD, or never graduated from high school. They can have an entry-level go-nowhere job or they can be experienced professionals who have been floored by one of life’s hard knocks, and deciding whether to get up or give up. Whatever their circumstances, all have a choice whether to focus or not, to act or not, to assume responsibility for the direction of their life or to wait for life to happen to them.
It is easy to be deceived by first appearances in a hostel, which houses temporary travelers. There is a school of thought that a traveler will learn more by traveling without a specific destination and making greater allowance for serendipity. This can greatly reduce the stress of trying to meet travel deadlines, having to be at a certain place on a certain day and time. It permits the traveler to seize unexpected opportunities, such as suggestions from fellow travelers who bring new and better information to you from where they have just left. And mishaps, delays, and set-backs are less traumatic, and often later become favorite elements of the travel narrative.
Traveling light and with more flexibility does not necessarily imply aimless wandering or lack of purpose. It can be quite the opposite, and require more self-confidence and risk tolerance than rigid or even compulsive travel planning. It can enhance the joy of discovery, both of people and places that could not have been anticipated with the best-laid plans. That is, in fact, the whole point of such travel, which means it is travel with purpose. Perhaps a non-traditional purpose, but with potential for greater emotional and intellectual rewards. In this sense literal travel is a metaphor for that greater experience of life itself. Some weigh themselves down with mental and emotional baggage that they hug to themselves, convinced they cannot live without it. Others travel light and understand the power of no.
It is not always possible to evaluate a traveler by surface appearances. People stay at the hostel for many different reasons. Some are definitely purpose driven: they have come to find a job or a place to live. They may have come for a change of scenery while they recover emotionally from the end of a relationship, a place to hole up to write a book, or work their way through one of life’s passages, or to see the world before they settle down to the serious business of career and family responsibilities. They may have come to heal or to find inspiration or to seek new opportunities.
There are times in life when our circumstances seem muddled. The more we think about it the more confused we get. On such occasions it is usually helpful to get some distance from the problem and over time the mist clears and we regain perspective. Feedback from emotionally intelligent people who are not part of the problem can help. Experiencing this kind of distress doesn’t necessarily mean we lack purpose. We may simply be having difficulty getting around a road block. Traveling light means we are lighter on our feet, more emotionally agile, and less likely to get or stay stuck. Sometimes it just takes one motivating conversation to get us back on our feet again. This happens often at Puerto Limon to those who are open to sensible interaction with others. There is a sense of caring about fellow travelers, but each is expected ultimately to carry their own baggage.
In just the last week I have been part of conversations with a retired Czech ballet dancer, a young doctor preparing to expatriate to Argentina, a Swiss banker here to try his hand at short story writing, a professional waiter who is bubbling over with entrepreneurial ideas and who wants to change his life, a former employee of the United Nations who has traveled the world with international companies and speaks five languages, and a young Mexican woman with a background in the honeybee import/export industry seeking a faster route to the top. For these people, Puerto Limon is an incubator for ideas, feedback, brainstorming, and creation of business plans. For them Puerto Limon is exciting, passionate, intellectually intoxicating and emotionally nourishing. It is far more enriching than would have been possible isolated in a luxury suite of a five-star hotel or the greater comforts of an apartment.
For others it is not so easy. They are looking for the lost ball in the tall grass. They have lost their way and have nothing in their life that stirs their passions, ideas that fill them with energy and keep them awake at night with anticipation. They have found themselves in one of life’s boxes and are looking for an exit, or are exhausted and have given up. Some who are young and driven by hormones or the ticking of their biological clock think everything will be so much more promising as soon as they find that special someone, and all their plans, both short and long-term are collapsed into this one compelling need. Observing both these eager and idealistic young people and occasionally grieving relationship survivors, married life reminds me of a medieval city under siege: everyone on the outside wanting to get in, and everyone on the inside trying to get out.
Fellow travelers on the road of life
Others at the hostel are here for just a few days of vacation and escape from the ennui and frustrations of the life to which they will return. Those who are driven with purpose and the promise of their dreams are perhaps happiest, but there will be set-backs and disappointments and foregone opportunities. No one gets to do it all. Every choice implies others denied. And for those looking for the lost ball, while in the weeds of life they may discover they are in the wrong game and decide to do something completely different.
Puerto Limon can be a refuge to catch your breath and reevaluate priorities, a gestation period to incubate new directions, an intellectual oasis on the road of life. Or it can be a platform from which to launch daring new enterprises. For a number of us, we cannot believe the unexpected richness of the experience. It will not last forever, but it and the people we have met here have changed us.
There’s a Puerto Limon in everyone’s life. Risk is the price of admission.