By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — The morning before Anna Spiers left for an eight-week adventure through Peru, she was nervous. Was her Spanish strong enough? Had she packed well? Was her itinerary thorough without being stifling? Who would she talk to?
These are questions that a traveler on a pre-planned group tour wouldn’t have to worry about. But Spiers, a resident of Ruffner Road in Niskayuna, had no leader to fall back on, and no group members to discuss her concerns with. She received a grant from her school, Williams College, that stipulated she had to travel independently for six weeks. From start to finish, she had to choose her destination, plan her routes and make her own personal connections. The school allowed her to add a two-week group trip to the Amazon on her own time, which she supported with a grant from the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, but the majority of her nearly two-month journey would be solo.
The grant’s purpose is to encourage students to build a unique experience, and Spiers, a rising senior at the school, said it worked.
“You get a lot different experience when you’re alone,” she said. “The country presents itself the way it wants to, to tours. They hide the bad sides.”
Spiers traveled to three Peruvian cities during her trip: Lima, Cusco and Iquitos. Her first stop, in Lima, involved a week with a host family that helped her practice her Spanish and learn to safely navigate.
“It was a nice transition into a new country,” she said. “That was probably the height of my Spanish practice.”
Her next stop was Cusco, an eye-opening experience for a new traveler. In that city, she arranged to stay at the apartment of an alumna from her college. She had plenty in common with the Williams alumna, but not many others. For the most part, Spiers spent her time in Cusco trying to reconcile her role as a tourist with her growing love for the country of Peru.
“Every city in Peru has a central plaza,” she said. In Cusco, it’s clogged — not with locals, but with visitors.
“I really wasn’t expecting there to be so many tourists,” she said.
Cusco is the hub for visitors to the ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu. Native Peruvians in the central square are far more likely to cater to mobs of backpackers than to shop or socialize among themselves. They dress up in traditional outfits and pose for pictures, serve food and sell souvenirs. Many of the newcomers travel in organized groups, staying in hotels and never straying from their companions.
“Sometimes I would go outside the cultural center and there was graffiti on the walls saying, ‘Tourism is colonialism,’ ” Spiers said. “In Cusco I struggled with knowing whether my presence there was good.”
She was still considering her role as a visitor when she traveled to Iquitos, a city in the Amazon rainforest. There, she felt much more welcome. She struck up a casual conversation with a woman sitting near her on a bench, who was much warmer than the locals in the previous city.
There’s a reason locals in the Amazon liked tourists, while those near Machu Picchu seemed resentful: Tourists are damaging the ancient city in Cusco and overrunning local spaces, while in Iquitos, tourists are more likely to have a positive impact.
“Tourism in the Amazon provides an alternative income for people,” Spiers said. Rather than logging, hunting and selling the coca plant, leading tours is considered a respectable job in Iquitos.
In fact, when Spiers asked a guide what visitors could do to help the rainforest, she was told, “Tell everyone to come visit.”
When she left for her trip, Spiers had been interested in medicinal plants and had planned to write a paper on the subject when she returned. She was curious about ethnobotany, which examines the relationships between cultures and plants, and did learn quite a bit about the topic during her travels. But the experience shed light on a new topic, tourism, that she now feels equally as passionate about.
She thinks a possible career path might be conservation biology, where she can combine her love for plants and cultures with her newfound fascination with the effects of tourism.
“I don’t want this summer to just be a memory,” Spiers said. “I want to apply it in my life.”
Tips for independent travelers
Spiers shared some ideas for traveling independently with Your Niskayuna. Here are a few of the things she wishes she’d known before she hit the road:
1: Take advantage of connections, even if they’re distant. Consider an alumni association or a friend-of-a-friend. “People are so eager to connect,” Spiers said.
2: If you don’t have a host family or a friend to visit, stay in hostels, as opposed to hotels. “That’s how you create a sense of community,” Spiers said. People in hostels are fellow travelers, not locals, but they’ll help prevent feelings of loneliness.
3: Educate yourself about the places you plan to stay. “In markets they’ll sell animals that have been hunted illegally,” she said. “Do your research and know what not to buy.”
4: Be in contact with someone from home. Give your itinerary to a friend or family member. It’s comforting for the traveler and the family member to know that everything is OK.
5: Immerse yourself with language, culture and unique local food. “You’re there to be there, so experience there,” Spiers said.
6: Be flexible with your days, but do start with a basic itinerary. Do research in advance so you don’t miss any travel opportunities or waste any time.