Advice to My 19-Year-Old Self

By Sara Spock

Standing at the baggage claim of the Lima International Airport, I was determined to avoid the eye of the man who was staring. He was dressed in a cream-colored linen suit with a brazen yellow shirt, unbuttoned to reveal thick black hair. He flicked ashes to the ground and walked toward me. His face passed just inches from mine as he grabbed his leather suitcase off the conveyor. Tipping his hat, he said, “Adios, gringa,” and walked off.  I was sure he slipped something into my carry-on, something to sneak through customs.

I was a naïve 19 year old, on foreign soil for the first time in my life. I often think back, wishing I could whisper words of advice into my untested ears.

While border-hopping, don’t carry fresh puffed cereal despite how crunchy and delicious it is. Peruvian border guards are edgy and like excuses to search bags. When they search your bags, if your best friend is smuggling whiskey for the bus driver in exchange for a free ride, it’s probably best not to argue with the guards. They carry real guns and will toss you into jail. Please stay out of Peruvian jails. They smell like urine, cigarettes, and beer-soaked sheep. Instead, try slipping a five into your passport. When he opens your passport, smile and say, “Gracias por su ayuda!” Ask if he ever plans to visit America. Smile. If you’re traveling through the Peruvian-Bolivian border and you don’t have the appropriate paperwork, sing. The Copacabana guards like Barry Manilow and single dollar bills. Don’t waste a five on them. Better yet, don’t forget your paperwork.

Chile is beautiful, but sleeping in the park in any foreign country is foolish. Drunks and dogs roam at night, forcing you and your french fries to sit in a tree. When a drunk offers you chicken, don’t take it.  If he pulls out an American twenty, run like hell. Nothing, and I mean nothing good comes from money changing hands between two single girls and a drunk in the middle of the night, in an empty Chilean park. Handsome young men are worse. If he offers a free night’s stay with his grandma, say no. Don’t give the grandma your passport, she’ll only give you a “room” on the roof with eye-holes cut into the door, beds that are missing slats and sheets, and she’ll try to tell you that she gave the passport back the night before when you checked in at three AM. She didn’t. Look in the second drawer of the bureau in the entry way, it will be there. Grab the copies she made, too.

Stay with your friends during Carnival. I know you wear combat boots and think you’re tough, but the partying masses don’t care what you think. You will get the tar beaten out of you because you are so obviously American. You think you’re above it, volunteering and being a good person, but suspicion and prejudice run deep and go in many directions. Be aware of it and avoid a black eye and several dislocated ribs. Richard, the money changer who pulled you from the abusing crowd? Buy him a bigger gift, he will save your life. Twice.

And about 42 more things that are, perhaps, better left unsaid. A girl has to live, right?

~Sara Spock is a Mom, Wife, Penn State Graduate, Substitute Teacher, Freelance Writer, and Chocolate Addict.  When she’s not running from Chilean drunks, Sara can be found over at The Hero Complex where she tries to save the world, one. recipe. at. a. time.


  1. 0.0 Holy cow, lady,! You got a fast run-and-go at this life stuff! I hope you bought your mama a great mother's day gift that year for all the worry!

  2. I actually never breathed a word of most of it to my parents when it was happening ;-) they would have demanded I come home... and there's NO WAY that was happening!

  3. At nineteen, I was warming bottles and changing diapers. :D I love that you've led such an adventurous life!

  4. Hey, when was this? I did Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia when I was 19! We might have met --

  5. I'm convinced. Yep, I'll be keeping all of my travels on USA soil. ;-)

  6. WHOA! Although I will confess that at 16 we all slipped our chaperones and went partying in Guadalajara and were served in the bars. Six teen gringas in Mexico. Nah, nothing bad could possibly happen . . .

  7. Sharon, it was in 1995-96. Maybe we crossed paths? JLC- don't miss out on fantastic adventures just because I was an idiot! LOL.


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