In February 1995, a young Australian woman leaves home for the first time to backpack through Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and Peru for three months. A lost soul with a deep-seated desire for love and adventure – and an obsession with Latin America bordering on a mental health disorder – Leigh is willing to embrace everything this fascinating continent has to offer.
On her third day in Buenos Aires, she has a chance meeting with Gabriel, a handsome Peruvian artisan, and falls in love. With only one day left in Buenos Aires before embarking on her trip with her travel partner Emily, Leigh devotes every spare minute to Gabriel and their bond is sealed.
Vowing to return to Buenos Aires and be with Gabriel, Leigh is conflicted as she leaves to travel and fulfil her lifelong dream to experience Iguazu Falls, Machu Picchu, the Amazon and Carnival in Brazil. With no mobile phones or internet, it’s almost impossible to stay in touch and she worries about Gabriel losing interest or worse, meeting someone else.
But Leigh returns to Buenos Aires to find Gabriel waiting for her. What was to be three months becomes three years, as she gives herself over to a new life. They join Gabriel’s family in Lima, living with three generations under one roof, and fall into a drug-fuelled city lifestyle, until tragedy forces them to flee.
Leigh and Gabriel head north in search of a place to settle down and make a living selling jewellery. They join Latin America’s vibrant brotherhood and sisterhood of travelling artisans, selling jewellery in streets and squares spanning Peru to Mexico.
Living on little money, they trade jewellery for food and shelter, sleep on beaches and mix in dangerous circles, dodging bandits and narrowly escaping death. Relying on their wits and the kindness of strangers, they find their way to Playa del Carmen, an idyllic Caribbean village in the Yucatán Peninsula.
Desperate to stay in Playa del Carmen with Gabriel no matter what, Leigh finds herself venturing into increasingly dark places that put her safety at risk and test her sense of morality. Finally, after a shocking betrayal, she must face the truth about the man she has devoted her life to – and about herself.
You Had Me at Hola is a gritty, colourful and daringly honest memoir about finding yourself, partly through the many challenges posed by travel, but also in terms of increasingly defining yourself against your lover.
It’s a heartfelt tale about finding your true life’s purpose, facing your shadow and the primal quest for belonging.
And ultimately, it’s a story about and saving yourself, because you finally realise you are worth saving.