A Year on the Road: A Reflection
I find myself, in Mexico City. Somehow, an entire year has passed and still I travel. I`m amazed and saddened by how quickly 12 months have passed by me.
May 5, 2012, I eagerly woke at the crack of dawn so my parents could drop me at O`haire. A goodbye that was exciting and happy, though tearful. My layover flight, overbooked, I volunteered to fly to Panama City for the night. This was a good decision as I spent the evening at a resort with a fun group of fellow volunteers and continued to travel with a few of them after finally reaching Lima the following evening. This moment seems so vivid and clear to me—not a distant memory separated by a year of adventure.
My first six months flashed by me like a movie I didn’t want to end—trekking in the Andes, sampling Pervian specialties, basking in the glory of the ancient city of Machu Picchu, hiking in The Amazon, partying in Quito, salsa-dancing in Cali, exploring the lush green valleys of Colombia`s Zona Cafetera, sweating in Cartagena, working in Santa Marta, sick in the mountains, venturing into the Guajira, living it up in Bogota, sailing through the San Blas Islands—Panama Vieja and the Canal; the sloths and jungles of Costa Rica: surfing in San Juan, snorkeling in the Corn Islands, Spanish in Leon, boogie boarding and kayaking in Las Penitas.
And somehow these last six months have been just as spectacular, meaningful and enlightening as the first…
Volcano climbing and hiking in El Salvador: working on a German sailboat in La Ceiba, scuba diving in Utila, Christmas in the Bay Islands and New Years in Antigua, Spanish immersion in Xela: the spectacular ruins of Tikal, the nearly tourist-free ruins of Belize, the glorious crumbling architecture of Havana, the lush tobacco fields of Vinales—postcard perfect Yucatan Beaches, free tequila in Cancun, refreshing cenotes of Valladolid, cooking classes in Merida, Semana Santa in San Cristobal, nights of live music and mescal in Chiapas, dolphin spotting in Puerto Escondido, the petrified waterfalls of Oaxaca, the moles of Puebla, and finally Mexico City–the fabulously tacky Lucha Libre, the beautifully melancholy former home of Frida Kahlo, the grand murals of Diego Rivera, walks through breezy parks, beers and parties, and exploring the endlessly fascinating city via the Metro.
The people whom I met enriched these memories and made them more meaningful, significant, or just plain fun–this may take a while…
American Mary, German Max and the Panama layover crew; Andrew, who showed me around Lima and treated me to a fantastic meal; my amazing trekking group–the endlessly entertaining Vegar and the friendly Brazilians. My travel companion of 10 weeks, who could not have been a better partner–my friend Anna; the smart and funny Janek who joined us in the jungle: the hilarious Aussie, Cam who joined us on the coast. The kind and ever-curious Raymond, who took care of me when I needed it the most. Jaime–one inspiring chica; Elina, Edd, Adrian, Blake and all of my wild and crazy La Brisa Loca fellow staff. Reinier and Daan–my Dutch Guajira-exploring partners. The rowdy American, Arizona state alums whom I partied with in Bogota and in Cartagena. My mountain biking chicas–Destiny and Meghann. My Colombian Highlands Dinner Club–Vaughn, Aaron, Chris, Alex, and, of course, Arti–the amazing Spanish chica who, I will never forget, spent 7 hours with me, translating & supporting, at the Villa de Leyva Hospital.
My international group of fellow-sailers to Panama; my Dutch, Australian, German surfing/fishing/hostel companions of San Juan del Sur; exploring Nicaragua`s best beaches with a few fantastic Norwegians. Fieneke, the feisty Dutch girl I had the privilege of meeting up with in 2 different countries, and along with Colby, a sweetheart from the American south, became my family away from home for Christmas. Gudrun and Jurgen, the positively lovely Austrian couple who I met in Guatemala and was lucky enough to run into in Belize; my beautiful Tikal-exploring, picture-taking partner Emma. My fellow Spanish student, the intelligent and quirky Soo: Cedric, the funny Frenchman whom I explored the ruins and jungles of Belize. The many fantastic companions I encountered in Mexico–Vera, Elina, Shane, Belgian Max and Kristi–the spunky, fellow Midwesterner whom I also explored Cuba with: the inspiring English broads we rode horses alongside, and lounged by the pool.
Sarita and Baxter–my Puerta Vieja family who could always put me in a good mood: and the countless travellers I met while working in San Cristobal–hilarious Irish Eoin, the brother-sister ass-kicking Canadian team Phil and Jane, crazy Tom, lovely Australian Jahne, amusing Hyosoon, Vargas the friendly giant, smart & motivated Natalie, and the sweet boys from Ensenada–always up for a good time. My British and Russian beach and sunset buddies and my dolphin spotting Dutch & Danish friends. Delightful Michael of both Oaxaca and DF–Hostel-made dinner, museums, zoos, great chats and a Lucha Libre night. Juuso, the chatty and always fun Fin, whom I explored much of Mexico City with. Alexander–the impressive Russian who took me to parties and graciously allowed me to couchsurf at his apartment. And the countless others I hiked, explored, cooked, sat by a campfire or beach with, joined on a bus ride, exchanged advice, and had deep conversations with, during this past year–whom also deserve acknowledgment.
Though once frustrating for my Western mentality–I`ve actually grown to appreciate the pace of life in Latin America. Waiting for a late bus or person isn’t so bad as long as I always have a good book on hand or a perch for people watching.
With the exception of a home cooked meal by mom, I´ve never once missed the food from America. This was especially the case in Mexico. I´ve come to appreciate the taste of a freshly made corn tortilla, slow-marinated meats, the glorious plethora or salsas and hot sauces, the various methods for preparing beans and the sweetness of ripe mangos and freshly squeezed orange juice. I never grew tired of exploring the incredible market places of Latin America–trying foods and fruits I`d never imagined existed and buying inexpensive fresh veggies to prepare back at the hostel. Some of my best memories resulted from the sharing a meal with people from very different places than me and learning that, for the most part, people are more alike than they are different.
I feel deeply enlightened by my shift, over the last year, away from a possession-based lifestyle and toward one based solely on life experiences. My way of thinking has transformed as a result of the liberating feelings and creative inspiration that comes from a life without a TV, phone, or computer. Anyways, such things are useless when your life feels like a movie.
I have grown accustomed to throwing my toilet paper in the waste basket rather than toilet, sleeping in the presence of 5-11 strangers, carrying all my worldly possessions on my back: to arriving in a new city completely unfamiliar, and not knowing where or what my next meal will be–from one day being completely alone to the next in the presence of people from around the globe, whom I feel like I´ve known my whole life.
This last year has been incredibly empowering for me. I now know the empowering feeling that comes with figuring out how the busses, metro systems and colectivos operate, all on my own–mastering how to find the cheapest food, how to shop in markets, how to maneuver, to budget and live on little; how to pick the best hostels and restaurants, while communicating in another language. The experience of spending 12 hours on a bus, alone in my thoughts followed by the giddy excitement of entering yet another place I´ve never been. The privilege of spending entire days doing anything I please; seeing how much joy can come with a cup of coffee in a well placed outdoor spot–in the company of a good book or my journal. The energizing feelings that result from conversations with fellow travellers, when discussing intriguing and intelligent topics–or just having a good laugh while sharing stories or over a game of cards.
I`m proud of the number of times I`ve managed to pull myself through awkward or uncomfortable moments–each easier and more gracefully handled than the last. I´m proud of my improved navigation, communication and planning skills. After travelling through Latin America for a year, I feel I´ve become a sort of mini expert of sorts—I love being able to provide fellow travellers with advice and opinions.
The beauty of travelling lies in the fact that you are returned to your kid-self–curious, excited, playful and full of wonder for the world–while containing the thoughts, lessons and morals of your adult-self. This is the exact recipe for an incredible adventure in learning.
I´ve learned in a year of travel that I´ve grown easier to please, but harder to impress. Simple things can turn into pure luxury—a warm shower with a fluffy towel, a bed bigger than twin, nice pillows, a good meal, a comfortable bus seat—can fill me with overwhelming joy and appreciation. While normally amazing sites—yet another ornate cathedral, massive waterfall or Mayan ruin—can fail to excite me.
I`ve learned that just because something works in the US, Europe or elsewhere in the developing world, doesn’t mean it will work in Latin America. And sometimes, though things may seem unsafe, inefficient or just plain ridiculous, it’s not my business to wish it different. Countries follow their own rules. We have no business walking into a new situation and trying to change things. I´ve learned to go with the flow and take things with a grain of salt.
I´ve learned how completely different my perception of Colombia, Mexico, Cuba were from the reality; how you can`t believe everything streaming from American media. But I´ve also learned the contradicting ways the rest of the world perceives America and Americans. I discovered many disturbing facts involving the United States relationships with Latin America. I seemed to continually learn how the US has: managed to crush the little guys in it´s quest for its own interests—supplied weapons to corrupt governments to prolong a Civil War, funded counter-revolutionaries in Nicaragua, ensured the massive pheasant-dominating, fruit-growing, land-hogging monopolies continued to prosper; provides demand to fuel Mexico´s violent drug war and then denies immigrants attempting to flee the turmoil; and at many times threatened any country who didn’t closely embrace our free market, or follow our un-tethered capitalistic values, no matter how poor or weak the country or how much it hurt its citizens.
With that said, I´m not leaving Latin America with Anti-American viewpoints—I leave more criticism and insight. I leave with a deeper appreciation of the life I was priveledged enough to be born into–a supportive family and friends; in a part of the world where there are countless opportunities for bettering your life, no matter your gender or socioeconomic status. If I had been born nearly anywhere in Central America, the chances I would have been able to make this trip happen would have been slim to none. This is a topic I´ve spent a great deal of time reflecting on–one that deserves an entire post.
Being in a place away from the people and places with which you are most familiar forces a great deal of personal reflection. One starts to question their behaviors and mannerisms. Over the course of a year I`ve somehow become much more aware of how I carry myself, my manners, my social behaviors and how I interact and listen to others. Change comes freely when you allow yourself to leave familiar settings and the people who know you best. It’s not always a pleasant or comfortable experience, but in the end, you`re always better off.
Yet when I return home, I will still be the same person who I was prior to leaving, with more or less the same values, and the same level of happiness–just wiser, and a bit more fearless and much more grateful. The same me–but just a little better. My mind filled with great adventures, my heart heavier, my world smaller.
To even put into words what this last year has meant to me is near impossible. Though, a day didn’t go by where I didn´t spend at least a few moments thinking about or missing my loved ones back home, I have loved or was grateful for each and every moment. I`m sure I`ll never quite be able to talk about or portray it to its true value. And for that reason, as long as I remain in this traveller world, I`m among kindred spirits.
As my Kiwi friend puts it–the traveller world is Neverland–and the traveller Peter Pan. As long as you`re the road you can feel as if you`ll never really grow old. As long as in Neverland, you are a sort of equal amongst travellers–your ranking not determined by the car you drive, the expensive phone you talk on, your job or social status–but by the places you`ve managed to see and the experiences you`ve had. Your wealth is measured by the quality of the stories you can tell or insights you have over a sunset and beer (or margaritas).
You can login to Facebook to check up on a filtered version of reality and see how your friends are growing up without you in the Real World. How they are advancing in their jobs, getting engaged, married, procreating (!). But you can feel a bit of relief, because as long as you remain in Neverland, you can continue to pretend you have no big responsibilities. You´ll take comfort in the fact there`s nowhere you have to be come 8 AM (but bed), and you can continue to see the world in wonder with the eyes of a child—learning big lessons (many of which may be difficult to learn)—and prolong the day when you finally feel like a real adult. And perhaps that–that is the most valuable part about travelling long-term. Because life is short and your memories are your most precious possessions and if anything can make you feel like a kid for longer then I think that´s something worth holding on to.
When that day comes when I decide I`m ready to take back on those adult responsibilities (it won´t be too long from now) I know I`ll be ready for them—and be better able to handle them. Because already my life has been so full and I´ll never feel I´ve missed out on having my big adventure. And I can feel good about returning home as long as I vow to live by a certain set of rules—that I keep my intense thirst to continue obtaining knowledge about our spectacular world, challenge myself in new ways and continue to see life as the big adventure it is.
For that I can never ever regret the risks and hard work I`ve taken to achieve this last year of spectacular living.
Here´s to my last 16 days in Latin America…