It happened around six months in on this trip. We were somewhere around northern Argentina or southern Brazil. It happened to us both around the same time, which is significant I think, though we didn’t talk about it for another month or so. Something changed. It wasn’t a conscious decision we had made or a specific incident that changed us… we had changed. It’s hard to explain exactly, but it was at this point that we officially transformed from tourists to travellers in a much deeper sense than in just the name or the sense of the word. Heck, we had been calling ourselves “travellers” since the trip began, I mean we had more than a year of travel ahead of us after all, right?… But maybe that was just it. Ahead of us. Things had changed a lot in our first six months on the road. We’d learned to adapt our daily lives to rapidly and constantly changing conditions and were aware that each day our lives would be altered significantly by outside forces…and that was okay. The 3 sets of clothes in our backpacks WERE our wardrobe now and subconsciously we knew exactly what to wear each day based on what we would be (or might be) doing. In about 15 minutes upon our arrival at our new hotel room we would methodically transform it into our temporary “home” without even saying a word. It was part of the process. We had learned what things cost in the world and that haggling sometimes wasn’t worth our time. If someone says something is 5 dollars, we’d offer them 50 cents and walk away. 9 times out of 10 they’ll yell after us agreeing to our price, the other time we didn’t need it anyway. We’d stopped booking things ahead of time as we knew our plans would always change whether we wanted them to or not. We had developed all of these skills and tools, and so much more, from our months of intensive seasoning on the road. But something else happened at that six month mark which is what really changed who we were. We stopped thinking about home as a place back in California. THIS was our home now. Wherever we were that day. No longer did we compare things to our previous life. No longer did we start sentences with “when we get back”. No longer did we long for our house, our clothes, our cars, our nice stuff… because that is what it had become to us. Just stuff. We stopped thinking of this trip as a temporary vacation from our lives with a beginning and an end. This was our life now. It might sound simple enough but it really changed our whole perspective on what it was we were doing with our lives and where we were headed. We didn’t have to go back to how it was or where we were. Maybe we’d go back, maybe we wouldn’t. The whole world was open to us now and our path was anything but clear. A new sense of freedom, opportunity and uncertainty swept over us and redefined who we are. We’ve been on the road 299 days now and we still don’t have a return ticket purchased, and that is a wonderful thing.
It was very early in the morning as we wound our way through the hills away from Hampi, India. It was 5am in fact and the pre-dawn light glowed lovingly and blue on the temple ruins and palm jungles that lined our rickshaws route and surrounded us everywhere. The monsoon season air was cool and moist as it breezed against our open eyes and it smelled like fresh rain. In the twilight, dozens of wooden ox carts rolled past us on the road making their way to distant sugar cane fields for the days work, as they’d done for decades if not centuries. Their riders holding the reins and standing upright or sitting cross-legged on the wooden platforms, barely visible in the increasing glow of the morning sky. Rounding a bend we passed the stone ruins of a massive bazaar where 500 years ago traders hawked gold, silver and precious stones, fruits and vegetables and of course the all important spices, which India is still known for today. A columned temple looked down from a hill above. We had been in Hampi for four days now and had spent them walking amongst its other worldly boulder covered hills and exploring the seemingly endless ruins of this great lost civilization. The “Forgotten Empire” as they called it. Massive ornate temples rising out of the jungle, stone palaces, structures and aqueducts throughout the hills and giant monolithic carved sculptures of Ganesha and other Hindu god figures lined the swollen Tungabhadra river. The river that has brought fertility and life to this plateau for millenia. We took probably hundreds of pictures of the incredible ruins of the city and the massive temple complexes that dot the vivid landscape. However as we reviewed the photos in the evenings, a familiar feeling repeatedly crept over me. One which I had only felt after visiting Machu Picchu, Tikal and other ancient civilizations we’d visited on this journey. Pictures just cannot capture in the slightest bit what it feels like to actually visit these places. There is something unique about standing amongst the crumbling remains of a society that thrived long before my great great great great grandparents even existed on this Earth. Something very different than visiting any natural wonder, amazing landscape or historic active city, no matter how old. Your imagination is unlocked and set alight with day dreams of what could have been. It’s an amazing and visceral experience. As you look at what is left behind you can feel, hear, smell and see in glimpses what it must have been like in its time and things momentarily can somehow transform around you. You can feel the energy still permeating the places where so many people lived, felt and died. As we walked through the palace courtyards and past the empty public bath pools I had visions of the pools and moats filled with water and hundreds of people around us going about their daily lives. I could hear the frenetic sounds of countless conversations and the splashing of water. I could smell the royal elephants walking by on their way to the palace stables. As we walked through the massive stone bazaar complexes I could briefly see the bright colors of precious stones, fruits and textiles all around me. Hear the hawkers hawking. Smell the incense and spices everywhere. And as I entered the massive temples covered with carvings of gods, animals and the stories of these peoples past I could almost feel a divine presence, a sense of solemnity and the importance and reverence with which the people of this community must have looked upon their spirituality and these places. A photograph cannot capture that. Not even close. It’s a realization I’ve had so many times on our travels and it was at these times that I had to put down the camera to truly embrace our surroundings and the experience of the moment. In this era where everything we own has or will eventually have a camera on it and people can “live” entire lives vicariously through YouTube and the internet, it’s important to remember that there just is no substitute for the real thing. Experience. Photographs and videos capture such a small piece of the story of life. It’s so important to get out there explore and truly be a part of it. It’s interesting that it took a 500 year old dead society to fully teach me that.
It’s been 7 months now but I still do it fairly often. It’s embedded in my subconscious, or in my muscle memory. As I stand up to leave a place I reach back to feel my left back pocket to make sure I still have my keys on me. It’s a pretty typical routine for many people. Thing about it is though… I just don’t have any keys any more. My three house keys are gone with my house. My four work keys, gone with my job. My two car keys, also gone with my car. I think back now as I separated myself from the previous life I lived and gradually gave up each key, one by one, until all that I was left with was an empty little aluminum carabiner with nothing on it. That carabiner still hangs on my backpack today, partly as a reminder of what I left behind but also because it turns out carabiners are extremely handy for more things than just key rings. It’s nice not having keys, its nice not having attachments, but honestly it also can be a very uncomfortable feeling. Getting the keys to my first car, the keys to my first apartment, the first time a job trusted me with the keys to the place… these are all big moments in our lives and symbolized personal accomplishments for me along the way. It was a tough choice leaving it all behind knowing that I’ll have to start all over again. But it was a choice that I know now was all worth it. I do wonder sometimes if it will feel the same way the next time around as I start collecting keys again. Or I wonder if now that I’ve gotten a taste for keylessness it will be hard to go back to so many attachments. This whole trip has been about challenging ourselves and learning about what makes us truly happy. I guess I’ll just have to see how I feel 7 more months from now.
It is profound the different perspective one has after significant time on the road. Both perspective on the world around them and also, just as importantly, on the world within. When there are none of the normal distractions of life we’ve become accustomed to, no pop culture media inundation or shopping malls, no morning meetings or deadlines, no upcoming concerts or dinner parties with friends. None of it. When everything is stripped down to its most basic and simplest form, it’s just you and the day. When the volume is finally turned down and the static dissipates, the little things about yourself and your character that you may not have noticed before become so amplified they are impossible to miss. They are who you are. Every little fault and foible, whether you’re a bit too critical of others or you over think things, you drink a bit too much or you stay up too late, you spend too much money pointlessly or you’re too thrifty on things that matter, you’re not as patient or understanding as you should be or you’re TOO patient or understanding…. and the positives as well, your calm under pressure, your strength against adversity, your ability to adapt to new cultures and to make new relationships. Whatever it is, you start to see these parts of your character much more clearly as they drastically and increasingly affect your daily life in much more meaningful ways. It’s both exciting and a little bit terrifying at the same time. I think the important thing now will be learning how to adapt. I’m figuring out who I am, the road is showing me. Deciding which fork to take at this point though, is up to me.
The last one of our four feet was barely off the concrete when the accelerator hit the floor. The bus roared and launched forward to 50 mph in less than 10 seconds as we grabbed on to our bags and nearby seat backs to keep from being thrown into the aisle or down the stairs onto the street through the still open bus door. The passengers watched us as we tried desperately to get ourselves and our packs to open seats in the back as the bus swerved violently back and forth on the windy country road. Laura and I began laughing at the insanity of it as we inched slowly down the aisle falling over ourselves as the bus continued to accelerate around turns, faster…faster.. the driver indifferent to whatever was going on behind him. Move one foot… then one hand…. then another foot…. then the other hand…. Finally we got to an open seat and threw our packs against the buses back door and hurled ourselves into a seat. The passengers and ourselves immediately had to grab on to the seat backs with both hands as the bus banked hard around a turn at 60 mph and felt as though it was about to roll over. I looked up with a too familiar wrench in my gut to see a large sticker on the wall staring at me of a disgusting troll baby with white eyes giving me the finger and another of the doll from the Childs Play horror movies with “Chuqui!” written under it. We were on yet another wild ride on a “chicken bus” as they’re affectionately called in Central America. 30 year old Blue Bird school buses from the US that have made their way south for a new life and been given amazing paint jobs, chrome, sound systems and colorful neon and LED lighting. They are the public buses of Centro and are known for blasting Tropicale, Rap & Regae music, honking their horns constantly and driving at insane speeds on the wrong side of the road on blind curves with children, teens, adults and the elderly packed in without seatbelts, many standing crowded in the aisles. Something you would never, ever see legal or condoned in the US but the primary form of cheap transportation in Central America. It is truly something to behold. But then after we started riding them for a while, we began to see that they are more than just a way to get from one place to another. They are part of the community and fabric of the small towns they connect. The constant honking is them either honking to another passing bus to say hello, honking as they pass by the homes of people they know or honking to warn people they’re coming around the bend. People on their porches wave to the buses as they pass by and people on the buses wave back. They’ll drop everyone off directly in front of their house and if they pass by at 50mph they’ll slam on the brakes and even back up so the person doesn’t have to walk. It’s an amazing system that seems like chaos but in reality is such a part of everyones day to day life that I couldn’t picture it any other way. The chicken buses ARE Central America and are the heartbeat of the rural communities and are in turn those communities connection to the urban centers. An hour (of hanging on for dear life) later we reached our destination with $1 less in our pockets but a better understanding of the people and the towns and communities we passed through along the way. Would love it if they had seatbelts and a schedule though!
Travelling the way we are (cheaply) for a long time can be really, really, REALLY taxing. We call it ”character building” now. I know it seems like a total dream, travelling around the world to exotic locales for 400 days, but trust me, we’re not exactly staying at Sandals resorts and living a jet set lifestyle. This is the developing world and while a budget of $50/day for two people is livable, it grows weary after a while. Its been almost 3 months now and our standards of living have plummeted from our days in the ole USA. We just upgraded from our bamboo hut with sand floors in the jungle to a real, honest to god room with a functioning florescent light in it and an actual bathroom nearby! It’s the little things. Like walls. I’ve been bitten and stung more times in 3 months than in the 30 years prior. Sand fleas, mosquitos, biting ants, scorpions, spiders, jellyfish, you name it. You could play connect the dots on my leg right now. We lie in bed often at night, sweating in 95 degree heat with no AC for hours until just as we fall asleep the roosters wake us at 4am. Our backs have grown sore from sitting on cramped busses for 14 hours at a time and sleeping on cloth bundled springs and bars being passed off as mattresses. Hot water sounds mind-blowing. I just took a typical cold shower from an exposed pipe sticking out of the wall, no shower head, just some water drizzling out of a pipe. But hey, it got the sand off of me. Most of all though we miss our friends and families. Yeah already. We’ve made a lot of great friends on the road but that doesn’t mean we miss the ones we already had any less. It’s tough not having them around to share this with or to lean on at times.
We’ve got a long way to go and a lot of the world to see…maybe it will get easier… maybe it will get more difficult… but two things are for sure… it’s all been worth it… and by the time we’re done you’ll be able to see our character from space. 😉
Friends On The Road Can be Fleeting, and That is Okay
It’s amazing how many friends you make on the road. At a hostel/hotel… on the bus… on some other wacky adventure…. Constantly you spend an afternoon becoming great friends with someone, or a few days or even a week together having drinks, learning together, hiking together, etc.. But then inevitably one of you leaves that place. Heading north to Belize or south to Honduras or heading home to the US or Europe or Australia or China or wherever. And you try to make plans to meet up a few countries down the line but it gets harder and harder and eventually you realize that the amazing time you had together, however fleeting it may have been, might be it. And that’s okay. Certain people obviously you hope to keep up with for years but most of them you’ll just have the memories of the great times you had together. The drink you had having laughs by the river together… the arduous 14 hour bus ride you endured together… the songs you sang together… the cliff you challenged each other to jump off together… those are the memories you’ll always share with each other. And that is great.
A Hot Trickle is Better than a Cold Deluge
Our house in Antigua has one of those crazy looking electric shower head heaters that make it seem like you’re about one misplaced arm overhead from certain death by electrocution. Well, our first day we turned the water on and found ourselves gently awoken by an endless deluge of completely freezing water. It was relentless. I feel much ill will towards that water. Anyway, after a few days of these morning assaults we finally asked our host family why we couldn’t get hot water and found out those ridiculous shower heads can only heat a little water at a time. So we were taught to barely turn the water on to get a luxuriously hot shower. The downside…we now have to shower in a slow drizzle of water as turning up the pressure pushes the cold water past the heater too fast. Lesson learned. A hot trickle is better than a cold deluge though. There has got to be a Buddhist proverb in their somewhere.
The Parrot of the Baskervilles
Our place in Guatemala has a beautiful central courtyard that all the rooms face into. There are many green plants and flowers, a small grassy yard, a fountain and last but not least… a caged parrot. A beautiful green parrot who literally says ¨Hola¨ as you walk in the door and ¨Hasta Luego¨as you leave. Cute, right? That’s what we thought. We soon realized that as soon as you lie down for a mid day nap (seriously every time) we slowly begin hearing the parrot say ¨hola¨over and over again. But it keeps getting louder and louder and it begins to change… Hola… Hooolaaaa…. HOOOOOLAAAAA!!!!…. AAAAAAAGGHHHH!!!… AAAAAAGGHHHH!!! It sounds like someone is screaming outside our door every 5 seconds! So terrifying. If you ever find yourself living with a parrot. Invest in some quality earplugs and spare yourself the nightmares.