Contrary to what some people think, I didn’t come to Central America just to escape a Canadian winter. Although given the dreadful winter in Canada this year, it was definitely a bonus.
No, what I travelled to Central America for was to educate myself. I wanted to see what it would be like to live a backpacker-travelling life, with no agenda and no particular destination. What challenges would I face? Would I be able to maintain my composure in the face of adversity? What would I learn from the people I met and the cultures I immersed myself in? How might a minimalist travelling lifestyle in unfamiliar lands shape me for future adventures?
The beautiful thing about travel is that it’s impossible not to learn something, whether it’s a better way to wash your dishes, how to prepare a new dish with exotic foods, how to communicate with someone in funky sign language, or how to appreciate some of the things we take for granted back home. There’s always something to learn.
With that in mind, as I sit and reflect here in Liberia, Costa Rica, on my last day in Central America before heading home, here are six lessons I’ve learned from this wonderful solo trip.
One: There are good, generous people wherever you go.
One of the fears of a solo traveller is that if something goes wrong or you get into trouble, there won’t be any help for you. It’s mostly a baseless fear.
I ran into trouble a number of times on this trip. I injured myself twice, was sick three times, and lost some travel days while recuperating. Each time, the local people were there to help, even though we didn’t speak a common language. When I injured myself, locals offered to take me to the hospital, once by boat and once by scooter. When I was sick, I was given the directions by a local woman to the pharmacy, where I was treated with great care and respect. When I was bedridden by the flu, the hostel owner nursed me back to health with soup, smoothies, and therapeutic teas, and checked in on me regularly.
Stories from my fellow travellers prove that this type of help is not unique. One friend was walking home at night, inebriated after a night at the bar. The police followed him to make sure he arrived safely at his destination. When he offered the police money, they refused. In other cases, locals who spoke English often jumped into conversations to help travellers struggling to communicate with various vendors, without expectation of compensation.
It’s true that for safety reasons, you should avoid people in Central America that your instinct says are trouble, just like you would in your own home town, but most people are generous and willing to help. Fear of being alone and in trouble is wasted energy.
Two: The world is shrinking. That’s a good thing. And it’s a bad thing.
It’s never been so easy to travel. Back in the day, travellers would arrive at a destination with a travel guide in hand and start knocking on hostel doors to see if any rooms were available. You never really knew what you were going to get. Today, you can research hostels online, find one that suits your personality, read the reviews of the people that went before you, and book a room or bed long before you arrive. It can take the uncertainty and stress out of travel.
Internet is almost everywhere in Central America, so with a smartphone, it’s easy to keep in touch with loved ones and wile away the hours surfing the net. Information and entertainment are only a click away.
Also, almost everywhere you go, you will see how consumerism is spreading. You will find familiar products in the grocery stores, so you won’t have to worry about whether your shampoo has the right ph balance for your hair or if the toothpaste is actually good for your teeth. You’ll recognize the brands. You will see how the locals are making their lives a little easier with products they picked up from Walmart or similar stores. Using baby strollers is easier than carrying babies all around town on sore hips. Packaging has helped to keep products fresher, longer.
But there is a cost to this shrinking world. For example, Central American countries struggle to keep up with the waste of consumerism. Garbage is everywhere. Not that long ago, you would order street food served in banana leaves. The discarded leaves simply became compost for the backyard or for farmers’ fields. Now, everything is served in disposable plastic or styrofoam containers, which litter the streets. Governments haven’t been able to develop waste management programs quickly enough to deal with the onslaught.
Also, I feel like much of the adventure of travel is being lost in this shrinking world. When every step along the travel journey is a guarantee, when every hotel room meets your lifestyle specifications and is booked ahead of time, when you have the ability to fully experience every national park, museum, restaurant, and attraction through TripAdvisor before you ever actually experience it in person, you give up the ability to be surprised and to build your confidence in facing unfamiliar places. For myself, I forced myself not to look at reviews ahead of time. It was the only way to preserve the wonder I felt at experiencing a new place or activity.
Three: There are fewer rules in Central America. This is also a good thing and a bad thing.
It’s exciting in Central America when you realize you can wander down the street with a beer in your hand, or ride a scooter without a helmet, or generally make a nuisance of yourself without fear of being arrested. It’s unlikely you’ll get pulled over for speeding. Tumuloses, or speed bumps, will slow you down in most areas. You don’t have to worry so much about getting behind the wheel of a car if you’ve been drinking. As long as you don’t kill someone, you probably won’t go to jail. You can throw litter on the ground or out your window without receiving a fine. You can urinate on the side of the road in view of other people. You can build an extension on your home without a permit. You can be a tradesman without a license, and nobody will shut you down or fine you if you decide to climb up on a house to replace the roofing without using a safety harness. In some places, you can bribe officials to process paperwork more quickly or to escape a fine. You can smoke your 3-dollar pack of cigarettes almost anywhere.
It’s a lot easier to get things done in Central America, without fear of prosecution.
But there’s a price to pay for lax rules. For example, you may be offended by the lack of police response to animal cruelty. You might complain to the authorities about the loud music from your neighbour’s 3-am party, only to be told to suck it up. You might choke on someone else’s cigarette smoke. You may be rear-ended by a driver only to find out you’re at fault because you have more money.
I had breakfast with some expats in Belize. They had been living there for over five years. They loved it when they first arrived because the rules were lax and they could get anything they wanted by sliding some money across the table. They built their houses the way they wanted and started businesses that gave them income, all pushed through the local authorities with a fistful of dollars and a wink and a nod. Now, they sit around complaining about the very thing that has given them every advantage to date – corruption.
Living with no rules can be fun, until you have to live among others who also have no rules.
Four: You will be fooled out of your money at least once. Don’t sweat it. Learn from it and carry on.
One of the things we first-world citizens have to accept is that when we travel to countries where incomes are lower, people will look at us as a source of wealth and try to access our money. Most people will trade honestly and ask for a fair price. But not everyone. Even normally honest, church-going locals will try to get more money from you than is normal for the market. They wouldn’t think of themselves as being dishonest. They are just trying to survive the best way they can in a difficult world. So if they can access a bit more money from a rich foreigner who is just passing through, all the better for their families.
I was separated from my hard-earned money a couple of times on this trip. Once, I paid about ten times the going rate for a taxi in Nicaragua, paying $10 for what would normally be a one-dollar charge. The driver didn’t say anything and offered no change, and since a similar ride in Mexico would be about $10, I didn’t say anything. Only later did I discover that taxis charged a flat rate of a dollar for a ride anywhere within the city.
Another time, at the Costa Rican border, I got confused with the currency. Amidst a swarm of unofficial helpers, like those found at every border crossing in Central America, while being inundated with the chatter and bustle all about me, the helper I chose took the equivalent of $20 in Costa Rican colones from me for a $1 service. I discovered my error later.
In both cases, I was initially angry that I was dooped. But I got over it. The financial losses were small, so it wasn’t about the money. It was about my ego. My ego couldn’t accept being tricked. Once I calmed my ego, I was okay.
What each of these incidences taught me was to be better prepared. Negotiate taxi fares before you get into a taxi. If you can, ask someone in the know about what the going rates are. When dealing with money, even when surrounded by aggressive vendors, stop, stay calm, and think about the value of the money you are handing over and what change you can expect.
And if you make an error, don’t let it ruin your day. It’s another lesson learned. Carry on with your adventure.
Five: The more you travel, the more you learn, and the more you realize how little you know. And it can become emotional.
Every step of the way on a travel adventure, you will be exposed to new information and new experiences, and each of them will open up another world of possible experiences and learning opportunities. In one moment, you learn that the murals on the buildings of Leon are a pictorial history of the city. Then you learn about the history by reading and hiring a tour guide. Then you are emotionally charged by the injustices that the people of Leon had to endure. Then you begin to see the look of earned determination in the eyes of the locals and understand why they carry their Sandinista flags with pride.
Then you realize that this is just the tip of the iceberg and there is so much more to learn. This one town and one story lead to the next great town and the next great story. You follow a path that leads from one city to another, from country to country, from one experience to the next. Your adventures can become indistinguishable over time.
You know you can’t possibly see everything there is to see during your visit, and even if you could, the sheer number of experiences would dilute the trip overall, rendering it meaningless.
There’s something to be said about narrowing your travel experience to a small part of the world in order to find greater happiness and meaning.
Slow travel might be a better option for some than racing through a bunch of countries to maximize the number of your experiences.
Six: You become comfortable outside your comfort zone.
I’m not an anxious person by nature, but there were some things I dealt with on this trip that I found uncomfortable. For example, I didn’t speak a word of Spanish before I landed in Central America, and so it was a challenge to go out on the street for the first time and try to order food. How would I order? How would I ask for vegetarian food? How would I ensure I’m paying the right price?
After buying street food a number of times, by pointing and using a few learned phrases, I realized that I had become quite confident and comfortable in my ability to negotiate the purchasing procedure.
The same happened when buying pharmaceuticals for an injury and an illness. Simply using sign language and a few common words, I was able to get the medical supplies I needed.
And what happens as you start to gain confidence in one area, such as buying food in a foreign language, is that you start to gain confidence and comfort in all parts of your travel experience. My first border crossing was confusing and uncomfortable. As I crossed increasingly more borders, I realized that they are all confusing. It’s just that it wasn’t uncomfortable anymore.
When we continually challenge ourselves by stepping out of our comfort zones, we discover that the comfort zone has expanded significantly, and what once might have caused us anxiety is now just a comfortable norm.
The bottom line?
A four-month trip through Central America probably didn’t change me significantly. I certainly didn’t ‘find’ myself or have any life epiphanies. But it did contribute to my education and personal growth, while exercising some of my skills, such as problem solving and being patient.
I suggest a trip such as this might do the same for you.