I didn’t have much of a plan when I started out this trip, I kind of figured that I’d just head south and within about six months I’d find myself in South America. The table I write this from sits in Panama, clearly I’ve miss calculated.
Two weeks in Mexico, which was “all just like Cancun anyway” turned into nearly two months, a menagerie of places and foods so very different from each other. I yearn to return to the land of mole rojo.
A few weeks of learning Spanish in Guatemala became a few months of living in Xela due to a broken foot, but I would have stayed there anyway to become a guide with Quetzaltrekkers Guatemala.
My experiences in Xela inspired me to trying living elsewhere and thus found myself becoming a hiking guide in Leon with Quetzaltrekkers Nicaragua.
Plans to stay in a place for a few days often became a week and plans for a week would become three. It was a rare occurrence when how long I’d be in a place coincided in any way with what I’d anticipated at the forefront, or for that matter, what I thought I’d do there.
It wasn’t the places however that made this past year what it’s been, nor was it the people, however influential some of them were. What I’ve truly taken from this year were a few fundamental lessons on life and who I am.
It’s Important to Slow Down
In Canada I had a tendency to live life at the pace of a bullet train. I’m not talking about staying active or having friends, or even going out a lot. I mean, I tended to be very reactive; I’d lose focus on what I was doing, go off on a tangent, or start working on something else entirely.
I’m not saying I never finished anything, I just never seemed to stick to some things and see them through on their own. Multitasking isn’t multitasking, it’s doing a lot of things inefficiently in short bursts.
I’ve learned that whenever possible I need to cut out the distractions to be able to focus on what I’m doing.
Recently in the San Blas islands of Panama I created myself a nightly ritual of playing the guitar for an hour or so as the sun dropped below the horizon. Inevitably I was disturbed nearly every night when I was asked to help get wood for the evening fire, something I’d suggested we do an hour before so we could enjoy the sunset on our beautiful sand beach. Instead of jumping up to go help I just said that I’d help go get more later if we needed any (which we rarely did) and went back to playing music.
The old me would have been more apt to have wasted the hour waiting on others to be ready to go or jumped up to respond to them and while in some cases either of those responses might be more appropriate, in this and many others, they aren’t.
Most people think that breaking my foot in Guatemala was horrible and in truth, some parts were. Looking back however and often even at the time I remember thinking that the fractured toe was one of the best things that could have happened to me. I might not have learned to slow down otherwise and doing so is what enabled other things that followed.
Learning New Things Isn’t That Hard
It is nowhere near as hard to learn something new as popular culture would have us believe. You don’t need to be born with a talent for art, or music, or language, or computer hacking, you need to practice.
You also don’t need to spend 10,000 hours in practice to be able to do something, about a full-time job for 5 years solid. In Josh Kaufman’s TED podcast he suggested that in a mere 20 hours of focused and dedicated study you can actually learn a lot.
Benny the Irish Polyglot has been proving for years that just about anyone can become fluent in any language in about 3 months of study.
There are two keys that I’ve come across, the first it to just focus and do it. Stop complaining that it can’t be done because you weren’t born with the talent. The second is to recognize when extra effort isn’t going to get you better results.
In my final year of university I’d figured out that if I spent about 5 hours on assignments for a particular class I’d get about 85%. A good friend of mine (who was and is much smarter) would spend about 20 hours on the same assignment and receive a grade of 95%. Was putting in 4x the effort for 10% increase in grade worth it? To me it wasn’t.
In the same light of those university assignments I’ve had to look at what I’m currently learning and recognize when more effort isn’t producing better results and switch gears. Sitting in Spanish class for 8 weeks instead of 4 would have done me little good, I needed to get out and use it. Going back now however with a base that I’ve built might actually do me some good.
In the last year I’ve managed to learn guitar to a level such that most people don’t believe I’ve only played for a year. I can sing, more importantly I’m usually in key, something I never would have thought possible. My ability to speak Spanish to a reasonable level of fluency has given me the courage to set my sights on other languages such as French and possibly Mandarin or Cantonese.
I can’t remember how many times I nearly failed French class while growing up, I hated learning the language in class and thought it was useless. I’d always told myself I wasn’t capable of learning a new language, I was wrong, it was how I was learning that was the problem
I Don’t Actually Like Backpacking (That Much)
Wait? What? Isn’t that what I’m doing?
Yes and no.
For the better part of the past year I’ve been more or less stationary, 2 weeks on an island in Mexico, 3 weeks on an island in Honduras, 4+ months in Xela Guatemala , and 4+ months in Leon Nicaragua. So out of a year of travel I’ve spent probably less than about 2 months doing actual traditional backpacking, i.e. packing up and moving every few days to see new places.
I’ve actually seen a fair amount of things in the countries I’ve been to but I’d wager that your average traveller through the area has been to more places than I have. I miss a lot of locations as I have a tendency to just camp out in a place, get to know it, and then move on. Over a month in Costa Rica and Panama I’ve only had 6 stops (2 mountain villages, 2 beach islands, and 2 cities).
To be honest, I’m good with not seeing a lot of stuff for three reasons. The first is that I can always come back later and it gives me a good reason. The second is that it’s impossible to see everything, there’s always going to be something you missed due to time or not knowing about. The final reason is that by not scraping the surface on 10 places for 2 days each, it allows me to get to know somewhere for 20 days. I learn the best restaurants, hidden places to go and see as well as make friends with local people I may otherwise have only seen in passing.
It’s nice to unpack a bag in a room that’s half the price of a dorm bed and not have to get up to hit the bus at 5am every 3 days (somehow travel days always start at 5am).
Most of all however, I’ve noticed that moving fast doesn’t allow me the time for personal growth that I get from staying in a place.
The Coming Year
So now I’ve got my sights set on what I want from the coming year and I’ve come up with the following goals.
- Read a novel in Spanish (and enjoy it). I’ve currently got my sights set on Los Juegos Del Hambre (The Hunger Games) as a starting point, though that may be a bit ambitious.
- Learn enough Brazilian Portuguese to have a simple conversation for when I go to Brazil.
- Learn kite surfing from nothing to being able to confidently do jumps.
- Find a way to make my travels more financially sustainable.