Hard to believe but it’s already been a month since we packed up our lives and headed out on this crazy journey! In this first month of travel together we have learned a lot about not only how to best communicate with each other, but what we want out of this trip. I truly believe that the first month is the hardest part and as we continue to travel things will get easier for us.
Adjusting Our Mindset for the Trip/Cities
Before we left I had in my mind what this trip would be like. I used our 3 week honeymoon around Southeast Asia as my baseline. In hindsight, that was a really dumb comparison to make – it was a much shorter trip, completely different culture and we didn’t have the same budgetary restrictions.
By the time we hit Cartagena, I had a small meltdown. The trip was just not what I had envisioned it to be and I got frustrated. I wanted to have a city that I fell in love with and wasn’t finding that, plus with our plans set in stone, we were stuck in cities that we didn’t love for more time than we wanted. Fortunately for us, once we left Cartagena, we didn’t have any solid plans of where we needed to be other than Sao Paulo, Brazil in late January.
As a planner, I thought that not having solid plans would drive me crazy but it’s the exact opposite – I absolutely love it! Our new plan is to book 2-3 nights in each city. If we don’t like it, we can leave and if we love it, we can stay longer. We’re learning that when we stay in the same city for too long, we start to get bored and want to move on. I love that we can hop on a bus and explore a city that we didn’t even plan on when we left the US!
Before we left, I thought that I would prefer the larger cities as there would be more to see and do. In actuality it is the opposite – I’m really liking the small towns which not only feel safer, they also ooze charm.
Expectations of How Things Should Be
As an American, we have certain thoughts about how things should be, using home as our baseline. It can be difficult to get it through our heads that just because we do things a certain way doesn’t mean that any other way is wrong, only different.
One of the biggest differences between home and abroad has been the bathrooms.
The showers are a suicide shower style where the water heats in the shower head, not in a hot water heater. These showers are often one temperature fits all and usually have low water pressure. While I was scared of these showers at first, I learned that there really isn’t anything to be afraid of.
Because of the plumbing, many countries don’t have the ability to deal with toilet paper in the wastewater. It is extremely challenging for me to remember to throw my toilet paper in the trash, not the bowl, as it is such a habit that I have had my entire life.
The lighting is minimal and the ventilation is non-existent. In the month that we have been gone, we have yet to run across a bathroom that has an exhaust fan in the bathroom or lighting that is bright. On the positive, when you don’t look your best, poor lighting helps you feel better about your appearance.
When outside of our rooms there are several differences in bathrooms:
- Faucets have only cold water because hot water heaters are not common
- Some public restrooms lack both soap and toilet paper. I carry hand sanitizer and pocket pack Kleenex at all times, just in case I need to use the restroom on the go.
- In Colombia you often have to pay 500 pesos or about 15 cents to use a public toilet, more if you want to purchase toilet paper. When you get inside you notice that while clean, there is no toilet seat – for what reason, I’m not quite sure. After washing your hands, there may or may not be soap and there are rarely paper towels or a hand dryer.
Since we have limited space in our bag, we are often wearing the same clothes over and over again. Because of the limited selection of our tops/pants, we often times wear the same clothes a few times before we wash them. This has been hard for me as not only is the weather hot, it is so much different from what I would do back home where laundry was a quick and easy thing.
Once we get enough laundry to do a load of laundry (usually dictated by our underwear count), we have to drop it off to be laundered. While I would much prefer to wash my own clothes, there is no place that we have found which has washer/dryer facilities that we can use. Many people would love having their laundry done for them but the quality can be questionable. Often times they will use cheap detergent to save costs, wash everything in cold water which doesn’t clean as well and we lost a sock the first load. I’m sure that as we continue to travel, some of our clothing will be destroyed and will need to be replaced.
Andy and I rarely stay at really nice hotels, opting to save money on accommodations so we have more money to go on more trips. On this trip, we have taken that to a whole new level. The standards of our international accommodations is on a completely different level than back home. I’m actually astonished at how easily I assimilated to roughing it on the road. I thought that it would be really challenging for me to be able to adjust my standard of living to be at a much lower level.
When we are on the road, we are staying in places where there is a bed and not much else. While this is all that we truly need, I think that I will be super excited to return home to the amenities that the US offers – from a water heater to central air and a dishwasher, I’ll be ready for it!
I can’t even imagine what a building inspector would say if he were to go to these countries to check the structure, electrical and plumbing.
We have seen quite a few blatant building code violations:
- 110 volt plugs with 220V written on them in sharpie
- Tons of plugs without any grounding
- Wires hanging from the ceiling or running along the wall
- Electrical next to the water line in a suicide shower
- Lack of exit in case of a fire
Interacting with people who have a completely different social norm has been extremely challenging. While we have certain expectations at home as to how one should behave, the rules are very different here.
- There is a lot of shoving by locals to get where they need to go, especially on public transportation
- When waiting for something back at home, a neat line forms and people wait their turn – here it is a sort of free for all, the most aggressive getting helped first which just makes the situation worse
- The driving is extremely aggressive with quite a bit of honking, yet strangely nobody seems to get road rage – they let people in and don’t seem too bothered by it
Andy and I both struggle with the choice of dining out or eating in. While dining out is fun, it can get old after a while, plus it is less healthy and more expensive than dining in. When we cook in, we feel like we’re missing the dining scene of the city that we’re in. It’s been a constant struggle but we hope to find the perfect balance soon.
No matter where we eat, it has been nice for us to eat such fresh meats and produce. Things here are not genetically enhanced, at least not nearly as much as back home. I was so excited when I was eating a chicken breast that it was small and tasted like chicken, a far cry from the massive, flavorless chicken breasts that we have back home.
Speaking of chicken, we are starting to get used to eating our meat on the bone. Back home we always buy boneless, skinless chicken breasts but here, the cooking methods call for the bones to be cooked to enhance the flavor. While I certainly have a long way to go in becoming good at eating meat off the bone, I am better than when I left home.
Meeting New People Is Really Fun
While Andy and I love each other a lot, spending all day every day with only each other can become challenging. We are in a somewhat constant stressful situation – a new city, not knowing anyone, not speaking the language well and often times extremely hot temperatures. It can be very easy for us to get frustrated with each other or at a minimum just needing some time apart. We’ve been working hard on communicating better with each other and as the time goes on, we have had fewer communication breakdowns.
In order to have interactions with others, we are starting to become more social, talking with travelers that we meet along the way. Not only do we get to meet new people, having someone else around also gives us a much needed break from solo time with each other.
It’s kind of crazy how small the world can actually be. When we were in Medellin, we went to the park to watch the Colombia vs. Peru soccer game which was being projected on a big screen. I heard some very American sounding English and walked over to introduce myself. The group of 4 travelers had 2 guys from Michigan, one of whom went to my same college, had the same major and graduated the year before me. What are the odds of that?
We spent the next day with the guys, watching the Cubs playoff game, going to dinner then going out clubbing. It was really fun and we decided that the next morning we would meet up and head 2 hours east to Guatape for the day. While the guys from Michigan had to go back to work, the couple that they are traveling with are going to be in Bogota when we are there. We plan to meet up with them which will be really fun.
I really like how when you travel, you can meet someone new and become good enough friends with them to travel for a few days. This would never happen back home – could you imagine meeting someone out then propose going on a trip the next day? People would think you were crazy!
Travelers Are Some of the Friendliest People You Will Meet
When we left, we knew that we wouldn’t fit in with the stereotypical backpacker – early 20’s, partying all the time, staying at the cheapest dorm rooms possible and often times hipsters. We are flashpackers – in our 30’s, traveling with lots of electronics, staying in private rooms and willing to splurge for flights or VIP busses.
I didn’t know what to expect when we found our way into the traveler community. What I have found has been very surprising – travelers are some of the warmest, most welcoming people that I have ever met. They will do just about anything to help out another traveler and have a sort of community.
We have amassed a large movie collection during our time on the road. Every traveler seems to have movies on their laptops and as you meet others, you start swapping your movies for their movies. I’m sure that as we endure long bus rides and bad weather we will be extremely happy to have all of these movies to pass the time.
Speaking Spanish Can Be Hard
Andy and I both knew that our Spanish going into this trip was alright but not great. We figured that we knew enough that we could get around, would pick up more and likey people would speak English to us anyway.
We could not have been more wrong. While we can get around, we are sometimes just barely scraping by with our very elementary Spanish. To make it more complicated, there are different dialects of Spanish.
When we were in Cartagena we both almost cracked. No matter what anyone seemed to say, we could not understand anything. Since then we have learned that coastal Colombian along with any of the Spanish speaking Caribbean islands are the hardest dialects of Spanish in the world. Even Colombians that travel have a hard time understanding what people are saying in Cartagena. Since we have left the coast, things have gotten much better again.
We are continuing to grow our vocabulary, learning by trying to talk and listening to natives. While it can be challenging to constantly put yourself in a vulnerable position, talking to native speakers, it really is good and for the most part, they are patient in explaining things to you.
When we were leaving for the trip, I was continually checking weather.com to see what things would be like. I started to panic as I noticed that there were 80-100% chance of rain every day just about everywhere that we were going. Naturally, I did what I do best and started to panic. Andy assured me that it would certainly not be raining constantly in these cities for a week straight and I started to relax.
Since then I have learned that weather.com knows nothing. The cities where they said it would rain constantly have had nothing but sunshine. While I know that the internet is often off back home, it is nothing in comparison to the incorrectness of the international locations.
We have learned that we did not know the meaning of hot and humid until we arrived in Central/South America. It is unbelievable how incredibly hot things are and how so many of the natives go without air conditioning. While we can suffer through without air, we have learned that whenever possible, it is so nice to have air conditioning to escape the heat and most importantly be able to sleep well. To cope with the hot and humid weather there are many days during our travels where we take more than 1 shower a day.
One of the things that our families and friends worried about the most on our trip was our safety. I am happy to report back that things in Central/South America feel very safe.
Most of the cities that we have been in have police all over the tourist parts of town. While some people would think that is because it is unsafe, I think the opposite. Who would try and rob us or cause any sort of trouble when there is a cop down the street?
We have been using our gut instinct to tell us if we should take out our camera or GoPro to get pictures. It’s been disappointing a few times when we want a picture and don’t feel safe taking it out, but it’s a compromise to keep both us and our belongings safe.
Life Moves at a Slower Pace
One of the most challenging things for me, the type of person who always needs to be doing something, is learning to take a step back and relax. Whenever I feel like I need to be doing something, Andy reminds me that before we left, there would be many weekends where we would just decide to be lazy and do nothing.
It would be impossible to be constantly doing something for 7 months straight. We need to give ourselves the ability to take a break so we don’t suffer burnout.
Other than mentally slowing down, we are also dealing with extremely slow internet. While it’s an annoyance for us when we are trying to find something to do in the city, it can be extremely frustrating for us when we try and load all of our data to our Google drive. To protect us in case the computer breaks or we have anything stolen, we are uploading all of the pictures/videos that we take on this trip to our cloud. We’re taking a lot of pictures/videos so it’s a lot of data that we have to upload at dial up internet speed.
After my meltdown in Cartagena, things have been on a very high upswing. Not only did we get out of oppressive heat when we hit Medellin, but we also found the right travel speed for us. We are excited to go more places than we thought that we would see and remove any sort of boredom from our extended trip.
With our new mindset, we’re excited to see where the next 6 months takes us!