Preparing to Go

36 Hours to Departure

Today I got nervous. It didn’t last long, but for a few minutes my heart was racing and my face couldn’t decide between smiling and crying.

Last night a friend asked how I was feeling about my impending departure, and my response was: “nothing.” I felt emotionless. I have talked many times now about my flight to Mexico on Friday and every time I feel no change inside myself. I could be talking about a walk around the block. I expressed more emotion over my ramen the other night. But this doesn’t mean I’m not excited. I’ve attributed this seeming indifference to two things.

First, I have been completely focused on being here, San Francisco, and with the people and activities that have consumed my time. And honestly, I am so happy to say that. I spent the end of Vermont longing for the next step, mentally moved on despite being physically not, and it resulted in some frustration. I haven’t felt that way here, which has allowed me to wholly put myself into this visit. Living for now is why I travel, and I’m exercising that philosophy in San Francisco.

Second, this is just how my life goes now. Another plane, another city, another country – it’s my normal. Sure I took three months to stay put in Vermont, but that’s what travelers have to do in order to keep going. Some people choose to work in Australia or Thailand, I happened to choose Vermont. I didn’t realize that I would start to view my summer as a phase in my journey until a stranger last week asked me what I do. Me: “I travel.” Her, after she recovered from her shock: “How long have you been traveling?” Me: “Almost a year and a half.” It just came out, a year and a half on the go, and I haven’t gone back since. I left my established life at the end of May 2014, and I haven’t reestablished myself anywhere since. In this way of thinking, Mexico City is not a huge leap, it’s just up next.

So why did I get nervous today? Honestly, I have no idea. Maybe thinking about the final motions I have to complete before getting on that plane in 36 hours made me finally feel like it’s really happening. Am I concerned that I got nervous? Not at all. I love it. Because whether or not that’s the reason, it’s the truth: it’s really happening.

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On the Edge of Uncertainty

“I need these constant changes of structures, of people, of ambiances, of languages. They are very inspiring, they’re very romantic, they make me breathe, they make me tremble, they make me live.” – Francis Mallmann

This overcast, chilly San Francisco morning, I decided to take a friend’s advice and just relax. After I left Vermont I had a very active few days in Jersey City before coming west, where I had a very active weekend camping with 40 friends north of the city. Now I plan to have a very active two weeks seeing people and revisiting some old stomping grounds before I flee the country again. So today, I started my day by watching the Chef’s Table episode about Francis Mallmann. I had no idea how much this 50 minutes of escapism would speak to me.

Francis Mallmann, celebrated Argentine chef, starts the episode by saying that his life has been dedicated to a search for freedom. He goes on to speak about the need for constant change, for getting up from your chair and being in the outdoors, for a life that eschews the office norm in favor of taking risks in an attempt to conquer something larger, for living, as he puts it, on the edge of uncertainty. In addition to these incredible philosophical statements, the show is packed with the scenery of Patagonia, where he has his own island, and Buenos Aires, where his restaurant is located.

I’m in a transitional moment – I’ve left my summer residence of Vermont but have not embarked on my next international adventure yet – during these two weeks in San Francisco, which also happens to be the place I lived and loved for 3+ years and where many of the people who mean the most to me in life still are. It would be easy to ditch my flight and just stay here. The thought has crossed my mind. But this morning, Francis Mallmann reminded me why I cannot and will not do that.

I may have completed my first life-changing goal of Round the World travel, but that doesn’t mean I will stop finding new life-changing goals. I am putting no pressure on this next trip; if I come home after Mexico City fine, if I jump down to Patagonia so be it, if I stay in Guatemala for the entire six months great. The point of this round is to challenge myself in unknown ways. I know I can travel, I know I can be alone, what don’t I know yet? I have ideas about what new directions I could take, like focusing on learning Spanish or becoming a certified diver or volunteering somewhere I find along the way, but I have no commitment to any of these. The only thing I am committed to is being open to whatever may come my way.

Because as Francis Mallmann says, it’s the constant changes that are inspiring. How could I know what I need to discover before I get to the place that will lead me to the discovery? So thank you Chef’s Table for reminding me why I am leaving again, and how exciting it is to live a life on the edge of uncertainty.

My Stuff is Ready to Go

I’m all packed. Same Gregory Deva 60L backpack, same Fjallraven Totepack No.1, same packing cubes and system – I fell back into old habits pretty quickly. I’ve made a few adjustments here and there based upon my experience from last year, but despite saying that I was going to bring less I think that I am actually straddling the line between reduced packing and over packing. Here’s why.

I have two weeks in San Francisco first. This has led to a fairly blasé attitude about the shirts I am bringing. I have a third cube of clothing that is “for SF” and that I say I will get rid of when I leave, but just like the “for Rio” bag last year I have a feeling some of it will stay with me longer. I also threw in an extra of everything again, knowing that I technically have the space to fit it. And, since I have pretty much zero attachment to anything I’m bringing with me, the fact that I don’t mind ditching things along the way has contributed to the extra stuff – I admit it’s a bit backwards but thinking “I’ll just throw it out if I don’t want it anymore” resulted in more stuff sneaking in. Plus with the warm climate I’m going to they’re all small tank tops that don’t take up much room. So with that, I admitted defeat to myself and packed up everything.

But I still don’t count the “for SF” cube as being part of my 6-months-worth of clothing. So here is what I’m bringing for the trip, minus the supposed “for SF” stuff.

6 Months of Clothes

Clothes for 6 Months

Doesn’t look too bad right? 4 tanks and 4 tshirts, 2 long sleeves, 1 inbetweener, 1 cardigan, 1 dress, 1 jeans, 1 black yoga-type pants (hopefully to be replaced ASAP), 1 shorts, 1 set of sleeping stuff (shorts and tank), 9 socks and underwear, 4 bra types, 1 bathing suit (but top and bottom are reversible so it’s like having 4), 1 sneakers, 1 Toms, 1 Tevas (bringing the Tevas back), 2 hats, 1 gloves, 1 buff, and 1 scarf (not pictured, had to dig it out of a box).

One thing that is also more concrete this time is the notion that I will get things I need along the way. Like new pants. Last time I got thin loose pants in Vietnam that ended up being a great addition – mostly for hot weather temple days when I had to be covered up – and I’m hoping I’ll find something similar this time. They would replace the black yoga-type pants that I do not want to bring but packed anyway since I need some alternative to jeans. Picking up clothing and accessories that I needed was also a great excuse to get souvenirs.

Other things that are not pictured here are the same practical items I had last time – medical kit, hygiene stuff, collapsible 1L water bottle, sleep sheet, etc. If you’re really curious just let me know and I can list those out too, but it’s pretty much everything you’d expect.

My electronics haven’t changed either: Canon G16, GoPro, Lenovo laptop, iPhone 4S. They all worked so well why would I change anything? I did not end up getting the external hard drive like I said I would, I just couldn’t justify the price, so I’ll go with Google Drive again. It works fine, as long as I can get enough of an internet connection to upload. Plus now I know my camera’s memory card has enough space for over 6,000 photos. I did bring a back-up 4GB SD card again, but this time loaded it up with movies I forgot I had on my external hard drive at home. Since I am out of Sopranos (anyone want to send me seasons 4-6?) I need something else to entertain me when I don’t feel like reading. For music I am bringing my shuffle again, but I have tripled the amount of songs in my iTunes library. Just because the shuffle can only hold 150 songs doesn’t mean I only have to have 150 songs with me. This way whenever I plug in my shuffle it will randomly select a new batch of songs to load so I’ll have at least some change of music. I plan on doing that about once a month.

I did get travel insurance again: Explorer level through World Nomads. Now if something happens to me in the caves in Mexico or on a flight to the Corn Islands I will be protected. Better to be safe than sorry. All my important Google Docs have been updated and I made sure to scan in my license this time so if it gets stolen at a club again I will have some proof I can drive. Major oversight on my part last time.

So with all the logistics taken care of, I’m all set and ready to go. You’d think I’d be jumping up and down in excitement, but for some reason I’m pretty relaxed about all of this. Maybe because it’s become so routine for me now there’s no reason to stress. Or maybe it’s just not real yet, and I need to get on that plane before it sinks in. Or maybe the distraction of seeing everyone in SF first is pushing the international trip to the back of my mind. Whatever the reason, at least I’m not freaking out about anything. And now I can just enjoy my last weekend in the beautiful countryside of Vermont.

The Week of Preparations

It’s time. This is my last week in Vermont – on Monday I start the process that is leaving, first to Jersey City for three days, then to San Francisco for two weeks, and then finally to Mexico City and Central America for as long as it feels right (or until the end of March, whichever comes first).

Last Wednesday was my last day at one part-time job, Thursday was my last day at the other. This means that I have returned to the status of “unemployed” for the foreseeable future and I couldn’t be more excited about it. I celebrated the end of three months of work with a great weekend tubing on Saratoga Lake and partying at Travers horse race with friends. But I knew upon returning it would be time to get down to business.

IMG_7586 So that’s where I’m at today. I sat down and made “The Seriously Big To-Do” list at the end of last week, recalling the steps I went through last June, and am giving myself Monday to Friday to cross them off. Then I can focus on playing again.

The question is, where do I start? I’ll probably jump around ADD-like, breaking up important logistics like phone calls to credit card companies and purchasing travel insurance with more fun tasks like updating my music selection and getting rid of clothes.

One thing that’s very different this time from last time is that my post-trip plans require me to pack even less even more strategically. Last time I just moved everything I couldn’t let go of out of an apartment to be stored in my parents’ garage; this time I plan to have just one suitcase of clothing/shoes/accessories so that when I make the move to Europe next year (Phase III of this wandering life plan) I don’t have to lug as much stuff on the plane as I did when I crossed the United States.

Otherwise, it’s pretty much the same process as last time. Me, my to do list, and five days of tasks. Nothing that isn’t worth it for the six months of adventure that will follow.

I Wanna Live Better Days, Never Look Back and Say, Could Have Been Me

One month to departure. One month till I am back on the road, living every day for today and every tomorrow as a new possibility, a new adventure.

In the past month or so one song has reappeared on the AltNation radio station that I’ve become addicted to that has reinvigorated my need to get out there and see more of the world. So instead of rambling on about taking on life again, I’ll let The Struts do it for me. Do me a favor, listen to this song on full volume driving down a winding country road with the windows down and see what it motivates you to do.

“Could Have Been Me” Video 

Don’t wanna live as an untold story
Rather go out in a blaze of glory
I can’t hear you, I don’t fear you

I’ll live now cause the bad die last
Dodging bullets with your broken past
I can’t hear you, I don’t fear you now
Wrapped in your regret
What a waste of blood and sweat
Oh oh oh…

I wanna taste love and pain
I wanna feel pride and shame
I don’t wanna take my time
I don’t wanna waste one line
I wanna live better days
Never look back and say
It could have been me
It could have been me
Yeah

Don’t wanna live as an unsung melody
I’d rather listen to the silence telling me
I can’t hear you, I don’t fear you

Don’t wanna wake up on Monday morning
The thought of work is getting my skin crawling
I can’t fear you, I don’t hear you now
Wrapped in your regret
What a waste of blood and sweat
Oh oh oh…

I wanna taste love and pain
I wanna feel pride and shame
I don’t wanna take my time
I don’t wanna waste one line
I wanna live better days
Never look back and say
It could have been me
It could have been me
Yeah

I Lived It, So Now I’m Barely Prepping

I’ve been feeling like I’m not doing enough to prepare for this next trip. I decided I’m going, I bought a flight, I mapped out a few highlights to get a general idea of a route, and I started refreshing my limited Spanish with Duolingo. I looked up my malaria pill needs and visa requirements, a few technical details that I knew needed to be sorted out a couple of weeks in advance. But still I have this feeling of “what am I not doing that I should be doing?” So I pulled out my old Round the World planning book to flip through the pages that I’d found to be so crucial last year.

Short of some notes on what I need to remember to stock in my medical kit and where it says I shouldn’t miss in Central America, I didn’t pay attention to much else. The reality is, I know all I need to. I’ve gone through this before, and not just the planning but the actual life of travel, and the practical knowledge I gained is way more valuable than anything a book can tell me.

I know I need to get travel insurance before I go, an expense I’m waiting to cover until my last paycheck. I know the wardrobe changes I need to make and the weight of the bag I want to have. I know I will be staying in hostels, drinking water out of water bottles, and carrying the necessary copies of things in case something goes awry.

As for the rest of planning, the point is to not plan, so why would I even dive into any location specifics? People tell me all the time “I loved this town” or “I have a friend living here I can connect you with.” I haven’t even left and the trip is taking shape.

So instead of all this pre-trip prep that I had so diligently taken care of last year, I’m finishing up my final summer projects and occasionally checking in on minor details that come to mind. I’m not worried or stressed – I know I can do this, so I know when the time comes I’ll be ready and able to quickly get back into the swing of things. Until then, I’ll probably be pretty quiet on here while I’m out there enjoying the end of summer in Vermont.

Next Steps: Planning, or Lack Thereof, and Why I Got a Guidebook

So I’ve decided to go to Central America… Now what?

The planning process this time is much more low-key than it was for my RTW trip last year. In fact, it’s near non-existent. With the aim to travel totally flexibly and recommendation-based, I don’t want to do much research into specifics. I know some places I want to see in every country – obvious ones like Chichen Itza, Caye Caulker, Antigua, the Panama Canal – and that’s enough of a start for me. If I look into it too much then I’ll come up with all of these places that I’ll try to make it to like I did last time and feel rushed to keep moving. I’m going with a more “ignorance is bliss” approach this time; I can’t miss what I don’t know about.

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I still did buy a guidebook: Lonely Planet’s Central America on a Shoestring (if it’s not broke don’t fix it). In my last trip I thought the Shoestring guides were good resources to have with me even if they weren’t my first mode of planning. At the end of each country chapter there’s a history section that I would read on my way into the country to get a little background on where I was going and what I would be experiencing. If I found myself without a clue of where to stay when I arrived somewhere I would go to the accommodation page and target the neighborhood pointed out as a hostel-centric area. Plenty of times I tore out the maps and used them to get myself around a city or neighborhood, especially at night in search of a bar. And of course if I had a lack of advice on where to go next I could read through the locations for inspiration.

Most helpful though was the transportation information. Each country has a “getting to” and “getting away” section that not only helps with flight versus bus evaluations but also finding your way into town from the typically far away airport or bus station. Then there’s the call-out boxes of bus matrices that are good guidelines for frequency, length of time, and cost to get between between places of interest. But if I were to give a “most helpful section” award it would go to the border crossing information. These guidebooks highlight the best places to cross borders and explanations of how it all works. This information is hard to find elsewhere; many travelers referenced my books to see what we were up against.

As helpful as the internet is, there’s no way to beat having a physical reference in your hand when you have to make a snap decision in Bangkok traffic about whether you can ditch the southern bus station idea and instead go to the train station with your new travel companion to catch an overnight train to Surat Thani to make it to Khao Lak by tomorrow. With no cell phone service and no understanding of Thai where else are you going to get the answers you need?

Notice though that all of these reasons for getting the guidebook are not talking about planning, they’re focused on use on the road. I’ve barely opened it since I bought it and don’t plan on reading it much until I’m on my way into the next country. And of course I will again rip out the countries as I leave them, decreasing the heft of the book as I go.

I got one more reference book: Lonely Planet’s Latin American Spanish Phrasebook & Dictionary. Now that I have this, I wonder how I could have possibly gone to South America without it. The layout is so helpful, broken down into sections like transport, meeting people, and menu decoder, plus a small two-directional dictionary in the back, that I am already anxious to put it to use. I am also trying to keep up on my Duolingo app to refresh what Spanish I knew and learn more before I go. This time I really do want to learn Spanish, especially when I think about how easily I picked it up last time. I’ve even thought about taking a language class in Guatemala for a week or two.

My last written guide, for now, is BootnAll’s How to Plan an Extended Trip in Central America. I read this back when I was still debating what to do; I wanted to have some sort of idea what I would be getting myself into, and as I read about the different places and type of travel I would be doing I found myself only growing more and more excited. It’s part of the reason I ended up seriously looking into flights. As always, BootsnAll provided helpful inspiration. I marked the places the guide highlighted in a Google Map to get a general idea of a route, and I will again be using this website to outline my budget.

Otherwise I’ve already gotten extremely helpful tips from friends on where to go in Mexico and Nicaragua, and am hoping for more soon. So please, if you know anywhere I absolutely can’t miss, let me know!

Here it Goes Again

A funny thing happened at the end of June. I bought a flight to Mexico City.

It happened just like that – sudden and unexpected. But since it happened I haven’t looked back, so I am taking that as a sign that it was the right decision, since I feel pretty settled in it. So what does that mean?

I am going to Central America for 6 months.

Let me take a step back and explain how I came to this decision. When I returned to the US it was under the promise that I would be leaving again, I just didn’t know where to yet, so I was going to take the summer to figure it out. I knew I had a six month window between the end of my summer job and my sister’s wedding, an unmissable event in San Francisco next spring. With that in mind I narrowed it down to four options:

1. South America. To be honest, I really thought I would be going back to South America. I pretty much came back to go to South America. I knew the exact trip I wanted to do: I would fly to Lima, hit a few places I missed in Peru like Arequipa on my way to a few places I missed in Bolivia like Sucre and Potosi before a border-hopping adventure down Chile and Argentina into Patagonia, then I would loop around the southernmost point of South America and work my way back up to Buenos Aires. Sounds great, right? I even dreamed about continuing up the coast of Brazil to the beach towns I missed like Puerto Alegre, Fortaleza, and Jericoacoara.

2. Wanaka, New Zealand. I knew the work-study visa was an option until I hit 30 and I loved this town so much I thought about just finding a job and staying put for a while. It would be their summer so I could potentially farm or do something on the lake. I would hike, get to know a foreign country well, and do some wandering in the meantime. Maybe I would finally get to do more of the Great Walks or jump over to Tasmania or Perth.

3. Central America. This choice was a continuation of the backpacker lifestyle in a mostly new region. People raved about traveling through CA and my week in Nicaragua in 2011 was enough of a taste to make me want to go back and see more like it. It’s cheap, it’s got the kinds of adventures I like, and my timeline of September to March is the exact right time of year to explore it.

4. Europe. I’ve been talking about moving to Vienna for a long time now, and with so many friends going to Oktoberfest this year maybe it was time to bite the bullet and go for it. I have friends to visit across Europe who I’ve been telling I’ll see at some point, I could fly to England and go through France and the Netherlands on my way to Germany, with a quick Swiss interlude before ending in Vienna. I haven’t been to Europe in years and that should be corrected soon.

With four fantastic options I thought it would take all summer to decide and after Labor Day I’d end up flipping a coin or buying the cheapest flight to one of the regions I was considering. Turns out it didn’t take all summer to decide, but that cheapest flight idea may have been right.

I quickly eliminated Europe. As much as I want to go there, a six month window is not a time to try to move to a new place, it’s a time to do another adventure that I know I will return from. Europe would have to wait until after April. Next to go was New Zealand. I was forcing it on this time because of the age limit on the work-study visa. If I do want to go live in Wanaka I can do that any time, it’ll just be a little more complicated. But for any American under 30 who might be thinking about some extended time in New Zealand or Australia, I highly recommend looking into the work-study visa. It’s a great way to spend a year or two abroad and something I wish I’d known about before.

I was down to two options: South America or Central America. The two backpacking options that would again have me moving around quite a bit. South America had been calling me back ever since I left. I woke up in Myanmar longing for it, a physical pain in my chest that told me I needed to be on a different continent. I knew the exact trip I wanted to do and had originally said I needed 6 months for it. The time frame was right, an estimated December/January arrival in Patagonia would work out perfectly, and I would finally feel like I completed South America (at least for now). At this point you’re probably wondering why I don’t have a flight booked to Lima.

Central America wouldn’t leave my mind. The more I thought about what I wanted out of this six months the more I realized it was in Central America. I still have the stamina to travel in the backpacker way, on chicken buses and in hostels, and this region felt like the last frontier of backpacker life that I had to get to before I grew out of this phase. It has everything I liked from the last trip that would make for a great next trip: mountains and volcanoes to hike, jungles to adventure in, oceans to scuba and snorkel in, awe-inspiring architectural ruins from another era, charming colorful towns, cheap street food, and hammocks all over the place. It’s much quicker to travel around, with 3-hour bus rides between places instead of 24-hour bus rides, allowing me to cover more ground in my time frame. And the likelihood of being able to travel solely based on people’s recommendations was high. This is something that is really important for me on this next trip; I had such a positive experience going to places that friends recommended last time that I want to pick most if not all my locations that way this time.

Then there were the negatives for South America. First of all, it’s way more expensive to get to and from. Second, it’s freaking cold in Patagonia, and the stuff I would have to bring is bulkier and costlier. Third, I could actually do that trip in shorter spurts, going just to Peru or Argentina for two weeks at a time; it didn’t really have to be six months. Fourth, hiking alone is lonely, it would be nice to go with people, and that was putting a lot of stock in meeting people I wanted to hike with. I wasn’t really worried about it given the incredible people I’ve met on the road, but it wouldn’t hurt to have a buddy or few for a trip like that. Fifth, my motivation for returning now was partially fueled by the fact that I’d dropped a lot of money on visas for Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil that expire in 5 or 10 years, and I felt like I should use them again. I already said that visas weren’t a good reason for NZ so I had to remind myself of that again here.

Then there were the book-ends of Central America. I have friends in Mexico City who I would like to visit while they’re still there, and I would love to return to Colombia, which is possible by boat from Panama. Working at an eco-retreat or coffee farm in Colombia was also an option at one point, so ending my six months with a month in Colombia was an intriguing idea.

So one day I looked at flights, just to see what getting to Mexico City looked like. CHEAP. So cheap. And not only was the flight cheap but it was from San Francisco, meaning I could go see friends and family in SF on my way out of the country. Then I realized that my flight to SF could be covered by points, aka free. I slept on the idea and the next night bought the flight before it disappeared. Like I said, I thought I might just end up buying the cheapest flight out of the country…

I got a round trip flight SF to Mexico City and a one way flight Newark to SF all for $260.

September 10th I arrive in San Francisco. September 25th I leave for Mexico City. I plan to be back in San Francisco around March 25, 2016. In between, I will just see how far south I make it. If I end up loving Guatemala I could stay there the whole time, or if I get fed up with chicken buses I could jump down to Colombia early. The beauty of how I’m traveling this time is anything could happen.

I also still have a month plus until departure, and it’s not like Mexico City to Lima flights are totally outrageous, so if for some reason I have buyers remorse about this decision I could still change it at any point. The world is my oyster, and I will go where feels right. But for now, Central America feels pretty damn right.

Now begin the posts about my next adventure, what I have come to call my Round the Central America trip.

Here it goes again.