The Expat Ending

Last year when I came back through the United States I knew I had a series of wrap-up blog posts to write – photo projects, how my planning worked out, how it felt to be done with that trip and moving forward, highlights of places I visited. The list was long and comprehensive.

This year I feel like I should do the same, but I don’t have a list. I don’t really know how to neatly wrap things up like I did before. Going through some pictures the other night I was reminded that my Central America adventure started much like my round the world trip, hopping from place to place seeing the sights of a new region. But in December that got derailed when I decided to stay in Antigua for an unknown amount of time. Over the next six months I built a life there, and that’s what has defined this part of my Travel Abrodge. I became an expat.

And I couldn’t imagine any better way to end this adventure.

One thing that I craved when I set out again in September was to get stuck somewhere. I’d encountered places in my first year that were tempting but I was so set on my moving itinerary that it wouldn’t have been possible to really enjoy stopping. This time though that wasn’t the case. I was intrigued by what it meant to be an expat, to get to know a place on a deeper level. Antigua became that place.

Antigua, the expat haven. It’s not a unique choice for this kind of experience, but maybe that’s also why it was appealing. I entered a place where expats were a huge part of the community. For better or for worse, I wasn’t alone.

I straddled a line between expat community – Cafe No Se – and Guatemalans and backpackers – Lucky Rabbit – in a way that made me feel like I got a pretty well-rounded experience of what living in Antigua was like. And on top of that, I had a more grounded life than I had maybe ever had before. I had a house, I had a relationship, I was caring for two dogs, I started to know people in town, was invited to parties in the city, became a person people would come visit at the bar, and couldn’t walk around without running into someone I knew. For the first time in a long time I felt like I had a real home and it was in Guatemala. A little bubble of Guatemala called Antigua. But it still had the market and the water issues and the language and the characteristics of being a town in Guatemala.

It was everything I didn’t know I was looking for, and even though it came to an end somewhat abruptly, I will forever be happy I experienced that life. My first year away was world exploration, constant movement, the backpacker life. My second year was dominated by this expat life. It’s the best combination that really made me feel like I’ve done it all now. Of course it’s not possible to have “done it all,” it never will be, but without that expat time I would not feel like I could come back to the States. Come back to a job. Come back to a life I never knew I would want to return to. It’s because of Antigua that I realized I did want to return to it.

Thank you to Antigua – to everyone there for making me feel so welcomed, so at home, and to the town itself for being the picture perfect place to stay.

Over the next couple of months I will probably write a handful of posts on concluding thoughts from the past two years. I don’t know what form they will take yet or where they will lead me. I just know that I can wholeheartedly say that I have just lived some of the best years of my life. It is bittersweet saying that it’s over, but if I’ve learned anything from it all, something wonderful still lies ahead. It always does.


Back in Antigua

So I came back to Antigua. When I left in September I thought that my return to San Francisco at the end of March would signal the end of this Phase 2 of Travel Abrodge, yet here I was, sitting on a plane on my way back to Guatemala. Much like on the way to San Francisco I knew I had a lot to look forward to upon my return to Antigua. I had my puppies and my boyfriend and a new role at work to begin and people to catch up with and a few events in April I was looking forward to, plus it was about to be low season so I would get to experience Antigua outside of hectic tourist season.

When my airport shuttle hit the cobblestone streets I was genuinely happy to be back home. Town looked bright again, like it did when I first arrived, and my house welcomed me back with comforting arms. But as time moved on I realized that I was not the same person who had left. My trip to San Francisco had messed with me more than I had realized at first, and more than I ever thought it would. Every day I woke up was a coin toss – would I want to live here today or yearn for the place I had just left? I found myself unhappy for no good reason, riding an emotional rollercoaster with no end in sight. I wrote this.

I knew I had to wait it out. There was a reason that I had decided to stay in Antigua, made a life for myself here, decided to get on that plane to come back. Removing myself from the bubble to go back to a life that was familiar, comfortable, loved, was a risk, but it didn’t mean that was the life for me right now. Right now I was here, living as an expat, living out a bartending dream, living with a new family I created here with Brayan, Molly, and Mary. Right now I was doing this. So it was time to really do this.

Spanish classes three times a week. Volunteering at Caoba farms. Going for walks and runs. Creating a perfect work schedule. The uncertainty didn’t go away entirely, but it faded with every day.

I celebrated my birthday in Antigua. I didn’t want to do anything big, 29 is just another year, I’ve had enough birthdays in my 20’s to let this one go by like any other day. Brayan and I went to lunch at a place I’ve always wanted to eat and for a good craft beer. And it isn’t a birthday without stopping at San Simon for a delicious cocktail. And then the day turned into a bar crawl. A friend had invited me to a pop-up DJ show. I walked around with Brayan promoting Ladies Night at Lucky Rabbit. Which of course ended at Lucky Rabbit. Everywhere I went everyone said Happy Birthday. People bought me drinks, gave me hugs, were so happy I came back from the States, and had big smiles as they called me the Birthday Girl. When I got to Lucky they broke out the party hats, free shots, and an embudo in my honor. There’s nothing that makes you feel more welcomed and loved in a new home than everyone you know wanting to celebrate your birthday with you.

I leave for the States again in a month, this time with a one way flight. This is already messing with my head again. Everything was going great and here I am again, unsure about how I feel. People are leaving all around me, should I be one of them? Or will this little reprieve make me happy to return again? Who knows. But for now I’m trying not to focus on that. I’m trying to focus on all the greatness that I did experience here before and after the last round of U.S.-induced emotional turmoil. I’ll let you know how that goes.

Early Morning Musings

I woke up today thinking about New Zealand. I have no idea why. I couldn’t remember the name of that grocery store that I was so in love with, the one that had cheap fresh products perfect for the backpacker budget. New something. New Lands? No, that’s the Justice song I put to my Fraser Island video. New… New… World! New World! Yes I wrote a post about it. After Kaikoura, when I woke up to see the sunrise with tea. Tea sounds nice. I’ll go make some tea and read my post about New World.

That led to watching my road trip video to the boat video to the oceans video to the sandboarding video and I felt myself enter a downward spiral of reminiscing and nostalgia. I knew I didn’t actually want to be on the road again, but I will always miss the lifestyle I had that year.

I’m just shy of a year away from the end of my 300 days around the world, so maybe that’s a contributing factor to this feeling of uncertainty about settling into a single place for so long. Every Timehop that shows me where in Japan I was a year ago is just a countdown to the end of that trip, to the time my first year of travel was over, to that feeling in the Seoul airport when I had a panic attack about going back Stateside. I’m not Stateside now but I am stopped. I live and work in one place, something I haven’t been able to say for almost two years.

And I just got back from San Francisco, the last place that I did live and work. It’s been a rough adjustment since I got back a week ago. I do owe you a blog post on my time there, and that will help explain this a bit, but suffice it to say that reentering my old life for two weeks has put my new life in serious contrast and I’m not sure how it will play out. Yes I am still happy in Antigua, yes I still believe this was the right choice for me right now, and yes I am still staying for the foreseeable future. For the foreseeable future. What lies beyond the seeable I don’t know yet.

I do know that for now, I must make the most of my time here. Many of my friends are on their way out or have already left. Sometimes I feel like I’ll outlast everyone. But then I remember how many people have left and come back and are still around and I am still just getting to know and I know that there is still more for me here. But what some of these friends have said about their final days in Antigua is how much they’ve come to appreciate it at the end, almost like seeing it for the first time again. That instant love that we all felt when we got here, that made us stay here, seems to return when you’re about to leave. So instead of waiting for that moment when I decide to leave, I will try to remember every day how wonderful this place is and make it my own. It won’t be my permanent home, so in a way every day I’m here is like a day on my way out. Even if that final out is still months away.

But for now, I will indulge my nostalgia and watch a few more travel videos. And why not? Those first 300 days remain 300 of the best days of my life. Why wouldn’t I want to relive and remember them any chance I can?

Back in the Swing of Life

It’s been over 150 days since I left the U.S. this round. It’ll be around 180 by the time I set foot on U.S. soil again in a month. But this time I have a return flight back to Guatemala, so this trip is actually just a visit. It’s the first round trip flight I’ve bought since Christmas 2013. That’s been quite a thing to wrap my head around.

Of the time I’ve been abroad, it’s been over 100 days since I arrived in Antigua. I always knew this phase of Travel Abrodge would be different, but I think with  65% of my time being spent in one place it’s safe to call it my expat phase.

Expat life is very different from travel life. I still consider myself a traveler, but I now have ties to somewhere that I haven’t had in years. I can recommend the best weekend activities, the locals’ favorite beers, nightlife according to your mood instead of the hostel flyers, and hidden gems for cheap eats that aren’t mentioned in Lonely Planet. Things that I searched for and thrived on when living in San Francisco and NYC are popping up again here. And this time I’m finding myself in a better position to share that knowledge – as a bartender.

When I work at the little front bar at Cafe No Se I am not just someone pouring drinks, I am a visitor’s guide to Antigua. Where can I get a quesadilla? Where can I dance on a Saturday night? Is the volcano hike worth it? The amount of questions I am asked about this town multiplies every night I work, and I am happy to actually know the answers.

When I’m not at work, when I’m just going about my daily life in town, or when I’m walking the dogs, I have places I want to return to or test out for the first time or just stop into for an errand. And on the way I run into people I know. Small town Antigua is like living on Nob Hill again – impossible to venture outside without saying hi to someone.

I went to brunch with a group of girls friends on Sunday. I’m going to the beach with all the Lucky bartenders for two days next week. These are things that I used to do regularly before traveling, and they’re back in my life now just in a different place with different people. It’s the things that I missed back in October when I started to think about settling down somewhere for a bit.

This the longest I’ve stayed anywhere since I left San Francisco back in May of 2014. I don’t know the next time I’ll be somewhere for as long as this, but I also don’t know when I’ll leave here. People like to ask me that too: “How long will you be in Antigua?” My typical answer: “Ask me when I leave.”

Life in Antigua

I realize it’s been a while since I wrote anything. But that’s the thing about a travel blog – when you stop traveling, what else do you write about? A while back I posted that I had decided to stay in Antigua, so that’s what I’ve been doing lately. Living here.

So what’s that like? Pretty great. In December I moved into a house with three friends and three puppies. That means I have to pay rent. Coming from the States I was a bit in shock how much we could get here for so little money. Two-story house, fully furnished (and not just beds and couches, but towels, dishes, even a coffee maker), two car garage with washer/dryer, all utilities included plus cleaning twice a week, in a gated community a 15-minute walk from Central Park. Sounds expensive right? US$900. Split between 4 of us, that’s US$225 each. I can almost hear all of you packing your belongings and booking flights to move here too.

I did the math and with what I still had allotted for hostel accommodations through the end of March I could actually live in Antigua and do nothing but hang out. That’s sounds boring though. And if I am going to stay somewhere for so long, then I should take advantage to work and save money so I can keep going again later, like I did this summer in Vermont.

So I got two jobs. I have always had an interest in bartending but never was in a place to explore it. Now seemed as good a time as any. First I started working at the bar that had welcomed me with open arms from my first night in town, the people I am happy to call my Antigua family: Lucky Rabbit. It also happens to be one of the biggest parties in town on a Saturday night, hands down my favorite night to work there. Lucky Rabbit is a big part of my life here, I owe it a lot. I started over the holidays, working long nights on Christmas Eve and New Years Eve. Antigua was overrun with tourists and locals alike, meaning I was thrown into the chaos of a popular bar during vacation time. It was one hell of a way to learn. But I thrived on the excitement, the adrenaline, the pure fun of being behind the bar. I quickly moved from last-minute fill in to scheduled employee.

I picked up a second bartending gig at the end of January at Cafe No Se. It is the polar opposite of Lucky but it matches the other side of my personality. No Se is the kind of bar I would seek out in San Francisco. It is a candlelit mezcal bar with live music every night and a rotating cast of characters that share life stories and philosophical idioms for hours over dark beers and shots of Joven. It’s also an expat haven, which is a nice complement to the mostly Guatemalan staff at Lucky. Between the two bars I feel like I get to experience both sides of town and of myself. It’s working great.

Otherwise I just live daily life like you would anywhere else. Well, maybe not exactly like anywhere else. When I go grocery shopping it isn’t to a supermarket but at the local market, where vegetables are piled up on wood tables and meat hangs in tile stalls. When I go clothes shopping it’s at the same market but in the back clothes section, and it’s mostly second-hand items and tables of 2 or 3 Q bargains. But I still cook meals at home (or more accurately Brayan cooks and I open the wine) and celebrate nights off by going out with the girls. And now when I walk around Antigua I run into people I know all over the place. It’s becoming home.

Home in Guatemala. I guess this means my travel blog is now an expat blog, tales of living abroad. Maybe I should change it from TravelAbrodge to LivingAbrodge. Thoughts?