new friends

Don’t Know Where I’m Going Like a Gypsy Out on the Road

 

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Hobbitenango

After San Marcos I spent a week in Antigua not thinking. I had been too in my head and decided I would let the universe tell me what to do. The universe was very clear, something I wrote about in my post announcing my decision to stay here, and an integral part of that decision was Hobbitenango.

I want to take everyone who comes to Antigua to visit Hobbitenango. All I knew when we set off on our mission was that we were going to a farm in the mountains with great views. We grabbed snacks and a tuktuk to take us part of the way up (we had underestimated just how long of a walk it was) before jumping out to hike the rest on foot. And I mean hike. If you choose to walk to Hobbitenango you will sweat and earn your beer at the top. But me being me, I wanted the physical challenge, and of course found the views to be worth it, so I enjoyed the trek.

When we reached the sign announcing our arrival at Hobbitenango I finally understood where we were going. It is pronounced by most here as “hoe-bee-ten-ango,” but seeing it written I realized it was actually “hobbit-enango,” as in Hobbiton mixed with Acatenango. Looking up past the sign I saw three main buildings built into a mountainside and one more off to the right. Two had circle doors. We were in a fantasy land.

Hobbitenango is actually much more than cool Lord of the Rings-looking buildings. It’s an eco-restaurant/bar/hotel that is built from materials sourced on the land and runs sustainably. It’s been under construction for over 2 years and it will be many more until it’s completely done, but the progress they’ve made so far is wonderful and I can’t wait to see it continue to grow.

Brayan and I had planned to stay just for the afternoon but on our way in we ran into Debbie and Pato, who had to go to work but told us to stick around for the night, they were coming back. That sounded good to us, so on a whim we decided to stay too.

We continued with our leisurely afternoon by grabbing a beer and finding a viewpoint up on the top of the hill from which we could see the volcanoes and green landscapes all around. We chilled on a blanket and watched the nature around us. It was beautiful. Right before sunset we went back down to the main area for another beer and watched the sky turn brilliant colors around a smoking Volcan Fuego from a log that had been carved into a bench. It was a gorgeous sunset. I sat there watching it, thinking only “how could I possibly leave this place?” It was paradise. I was in love with it.

After dinner and the best hot chocolate ginger tequila and chile drink I’ve ever had, Debbie and Pato arrived. We hung out in the dorm living room with the volunteers until the early morning hours, drinking wine, laughing, enjoying each other’s company. In the morning we ate brunch looking out at the still incredible view and went for a walk around the property. We talked about what it would be like if we all moved into a house together. Debbie, Pato and Brayan all wanted to find a new place and I needed one. After the past 12 hours we were convinced it would be the best idea ever. This was the foundation of how I ended up in a house with these awesome roommates.

It was hard to tear ourselves away from the paradise of Hobbitenango, but we had to go back and face the realities of work (at least they did). Not before one final moment that would seriously contribute to my new life in Antigua. On the way back down we slowed for a dog that was standing in the road at a steep curve. In the grass next to her we saw two tiny puppies cowering in fear of our car. The mom, we assumed, did not look good, and these pups were bloated with parasites and covered in fleas. Brayan jumped out to see them and the mom disappeared. It was like she stopped us so we would take them away. It didn’t take long for everyone to agree that we would give these dogs a better life than they ever could have on this mountainside, if they even survived, so Brayan dropped them in my lap and home they came. This is how we got Molly and Mary.

The 24 hours of Hobbitenango were pretty damn perfect. Halfway through my “let the universe decide” week I had this experience, which ended with roommates and dogs. The universe was being pretty clear. Stay, it was saying. And I was listening.

And Then I Decided to Repeat Mexico

As I said, my last day in San Cristobal drastically changed my trip trajectory. It started with the temazcal, but more specifically in the cab on the way to the temazcal.

Over the past couple of days I had gotten to know Brayan and Ale, two friends from Antigua who were traveling together from San Cristobal up to Tulum. In the car ride to the temazcal they were talking about their plans to leave the following day, then seemingly out of nowhere Brayan asked if I wanted to come with them. I had already been to Tulum and was so close to Guatemala, my projected next destination, that it made no sense to go with them. But there was a catch: they were hitchhiking the whole way.

I’d never traveled by hitchhiking before. I’ve had to hitch short distances, like from the Queenstown airport back into town or from Masada to the Dead Sea, but nothing as extensive as they were talking about doing. The idea of trying to get across the Mexican peninsula by just sticking our thumbs out and hoping for the best intrigued me, as it would anyone who has a fondness for Jack Kerouac novels. So I changed my “it makes no sense” answer to “I’m actually thinking about it.”

Then I did the temazcal and things became clear. After the ceremony I was sitting on a bench next to Brayan; the first thing he said to me was, “So are you coming with us?” I didn’t even hesitate when I answered, “Yes.”

It’s no secret that I had become frustrated with backpacking in the weeks leading up to this moment. I’d had my revelations in the jungle about leaving the traveler life behind for stability. Hitchhiking was the opposite of stability, but it was a kind of adventure I hadn’t experienced yet. It was throwing planning and guidebooks and a bit of caution to the wind and seeing what hand the universe would deal us. Out of nowhere this opportunity appeared, a chance to really be as flexible as possible. Who knew what would happen along the way, from what kinds of rides we would get to how long it would take to get to Tulum and where we may have to stop in between our departure and destination. I was craving something different, something that would excite me again, something worth throwing away any plans for. This was it.

It helped that I liked Brayan and Ale. It helped even more that Brayan is from Costa Rica and Ale is from Guatemala, so Spanish is their native tongue. And it helped that Ale has hitchhiked extensively before. If there was ever a time to try traveling like this, it was with these people.

This meant that I would repeat my steps. From San Cristobal we had to go back up through Palenque and cross the highway to Bacalar before going north to Tulum. Oh well, if that was the route they wanted to take then so be it. This wasn’t about the destination for me, it was about the journey. Staying in Mexico wasn’t the goal, traveling by hitchhiking was. And I was all in.

San Cristobal: The Town That I Was Waiting For

I was excited to get to San Cristobal de las Casas. The general impression I got from everyone I’d talked to about it was that I was going to love it. They were right.

San Cristobal is in Chiapas, the southern mountain region of Mexico. It is an ecosystem that I didn’t know existed in Mexico. Finally I had a break from the sweltering jungle and beach heat for rolling green hills and crisp fall-like air. I got to wear jeans and a jacket. I felt like myself again.

The town itself is the perfect confluence of colonial charm and modern appeal. Its small streets are lined by colorful stuccoed buildings that are home to charming boutiques and delicious treats. Chocolate stores intermingle with Zapatista cafes and international restaurants. Local artisans sell jewelry and crafts that make you want to forget that budget is a word. It has half a dozen churches to climb up to or wander into, all offering their own appeal. It has an artisan market for all your souvenir wants and an extensive food market that is easy to get lost in. Just walking around town is the highlight of being in San Cristobal. It took no time at all for me to wonder how I could make a life for myself in this town.

What I did in San Cristobal matters a lot less than how I felt about it. Most of the attractions I saw I listed above, which probably doesn’t sound much like attractions. Most of the time I’d spend half a day wandering and half a day hanging at the hostel reading or watching a documentary on the Zapatistas. The point is that I felt comfortable there.

My hostel helped. At first I was at Posada del Abuelito, a very nice place that I would recommend for the calm, older traveler who wants some quiet alone time. It was nice but it wasn’t for me. I found my perfect place at Hostel Casa Gaia. This hostel was homey, comfortable, clean, low-key, and owned by a wonderful family. As soon as I got to Gaia I was surrounded by the kind of people I have cherished meeting in my travels, from the fantastically eccentric German I knew from Palenque to the charming British couple who were always up for a mezcal to the friends from Antigua who would become my constant companions for the next month. I spent more time hanging in the hostel or wandering the streets with these new friends than doing the typically touristy things, which is probably what made it feel like home. My move to Gaia changed the trajectory of my trip more than I could have ever predicted, something I’ll explain further in another post.

I also had some fantastic meals in San Cristobal: street corn with mayo, chili sauce, and parmesan cheese; pollo enchiladas con mole; and the best tacos of my entire trip that came as a DIY platter of meat and things with unlimited tortillas and sauces. I wish I could give you the name of that place but I have no idea; thanks to the hostel owner for taking us to this local haunt. Also thanks to him for introducing me to the best mezcal I’ve ever tasted. I consumed like a queen in San Cristobal.

It was hard to leave San Cristobal de las Casas. At one point I wasn’t sure I ever would really, but then the universe told me it was time. I will return one day though, that’s for sure, and I’m positive I will love it just as much then as I did this time.

BARcalar

Bacalar was the embodiment of what I wanted to happen in this trip.

I was not planning on going to Bacalar. I’d read that the lagoon was pretty but it was on the way to Belize, which I had already cut, instead of along the prescribed Yucatan route I had embarked on. But after I lost count of how many people told me I had to go to Bacalar, I remembered that I wanted to follow that kind of advice this time no matter what path I may have thought I was on. So I joined John and Thomas, my Valladolid/Merida travel companions, and went to check out this rumored lake haven.

What I discovered at Laguna Bacalar was serenity, comfort, good people, and good vibes. It was everything I was hoping it would be. When I arrived I booked two nights – I stayed four. That’s just how things go for me now.

We stayed at the Green Monkey, a laid back hostel right on the lake. When we arrived they had space in the bus – a yellow school bus whose seats had been replaced by bunk beds – so we booked two nights there. Because when you get a chance to play Lost and sleep on an abandoned bus you go for it.

The day we arrived it was rainy and muddy. The lake was nowhere near the color it was supposed to be and, since all the activity in Bacalar centers on and around the lake, there wasn’t much to do. But the point of Bacalar wasn’t to go go go, it was just to chill, so I didn’t mind the excuse to dig into the literary feat I had decided to set out with this trip  – Moby Dick – and chat with the other travelers who were sticking it out hoping for good weather. Day two had some patches of sun, just in time for our excursion to the swings on the lake and margaritas, but day three we woke up to a beautiful sunrise. It didn’t take much convincing to extend our stay another night, although we were forced out of the bus due to an influx of online reservations and had to settle for a hammock. When I extended yet another night I actually asked for the hammock even though beds were open; I loved sleeping outside in the breeze. Those last two days were perfect weather. John and I did a little boat excursion one morning, but otherwise I spent most of my time hanging out in hammocks or on the dock.

It probably doesn’t sound like somewhere that would be so hard to leave when the main thing to do is just sit around and look at how pretty it is, but that is just the foundation of why I stayed longer. The beautiful setting got everyone there, but it was the everyone that made us all stay. The travelers that were in love with this place were cut from the same cloth. Everyone wanted to take a step back from the pace of the Yucatan, relax in a lovely place, and spin yarn with other people who wanted to do the same. A group would form on the dock swapping stories before deciding to grab veggie burgers together for lunch in town. Three out of four nights I cooked dinner with a mixture of travelers. My last night we enjoyed rum punch and cigars while playing a dice game. The talented Irish couple treated us to a live performance of traditional music and Tenacious D. Friendships were formed, laughs were had, and memories were made that will live with us all forever.

The lake was a big part of it all though. I felt like I’d returned to a home in an alternate world. A dock, ample reading time, and the clearest turquoise fresh water lake – I was in the Wörthersee of Mexico. All those years I visited the lake in Austria came flooding back to me at Laguna Bacalar. No wonder I wanted to stay as long as possible, it was familiar and sentimental and relaxed me to the core.

I left Bacalar in a way similar to my arrival there – totally unexpectedly. I had gone under the impression that I would continue with John to Palenque in Mexico. Something inside me felt uncomfortable about the prospect of the night bus though, and after a couple of days of hesitating with the idea, combined with a great group of people I didn’t want to leave just yet, I came up with an alternative that allowed me to leave after one more night on a day trip. I would go to Flores, Guatemala.

Flores, the launching point for Tikal and El Mirador, two sites I absolutely did not want to miss, is not near the rest of Guatemala. But geographically it happens to be almost on the way from Bacalar to Palenque. And our hostel offered a direct bus to Flores. And then I picked up a new travel buddy, Cassidy, who also wanted to see Flores but probably wouldn’t make it if she didn’t come with me. So totally last minute I changed the pseudo-plan once again and the next morning Cassidy and I left for Guatemala.

So because of travelers I landed in Bacalar. Because of the idyllic setting and other travelers I extended my stay in Bacalar. And because of gut instinct and spontaneity I left Bacalar for Guatemala.

Travel Friends for Life

So who is this Karim character that brought me to Tulum? We met last year at the Matterhorn South Hostel in Wanaka, New Zealand. He was the reason I played frisbee golf every day and tasted delicious home cooked moussaka. A couple of weeks later we met up in Sydney for a day on Bondi Beach and a night out in Newtown. We missed each other by weeks in Southeast Asia and again due to his food poisoning in California. So when we realized we would both be in Mexico at the same time, we had to make it happen, and Tulum was the perfect place for a reunion. Coincidentally, this reunion happened on our one year friendaversary!

Any time people asked us how we knew each other they were surprised by our history. We are truly travel friends. But now that we’ve hung out in three countries on opposite sides of the world, I don’t doubt that we will see each other again. With any luck, we’ll actually make our fantasy of an Africa road trip happen in the next two years.

Karim is one of those people I met in my RTW trip that confirmed that travel friends are life friends. We may not see each other all the time, but when we do it’s like we’re old friends catching up on life. And thanks to him, I got back into the swing of this travel thing.

See you again soon my friend, on one continent or another.

The Campsite I Couldn’t Leave

After Mexico City I jumped to the coast. Originally I thought I would start in Oaxaca and work my way up to the peninsula, but once I cut Belize (budgetary reasons) and learned a friend would be in the Playa del Carmen area I changed my mind and flew to Cancun. The airport bus landed me in Playa for two nights – an okay experience that doesn’t merit its own post – from which I took a collectivo to Tulum to meet up with Karim.

All I knew from him was that he’d found a “gem” of a place on the beach near the ruins where we could camp. I looked up as much as I could about where this Pancho Villa Bar and Campground place was, which only seemed to exist on a Facebook page, and based on the Facebook map and his vague description set out to find it. Turns out the bar is only a year old and the campsite less than half a year, which explains its seeming nonexistence; the first tourist post at the ruins didn’t even know about it, but the second one proved more helpful with the advice to turn at Playa Maya. I actually found it easily, although by the time I got there I was sweating so much you’d think it poured rain on my walk, and secured a tent at a bargain price for three nights.

The campsite was a gem. It was right behind the bar on the beach, so every day we could walk out to the ocean whenever we wanted. Along with multiple plots where you could pitch your own tent or sleep in one of the ones for rent, there was a hammock area where we hung out for daytime naps and nighttime chats, a kitchen of sorts (if you don’t mind cooking over an open fire), and a bar/reception/hangout area where the activities happened and the guys who ran the place spent most of their time. That’s where I learned how to shoot a slingshot and make a dreamcatcher, which is now hanging in this area amid the collection that Juan made.

Juan, the owner of this campsite, has traveled the world learning things. He built every structure on this site, wove every dreamcatcher decorating the hangout area, carved every decoration including the totem pole at the beach bar entrance, and made his vision of this place a reality. He plans to do it again on an island next year. He is one of those people that you meet only in places like this, where good vibes matter and time does not. “Manana” was his favorite word. I stayed up late talking with Juan about travel and life in a mixture of English, German and Spanish. He taught me how to make the dreamcatcher, his new nickname for me, and I drove his stick-shift Jeep down to a friend’s place on the Zona Hoteleria for conversation over beers and tacos and an impromptu soccer game on the beach. He took me in and I promised I would return one day.

Everyone who worked at the place accepted me into their friendship, despite my inability to converse in Spanish. Owing to their good English, we still were able to have conversations ranging in topic from sculpture in ancient Rome to typical Mexican humor. I passed hours sipping beers shooting the shit with these guys, and if it wasn’t for the sand flies that decided I was the tastiest thing since pastor tacos I probably would have stayed longer. The sheer quantity of bites earned me the name Crocodile Woman, so after my fourth night I decided it was time to leave.

I have come across these chill types of places around the world – Nicaragua, Colombia, Laos – and have always moved on before I felt ready, having to be somewhere else. This time I didn’t have that need, I had all the time in the world. I was curious to see how long I would actually stay in a place like this. When I first arrived, I thought I might stay for weeks and just disconnect. In the end I lasted four days. I have openly blamed the oppressive heat and hungry bugs, but inside I just knew it was time. And the fact that I could come to that decision just by feeling instead of by schedule is what this trip is all about.

Pancho Villa was an important place for me. A place where I finally felt like I’m into this new chapter, and where I let the logistical traveler go. The people and the place came together at the right time for me, and from then one I knew I would be in the mentality I hoped for when I left again. As of writing this it’s been a week since my departure from Tulum, and I can say that it’s going well so far. And I sincerely believe I have the Pancho Villa campsite to thank for that.

Let the Good Times Ramble On

 

Post Trip Analysis: The People I Met

Another topic I’ve frequently been asked about is the people I met along the way. There tends to be a big focus on the fact that I did this big trip alone, but I always respond the same way: “I wasn’t ever really alone.”

I’ve written multiple blog posts about the people I met and how much they all meant to me (Travel BuddiesThe Why of Buenos AiresQueenstown, Take 2The People in SydneyFried Toofoo1,000 Miles…). I do still talk to many of them, some more than others, and even though communication has faded a bit now that we’ve all returned home I still believe that these people are my friends for life. That doesn’t mean we’ll know every detail about each other like we did in the time we traveled together, but it does mean that for years to come if any of them ever reaches out to me for a just a hi or a couch to crash on, I will happily be there for them, and I think I can say they feel the same way about me.

Sometimes people wonder how it’s possible to feel such a close connection with someone I knew for so little time. With some people I spent just one evening at a hostel, with others I spent every minute of every day for half a month, and the rest are somewhere in between. It began with a first impression, a snap judgement of whether or not this person and I could get along well. Travelers are masters at quick opinions; we meet so many people on the road that there’s no way not to learn the personality types we mesh well with. Luckily I could already relate to most people who were in the same places as me – we were all people who liked to explore the unknown in a low cost high adventure sort of way. So once we passed the first impression it was just a matter of time until the conversation deepened.

Whether together for two hours, two days, or two weeks, the nature of traveling accelerated my connections with people. We lived in the moment, knowing that all we had was right now, that there was no reason to hold back, and that without the preconceived notions that come with home we were free to be ourselves. We called it our “travel selves,” but after a few months I dropped the “travel” part and just became “myself.” Travel me felt more like me than US me ever did, and that person wanted to share myself with these new friends, and was delighted when my companions reciprocated with the same openness.

I love you guys.

A friend embarking on her own solo journey for the first time asked me how I met people. There were a variety of ways. The best was in hostels, my home away from home. In common areas and dorm rooms it was easy to strike up a conversation, sometimes starting more formal with “hi I’m so-and-so” or “where are you from?” and other times just jumping in when I had something relevant to say. Transportation was good too – a comment about the ride, the destination, or someone’s luggage could lead to a new friendship. Then there’s the activities. A tour like the Whitsundays or Fraser Island had built-in companions that could become friends beyond their end dates, free/hostel-organized walking tours were always a hit, or sometimes all it took was stopping to take a picture on a bike ride and saying something to the other person doing the same thing. It’s easier than people think to engage in conversation with a stranger. No matter what we already had something in common: we were both in that place at that time. The rest worked itself out from there.

Now the tough part for me is being back in a society where that extreme of friendliness is viewed as strange rather than normal. Having other travelers to talk to about the adjustment of being back home has been crucial. We all go through reverse culture shock in some way, and even just having a friend say “I get it” can be a huge help. Same with travel stories. Those people with who I experienced the highs and lows of travel – from incredible new places to torturing overnight buses – are the ones I can best talk to about the past year. We reminisce, we empathize, and we are totally okay with every anecdote including “when I was in…”

I hope to continue meeting people on my travels and extend my already fairly sizable network of international friends. I also hope I’ll have a chance to visit everyone one day. Moving to Europe is looking like a possibility again next year, so I might kick off that chapter with some friend couch hopping… if you’ll all have me.

From Logging Roads to the Beach, My Trip to Vancouver Island

For six days I lived in a camper on the back of a 1990 pick-up truck, driving around on logging roads from deep forest to bright ocean, seeing what Victoria Island is all about with someone who knew it like the back of his hand. Before I left Hampi, Sam and I had discussed the possibility of doing a long road trip this fall – Vancouver to Panama – so we decided to do a trial run before I went back to the East Coast. This is how I ended up in British Columbia less than a week after setting foot on North American soil.

We started the journey in Victoria, a charming city with some classic architecture, a thriving port, delicious soft-serve, and, most importantly for us, Sam’s shack of goodies – two old VW vans, two 4×4’s that need some work, a couple surfboards, and countless tools, it was a window into a resourceful man’s world that I’d only heard about from Sam and would experience in the upcoming days. We grabbed what we needed and, after a few key grocery stops, left civilization behind.

Most of our trip was spent in the car, which probably sounds a lot more boring than it actually was. This was a test of road trip compatibility after all. We drove a ton, zigzagging across the southern half of Vancouver Island. I got very used to bumping slowly along gravel logging roads, swerving around potholes and letting the giant trucks hauling tree trunks have the right of way. We chatted, we listened to music, and I stared out the window, endlessly entertained by the gorgeous Pacific Northwest scenery.

The weather matched our route perfectly. It was overcast with a misty rain for our hikes in two old growth forests, first to Canada’s Gnarliest Tree and then to Sam’s favorite tree, which has to be the biggest tree I’ve ever seen – it was sprouting full size trees as branches. These forests have been around much longer than any of us; they are impressive, spiritual places that reminded me just how small we really are in this vast world. Then when we reached the west coast the sun came out to welcome us to the ocean. We had perfect weather for our Tofino day, which we thoroughly enjoyed by parking the camper in a lot right on the beach so we could cook and eat breakfast with an ocean view. Tofino was already Day 4 of our trip and the most time we spent in a town; after our beach breakfast we went to the Roy Henry Vickers gallery – a gorgeous collection by this acclaimed local artist – and the Tofino Brewing Company for a tasting flight.

Each night we camped at a different site. The first night we were seaside at Port Renfrew, the second on Lake Cowichan, the third at an official campsite in Ucluelet (with showers!), the fourth at a new site on Kennedy Lake, and the fifth on Salt Spring Island. While they all had their own charm, and were really pretty, my favorite by far was the fourth night. We were the only people in this lovely brand new campsite. We played our new favorite radio station loudly and had a fire going late into the night. Attempting to find our way out the next day, lost deep in nameless logging roads, we saw a logging chopper land (apparently a rarity judging by how excited Sam was) before stopping to ask a man for directions. He happened to be a very talented carver and showed us some of his projects, including an orca whale that had a baby orca inside it that could be lowered down by a rope, and a figure that would support the roof of his house. His work was beautiful and we were happy to have had the privilege of speaking with him about it.

Along with just enjoying the incredible scenery the trip was a lesson in self-efficiency. I learned that in Canada firewood is not purchased but cut up with a chainsaw on the side of the road. I then learned how to chop said wood with an ax and build a better fire. I also learned how to drive an old stick shift truck with a camper on the back, play a djembe drum in sync with Sam’s acoustic guitar, and new ways to cook salmon and bacon-wrapped halibut. Every night we parked at a new site and set to work making a fire and cooking dinner together – we cooked some great meals in that camper – and then hung out late into the night in the warmth of the flames. It was a great way of life.

At the end of my trip I was sad to return to a city. Vancouver Island is truly gorgeous and a perfect place to live a simple life out of a camper, wandering around at will. I can’t thank Sam enough for inviting me up to his home and adventuring around with me.