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.
It’s my last real day in India.
I say real because I’m about to embark on 40 hours of travel to my next destination, and I don’t think a day spent just on planes, trains and automobiles should count as my last day here.
So it’s from the beautiful, serene, fantastic village of Hampi, India that I say farewell not just to this country but to my itinerary. I did it. I reached the end. It may not be the end of traveling (it definitely is not), but it is the end of the original plan.
For the past nine months I’ve traveled the world. I learned how to survive in the jungle, the cities, and the mountains of South America, adopting Spanish and companions as I went. I drove through, jumped out of a plane over, and played frisbee golf within the vast landscapes of New Zealand, forming a fondness for this faraway place that may result in a prolonged return in my future. I swam with sea turtles, got a solid tan, and enjoyed the gastronomy of Australia, a continent so far yet so familiar. I rode on every form of two- three- and four-wheel transportation imaginable, ate meals that cost little but tasted lots, and sweated my ass off in Asia, while learning hello and thank you in more languages than I can count on one hand.
I feel satisfied. Happy. Accomplished. I did what I set out to do, my 9-month open-ended plan, and now from my last location I am proud to say that I feel like I completed my goal. Everything from here on is bonus.
Thank you to the people in my life, both new and old, who have supported me, shared the adventures with me, and at times helped make this solo journey bearable. Thank you to the countries I encountered for making me feel welcome and showing me everything you have to offer and more. You are all wonderful. Thank you to myself, which feels weird to say but is true, for following through on my life goal, for not backing down when things were tough, and for becoming more myself than I have ever been.
It’s been an incredible journey that has affected me more than I could ever say here. I am not done posting, not even close, because even though the plan ends here the adventures continue. My Travel Abrodge is not quite done.
So where will take 40 hours to get to, you might ask?
Japan, you’re up next. Get some sushi and sake ready for me. I have no doubt that you’ll keep this amazing experience going.
With my departure from Australia I ended Part 2 of my RTW trip. I always knew that the Australasia portion would be a familiar breather in the middle of disparate South America and Asia, and it was part of the reason I included it where I did. A recharge if you will, with modern amenities and plenty of beach time. Plus I had always wanted to go there, and that was the whole premise of this trip – go to the places I’ve always wanted to go.
So you can imagine my surprise when I left Australasia feeling disappointed, lost, and questioning myself. I had just come from the best travel of my life in South America and I missed everything I had experienced there, from the locations to the people. New Zealand still had enough of a new place feel to keep me going, but Australia was unexpectedly hard for me. The tours, the kids, the prices, the beaches – it all came together to make me miss the unpredictable world I’d left behind.
When I think back to my month in Australia none of it is really negative. Noosa was the low point, but it was short-lived. Whitsundays, Byron Bay, Melbourne, and Sydney were all great locations that I would happily recommend to everyone. But there’s something about the impression of the overall trip that left me with a bad taste.
But I’ve come to realize that Australia served a purpose. I now know without a doubt what kind of travel I want to be doing on this trip. Organized tours and giant party hostels may have been great when I was in a different place in life, but where I’m at right now they are not for me. This was important to learn as I still have a few months of travel left and those types of things will not be left behind in Australasia.
Having said that, I still want to go back to these countries. I would love to go back to Wanaka for a season, with a few trips to the last places I didn’t make it to on my first NZ round. And I already have a route in mind for a 3 month Australia road trip. I bet you can guess none of it will be on the East Coast. I want to go to the West Coast and the interior desert; I think if I had done that trip I would have left highly satisfied. But everyone should see the East Coast once in their lives, and it’s probably better I did it before I had even more distance between myself and the other travelers, so I don’t regret the route I took at all.
Now that I’ve separated myself from those two months I look back fondly. Really I can’t imagine regretting any part of this year, and if I thought I would regret it then I would have left much earlier. There’s no reason to stay anywhere that doesn’t feel right. And I am happy to have learned more about the places and ways I want to be travelling; it is a valuable lesson for me.
So with that, I said goodbye to the familiar and embarked on Part 3. Asia would be a whole new experience with tougher language barriers and spicier street food meals, and I couldn’t wait to see what it was all about.
At Colgate we have something called the Colgate Hello. It means that when you walk around campus everyone says hi to each other. This may not actually happen all the time at Colgate, but it definitely does happen on any outdoor trail in New Zealand.
Therefore I’m calling this the New Zealand Hello.
Every hiking trail we walked on, every single person you passed said hello. Sometimes they would ask how your day was going or make a comment on the weather. It was like everyone on the trail was instantly your friend because you both decided to walk outside.
At the end of the Abel Tasman track we had to walk back into town to get the car. We weren’t on the trail any longer but were walking on a path on the side of the road just past the park entrance. People still said hello as we passed. Frank turned to me and asked, “When do we stop saying hi?” “No idea.” It was a gray area: no longer hiking trail but not yet city street. Is this still NZ Hello territory?
The default answer is yes, because really everywhere in NZ is NZ Hello territory. Those friendly Kiwis.
I have a crush on a supermarket. NZ was shockingly expensive when I arrived so a lot of the food I ate there came from supermarkets. There were a few to choose from but my favorite was New World.
New World gets the backpackers needs. Not only do they provide free wifi (I spent an hour in the entrance of the Kaikoura New World so I didn’t have to buy wifi) but they have the best prepared food section I’ve seen. The sandwiches became a staple of any long trip, whether a ferry or bus ride, the salads were good, and the pizza was cheap ($3, although disappointing, sorry NW you messed this one up a bit).
The best way to shop at New World as a solo backpacker was going straight to the prepared food section and finding the “Reduced to Sell” items. Usually some kind of salad – couscous, veggies and rice, garden salad – these items were made out of fresh produce so they had to sell quickly or they would go bad. Anything that didn’t sell fast enough was marked down, usually at least half price, so it would not go to waste. Since I was not stocking a kitchen but looking for an immediate meal these were perfect for me. I had a delicious couscous and broccoli with bacon lunch for just $2.50, a Thai curry soup dinner for $3, or a side salad for my pizza for just $1.
I wish New World existed everywhere. It was a real budget helper, and the food at least felt much healthier than most other budget food options.
I ended my month in New Zealand back where it began – Auckland – but now that the culture shock was gone and I was lucky enough to have a local tour guide this revisit was nothing like my first time there.
Auckland has a lot more to offer than I realized, probably because most of what it has you need a car to get to. I couldn’t have had such a great second visit there if it wasn’t for Kevin, a friend from my NYC days who just happened to be back home in Auckland while I was in town. Fate!
Kevin showed me a great mixture of Auckland activities, from hiking days to indulgent desserts, so that the next time I hung out with a bunch of Kiwis from Auckland (which incidentally was my next few days in Sydney) they were surprised when I said I liked my time there.
In short, over the course of 5 days we: hiked up One Tree Hill to see the sprawl of the city from above; wandered the trails around Piha beach, from a jungle walk to a three-tiered waterfall to the vertical hike up Lion Rock, a huge rock in the center of the sparkling black sand beach; had huge green NZ mussels (forever ruining for me the normal tiny mussels in the US); climbed the volcano Rangitoto Island; finally had some great NZ fish and chips while checking out Mission Beach; went to probably the best dessert restaurant I’ve ever been to, Chocolate Boutique in Parnell; went wine tasting on Waiheke Island; checked out a fantastic light art show at the Auckland Art Gallery followed by more delicious desserts, this time Chocolate Lahroaig ice cream at Giapo; had a true NZ steak and cheese pie (#2 in the city) in Ponsonby; and saw one final volcanic crater with a view of Auckland from Mount Eden. Add in some great hot tub and sauna sessions at the apartment complex and the amazingness of staying in a home with Kevin and his dad, a room to myself, tea with avocado and honey on toast breakfasts, and some fantastic home cooked dinners, and it’s clear why this return to Auckland left a much better impression than my first round there about 4 weeks earlier.
My final days in Auckland were the perfect end to a month in NZ. Much like leaving South America by staying put in BA for an extended time, staying with a friend in his home was the perfect recharge before my next phase. I really can’t thank Kevin and his dad enough; I was so lucky to have experienced such amazing hospitality.
When I got to the airport (at way too early an hour, the gates weren’t even open yet) I felt ready to move on to Australia and happy with the time I had in the great country of New Zealand. I have come to accept that there will always be more to see in the countries I’m visiting on this trip, but I left NZ satisfied with my experience.
Leaving the South Island I was facing a two day journey to get back up to Auckland. Since I had the hop on hop off bus pass I decided to break up the trip a little with a day in Rotorua.
I left Kaikoura in the morning and made it to the Interislander ferry by 1:00 pm. It was nice to do the Cook Strait crossing in the daylight this time; the trip out of Picton is a lovely ride through green hills on either side of the channel. I arrived in Wellington shortly before 5 but didn’t venture back out into the city. I just took it easy at the hostel since I had to get on a bus again before 8:00 am the next morning. It was already afternoon by the time I got to Rotorua, so my exploring would mostly have to wait for the next day.
Rotorua is known for its hot springs and its stench. This town stinks. Literally. It’s because it’s a geothermally active area so the odor of sulfur is a constant presence. Having experienced this immediately, I wanted to experience its other prominent feature, so I looked into what my options were for the day.
NZ$69 to do a day trip to the best place to see the unique colors, geological formations, and geysers. Hot springs were all spas, not exactly an affordable option or even what I was imagining. I decided neither of these things was worth the budget expense; I was spoiled in the Salt Flats with our geysers and hot springs at dawn experience.
So what could I do in Rotorua on a budget? Have a pretty good day actually.
I spent the majority of the day walking around Rotorua and still was able to see the insanity of its natural make-up. I started with the path around the lake, which traversed land that appeared dead but actually had small geysers, bubbling holes, coffee-colored pools, and tons of birds. And of course the awful smell. I’m lucky my face went back to normal after an hour of walking around with my nose scrunched up.
I continued the walk south to the Redwood Forest. Try getting two more opposite landscapes within the same walk. Now I was surrounded by a lush forest with soaring Redwood trees and green fern trees. The oddity of Rotorua was not to be forgotten though as I traversed a bright blue river in the middle of the forest. Have I used Alice in Wonderland yet? Because if the Amazon was Dr. Suess and the Salt Flats were Salvador Dali then Rotorua is Alice in Wonderland.
It was a solid day of walking, with lots of time to think, listen to music, and to reflect on my month in New Zealand. That night I got on a bus to Auckland, my final stop before the next country. Rotorua was a fitting stop on my way out to see more quirky nature – I started in the North Island with glowworm caves and ended with geothermal wonderland. NZ really does have some of the craziest nature within such a small country.