Thursday, April 26, 2012

Six Months on the Road

To think that just six months ago we were sitting in a Greyhound station in Los Angeles, waiting for our bus to arrive, and now we are in Medellin is truly amazing. At this point it´s almost hard to recall what was going through our minds waiting in that Greyhound station, fear, excitement, nervousness, and anticipation. That first bus was just a taste of what we would expect, by the time we got to El Paso, and switched buses to the bus that would actually take us across the border, we realized that we were the only two people on that bus who were US citizens. Immediately, upon crossing the border, culture shock set in. Things were different. There were a lot more people with scary looking guns, wild dogs roaming the streets, and the little voice in our heads repeating what practically everyone had said to us, "Don´t go to Mexico, you´ll die there!" or something along those lines. The fact that we basically got lost on our first day out of the country was both exciting and relieving as we ended up asking someone holding a machine gun for directions. To our surprise, he understood our barely passable Spanish and helpfully pointed us in the right direction.

This was our first encounter in what exemplifies the general attitude and friendliness shown towards others in Latin America. Keep in mind we were in a big city, not generally considered a tourist destination and we were asking a machine-gun wielding teenager for help. I can only imagine what would happen if someone asked a New Yorker for directions in broken English. I think it would be something like, "Can´t you see that I´m wahking here." We have literally had people call their friends to help us get directions. It is amazing how excited people are to know that we are coming to visit their country, especially in the areas that don´t get a lot of tourists. We can´t count the number of times that we´ve been graciously helped by people who keep us from getting off the bus in the wrong place, or telling us not to bring a backpack to certain neighborhoods, etc.

Another interesting aspect of our journey has been the amazing work ethic of the locals. It seems as though as soon as we left the states, there was a minor parade of people coming onto the bus at every stop, selling everything from food to flashlights to axes to really neat looking mechanical pencils. We have had guitarists playing music on the back of the bus for tips, even a guy selling fresh pizza! People have found some very ingenious ways of earning a living. Here in Colombia there is a small army of people with cell phones chained to their belts selling minutes. It appears that they buy minutes in bulk, and then sell them to you for cheaper than you could buy them yourself and they make a small profit. Everybody has a phone here, but many people seem to use them only to recieve calls. There is also a much greater sense of conservation, both for environmental reasons as well as monetary. In nearly every country we have been the dish soap is not liquid, it´s in a sort of solid tub and you rub the sponge against it. Apparently it´s significantly cheaper, uses less water, and is just as effective.

Moving on to what it´s been like travelling for six months. We have come to realize that we have a distinct style. We normally get somewhere and take our own walking tour that first day. Depending on the place we will go to musuems or other touristy spots for the next few days, and then we try to hang out and meet some locals. That may be in a bar or coffee shop, or just bumping into someone on the bus. We also realized that we packed a lot lighter than nearly every other traveller we meet. We have a 55 liter backpack for both of us, which separates into a large 40 liter backpack and a 15 liter daypack. The daypack is a little smaller than the backpack I used in middle school. We also have another 15 liter daypack which folds into itself, it normally only gets used when we are doing long hikes and each need a daypack to carry food and water. We have met travellers who are each carrying in excess of 60-70 liters, which is quite a bit to carry around, especially when navigating a chicken bus. Occasionally we come across people using a standard suitcase as well, that´s always entertaining when it gets tossed on top of the bus with giant bags of beans and the livestock. Despite our light packing, there are still some things that we have yet to use, and could probably get rid of. We originally brought some bug spray for our clothes, but got rid of it in Panama since we never used it. Turns out that after you wash your clothes it goes away anyway, so it probably was something I just bought to make my parents happy. We have a mosquito net, however we have never used it. We only went to one place where it was even needed due to outdoor beds, however they provided mosquito nets anyway and we ended up not even staying in that particular hostel. We also have two inflatable pillows. We have used those a few times, however we may end up getting rid of them as a crumpled up jacket would probably work just fine. A word on footwear. My sandals broke in El Salvador. My five-fingers were annhilated after hiking to Mirador. I replaced both in El Salvador. The shoes I bought cost $4.39 and where purchased mainly because they fit me, turned out they weren´t of the highest quality. The sandals were two sizes too small, but for $5 I just needed something to get to the beach and back. After traveling through two more countries I finally found a pair of Keens, which are probably the ugliest things in all of Central America, but they fit, and they are comfortable. People of normal size would have no trouble buying shoes or any other clothing, but finding a size 13 shoe is almost impossible. While we really like our Icebreaker clothing, they don´t seem to stand the test of time. Granted, we are really wearing the hell out of these clothes - only 2 shirts in my case, 4 for Sarah, but the Icebreaker shirts seem to perform poorly, especially compared to the Under Armour. My shirts have quite a few holes and certain stains seem to not come out of Sarah´s.(You spill ketchup ONCE!) Sarah´d sweatshirt is starting to tear apart at the seams. We have used my pocketknife almost daily, as knives in hostel kitchens can often be of lower quality, and we find ourselves eating a lot of fruit that needs to be cut up.

That brings me to my next point. Costs of everything vary significantly throughout the countries we visited, but pretty much across the board local fruits and vegetables are very affordable. Today we bought five pounds of potatoes for about 75 cents, but imported oranges cost as much as they would in your local grocery. We have bought loads of fresh fruits for very affordable prices. That said, we have definitely noticed price changes caused by local tourism. In some places some of the locals have even said that they are thinking about leaving because it is too expensive for them to live there. We have had a lot of fun interacting with local businesses. At one point, we walked into a hotel and asked how much a room costs, and waited patiently while the three employees laughed to themselves for about three minutes before quoting a price. We ended up not staying there. We have had taxi rides in non-touristy places cost as low as 35 cents, and taxi rides in more touristy places cost as much as 16 dollars.

People are almost always shocked to find out that we are American and yet we speak Spanish or in some cases other languages. Apparently Americans have a generally poor reputation as tourists who don´t take the time to learn a lick of Spanish, but pretty much everyone we meet appreciates that we at least make an effort. It obviously makes it easier to communicate and people are interested in foreigners, why are we here, what are we doing? Just a few days ago after talking to a guy in a restaurant and hearing about our journey, he explained where to find good deals on furnished apartments should we decide to live here in Medellin.

Travelling for a long time is a big commitment. We have no home, we have very little belongings. The experience of meeting new people, both locals and other travellers alike is something that really can´t be replaced. If you, our loyal reader has ever considered undertaking such a journey, I would recommend doing it sooner rather than later. I know when I was originally contemplating this, many of my friends, and especially coworkers asked me if I had considered the financial ramifications. How I would be giving up a year´s worth of income, how would it look on a resume, etc etc. At the end of the day, I realized that I can always make more money, I can´t make more time. The adventures continue!!!

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