In February of 2015 Will sat on a hotel balcony in Puerto Escondido, Mexico and wrote a blog post. It was intended to kind of give ourselves a kick in the ass; we were teetering on the cusp of applying for residency in Mexico or doing something dramatically different.
Of course, we went for dramatic. Or at least I think we did. I do have a fondness for flair.
And you all know what happened next. We bought Moby, we bought way too much shit we thought we’d need and didn’t, and hit the road; starry eyed and brimming with confidence, the kind of combination that always means you’re just around the corner from a massive disappointment.
We’ve had several of those disappointments in the nearly two years since we left the United States and set our sights on Ushuaia, Argentina. We were robbed of nearly everything of value in Barranquilla, Colombia; the ubiquitous mañana kept us delayed in uninspiring places for weeks at a time; places we loved bore no resemblance to the way they had fit into our current story; we had to sacrifice a good deal of sightseeing as we were always chasing wifi in order to work.
Disappointment is inevitable when you travel, no matter how you do it. You need a damn selfie stick to get a shitty photo of the Mona Lisa because of the crowds. Your flight is delayed so you miss your connection and the airline graciously gives you a coupon for McDonald’s. A sudden storm means you’re trudging around Chichen Itza with no umbrella and wet shoes. If a trip goes off without at least one hiccup then you’ve got some wizardry on your side.
But it’s every traveler’s nightmare that a trip will be canceled or cut short due to circumstances beyond their control. Circumstances that were never, ever expected.
We have met so many different people from so many different places on this journey. Older couples who have a pension and a retirement to piss away however they please. Young people who have saved money and have a small window of time before they have to go back to work. Families who have decided that driving their kids around South America is better than any school. Seriously, you’d be surprised at the many different kinds of people who undertake this trip.
We have a lot of people tell us things like, “I really wish I could do what you do but we have kids.” I think of all the campgrounds we’ve visited that are teeming with kids, finding bath toys in communal showers, and watching superhero moms simultaneously keep one kid from drowning while effortlessly preparing scrambled eggs for five on a propane stove with another wailing kid attached to her leg.
It’s not your kids you need to worry about if you want to take a trip like this; they’ll be fine. In fact, they’ll be more than fine. They’ll be amazing little shits who will grow up to speak four languages and be the problem solvers of the world.
It’s your aging parents that you need to worry about.
My mom’s health has been declining for some time but it’s been gradual and I’ve never really had cause to worry. My daughter was living with her to help her out and everything was fine. I called her about once a week to chat and she always kept up with us on Facebook. I think she took a lot of joy in following along on our journey.
About two months ago I got a message from my daughter. She had recently taken the move to working full time and was out of the house for the majority of the day. She was worried that my mom needed more attention than she could give. She’s also a young woman with a life of her own. Her residence there was never supposed to be permanent; we just never discussed the time when she’d need or want to move out on her own.
What do you do when you’re somewhere in the middle of a trip of indeterminable length with your partner and one of you has to stop? How do you let go of the goal you plotted out together? This isn’t like a few months backpacking around Asia; one of you can leave and say, “I’ll see you in a month or so!” We have at least a year or more before we can feel comfortable saying that we’re done.
But the truth is that we are not done. I am done.
I leave for the states in 12 days. Will does not. A mutual decision was made; Will is going to finish the trip on his own. Our relationship is as good as it ever was, probably better, and I don’t anticipate that changing.
But I have to go.
I am sad. I am sad that I’ll miss Buenos Aires, one of the cities I was most looking forward to. I’m sad that I won’t go to Easter Island, something we had very seriously considered as part of this journey. I’m sad that I won’t revel in wine country or try my hand at polo in Argentina. I’m sad that I won’t be able to say, “I did it. I drove a damn truck to the southernmost tip of the Americas.”
But most of all I’m sad to be leaving my best friend behind.
The cynic in me tends to turn my nose up at silver linings but I do think there is one here. I’m excited to spend time with my mom. We have not lived close enough to each other for regular visits in years. I like her; she’s a really cool person who is fun to be around. While I don’t really love being in the states it’s been a long time since I’ve spent more than a few weeks there and it could be a lot worse than northern Utah.
But most of all I guess I feel a sense of privilege. We’re all going to get old one day; you, me, and everyone we know. If all of us had a person who said, “I’ll help” when the need arises can you imagine how great would feel? I can help my mom stay in her home. I can help my mom in her garden this summer. I can drive my mom up to Bear Lake for raspberry milkshakes. I can simply be there so she’s not alone.
That’s a privilege.
I’ve learned so much on this trip that I somehow wonder how I survived before. Pieces of my DNA have been fundamentally altered; that’s a given when you throw yourself into a sink or swim situation the size of two continents. I’ve become more brave, I’ve become more compassionate, I’ve become more humble, I’ve become more intelligent, I’ve become more of the type of person I’ve always wanted to be.
That’s a privilege too.
So that’s it. That’s all. That’s how it ends. I leave Rio for Utah and Will leaves Rio for the next place down the line. Where that might be is up to him now I suppose. And just like the moment we began planning this trip, this part too is indeterminable. What happens next lives somewhere in the great wide open.
But that’s how it always is, isn’t it?
As we work our way toward two years of camper life one of the things that I notice most is what we eat. Or, should I say, what we don’t eat. Our diets are mainly regulated by our proximity to places that sell food, how much of that food we can fit into our tiny fridge, and if the weather allows our fruits and vegetables to spoil in one day or four. In many ways it’s like living in a dorm. Ramen, peanut butter, pasta, and rice are on the menu almost every day of the week
This is not to say that inventive camper cooking can’t be done. Our friends over at The Next Big Adventure are prime examples of gourmet overlanders and I wish we were tagging along with them. I’d simply park myself close enough to their camper so they’d have no choice but to invite me for dinner every night. However, most nights we’re alone in various campgrounds and the aforementioned staples grace our plastic plates.
But, every once in a while we drag out clothing that passes as smart casual, make sure our hands are clean, take ourselves out of the hoi polloi realm, and make a reservation somewhere that offers tablecloths and matching cutlery.
Oh, and we have to remember to strut in like we belong there. We may be hobos but the maître ‘d doesn’t know that, especially when Will’s shirt has a collar and my nail polish isn’t chipped.
When we arrived in Brazil I was tasked with finding a restaurant where we could drop an obscene amount of money on food and take in my first look at Iguaçu Falls. Our choices were limited as most of the restaurant action takes place just across the border in Argentina. It didn’t take me long to decide on Belmond Hotel das Cataratas. Fancy, formal, and right beside the falls I knew that sparkling wine would be served in something other than a coffee cup and I’d likely have a real linen napkin for my lap.
However, getting there is another story.
Since the hotel is located inside the national park entrance is generally limited to hotel guests only. It took several emails and phone calls to ensure that my name was on some fancy list and that we’d have access to the private gate. That didn’t go quite as planned; in the end we had to ride the tourist bus like commoners but hey, since it was the last bus of the day we did have the whole thing to ourselves.
People in South America eat late. If you find a restaurant open at 7pm you’re lucky. The restaurant at the Belmond Hotel das Cataratas was no different. We found ourselves in the bar area, seated outside on a lovely patio, the falls roaring in the background. As a sipped from my glass (a real glass!) of a surprisingly good and very dry Brazilian Brut our server informed us that the kitchen didn’t open until 7:30pm. We had nearly two hours to kill. So, we did what anyone would normally do in that situation.
More sparkling wine for me, more beer for Will.
When it finally came time to place our order I was torn. I’d had all this time to peruse the menu and I still didn’t know what I wanted. Filet? I always have that. Duck? Oh man, I love duck but I wasn’t sure that’s what I wanted. In the end I decided on something wild, literally.
Wild boar with a tamarind glaze and a manioc puree.
It’s been a while since I’ve eaten any kind of game (that I know of) so I was really excited. When my dish arrived I was stunned. A perfect slab of boar belly was placed in the center of a beautiful gray plate, the edges dotted with mustard seed, glistening with tamarind, and nestled in a swath of manioc. This was no camper food.
I picked up my knife and fork only to realize that the knife was useless. This gorgeous slab of meat fell apart at the slightest touch. My first bite was almost a shock; there was the immediate sweet and sour of the tamarind, the smooth taste of pork fat, and that strong mineral flavor that comes from an animal that eats whatever the hell it wants until it dies.
I handed a piece to Will. “Yep. You can taste the adrenaline.”
That piece of boar now ranks as one of my top five meals ever and I’ve eaten some damn good food in my life. We also shared a bottle of Argentinian syrah that I chose from the wine list. Our server praised my choice, indicating that this wine is the sommelier’s pick for the boar. It was, indeed, the perfect wine.
We rounded out our dinner with a simple mixed berry cheesecake and watched the hotel staff prowl the hotel grounds in search of the jaguars that are known to lurk there. Maybe there was a jaguar. I don’t know. I was too busy with that cheesecake.
If there’s one thing that I love more than anything about living in a camper it’s getting out of the camper. Our evening at the Belmond Hotel das Cataratas was exactly what I want when we pretend to be fancy, when we order food we could never prepare for ourselves, and when we have a moment to feel like we haven’t just spent almost two years on the road.
But when the bus deposited us back outside the hotel gate and our taxi was waiting to take us back to the campground I was happy to go.
I wanted to sleep off that wine and boar belly in my own comfy bed.
I am not a physician nor do I have scientific training in tropical medicine. Please don’t take this as medical advice.
I’ll never forget the day I collapsed onto the street in Siem Reap, Cambodia, two weeks into a seven week trip through that country and Thailand. I had been sick for a few days but we decided to take the bus to Phnom Penh anyway, even though I was burning up with fever that morning. When I hit the ground I dreamily thought the heat of the pavement felt cool on my skin.
Suffice it to say I never got on that bus. Instead I found myself in a Siem Reap hospital, pumped full of fluids and painkillers, and diagnosed with dengue fever. I was released from the hospital after a day or so but it was still a week before I could travel and three more weeks before I started to feel better, really better.
That was almost 14 years ago. Since that time I’ve been the one who is always covered in repellent. I’m the one that hides behind screens at the merest hint of that maddening, whiny buzz in my ear. I’m the one that checks my body for the tell-tale rash if I feel ill after those bitches have pierced my skin with their virus laden proboscises. I’ve been lucky since that time in Cambodia but my luck ran out a month ago in Asuncion, Paraguay.
Mosquitos have been the scourge of the earth and a bane to humankind for millennia. In his book “Slave Trade” author and Georgetown professor John McNeill states that, until the mid-twentieth century, more battle troops were killed by mosquito borne diseases than were killed in actual combat. Malaria was the disease du jour at that time and troops who had not been exposed to the disease promptly got sick and died.
Mosquitos and malaria were also part of the reason why European colonists were unable to penetrate the interior of Africa until the early 1800’s. Quinine, a product of the Cinchona tree native to South America, was brought back to Europe by the conquistadors but it wasn’t until later that British colonists in India discovered that it aided in one’s recover from malaria. The bitter drink was made more palatable by adding sugar and water. Of course, the British took that one tasty step further and added gin to the mixture. What better way to feel like you’re conquering a deadly disease than to do so by knocking back a few G & T’s?
While Africa’s dark interior remained off limits the coastal regions were fair game and in the 15th century when the slave trade began Africa’s mosquitos were stowaways in large numbers. When this same trade expanded to the Caribbean and North America a new breeding ground was formed and those previously unheard of diseases flourished. Mosquitos are opportunists; give them some stagnant water and stable temperatures and they’re almost unstoppable.
Malaria was simply the start. As science progressed more mosquito borne diseases were identified and the numbers are staggering. There’s West Nile virus, equine encephalitis (yes, humans can get it from infected horses), dengue fever, Japanese B encephalitis, yellow fever, malaria, chikungunya, Saint Louis encephalitis, and zika. These are just a few of the mosquito borne diseases that humans contract but they’re the ones most world health organizations pay attention to.
So if you’re traveling to the tropics where these diseases flourish you might think about heading over to the clinic and getting a vaccination, right? Wrong. Currently, the only reliable vaccines available are for yellow fever and Japanese B encephalitis. A vaccine for dengue is available in limited supply in countries hardest hit by outbreaks but it’s not entirely effective. And if you’re in the market for a yellow fever shot you might be out of luck. A current outbreak of the disease in Brazil has effectively depleted the world’s supply of the vaccine. There is no vaccine for malaria but prophylactic medications like doxycycline can reduce your chances of contracting the virus.
As a traveler to mosquito heaven I am keenly aware of the dangers. I was vaccinated for yellow fever in 2011 prior to our trip to the Peruvian Amazon. As a previous dengue victim the vaccine for the virus was recommended to me (priority is given to the elderly, those with compromised immune systems, and people who have had the virus before) but it’s a three shot series over the course of 18 months and weighs in at a hefty 450 USD.
So, back to Asuncion, Paraguay. We had taken a break from camper life and were ensconced in a lovely little apartment. I woke up one morning feeling off and within a few hours I had a massive headache, a fever, and joint pain. I spent that day in bed gulping water and Tylenol and hoping it was just a flu. By the next day I knew I had to see a doctor. I hurled myself into a cab and headed to the nearest hospital. The moment I mentioned dengue to the reception staff I was hustled straight to an exam room. The doctor asked me about my symptoms and promptly sent me to the lab for bloodwork.
As I stated earlier I am no medical professional. However, while I waited for my blood to be scrutinized I did turn to Doctor Google. What they were looking for in my blood was the actual presence of the virus and a check of my platelet and white blood cell count. However, the test for the viral presence is a crapshoot; if the patient has the test too early after symptom onset it’s inconclusive. Antibody tests can also be inconclusive. The test can indicate an active infection or simply indicate that the patient has had the virus at some time in the past. My results were inconclusive for the virus itself, antibody presence was not tested, and my platelet and white counts were low.
That doctor’s diagnosis? Dengue fever. I was sent home with the standard treatment: fluids, rest, and Tylenol.
However, my symptoms never really progressed to the horror I experienced in Cambodia. After a few days I felt better and the fatigue dissipated within a week or so. When I followed up with a different doctor he surmised that I probably had Zika given the relatively mild symptoms. Perhaps I’ll never know what really happened.
But what I do know is this. If you're traveling in the tropics get your shots. Many countries in the world ask for proof of yellow fever vaccination and have the right to refuse entry to those without that proof. And for those who ask questions like, "Do I need a yellow fever card to get into X country" I simply reply to their question with a question.
Do you want yellow fever?
Because mosquitoes don't care about you. They only care about world domination.
Aguardiente is a Spanish word that translates roughly to 'liquor'. A more literal translation would be along the lines of 'fire water' and could also mean 'rotgut' in certain contexts. Every time drinking would come up in conversation with Colombians, they would refer to aguardiente as the tequila of Colombia, though admittedly that may be because of the way that I steered the conversation.
Clearly aguardiente is not tequila. I'm a bit curious why many Colombians insisted that this was their version of tequila. What does that say about tequila? Is it viewed as fire water or rotgut or rather, is this their liquor of national pride?
In the case of one of the most well known and ubiquitous brands of aguardiente in Colombia, Aguardiente Antioqueño, it is made from sugar cane and flavored with anise. It contains 29% alcohol by volume and comes in a traditional variety as well as a 'sin azucar' or without sugar version (that's not how alcohol works though is it?). It is not unpleasant or harsh and I was quite fond of its ouzo like taste but aguardiente seems to me to be more like an digestive or aperitif than a proper shot that I would drink a lot of and I never really warmed up to the drink in a way that would prompt me to buy a bottle or several. Agave distillates remain the go-to even at a higher cost.
With all of that said, I was extremely surprised to find a country that is absolutely full of agave and nobody (that I was able to find) distilling agave. Claiming that aguardiente is the Colombia's version of tequila and yet not distilling any agave is a mystery to me, but that's another story.
I’m really enjoying my new style of writing. I find myself paying more attention to the things I see and the things I feel. It’s almost as if I’m experiencing this journey in a new light, as cliche as that might sound. So, here are a few of the things I thought about this week, a few photos, and an incredible video that I hope you’ll watch.
Thanks again for following along as I test out this new style AND stay tuned for a full post about how Will and I grossly misinterpreted a church in a salt mine.
A few weeks ago when I announced on Facebook that we were crossing into Costa Rica a friend commented and said he would be going there in October.
My response was a simple “why”?
I’m sure this post won’t sit well with a lot of people. Everyone seems to adore Costa Rica. People from all over the world flock to this little country and simply gush over the beaches, the jungles, the wildlife, and they all seem to return to the airport for their flights home wearing something with “Pura Vida” on it. Hell, when I flew out two weeks ago I saw a guy with a tank top and a hat with Pura Vida scrawled on them in neon green.
He was not a man who should be wearing a tank top or neon green.
So you might be wondering why I hate one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. You might think that Costa Rica is perfect and I’m an asshole. That’s okay because after what’s probably been my seventh or eighth time in this country I can officially say it sucks and if I never come back here that would be too soon.
This is by no means a complete list but rather a shortlist of some of the reasons why Costa Rica sucks.
Everyone likes to save money when they travel and we’re no exception. In fact, we have to be very careful about what we spend and Costa Rica will rip a hole in your wallet so big you might as well throw it away.
If you google “why is costa rica so expensive” you’ll be hit with link after link wherein people ask the same question. Is there a definitive answer? Not really but people mention everything from food to taxi fare and many of them comment that even the United States is cheaper.
Costa Ricans benefit from salaries that are the highest in Central America and yet the only thing they can reliably count on to be cheap is electricity. I’ll grudgingly admit that Costa Rica does have their renewable energy game down pat however with the hundreds of thousands of cars on the roads and no emissions regulations that pollution kind of negates Costa Rica’s relative lack of a barely noticeable carbon footprint.
And if you’ve ever had the pleasure of driving in the absolute shithole that is Costa Rica’s capital you’ll understand what I mean. San Jose’s only redeeming qualities are its airport and Denny’s, but you’ll still pay about 50USD for dinner for two.
At fucking Denny’s. Costa Rica sucks.
A few years ago everyone in the whole world went nuts when news started to fly about Costa Rica’s zoos and their closure. My Facebook was flooded with congratulations for the Ticos for doing the right thing by captive animals. However, as with most news, this was not exactly as it seemed. Fake news wins again.
The truth is that Costa Rica’s Minister of the Environment wanted to close the country’s two zoos, turn them into educational centers, and relocate the animals to sanctuaries in other parts of the country. But the joke was on him when the nonprofit that actually operated the zoos sued for breach of contract and won. They will continue to operate the zoos for many more years.
But it’s not the traditional zoos in Costa Rica that bother me. It’s the slapped together buildings on the side of the road housing captive animals of all kinds. If you put the words “eco” or “rescue” on your sign you’re not a zoo and tourists will flock to see the miserable birds, reptiles, and mammals and pay a fortune for the privilege.
And if Costa Rica seems to have a penchant for animal welfare let’s talk about shark finning shall we? Technically the practice is illegal in Costa Rica but the law is not enforced. In 2011 it was estimated that between 350,000 and 450,000 sharks were killed for solely for their fins. Since then Costa Rican authorities will still allow sharks to be landed as long as they have their fins attached. So fishermen have made this easier by stripping the shark down to its spinal column and fin only, leaving the carcasses to rot in the water. And it’s legal. In fact, a large shipment of fins from endangered hammerheads just went off to China this year.
So that brings up China. China and Hong Kong simply can’t live without shark fin soup. So, as a “donation” to Costa Rica the Chinese government built them a brand new fútbol stadium. Of course, gifts from the Chinese are rarely simply gifts. In exchange the Costa Rican government severed their ties with Taiwan and no longer recognized them as a sovereign nation. And China is now Costa Rica’s second biggest trading partner.
However, earlier this year Costa Rica handed down its first ever criminal sentence for shark finning, but that’s unlikely to deter others.
So yeah, go on and on about Costa Rica’s eco-bullshit but don’t forget about all the things tourists never see. Costa Rica sucks.
I swear if someone says “pura vida” to me one more time I’ll throat punch them. It’s the country’s motto and means “pure life” in English but aside from that what the everlasting fuck does it actually mean? The gringos and expats embrace it like a long lost lover and explain that it means to slow down, take every aspect of life as a gift, and live high on the hog in an overpriced gated community on the beach.
What does it mean to the locals? I really don’t know but apparently it’s something your server likes to say to you when they bring your million dollar beer to your table. And it looks so good on shirts and hats. Especially in neon.
But sometimes when people say this it almost feels like an accusation. Like I just don’t get it and my life is far less pure because of that.
Whatever. I’ve never claimed to be pure and don’t plan on doing so at a future time.
It’s a little hard to conclude this post with something nice to say, but my mom always told me that if I didn’t have anything nice to say then I shouldn’t say anything at all. So here goes.
Costa Rica is very pretty.
But you might have noticed that I haven’t included any photos in this post and there’s a good reason for that. I don’t need to. All you have to do is head on over to Instagram and search #puravida. You’ll find plenty of pics there.
So we leave this weekend and head back to our beloved Panama and that day can’t come too soon. And if you were wondering about my friend’s plan to visit Costa Rica you can rest assured that he won’t be tossed into the pricey, pura vida hellhole.
He’s going to Mexico City instead.
On March 31, 2014 an American citizen and former Marine crossed the United States/Mexico border with a truckload of guns and ammunition. He was promptly arrested by Mexican officials; it’s illegal to transport guns of any kind into the country.
The backlash was fierce and Facebook exploded with fiery rhetoric, Change.org petitions, and angry posts calling upon former President Obama to “free our Marine”. One of my Facebook friends was exceptionally outraged by this and her posts rambled on daily. I finally broke my self imposed rule and commented on her post, indicating something along the lines of the fact that he broke the law and what if it were the other way around? What if a Mexican citizen was caught crossing into the United States with a bunch of guns?
It seems that at some point during her tireless mission to get this guy out of Mexican prison she stumbled upon the fact that Mexico charges tourists and foreigners 28 USD as an exit tax. For her, this was the proverbial straw. She might not have invented #boycottmexico but she sure as hell used it a lot. 28 USD was a goddamn travesty, especially since Mexico had “our Marine” in custody.
Those of us who travel frequently know what an exit tax is and know that it’s generally included in the cost of airfare. It’s only when crossing by land that one physically hands over cash. It’s normal, all countries do it to some degree, and it’s just part of the way travel works.
Visas, on the other hand, are a different story. These require an application, an embassy visit, and a typically high fee. The amount of this fee is usually the same as the one your native country charges for the other country’s citizens for their visa.
It’s called a reciprocity fee. Many countries around the world don’t charge this fee to holders of specific passports. The countries that do charge this fee include Russia, China, and Azerbaijan. However, whether or not this fee even impacts your travel plans depends on the passport you carry.
Enter blue privilege.
Citizens of the United States can currently visit 174 of the world’s countries with no visa requirements. You simply hand over that mighty blue passport, get your stamp, and go. It’s a privilege that most citizens take for granted; after all, shouldn’t the most powerful country in the world have unfettered access to the rest of the globe?
Well, I hate to break it to you but Germans can enter 177 countries visa free and citizens of the UK can enter 175 countries.
However, despite having nearly unlimited access to the entire world with a US passport in your hand fewer than 40% of US citizens have one. But, oddly enough, Americans rank second amongst the most well traveled people in the world. So those of us who do have passports use them.
But what if all of that changes? What if the powerful might of the blue passport shrivels in the wake of a world that’s becoming more and more wary of the United States?
Many US citizens have absolutely no idea how a visa process works. They don’t need to know; either they don’t travel or they’ve never traveled to a country that required they have one. However, I also shake my head at the fact that few US citizens know how applying for a US visa goes down.
Again, they have no idea. But I do. I’ve seen it in process.
While much of the United States is embroiled in the illegal immigration basket of snakes they try to at least grant a benevolent nod to those who do it “the right way”. Those who follow the proper channels to enter the United States with a proper visa stuck tightly to a page in their passport of another color.
There are many countries that fall under the Visa Waiver Program for the United States. This includes most of Europe and a handful of Asian and South American countries. However, it’s still not as easy as buying a plane ticket to New York City and waltzing through immigration. They still have to apply for an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) which can be denied at the discretion of the US Department of State.
In theory this is the same thing as filling out the tourist card the flight attendant hands you with your last plastic cup of Coke before you land in another country. However, this is mostly viewed as a formality by the country you’re visiting and a nuisance for you. You don’t have a pen and those damn tray tables are textured so your handwriting looks like chicken scratch and if there’s turbulence you might as well wait until you’re in the immigration line.
However, for those people who live in a country that doesn’t take part in the visa waiver program, securing a US visa, even for tourism or to visit family, is a long, difficult, and expensive process. Paperwork, background checks, interviews, and lots and lots of money go into it and there’s still the risk you’ll be denied.
Outside of emergencies and lost passports people rarely have to visit an American embassy when they travel. I, however, have been in embassies in at least three countries for various reasons. However, it was our visit to the embassy in Lima, Peru that really showed me the human side of applying for a US visa.
Embassies are never nice places. They’re office buildings after all and tend to be drab. Lima’s is no different. However, as we left security and headed toward the area for citizen services we walked past an outdoor seating area. The seats were filled and dozens were standing, all clutching their little slip of numbered paper and waiting.
Winters in Lima are cold and dreary and that day was no exception. It was a day that should have been spent in front of a fire, coffee in hand. Yet here they were, the hopeful, dressed in their best clothes, eyes tired from the hours spent on the bus to reach Lima from some far flung Peruvian town, stacks of paperwork perched on restless knees.
There were older couples, perhaps hoping to visit a son or daughter who lucked out and now lives in the United States and maybe to finally meet their grandchild. There were families, maybe hoping for a trip to Disneyland. They’d probably saved for years to pay for it. There were the singles, perhaps defying the odds and receiving an acceptance letter from an American university and the only thing in the way of a brand new life is that precious visa.
Our business was taken care of relatively quickly and as we left they were still there. A few had moved up in the line a bit but not by much. Embassies are not only drab but they’re also notoriously slow and inefficient. Chances were good that some of these people would not get to see an embassy official that day. Chances were good that they’d have to make another appointment and come back and try again.
But they will come back, because they hope.
A lot of confusion and furor has arisen over the EU’s recent vote that wasn’t really a vote to begin requiring US citizens to apply for a visa to visit Europe, simply because the US opted to leave out five EU countries from the visa waiver program. This also made a lot of people think about our passports and what sort of future they have.
It made me think about blue privilege, the feeling we all have about almost literally being able to go anywhere in the world without a second thought. What if that blue privilege is taken away?
I have no way of knowing how the nature of travel will change in the near future. I don’t know how long I can claim blue privilege and use it freely.
But as we head south, with many borders ahead of us, I wonder if we have enough time. Enough time before we find ourselves on the hard plastic seats, clutching a number and a stack of paperwork. Because it could happen.
In today’s world of fear, extreme vetting, and travel bans being slapped down left and right you just never know.
We were leaving the Honduran border series of queues and offices, documents in hand that officially cleared us of any further obligation to the country when it hit me hard.
There was a dog, so thin that the bones of her pelvis were so prominent that they completely obscured her genital area. It was hot, even at 10 am, and she was lapping listlessly at a filthy puddle of something that probably contained very little actual water.
I doubt her little doggie life lasted the rest of that day.
It isn’t like I haven’t seen street dogs hours or days from death before. It’s simply a part of life in much of the world. However, after our time in Guatemala and Honduras it was that little dog that broke me, because we all know that when it comes to the impoverished the privileged of the world often tend to focus more on animals than they do people.
I’ve seen the do-gooders. I know some of the do-gooders. And while some do good things to help people it seems that more of them do things to help animals. Shelters, spay and neuter clinics, airline escorts for Mexican and Central American dogs and cats to go to their cushy new homes in the United States or Canada.
All while people are left to lap from the same dirty puddle.
People from all over the world visit Mexico and Central America all the time. They zip line in Costa Rica, frolic on the white sand beaches of Mexico, and dive in the crystal Caribbean waters of Honduras. But more often than not these trips are carefully constructed, staged by tour operators, and guarded by high resort walls. There’s nothing wrong with this; I truly believe everyone should travel and how they do it is their choice.
But what about the things that live outside those tours and walls? What about the people?
I’ve written about this before. Unless you’re a backpacker or overlanding like we are you rarely come into contact with the people who call your dream vacation destination home. Unless they’re mixing your margarita or scraping the callouses from your feet you don’t see them, you don’t ask about their life, and you don’t do these things because you’re on vacation and you deserve to enjoy yourself.
But also, you don’t want to know.
You don’t want to know that your bartender lives in a one room cinder block house. You don’t want to know that the woman carefully polishing your toenails can’t afford to send her kids to school. You don’t want to know that they too suffer, just like the dogs.
I’m as guilty as anyone of turning a blind eye. The simple fact that we can afford to make this trip put us squarely in the middle of the white privilege circle. But even the dead and dying humans on the sidewalks of New Dehli didn’t prepare me for driving the roads of Central America.
I romanticized this trip way too much right from the start. I envisioned wide open beaches, remote jungle villages, and endless adventure. While much of that has been realized too much more of it has not. This is aside from the realization that this mode of travel is really hard. What’s become so difficult for me is passing through these tiny villages, women toeing the edge of the road trying to sell us sacks of unidentifiable food, the desperation so clear on their face as we approach, then the anger when we don’t slow down.
I’ve taken very few photos over the last two months. My instagram feed is bare. That’s not to say that I haven’t wanted to. The haunted and wary eyes of the children that want me to buy gum are definitely photo worthy. These are the types of photos are meant to make you feel something, like the photo of the ash covered, shell shocked Syrian boy on the chair in the hospital. These photos are supposed to make you care.
But you don’t. Or you do but remind yourself how helpless you are and that you have your own problems or children to care for. These are not invalid excuses; we all have our own shit to deal with but the simple fact that we have the option to look away constitutes that white privileged guilt that, well, we’re all pretty much guilty of.
We don’t have to look if we don’t want to.
But on this trip I’ve had to look. Our windows aren’t blacked out, hell, neither are my eyes. There is simply no way not to see the tin and tarp shacks and the barely dressed toddlers in the dirt surrounded by scrawny chickens and heaps of garbage. It’s there, right in front of everybody.
Everybody who looks, that is.
So if you’ve made it this far you might be asking yourself, “Why the hell is she complaining? Why isn’t she doing something?”
I could ask you that same question but you might want to think carefully about your answers.
Do you tip your bartenders and servers in Mexico? Do you buy your ice cream from the man pushing the street cart or do you pop into whatever resembles the local 7-11? Do you avoid a certain city or country because of perceived violence and moan about how great it was in the old days without thinking of the people who have to live there? Do you slip your extra food to a street dog instead of the child who wants desperately to shine your shoes?
I’m not here to shame anyone. Most of the people I know are good people and some of them go above and beyond to serve communities at home and abroad. I’m also not here to set myself apart. I’ve avoided the old man with his hand held out for money, his head held down in shame. I’ve shouted unkind words in Spanish to street kids whose eyes are hardened as they aggressively tell me to buy tortillas after I’ve declined three times.
I sometimes don’t look out the window anymore as we pass through another rural village slapped together from scrap wood and detritus. I don’t see the dull eyes staring at our shiny American vehicle passing through, but I feel them.
I think I’ll feel them for the rest of my life.
Again, I have no answers. You have no answers. Today’s state of affairs around the world has left so many feeling helpless, even those of us in the guilt circle. But one thing we can say as individuals is that I did not do this.
But someone did. Someone left Honduras poverty stricken, someone left Mexico embroiled in violence, someone committed genocide in Guatemala, and someone reduced Syria to an unimaginable and unforgettable photo.
Let’s not mince words here; money rules our world. Corporations are eager to profit from the desperate and governmental officials turn blind eyes but they can certainly feel the money slipped into their dirty hands. Resources are exploited and people are discarded. It happens everywhere, even in your own backyard.
Yet despite everything I’ve said I see people around the world rising up, using their voices, demanding that something resembling humanity be restored in our world. I’ve met people on this trip who fill extra suitcases with medical supplies and books. I know people who live as expats yet do amazing things in their communities to help the local populations. The human ones.
I know people who realize that all is not lost.
So as sad and as frustrating as this all is I’m looking at you. The do gooders who actually do something good.
As for me, I’m digging deep and trying to uncover the real reason for this trip and my purpose in it. And I think part of that purpose begins with always looking out the window.
No matter how bad it is.
I haven’t written a blog post in quite some time. Why? I’m not really sure. The easiest explanation is that I’m lazy and I could just leave it at that. However, deep down in my slothful and sluggish heart I know that’s not true.
I just haven’t really known what to say.
My head has been swirling with ideas for blog posts, haikus, and unfamiliar feelings of something, well, unfamiliar. I’ve heard about it, some of my best friends talk about it and they say it’s important. I’ve never had these feelings until now and while peculiar they’re also special feelings.
This is starting to sound like a cringeworthy 1970’s “Your Changing Body” video you might have seen in 7th grade.
So what is it? It’s living in the moment.
I’m an obsessive worrier. I overplan. Worst case scenario is my middle name. I lose sleep over things that might happen and never do. I lose sleep over things that have happened that I cannot change. Just like whistling and eating horse meat, this idea of living in the moment is truly something I thought I could never, ever do.
Yet here I am, with these strange peaceful feelings washing over me, albeit gently. I’ve definitely not reached the tsunami level of inner peace yet.
So how has that impacted the way I feel about writing? It’s strange because the whole purpose of this blog is to share our experiences with family, friends, and readers. But since my last blog post, which was before Christmas, I haven’t written a thing.
But I’ve wanted to.
I wanted to tell you how painful it was to leave Mexico early because of the civil unrest that went down just after the new year.
I wanted to tell you about how crossing the border into Guatemala felt like being kicked out of my family’s home.
I wanted to tell you about how shitty our first night in Guatemala was and how incredible the following three weeks at Lake Atitlan were.
I wanted to tell you about Antigua, how much fun we had there, and the incredible things we ate. Randy’s Sausage, I’m looking at you.
I wanted to tell you about how we got stuck driving in Guatemala City and almost died multiple times, either from a car crash or from one of us killing the other.
I wanted to tell you about crossing the border into Honduras on a sunny Saturday afternoon and how nice it felt to check off another country as we make our way ever southward.
But the truth here is that I didn’t elaborate on any of those things because I wanted to keep them just between Will and I and the people we’ve shared these experiences with. I wanted to be quiet, thoughtful, and let it all sink in.
And even though I’ve resisted with all my might I wanted to… live in the moment.
Our little blog doesn’t have the readership that might make me want to step back and keep things private. After all, I’ve written a pretty graphic post about how to have sex in a camper. I don’t really care about privacy. I know that there are probably a lot of people who haven’t even noticed the radio silence over here at The Life Nomadic. But by keeping some things to myself I’ve come to understand this trip a little bit better which has also allowed me to get a little bit better at handling it.
I’m still a lazy slob but I’ve been able to pay better attention to what’s happening around me, whether it’s inside the camper or out. And I’ve begun to sweep the floor and shake out the rugs more than once a week.
That’s a huge accomplishment. Huge. Truly spectacular.
No two adventures are exactly alike and I know that ours is vastly different from the trips other overlanders take. Work tends to dominate some of our choices and limits others. I used to feel like that was a hindrance more than anything else; I felt like we weren’t truly embracing the nature of this kind of trip.
But now I know differently. Like it or not, this is what our trip looks like. The location changes every few days or weeks but the fact of the matter is pretty simple.
We live in a camper.
We work in a camper.
We’re driving that camper south and doing the best we can along the way.
And while we have missed out on some opportunities and will continue to miss others that’s just the nature of this adventure. It’s ours and, like it or not, we’ll continue to do these things as best we can.
As far as me? This newfound ability (albeit a fledgling one) called living in the moment has given me something pretty special and that something is more moments, little treasures like the one I had last night.
A field full of dancing fireflies, their booties lit up like a gaudy Christmas tree in a frantic, horny display of luminescence.
Come on, I may have found some peace but I haven’t lost the middle school snark. I just wouldn’t be me without it.