Monday, July 6, 2009
Backpacking Central America - Summary
I've been home for 3 months now and still my backpack is not unpacked. There it sits by the front door fully packed "just in case". In case of what I am not sure, I'm pretty sure that if I unpack it I'll have to face the reality of the adventure being over. If it's still there in a few months I will seek professional help.
Not that reality is that bad, I had work lined up for when I got back so no financial crunch. My piece of crap 86 Bronco that I had left parked, outside in the snow when I left 4 months beforehand started 1st try after a battery re-change. I got home just in time for May long weekend. The 1st long weekend after winter when every resident of Vancouver gets in their car and parks on highway #1 to get out of town. I headed to Cultus Lake with some friends a short 1 1/2 hour drive from Vancouver. I have also made it over to Victoria this summer and in a few weeks over to Tofino for some surfing. I saw some beautiful places on my travels but there really is no place like home, British Columbia is one of the most beautiful places I've seen so this summer I am going to play tourist in my own province.
I am defiantly hooked on traveling and fully intend to keep exploring. It's a big world out there and I want to see as much of it as I can while I'm here. This trip was my first "big" trip and I did it solo in countries that I didn't speak the language of. In the beginning it kind of scared the crap out of me. During the 1st couple of weeks I constantly asked myself what the hell was I doing and why did I think I could possibly do it? The turning point was in Mexico City, I wanted to go to a museum on the other side of town. I didn't want to take an organized tour, I wanted to take the sub-way and mix with the locals. I've never been in a city with that many people before or on a sub-way the size of the one they have. I knew odds were slim that there would be many English speakers around and I was right, I didn't meet one on the trip there or back. Once I mastered the sub-way I knew that no matter where I went I'd be okay on my own.
I left Vancouver in January and returned home in May. The 4 month trip through 7 countries cost me about $3000.00 Canadian ($2700 US). I didn't do any of the "big ticket" items as I have done most of them, I do highly recommend you give them a go if you have never tried them. White Water Rafting, Zip Line Trips, Bungee Jumping, Fishing Trips, Whale watching trips, day boat trips, horse back riding ( did do one of these this trip), will all run you about $30.00 to $60.00 US. There are some really great multi day/camp out hikes that will run you about $150-$300 US.
Things I learned On My Trip
- Latin people are incredible - Some of the locals I met on the trip live on next to nothing and are in living conditions that North Americans would consider sub-standard. Yet they are friendly, warm, helpful and most of all happy. It makes one take a look at what is and is not important in life. Seeing a farm family come into town on Sunday for church dressed in their best cloths and in their donkey pulled cart brings home how trivial it is to care about what you have and the brand names on your stuff. I much prefer the Latin outlook on life, they value what they have and although they may want to better their situation it is rarely based on the "keep up with the Jones's" attitude of North Americans.
- Never trust cab drivers - Although I always got to where I was going and in no way felt threatened my wallet took a few hits. Some tips: Always agree on a price before you get in. If you can keep your backpack in the back seat, just in case your driver wants to renegotiate once you reach your destination. They can't hold your stuff hostage you can pay them the agreed price and walk away. If you can share cabs; usually at bus stops & hostels there are people going the same way, ask around. Most people are happy to cut their costs down by sharing.
- Beware mystery chicken bus snacks - During those long 6-12 hour long bus rides food vendors will board the bus, they stay on for a stop, get off, cross the road and catch one going the other way... Repeat for 8 -12 hours per day. There is everything from drinks to chicken and candy. Some food is not identifiable. Sometimes it may seem like a good idea to take a walk on the unknown side but it rarely is. I should add that these buses do not stop for more than 5 minutes at a time, there are no bathroom stops. You can train your bladder to hold out and avoid liquids but mystery bus food could cause more than a little discomfort.
- Get the top bunk in hostels - It's a matter of preference some people don't like the top bunk but I prefer it. - Closer to the fans; in 90 degree heat the closer to the fan the better. Head is not by the lockers; most lockers in hostels are next to the bed and a lot of them are metal. You won't get thrown up on; sadly in the hostel in Panama in the dorm room next to mine someone partied a little too hard. They were sleeping on the top bunk and tossed their cookies over the side, total party foul. I met the guy that was in the bottom bunk at the time and he got hit, apparently not a way you want to wake up. The down side; some of those bunks are really high 7 + feet and there are no ladders. If you are drinking and find you don't feel well getting down can be a challenge.
- Bargaining is a national sport but there is a line - Mexico was the most expensive country I was in Panama would come in 2nd, the rest are very cheap but in all most of the vendors are people who are just scraping by. I think because the money is so different you sometimes loose track on exactly how much something is. I found myself in Guatemala negotiating for a hotel room, it was a private room with my own bathroom and they wanted $35 Quetzal's, I offered $20.00 and then I did the math and realized I was haggling over approximately $1.75 US. The hotel is local family owned; they live on-site in rooms that are not as nice as the ones they rent out. The grandfather lived in a room with no bathroom. That $1.75 a night was not going to break my budget but it could make a huge difference in their world so I offered them $30 which they accepted. I met some backpackers on the road who would spend an hour arguing to get a better rate and some of them do. Personally I prefer to pay a fair market price if my budget ever got low enough that such a small amount of money would make that much of an impact it's time to go home.
- Patience - Nothing in Latin America happens quickly; if you go to a sit down restaurant it is expected that it will be a 2 - 3 hour event. They will never bring you the bill/check unless you ask them for it. It's part of their culture; they consider it rude to ask if you want your bill or to just bring it. You can't just say hello to someone; there is a ritual involved that involves 10-15 minutes of small talk. It is considered rude to not chat which leads to everyone being late for pretty much every thing. Line ups are standard everywhere; they never move quickly. Banks are especially horrible it's not uncommon to have to spend an hour in a line up. On the upside most of them are air conditioned so you may find yourself bypassing the ATM in favor of the teller just for some relief from the heat.
- Don't give money to the street kids - As cute and as sad as they are they do not get to keep the money. Either their parents get it in which case it is bad because if the kid can earn money they won't enroll them in school. Or they are working for someone and they take the money making it bad because it encourages child slavery. It's hard to do, my friends and I got swarmed in Leon outside a bar at 2am by 6 little boys aged 8 to 10. As bad as you feel for them and as crappy as it makes you feel you aren't doing them any favors by giving them money. I have bought them food and drinks, that they get to keep.
- A positive attitude and a smile will go a long way - There will be things that will aggravate you. Seeing the humor in a situation will make things easier. Getting frustrated and voicing it will not. People are more inclined to help you out if you don't abuse them, in most cases they have no control over whatever issue you are having. A smile is contagious if you do it you will find others around you doing it.
- Hablo español- My Spanish is pretty basic, so it is embarrassing to speak it; I keep thinking I'm butchering their language. I can form Tarzan like sentences but it isn't pretty. Despite that it is preferable to give it a try, the locals appreciate it and although they may laugh and correct you when you mess up the fact that you are trying will score you points. The locals talk fast so it never sounds the same when they say it as it did in class, its okay to ask them to speak slower. There are 2 forms of you in Spanish, tu is for friends and people you know well and usted which is more formal. Always opt for the formal, the Latin culture is very etiquette sensitive and you could offend someone by using the casual version.
I am definitely going to continue to travel, during this trip I met a lot of people who were doing volunteer work as they traveled. I would have liked to have done more on this trip but I would want to spend a couple of months doing it so it would be more of a 6 month trip for me. Lots of people were working at hostels to help defer the costs of their trips, a free place to stay and free or discounted meals and drinks for a few weeks can help extend your travels considerably.