Traveling is difficult. Anyone who has been on a two week trip to Europe or Florida or any place in the world knows that. It’s tiring, there are many unknowns, and things are just plain complicated.
I had forgotten this. I thought I would pick up right where I left off from South America from a year before. But even a few weeks before the trip, things seemed different. I wasn’t necessarily excited for the trip; it felt more like “Ok, I know I’m going so I need to get ready.”
Life of Certainty in the Midwest
I had grown accustomed to life in small towns in the Midwest after living in Kansas and Illinois for the past 10 months. I grew up in the Midwest, so everything was pretty normal with not much out of the ordinary. I lived in two different places in this time. Leaving this comfortable life that I had become used to was harder than I imagined; leaving a life full of certainty.
I also had to leave family and friends with whom I had the chance to connect for the past two months. I hadn’t spent so much time at home for many years, so it was incredible to spend so much time with family. Leaving this was hard to do. Once I got on the airplane, everything changed as my life became that of a traveler, again.
Expectations for myself
After my trip in South America, I thought all traveling would be similar. I traveled around with ease and felt very comfortable in almost every situation. I understood how things worked and, if I didn’t know, I knew how to find out. My Spanish felt pretty good. Ultimately, I had the confidence that was needed to travel alone.
I expected that I would start this trip exactly where I left off my last trip. I thought I would be able to navigate my way around the same, speak the a similar level of Spanish, retain my comfort level, and have the same mindset. Looking back now, it was unrealistic to have this expectation. My life has changed greatly in the past year since I returned from South America. I have changed, as well.
In my last trip, I found myself doing everything possible to save just a few dollars. This time, I know there are opportunities to save a bit more but I am willing to pay a bit extra for the convenience at times.Sometimes, I find out afterwards that I could’ve saved money but didn’t know at the time. For example, I have been on Bastimentos Island for the past 5 days and have been buying water refills in my bottle for a dollar each. I was told yesterday that I could buy a gallon (about 4 liters) in the market for $1.70 or so. This never even crossed my mind which was surprising. I would’ve thought of this in South America. But again, I just started the trip after a long stint without travel, and my mindset is not yet the same.
Expectations for prices
I expected most of Central America to have similar prices as South America. I find that this is not the case, at least in Panama and Costa Rica (which I hear is even more expensive than Panama). Prices have been double to triple in Panama as they were in Peru. Rather than paying $1.75 for a meal like in Peru, I have to pay $5-$8 for a cheap meal at a restaurant. Hostels typically cost $10-$15 in Panama where I never paid more than $6 for a hostel in Peru. This really does makes a difference in traveling. Traveling in cheap places makes it easier on your budget and causes less stress. Eating out twice a day for $4 is much different than paying $15 for the same.
This has been a shock. I’ve had to search around for food in supermarkets to save myself from spending so much money eating out. Peanut butter sandwiches have become a staple of mine, just like on Bike & Build. I stress out more about prices, even in supermarkets and buses. Unfortunately, I had different expectations and was not ready for this!
I only had a week or so in South America with this kind of heat. It’s just something that I am not used to, and doing it while traveling at times feels suffocating. Carrying two bags weighing 45 pounds while trying to find a hostel in 95 degree weather is not easy. And sweating 10 hours straight is not fun (nor is it fun for others who may get a whiff of my clothes). Clothes become dirty quickly, which is unfortunate for someone backpacking and carrying so little. Luckily, my hostel in Panama City had air conditioning turned on at night and my hostel here in Bocas Del Toro doesn’t get extremely hot. Otherwise, sleeping would be a problem.
Trying to do too much, too quickly
I got off to a very quick start. So much to the point that I was exhausted, everything seemed to be a big scramble, and I wasn’t able to take it all in. I would do one thing and then immediately go do something else afterwards, and so on. I wasn’t reflecting on anything or really thinking about anything. I was just keeping busy. I slept in the airport when I arrived in Panama, then spent two full days exploring Panama City, and finally took a night bus on the second night from Panama City. In 3 nights, I slept in airport once, hostel once, and a freezing bus once. That’s a bit too much to start with.
My mind compounding the problem
I’ve been waiting for a year for the chance to travel again. Every day in the office, I wished I was traveling. Now I was in Panama and I felt miserable at times. This caused a big identity crisis. If I have changed so much that I don’t enjoy traveling or Latin America, then who am I? I thought it was a huge part of who I am. If this is how I feel, then what do I do when I go back to the US in December? It felt like everything had changed. I was surprised.
But after arriving here in the Bocas Del Toro in the Caribbean, I slowed down a bit. I found a cheap hostel in a beautiful place and met some great people. Rather than running around like a chicken with its head cut off, I am relaxed, feel comfortable, and feel more in control. I guess I had to learn again that traveling quickly is not for me, especially at the start of a trip. Between the culture shock, the weather, and my identity crisis, it’s been a tough first week. But looking back at what I’ve done, I’m glad I’m here and heading north soon to Costa Rica and, finally, Nicaragua. It’s a brand new experience, unlike any other, and I am thankful to have the opportunity!