When you take a one or two-week holiday, you can disconnect. You focus on the trip. You might post an update or share a photo on some social media platform, but you mostly try to forget work, and even people back home, because you want to make the most of it. You might have late nights and early starts so as to make the most of every day in the exciting destination you are in, eating out as much as possible to savour local food.
When back home you can deal with mundane life. You can unpack a suitcase full of laundry, pay bills that came in the post whilst you were away, and catch up with family and friends.
Sometimes I feel people think that our trip is like that, just extended for months instead. “You’re living my dream!”, I’ve been told, as they imagine one of those holidays stretching on and on. I recently admitted to ups and downs and someone asked me, surprised: “isn’t it fun?”. People swoon at how wonderful it must be, and yes, I am lucky — privileged even — to be able to do this kind of trip. But you can’t disconnect for months. It isn’t always going to be fun. The reality is a little different.
We have only two full days in Peru and I am spending one of them in my hotel room. Some may call me silly or ungrateful for bypassing the opportunity to explore the city today. Many, including the immigration officer who stamped our passports at Lima airport, would question why we are in Peru for such a short time in the first place.
The thing is that when travelling for months, the normal rules for holiday travel no longer apply. Not every destination is meticulously thought through. Not every day can be full of activity. We are in Lima not as a major destination on our primary list, but as a stopover because flights to Chile ended up cheaper that way and Andrejs has an old friend here. I am spending a day in a hotel room because a stomach bug has been plaguing me for a few days and I have work to catch up on.
We had a long and wonderful day of sightseeing in Lima yesterday, taking refuge from the hot sun in some wonderful museums like the MATE and the Larco.
If this were a normal trip, I would power through for a second day of sights, but I sensed that this would be too much for me.
In a way, I have taken my life on the road. Andrejs doesn’t work, but I still do — albeit fewer hours per week than before. Normal things like monitoring your bank accounts, filing tax returns and paying your bills can’t wait until you come back home. You do them on the road.
You can’t catch up with family and friends later — you need to make time, whilst travelling, for the Skype calls and hours-long texting sessions with girlfriends. (Yes, those are both necessary.) You are gone long enough to miss those people you care about. My brother told me that my niece, who is about one-and-a-half years old, ran and fell. She grazed her chin and split her lip for the first time. It made me realise that enough time has passed that I didn’t realise she is now capable of running.
The constantly changing food and routines catch up with me every now and then. Sometimes I deliberately seek out an Italian restaurant just to give my stomach something more familiar. Or we book an airbnb with a kitchen, so we can make ourselves a salad. We make time for laundry on a regular basis. We have now been gone long enough that I am getting bored of rotating the same t-shirts, pants and sweaters. I’m starting to miss having a wider wardrobe to choose from.
You learn to allow yourself sleep-ins now and then, like you would have had on a weekend at home. You go see a movie. In my case, you make time to write an occasional blog post. You deliberately plan to let your partner spend time alone or with a friend, because you know he needs time away from you, too.
You learn to stop expecting to see everything. Travelling for months really emphasises that we are still just scratching the surface everywhere we go. In Colombia we visited the cities of Medellin and Bogota. I can now say I have seen a little bit of Colombia, but my main conclusion is that I sincerely hope to return one day. As such, this trip doesn’t reduce the list of places I want to visit, but rather, it seems to expand it.
You could say I’ve gotten used to living out of a suitcase. But, that’s about as much as you can get used to anything when your surroundings are constantly changing.
After a somewhat difficult stay in Panama (see my previous post), Colombia was a reminder as to why I am doing this. I am seeing countries that were previously just a vague concept in my head, and assumptions I didn’t even know I had start to break down when I get to see the reality.
It was fascinating to see how profoundly different Colombia is to Panama. This is interesting, given that they are bordering countries after all. A major difference is of course size. Colombia is a country of almost 50 million people and Bogota, the capital, has roughly the same population as London — 8 million. It is the 4th largest country in South America. In comparison, Panama’s population is only about 4 million.
Colombia was safe, as long as you follow the advice that is readily available online. Uber is a great way to get friendly drivers. Buses were also fine. Sure, the cities have poor areas and slums, but there is evidently also a thriving middle class. That middle class cares about fashion. Men sport immaculate haircuts. Women and young girls are seen in tight, high-waisted jeans, with phones tucked into the pants themselves. By that I mean not in the pockets, but in the pants themselves, under the waistband. (I tried to find a photo online to show this, but no luck. I did find this though. Enjoy.) I am curious to see if this is a thing throughout South America.
The local middle class travels. This results in a well-developed internal tourism industry, which means that foreigners can access attractions, hotels and infrastructure that are not strictly designed for foreigners.
The food was the most consistently great food I have ever had in one country, often with excellent service. We had amazing local food, thanks to recommendations. (A big thank you to Michael for those!) I learned just how amazing coconut rice can taste. Colombian sugar-free drinks were great, as were the juices, which Andrejs tried many of. Colombian rum was pretty good, too! We also easily found delicious sushi, burgers, Italian food and salads — all at reasonable prices, too. $30 can get you a very nice meal for two.
In Bogota we visited the Police Museum, where a current policewoman was our guide. She thanked us for visiting her country, despite its reputation, and emphasised how much has been done to improve it. The country has a lot to offer, but they have to work to convince foreign tourists to come. “Please text your loved ones and tell them you’re fine,” she urged us. I think she wanted us to spread the word that Colombia is safe to visit.
Our encounters with police on the street were equally cordial. When we veered too far beyond a boundary near the parliament buildings, a policeman, armed with a machine gun, very gently and quietly asked as to please move.
It saddens me to think that this country can be reduced to stereotypes about drugs. In the 80s and 90s Medellin was considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world, due to the drug cartels that flourished there. But Pablo Escobar was killed in 1993. This week, Escobar’s former home in Medellin was demolished, with a memorial planned to honour the victims. It’s exciting to think how much further the country can develop in the next few decades, as this dark past hopefully becomes increasingly precisely that — past.
Next time I go to Colombia, I will have to visit Cartagena, Chicaque, coffee-growing regions and more. In Panama, I felt that once was enough, but in Colombia once was just a taster. It goes to show, Latin America is very diverse. Until you go, you won’t know which countries you love and which ones don’t suit you. What country have you visited that you found to be very different from what you expected? Leave a comment.
As we head further south, I will aim to continue to handle the mundane realities of life, whilst scratching the surface of more countries. Maybe there is a way to perfect the balance between managing life’s tasks and disconnecting now and then to immerse yourself in your current locale. We’ll see what more unexpected things we uncover, both about ourselves, about life on the road, and about the places we pass through.