For months now (eep!), I have been struggling to come up with things to write about for this site. In my mind, I’ve drafted posts with titles like, “On Travelers Not Traveling” and “C is for Cookie… and Complacency”; often the inspiration for these kinds of posts—ones in which I ruminate about what life has been like for us in Playa del Carmen over the last 6 months—strike while we are out running errands or out in the world (read: when I can’t actually sit down and write!). In those moments, I can so perfectly see what it is I want to express. And then we get home, and I feel cotton-headed with a leaden tongue and trying to get words on the page feels like pulling teeth.
At times it feels like I have so much to say about Playa and where we are (Psychologically? Existentially?) that I don’t know where to begin. And then other times, it feels like I have nothing that is of any interest to say to anyone because the current version of our life is kind of, well, boring.
I know how crazy that sounds: We live in a place that most people come to in order to unwind and take activity-packed vacations, and yet this picture-perfect paradise has really become our new normal.
Sometimes I feel SO GUILTY because I know a lot of people think we must be living the dream—that we are in exotic Mexico and our days are filled with adventure and exploration. And yet, over the last six months, I’d wager that our lives have looked more similar to yours than not. We walk our dogs, we cook, we watch Netflix, we do grocery runs to Walmart and Sam’s Club, we go to the movies. We have a routine and favorite restaurants and a small circle of friends we get to see more than once every few years. We have been working (Tony on designing websites, me on managing AdWords accounts for various clients)… a lot.
The truth is that apart from the fact that we bumble along in Spanish through many otherwise routine activities, we just haven’t been doing very much that is all that blog worthy. Playa del Carmen (and the Yucatan peninsula in general) is a portion of the country that is just crammed with activities and places to explore, and yet we haven’t taken advantage of any of them, really. Snorkeling with sea turtles in Akumal, visiting the ruins & the beach of Tulúm, climbing the ruins in Coba, checking out the lake of seven colors in Bacalar, visiting the cute colonial town of Valladolid, visiting frickin’ Chichen Itza, spotting flamingos at Río Lagartos, going scuba diving with bull sharks (or really, go diving at all…), kayaking through the waterways of UNESCO heritage site Sian Ka’an biosphere, plunging into icy cool cenotes (which are only found in this part of the country), gawking a the yellow-bricked buildings of Izamal… I could fill a dozen blog posts with all the things we HAVEN’T done, but I suspect that wouldn’t be very interesting.
It’s easy to feel like we’re the worst kind of travelers because we find ourselves in an area perfect for exploration and yet we choose to read novels and laze about in our rooftop hammock instead when we’re not prioritizing the work we have coming in. Sometimes I wonder if I’m suffering from low-grade depression or something because I can’t find the motivation to do pretty much any of the things that people save up their two weeks of annual vacation to do and that we just take for granted.
Often I feel caught between two worlds—content and smugly satisfied with the quiet (but comfortable) life we have carved out for ourselves; yet at other times I resent the fact that this comfort stems from life being predictable and that we have allowed ourselves to get complacent. We could be exploring our own backyard, but we still find ourselves dreaming of far away lands instead and talk about all the things we’ll do “some day”. We miss the freedom of literally having nothing but our backpacks and each other and being able to hop on a plane whenever the urge strikes us. At the same time, the thought of shuffling up our routine and being somewhere unknown has become nearly as daunting and overwhelming as before we took that pivotal first flight to Tokyo.
In many ways, our life looks more like the one we left than the one we created for ourselves while traveling—it’s just physically somewhere different. I will say, however, that we are way happier now than we were then; we may be working a lot, but we both genuinely enjoy what we do and we are very happy being self-employed and getting to work from home. If given our druthers, we’d still be bouncing around the world while we work, but those are not the cards we’ve been dealt, so for now we’re playing the hand we have as best we can.
Colombia: Bring it On
I remarked on a friend & fellow perpetual nomad’s blog the other day that I often feel that I’m my best self when Tony & I are traveling. I don’t know why, but it’s when I’m my most confident and carefree. It’s when I feel the most alive and the most inspired, when I have boundless energy and insatiable curiosity and am the most capable of being in the here and now. There are so many perks to having a home base and really getting stuck into a place, but when Tony & I are on the road, that’s when I feel it—in my bones, in my gut, in my heart—that this is the life we are meant to be living. I feel lighter and happier, the way you do when you undertake the things you are meant to do.
For the past week, my parents have been visiting us in Playa del Carmen and, for the next two weeks, they will be graciously and most generously looking after our dogs (just as they did last time), as Tony & I gallivant around Colombia. I find that life often feels like a Mobius strip, with old patterns from the past reverberating into the future… Now, more than ever, it feels like we have come full circle: though we don’t get a year or two of unfettered travel, we do get two weeks of it just being the two of us—and our backpacks—setting foot somewhere entirely new with no agenda other than to enjoy and observe the world.
All that said, it hasn’t been easy to slide back into the backpacking mentality. If you follow the 20YH Facebook page, you’ll know that we bought these tickets to Colombia months ago. In the intervening period between then and now, I have agonized over itineraries and schedules, largely ignoring and forgetting all of the laissez-faire lessons about going with the flow and letting serendipity guide us as rather than my Type A tendencies that we have (supposedly) learned during years of traveling. I put on my PhD cap and went into full-bore researcher mode, so that we could have our entire trip planned out in minute detail before we ever set foot in Colombia. I felt paralyzed and overwhelmed by the numerous choices on offer for hotels and places to eat and tours to take and sights to see and would spend hours reading reviews on Trip Advisor, which only served to confuse me more about what was worth our time and money. I scared myself reading posts about how dangerous Colombia secretly still is (NB: I can’t remember the blog where I read this post, but perhaps that’s for the best…). I lamented to Tony that I felt like I didn’t even know how to travel anymore and said maybe we needed to go somewhere less threatening, somewhere where we already knew how things worked and what we were doing. Was it too late (and too expensive) to look for flights to somewhere in Asia instead?
But, of course, one of the things we long-term travelers love is being challenged. Don’t get me wrong: looking at our life the last six months in Playa, I’ll be the first to tell you that sometimes you want things to be easy, and certainly not every day needs to be a struggle. There is absolutely no shame in that. But there is a thrill that comes from being pushed outside of your comfort zone, and I think it’s those moments that really remind us of who we are and what we are capable of.
So, we decided to stick to Colombia—the opportunity to continue to use the Spanish we’ve been slowly cultivating over the last year AND finally visiting South America (our fourth continent!) was just too great to ignore (even if we do continue to pine and sigh for Asia like mooney-eyed schoolboys).
The day before we departed, I was a bundle of nerves. We ran around doing last minute errands like buying bus tickets to the airport and printing out our boarding passes and packing our bags—the latter of which is an activity that we used to be able to do in under 30 minutes but took us closer to 2 hours this time. I sat down and wrote a list of the order in which we would do things on D(eparture)-Day: the time our friend would pick us up, the time we would arrive at the bus station, the time we would get on the bus, the time we would reach the airport. That helped calm me down and make me feel like I was back in control.
But then, on Friday morning, our friend messaged us to say the car was in the shop and he wasn’t going to be able to make drive us to the bus station after all. I had (obviously) worried about this possibility for days beforehand, and yet, when we saw his message, we immediately shrugged and said, “No biggie, we’ll catch a taxi instead.” What else could we do?
We wound up asking our next-door neighbor on a whim if she could drive us, and she kindly agreed. We made it onto our bus, then made it to the airport where we checked in for our flight, paid our FMM fee for Mexico (currently $390MX, for those of you planning a visit in the near future), wandered around duty free, and then boarded our plane to Bogota. We were excited, but also oddly zen; maybe after so long not traveling, our brains couldn’t really believe that we were off to somewhere new and our world was about to be upended on its axis. I felt relaxed because I felt like the hardest part of the day was behind us.
Why I thought the travel leg within Mexico—a country we’re quite familiar and comfortable with at this point—would be the most challenging, I have no idea. Obviously, I was wrong. Upon reaching Colombia, what followed was one of the most ridiculous travel days we have ever had on the road. It was a series of events that made us feel like complete newbies rather than veteran travelers, and all took place in the span of about three hours.
The Cost of Being Canadian
Upon reaching immigration in Colombia, the immigration officer spoke to us only in Spanish. Given that we’ve been in Mexico for nearly a year now, this wasn’t entirely jarring for us, but it is the first time that our entry into a country hasn’t been conducted in English. I kept feeling like I was missing something because the officer kept asking me repeatedly if I was Canadian/coming from Canada/something to do with Canada. I kept saying yes, wondering what the heck the problem was and what wasn’t clear about this given that I had handed him a Canadian passport. He eventually gestured to another window saying I had to go over there…
Sure enough, there were windows with maple leaves posted all over them. Another immigration officer came over and started asking me more questions (entirely in Spanish) and then eventually said that I would have to pay a fee of 160,000COP! It turns out that this is a reciprocity fee charged only to Canadians that has been recently instituted… despite my extensive research, I had somehow managed not to see this information anywhere. This is the first time in nearly four years of travels we have been hit with a surprise visa/entrance fee, and not a small one either—160,000COP is about $47USD! Thankfully they accept credit cards!
The Buck Stops Here
Despite not knowing that I would have to pay nearly $50US to enter Colombia, I did know that the ATMs with the highest withdrawal limits were located on the departure floor rather than the arrivals floor at the airport. We always withdraw cash upon arriving in new countries using our bank card rather than changing money because you get the best rates this way.
We tried the Citibank ATM on the 2nd floor but our attempt to take out a million Colombian pesos was denied. We figured this was too high a value, so tried the amount they suggested of 700,000CP instead… only to be told that the machine didn’t have enough/the right bills to give that much money. So we went to a different machine, where the withdrawal limit appeared to be 300,000CP… or $87US. We were able to get cash there, but when we tried to take out more money from it—or any other ATMs—we kept getting errors. So, we decided we’d have to make our way to our hostel with less than $100US, and call our bank to see what was up when we arrived.
A Real-Life 404 Error
Because were shorter on cash then we felt comfortable with—and because I had researched all the options—we decided to use public transport rather than a taxi to get to our hostel. We successfully found the free shuttle bus that took us to the TransMilenio station where we bought a card and then put on enough money for 1 ride each (grand total: 8000CP, or ~$2.35US). We knew we had to find bus M86, but the signage was so bad, we had no idea where the heck to go, so we found someone who worked at the station and wound up snagging an escort who walked us right over to the platform and told us we’d only need to go four stops. So far so good…
Except, once we reached the designated stop that had been given to us from the hostel, Tony checked our GPS and saw that we were literally nowhere near our hostel at all. Without a local SIM card, we couldn’t call the hostel to figure out what the deal was, so we found another worker and asked if she was familiar with our hostel… She wasn’t and confirmed that we were indeed where our GPS said we were and that given the hostel’s address, it was where we thought it should be (read: not close to us at all). She very kindly looked up the hostel online on her phone and then called them to get their address and figure out what the confusion was about… after about 15 minutes, we realized that, we had only been given a fraction of the directions. Our new Colombian friend wrote down the remaining steps for us to get to the hostel, including a quickly sketched map and then wished us safe travels. We wound up needing to catch THREE MORE BUSES in order to reach our hostel.
But reach it we did! I cannot believe what an insane day of mishaps our first day back on the road wound up being. (We did call our bank when we arrived and it turns out that when we had called to tell them we’d be traveling to Colombia, they input the wrong day and so didn’t have us arriving until a day later… so they did in fact block all of those subsequent withdrawal attempts at the airport!) From surprise reciprocity fees to our bank card being blocked to not having complete directions to our hostel, in four years of traveling, literally none of those things has ever happened to us. Talk about being kept on our toes!
Of course, if given a choice, I would have preferred to have had a seamless travel day, even though I acknowledge that those never make for very good stories. And, as I remarked to Tony on our final bus on the way to our hostel, what I actually love about traveling is that if someone had sat me down before we left and outlined all of the things that would have gone wrong for us on Friday, I would have gone into a debilitating panic spiral. And yet, in the midst of it all, even when being annoyed or frustrated or confused, somehow it all felt manageable and every obstacle we encountered, we found a way to overcome. Maybe there were moments where the possibility flashed through my mind that we would never reach our hostel and spend the night on the streets of Bogotá but, to be honest, that felt far less likely than us figuring out a solution to our situation. It’s such an important life lesson, one I need to be better about remembering, because really: things ALWAYS work out—even when literally nothing goes according to plan and you have no way of predicting your path from point A to point B.
Even with all the travel mishaps and the knowledge that there are bound to be at least a few more along the way, we’re traveling once more and we couldn’t be happier. Being back on the road and back to writing on the blog… It truly is a return to form, and it feels so very good!
P.S. We’re so excited to explore Colombia over the next two weeks and share our experiences with you; while our thoughts on Bogotá proper are better saved for another post, our first impression of the country is that for all the terrifying things we all hear on the news about Colombia and its crime, our experience with the locals has been that they are extremely friendly, helpful and lovely. Our first day traveling here may have come with some new surprises, but the generosity and kindness of strangers we have consistently experienced in our travels—regardless of where they take us—remains unchanged.