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A couple of weeks ago, Ellen and I hitchhiked to the beach in Canoa and back to the farm. Our rides on the way home stood in stark contrast to the amiable drivers who ferried us to the beach resort town at the beginning of the weekend. If you’ve ever considered picking up a hitchhiker or two, especially a backpacker or tourist on vacation, let me pass along some advice on the topic!

On Route Planning:
Do: Ask where they’re going and offer advice or suggestions on local activities, foods, and attractions. One friendly truck driver actually pulled over to let us sample local fruits from a roadside stand. We love talking about local food and culture, so meeting someone with knowledge of the area is always a plus.
Don’t: Try to demand that the hitchhiker change their plans to accompany you instead, or insist that the road you’re planning on taking, miles out of the way, is just as good for them as the route they’ve named. One couple who drove us home from the beach took us hundreds of kilometers in the wrong direction and informed us that it would be fine for us. This kind of helpfulness is not appreciated by weary travellers hoping to get to their destination in time to get dinner and a hostel room.

Delicious local fruit bought for us as a snack by a friendly truck driver

Delicious local fruit bought for us as a snack by a friendly truck driver

On Conversation Topics:
Do: Start a friendly conversation about their travels or careers, and your country and culture. Pick a topic that you’ll be comfortable discussing for awhile, especially if you’re taking them a long way.
Don’t: Interrogate them about their life choices while rapidly speaking in local slang, refusing to allow them to change the subject. (Why aren’t you married yet? Don’t you like men? Aren’t you getting old? Don’t you want children? Would you object to dating an Ecuadorian man? I know a few men who might like to marry you. Can I introduce you?)

On Stopping for a Meal:
Do: Offer to buy them a meal or snack, if the mood strikes you. I’ve shared many a hot meal with travelling companions, and been able to call them a friend by the end of the meal. There’s something special about breaking bread with people that brings them closer. Ellen and I have fond memories of the awkward rides that became much more animated when we opened a box of cookies or other snacks.
Don’t: Repeatedly ask them to go out to dinner with you, date you, or justify their refusal to do so, announcing that you’ve fallen madly in love with them in the half hour you’ve spent together. Seriously. This happened.

On Keeping in Touch:
Do: Offer to exchange contact information if you’ve hit it off. You never know, the hitchhiker may be passing through town again sometime.
Don’t: Beg to know when you can see them again, repeatedly asking them for an address where you can drop in to see them unannounced. This is creepy.

On Parting Ways:
Do: Let them exit the car where they ask to be dropped, letting them off safely on the side of the road. Most hitchhikers have looked at a road map and have planned their route.
Don’t: Refuse to stop to let them out because of the weather or because you don’t know if they’ll get another ride promptly enough. This is not cool. If I want to get out, it’s probably because I have to go this way, in which case taking me elsewhere doesn’t help. The other reason I ask to be let out of the car is because you’re creeping me out or disturbing me, in which case refusing to let me get out of the car only makes it worse.

Much more comfy than a cramped bus seat!

Much more comfy than a cramped bus seat!

Really, I feel as if this advice shouldn’t have to be given. Ellen and I hitchhike because we usually find it more pleasant than taking a bus. We aren’t restricted to schedules, we get to take the scenic route, we have a larger choice of destinations, including those off the beaten path, we tend to meet more people and have better conversations, and we usually have better leg room and a more comfortable ride in private cars. However, I think after our experience the other week, we won’t be accepting rides from lonely Ecuadorian truck drivers again anytime soon.

 

People who know me know I love travelling. Whenever I’m in one place for a few months, I start to get the urge to move on. Sometimes I fight it for a year or two but mostly I decide that life is short and the world is large, and I want to be out exploring it. Some people sigh and say, “Oh, I wish I could afford to travel.” I want to shake them and say, “But you CAN!” Travel doesn’t have to be expensive. I’ve spent much less in the last three months of exploring Latin America (having the time of my life, I might add) than I would in three months of normal living expenses in Vancouver. Here’s a few tips.

By far the easiest way to travel is to base the trip around a visit to someone you know. If you have a friend who has relocated for work or settled somewhere far away, they might be delighted to have a visitor from home! Bring a couple of bottles of wine or some local food product you think they might miss, and explore their town for a week. You get the benefits of a host, a friendly face, and possibly a tour guide when they’re not at work.

If you don’t know anyone to host you, sign up for couchsurfing (free accommodation in strangers’ houses), workaway (pay for a membership and get access to free volunteer opportunities around the world), or WWOOF (pay for a membership in the country of your choice and get access to free farm-based volunteer opportunities). If you’re volunteering, in exchange for a few hours of work a day, you’ll get meals and a place to stay, and you can explore a new region in your spare time. Many workaway and WWOOF hosts accept families, so if you have a teenager who wishes you could afford to send her to horse camp, two weeks volunteering on a ranch in northern BC might be the vacation of her dreams, while saving you money and letting the whole family explore and learn together.

If you decide against staying in someone’s home or volunteering, don’t forget that camping is possible almost everywhere in the world. Ellen and I strapped tents, sleeping bags, and mats to the sides of our backpacks. In a hostel in Costa Rica, we saved about $10 a day by staying in tents rather than in dorm rooms, and we had more privacy as well. You might find strangers on the bus offer to let you put up your tent in their yard, or can recommend free sites nearby. Talk to locals and you’ll meet lots of people who want to help you on your way. Some will even ask you to house sit for them or insist on buying you lunch in exchange for hearing your travel or life stories. Most people you meet are genuinely kind and interested in helping you have the best experience possible in their area.

Don’t be afraid to ask for advice on how to travel more cheaply. If you stay at a hostel, ask the hosts or other travellers where you can visit on a tight budget. Some hostels will let you stay for free if you help out, or at a discount if you’re staying for more than a couple of days. Check the internet for free activities – sometimes beautiful parks cost little or nothing to visit and are full of local wildlife and birds. Also, don’t overlook the advice of travel agents. By going into a travel agency rather than buying tickets online, you might save hundreds of dollars. Agents can recommend a cheaper airport to fly out of or into, an equally nice destination at half the price, or a better travel date than what you were planning. If you’re going overseas, you can save hundreds by waiting to book a tour until you arrive in-country. You can get tickets for tours directly from the tour operator or from a local travel agent or hostel, and not have to pay a middleman in your own country.

Lastly, take advantage of unexpected, or even bad events in your life to find a way to travel. Are you having to move because your landlord sold your place? Maybe you could put your stuff in a storage locker and take a vacation with no rent to pay while you’re gone. Ditto with a breakup – rather than moving in with friends or parents while you get over it, hop on a plane and distract yourself with a vacation. When I broke my wrist and spent a few weeks on Worker’s Compensation, I was able to save money on rent by watching a friend’s house. I used the savings to travel without interrupting my career because it was already on hold due to the injury. A bad situation can be the trigger for a wonderful life change.

There are hundreds of other ways to save money on travel, but these are my main tips. Overall, if it’s something you dream of doing, there will be a way. I hope you find it!

Beaches like this are just waiting for you!

Beaches like this are just waiting for you!

On the morning of Christmas Eve, Ellen and I went back down to the docks where we’d arrived in Cartagena, to drop off our passports at immigration. (Apparently Christmas is a celebration but not an excuse for a two-week-long holiday like in Canada.) While we were there, a European man approached us to ask whether we could give him advice about taking a sailboat to Panama. He wasn’t sure if the trip was right for him. This is the advice we gave him.
Take this trip if you like camping. Life on a boat is a lot like camping. Take this trip if you like boats and sailing – boats are slow, imperfect, leaky, meandering, and peaceful. Take this trip if you’re comfortable being uncomfortable. Your clothes will be wet, your food will be cold, even the fresh water will seem slightly salty, and I’d be surprised if at least one of your things doesn’t blow overboard. (Mine was my bikini bottoms, hanging up to dry on the last day.) Don’t take this sailing trip if you think you’re in for a luxury cruise. Don’t take it if you have high expectations, expensive tastes, or a strong need for control. If airplane delays worry or offend you, this isn’t the trip for you. If getting a flat tire ruins your road trip, you should rethink sailing. According to our captain, most trips go more smoothly than ours went, but if you expect smooth sailing, you’re invariably going to be disappointed.

The cabin was bigger than our tents, but the beds were narrow, so it was hard to sleep comfortably.

The cabin was bigger than our tents, but the beds were narrow, so it was hard to sleep comfortably.

This trip was perfect for us, but for Betty and Wilma, the other two tourists on the boat, most of it ranged from barely tolerable boredom and misery to pure unadulterated torment. I’m going to tell you my perspective on their story as a bit of a cautionary tale of expectations gone wrong.
Betty and Wilma were travelling together, having met at a hostel in Central America. Both were well-travelled, and Betty worked in tourism for a cruise line. They both spoke Spanish fairly fluently, as well as English and their native language. They had arranged a sailing trip at a hostel in Panama, but didn’t like the way their first captain spoke to them about the boat, so they arranged passage to Cartagena with Antonio instead. (It is recommended, by the way, that you meet your captain and make sure you’re comfortable with the boat before you pay and board.) They told us they’d paid less than $400 for six days’ passage from Portobelo, Panama, to San Blas, and then on to Cartagena.
On their first night on the boat, the sea was rough and they were seasick. They decided that they couldn’t go on to Cartagena, and that the captain should change course and go to Turbo instead, avoiding the open water crossing they feared. Now, there are many boats that go that route, but Antonio’s boat wasn’t one of them. The captain agreed to look into it, asked around, heard it was dangerous, and decided to continue with the original plan to Cartagena. When we got on the boat, bound for Cartagena, and wouldn’t agree to change our plans for them, they flipped out. They screamed, they raged, they cried, they threatened. Ellen and I might have considered agreeing to arrive at a different port than Cartagena, except we didn’t want to encourage them in thinking that they could veto the captain’s decisions, and besides, our cousin Daisy told us we’d love Cartagena.
Betty and Wilma seemed to think that the boat was like a taxi, and that they, as paying customers, were in charge and the captain, as their employee, should do what they wanted. I saw it as more like we were hitchhikers, or possibly paying guests, sharing the captain’s journey with him and helping with chores and food. The captain is the expert, the captain is the owner of the boat, and it’s his decision where he will take it and when. The girls didn’t see it this way at all. This difference in perception was just one of many as the trip progressed.

For the trip to work, everybody has to take their turn helping the captain with the boat, like steering while he adjusts the sails.

For the trip to work, everybody has to take their turn helping the captain with the boat, like steering while he adjusts the sails.

Both girls were scared of the sea, rather than exhilarated by it as Ellen and I were. It turns out that while Betty was a generally pleasant and positive person who was nervous about sailing, Wilma had what must be clinical anxiety and was actively trying to bring Betty, and the rest of us down. Neither of the girls was comfortable with the boat. Both interpreted each creak and bump of the boat as something awful happening. Every gust of wind felt like a storm, and every wave foretold a tempest descending upon us. The isolated islands and night sky free from artificial light pollution that Ellen and I so openly admired were indications that nobody would find our bodies when we inevitably gave in to our imminent destruction.

A frighteningly isolated island with no night life, surrounded by dangerous storm clouds that show the ship will probably be hit by lightning.

A frighteningly isolated island with no night life, surrounded by dangerous storm clouds that indicate the ship will probably be hit by lightning.

You assume I’m exaggerating. I’m really not. These girls, especially Wilma, suffered the worst anxiety on the trip that I’ve ever witnessed. Neither was comfortable sleeping, and while Betty took seasickness pills that knocked her out one night, Wilma sat upright, knees curled up around her in fetal position, eyes wide open like saucers, for the entire sea journey.
Needless to say, the nervousness had its predictable effect on them. Betty came down with a urinary tract infection that she was sure would turn into a deadly kidney infection. Wilma had a full-on panic attack on the open water, convinced that the boat wasn’t moving, the sails, motor, and radio non-functioning, and the water and diesel used up. She flailed, punched the captain, and freaked out, completely lost to hysteria.

To be completely fair, the captain did have to dive into the water to check the motor when it stalled.

To be completely fair, the captain did have to dive into the water at one point in our trip to check the motor when it stalled.

After about 40 hours on the open ocean, we saw an island in the distance, and both Betty and Wilma begged the captain to radio the island for emergency assistance to get them off the boat. While Antonio was fiddling with the radio and confirming with Betty to what extent she’d be able to pay for an emergency rescue, Wilma saw a nearby motorboat and flagged down the three Colombian fishermen in it, who cheerfully ferried the two girls to the nearby island, home of an expensive resort. We waited while they made arrangements and got medical treatment, then had to go back to the resort with them to get a statement from the doctor (who wasn’t even a doctor at all) that they’d left the boat and been treated, so the captain wouldn’t be held responsible for getting them to Cartagena.
Finally, we made it back to our sailboat and were able to do the last 24 hours of the journey in peace. We had realized, but couldn’t fully appreciate while they were onboard, how much their anxiety had affected our enjoyment of the trip. Whenever we’d made a comment about enjoying the weather, we were contradicted. If something was bad but not terrible, “just you wait, it’ll get worse.” Mostly it was Wilma being negative, but neither girl was happy with the trip. I’m sure there are dozens of travellers being warned against our captain, as they painted him as a willfully neglectful, dangerously inept seaman.
Really, I felt sorry for all of us on the boat while they were in the worst throes of anxiety. The captain was sleeping restlessly if at all, worried Wilma would stab him in the night from another panic attack or bout of hysteria. The girls suffered immensely because of their fear, and mostly because they didn’t turn back or make other travel arrangements when they realized they were uncomfortable. Ellen and I got off lightly. Their fear and anxiety cast a shadow over some of our enjoyment of the journey, but overall we still loved it. It was too wonderful not to love, for us.

If you’re going to spend a few weeks or a month volunteering at Villas Mastatal or a similar family farm in Latin America, there are several things you might need to know.

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First off, you don’t really need to speak Spanish coming into the experience. It helps, of course, but you can get by with very limited Spanish if you’re comfortable using gestures and just not really understanding everything or saying everything you might want to say. I’d bring a notebook for writing down words and sentences as you learn them, and a phrasebook or dictionary. We’re using Lonely Planet’s Latin American Phrasebook, and although it’s wonderful for times when we’re actually backpacking, we prefer to use dictionaries to practice with as we’re volunteering on the farm. You’ll definitely want to bring bug spray, a mosquito net, and some kind of itch relief cream or gel. I also wish I’d brought a bunch of anti-allergy tablets or antihistamines, since there’s no way to buy any near the farm. If you have severe allergies, you’ll want to bring an EpiPen, as the nearest hospital is two hours away. When you’re working, you’ll need work gloves (about a dollar at any general store) and boots, although the farm has a few spares lying around.

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Here's a good reason to bring bug spray!

The most important thing to bring is a positive attitude and an open mind. The work here on the farm is hard, and there’s lots of it, but there is also a lot of time to rest and do other things. I’m up at 5:30, about half an hour earlier than everyone else, so I can do my chores before cooking breakfast with Raquel, the farmer’s wife. Then we work from about 8am to lunchtime, and the afternoon is reserved for fun projects like mosaics, building chairs, making glasses from old bottles, planting a garden for the butterflies, or visiting one of the many waterfalls in the area. Be prepared to work hard, but be open to new experiences every day.

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New experiences involving food are our favourite kind!

I asked our host, Javier, why he has volunteers on the farm when the locals know the land and techniques so much better. The answer is that he loves teaching people how his people live, and learning from them how things are done in their countries. Every Wednesday, he tries to organize a “talent class” where one volunteer teaches the rest something unique, be it yoga or how to build stools for the card table in the dormitory. Clara, a German girl who arrived this week, asked Javier what was the most important thing to know before coming to the farm. His reply? La vida es linda. Life is beautiful. And that’s all you need to know.

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This cow expects you to come volunteer.

I’d love to invite many of my friends to join me on this trip, bit I have to admit not everyone would enjoy it. I don’t think this would be a good travelling style for you if you’re the type of person who wants complete control over your environment. The world here is just too big to put in the human definition of order.

Take the idea of a clean house, for example. Every culture wants their houses to be clean, but that doesn’t mean we all do it the same. In Japan, people are horrified that North Americans wear shoes in their houses. Here in Costa Rica, if you were OCD about cleanliness at home, you’d probably freak out a little. Clean houses still have ants marching through them, and spider webs in the rafters. Your work clothes, just out of the washing machine, are still stained the same reddish-brown colour as the earth at your feet.

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Dirty feet in the garfen

Or if you’re squicked out about bugs, you’re not going to be delighted by Latin America. The place is just teeming with creepy crawlies. There are colourful beetles and flies of all sizes. Various species of ants march off in their different directions, and will gladly march right up your feet if you’re in their way. Mosquitos, which are a serious concern because they pass on diseases like Malaria and Dengue Fever, seem like the least of your worries compared to the ants and spiders and flies everywhere.
I was originally convinced I would try to follow the medical advice for travellers, as provided in those little government handbooks. You know, don’t approach stray dogs, always drink bottled water, avoid this or that kind of food. We gave up on that stuff in the first week. Ellen was petting a dog on the street in Puerto Viejo, and when I started to suggest she shouldn’t, the dog jumped up, tail wagging, and licked my tongue inside my open mouth. After that, well, it seems like a bit of a moot point. We’ll still try to keep ourselves healthy, but we’re not going to force the issue.

And then, if you have any concerns at all about wanting to maintain your beauty and look after your body, well, this may not be the lifestyle choice for you. Volunteering on this farm, I’ve put my body through its fair share of bumps and scrapes, even being careful with my healing wrist. I have a grapefruit-sized bruise on my butt, with accompanying wound, from slipping down a slope when the stairs gave out after a rainstorm. I have twelve swollen red ant bites on my right forearm from gathering leaves to mulch and discovering an ant colony just a moment too late. And after a day of hard work, you get a nice cold shower, kept brief to conserve water. No manicures or massages on this kind of vacation!

If the sorts of things you’ve read here aren’t your cup of tea, travelling independently through Latin America may not be for you. You might prefer a nice all-inclusive resort where they make sure you have hot showers and clean rooms, massages and fresh drinking water. But here I just feel more connected to the Latin American lifestyle. The bugs and plants and people are that much closer to me, and I can meet them and know their names, rather than just taking their pictures. Oh, I still want to hang out for a week at a resort with organized adventure tours and a swim-up bar at some point in the future, but for now, this dirty, grimy, exhausting side of travel has won my heart.