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As of yesterday, I’ve been on the road for six months!

Looking back on my trip so far, here are some pearls of wisdom I’ve discovered:

  1. My favourite things to take pictures of are insects, flowers, and clouds.

    The world's awesomest mantis!

    The world’s awesomest mantis!

  2. I really, really enjoy owning very few things.

    Those few things I do own, I cherish, though. For instance, this beautiful new Alpaca wool sweater I bought in Quito.

    Those few things I do own, I cherish, though. For instance, this beautiful new Alpaca wool sweater I bought in Quito.

  3. Spending six months attached at the hip to my sister is actually quite pleasant!
  4. I don’t miss my parents much because I Skype them once a week, but I do miss their dogs!
    Rupert and Ellen, saying goodbye before we left.

    Rupert and Ellen, saying goodbye before we left.

    From front, Rupert, Milo, and Zoe, our adorable stinky puppies!

    From front, Rupert, Milo, and Zoe, our adorable stinky puppies!

  5. I’m still not tired of endless summer.
  6. Although I’ve enjoyed not working for six months, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I had to get a job soon.
  7. Sorry Canada – I still love Latin America and I’m not going home anytime soon.

    Have I mentioned it's paradise here?

    Have I mentioned it’s paradise here?

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It’s been almost half a year since Ellen and I left for Latin America with little money in our pockets and no plans to speak of. We had ideas and vague intentions, but nothing concrete. As our trip has progressed, we’ve regularly felt grateful that we had themes to focus on rather than plans to stick to. Now, as Ellen is spending a few weeks in Canada getting her future sorted out, I figured I’d spend some time looking back on our vacation to see what we’ve done and what more I’d like to do. I’m not making a bucket list – I read an article that eloquently lays out reasons to avoid those – but I’m examining the themes of our travels over the past months and into the future.

  1. Working with Wildlife – We left home with this idea featuring prominently in our minds, but it hasn’t materialized yet. There are plenty of wildlife rescue places in Latin America, but most require volunteers to make a hefty donation to the centre in exchange for the opportunity to work with monkeys, snakes, turtles, or wildcats. Ellen might choose to pursue this further, but my budget has relegated this idea to the back burner for me.
  2. Beer – Every travel article I’ve read says there’s no good beer to speak of in Latin America. Ellen and I set out to prove them wrong by finding microbreweries and artisan beer on our trip. This focus of our travel has had mixed results. We didn’t search extensively in Costa Rica or Panama, but instead drank what the locals drank. We had more success once we hit South America. We found an excellent craft brewery in Medellin, Colombia, and were able to sample local beer from Bogota as well. In Ecuador, there’s good local beer to be found on tap in Canoa, and I also had the pleasure of buying the first two bottles of ginger beer brewed in Mindo. This week I’m couchsurfing at the home of an American who distributes the craft beers from Canoa, and who has asked me to help him close a couple of deals while I’m in Quito. I hope this will allow me to sample their India Pale Ale, which is my favourite type of beer and which I have sorely missed in Latin America. Ellen and I have also played with brewing our own beer at the farm here in Ecuador, as well as making traditional fruit alcohols in Costa Rica, Colombia, and Ecuador. I look forward to continuing to explore our passion for good beer as the trip carries on!
  3. Food – I absolutely love the food here. Ellen and I have enthusiastically embraced local ingredients and experimented with imitating Latin American dishes and incorporating the new fruits and vegetables into foods we like from home. I haven’t done as much exploration of the South American food culture as I’d like – I think I’d need to be living and working here so I could systematically make sure I’ve tried everything – but Ellen and I are eating fresh, local foods every day, so I would call this a rewarding focus of our trip.
  4. Writing – When I started my blog, I hoped to write almost every day. I wanted my blog to record my journey, capture my reactions to new experiences, and keep my friends and family informed of my movements. Beyond that, I also wanted my blog to serve as a portfolio of my writing style, an avenue for self-improvement through daily writing practice, and a venue to expand my contacts and open doors to a potential career in the writing or publishing industry. I haven’t written quite as much as I hoped, and spending time out of internet service has limited my ability to be actively promoting my blog and interacting with readers. However, I’m enjoying the project immensely, and Ellen appreciates being able to keep her network of friends informed without having to use the internet herself.
  5. Sketching and Painting – I haven’t been doing as much artwork as I’d hoped on my journey, but neither have I abandoned the hobby. I’ve been pleased to be able to improve my skills at sketching especially – I’m finding a style of my own that I like, and enjoying the process of drawing as well as the results. Painting I’ve found less rewarding, so I’m focusing more on my work with markers on paper. Maybe when I’m more settled in one place, I’ll experiment with the Asian black and white watercolour style that I’d like to someday emulate.

    A sketch that I'm particularly pleased with

    A sketch that I’m particularly pleased with

  6. Sustainability – I didn’t set out to learn what Latin America could teach me about conservation of resources, but it seems this lesson found me on its own. Everywhere I look, I’m struck by how the locals are doing things in ways that don’t create nearly as much waste as we would at home. Latin America still has pollution problems, waste management issues and a lack of recycling centres, but unnecessary packaging and wasteful lifestyles aren’t as endemic here. North Americans and Europeans are more aware of pollution as an issue, but Latin Americans seem more pragmatic about their consumption of resources.
  7. Natural Building – This new focus for my travels has surprised me. I’ve never been interested in architecture, but discovering how different natural resources like bamboo, straw, and clay can be put together to make comfortable houses that look and feel better than modern materials like concrete and drywall has been a rewarding pursuit. The more I see, the more excited about the subject I become. I am inspired to learn different natural building methods so I can eventually build a home myself. This has opened up all sorts of avenues of discovery to explore – I’m hoping to refresh my knowledge of electricity and wiring (my least favourite topic in high school physics) and learn about drainage and plumbing so I can understand how to construct a home from start to finish.

    An addition to the farmhouse that I helped work on.

    An addition to the farmhouse that I helped work on.

  8. Education – I had taken a hiatus from teaching when I started this trip – I felt disillusioned and tired of the whole industry. Taking a step back from my teaching career seems to have renewed my passion for learning, though. I’m excited about education again, brimming with ideas about teaching, learning, schooling, and exploring the world. I need more time to put my philosophy into words and understand how to apply it to my life, but the first steps are forming. I hope to incorporate these lessons into wherever my career takes me.

Travelling with a focus instead of definite plans has led me in exciting directions. Not only have I explored the themes I set out with, but I’ve discovered new passions on this trip. I still have no idea what my future holds or where I’ll be in six months, but at least I know what paths I might be interested in following.

I don’t plan on going home to Canada when I run out of money to travel. My plan has been to get a job somewhere in Latin America and stay here for a few years. When asked what kind of job, teaching English seems like the most obvious choice: I have a Master’s of Education, I’ve worked six years in the field, I’ve written textbooks on the subject, I enjoy working with learners, and English teaching jobs abound in every major city in the world. The problem is that I don’t actually want to teach in a school. Since giving up on getting my British Columbian teaching certificate a few years ago, I’ve been disillusioned with mainstream schooling. I always loved school myself, but I don’t think it’s the right way to educate people. Much more can be learned by participating in life, without curriculum guides and mandatory testing. How can I get a job teaching in a school, here or elsewhere, when my most valuable learning experiences have been far removed from the classroom?

When I think about the skills and values that are most important to me, I didn’t learn them in school. My passions and inspiration have come from other sources. I adore learning languages, for example. However, I recall being bored in my French classes at school, drawing my amusement from distracting the teacher. We used to play a game, counting how few words in French the teacher could use in a 60-minute period if we diverted his attention elsewhere. Our record was twelve. When I’m teaching English, I don’t look back on my language classes in school as inspiration. Instead, I think of my experiences in Korea, the Philippines, Latin America, and Thailand, trying to interact with people despite language barriers. I remember what strategies helped me express my needs. Memorizing grammar rules by rote, as school language teachers are wont to assign, were never among those successful tactics.

Reading is also a passion of mine. I can devour a book in less than a day, and reread the same novels time and again without getting bored. The books I read in school, though, almost killed that passion. In silent reading in elementary school, we were given twenty minutes to read ten pages of our assigned book. We weren’t allowed to read further than those ten pages, and I was always forty pages into the book before the teacher had seen that I’d gone ahead and told me off for it. I hadn’t noticed the chapter ending – I was too deep into the story. Soon I was reading library books under my desk in class while the teacher was going over material we’d covered the year before. If I was caught, the books were confiscated and the teacher threatened to take away my library card. At home, though, we had thousands of books lining the walls, and I could read any of them well into the night if I wanted, and I often did. I read encyclopedias and dictionaries, poetry and fairy tales, novels and books of cartoons, and when I’d read through all the fiction I started on the books on gardening and cooking. I still read voraciously, but never the kind I was assigned in school. I faked doing my college readings – dry papers in jargon-filled prose written by pompous experts – and bluffed my way through the discussions for them, and yet I read tonnes of books on the same theories, written by down-to-earth real people dealing with the issues. Why does the education system not use these more accessible resources?

My passion for reading combined with my love of languages: Spanish books to read on the farm

My passion for reading combined with my love of languages: Spanish books to read on the farm

When I look back on my life, most of my important lessons were taught outside of school. I learned the value of hard work from my parents, and from working on the farm. The animals needed feeding before we did, because they couldn’t feed themselves. I learned about other cultures from the many volunteers on our farm, as well as from our travels in Europe when I was a child, and my parents’ and grandparents’ stories of living in other countries. The world was a much more exciting place than school ever led me to believe. I remember considering running away, when I was about thirteen, to pursue my dreams without finishing my education. I did my research first, though – I looked through the classified ads in the newspaper to see what kind of jobs I could get without a high school diploma and how much they paid, then compared that to the prices of apartments and airplane tickets. My calculations showed that I’d never be able to make ends meet, let alone save up for trips to other countries, if I didn’t finish high school, so I stuck it out. I don’t ever remember that kind of budgeting taught in school.

Now, as I consider whether to get a job teaching when my travel budget is exhausted, my heart and soul are crying at the thought of spending my days in a school. I’m thinking of the boredom, of the endless assignments and marking, of the curriculum planning of the entire year’s lessons into fifteen minute chunks. I want to teach by being a guide for my students. I want to point them in directions that interest them, and let the students run off their own way, pursuing their passions. I want to be a resource to help people learn. In short, I don’t want to teach in a mainstream school. I wonder, though, where that decision will lead me in my educational career, if I choose to continue it. Only time will tell, I suppose.

The kind of life lesson that we really learn from, summed up in graffiti on the streets of Popayan, Colombia

The kind of life lesson that we really learn from, summed up in graffiti on the streets of Popayan, Colombia. “Live, simply, immediately.”

Over the last few weeks, I was beginning to wonder if I was getting tired of volunteering. I was still enjoying the work, but I was getting irritable. I snapped at people. I wasn’t patiently explaining to new volunteers how tasks were to be done, I was getting frustrated and barking orders at them. Ellen was even beginning to tease me for getting infuriated with having to slow down for language barriers, when I’ve been an English teacher and that was my very job before. Ellen’s pointing it out just highlighted the mystery – what in the world was sapping away at my positivity and good nature?

This week, I took an overnight trip to town, giving myself a luxurious full day and a half to play on the internet and update my blog, which I figured would cheer me up. I seated myself in my favourite cafe, opened my computer, sipped my latte, and proceeded to get into a fascinating chat with the woman at the next table, who had mentioned to her server that she was from Vancouver Island. Within minutes, I was animated, passionate, patient, knowledgeable, and caring again. My sense of purpose, my love of life had been returned to me, and I realized with startling clarity what had been wrong before.

The past couple of weeks, the farm has been short of volunteers, and I’ve been missing the exchange of ideas with like-minded travellers. Ellen and I had been doing most of the work with one other volunteer, and so we were exhausted at the end of the day. Ingo, the farmer, had a bad knee that needed treatment in Quito, so we’d spent several days a week on our own, holding the fort and running the farm ourselves. It was quite an achievement, but not as rewarding for me as I’d hoped. I crave contact with more people on a regular basis, and spending several days with just two people to talk to was sapping my energy. Lively conversation was what I needed to reanimate myself, and we just weren’t having any of that.

I’ve known for some time that I work better around others than alone. I’ve always found it easier to do solitary tasks in public places than at a quiet desk. Libraries stifle me; I did my college readings in cafes. Over the last few weeks, I’ve done very little writing because I’ve felt that I had no ideas worth pursuing. Who would want to read my blog posts when all I produced were frustrated rants about the annoying volunteer who had to be sent home after one day? And so I wrote nothing, and waited until I got into town to hope for inspiration to strike. Yesterday, over coffee and lemon meringue pie, my inspiration came back and the ideas started flowing again. I chatted to Barbara, my newfound friend, for three to four hours, and all my passion and excitement for life, my travels, and my writing came bubbling back to the surface. She had to leave for a Spanish lesson in the early afternoon, and I wrote twice as much as I’d imagined I could after she left, and still had half a page of notes on ideas to pursue later.

With my enthusiasm turned up to full-blast, I was soaring with zest for life by late afternoon. I’d updated my blog and scheduled a couple of posts for later in the week, chatted with my parents, and talked to a few friends on Facebook. I was just considering whether to order another drink when Barbara came back with a woman from her hostel, Kendra, who was feeling as uninspired as I’d been that morning and was needing some talk therapy as well. Kendra had told Barbara about her unhappy experience volunteering on a farm here in Ecuador, and how disillusioned she’d become, and Barbara wanted her to meet me and gain some positive insights into sustainability and farming. Soon enough, we were animatedly discussing all kinds of worthy ideas for making a difference here in Ecuador and at home in Canada. It was an inspiring conversation, and I felt I couldn’t wait to put those sorts of ideas into action.

We said our goodbyes as the cafe closed – I had been there twelve hours. Perhaps I should have gone to bed when I got back to my tiny balcony hostel room, but instead I stayed up for hours more, letting the ideas percolate in my imagination. I’m still trying to rehash the conversation in my mind, to glean out of it all the inspiration I can. I’m also trying to incorporate the lesson from this experience into my plans for my future. Clearly, I need to be somewhere active if I’m going to be writing. My thoughts of a quiet cottage with a comfy writing desk looking out onto a garden might be tempting, but I’ll probably get more words onto paper, and better ideas flowing, if I’m in a bustling coffee shop in a town square. Food for thought. That’s what was missing, and that’s what I have now in abundance.

Life calls for more chatting in cute coffee shops with my sister, for sure!

Life calls for more chatting in cute coffee shops with my sister, for sure!

Conversations over beers with friends always chase my blues away

Conversations over beers with friends always chase my blues away!

I thought, when I left home, that on this trip I might gain awareness of local issues in Latin America, big important issues like poverty, hunger, environmentalism, conservation, inequality, and access to education. Since I’ve been here, I’ve heard a few people’s opinions on those topics, but not as many as I’d imagined. Locals don’t air that kind of dirty laundry to travellers, even volunteers who are in the region for as long as a year and looking for ways to contribute. I’ve found, however, that my time abroad has given me a different type of awareness, one that I wasn’t looking for but have been glad I’ve found nonetheless.

Travelling, especially volunteering, has given me a consciousness of my surroundings and myself. I observe details that escaped my notice in the past. My senses are more in tune with the world. I’ve never considered myself a detail-oriented person, and I admit that when reading I’ll skip over the paragraphs of sensory description in my search for the story line. I rapidly lose interest in any book that starts with “The sky was that particular shade of blue that one only sees on a hot July morning, a hazy kind of blue, reminiscent of wildflowers…” On this trip, though, I’ve begun to notice those kind of details myself. The quality of light, the patterns of the clouds, and the shades of green in the hills are catching my eye as they never did before.

Hot tub at sunset

Hot tub at sunset

Here at the farm, with no internet, electronic devices, cars, machinery, or other distractions, I’m finding myself being aware of what’s around me. I notice the flock of 40 parrots overhead, squawking loudly. I see the tiny flatworm in the woodpile, and the leaf covered with dozens of caterpillars. I smell the flowers, and hear the frogs. Part of my newfound awareness comes from having so many animals depending on us here. I’ve always got an ear open for sounds of distress from the livestock. The piglets have been let out of their pen and are harnessed and tied to stakes around the property; I find myself listening for unusual squeals in case the young pigs break loose or start choking themselves on their ropes. Another part of my mind is keeping track of where the goats are, and whether the babies have been left behind by their mothers. Near the house, I keep my eye open for escaped baby chicks, who have sometimes been able to squeeze underneath the chicken wire to go exploring. If they get too close to a pig, they’ll probably be eaten for lunch.

I’m not only aware of the animals, but also paying attention to myself. My body and its rhythms are much more obvious to me when I’m so free of distractions. If I’m not feeling a hundred percent healthy, I can generally identify the source of the problem and the reason for it. The cures on the farm are simple: more rest or less, more water, less food, more food, or different food. Just by being aware of myself, I can keep track of how my diet and sleeping patterns affect my health.

The most pleasant side effect of my newfound awareness is my appreciation for my surroundings. I recognize the trees that smell nicest in the evenings. I know the rain is coming the instant before the storm starts: I heard the raindrops hit the trees nearby before they reached me. I see the tiny yellow frog as I’m walking in the grass, and I can stop to admire it. Ellen and I are constantly calling to each other: “Look at this spider!” “Stop! Come see this worm!” We might be working a little slower, but we’re happier as we do it. It’s a nice way to be.

A flatworm we found in the wood pile

A flatworm we found in the wood pile

Look at the tarantula on the ceiling! (Not necessarily the same one I found in my boot the other day. Now I check my boots every time I put them on!)

Look at the tarantula on the ceiling! (Not necessarily the same one I found in my boot the other day. Now I check my boots every time I put them on!)

 

I’ve been meaning for months to write about my perspectives on travelling, as a woman, ever since I was asked to share my insights for someone’s journal of women’s thoughts on travel. I admit, I was stumped for what to write. This week, I’ve seen several other women weigh in, because of comments left on several newspaper articles about a woman who was murdered while travelling alone in Istanbul. The truth is, my gender doesn’t really have a big impact on my travel plans. I take reasonable precautions when I travel, but I like to think I’m cautious because I’m human, not because I’m female.

Ellen and I did decide we would like to travel together, partly because we’re women and partly because we came up with the idea for this trip twelve years ago on another vacation together. When I was thinking of backing out of the trip (when my wrist was broken and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to save for the trip without a job), Ellen wanted me to come along anyway because of the woman travelling alone issue. Although she would be comfortable travelling alone, she was worried the friends she’d be visiting would try to prevent her continuing her journey alone.

An interesting note on women travelling is that, based on stories I’ve heard, men tend to run into more trouble travelling than women do. Men are more likely to get into fights abroad (as a male acquaintance of mine did in China), or drink too much in a bar and get robbed, while women are conditioned from a young age not to put themselves in those situations. A man I met on this trip was “express kidnapped” and robbed in Nicaragua – he was carrying all his travel funds and electronics on him, walking along the side of a highway, and was chatting with a local as he walked. When the local accepted a ride from a stranger, he hopped in, only to find the two were in cahoots and they pulled a weapon on him. They drove him around for a while, took his valuables, and dropped him off on a dirt road a few miles away. They were thoughtful enough to leave him a few cents for a bus back to his hostel.

The female travellers I’ve spoken to have sometimes been in situations that made them uncomfortable, but they left before anything bad happened. Ellen and I are fairly cautious when we travel, but we don’t let our gender stop us from doing things that interest us. We usually look into a bar before we enter, to check if we’re the only women in the place (in which case we won’t go in). If we’ve been told a particular bus route is dangerous, I carry my knife in my purse just in case. I’ve never had to use it except to cut fruit.

Me, a single female traveller, enjoying a beer in a bar in Pereira, Colombia

Me, a single female traveller, enjoying a beer in a bar in Pereira, Colombia

There is one activity we’d like to participate in but are waiting for male companions for – dancing. I would love to go to a club where people are dancing to salsa and latin beats. I know South Americans are famous for being amazing dancers, and I absolutely want to go dancing, but I hate being a woman in an unfamiliar club. When I was in Korea, after a few times going dancing with only female friends, I realized that I disliked the attention a single white female attracts in a club in Asia. I may find that Latin American clubs are nothing like that, but I’d rather wait until we meet a fun group of guys to check out the dancing scene. That’s more a personal preference than a big gender issue, though.

Overall, I don’t think being a woman has to have a big impact on travelling. The world is a big, open, friendly place, where people who meet you are likely to be curious and happy to see you, rather than threatening. I would encourage anyone curious, male or female, young or old, single or married, to go out and explore the world. Don’t let people tell you not to, and don’t let gender be an issue holding you back.

Ellen and me in Pereira, Colombia, at a local swimming hole

Ellen and me in Pereira, Colombia, at a local swimming hole – as safe here as at home!

I had two possible posts written for today, but neither seems right. I can hardly follow up yesterday’s post with a discussion of fruit juice or street dogs. So, instead, I thought I’d tell you that Ellen and I are fine, and we’re leaving Colombia. Not to go home, just to be moving on. We’ve seen some sights, eaten some good food, and met some great people. Now it’s time to go do something similar in another country.

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Yummy homemade Colombian food

We’re going to Ecuador, because it sounds nice and it’s South. We’ve never crossed the equator, so we won’t feel right about visiting South America until we’ve been in the Southern Hemisphere. So far my research indicates that it will be cheap to camp, and there might be more conservation-oriented volunteer work available. If we don’t hear back from the volunteer placements we’ve contacted, we’ll camp and hang out on a beach for a week or two and move on to another country.

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I hope Ecuador's coffee is as good

Colombia has been amazing and has treated us well. I love its friendly people, its music, and its simple yet delicious food. Tomorrow I’ll post more about Colombia and our time here. In the meantime, here’s a picture or two to distract you.

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Barbecued meat at the hostel

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Roadside flowers

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Birds!

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Snail on my sandal

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What vegetable is this? Unidentified market purchase

Travelling has a huge effect on how you form relationships and interact socially. It takes you out of your comfort zone of regularly being able to drop in on friends, meet up for coffee, or chat at the water cooler with coworkers. Friendships at home are deeper, built on years of shared experiences. On the road, you’re never anywhere long enough to have that comfortable feeling of having known someone half your life. Instead, you’re thrown into a series of brief, intense friendships with the excitement of discovering things in common.

There’s a kind of thrill to making friends on the road. You walk into a hostel in an unknown town, hungry, dirty, and tired. You want food, laundry, a shower, a beer, and only one of those things can be found in your dorm room. Off you go to the common area to ask. Just the mention of food brings out animated discussion among the two or three people around the table. One suggests a good market nearby where you could procure ingredients for a home-cooked meal. Another points in the direction of the amazing restaurant they ate at yesterday. One person offers to walk you to the street stall where he had barbecued meat on a stick last night. You take him up on the suggestion, and within moments, you’re chatting like a couple on a great first date. He’s planning to go to the region you just left, so you talk animatedly about your travels through the area. You exchange Facebook contact info when you return to the hostel. Within a day or two, you or he or both move on to other places, and that one meal together was the entire scope of your face-to-face interactions. However, the friendship doesn’t end just because you may never be in the same place again. You still chat occasionally, giving advice about places you’ve visited, laughing at anecdotes of each other’s travels. It’s still a friendship, just different from what you’d call a friendship at home.

Relationships on the road are all about short bursts of intense experiences together, followed by long periods apart. Unlike the deep roots you can put down at home, you’re like a weed on the road, quickly sending out shallow rootlets in many directions, hoping they’ll establish themselves and eventually blossom. Every time you are on the move to a new place, it’s like the wind has ripped you away and you’re soaring through the air. There’s exhilaration, there’s fear, there’s joy, and there’s longing to have arrived and put your bags down and started growing roots through the soft earth again.

I absolutely love the high I get from travelling, from meeting new people, from making contacts with people all over the world. When you permanently move to a new city, you’re trying to put down deep roots, and the soil is hard like rock. It’s difficult to find a circle of friends where you can belong. Visit that same city as a traveller, and you can meet dozens of people over the course of a single week. I do miss the deeper sense of community, though. I can’t join a choir on the road, or a poetry club. You don’t get many opportunities to play sports or join a gym. It’s wonderful to go out for coffee and share new stories with new friends, but it’s also nice to sit down with family and old friends and share those well-rehearsed stories from childhood or the good old days. I’m glad Ellen’s here with me, so I get a bit of both worlds.

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You don’t consider, most days, how much consumerism affects you. I like to think of myself as less of a consumer and buyer than most people, but the lure of buying things is always there. Living out of a backpack makes me more aware of it, though, because the space and weight restriction prevents my acting on the urge to buy. So, rather than buying anything, I will regale you with stories of things I have so far resisted buying.

First and foremost is a hammock. In my first week in Latin America, I slept in a hammock, and it was wonderful. They’re also comfortable for napping, chatting, blogging, and reading, and I would love to own one. I haven’t finished exploring Latin America yet, but I am confident in stating that every tourist stall from Mexico to Argentina has at least a dozen hammocks in different colours, styles, and weaves. Sadly, I am already carrying a tent as my mobile sleeping arrangement, and tents are more practical. They provide protection in all weather, keep mosquitoes away, keep your belongings away from prying eyes, and don’t require sturdy trees or beams from the ceiling to set up. A tent is a much better option than a hammock, but that won’t stop me drooling over hammocks whenever I see them in shops.

Pure comfort right there, baby!

Pure comfort right there, baby!

A digital SLR camera comes in a close second in terms of temptation. Ellen and I are travelling with two cameras – my cellphone and a five-year-old point-and-shoot Canon digital camera. The battery charger on the Canon has died, so we briefly discussed replacing it before discovering that universal battery chargers are about $2, so the camera lives on. Still, whenever we take pictures, we comment on how a camera with more options would allow us to improve our photography. We could adjust the focus to exactly where we want it, something I’ve been playing with when taking pictures of flowers with a cityscape background. With a true photographer’s camera, we might have a chance to capture scenery or sunset shots that more closely resemble the beauty we see. For me, the digital SLR will remain a pipe dream, unless Ellen decides to splurge.

Sure, it LOOKS pretty, but this isn't half as nice as it could be.

Sure, it LOOKS pretty, but this isn’t half as nice as it could be.

Finally, there are all the little things that tempt me to spend money I don’t have on things I don’t need. I have five outfits, for example, and only one of them keeps me warm enough on a cool evening. I absolutely don’t need to look at pretty summer dresses. (I have not yet been tempted by a long-sleeve shirt or a sweater. This is frustrating, as that’s what I’d allow myself to buy if I found one.) I don’t look at the jewelry (much to the disappointment of street vendors everywhere) but lovely handmade woven purses catch my eye again and again. I already own a purse (and it’s handwoven) so I really don’t need another one, but I can’t help but look. I have two pairs of glasses with me, but both have broken and been repaired repeatedly, and both fall off my face if I make sudden movements. I could replace them, but I can still see just fine through them.

Usually, Ellen and I are travelling mostly in the countryside, so we don’t get many chances to be tempted to buy things. In Costa Rica, we had to walk twenty minutes to buy a beer, which was the only thing there was to buy in the village. When we did make our way into towns, we had lists of things that had worn out and needed replacing or repairing. This month, though, Ellen and I are right smack-dab in the middle of town. We’re trying to keep our purchases limited to groceries, but the temptation to buy things we don’t need is always with us. Luckily, the weight of my backpack and my reluctance to lug it around with yet more stuff in it keeps the temptation at the back, rather than the front of my mind.

I have been feeling a bit negative of late, and it’s hard to put my finger on why. I can assume part of the issue is culture shock. I don’t speak the language as well as I’d like, and things that I feel should be simple are not. These are the sort of frustrations that lead to culture shock, but it’s the first time I’ve noticed the symptoms in myself, and I find the process alarming.

Culture shock is a funny word for the feeling, though. I’m not stunned at the differences between Colombia and Canada. I’m more inexplicably irritable at things that normally wouldn’t bother me. An older guest at the hostel wanders around telling lame out-of-context jokes to people who barely understand English and asks me to translate, and then follows me around the hostel complaining endlessly about the work ethic in Latin America. Normally I could ignore him, but at the moment I can’t get away from him fast enough, and it’s a challenge to be civil. This isn’t like me.

I love learning languages, and Spanish should be a simple one to learn because it’s not too unlike French. Although I feel satisfaction at what I’ve achieved so far, I get unreasonably annoyed at things like irregular verbs. Rather than patiently asking someone who is regaling me with rapid-fire instructions in Spanish to slow down, I have a short fuse and snap at them. I can tell this isn’t the way to go about things, and yet it’s the head space I’m in right now.

As expected in a foreign country, things don’t work the way I would organize them if I were in charge. The beer fridge in the hostel isn’t plugged in during daylight hours in order to conserve power, which means that whenever I want to buy a nice cold beer, the only ones available are warm. The hostel prohibits consumption of outside alcohol, so we have to go out to a bar if we want a simple beer for refreshment. I think reading books in Spanish would be a good way to improve my language skills, and yet this town doesn’t seem to have a bookstore. We found a second-hand bookstore in Cartago, but at $10 for a dog-eared paperback and most of the selection being classic literature (my least favourite kind), I didn’t buy anything. These are minor frustrations that shouldn’t irritate me as much as they do.

I’m sure it’s not all culture shock, either. I have a cold which is draining my energy, without which I might be able to fight off the mood swings. I wonder, though, whether part of the problem is that I’m just older and grumpier than when I last travelled. Surely thirty-two isn’t old, but I may have lost some of the enthusiasm of youth. Loud music hurts my eardrums and I’d rather be sitting in a small group chatting than going out at all hours of the night. Is that a factor of my age, or just a preference? I’ve never enjoyed having a television on when I’m in a communal space, and when I’m trying to learn a language it drives me to infuriated distraction.

Rather than complaining about culture shock, I’m going to try to do something about it. I’m going to see if I can order a book I’d like to read in Spanish online and have it delivered to the hostel. Today I bought a few nice ingredients and I’m going to play around with making something delicious in the kitchen. I might go sit down at the park with a notebook or sketchbook and see what inspiration hits me. On Tuesday, Ellen and I are taking a day off volunteering and spending the day at a hotsprings near here. And I’m buckling down and studying more Spanish grammar so I don’t feel tempted to drop the f-bomb every time I can’t remember how to say something in past tense.

I think the biggest help, though, will be acknowledging that I’m feeling this way and that it’s normal and allowed. Culture shock is expected. Most people who travel for extended periods experience it. When I went through this in Korea, I took many more naps and did a few more touristy things to rediscover the joy of being abroad. Most of the time, I’m having the time of my life. And the time when I don’t? This too shall pass, and I’ll probably miss it when I’m gone.