READER'S NOTE: We are in a state of almost total lockdown in all of Puerto Rico right now, and we know many, many others are in a similar situation. We also know that almost nobody is traveling, especially internationally. But to fight some of the boredom and negative thoughts, we want to talk about travel in this post. We firmly believe this a temporary state of affairs and that we will all be doing the planes, trains, automobiles & boats thing again in a few months at most, so let's do a little dreaming, shall we?
We were sitting outside our landlord's garage in Utila, Honduras with locals, transplants, and tourists alike. We were all drinking SalvaVida beer and eating fried pork rinds, breadfruit, plantains, and other local foods. We were hungry and the food was very good. This was in the very early days in our retirement vagabond life and we were taking it all in. A local woman asked each of us to dance because everyone else was either an 'ex' or a cousin - now that's small island life!
We also met a guy named Matt who, in a brief conversation, made a lasting impact on us. He was talking with us about travel; he had a twinkle in his eye and a knowing smile on his lips when he said, "It changes you". His simple statement has stuck with me ever since.
In his thirties I would guess (I'm notoriously bad about guessing age, but Deb is worse!), Matt had ditched a high paying job in law after having tanked away some money. He told me how much money he had invested, which seemed a little odd since we'd just met, but it also took me back a bit. It was a lot of money, but not a LOT of money, you know what I mean? It was not the kind of money I'd expect you would need to retire for the next 50-60 years.
Then again he was in Utila Honduras, a place that was costing us less than $2000 a month as a couple, without roughing it too terribly badly (we had water, electricity and often internet, but rarely all at the same time). He said he was spending a few hundred dollars per month at that point (and we know there are apartments there for $200/mo and less). I'm sure his investments were making much more than that at the time. But it was an upgrade for him, as he'd just spent time living in Guatemala with a family that spoke zero English. They lived on a dirt floor. They had no running water. He paid a few hundred bucks for the real immersion experience and he got it in spades. He said that a lot of conversations were around, "Cual es la significa de esa palabra?". (What's the meaning of that word?). I'm not sure how he understood the explanation, but they apparently made it work, and he was speaking Spanish very well by the time we'd met him.
In short, he was willing to sacrifice creature comforts for the experience of travel, the type of travel where you're truly living with and learning about other people and their culture. He wanted it to change him. He said it with a smile and a real measure of reverence. It changes you, this type of travel, this deep immersion. All this is true I agree, but sorry I'm not living in a dirt floor hut, even if it results in learning Spanish in months instead of years! We feel that simply living someplace new, and living simply, is a good trade-off for us.
The reason I say "and living simply" is in contrast to much of what I've seen in Honduras, Belize, Puerto Rico, and other places. I'm referring to the people who bring their entire lives from the States, Canada, or Europe, and set up camp in the new place. From the outside anyway, it appears that they are changing nothing in their lives except the weather. In my opinion these people, though comfortable, miss out on a good part of the experience that a slow, thoughtful type of travel can bring. I also realize that not everyone wants the kind of travel that truly changes them.
But any kind of travel leaves a mark on you, even if it is simply flying in someplace, enjoying beautiful scenery and throwing back a handful of umbrella drinks before hitting the airport. Even that can have an impact because, if you look, you can see how other people live. If you talk to them, you can learn a little bit more about what's in their hearts. Living among real local people, making lifelong friends, that takes the experience to another level entirely and truly enriches our lives. It's true even if those "locals" are transplants who've adopted the local culture.
I'm not pretending we're explorers of some deep remote tribe like the Sentinelese, I'd like to live a few more years yet, thank you very much! We've just been going to places that are different from where we'd lived in the States. So far, it's been a couple of islands in Honduras, a small Puerto Rican island named Vieques, and our growing PR mainland explorations.
From those few stops, we have really learned quite a bit and had rich experiences that we could not have known in any other way. We've made friends that we'd never have made otherwise. We've munched food and guzzled booze we'd never heard of before, and learned to make quite a bit of it ourselves. We've also been guarded at the cash machine by police with automatic weapons!
On shorter trips, we've stopped in places like Eleuthera in the Bahamas and Ambergris Caye in Belize. We honeymooned on Grand Cayman just! a few years back. We took the whole family to Huatulco, Mexico once. It's so far south around the curve that their Pacific coastline faces due south. And true to form, everyone who got ice in their drinks got sick at one point - oh well!
On our bucket lists, we still have a lot of islands to explore. I think it's coincidence that our short stops were all English speaking places while our longer stops were all predominately Spanish-speaking. Maybe it's because those countries just have more fun. Or maybe those decisions were made by our sub-conscious minds collectively in order to expand our brains, we just don't know. We also don't know how long we will be in any one place, and we like that.
We do know that all of these adventures have changed us in positive ways. There have been struggles, but struggles are what make the good times so sweet. Struggles can force you to make decisions about your own attitude. Am I going to let this make me miserable, or am I going to choose happiness instead? That's another way all of this changes you for the good.
I think it was the great philosopher Dolly Parton who said if you want the rainbow, you have to put up with some rain! You haven't lived until you've seen the power go out for seemingly no reason, certainly with no warning or explanation, and truly wondered if the place you are living has the expertise (or desire) to get it going again. In Honduras during the election riots, they turned the power off on purpose - the cost of protesting! When you truly have no idea if it will be out for minutes, hours, days, or weeks, there's exhilaration in that uncertainty! That's when I go into full-on MacGiver mode and start to figure out how to build batteries out of tin foil, copper pennies, and limes. Maybe not, but the thought crossed my mind until I remembered I was going to need those limes for drinks!
Similarly, the water may stop coming out of the faucet - in Utila that's actually on a schedule. They get water twice a week and rely on cisterns the other days. How would we know this without leaving the States and wandering? Well, we just wouldn't. It'll make you take a quick shower too, as you wonder if there's enough water in the cistern to make it to the next water day. You don't drink the tap water there either, by they way; that water comes from a blue jug. But when the power (or water, or internet) comes back you immediately wonder how long it will last. We also ask, "What do we need to do right now before it goes out again?" We do that, and it's all good.
It's also about looking for the rainbow after the rain. We still appreciate the cosmic plan that had Hurricane María pound our original island destination of Vieques, PR into complete submission, three days before we were to touch down. It made us go to the Bay Islands of Utila and Roatán in Honduras, and Ambergris Caye in Belize. And now a new coronavirus is making us stay indoors and giving us plenty of time to think about our future plans. The Gods Must Be Crazy but they are surely crazy like a fox.
Related to this, another thing that will change you, especially if you are somewhat introverted, is pushing yourself out of your own comfort zone. We did that from the start of this trip, and it has continued. It's been sporadic, not constant, but it has continued. It also builds self-confidence in being able to handle anything that comes along. It's never easy, but things like having a confusing conversation in a different language turns out to not be so daunting after a while. Deb always said it would be funny using the wrong words, and she was right. We do get laughs out of some of these strange discussions!
We've decided that trying new things and having new experiences is like growing up twice. Once adults settle in to a life, they make it comfortable and from that point forward their new experiences start to dwindle. I claim that the majority of adults have most of their new experiences vicariously through their children.
Yes, there are books and other forms of entertainment, there is great art to explore, and music, but those are somewhat passive pastimes. On the other hand, learning a language, a new art form, a new sport, or learning how to play music - these are active brain-stretching things to do.
To a child though, everything is a new experience, which is why adults enjoy watching children so much! From the youngest age and as they grow it's all new, opening a box on Christmas morning, or singing songs from Sesame Street on TV, or learning to ride a bike. As a parent you get to see it, but you are one step removed from the actual expanding of the mind that the child is enjoying.
This is why for an adult, travel is such a great opportunity. It expands that brain a little or a lot, experiencing a different kind of life, seeing new sights, meeting people who are not the same as you, who don't have a similar background. What you find out is that everybody has the same kinds of hopes and dreams, and deep down we are the same. We can teach each other new things, but deep down we are the same. And we love that. We also laugh all the time when Deb says, "I've never done this before". It's kind of the whole point, isn't it?
Well, that's it, our admonition to travel. Travel early, travel late, travel often. Matt was right, it changes you.
TODAY'S SPECIAL: "Upside Down", by Jack Johnson. "And as my mind begins to spread its wings, there's no stopping curiosity. I don't want this feeling to go away."