Tough Stuff the Guidebooks Don’t Tell You

Before arriving in the sleepy, relaxed, little beach town of Ayampe, Ecuador I was exhausted and sick.  The travel weariness was really starting to rear its ugly head after being on the road for nearly 6 months.  As I’ve mentioned previously, travel is quite an incredible adventure but at the same time jumping from place to place in a foreign country for many months is mentally, physically, and even emotionally taxing.  Certain things that were interesting because they are cultural or bearable because we hadn’t be traveling too long were really starting to get to me.  So I’ve decided to do what I always do in this situation, write them all down for the internet to read.

What I’ve decided to do for this post is list some of my biggest frustrations or challenges thus far throughout my travels, i.e. the stuff guidebooks don’t prepare you for. (I’m not bashing guidebooks as they are extremely useful.  I use Lonely Planet all the time. The fact is though that they don’t prepare you for everything) Some are specific to the countries we’ve visited in South America, some are general to travel, but all are brutally honest from my personal experience. I know this sounds really negative and I’ve probably scared away some readers for this reason. However, I feel it’s important to explore the other side of long term travel, the side that isn’t having great experiences and seeing amazing sites.  Travel is that and more, but you aren’t having an incredible time 24/7.  It’s not realistic.

In addition to talking about the aspects of travel that are wearing me down, I want to describe how I’ve either dealt with or are currently dealing with them; basically trying to see the silver lining.  Although not everything is perfect, it is still beneficial to see the good in everything and I’m hoping to make something out of these difficult situations.

In no particular order..

Constantly being an outsider.  

Being an outsider is multifaceted for me.  I look differently, I talk differently, I dress differently. Not only in my appearance do I completely stand out against most Latin Americans but I’m constantly doing things wrong.  In each new country and even city, Dan and I have to learn how things work.  So we never really feel like we fit in.  For example:

I mostly got over the “standing out” appearance wise a few months ago.  I stopped caring when people would stare at me on the street or yell things at me that I could (or sometimes couldn’t) understand.  But last month for some reason, I walked past a group of 4 Ecuadorian men as they stared at me as I approached from many feet away.  I got super annoyed and yelled “Uh, HOLA!” at them.  Then they all laughed at my reaction as I walked past.

On a separate occasion, I took the bus to Otavalo, Ecuador alone when Dan was pretty sick.  I got on the right bus, paid correctly, but had no idea where the hell to get off.  I asked the bus driver where to go and he said “Más aca” or “More over that way”.  Having no idea what this meant, I kept trying to disembark from the bus when a bunch of other people would and he kept telling me “No, no! Más aca”.  As if I wasn’t feeling stupid enough while a bunch of old Ecuadorian women were pushing past me, he told me to sit in the front seat next to him and he’d show me exactly where to go.  He was nice for assisting me and I ended up where I needed to be, but embarassing situations like this constantly happen to me.

How I’m dealing:  

When I notice people staring at me, I started trying this new thing where I smile and say “Hola, buenos días”.  Most people almost immediately say it back and sometimes even give me a smile.  It actually feels pretty rewarding when this happens and I don’t feel like such a freak anymore.  I even chatted up some cute, old ladies at the market this way.

My new bestie. 

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As for doing things wrongly, I have to come to terms with the fact that this will never end unless I stay in a place long enough.  I need to simply laugh at the situation and not take myself too seriously.  For instance a few weeks ago, I was trying to pronounce the Spanish word for the fruit rambutan.  With the lady who was selling it to me, I continuously kept failing at the pronunciation and her daughter and her could not stop laughing at me.  I laughed with them, said thanks, and left them with the funny memory of the gringa.

I still don’t know the Spanish word for rambutan. 

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Homesickness and Missing Out.

Homesickness for me comes in waves and is more about missing people than missing things like food, my bed, stuff like that (even though I do long for those things, don’t get me wrong).  There are times where I’m going along just fine, feeling great and then there are days where all I can think about is being home with the people I care about.  Feel free to read my post on missing Christmas this year for a clear example.

Homesickness hits especially hard when birthdays and big events come around and you know everyone is together but you.  Or when BEYONCE decides to tour at the last minute and your best friends will obviously and understandably be going without you.  It’s also very difficult when your loved ones are going through a difficult time and you can’t physically be there to gauge how they are feeling, ask the right questions, and simply be there for them.  It takes everything in my power not to give up and fly home.

I am very emotionally attached to the people in my life and it effects me deeply to feel disconnected.  Keeping in touch seems like something people are either good or bad at, and it’s hard not to feel let down or take it personally when someone that matters to you doesn’t make an effort to reach out.

How I’m dealing: 

Wine.  I just drink a lot the days I’m missing out on things.  It either makes me feel like I’m spiritually there celebrating or helps me to not think about it.  I’m only half serious.  Although it’s not the healthiest option, it does ease the pain a little.  

Back in Chicago, I had a very difficult time feeling left out.  I hated to miss anything or not be a part of something and this includes friends, family, work outings, you name it.  Being abroad has obviously forced me into this situation full on and I’ve had to sink or swim.  In the beginning it was very difficult for me to ask my friends questions about their weekends knowing that they’d be hanging out with out me or seeing pictures of my cats moving on with their lives.  I’ve come to realize is that if I continued with this attitude, it would effect me and my relationships negatively now and later.  If I wasn’t interested in what they are up to, then I would be even further disconnected from their real lives.  Deep down that is the furthest thing from what I want.  I needed to be happy for my friends, my family, my cats and not be sad.  It is okay to miss out!

It helps me to keep in touch with the people I care about as much as possible, to a healthy level, in order to deal with homesickness.  And by healthy, I mean not keeping in constant contact but enough to make me feel connected in some way.  If I’m thinking about someone or miss them, I text, Whatsapp, or email them right away.  I don’t wait for people to reach out to me.  I set up FaceTimes, Skype Chats, etc.  I’ve decided to never let it get to the point where I feel upset with someone for not getting in touch with me.  That is a slippery slope and a dangerous game to play.   

Feeling sick and bus rides.

Not feeling well away from home is a horrible experience.  I want to lay in my own clean, comfortable bed, for Netflix to work, and for my cats to give me their condolences by not leaving my side all day.  Thankfully, I have not been that ill yet.  I’ve had some days of stomach issues and a head cold that I caught in Puyo, but nothing that has kept me in bed for days or even a day.  Dan unfortunately has gotten the short end of that stick, and has been sick multiple times (I don’t want to rub it in, but I’m pretty sure it’s because he eats meat).

Don’t we look happy here?  Little does Dan know he’ll spend the whole next day in bed from food poisoning.  

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For me, the bus rides are killer.  South America seemingly isn’t flat anywhere because of the Andes.  Many of the roads go up and down, side to side, through curves on a mountain, and I’m getting sick just thinking about it.  Because of the mountains, the journeys always seem to take twice as long in addition to the buses constantly stopping and starting to pick up and drop off passengers.  If the mountains, longevity, and starting and stopping constantly wasn’t enough, add a stick-shift into the equation and you’ve got yourself one huge case of motion sickness.

A few days ago, Dan and I took a bus from Baños to Guayaquil.  Despite taking motion sickness pills and buying the front seats in the bus, I was suffering.  One part I didn’t mention above is that in Ecuador, vendors are allowed to jump on the buses and sell whatever their product is.  As we were stopped at a bus station and I was still reeling from the prior 3 or 4 hours, a bunch of people jumped on which fried chicken, french fries, and chifles.  Even if you don’t have motion sickness, a warm bus smelling of fried food is probably the most disgusting thing I can think of.  About an hour after that, a little girl got off the bus and threw up right on the floor next to where we were sitting.  Dan and I looked at each other and we both knew this would be our final long bus ride.

How I’m dealing: 

In regards to getting sick, Dan and I have become a lot more careful than we were in the beginning. We drank the tap water pretty much everywhere (Colombia, Chile and Argentina) but stopped after we arrived in Ecuador.  We’ve also stopped eating as much street food and local places that just look completely unsanitary.  This probably seems like a no brainer but we were so accustomed to doing this in Colombia and had no problems.  However, I’ve talked to many people who’ve gotten sick from nice, tourist restaurants so sometimes it’s just impossible to escape.  When possible, we cook for ourselves or go back to the same restaurants we’ve found we like.  

The street food in Colombia was the best, though. 

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I’ve tried my absolute best on the bus rides – buying the front seats, taking pills, not drinking alcohol a few days beforehand, putting in my headphones and zoning out.  But nothing fully works for me.  I’ve endured the buses this way for the past 6 months but I really don’t think I have much left in me.  I think it’s good to know when to call something and I’m calling it.  

Poverty.

Poverty isn’t something I’m completely foreign to, living in a big city such as Chicago.  I became used to seeing people without homes, asking me for money on the street.  It definitely did have an effect on me, and I would sometimes buy the Street Wise magazine seller a sandwich at 7/11 or chip into their coin fund.  Sadly most of the time however, I walked past feeling plagued but then would quickly forget about it.

Here in South America it’s different.  At times, it’s something we are subjected to on an even greater scale and is harder to simply walk away from and forget.  Some of the things I’ve seen have really stuck with and bothered me to the point that I still feel guilty for doing absolutely nothing.  Dan and I know that we can’t help everybody but it starts to make you wonder, “what did I do to deserve what I have?”

One night in Santa Cruz, Chile we found a stray dog with a very severely hurt back leg.  Dan and Zach took a shine to him right away and named him Roy.  Roy was very shy and was obviously struck by a car of some sort given his bum leg.  For some reason, Dan was extremely pulled to him. After everyone went to bed, he went out to sit with Roy, feed him, gave him water, and Roy came alive.  As I was creepily watching from the balcony,  Roy started wagging his tail, cuddling against Dan like they’d known each other forever.  Dan stayed down with Roy until about 1 or 2 in the morning and became very upset upon parting with him.  Then I became upset.  So much that Dan and I stayed up until 4 in the morning trying to figure out how we could bring Roy back to the USA.  Save one of the many thousands and thousands of dogs without homes. Even though Roy is a dog, he made me see that sometimes small acts of kindness and affection can really go a long way.

How I’m dealing: 

I’m definitely not going to pretend to be an expert in dealing with this or that I have even found the answers.  However, I have been trying to give small acts of kindness and affection to people and stray animals in whatever way that I can.  Not just to make myself feel better, but hopefully to give them some small window of light as well.  Whether it’s giving money, food, some pets to a stray dog, or even a smile to someone, I am making a concerted effort instead of ignoring a situation. This in my opinion, is worth something.  

Constant Planning and Moving.

More commonly known as travel burn-out.  No matter how much I love to travel and seek out adventure, it can be absolutely exhausting.

Much of Dan and my free time is spent researching the next destination.  Is it worth stopping?  Will it be budget friendly?  What should we do there?  All of these factors are very important when you are traveling on a set bank account that is slowly trickling away, which is part of the reason why we aren’t a fan of just showing up to places.  We only have a certain amount of money and we want to see that it’s well spent.

Even while sitting in this amazing spot, he’s probably thinking, where the hell in Patagonia should we go next?  Most of our spare time in Bariloche was spent researching. 

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Constantly moving around from place to place is also a drain.  Not only is the travel aspect itself tiring (see above) but getting the lay of the land each time you arrive somewhere new is a whole challenge in itself.  Simple things become difficult.  Where do I buy conditioner? Do they take cash?  They don’t have plastic bags at the grocery store?!  Is the taxi driver ripping us off?  For the love of God how does this shower work?!  Stuff like that.  It seems as though each time we finally become comfortable somewhere, we are up and leaving the next day.

How I’m dealing: 

Thankfully once we’ve been in a country long enough, we sort of have a good feel for how it goes but that still doesn’t always answer all the questions.  Dan and I are introverts and typically want to avoid talking to people at all costs however, we’ve realized that once we arrive to a new destination we should ask more questions to whoever our contact is.  They probably know, so why wouldn’t we ask?  Adding these people on WhatsApp has been very helpful. 

As for research, this will probably be a never ending battle.  But after becoming pros, we know where to look and have figured out which blogs or websites are helpful.  We’ve even found searching through Instagram has lead us to some amazing destinations that we wouldn’t have known about prior.  The websites I have frequented the most over the past 6 months and have been the most helpful are AirBnb, HostelWorld, Rome2Rio, Along Dusty Roads, LatinBus, and TripAdvisor

Finding a spot we like and staying there for more than a few days really helps recharge the batteries.  After Zach and Nina left, we stayed in Santiago, Chile for an additional 5 days and did literally nothing besides eat Danky ice cream cones.  Now we are currently living as beach bums in Ayampe, Ecuador for 12 days and I haven’t felt this good in a long time.  

Eating Vegetarian.

Considering the fact that meat and seafood are staples of most South American diets, I haven’t had too difficult of a time eating vegetarian.  Besides the time in Colombia when I ordered a vegetarian arepa and it came full of ham or when Nina and I ordered “escapola” thinking it was scallops in Chile (it’s meat by the way), I have been able to find some kind of vegetarian option no matter where we’ve eaten.

The issue isn’t necessarily avoiding meat.  The problem is that the options are typically really unhealthy and there aren’t that many of them.  I usually end up eating some mixture of rice and beans with an egg, some kind of sandwich stocked with carbs and cheese, or pasta.  Salads and tofu can be challenging to find or are expensive.  There was one period of 24 hours where I’d eaten 8 eggs in Ecuador; 2 eggs for each meal.  There was also a week in Argentina where Dan and I ate pasta 4 nights in a row.  Oh, and I can’t forget all of the greasy, cheese empanadas I’ve eaten in just about every country to try and fill my hunger.  Delicious, but dangerous.

I sometimes get so frustrated with it that I just want to run back to Chicago which has every option under the sun for vegetarians.

How I’m dealing:

I’ve realized that the best way to survive being a vegetarian in this continent is to be prepared to be flexible.  I’ve peeled meat out of sandwiches, picked beans out of beef stew, and ate vegetable soup, which I’m positive was made out of chicken broth, in times of need. These are the times when I’ve had to choose to be flexible with my convictions or go hungry.  Out here, flexibility tends to be the lesser of two evils when I’m not sure where or when my next chance to eat will be.   

Other than bending the rules a bit, there are a few other tricks to eating vegetarian in a meat filled world.  In most cities (Medellín, Quito, Santiago and even El Chaltén), there are veggie friendly restaurants.  This website, Happy Cow, is actually pretty comprehensive with a great list of options. I usually try to seek those out and see how pricey they are.  If this isn’t an option, I have been known to ask our waitress if they can make a dish for me without meat (which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t).  Or Dan and I simply buy our own groceries and cook our own meals.  

This popular restaurant in Bogotá, La Puerta Falsa, was nice enough to give me a vegetarian version of Ajiaco.  A delicious Colombian type stew usually made with chicken.  

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As Dan and I near month six of being away from home, the list of frustrations grows. As time wears on, small nuisances seem like much bigger deals and become more fierce than they did a few months ago.  Even though this post is seemingly negative and may come across as though there are a lot of things that are making me unhappy, I’ve learned so much about my limitations and hopefully how to approach and deal with them.  I feel as though I’ve become a stronger person because of them, which is why I felt it so important for me to write this post.  Painting my Spirit Gold isn’t about getting to happiness the fastest or thinking it will easily come to me because I’m traveling the world.  I think it’s also about facing your challenges head on and becoming equipped to take on the world.

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4 thoughts on “Tough Stuff the Guidebooks Don’t Tell You

  1. Getting past the negatives definitely is rewarding. Yesterday was one of those days for me: 3 buses, 5 taxis (one ripped me off), 2 of the taxis were because I went to the wrong place (it was a collectivo and I got in the wrong one and then had to return), and the night before, loud rude neighbors at the hostel. I was rewarded by ending up in a splendid hostel in Otavalo, very quiet, with great views. But travel, real travel, not the 5 star tourist stuff, is hard work. It is absolutely, positively NOT a “holiday”. I try to remember this when things go sideways.

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