Monday, 21 April 2014

10 Things I Learnt in Central America

With my time in Central America now at an end, I thought, like my list of things Ilearnt in Mexico, I might put together a collection of things that stood out while travelling through this part of the world.

You can do anything you want
Central America is a great place for doing almost anything you want to do. From adventure sports to surfing to hiking, or just relaxing or having one (or 6) too many beers on a pool party crawl (really, its a thing). There are very few things you cant do while you're there. Some of this has to do with very little being regulated, so its just a matter of finding a way to do it. 

Sliding down a mountain on your butt is just one of the many things you can do

Getting vaccinated was a great idea
Before leaving Australia I went to a travel medical clinic to get all the vaccinations and inoculations you need before hitting the road. If you're anything like me this is something – along with travel insurance – that you wish you could skip, and you'll give it some serious thought before eventually getting every shot they recommend of you.

I'm certainly glad I did. After being attacked by a pack of dogs in a small town in Guatemala, I was very thankful for the fact that due to my pre exposure vaccines for rabies, I had some time to sort out the last few shots of the course. If not for the vaccines I would have required the urgent, expensive, painful and hard to find urgent shot and could have totally ruined my holiday.

Border crossings are not fun
While I've been travelling heavily for 10 years now, much of that travel has been through the first world and I'll admit that has formed some complacency when crossing borders. 

Not anymore.

An error by a border official when I entered Guatemala meant that I didn't receive the necessary entry stamp, which led to me not being allowed to leave the country when I tried several weeks later. After paying a couple of fines for being "illegally" and wasting a couple of days Guatemala City, I was finally able to leave. Since that point I have learnt my lesson. Every border crossing - check your stamps!

Check your stamps people!

A further lesson came when trying to leave Costa Rica, where a $7 exit fee should have been paid when buying the bus ticket from the capital and the only option for paying it at the border being open for a mere seven hours a day. 15 hours at the border later and I'll make sure I do more research before crossing any more borders.

All travel in the area is...interesting
The modes of travel throughout Central America vary from overly packed taxis, to chicken buses and small boats (launchas) that feel like they could sink at any moment. Even shuttles, popular through Guatemala and aimed directly at tourists, would be considered the least comfortable form of transport where most of us are from.

Chicken buses are one of the most authentic experiences of travelling through Central America. The former US school buses – some of which have been pimped out with big screen TVs, and crazy colour patterns – go from town to town as well as picking up people and random points along the road. The first chicken bus I got on was missing a seat as well as the part of the floor that was supposed to be under that seat.

Chicken Bus

While they can be uncomfortable, chicken buses – named because of that fact they cram so many people into them – are cheap and relatively efficient and you get to see how the locals travel, as well as how they transport everything from fresh produce to electrical goods.

The food is better in Mexico
I've made no secret of the fact that I loved the food in Mexico. My current body shape stands testament to that fact. Central American food doesn't quite measure up. That's not to say it is bad, it has just suffered by comparison. While beans and rice can be good, beans and rice making up a large portion of every meal gets a bit old.

There are a lot of volcanoes

It seems every city and town in Central America has a "famous" volcano and a bar or drink called "lava". While it may seem as though it becomes repetitive, many of the volcanoes offer different things to see and do. 

Most of them offer good hiking and views, while many also offer the chance to camp out on top. One volcano in particular, affords you the chance to go "volcano boarding" and it is every bit as fun as it sounds. 

Ready for Volcano Boarding

A 34 Year Old Aussie learning to surf in El Salvador is a bit sad
Sure, you get the "you're never too old" to learn something new types. However when an Australian - whom everybody in the world expects to know how to surf - is taking his surf lessons with a couple of Canadians, a girls from cold parts of Europe, you start thinking you might have missed the boat. Particularly if a tiny girl from Denmark is instantly better than you. Sure I had fun trying for a few days, but I think I'll stick to volcano boarding.

Central America is Beautiful
While you hear a lot about certain landmarks and attractions in Mexico or South America, you don't tend to hear a lot about the beauty that Central America has. Starting in Tikal, Guatemala one of the most stunning of the Mayan ruins, all the way down to the San Blas Islands in Panama, the region is bursting with amazing things to see. 

Semuc Champey

One of the most amazing is one that I'd never heard of - Semuc Champey in Guatemala. I first heard of the place - a series of beautiful clear pools in a natural limestone bridge which lies over the top of a river - from people coming in the other direction while I was in Mexico and so glad I did.

You will see the same people again and again
There is a very established "gringo trail" in Central America. I'm sure there are people who will find a way to stay off the beaten path, but in reality they're beaten for a reason. Most of the places on the gringo trail are genuinely worth visiting. Running into people you have met in a past town can be problematic, sure, but most of the time it turns out to be a lot of fun, and that person you hung out with once for a day or two turns into someone you travel with for a week purely by chance.

It's easy to spend longer than you planned
Anyone who has been keeping up with this blog knows I have a difficult time moving on from any place I love, and Central America proved that. What I thought might take me 4-6 weeks took me around twice that. While this has left me with far less time to cover South America on my way to the cup, I wouldn't change any of it (OK, the dog bites and dodgy border crossings I would) as I had such a great time everywhere I went, and it's not like I cant ever come back.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

How Old is Too Old?

Central America is a great place to be for people who are fans on adventure sports. In the last few weeks I've jumped off waterfalls, slid down volcano on a plank of wood attempted to learn to surf – yeah I'm the Australian guy who never surfed.

Ready for Volcano Boarding at Cerro Negro

As is typical, I did all these things with various people I met along the way, all of whom had two things in common. The first is that they were generally more adventurous than I was. They were willing to jump off the higher waterfall or go faster down the volcano, while I've oft used the phrase, I'm too old to die doing something stupid. Which brings me to the second point; that they were all much younger than me.

I've gotten to an age now that whenever I meet new people in a hostel I'm the oldest one in the group 99% of the time. And much of the time it's not even close. In recent months I've hung out with people who didn't know who David Bowie was. Or the Doors. People who only know Ed O'Neil as the family patriarch in Modern Family. These people were born when I was close to finishing high school, and are now taking gap years before they start the rest of their lives. If they're anything like me, that may take a while. These kids are so young, I may have even felt old when I started travelling ten years ago.

Jumping from waterfalls in El Salvador - and no I didn't do this one

The question has to be asked have I gotten too old for backpacking? When should I stop travelling for long periods in hostels and cheap buses and replace them with luxury vacations sitting next to a pool at a resort?

The majority of my friends – both back home and others I've met along the way - have good jobs, houses (or at least mortgages) and are starting families. Some are even onto their second marriages. After two previous long trips away, I kind of expected that I'd be joining them soon too, but for the moment I've been getting home only to realise that I'm not ready for all of that – and may never be.

One thing I do want to avoid though, is becoming one of those crusty old guys you always see in the hostel. You know the one. They’re generally in their 50’s, bald and smelly, banging on about how “you kids these days have it so easy. When I was your age, I walked for 3 days across four borders while being chased by armed militia. And you think you’re travellers?!”

Am I the first Aussie to have their first surfing lesson in another country?

I'm sure there's going to be a time when I feel too old for this, and the negative aspects of backpacking (listening to other people, erm, enjoy each others company in the dorm - which has happened three times on this trip so far being one) outweigh the positives. 

For now though, I'm going  by the adage, you're only as old as you feel. And with very little money, responsibilities or plans for the future beyond the FIFA World Cup in Brazil in 2 months time, I'm feeling pretty young! 

Friday, 21 March 2014

When Travel Goes Bad

I've been known to use the line; “a bad day travelling is still better than a good day working”.

In fact I've been known to use it a great deal, and for the most part it is certainly true. Compared to fighting peak hour traffic, trudging through a job you probably hate only to spend all of the money on bills and your mortgage, most travel problems are pretty minor. I missed my bus, I lost my debit card, this bus taking me to my next awesome location is kind of uncomfortable or I couldn't remember the name of the bar I was supposed to meet that girl I just met.

Sometimes though, travel throws some bigger problems at you. This week it happened to me.

I spent a couple of weeks in the lakeside town of San Pedro La Laguna on Guatemala's Lake Atitlan. It was a fun little town with lots of like minded people and usually the biggest problem being that you're too hungover for your Spanish class.

Street dogs are very common in this part of the world

One night though, after making the silly decision to walk home from a late bar alone, I encountered a pack of dogs. They were not happy to see me. The next few minutes (it could easily have been just 15 seconds) were the scariest of my life. Most of the dogs seemed content to just bark at me, but at least a couple of them were actively trying to take a bit of my leg with them. Luckily I was wearing jeans, so most of the times they connected I was reasonably protected. They did manage to get through a couple of times though and break my skin with a couple of gashes.

After making it back to my hostel and encountering some locals on the street who seemed less concerned with my ordeal and more with whether I had a light, I spoke to the night guard and sought his opinion on what, if anything, I should do. I was in a bit of shock, so all I could do was laugh when he told me I'd be ok, and there was nothing to worry about – and then asked if I had a light for his friends on the street.

Fortunately I was one of those people who got every jab possible before hitting the road, so I'd had the rabies pre exposure vaccinations back in Australia and therefore needed only the booster shots to ensure my antibodies were strong. I first attempted to get these in the local clinic in the tiny town I was in. The language barrier made this virtually impossible. Sure, I'd been taking some Spanish classes, but you sit down with your teacher to learn; “Hi, my name is Steve, I may have rabies” in your class. So I quickly moved to the nearby and much bigger town of Antigua and was able to get the shots sorted and a local private clinic.

Check your stamps people!

Thinking that my bad luck was behind me, I decided that four weeks in Guatemala had been great (you know, aside from the obvious....and by that I mean the food) and it was time to move on to El Salvador.

Arriving at the border I was in for a rude shock. The immigration official at the border had not stamped my passport when I entered the country and therefore I wasn't allowed to leave. I questioned the officer at the border (in perfect Spanish obviously) as to whether they could just get them to stamp me from the other side of the counter. No, it made much more sense for me to have to go back to the immigration office in Guatemala City.

With no luck coming discussing it any further with the official, I was forced to take my stuff off the shuttle bus that was taking me to El Salvador and wait for a chicken bus to take me back to the city. Chicken buses are something I knew I would have to use at some point in Central America, but I wasn't prepared for this to be that day. They're generally old American school buses that have been decorated – sometimes very elaborately – and can cover big distances throughout the region. While they're very cheap, they regularly stop every few minutes picking up and dropping off passengers (and sometimes chickens). The one that I'd gotten on had a person sized hole where the seat behind me should have been. What was a two and a half hour journey to the border ended up being almost 5 hours returning – all the time wondering what I would need to do get a stamp so I could leave the country.

Typical chicken bus

As it turned out despite locals and resident foreigners alike telling me the process could take up to two weeks, my luck started to change at the immigration office. While I had to pay two fines – one for entering the country illegally and one for being the in country illegally – due to an error another person made, the whole matter was sorted in just over an hour and I was free to leave Guatemala. In other circumstances being in a country with no proof you are there legally could get you in far more trouble than just a fine.

While it has been by far the worst week of my trip, I've now had my jabs, got my stamp and tomorrow I leave for El Salvador, again. Compared to the many backpackers that get themselves into trouble (sometimes through their own actions, but often just being in the wrong place at the wrong time) I'm coming away in good shape.

I will say, however, that I will be glad to be crossing that border tomorrow morning. 

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Travel & Politics

An Australian an Israeli and two Americans – one from New York and one from the South – walk into a bar in Guatemala. After a few drinks, the conversation turns political. This cannot end well can it?

It's a common saying that the two things you should avoid talking about when drinking are religion and politics. I'm a big believer in this generally. They're two topics that people generally have very strong views about there's almost no chance a drunken conversation is going to change them. All that tends to happen is people getting frustrated at each others lack of logic and all too often it degenerates into a heated argument about how stupid the other person is.

Having said that, when you're travelling you're meeting new people every day – whether it be fellow travellers or locals – and many of these will be unlike anyone you would normally meet at home. They'll have been brought up very different and as such have very different beliefs and attitudes than you, and it can be incredibly interesting to find out your differences.

I've been fortunate enough over the last ten years to make some great friends from all over the world spanning the full spectrum of political and religious beliefs. Before my travelling I liked to think I was very open to other ideas and concepts out there, but I probably wasn't. I'd largely just been talking to people who had the same (or very similar) views to myself. Like with anything, you're unlikely to think about other points of view if you've got nobody to present them to you.

I remember meeting an American many years ago in Europe who had vastly different views on a wide range of topics from myself. We had some good conversations and I learnt a lot about her views and how she to them – even if I wasn't going to be agreeing with her any time soon.

On one occasion, an Icelandic man who noticed my friend's accent started to shout abuse at her for the political wrongs of her country – both real and imagined – without knowing a thing about her as a person. It's this kind of pre judgement and intolerance to other ideas that make many political conversations turn ugly. Since that meeting, Iceland suffered a catastrophic financial meltdown with it's share of political corruption, while I now consider the American a very good friend.

Decisions made in this building are often the subject of conversations among travellers

In some countries, it's talking with locals about politics that can be dangerous. While the people of Burma are among the friendliest in the world, their government has far from a friendly reputation. While they're starting to open up a lot more these days – and start to embrace a measure of democracy – many of the local groups there still fear the government and do not want to discuss anything to do with politics. I think as a general rule when travelling, if the locals don't bring it up, neither should you.

As for my group sitting around a table in a bar in San Pedro, Guatemala, I was quite proud of the way we listened to each other's views – and boy did they differ – and things never got out of hand. Nobody changed anyone else’s opinion on anything, but that wasn't the point. We were just four people from four different backgrounds trying to understand where each other was coming from.

Travelling has given me a lot; I've met some of my closest friends and seen some of the greatest sights in the world, but I think the ability listen to and appreciate other points of view has been one of the biggest things I've gotten out of it.

It may still be a work in progress, but hey, it's not like I'm going to stop travelling any time soon.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

10 Years a Traveller

I received a text message ten years ago (almost to the day) that changed my life forever.

At the time my life was pretty normal. I was 23 years old, working a steady bank job while finishing off my business degree at nights, while hanging out with friends and going to football and basketball games on the weekends.

It was on a regular Friday night out with friends that I got the text. It was from my sister, who had been on a working holiday in the UK for the previous couple of years.

It simply read; Getting married April 2. Call Mum.

Now, aside from my initial reaction (I'd read it that she wanted me to be the one to tell our parents, when in fact it was just that mum had more details) I was starting to think that it was time to get my passport.

My first international trip 10 years ago

It wasn't that I'd never thought about travel before, but I was very much the kind of person who needed a bit of a kick along to get pretty much anything done. It took a knee operation and some horrible blood pressure figures in my early 20s before I finally started looking after my health, and now I finally had the kick I needed to get me out of the country.

The next month was pretty hectic, trying to organise my passport for the first time, which I received only days before we flew out for London.

I remember being on the plane wondering why people always talked about how hard it is to fly long haul. You get to sit on your butt, eat & drink, while watching TV. Those are some of my favourite things in the world to do. Even arriving in London 24 hours after leaving Melbourne and getting to a basic airport hotel, the joy of travelling was still only beginning.

Over the next couple of weeks, myself and my parents met my sister's new husband as well as all of this family, and also travelled through some of England’s castles and many of it's pubs. And there was a wedding in there somewhere too.

While travelling around England with your parents is hardly the definition of adventure, it started something for me that since then has basically taken over who I am and dictates so many of the decisions I make. People talk about the travel bug – for me it is a full blown infection.

Playing international tourist for the first time at Warrick Castle in 2004

On returning home from England I dedicated myself to finishing my degree, saving as much money as possible and getting out of the country as soon as possible. A little over a year later I was ready to go, and since then I've had a tough time answering the question, “So what do you do?”

Since that first trip I've done a lot of things. I've spent the best part of six years outside of Australia, visiting 37 different countries in all kinds of styles ranging from solo backpacking, to organised tour groups and short trips with friends. I've done travel cliches like work in an English pub, and also travelled to Las Vegas for my 30th birthday. I went to the 2010 Winter Olympics and Vancouver and soon I'll be going to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

I've worked in five different countries in around 25 jobs as varied as finance, bartending, security, storeman, call centre agent and warehouse worker. Oh yeah, I was also a box salesman. My dating history looks just as transient.

I've made life long friends and had experiences I could never have had at home. What do I do? I do this.

View from the chairlift on my way to work at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver

While sometimes I look at my friends who have good jobs, great relationships and plenty of normality in their lives and wish I could have that, it doesn't last long. For, while it would be great to have, I wouldn't trade what I've done in the last ten years away to get it.

I know this has been possibly the most narcissistic blog I've ever posted (and for a travel blog, that is certainly saying something) but I think it's good to look back at important moments and realise everything you've done. Some people get to do that with wedding anniversaries or work milestones. I get to do it with my travelversary.

These days my passport is my favourite possession and it all started ten years ago with one little text message.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Go Slow

From the moment I got off the boat and entered the customs office, I knew this was going to be a laid back location. With the floor covered in sand, and a single question asked by the customs officer, it was no time before I was ushered through the doorway and greeted by the lone security guard.

“Welcome to Belize”

The Island motto - oh and this is the main street

Once on the island of Caye Caulker, things only got more relaxed. There are no cars on the Island – only golf buggies – and the roads consisted of some roughly smoothed out mud where pedestrians were only occasionally having to move out of the way of traffic – which was mostly of the pedal variety.

After being told off by a local for breaking the island's law by walking too fast, I knew this was a place I would come to love.

Tell me how you leave a place like this

They don't like to do anything fast there. Your meal might take 90 minutes to come to you, but its all ok, but what else are you going to be doing? Just have another drink.

When you're on the road for any length of time, you sometimes need a break from the actual travelling. You can't spend 12 months going at 100% checking out attractions and monuments. I'd gotten to that stage of my trip where some time in Caye Caulker was the perfect option.

Chilling at the Split

Initially intending to spend only three days on the island, I couldn't seem to leave. I couldn't even tell you what I was doing during my time there. The Island is known for it's amazing snorkeling and diving and yet I did neither. I spend my days by “The Split”, where the northern and southern parts of the island are divided by a short waterway, with beers and my nights at the reggae bar with rum and before I knew it my three days had turned into a week. If it weren't for an offer of a ride down to Flores in Guatemala, I might still be there. It's just that laid back and chilled.

“Go Slow” has become a bit of a motto for my trip so far. As well as Caye Caulker, I've overstayed my initial expectations on the beaches of Playa Del Carmen and the beautiful Mexican colonial town of San Cristobal De Las Casas. “I'm leaving tomorrow” has become something of a catchphrase for me.

No seriously, how do you leave this?

I sometimes worry that all of this extra time spent at this end of Latin America may mean I'll be limited towards the end of my trip, but the way I look at it, if I', having a great time and hanging out with some great people, why move? I've met more than a few people who seem to be trying to pack too much into too short a time, and for mine, I'd rather err on the side of taking too long in one place than not long enough.

Sure, I'll get to South America eventually – the World Cup will make sure of that – but until then, I'm definitely enjoying going slow.  

Monday, 10 February 2014

10 Things I Learnt in Mexico

After spending over two months in Mexico I feel I've gotten to know the place really well and I've learnt many things about the country and it's people. So, to revert to a blog staple, here is a list of things that I learnt in this great country.

You have no idea how good it is – I certainly didn't before I went. I already liked what passed for “Mexican” food in other parts of the world, but nothing prepared me for how good the genuine food was. Tacos, tortas, quesedillas, enchiladas, mole and of course my favourite, pastor. Sure, it will take some work to get back in shape once I get home, but it will be worth it.


2. Don't rely on the Mexican Postal system.

3. The people are among the friendliest in the world. 

I wrote a blog about the people of Burma being the friendliest people in the world, but the Mexicans would certainly give them a run for their money. Just little things, like greeting strangers in a lift or shuttle bus, to the way people sit with strangers at restaurants. The whole place has a community feel, even when you're in Mexico City, which is one of the biggest countries in the world.

4. Mexico has some great beaches. 

Yes places like Cancun and Playa Del Carmen are touristy, but they are that for a reason. The water is beautiful, the sand is nice the drinks are cheap. What more could you want?

Playa Santa Fe near Tulum

5. The Mexican people love to celebrate. 

In the time I was in Mexico I witnessed celebrations for Christmas, New Years, the Three Kings and the Virgin Guadalupe. With so many saints and festivals, there is always a reason to celebrate, which makes it a fun place to be.

Pinata is a must at a Christmas celebration in Mexico

6. Mexicans love their country. 

Being a guest in a Mexican house is probably one of the best thing in the world for a traveller. I was lucky enough to be invited to stay with a Family in Mexico City and instantly had an army of tour guides and people wanting to tell me all of their favourite food, drinks and places to go in their country in the hope I will love their country as much as they do.

My Mexican Family

7. Mexico has great history 

Between Chichen Itza, Palenque, Tulum, Teotihuacan – and all of the smaller ones – Mexico is brimming with history. Whether its Aztec, Zapotec, Mixtec or Mayan, the ruins scattered throughout the country make a lot of archaeological sites in other countries look a little boring. At times there almost seems to be too many ruins, but each and everyone is unique and never ceased to blow me away. And typically for me, it was more than just the pre Colombian history that kept me interested. Being a sports addict, getting to visit the stadium where one of the most infamous moments in football history took place (the Maradona "Hand of God" goal) was a huge highlight. 

Ancient ruins at Palenque

8. Even their archaeological sites have great beaches. 

Just in case you get bored looking at thousands of years of history, you can take a dip.

Tulum ruin overlooking the beach

9. Mexicans love to dance. 

Whether it is a salsa bar, some weird 80's dance battle club, or just with their family in their own home Mexicans love to get up and shake it.


10. If I had to get stuck somewhere I'm glad it was Mexico. 

I think Mexico is a place where things aren't actually supposed to go as planned, but still end up awesome. I couldn't have wished for a better experience, and now I don't want to leave. But the Long Road to Rio continues!