JTK says - Travel is not always glamorous
Anything worth doing has a price
It should surprise no one that anything worth doing comes with some cost. Be it time, money, effort, you can't get something for nothing. Being in the Galapagos has me reflecting on some of my best and worst travel misadventures, leading up to today where I recently had to rebook an entire trips travel across three countries to the tune of $5000+. C'est la vie.
I started my travel career strong on the misadventure front
My first international trip that I count, without family. was Belize when I was 17 years old. It would be an exaggeration to say that I was always interested in travel. I was always interested in Africa, I guess it's fair to say and had specific other places I had a romantic, idealized interest in - somewhere I could see the northern lights, Venice, because of books and movies that especially caught my interest. (I've since at least attempted both of those although in Iceland failed to see the aurora borealis and will have to try again. Haven't yet tried Africa.)
I went to Belize with a college I was hooked up with at age seventeen after graduating High School a full year early. The goal was to go there to run a summer camp to reinforce English literacy among the majority Mayan children of rural, Big Falls Belize.
At 17, me (a minor) lived with my dad full time but my mom got me roped into the trip through her work. We had a complicated relationship, I haven't been in touch with her now coming up on a decade. The Belize trip was almost cancelled when in a falling out she declared she'd no longer take me. I solemnly notified the organizers that my mother was no longer supporting my endeavor but that my father and sole legal guardian did and I intended to go anyway. I don't think I explained much of the falling out, I tried to keep it brief and professional, but it was probably still embarrassing enough to my mom that instead SHE dropped out of the trip. I was fully prepared to go and give her the silent treatment the entire time, so committed was I to going.
Without an inborn travel-seeking impulse, it is hard to say why I was so hell-bent on it. In my teenage years I'd been moved from my home, Baltimore, to a very white very conservative and small minded exurb in Maryland. People there unironically participated in Future Farmers of America. Lots of camo, as I recall it. Most people didn't want to leave and never have. The seniors in our graduating class all unimaginatively went to the local trashy beach (Ocean City) to puke on each other to commemorate graduation a year later. I just felt...different. I didn't understand that lack of interest in the world. I CERTAINLY didn't understand even tolerating the town.
Its fair to say Belize set me off on a long career of traveling that I hope to continue as long as I can. Misadventures aside, you never know when your luck will run out. I've currently never caught COVID. Who knows if long COVID could make a trip my last.
Bat baths & cultural relativism
I'm glad for my first trip to Belize because it taught me that you truly can have no expectations for travel. I am not exaggerating to say in my first night in Belize I somehow broke the makeshift shower in a way that caused water to ricochet into the push-tile ceiling, where apparently a BAT COLONY was living. All I knew was, face covered in soap, the improvised rubber tube that formed the shower arm had been pulled askew, and the water pressure against the half-attached hose caused it to spray in every direction, including into the ceiling. I knew something was terribly wrong and washed the soap from my eyes as fast as I could, only to open them and in my disoriented state wonder "how did the bathroom get covered in coffee grounds"? (It was guano).
Later while minding my own business on a bus, the air conditioner above me broke and liquid coolant was dumped onto my head. You can't make this up.
I'm the first one to say "traveling is not a personality", but it is a good teacher.
In the rural area of Belize we were in, I rapidly learned my framework for understanding the world was a bubble that ended with my departure from the US. Pregnant, emaciated dogs ran everywhere. Children happily explained how now their arms were "just like that" after being broken. Two female, elementary age students had an exorcism performed on them shortly before we arrived and we were put through some approximation of sensitivity training to not blunder onto the topic with the community.
Teachers taught us Q'eqchi, a language increasingly little-used, similar to indigenous languages in my own nation. A nation where I live as a white person, beneficiary of the sins of colonizers. I remember thinking something like, none of my rules for the world make sense here. Big Falls, Belize was its own self-contained ecosystem. If I had tried to live there conforming it to my own ideas I would have rudely learned the reason for the status quo.
Transitions are always a stressor
When I worked with children, something I noticed around them misbehaving or being difficult was that it usually tended to coincide with any type of transition. Kids tend to do better when they are in the throes of an activity. Making them get dressed, line up, or put things away is a constant roll of the dice for them acting up/getting unruly. Although we outgrow some of this, I've come to think transitions remain difficult for us even into adulthood. Travel is one long series of transitions, rapid-fire, in an unfamiliar environment.
Travel lays bare our baser human needs. You realize how useless you are without WiFi. In the trip after Belize, I traveled across Europe and learned that my only source of funds (Bank of America) used six-digit pins not accepted commonly at foreign ATMs. On those first trips, smart phones weren't a thing and I was functionally off the grid at age 17, 18. It did tend to feel like an ADVENTURE to be reconnected with the lower level needs of Maslow's hierarchy. Where adults in the US struggle at times to sleep well, you go through 20 hours of travel and find you sleep like a baby. You realize, "I haven't been REALLY tired in years", "I haven't been REALLY hungry in years", "I haven't been REALLY broke in years". Lose access to banking and you are powerless instantaneously. Yet another reminder that the rules and edifices of society, the norms, rituals and symbols of power, are invented. Separated from your normal habitat, you are maladapted, weak, and lost. You realize again how invented your society's rules for existence are, how limited in reach and how fleeting.
Maybe that sounds really negative, but there is also something thrilling and primal about it.
Rock bottom in paradise
It's no surprise probably to hear me say that I've had some epiphanies while traveling. In Europe, a year after the Belize trip, I was functionally unable to use my ATM card half the time. I was beyond broke. I remember one day where my group all left for a paid add-on activity and I was stuck penniless on some island off the coast of Italy. While fishermen snickered, I stripped out of my dress and in bra and underwear lazed in the cerulean bay while a chorus of Italian chatter (maybe about my scandalous comport) carried on behind me.
It's hard to put into words what exactly the epiphany is. Maybe something along the lines of, "nothing really matters"? You might call it mindfulness. I felt perched, not held up by the sea but placed lightly atop the border of the ozone layer. I could fall up into it and get lost. I didn't care that I was penniless. I felt nihilistic, but limitless. I didn't matter, none of it mattered. Look where I was! Any time that I wanted I could relinquish my perch and fall into the sky and leave it behind. I knew I had to pay the piper and secure funds, but swatted the thought away. Could that concern even see where I was, what I was doing? I felt entirely unconstrained. I'd do what it took. I felt less than human but also more, like a trickster-god or obscure demon. What rules of humanity applied to me? What can a nonworking ATM do to the girl straddling the sky, impervious?
It's hard to be in poor cheer while traveling for long, no matter what exactly happens to you.
It's a fluid reality, morality, gravity. It makes you feel small, it makes you feel infinite.
Images flash through my mind: the hilariously candid photo from white water rafting in Austria where, as I turned my torso for the camera, I smacked a raft-mate on the back of the head, his surprised face in the picture looks like he'd just bitten down on a lemon and my paddle thwacking him is cartoonishly pronounced. The image of me snickering with magnetic joy doing Britney Spears karaoke in an Italian discoteque. Ten thousand feet into the air in Mexico, feeling like I was living inside an acid trip surrounded by suspended multicolored bubbles on a hot-air balloon ride with operators so precise, they landed the balloon in the bed of a pickup truck at the conclusion of the flight. Chinese tourists giggling at me as I crawled down to the Reykjavik harbor on New Years Eve to watch fireworks and stick my feet in the bay. Asking for a "rail drink" at a hoity-toity casino in Monaco and the confused, snooty waiter giving me a $45 euro Grey Goose concoction instead.
Bringing me to present misadventures
It's been a while without significant mayhem on a trip, but the Galapagos did it. I took along my sister, and after a divorce in 2018 she had reverted to using her maiden name publicly. I assumed it was legal as well (it had been four years!) when booking our travel, but it was not.
A convergence of annoying factors turned this into a disaster: because the tickets were through middlemen (Kiwi, Expedia) NO NAME CHANGES were permitted! I had to rebook ALL of her tickets to the tune of $5000. Some of the flights were entirely different and I had to rebook mine as well, she's not an experienced traveler and I wouldn't feel right making her go alone. We had a shared Trello board for planning, but when I screen-shotted the confirmations most of those did not contain her name. I asked her to review everything, but in lieu of her name being listed everywhere except one screenshot she didn't catch it either.
I spent extensive time coordinating with Verizon to use their pay-as-you-go plan for roaming/international coverage. Spent a good hour with customer service. Tested the new SIM cards beforehand. But when we arrived...they worked not a bit. WiFi on the island is near non-existent. I scrambled to plan things. A combination of poor internet coverage and flagged security issues on credit cards with 2FA alerts going to my US phone number meant that excursions booked were flagged as fraudulent activity and got cancelled without a reason listed, before I could make the connection and switch it to another credit card. Tours were surprisingly unavailable. I had held off booking things beforehand on advice that it was cheaper on the island- that's debatable, and waiting meant that our frenzied efforts with little to no internet connectivity and credit card issues ultimately failed.
But guess what? I saw a mother sea lion breastfeeding a baby sea lion today while drinking from a fresh coconut. Yesterday I saw a sea lion stampede a volcanic black Iguana on a quest for fish. As a devout atheist, I'm sitting here in the cradle of my un-religion, science! Evolution. When will I ever be here again? How many people even ever make it? It's annoying that things went wrong. It's annoying that money was wasted. I'd make different choices next time, but its hard to regret it no matter the cost. (You might say "that's easy to say when you have tech money", but I guess through the other stories I've demonstrated it was equally true when broke).
It's all chaos, it's all epic
What's my point? Go see the world if you can. I'll never stop. You'll definitely learn something about yourself and the rest of the world. It won't go perfectly, but that's part of the fun.
I'll be back next time with your regularly scheduled programming and the overdue scallop & rainbow sauce recipe I promised last time. It's sitting at home and I'm about to board a plane to Panama