Thanks to photographer Mikey Wasnidge, who spent the winter in Central America and came back with these musings for Cargo.
For two weeks we danced through the streets, rafted white-water, toured organic coffee farms, and jumped off waterfalls.
Everyone has a different relationship with travel, whether it be humanitarian, leisure or personal exploration. I’ve always been more intrigued by the latter; the types of philosophical discovery that might arise from spending long days on a bus with only my thoughts and the passing landscape to occupy me. New friendships and a change in scenery can be the perfect catalyst for new ideas and tends to help me to look at things in ways I never had -not to mention the inspiration new surroundings offer to a hobby photographer like myself.
I’ve always admired those who seem to feel more natural trekking with their 60-litre backpack than sitting at a computer desk in a spring-loaded office chair, but my thirst for new experiences is often curbed by my ambitions as a professional. So, when my partner decided she would go traveling through Central America, I had a difficult time deciding whether I should put work on hold, or buckle down and grind toward my career goals. My free spirit battled my ideas of success. I was lucky enough to have an employer who recognized this and offered to give me the time off, promising that my role would be waiting for me upon my return. The opportunity to escape the winter and a routine that had become mundane was irresistible and so— with her blessing, I booked a one-way ticket to Panama.
One of the best feelings of travel is the initial anticipation, booking a flight to a place you’ve never been before is an absolute rush, a natural high that that fills you with excited energy and leaves you daydreaming about the adventures that lie ahead. The excitement proved to be contagious and soon after we purchased the plane tickets, three of our closest friends decided to join us for an adventure.
We kicked off the New Year with a flight to Panama City. We would spend the first leg of our adventure traveling as a group up from Panama to Costa Rica. For two weeks we danced through the streets, rafted white-water, toured organic coffee farms, and jumped off waterfalls. We weren’t bound by obligations or deadlines and this freedom gave us a new lease on life that would not be taken for granted.
There is a special energy that you carry as a group; we were a bunch of exuberant Canadians with a similar sense of humor and we seemed to attract all kinds of travellers. Everyone we encountered –families on the bus, hostel owners, taxi drivers- felt like new friends who appreciated our childlike excitement.
In the beginning I could barely get a good night’s rest; it didn’t matter how late we got to bed, I would awake energetically the moment the sun rose. I would jump up ready to explore the rainforest of Boquete, and taste the freshly harvested coffee and honey; or learn about Panamanian history, like the incredible eleven-year construction of the Panama Canal.
In those first two weeks with our friends we threw caution to the wind and ended up spending a large chunk of our savings on activities: sightseeing tours, good food, nights out, and travelling to new cities every other day.
Despite extensive research and forewarnings, we found Costa Rica especially expensive and wondered how we would stretch out the rest of the money for another two and a half months. Budgeting is particularly difficult when you are traveling because unlike home where you can usually predict expenses, the temptations you are faced with are constant, unpredictable and opportunistic.
Every day we were forced to choose between amazing adventures: a guided night hike or zip-lining through the Cloud Forest; a visit to the sloth sanctuary or renting scooters for the day; a chocolate-making course or camping on a volcano. These kinds of options were torturous for us, who wanted to do it all but were faced with finite resources. We did our best to keep up with our friends, assuring ourselves we’d lower our spending once we returned home. We always made room in the budget for once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
When it was time to leave our friends, it felt as though we were leaving home all over again, a bittersweet goodbye to a path filled with uncertainties. After this inevitable parting, we made our way across the border to Nicaragua.
We always made room in the budget for once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
It wasn’t until I was staring out at the 360° panoramic view of a sunset over the Nicaraguan volcanic region that I realized that the feeling of accomplishment.
Something that became almost immediately clear to us was that now we could no longer rely on the comfort of old friendships to keep us company. We were no strangers to befriending strangers—we had already met some incredible people on the road—but the act of meeting new people suddenly became a necessity. When our friends left we lost our Spanish translators, and so it became essential to absorb some of the language in order to interact with locals. We had many broken but enthusiastic interactions with locals, but on the whole it was difficult to make real connections without a common language.
When it came to meeting other travellers I had an invaluable icebreaker: a collection of card games brought from home. These games would be essential to the fun nights with fellow backpackers that would follow in cities like Leon, San Juan del Sur, Isla de Ometepe and Granada and by the time we finished our five week trip through Nicaragua, the games had been played so many times, they kind of fell by the wayside.
We also joined up for group adventures as a way to meet fellow travellers. One of the most memorable excursions took place just outside of Leon when we joined ten others on a two-day hike up a volcano known as El Hoyo. This 35-kilometer trek proved to be the greatest physical challenge of my life. It forced me to reconsider the value of beauty; I wondered if the view from the top would truly be worth the physical pain and exhaustion I of the climb. It wasn’t until I was staring out at the 360° panoramic view of a sunset over the Nicaraguan volcanic region that I realized that the feeling of accomplishment was just as satisfying as the well-earned view. Sharing that experience with a group of people creates a powerful bond, and after two challenging days we had become lifelong friends with two Canadian girls; kindred spirits we would meet up with again (by chance) later down the road.
I’ve always valued being part of a community and about half way through the trip I started to tire of the endless stream of strangers who, like myself, were just checking boxes off their list of experiences. Traveling on the ‘gringo trail’ with very little Spanish can make it very difficult to get a sense of community in places that have been developed for transient tourists.
Places like La Fortuna and San Juan del Sur were tourist traps that attracted visitors from all over but only kept them for a few days. I fell in love with places like San Pedro la Laguna and Ometepe Island, the kind of stops where people showed up to for a couple days and stayed indefinitely. Isla Ometepe was a retreat for both hippy DIY-ers and lost party kids alike, 20-somethings looking for a cheap way to waste away/make the most of their youth. Hitchhiking on the back of a pickup truck was as safe and convenient as taking the local bus. San Pedro was the party town on Lake Atitlan where expats planned barbeques and fundraisers while backpackers experimented with alternative lifestyles.
The lake was a mystical divide connecting you to other towns and villages that all had something different to offer. You could argue that San Pedro and Ometepe were just as touristy as the other spots I mentioned, but no one could deny the feeling of community that could be found there. With a setting so idyllic and a strong community of laid-back expats, it was impossible not to imagine leaving everything behind for a carefree, lakeside life. We met a fellow Canadian who had done just that –left behind a life in British Columbia to build a small lakefront house on Ometepe Island, learned Spanish, befriended locals, and built a network of expat pals.
This quality of life that might only be attained through wealth or a lifetime of work in Canada, he told us, was attainable for a 20-something with modest savings in Nicaragua. The Ometepe expats liked to joke about suffering from “Peter Pan Syndrome”, lost in Neverland and unwilling to grow up. While the narrative of living in Neverland was enticing, I ultimately knew that I had lots to look forward to back at home, and wasn’t destined to become a Lost Boy.
Of all of the towns, villages and cities we visited, we loved Antigua the best. Antigua, Guatemala was perhaps the most romantic little town that I have ever had the privilege of exploring; cobblestone roads, brilliantly restored colonial buildings, and spectacular ruins back-dropped by the volcanoes that surround it. As a photographer, it was the first place I felt overwhelmed with inspiration. When we arrived in Central America, I had no idea such a place could exist. The beauty and charm of the place instantly eliminated any pangs of homesickness I was feeling or stress I had about the budget.
We were fortunate to arrive several days before the start of Carnaval and noticed market merchants selling cascarones (eggshells filled with glitter, confetti, and flour known as “pica pica”). The purpose of these novelties became clear in the Parque Central Plaza on the afternoon of Martes de Carnaval (Fat Tuesday) when the crowd erupted into a playful war of cascarone-throwing. Local families and backpackers shared in the festivities and a truce was eventually called after everyone was covered in glitter and feeling a little more connected to one another. We later learned that this is a traditional kick-off to Carnaval in Guatamala, representing a final period of revelry and excess before entering into the restrictive traditions of lent.
The Ometepe expats liked to joke about suffering from ‘Peter Pan Syndrome’, lost in Neverland and unwilling to grow up.
It was an exercise in patience that forced me to disconnect from the outside world, and threw me into an intentional community that challenged my worldview.
When we were planning for the trip, we discovered a work exchange opportunity on Lake Atitlan at a place called the Mystical Yoga Farm. The yoga retreat practiced sustainable permaculture and was looking for a photographer and some help on the farm. In exchange for three hours of work per day, we were promised meals, accommodations, and daily yoga classes. It seemed like the perfect way to stretch out our trip, meet some interesting people and practice healthy living, so we signed up for a three-week program that began two months into our travels.
By the time we had finished touring around Guatemala we were ready to settle in one place and build some stronger relationships so we made our way back to the lake. Call me naïve, but I never fully expected the “Spiritual Alchemy Program” to translate into a rigorous schedule of sharing circles, sing-alongs, sweat lodges, and fire ceremonies. Having never been a particularly spiritual person, I did my best to keep an open mind and use the occasion to learn about different practices and perspectives. Three weeks proved to be a challenge in patience as it became clear that much of the Mystical Yoga Farm language did not resonate with me, and I found it difficult to relate to many of the other people in the program.
While I found the experience very trying, there were certainly many takeaways. For the first time in my life I was routinely eating vegan meals and practicing daily yoga and meditation. I felt incredible and the meditation taught me to calm my mind and become a bit more present; training that has helped me to become a better listener. We were encouraged daily to reflect on the things that we value and the ways in which we could better ourselves. It was an exercise in patience that forced me to disconnect from the outside world, and threw me into an intentional community that challenged my worldview.
In the end we had accomplished our original goals and we said goodbye to our unconventional little family and left there feeling stronger, healthier, and more present.
We spent the next three days making our way to Belize where we finally ran out of money. We knew the end was coming. Traveling with no money is a very different experience than traveling on a budget. Traveling on a budget means choosing one thing over the other; traveling broke means choosing nothing at all. We had originally planned to make a few stops up the coast of Belize and hopefully do some snorkeling or scuba diving. These plans turned into six straight days of eating peanut butter sandwiches and lying on the beaches of Placencia.
We were counting down our final days until my aunt and uncle invited us to stay with them for free at their timeshare in Cancun. I extended the flights and we hopped on a bus to finish off our trip at a five-star luxury resort. One of the most bizarre experiences of the trip was going from being a broke backpacker to sipping margaritas poolside telling stories to curious retirees.
Three months ago, if you’d have asked me my reasons for leaving, I would have suggested it was to escape the harsh Canadian winter or the monotony of my daily routine. I wanted to seek out another world, free of boredom and repetition, but the lesson that took me most by surprise was that the human condition is capable of creating conflict in even the most ideal surroundings. I constantly oscillated between a feeling of utter contentment and that of indifference. I had an incredible time, met some interesting people, and took every opportunity to experience beauty but at times I still managed to feel purposeless and struggled to connect with people on a deeper level.
The highs of travel have created lasting memories and the lows have given me a deeper appreciation of all that I left behind: stimulating conversations between friends, the warmth and acceptance of my family, and a sense of community and belonging. Now I no longer think about the things I wish to escape but rather all of the things I have to stay for.
One of the most bizarre experiences of the trip was going from being a broke backpacker to sipping margaritas poolside telling stories to curious retirees.