The best thing about traveling around Central America were the people. They were cool vagabonds, vacationing middle-agers, and full on weirdos. I met them everywhere—riding in the ferry, hiking to a waterfall, searching for the proper bus station, or simply staying in a hostel.
My favorite hostels feel like islands (them being located on an actual island is inessential but obviously a clear plus). They have little to no internet connection, no television, and sometimes not even private rooms. In addition to offering little to no privacy, these hostels also steal away every other form of outside entertainment, leaving everyone with no choice but to grab a book or play cards, swap stories, and drink with the 6 to 20 other people they find themselves surrounded by.
At any one gathering it is common to have three languages (at least) weave in and out of each other like a complicated lopsided braid, each member trying to be conscious of the language that the other members speak best. The two dominating languages are Spanish and English as almost everyone present is proficient in at least one of these. However, no one’s second language is perfect and this leaves many native-English speakers occasionally translating for the native-Spanish speakers and vice versa. Additionally, the Europeans (usually, though not always, Dutch, German, or French) will exchange quick words and phrases to each other in their native tongues that (much to my dismay) no one can understand but them.
I like to imagine that these gatherings are like United Nations meetings. That is, if every United Nations delegate was an early 20 to late 30 something year-old with limited income, sparse education, and a propensity to gravitate towards dangerous activities (such as deep jungle hiking, surfing, cliff diving, waterfall repelling, and riding local buses at night). Actually, United Nations should look into some kind of international bonding activity like this because after spending many-a-night surrounded by people from France, England, Canada, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Colombia, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Bulgaria, and Venezuela, I actually have greater respect for their countries and I don’t think there was a single argument among us. Wait, no there was one argument (it was about smoking and we entered into it by accident).
In his or her own way every traveler is different. Some people work on boats. Some people work temp jobs. Some people are waiters and waitresses. Some people don’t work at all anymore. Some people are students. Some people are about to be students. And other people just seem to have money for no reason.
They are from everywhere and have been everywhere. They are from uptight wealthy families and poor dilapidated ones. They got straight A’s and went to good universities to make their parents proud and they started drinking at age 12, dated 20-somethings in their teenage years, have over five tattoos, and never graduated high school. They worked as a librarian for 5 years before they decided to quit their job and travel. They’ve never worked a day in their life. They have been to Argentina and hiked through Patagonia. They saw Manchu Picchu. They answer questions about Russia and Thai Land and tell stories about how when they were in China they were waiting in line for two hours to get train tickets only to have the clerk see that they were white and shut the gate on them.
They are more adventurous than me—or perhaps more idiotic than me, but in the world of travelers sometimes that line feels blurred. They paid Captain Shay $5 to ride between cows and pigs in the bottom of his boat to avoid a $30 ferry. They showed up to Costa Rica without any clear sort of plan. They took a “Chicken Bus”. They climbed down into that bat cave the hostel owner took a group of us to, while I stood by the mouth and watched with my mother’s voice pleading don’t do anything reckless playing over and over again in my head.
They are proud of their adventure-hood—wearing the places they have been and near death experiences they have survived like patches on a boy-scout uniform—and they are ashamed of the amount of time they have spent un-rooted.
They travel in pairs—as couples or friends. They travel in groups of three or four. They travel completely alone. They travel to work. They travel to study. They travel to find themselves, and they travel to lose themselves.
They leave behind wives, husbands, fiancés, girlfriends, boyfriends, siblings, and children. Some of them have been traveling for so long that they don’t leave anyone behind anymore when they go. When we asked a late fifty-something year-old—Joan—about if she ever had a husband or children she shook her head and laughed.
“I forgot,” she said and shrugged her shoulders.
Yes, everyone is different. Just as every country is different and every bus is different and every time I try to turn on a hostel kitchen stove it’s different. But in another way every one I’ve met and me are all exactly the same. We’re all running away.
Running away, hiding, escaping, avoiding, evading, whatever you want to call it—at the core it’s all the same. We leave behind different things, for different amounts of time, and linger in different places but we all have that same fearful-hungry look behind our eyes if you stare at us for long enough. A fear of being still. A fear of staying stuck.
I stayed up late one night in a hostel talking to a Swedish girl, Glovanna, who used to work in a French circus and just recently quit her job teaching English in an international school in Costa Rica.
“I have this feeling,” she said to me. “I wish I didn’t. It’s like a burning.”
Burning she said. And I understood, but what a way to describe it—as if a flame has ignited within her and threatens to scorch her from the inside out if she doesn’t keep on moving. We were all burning like that. We need to keep on running, self-producing wind to blow the flame low enough for long enough so we can protect ourselves from ever really being singed.
“It’s very…” she continued. “I don’t know the word I feel… en español es inquieto”
“Unquiet?” I offered.
“I don’t know”
Well of course we are unquiet. If we weren’t we would be stationary. We would be able to peacefully and indefinitely stay in our carefully constructed nests of friends, family, and familiarity. We wouldn’t need to see and do more. We wouldn’t need to fill ourselves up with jumps form waterfalls and potential run-ins with wild boars. We saturate our minds so thoroughly we aren’t left to think about anything else.
New. More. Different. Dangerous. What does Lonely Planet say? Let’s go. I’m down. Where are you guys from?
“I think that maybe I am scared to get a job,” she said. “That now I won’t like any form of work.”
And she said this with so much sincerity, embarrassment, and fear that I wanted to cry for her. She was grasping at herself in the dark, unable to understand anything she was touching. The source of her burning was cold, shrouded, and unknowable—she was running on fear.
“I used to feel like that,” I said.
I understood her feeling, but burning like that felt so distant to me now, more vague than the memory of a dream. My burning wasn’t a fire, dark and deadly, my burning had long been traded for a steady simmering coal. After being abroad for six months my burning had receded and could be contained, comfortably deep within my belly—even as I sat stationary.
My coal still scorched a little, gently goading me to continue to go and do and see things, but it didn’t feel so urgent anymore. I didn’t need to run away for fear of not surviving. In fact, even though I was still traveling I didn’t even really feel like I was running at all anymore. It was like reaching the sixth mile on a ten-mile run, when my body accepts that I might just keep running forever and seems to move without my agency.
In fact, with my little coal I feel like I could stop whenever I wanted to. Lay down roots. Grow nice and tall and deep. With branches intertwining so completely they were indistinguishable from the other trees around me.
No really.I could. I can…just maybe not forever.
And many people burnt like me: the middle aged honey-mooners, some students in my program, the French/Spanish couple, the Spaniard in Costa Rican medical school.
And others burnt like Glovanna: the American marine-turned-builder-turned-actor-turned-dive-master-turned-sailor-turned-wild-life-expert in Panama, the former German pro-skater who lost everything in a massive injury, the New Yorker who hasn’t lived anywhere for more than a year in the last decade, the Canadian who sold his house and took a permanent leave of absence from his work.
The burning in people ranges from wild fire to candle to punk. It burns for days, weeks, months, years, and life times. It’s fueled by fear, love, desire, and ambition.
And it’s manifests itself in traveling.
Traveling—more specifically studying abroad through KU—has quenched and sparked and transformed my burning. It’s been the best and most challenging experience of my life. But unlike so many other things I have been a part of, traveling hasn’t left me with nostalgia—looking back with my neck craned and eyes hungry for a lost image. Instead it leaves me springing forward, excited to jump into a bright new world.
After traveling I’m no longer scared of getting a job or growing up, and—to speak against a popular cliché for my age group—I’m definitely not scared of graduating.
More often than not, the most memorable people I met were middle-aged travelers. Not only because they were often quirky and shameless, but specifically because they were middle aged. They gave me the gift of showing me that I didn’t need to be afraid of the future—that graduation isn’t a death sentence and the journey never really has to end. Even if you can only steal weeks at a time out of your life, adventures can continue forever. Burning isn’t just for the young and reckless. Running can be a lifetime sport.