In October 2014, I left the Netherlands to move to Colombia. That quickly faded into backpacking overland from the US to Colombia, which turned into living in Mexico City for half a year, which turned into a lot of different and confusing things.
Now, one year and three months later, I’m writing this blog post as I look out from my friends’ apartment in downtown Bogotá and soak up this view of the Andes mountains. I finally made it.
The Many Roads that Lead to Bogotá
When I left my beloved Leiden, it was for a lot of reasons. Nominally, the main one was that I was moving to Colombia to spend a year volunteering with WorldTeach, teaching English in a Colombian city and earning my TEFL certification to teach English abroad.
I’d just finished my Master’s degree, and while Leiden is still my absolute favorite place in the world, I wasn’t ready to settle down there at 24. A year volunteering seemed like the perfect resume-building, world-exploring option.
So that October I had a big dramatic going away party (I think I’ve had about eight of those for the two times I’ve moved away from Leiden), assuring my friends in the Netherlands that in my absence I’d be saving the world, one English lesson at a time. But then that almost immediately did not happen.
After Leiden came an express tour of Croatia and Bosnia, a week in London, a visit home to Florida and some travels around the US. Some time between October 2014 and the beginning of 2015, I decided I was still going to Colombia, but no longer to volunteer for a year as had been the plan before. I was going to travel overland from the US, from New Orleans to Bogotá, through Mexico and Central America, and develop a location-independent lifestyle as I went.
That got off to a great start. I hitchhiked my way along the Gulf Coast from Florida into Texas, and from San Antonio took a bus into Mexico, my first really foreign foreign country. After cutting through the North to Monterrey, I stayed with a Mexican friend I knew from Holland while I acclimatized to my southern neighbor.
By then I was really learning Spanish, not like the four years of classes I’d had but learning it like I’d learned Dutch, by using it every day. In Central Mexico I made friends, got lost, and made lots of Spanish mistakes that amused or pissed off locals and mostly just left me confused.
All of that was building up to Mexico City, which I can already appreciate as a crucially formative five months of my life. I lived in the center of a cosmopolitan city of 22 million people from all over the world, where I spoke Spanish, managed a hostel, and really took the first steps toward becoming location-independent by working online instead of on-site.
That’s where I was when I got my first freelance writing job. Now, a year after starting the trip that took me to Mexico City, most of my income is from freelance writing, and I’m still traveling, bound to nothing but my computer, the nearest wifi connection, and my clingy student debt.
I got caught up in orbit around this magnificent city, spending nearly half a year there, and in a lot of ways mismanaging both time and money. Mexico ended in a spectacular breakneck tour of its south with the best new friend I’d made in Mexico City, leaving me in the Yucatan Peninsula where I had to decide whether to push on into Central America and stake out a Workaway job while I lined up more remote work, or to return to Florida with my tail between my legs and regroup.
I chose the latter, and at that time, it absolutely felt like a failure.
But now, as I sit in Bogotá, writing this post between working against other deadlines for articles about the best languages for travelers to learn, the ethics of voluntourism, and a freelance pitch about cultural perceptions of time in Mexico, it feels like one of the biggest successes and best decisions of my life.
Life is what happens when you let go
In my last NOLA to Bogotá update, I wrote that “life is what happens when you’re busy making travel plans“. That’s how it happened for me in Mexico, anyways. The whole time I was living in Mexico City, I never really thought of myself as living there, only cooling my heels while I made plans and saved money to fling myself deeper south into Central America. When things didn’t go how I’d planned them, I felt out of control, anxious, and embarassed.
But in hindsight, I made the right decisions. Actually, I don’t really think there was a ‘wrong decision’ to be made in that case.
Sure, I racked up several hundred dollars of credit card debt during those periods when my lifestyle didn’t quite line up with my unpredictable income and I didn’t try to do much to adjust either one. I also got pretty badly used by a couple of wealthy Mexican business owners, and in my final days in the Mayan Riviera felt incredibly lonely. And that all really sucked then.
But none of it screwed me up long-term. Most of the stress I felt in times like these came from the sense of having lost control of what I was doing and where my trip was taking me.
If there’s anything I learned in 2015, it’s that I’m most empowered when I’m not forcing anything into place. The three days that I was stuck hitchhiking in the bumfuck wasteland between Lafayette, Louisiana and Houston, Texas, I laughed about it the whole time. Two nights in a row unbelievable serendipity and geographically convenient friendships saved me from getting robbed or beaten up.
In San Luis Potosí I got lost and stuck on a city bus for about three hours while I stubbornly refused to ask the driver for help, and pretended to understand what he was saying when he tried to help me, because I was embarassed my Spanish wasn’t good enough yet.
In Querétaro a freelance job that I’d been counting on fell through, and I lived for a week on a credit card with no idea of where my next income was coming from, if I’d end up giving up and going back home less than two months into my journey or if I’d dig my heels in and bury myself in debt while I waited for work to fall into my lap.
In Mexico City I made fantastic friends and put myself once again through the vicious cycle of the goodbyes, feeling the loneliest I can ever remember feeling in my adult life by the time I left.
And in the Mayan Riviera I finally swallowed my pride, called home, and told them I’d be booking a flight and coming home within the week. Eight months after leaving and still a good seven countries short of Colombia.
And the only real source of stress in all this was my resistance to it.
The next chapter: La Vida Colombiana
Now I’m in one of the best hostels I’ve ever been to, the Yellow House in Medellín’s Laureles area, where a bit less than $7 a night gets me a bed, delicious Colombian coffee all day, a hot breakfast of fried eggs and toast, and two awesome dogs to play with.
The last year and a half has only vaguely resembled my expectations of it. According to the plans that twenty-three-year-old me made for me about two years ago, by now I should have TEFL certification and one year experience teaching English in a school in Colombia. I should have lived in Bogotá to get my ‘big world city’ experience, where I was supposed to develop flawless Spanish and form good friendships that weren’t all that great so that I’d be ready to say bye to them at the end of last year as I squeezed in a quick Florida family visit and flew back to the Netherlands to start my real life with my little house, little tree, and little pet.
Instead, since leaving Leiden, I took my first indefinite solo overland backpacking trip, got way better at hitchhiking in the American South, learned to swap fear for caution in Northern Mexico, lived in the largest city in the Western Hemisphere, endured an ass-devestatingly vicious Mexican stomach flu, learned when to swallow my pride and go back and regroup, spent a lot of time with family, and learned how to work for myself on the road and earn enough money to travel sensibly while paying on my student debt and thinking about at least the short-term future.
I’m finishing up this post in Medellín, the so-called City of Eternal Spring. If all goes as planned (which it weirdly seems like it might this time), this will be home for 4-6 months. I have a pretty well-defined idea of how this year is going to look for me, with dates and budgets and spreadsheets and visas and lots of grown-up stuff like that.
I feel infinitely more in control than I did this time last year, when I was lugging my backpack into Mexico City with a two-digit bank balance, but I’ve also mostly lost the need to feel in control. What I learned in the last year and a half of travel is that I really trust me, and that I’m really good at taking care of me. So whether I blow all my money on Caribbean rum at Carnaval in a couple weeks or take off on a whim to work on an off-the-grid development project in rural Nicaragua, I’m cool with it. I trust whatever three-months-from-now-Jake has in store for me.
This entire post is one long attempt at fleshing out and justifying the use of a really awful, worn-out cliché:
“Life is a journey, not a destination.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
And no matter how many destinations I reach, it always feels like the journey’s just starting.
Ever planned a long-term trip that didn’t go how you expected? Any pseudo-profound lessons learned from it? Share your thoughts in the comments or in a tweet to @JakobGibbons!