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Summary

Written on: Tuesday August 21st, 2007

A journal entry from: Central America Road Trip 2007

Well, it has been a looonnnggg time since I got back and I never finished the last couple of entries. I wanted to reflect a little on what I learned from my trip, but this has gotten ridiculous. Here is my effort to wrap it up finally. 

I won't go into too much detail on the last couple of days of the trip. I believe I left off just after my return to San Jose. There is not much to tell there anyway. I mostly tried to take it easy because of my sore ankle. I couldn't get together with very many of my buddies, as there weren't as many of them in town this time around. I did try to call that cute lil chica Mia from New Yawk. She agreed to meet me but, true to chica form, showed up an hour late. Adding insult to injury, she couldn't stick around but was "considerate" enough to bring a friend with whom she tried to match me up. I wasn't sure if I should have been insulted that she seemed to be palming me off that way or complimented by the fact she thought enough of me to try and match me up with her friend. Unfortunately, I wasn't as interested in her friend who, while attractive enough, had much poorer language skills and not as fun a personality as lil Mia.  

What else? Oh yeah, the hotel that I stayed at my 1st night back didn't have a fan. That hadn't really been a problem when I stayed there a few weeks earlier in July, but became a little too stuffy this time around. So I switched over to my "higher end" budget hotel just a couple of blocks away (the Doral). This time, knowing the lay of the land, I asked for a "special" room on the 4th floor south side (any of rooms #402-404) since I knew they'd have good views of the surrounding mountains over the rooftops of the city. The $30/nt was about the highest I paid on this trip except during my splurging in Nicaragua, but it was about the best deal around and the room was practically as nice as many others I've stayed in San Jose that cost twice as much. I'll admit that the surrounding area was a little rough, but I wasn't hanging out that much around there any way and IMHO the view from my room more than made up for it. 

At this point, I don't remember all my precise activities leading up to my departure, so I'll just move on to my trip summary. As I've stated before, this trip for me was as much a test run for an anticipated much larger trip.  Some of the questions I hoped to answer included:1) Was my budget realistic (financial). 2) Whether the mode of travel I planned was something that I could handle (logistic). 3) Whether I could deal with the potential loneliness of prolonged solo travel or how well I'd be able to meet other people (social). 4) And whether such a trip would start to get old after so long a time and whether homesickness would start to set in (psychological). So let's look at what I learned about how these things apply to me. My brother, has asked me, "Why, the obsessive focus on every little cost in so much of my blog?" It isn't that I'm so cheap. Well, maybe it is partiallyJ. However, you have to realize first that I'm an accountant by profession and so this is largely a result of my natural inclination and training. As much as that, it was because, from the outset, the question of whether I could live on what for me would be such a restricted budget would be much more critical if I ever do take that year long trip. On your typical weeklong vacation, that the average person is more familiar with, they either save up whatever they need to spend in advance or else just deal with that when they get back. After all, say on such trips you were to spend $200/day or even $300/day (per person), for most people that $1-2K may not be that big of a deal. Others might have to save up for it but probably could still manage it. However, multiply that rate by 365 days and the difference between $50 and $200/day becomes quite significant. (So stick it, bro) In talking to some of my other friends, I find many are amazed how cheaply I can travel or else seem somewhat doubtful about the quality of rooms, food, etc. that I encounter as a result. In fact, I had the same outlook as they do now, before I started traveling this way. Okay, for most of my peers, this style of travel probably would still be a little too "rustic" for their tastes. However, I've found it is not nearly as bad as those folks would think. In fact, in some cases it can actually be quite comfortable if not even somewhat luxurious. At those times, I get even more satisfaction in knowing I'm getting to enjoy experiences that most people think are way out of their budgets. So maybe another part of my focus on costs is because it seems to amaze so many of my peers (or makes them think I'm crazy). I realize there are many others, particularly many of the younger backpacker types that I've encountered on such trips, who could live even MORE austerely than I've tried to do. My goal was NOT simply to see how cheaply I could travel but rather to see how cheaply I could travel and still maintain a basic level of comfort and enjoyment.  Everyone has his or her own comfort levels. For some it is much higher than what I have done and for others it might be even lower. What I've been doing is trying to find the level that works FOR ME.  

Some people don't mind staying in hostel dorm rooms every night of the trip and neither would I ? on occasion. I mostly sought out affordable private rooms, preferably with a private bathroom and at least a fan to keep it comfortable and, being completely solo, this has to bump up my costs vs. if I was sharing a room. My cost goal was to keep this between $10 and $30/day. For the most part that turned out to not be a problem. Most of the places I stayed in that range, turned out to be perfectly adequate for my needs. In a few instances, the rooms were not up to my standards of cleanliness (e.g. my first night in San Salvador), had insect issues (my first night in Managua) or were too cell-like and depressing (my $8 room in Suchitoto, my $10 room in Ometepe, & my rip-off room at the Managua TicaBus terminal). However, that was only 5 nights out of 30 and I could deal with even the cell-like rooms as long as I didn't have to stay in such places every night of my journey. For the most part, I'd write off these few problems as being due to late arrival in town (w/o the opportunity to search around) or inadequate advance research. In short, I should try to avoid late arrivals (even more so than I already was) and I should plan longer stays in each place so I can take better advantage of what I learn after my initial arrival. 

Some people economize by buying food in the markets and cooking their own meals back at the hostel communal kitchen. I can appreciate the cultural curiosity of shopping at local food markets but for me the savings from this approach just didn't seem worth it. For the most part, I don't know how to cook the local cuisines and, from what I've seen, neither did the other backpackers staying at the various hostels who prepared what seemed to be very similar to what they could fix at home. For not much more cost and with far less effort, I could go out and eat filling satisfying local dishes as long as I stuck to the simple local eateries rather the higher price tourist restaurants. Yet another problem with fixing your own food relates to the waste involved with leftover ingredients, which are not easy to travel with, are subject to spoilage and can attract insects (which I discovered with a pack of crackers I had in my daypack). Perhaps, next time I travel I'll add the occasional self-prepared meal to the mix to save a little money here and there, but for the most part will stick to eating out as long as I'm in a region where it is so cheap.  

The other food & beverage area where I may have wasted a little bit of money was in my consumption of Coke. Unlike meals prepared from local products, brand name items like Coke cost just as much as it does in the US. As those who know me will agree this is not an addiction I can easily give up. I tried to keep a supply of bottled water on hand (including a large bottle with which I could refill my more daypack sized squeeze bottles), but I still probably spent $2-3/day just on that one junk food product. 

Another area where some people try to economize is when it comes to laundry. I can see rinsing out a t-shirt or something to stretch out time between laundry visits. However, like food preparation, in regions where labor is so cheap, I just don't think the savings are enough to justify the extra bother (besides, you've gotta do some things to allow the poor locals to earn a little living). 

One area where I think I could reduce my costs results from my initial overall approach to how I'd move around. I was figuring in moving in a "chain" – keeping my hops short and stringing together short stays at places along my overall route. The idea was that I wouldn't subject myself to long and uncomfortable bus rides and I'd be able to get to each destination early enough in the day to get well settled before dark.  What I experienced was that the "long bus rides" weren't so bad as long as I wasn't doing them every day and in fact were often enjoyable adventures themselves in many ways. Also, as long as I left early enough in the day, say by 7-8AM, even with a 6 or 7 hour bus ride, I could still easily be able to get to my final destination early enough to get settled in during the afternoon. OTOH, the flipside to my earlier approach was that because I only spent a day or 2 in many places, I wasn't there long enough to learn how to save some money.

For example, I had to initially take expensive cab rides in San Salvador before I felt comfortable enough and learned how to take the local buses. Not only that, my first hotel there was no bargain, but when I returned there from Suchitoto I switched to a much better hotel (right across the street actually), which though no cheaper really was a lot nicer for the money. If instead of using San Salvador as a base for a few days, I had just moved on to the next city such as Santa Ana, I wouldn't have been able to make those midcourse corrections and I probably would have made equally costly mistakes in the next place.  

Of course, the flipside, to the "hub and spoke" approach vs. the "chain" approach is that the total travel miles are greater. You have to double back over the same ground meaning more time and slightly greater expense. So, for example, instead of traveling from say San Juan del Sur to Grenada to Managua to Leon in Nicaragua and onward, the latter approach would be to travel from SJdS to Managua with loops to Leon and Granada of a couple of nights or more each before returning to Managua and the longer trip to Honduras or wherever. Managua isn't my favorite city so I'd probably spend only 1 night at each end with perhaps a one-night stopover between my colonial city loops, but such capital cities are still the easiest place to use as a base because of the far greater transportation connections they have. 

Yet another advantage to this approach, which I didn't fully appreciate until I tried it, was that with the "chain" approach you have to take everything with you each time you travel because you won't be coming back. With the "hub and spoke" method, you can leave the bulk of your stuff at your base hotel and carry only what you need for the 2-3 days you might be away. Having to lug around a heavy backpack and always worrying about its security is one the most draining things about travel days, much more so than any discomfort while on the bus. 

Beyond just using cities as a base, staying at any one place longer and taking a slower trip or one subject to longer hops, would also probably work out cheaper. Aside from the learning curve to living economically in each place, I also found that my expensive days were my travel days. Even if I were to travel twice as far it would still probably be less expensive to have one long travel day than to have 2 short ones. 

Last thing on costs is in the area of activities. After all, the point of travel is to actually see and do things when you get to your destination and not just travel for its own sake and those things often have costs. Clearly, there are going to be days where I'll have to go over my budget as I did in Honduras where I went horseback riding and ziplining, etc. OTOH, I learned that there are plenty of things to do that are cheap or even free and a lot of fun. Just getting around on buses for me was much more than a means of transportation, but an enjoyable activity in its own right as I watched the country pass by my window. My only regret was that it often went by too fast for me to take the pictures of the beautiful scenery I saw to show all of you. And hiking activities are free and enjoyable to do, provided you don't have a twisted ankle. Finally, walking around a town, looking into the shops and markets, seeing how people live and talking to some of them is completely free and very interesting. It may not have always been clear from my narrative how exactly I filled my time, but believe me it was very full and enjoyable, even when I wasn't doing something expensive. 

That about covers what I have to say for now about cost savings. Oh, BTW, the result for this past trip was pretty much on the mark for what I had hoped. Not including airfare to get down there, which would not be as significant amortized over the longer trip I have planned, or my temporary madness while with Brenda in Managua, I came in just under the $50/day that I had been figuring. If I were to adjust my plans to incorporate some of the lessons I learned from this trip, I don't think I should have any trouble keeping my costs well under that amount, at least for this region. 

I guess I also already sort of covered logistics in my discussion thus far, so I'll talk about the social aspect of solo travel next. This trip confirmed what I already really knew which is that in many ways solo travel is actually more social than traveling with a partner. This may seem paradoxical and of course, it's not true in the sense that with a partner you have someone to socialize with 24 hours a day if you want to. However, I've traveled both ways and what I have found is that:a) 24 hours a day with someone you normally at best spend just nights and weekends with at home can actually be too much of a good thing and b) not having a friend or family member from home to rely on to satisfy your social needs leads you to seek it out more with others (at least it does for me).  Sometimes it is just fellow travelers (or expats) not only because you already tend to travel in the same circles and share the same concerns and interests but because it offers the path of least linguistic resistance. This may seem to be little advantage over just talking with your travel buddy from home, but it really isn't the same thing.  

1) First, even though they aren't native to the place you're visiting any more than you are, they do still often come from different cultures and countries. Aside from sharing your interest in travel, they often come from much different walks of life, occupations (such as the windmill engineer), etc. than you do (this is particularly true for me in many ways since I'm a 50 year old guy traveling in a world of typically much younger backpackers).  

2) Secondly, in the case of expats, they can provide a useful perspective on a location as a potential future relocation spot for me and some of those guys can be very interesting characters in their own right (such as the alcoholic "biologist" I met in SJdS).  

3) Third, the other travelers having come from the direction I might be heading next can be useful sources of information as to good places to stay, eat, sights to see, things to do, issues in getting around, etc.   

4) Fourth, some of these people are ones that you might be able to hook up with to travel for a period of time or share the expense of a tour guide, rental car, etc.  

5) Fifth, unlike a dedicated travel partner, who you're pretty much stuck with for your entire trip, you can hang out with these folks only as long as it serves both of your needs or interests.  

6) The only downside, and not an inconsequential one, to relying on these sorts of relationships as opposed to your travel buddy from home is that the conversations are usually much more superficial than they'd be with someone you already know well. 

Other times the social interaction is with the locals. As with talking with fellow travelers, for me this happens far more if I'm not with a dedicated travel partner from home. Similarly, it happens far more if one gets outside of the "traveler ghettoes" or off the "traveler circuits". I've been to some places where you can't throw a stick without hitting another gringo. However, I've also been to other areas where we really stand out. In general, Costa Rica is a good example of the former and El Salvador is a good example of the latter. And, I can tell you I tended to have far more frequent and interesting encounters with the locals in El Salvador. Perhaps it is also because from their perspective, I was also a more unusual sight that provoked their interest. Perhaps there was just a cultural difference between countries that made one friendlier than the other. I don't really know. Unfortunately, I also suspect there is often something about the way many gringos themselves behave in these countries that might make them "less than endearing" to the locals. I know I felt that way about them sometimes and they were "my own people" (and hope I never seemed like that myself to the locals). Ultimately, there are times when you want to stay at a hostel or backpacker hotel so you can interact with fellow westerners (and possibly get some travel intel), and other times when you want to get out of such travel ghettoes by staying at hotels that are geared more to the local market. 

The last question area, I laid out for this blog entry was the question of homesickness or road weariness. For me, that was not really a yes or no question. Sure, in the end I was glad to be back home. However, I think my sore ankle had at least something to do with that. I think when one is not feeling 100% well there will always be a natural desire to be in the comfort of one's own home. If my ankle hadn't been hurting me so much in the end, I'm sure I'd have been much more anxious to continue on my journey. Even so, I was still more than a little sorry that my little adventure had to end. Ultimately, for me for this trip, home-sickness/road-weariness was not really a major issue even towards the end. I shall have to wait to see how much I could extrapolate that experience out to the much longer trip I have planned. Unfortunately, I don't really see any way to find out beyond simply hitting the road for a long time and finding out then. If it turns out to be a bigger problem over time, I suppose I'll either just have to learn how to deal with it or cut that trip short. 

This ties into a couple of issues that I have not addressed. The first is dealing with health issues that can really throw a wrench into any travel plan. Prior to this trip, I was considering more the issues of dealing with such health issues as pre-trip shots and checkups and major medical emergencies on the road, such as having evacuation insurance, etc. In reality, I think the far more likely health issues I would face would be ones like the one I had on this trip, e.g. twisted ankles that while not bad enough to cut short the trip was bad enough to curtail my activities. This being a still relatively short trip with a clearly defined end, I just muddled through and continued on my way as best I could but it did put a big damper on my activities. If this had been the "big trip", I wouldn't have been in any great rush to get to the next destination and would probably have laid up for the few days or week or whatever it would have taken for my ankle to more properly recover, particularly if I happened to be in a nice place for just hanging out. 

The other related issue that the topic of homesickness made me think up, was how to mitigate or avoid any homesickness that might come up. A big part of this trip for me was in maintaining my blog and keeping in e-mail communication with friends and family back home. I think this helps considerably to mitigate any feelings of separation. It also takes a lot of time. One needs to allocate at least 1 hour per day on average just on doing the internet thing or at least I do. It adds some cost too, but that is minor compared to the time commitment. Beyond that being able to actually talk to the folks back home would have been even better. The problem there is that the costs involved are usually not so minor. Before this trip, I hadn't really thought too much about bringing my own phone. For one thing, my carrier was one of those whose network didn't work in very many places outside the US (Sprint's UDMA system). I've since switched over to AT&T (T-Mobile also works well outside the US). Their international service is still not cheap per minute, but I could also always "unlock" my phone and put a SIM chip inside for a foreign service. That would still not work in all markets and most chips work in some countries and not in others. So, I'd need to shop around for the chip that would serve me best and even then not be able to use my phone in many places, but it would still be better to have to go a few countries before I could make a call rather than go my whole trip. My other reason for not bringing a phone with me was because I wanted to cut down on the weight, bulk and value of what I bring with me. However, the phone I have now is half the size of my last one (even with the charging equipment) AND has a 2mp camera AND a music player and so could serve several purposes beyond just the phone and PERHAPS even replace my small but still bulkier camera if I really want to cut down on stuff to carry. I'll have to explore how well that might work on my next excursion. 

My final list of travel research conclusions garnered from this past trip (some of which I already knew but my experience on this trip really "brought it home"):

1) Long travel days are okay as long as you start out early and arrive at whatever destination you're heading to early enough to get settled in effectively.

2) Longer stays in each location are desirable not only to explore more thoroughly that location but also in order to take most advantage of any insights gained for that area.

3) Despite the longer overall total travel time involved, it is better to have a few long travel days than frequent shorter ones. Put another way. I'd rather employ the "hub and spoke" approach radiating out from a base with just an overnight pack before making a big jump to the next base then have to haul my full pack to new destinations in a "daisy chain" approach every other day or so (short hops in progression with full pack from one place to the next in line).

4) Decent inexpensive accommodations are available, but advance research on a location helps in knowing where to find them and, lacking that, early arrival in a location and/or not having a heavy pack to drag around make it less likely you'll have to settle for something less than adequate.

5) Food costs can be very cheap, provided you stick with the local food. Imported or western brand name products (such as Coca Cola for me) are what most easily drive up those costs.

6) My $50 per day target average rate is quite achievable provided I avoid some of the potential pitfalls such as those mentioned above.

7) Travel blogs, internet research, and e-mails can often take up a substantial part of my time budget. I need to allow time for that (usually late afternoon or early evening) if not everyday then at least every few days at least.

8) Other "overhead" time elements can eat up a BIG part of a budget traveler's time such as finding a room, getting one's clothes cleaned, waiting for bus connections, longer transit times due to bus stops, walking places when you might otherwise have a rental car or taxi to take you, etc.

9) I need to consider a lot more the minor medical issues, which are much more likely to occur then the big trip ending ones. I need to have a contingency plan for if some unforeseen impediment comes up including possibly laying over and delaying my travel to my next destination. 

I wanted to avoid taking any unnecessary & expensive accessories, because of added weight and bulk and because of their attractiveness for theft. However I might need to give a 2nd look to some not overly expensive multi-purpose gadget such as my new international slim-phone with mp3 player and 2mp camera (ease of use, memory capacity, cost of service, can it actually replace my digital camera or just serve as back-up). I might even consider including some sort of small tablet pc although that seems less likely due to questions of cost, bulk and durability.