A reader wrote a comment worth addressing.
“Sorry if this is rude but it seems to me you don’t like anywhere you ARE but dream of how it’s going to be great in the NEXT place. It’s even cringe inducing, to read your posts describing how the next place you’re going to will be wonderful — just knowing that the post you write when you actually get there is going to be such a let down for you. You romanticize about the future places you are going. And, next time I’ll do it differently!”
It was left on my The Two Bad Weeks in Mexico post. And, fair enough, what else are you to think when I’ve been in this country going on four months and haven’t had an amazing time?
So let’s talk about it. Do I hate everywhere?
No. Most places I’ve enjoyed. Given that I knew my blog would get a complete overhaul in the coming months, there’s a ton of stuff written offline sitting in wait for me to one day publish it. Wistful, buoyant pieces singing praises for moments in time before something came along and distracted me. Nomad life is filled with non-stop new places and experiences, and it’s so hard to convey all that in these little snapshots. I’d rather be balanced than doting in my praise.
Places I’ve Been
Locations I adore include Lisbon – I loved, loved, loved Lisbon – and the Azores, where I’d be happy to live for two months, at least. I spent only 7-8 days in each, and felt robbed as a result. There was Edinburgh, which broke my heart to leave. I always enjoy returning to London. Manchester was dreary and wet but still I had a good time.
Guanajuato had bad luck with lodgings, but I actually really like the city, and it’s my favourite Mexican city so far. I suspect had I reversed the order and done San Miguel then Guanajuato, that I’d like San Miguel more, but alas, it has a hard act to live up to compared to Guanajuato. It’s why people recommend that you see Madrid before Barcelona, because it’s tough to top the latter.
Speaking of – Madrid was terrific, despite my thinking it’d be a let-down. I enjoyed all of Croatia, even Zagreb, where I had bug problems, bed problems, and took off a couple days early.
And Then There’s Mexico
But as a whole, I’m not so keen on Mexico. Does that mean I’ve hated all my time here? Hell, no! I’ve had some really magical days. I’ve met neat people. I’ve seen weird cultural quirks that make me smile nearly daily. The people are often lovely.
But do I see myself coming back anytime soon? Nope. Not at all. I’ve overindulged, so to speak.
It’s worth noting that Mexico is also where I realized I was actually depressed. To realize one is depressed has a big requirement: Knowing you’d normally enjoy when and where you are, but instead find yourself deeply unhappy, without understanding why.
So maybe I’d enjoy Mexico more than this normally, but I still think I would feel I’d overstayed.
Europe and Me: Like a Glove
I absolutely loved being in Europe. Was it all awesome? No. I’ll talk about Porto in a minute. But mostly, I loved it. There’s a pace of European life that suits me. I fit into it very well. Was it home? No, but I felt like I fit and that’s almost better than feeling at home, I guess.
Porto was embroiled with challenges at the darkest time of the year with nearly non-stop rain for three weeks. My hosts and I didn’t get along. Odd. I have 13 rave reviews on my AirBNB profile and one lone grumpy review from them. Simultaneously, my currency took a nose-dive and my livelihood got precarious with lost work. Many things were outside my control. Life was an uncertain, scary place. Still, despite my unhappiness in Porto, I knew I’d love it in better weather and with more money, and a happier, more secure future before me.
So it comes back to that old adage – you can’t run from problems. You can be in the most amazing place in the world, but if you lose half your income while your currency devalues 20% in three weeks, with no safety nets, guess what? It affects how that place is enjoyed. Spending money is out, the next town is an unknown variable, and on it goes.
When I was in Madrid, my finances were still nerve-wracking. Same with the Azores, but you know what I had on my side? The weather. I could sit outdoors, enjoy plazas, sip a coffee, and still experience it.
That’s somewhat true of Mexico too. The budget suits my recent strife, thanks to sunshine and simpler lifestyles.
Regrets are Part of the Package
But I’ll tell you something – I never would’ve left Europe if my Canadian dollar had rebounded quickly. My original plan was to stay until June, but I reacted to adversity badly. Probably because I was already in my depression and that’s what depressed people do: They react badly, or illogically. I’d handle it completely differently now. Indeed.
Why? Because I loved Europe. I even loved Porto when weather was on my side. It’s a stunning, gorgeous city with a great food and wine scene, if you’ve the cash to explore it. And Europe as a whole, even when bad, is good. Kinda like chocolate.
Fact is, if I’ve romanticized Mexico at all, it’s because I had so many people tell me how amazing all these places would be. Oaxaca is the next “it” city! San Miguel is stunning! I bought what others were selling. Trouble is, they’re wrong. It’s amazing for them, it’s different for me. Welcome to the world of divergent tastes.
We forget how different we all are. I hear The Bee Gees, I want to change the song. Someone else hears The Bee Gees, they shriek, start dancing, and singing “Stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive – ah, ah, ah…” and I roll my eyes.
I should probably find out if people are Bee Gees fans before I let them tell me where to travel, I guess.
If I’ve learned anything from all this, it’s two-fold: One, trust my gut. Two, everything changes. Stay long enough and it’s time to leave. Everything changes. Nomad life.
Expectations Versus Anticipation
The reason I “romanticize” Europe is because I’ve dreamt of exploring all of it since my childhood. Morocco and South Africa, too. They’ll come later. Despite not yet visiting anywhere on my life-long “must travel” list aside from Edinburgh, I’ve fallen hard for the few places I’ve seen in Europe.
If I could be so smitten with Zagreb, despite having bronchitis, so much rain, cockroaches, bad beds, and other struggles, I can’t wait to see what my take on the number-one city I have ALWAYS wanted to see, Prague, is. I expect it to be imperfect, but I will love photo-walking it, and that’s my favourite travel activity, by far.
Still, the problem with travel is, no matter how we try to keep expectations in check, we can’t. Between media depictions, friends weighing in, and everything else, it’s absolutely impossible to go to a new destination without having expectations about it. I try to let anticipation have its way with me because of excitement for who we are, where we’re going, what we might see there – that’s a beautiful thing. Excitement is a kind of innocence the world is short on. I hope I never lose my tendency to go, Ooh, one more sleep until I go to _____! even if it often may not live up to my hopes.
It’s all about hope. Will this next place be the place I didn’t know I was dreaming I’d find? How do I know until I get there? I still enjoy myself. If I don’t enjoy a city, I work more. It all balances.
Like I Said, Everything Changes
Despite knowing I won’t return to Mexico any time soon, for instance, I promise this – I’ll be back one day. I’ll probably even return to this city too, despite my misgivings. I know I haven’t given it a fair chance, because I’ve been too hamstrung financially. A lack of money really impacts experience. Period. So, I threw myself into my work, which paid off, as I’ve nearly doubled my income for the foreseeable future. Yay, me! Here’s to sunnier days ahead.
But why would I come back to Mexico if I didn’t love it EVERY DAY? Because it’s an ancient culture filled with conundrums and contradictions, beauty and struggle. It’s hard not to admire these people who stand under so much oppression and corruption, yet never give up and always smile when greeted. How do you not love people like this and empathize with their difficulties? How do you experience an ancient culture refusing to give in to the Americana threatening to invade it and fail to respect it?
Will I ever stay here for 4-5 months in a row again? Likely not. A month? Sure. Maybe even two!
Outside Factors Often Dictate Choice
But who knows, maybe I’ll stay this long again next time I’m in Mexico. The cost of living is a huge bonus to Mexico. Huge.
As a nomad, we make choices all the time based on currencies, income, politics, and more. Once reason I chose Mexico is because they allow a 6-month visa and I knew that would work for my financial scenario. It’s one of the most generous visas in the world for Canadians, and that adds up to savings.
I can’t stay in cities like Prague long-term, due to visa limitations and potentially higher cost of living. Interrupt that with stays in places like Georgia or Sarajevo or Greece, and suddenly it all works out. In those lesser-visited Balkan regions, my budget goes further, especially if it’s off-season in Greece.
Still, I know I can take night trains from, say, Prague to Budapest for $50, when I can’t even travel in my home province for that much. That’s the beauty of Europe. So much in your grasp for so little – if you can handle the cost of living otherwise. So then it’s down to picking the right countries, and scoring the right lodgings.
The Challenge of Internet Research
We nomads are at the mercy of the research we do on the web. There’s a fine line with that research too. We can suss out places, look up day-to-day costs, seek neat lodgings, and cross our fingers, and hope our sources are right. Then again, Porto can happen – where prices are higher than expected, the hosts turn out lousy, and currency plummets, all at once.
Another challenge is trusting the source. Travel bloggers are what English teachers would call “an unreliable narrator.” They have too much vested in the story for us to trust their account of it.
A majority of travel bloggers are trying to keep a sunny-side-up face on their travels so they can get a deal on the next tour, next hotel, next city. They’d rather leave the bad experiences off their site so it doesn’t compromise what they can be comped in the next town. Not all are like this, but many are. (The ones who share it all are great, though.)
So, we’re back to travel balance being contingent on research and information. How objective is the research, how pumped up is it? How recent, how accurate?
Novelty Wears Off, Even in the Best Places
Even when you love places, you can overstay, like me in Mexico. The dogs and firecrackers and loud-speakered street merchants amused me in the first month, but four months in, all I can dream of is staying in the quiet Canadian countryside to decompress.
Think of travelling like foods. Yes, pizza is wonderful, but if you have it every day for weeks, even months on end, will you love it still? Not me. And Mexico is my travel pizza.
That diversity of culture in Europe excites me. I can travel to three cities for the same price as one flight to a new city here in Mexico. The small towns are easy to find and easy to live in, whereas small-town Mexico comes with big compromises and uncertainty, depending on the region.
I know I’ve overstayed places before, but slow travel will continue being my style. It’s cheaper, sure, but it also helps me ditch hasty opinions. For example, Guanajuato improved greatly when I changed lodgings and switched neighbourhoods.
Travel as an Endurance Sport
What you won’t see me do this time is run home to Vancouver to regroup after five months. I’m sticking it out. It’s cheaper, easier, and more rewarding. You see, ultimately, I’m not a traveller or a travel blogger. I’m a writer with big dreams who’s trying to taste the world. Sometimes I’ll send that dish back to the kitchen. Other times I’ll walk right out. And there’ll be times when you gotta drag me out as I grab another dessert in passing.
Travel isn’t always enjoyable, it will never be perfect, and I don’t expect it to be. I’d hate to be happy with every place, to never be challenged. I didn’t sign up for that.
There isn’t a place I’ve been that has failed to teach me something about myself, the world, my naivety, my cynicism, or my future. I’ve learned so much this year and I can’t think of any other way I would have gained this much wisdom, resilience, or determination than through this kind of travel.
I don’t know what my ideal place will be. Maybe one day I’ll feel there’s no place other than my home roots that can give me the life I dream of. Maybe it’s some place some traveller on some train tells me about that I don’t even know exists yet. Who knows?
The Delight of Mystery
But that’s what I signed up for. The unknowing and the discovery. I didn’t ask for guarantees and sugar-coated dreams. I’ve had a sheltered life in a city that led the world in “quality of life” standards for the better part of the last couple decades. Guess what? That’s a hard act to follow.
Travelling, though, has led me to believe that “quality of life” is overrated in some ways. I could imagine being quite happy in a place like the Azores or Madrid, or Edinburgh with its shitty Scottish weather but glorious people, and even in Porto, at times. Do these rank on the “best” lists every year? No.
When I return to Europe, across every border will be new foods, new languages, new cultures, new architecture, new people. Mexico, in a way, is very similar to the rest of North America in that, once you’re in the country, things don’t change a lot region to region. Some, but not a lot.
I look forward to the return of frequent steep learning curves coupled with an easy-going lifestyle of slow walking and watching time pass by.
For Now, More Mexico, but New-to-Me Mexico
For now, it’s another month in Mexico. I’m off to Merida in the Yucatan. I plan to eat street food a LOT there because it’ll be 35 degrees with 90% humidity every day and no one wants to be cooking in that sort of weather. Besides, my soon-to-be kitchen looks incredibly basic. I look forward to street tamales and hugos.
Sure, my expectations are low, since I’m ready to move on from Mexico, but I’m glad I’m getting one more “sauna” experience of living in blazing heat. Living in that kinda heat makes me relate to that line in the Gomez song that epitomizes the travel life for me, “The sweat comin’ from my pores takes me away, piece by piece.” (“Get Miles.” A moody, dark song that’s about both loving and loathing where one is. I’m often toeing both lines. My favourite travel writer is Paul Theroux and he was always guarded in his praise too. I learned well, I guess.)
Being brutalized by the Yucatan sun will make me feel I’m in heaven when I return to the cool, foggy wine country on Canada’s Vancouver Island. Contrasts, baby. It’s a beautiful thing.
For now, I’ll see one more city in one more part of this country. I’ll try another cuisine, endure the brutal heat, and I’ll fine out if it’s a place I love or one that doesn’t fit.
Because that’s travel. We explore and see what fits. Like love, most fail to work out long-term, but if you’re doing it right, at least you’ll have a memorable, short affair.
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I’m with you on Mexico. Not going back any time soon. Interesting as I didn’t spend more than a week there. Just knew it wasn’t for me.
I enjoyed this post and your take on travel. Exactly right. And, what works for me, won’t necessarily work for you….
That’s funny. It’s the most-travelled-to country in the world, too. Thanks, Julie. 🙂
I have loved Mexico on 3 visits, but only stayed a month or less. But did visit and stay and live in India frequently over the last 30 years, sometimes for a month, mostly for six months, and once for a year. With children, without children, times in ashrams and lots of time on trains. I want to do it all again before i die….so better hurry up as am 71. But now at film school and when i finish at the end of the year hope to revisit India with a different agenda. I have travelled in quite a few other countries but not had the chance to settle and live the experience…well except US but that was with friends there so a different experience than arriving somewhere and setting up what will be home for a while. IN India there are vast regional differences in food, culture, climate etc….so,perhaps more like the European experience of finding difference state to state.
You sound like you have lived a kick-ass life. Film school at 71! Way to never stop growing. Man, I hope I’m like you in 30 years. I think I have to evolve to the level of India. I think it’s the travel master class and not for newbies. I will get there. When I do, I will be fulfilling my mother’s life-long dream. 😀
There is so much in this piece I can relate to. The let down at places everyone else is loving. The fears that come with nomad life. The hope the next place will be better. Wanting to stay longer in some places. So much. I did the nomad thing for two years following almost two years of straight back and forth work related travel. I thought seeing and living on the road was going to be the best thing ever, I mean, after all, in the two years prior I had only been home about two months out of each year, but I ended up hating it more and more with each month. I’ve now settled, just last month, in what I hope is my new home and like before I’ve been “home” maybe seven days in almost two months. I love what I’ve seen and experienced and yeah, it’s not for everyone but it makes me happy. Do what makes you happy, what helps you process- even if it isn’t the sunny travel blogger route, because that is pretty much everyone these days.
Thanks, Sophie. Yeah, it’s a really tough lifestyle but there are rewards in all those challenges. I look forward to having a home one day again but I wonder how I’ll adjust to it, even now, let alone down the long road I anticipate travelling for. Place and place impact it so much, but then the road starts to call and next thing you know, it’s all uncertainty (and often disappointment) once again.
I think as long term travelers it’s natural to have a love hate relationship with a lot of places. Nothing is going to be perfect. I appreciate your honestly and a great way to respond to your comments!
Thank you, Susanna! It clearly hit a nerve with me if I had 3100 words to say about it. LOL. 😀
Just remember that people’s complaints have more to do with them than you. Cringe inducing? Not even remotely in my opinion. Keep on keeping on Steffani. Your willingness to write about the hard parts of travel is why I read what you have to say. Not every place sings to everybody.
Ah, I can understand the “cringe-inducing” comment, but had that not been said, it may not have resonated with me strongly enough to encourage this post. Thanks, Mary. 😀
I think the hardest thing for people to understand (I certainly didn’t–even though friends who’ve done the same tried to explain it–until I did it myself) is that *living* in a place is very different from *holidaying* in a place.
When you go on a holiday somewhere, you make space to push all your problems aside. You understand that things may cost a bit more (you’re a tourist, after all, and who doesn’t have the occasional holiday splurge?), plans may go slightly awry, and at the end of it, those little tales of misadventure make the best stories to share once you’re home.
But when you go *living* somewhere else, your regular everyday problems all come with you. Along with the new problems of adjusting to life in a new place, and finding the resources you need to continue life as usual.
I assume as you get more used to your ‘new normal’ you’ll start taking the challenges you encounter more in their stride, and small setbacks will have less of an impact. In the meantime, I think it’s good for people to see being a nomad/immigrant/expat/adventurer isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, and that problems do not disappear because you’ve physically removed yourself from your previous location.
And as you learn more, I’d love to see more “it all turned out ok” posts where you share your tips for both troubleshooting and building resilience with other aspirational adventurers.
And the reality is that *living* in a space when you know you have no home left, nothing that you own, is even more different than living in a place and knowing it’ll end in a month or three or whatever. This is the closest I get to a home, so every place depends upon it. But when a local home rents for $400 a month but the tourist spends $1800 for the same home Because Tourist, it means cutting corners and negotiating or sometimes putting up with shitty spaces. As long as I can work comfortably, the bed is firm, and the place is clean, I can handle it. Anything less than that and it’s a problem, obviously.
You’re right, I’ll have to write more of THOSE posts too. (In the end… yada, yada.) 🙂