I’m coming home next week.
Surprised? Me too. I had this feeling for my entire three days in Cartagena* and couldn’t shake it in any of the places I visited after that. Then I started crying in a bike shop in Medellin and realized maybe it was time to start looking at flights back to the USA.
I find myself thinking, and sometimes even saying aloud, “Well, in Asia…”
I wanted to fall head over heels in love with Colombia the way I did with Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar. Really, I did. But instead I have felt disappointment, then frustration, then guilt about the previous two emotions, and then it starts all over again. I’m not motivated to go out and see the sights. The food doesn’t appeal. I don’t get butterflies about where I’m going next because it just seems like a hassle to make moves. Mostly I just want to sit in a hammock with a view of the mountains and/or the ocean and a cup of coffee and read a book. And it seems silly to continue plowing through all of my money to continue with something I don’t find all that exciting.
I met two travelers on that first day in Cartagena — with whom I have since unexpectedly caught up in Guatape, because that’s just how backpacking works — who told me that they had the same problem, and that it was imperative that I quit making such comparisons immediately. This isn’t Asia (hey, did you know I’m on a totally different continent?) and no matter how badly I want it, the experience won’t be the same.
This may seem like an obvious point, but as a traveler, you want every. single. spot. you visit to spark that intense sense of wonder, and when that doesn’t happen, you (probably) feel like a failure. I certainly have felt like a failure, like I’m giving up, like I’m not a real traveler if I can’t figure out how to be in love with everywhere. But then I remember that I don’t have anything to prove, and I can’t convince myself to feel things that, deep down, I know aren’t real. There’s no “maybe if I stay a little bit longer” or “I’ll just make the best of it” — especially when the option to call it off exists.
Truthfully, Latin America has never held quite appealed to me in the way that many other parts of the world have. There are a few very specific things I want to do down here at some point in life, but on the whole, I feel a stronger desire to return to SE Asia and also to see parts of Africa, central Asia, Australia/New Zealand, Eastern Europe, even more of the United States. I decided to try Colombia anyway because I had the means and opportunity and was all wanderlusty and am always up for an adventure.
I chose to travel Asia first — very deliberately — and maybe if I’d started here in Latin America I’d have a different perspective. But maybe not, because I’m not the only one. Almost everyone I have met who has done SE Asia, at any point, admits to feeling some level of blah here.
I can think of a bunch of reasons for my lack of enthusiasm. I’m a lot more homesick for the people I left behind. I haven’t been as well-connected to the world, and though I’d like to say that being without wifi for nearly a week was refreshing, it was actually downright annoying. I have now been living more or less out of suitcase for a year, and a routine wouldn’t be such a bad thing. I crave regular exercise and my fancy bicycle and a kitchen stocked with fruits and vegetables and some personal space that doesn’t involve a bunk bed or a communal bathroom. I (sort of) miss my job. But in all likelihood, the largest part of it is that I did Asia first, and that is something I can never replicate, three months of life-changing travel I can never get back anywhere else.
I know I’ve compared it to a first Ironman — even though you are more knowledgable, in better shape, etc. for your second or your third or your tenth, the challenge and the thrill of your first big trip is something you’ll never get back.
My life is unreal, and I know that and am in awe of it every single day.
A bit of honesty, though: Here in Colombia, compared to Asia, I’ve been lonely. First, the population of travelers is quite different. There are more couples and groups, more college students, fewer mid- to late-20s backpackers, a lot of people on short holidays, a lot of local (or South American, generally) travelers. It’s been hard to meet other backpackers to hang out with. Maybe I don’t need as much alone time as I used to. A lot more people are into the heavy drinking, among other things (because, unlike most of Asia, partying is a huge part of the local culture), which I’m not ashamed to admit isn’t my scene. The transportation here isn’t as straightforward or exciting. Where the food in Asia was mind-blowing (please see, a billion amazing ways to prepare noodles), the Colombian diet is 90 percent carbs, 9 percent meat, <1 percent produce, heavily fried, and otherwise fairly bland and lacking in variety. It’s relatively expensive to exist here. The things I’ve enjoyed most have been either outdoor activities or low-key chill time. Maybe that’s what this place is best for and exactly what I needed anyway.
All that isn’t to say this hasn’t been a valuable month. I’ve explored some interesting places, learned a little bit of history, met probably the nicest and happiest people on the planet, improved my Spanish, seen pieces of a country that has totally transformed in the last decade. I’ve continued to learn about myself and what matters to me and how I like to travel. And I’ve discovered that it’s a moving target, and expectations (or lack thereof) are important, and I won’t always want or be able to experience the world in exactly the ways I expect. I have no doubt that for some people, Colombia is their place. South America is their sweet spot. But right now, for me, where I am, it isn’t mine. And THAT’S OK.
Part of being a traveler is taking risks and finding adventure, but another part is being mature — and honest and self-aware — enough to know what you need, which in my case was a concrete end date balanced with the opportunity to see just a bit more of Colombia.
See you soon, New York.
*For the record, Cartagena is not at all indicative of the rest of Colombia and therefore makes a pretty terrible starting point.