It would be wrong to say that all the planning in the world can’t prepare you for a trip of this magnitude, because much of the preparations have helped me immensely, like budgeting, packing and safety on the road. But nothing can prepare you for how you will FEEL on a trip like this.
Let’s take Central America for example. I would be lying if I said I have always dreamed of visiting this part of the world. The truth is I only planned on going through there on my way to Mexico, which has been number one on my bucket list for years now. But while in the area, I thought, why not visit Central America, too?
Of course, I’ve heard about places like Panama (like every German kid I read the Janosh stories) but apart from bananas and The Canal I didn’t really know much about it. Other countries, like Belize I didn’t even know were in Central America, but assumed was a Caribbean island, oops.
Before I arrived in the region I was mainly concerned about my lack of Spanish language skills and possible crime, to be honest. So I never expected to find some of my favourite places on the whole trip in this small area between North and South America. I really got into the swing of travelling while chilling out on Bocas Del Toro in Panama. Made some friends for life on a volcanic island on Lake Nicaragua where we lived in hammocks for a week.
And while Belize was supposed to be merely a relaxing place to spend Christmas with some friends it turned out to be my perfect little piece on earth where I would’ve happily invested my remaining travel funds in a small piece of property (if my boyfriend hadn’t talked me out of it).
Other places like Guatemala, on the other hand had been so hyped up that I had originally planned to spend the bulk of our time there. But when I arrived I just didn’t get the right vibe, and despite having a good time and experiencing some beautiful nature and colonial architecture it just didn’t live up to my expectations.
Then there’s the people you meet. You hear about travellers getting invited to dinner by locals, ending up salsa dancing in a local bar until 5 am and hope you will have similar meaningful encounters. Sure, you also hope to meet some fellow travellers to hang out with for a few days or weeks and go out partying with.
But what I didn’t really expect (or even dared hope for) was making real friends on the road. And of course, this doesn’t happen at every new hostel you arrive in or even in every new country you visit. When you do meet some awesome people though, who you immediately click with and then maybe even end up travelling with for a little while, it is crazy how fast a real friendship can be forged on the backpacker trail. Sharing incredible experiences, chicken bus rides from hell and small dorm rooms somehow work as a catalyst for the friend-making process.
What I expected even less than actually making really good friends is ending up visiting them in their home town on this same trip and even meeting and staying with their families and friends. When I hoisted my backpack onto the plane in Heathrow last October I never expected to watch a Giants game in San Francisco with new friends or to spend Seder dinner with 25 members of our friend Megan’s family in Orange County (while Megan herself was off exploring Colombia) who basically adopted us for a few weeks. These unexpected friendships are the memories that will last a lifetime and what make travelling so special. And I hope there will be many more memories like these.
Are you planning a big trip? What are your expectations? And does reality live up to them?