So I Backpacked for a Year

In typical Viki fashion, I quit my gaggle of part-time jobs in 2014 and went on a trip with the parental unit + a close friend (whom I’d yet to travel with one on one, so things have the high potential to get sticky). We took a month to do a nice Pacific Northwest jaunt; flying into Seattle, and driving to Coeur de Alene, ID→  Kalispell, MT→ Portland, OR and would fly back home to the big, bad city of NY. None of us had been to this corner of the states and it was high time to do something, less extravagant than an international trip, yet still as promising as something that would constitute being on the road for a month.

For at least two days in each city, I would go to the public library, bring up my resume on Google Drive and spend anywhere from two to five hours applying to jobs. Nationwide. Feelings of both dejection and marginal hope. It was this time that the Peace Corps had changed its long despised application process of easily ten hours to a measly thirty minutes. I applied (obviously). And so did about 17K other, much more qualified and experienced humans. Undeterred, I started to conjure up a master plan. 

Since I had started substitute teaching in a high paying district right after UMD, I was able to save up a nice chunk of green. I would definitely be able to travel for a year –better yet, I’d work exchange for the eight months to a year in lieu of waiting for the Peace Corps placement. To me, it wasn’t a decision that they would end up offering me, it would be a placement. I didn’t think this was too arrogant, I figured it was natural since I already hit

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Mich & I at Mt. St Helens Volcano

all their requirements.

My second reason for choosing to leave for this sojourn was my therapist, gifted to me by the divine heavens. She wanted me to try out anti-anxiety medication — how about no. I truly felt that I was/am a product of my environment, such as most people, but it really affected me negatively and this was the cause of my anxiety. Since it was within my ability to leave the toxic environment, why not test my hypothesis? I’d leave for a significant amount of time and gauge (with general introspection) and later, having my closest people tell me “oh how far you’ve come!” — I would know what was what! (This story ends well).

ADD Version:

  1. Traveling aimlessly was liberating.
  2. Anxiety alleviated.
  3. Rejected from the Peace Corps → dodged a bullet.
  4. Everything happens for a reason.
  5. Better ability to change perspective and view a situation from alternate POV.
  6. Became a more avid follower of preventative and complementary self care which quickly translated into a lifestyle change.
  7. Became more self aware and open to critique for growth.

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    Chicken Buses 
  8. Learned to cook!
  9. Accomplished almost everything on my dreamboard that I had to make a complete new one (I highly recommend creating this).
  10. Met some of the most quality people to date.

FAST FORWARD SIX MONTHS FROM PAC. NW

I had told my best friend the plan and as expected, she said she would meet me two months into my trip, in Mexico, and we would skip to SE Asia for the remainder of our time together. I was talking to her daily to ensure that she would, in fact, meet me and that I shouldn’t plan too much beyond my first two months, pack solely for a tropical climate, and relax (actual LOL). I found a great place to work a few hours a week in exchange for room and board at a hostel in Puerto Escondido, MX. Almost immediately I was faced with, well, myself.

I was starting to see myself from outside the ego — the third person POV, and I was not all that enamoured with the reflection. I was anxious — to have order amongst the four of us volunteers at the hostel, to have clarity from my bestie on our imminent trip, to lessen the fear that this was the worst decision I’d ever made entirely on my own, to meet new friends yet not seem thirsty for them either, to feel free and let life lead me. I struggled that first month — heavy. Learning to relax was harder than any other adjustment; even learning that I wouldn’t be going to SE Asia wasn’t all that difficult after being in lazy Puerto for a few weeks.

Long story short, my bestie found an opportunity she couldn’t refuse in Costa Rica at a four-month retreat. My immediate reaction was…unsavory. I was angry that she didn’t consider me in her plans like I’d considered her and frustrated that she also didn’t seem to care that this altered my situation significantly. It took me a few days to, again, go outside myself, and understand a different perspective. Like me, she’s in her mid twenties and figuring it out. Making decisions selfishly because we can and should! We’re both childless and hungry for life’s copious offerings. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that and I was upset, I realized, because it wasn’t about me.

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Happiness

It took a few days, (much less time than ever before I might add), for me to realize that this was the course we were both meant to take and that is absolutely acceptable, encouraged, and wonderful. In different locations, yet simultaneously, we would be embarking on unchartered territory in our lives. Learning, experiencing, and all that mushy good stuff that yogis like to insidiously put into our consciousness. We would, in essence, be doing it together. So at that reasoning, I decided it was time to make another decision.

Everyone I’d met and befriended at the hostel in Puerto kept hounding me to travel the Central American route, aimlessly. The Gringo Trail 😉 . Make no plans and just do it. Fine, world, I’ll just do it! I told my parents via FaceTime that my entire plan had changed and by this time, I was slated to interview for the Peace Corps in Fiji. I would finish out the month in Puerto and move on to San Cristobal de las Casas, MX and do another work exchange. Travel down to Panama → go back up to Mexico City along the Atlantic Coast → spend two months at an agricultural internship in Kansas City, MO → spend two months coaching volleyball at a camp in Western Massachusetts → go home for a month and head to Fiji for 2.5 years. Done.

THE PLAN

As you can imagine, as most plans go, it didn’t go to plan 🙂 I made and remade maps of Central America with little arrows and diagrams pointing out hours on buses, number of nights in different places, average cost for travel, and so on. I couldn’t work exchange for more than two months because I was definitely over it by week two. The plumbing system in Central America is such that one has to put used toilet paper in the waste basket, so as not to clog the toilet. I was the one humbly taking out that trash. Oh yes, humility was enormously gained. But continue I would not!

A few days after Christmas 2014, I set out with Anne (my German soul-sister that I met the first day in San Cristobal) to go along the trail together. Anne will definitely be at my eventual wedding (hope you’re reading this boo). Together, we mainly couchsurfed as opposed to hostelled and we had some of the best times doing so. I was with Anne when I started to gain enough courage to practice my Spanish outright and as a fluent speaker, Anne would assist me along the way.

One of the best memories was when we couchsurfed about 30m outside Tikal, Guatemala. We got on a small, local, tightly packed bus to get to Jane’s house — whom was testing out her potential hostel with us being her first patrons. Possibly sketchy. We got off at the wrong “stop” and had to find a ride back to her spot, which was lit up with Christmas

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Flores, Guate

lights and on a catty-corner off a major (unlit) highway. AKA, no one would have any idea that a residence was nestled here. She was so gracious — the place had brand new mattresses (no bed bugs!), an outdoor bathroom, cold water, and homemade local foods that Jane cooked for us. Her mother and sister spoke only Spanish, and some other good-Catholic-ladies ended up coming by whom also only spoke Spanish. I had no choice, so I haltingly tried my best to take part in the conversation and day by day I tested a little more. Later, Oona took over Anne’s role of my Spanish speaking, yet thoroughly European mentor and super homie.

I met Oona, my Finnish beauty, only days after parting with Anne in Nicaragua, where she decided she’d stay to work exchange for a while. Oona and I traveled together for stretches of time and then met up in various other countries; most memorably, Envision festival in Costa Rica 😉 I realized quickly that backpacking solo, was never really solo. One meets so many people in hostels or even at border crossings, that it’s hard to be alone. People want you to join them and you kind of want to as well. You know you’ll have a hard time relaying all these experiences to those you love most, especially if they have no point of reference — best bet is to get close with those you meet on the road.

One of the most powerful memories from this leg of the trip was when my brother from another mother, Lawr, whom I’d known since early high school, flew to Panama to spend time with me for a long weekend. He hostelled with me and did the light backpacking thing for a minute and it, in my mind, brought our friendship to another level. Never before had a friend, from home, met me on my travels. It was an absolutely wonderful feeling that I’m eternally grateful for.

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Me & my Boy at the Panama Canal

Around this time I was rejected from the Peace Corps and had a day of utter sadness –then moved on and went to frolic in the beaches of Puerto Vieja, Costa Rica. Synchronistically, and in typical Viki style, ran (actually bumped, literally) into an old homie from HIGH SCHOOL! In New Jersey …dafuq?

By this time, however, I’d already heavily altered my trip again. Sometime in Costa Rica, I started talking with another friend (from high school years; TW I’m pointing at you boo) that was playing ball overseas in Kosovo. He was not feeling so great out there and asked if I’d be willing to make that trip — since I was really one of his only friends that didn’t have a “real job” and I could just bounce around. I pondered for a time and then FaceTimed my mom to let her know the impending movements. Wouldn’t you bet that Mom decides she’s suddenly ride or die and is already buying tickets to Kosovo via Istanbul!? Love that woman. We decided to shack up with my homie for a month in his three bedroom, totally platonic, and just keep him company. Maybe make a few home cooked meals, sightsee during the days, and catch a few games.

So I flew home from Costa Rica, (because it’s way cheaper than Panama, as is Mexico City, MX and Cancun, MX), and stay there for two days to change the variety of my clothes. I was going from tropical to temperate way too quickly and still using a backpack…so I had to hit the house first to change things up. We were about to leave my dad at home for a month, poor thing. Only thing was– damn near while we were in the air, my amigo got traded to Mexico and was gone before we arrived!

Shocking, but this is the life of international basketball — couldn’t even really be mad. Mom and I took in the sights in Pristina, Kosovo and then got to planning. We now had a whole month in the Balkans, a region that I studied heavily at UMD and each country was separately on my dream board, and we had to put together a light itinerary. Let’s just face it…I was with mom now.

In the end, we decided to hit most of the region with the exception of Bulgaria and Romania as they’re just too damn big. We’d finish up with Greece and Turkey and I’d have a week before heading to Kansas City for two months and later Camp Kinderland in Western MA for another two months. Perfect.

Fun Fact * Many “Italian” pizzerias in NY/NJ are ethnically Albanian owned and lucky for us, we knew some heavy hitting Albanian families. We got the local immersion whilst there — #winning.

We hit up our Albanian relatives, got places to stay and even toured around whence we got to Albania. I met someone randomly online several years prior and ended up staying with him and his fiancee for five days in Serbia.

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Hookah with random Bosnians, because this is living

Traveling for a year, in all, did not go as planned. It was immensely better than, in my opinion, anything that planning could have achieved. I returned more staunchly independent than ever before, much to the chagrin of potential boo’s — but what can one do? This year of obvious growth and improvement is hard for me to quantify or bullet point out to you, but trust in that there is nothing as educational and metacognitive as traveling on your own with the sole motivation being that of simply, journeying.

VMC16

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