Travel: the Good, the Bad, and the Weird

After three weeks spent working in Medellin in my first ever journalism role, I hit a metaphorical wall. Despite my best efforts to the contrary, there simply wasn't enough time to get everything done.

So instead of attempting to push through with the constant sense that I was about to snap, I told my editor that I needed a day away from the newsroom each week to concentrate on my own work.

As a result, I'm now sitting at the flower-covered plastic table in my rented living room, feeling a little uncomfortable that an unsmiling Colombian cleaner wearing a yoga tshirt is mopping the floor rather violently around me. Wednesdays are hereby known as writing days – and I couldn't be happier about it.

No postcard writing at the moment, though...

I mentioned last week that I'm taking part in the 30 Days of Indie Travel Blogging Challenge, hosted by Boots n All. It's the perfect way to keep up with my writing while I get to grips with just how little time I currently have in my life!

This is the project's second week, and the prompts are all about travelling 'on the road'. Seeing as I'm taking a break from that way of travelling right now, it seems rather apt to delve into it through writing instead. So without further ado…

Prompt #8: your worst travelling experience

For the most part, my travels in India were incredible; filled with experiences I'd love to repeat.

Except for one.

A few months into travelling, I had decided to settle in one place for a few weeks to work in a PR company. I'd been introduced to the owner by a mutual friend who assured me the guy was legit – and maybe he was, with her at least. But with me, it was different.

Within a few days of arriving, he was calling me his daughter, his 'betu', his baby. I'd thought it would be fine to accept the hospitality of staying in his house – except it transpired that his wife and daughter were away for that month, so it was just the two of us.

Things got weird very fast. He would push glasses of whisky into my hand each evening, explaining that he couldn't drink so freely around his family. En route to meetings in the back of taxi cabs, he would repeatedly hold my hand and smile indulgently. In the mornings, I would awake to him standing over my pillow with a mug of tea, ostensibly watching me sleep.

The absolute lack of privacy, lack of breathing space and my intense vulnerability made the situation quickly become one of the most pressurised and concerning I've ever dealt with. Compounded by the fact that I didn't come to my senses and simply get the hell out.

Being in his house, being unsure that some unspoken Indian cultural differences might be at play, being worried I was somehow overreacting – for some reason, I went along with it. Four horrible weeks went past, until I broke down in the street with his assistant on the way to get a haircut he told me I needed, and she forced me to see the truth. That I needed to leave.

After that experience, I had to readdress my moral compass. I realised that even if it could be interpreted as insulting or ungracious, I always have to trust my gut.

Prompt #9: your best travelling experience

When I try to think of the best thing that's happened to me while travelling, I fall slightly short. That's not to say that there aren't a myriad of different memories that come flooding back: only that I can't choose one. Is it watching shooting stars in the Rajasthan deserts of India? The salt flats in Bolivia? The Northern Lights in Iceland?

When I really give it a second thought, the thing that swims to the surface is simple: meeting people. I don't just mean the countless interactions with other travellers who you meet along the way (although they're often incredible too) – I mean the long lasting people: the friendships that I now prize most highly, which would never have begun if it wasn't for travelling.

There's the group of women I travelled with in India, who I've barely seen in person since but talk to all the time online; the group of Englishmen I spent a year with in San Francisco who feel like my brothers; the volunteers in Ecuador who made teaching go from bearable to hysterical; and countless other individual people who've become akin to family.

Then there's the fellow travel bloggers: people who I didn't necessarily meet travelling but did encounter as a direct result of writing about my travels at Flora the Explorer. All these people put together have undoubtedly been the highlight of my last three years trudging from one country to the next, and I wouldn't change any interactions with them for the world.

Prompt #10: food

I have a weird issue with the texture of food. Often the taste can be strange or disgusting and I'll deal with it just fine; but put a liquid with mysterious lumps in front of me and I'll refuse even a taste.

For this reason, I was pretty ok with eating cuy (roast guinea pig) in Peru. I ate a nice slice of sheep's cheek from a traditional plate of sheep head in Iceland, and sampling fried crickets in the sprawling food markets of Thailand didn't really phase me.

The most difficult food I've tried to eat while travelling, though, is probably the famed Colombian delicacy known as mondongo, or cow's stomach/tripe. Colombians love this stuff so much that there's even a restaurant dedicated to making tripe soup in Medellin – and it's one of the most popular restaurants in the city.

The first time I came to Medellin, I volunteered at an organisation called Angeles de Medellin, and on our way home one evening, I was told I really needed to try a piece of tripe.

In hindsight, maybe eating it from a street stall in the city's favelas didn't help to make me actually enjoy it…

Prompt #11: travel mistakes

I've screwed up multiple times when travelling. There was the disastrous attempt to renew my Bolivian visa simply by crossing into Argentina and back again (it didn't work); similarly, there was the time I tried to fly through India with an expired Indian visa. Not a good idea.

In terms of serious mistakes, though, the only thing that really comes to mind is an incident that happened over two years ago in Kathmandu, Nepal – when this blog first began.

I'd been volunteering at an orphanage for two weeks when I started noticing my wallet was lighter than usual. I usually spent each day taking the orphans to school, teaching lessons at said school, walking the kids home and then going home myself – no real avenues for spending excess money – and yet every night I had significantly less rupees.

Eventually I brought it up with the volunteer co-ordinator, and he opened up the possibility that one of the kids might have taken it. He came with me to the orphanage the next day, explained to the house 'mother', and she, in turn, talked to the kids. I waited outside the room with a torturous feeling: what if I was completely wrong? What if I'd just lost it? But it turned out one kid confessed to taking the money, and I was reunited with a small portion of the cash that had gone missing.

Another week passed, and an American volunteer who'd been travelling for over two years suddenly discovered a much larger sum of money had gone missing from her bag. She was staying at the orphanage itself, unlike me, and had earmarked that cash to transport her to India by train a few days later. She was ultimately broke, and couldn't afford another ticket.

The girl and I agonised over the situation. One theft might be easily forgotten, but two was bound to be a much bigger problem – not to mention that she was significantly more affected by her missing money than I was by mine. But then again we didn't want to get this kid in trouble: he'd already had to deal with a violently abusive father and relocating from the countryside to the city by the time he was ten years old.

Eventually we told the house 'mother' what had happened. At that point everything spiralled: the boy was questioned, and he said another child at school had told him to “steal from the foreigners when they're sleeping.” He said the other boy had already spent the stolen money on videogames. In just a few days, the decision had been made to send him back to his abusive father in the countryside, away from the orphanage, under the premise that the other children were at risk of emulating his behaviour.

I left the volunteer project soon after, so I don't know if he was sent away from the orphanage. But I've always felt responsible – that if I hadn't said anything to start with, he would have still had a chance at education and a safe environment. But you never know, I guess.

Prompt #12: acts of kindness

This time last year, I was in Montañita, Ecuador, celebrating Semana Santa with a bunch of other tourists and fellow volunteers from Cuenca. We'd run into a group of Colombians at our hostel, dealt with one of their party being stung by a stingray, and had proceeded to the darkness of the beach at night to keep the party going.

As various members of our contingent jumped into the sea and began shedding clothing, I started talking to one of the Colombians – a guy called Felipe, who lived in Bogota. We clicked immediately, and he said he'd show me around the city when I eventually came to Colombia.

Being English, I took his comment at face value: an afternoon meet up in Candelaria perhaps, or a quick tour around the tourist spots. What I didn't expect was an invitation to spend the week living in his apartment, riding around the city on his motorbike, hanging out with his friends and basically becoming part of his life throughout my stay in Bogota.

Felipe's week of generosity towards me, a total stranger, was the crowning event from six weeks of unexpected awesomeness from Colombia; so much awesomeness that I found myself thinking about the country long after I'd left, and eventually led me to find a job and put down some semi-permanent roots for a few months.

Funny how much can change in a year.

Prompt #13: language

I've been speaking Spanish for the last year in South America, and it feels like fluency is tantalisingly close… Ok, so that might be a slight exaggeration, but the amount of time I find myself thinking in Spanish or saying something without planning it – and getting the words RIGHT no less – is a wonderful morale booster.

The reason I decided to start learning Spanish to begin with was (a) because it was spoken throughout South America, and I thought it was integral to travelling throughout the continent, but also (b) because I thought it was a beautiful language.

Until I've mastered the Spanish, I don't have any particular desire to move onward to a different language – although I think it would be incredible (and difficult) to learn Russian. Maybe if I ever leave this continent it might come in useful?!

The 30 Days of Indie Travel Art Project runs throughout April with a different theme each week. If you want to sign up, visit Boots N All's info page about the project and tag your posts on Facebook and Twitter with #indie30.

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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4 Responses to Travel: the Good, the Bad, and the Weird

  1. Heather April 17, 2014 at 6:30 pm #

    Haha as a 1/2 Colombian I can tell you I cannot stomach mondongo! No pun intended. And no one in my family in Cartagena likes it either. You are not alone! I will stick to arepas con queso y jugo de mandarina… Among many other Colombian delicacies. Mondongo? Agreed. Pass!

    • Flora April 25, 2014 at 6:43 pm #

      It’s an acquired taste I think – although I went for lunch at ‘Mondongos’ in Medellin the other day, which specialises in the stuff, and I (shock horror) actually didn’t mind it! I think I was overwhelmed with how many different dishes arrived to add the soup :p

  2. Lauren April 25, 2014 at 4:36 am #

    I love all of your replies, they are so honest and you have so many stories to tell. I am shocked by the man in India…how creepy! And the orphanage in India…I think you did the right thing. Unfortunately even if that boy was sent back to his abusive father…he shouldn’t grow up learning that stealing is right, maybe it will teach him a life lesson and he won’t grow up to steal when he is an adult and end up in jail!

    • Flora April 25, 2014 at 6:53 pm #

      That was ultimately my main takeaway from the whole situation in Nepal – even though I felt wretched at potentially taking away his chance at an education and a better life, I know it would have been wrong to allow him to think it was ok to steal. Maybe I’ll write a longer post about it all one day..

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