Sabbatical: Lessons from the backpackers

I have been traveling now for five weeks, a pittance compared to some of the people I have met, but the longest trip I have ever taken. When all is said and done, I will have been on the road, away from home, for six weeks. In that time, I have visited four countries, and several cities within each country. I couldn’t decide how to share the stories I have captured to date: Topical? By country? I started with what I put in my bag, I could (and I will) talk about the places I’ve visited, but the more profound lessons for me, have been from the people I met along the way.

For those who don’t know me, I am something of a planner. I have always had a calendar, be it paper, or now Google, but scheduling is second nature to me. When I say “hold on, let me check my calendar” I don’t mean to be pretentious, I honestly do have to check because without my appointments saved, I would never know where I am supposed to be, or when. This is both a blessing and a curse. Once, when I was still analog, I lost my planner and had a sickening sense of anxiety until I found it. I was definitely not what could be considered a “free spirit” in the way of just seeing where the day could take me.  For my sabbatical, I wanted to escape the tyranny of a schedule. That all started with the one bag, the agility to easily pack up and go, but I was in for a big lesson on what it means to truly be a free spirited traveler.

Let me start by introducing Hostel Urbano, the place where my journey begins. I’d never stayed in a hostel before, in fact, my only exposure was by hearsay from Hollywood horror movies, so needless to say, I was skeptical at best. On the recommendation of a trusted friend, I chose this as my first stop in Costa Rica. It set the tone for my entire trip, in so many ways.

The dining room table in Hostel Urbano

The second I walked through the door, I was greeted like an old friend. As new people arrived, I had the pleasure of meeting one amazing individual after the next, all on a journey of discovery in some regard; The bubbly German woman I met my last night who had arrived without a plan, the Canadian writer who was working on his science fiction novel, the cook turned dive instructor, the two Americans who had decided to move to Costa Rica for a couple of months and work at the hostel in exchange for room and board. What is it about travel that makes us feel that we will somehow be transformed? I think it is the removal from our daily routine. It is inevitable that when we leave our comfort zones, we will have to learn something about who we are, and make decisions about what we really want.

Not knowing what came next used to cause me a great deal of anxiety, but in meeting so many people who were willing to improvise their vacations, I began to “see the light.” Backpackers are some of the most agile people I’ve ever met. By not having a set plan, they easily adapt to the moment. If loving where they are, they stay another day, hating where they are? They hop on a bus and get on with life. Sometimes we stay when we should go because it was “part of the plan.” We stay in unhealthy relationships long past their expiration date, we continue working jobs that make us sick, we are so tied to the comfort of the known we allow it to dictate our path. As my vacation progressed, I found myself looking forward to arriving somewhere new, and free-styling.

I am not advocating that you leave everything in life to chance, some things you actually need to reserve in advance, but leave enough freedom to adapt. In life, as we all know, the unexpected happens. You cannot control the circumstances, only your response to them. I have seen many different responses…stressed out people at wits end on the verge of missing flights (you will make or miss the flight, regardless of how stressed out you are, so chill!), angry people trying to turn a situation in their favor (speaking more loudly in threatening manner will not endear service people to you, be kind, it gets you further in life), but my favorite are those who take stock of the situation and make the most of it. I will end this with an application of my lessons from the backpackers:

  1. Be agile: Be open to change and ready to make the necessary adjustments
  2. Make the most of the moment: You cannot change what has already happened, so, when life gives you lemons, make a souffle! 

An excerpt from my journal on Sept 11, 2013:

I couldn’t be further removed from the chaos that marked this day in 2001…Today, as I walked around wondering what I would do, and how I would get there, I stopped myself and said ‘Enjoy the journey.’ Life is as much about the ‘in between’ the ‘meantime’ as it is the end goal and destination. The dive instructor that I met at the hostel said he had always wanted to find a way to to combine his love of water and cooking and that now, he was doing something he really enjoyed, but he said “What next?” What happens when you have reached the goals you set, when you are content with life? I think every person has a hunger. An insatiable hunger to strive for more. Whether it be more knowledge, greater spiritual ascension, better physical fitness, it is a never ending chase. But instead of more, why is it so hard to be? To be present, in the moment, to enjoy what is happening right now, because the now is not something you get back. I got caught in the rain today and I didn’t mind because I had on my rain gear. I set out for what I thought was the entrance to the Arenal Volcano Park. I came to find out, after walking for 20 minutes, that I was very far from where I wanted to be. So, I turned around and I walked. I walked back to where I was and as I did, I ran into a couple who told me that I had to see La Fortuna Waterfalls. I saw a sign for it and followed it. That turned out to be another hour walk, but I made it and I arrived at the falls to have my breath completely taken away. I must say, it was one of the more beautiful falls I’ve seen.

La Catarata de La Fortutna

 Enjoy the moments. Peace and blessings.