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New Musings from an Old Backpacker



On our last night in Antigua, Emma and I ate dinner at Cactus Grill , one of our regular haunts—wicked good burritos. We were chatting with a dear friend, whose name shall be changed for incriminating purposes: Let’s call him…Bryan Foot. Anyway, we got onto the subject of my writing, or what my blog would be about post-Guatemala, and of what Bryan thought would be interesting.

Mr. Foot is a couple of years older than me, owns his own business, and is an all-around good guy—kind, funny, reasonably clever, an innovator of sorts. He’s also the guy who’d stood with me on Earth Lodge’s pavilion sharing one of far too may beers at three a.m. that morning, both of us now hurting from waning hangovers and downing a margarita between beers. Ironically, he wanted me to write about what it’s like to backpack in my mid-thirties, how my views of hostels and partying and roughing it have changed.

I liked the idea. The next morning, exactly 24 hours after that beer on the pavilion, I set off for Leon, Nicaragua. The bus trip would take roughly 16 hours, cross four borders (i.e. four countries in one day), and give me plenty of time to consider what I’d write. Unlike Emma, who is sleeping within five minutes of boarding any type of transportation, I get uncomfortable. Hot. My knees hurt. I struggle to entertain myself and typically saw through the better part of a book.


This trip was no different, except that at about six o’clock that evening, crossing over into Nicaragua…it was weird scene: thousand of birds were cackling from and swarm back forth between treetops, everyone was having there 10th or 15th round of procrastination cigarettes of the day, and Emma and I, despite having been traveling for 13 hours or more, just stayed put…crossing over into Nicaragua, the sun went down and made it too dark to read anymore. As the bus started moving again, Emma drifting back into la-la land, I was left with my thoughts.

Miraculously, I fell asleep.

When we arrived in Leon, I was deep into a sleeping cycle such that Emma had to shake me awake. We’d not made reservations, but there was a special at nearby hostel (Bigfoot), which specialized in “hip” signage and surfing down the side of volcanoes. There was a discount for people using Gekko Explorers (best shuttle we’ve used by the way). Basically, if you arrive on Gekko, you got a dorm bed for free. Emma usually handles these sorts of things for us, so she left me with our bags (I usually handle those sorts of things) and took off to see if anything was available.

One of the reasons Emma and I work so well as travel companions is that she, like me, would much rather pay two dollars more to share a private room, so she’d worked out that we could get the same discount from Bigfoot hostel and put it towards a private room. This, however, seems a bit antithesis of the backpacker code, i.e. that all things—including but not forfeiting drinking, drugs, and life-threatening activities—should be done as cheaply as possible.

Here’s the thing, and Mr. Foot knows this, I’ve never been much of “partier” but do pretty well holding my liquor. I met Emma on my first full-time gig overseas, have been with her since, and consequently have never traveled as a single-and-ready-to-mingle type. Lastly, I’ve always hated noisy stuff, live happily as dirty guy in a tent, like porch sessions with guitars, am not as much for talking as I am writing, enjoy smoking but have too healthy of a demeanor for such a thing, love LSU football and will got to extremes to make sure I catch a game—I don’t have a clean slot in which to reside.

What’s more is that I’ve set out on this trip seeking a genuine change in myself, believing wholeheartedly—as if I’d not been jumping countries for the last 8 years—that it can happen, that the old me won’t be trailing close behind the traveler. I’m trying to be more responsible: consciously drink less, give up smoking, move more extremely into my already ridiculous eating restrictions (“selective veganism”, it’s called), and exercise more regularly. In short, I’m starting to sound somewhat—minus the job-be-damned, everything-I-own-in-a-backpack, volunteering-to-heal-the-world shtick—like an adult. A real one. Or, half of one. What I label as one.

After Emma and I settle into our room, wiping a little of the grime off ourselves, we go in search of food. The bar/restaurant at Bigfoot is loud, full of baby-faced surfers come to ride the volcano, and pizza. Selective vegans can’t have factory-farmed cheese, so pizza is unfortunately—in so many ways—off my daily menu but looks really good. After studying the menu, we have two options: a roasted vegetable Panini or a veggie burger (sin queso ni mayonesa). Unsure if the pesto is vegan and not wanting to get into it with the bartender, we opt for the burger…and we split it*.


  • The splitting of the burger, I believe, is a curious move. It could be argued an adult-like soirée in into practicality, not wanting to overstuff ourselves before bedtime so that we could sleep soundly. Or, it is an supremely backpacker-ish move: We’d ask where the supermarket was, and only after being told it was close did we settle ourselves to spending the four-plus dollars on a restaurant meal. Unable to stomach the cost of two four-plus dollar meals, we thriftily went to bed hungry, regardless of whether it meant we slept soundly or not. I’m not sure which of these happened here.

We sat wide-eyed as we ate. The non-natives were getting restless, shooting cheap booze and growing louder in the communicative needs. Uninspired, we retired to our room for an early evening, cursing the thought of a late night party outside our door. We watched the first fifteen or so minutes of a downloaded episode of Breaking Bad while remarking about how amazingly quiet our little room was. And, thus, we were back to backpacking.

How might this have been different from 10-years-younger version of myself? To name but a few:

• For one, young people scare the hell out of me now, especially in a traveling capacity. If you are under 25, I only mildly trust you until you’ve proven yourself. I’m just not sure what it is that’s being proven.
• TV outweighed beer? These two great companions have teamed up throughout my life, but downloaded shows over partying at a hostel. The old, ready-to-take-on-the-world me would have been disgusted, but the I’ve-been-around guy knows there always a party when you need one.
• My life-changing decisions now have more to do with being healthy and “settling down” whereas I once got so drunk I sleep-peed off the top bunk of my dorm bed. Dude, that was not cool. I’m pretty sure my bladder has grown weaker since then, so why risk it?
• Confidence: Now, I’m fairly sure I can do what I need to do. Then, I was fairly sure going back to US an international failure was the worst fate possible. In that regard, there’s nothing left to prove, and I’ve outrun that need.

Next time on New Musings from an Old Backpacker: The New Experience for the More Experienced

Posted by jonathonengels 06:14 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged travel backpacking expat

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