40 liter packs are (almost) all you need
Imagine living out of a suitcase no bigger than a 1.5 square foot box. That’s basically what Shannon and I did for two months backpacking around Central America. We’re proud to report that not only did we have the smallest bags of anyone we met but that our 40 liter packs were perfectly adequate for this specific trip.
While “perfectly adequate” is a true enough description of what we experienced, “barely adequate” fits too. We’d have been in trouble if we needed to plan for colder weather or multiple seasons. Traveling through Central America we had the luxury of packing lightweight clothing, although the highlands of Guatemala got surprisingly chilly. I was happy to have a heavy fleece I didn’t originally intend to pack but brought along because Houston was so damn cold when we left.
Even in colder climates, we probably could have made the 40 liter backpacks work if not for all of the electronics we hauled: two laptops, a digital camera, a video camera, an iPhone, a surge protector, a universal power adapter, battery charger, and the cables needed to power all this junk. Leaving the electronics at home would have freed up almost an entire bag – but we’d never do that.
Skype is too unreliable for business calls
Our experiment using Skype as our only telephone service was only partially successful. On the plus side, Skype is an incredibly cost effective way to call the U.S. from abroad. For keeping in touch with family and friends it is probably the only phone service you need. But for business calls, we couldn’t ever guarantee a strong enough internet connection to make Skype reliable.
Almost everywhere we stayed advertised free wifi. Sometimes it worked great, other times, not so great. We couldn’t know until we arrived what we’d encounter, so we never knew whether we’d have phone service or not; hardly ideal when you need to schedule calls or telephone interviews.
We also learned that some local phone monopolies block Skype calls. It took us awhile to figure out that was the case in Belize, and was why even with strong internet connections we couldn’t get Skype to work. We also discovered that if we encrypted our internet connection through a “virtual private network” it prevents the phone company from distinguishing between regular internet traffic and Skype traffic, so they just let everything pass. We used the Hotspot Shield app on our iPhone to thwart Big Brother in Belize. This turned out to be a pretty useful hack that allowed us to make calls over Skype even though it was supposed to be blocked.
Get off the main strip for the best eats
It isn’t exactly breaking news that the best, and cheapest, food is found away from the places tourists frequent. We were still surprised by the extent to which this was true, especially in Belize. The beach in San Pedro, for example, is lined with expensive, generally bad, international cuisine. A mere two blocks inland, we found terrific local fare at local prices.
Travel is all the same
One of the things that surprised me is how familiar backpacking through Central America felt. The modes and methods of travel were different from RVing, for sure. Language and cultural differences added something to the experience that you don’t get from traveling around your home country. But for the most part, travel is about seeing and experiencing new things. That feels exactly the same whether you’re in San Ignacio or San Francisco.
People frequently romanticize international travel and ignore great destinations in their own backyard. That is a mistake. The things we saw and experienced in Central America weren’t necessarily better than those in the U.S. The best were just different. And that is reason enough to go.
Having lived in and around New York City for the better part of two decades, we’ve grown to expect a certain amount of speed and efficiency. Not surprisingly, we are often frustrated by the slower pace at which most of the rest of the world operates.
We knew things would be slower still in Central America. We arrived expecting everything to take longer than it should and to proceed on its own schedule or on no schedule at all. We weren’t disappointed, things were sloooow; but neither were we frustrated. When you expect things to happen slowly and things to start late, it doesn’t bother you when lo-and-behold, they happen slowly and start late. Call it the soft benefit of low expectations. The trick for us will be to maintain our newly found Zen-like mastery now that we’re heading back home.