Life Lessons Learned in Central America

Nothing makes a person feel more empowered than setting off on a trip to a far-off land, while whimpering internally all the way onto the plane, and then actually completing the trip! Speaking from personal experience, I found the depth of my bravery on my recent backpacking trip to Central America. I was terrified to leave home and all that I knew in exchange for a backpack and the unknown. I really wanted to see the world and embrace that nostalgic feeling of “the open road,” so in December 2012, I sold all of my belongings, bought a one-way ticket to Guatemala, and set off. Here are a few lessons I picked up along the Pacific Rim.

1. Learning a foreign language in any country boosts self-confidence.

It is one thing to practice your Spanish in a classroom setting in North America. It is a whole different affair when your survival depends on learning and speaking a new language. Food, water, and hostel are all essential things you need to ask for in the language of your host country. I enrolled in a three-week language homestay in Nicaragua and the Spanish literally flowed out of me! Walking down the cobblestone streets of Granada saying good morning to all my new local friends gave me a self-confidence high that was hard to beat.

2. You are braver than you think.

This is a lesson I learned over and over again while backpacking. My first test of bravery in Central America was riding the “chicken bus.” It was an old American school bus which was rickety, brightly colored, and used to transport massive amounts of locals and tourists alike. The bus ride begins when you arrive at the bus depot and listen for a man screaming your destination at the top of his lungs. After locating him and paying the required fee, you toss your bag on top of the bus and jump in. There are no seat belts, but you can pray. The “chicken bus” moves like a freight train that got derailed on 5th Avenue in high traffic; it was scary, nauseating, and totally out of my comfort zone. I rode it close to six times, each time becoming braver (or crazier).

3.  Street smarts can only be learned on the streets.

Many parents think street smarts can be taught at the kitchen table via conversation. Some techniques can be taught that way, like your mom telling you to get into your car fast in a dark parking lot and lock the doors before starting the engine. I found that I learned most of my street smarts, however, on the actual streets of this world. There is nothing like dusk falling on that unfamiliar street you are walking on to make you speed up the pace to your hotel and “check your six” (code for watch your back for followers) constantly. As a backpacker, I learned some things fast, especially in bigger cities like Panama and Guatemala City. For example, always use the buddy system. A few other good ideas are to not flash your tourist map around, walk and speak with purpose as well as learn how to hide money all over your body.

The six months I spent backpacking in Central America were challenging, sometimes scary, and some of the most amazing times of my life. If a few of these lessons scare you, good. Life is real, intense, and quite incredible when you hit the road for a new place. Just remember to always “check your six.”

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