Several things happened when we finally arrived in Mexico City, our bags piled on the pavement outside the hostel in the pale yellow light of 7am as the taxi pulled away from the curb. The first thing that happened was a rush of beautiful, euphoric exhilaration, the kind that only comes from watching the sun come up over a brand new city. We walked to a money changer through streets that were empty except for road sweepers and food vendors, and watched a queue quickly form alongside a stand at which a smiling overweight man pulled parcels wrapped in corn husks from a huge steamer. Curious, we pointed and nodded, si, gracias, handing over small unfamiliar coins in return for our own parcel. We tore into it hungrily, eating the tamales de carne nestled inside with our hands, standing on the street corner.
The next thing that happened was jet-lag. Real jet-lag, the kind that puts an ache behind your eyes and a weight in your bones. We had flown from London to LA, across time zones and through the night, had spent the previous day driving from downtown to Venice Beach to Malibu to Santa Monica Pier to Hollywood, and then flew at midnight from LA to Mexico, landing at 6am. Of the last three nights, only one of them had involved a bed, and we had lived almost a whole day twice due to the time difference. The tiredness hit me mid morning, as tangible as a blow to the cheekbone, forcing my eyes closed and buckling my legs beneath me. I slept for a day and a night.
Then, as the next few days unfolded in that city of wide leafy streets and painted walls, of street tacos and police vans and blue houses and hidden gardens, the realisations happened.
I realised that I wasn’t travelling solo anymore.
I realised that I’m not the same girl who flew to Bali two and a half years ago.
I freaked out.
Let me explain. When I flew to Bali, I was 25. I was single, for the first time in six years. I was completely alone, completely free, on a journey that was mine and mine alone. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, and the idea of an expanse of time ahead of me with nothing to do but swim in the sea and meet new people and read and write and eat and travel to completely new places was like electricity running through my bones. I was excited and terrified and so, so free.
This time around, I expected it to feel exactly the same as when I boarded that plane two and a half years ago. But it doesn’t, because this trip isn’t the same as that one. This isn’t a one way ticket to a beach paradise destination with no agenda and no expectations. This is a trip taken with far more knowledge, and far more intention. I’m 28 now. I’m engaged, and travelling with my fiance. I’m freelancing, and I have work to do and money to make, and at the end of the year we’re moving to New Zealand. Freedom is still present, but no longer total.
I no longer have the luxury of beginner’s ignorance. I know things now, about long term travel, and about myself, that make me a different kind of traveller. I’m aware of the fact that the well trodden backpacker trail is rarely the place that brings me the most joy. I prefer to travel more slowly, to see places that don’t have a constant stream of tour buses pulling up every five minutes. I like mountains and deserted beaches, places that feel wild to me. I like to walk around a new city and eat whatever the local people are eating, to watch people going about their lives and then to write about it. And I’m easing myself back into the habit of doing whatever I want, because I’m out of touch with the freedom of it after a year at home.
I’m still learning though, every day. How to travel as a pair, for one thing. That’s hard. Amazing too, full of in-jokes and shared food and seeing the same wonder you feel reflected in the face of another person. I miss travelling alone some days though, and I know Rikki does too. At some point I know we’ll allow each other time to go our separate ways for a few weeks, to bask in the joy of solitude before coming together again with stories to tell.
We’re six weeks in. I started this post a month ago but it’s taken me until now to finish it. We blew through Mexico in a month of oceans and jungle temples and gorgeous colonial cities where the dying sun melts the painted walls butter yellow every evening, and passed through Belize in a blurry 24 hours of night buses and border officials to bounce across the waves on a speedboat to Guatemala. I sit right now on a sun baked rooftop, from which I can look out over the haze that hovers above Lake Atitlan to the volcanoes that ring its shores. We’ve stopped temporarily, and I have space to work and to write and to catch my breath.
It’s not the same, this time around. And I’m not the same. But maybe that’s a good thing. This isn’t a once in a lifetime trip, it’s my life. And breathe…