At sunset in Panajachel, Guatemala, a line of snack stalls abutted the Lake Atitlán.
Each one offered beers, swaddled with napkin bibs, and fresh ceviches with their own little twist. Living there for over a month, I could have tried them all. But walking by every night, I chose the same one — not because I was uninterested in trying something different, but because being a regular just felt good.
Occasionally, I’d sit at one of the little plastic stools, overlooking the clear, moody expanse for a bit. But more often than not, I’d just grab my Corona con limón and a pack of Elotitos — spicy corn nuts — and head for my chosen dock, sitting on the same worn wooden construction and watching the sun melt into the same gray volcano vista.
Soon, the woman working the stand knew me, and my order, and by the time I’d reach the stools, the napkin cape was already swaddled, top popped, her three little boys, toting hand-held trucks, yelling “hola!” as I approached.
On those evenings, I didn’t feel the grandeur and change and awe we so often associate with travel. It wasn’t a deep connection, or an anecdote I’d think to tell people when they ask why it is that I do this. It was just something that happened because I was there, long enough to build the simplest of routines, to cobble together one of the simplest forms of community. And because I’d begun to travel the way I would for a year: really, really SLOWLY.
Often, when a new acquaintance finds out I’m nomadic, they ask the same question:
“How many countries did you see last year?”
I understand why: competitive traveling (that is, nomads racing to visit every country in the world before a certain age) has become kind of trendy. People love to show off their passport stamps, count off the countries they’ve explored on the fingers of their hands.
Travel, in a lot of ways, has become a sort of conquest: there is a sexiness in talking about the places we’ve all been, even if we can’t say much about them.
So when my answer to that question — four countries in the last year (six if you include the U.S. and Canada!) — comes out, maybe it sounds a little disappointing to some. A lot of people seem genuinely confused that I decided to spend nearly four months in Guatemala, or a month and a half in a tiny, beach-less Belizean town alone.
I explain that in my first year of nomadic travel, so much was overwhelming and exhausting and I was just trying to get my feet beneath me as I struggled to balance work, exploration and logistical necessities.
Now that I feel like I understand what I want and I need a little better, I tell them, I expect Year 2 to be different.
That is … I expect to travel even slower.
As recent as a couple years ago, I was jetting around southeast Asia, spending no more than three days in each place. For a lot of people, that kind of travel is necessary — vacation time, and funds are understandably limited.
But for me, the equation has changed. “Vacation” no longer describes what I’m doing. Rather than an escape, it’s my new normal. Instead of passing through, I’m living my life in each of these locales.
One thing that was really impressed upon me in my first stage of this journey was that things take time. Meeting people takes time. Finding interesting voices takes time. Seeing a town, even a small one, takes time. Creating location-based content that you feel good about …it all takes time.
But perhaps even more than the requirement of that time is the fact that I simply want it.
Becoming a nomad has meant giving up all the little beauties of what we think of normal life. I long to be a regular, to develop routine; to find, in small ways, some semblance of community. I want to go to the market on a Saturday and go back at the same time a week later. I want to get the same meal twice and savor the familiar feeling. I want to find one stool at a cafe and return again and again. To me, that’s the greatest part of travel — feeling the flow and pattern of a place; fitting in just enough that you can imagine what life living there might be like.
The places that stick out from the last year all had those common threads. In Comayagua, Honduras, I visited the same little cervecería with my laptop every evening because I loved working outside by the fountains and listening to the same steady cascade while sipping the same blond ale. In Corozal, Belize, I picked up breakfast to go — always a tub of fresh fruit, a giant coffee and fresh-squeezed orange juice — from June’s Kitchen nearly every morning. Soon, she’d just yell “the normal??” from inside when I walked through the door.
There, I stayed long enough to feel the rhythm of the town, too — when schools let out and the sea wall became dotted with young lovers, the hour of day that the town became restless and alive. There was karaoke on Thursdays and Sundays, farmers markets on the weekends, art in the park once a month. It felt, as much as anything, like home.
And isn’t that what we’re all striving to find?
Staying somewhere longer gives me the chance not just to pack in sights and activities, but to find the opportunity to do the things I really crave — like simply walking around with a soundtrack in my ears, like repeating things I love the most. If I give myself that time, I notice more detail, I meet more people, I experience something that feels more real than a rushed postcard view.
How many countries will I visit this next year? I have no idea, and I don’t really care.
Because sometimes traveling the world is about grandeur and change and awe. But sometimes, it’s just about the same smiling woman handing you a beer in the evenings and knowing you’ll be back tomorrow.