Tulum.

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The last stop on my journey. My flight from Havana to Cancun is a leap of extremes; I enter North America in way of a transition back to the comfortably western, accommodating, and developed world that awaits me in New York. I depart Havana without having used the internet for more than one hour in eleven days and arrive to instant access to free wifi at the airport in Cancun. The limited supply of baked goods in the bakeries of Cuba were transformed to supermarkets providing varying types of cookies, cakes, and any sweet treats imaginable. I went from one world to the next on a mere 45 minute flight. I wasn’t prepared to arrive in a part of Mexico where there are more Americans than Mexicans, where American brands infiltrated every corner shop on main street, and where you can eat just about any type of cuisine you desired, from Thai to Italian to BBQ. Thankfully, my exposure to Cancun was limited only to the airport and to a brief stroll through downtown Playa del Carmen for a bus to mini-shuttle changeover. Although Tulum as a neighborhood is far less affected by the United States, it still gave me a shock, not only coming from Cuba but coming from six months of the hardships and discomforts I often experienced in South America. Indeed I was heading towards home, and Tulum, fortunately or not, was that last little thread I hung by to remind myself that I was a backpacker pushing through a whole lot of grit for half a year.

Initially I felt a little down by being back so close to the lifestyle I had departed from while traveling. But Tulum is a lovely town, although lacking of an “I’m in a foreign country that is Mexico” feeling. It’s a town of transplants from the United States and Europe, and most of them have a warm, inviting, and free-spirit hippie vibe about them. Tulum downtown is small, and after four days there I felt like a local. There are your typical pharmacies, souvenir shops, and alcohol vendors, but you can see the influence of foreigners changing the landscape of the town: fresh juice shops, street stalls selling coconut water, loads of wall murals painted with colorful, Mayan-inspired art, homemade gelato and ice cream stores, a shop selling only varying types of organic iced tea, scuba diving schools, and bicycle rentals. Mexico is cheaper than New York, and certainly not as backpacker friendly as much of South America; however, the prices of such luxuries I missed while traveling, like a green juice smoothie or dairy-free ice cream, were significantly less than in New York City, and I was grateful to have these little niceties accessible again.  

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For those with money to spend and a need for more of a beach/yoga retreat, the accommodations along the beach are where you’ll find ample opportunities. Only about fifteen minutes by car from downtown, these resorts and hotels line up one next to another, although in a way entirely dissimilar to Cancun. Instead of large, all-inclusive resorts with fancy gates and infinity pools, these hotels incorporate all the nature it occupies, with trees and sand making its way into the design of the space. The water in Tulum is a gorgeous turquoise, the sand is soft, and palm trees are plentiful. The hotels creatively incorporate the serenity that people seek when they come to Tulum, largely for a healthy yoga and meditation experience. It’s a single road that connects all the hotels, restaurants with vegan offerings, and stores that sell bohemian clothes and high-end leather dreamcatchers. The highly participated nightlife consists mostly of DJs playing deep house music on the beach, and those devoted to the festival scene congregate here at various times throughout the year.
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Knowing the way in which I like to travel, I can say that if I was in Tulum just for a vacation, I wouldn’t like it as much as I did while I was there in this context. As an outsider it truly seemed like a carefree, beach version of New York City, if we had no worry about making enough money or having a successful career. It’s a place where people go to escape but also have the option of bringing their diet and active lifestyle with them. And I was okay with that. There were times when I traveled when I wasn’t eating well merely because that type of food wasn’t available. I wasn’t getting enough sunshine and fresh air because a city was enveloped in smog. I would be so cold that my muscles ached. And here, I could absorb the piercing heat and the sunshine. I could relax and take one last inhale before heading back to the unknown that awaited me.

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I snorkeled with the green sea turtles, I swam in the clear, warm Caribbean waters, I ate fresh fruit and drank coconut water every day. I visited the Mayan ruins of Tulum. I went cavern diving in two beautiful cenotes. This was a highlight for me; never had I scuba dived in almost complete darkness and in fresh water where the water is completely still, where you have 100% perfect visibility. In these caverns I saw the world of caves under water, almost as if you were looking upside down. I saw just how complex these caves can be, how the stalactites and stalagmites are even more beautiful below the surface.

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Tulum ruins on the coast.
Diving through the Casa Cenote, one of the longest cave systems in the world.
Diving through the Casa Cenote, one of the longest cave systems in the world.

I’ve written this post so far as memory. Truthfully, I am back in New York now (my thoughts about being back will come in another post). However, I would like to share what I had written on my very last day traveling, the day I was to leave Tulum for a flight out of Cancun and back to New York. I wrote it on my phone with the intention of including it in this post once I was able to.

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A perfectly modern, western transition back into society. Tulum has certainly felt more like a vacation; I would say Cuba was the last time I felt like a backpacker, or at least the last time I truly acted like one.  It’s amazing to realize all the types of discomforts we are able to bear when we travel, and how little we seek out the comforts of a Tulum-type of place until, perhaps, the very end, when we know we are going home and all we want is to make things as seamless as possible.

And I’ve been transitioning socially as well, messaging friends to let them know of my arrival. I could have ignored their messages but I figured it would be best to slowly start speaking with them. I’m not sure I am ready to see some of them, honestly. But anyways, it should be alright.

So anyhow, today is the last day, and I needed to document this day as it is important to me. It’s the last day of the my past that I hope will shape my present. That I may slow down my walking pace, seek to not judge others and new people, embrace the travel spirit, blah blah blah. You know, all that life changing stuff we hear about from returning backpackers. But seriously, I am fully aware that this is a time of my life that was so precious, a gift I cannot help but be so proud to have received. I realize that not everyone can travel the way that I did.

There was so much of the normal trials and tribulations of a backpacker that I experienced while traveling through South and Central America, but I also left much behind me as I began to pave new paths for my future. I had to leave my apartment without actually physically being there, never having closure of my life in NYC and without a guarantee of coming back. I gave up job opportunities, and an immediate chance of employment at a tech startup in Berlin. I realized that I wanted to go to graduate school. So, I did research, chose a school in Berlin, applied for that school (by writing my essay in a Starbucks in Cusco), got accepted, took some time to see if I was really ready to leave town this coming September after a busy summer, and decided to defer my admission for one year. I am going home with no plan; all I know for now is I have about a month in New York while my cousin from Brasil will be visiting and my grandmother will be spending one week at home. So it’s a full house and a full summer, as I am leaving again for Brasil in August to see the Olympics in Rio. All of a sudden I’m a busy girl again, with places to go and people to see.

I suppose this way is better than being alone and without direction. But I still feel I am still without a true direction, and that makes me nervous. It also makes me laugh, because I met so many people traveling who were doing the exact same thing as I was. They were trying to find themselves through travel, trying to find the answers they were looking for. But as of right now I really don’t know where I will be in 6 months. The goal for right now is going to Berlin to work and then attend graduate school. I am absolutely certain that I need a break from the city that has worn me out, from New York. Being away from the city for so long made me realize that as much as I miss some of its comforts, culture, and glamour, I would truly rather give it all up, again, to see the world the way I saw it in South America.
To feel such rawness and extremes of emotions, to go through as many blissful moments as I did obstacles, all at once overwhelming, humbling, and powerful. To meet people that have inspired me and have made me look at myself in new ways. To see extraordinary beauty. This is travel. This was my six and a half months. All I can say is that I am excited yet terrified to be going home. As I have said and believed in time and time again: the universe provides, and what I am meant to be doing in my life is going to happen just the way it’s supposed to be.

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Puerto Viejo.

And then, just over a week after staying in Costa Rica alone to stay put and slowly transition home, as I had written in my last post, “San José,” a switch flips inside of me. I break down and then leap in the completely opposite direction. I cry, realizing that  I’m doing something that doesn’t make me in the least bit happy. I’m forcing myself to stay someplace because it’s what I thought I “should” be doing. It’s what I thought would encourage me to slow down and be more introspective. But the slow traveling lifestyle is just not who I am. It’s not me, and I was kidding myself in trying to be someone I wasn’t. And in realizing this I feel that heavy weight lift off my shoulders again, that same downward, sluggish force I remember bringing me down in Patagonia on Christmas Eve when I hadn’t yet made the decision to extend my travels from two months to more than six.

Now I feel that spark in me again, that energy I thought I had lost when I found myself solo-backpacking once more in the last stretch of my journey. I realized that it wasn’t that I was alone that was leaving me in this state; I had grown tired of Costa Rica, for whatever reason, and so I lost the passion for traveling in the country. I have accepted that I am going home, and yes I am feeling as ready as I can be to be going back. I even made it official last night – I bought the last of my one-way tickets, this time from Cancún, Mexico to New York. 

However, contrary to what I “thought” I wanted or what was supposed to be “good” for me, until that day comes I’m going to continue to travel exactly as I want to. I will travel in a way that gives me happiness, strength, and brings me back to my intentions that I had created for myself before even leaving New York last winter. 

I immediately chose Guatemala as my next destination. The only things that were keeping me in Costa Rica were some pre-booked flights and a deposit on a yoga retreat. It’s a travel lesson I keep revisiting and a habit I find hard to break: to remember to plan ahead as little as humanly possible. Things will change, your feelings about a place will change over time, and although some activities do require advanced booking, trust that they will become available to you if they are meant to. 

Truthfully it is hard to lose money on those sorts of travel purchases, knowing that you won’t get any refund. But I actually feel completely okay with the things I had to give up. Normally I would be upset and it would be at the back of my mind for days, knowing I could have avoided wasting this money, but now I realize that money isn’t going to make me happy, whether I keep it, it’s stolen from me, or I willingly spend and lose it. 
What will make me happy is visiting somewhere new and all the while not forcing myself to be someone I am not. For being authentically me. I like to go to new countries and cities and move about at a pace that doesn’t match with many backpackers, but I am happily packing my days with adventure, mixed with a few days here and there of downtime — and this is what I enjoy. I think that those prolonged days of relaxation that I am looking for should actually be in New York City, where I can practice slowing down in a place I know well. It’s my home, a place where I can settle into routine and learn to be at peace with a more settled lifestyle there. But for now, my ways of backpacking is just how I want them to be. 

I don’t think I’ve ever made such a fast, yet completely clear and correct decision in my life. I was couchsurfing in Playa Chiquita, eight kilometers from Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, a laidback Afro-Caribbean beach town. My host lives in a beautiful jungle house where howler monkeys woke me at 4:30am with their morning wake up call, and white-faced capuchin monkeys were often seen playing in the trees just a few meters away. It was, for me, a peaceful and perfectly Caribbean last few days, complete with a capoeira class, daily healthy vegetarian food, and a twelve kilometer bike ride to the nearby beaches of Punta Uva, Manzanilla, and Cocles. But in the back of my mind I was stressed. I felt I had seen what I wanted to in just three days, but I had to stay another three nights so that I could catch a flight from the nearby city of Limon to Drake Bay, on the Osa Peninsula. From there, the plan was to scuba dive and explore Drake Bay. However, that was only a possibility as it’s currently low season and dives are not guaranteed. Then I planned to see yet another national park, which although I love, I was starting to get tired of, regardless of where I am in the world. And finally, a very remote five night yoga escape on a farm far south in Punta Banco. 

But that never happened, because I found myself booking a flight to Guatemala, a country I had thought about visiting since someone had mentioned it to me in mid-April. And the flights were surprisingly inexpensive. I got myself on a bus in the morning to San José and got on a plane the following day.

Yes, I would be giving up seeing one of the “most biologically intense places on Earth” christened by National Geographic (the peninsula contains 2.5% of the entire biodiversity of the planet, living on a mere 0.00000085% of the earth’s total surface area). Yes, I wouldn’t go scuba diving in the second best place in the country (the best being off the shores of Cocos Island, a remote and protected area found 300 miles southwest of the mainland). But, I truly didn’t mind missing it. I knew I could always go back. After all, what’s the point in traveling if it’s merely to check something off a list? I surely have to take with me some enticing reasons to go back to Costa Rica later in life, and visiting the Osa Peninsula, and perhaps one day scuba diving at Cocos, are most certainly two of them. 

I didn’t have a plan in Guatemala. I didn’t even know what there was to see there. But what I am learning to trust in every day that I travel is that things will figure themselves out, as they always have. And in the grander perspective of my life figuring itself out, I’d like to trust in the universe that in the end, everything will.

Note on photos below: I don’t have many great photos of Puerto Viejo, but I do have some pictures from the four days I spent in Manuel Antonio, on the pacific coast of Costa Rica. They’re shown here.

Manuel Antonio National Park

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Monkeys outside the hostel in Manuel Antonio

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A casual sign alerting drivers to be ware of small children and animals.

White faced capuchin monkey.

Day trip from Manuel Antonio to Playa Dominical.

Sunset in Manuel Antonio.

Chiclayo & Chachapoyas.

For the first time while backpacking South America, I made the conscious decision to travel with someone else. I thought long and hard about traveling with a companion, and it happened quite organically. I made friends with a group of six backpackers in Sucre, Bolivia, and happened to run into them in La Paz, and again in Cusco, Peru. They were a fun group from England, Belgium, and France, and were very relaxed about their travels. One of them expressed an interest in the same route I planned to take in the north coast of Peru and the northeast Amazon, areas that aren’t as frequently traveled by first-time backpackers to the country. And so, after getting to know this person through my run-ins with this group in various cities, I decided to give traveling with someone else a chance.

As a solo-backpacker, I have met many people in my travels that have turned out to become my good friends. But what I have done so many times in the past is made these connections and frequently kept in touch, but I never thought about having them actually accompany me in my intended route. Perhaps it’s because people haven’t been traveling to the same places as I’ve been along the way. But in this case, someone came along with flexibility to explore Peru, and without a set date to go home. and most importantly we seemed to share a similar traveling style.

So far we’ve visited the coastal city of Chiclayo and the mountain town of  Chachapoyas. As of now it has only been a short time since the two of us have been traveling, but I can tell that I am learning a lot from this experience already. It turns out there are quite a few practical benefits to traveling with a companion, and arguably it’s more interesting to do so with someone who doesn’t come from home, someone with an entirely different culture than your own. You can save money when splitting taxis, food, and accommodation. Making decisions are often easier when you have someone to talk them out with. Long bus rides go by quicker and are far less stressful when you know whom you’ll be sitting next to. They can watch your bags when you need to step away for a moment. Tours can be booked at a cheaper rate when there’s two people involved. Overall, you have someone to watch your back while you watch theirs. You have a friend to share in the sometimes stressful interactions with locals that you can later laugh about together. You have a witness to the indescribably funny and crazy moments along the way. You have someone to help you be accountable. That person can push you to do things you otherwise wouldn’t think of doing (in a good way, of course). And if you’re lucky, that person can be on the same wavelength as you. As time flies by, you’ll learn more about that person’s life, and in turn you’ll be given the chance to share in your own experiences. Because really, everyone has their own travel story to tell.

I am curious what I will learn from all of this, and will surely write about it once I am well on my way alone again.

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Tucume, the largest pyramid complex in the world, outside of Chiclayo. At this site there are 26 important pyramids in 540 acres. Constructed by the Lambayeque in 1000 AD, they were conquered by the Chimu in 1375 and incorporated into the Incan Empire in 1470.

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Sunset at Pimentel beach in Chiclayo.
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Kuelap ruins outside of Chachapoyas. The Fortress of Kuelap is one of the largest ancient stone monuments in the New World, and is at located 3,000 meters.
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Kuelap was built during the pre-Inca times, at around the sixth century A.D.

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In contrast to the Incas, who built their homes in a rectangular shape, the people of Kuelap built their domiciles in a circle.

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Recife.

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Palm Trees in Porto de Galinhas

This is the post I have been putting off writing for a number of reasons. One is that it forces me to confront this city through the eyes of what feels like two different people. The first is through the eyes of someone who has been visiting Recife at least once per year since she was six months old, and who lived here when she was young. The other is from the viewpoint of someone so far removed from the day-to-day lives of her family, someone who grew up in New York accustomed to the American way of life. I am confronted with so many emotions each time I come to Recife, oftentimes conflicting with one another and lasting well into my return to the states. With each visit it becomes more difficult to adapt and to blend in with my family’s habits and underlying ethos. I should mention that my mother knows all too well the roller coaster of scenarios thrown at me in Recife and of all the emotions that result from it, for she has been either present to witness my experiences or she has been my soundboard to listen to the variations of my distress when I come here on my own. I know she struggles with seeing her daughter go through a partial identity crisis as she probably feels many of the same things as I do as a woman who left her home country at my current age.

This trip to Recife is the first time I visit while traveling for an extended period of time. It was originally meant to serve has a 2 week break from backpacking –  a way to rest and not worry about where I was going to sleep or how I was going to get to my next destination. I would have homemade food and family members to drive me from one place to another. I would have clothes to borrow so I wouldn’t tire of the ones I had been traveling with. I would have the comforts of home.

I am nearing the end of these two weeks, and I find that this was the most difficult trip to Recife thus far. At first I thought it was a mistake to come here – I knew some of the issues that I would face from past experiences, and I was afraid being here would throw me out of travel-mode and make me too dependent on others. But in my heart I knew a break was needed; I had been traveling two and a half months and planned to continue another three to four months.  Being here has taught me a lot of difficult things about my place within my family and my association with being a Brasilian citizen. I’ve learned just how much my lifetime of travels have affected how I perceive my family and my country, as well as how almost everything else is interconnected and shaping me every single day.

My mom was the only child in the family to move away from home. She has been living in New York for 29 years, officially longer than the amount of time she lived in Recife. She became accustomed to life as an American citizen. She raised a daughter as an American – more specifically, as a New Yorker. I am an only child. I always felt the closest thing I had to siblings were my first cousins in Brasil. And so when I visit I have this expectation that because we are related and because I grew up spending time with them, that we have much in common and we will always have much to discuss. I see them the way I do some of my oldest friends, people that no matter how much time passes I can still talk to as if I saw them only yesterday.

However as the years pass and as we grow older, the more I see that this is not the case. My cousins have lived in this city their entire lives, and some of them have married and even one of them has an incredible little son. They are finding their place in this world. I am also finding my way, but our paths are moving in opposite directions. There is little I can hold on to, so little to talk about. Part of the reason is because I have a general sense of what they’re doing with their lives, but for some reason most of my family hasn’t any clue what I have been doing with my life beyond the photos I post to Instagram. Some of them are so out of touch they don’t even realize I am visiting them halfway between a six month backpacking journey across their own continent. Never-mind that most of them know little beyond the northeast of Brasil – I am not one to judge how far they’ve traveled or their reasons for traveling or not traveling to a particular place. What I do know is what I value in my relationships. I value conversation – a dialogue where we can learn from one another about where we’ve come from and where we are going next – both literally and figuratively. In a literal sense, no one seems to have an interest in where I travel to next on my journey. They don’t ask how my past two months have been, where I have gone, what I have learned. They don’t ask why I even chose to travel, and what I was doing beforehand that prompted this need to get out of New York. Perhaps it’s because they think they know me. They’ve seen me travel before, they know I have difficulty deciding what I am doing with my life. They know I am never tied down to any relationship, that I don’t have a child or even a pet to take care of. Maybe for them this is just the “same-old” for their niece, the same unorthodox routine for their cousin.

I have an increasingly more profound respect for my mom as I see what life could have been like for her, and what path she chose instead. I am steadily grateful that I was given the chance to experience so much just because of the city that I was born and raised in. And because I grew up in a liberal, open household. In a home where men and women are treated equally, where homosexuals are accepted exactly as they are, and where different religions are not only embraced but explored. Where doing things a little differently from everyone else is perfectly okay. Where speaking different languages is encouraged and where going to museums and shows are integrated into the monthly cultural calendar. Where travel is valued above all material possessions. I am acutely aware of how it could have been different.

Is my Brasilian family really home? My mother is my home until this day. My paternal grandmother was part of my childhood home. My father and his beloved partner of ten years were part of my childhood home. Recife is the other me that wants to try and be Brasilian too, who wants to fit in the mold of a Brasilian household. But it’s not really home. It’s a place where I can try and quench my thirst for nostalgia, for childhood, for preserving my Brasilian culture. Recife will always be here, and I know that I am always welcome. I come back each time with a blank slate, like a loyal dog that forgets its owner’s past faults and transgressions. Yet I keep thinking how every time I leave, I tell myself that I won’t be coming back unless it’s for an unmissable moment in my family’s lives, whether it be a wedding or a new baby. I always have hope that we have all grown up and reached a point where we can move towards crossing one another’s paths to find commonalities, but now I realize that my outlook may be too high. This is by no means my last time in Recife, but it is my last time here with the same expectations as before.

No one chooses their family. But they will always be simply that — my family. What I’ve tried so many times before was to reconcile the cultural differences and values I have with them and assume that we are not just family. Rather we can be a cohesive unit, one that can break the chains of ignorance together, one that can take the unique situation of having relatives from another culture and learn from one another. I wish that we could be friends, have commonalities, share what’s going on beyond the trivialities of our day-to-day. That conversations could crack the surface. Unfortunately I have not been able to do this at the level I had hoped. I feel sad that this is the case, but at the same time I accept that it is what life has given me. I can only take what I’ve learned and impart the same values that I hold true onto a future family of mine.

Despite all of this, my family is still there for me – whether I realize it or not, they think of me and care about me on a profoundly deep level. They are my blood and always will be. And they are truly incredible and beautiful people – despite our differences, I still hold them dear to me and I want to be as present as I can be in their lives.

Today is my birthday. The past few birthdays my thoughts seemed to center around this concept of family that currently I’m reflecting on in this post. It’s not any surprise that I chose to celebrate my birthday here. It’s as if I am deliberately celebrating this moment of significance in my life in a city and with people with whom I struggle greatly with. Birthdays are not just about the party: they are reminders of where we’ve come from and they guide us as we decide which door to open next.

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Celebrating my Birthday with my family
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Carnaval in the streets of Olinda

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Colorful houses in Olinda
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Street art in Olinda
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Porto de Galinhas
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Pipa Beach
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View of Pipa
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Low Tide at Praia do Amor, Pipa

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