It’s Okay to Drink the Water (and other reasons to love home)
A life on the road is a life spent adjusting to the unknown and the unreliable. Every new corner turned might lead to any number of outcomes, an experience which although not entirely circumscribed to long-term travel is nonetheless exacerbated by an existence bathed in unpredictability. This characteristic is more often than not a desired goal: to live unfettered by the humdrum of a privileged routine (because we are indeed advantaged creatures) gives a particular sparkle to every step taken, turning any common dirt road into a magical yellow-bricked path toward adventure and sun-dappled afternoons.
But the mercurial nature of travel – not to mention the frequent absence of familiar creature comforts – can also wear us down. The constant search of the new will at some point elicit a deep longing for old habits and trusted sights and scents. No matter how blue the sky or how shimmering the turquoise sea or how tasty the coconut water, there eventually comes a time when the bells of home sweet home start tolling away – more so when things go wrong, as they invariably do while on the road for too long a stretch.
Being sons and daughters of Southern Europe, we grew up with a sense of history closely linked to the blessings of proximity. Our hearts still beat to a Roman drum, and our minds have grown accustomed to reap the rewards of the ancient empire’s battle toward the obliteration of distance. All roads lead to more roads, as we learned, but you’ll eventually arrive home. Follow the olive oil trail, said the centurion.
Being spatially challenged, we ended up north, away from the olive trees.
The geographical boon bestowed by our continent of birth has, for instance, allowed us to leave Amsterdam in the morning and have lunch in Venice at noon, where we could listen to a new language, taste a unique gastronomy, experience a remarkably different culture and enjoy an entirely more pleasing climate, all under two hours. Nonetheless, the basics stayed the same (with expected variations), courtesy of living in one of the richest continents on the planet.
As we began to travel to increasingly distant and less wealthy lands, we learned to adjust our behavior and routine accordingly. That tasty fresh salad which we would probably gorge on if in Italy became a queasy omen of pestilence in India, whereas a walk at dusk signaled the coming onslaught of winged torpedoes of malaria and dengue. None of it ever stopped us from traveling. On the contrary, all of it only added to the exhilaration of being somewhere poles apart from home. After all, what’s adventure without risk?
From our fortunate position, a couple of weeks coping with plastic water bottles and DEET was just an added incentive; a way to test ourselves against the unforeseeable; a mark of rugged valor. That a great part of the world has to actually endure a lack of sanitation (or rather, lack of most things we take for granted) on a daily basis did nothing to dent our ridiculous notions of being epic trailblazers. Yes, we’re idiots – albeit lucky ones.
Following more than a year traveling through Mexico and Guatemala, much of it plagued by sickness and random catastrophes, our adventurous spirits have been somewhat restrained. The lust for the exotic and the reckless has given way to a penchant for scripted drama and pajamas. We have returned home, broken and broke.
As we were used to life in the developing world, we find it strange to return to what is now a life of enviable comfort. There are many things – big and small, important and trivial – which remind us of the the gaps between continents, running deeper than those dug by the oceans. At this particular moment in time, it feels good to return home and indulge in the luxuries of a land that, for all its faults, still sits on the cozier side of the world.
Here follow then 5 reasons to love home, to love Europe, to love Portugal, to love all the things we take for granted. As we’ve mentioned in our silly Travel Truisms post, one of the greatest gifts of travel is the gift of perspective.
5. Internet Connection Bandwidth (aka I Can Browse)
Ever heard of First World problems? No? Here’s an easy way to learn about it: walk into a trendy bar (careful not to bump into any open laptop) and politely ask the patrons to turn off the free wi-fi. Remember to smile while you watch the wailing and the riots unfurl.
It was only when we began last year’s mad journey along the Americas that we had any use for internet while traveling. Before, whenever departing to sunnier destinations we had been on holiday and mostly gadget-free. A couple of weeks in Sri Lanka meant a near-complete withdrawal from the world of beeps and emails and dots and status updates. We were free to roam.
Fast-forward to 2013 in Mexico: we’re trying to rent a room in the lovely town of San Andrés Cholula and our main concern is “Does it have internet?” Having had the senseless idea of starting this here blog, we soon got entangled in various First World problems, the most pressing one being, again, “Does it have internet?” Also,”Is it anywhere near 1998 levels speed-wise?” (All this would be in Spanish, so that last sentence would go: “¿Señor(a), la internet tiene la misma velocidad que cuando Titanic ganó todos los Oscars?”)
Spoiled as we were by the incredibly fast Dutch internet (9th fastest in the world, yo), our bandwidth days in Mexico tended to stretch a bit longer, particularly when I had to do any Lunaguava-related work. After a while though, specially as we moved toward Guatemala, it just became the new normal. Uploading a photo would take a few minutes, browsing around had to be done gently and slowly, downloading anything bigger than a song would take a day or two, Skype would occasionally (i.e. nearly always) turn into a gagging mishmash of blurry faces and out-of-sync audio, YouTube would be a continuous loop of black…
During the 11 months we spent in Antigua Guatemala, our maximum download speed was 100 kbps. Yes, that’s a “k”. There must have been faster internet around, but those were the numbers we got in our cozy place by the Church of San Francisco. We didn’t let it worry us much. By the end of our stay, we had fully adapted to a slower sense of speed.
Returning to Europe, our gadgets couldn’t believe their antennas in the same way we couldn’t believe our eyes. Clicking something meant another something would immediately pop up – not after we did some errands, like in Guatemala. To us, everything seemed to be running at the speed of light. Such a brave new world, we muttered, heads bent toward a small flashing screen.
It will take a lot to make us complain about internet speeds these days. We are like two kids playing with brilliantly restored toys. Even while writing this, I am enjoying the speed and stability afforded by our current country of residence. Later, I might upload a photo or two. Heck, we can watch something on YouTube now! If this state of affairs holds up, maybe we’ll even be able to watch that last Mad Men season after all…
4. Road Safety
We love driving. Most of our driving is done on the road. The roads are (mostly) good here in Portugal – although nothing quite beats the effervescent wonder of the North-American open road. Even more relevantly, the chances of being held up at gunpoint in broad daylight while driving through a major highway are quite low. We love that about Europe.
3. The Lure of the Familiar
What’s your favorite food? Ours would probably be Japanese, at least according to the trail of drool we left in Japan. Next on the list is perhaps Mexican, whose sheer delectable diversity is still sadly undervalued. Of course, there’s also Cambodian amok; or Indian samosas; or Guatemalan pepián; or Italian anything.
As travelers, we are fascinated by the unfamiliar. Going somewhere new means tasting, smelling, touching something new as well. Our senses are also more attuned to the nuances permeating our extraordinary world – a corner in Central America brings forth memories of another corner in Southeast Asia, or an African dish brings the taste of Southern Europe rushing back to our mouths, for instance. Wanderers live for this – the opportunity to learn of a new culture and enjoy all the glorious baggage coming with it.
But the lure of the familiar is never entirely absent.
Currently returned to our childhood land, we are now scavenging for all the things we’ve missed throughout all these years living as either expats or travelers. Although nothing is ever exactly as we remember it, we’ve been appreciating reconnecting with the scents, the tastes and the sights of our younger selves. It’s rather funny how quickly we are adapting to what was once familiar – particularly when it comes to food. This is the time to indulge in all the sweet and savory treats our bodies hold dear, a time to be savored in the company of new and old friends, waiting for whatever comes next.
2. Health Care System
We did not have an easy year. Much of 2014 was spent visiting Mexican and Guatemalan hospitals, pharmacies and a diverse assortment of doctors. We have no complaints about how we were treated in those two foreign lands, although our wallets might beg to differ.
Since our maladies were not acquired while on the road, our insurance couldn’t do much to stop the flood of money leaving our bank accounts. The costs involved in hospital stays and such are similar to the ones we would get in a private practice throughout most of Europe (obviously, if we had been in the USA we would be either dead or in jail, as we could never afford even a broken toe), with at least one important caveat: most medication is not subsidized by the state, meaning the price difference between a pill in Guatemala and the same in Portugal can be gigantic.
As an example, one of the several boxes of pills I had to take in Guatemala cost 1000 Quetzales, which is approximately 100 Euros. One box would last me 15 days. I had to take it for 6 months. You do the math.
The price of the same box of pills in Portugal? S-e-v-e-n euros.
We are aware of the economic and social inequality permeating developing nations like Guatemala (a state of affairs increasingly visible in so-called developed nations as well), but it’s still a shock to be reminded of how fortunate we are to have been born in a country with a fair health care system.
We’ve been acting like two country bumpkins visiting the city for the first time, so ecstatic we’ve behaved while receiving receipts for medication or analysis or anything medical. “This is it?” we keep asking bewildered. “Yes, this is it,” they invariably answer.
May it continue to be so.
1. Potable Water
A morning routine in Amsterdam:
Wake up. Get out of bed. Stumble through furniture and smelly socks and try to remember where the bathroom is located. Open bathroom door. Scratch head and pee (careful with the multitasking if a male of the species). Wash hands. Wash face with mouth open, perhaps even taking a sip from the tap if the previous night was rough enough. Stumble back to bed. Double-check alarm clock. Despondently return to bathroom and open shower tap. Let water flow. Wash body thoroughly with mouth open. Have a good gargle in the shower. Turn shower tap off. Dry yourself. Get dressed. Go to kitchen. Make breakfast. Eat breakfast. Return to bathroom. Brush teeth. Gargle with tap water. Clean toothbrush with tap water. Return to kitchen. Take an apple from the fruit bowl. Wash it with tap water. Take a bite. Leave home.
A morning routine in Antigua Guatemala:
Wake up. Get out of bed. Stumble through furniture and smelly socks and try to remember where the bathroom is located. Open bathroom door. Scratch head and pee (careful with the multitasking if a male of the species). Wash hands. Wash face with mouth closed, careful not to let any liquid enter your body. Stumble back to bed. Take a sip from bedside plastic bottle if previous night was rough enough. Double-check alarm clock. Despondently return to bathroom and open shower tap. Try not to get electrocuted. Let water flow. Hope it’s warm. Wash body thoroughly with mouth closed. Force yourself not to gargle in the shower. Turn shower tap off. Dry yourself. Get dressed. Go to kitchen. Make breakfast. Be sure to disinfect or boil anything that doesn’t come wrapped in plastic. Eat breakfast. Hope nothing has come in contact with water. Return to bathroom. Brush teeth. Gargle with water from plastic bottle. Clean toothbrush with water from plastic bottle. Return to kitchen. Take an apple from the fruit bowl. Wash it with tap water. Take a bite. Realize what you’ve done. Leave home. Stop by pharmacy or hospital.
As humans, we need water. Fortunately, water is abundant in our planet. Unfortunately, we also need it to be clean of parasites, bacteria, viruses and anything else that is not plain H2O.
A staggering 780 million people do not have access to clean water. Throughout most of the developing world, clean water is a luxury. As natives of Western Europe, we grew up relying on tap water. Even if we did not drink it, we used it to clean vegetables or fruit or any other thing in need of a bit of artificial rain. We had no concerns about gargling in the shower. The water at home was safe.
A year living abroad in Guatemala taught us to fear any water that did not come directly from a newly-purchased plastic bottle. Our daily lives revolved around 20L water bottles. We acquired new routines involving disinfectant, and had to be on a constant lookout for blunders. Water was not an essential gift, but a sneaky liquid which contaminated everything it touched.
We became so accustomed to this new way of life that it took us a couple of weeks here in Portugal to be able to trust water again.
More than anything else, the access to drinking water has been the greatest eye-opener for us. It’s a remarkable shift, having such an essential element become dangerous instead of safe. We will never take it for granted again. After all, who doesn’t love a good gargle in the shower?