Thursday, December 13, 2012

Ups and Downs of Traveling Slow

Cuenca, Ecuador
Written by Karen.
After not making a fully auspicious entrance into the City, it took us another six bumpy days until we were able to regain our footing and begin to hit our stride here in Cuenca, Ecuador.  

Cuenca itself is a charming Spanish colonial city of approximately 350,000 residents, with a vibrant historical downtown area that is fully being used in the everyday real sense, despite its UNESCO designation of a World Heritage site. The colorful architecture has been well-preserved in the historical downtown district and the cobblestoned streets and sidewalks make exploring the city a pleasure. 

We had read quite a bit about Cuenca and were looking forward to spending some time in this quaint city.  We had specifically decided to come to Cuenca to increase our Spanish speaking language skills. 

Though a bit obvious perhaps, we quickly realized while we were living in Bogota, Colombia that our desire to travel slowly and become instant new neighbors in various communities around the world had a new consequence that we had not run into before with our previous one-to-two week travel vacations: Longer-term relationships. We were integrating into neighborhoods for weeks at a time, and quickly got past the hello, how are you entry-level stages of communication.

We were missing the ability of going to the next step of having a more meaningful conversation that would provide the context, shadow and nuance necessary for us to begin to understand a person's history, ideas and perspectives.  Our inability to communicate more fully and effectively in Spanish began to detract from our overall experience of traveling slow.  

So, we arrived in Cuenca with an apartment rental that we had found by conducting research on the internet, ready to spend 30 days or so working on our Spanish grammar and overall comprehension. Although we have successfully rented apartments on the internet throughout the world relying on reviews and pictures, this was the first time that we ran into the situation where the pictures and reviews of the advertised apartment did not match the reality of the actual apartment.    

It was an unpleasant and uncomfortable apartment and we left as quickly as we could, but not before spending two difficult days and nights in the dwelling.  To add to our lessons learned, we had provided a significant deposit to the landlord, which we wound up losing when we changed our mind about staying there. 

We were now without a place to stay in Cuenca, and we were rapidly approaching the prime time holiday season.  We pounded the streets to find some alternatives: asking people who worked at the front desks of hotels and Spanish language schools if they knew of any available furnished apartments; negotiating price reductions for longer stays at hotels; and, reviewing internet options.  We came up with three alternatives - all with different identified flaws - within twelve hours.  It was like an episode of International House Hunters!  

But, then, due to a chance encounter on the street, one thing led to another, which led to another, and we found a great alternative that was located in the center of the downtown historical district with no known identified flaws.  We are in that apartment now.  

And now that we have been in our cozy little apartment for a few days, we have identified multiple flaws.  No surprise there.  But, for now, the positives greatly outweigh the negatives, and we have the opportunity to plant some roots for the next two months, work on our Spanish speaking skills, and explore in greater depth this beautiful and diverse area in the Southern Andes mountains.  

We are finding that traveling slow has its own set of issues, challenges, irritations, and awkward moments that are different from traveling at a faster pace.  Environmental issues that can cause significant impacts on our quality of life are especially troublesome: For example, renting an apartment and finding out the walls are paper thin and your new neighbor likes to sing karaoke at midnight, or having a neighbor smoke marijuana with the smoke drifting into our apartment through the cracks in the building, or having the hot water heater break and spray copious amounts of water throughout the kitchen, or running out of hot water in the middle of a shower while you are completely soaped up and having to change out the propane tank in order to continue your shower, or listening to car alarms 24/7, or listening to a neighbor play loud rock or techno music at 7 in the morning, just to name a few of the environmental minor annoyances and issues we have faced/are facing. 

For me, the downside of traveling slow is that the expected travel challenges that you face can become a bit more difficult because the unexpected minor annoyances and issues don't necessarily go away in a few days when you move on to your next destination.  They instead become an integral part of your experience, and that means pushing past comfort zones and personal standards in order to figure out ways to live well - in spite of these ongoing and persistent minor annoyances and issues.  And figuring out how to do so in a way that keeps your spirits high and focused on the big picture.  

It's relatively easy to be upbeat and positive when life isn't throwing road blocks in your path.  It's much more difficult to be upbeat and positive and try to problem solve and make good decisions when you have been scammed, are cold, soaking wet, or sleep deprived.  

Conversely, we are finding that traveling slow has enormous rewards that weren't as available to us when we were traveling at a faster pace.  Experiences like stumbling upon a college-student's saxophone recital with a complete supporting ensemble at the National Museum in Bogota, for example, or exploring out of the way places and finding something unexpected or beautiful, or figuring out where the laundry mat is or how to extract money from the ATM in a foreign language, or saying "hello" to your new neighbors and understanding what they said, or simply taking the time to savor the moment. These unscripted experiences occurred as a result of us traveling slow on unscheduled time.  

For me, the choice to travel slow offers us the opportunity to live in a different environment/culture - with all of its identified and unknown flaws/challenges and resultant ups and downs - and appreciate how these experiences are making me a more tolerant, patient, and flexible person as we try and figure out how to live well in the unknown. Traveling slow allows us to see and experience the world on its own terms - not mine or Adam's.    

And after considering the mixed bag of ups and downs that we have experienced so far on our travel adventure, I wouldn't want to do this any other way.

Cuenca, Ecuador - Color and Communication
Turi, Ecuador - Blues
Cuenca, Ecuador - Cross at the base of a building 
Bogota, Colombia - Texture and Color
La Vega, Colombia - White Lily
Medellin, Colombia - Dark Blues
Bogota, Colombia - A Path of Grey Bubbles
Bogota, Colombia - Textured Patterns in the Rain

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