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The Daily Dilemmas of a Traveler

San Pedro de Laguna, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala local street (Photo by John Early)

Guatemala X Getting Sick X Expectation = Perspective

Every traveler has one of those days. A day where things just don’t come together as planned

and it spirals downward

until you start to question

why you’re even traveling in the first place.

Today, I’m having one of those days. And it sucks.

I have finally gotten word back from the local clinic that I picked up a parasite in Antigua. This officially explains my last five days of needing a spare bundle of toilet paper in my day bag and backpack (damn you unwashed lettuce!). Sure, every long-term traveler in Guatemala will likely come across this issue at least once (or thrice), but getting the prescriptions without being able to pick up any meds before the winding 5-hour rollercoaster ride that is the shuttle to Lake Atitlan makes for a fun game of trying not to shit your pants in an enclosed public space.

Antigua church and street , Guatemala (Photo by John Early)

The streets of Antigua, Guatemala

But hey, we all know getting sick is part of the unwritten itinerary of a travelers schedule, right? After surviving the shuttle ride I arrive to the amazing energy that is San Marcos de Atitlan and home to my friend’s eco house on the water. He’s been raving about his place for weeks and excited to let me stay in his loft.

Well, expectation is the dirtiest word in a travelers vocabulary. I arrive to his humble home of a hippie sanctuary, however, the ‘loft’ is the equivalent of a cramped wooden storage crawlspace above the communal area. Even artificial Christmas trees get more formal and comfy resting places when put away for the year. A ladder above the hallway leads up to a dirty section of two-by-four planks with knee to waist high clearance and nothing else other than some sort of skinny inflatable (that wouldn’t even float a small child in a pool) to call a bed. Honey, I’m home.

Backpacker wooden 'loft' in San Marcos Lake Atitlan

My 'loft' of luxury. Just trying to continue living the backpacker's dream, right?

Now, I’m normally the gypsy and festival camper in the group used to rustic conditions, minimal amenities and the generic hippy mentality (especially backpacking Third World countries). But my arrival to the place I’m to spend several weeks - and in the condition I’m in - does not equate the productive utopic retreat I have envisioned. The opening line from a roommate is equally hilarious, disconcerting and a perfect welcome back to the San Marcos lifestyle: “Oh, and we don’t pee in the compost toilet…so just piss on the house plants.” My 5-year old self is cheering while my wrecked guts crave privacy and flushing water. Ugh.

With no formal clinic in San Marcos – and to coincide with the natural-only vibe of town - I continue my self-medicated treatment via grapefruit seed extract, oil of oregano and avoiding all street food. After a cold sleepless night on my wooden plank ‘loft’ and waking up with an itchy allergic reaction all over my skin, however, I know it’s time to find some modern meds and a new place to call home (with the minimum expectation of being able to stand high enough to change pants). This is also the peak moment where I catch myself going: What the hell John! Why am I still doing this and living out of a bag…

Solo backpacker Antigua, Guatemala streets traveler (Photo by John Early)

Living out of a backpack and waiting for a Tuk Tuk in Antigua

I catch the early morning boat several towns over to San Pedro to find a clinic. Then something changes. No matter how sick, itchy and frustrated you are, it’s difficult to not enjoy the sunrise silence of this Mayan lake surrounded by the magic of three volcanoes. In front of me sits a young Guatemalan family dressed in their traditional handmade fabrics. To my right is a local elder sneaking a smile under his weathered sombrero. To my left I get a glimpse of the dozen or so towns sprinkled on the distant coastline of the magnificent Lago de Atitlan. What a magical morning! Gratitude starts to flush over me. I let myself float outside of my ill, physical body and get grounded in the moment. What an amazing place to be in the world on this Thursday morning…might as well realize it!

The love for traveling mimics the heightened emotions of intense relationships. The ones where you can ride moments of bliss for weeks but then suddenly go Nope. I’m over this. We need to break this off for a while… Then you turn around and get sucked right back into the same embrace moments later. Traveling is definitely a frustrating girlfriend like that. Regardless the situation, the breakdowns normally stem from your placement of expectation.

View of Lake Atitlan from San Marcos de Laguna, Guatemala (Photo By John Early)

At least living in my loft I get to wake up to this.

Through the difficult slumps - and even the best of traveling times*, I find it important to remind myself: This too shall pass. Being able to overcome the demanding moments makes room for the epic experiences and life highlights that backpacking can bring. If I wanted travels that are easy, bland and comfortable I’d be sitting in a resort on a manicured Mexican beach (and even then, still susceptible to the ol’ Travelers Trots). Even realizing and appreciating the luxury of being able to afford western medicine in a third world country makes for a delightful placebo. So today marks a needed reminder on how and where I set my expectations (or lack thereof) so I can stay grounded in the moment of travel. …But I will expect childish excitement to head home and pee on the houseplants!

Utz matiox Atitlan! (Thank you in the local Kaqchikel language)

John Early April 5th, 2017 San Marcos del Laguna, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

The walkway through San Marcos de Laguna, Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala (Photo by John Early)

The walkway from the lancha through San Marcos de Laguna


*Even when things are all working out, life of a traveler can be a difficult and over-stimulating mess of options and decisions. Here is an excerpt from my new book Tales of the Modern Nomad - Monks, Mushrooms & Other Misadventures:

Daily Dilemma’s of a Traveler

Ok, where am I? Where am I sleeping tomorrow night? Have I made that reservation yet? I should probably buy a ticket early. Crap it’s full. How much cash do I have? I think that guy kept my phone charger… Dammit where’s my passport?? Hey, who’s that?

Oh, she’s cool. Shoot, she leaves tomorrow? Where’s that other crew going? What’s to do there? How would I get there? Do I have time for that? I shouldn’t backtrack. If I stay west, I can’t go east. Would that throw off my plan? Do I have a plan? Wait. Okay. Deep breath. Relax. Look where I am. I am. Here. And it is incredible.

I can’t do it all, or perfectly. Let’s not try. And let’s not let 1st World problems

worry me otherwise.


San Marcos, Guatemala Mayan Women 2015-2017 Before and After with John Early

Meeting the same Mayan women two years apart who helped me mend my ukulele case (twice!)...they were thrilled to see their photo made my book :)



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