Looking down upon the sleepy surf town of Las Tunas, Ecuador. Photo: Irina Lipan

There's Always A Dog, Or Some Geese, Or Broken Glass

…and probably a bunch of bugs. 

In the last decade I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to thirty-some-odd countries. Those journeys, especially with the aid of rose-colored hindsight, could easily be framed in a beatific light – complete with idyllic, travel-blog-worthy photos. But that approach would leave out many sub-optimal, behind-the-scenes elements. I think traveling of any kind is valuable, but the further off the beaten path you stray, the more vulnerable you become. I say this not as a deterrent, but to inject some realism into those wanderlust fantasies. In many parts of the world, animals behave differently, sharp things are left lying around, and your body will react to the foreign environment in ways that can't be gleaned simply by gazing at that margarita-by-the-sea screensaver. Understand what the full-picture looks and feels like, and then press on anyway! For nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? 

Take a second to absorb this photo: 

A rolling, grassy field approaching a Guatemalan jungle.
A farm near Rio Dulce, Guatemala. Photo: Irina Lipan

Now, I'm no photographer, but if I were scrolling along and came across this scene, I would be enticed by the lush, rolling landscape. And if I was sitting in my Canadian apartment during the dead of winter, I would instantly feel the pull to escape. 'Oh, to be in such a serene and exotic place,' I might think, 'where the verdant farmland meets the mysterious jungle.' Even the peripheral glimpse of the modest aluminum housing would charge my curiosity about the vastly different worlds inhabiting this planet. And just the mention of Guatemala would make me want to peruse Lonely Planet for the rest of the day. But…did you notice the dog?

Look closely and you’ll see a lean but mature perro setting himself up in the middle of the path that my girlfriend and I just walked, and needed to return on. A mere moment before, having just arrived in Rio Dulce from the frigid North, we decided to take a late-afternoon meander up the road from our solar-powered cabana – and we may or may not have had libations in hand (and gut). Then this pooch wandered out, clearly intending to stay for a while, and dramatically shifted the tone. We moved our (relatively) hairless, clawless, and frankly, defenseless bodies of penetrable flesh cautiously forward while speaking in a jovial tone. Once we crossed an invisible line, the dog stood attentively, and dared us to go further. We retreated back up the hill. Unfortunately, the farmers in the area were rotating the horses through different sections of the field, and so a barbed wire fence blocked our exit in the other direction. Failing to see another viable option, we decided to wait out the dog a bit longer.

A rickety-looking wooden shop that also doubles as a house.
Tienda San Jose in Rio Dulce, Guatemala. Photo: Andrew Douglas

During our standoff, I became aware of the sweltering heat, and caustic UV rays (something all pasty Canadians dread). I regretted not bringing water, or wearing sunscreen, and of course, I was shirtless. Thankfully, I was able to attract the attention of a couple gentleman on the other side of the fence, and they gave us the go-ahead for safe passage. Spooked, but unwilling to let the mishap spoil our stroll, we continued down one of the choppy back roads on a quest for another cool, celebratory cerveza. But before we knew it, we were facing down a flock of angry Guatemalan geese that had escaped through an extremely porous fence. (When exploring Latin America, I'm often left scratching my head as to why any such "barrier" is erected in the first place). This time, a surprisingly intense showdown took place. These suckers meant business and did not seem to care that they were in a much lower weight class. With a bit of yelling and wild gesticulating (to counter their hissing and bluff charges), we were able to establish dominance, and once again, proceeded without injury. I'm guessing this is another event, dear reader, that you may not immediately envision if you came across these photos of wholesome tiendas in an issue of National Geographic:

A Pepsi-branded mini-mart in Guatemala, with a tent-vendor and scruffy dog nearby.
Pepsi appears to be winning the cola wars down in Guatemala. Photo: Andrew Douglas

So despite a rocky road up to that point, we successfully acquired our desired refreshments, which we then enjoyed while sitting on the store's stoop. When we were finished, we politely returned the bottles, which each store collects in exchange for a small deposit (a practical environmental initiative that the whole subcontinent seems to excel at). I spotted a small garbage can next to the empties crate, and took the opportunity to toss out the receipt. The bin was nearly overflowing and so, not wanting it to blow into the street shortly thereafter, I stuffed it down a little deeper. As I did so, my thumb slid along an unseen broken bottle, leaving me with a nasty slice. ¡Dios mío! Nothing makes the stomach drop like an open wound in a developing country. No fluent spanish was required in this instance — I simply held up my gushing thumb in view of the proprietor. She was immediately on hand (pun intended) with a bottle of hydrogen peroxide. That's one thing I love about traveling; you can always depend on the kindness of strangers (er, well…often enough anyway).

A yellow wooden house on top of a small hill in a lush, green yard.
Our home for two months ("Luz's Place") while staying near Rio Dulce, Guatemala. Photo: Irina Lipan

This trifecta of flubs all took place on a simple scouting mission, during our first couple of hours in Rio Dulce, Guatemala. Now use your imagination and expand that trend to not only a year-long trip, but an entire decade of intermittent travel. That should give you an idea of how things usually go for me. But don't get me wrong, the overall experiences I've accrued have been overwhelmingly worth the mostly-harmless setbacks. Sure, I'm not quite as innocent as I was when I hopped my first international flight, but my realism still tilts towards optimism. 

Heck, I'll always get excited when I see a picture like this:

A waterside walkway with small, colorful homes across the bay and casual pedestrians in front.
Walking a lap of the small island town of Flores, Guatemala. Photo: Irina Lipan

But I'll also anticipate the full-spectrum of travel. Like anything, the highs are boosted by the preceeding lows, and the lows are exacerbated by the fleeting highs. It's all just part of the wayfaring package. 

So be bold, prospective adventurers, and don't stop daydreaming about your bucket-list trips. Just be aware that along with the sunsets, beaches, waterfalls, and ruins, there's always a dog, or some geese, or broken glass…and probably a bunch of bugs (don't ever forget about the bugs...they won't forget about you). 

Happy travels!


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