Looking Back at One Year on the Road

Mark Stewart Travel Stories 4 Comments

It’s that unmistakable time of year, the leaves are colouring, and exhaust fumes have that subtly different smell in the changing air. Our Australian friends are flooding social media with excitement for the coming months and everything is pumpkin-spiced. That can mean only one thing:

We’ve been on the road for nearly an entire year already.

With 36 buses, 11 flights, 4 trains, two boats, countless shuttles, cars and the back of a few pick-up trucks; we’ve travelled over 32,000 kilometres, through 32 cities, and over a dozen little towns and villages, across 14 very different countries.

Not since our first trip overseas through Asia and Australia have we spent such a stretch of time in constant motion. Even though we popped back in Edmonton for a couple of weeks earlier this year, we didn’t stop moving, it was just another destination on this journey.

Although we began this trip as shoestring-budget backpackers through Central America, we had no set plans. That being said, if you told me a year ago that I’d be writing this from an upscale, boutique hotel in the middle of Transylvania, to say I’d be skeptical would be an understatement.

I guess stranger things have happened.

We’ve never really been in the position to do a “year in review” post in the past. Considering the uncertainty of the future, however, we might not get another chance.

A row of colourful concrete houses along a stone road, with a volcano in the distance

Living beneath volcanoes in Central America was a surreal experience early on.
– Antigua, Guatemala

Highlights

How can I possibly narrow down the vast number of highlights a trip like this could bring – the entire journey has been a highlight of life. That aside, there are certainly moments that shine brighter than others.

Sometimes I think back to things like paragliding over Medellín, or getting lost in the madness and chaos of the Day of the Dead festivities in Oaxaca. Most recently it would be driving the Transfagarasan highway in Romania and hiking over the highest mountains in the country.

Our short visit through Edmonton in May was a massive and almost entirely unplanned highlight. Visiting friends and family – including our brand new baby nephew for the first time.

More often though, it’s the more simple seeming experiences that have made this such an incredible twelve months. Relaxing with two of our great Canadian friends on Isla de Ometepe was definitely high on the list. Drinking copious amounts of vodka in Warsaw with an Polish friend was a pleasant surprise. As was a reunion in Prague, with our Finnish friend, whom we met way back in Australia – over ten years ago!

Living at a fixed address for a while in Colombia, watching the sunrise over Medellín from our seventh-floor balcony, was a simple but amazing feeling.

Even the mundane act of wandering through Vienna, doing absolutely nothing more than that, was easily one of the best moments in recent months.

But as much as we’d all love it to be, travel isn’t all beautiful palm-lined beaches and margaritas.

A pedestrian bridge crosses over a subway bridge over a canal in Vienna

We visited this spot because of Ethan Hawke and July Deply
– Vienna, Austria

Lowlights

Look back at any year in your life, there are going to be a few bad moments. Just because we’re on the road doesn’t mean we’re immune to this fact of life. It just means that they happen somewhere else. Thankfully, we’ve had it overwhelmingly good over this past year. However, there were a few moments we’d rather have avoided.

San Cristobal as a whole could have been better, especially when Kylee spent nearly 48 hours violently ill. Our failed volunteering endeavour in El Salvador was a miserable experience. Thankfully, that experience was improved tenfold by the friendships that arose.

Language barriers, though entertaining, do get a little frustrating in situations, as do the unexpected costs that arise when already on a tight budget.

During our time in Prague, we spent some time staying in a rustic old cabin that belonged to our friend’s parents, just on the outskirts of the city. It was on a piece of land they owned and visited at times during the summer. Luckily for us, they weren’t using it, and let us stay for free!

The shitty part – pun intended – was having to dump the camp toilet, by hand, during a heatwave, every three or four days. We were there for two weeks.

All of that aside, at least for me personally, one of the worst moments of this last year was waking up on that June morning to the news of Anthony Bourdain. Though we’d never crossed paths, he is without question one of the biggest reasons Kylee and I have ended up on the road we are today.

“Anyone who’s a chef, who loves food, ultimately knows that all that matters is: ‘Is it good? Does it give pleasure?'”Anthony Bourdain

Don’t Worry Tony, We have Eaten Well

I’m going to try to keep this as brief as possible, but forgive me if I get a little carried away.

Mexico. Though we enjoyed some fabulous meals nearly everywhere we’ve been, none come close to the food we ate in Mexico. Tacos and tlayudas; mole and pozole; tortas, tostadas and memelas… everything we ate in Mexico was simply outstanding.

Ok, maybe not the fried bugs and mezcal…

Moving on, we devoured dozens of pupusas in El Salvador, vigoron in Costa Rica, bandeja Paisa in Colombia, and a plethora of stupidly delicious tamales throughout the region.

Crossing the pond it was an overload of tasty cliches. It was pure gluttony. Meat pies, bangers and mash, fish and chips, crumpets, mushy peas, toad in the hole, full-English breakfasts and Scotch eggs kept us fuelled for an entire month.

It’s the three jars of Colman’s mustard I inject— ingested during that time that for some reason has Kylee questioning my habits. 



I’m not addicted.

Just one more little spoonful and I’ll be fine…

Our waistlines certainly haven’t been benefiting from the last few months either. The cuisine of central and eastern Europe is heavy. Deliciously heavy, but heavy nonetheless.

We’ve been eating stewed and roasted meats of every variety, and sopping up the juices with bread and dumplings. Potatoes and cabbage are the vegetables of choice, the rest are pickles.

Cheese is everywhere. Cheese and sausage; they’re part of every meal. When climbing the mountain atop the Transfagarasan pass, the food carts sold two items: cheese and sausage.

By no means am I complaining, but I want a salad. Colman’s mustard and a salad.

Cardboard box full of fried fish and chips along with a glass of cider

It’s a cliché we enjoyed a little too often… and will again in a few weeks.
– London, England

Where We’ve Called Home

As for accommodation, we’ve experienced it all at one point or another. Though our budget and travel style typically limits the top-end options, we’re also done with dorms; we’ve had enough of those in the past.

However, this last year has seen a pretty vast spread in options.

Sharing a small condo with a family for a week in Colombia would have been much more enjoyable if the two young children didn’t spend every waking hour alongside their neighbourhood friends, running and screaming inside the house.

In Nicaragua, though the breakfast included in the room was phenomenal, the room itself was little more than a screen and plywood shack attached to the back of a restaurant kitchen. And most recently, our accommodation in Bratislava was a big player in our leaving the beautiful city completely dissatisfied.

Then there was the apartment we rented in Medellín, which was one of the nicest places we’ve ever lived – and only a fraction of what we would have paid back in Canada. Spending a few weeks house-sitting in a beautiful flat outside of London and taking care of the best puppy in the world, was an outstanding experience.

And during our few weeks so far here in Romania, we’ve gone from tiny rooms in the outskirts of cities, to two different, and very nice, boutique hotels!

Purple and orange sky at sunrise over a city with low mountains in the background

Missing these daily sunrise views from our amazing apartment.
– Medellín, Colombia

Lesson Learned

We’ve learned how and where it’s ok to walk at night in Guatemala, and that checking the bed for scorpions is a necessity in parts of Nicaragua. Colombia reminded us that what the media says about a destination, compared to the actual situation on the ground, is often far from the whole story.

One thing that caught us a little off-guard, though it probably shouldn’t have, is how easy it is to travel through Europe. We’ve been before, though it’s not a place we’ve ever spent a considerable amount of time. After so much time in Asia and Latin America, we found getting around Europe to be a breeze.

As well, something we’re always reminded of, is that no matter how long we travel, we still make mistakes. They’re becoming less frequent than before, and much less severe, but they still happen.

And no matter how much we love a specific food or cuisine – it can and does get old.

If we could go back

If there was any advice we’d give to ourselves one year ago, it would just be to slow down a little more. We are so grateful for everything we’ve experienced over the past twelve months and can’t wait to keep going – but it’s gotten quite exhausting at times.

I think we would also remind ourselves not to worry so much about what’s ahead. Prior to leaving, during those final weeks, Kylee and I were both going sick with stress. We were driving ourselves insane with unanswerable questions about a future unknown.

So here we are, one year later, watching the leaves change colour on a Romanian mountainside. This first year on the road has shown us many ups and downs. There has been plenty of pleasure, along with an acceptable amount of pain. We still don’t know exactly what we’re doing, or what may come in the months to follow.

But that’s ok.

It’s been a good warm-up.

Sunrise over a sandy beach as waves crash onto the shore

We’re just getting started.
– Las Peñitas, Nicaragua
(It’s a sunrise. It’s representing the dawn of our upcoming year. We’re like, so deep.)

 

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Mark Stewart

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John Quinn
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Wonderful to read. It’s being some adventure for you both.

Anca from Dream, Book, and Travel
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Thank you for sharing these experiences so honestly! The lesson travel always teaches us is to slow down, that’s why I love it!