Planning, preparation, and anxiety

Monday night week I will be in Costa Rica.

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From San Jose I will fly to the Osa Peninsula, where I will spend three days hiking in the jungle of Corcovado National Park.  Then head North, through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, Mexico and across the United States back to Manhattan.  By land, sea and foot, with no plans to leave solid ground until I’m back in NYC.

It should take about 100 days. I’ve been doing a lot of planning.

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There are guidebooks and maps, practicalities like money, where to stay, and how to get from one place to another. This has led to a lot of late nights and early mornings.

How many times can I revise an itinerary? I’m on my fourth or fifth iteration.

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How many days should I stay in X? Is so and so worth starting at 5am and spending 11 hours and 3 bus changes to get to? Will I find a hotel when I show up? Should I bring my Ipad mini,  to keep in touch? How much cash should I bring, in case I can’t find an ATM? What if I get robbed? Why didn’t I spend more time studying Spanish, instead of reading box scores? I’m a bundle of jangled nerves.

I did something like this once before.  I was 26 and at loose ends.  Out of a relationship and needing to be done with Chicago for a time , I moved to San Francisco, where I lived in the Post Street Hotel and temp`d. I’d flatter myself to say I was trying to figure things out.  I needed to move, so I moved.

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My friend Mac, who was in the Peace Corps in Guatemala, read an email update I sent out about my experience at the Castro Halloween celebration.  He wrote to say if I wasn’t doing anything I should come and visit him in Guatemala.  I wasn’t, so I did.

I was looking for guidebooks in the Borders on Union Square when I found a book, The Old Patagonian Express, by Paul Theroux, about his 1974 trip from Boston to the bottom of Argentina by train.

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I like trains, so I wanted to do the same thing from Chicago to Guatemala and back. I did some research, and  the furthest I could get by train anymore was San Antonio. Beyond, it was bus to bus, to bus. The idea of going overland, though,  seeing and feeling the distance between things, watching one place gradually become another,  in a way you can’t on a plane, stuck in my head.

I wrote Mac how I planned  to get there. He gave me directions: when I got to the Mexico/Guatemala border at Tapachula,  I was to cross to El Carmen and take a chicken bus to Cuatros Caminos, and then take a bus, taxi or truck to his town.  It was about 45 minutes by truck or an hour or more by bus.  Taxis were expensive.  His house was the one at the top of the hill on the way into town, with the big pile of rocks in front.

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(This is the house,  the rocks were moved not long after I arrived)

My planning consisted of maps and a guidebook, some ideas of what I wanted to see, and a general idea of buses you could take to get from A to B.That, and Mac’s directions. No itinerary,just a budget; X amount of dollars to spend and I then start heading home.  It seemed simple enough, and it mostly was.  Sometimes buses didn’t leave when I thought they did, so I missed them.   My hotel in Antigua was broken into and I lost some clothes.   Mac and I were held up at gunpoint on a minibus as he left his town for the last time.  But I emerged mostly unscathed.

I look back, and I feel like I must be remembering wrong.  I had to have been nervous as I feel now.  That I would get lost, robbed, any kind of bad thing.  But I’m pretty sure I wasn’t too bothered.  I had a vague idea of Mexico and even an less an idea of Guatemala; more than any adventurous impulse, my ignorance allowed me to go forward.

I started thinking about this current  plan a year ago, and while some circumstances are different,(I’ve been in a happy relationship for 11 years) others are similar (I want to be out of NYC for awhile) When I conceived it, I wanted it to be as before, wandering at my own pace from Panama back to NYC.  No need for a detailed plan, since I’d just follow my Id as I went. I’d done this, when I was young and foolish.    With experience,  this would be old hat.  My guidebook sat on the coffee table, and I leafed through it in spare moments.

Months passed, and I realized I should leave soon, eventually, so I started to plan.  When I started to plan I realized something else;  the experience that I thought would make it easy this time is making it more difficult.

I read the State Department travel warnings and think I’m going to be left standing by the side of the road, in my underwear, stripped of my belongings. I think I don’t want to be away from S for this long. I’m wondering if I can do this, if I’m competent enough.  I started to want a plan, so I started to make one.

If I hadn’t started planning, I would’ve been stuck wherever I was in Costa Rica when the country shuts down for four days for Easter. Or spending nine  hours at the border trying to cross with 300,000 migrant Nicaraguan laborers going to see their families for the holiday. Showing up on an island in Nicaragua off a ferry at midnight with no hotel and no idea how to get one at that hour.  Finding there is no bus from point B between points A and C.  A funny story after, but I’m too old to just dive in, jump without looking.

Age teaches you bad things can happen,  since the more you live,  the more bad things happen. It turns out I’m not invincible. As Mac told me when we were talking about this trip, we’re middle-aged men now; we have responsibilities. When I went to see Mac, I called my parents one time in three months, from the Peace Corps office in Guatemala City. Otherwise it was a group email every week or so. I couldn’t be bothered to figure out how to use a public phone.  At 39, I know that wasn’t acceptable. So, the IPad mini debate.

I’ve grown cautious. Maybe that caution is part of the reason I’m doing this. So I have my itinerary, finally, that’s more of an outline; places I’d like to be at certain times. I don’t want to miss the iguana testicle ceviche at the weekend food festival in Juayua, El Salvador, for sure.  There’s some flexibility built in to account for missed buses, good times extended, days when I wonder why I am where I am and how I got there and just don’t want to leave my room, but I need to be in Belize on May 24 to meet S, and I need to be back to NYC by July 1.  What happens in between is what happens.

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