by Matthew J.X. Malady
People drop things on the Internet and run all the time. So we have to ask. In this edition, producer and editor Mike Byhoff tells us more about what it’s like to leave your job, get on a plane headed for a country you know nothing about, and then spend a month abroad without an agenda or being able to speak the language.
Leaving for central america for a month in 12 hours and don’t speak spanish and have basically no itinerary what the fuck am I doing.
— Mike Byhoff (@mbyhoff) February 28, 2014
Mike! We spoke at the end of February after you frightened everyone with that tweet, and we decided to hold off on a Tell Us More until you got back. Now that you’ve returned home, let’s begin with this: So what happened here?
To get to me hyperventilating on a plane as it landed in Guatemala City, I should probably start from the beginning, which is the wonderful world of unemployment. I took a job as an editorial director of a video start-up in March of 2013. It seemed like the “right move” for my career, as it was part of a well-known company in the tech scene, the guy who started the company is one of the most brilliant people I have ever worked for, I got equity, and I could frame the editorial direction the way I wanted to.
Cut to 12 months later, and we’ve barely acquired users, we’ve pivoted three times, my job responsibilities shifted DRAMATICALLY, and we were going to partner with another company for content. I was sat down and given the option to take a scaled-back role or severance. Without much thought, I took the severance.
I’ve been unemployed before, and I know how much it sucks. So when my friend who recently returned from a vacation in Central America said, “Why don’t you travel?” I brushed her off because I thought I immediately needed a job. But that night, on February 15th, I had this Gollum-esque conversation with myself walking back to my apartment:
• “What are you going to do? Just spend the next two months not wearing pants and looking for a job?”
• “But I’ve never traveled by myself before and speak no Spanish.”
• “So what? People travel solo all the time, and it will be a good story, and you’ll make memories for a lifetime.”
• “But it’s so stereotypical, and employers will look down on it like you don’t have your shit sorted.”
• I then, OUT LOUD, said this to myself on Manhattan Avenue: “JUST DO IT YOU FUCKING PUSSY.”
I went home that night and booked a one-way ticket to Guatemala for March 1st. Why Guatemala? Because in my extensive research that consisted of googling “cool places central america,” there seemed to be a general consensus on the Lonely Planet forums that Guatemala is a “don’t miss,” whatever that means. (Related: Lonely Planet travel forums are up there with men’s rights sub-Reddits as one of the most annoying corners of the Internet. Everybody has to one-up everybody else about how they’ve traveled more extensively in that region and how everyone else is doing it wrong. Example: “Oh, interesting, you must have come up from the south side to hike that volcano. I wouldn’t do it that way, but to each his own.”)
So I borrow my friend’s backpacking backpack, buy a Central America travel guide, a poncho, a compass (???), and a 20-pack of dark chocolate and sea salt Kind bars, and I’m ready to head off to… find myself? Challenge myself? Meet new people? Run away from my problems? I don’t even know why I’m going at this point. All I do know is that I am maybe more terrified of this trip than I was the day before I moved to New York six years ago. This is basically all I knew about Guatemala, and the running joke with all my friends is that I, without a doubt, was going to get decapitated.
And now you’re back, and you’re not dead. Nice work! Did you almost die at any point? And what will you remember most about this adventure?
Not only did I NOT die, but I posted what will go down as my most eye-rollingly obnoxious Facebook status update of all time:
I will never live that down, but it’s the truth! I was doing something that I set out to do, and I was doing it on my own volition. No one to hold my hand: No all-inclusive, no set return date, no itinerary whatsoever. It was thrilling! I ended up landing in Guatemala, and spent half of my time in Guatemala and the other half in Nicaragua. Within five minutes of checking into my hostel in Antigua, I met a really nice hippie named Glenn from Oregon and a lovely French Canadian living in Queens named Dominique, and the raging (and fun) alcoholic owner of the hostel gave me a beer and told me everything was going to be alright. And with that, I realized how silly I was being so scared.
But that’s not to say it wasn’t still dangerous! I met a group of three girls traveling from Honduras to Guatemala who told me about their bus being held up by three armed gunmen. The gunmen boarded the bus, took everyone off, made everyone strip down, and took literally everything except the clothes on their backs.
And as much as I want to pick a “standout moment,” it’s more of a mosaic of moments that build one awesome Megazord moment: Semuc Champey is one of the most gorgeous places I’ve ever seen; I tried (and failed) to surf in San Juan Del Sur; I saw some Mayan ruins, and roasted marshmallows in lava on top of a volcano. I also met a girl in Lake Atitlán who took care of a bunch of puppies outside of town, and she took me and this other Australian girl to play with them, and it was easily a top 10 happiest moment of my life.
But more than anything, it came down to the fact that I met more genuinely nice people in my first five days in Central America than I met in my first five years in New York. I had zero hesitancy about just walking up to a person and striking up a conversation. Something I would NEVER do in New York. And instead of the ubiquitous “What do you do?” question that starts every conversation in this fucking city, you ask “Where have you been?” and “Where are you going?” And (mostly) everybody had really interesting stories to tell!
Now when I travel to Vancouver, Berlin, London, Sydney, and Johannesburg, I have a place to crash (theoretically). And I am not joking when I say that I will make a concerted effort to travel and hang out with the people that I was with while I was in Nicaragua. The more I think of it, the more it seems like backpacking is basically summer camp for adults.
Lesson learned (if any)?
The American system for vacation time is absolutely fucked, and we are getting a raw deal. For being so close to America, I met WAY MORE Aussies, Europeans, and Canadians than Americans. And the Americans I did meet were traveling for two, maybe three weeks max. I went for a month, and that was NOTHING compared to most people I met — who were traveling from anywhere between two and 18 months. I met a Belgian couple who were in their mid-40s, sold everything they owned in Bruges (heh), and were on YEAR THREE of their travels. When I asked them if they missed being home, they said, “The world is our home.” Believe me, if they had said that to me in a bar in Brooklyn three months ago, that statement would have been met with a hearty eye-roll. But while I was traveling, I said, without any cynicism: “That is fucking amazing.”
Just one more thing.
Travel, don’t go on vacation. Take time off and explore. While it has its place, life is too short for a two-week vacation to Paris. Because two-week vacations are a bullshit American construct.
Also, I stayed on a farm in Nicaragua and am seriously considering WWOOFing (I am not seriously considering WWOOFing).
Matthew J.X. Malady is a writer and editor in New York.