A “Lemons to Lemonade” Type Travel Story

No matter how much planning or research you do before you set off on your trip, the moment you board the plane and take your assigned seat you are placing yourself into the hand’s of fate. While most travelers return home with a wealth of positive experiences to tell their families and friends, I have also met my fair share of travelers who have experienced events that make their way into the “dangers and annoyance” section in the Lonely Planet: mainly muggings or in Gavin’s case, not one, but two armed robberies.

When I first heard Gavin tell his story while hanging out in a former resort town for wealthy Peruvians, now a backpacker magnet situated around a small green lake surrounded by giant sand dunes, I couldn’t help but shudder. Though Gavin was the one robbed, not once, but twice, I realized that I too could just as easily be the one telling this same story. There have been a couple of times when a night bus has dropped me off in the middle of a city in the middle of the night and I didn’t have any choice but to roam unfamiliar streets in search of a place to stay. Luckily, for me I have always found my way or tried to find allies in street sweepers or wandering policemen to accompany me until I’m safely behind a hostel or hotel door. Gavin’s story, however, is a “lemons to lemonade” type story. And that was the reason I was drawn to it.

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In Costa Rica, two young men, one with a knife approached Gavin in the street and demanded he give them his bag. His bag contained pretty much everything one could put value on while traveling: a passport, a laptop, a camera, and of course, money. And Gavin, not wanting to test their resolve on using their knife did the smart thing, he handed over his bag and the robbers left. Later in Guatemala another young man would again threaten him with a knife, only this time, Gavin didn’t have anything to steal and the would-be robber left empty-handed.

In retrospect, Gavin’s story could have been a lot worse. He could have lost more than material possessions. And because he has travel insurance, Gavin feels certain he will get most of the items he lost, replaced. The only real impact of the robbery was the loss of his passport, which as sent him on an adventure he never could have imaged before leaving his native country of Australia.

And as he waits for his government to re-issue him a passport and send it to Lima, Peru, he is visiting places and having experiences that he otherwise wouldn’t have had.

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Here is Gavin’s story in his own words:

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Name: Gavin Mills
Age: 30
Occupation: ER Doctor
From: Gold Coast, Australia
languages: English, Spanish, German
Duration of Trip: 10 months

Can you tell me a little bit about why you decided to take this trip? Basically I wanted to see as much of Latin America as possible, whilst having a good break away from my job.

Why did you want to take a break from your job? Because it’s quite stressful. It takes up pretty much of whole life almost. So, I needed a break.

What is your job? I’m an ER doctor in Australia. It’s long hours . . . shift work. I work in a major trauma center so there are lots of big injuries and really sick people. It’s very, very busy. It’s an exciting and rewarding job, but it’s very busy.

So you quit your job to take this trip? Kind of, I just didn’t renew my contract.

Why was it important for you to see as much of Latin America as possible? Because I’ve been to all the other continents before and I had heard . . . all my friends that had been here said that you needed a long time to do it. You can’t just come over for a few weeks. So that was the easiest way to do it. Don’t have a job, just travel.

What has your experience been like so far? Pretty awesome really. The trip has been extended multiple times. It initially was going to be six months. I’ve already been gone seven and half. And at the moment my flight home will be after ten and half months.

And you started in Mexico? I did a month in Europe first because I went to a friend’s wedding and then I started in Latin America and Mexico.

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Tell me a little bit about your itinerary since landing in Mexico. It was a little bit of a loop really: Mexico, Cuba, Jamaica, Costa Rica then I went back up to Guatemala and stayed there for two months because I did some volunteer work and wanted to learn some Spanish. Then I went to El Salvador, Honduras, Belize, Nicaragua, Panama and now I’m in Peru.

What did you do for your volunteer experience? I did a couple of weeks in a medical clinic in a rural mountain village near Antigua, Guatemala. It was pretty basic. Like they don’t really have any facilities at all. It was very different from what I expected it to be because it was more like just a small clinic as opposed to where I would normally work in a major trauma center. So it was a bit dull to be fair. My Spanish at the time was not good enough, so I had a translator to help out. Originally, I was going to do that for six weeks. But I only ended up doing it for three weeks because I switched from the clinic and started working in and orphanage with kids who had HIV/AIDS. That was actually a lot more interesting.

What was that more interesting? It was almost like a daycare center even though they all had HIV/AIDS they were . . . well actually none of them had AIDS, while I was there. They were essentially normal children that had to take a whole lot of pills every morning.

Did you have to pay for these volunteer experiences? Kind of. I had to pay to stay with a host family . . . like food and accommodation. And there was some sort of contribution to buying supplies . . . basically most of the equipment that was in the medical clinic was bought by the volunteer company for the clinic. So that’s where the money goes.

Other than taking a break from the stress of your job back home, was there anything else you were hoping to get out of this trip? Doing the volunteer work was one of the big things that I wanted to do, as well as, learn some spanish. I guess it won’t be very useful in Australia, but it something that I’ve always wanted to do.

What are the high-lights of your trip, so far? Heaps. Lots. I think the orphanage was a big highlight. As well as going to Cuba because its like your living in the 1950’s . . . it’s like a little bit of a time warp which was cool. I’ve done a few adventure things like volcano . . . like boarding down an active volcano. Machu Picchu. Carnival in Panama.

Any any experiences that maybe you wish didn’t happen? Yup! I’ve been mugged twice. Once in San Jose, Costa Rica. Got my bag stolen. So, passport, money, computer, camera. And then once in Guatemala, but luckily I didn’t have any valuable items with me so he didn’t get anything from me.

So right now you’re traveling without a passport? I have an emergency passport.

What was that experience been like? Yeah, so my passport was stolen in Costa Rica and I don’t have an embassy there so I had to go the Canadian Embassy and they gave me a temporary travel document so I could go to the nearest Australian Embassy, which was in Mexico, but when I went to the airport to travel to Mexico, they wouldn’t let me go because I didn’t have a flight out of Mexico so I ended up missing that flight and having to go the following day, but then my travel document wasn’t valid any more – it was only valid the day before so Costa Rican immigration wouldn’t let me leave to go to Mexico because I couldn’t prove that I would ever leave Mexico, but there was no point in staying in Costa Rica for the whole time because I wouldn’t get a passport and you can’t fly from Costa Rica to Australia. It was just a circular argument for about three hours between Costa Rican immigration and Mexican immigration, but eventually got on the plane to go get an emergency passport which is only valid for seven months and had four pages. Which is now full and I only have two months left on it so I can’t really travel with it anymore. So I applied for a full passport in Lima a month ago.

So you’ve been in Peru now for a month? Yup. And you could possible be here for another month? Well two or three weeks.

How has this impacted your trip? Well potentially it will mean that I will spend less time in other countries and that I’ll have to rush through towards the end. But, I could push my flight back home a month depending on how I feel and money and that sort of stuff.

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If you did have to return to Australia tomorrow do you feel like your recuperated and ready to go back to work? I would be recuperated because I’ve had such a long time away, but if I had to leave tomorrow I would be a bit disappointed I wouldn’t have finished everything that I wanted to do on the trip.

And despite some of the unexpected difficulties that you’ve encountered, why do you like to travel? You just get so many new experiences. You get to see different things . . . experience different cultures, food. Meet heaps of different people from different countries with different opinions on life and it opens your mind to other possibilities . . . where as if you just stayed in your own life . . . its like a tunnel. And when you go traveling you get to see how much more there really is.

Are you happy that you are getting to spend so much time in Peru or are you ready to move on? Every now and then I get pissed off because I’ll make plans like I’ll do this, this, and this and then leave. And then my wait gets prolonged, but every time that I’ve had to stay longer I’ve looked into someone else to go and everywhere that I’ve gone has been really good. So its sort of double-edged sword. I’m basically going to get to see everything that there is to see and do in Peru before I leave. Things, places that I never would have gone too otherwise. I probably wouldn’t have come here to Huacachina. And I like it here, so . . .

If you could give advice to someone who was considering do a similar trip to the one that you’re doing what would you tell them? Before you’ve come make sure you’ve more than you think you need so you don’t have to scrap the bottom of the barrel everyday. And when you’re traveling don’t plan too much ahead because things always change and its more enjoyable if you have some flexibility because then you find out about things you didn’t know about where you were back at home, or you meet people and go to different places. Where as, if you’ve planned out every bit of your trip before it almost feels like your on a  . . . I don’t know its like your traveling with your grandma and you have to go to all these places, where as if you don’t have specific plans . . . like today I was going to wake up and go to Lima, but I thought oh I can’t be bothered so I’ll just stay here, which is nice.

Any other thoughts about traveling? Well, I guess back home some people would say why take a year off your career? Its like career suicide, but you’ve got your whole life to work, what’s one year . . . you might as well try to enjoy it a bit while you’re young instead of waiting, obviously you can travel no matter how old you are, but you experience traveling at 60 is going to be quite different to your 20 or 30’s. So take the opportunity now while its presented itself . . . i can always go back to work.

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