Friday, October 31, 2008

Reflections on Solo Travel

Note: This was written over a period of about a week, from my last few days in El Salvador to my first few days in Honduras (hence the fact that it gets a bit off-track at the end), but I never got the chance to type it up and post it. I'm actually about to head back to El Salvador again, so the end of the post is a bit out of date. Pretend you're reading it a week and a half ago. :)

This was originally going to be another pithy, unexplained snippet of a Lesson from El Salvador: "Traveling solo in the low tourism season has its drawbacks and its perks." But as I thought about it a bit more I realized there was more to say -- this is a lesson I'm still learning, but it's an important one, and it deserves a fuller treatment.

Traveling solo has been a new experience for me this year, as has traveling long-term: Guatemala was easy, in a way, because Cristie was with me for the most touristy time of my stay, and the rest of the time I was in Spanish school, so I had a more structured lifestyle and built-in social life. But El Salvador has been different. Here it has been very obvious that I am traveling alone through the least touristed country in Central America during the lowest tourist season of the year. Most of the time, apart from one night in Tacuba and two nights in Santa Ana, I have been either the only one or one of two tourists in the hostels I've stayed at -- and I've often felt I've been the only tourist in the entire town or city. This, as the brief version of this lesson mentions, has its benefits and drawbacks.

The main drawback is that it can be difficult to see/do some of the main tourist sites and activities as a solo traveler. Sure, for some things it doesn't matter if you are alone or in a group. But other times, such as when organized tours and/or guides are required, the choices (if you can't round up other tourists) are either: (a) pay the full price for the minimum number of people (usually 3-4) and get a private tour, or (b) not go. Since I'm not a fan of spending triple the cost of anything, and since most of these types of tours tend to be more fun with a group of people anyway, it's option (b) for me.

The flip side of this is that it forces me to be less of a tourist and more of a traveler. At the end of my stay in El Salvador I may not be able to check off on a list all of the things that tourists do in the country when they "do" Central America, but I think I will come away with a richer experience and a deeper understanding of Salvadoran people and culture. I tend to visit fewer places and to spend more time in each place than people who are rushing about trying to hit all the tourist spots, and in the absence of other travelers I have been spending more time around local people and/or participating in local activities.

My first full day in Santa Ana, I went to a concert in the Teatro de Santa Ana in the morning. It was only an hour long, and was played by the Banda Sinfónica de Occidente (a military band), for school groups "and the general public." I think I was the general public -- I was definitely the only non-latina in the theater, and I'm pretty sure I was also the only non-student, non-teacher audience member as well. The main floor and first balcony were willed with middle- to high-school-aged students and teachers, and I had the entire second balcony to myself, overlooking the scene. It was fun to shift my gaze between the musicians and the audience, being the fly on the wall. It was a good concert, too. The finale absolutely cracked me up -- it was a medley that progressed from (forgive me for not knowing exact titles, and I'm missing one or two songs in the middle) A Whiter Shade of Pale to We Will Rock You to Figaro to Another One Bites the Dust, and ended with We Are the Champions. Absolutely brilliant. True Salvadoran culture, and worth every penny of the $0.50 entry fee. (It was probably meant to be serious, though, so it was a good thing nobody could see me rolling in the aisle.)

After the concert I wandered around the city for a bit, eventually happening upon a picturesquely ruined building (why is it that ruins are so picturesque?) and stopped to take a couple of photos. The man who was working in the grounds (his name was Hector) invited me to go inside and walk around and take all the photos I wanted. He followed me shortly and began telling me about the building (it was built 100-110 years ago, was originally an art school, then a government school, and he never told me how it was ruined) and about the city. After a bit, a young Salvadoran man named Napoleon wandered in and joined the conversation, and we all chatted for about 20 minutes more (have I mentioned that I love being able to speak Spanish?). I ended up going to lunch at a super-cheap comedor (full plate of good food plus horchata for under $2) with Napoleon and hanging out with him for much of the afternoon. It was a delightful experience, and one I most likely would not have had if I had scheduled my time full of tourist activities.

All of that said, for the next week and a half or so, I am going to be a complete tourist. I am currently in Copán Ruinas -- the second most popular tourist destination in Honduras -- and tomorrow will be making my way to number one -- the Bay Islands, to go diving off of Utila. I have been and will continue to be surrounded by primarily English-speaking, backpack-toting tourists, facing the mental and emotional challenge of making new friends while at the same time trying to distinguish myself from them somewhat because I dislike being lumped in the "gringo tourist" category. When I'm on my own, locals speak to me in Spanish and I feel on a somewhat even footing with them; when I'm in touristy cities full of gringos, the locals (who can) speak to me first in English, and it bothers me. It creates a distance between us, the divide between affluent tourist and humble local, and it doesn't give me a chance to show that I respect their culture enough to speak in their language.

But I guess I'll have to put up with the struggle against being labeled "gringo tourist" for a bit longer, because I'm not going to forego a diving experience in the Bay Islands! :)


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