Almost Fearless

Watching Someone Discover Travel

New Traveler, discovery, mexico, trip around the world

We stood at the immigration desk at the Cancun airport. The officer cracked open the clean crisp passport of my friend and applied his seal on the first page. Whap. It was official, we were in another country. Too often I forget the novelty of this simple thing, knowing that you are standing on foreign soil, the expectant energy of not knowing what comes next. I looked at my friends reaction and linked my arm in his. I knew exactly how he was feeling.

I was playing tour guide for a week, in the most unlikely of places: Cancun. Normally I use Cancun as a cheap port to Mexico and Central America, taking advantage of the $250 roundrip tickets from Boston and quickly jetting off to where I really wanted to go. This time I was spending a week re-discovering travel though the eyes of someone who had never been outside of the country. For him this was a vacation, for me this was a chance to show him the other side of travel: living cheaply but extremely well, interacting with the locals whenever we could, finding out of the way places that make you feel more like a traveller than a tourist.

It would start with a bus from the airport. The tourists around us were being ushered in taxis by English speaking drivers where they would spend $25-30 to be dropped in front of their $200 a night hotels, with overpriced, lousy food, more expensive drinks and multiple swimming pools. After a week they’d be ushered again back to the airport, hungover and sunburnt, never once stepping outside of the tourist bubble. To me this is the antithesis of travel. It may be Cancun, but there was no reason we had to behave like tourists.

I walked up to the bus ticket desk and started speaking in Spanish. The salesman responded in English. I persisted. This would become the theme for the week, I will extend the olive branch of using your language, even if you use mine. Eventually they realize I really do understand Spanish and switch over. For $4 I had a ticket to the bus terminal in downtown Cancun, a 25 minute drive. We were the only Americans on the bus–mostly it was people leaving their airport jobs, dressed in the various service uniforms they donned at work.

From the terminal we headed to our hostel. He’d never stayed in a hostel, but seemed open to it. On our way we passed the Parque Las Palapas, where a dozen vendors sell Mexican food for cheap. During the week we’d eat here often, trying out different dishes: tortas with pulled pork, rich mole sauce over chicken, omelets with chorizo, frijoles and tortillas. I think his favorite were the churros, a type of long donut, that is deep fried and served in a paper bag.

The hostel was bright and airy, a fresh coat of bright paint on the bunk beds. There were kids from all over the world, taking advantage of the $10 a night beds and companionship. He turned to me, “This is nice”. Later he would make friends here, spending a full day hanging out with someone his age from Mexico City, while I worked. He met up with me that night for dinner, practically breathless. His friend told him about his travels around Mexico, about finding a remote village where they speak a dilect that as a native Spanish speaker, even he couldn’t understand. My friend was starting to do the math. “If you can travel like this, even here in Cancun, where you spend $10 a night for a hostel, eat amazing food for less than $5, then you could travel for…”


I felt him studying me too. I’d haggle with taxi drivers and walk away if they wouldn’t give me my price. We’d hop on the 50 cent bus whenever possible and lay on the hotel chairs at the beach for free. I bought lunch at the supermarket– fresh bread (A baguette was 25 cents), a slab of local cheese and some Serrano ham. “Oh my god Christine, this is so good.” This is the way travelers everywhere live, you take it for granted, that you’ll be eating fresh local foods. You forget that when people vacation, it’s a well crafted dance, from hotel to restaurant to beach, all the while leaving a stream of dollars behind you.

One night we were sitting in a park watching some kids dance with fire. The families were out for their evening stroll and we were enjoying the free show. “This is amazing” he told me. He was charmed, smitten with Mexico, with traveling. We talked for hours that night. The bug had bitten. He wanted more of this, to see the world, and now he was convinced at how easy it would be to come back. The things he used to believe, that traveling cost thousands of dollars or that you couldn’t enjoy yourself without staying in a nice hotel, faded away. He was having more fun than on any traditional vacation he’d ever had.

I found myself nodding to everything he said. I remember the first time I “found” travel. It was in Rome, and it took my breath away. I had traveled before, but that city rocked me. I felt dizzy and drunk on it, and just wanted to hug people on the street with my happiness. To this day if anyone brings up Rome, I gush about it, trying to convey the emotions that city brings out in me. You always remember your first.

And now my friend has made some decisions. He wants to live as cheaply as possible in the States to save for his next trip. He’s planning on taking Spanish lessons. He wants to spend 6 months in Paris. He had a glean in his eye while talking about these things, something I recognize well. He’s fallen in love.

Christine Gilbert

I’ve been dragging my husband around the world since 2008 always with the promise that, “Yes, Drew there will definitely be hammocks there.”



  • You’re absolutely right, you never forget your first! For me it was Florence. I couldn’t get over how beautiful the city and how much I wanted to make it my home. Mexico is a great place to kindle that love, though. I went just over a year ago and it was the furthest you could possibly get from the tourist show. We ate real street food and lounged on the empty public beach of Tulum. If anyone were to offer me a free trip to a resort, I would cash it in and see the real Mexico! I hope your friend follows his freshly discovered love!

  • I’d almost forgotten! That first trip…the moment you realize, “hey, I can do this”…when you slip from being a tourist to being a traveler. This is a great post, thanks for reminidng me.

  • Beautiful. This is exactly how it feels, indeed… once the bug has bitten you, you won´t ever be the same; people will gave you that strange look when you talk about going so far away and eating sandwiches, even you friends won´t understand your occasional desire to camp or your aversion to conventional hotels.

    Damn, even writing this makes “The Itch” comes back… someday i will scratch it in Mexico, for sure! 🙂

  • I am SO that friend, and your next travel companion hopeful. My kiddies and I have had the good fortune to travel all over the US in just this manner; “living local”. I’ve had the incredible pleasure of visitng just over the Mexico border. That was a painfully delectable taste for me. I’ve laways wanted to explore…even as a little girl. I’m smitten and bitten forever. 😉 C.

  • Beautifully written. I really enjoyed reading this and found myself smiling and nodding throughout. I remember falling for travel and I’ve also been fortunate to see other people go through the same process. It’s wonderful.

    Audrey´s last blog post..Travelers as Diplomats?

  • Discovering travel is an amazing thing. I’ve been intermittently living that life forever; I probably discovered that life when I was 13 in the Bahamas, but I seem to “re-recognize” and value the experiences of travel in a new way every time 🙂

  • I was recently asked to comment on the difference between a traveller vs. a tourist, and I must admit that having been on the road for a few years now, I tend to think there is little distinction between the two. Whether we are travelling for pleasure and vacation or travelling for experience and culture, we are all travelling and touring.

    However, this post reminds me that there is a difference, and that there is something special about travelling independently, outside of the tour group, that perhaps those of us who have been doing it for a few year forget. It is good to be reminded though the eyes of the newcomer that it is something very cool and special.

    Thanks for posting this. It is a good reminder that we independent travellers need to remember that this is something worth remembering.


    Greg Wesson´s last blog post..England: Winter Wonderland?

  • This is a great post, Christine! Just reinforces my desire to go travel on my birthday a few months from now. Never mind that me and my friends have to skimp on food and other stuff to come up with the budget.

    For any traveller who has a good hand with a pencil, perhaps you might want to check out Mo Willems’ You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When It Monsoons (The World on One Cartoon A Day). A good alternative to blogging/photography.

    mauie´s last blog post..If I Were a Star, This Would Be My Come-back Movie

  • What a wonderful story! I unfortunately can’t remember my ‘first’ as I’ve been traveling all my life, but I’ve certainly taken friends along and have had the privilege of watching their eyes open to the wonder of travel, to a first communication in a foreign language, a first bite of unknown foods, a first ride on a dusty rural bus…

    I may never have that ‘first’ awakening to the world of travel again but I always look around me with wonder – there’s no trip without its own ‘first’…

  • I took my first trip to Paris, a school trip, at the age of 14 … and was utterly gobsmacked by the fact that the police carried guns, and everyone drove on the wrong side of the road, and spoke French!

    Keith´s last blog post..More Snow Pictures

  • Wow, fantastic post! I’m actually choked up here. You’ve perfectly captured the ideal of travel, that potent, burgeoning limitlessness of the world we sense now and again in those special moments on the road. That anything is possible.

    This is the best thing I’ve read in a while, thanks!

    Hal´s last blog post..This Is Home

  • excellent post. my very first hostel experience in sydney was a bit boring, since all people in my room an d 80% in the hostel came from my country, forming little groups. eventually they split up afte a week or so to discover australia by themself, or at least would team up with locals or people from other countries 🙂

  • Any advice for a single, female, 27 years old who is thinking a lot (almost 3 years now) about taking a different road…no 9 to 5er, living a traveler’s life, etc. I am scare as i think anyone would be wanting to take a completely different path. how do i convince “myself” to take this step that I want to take rather than succumb to my fears as I have been? How should I go about it? Financial, work, etc. Thanks!

  • Rome was my first too!! I found your blog on Jan 1st and I’ve been reading through your archives from the beginning. I love it!! Thank-you.
    .-= Tina´s last blog ..Hello world! =-.

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