Adventure, Dominican Republic, Favorites, The Great Adventure, Travel

Coming Home from the Caribbean with Doubts

Calle José Reyes

I caught Jessica’s eye. She nodded. She remembered the rule: never ask a Santo Domingo cab driver how much the ride will cost. Just wait till you get there and pay him what you think is right. It’s 170 pesos to go anywhere in the city, 150 if it’s very close. (The airport is more.)

This one was busy scribbling his personal cell number on someone else’s business card, telling Jess in Spanish that we should call him for all of our taxi needs. She added the card to four others in our collection. We’d been in the city all week, adding paved streets and outdoor cafes to our otherwise backpack-and-bus style trek across Hispaniola. We had escaped here for two months, to explore villages, beaches and our fledgling love while dodging deberes at home.

The problem was those two months were over.

We had spent the first half of our time mostly in one town, Las Galeras, doing our work in the mornings and taking afternoons in the sun. “Galera,” as you’d say in cotton-mouthed Dominican Spanish, was not exactly a cute little fishing hamlet, but it also wasn’t a thumping resort destination, and that’s why we stayed.

By our second month we were ready to strike out. We crossed the DR end to end (some of it more than once) and we went to Haiti. It’s hard to describe everything that’s wrong with Haiti, but I can say that getting up in the morning and leaving the house feels like being hit in the face with a plank. I told Jessica it was the roughest trip I’d ever taken.

“It’s not my roughest ever,” she said. “But I’m the oldest that I’ve ever been.”

Returning from Haiti instilled in me a new sense of adoration for the Spanish side of the island, home of a laid back people who add sugar even to fruit juice and lift their shirts over their bellies when they need to cool off. I had come to feel at home here, to feel happier than I do in most US towns, and now it was time to leave.

Papa Legba

Papa Legba at the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Before I began my travels I had the idea that travel changes the mind. I pictured that traveling far and wide would, on its own, be some kind of transformative practice—that the adventures I’d find myself in would refine who I was. That’s essentially true, but I don’t think I could have imagined how it actually works.

Travel is not an adventure game where overcoming challenges develops new skills, or where mentors and allies appear to help you through the toughest times. Travel breaks you down. Most of the new skills you gain are developed during the many, many times you fail to overcome challenges, and more often you feel like you’re gambling your way forward with a skill set that’s far from sufficient. Mentors and allies can be found, but you generally have to create those relationships yourself—you have to take a lot of social risks.

The result is that travel does change you, deeply, but not by simply powering you up to some kind of super-talented globetrotter. If anything, travel changes you most effectively by undermining your sense of self, your certainty. It forces you to rethink things you believe.

Such as your purpose in life.

This is a pillar of heroic philosophy, the idea that simply going out and adventuring will bring you in contact with your calling, whatever that might be. For me, that has meant not only discovering new truths about myself, but also letting go—sometimes painfully—of things I was convinced I wanted.

Having shed so many of my old beliefs on the 1,800 mile bike ride, I didn’t expect another shakeup, not anytime soon. I felt a renewed sense of purpose during my stay in New Orleans, a certainty of my next steps: bike to Texas. Now, on buses and beaches and completely off-track, I would slip into daydreams and wonder what I could do instead.

The walking mall (Calle el Conde), Santo Domingo.

The walking mall (Calle el Conde), Santo Domingo.

Our last days in Santo Domingo were filled with exploratory strolls down old colonial streets, hand in hand, talking about anything besides what next. In the evenings we went to the hidden Cuban restaurant, where Serge would bring us mojitos and picaderas, a rocks glass of rum in his hand like he was our uncle at a family dinner. No one but us came in; “Dominicans don’t like anything different,” Serge said.

It was a sentiment I could relate to. Our life had become an idyllic one, traveling the Caribbean with just enough money, our Spanish on the mend, our love getting cozy. Why would I want anything to change?

The truth is, I didn’t.

As we walked I would think about the busy, hard life of writing while bicycling. I would think about how I imagine Texas and rural Louisiana, about camping in a small hammock illegally by the side of the road, about dodging semi-trucks and eating at gas stations. I found it hard to stir up any flavor of zeal for returning to that life.

It really wasn’t about my relationship with Jessica. We figured that out with relative ease (eventually): she’s going to come visit me in Texas when I reach it, and we’ll take it one step at a time. My crisis of the last few weeks was really, it turns out, about my own future

Angel Urrely, "Deforestación de la jungle a la botánica," in the Museo de Arte Moderno in Santo Domingo.

Angel Urrely, “Deforestación de la jungle a la botánica,” in the Museo de Arte Moderno in Santo Domingo.

We went to the Plaza de la Cultura, a cluster of national museums tucked somewhere between a university, the US Embassy and Santo Domingo’s only real freeway. We had just a few hours, so we chose in advance to see (only) the Museo de Arte Moderno. Had we known what we’d find, we would have gone for a whole day.

The Plaza is more like a campus or a private park. We strolled among fountains, massive trees and oh-so-rare green space. At first we couldn’t understand the peculiar sense of enchantment we found there, until we realized: it’s the only place in Santo Domingo that’s quiet.

That silence and magic stuck with me. Latin America takes art and scholarship seriously in a way that my home culture simply doesn’t. There’s a special reverence for education, and in turn for academics who devote their lives to study. Philosophic questions are fare for casual conversation. In the United States a PhD is a “piece of paper”; in the Latin world it is proof of real knowledge, knowledge that can change the world.

Inside, I clicked into my museum mode. I overflowed with questions about technique and meaning and artist intent. I had sudden ideas for new works of art. At closing time the docent had to kick us out, me fighting to snap pictures of artist names so I wouldn’t forget them.

It was there, strolling at sunset through a temple of culture, that I glimpsed a life I could be happy with. Not working in a museum; I had done that already. Not becoming an academic, necessarily, though I’ve long considered the option of grad school once I finish my journey.

But I could see myself in that world, somewhere in the intersection of culture, education, creating art as a writer, and connecting people as a traveler.

In other words, I’m not so sure my purpose involves less adventurer in “philosopher-adventurer,” but it does likely involve more philosopher. 

Me having fun covered in mud.

Me having fun covered in mud.

Jess and I flew back. She’s in New York, on business, but she left me her apartment. For a few short days I have the bliss of sunny windows, good wi-fi and no distractions: the perfect place to write.

Then I need to leave.

New Orleans is my favorite American city—our least American city—but what I love is Latin America, every part of it I’ve been to. I don’t want to be in the United States, not temporarily and certainly no longer than needed. That means I need to rethink whether I want to spend many months training in Texas so I can kayak south.

I thought my purpose in life was to be an adventurer, to set great and near-impossible tasks and then push myself till I complete them. That 8,000 mile trek to Brazil still appeals to me.

But my journey makes me question that purpose (that is, after all, what journeys do). It makes me wonder: would I be happier getting there faster, living longer in fewer places, writing all day instead of biking all day?

And if I would be happier with that, why delay it another four years with this great trek?

I will at least go as far as Texas on the bike—and maybe keep going. By this time next week I will, indeed, be camping illegally by the side of the road. I will almost certainly be eating at gas stations. I will be following a dream I’m not sure is possible. And I won’t know why.

Some part of me says: because it’s what you’re meant to do. I’m just not sure I can trust that part of me.


16 thoughts on “Coming Home from the Caribbean with Doubts

  1. Can continuing to bike just be what you “want” to do? I’ve found the time after travel affords me some solace – to simply go and do – without the need to understand the next step or even why. Following a dream you’re not sure is possible is a great reason why… at least to me.

    When it stops being a dream, you stop peddling.

    I first started reading RP, it was for the philosophy of it, not the adventure. Just something to keep in mind. I’m looking forward to you leaning into that side more, too.

  2. I am truly loving the way that your journey (and in turn your story) is unfolding. It is a magical time of transformation and reinvention…and it is constantly in motion…even at rest.

  3. I also enjoy reading your unfolding story.

    The last part “Some part of me says: because it’s what you’re meant to do. I’m just not sure if I can trust that part of me.” sums up so much and speaks volumes (sorry for use of cliches). I don’t know what those words me for you, but they speak to me and where I am right now.

  4. That island of the sun will get under your skin. Ayiti will chew you up, spit you out, then dare you to go back. I’m taking the dare, and returning, not to Port au Prince, but to Jakmel. It is the oasis. New perspectives and change are part of adventure are they not? Otherwise it is simply a well planned trip.

  5. Pixi says:

    I’ve been at that place of questioning the purpose for what I am doing and saw so many others there, as well, during my recent adventure in the woods, some are still there. I know you’ll figure it out.

  6. zwhit says:

    Drew – I’m sitting here reading this with goosebumps. Well put-together writing as always, and more important questions than most. Those who know you have your back, whatever the decision.

  7. Matthew Hajel says:

    All you can do is pray about it. We are only here on earth a short time and a lot of timess we focus to much on earthly things. Go were your heart leads you and enjoy God’s creation.

  8. That’s a lot to ponder. I really liked the picture from the museum – it really makes you think about what each image means. I find myself thinking a lot on how someone can travel and make change. I’m almost done my Permaculture Design Course and think it would be a really great experience to have a travel network between each permaculture institute and other permaculture sites. Where you could hike, bike, or paddle between them and work on them for your stay. Where there isn’t one for some distance, establish one there via setting up a design course and a showcase example there. “Its creating abundance – by design!” ^_^ Either way I think that a network of places to stay where you make a difference in some way would be great – especially as a “coming of age” thing. The more variety of the experiences in the network the more chance you have at finding something you’d like to do after the travel. Just my thoughts.

    • The traditional journeyman system of training artisans in Europe had, as I recall, chapter houses where journeymen could stay in different towns. I think a wild ways/permaculture journeyman network would be an incredible thing to create.

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  10. I’m interested to see how you feel after you bike to Texas. Will you change once again after you’ve been living the road life again? Will you want to go on that way? You’ve now had a taste of easier travel. Good travel, but easier. Will the hard road still be sweet? Dream your dreams, and live them, but make sure they are yours.

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  13. I want to thank everyone who commented here, and apologize for the lack of quick response – as this and other recent posts have indicated, this has been both a busy and sometimes challenging few weeks. I wont be able to reply to each person individually, but I want you to know it matters to me that so man of you spoke up,

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