Please, Don’t Be A Pretentious Traveler Part II

May 3, 2011

Border into Panama

No signs at this border crossing

I recently wrote a post about a very pretentious traveler whom I met in Guatemala this past March. Lots of you commented, and it would seem that it was a common experience shared by most of you at some point or another. I wanted to follow that post with this one dedicated to a traveler named Martin, who was the antithesis of Miss Fancy Hula-Hoop Pants, but whom I incidentally met on the same day and at the same hostel.

A group of us were sitting down to dinner. We were having a typical conversation about where everyone had been and stayed. Sitting at the end of the table was an unassuming looking man with brilliant blue eyes freshly dreaded dreadlocks, who was eagerly tucking into his food. During the first 15 minutes of conversation, he didn’t really engage. The conversation turned to Lake Atitlan, as Arnaud and I would be traveling there next and were looking for a good hostel recommendation for Panajachel. A few people interjected their thoughts, and then I turned to the silent guy at the end of the table and asked him whether he had been to the lake, and had any accommodation recommendations?

He mentioned the name of a hostel, but pointed out he had only chosen it because it was extremely economical and was pretty far away from the main action of the downtown area. He did tell us about a great little bar that had great live music. He casually mentioned that he typically camped as he was traveling to save money, as he was on an extended trip.

Up to this point we hadn’t really noticed anything special about this person. He was friendly and trying to be helpful. Pestering him with a couple more generic questions, we discovered that he had just had his bicycle stolen. This wasn’t all that incredible either, until he explained that he had basically been cycling for the last year all the way from Tierra Del Fuego in South America to Guatemala!

This information got me extremely interested. This was a traveler with a unique story, and certainly one that a lot of people would’ve chosen to brag about. However, in a very mild-mannered English accent, Martin began captivating us as an audience as he began to explain how he had actually been traveling for the past eight years, and how his decision to cycle from the southernmost tip of South America to the northernmost tip of North America wasn’t really anything special. He explained that hundreds of guys did this every year, and so he didn’t really think he was that unique anymore.

Well. I’d certainly never met anyone doing this! I was interested!

Aconcagua, 22,841 Feet

Mighty Aconcagua, 22,841 Feet

We were fascinated and started peppering Martin with questions about what it had been like, what tools he had used to get from place to place, how much gear he was carrying with him etc. It turned out that in addition to cycling, Martin was an avid mountaineer and was climbing high altitude peaks along his journey, including the mighty Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in the continent. He was even carrying all of his cold weather gear on his bike; everything except an ice axe and crampons.

Martin was happy to answer our questions, but he never once took any credit for his outstanding achievement, and brave forays onto a truly unbeaten path on the back of a standard road bike. He told us about his bike rides through winter blizzards, his Aconcagua ascent, his malaria and water-borne sicknesses he’d endured because like the locals, he no longer treats his drinking water. One particular story stands out in my mind, and it concerned his crossing the border from Colombia to Panama, overland.

“Well, you see, crossing the border via the dense jungle on a road bike is a bit tricky,” he explained.

“I basically don’t carry any roadmaps, because they are so unreliable in Central. I typically end up following a compass, rudimentary markings in the lonely planet guide, directions from locals along the way, and my gut. I was passing through during the rainy season, when I knew it would be especially difficult to get across by bike. And since it’s considered a rather dodgy area, there are not very many road signs,”

“At one point, I think I’d been biking about two days on one small road I thought was the correct route only to find out later that it looped back to where I had started from. I was gutted as it had been especially physically demanding. Not wanting to be discouraged, I set about on a different route only to find that the rain started coming down so heavily that I had no choice but to pull over, set up my one man tent in the bog, and wait for the weather to clear.”

“After a rather crazed, mosquito-filled sleepless night, I awoke to water inside my tent, and when I peered outside, there was a river flowing where yesterday there had been a road! Some locals had come across my tent in a boat and were just sitting there waiting to see what crazy person had set up a tent in the middle of the jungle so close to the Colombian border. I think these guys were Wounaan Indians, so they didn’t speak a word of Spanish or English. It was rather difficult trying to get them to understand where I needed to go- that I need their help was, believe me, rather obvious! “

Map of No-Man's Land: Border between Panama and Colombia

“Eventually I understood that they wanted $10 for me to get in their boat and be paddled across the border; at least, I hoped that was where they were heading! I remember thinking that $10 was a lot of money because based on my best guess-work; I was no more than a few miles from the border. Turns out, I was in that boat with those two guys for the next 15 hours before safely crossing over into Panama. It was absolutely wild. I can’t begin to tell you how precious and unique that experience was for me. Being paddled to Panama by those guys.”

Martin’s eyes sparkled as he spoke, and we sat listening with rapt attention. The writer in me kept asking him, “Have you written any these stories down or blogged about any of them? Seriously?!”

He just kept insisting that he’s an ordinary guy who loves to travel, loves to climb mountains, surf waves, and have adventures. He didn’t think his stories were anything special.

“People who can live in one place. Have a home, a family. Keep a job that they go to every day of the week. They are special. Not me. This is my life”.

I found him inspiring. He was the epitome of cool- because he didn’t consider himself to be.

After my encounter with hula hoop girl earlier on in the day, I can tell you that meeting Martin was a refreshing change. He had experienced so much and been traveling for so long, he even admitted that he looked 10 years older than his mere 29 years. Yet despite this, he was more than happy to discuss where I might like to stay in Panajachel. Only after probing him did he offer up this array of colorful stories of adventures into the wild unknown that most backpackers don’t get to experience.

Funnily enough, I met another traveler in Rio Dulce who had encountered Martin and was likewise struck by his tale and accompanying modesty. It seems Martin is leaving a trail of positive impacts in his interactions as he heads north. I did give Martin my e-mail address, and let him know that he had a place to stay once he got to Seattle sometime next year, but I haven’t heard from him yet.

“So… Where’s next for you? Now that you’re bike-less?” I asked Martin as I left the table.

“Well, turns out that the police in Panajachel found my bike today. Which I really wasn’t expecting. So I’ll just enjoy my bus journey back to the Lake…and then I’ll be on the road again. Maybe find some work for a while to save up some more cash before heading to the States.”

He smiled and hungrily shoveled some more dinner into his mouth, clearly content that he could enjoy some food that wasn’t packaged noodles boiled on his camp stove.

I am curious to know if any of you pretension-hating travelers out there have met Martin? Or at least someone like him that inspired you?


1 Juno May 3, 2011 at 8:09 pm

Great follow-up. This IS inspiring. Yes, actually I’ve met a very humble traveler recently, and more and more I get to know about his previous paths, I got more and more inspired. All these people we encounter everyday, they made me look back myself, and check if I’m not doing anything obnoxious.
Thought Miss.Hula story was a genius, I really enjoyed this post even more.

2 Anita May 4, 2011 at 12:23 pm

Thanks Juno! Glad you enjoyed it: I wanted to follow up Hula-hoop girl with someone a little more uplifting! And yes, sometimes the quiet ones have the best gems of stories…

3 Waegook Tom May 3, 2011 at 8:40 pm

Someone should force this man to sit and a computer and write it all down – I’d LOVE to read about his adventures! He’d become a travelblog superstar!

I think “this would make a great blog-post!” if I have a cultural mis-hap in a restaurant – this guy camped on a bog in the Darien Gap and rode for 15 hours from Colombia to Panama with a couple of indigenous tribesmen?!? You can’t make that stuff up.

Plus, he’s just so humble about it all. I can’t say that I’d be the same if I’d done what he’d done – I’d allow myself a little bit of bragging time LOL ;)

Just goes to show, the quiet ones are often the most interesting! Also, I wonder if he met Hula Hoop Girl?…
Waegook Tom recently posted..I Quit

4 Anita May 3, 2011 at 10:54 pm

Amen. I offered to ghost write his story if he didn’t write it himself.

It was incredible to me that he didn’t think his story would be read by many- I’m sure it would!

5 Abby May 4, 2011 at 12:01 pm

Ohhh, this is so nice to hear! So many travelers love the bragging rights and rattling off about what they’ve done. Sometimes I swear they like having done something and telling people about it more than actually DOING it. Martin seems so genuine, what a breath of fresh air! (For the record, I admit to being pretty in the middle of these two extremes!)
Abby recently posted..Meet- Plan- Go — How long-term travel helped my career

6 Anita May 4, 2011 at 12:17 pm

I think I’m somewhere in the middle too, Abby, but these two extremes make me at least be more aware of what my listeners might be thinking when I start spouting about travel! I can get very enthusiastic and unwittingly be thought of as a bragging artist. Which I hope doesn’t happen too often.

Yeah, Martin was a humble, cool dude.

7 Jimshu May 4, 2011 at 5:49 pm

I have met a very unpretentious couple cycling around Australia. Yep, all the way. My mate Reg and I won a 9 day leg on the Etraordinary Taxi Ride and in a wee town east of Broome stopped for lunch at a garage cafe. A couple I took to be in late 50′s, early 60′s were eating pies next to us. We engaged in conversation and they eventually told us they had cycled from Melbourne all the way up the east coast and across top of Australia. I was fascinated so we swapped emails, and now have all their email accounts of their epic journey. Now, cycling across Aussie deserts is no mean feat when you cannot carry enough food and water for 10 days. All made possible by GPS and pre-cached supplies buried at certain points.
OK, not quite as intrepid as your amazing cyclist, but still at that age, an amazing example of what some people do, clowning around on bikes!
Jimshu recently posted..Feeding the Eels at Nga Manu Nature ReserveMy Land-

8 Anita May 5, 2011 at 10:52 am

I don’t know Jim – this couple’s accomplishment might out-do or would even be on par with Martin’s. Cycling across Australia would be a crazy undertaking for most people – especially when you consider that for the most part: they often warn you about DRIVING into the outback because of what could happen if you break down.

Great stuff!

9 ayngelina May 5, 2011 at 10:30 am

I’ve met them all but I kinda wish I had met hula hoop girl, just so I could tell the story.
ayngelina recently posted..Where have all the hippies gone

10 Anita May 5, 2011 at 10:53 am

And would you have berated her as much, the same, or more than I did? Hmmm…

11 Ally May 5, 2011 at 2:38 pm

After reading about that pretentious girl, it was a nice change to hear about Martin!

Would love to meet him and pick his brain, he should SO write a book!

12 Anita May 6, 2011 at 4:32 pm

Agreed! Thanks Ally, I’m glad you enjoyed it!

13 Michael Hodson May 6, 2011 at 11:29 pm

I laugh when I remember back to the very beginning of my RTW trip. Not many in my part of the States had done anything like it, especially all overland, so a couple newspapers interviewed me about the whole thing. Friends were amazed. My head swelled up in a large way. And so when I started traveling and met a bunch of other travelers and had the “where are you from and what is your trip” conversation, I was all proud of myself and bragging on what I had planned…. until I met about a half dozen people who casually mentioned they or a friend had done a similar trip (of course, they did it nicely and non-pretentiously – mostly stuff like “yea, you’ll love such and such location – or at least I did back in 2007 on my trip” and such). I QUICKLY learned that every sort of trip has been done and everyone is doing their own fun, exciting or interesting travel. I damn sure hope I have been a few thousand percent less pretentious about my little travels since then. LOL.
Michael Hodson recently posted..What Happens When It Rains in the Desert

14 Anita May 8, 2011 at 9:09 am

Ha ha! I love it. So, on the one hand, I would still say you have bragging rights because by doing overland travel, you’re still very unique (that’s aside from your writing skills and dashing character, of course.)

But it’s true what you say- in the planning stage it’s easy to think that compared to your local friends- the itinerary you’ve chosen is so extraordinary that it inflated your own ego. This soon bursts when you meet other travelers on the, what turns out to be, an upsettingly well-beaten path:-)

15 Dalene | Hecktic Travels May 7, 2011 at 8:30 am

Awesome story. I love meeting people like Martin on the road. Sometimes I really hate being in hostels when it becomes a game of one-up-man-ship around a table, that is my cue to leave. But every once in awhile it pays off when you can meet someone like that. :)
Dalene | Hecktic Travels recently posted..Paragliding in Argentina – A Photo Essay

16 Anita May 8, 2011 at 9:13 am

Dalene- I completely agree with you! I think there is a line between the excitement that we feel about where we’ve been and the one upmanship thing.

But Martin was definitely the former!

17 jill- Jack and Jill Travel The World May 8, 2011 at 6:07 am

Wow, I wish I could meet him in real life. Sounds like a great character. In our short time on the road we’ve met so many people doing crazy-sounding things (biking long distance seems to be one of them) – it’s very humbling.
jill- Jack and Jill Travel The World recently posted..Jack and Jill Around the Net – April

18 Anita May 8, 2011 at 9:28 am

Gives one perspective, doesn’t it? Keeps you humble :-)

19 Elizabeth May 9, 2011 at 11:34 am

Love the follow up!

Both posts are inspiring to me as they make me think of what kind of traveler I want to be. This guy is the kind of person I love to meet, whether I’m travelling or not.

Remember, there will always be someone who has travelled more that you!

20 Anita May 11, 2011 at 4:54 pm

Absolutely Elizabeth. He was an all round impressive, humble and kind human being — and like you say, it definitely made me think about the kind of traveler I want to be.

21 Emily May 9, 2011 at 4:00 pm

Martin sounds like a fascinating person! And a great example for the rest of us who love to travel and share our experiences.
One of the best parts of travel is meeting new people with whom we can swap stories (hopefully without sounding pretentious!)
Great writing, Anita! New to your blog, and loving what I see.
Emily recently posted..whirlwind weekend

22 Anita May 11, 2011 at 4:55 pm

Emily, I am so glad that you found my blog and that you are enjoying it! Thank you so very much for the compliment.

I agree, meeting other travelers and sharing stories with like-minded people are what make travel so special.

23 Christy @ Ordinary Traveler May 10, 2011 at 10:07 am

Great story! I don’t think I have ever come across somebody with stories as cool as this while traveling. I usually meet the people like hula hoop girl who want to brag about everything they have done. I can’t believe it took 15 hours to get to the border by boat when he thought he was only a few miles. Crazy.
Christy @ Ordinary Traveler recently posted..I See the Light in You 4

24 Anita May 11, 2011 at 4:56 pm

I’m guessing that area of the jungle changes rapidly with heavy rainfall! Thanks for checking it out Christy!

25 Jason May 10, 2011 at 3:29 pm

Nice – you’ve got both sides of the spectrum here. Can’t wait for the next feature.
Jason recently posted..Travel And Kids- No School For A Year

26 Anita May 11, 2011 at 4:56 pm

thank you Jason! It’s even crazier when you consider that I met both of these people on the same day!

27 Laurel May 16, 2011 at 8:28 am

How nice to meet someone like Martin after your experience with the other one. So funny that you met them both on the same day. I hope that he reads your blog so that he can see how special he truly is.
Laurel recently posted..Capture the Essence of a City in Germany- In One Photo

28 Anita May 20, 2011 at 11:47 am

I know, right? Strange coincidence!

29 Monica May 26, 2011 at 9:23 pm

Sorry for the last response, just wanted to say I loved Martin’s story! Really enjoyable read. Thanks!

30 Jason June 9, 2011 at 1:01 am

I enjoyed this post and it is more common than you may think. Over the years I have met many facinating travelers in some very remote parts of the world, just going about there.passion of travel and adventure. They’ve not written books, or don’t keep blogs, which in a way is a shame, but then again it sort of sums them up. The true quiet achievers.

31 Anita June 12, 2011 at 10:47 am

Agreed, Jason. As writers, I think it’s hard for us to hear cool stories that aren’t being documented, right?

32 Annie June 22, 2011 at 5:08 pm

I actually find it really interesting that you asked him if he writes any of his stories down and he said no; that he doesn’t think that they are that special. I find that as travel bloggers (or maybe it’s just me) we are always trying to find out how to make our travels stand out from others. Here is someone that does stand out but it doesn’t phase him.

It’s an inspiration in so many ways, it makes me want to sit back and re-evaluate my writing and my attitude toward travel.

So glad you could meet Martin to counter-act Miss Hula Hoop.

33 Anita June 23, 2011 at 10:33 am

He really was a refreshing person to meet! And I’m not sure if its necessary for us to stand out from the rest in order for our writing to stand out? When you’re traveling, incredible things happen everyday that stand out: though probably not as much as for Martin!

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