Looking back on our summer in Mexico City, we’ve discovered a lot about ourselves from this crazy experience of long-term international travel. After thinking over the past three months, we put together this list of the six biggest travel mistakes that we’ve made. We hope that synthesizing our blunders will help us – and also maybe you – avoid them in the future.
1. Stressing over not knowing the language
Sure, it would have been great to say that immersion resulted in Spanish fluency. Not so for us.
I fretted way too much about this. Needlessly, as it turned out.
In case of emergency (becoming separated, getting lost), we each wrote down the current Airbnb address, and carried the slip of paper around with us in case we needed a taxi.
We improvised, like the time we wanted mouthwash, and pantomimed brushing our teeth and gargling. The store clerk understood immediately, and led us right to the Listerine.
In the end, speaking the language was less important than respectful demeanor and observation, so we could follow the lead of those around us. We found out how true it is that a simple smile goes a long way towards conveying good will.
2. Worrying about crime
Being in an unfamiliar place can be disconcerting until you understand local customs and behavior. Guidebooks and travel sites are helpful to sort through all that, including information about any local crime trends.
Bill and I are used to living in a big city, so the precautions we take have become second nature. We were pleasantly surprised, though, at the honesty we encountered everywhere in Mexico City.
As we got used to the different currency system, we routinely overpaid. Without fail, whether in the informal mercados or in the stores, vendors cheerfully handed back any extra pesos even though it was obvious that we wouldn’t have known the difference.
Then one evening, Bill left his bag in the restaurant where we ate dinner. The bag had everything inside – passport, wallet, money, cell phone. Not only that, we didn’t realize that the bag was gone until more than an hour after we got home.
Even though recovery seemed improbable, we returned to the restaurant just in case. Imagine our surprise: someone had found the bag, and turned it over to the waiters, who brought it with relief to Bill! We’re still incredulous every time we think about this incident.
It’s good to heed any crime warnings, just don’t go overboard.
3. Holding onto perfectionism
Throughout the summer, we both messed up so many times: finding destinations, ordering food, navigating routine purchases.
One of our finest goofs was in an Airbnb apartment, when we were preparing dinner at home. It was our first night in a new kitchen, and, although tired, we were determined to cook some rice. Bill has a favorite recipe that involves baking the rice in the oven that’s usually failsafe.
We got everything ready and placed the pot in the warm oven, set at 350 degrees. Problem was that neither of us remembered to convert that temperature from Fahrenheit to celsius.
Soon we heard a horrible hissing as the water in the pot overflowed, and smoke poured from the oven. No one was hurt, just our pride.
After so many mistakes, we now give ourselves plenty of space to make errors. When they’ve happened, and whatever the results, these occasions have actually turned out to be some of our most enjoyable memories.
4. Clinging to a rigid diet
We’re vegan, a diet not usually recognized for adaptability.
Soon after arriving in Mexico City, we realized that many of our customary meal ingredients – tofu, vegan yogurt/cheese/mayo, nutritional yeast – were not as readily accessible as in the States; let alone specialty items, or organic produce and goods.
When we read the ingredients in cans of soup and tomato sauce, more often than not we found meat and dairy listed there.
Just finding vegan protein sources, other than beans and rice, was difficult. Even peanut butter was limited. On the other hand, we were happy to find that almost every grocery store carried soy milk.
As the weeks passed, out of necessity, we experimented with dairy products like yogurt, eggs, and even a little cheese. Over time and after a bout of sickness, we found a balance we could live with; however, at the very least, we should have begun transitioning to “normal” food well before our travels to make the adjustment easier.
5. Comparing everything to the States
Although we loved being in a new environment, we admit that it was a relief to occasionally come across a familiar brand or store (I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, Woolworth’s).
At some point, a few weeks into our stay, perhaps as a reaction to the onslaught of unfamiliar, we found ourselves making too many comparisons instead of being open to a different way of getting things done.
Why no air conditioning or heat in the buildings? Where are the elevators? And certain items we just could never find anywhere, like witch hazel or applesauce.
Finally it occurred to us: did we really need any of these things?
It’s easy to get caught up in thinking there’s one best approach. When we let go of our idea that what we’re used to is superior, we found the many alternatives were pretty fantastic, and turned out to work just fine.
6. Planning too much
Both Bill and I are big planners. Most of the time, this is a helpful trait to have, although there’s a flip side. Over-planning meant no room to change our minds, which we ended up doing all the time.
This problem manifested itself mostly in the area of reservations.
So much can change in just a day or two, let alone a week or a month. When friendly locals gave us tips and advice on where to go and what to see, we wanted to be able to take advantage when we had the opportunity.
We came to appreciate, even enjoy, having no specific itinerary, and not knowing exactly where we would stay or when we would leave.
If there are any themes here, they revolve around the continuous process of reminding ourselves to be flexible. We’re learning to allow – and even encourage – serendipity, which is becoming a mainstay of our haphazard journey.
What’s your biggest travel mistake?