Ever bought a one-way ticket and ended up on a seven-month trip? In this month’s Frequent Flier Sound Off Elias Pfeifer details how he finally decided to save up and go, buying a one-way ticket to Central America…and not looking back.
Name: Elias Pfeifer
Location: Pasto, Nariño, Colombia
Number of Countries Visited:15
Last Country Visited: Colombia (still here)
What is your favorite country you have visited and why?
While I am absolutely terrible at picking favorites, I think I have to lean toward Guatemala. Guatemala was a wonderful surprise. The landscape is very diverse, it has volcanoes, beaches, lakes, mountains, and a mix of fun cities, my favorite being Antigua. I was there for a total of three months studying Spanish and visiting every corner of the country. The people are very friendly and there is a nice mix of full-flavor food. The only thing it is missing is a good, strong flavored beer.
What is your least favorite country you have visited and why?
I have honestly loved each and every country I have visited, but if forced to rank them I guess I would have to settle on Indonesia. The only reason this country is on the bottom of my list is because I was only able to see Bali and was relegated to a resort most of the time. Instead of really getting to know the whole country (or even one of its islands) I only got to see a very small and touristy area. Not that I am complaining! It was just more of a sit and relax vacation as opposed to my usual exploratory ones. I must add the disclaimer that it was still very enjoyable, and I look forward to returning for a more thorough investigation.
What countries are on the itinerary for this year?
My trip so far has landed me in Colombia for the foreseeable future. That being said I will be taking advantage of my new base camp and attempt to visit as many South American countries as possible. Certainly I will be visiting Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador this year, but I hope to also see the other South American countries soon, especially Chile and Argentina. Depending on my teaching schedule those may be this year or possibly next!
When did you start traveling? Did it start at an early age for you?
As long as I can remember my parents were always taking my sister and I on road trips and camping trips. We went to many national parks, went on ski vacations, camped all the way up the California coast, visited family in the Pacific Northwest, and fished our way through several states and part of Canada. I suppose I owe my affinity to nature to my parents who always had us outdoors. Travel within the United States was very common in my upbringing, we even took a trip to Mexico but I really did not dive into international travel until I was 21. I had the opportunity study abroad in Costa Rica for two months and this is what sparked my undying love for international travel.
Why do you travel? What is your personal reason for traveling?
The single most important reason I travel is to broaden my perspective and worldview. Yes, seeing new things, trying new foods, and traipsing around the globe are extremely satisfying side-effects of travel, but to me it is more about the experience and how it shapes me to become a force for positive change on our planet. While life is certainly enjoyable, I do not want to sit idly around in a world without progress. Things can always improve and I want to be part of improving life for everyone, especially in third world countries. This ideal of forward progress is what drew me to the English teaching program in Colombia, their hope is to be a bilingual nation by 2025 so they can be more competitive within global business systems. Before traveling abroad it was easy to live in my own little perfect world, but now I see that the world is MUCH bigger than the U.S., and we all need to think globally to improve life for everyone. To sum it up, I travel to learn what the world needs and to try and figure out how I can help, ostensibly by using the things I had learned through traveling.
Why do you believe it’s important for others to travel and see the world?
As mentioned above, it is so easy to live in our own worlds, to get caught up in the rat race and only see paycheck to paycheck. It is also easy to become complacent and comfortable with a lavish lifestyle of distractions. Seeing other parts of the world will make you appreciate what you do have and open your eyes to the fact that, while there are certainly differences in culture, people are all inherently the same. When you actually meet people in person as opposed to only stereotyping them according to various media sources, you find out that they are real people, just like you. You will find that we all aren’t so different after all and this is an education you can only achieve through traveling and meeting folks for yourself, in person. Tearing down the artificial barriers we set in our minds is a part of a positive change the world needs to experience, and travel is the prime tool for achieving this. Once again it all goes back to broadening one’s perspective.
Tell us about your journey. You have been traveling for months on end. Where have you visited?
It all started with a one-way ticket to Belize City. I found a ticket from Denver to Belize for $130 so I decided to start there on December 7, 2015. Planning really isn’t my strong point, so I flew there with a vague notion of heading to Caye Caulker and then figuring things out. It turns out my “plans” materialized on their own. I met some new friends and we drove around Belize for the following week and I have pieced together a wild journey in a similar fashion ever since.
From Belize I went to Guatemala where I got distracted by various nature and learning Spanish for months! In the midst of all this study, my good friend and mentor called me inviting me to Australia. While this was obviously a surprise, I did not hesitate for one second to say yes! Being flexible is a much needed character trait of the traveler. Things will never go as planned, while it is easy for me to change plans (as I don’t make any), I would like to encourage you to be flexible on the road, it will be necessary. After my vacation from a vacation I returned to Guatemala and another friend flew down and we did a loop through Honduras and El Salvador where we learned to dive and surf, respectively. On my own again I traveled south through Nicaragua to visit a friend in the Peace Corps and continued my surfing education in San Juan Del Sur. Once again I got lost in Costa Rica’s beautiful beaches and tropical rain forests and over stayed my budgeted time there, which led to a short but intriguing visit in Panama; yet another country I have put into the “needs further research” category.
Venturing on to the southern continent of the Americas, I decided to opt for a rum-fueled sailing trip from Portobello, Panama, to Cartegena, Colombia. While it was the trip of a lifetime, and certainly the best way to cross from Panama to Colombia, I realized I am no sailor; my stomach is not seaworthy to say the least. Once in Colombia I experienced the beach life and gorgeous national parks in the north of this beautiful country. Do not be fooled by outdated stereotypes of Colombia, the nature is majestic, the people are friendly and most all of the bad things you have heard about Colombia are from the 1980s or at least were mostly eradicated by 2003.
Now, I have settled into the small town of Pasto in southern Colombia. After seven months of free travel, it feels strange and exciting to call a place home again. It is just the next step in my trip. While it is different than travel directly, living abroad is proving to be just as interesting. Instead of only having a brief survey of geographic areas and a small taste of a country’s culture, I am getting to see regular life in Colombia and experience its culture on a much deeper level. I will be here until at least December of this year, but as of now I’m leaning toward staying longer. Who knows what will come next? I surely do not. For now I am enjoying teaching English to students who are excited to interact with a real life gringo.
You have been planning for this trip for a while. Tell us about how your got up the courage to just quit your job and leave?
As I have alluded to above, I was caught up in my own little world. Life was good. I was a part of opening a new restaurant/cocktail bar in Durango, Colorado, and it took off! If I may insert a shameless plug, if you are ever in Durango visit El Moro Spirits and Tavern, you won’t regret it. I was a bartender in a mountain town (i.e. I was at the top of the corporate ladder), I was making good money and spending every penny on good times and small trips throughout the year. When I finally got around to saving after a year of lavish spending, I kept making excuses as to why I couldn’t leave. I need to save more. I have such a great job. I would be crazy to leave Durango. One day I realized I would continue to make excuses until life passed me by in Durango, and I was an old mountain man with a beard the size of Gandalf’s. While this would not have been a bad life, I realized I wanted more. When I realized what I really wanted, it was easy to leave; until this ‘aha!’ moment though, it was impossible. It was not until I admitted to myself that all I wanted to do was travel, no other distractions, no matter how good, would do. I bought that $130 ticket, and it changed my life forever.
How did you save the money to take this amazing trip?
After studying abroad in Costa Rica in 2011, I knew I wanted to take a long open-ended trip. I tried, initially without success, to save ever since then for this trip. Of course, it was nearly impossible to save money while finishing my degree but that does not excuse the two years after graduation when I messed around riding my motorcycle, visiting Europe (on a short trip), and trying to start a brewery. I finally got serious about saving money after I got a stern talking to at work for requesting too much time off. I realized then that I needed to save for the big trip, no amount of vacation time would do, I needed to leave and travel until I was content. I did a lot of research on the countries I would be visiting and started thinking in terms of how much farther my money would go within those countries. Instead of seeing a $30 dinner at a nice restaurant I saw an entire day’s worth of expenses in Guatemala. Yes, a full day including a hostel, food, and an activity for the price of one dinner. With this mentality it was easy to say no to frivolous spending, and I put every spare dollar into savings. Of course cutting frivolous spending can only help so much. The biggest factor in saving money is living within your means. If you spend every dollar you make, you don’t save. If you don’t save, you don’t travel. If you really want to travel, you will find expenses you can reduce, or better yet remove, to help save more money. I am not asking you to be a miser and not enjoy life while you are saving, but at least examine and consider your spending habits. For me the choice between a new snowboard and two weeks of traveling in Guatemala was no contest; it is all about perspective and what you really want.
Tell us about how you have found work while traveling? What recommendations do you have for others looking to take a similar path?
The options for working while traveling are almost endless! I was shocked to see how many opportunities there are to keep your trip alive. There are the obvious options of working as a bartender or server in tourist towns or working at a hostel. You won’t make much but you can cover expenses with this route if you would like to extend your stay in a particular town or region. A great website for this is Workaway, which also has many other work/trade options for short-term work. Volunteering is also a very rewarding way to cover costs on the road. Many organizations will provide room and board in exchange for your labor and others will even offer living stipends. The current program I am with, Volunteers Colombia/Heart for Change offers this. Some of the bigger volunteer programs can be applied for beforehand via Google search but others are so small you are better off just finding them by talking with locals while on the road. Most all of my work opportunities have come from word of mouth while traveling, because as mentioned above I did not pre-plan anything! One intriguing option I am researching for 2017 is the Working Holiday Visa in Australia. I cannot vouch for this personally (yet) but have met many folks with rave reviews. You can work your way around an entire continent on a one-year visa! I am also currently exploring options in online freelance work. There our obviously opportunities with computer work, but it does not have to be software related or even related to computers. There are jobs in writing, advising, animation, translation, etc. Internet work options are endless and can be done from anywhere. My only advice is to do as much research ahead of time as possible, but always keep your eyes open for opportunities along the way.
What inspires you about the travel experience?
The travel experience is the most eye-opening, challenging, and rewarding experience you can go through. While it cannot be explained exactly, as it must be experienced directly, broadening your perspective through travel changes your life for the better. The things I have seen over the past seven months have inspired a passion in me to help third-world countries develop; that is something that would have never happened to me while I was living the easy life in Durango.
What do you like least about travel?
Low blood sugar. I don’t know if it was the humid tropical weather or blazing hot busses but on long travel days I would experience extreme energy crashes. I have never drunk so much soda in my life, but it is the only way to get through 12-hour bus rides. Being hangry, yes so hungry I am angry, is also another ugly symptom of low blood sugar. I go from quite an agreeable human to a crazed maniac who would gladly cuss out a grandmother, knock over a kid’s sand castle, and kick a pigeon, none of which are habits of mine, I assure you. Luckily, this maniac can be tamed by fried chicken or literally anything else that is edible, and I have refrained from any of the above degenerate behaviors.
What recommendations do you have for someone who is looking to be more adventurous and travel?
JUST DO IT. As I mentioned above, you will create excuse after excuse as to why you can’t travel. If you really want to travel, let me tell you a secret…None of your excuses are valid, there are no limitations. Get on the road.