A couple months ago, I was talking to my friend Lubna about my desire to return to Central America. I initially wanted to backpack from Mexico to Honduras to Nicaragua over the span of a week and invited her to come with. There was so much in Central America that I wanted to explore again: I missed the hospitality of the locals, the clear blue oceans, the way the sun would hug my skin, and remnants of its rich Mayan history. We enlisted her boyfriend Alexis and her sister Ruby to join us until they realized how unrealistic this expedition actually was. If we decided to hit all of those countries in a span of a week, we couldn’t spend more than a day or two per country. Half of our trip would consist of commuting from one place to another. Instead, we mutually agreed on committing a full eight days in Mexico. Lubna and Alexis found cheap airfare from Chicago to Cancun. Next thing I knew, our tickets were booked, we were setting up Splitwise, Alexis was researching Airbnbs, and we all were tossing ideas towards the itinerary.
From the onset, we all mutually agreed we didn’t want to spend a cliché spring break in Cancun. No resorts. Clubbing would be put to a minimum. No shopping in Western stores. We wanted to pack in as many activities as the full eight days would allow. We ended up settling in Playa del Carmen—a town an hour away from Cancun’s busy streets. Playa del Carmen was still pretty touristy in its own right—the town center was even home to a Sephora and Forever 21; but we found there was a better balance of locals and tourists that populate the area.
There’s so much to chronicle about this trip that I decided to break it up over a series of posts rather than a single blog post. More specifically, I wanted this post to hone in on the lessons my friends taught me while in Mexico:
1. Know how to fight well.
When we were in the brainstorming stage, we decided to allocate at least one night in Cancun to experience the nightlife—we heard great things about Coco Bongo and its unlimited drinks. We ended up booking a hotel the same night, packed our bags, and drove the hour to Cancun (they even let me get behind the wheel hehe). The night we hyped up for so long instead ended in tears, a lot of (drunk) anger, and miscommunication.
I don’t think I’ve ever really fought well before this trip. I would shut down pretty easily, I would have a hard time letting go, and I would constantly replay alternative scenarios of how a confrontation should have went down.
When you’re traveling with a group, you’re forced to spend 100% of your time with another human being. We went from transitioning to seeing each other once in a blue moon to eight days without pause—inevitably creating the battleground for disagreements. The details of the fight aren’t so much important as the way we decided to confront each other. I used to think fighting was a bad thing—if you fought, it was a sign that you weren’t as close or as in sync as you should be. They taught me it’s completely normal (and sometimes expected) to fight. Their philosophy is to put as much of it out there as possible—yell or cry if you need to, apologize, and then let go. Every fight should end with a clean slate. There’s no such thing as holding on to resentment. Everyone’s feelings are valid, but it requires an openness and desire to want to understand their intentions. I think we all felt closer by the end of it and that we could be more open with each other. At the very least, I felt like I could be more open with them.
2. There’s a balance when it comes to accommodating.
The night before our flight to Mexico, Alexis and Lubna bought a new drone and decided to test it in their apartment. After a night in the emergency room and Alexis’ finger nearly being sliced off, he was banned from any water activities for the next three days. We shifted our itinerary around and ended up visiting Chichen Itza a few days earlier— coincidentally the same day as the equinox. The event attracted thousands of visitors to the ruins so we positioned ourselves near the front of the crowd. As I sat down, I felt a man’s leg meet my back. The man’s leg continued to creep past my back until he was pushing himself onto me. Despite feeling uncomfortable, I froze and didn’t say a word. It wasn’t until one of my friends looked at me and made room for me to get away that I positioned myself as far as possible from him. I mentioned to my friends later that I wasn’t afraid of standing up for myself, rather I was afraid of inconveniencing my friends.
When we talked about it, they pointed out I tend to accommodate others even if I feel uncomfortable. Although this anecdote was probably extreme, we realized I’m a people pleaser to the core. It stresses me out if I feel like I’m inconveniencing someone else. And although there’s nothing wrong with being mindful of the people around you, it shouldn’t come at a cost of your personal boundaries either.
I admire Alexis a lot for unintentionally showing me that balance. I think there’s always one or two personalities on a group trip that take charge; for us, that person was Alexis. He accommodated our itinerary to fit everyone else’s interests. For example, the morning after Chichen Itza, I was swamped with work from home. Stressed and a bit super strung out, I offered for the rest of the group to go ahead to the adventure park we had planned without me; instead, he offered to move around the itinerary so we could all go together without sacrificing anything we originally wanted to do. He showed consideration and accommodation without neglecting his personal boundaries.
3. Take responsibility for your own happiness.
Ruby and Lubna are the definition of go-getters. When they want something, they don’t hesitate to move forward and take charge. If Ruby saw something interesting at a shop, she immediately dropped whatever she was doing to go in and start haggling. When our row didn’t have candles during a cultural show at Xcaret, Lubna bolted to other rows hunting for candles so we could light up our own. They take responsibility for their own happiness. This is a concept I’ve been working on lately, especially in lieu of the last year or so. I think it’s a choice to be a victim of circumstance; although we can’t control the things that happen to us, we can control our response to it. Ultimately, we’re responsible for making ourselves happy. If you want something bad enough, do everything in your power to achieve it.
4. Stay humble and practice traveling ethically.
Mexico is unique compared to any other country I’ve been to in terms of how locals address poverty. You’ll never find people asking for money directly; instead, locals will hustle and work incredibly hard to make every peso count: children pick up recyclables in exchange for cash, young people offer handmade trinkets on the beach, and men even clean windows of passing vehicles on the road.
The ability to travel is a luxury and privilege. If you’re able to travel to another country, you most likely can afford the plane ticket, accommodations, and taking time off work without consequence. Instead of shopping at mainstream stores, support local businesses. Be wary of resorts: all-inclusive resorts usually don’t impact local economies because they’re owned by international corporations. Research locally run hotels, restaurants, and tour packages. And haggle, but don’t be stingy when it comes to paying out. Those 100 pesos you’re hoping to save could be equivalent to someone’s salary. Negotiate fairly so locals can compete with the prices you’re paying as well.
Alexis, Lubna, Ruby, and I started out as acquaintances prior to this trip (Ruby and I were actually complete strangers); but by the end, I fell in love with every single one of them. I now consider them good friends. They helped me grow immensely on this trip, and I’m counting down the days until our next adventure.