As a second semester senior, life lately has been a lot of hours in the library, pounding out thesis pages and seemingly endless papers, occasionally breaking to obsessively check on the status of my grad school applications. I am over-caffeinated and stressed most of the time. I am driving my friends nuts with my constant stream of worries: what if I can’t get my thesis done on time, what if I don’t get into grad school? In other words, when spring break rolled around, the time was more than right for a trip somewhere far away from all of that.

Last week, I went to Tulum, Mexico with three friends. It’s a small coastal town about two hours outside of Cancun. We stayed in Palaps Tulum, a $13/night hostel located a block off the town’s main road. Accommodations were simple but had all the basics covered: bed, mosquito net, gallons of drinking water, warm water shower, filling breakfasts served each morning before the day’s adventures. A bit further down the street, we found a bike rental shop ($9 for 24 hours). Bars lined the main street of the town, but forties of Sol (a bit freshman year, perhaps, but it worked) could be found for half the price in corner stores. And that was pretty much everything we needed.

Beach ruins in Tulum, Mexico (pic courtesy of Caribbean Magazine)

Having done most of my travel in West-Central Africa, it was a bit weird to be in a place that was actually a tourist destination. This summer, the only other travelers I encountered were NGO workers, diplomats, or UN personnel. At all hours of the day, travelers of all kinds streamed out of the Tulum bus stations. All the clichés were in full force: college spring breakers looking for an alternative to Cancun, families on day trips, grungy hippies lugging a backpack and bongos. One of the grungy hippies we met was in the midst of travelling the world. Before Tulum, he was in Cuba. “Talk about off the grid,” he said. “No cell phones, no international calls. I came out of it and it was like, man, we don’t need all this shit. You know, we just don’t need all this.” He stopped in Tulum to enjoy the beach and earn some money teaching kite boarding before moving onto his next stop.

Meeting people like that always makes me newly appreciative of how easy it really is to see the world. You don’t need a degree to travel. You need a few thousand dollars, a backpack, and a lot of daring. Really, anyone can make that choice. It’s just that most people don’t. I think a lot of it stems from the fact that making that realization is terrifying: at the end of the day, it is easy to close the door on a place and the people associated with it and start new.

We talked a lot about roots on our trip. All of us are poised on the brink of the big next step. Like everyone else who has ever made this transition, we’re a bit afraid. We know we have a lot of wandering ahead of us. A college degree used to be what you got to get a job and start a family. For my generation of internationally minded college-educated grads, it’s what you get to secure unpaid internships in far flung quarters, building experience you need to get into grad school. You’re practically 30 by the time you have a grad degree and are qualified for paid positions in the field we’ve chosen. Although I am obviously generalizing hugely, this overall pattern of building a new life every few years seems a little daunting. The big questions are: where will you be when you finally stop? What can you take with you? What stays constant? What are your roots? Obviously, there are no set answers for questions like this. Largely, you have to figure it out as you go (and that’s one of the reasons it’s so scary).

This whole line of questioning came to a head on our last afternoon, when we got stuck in a beachside restaurant during a thunderstorm. We spent our last pesos on overpriced drinks and talked about everything. Distance can be a wonderful thing for perspective and here is some of mine:

Our fears are privileged – they reflect our education, being healthy, single, and young with only ourselves to answer to.

Part of exploring involves taking breaks to consider your direction. “Why” is a very important question and should be asked often.

In four years, I have made some amazing friends. Today, I am particularly grateful for the ones who helped me to put down my books/the future and just take a minute to be lazy on the beach. They have become part of my roots; what I take with me.