About a year ago I managed to break my foot in Guatemala requiring surgery and rendering me more or less immobile for nearly three months. The day after I got out of the hospital a girl showed up to my hostel who taught music, specifically guitar and singing. I didn’t know it at the time, but she was about to transform my travels.
Though her lessons only lasted about week, my abundance of free time lead me to practice up to 6 hours a day, during those three months. I’m not going to claim I’m Eddie Vedder at this point, but I can play well enough. Travelling with a guitar has taught me a few things.
I’d been learning guitar for about 3 years before I broke my foot, but I’d only been playing for a mere 30 minutes a week, if that. Despite what was clearly a lack of effort, I felt like I’d never actually be able to play a song of any difficulty. Further to that I never imagined singing one. In the end it was just a matter of consistency and putting effort in. There was no magic ingredient, no need to be a natural.
I also used to think that I should only play where I wouldn’t bother anyone, but even just a few weeks in I was surprised that people seemed to enjoy when I’d play. I’d practice where others could hear if they wanted or ignore me if they’d prefer. More often than not they would join me, they might just listen, or they might even sing along.
People actually ask me to play now. On a recent stint on a tropical island in Panama I’d go off by myself to watch the sunset and play a few tunes. A few people would wander over to listen nearly every day and at the bonfire I’d be asked to bring the guitar out and play.
In Ecuador I passed an hour or two with a chorus of ladies singing along to my guitar at a hostel. I’m surprised and delighted every time I hear the beautiful voice of a shy girl, so sometimes it’s not just about building my confidence, but that of others too.
I’d never anticipated that I’d be able to play or sing well enough that others would enjoy listening to me. Nowadays I rarely hesitate to bring out my guitar for fear that I might bother someone.
Making friends and opening hearts
I’ve been surprised by the people I’ve ended up having conversations with, that I might not otherwise, because of my guitar.
On a park bench or sitting seaside I’ve had locals wander up to me to play or run off to get their own guitars to join in. Playing has also been useful for continued learning of Spanish as well between meeting locals and trying to learn Spanish songs.
Those far more skilled than I and often professionals are eager to sit down and play and to teach me a few chords or a trick. I’ve marvelled at how the teaching of the mechanics of a song can transform to discussions about the meaning behind them and onwards to life in general.
Something special also seems to happen when you get a group of musical people together. In Utila, Honduras we unexpectedly ended up with five guitarists, 6 vocalists, and a host of others to sing the night away on a veranda overlooking the estuary. As dark turned to dawn each beautiful voice often inspired another to sing who hadn’t before. One girl even turned out to be an opera singer.
Music also has the ability to turn a dull situation into one of vibrancy. I’ve taken to pulling out my guitar while waiting for boats and busses for a bit of quiet practice. More often than not, someone will walk up with a harmonica or some other instrument and start playing along. Before long others are singing along and smiles are on faces all around and what is often a stressful situation is turned into one of fun.
One reason not to
It’s a giant pain in the butt!
Seriously, the number of times I was sure the guitar was going to come out the other end of a journey destroyed, is immeasurable. I’ve had to carry it on my lap or hold it over my head while standing on a Chicken Bus for hours on end. I’ve wrapped it in plastic bags to protect it from salt spray and had it strapped to the roof as there was nowhere else to put it.
Thought travel guitars take a beating as nearly anyone carrying one can attest to, they can be your most amazing instrument. Not because they are beautiful, but because each scratch and dent is a story of the journey and the places it’s been with you, the friends you’ve made, and the memories you’ll have forever.
A few tips
- Travel is hard on everything you own and a guitar is no exception, don’t bring a prized possession or something terribly expensive.
- Unless you’re going to busk, try to get something less than full size, it might not sound as full but it will be much easier to manage.
What have you done to open the hearts of those around you?