Saturday, December 27, 2008

Inspiring Story!

A gentleman I met while riding my bicycle across the USA named Joze Marlot from Slovenia just sent me a Christmas email along with some pictures from our meeting. At any rate, Joze was also riding his bicycle across the USA and he was in his seventies! How fantastic is that? He rode on a recumbant bike with a device called a Schlum that gave him something like 30 or 40 gears if I remember correctly, it was quite an engineering marvel.

So I am very happy to report that he made it all the way! Way to go Joze. That is incredibly inspiring and I would hope that if anyone is considering making the trip that this will prove that all it takes is the will to see it through.

Here is a link to his blog, although it is in Slovenian.

A funny picture of me contemplating something or other. We crossed pathes in Florida, in the panhandle.

Mr. Marlot on his bike, crossing the USA.

Back in the US of A!

Well I made it back home and it feels great to see friends and family again. It was a bit of a marathon getting back, but I made it.

I am experiencing reverse culture shock having come from the third world where I have been for so long to California in the middle of the Christmas shopping frenzy. It is such a dramatically different set of circumstances that the average person lives in here, and I hope everyone appreicates how amazingly good they have it! Plus, its cold! Holy smokes, I went from incredible heat and humidity to dry, cold December weather. It played havock on my sinuses, but that is a minor price to pay.

I am returning to Brazil on Februrary 11th, after my birthday (turning 28, when did I start getting so close to thrity?!?!) and will be there through Carnival with my buddy, then I am heading south through Argentina to do some trekking in Patagonia, which is something I have always wanted to do.

As for my sailing down the Amazon trip, I am postponing it for now. Why, you ask? Because I bumped into a friend in Colombia, a guy I had met earlier in my travels who also enjoys adventure and risk taking, that had attempted what I was planning on doing, but with a group of locals as guides. Well, long story short, they beat him to a pulp and robbed him. On top of this, this guy was no wimp either, he was a big solid dude, with a shaved head, biker beard and tattoos all over the place. He was not the kind of person you would expect to get victimized. He and I talked for a while and I decided this is still something I want to do, but with at least one other person. It is just too great of a risk to go it alone. I think I am getting older to make that kind of deiscion, as a few years ago that would have just made the trip more appealing. I would have simply brushed up on my Ju Jitsu, got a weapon of some sort and gone for it. These days though, I prefer to take calculated risks wherein the reward is worth the potential loss, which is the same reason I did not hike the Darrien Gap.

At any rate, I hope everyone is well. All my love, I hope Christmas was wonderful and that the New Year is as well. I am going to let the blog go silent for a few weeks here, so I highly recomend that if anyone wishes to continue to follow along in Februrary that you have the automated blog updates sent to your email. To do this there is a box on the left hand side of the web page where you fill in your email address and each new blog update will be sent to you. You wont get any spam mail, so no worries about that.

So for now, I will be resting up and spending quality time with loved ones, and then it is back to South America for some more adventure!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Lessons learned and great news for me.

Day: 282

Location: Santa Marta, Colombia

Well, I must say, this trip has been a huge learning experience for me. I look back and see that I set out to try and ride a bicycle around the world because I wanted to do something big and exciting. Something that would make me feel good about myself and that would impress people.
Well, I got sick as a result of riding my bike too much, chose to stop and continue on by backpack. At first I was terribly upset that I would have to fall short of my goal, but with some thought I came to realize that a big part of me wanted to stop because I was no longer enjoying myself as much as I had at the beginning. With time and introspection I came to realize that the reason I felt this way was because I had set out on my journey for the wrong reasons. I wanted to ride a bike around the world not because I love to travel by bicycle so much as because I wanted to do something that would impress other people, which in turn I thought would make me feel better about myself.

It was a tough lesson to learn and it forced me to eat a big slice of humble pie as I had made such a big fuss out of my attempt, but in the end it was a very good lesson. You should only do something because you love to do it. If that is your motivation, then no matter what happens, what anyone else thinks of you, if you succeed or fail, you will be happy with yourself and feel fulfilled.

So, as I have toured around Central America with my backpack, I had a chance to do a lot of things that I would not have been able to do on my bike. I saw a lot of amazing things, met some wonderful new friends, and had a chance to really get to know a portion of the world that I did not know too much about beforehand. I also had a chance to see what volunteering was all about and had a chance to give of myself to those in need. I had a lot of fun in the process and feel that I am now doing everything that I really want to do because it is what I enjoy.

I had another moment like this the other night while I was out with some new friends. A big group of us at the hostel went out to dinner and it was a typical backpacker international crowd, and we were having a very typical backpacker conversation, consisting of where are you going, where are you from, where have you been, how long are you traveling, etc. Etc. Etc. If you have ever backpacked you know the routine. I swear we should just make name tags with answers to the main questions to save each other time.

At any rate, during the conversation an Australian girl was saying that she was going to go to the USA as a part of her trip, I said great, make sure to visit San Diego, as I always tell people, and proceeded to tell her about some of the many great qualities of California and San Diego, specifically. She smiled and said it sounded great as she didn´t like America in general.
At this, I reacted in the way I always react, and sprang to my country´s defense. I asked her why she did´t like America and didn´t she think it was unfair to make a blanket statement about a place and all of its people when she had not even been there? That it was imposible to make a statement about a group of people, especially when its 300,000,000 people, that would apply to them all? I have heard the same rhetoric so many times that I have a sort of stock response. We went back and forth a bit, with different people adding their opinions and in the end all I succeeded in doing was making her feel bad and defensive.

So, later in the evening, I was talking to a some of our group and going over the fact that I couldn´t believe people thought it was OK to trash talk an entire group of people, that America was by no means perfect, but it was an overall great place to live, etc. Then Chris, my traveling companion, who is a truly kind and gentle person, looked at me and without any malice at all said, well Reece, you have a really strong personality and I can see how you can anger people when you express your opinions.

Now, if anyone else there had said that to me I probably would have just gotten more angry and argued with them, but Chris is such an unassuming guy with his ego very much in check, that it made me realize that it was just an honest critique, and not meant to be a character slam.
So I started thinking a lot about it and a sort of domino effect went off in my mind. I wouldn´t say it was a revelation or anything, perhaps just a moment of clarity when I saw myself as other people probably see me.

It made me realize that in all of my impassioned appeals to her to see things from my point of view, I never even really listened to her beyond trying to find faults in what she said to counter when it was my turn to speak.

That really isn't communication, that is a form of verbal combat. The point isn't to prove someone else wrong, its to listen to their ideas and to hopefully communicate what essentially were noble ideas on my part that came out all wrong.

The problem as I see it was this: when she said she didn´t like America (which, as it is her opinion, she is perfectly entitled to) what I hear is that she does not like the people and places that constitute America, the people and places that I love, and ultimately, that she (or anyone who says these things) does not like me, as I am forever a product of those things.

Now, she may not have meant it that way, but that is what I heard. So, feeling that all of the things I love, my town, my family, friends and myself, have been attacked, I react in kind. The problem is, that if I really want to help someone to see that America is not a country full of stupid, frightened, greedy, warmongers (which sad to say, is how a lot of the world sees us) then verbally attacking them is not the right strategy to use. All I really end up doing is reinforcing the stereotype.

So, it dawned on me that if I want to help people to see all of the things there are to love about us Americans and our home, I need to change up my tactics. I need to listen more first of all, try to understand what they are saying and see if I can, gently and with respect for their opinions, show them that perhaps they should rethink some of their beliefs. You can not control what other people think and you should not want to. I know that there are plenty of things that can be improved back home and I would love to hear them, but blanket negative remarks are not constructive nor very thoughtful. In order to show people this, I need to ask them more questions as opposed to just talking at them. The greatest teachers in history asked more questions and listened more than preached. Demagogues talk without listening, and that is not what I want to be or how I want to represent myself as an American.

So, while I feel that my opposition to blanket negative statements regarding vast groups of people are inherently flawed and lead only to conflict, hitting someone over the head with my ideas isn't the right way to share that. Being kind, patient and attentive to others, and hopefully through well placed questions and personal example I can show people that America is not the land of the idiot.

So that is that, it was one great lesson learned on this trip for me out of many. Also, I apologized to the girl for jumping on her back, and we made up. I just asked her to please think about what she said in regards to groups of people in the future and she agreed that that was a good idea.
As for Santa Marta, this is a killer place. Its on the Caribbean, beautiful with a ton of nice people. Colombians are just very engaging socially. They walk up to you, shake your hand, chit chat with no reservation. And they are also a very passionate people that love to celebrate life.

Parties here are something else, we went out with some locals we met to go dancing and wow. First of all, everyone was smiling and laughing and dancing seductively with one another, having a wonderful time. And let me tell you, the rumors of Latin people being good dancers is so, so, so true. I have never felt inept on the dance floor before in my life. Back home, I would say I am above average when it comes to strutting my stuff. I always feel confident and have a great time. Am I Justin Timberlake? Not even close. But I would say I have better moves than your average guy!

Well here, I felt like an epileptic with two club feet. Everyone here is so amazingly graceful on the dance floor, it was crazy! They all salsa like champions and they have grown up with the steps so they can improvise and change things up as they go which is fantastic to watch. Some girls were trying to show me the steps and while I got the basics fine, as soon as they took me out on the floor and started really going for it, I was just getting in the way! Despite the fact that I looked like a big tall oaf, I had a lot of fun and was continuously blown away by how friendly everyone was.

Oh yeah, and I had to cover this for my buddies back home. All the rumors of beautiful Colombian women are very true. There are some jaw dropingly beautiful girls here.

Lastly, and this is such great news for me, I found a cheap ticket back home to the states so that I can be home for Christmas! It is actually cheaper for me to fly home, and then return to Brazil to meet my best friend for Carnival than it is to fly there form here??? Go figure. But, I am not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. So, I will be home for Christmas!

All the best to everyone and happy Holidays.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Just pictures for now

I am not feeling very good so I wont write much, but I have plenty to write about. For now, I will just put up some pictures.

Leaving Panama City

The airport we got to spend 13 hours in.

Chris and Tim, my really great traveling companions.

Tim and Chris took some of these really cool panorama shots.

Cartegena, Colombia.

Chris and Tim in Cartegena.

Some of the beautiful streets of Cartegena.

The walls of the old town in Cartegena.

My cheesiest tourist pose.

The city really was gorgeous, Cartegena.

The walls and the Caribbean sea of Cartegena.

Another shot of the old town.

This was an enormous hotel in Cartegena,like a city block in size, it was crazy.

A park in Cartegena.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Made it to South America, finally!

Day: 277

Location: Cartegena, Colombia

Beautiful sunset at Las Penitas, Nicaragua.

Las Penitas, Nicaragua.

The mostly empty beaches of Las Penitas.

I love this place, Las Penitas again.

Rooftops of Leon.

Leon, Nicaragua.

I arrived yesterday in Cartegena Colombia after a bit of an adventure. I got to Panama City after a marathon bus ride only to find out that the next boat to Colombia was not leaving until December 22nd, which was too long of a wait for me. On the bus ride I had met two English brothers, Tim and Chris, who are also on an around the world trip and were also on their way into Colombia, so we decided to go together and started hunting around for other options to get there. We found a flight from Panama City to Cartegena, Colombia for $158, which was about half of what every other airline charged.

Thinking that this was a great deal, we promptly bought our tickets and prepared to leave bright and early the next morning.

We got up at 7 to get a taxi to the airport, as we had been told that frequently this particular airline would change flight times, sometimes even leaving earlier than scheduled, so we wanted to make sure we were there to catch our 11am flight.

Well, the flight time was changed, but not to an earlier hour. We were delayed after getting on the plane because they said they did not have enough gas to get to Colombia. So, instilled with a great sense of confidence in our airline, we got back off of the plane and went to wait until 1:30, which they told us would be the next flight. They also gave us a $10 credit towards lunch, which was nice.

So, we ate, figured we would burn some time until 1:30 and then get to Cartegena while it was still light out. I do not like arriving in a new city when it is dark.

Well, 1:30 comes and the flight is delayed 6:30. So, we accept the fact that we will be arriving after dark, call ahead to a few hostels to make sure we can get a room and settle in to wait another 5 hours.

6:30 comes around and apparently they still have not scrounged up any gas so they comp us another $10 bucks for dinner and tell us to wait until 9:30. At this point, we are losing our minds with boredom, and in what was probably a bad decision, decided to buy a bottle of Vodka at the duty free shop. It was $11 bucks for a liter and we prefigured we would just have a few sips to pass the time and save the rest for Cartegena.

Well, a bottle of Vodka and three hours later we stumble onto the plane after 13 hours of waiting in the stupid airport. We arrive in Cartegena after midnight, a little inebriated, tired and more than a little annoyed.

We had to get a cab to our Hostel and assuming that the same breed of human sharks ply the asphalt oceans here as in other Latin American cities, I decided to go in prepared and asked people in the airport how much we should pay to go to Old Town. They told us 1,000 pesos (about 40 cents American) should do it. So, I flag down a cab, ask him if we can get a lift to our place for 1,000 Pesos. He says sure, that is fine. Then I tell him that we only have American dollars (we had not had a chance to exchange currency and did not see an ATM at the airport) and he says, yeah, no problem.

So, we get a lift to our Hostel which is in a bit of a shady part of town, get out and I hand him a dollar and tell him to keep the rest as a tip, more than doubling his asking price.

He proceeds to tell me we owe him 5 bucks. I say, no, you said 1,000 pesos, this dollar is 2,200 pesos. He tells me a dollar is just 500 pesos (which would mean we would owe him 2 dollars anyway, not 5), and I say no it is not. He says it is a different exchange rate in Cartegena, I say he is a lying $%&/!! which probably did not help the situation, but I was still feeling pretty loose from the Vodka we had stupidly downed in the Airport.

The guy gets a little upset because of my colorful words, and says he will call the police, and a crowd starts to gather. I tell him to go right ahead, which was really stupid because often, police in Latin America can be very corrupt and you are better off simply having nothing to do with them if you can help it. I even ran into an internet Cafe right next to us and pulled up the current exchange rate on the internet to show he and the other knuckle heads what the exchange rate was. Then I offer to go to the ATM, and get pesos to pay him with and he says no, he wants 5 bucks. I even asked one of the guys in the crowd how much a dollar was worth and he said, 2,200 Pesos. The Taxi driver said he told me it was 10,000 pesos, not 1,000, which I call out for the lie it is and then more local guys come out and start defending him and I blow up and start yelling at everyone, which again, was dumb as it only escalated the situation further. Eventually, in an inebriated, I can´t believe the injustice of this situation fury, I storm off to the ATM to get some Pesos to pay the lying crook of a Taxi driver.

On the way, I found the ATM but it was closed, so I started heading back not wanting to leave the English brothers alone too long with the gathering crowd. Heading back, I bumped into a couple of young Colombian guys who were hanging out on the street corner who were drinking a bottle of something which they kindly offered to share with me. So I did, and I told them in my broken Spanish what had happened as we pass the bottle around, and they said that was baloney, got really angry and then we all stormed off together to find this crook of a Taxi driver and tell him what was up.

I come charging in with a couple of drunk Colombian guys ready for WWIII, and find only an empty street with two rather fed up looking English brothers. In the time I was gone, they had simply paid the Taxi driver what he asked for and he had left. I was pretty upset that they had done that as it was pandering to a lying, two faced jerk, and my blood was up so I was looking forward to yelling at the guy with some locals to give me more leverage.

However, Tim and Chris said they just didn´t want to deal with it so they paid him and got it over with. Honestly, that was probably the smart thing to do, but I just absolutely HATE being taken advantage of or encouraging that type of behavior. The amount of money was negligible, but it is the principle of the matter. If you make a deal, you stick to it, end of story. That is why I can´t stand most cabbies in this part of the world, its par for the course to try and screw every gringo that gets in your cab. Not all of them are like this, many cabbies I have met were really nice and honest guys, but the majority have been terrible.

At any rate, the Colombian guys and I had a laugh, they offered me some Cocaine (hey, it is COlombia after all!), which I kindly refused, and we parted ways friends. Tim, Chris and I found a decent place to sleep and crashed, with me muttering and fuming about the jerk cabbie the entire time.

Well, lesson learned. Do not expect a flight to leave on time in South America. Do not enter a country without some of their money beforehand, if at all possible. Do not get drunk before entering a new country, especially one that is one of the 5 most dangerous places on earth. And lastly, video tape a cabbie agreeing to a price before getting in the cab, draw up a notarized contract as to said agreement and have him sign it in blood. Simple!

Cartegena though is a beautiful city, surprisingly so. It is very old, founded in the 15th century, and the old town is surrounded by a huge wall used to keep Pirates out in days gone by. It feels very European and I have to say, other than the not so fun episode last night, is a great place. The city is filled with beautiful building, both old and new, and everything is very colorful. There are huge forts around too, also used to defend the town from marauding Pirates, and they add a really neat flair to the place. It is very cheap too, with hotels at every price range, from 5 bucks a night to some very expensive, ultra luxury hotels. You can get a glass of fresh squeezed, ice cold Orange Juice on the street for 20 cents, or a fried piece of bread filled with cheese for 25 cents, both of which are delicious.

Walking around, we bumped into one of the young Colombian guys that had come to my aide the night before and we had a laugh and talked for a bit. Then he told me he was going to meet up with his buddy because they had found some magic mushrooms and were going to eat them and walk around the city. He then started doing a really funny dance pretending that he was on a good one and seeing funny things, which had us cracking up. He then jumped in the air and took off, laughing the entire way. He was a cool cat, if a little fixated on drugs, and he and his buddy were really funny.

I have to say that Colombia seems like it will be a lot of fun, provided I can avoid any more difficult situations like the one last night. Tomorrow we are heading up the coast to a city called Santa Marta for some beach time on the Caribbean.

Monday, December 8, 2008

A change of anyone surprised?

Old pic, but some of the cool costumes the kids run around in in Leon.

Two pups hanging out by the water.

Not a bad way to end the day!

Day: 273

Location: San Jose, Costa Rica

Well, these plans they keep a´ changin! Although at this point I am taking for granted that the only constant on my trip is change, but that is OK, I like to travel by the seat of my pants.

Sarah and I met up a day later than anticipated in Managua, and then took off to Leon. From there, We went for a few days to a wonderful beach called Las Penitas. I almost do not want to spill the beans on it as it is such an amazing place, but it is already turning into a tourist town and so I doubt my blog will do much to speed up the transformation.

Essentially Las Penitas is a small fishing village on the Pacific coast, but now it is turning into a tourist and surf destination. To get to it you have to grab a chicken bus down a long, bumpy dirt road. The town itself is really just two streets along the water with untouched coast along either side of it. We went for a walk down the beach for a few miles and saw nothing in either direction from the town but wild grass land, sand dunes and beautiful ocean. It is remarkable how untouched parts of the coast in Nicaragua are. Especially the Caribbean side, there are hundreds of miles of virgin coast line there, but also no infrastructure at all.

At any rate, Las Penitas is a great place with sunshine, nice people (as is true is all of Nicaragua, I have found) cheap hotels and great food that comes in large portions.

We planed to only stay for the day but ended up staying for two. I will assuredly be returning to that town at some point in my life. I have some great pictures, but i am having trouble getting them uploaded. I will do so as soon as possible though.

Back in Leon there was a huge festival celebrating the Virgin Mary. We didn´t actually see much of it as we left town that same day. We did see a lot more of the strange costumes that I saw last time I was in Leon. They consist of a group of kids, usually boys, that roam the streets. There is always a big costume of a woman in a hat, that stands about 10 feet tall, and a little costume of a man with a great big head and little arms and legs that is about 5 feet tall. Two little boys wear these get ups, while two to three other boys play an assortment of drums. They roam the streets dancing and banging on their instruments getting people they pass to dance with them. It is really neat and good for a belly laugh when you see them going full swing.

Leon is a very cool place. Each visit has me liking it more and more. It is a bit run down and at first you feel like its a bit on the dirty side, which it is, but it has a charm you catch on to if you stay long enough. At night, families sit in front of their homes talking and passing the time, and kids run around playing soccer and baseball. It is a very safe feeling city unlike some you encounter in Central America. There are also a load of beautiful churches and squares to check out if you are so inclined. There is also a cemetery which is huge and full of some amazing tombs, although the grounds could use a bit better maintenance!

I have really come to feel normal and at ease in Central America. I forget how much of a shock it is for people from the west to come here and experience all of the differences. For me it just feels normal now to have cold showers, ride crowded chicken buses and walk the chaotic streets of the cities. You come to realize that life is essentially the same for everyone, its just the details of how one goes about it that change. But, we tend to notice the differences first and they can shock us at times.

I am now in San Jose, Costa Rica, getting ready to head to Panama City tomorrow. I am going to catch the first boat out of here into Colombia which I am very excited about. Sarah and I decided to part ways, and my Buddy is going to be a lot later getting to where I am than I had thought, so I am going to catch up with him, or more precisely, he will catch up with me in South America.
I have an 18 hour bus ride tomorrow, then I should be out of Central America (finally!) within the week. I am very excited to change Continents after me extended, but wonderful stay in Central America.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

New Traveling Companion and my Computer is back!

Day: 269

Location: Leon, Nicaragua

ood news all around today. I have a new friend to travel with, I got my computer back in action, and my best buddy is going to be flying into Central America in a few days. All things that make me very happy.

My new traveling companion is Sarah, one of the people I had been hanging out with way back in Bocas del Torro. She decided that the working world just was not what she wanted to do for the time being and so sold her stuff, quite her job and came out to Central America with the intention of working for a few months. We had tentative plans to meet up in Argentina down the road, but since my plans totally changed and I ended up staying in Central America for so much longer and my buddy was going to be arriving soon, everything ended up working out.

Its funny how much things have changed for me on this trip. I had only intended on being in Central America for 2 months, but here now I am going on 5 months! I have really grown to enjoy Latin Culture. There are downsides to it of course, but for the most part it is a great place to be.

I think there is really something to be said for taking it easy and traveling at a leisurely pace. I feel that going slower and learning more about a few places is more enjoyable, at least for me, than rushing through places and getting only a surface level understanding of them. You may see less this way, but you get more out of what you do see. When I set out on this trip I had the intention of trying to see as much of the world as possible, but I have come to realize that its just to big to see it all. I believe now that you should only go to the places that call to you, get to know them really well, make friends there, maybe even live there for a while. Revisit them from time to time, and branch out to new places only when you really want to go, not just going to say you have been. In this way, I feel like your time and money are better spent and you will be happier. But then, that is just me, everyone has there own preferred method of travel.

So, now I can continue to travel with a friend, soon to be 2 friends, which is fun. Also, Sarah was kind enough to bring out a new wall charger for my computer as I lost mine the first time I was in Nicaragua and have been unable to get a replacement. I can not even express how happy I am to have this little guy back back! Now I can take time to properly edit my posts as I won't be paying per minute to use computer, and in a situation where people are waiting on a me to finish. Plus, I can upload pics onto this computer without a USB cord so I will have pictures again! I am very happy to have my trusty little computer back in action.

As for the current game plan, we are going to hang out in Nicaragua until my friend arrives, who is also traveling around the world, and we will all join forces to spend Christmas together, which will make it less lonely. After that we are heading into South America where we have a lot of fun things planned.

Things are going well and I will post some pictures in the next update.