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.