Thursday, January 15, 2009

Looking back...

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do.....Explore. Dream. Discover."

-Mark Twain

(click on any of the red pins to see a photo and a link to a blog entry)
What started off as an idea that this might be the perfect time to finally make the often talked about dream trip down to Chile, ended up as a 10 month journey through three continents, 16 countries and over 20,000 miles...

With no itinerary - not even a flight home - and no real plan other than to do some camping in Patagonia, I flew from Hartford to the bottom of South America back in February. Tired and eager to see everyone, I flew home from Mexico just before Christmas. Here's a glimpse of how I passed that time in between...

Other than the flight out to the Galapagos Islands and a couple of boat rides (round trip to Antarctica, sail from Colombia to Panama and a ferry crossing here and there) every mile was covered with rubber touching the pavement or, in many cases, the dirt or gravel. Most borders were crossed independently, most adventures were unguided and most nights were spent in one of three places - my tent, a hostel or in the home of a kind couchsurfing host (costs ranged anywhere from free to around 14 bucks a night). Quetzals, Cordobas, Pesos and the like were most often withdrawn from local ATMs and always were kept in my money belt, my sock, a pillow, under the mattress, in a secret compartment behind my toiletries or, on the rare occasion, in my pocket.

Though I travelled solo, I rarely found myself alone, as meeting locals or fellow travellers was really quite simple - and wonderful. The plans that eventually did get made, were often, if not always, changed. And while I was scared for my life several times and missed friends and family a lot - especially towards the end - I would not have traded a second of the experience.

Other than some of the above, the biggest question I have been asked by friends and family is "What was your favorite place?" With so many amazing places and wonderful experiences to choose from, this is an impossible question to answer. Sure, off the top of my head, a couple places stand out - Antarctica and the Galapagos - for the sheer fact that they offer that certain something that can't be had anywhere else in the world - and my time with the kids in Bolivia for so many reasons. There were also those inspiring interactions like with my friend Pedro in Colombia, the guy who gifted his running shoes in Argentina, or the many people I met on my bike ride through Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. But really, my favorite part of this trip and the reason I travel is all of those little things that you experience along the way.

For me, the experience of eating a warm crepe oozing with chocolate was more memorable than actually seeing the Eiffel Tower. And seeing small Bedouin children beg for pieces of paper was infinitely more impressive than a visit to the Pyramids.

What follows is a list of some of those "experiences" I was fortunate enough to have on this journey as well as a few of the different thoughts that struck me for some reason or another.

*Seeing a local's face - especially the beaming smile of a proud parent - when you show them a photo you've just taken. My favorite thing about the new digital age.

*Sunsets and, even more special for the fact that you are not sharing them with as many people, sunrises. Most people are awake to see the sun set, but there's something magical about being up for a sunrise - especially when climbing a mountain or camping.

*Falling asleep in a hammock is good. Especially since hammocks generally hang in warm, peaceful, inviting places.

*Funerals - on several occasions I found myself as an unintentional participant. Whether it was bumping into a walking procession in Colombia or passing through a wake in Nicaragua that had spilled out into the streets, these moments gave me an insight into a culture that a museum never could.

*Conversing in a foreign language for the first time in all my travels. And what a thrill to finally be able to make someone smile for what I said rather than for the awkward pronunciation with which I said it.

*Renewed Patriotism.

*Chicken buses and jam packed mini-buses. Adios personal space. It's hard to say, but I think the most crowded it got was in Guatemala when I was facing a woman that was breast feeding. Not at all out of the ordinary down there, except for the fact that in this instance, the back of the kid's head was resting on my chest.

*Never in my life have I appreciated COLD BEER like I have in Central America. After a long hard day of sweating in buses, nothing could be more satisfying.

*The kindness of strangers. I can't begin to tell all of the stories of the times I was shown the way, looked after or given a phone number to call "if you get stuck or needed anything". What a choice we all have when we meet someone, especially a visitor, for the first time. I am so thankful for all those that chose to help rather than to hide.

*Meeting a Ukranian guy in Argentina and an Italian guy in Colombia that carried less with them on their travels than I would take to the gym. Less is definitely better when traveling.

*The miles and miles and miles of jaw dropping views from the dusty windows of countless buses. And trying mightily to not take a single one of them for granted.

*Gaping holes in sidewalks, throwing TP in a basket next to the toilet, death defying cab rides, stomach rot, litter, pollution & poverty. And trying to appreciate the fact that these things are not the norm in my life at home.

*The feeling of accomplishment when achieving a goal. Whether that is reaching the peak of a 20,000 foot mountain, finishing a grueling three day bike ride or even something that would, on the surface, appear to be so simple - catching the right bus.

*Lucky to meet so many different people from so many different backgrounds. And even luckier to have some of my closest friends come join me for some of these experiences. Thank you all!!!

*The sad reality that I'll never get back to most, if not all, of the places about which I said "I'm definitely coming back here someday."

Thanks for coming along for the ride.

“Live with intention. Walk to the edge. Listen hard. Practice wellness. Play with abandon. Laugh. Choose with no regret. Appreciate your friends. Continue to learn. Do what you love. Live as if this is all there is.”
-M.A. Radmacher

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Belize and Mexico...not much longer now

Though ready, and extremely excited, to go home, the white sandy beaches and crystal blue waters of the Caribbean have made hanging out a little longer almost bearable (wink, wink). The world class scuba diving and ocean views from my $12 a night hotel room on tiny Caye Caulker off the coast of Belize provided a relaxing final stop before Cancun and a wonderful place to look back on where I've been over the past 10 months.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Chichicastenango...A cool market, a crazy festival and my first turkey bus

Some days I wish I could be invisible. These are also the days when it seems impossible to put the camera down.

After meeting people, my favorite thing to do while traveling is taking pictures. Without the ability to paint, draw or scribble and a voice worse than Harry Caray I've often said that taking photos is the closest thing I can do to actually being artistic. And it is a day like today in a place like the Chichicastenango market where would-be photographers like myself salivate. The colors, layers, textures and sheer differentness (for lack of an actual word that i like better) of the market's wares are gimmes that could make my 2 1/2 year old nephew look like a good photographer. But it's the people that I really would love to shoot. The bright, elaborate clothes. The pensive expressions - perhaps wondering if enough money was made to feed the family. The worn faces and deep lines indicating a lifetime spent working in the sun. Ahhh, to be invisible. For now, I'll have to settle for the less invasive cut-fruit shots.

Another place I would have loved to have taken photos was on the bus into Chichi which was perhaps the most crowded I've ever taken. At some point, the cramped discomfort turns to humor. Just when you think it is physically impossible to fit one more person, the stops keep coming and people keep packing in. On this particular ride, there were NINE people filling the row (and aisle) in front of me - we could have fit all of the American League and half of the National League if we kept going - when a woman got on with a live turkey bobbing its head out the back of a blanket/backpack tied around her neck. Chicken buses are famous here in Central America, but this was my virgin turkey bus experience.

Finally, the wonderful day in Chichi was topped off with a procession/parade followed by a bizarre fireworks display that included people dancing around in a pyrotechnic costume that sent light and fire in every direction - including into the scurrying crowd. All in good fun for the Quema del Diablo (burning of the devil) festival. Time to hurry back to the "hotel" - our curfew there has been extended to 10pm for this special night - after that, the doors are locked.

Saturday, December 6, 2008


Time is winding down here and the anticipation of getting home and seeing everybody (and all the decadent food) at Christmas is growing. I feel a certain laziness at times and often have the "if I stay in one place for the rest of my trip or if I don't see anything else, that's totally fine" feeling. It's amazing, though, how this tends to make everything you do even more special. Perhaps it's because there are no expectations, perhaps it's because I feel like I am playing with house money. Regardless, I feel pretty lucky.

Guatemala is many people's favorite place to travel in Central America and it is easy to see why. Though there is a lot of crime here - mostly in the capital, but increasingly against tourists - there is also incredible scenery, great markets and a huge indigenous population - giving you a much more 'authentic' feeling than in many of the places I've visited.

From the chill colonial city of Antigua to the peaceful and photogenic shores of Lago Atitlan to the remote, awe inspiring pools of Semuc Champey, Guatemala does not disappoint.

One more stop before leaving Guatemala - the famous Maya ruins of Tikal which feature stone temples bursting through the green forest canopy with howling howler monkeys as your soundtrack.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Travesia Trinacional Montecristo - What the hell was I thinking?

So as fate would have it, serious rain and flooding forced an audible that I wasn´t super excited about. Instead of making my way to the famous Bay Islands off the Caribbean coast of Honduras for some more relaxing, snorkeling and world class scuba diving, I stayed inland and headed west to the small town of Copan Ruinas near the Guatemalan border. After a long travel day of jumping on and off chicken buses, I ended up in this quaint little pueblo on Thanksgiving afternoon. At the local tourist office, I saw a poster advertising something to do with biking that looked like it started the next day and appeared to be taking place in three countries simultaneously. After inquiring, the kind info desk lady handed me a phone and said that Tiko could give me some more info. Deciphering the mix of English and Spanish, I understood that this was a mountain bike tour that was three days long and passed from Honduras to Guatemala to El Salvador. Though my time on a bike in the last year has been essentially non-existent (probably less than 10 hours total-most of which was bombing downhill in Bolivia over three months ago), I decided to humor myself and ask where I could rent a bike. ¨Oh, there are no bike rentals in this town, it´s too hilly for tourists to bike,¨ Tiko replied. He was, however, kind enough to give me the name and address of a hardware store in town that might have a couple bikes for sale and told me he´d see me at the pre-ride dinner that night. Ummm, okay. After various unsuccessful attempts and several wild turkey chases (it is thanksgiving after all) around town, I showed up at the 7pm meeting, steedless, hoping that, having given it my all, I could forget the ride and relax a little in my final weeks here on the road. Unfortunately, Tiko had found a rider with a second bike and welcomed me to the ride. Never mind that the bike was 6-8 inches short for me, really old and had brakes that were barely sufficient for riding around the town´s central square, I guess I was in.

Little did I know what I was getting into or what kind of experience I was about to have. For starters, the ride turned out to be 150 kilometers of getting my ass kicked on some of the craziest hills I´ve ever mountain-biked on. Less than a third of the way into day one, I was worried about not making it to the end of the day, never mind the end of three days. (It didn´t help that the most popular question I received all day and all weekend, after 'where are you from?', was `how many days are you going to ride?´ Apparently many people join this ride for only a day or two and me, with my ¨bike¨and lack of technical wear, must have looked like the 1 or 2 day type.) After having to bail out into a rocky, barbed-wired ditch to avoid going over the edge of a bridge after a steep downhill, I decided I´d have my almost non-existent brakes fixed that night. ¨They´re better¨ the mechanic said, ¨but they´re too old to be really good.¨ Despite significant swelling from my crash that caused a serious limp on night one, things were looking up on day two. This was the `easiest´ day and it was desperately needed - for the legs and for the confidence. Day three brought a crazy amount of climbing and a descent that, despite the organizers countless warnings to be careful, sent two guys (out of 51 riders) to the hospital. Thank God for those `better´ brakes. It´s hard to say how difficult this ride really was, but with my (lack of) fitness level and equipment I was really psyched to make it to the end. More importantly, however, this turned out to be one of the best experiences ve had on this entire trip. I can think of no better way to explore not one, but three countries, than by climbing and descending these barely passable 4x4 roads through villages where tourists never go. The river crossings. The unspoilt scenery. The bewildered looks on farmers faces. The excited waves from little children. The three national anthems and priest's benediction given pre-ride (and to think, I used to think two anthems at Whalers/Nordiques games was a bonus). The grand welcomes at the end of each day that made us feel like we were in the Tour de France. The camaraderie between riders and the friendship shown me by Hondurans, Salvadorians and Guatemalans alike. The pain and joy of working towards and making it to a goal. These are things I could not get visiting a tourist site and are memories I will never, ever forget.

Official Race photos...

Monday, November 24, 2008

El Salvador - sticks and stones may break my bones, but bags of urine...

It's really cool when things you do as an afterthought turn out to be better than things you put a lot of planning into. I decided to check out the famous-for-its-warring country of El Salvador kind of as an afterthought. A friend who volunteered there with his wife told me not to bother unless I was going to surf. Other travelers had told me that they only stopped in the capital, San Salvador, for a night on there way to or from Guatemala. So I guess my expectations for this little country wedged into the Pacific coast between Honduras and Guatemala were not high. Maybe that's a good thing.

I arrived just short of the Salvadorian border after hitching my way from the Nicaraguan border across Honduras in the back of a pick-up with a one-eyed dude, a bundle of bananas and an off-duty security guy armed with a shotgun. Security guys with shotguns are as common here as 15 year olds with cellphones back home, so I wasn't particularly worried. And as Central America, and especially this region, is notorious for its dangerous highways due to the gangs and drug-runners that ply these roads, I just kept telling myself that having a shotgun made us safer. It was especially hard, however, to convince myself of this whenever my co-passenger would fidget with the safety...ON. OFF. ON. OFF. Please don't point that thing at me!

Once in San Salvador, I caught up with my CS host and we made our way to the stadium to catch another World Cup Qualifier. Though tickets were only six bucks for the cheap seats, we had to buy El Salvador jerseys for another five to avoid getting pummeled by insults and, considerably worse, bags of urine. It's also a 'rule' that bringing a woman to this rambunctious section, also know as general or Vietnam is a no-no and the price of saving a few bucks is more urine, water and endless hurling of insults at both the cheapskate and his date or wife or even daughter. We stayed (relatively) dry, but ES lost a nail biter to Costa Rica.

The rest of my time was spent at the beach watching other people surf in El Tunco, hanging out with some really cool folks and real life revolutionaries in one of El Salvador's most famous (and beautiful) revolutionary towns of Suchitoto and relaxing for a couple days at an off-the-beaten-path beach of Playa San Diego and hostel called El Roble. Like Colombia, the people here in ES were super friendly and eager to share the fact that their country offers so much more than gangs, war and violence. This afterthought of a visit turned out to be a wonderful surprise. Sometimes its best not to plan.

Nicaragua - back to where it all started

After a crazy, sweaty day on 6 different buses and a nutty border crossing, I made it up to Granada, Nicaragua with a smile on my face. The towns I crossed through, the adventure of trying to figure it out, and the people I met along the way made for an invigorating day... That was the scene last January when I took a little detour (from a 2 week Costa Rican vacation)up to Nicaragua and was pretty much the time and place where I said, ¨I need to throw the backpack on and get out there on the road again.¨ A few weeks later I was off to Argentina for the beginning of this journey. Now, almost 10 months later, I made the same northward trip from Costa Rica and went straight to Granada for old times sake. Its amazing how much easier and more comfortable a place is when visiting it for a second time.

After Granada, I went up to another beautiful (more for its charm than for its colorful buildings) colonial town of Leon where I stayed in a hostel with an interesting mix of ´backpackers´. First there was John, a cool, 72 year old retired engineer from California who was in Nicaragua for a month because his retirement check ¨goes a lot further here¨. There was a couple in their 50's from Nevada, a 60 something German guy named Hans, a 34 year old mother who also happened to be fitness competitor (5th in the world last year) and a 40 year old American cycling from the states down to South America. What made him most interesting was that, among the limited number of things he could carry with him on his bike, he brought a clothes iron. ¨I like to be able to look nice when I get to a new town¨ he remarked when he saw the puzzled look on my face. The 19 year old German kid spending time between high school and college must have wondered if he had taken a wrong turn off the backpacker trail somewhere in middle Nicaragua to end up with this crew. A visit to the Tisey nature reserve outside of Esteli in the north of the country provided an opportunity to meet with Don Alberto, a photogenic old guy that took up carving figures into the local mountainside as a way to give up drinking.

Like many places I´ve been through over the past 9 months, Nicaragua was going through some interesting political times and, in fact, was the fourth country I´ve been in that was holding elections while I was there. By now I've gotten use to several things here in South and Central America...corruption is prevalent, people are passionate and informed about politics and the fact that drinking of any alcohol is against the law in the days leading up to the elections.