The Return: (North) ‘Merica

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Well, it’s late July.  Not sure exactly how time travels so quickly but if we could monetize that speed none of us would need to work ever again.  In this short time, I realized a few things.  First, I kinda sorta needed a job.  Second, a shower and haircut were imminent.  And third, I was BACK.  But what was this strange new world, (North) America?  Whatever it was, it was very welcoming.  In case you haven’t already seen the video, here it is.

For the first few weeks, it was a surreal and very glossy view.  Nothing seemed to fit reality.  Half of my heart and mind sat here at home while the other sat wondering why his twin had left him in South America.  So many incredible memories still do sit down there.  In between jagged peaks and flowing valleys and rushing rivers.  I don’t think I was struggling to come to grips with the realities back home because I was afraid of anything, I was actually excited to start work again.

No, there’s something else.  There’s something about a place that can have such a big impact on who you are and become.  I lived among 6 countries in South America and the Caribbean for 5 months.  I spent 248 hours in some form of transportation.  I visited 27 cities, towns, and villages.  Over 200 miles of hiking trails, roadsides, and city streets were crept across by tired feet.  I took nearly 10,000 pictures and videos.  But does any of this mean anything?

This was always an interesting question I tried to answer, what happens after the trip? I’m still not quite sure how to answer it, but I think I’ve come along a bit further than where my thoughts were on April 9th.  More than ever, it’s about people and how I decide to interact.  Making the most of every moment.  Appreciating EVERYTHING you have.  Because you never know when you might drop everything and search for 5 months for those very things you missed so much right under your nose.  It’s about spending life with the people and things that mean more to you than anything else.  It’s a cliche, but for a good reason.  I knew the cliche before.  Now I feel it.

 

A Surprise

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So I know that I’ve been counting down the days and the plan was to arrive on April 24.  However, I lied.  And it worked.  My family never saw it coming but I flew in yesterday to NYC after spending a beautiful week in Haiti.  More on that in a future post.  Sunday dinners are a typical routine, so I sneakily crept up to the apartment with about 40 pounds of bags and walked right in.  Like I said, they never saw it coming.  I’m usually very good at spoiling surprises, ask anyone who has ever known me, but this one was a success!  Mainly because I got to eat Chinese food.  Only kidding.

There are so many thoughts running through my mind right now but more importantly, I’m safe, I didn’t lose my passport, and I haven’t gotten terribly sick.  Lots to be thankful for.  I’ll still be posting about the remainder of my trip but I wanted to send this brief announcement and let you all know that I’m back home!  Thank you for all the support thus far and I look forward to sharing more with you all, including the rest of the “countdown” that just happens to be 2 weeks behind.  Now to find a job… 🙂

A New World: Argentina

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Colombia was a wonderous place but I was now on my way to Argentina.  Flying from Cartagena through Bogota to Buenos Aires, I felt a bit uneasy.  I had become so comfortable in Colombia and with Vanessa that even though it would only be 1 night on my own I immediately became fearful.  I wasn’t sure that I’d have the courage to meet people, being that I’m a shy person.  A lot of self-doubt crept in during the first few days.  I went to my hostel and walked through an eerily quiet city.  Because it was a Sunday, nearly all stores were closed and the streets were lonely.  Being from the greater NYC area, a city that really never sleeps this was a strange experience.  I walked down several blocks and didn’t cross a single person’s path.  While the city ended up being a bit more interesting than this first impression, it didn’t seem very unique.  The one unique aspect that did arise was that it seemed far more European than any other city I’d been to in South America.  It was an interesting mixture of South American city flavor and European city charms.

The next day my mom arrived and we saw each other for the first time in over 2 months!  It was a wonderful reunion and I was definitely happy to see a familiar face with my lonely first day in the country.  We spent the next few days exploring some of the typical sights of this huge city.  We saw an interesting cemetery that was filled with rows and rows of incredibly ornamented tombs that looked nearly like a miniature walled city.  With no chance at being able to see every tomb, we skipped through the blocks to observe at some of the highlights.

After spending the rest of the time exploring parks and scenic areas of Buenos Aires, we woke up our last morning before we’d head to Bariloche and the surrounding lakes district further south.  But, we had a bit of a hiccup.  My mom woke up sick and we scrambled to get her feeling better before the afternoon bus.  Being the tough mom that she is, we made the bus with only a confused taxi driver slowing us down.  Oh, and the bus being delayed by about 4 hours too.  We sat in the terminal for quite a long time but thankfully the bus finally rolled in and we boarded.

It was a 22 hour bus running from about 7pm that night until 5pm the next day.  While that sounds incredibly uncomfortable, I actually slept like a baby overnight.  From midnight til 8am, I never woke and barely stirred lying on a synthetic cloud.  My mom didn’t sleep quite as well but managed through it.  I give her plenty props for getting through that ride not feeling well, I know it wasn’t easy!  But we had finally made it.  And it was gorgeous.  Slowly as we left the pampas and approached the beginning of the Andean mountain range, hills rose while lakes fell below them with pine green and hues of blue filling the views.   We weaved alongside the lakesides sweeping up and down the sides of those rising hills until we finally emerged into a huge open lake area with wide views of rock topped mountains, the entrance to Nahuel Huapi national park.

As we pulled into the station and stepped outside, the crisp air and light breeze complemented the strong sun amazingly.  I had been waiting for this weather for a while. Being from a temperate climate, I look forward to each season (yes even snow!) and had been anxious to feel some cooler weather that I missed on the Caribbean coast of Colombia and in Buenos Aires where the temperature was easily 85 degrees and higher.  Taking a taxi, we labored up the rocky steps to a place I would end up calling home for 6 nights over 3 occasions.  It was a great home that brought us friends and a comfortable shelter.  Being that we were only in each city for 1-2 nights before bussing to the next stop on the itinerary, we made the most of all the first days in each place.  In this one, San Carlos de Bariloche, we explored the city walking up and down the main street and gazing through the windows of succulent chocolate shops, quirky gift stores, and sugary ice cream parlors.  We enjoyed a delicious home cooked meal at the hostel and readied ourselves for the hike the next day.  We would take a bus crammed with tourists and locals alike to go to Llao Llao hotel where the trail started to Hidden Lake.  It was another beautiful day.  We shuffled along the lightly trodden trail, a refreshing experience compared to the hiking in NJ where it can frequently be difficult to pass gas without a crowd turning a corner the same moment.  Here we could explore the place mostly uninterrupted and gaze at the crystal clear blue lakes served up along the forested mountains.

I am not afraid to admit it, along the course of the following 10 days, my mom outpaced me in our hikes.  She is in greater shape than I and was easily pushing through the trail as I nursed joints and muscles weary from anything other than solitary states.  But this didn’t prevent us from enjoying all that these places had to offer!  We toured through Villa la Angostura, San Martin de los Andes, and El Bolson, each place offering something unique and different.  Though all of them were incredibly beautiful by any standards.  

Bariloche was like the parent to all of them, larger and more citylike while still holding great views. Angostura was the richer town, much more local and filled with expensive shops and restaurants. Bolsón was a hippy town with lots of flavor and interesting people. Its extravagant crafts market of only handmade products and food was a great place to meander through on a sunny day, stuffing crispy fries down my throat. But San Martín was my favorite. Nestled between two mountains at the end of a windy lake, it was also one of the scenes depicted in Ernesto Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries. A wonderful read or movie to watch for anyone interested in South American history, vivid travel writing, and profound mind being curated by his changing environments. 

We also lived quite modestly, cooking meals that honestly were just as good if not better than some of the meals in those expensive restaurants.  I missed vegetables and fruits more than I realized until we made our own meals.  It’s something I took with me after my mom left as well, cooking for myself and I was much better off both health wise and money wise.

I cherished the conversations me and my mom had throughout this trip.  It has been over 4 years since we both lived in the same place and 8 since we lived together for more than a few weeks at a time or a summer between semesters.  During that time, a lot has happened and many stories have been told, but most of the time they have been told over a semi weekly dinner with little opportunity to get into details.  This was the perfect chance and we wasted no time in sharing those detailed stories.  On one occasion, we almost lost track of time on a long hike in El Bolson as we shared an ice cream on a dusty summer day.  I’m very thankful to have had these conversations, beyond all the wonderful views and people we met.  It was also a nice luxury to have another person traveling with me who knew Spanish.  Buying bus tickets is much much easier!

As we made our way through each of the cities finally returning back to Bariloche for her final night, it began to dawn on me that I’d be partnerless for the remainder of the trip.  A remainder that would last for over 2 months.  Pushing those fears to the side, we spent the last morning rising early for a view of sunrise down on the waterfront.  It was a nice moment just reflecting on the trip and wishing that it wouldn’t end.  But all good things must come to an end and that was the fate of this trip as well.  I’ll leave this post with a thank you to my mom for accompanying me on 2 fun weeks through Argentina!  It wouldn’t have been the same without you. Up next, the first chapter on solo traveling through the wilderness of Patagonia…

Colombia…

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Oh Colombia. Thinking now of that time, now a month and a half past still brings fond memories.  Vanessa and I flew to Cartagena with sights of a white foamy sea made up of not the ocean but the hotel buildings glistening among one another. We immediately went to the marina where we would catch a boat to Isla Baru. But luck wasn’t with us as there were no boats available that day. Instead, the son of the boating company owners offered to call a friend and drive us there (unbeknownst to us, this island was connected by a bridge). With a lack of options and an existing reservation that night, we accepted. And so we drove with this friend, the son who would give us a brief tour of the town, and the friend’s daughter. It was an interesting start to a dramatic trip. About halfway through, we were stopped at a police stop where they proceeded to bribe the driver into giving money for a bogus issue. After almost an hour of them talking, but finally, he conceded and gave the money.

It was a disappointing view of perhaps more typical life for local people in this land. I admit I became frustrated not by the drive which took substantially longer, but by the manner in which the police handled themselves. Things like this happen all the time and not just in foreign countries, but it is quite difficult to see when it’s happening in front of you.  But that was not going to discourage us!  Arriving at the island, we trudged 1 1/2 miles through a crowded and sandy beach to finally get to our eco-hotel. And the beach was beautiful.  Nearing sunset, the beach cleared itself of many of the day trip beach goers and we could appreciate this fact even more.  Now it felt more like a private beach with each hotel having a small section of sand and water that you could enjoy almost exclusively.  The first day, we swam in that crystal clear blue water, ate at one of the beach restaurants with our feet on the sand and food in our mouths, and met the most adorable dog that I’d be more inclined to describe as a deer. It was a hot but enjoyable day.

The next day, being a bit hot and uncomfortable we went to the zoo a few miles away on a motorbike taxi. We enjoyed seeing some beautiful animals including our favorites, birds!  We saw toucans, condors, parrots, parakeets, flamingoes, etc. We then made good use of a restaurant with air conditioning and wifi by staying there for 2 hours. After we wore out our welcome and their internet bill, we returned to our hotel and swam and hung out with our deer friend again.

The next morning, we took an exhilarating boat ride back to Cartagena. Once again, we saw a slightly disfortuned place that I don’t believe many visitors see in the city and that was garbage filled neighborhoods and marinas. There was a grassy park that otherwise was quite pleasant, if not for the garbage bags, old paper ads, food containers, etc. While it was a bit disheartening, it was fleeting and before we knew it we made our way to the bus station and took a ride to the town of Santa Marta. We arrived to a beautiful room in the hostel there with AC and clean dry sheets. It was definitely something we’d been craving since we arrived in the beaches up north.

We spent the first day exploring the city and its food. We had chicken wings, craving them from back home and some incredibly savory ceviche. If you haven’t had it, try it. Shrimp in lime juice, onions, and in this case with tomato sauce and mayo as well. Ohhh the flavor and unreplicable feeling of biting into the delectable shrimp freshly unloaded from nearby fishing boats.  It’s a salivating memory even writing about it now.

The next day we took a tour to a small town in the nearby mountains called Minka. There, we learned about bamboo building techniques used nearby, toured an organic coffee plantation, and hiked into the jungle to a gorgeous waterfall to cool off in the hot day. It did end up raining towards the end of the day when we learned about the life of indigenous tribes and saw their crafty huts they still used as shelter. We scurried back to our taxi at the end, thankful for wonderful hosts and guides along the way.

The following day was another adventure filled one with a ride to the nearby Parque Nacional Tayrona. If you’ve ever seen an ad for Colombian tourism, it’s likely you’ve seen images of this place. It takes up a long stretch of beach with incredible boulders and greenery surrounding the whole area. Not to mention beautiful white sand and water as blue as the sky to add to the ambiance. The most popular and well known beach was at the far end of the park so we took a long walk to the end where we came to a cabaña on top of a rocky bluff where winds howled past with views abound.  It was a fascinating day that we ended with great feelings of hunger. So upon returning to the hostel we found a nearby restaurant to quiet our stomachs’ pangs.

We should have known better, really, but when you are hungry most food will do. The place was empty and the front door even locked, but the waiter came to the door and let us in immediately so we decided to dine there. With a tomato soup and basic lasagna, I thought it would be harmless. And it was…for about 12 hours. At 7am the next morning I realized it was not harmless.  For about 7 hours, I spent most of that time in or near the bathroom. I was for most of the time nervous that Vanessa would be sick while I was effectively quarantined in the same room. We delayed our bus back to Cartagena for one day which helped me survive the 4 hour ride.

I was feeling quite well by day 3 when we got back to Cartagena, but my fears were realized that night when Vanessa became sick herself. The next day she was in rough shape so we took a quick taxi to the hospital where they pumped her with fluids and she recovered. Well, I wish that it was the end of this story but sometimes you can’t help it. While waiting in the hospital all day, I began to feel a bit a bit sick again. By the time we got back to the hostel that night, I felt quite warm.  I awoke in the middle of the night several hours later with a burning fever. We used some home remedies that helped plenty.  I would gradually recover with help from Vanessa over our last two days in Colombia, but before we knew it the trip was precipitously over.

While this was a decidedly somber part of the trip, I wouldn’t want to pretend that it was all good news and easy days.  But outside of us being sick for those few days, we really did enjoy the time we had in Santa Marta and Cartagena.  The views, the ocean, the weather, and the people were incredibly kind and hospitable.  At one hostel, they even provided us with a free soup and other kind gestures to make sure that we were as comfortable as needed.  We couldn’t have made it through so happily without the love and kindness from those people of Colombia!  I learned many things about its culture and people and saw the most beautiful places that I’ll never forget. I also savored the ability to meet and spend time with Vanessa’s family, all of whom were incredibly hospitable and kind. I have no reservations about returning to this country and hope that someday soon it will happen!  After a difficult goodbye to both the country and Vanessa, I readied my mind for a new place on the horizon.

100 Days

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100 days. It feels quite surreal. The dream that’s plagued my mind for several years is and has been here for some time now. As I expected, the speed with which I’ve moved through time during this trip has been blistering. But of course, that is wonderfully indicative of how great of an experience this has been, and I am eternally thankful for it. 100 days also instills something in your mind which I was hopeful would be one of the positive repercussions of this trip, and that is a sense of appreciation for things back home. Namely, you. Family, friends, and everyone else. So thanks to you, all of you, for being the support and continuity during this journey that has now seen 4 countries and will soon see a fifth. None of this would be possible or as enjoyable if it weren’t for you! 🙂

Colombia..

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During our time in Manizales we enjoyed many things including hot springs, walking at the top of a tower viewpoint, enjoying some local foods, and most of all spending time with their family. We went out to eat with them, took grandma for some walks and to get some ice cream, went out with the cousins, hiked to a waterfall, and on and on. I even helped with some painting work!  

Being useful is certainly something that you desire when you’re out of work for some time, and it’s something I craved at each stop of this trip. From the Galapagos  to painting rooms to just helping friends, it’s all fair game. But don’t let me somber this story up further with my fond recollections of work, and so I digress. 

I really enjoyed being able to spend time with the cousins there, though time was short with a few of them who interestingly were traveling to the US. I tried some new foods including some of favorites, sugar filled desserts. Climbing along the edges of a building as part of an excursion and nearly scaring Vanessa to her wits end was one of the nicer moments shared with some of those cousins, though I might find disagreement there!

When our time there finally came to an end, we enjoyed a delicious cake for Vanessa’s birthday. It was a quiet little gathering but perfectly tranquil for our last night.  The next morning we regretfully made our way to the bus station. Once again, comfort came and we left. But then memories don’t fade and we enjoyed our time there with her family very much.  I hope I will be able to return there someday soon. 

We were then on our way to a beautiful town named Salento. This town is the stopoff point to a tourist spot called Cócora valley. The hallmark of this valley is the vast amount of wax palm trees. As far as I understood, no wax emanated from these incredibly tall trees, sometimes reaching 300 feet, but beauty certainly did. From the start of the road to the makeshift village in this valley, we rode in an old jeep through sweeping views in both directions with greenery and liveliness. It was worth the trip, even if we only stayed for a single night. 

We enjoyed a bit of the town but unfortunately, on her birthday, Vanessa felt a bit sick and so we enjoyed part of the night resting. But that didn’t take away from the beauty we saw, another of the many places I fondly recollect in this treasured country. 

Our next stop would be Cali, a much warmer place than we’d been accustomed to thus far. After a 4 hour bus ride, we arrived to Vanessa’s jubilant uncle who excitedly came to pick us up. It was another example of fantastic hospitality to have him warmly take us in and bring us to Vanessa’s other grandparents’ home. There I was introduced to countless cousins, aunts, uncles, etc. It was overwhelming at first when I tried to memorize all of their names but that quickly subsided. 

I quickly found that there would be a celebration for our arrival and I was very honored. Being even more honored was what followed endless drinks of aguardiente (guaro), which I would describe as a licorice flavored rum-like drink, and plenty of dancing. And I mean plenty.  We danced for roughly 6 hours tiring these quickly aging knees. But it was an unforgettable night, as was the next morning when I felt the effects of a few too many drinks of guaro. 

The next day was no less dull being New Year’s Eve and we celebrated in a similar style with (a few less) drinks and lots of dancing. I definitely accustomed to that lifestyle quickly. We would continue the next few days enjoying hikes, swimming in pools, wading in rivers, and much more. It was in all a wonderful time to be with family, as had been my experience for the week preceding in Colombia. Before we knew it, again, it was time to move to the next place and it was no surprise that it was a difficult goodbye to the last of Vanessa’s family we would see in this trip. 

While it wasn’t easy, leaving was made easier with the good times we expected on the northern coast of Colombia, a tropical paradise. More on that in the final installment of this great place!