Bogotá Blows Me Away

“At the end of the game, the pawns and the kings go in the same box.”

Since this was my first foray into South America, I really had no idea what to expect.  I flew into Bogotá, the capital of Colombia.  Now I know Americans perceive Colombia as an unsafe country, and sadly, I think that perception is somewhat correct.  There wasn’t any single moment when I didn’t feel safe during my six days in Bogotá, but from what others have told me, this is the Wild West of South America.

To give you an idea of how things are here, I’ve had probably a dozen local people warn me about being careful and watching my back, especially when it’s dark.  There are certain areas of the city where you simply don’t go after nightfall, and they look like ghost towns after the sun sets.  The police here are corrupt as hell.  I’ve heard that they will bust people for drugs, and then turn around and give them to other civilians.  How messed up is that?

There is an airborne chemical that thieves can use to rob you, but I forgot what it’s called.  What they do is throw it into the air, and then you breathe it in.  After that, you can’t remember anything, but you are fully awake and able to function.  I’ve also heard that prostitutes will put cotton balls in their noses to block them, and then they will put some of this dust on the inside of their nose so that an unsuspecting person will breathe it in when they get close.  WTF?!?

I know this all sounds pretty dubious, but I didn’t actually see or hear anything that made me feel like I was in danger here in Bogotá.  Even still, the city just seems really sketchy.  I called an airline to make a reservation for a flight out of Bogotá, and I got cut off.  I called back two minutes later, and both the flight time changed, and the price had doubled despite there being plenty of vacancies for my original flight when I checked online.  Huh?

Within five minutes of arriving at the hostel, I was fortunate enough to meet a really cool guy from St. Louis named Mike.  He helped me find some late night food since I arrived at 11:30 pm, and then we decided to go out to the posh area of the city to see what was going down.  It wasn’t too crazy of a night, but it was a good introduction to Bogotá.

The next day, Mike and I went on a bike tour of the city.  I rented the crappiest bike in South America for the afternoon for around $8, which seemed like a rip off.  Whatever, it still allowed us to check things out.  We biked to one of the highest points in the town, and the view allowed us to see a lot:

We also biked past the national park, and we also made it through some of the smaller side streets.  Although these pictures will lead you to believe the city is decently clean, there are a lot of areas that are littered with graffiti and trash.  The pollution is pretty bad, and some women even wear fabric masks to cover their mouths when they are walking on the street.

Mike volunteers at an orphanage once a week on Fridays, and he invited me to join him.  I enthusiastically agreed, and it turned out to be the highlight of my trip so far.  We biked about an hour to get to the house that served 15 children ages six to 15.  They were so fun!  Although I was supposed to speak with them in English, we mostly communicated in Spanish.  Nearly all of them called me profe, which is short for profesor, or teacher.  The kids asked me a million questions about my muscles when I arrived, and I individually hoisted half of them with one arm as they held on to me.  They really wanted to arm wrestle me, so we went a few rounds:

After nearly tearing my arm off in a 5-on-1 match, we wandered over to the park across the street.  The group was supposed to play soccer, but we ended up rough housing for the rest of the hour.  I helped a couple of the smaller kids climb a tree, which they enjoyed.  Mike is in the first picture below.

On Saturday, the entire city celebrated Halloween.  Mike and his friend Thor invited me to a party, along with a bunch of other people.  Before that, we went to Bogota’s zombie march where thousands of people lumber along in zombie costumes.  It reminded me of Halloween on State Street in Madison, but with fewer people, and we actually walked a pretty far distance.  At random points the crowd chanted, “Sangre, sangre,” (“Blood”), or “Morir es vivir,” (“Dying is living,”), which was cool.

After the zombie march, we headed back to the barrio where I lived to hit up a party in one of the other hostels.  Most people dressed up, and some people went all out.  I laugh every time I see the girl in the Hitler outfit:

I haven’t eaten a ton of foods specific to Colombia, but I did get a dish that I was told is about as Colombian as it gets:

I was disappointed that the lighting on this picture didn’t turn out well.  The dish is a completely random combination of things that countryside workers would eat to keep up their energy.  It includes chicharones (fried pork bits), fried bananas, ground beef, avocado with spices, a mini sausage, white rice, an egg, and an arepa, which is kind of like a small, thick tortilla that tastes like nothing.

The rest of the days in Bogotá were pretty chill on purpose.  I didn’t want this trip to be like my European tour where I was rushing through cities.  I certainly feel more relaxed on this voyage, and I’m probably not going to see Ecuador like I thought I would.

Another reason why I’m taking it easy this trip is because I’m training for the CrossFit Games which start in 2013.  The workouts are really demanding, and I’m trying to be a lot more diligent about getting good sleep and making sure that I’m getting in as many workouts as possible.  I know that with only four months of training, it’s going to be really difficult for me to make it to the finals in July, but nobody ever accomplished great things by having mediocre goals.

I’m going to start and end with a quote in some of my posts because I have so many great ones that I want to share with you guys.

“Sweat is fat crying.”

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The Travel Bug

“You must find the place inside yourself where anything is possible.  It starts with a dream.  Add confidence, and it becomes a belief.  Add commitment, and it becomes a goal in sight.  Add action, and it becomes a part of your life.  Add determination and time, and your dream becomes a reality.”

OK, I admit it.  I’m slightly addicted to traveling.  Name one person you know that has traveled even a little bit that doesn’t want to travel more.  Can you think of anyone?  I didn’t think so.  Once the travel bug gets you, there’s no turning back.

After experiencing all these countries the past several months, I have to say that I’m dedicated to making yearly travel a permanent part of my life.  Ideally I’d like to travel at least two consecutive weeks per year.  In my opinion, one week isn’t enough to detach from everything here and truly immerse yourself in the experience.  My goal is to see at least 25% of the world, and right now I think I’m hovering around 10%.  I have my work cut out for me.

To make some more progress toward that goal, I’m going to take one last trip (for now).  I’ll be leaving for South America on Thursday, October 25th, and I’ll come back to the States right before Christmas.  I’m planning on visiting Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Brazil.  I’ll definitely be using my Spanish as much as possible, and I’m hoping to learn Portuguese too.  Cross your fingers that I don’t get bartered for a couple of kilos of blow.

As Statesiders, I don’t think we explore the possibility of travel enough.  In my trips to Europe and Central America, I honestly didn’t meet very many people from the US.  There were plenty of Aussies, Europeans, and Canadians that decided to jump on a plane to experience other cultures.  Why is it that the average American doesn’t seem to think of travel when they have the opportunity?

Can you negotiate a few weeks off in between jobs?  Do you have three weeks of vacation piled up that you haven’t used this year?  Have you been working at your job a long time without a sabbatical?  Don’t take a staycation at home, live a vacation abroad.

I think one thing we take for granted living in the States is that we are born speaking fluent English.  Sometimes it blows my mind how much of an advantage this is throughout the world.  There are some people who would absolutely kill to speak fluent English, and you can do it without even thinking about it.  This gives you the ability to communicate in nearly any country in the world, which is truly awesome.

When I started my travel stint back in May, I had some goals and purpose for my excursions.  I wanted to, ” Learn to live in the moment, plan a little bit less, be more spontaneous, become more worldly, become deprogrammed from corporate life, slow things down a lot, and be less focused on time.  Most importantly, think about what I truly want out of my career and life.”  I certainly think I’ve permanently changed because of this recent travel, and it has been a priceless experience for me.

One thing I think I’ve learned is a lot more patience.  Despite your every wish, that barista in Paris isn’t going to move any faster just because you’re in a hurry to take that first sip of your grande skim mocha with a shot of sugar-free vanilla.  And your train isn’t going to kick it into high gear just because you’re going to miss your connection if you arrive at the station 20 minutes late.  Waiting in lines is a true test of patience, especially when you’re running on three hours of sleep, have been traveling for 14, and your cell phone only works on the non-existent wi-fi networks.

What do I do in these instances?  I can either get frustrated because I can’t speed things up, or I can take a moment to observe my surroundings.  For me, there isn’t a constant need to check my e-mail, and I know it will still be there in an hour.  And when I can’t receive text messages for two months, it’s actually a blessing in disguise.  I look at people interacting, and I try to guess what their body language is saying without being able to hear the words. I think about the very moment that I’m in, and I appreciate it for what it is.  Your mind doesn’t always have to be stimulated or turned on by a screen.  It’s OK to stand there and let your brain rest for a minute.

I definitely think this travel has helped me be more spontaneous.  It’s refreshing to wake up with a clean slate at breakfast and decide how I’m going to spend my day.  Even now that I’m home, I will purposely not plan things for a day just so I can see where it takes me.

I think traveling helps you cope with the unexpected simply because there are so many factors out of your control.  What are you going to do when there are absolutely no seats left on that flight to Barcelona you desperately need?  It’s OK, your world isn’t going to blow up just because you can’t take that flight.  I had some of my absolute best nights when I didn’t plan anything ahead of time, and I just went with the flow.

On the whole, I think travelers are some of the most interesting people I’ve ever come across.  They are very open minded, easy going, and have a litany of experiences to share.  I would say they live a relatively simple lifestyle, and appreciate what they have.  Travelers aren’t afraid to take risks, and also aren’t afraid of what they don’t know.  It is these reasons why I love staying in hostels and meeting these adventurous nomads.

I’m really glad that you are reading my travel blog and seeing some pictures of where I’ve been.  I can write 100 blog posts and show you thousands of pictures, but as any traveler can tell you, this just isn’t enough.  Travel isn’t something that you can truly experience any other way than to simply do it.  You need to feel the sensation of being completely surrounded by an environment that isn’t familiar to you at all.

Don’t think you like traveling?  Does the thought of it make you uncomfortable?  Perfect, you are the ideal travel candidate.  You are one of the people who would benefit most from being abroad, I can guarantee it.  Personal growth happens when you are outside your comfort zone, and travel is your perfect companion to help with this.

I think that one of the best things about travel is that it doesn’t discriminate.  What does that mean?  I believe that no matter where you are from, what your socioeconomic background is, or how old you are, travel can still help you learn more about yourself and the world.

A lot of you have said that you would love to travel more.  So, what’s stopping you?  The only thing that’s preventing you is your own beliefs.  I can already hear the myriad excuses: “I can’t afford it.”  “I can’t take the time off of work.”  “The timing isn’t good.”  Guess what?  These are pretty lame excuses.  While everyone’s situation is different, if you want it badly enough, you can make it happen.

Read the quote at the beginning of this post again.  Is traveling the globe a dream of yours?  If so, take one small step tomorrow toward making this dream a belief.  After that, the hard part is over if you continue to be focused on that dream.

I’ve heard stories of entire families with young kids that sailed around the world for a year to travel.  An 18-year-old that moved to Argentina with $100 in his pocket and the clothes on his back.  Countless 20-somethings who worked for six months, quit their jobs, and traveled until they ran out of money.  A nurse who arranged her schedule to work two months, and then have a month off.  If these people can manage to travel, you can too.

Quit making weak excuses.  What you’re really saying is that you’re not making travel a high enough priority in your life.  If traveling is something you truly want, then start working toward it tomorrow.  You only live once.  Do you want to look back when you’re older and think….I wonder what it would have been like to take my dream voyage around the globe?  Are you going to regret not taking that trip of a lifetime?  I don’t know about you, but I want to leave this Earth with as few regrets as possible.