Argentinian Adventure

“One day your life will flash before your eyes.  Make sure it’s worth watching.”

So my original travel plans got derailed a bit.  I really wanted to go to Brazil, but I found out that you need a visa to enter the country, which requires your actual passport, not a copy.  This is one of the only times that neglecting travel planning turned out poorly, but it wasn’t the end of the world.  There are still plenty of awesome places to visit in South America, so I took off to Argentina.

My first stop was Buenos Aires, the country’s largest city, which also happens to be the capital.  Of all the places I have visited in South America, Buenos Aires ended up being my favorite.  The town felt almost European with its small shops, bustling streets, fashionable people, and simple but efficient metro system.  It isn’t spotless, but it’s pretty clean for a large city.  As you can see below, some of the streets can get insanely crowded, even outside of the typical commute times.

The street in the picture directly above was at one time the widest street in the world at around 200 meters, or about two football fields.  It supposedly takes 3:00 to cross it on foot.  One day I decided to do a Tabata interval workout in the median, and I got just a couple of stares.  Whatever, at least I can say that I got in a workout on one of the widest streets in the world.

I was hostel jumping the first few days because I couldn’t find a good one that was social, which was frustrating.  On my third one I ran into a girl from Europe, and we decided to explore the city for a few hours.  She suggested that we go to a famous cemetery.  Is that really going to be that fun?  I was actually really impressed with it, and it was worth visiting.  The monument was free to enter, and it was a lot bigger than you would think.  Inside, families had erected what looked like shrines for their deceased family members, and some of them were several centuries old.

God, is that you?

I met an Argentinian girl in Colombia named Stephanie, and she ended up meeting me in Buenos Aires to show me the city since she lived there for about a year.  Thank you for everything Stephanie, I appreciate it!

We took a couple of days to walk around Buenos Aires and see the sights.  One thing that blew my mind is that a lot of people commute from the surrounding provinces in small buses, and the average trip one way is about two hours.  Hope your iPad is charged for that trek.  Here is a picture of people waiting in line to board the buses.  Sometimes these lines snaked more than a city block.

Stephanie showed me an area of the city that made you feel as though you were in a much smaller town, which was a nice break from the hustle and bustle of Buenos Aires.  Some parts of the city are beautifully landscaped with flowering trees and lush grass.  The Japanese garden in the second picture was also a sight to see.

Throughout this part of the city, there was a ton of stuff going on.  People whizzed by on rollerblades, sweat dropped off the brow of runners, troops of dancers practiced for an upcoming carnival, and there was even a trio that had these mechanical legs that looked like pogo sticks that they used to bounce to the drum beat from the bands.  This was no doubt the coolest scene in Buenos Aires, and I’m sure I’d frequent it if I was a native.

After seeing Argentina’s busy capital, I decided to slow things down a bit and head to Mar Del Plata (translated as Silver Sea), the city where Stephanie is from.  I was teasing Stephanie the entire time we were in Buenos Aires because she was always comparing her home town to the capital, and now I can see why.  Mar Del Plata is about the size of Milwaukee with its 600,000 inhabitants, and it’s an absolutely gorgeous beach city.  The pace of life here is a lot slower than in Buenos Aires, and of course, everything is cheaper too.

The coast in Mar Del Plata is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen.  It’s absolutely spotless, and it has the perfect mix of sand, greenery, and concrete for sports and walking.  I can understand why Stephanie always goes rollerblading along the numerous paths, and you could see various natives doing the same at any time during the day or night.

To be honest, I wasn’t a huge fan of the food in Argentina.  For some reason, it made my stomach feel like crap, and that usually doesn’t happen to me.  I did end up trying mate, a type of strong tea that is served in a small wooden cup with a stainless steel straw.  What you do is heat up water as if you were making tea, and then you put the mate spices in the wooden cup.  Then you pour a small amount of water into the cup, and then drink it through the straw.  Repeat a bunch of times until you’re out of hot water.  I honestly wasn’t a big fan of the taste because it was so strong, and a guy I was talking to said it took him seven years to actually like drinking mate.  Props to him for sticking with that so long.  Natives even drink this stuff outside in the middle of summer, but I just can’t see getting used to it.

One of Argentina’s redeeming foods was empanadas.  I hate to make the comparison, but they are similar to a pizza bites, though they are filled with fresh meat, cheese, and spices.  I tried about half a dozen different kinds, including short-cut beef, chicken, tuna, ham and cheese, and spinach.  You can get them either fried or baked, and of course, the fried ones taste better.  Don’t worry, I only ate one fried one to try it, the rest were baked.

As travel plans tend to do, my plans for the entire trip have also changed.  I was going to stay in South America until late December, but I’m coming back to the States to take a look at a couple of Anytime Fitness clubs for sale.  I’ll write at least one more post after I get back with a few more thoughts from the trip, including what I think is the most interesting stat from all of the trips I’ve taken this year.

I’m looking forward to being back in the States again and seeing you guys!

“The secret to success regardless of your passion is no secret.  Just work hard and add real value to people’s lives.”

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The Colombia Chapter Closes

“You actually die twice in this world.  Once when you stop breathing, and a second time several years later when somebody says your name for the last time.  So do things that matter and leave a legacy.  It’s never too late to start.”

I’ve never heard that quote before, but it instantly became one of my all-time favorites.

After seeing the beautiful architecture in Cartagena, I decided to head over to a tiny beach town about four hours away called Taganga.  This city turned out to be one of the more remote places that I’ve traveled to, which added to its charm.  Let me give you an idea of how things work in Taganga.

No, that’s not an optical illusion.  That four-year-old girl is using a machete as big as her entire arm to slice and dice a coconut by the side of the road.  What ever happened to playing with Barbies and My Little Pony after supper?

Taganga is divided into two beaches by a mountain.  It was easily passable though, and you can get from one side to the other in 10 minutes.  I was staying in the more developed area, and one day a few friends from the hostel and I decided to check out the other beach.  While it was more beautiful, it was also more Spartan.  I foolishly went to one of the restaurants and asked if they had wi-fi.  Internet?  Silly question, Rob.  Hell, they didn’t even have electricity.  And the food wasn’t cooked with gas stoves either, they burned slivers of wood to heat the skillets.  I’d take 10:1 odds on a Tagangan to win the next Survivor.

I was really hungry, so I decided to order something from one of the restaurants about 50 feet from the beach.  I asked for a menu in Spanish, and here is what they gave me:

The third fish from the left tasted just a little more fresh than a fish fry at Culver’s. It was accompanied with rice and fried plantains, and the entire dish only cost about $8.00. Not bad!

The beaches and landscape were incredibly picturesque.  The first snapshot is the more developed beach.  The second one was more basic where we spent most of the afternoon one day.

My favorite moment of the trip so far happened when I was in Taganga.  I was walking along the single main street with Daniel, a cool hispanic guy from LA that I had met back in Cartagena.  Out of the corner of my eye I see something zoom past.  I looked up and saw a skinny little boy no more than five years old wearing only a pair of shorts riding a black-framed bike that was easily a couple of sizes too big for him.  When he was about 10 feet ahead of us, he slammed on the pedals, and the rear tire slid a couple of feet to the side on the wet pavement.  Then he gave me a huge smile as he held out his hand for a high five, and I enthusiastically returned the gesture.  So random, but so awesome!

I had spent the past few days with Longy, a Chinese girl from Australia, and Daniel.  Here’s a pic as we parted ways when we left Taganga.  It was a blast traveling with you guys!

Here you can see me wearing my standard issue blue travel v-neck.  I swear I wear more shirts than that one.

After a little culture shock in Taganga, Daniel and I went to Santa Marta, a town just a couple of miles away.  We knew there were going to be a lot more people, and we had an awesome hostel lined up.  Well, it turns out that the city itself was kind of a s**thole, and the hostel was da bomb.  What that meant is that we just spent all the time socializing in the hostel, which was fine with me.  We even made it back to Taganga one of the nights to hit up one of the discotecas there.  The club had some really odd antiques outside, and I don’t exactly understand why.

Loser of paper, rock, scissors has to do a beer bong out of that bowl on the left?

In general, one thing that I noticed in Colombia is that people drive absolutely insanely. They don’t need any lane markers, don’t even know what a stop sign is, and they frequently blow through red lights.  I can’t tell you how many times I thought a taxi was going to nail a pedestrian or someone on a bike, but it never actually happened.

Another really random practice that seemed more common in Cartagena is that the police will just randomly stop you and search you for drugs.  Daniel and I were walking home on the sidewalk from a night out in Cartagena around 2:00 am.  All of a sudden, two police officers pull up on mopeds and ask us to stop walking.  They searched both of us really well, and I mean really well.  They actually put their hands in all of our pockets, looked between the bills in our wallets, and really gave us a run around.  Luckily I joked with them in Spanish, and they were pretty cool about everything.

I had heard of several other instances like this that went poorly.  A guy from Europe had the same thing happen to him, and the police literally stole the money that he had in his wallet, and then let him go.  He had the equivalent of over $100 US Dollars, ouch.  After hearing that, I didn’t carry much cash on me on purpose.  The police in Colombia seem extremely corrupt, what a shame.

One thing that traveling has helped me do is be thankful for who I am and what I have in the context of the world.  I just happened to come across this interactive graphic recently, and I think it offers some great perspective.  Be sure to click on all the numbers in the upper right hand corner to see more pages:

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/03/age-of-man/map-interactive

Seeing all these other countries and talking to so many people has really made me thankful for what we have back in the States.  Look at how many people can’t read, don’t have access to a vehicle, and can’t use the internet.  I think that sometimes we just assume these things are given, but in the world as a whole, that’s not true.  I try to periodically remind myself of this to stay grounded.

Another way that I think about things is this: If you could roll the dice again and have the chance to be born as any other person in the world, would you do it?  I wouldn’t, especially after seeing the information in that link.  I feel damn fortunate to have been born a US citizen and to be surrounded with an amazing group of friends and family.

“Purpose is the reason you journey.  Passion is the fire that lights your way.”

Cruising Colombia

“People often attempt to live their lives backwards.  They try to acquire more things, or more money, in order to do more of what they want so they will be happier.  The way it actually works is the reverse.  You must first be who you really are, then do what you need to do, in order to have what you want.”

After conquering Colombia’s capital city, I trekked to some of the smaller cities nearby.  I hopped a forty-minute flight to Medellin, a city of 3.5 million people, roughly half the size of Bogotá.  While I liked the city itself a lot, my experience there didn’t turn out so well.

It was the first time in a long time that I gambled on a hostel and lost.  I purposely picked housing that was close to a CrossFit gym so it would be a short jaunt to get in work outs.  The hostel actually looked totally awesome, had a pool, and I even got a private room for the price of a dorm room.

The problem was that it was a relatively small hostel, and there was a group of what looked like middle schoolers staying in the two main dorms.  It was a complete social bust, which was a huge disappointment.

The other thing that happened was that I got food poisoning toward the end of my stay.  I think it was either from a fruit salad that I got from a very reputable grocery store, or a cheeseburger that I ate at a nice restaurant.  Either way, I didn’t eat any solid food for 36 hours afterward, and my appetite didn’t fully recover for about four days.  Being sick isn’t fun to begin with, it’s worse when you’re traveling, and it’s even more terrible when there is no one else to talk to.  For the first time since I started traveling in May, I briefly felt like I wanted to go home.

Luckily I was still able to take a bus tour of the city, get in a bunch of good work outs before the food poisoning, and make it out to the bar scene one night.  Medellin is an absolutely beautiful city nestled in the mountains of Colombia, and I’d highly recommend seeing it.

I talked to a bunch of locals, and they all seemed to agree that the people in Medellin are nicer than those from Bogotá.  Though in general, I think the Colombians are incredibly friendly and accommodating.  There is also less income disparity in Medellin, and I sense there were less shady areas of the city.  I also can’t tell you how many people mentioned to me that Medellin has the most beautiful women in all of Colombia, and I’d have to agree.

The bus tour took us through all the major parts of the city, including the center square.  Medellin’s cultural building was really impressive, but we didn’t enter it.

We also checked out a couple of the city’s parks, including one that is specifically designed to exfoliate your feet.  There are several stages that you go through in the process.  First, you walk around in an area that has straw and bamboo to prepare your feet.

Then you exfoliate your feet in a bed of small rocks, and finally you sit in small pools with massaging jets to relax.  I didn’t actually do it because I was wearing socks and sneakers, but it was a pretty cool concept.

After succumbing to food poisoning in Medellin, I made it to Cartagena, a coastal city in the north of Colombia.  Many Americans and Colombians had suggested I see this town, and I was game for a little beach action.

My second night in Cartagena proved to be pretty fun.  I went out with a super entertaining group of people from the hostel (social salvation!), and I ended up chatting with this Colombian guy outside a dance club.  He was Danger, an aspiring rapper in both English and Spanish.  I bought him a beer after he let me record a couple of rap videos while my friends did crazy dance moves in the background.  I’m going to have to put at least one of them on Facebook soon.

The next day, a small troop from the hostel decided to go to Playa Blanca, or the White Beach.  Even though it was really touristy, it was still worth the trip.  When we got there, we were all starving since we hadn’t eaten anything, and it was already noon.  No problem, we should be able to easily grab something on the beach.  Well, it turns out that literally almost every restaurant served the same dish – fried whole fish with rice, salad, and fried plantains.  The entire plate was actually very tasty, and the rice had an agreeably sweet tinge to it.

The shoreline was picturesque, and the water was extremely clean and almost too warm.  We took turns dipping into the ocean while someone else from the group watched our belongings.

In the evening, about a dozen of us took taxis to the highest point in the city to catch the sun set.  I wish they had hired a few more bush pruners, but the view was still awesome.

Since most of the group I was hanging out with was going to leave the next day, we all decided to walk to the wall overlooking the ocean to have a couple of drinks.  It supposedly wasn’t really safe to do that, but we figured with a group this big, safety wouldn’t be an issue.  I jumped down from the wall to snap this picture, which turned out to be one of my favorites from the trip so far.

For the last full day in Cartagena, I walked around with three others from the hostel to take some daytime pics and see the corners of the city we hadn’t visited.  We admired the Spanish Colonial style of the architecture, and the town definitely has a lot of character.

Those pictures were shot in the old part of the town, but we also hopped over to the new part of the city, which was more my style.  Skyscrapers dotted the coastline next to Western fast food stores and modern looking shops.

I’ll finish with just a couple more general thoughts about Colombia.  The economy here isn’t very good, though it is one of the stronger ones in South America.  A nurse who graduates from college might only make $700 per month, and it takes about double that to live comfortably.  Yikes.

One thing that Colombians can do to ease economic hardship is to spread out anything that can be put on a credit card over a period of up to two years.  What happens is that every time you pay for anything with a credit card, the store’s employee will ask you how many payments you want, and you can select up to 24 monthly installments.  So I could legitimately pay for my Burger King combo meal over a two-year period.  Of course, you are incurring interest that entire time, but it can make things more affordable in the short-term.

There are lots of homeless people and beggars in all the cities I visited, especially Bogotá.  This isn’t all that uncommon in countries that aren’t first-world.  The sad thing is that I have never seen so many people asking for actual food.  Of course, some of them are asking for money, but the majority of them are asking for something to eat.  It’s a real downer to see every day.

I’m used to people looking and staring at me when I travel because I’m a foreigner.  But here in Colombia, they take it to the nth degree.  I’d say that 75% of the people who see me take an extra long glance or look at me strangely.  I’m also traveling with a five-foot broomstick to train for the CrossFit games, so you can only imagine how that compounds the problem.  It’s actually not a bad experience because it will definitely make me think twice about staring at others in the future.

Now I’m headed to Taganga, another beach city in Colombia.  Time to get some more sun, and I’ll update you guys again soon.

“If you cannot put your heart in it, take yourself out of it.”