I’m Smellin’ What You’re Steppin’ In

Hi everyone!  For those of you that didn’t know, I just moved to Arkansas on Christmas. My mission: turn around an Anytime Fitness that I purchased.  After being here a while, I can definitely say that life is very different from living in Wisconsin.  And since this isn’t just an international world adventure blog, I figured I’d share some of the Southern culture with you.

different-3

First off, I would say the overall way of life here is hugely dissimilar compared to Wisconsin.  That’s not to say it’s better or worse, simply different.  When I trekked here, I realized that I hadn’t ever lived anywhere in the US except my home state.  I had always wanted to move somewhere in the States where I didn’t know a single soul and see how things went.  Cross that one off the bucket list!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The first thing hit me is that they don’t call this the Bible Belt for nothin’.  I can’t tell you how many times I heard an enthusiastic, “Have a blessed day” on voicemail greetings in the first week.  The number of people who mention the Lord or God in everyday, casual conversation is about 58 times more than I’ve ever heard in Wisconsin.  Another thing that multiple people have said is that in their lives, God comes first, the man is the head of the household, and then everyone else comes after him.

I don’t think this religious influence is bad at all, I’m just not used to it.  In fact, I went to a church service on a Friday night with my personal trainer.  Thank you for the invite Estella! Man, how my Friday nights have changed since I don’t drink.  Regardless, the service was an eye-opening experience.  We listened to a middle-aged guy talk about all the bad things he had done in his life, and how he was reformed and had made something of himself now.  It was a good experience for me, and I’d say I’m better off because of it.

zackmorris

I have to admit there are a few things that drive me absolutely crazy down here.  I could swear that everyone here is still using a Zack Morris phone, because sometimes it’s impossible to make a phone call, even on a land line.  I don’t need to ask “Can you hear me now?” if the freakin’ call doesn’t even go through.

lady-driver

My other big beef with Arkansas is that everyone drives like they are 80 years old….or my dad.  There is this main street that goes through the entire city of Springdale, and the speed limit is between 40 and 50 miles per hour.  Cars will frequently go 30 during a time of little traffic.  Let’s just say the Satarri is going to need a new set of tires when I get back home.

Speaking of driving, a lot of people here have trucks just because it’s the thing to do. Estella practically had a meltdown when she recently traded in her truck for a car, and I still don’t think she’s over it.  She’s probably brought it up half a dozen times in two months.  It’s okay Estella, Ford still has plenty of them coming off the production line.

divided-states-of-america

I had never considered myself to have a strong accent, but people here call me out on it all the time.  I don’t have to say more than a sentence and people will ask me, “So where are you from?”  I will usually reply, “Guess.”  “Well, I think you’re from the North,” is how they typically respond.  Is the country still divided into just two factions?  It’s hilarious how no one guesses an actual state, though I’m impressed that almost everyone knows where Wisconsin is located.

images

It quickly became apparent to me that the time line for romantic relationships is crazy faster than in the Midwest.  I met or heard of a handful of people who were already married, had a kid, and then divorced under 25.  Someone told me that Arkansas has the second highest divorce rate in the US, and after seeing so many young divorcees, I’m not surprised.  I don’t really understand why this is the case because people don’t seem to get married after an abnormally short amount of time together.  Maybe Dolly Parton is a more appropriate role model for Arkansas instead of Kim Kardashian?

funny_southern_sweet_tea_birthday_party_invitation-rda998cc4b42d433dbf9bb871de55ad77_8dnm8_8byvr_512

You know how a server will ask you if you want anything to drink when you’re at a restaurant?  Well here in Arkansas, the choices they offer are usually Dr. Pepper and sweet tea.  Seriously, those are your top two beverages?  I’m pretty sure that some people love sweet tea so much that they have a sweet tea fountain in the middle of their living room.  I’ve had members act like an alcoholic going into withdrawal when I told them that they couldn’t down their daily liter of the stuff.  I had no idea that something practically non-existent in WI would be such a staple down here.

2013-02-20 16.26.14

I recently learned that I take our tolerance for bad weather for granted in the North.  One day it snowed what seemed about an inch, and literally two hours later there was zero accumulation on the roads.  Apparently this is sufficient cause for businesses to shut down, and mothers to frantically take their children out of school early in response to the snowpocalypse.  Congratulations Arkansas, you officially have the most ridiculous response to a little snow that I have ever seen anywhere in the world.

nasty_richard_simmons

On the plus side, the weather is amazingly warm here, even during January and February. Now I know I don’t dress normally even for a Wisconsinite.  However, the entire time I was here, I’ve worn shorts and a t-shirt.  Countless people have looked at me like I’m one grape short of a fruit salad, but doesn’t 50-degree weather equal shorts where we’re from?

southern-comfort

There are a bunch of things that I really like about the culture down here.  For starters, everyone is extremely hospitable, genuine, nice, and welcoming.  Now I understand what people mean when they talk about Southern hospitality.  The women are especially catering toward men, which I’m not going to argue with.  I keep telling people that this is the only place on the planet where people are as nice as they are in the Midwest.

yes-sir

There is no doubt in my mind that my favorite part of living down here is the completely different vernacular.  In public, there is a lot more formality because people frequently say “sir” or “ma’am” to address others, even strangers.  I’m not sure why, but I actually like this a lot.

I have to admit that I did a double take because my second day down here I had a high school girl call me “sir.”  I thought to myself, “Damn, did I become a ‘sir’ when I just turned 30?”  Relief washed over me in an awesome wave when I realized that it was simply her trying to be polite.

bison-poop-step

One night I was out with friends, and I remarked something about the place where we were going.  My friend Kara Jo says to me, “I’m smellin’ what you’re steppin’ in.”  I’m sorry, I don’t speak Southern.  What the heck does that mean?  Apparently that’s a long-winded but much more entertaining way of saying, “I got ya.”  Love it!

Sometimes people will pronounce a word as if it had extra syllables.  For instance, “yes” becomes “yeas.”  Or “friend” turns into, “frieand.”  It’s hard to explain in writing, you just have to hear it in person.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Other phrases that I enjoy hearing on a daily basis include, “I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck yesterday,” “precious,” “fixin'” to mean “going,” the obligatory “y’all,” and using “wreck” in place of “accident.”  I don’t know why, but I almost lost it the first time I heard, “I almost got in a wreck!”  Not my most compassionate moment given the nature of the comment.

For the record, when I searched for “wreck” and got the picture above, almost all the pictures that came up were of ship wrecks.  Hopefully you Southerners don’t get into an accident after reading that last sentence.

appblog

There is one thing here that they say that I’m going to be sure to incorporate when I move back home.  When you do something nice for someone here, instead of saying, “I appreciate it,” they say, “I appreciate you.”  It’s a subtle difference, but it makes things feel so much more personal between two people, which I like a lot.

1280-Happiness-and-ecological-efficiency-as-alternatives-to-GDP

This has been quite the transition for me because I’ve worked in the club full time for the last two months.  Before that, I had never been in my club for more than a week at a time. I didn’t know how I would like doing it full time, what the challenges would be, and how well I would be able to do the job.

Then something started happening almost immediately after I moved down here.  I would be working in the club, and I would help someone with their diet or workout routine.  Then I felt this physical tingle in the back right part of my brain, an actual tangible response to what I had done.  This has happened before, but not to this degree.  That tingle coupled with a rush of endorphins makes me briefly feel like I just had ten Sugar Free Red Bulls injected into my bloodstream all at once.  It’s unlike anything else I’ve ever felt before.

The part that I’m sad to admit is that I didn’t get that sensation when I was working at Baird at all.  Not even once.  It’s that tingling feeling in my brain that tells me I’m meant to help others get involved with health and fitness.  I have to admit it’s one of the best emotions I’ve ever experienced, and I get to feel it every day.

15 Minutes of Fame

“The heart of human excellence often begins to beat when you discover a pursuit that absorbs you, frees you, challenges you, and gives you a sense of meaning, joy, and passion.”

It has been a while!  For those of you that don’t know, I decided to buy another Anytime Fitness in Springdale, Arkansas.  As you can imagine, this has kept me pretty busy.  Don’t worry, I’ll be back in WI in a couple of months, but I’m headed down there for a while to make sure that things start off on the right foot.  I’m still training for the CrossFit games that start in March of 2013, so that’s why I haven’t been able to dedicate some time for this last blog post.

I’m a little disappointed to write today because it means that my travel adventures are coming to an end – for now.  I will still shoot for my goal of at least two consecutive weeks of travel each year in 2013, I’m just not sure when I’ll take off.

I went through some of my past blog posts, and I’m happy that I decided to write everything down.  Not only did that keep you guys informed, but it also allows me to relive each city that I visited when I read about my thoughts and activities.  Rockstar!

It seems like I’ve been back from Argentina longer than a month for some reason. Nevertheless, I have a few closing thoughts about the country.  I learned a lot of this stuff through talking with several locals on my trip.  Thank you for the insight Stephanie and Luana!

For starters, going to university in Argentina is free, so there are tons of people who enroll. The crazy part is that only about 10% graduate, which seemed really low to me. Apparently it’s difficult to get good grades, and students obviously fail classes often.

One thing that the government does is control how much money you take out of the country when you travel.  What you do is ask them how much money you are allowed to take, and then they approve a certain amount.  If they don’t allow you to take any money, there is a way you can go around this in the parallel money exchange market, but it’s more expensive to convert Argentine pesos into US Dollars.  The reason the government does this is because they want to keep the funds inside the country to help grow the economy.

In Argentina, it’s not uncommon for people to live at home until they are married, similar to some European countries.  If the children have moved out of the house, sometimes families will get together on Sundays to eat and spend the day together.  As you can see, there is a huge emphasis on the nuclear family in Argentina, which I think is great.

I’m always interested to learn about the economies of each country that I visit.  In Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, many people are concerned with fashion and clothes. Some natives would rather spend ridiculous amounts on a trendy jacket and pair of shoes but still live with their parents because they can’t afford to live alone.  Another interesting facet of the economy is that allegedly 80% of business is done under the table.  This was crazy annoying to me because I couldn’t use my credit card for a lot of purchases, and getting cash out of an ATM proved challenging at times because they ran out of bills.

As I’m sure you realize by now, I absolutely loved meeting so many diverse people in all my travels this year.  It doesn’t matter how amazing a place is if you don’t have someone to share it with.  Luckily I was able to meet so many awesome people along the way that traveling alone turned out to be one of the best things I’ve done in a long time.  I think it forced me to meet far more people than I would have otherwise.

So I started thinking to myself…..how many people do I actually meet when I travel alone? And what is a significant amount of time to talk to someone?  I decided that you can get to know someone’s personality decently well after chatting with them for 15 minutes.  Of course you aren’t going to know them like your best friend, but you have a solid feel for what they are like.

What I did from the beginning of the trip was keep track of how many people I talked to for at least 15 minutes.  Now it’s not like I whipped out a timer and said, “Go!” when we started conversing, but I estimated.  How many new people do you think I talked to for more than 15 minutes each in nearly four weeks?

I had the pleasure of meeting 87 new people for at least 15 minutes in South America. They say that each person has their 15 minutes of fame, right?  The way I like to think about things is that you get your 15 minutes of fame with each person you meet.  During that time, you might learn something interesting, help them make a tough decision, brighten their day, or make a positive impact on their life.  The choice is yours.  The next time you meet someone new, how are you going to spend your 15 minutes of fame?

“A person’s toothache means more to that person than a famine in China that kills a million people.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.