Thursday, April 1, 2010

Baby pics

As you can see here, the kids are all doing fine. I'm going to have a blast with them, even though some of the little buggers are a bit pint-sized.

From Dublin

Saturday, June 20, 2009

First week back, surprise surprise, I'm depressed

For the past month, I was looking forward to coming back home, seeing my family and friends, and to start working again and putting some money in the bank. However, I arrived into LA extremely bummed, dare I say, depressed, about being back. "But Daniel, you said on several occasions you were the happiest man alive, what happened?" What happened is I came back to the reality of a box full of mail that included IRS notices (yikes!) renewal notices for ten million magazines (Yoga Magazine, how did I get on THAT list?) and a jury summons or two, not to mention being unemployed and putting on a suit (A SUIT for crissakes!) and interviewing for a job. To go from over a year of making new and interesting friends everyday, seeing and experiencing new things and countries, and just having nothing to look forward to except for the next adventure to this, well, this is no fun:

From back home

So, what did a couple of my friends do? They invited me out for dinner one evening, and they knew I had been travelling through Central America and South America for the past six months. One of the last things I wanted to eat was rice and beans. Well, guess where they took me? A Central American restaurant, complete with rice and beans, and get this, a live mariachi band! I couldn't help but laugh at the situation. I mean, after eating rice and beans for about six months, I came back to LA for more rice and beans.

I was also used to speaking Spanish everyday since December when I first arrived into Argentina, so during my first dinner back with my family, I accidentally started a few conversations in Spanish! Grandpa would ask me in Chinese, "How was your trip?" I responded, "Bueno, para... I mean..." and then revert to my broken Chinese. My mom asked me something and I answered, "Si, pero... I mean...." Who knows how much longer this is going to last. But, my English is getting gooder these days.

I also interviewed with a few companies already. I knew I lost weight on this trip, so I decided to put on the first suit I ever bought for myself coming right out of college. Not only did it fit, the pants were a bit loose! 11 years after graduating from college, and my suitpants didn't fit because they were too BIG, not too small... who would have thought? It also took me a good fifteen minutes to get my tie on right. It was just really weird to have gone from my daily outfit of shorts and flip flops to a suit and tie with an ironed (gasp!) shirt and polished black dress shoes.

Here's an interesting Welcome Back to LA story. I went to a bar Friday night with my buddy and roommate Calvin, and I bought the first round since it was the least I could do after he pretty much handled all the odds and ends for me while I was away. I took out a $20 bill, prepared to pay (and expecting change actually,) when the nice pretty bartender told me it was... $26! She looked at me kinda surprised, like, "Where have you been, hello this is LA!" I looked at her kinda surprised, like, "Where the hell am I, freakin Norway??!!" After travelling through South and Central America, land of $1 beers and $1.5 cocktails (if that) it was a rude awakening. Needless to say, I didn't buy Calvin any more drinks that night.

We had a nice big family BBQ as well. It was nice to catch up and see everybody whom I hadn't seen for over a year. For those of you who don't know my family, well, we are a bit crazy. One of my older cousins drank so much she puked. Oh yeah, she's a mother of two. And yeah, they were there too. We just all kept eating and playing poker as if nothing happened, because that kind of stuff is just par for the course in the Lew family.

From back home

I have been suffering from some major travel bug withdrawals, so I booked a flight out to see my older sister and my awesome nephews in the Bay Area. It's not Colombia or Guatemala, or any new and exciting country, but at the very least, I am getting back on the plane again. I'm already feeling better just typing that last sentence!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Concluding in Colombia: Coke in Ciudad Perdida, Chillin at the Cartagena Hilton

Well, it has been one helluva ride, eh?

I cannot tell you how many times I have been sitting on an bus, or lying in a hammock, or eating at some restaurant and thinking about all the great experiences I have gone through and simply just smiled from ear to ear. It is a feeling I wish everybody can experience and convinced that if you reflect on things like this at least once a day in your life, serenity is yours and nobody can ever take that from you.

I ended up meeting back up with Carol, who I met back in Bocas Del Toro, Panama and we decided to travel to Colombia together for a couple of weeks. Our first stop was Barranquilla, where there honestly was not a single thing to do or see really. Now I know why Shakira's hips don't lie-- I'd be a pretty good belly dancer too if I lived in Boringquilla! After a couple of nights there, we headed out to Santa Marta. Our second night, we met up with another friend of mine I had travelled with back in Brasil, Itamar (Israel). It was good to catch up with him on his travels over a few beers while watching the Lakers beat the Nuggets.

We decided to head out to Ciudad Perdida, a pretty grueling six-day 52 km (32 mi) hike through varying altitude changes and INTENSE heat and humidity. The mosquitoes pretty much had an all-you-can-eat buffet for the 7 of us throughout the trek. There were two German girls, Sandra and Carmen, who ended up in pretty bad shape-- getting the stomach flu and attacked by ten million mosquitoes. (pics up shortly) There was also Thomas from Switzerland, who ironically enough, carried a fake Swiss Army knife and his girlfriend, Valerie from Seattle.

Ciudad Perdida is sort of like a poor man's Macchu Picchu, much smaller, less "discovered" ruins and consequently, way less tourists. Every once in awhile during the day we would cross paths with no more than two groups of less than 10, so it was nice not having to battle through crowds. I had no expectations really about what I was going to see once I got there, but the truth was, the actual trek itself was pretty amazing. Crossing rapid rivers, climbing slippery moss-covered rock faces, stomping up over 1300 steps to get up to the City, and going to sleep amidst the light of fireflies (!) was uniquely different from my experience in Peru. I even had the opportunity to drink pure rain water, as well as natural spring water cascading down waterfalls, two things I had not done up until now!

One of the funnier things that occurred during this trip was on our fourth day, when I was walking down a relatively narrow trail with Carmen and Sandra. We encountered a family of about eight or nine grazing cows, two of which were young baby calves. Carmen just walked right past them, even though one of the bigger cows (probably the father of one of the babies) tried to headbut Carmen's hiney, just narrowly missing her. Sandra and I were a bit spooked by this, so we decided to backtrack a bit and wait for the herd to go by. However, Sandra, with her two left feet, accidentally kicked loose a huge rock that rolled down the trail and made enough noise to gain the unwanted attention of the entire family of cows. Let me tell ya, being on that narrow trail with a bunch of cows all staring at you is not something I would wish upon anybody. I missed the Running of the Bulls, but I think I got a good enough experience here to make up for it. I, nor Sandra, did not move or say a word for what felt like an eternity, but luckily, no stampede occurred. The cows cautiously/nervously walked past us, and Carmen snapped a picture of me and Sandra up against the trail. Will update this blog as soon as she sends it over but it's a classic!

I also learned, during this hike, about the cocaine manufacturing process. For example, that it takes about 1,000 kgs of coca leaves to make just 1 kg of pure cocaine. I also did not know that as part of the process, gasoline, acetone, and sulfuric acid are key components. I never tried cocaine before in my life, and never will. Knowing how to make it with such poisonous ingredients only reconfirms this belief.

After six days of trekking through the hot jungle with dirty, wet (never dried due to the humidity) and smelly clothes, sleeping in stinky hammocks, and taking cold baths in the river, it was a welcome relief to check into the Hilton Cartagena. Normally, the rates are about $300/night, but since I had some points I had saved up, it was completely free! Upon check-in, I took an hour-long hot bubble bath, then a long hot shower, and proceeded to pass out in my queen-sized bed under a nice white soft duvet for a good 12 hours. Ahhhhh, the lap of luxury! After over a year of travelling in hostels, staying at the Cartagena Hilton was definitely a nice way to wrap up my trip.

I will be coming back to Los Angeles on June 17th, and have a couple of job interviews lined up already (yikes!) since I am completely. dead. broke. For those of you who have been reading my blog, I will continue to write (though probably less frequently.) I thought about this at great length, whether to wrap this up or continue writing. What I have found is that my trip around the world will continue in spirit. Whether it be visiting travel buddies in the future, or staying in touch via email/Skype/Facebook, my trip will not end. My daily ear-to-ear smiles guarantee that it won't.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Two (or three) week countdown back home....

"Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."
Sir Winston Churchill

I just finished reading Endurance, F.A. Worsley's account of Sir Edward Shackleton's courageous expedition to Antarctica. It was not a mere coincidence to read this book towards the end of my own journey, as I picked it up recently in one of the hostels I was staying in. Though we both took very different tracks and had unique outcomes, Shackleton and I have at least one thing in common-- the curiosity to keep exploring the world no matter the cost. Though this trip is coming to an end, I will continue to quench my thirst for travel and adventure whenever I have the opportunity to do so. I did not get additional pages in my passport for nothing!

There are so many little places, nooks and crannies of the world I am glad I saw. I never thought I would get the chance to explore places I never even heard about prior to the trip, much less even thought about visiting. From the idyllic countryside of Mariestad, Sweden and Krelingen, Germany, to the sleepy beach towns of Cabo Polonio, Uruguay and Canoa, Ecuador, to the surprisingly amusing Rovaniemi, Finland (Santa's residence) to drunk bumper-car driving in Munich, Germany to the awe-inspiring sounds of glaciers calving in Patagonia, to the soul stirring experiences of teaching kids how to add and subtract in the remote villages of Ghana, to cliff jumping in Krakow, Poland, and lava walking in Antigua, Guatemala, *sigh* this truly has been the experience of a lifetime.

I also thought at the beginning of this trip that some profound "A-ha!" moment would arrive, in which I would see the error of my previously foolish ways and discover what I truly wanted to do in life and "voila" suddenly change into a different person. Instead, what I have figured out over the past year travelling and meeting so many different and interesting people is that I have not changed at all. Rather, this trip reinforced what I knew I enjoyed most about my previous career in sales-- relating to people, engaging with them and forming relationships. Admittedly, I probably have changed, ahem, evolved in other ways though-- I have gone from a 32-year old beer-guzzling dude, to a 33-year old beer-guzzing dude who has travelled around the world. Big difference!

Though I will be trying to return (currently interviewing, so any job leads you may have out there, let me know!!) to my old career in software sales, I will be rounding it out with an added focus on things outside of work. Besides travel of course, I would like to write more (a book maybe in the future??), read more, surf more, help my village in Ghana drink more clean water, and also start planning the first few steps towards opening up my hostel in Mammoth. I know, big things, but I am lucky and fortunate enough to not only be able to dream, but actually have the opportunity to accomplish them as well.

Speaking of dreams, I am headed off to Columbia for a couple weeks to propose to my long lost love, Shakira. If all goes according to plan, WE will be arriving into LA sometime June 17th. Details on the wedding party to be announced shortly!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Water caving and lava walking in Guatemala

Ash and I arrived into Guatemala City, and it was our first time flying into an airport since the whole swine flu "pandemic" hit. We exited our plane only to be greeted by a few stone-faced health inspectors, and Ash, in his perfect wisdom and timing, decided to sneeze a couple of times right in front of them! I was half expecting him to be tasered, wrapped up in a bodybag and dragged off into a quarantine, but unfortunately, that did not occur. We were also given a standard health form to sign off on upon entry. I thought to myself that I could (in my hungover state) actually say yes to probably about 7 out of the 8 questions available... Fever? Nope. Cough? Yeah, from all that smoking.... Headache? Definitely yes. Limb and joint pain? Pshhhhyeah, my knees belong to an 80-year old.. Eye redness, umm.... lemme check, yeah... Nasal flux? My allergies always act up on an airplane! Difficulty breathing? Well... I suppose it depends but sometimes. I guess I had swine flu after all!!

From Guatemala

We headed straight from Guatemala City and took the 8-hour night bus to Flores, to see the ancient Mayan ruins. One of the highlights that day was climbing up this rickety old staircase up one of the temples. I am usually not afraid of heights, but I am, however, very afraid of faulty Guatemalan engineering. I climbed up anyway, and when I got to the top I was nearly frozen in fear. There was maybe about two feet of clearance before you would tumble over and become, in the wise words of the Mayan gods, "ruined." (Bud-dump dump ching! Two shows nightly everybody!!) Anyway, no handrails were present either, and again reminded me how sheltered and protected we are in the US. When I asked one of the tour guides why we could not visit another temple down the way, he said that it was closed because two German (?) tourists fell down the previous year, killing one and critically injuring the other.

After just a couple of days in Flores, Ash and I headed over to Lanquin to visit the water caves and natural pools of Semuc Champey. On our 7-hour bus ride from Flores to Lanquin, we stopped for a quick lunch break at McDonalds. I ordered the usual Quarter Pound with Cheese combo and Ash ordered a Big Mac Meal. The cashier asked him, "Coca Cola?" and maybe it was because of the long bus ride, (not) or more likely, that his brain was on pause, but Ash looked at me completely confused, waiting for me to translate what this lady just said. An impatient teenage next to him told him in perfect English, "She is asking you if you want a Coca Cola!" Apparently still stunned, I told him, "Coca Cola in Spanish means Coca Cola in English!!!"

Oh yeah, I have to add yet another Ash Deer-in-Headlights-Lost-In-Translation-at-a- Fast-Food-cashier moment: Typically everywhere you go in this world, whenever you order food, cashiers will always ask you, "For here, or to-go?" Translated into Spanish, "Para aca, o llevar?" Keep in mind that Ash has been travelling through Central America for over 6 weeks by now, so you would think that when the cashier asked him this rather simple question, he would have been able to understand. But not this genius. Ash replied, "Australia!" thinking that the guy asked him if he was from America. How Ash misunderstood "para aca" from "America" remains a mystery to me. But then again, I suppose if you can't understand Coca Cola in Spanish...

Semuc Champey was awesome, as it was my first time ever swimming in and wading through water caves, with nothing but candles to light our way through. We later went tubing down the river and even had some time to jump off a bridge, one of my favorite childhood pastimes. Later that night, we had a 14-person poker tournament amongst some friends from the hostel for about a $1.25 buy-in. I ended up in third place even though I was the chip leader going in..... ahhhhhhh well, it was well worth the enjoyment of playing with new friends from all over the world.

Our last stop in Guatemala was Antigua, an old cobblestoned city that is best known for its tours up the live Pacaya Volcano. For about $13 you can hike up this thing with a guide and literally get to within feet of, as Dr. Evil would say, "Liquid hot mag-ma...."

It is so hot in some places that one of the girls' shoes had both of her soles burned off! I always had this idea in my head that you needed space-suit type clothing and outerwear to get so close to lava, yet there I was amidst 50 other tourists dressed in nothing but my Nike Air Force Ones, shorts and a tshirt! I have to say that poking a stick in lava and seeing it go up in flames was one of the most amazing things I have done on this trip.

Complete pics to come up shortly (another virus!) here is what I have salvaged so far...

Monday, May 11, 2009

Cruisin through Costa Rica like a crackhead

After travelling through Panama, it was time to check out the western coast of Costa Rica. Given some time constraints, we had to blow through Costa Rica on a schedule I normally wouldn't even entertain. However, I had a friend from LA I wanted to catch up with in Montezuma, so Ash and I pretty much blazed through San Jose, Manuel Antonio, Puntarenas, Montezuma, and Monteverde in about 7 days.

Manuel Antonio was not as special as I had expected-- just another nice expensive beach town filled with mostly American gringos. There is a national park there but we decided just to get down to what we do best, boozing it up with random people we happen to bump into wherever we go. It's been cool to have a travel buddy like Ashley, since he is doing an around the world trip as well. Between the two of us, telling random people we meet of our adventures and stories tends to get people thinking of, or at least considering doing the same. We've told some of these stories a few times already, (they never get old, do they?) so key details and punchlines are always delivered on cue. Between the two of us, we could probably make some money on the lecture circuit!

We only spent one night in sketchy Puntarenas, and headed out to Montezuma the following day to meet up with Cathy and Char, friends from LA who were in Costa Rica for a short while. It was nice to hang out in Montezuma for a few days, given the hectic schedule I was on. Funny story about Char... we went to the beach one day, and the waves were pretty rough. It did not really deter me, nor Cathy from heading into the water though, but Char was a bit ambivalent about the whole idea. Char had actually studied at the University of Hawaii, so her reluctance to getting into the ocean was a bit of a surprise to me. Upon further goading and peer pressure, and against her will, she slowly inched her way into the water. By the time she got knee-deep into the water, Cathy said, "It's not so bad, right?!" I followed up and chided her as well, "And you said you studied at U of H!!!???" Not one second later, and I am not exaggerating here, a wave (whitewash, really) not higher than her thighs washed past her and the next thing you know, two legs shot up into the air, synchronized swimming style, scoring (in my opinion) a perfect 10! Char got up and said, "I'm outta here guys." We left shortly after for happy hour, a much safer option...

After Cathy and Char left back to San Jose for their flight back home, Ash and I headed over to Monteverde after a couple of days, and the main reason was to hit up the canopy tour, where you can zipline through over 1.5 kilometers of rain forest. It was totally worth the 7 hour bus ride from Montezuma. We chose Extremo canopy tours and highly recommend it as it had one of the longest ziplines at over 700 meters. For those of you who are not familiar with the metric system, that is about the length of 7 football fields. And this is not just a regular zipline-- you are probably going about 15-30 mph, high up through this huge freakin canyon, with wind blowing you around like crazy with nothing but a strap connected to this cable. Needless to say, it was quite an adrenalin rush and the most fun I have had in awhile.

From Manuel Antonio, Montezuma and Monteverde, Costa Rica

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Scootin and raftin around Boquete, Panama

After escaping starvation in Santa Catalina, Ash and I decided to head up to Boquete, Panama, to check out the hot springs and do a little whitewater rafting.

Boquete's a really small quiet town, (population 5,000) but surprisingly filled with American retirees. I was really excited to go whitewater rafting after trying it for the first time in Mendoza, Argentina. Unfortunately, the river level was fairly low, and we got stuck a few times on some rocks so the thrill factor (despite a couple of Class IV rapids) was a bit disappointing. Sadly, in about a few years, the river will be gone due to the fact there will be a dam built to generate electricity only for export purposes. It has caused quite a bit of controversy, but apparently the investors behind it include Carlos Slim, one of, if not the richest man in the world. According to the local guide who took us whitewater rafting, the environmental impact to the area will be incalculable. However, most of the locals affected were paid off a meager amount for their votes and the project was approved with very little local interference.

Ash and I met two couples the following day at Hostel Boquete (highly recommend) Tony/Tanya and Scott/Amanda and decided to rent some scooters to run around town. It was the first time I had ever been on a scooter, and it was a pretty thrilling ride, going up to 100km/hour (around 60 mph) on the highway heading to the hot springs.

Given my political science background and general interest in all things politics, it was interesting to be in Panama during its general elections. One rather odd law actually makes it illegal to sell alcohol from Saturday 12pm through the entire weekend until Monday 12pm. Apparently, this is to prevent people from getting drunk and forming angry mobs and civil disobedience, but little did they know about a rather sneaky guy named Daniel, who figured out how to buy alcohol BEFORE the ban. Unfortunately though, I was not able to lead any alcohol-fueled riots around Boquete!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Panama City and Santa Catalina, Panama

Ash and I decided to head off to Panama City, to check out what everybody does when they go to Panama-- check out the Panama Canal. My initial first (and lasting) impressions of Panama City were 1) new buildings and construction EVERYFREAKINWHERE. Global financial crisis? Not here. 2) the noisy ass Diablos Rojos. Think of your old elementary school bus, add some random grafitti, an exhaust system you can hear a mile away, and a mad scientist at the helm and you pretty much have your basic bus transportation in Panama City.

From Panama City and Santa Catalina, Panama

3) There are ten million banks. Panama City is going places, ladies and gentlemen. I don't know if it has anything to do with the expansion of the Panama Canal, but there is a serious amount of foreign investment going on.

Anyway, Ash and I met up with Jenn (UK), and a couple, Reggie (Nebraska) and Clay (New Zealand) at the hostel to check out the Panama Canal for the day. It really was not as exciting as I thought it would be, but, there are just some things you have to see. Interesting thing about Clay-- he has been travelling and working for 14 freakin years! He works six months a year, then travels the other half. Truly an inspiration. After the canal, we all had dinner at a Chinese restaurant, and I actually had the chance to speak to the waitress in Cantonese and translate the Spanish menu in English to my fellow gringos. As as sidenote, I think Panama has the highest percentage of Chinese in South/Central America.

There was not much else to do in Panama City after a couple of days, and I felt like surfing again, so upon the recommendation of a few friends at the hostel, Ash and I decided to head out to Santa Catalina. Actually, how it all played out was that we woke up at 11am that day without a single clue where to go. Ash ended up talking to two Norwegian girls in their underwear for an hour or so, and was persuaded to check out Santa Catalina. The underwear, I am sure, had nothing to do with their credibility. Fair enough, we headed out anyway to find a totally secluded and sleepy beach town, with probably no more than 350 people living there. It was one of those places where the hotel manager also happens to be the waitress of the restaurant downstairs and oh yeah guess what she is the chef as well! Ok, slight exaggeration, but you get the drift. Hanging out in Santa Catalina for a few days was just what the doctor ordered, as Ash and I tried to make good on a week of sobriety, as well as a few good days of surfing.

One day, we went to "town" to eat, which really just meant where the bus stopped. The two public telephones also probably made it THE place to hang. Anyway, the first restaurant was closed, so we strolled down a few paces to another restaurant. I asked if the place was open, and the lady said yes. I asked if they were serving any food, and the lady looked at her husband (?) and the husband looked back at her, gave each other a weird hesitant look, and the lady told me, "Sorry, we do not have any food but there is another place down the street you can check out." I am absolutely convinced they just did not feel like getting up to work and cook. Such is life here in Santa Catalina...

Given the spontaneity in our decision to head to Santa Catalina, we overlooked the fact that there were no ATMs there. Because of that, Ash and I really had to conserve our cash. Our last night there, we had exactly $11 between us. At the restaurant, we saw that the cheapest meal was $6 for a plate of pasta. That meant we would only be able to have one plate and an appetizer or two between the two of us. I told Ash to check the hotel room for any leftover change he may have and he said, "I only have about 25 cents I think..." I told him to go and check anyway because, well, desperate times call for desperate measures. He came back a few minutes later with a huge grin, and proudly proclaimed he had $1.40 in change. SCORE!! That meant we could both order a plate of pasta, the highlight of my day. As I counted up the change to double check, I dropped a few coins on the floor. I freaked out for awhile as I practically went down on all fours searching for our precious pennies. It was good to remind ourselves the value of a few cents, as it literally meant the difference between one plate of pasta or two!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Craziness in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica and Bocas Del Toro, Panama

From Panama City and Santa Catalina, Panama

If there is one thing I am certain of on May 5th, 2009, it is that I WILL miss my scheduled flight back home. My round the world ticket expires that day since I have one year to use up all the flight segments, but I am pretty sure I can scramble up enough cash to get a one way ticket back home if and when I am ready. I know you guys are all disappointed to hear I will not be back home for Cinco De Mayo, but the fact is, I am simply not ready to go home. I still have enough cash to float me for another month or so and if I pick up a bartending gig somewhere I can continue living my dream! (And, believe it or not, I still think I have a shot at winning Shakira's heart!)

I arrived into San Jose, Costa Rica in the evening of April 6th, and got a nice verbal reprimand from the immigration official about the lack of space to stamp on my passport. I went to the US Embassy the following day to add more visa pages-- and I could not help but smile on my way out that I filled up all my pages already.

I only spent one full day in San Jose, as there was not much to see. I decided to check out Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast for Semana Santa (Easter Weekend) on the recommendation of a few friends. On my way out of the hostel in San Jose, two girls from Sweden, Nina and Johanna, asked me where I was going and I told them Puerto Viejo. They said they were going that way too and asked me if I wanted to join them. Umm... sure!

We ended up staying at a place called Rockin J's, right on the beach outfitted with nothing but hammocks and tents. There were no tents available that day so Johanna, Nina and I took the few remaining hammocks left. I had never slept in a hammock overnight before, but I figured I'd give it a go. Besides, with enough beer and booze, I can sleep through anything! I had the worst hammock in the house, though, as it was literally in front of the main entrance to the 50+ other hammocks in the room. I knew right then and there I would need to get piss drunk to get through the night. And piss drunk did I get! Unfortunately, one of the casualties of that night was that my brand new camera that I bought after getting mugged in Ecuador (not one week earlier) got stolen! I was chattin it up with my friends and had my camera on the table right next to me. Not one minute later I noticed it was gone. Just. Like. That. I am convinced a rather stealthy flying mini midget was the culprit because there is no other possible explanation for its disappearance.

Throughout this trip, one of my goals was to learn how to surf once I got to Central America. After all, I got tired of telling people I was 33 years old, from Santa Monica, California who not only did not lunch with Angelina Jolie on a weekly basis, but also that I did not know how to surf. On my second day in Puerto Viejo, I rented a surfboard and happy to report I was able to get up on the board (albeit only for a heavenly 3.8 seconds) that same day! It was tiring as heck though, just trying to paddle out through all the whitewash and drinking/snorting all that saltwater.... but totally worth it. Plus, I think my sinuses have never felt better.

One of the things about Central and South America is that 99.99 percent of the toilets are not equipped to swallow up toilet paper. Water typically flushes at the rate of about 1 ounce per hour, if you are lucky. Keep this in mind as I am about to tell you something that will probably gross you out, but worth telling. So for those of you afraid or squeamish about poop stories, skip this paragraph...

It was early in the morning, and I had to hit the can but there was a lineup outside one of the bathrooms. I went to another bathroom and saw that one was completely backed up. I checked another one and there it was, the mother of all turds just sitting in the toilet there, trying so desperately to go to its proper home down under. However, the size of this thing simply prevented it from going down. It was without a doubt the biggest turd I have ever seen in my entire life and I wondered outloud what kind of person (or beastly animal?) could possibly squeeze that freakin machaca burrito out. Needless to say, I really had no time to delay anymore.... so, yes, I went ahead and did my business in the burrito toilet. The whole time I kept hoping that there would not be any backsplash or collateral damage, and luckily I escaped unscathed, though mentally traumatized. As I was getting ready to leave the stall, I thought to myself, with my luck, some hottie chick will be waiting right outside and will need to use my stall. Sure enough, fate did not disappoint. I warned her not to go in, and thankfully, she heeded my advice. Ok enough poop stories for now.

I met some very cool and interesting people in Puerto Viejo, including a Ashley, an Aussie who quit his job as a banker in Hong Kong. Like me, he is doing an around-the-world trip on pretty much the same itinerary as me, except in reverse. As I mentioned before, I had the worse hammock in the house, and when I checked in that day, I said to him, "Looks like you got the second worst hammock here..." He agreed, and I said, "We're going to have to get wasted tonight." And the rest, as they say, was history. Actually one night, we got completely smashed but it was raining like mad so most of us decided to hang out and crash out for the night. I got into my hammock, and was pretty much ready to pass out when I heard Ash yell out loud, "I can't sleep, the guy next to me keeps crashing into my hammock!" I took one look over at him and shouted back to him, "Dude, YOU are the one crashing into the guy!" I was just about ready to pass out again when I heard him mumble outloud, "I am heading into town, and I am going to get arrested!" Unfortunately, he did not succeed in the latter, nor did he succeed in doing anything really the following day. He ended up lying in his hammock all day. This is what he missed out on...
From Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica and Bocas Del Toro, Panama

We also met up with a serious party wrecking crew aka Team Canada-- three awesome chicks from Ontario. Ashley had actually met them in Miami, and they somehow found their way to Rockin Js in Costa Rica as well. These three crazy girls reminded me of my old buddies back home, but the female version. Some really classic lines came from them, which I will detail later in my upcoming post, "Memorable Quotes from this Trip."

After a booze-fueled weekend, Nina, Johanna, Wannes and I decided to hop over to Bocas Del Toro. Eric, the chef from the Rockin Js hostel decided to join us as well. Not a bad travel buddy to have around!

Bocas del Toro, Panama was a short 3 hour bus ride from Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. We crossed the border at Sixaola, one of the most memorable and interesting border crossings I have ever come across. Basically, we got dropped off on the Costa Rican side of the border, and then we had to walk across this rickety old wooden bridge. If you weren't careful, you could easily step into a gaping hole and probably even fall through!

We spent about a week in Bocas, pretty much just partyin', surfin' and hangin' out..... although that should not be a surprise to anyone reading this. When my head clears up a little more, I will detail a few more stories... but for the time being, here are some pics that I uploaded from my friends' cameras.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Back to the good ole U S of A....(for just a few hours)

I arrived into Miami for a six-layover enroute to Costa Rica from Ecuador, and it was really exciting to step foot on American soil again. I felt strange trying to answer the question on the US Customs Declaration, "Countries Visited Prior to US Arrival" so I put down, "Ecuador and 25+ other countries." The US Immigration Official asked me what the hell was I doing in Ecuador, and I told him, "I stayed on the beach for six bucks a day!" He immediately shouted over to his colleague, "Hey Ed, we gotta go to Ecuador, man!" I sure hope so... Part of the reason why I share so many stories with you all through this blog is not just to tell you guys what I am doing, but also to encourage you to really seek out your own travel adventures instead of wasting your money on other things.

Being stuck at Miami International Airport {2008 TSA Airport of the Year, whatever that means!} for such a long time meant I had some time to kill. It was nice to see a Starbucks between every other check-in counter again, {not} as well as all the familiar shops and sights one would not have seen in over 11 months of being away. It was a tough choice trying to figure out what I wanted to eat, Taco Bell or Chili's? Unfortunately, there were no Mexican Pizzas at Taco Bell, and besides, I really wanted my baby back, baby back, baby back {Chillliiiiiiiiiiiis} baby back ribs!

I mosied on over to the bookstore, and when I went to the cashier {and despite not having said a single word to him prior to} the guy told me, "Dieciseis y cinco centavos por favor...." {$16.05, please} After having travelled through South America for the past four months, I thought to myself, have I gone native as well? I AM still Chinese, right?????!!!

I also had some time to think about what I do miss about the US....

1} Being able to flush toilet paper down the toilet. For those of you who have never experienced trying to stuff your crappy toilet paper down a crappy toilet paper filled bucket next to the toilet with your right hand while squatting and trying to keep your shorts from falling onto the piss-covered floor with your left hand, the simple joy of being able to simply crap, wipe and drop without worrying about blocking up the plumbing and causing a fecal flood was an absolute joy. So much so, in fact, that I decided to take a dump three times just for the sake of it. I told you, I had six hours to kill! Ok fine, the food from the night before didn't hurt, either.

2} Having the server at Chilis {I want my baby back baby back..... alright, enough already} ask me if everything was alright after my first bite. Ah, yes, I almost forgot, people actually WORK for tips in the US, as opposed to the rest of the world, where they either do not work for tips, or simply just add 10% to the bill and do absolutely nothing to earn it.

3} Free and safe tap water at restaurants. Asking for tap water in South America is like asking for diarhea. No, wait, it IS asking for diarhea.

I also had some time to think about what I do not miss about the US...

1} How everybody waiting for their flights at the airport is working. Working on their laptops, typing an email, writing a presentation or yapping on their cell phones about this that and the other. In most South American bus stations, mostly, you just see women breastfeeding their babies and guys taking a nap. Yeah, that's pretty much it.

2} Spoiled rotten kids who absolutely own their parents. I was watching a little boy, not more than 5 years old, boss his mom around like no other, for something to eat and drink. The mom obliged, of course. Just the other day when I was in Ecuador at a restaurant I was eating in, the mother {chef} smacked her son {not more than 7 years old} upside the head for slackin off and not taking the bowl of soup to one of the customers. I wonder, who will work harder later in life? And yet some of us have the nerve to complain {quite publicly} that American jobs are being taken away by immigrants. Sorry, Mom, your little sweet unemployed Johnny just got outhustled by Paco.

3} The crappy American Airlines airport lounge. Ok, I know this is all going to sound really lame but really, just ONE drink ticket???? And nothing to eat but some fruits and nuts???? I GOT SIX HOURS HERE!!!!!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Getting mugged in Ecuador and other highlights

Well, I finally got to cross off another thing off my List of Things To Do On This Trip -- I finally got mugged! It was bound to happen, and frankly, I think my dumb luck was running out anyway. I am not really that bummed about it, actually, because I really expected it to occur sooner than later. Actually, I am more surprised it didn't happen in Brasil...

It was Saturday night, and a few of us from the hostel went out to celebrate my friend Maria's (Venezuela) 21st birthday. After getting tanked, I decided to walk back to my hostel alone (bad move) and not two blocks away from my hostel, amidst a crowd of people in the streets, a couple of dudes knocked me down (or did I fall down on my own volition?) and a woman (for crissakes!) snatched my camera from my pocket. The other two dudes took off in different directions, and I chased after the woman. The little shorty had some wheels, even with my alcohol-fueled afterburners, I could barely keep pace with her. I finally almost caught up to her when I suddenly tripped and fell pretty damn hard. I yelled for the people around me to help, "Socorro, ayudame, ella me robó mi cámara!!!" and to stop her but everybody just kind of did nothing, sadly. If this happened in the US, I am sure somebody would have knocked her down, but this was Quito, where a homeless man apparently gets more attention than a tourist being robbed. I eventually gave up, as I saw her pitch the camera down the street to three other guys who all ran in separate directions. This was something they had rehearsed and done before, clearly. Anyway, a police patrol showed up ten minutes (where are they when you need them?) later while I was still trying to catch my breath. We patrolled the streets for a bit, but to no avail. They took me back to the hostel and the first thing Santiago (one of the hostel employees) did after taking one look at me was pour me a large glass of whiskey, which I downed right away, and promptly passed out....

Quito, and especially the touristy area where I was staying in (La Mariscal) is notorious for robberies like the one I experienced. In fact, the very next day, I witnessed another gringo get his wallet stolen on a crowded bus. Five teenagers hopped on the bus and proceeded to squirm and squeeze past everybody rather awkwardly. I was immediately suspicious and kept my hands in my pockets the entire time. On the very next stop, they hopped off and the poor gringo yelled out to his girlfriend that his wallet was stolen. I saw that his right front pocket was slashed open. The kids took off in different directions and sadly, there was nothing he could do, either. Later that night, I went to a bar one block away with two of my buddies from the hostel, and surprise surprise, they got mugged by knifepoint. I left back to the hostel not five minutes earlier...

Enough bad news... Anyway, as many of you know, I have become a fan of football (ahem, soccer, for you Americans) and luckily, Brasil was in town to play Ecuador for one of the qualifying matches for the 2010 World Cup. Tickets were sold out, but I paid 30 bucks (face value $15) for a ticket to see them play. Given I had spent over six fun-filled weeks in Brasil, and that I had only spent one night in Ecuador and got mugged, it was a no-brainer as to who I was rooting for. I did not make that obvious to the 40,000 fans around me, of course, lest I be mugged and beaten to a ceviche pulp. Brasil ended up playing horribly, and luckily came out with a 1-1 tie. One of the funny things about being at the game was that after every time the announcer stated the Brasilian players' names and numbers, it was followed by 40,000 people chanting in unison, "Hijo de puta!" (Son of a bitch/whore) What made it uniquely interesting is that a) this would never happen in the US, unfortunately and b) the announcer, in a tacit agreement with the crowd, would wait for the crowd to finish the chant before announcing the next players name and number.

I went to check out "La Mitad Del Mundo," a city aptly named Middle of the World due to its latitude of 0 degrees. I spent two hours by bus getting there, and paid two bucks to check out the relatively boring monument, and as with all touristy sites, was a bit disappointed. However, I had lunch at a restaurant nearby and after I finished, the owner asked me where I was headed. I told him back to Quito, and he offered me a ride back! We chatted a bit about this that and the other, and his 11-year old daughter, Ana Camacho, proudly proclaimed that she would one day beat Venus Williams. I'm rootin' for ya, kiddo... I always like hearing about kids' dreams because it is always refreshing to hear their completely honest belief in what it is they want to do later in life. Chasing dreams-- shouldn't we all do that?

Given that Quito's weather was rainy and cold, and going out at night just didn't seem to be a good idea, I decided to head north to the beach again, to Mompiche and Canoa. I took the bus, thinking I was headed towards Mompiche, but, strangely enough, ended up in Canoa! Canoa is a sleepy little beach town, and extremely cheap. It only cost me $6 for my own room and bathroom right by the ocean, and about $2 for lunch. Strangely enough, a double espresso costs the same as a single at my hotel. Go figure!

I spent four days in Canoa, doing nothing but sleep, eat, read, (No Country For Old Men, en Españ's taking me forever!!!) and go bodyboarding all day until the sunset. Life is tough!

On my bus ride back to Quito, and during one of the frequent rest stops, I left my book on my seat, only to find it gone when I came back from the john. Just as I was really getting into the book, it gets nicked. I decided I had enough of Ecuador for the time being, and reserved my next flight out to Costa Rica!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Feliz Aniversario de Rio De Janeiro

I decided to skip out on checking out the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador to stay in Rio for my birthday instead. My friend Tyler asked, "Beer and bikinis trump evolution?" and my answer is that the existence of beautiful bikini-clad Brasilian babes is only further evidence that evolution is not just a theory, but a simple fact.

Ben, Itamar and I travelled back to Rio after a week of relaxing on the beaches of Pipa for a week to meet up with Deborah, Ben´s girlfriend. We celebrated our first night in Rio by celebrating Purim, an Israeli holiday that Jewish rabbis declare is a day to drink until you pass out. If I were Jewish, then my past ten months have been one long continuous Purim! We had to dress up in costumes, and unfortunately, we didn´t really have time to buy anything for the evening so we ended up picking through Deborah´s 11-year-old brother´s old costumes. Naturally, none of the stuff fit, but that really didn´t deter me. I don´t really know what I was, nor did I really care!

From Rio

Over the past few weeks I had known Ben, he, with his 22-year old naivete, kept talking all this trash about me being an old man, especially with my 33rd birthday coming up. He said he could run faster than me, so we raced each other and though I´m no Carl Lewis, I beat him handily. He also said he could beat me in basketball, to which I took major offense, given that he´s Israeli, and I´m an American. Fortunately, I avoided any Team USA Olympic-sized embarrassment, and beat him as well. To his credit, he´s not bad at all, and the games were a lot closer than I anticipated. Anyway, some random birthday thoughts:

- One morning, I looked in the mirror and saw an eyebrow sorta askew, just pointing out in a direction it shouldn´t have. Upon closer inspection, I realized that it was a lot longer than I thought, like, almost an inch long! My Humphrey Bogart moment had finally arrived, and with it, a sudden realization that my ear hairs would be next.

- The thought of settling down, getting married, having 2.3 children and living in a tree-lined cul-de-sac in a quiet suburban city is sounding like a great idea these days..... Hah! Yeah right, who am I trying to kid???!!!!

- I truly wonder what I will be doing 10 years from now. Taking a page out of "A Christmas Carol", if 33-year old Daniel had visited 23-year old Daniel and told him everything about this trip, 23-year old Daniel would have probably thought 33-year old Daniel was nuts and never would have believed it. What would 43-year old Daniel say to me now? That I had moved to Africa and started an NGO? I moved to Denmark to open a restaurant? Maybe, that I moved to Mammoth and opened a bed and breakfast? More than likely, I will have moved to Brasil and had 10 kids with a supermodel! Either way, I´d say he was nuts and would never believe him.

-I have also realized that I am truly happy with everything in life. Granted, I have my regrets in life, of course. Like, spending 50K on my Mercedes CLK back when I was 24. I will never do that again, knowing full well that I could take a year off to travel around the world with much less than that.

My Benz gave me… whereas a lesser amount for this trip gave me....
1) countless hours sitting in LA traffic..... breathtaking airplane arrivals and departures.
2) tons of parking tickets.... one ticket to travel through 25+ countries across 5 continents.
3) $8,000 check from Carmax after 8 years of ownership....priceless memories I will never forget.
4) a couple of dates with a few girls... many potential future ex-wife candidates.
5) one life-threatening car accident... one life-changing experience.
6) a crappy sunroof that did not work all the time... unforgettable midnight sunsets in Scandinavia.
7) foglights that burned out every few months... foggy nights (and hungover mornings!)

The list goes on, but the conclusion is pretty clear, next time you think about that car, take a year off instead! Wise words from a 33-year old fart.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

"25 Random Things" and "Where I Should Be Living"

Back when I was in college, chatting via IRC was a mind-blowing technology. You mean I can type in real-time with any friend with a computer and a 14.4k modem???!! Netscape Navigator???!! Rocket science, man. And here we are in 2009, and my, my, my, how. things. have. changed. I am beginning to sound like an old man.... ("But you ARE, Daniel!") We are living in a time when I can find out with just a couple of clicks what all 345 of my "friends" on Facebook are up to without even reaching out to them. Is that a good thing? Well, for a traveller like me, I would have to say the pros far outweigh the cons. Meeting up with old classmates I haven't seen in over a decade, keeping in touch with new friends and fellow travellers, etc, has been much easier with social networking sites like Facebook. However, it has made us all a bit lazier with maintaining and cultivating our friendships, with Chinese-water-torture-like viral requests like "25 Random Things" and now, "Where I Should Be Living."

So, in the spirit of things, I thought I'd finally resign myself to writing "25 Random Things," not about me, but about the 25 countries I have been to so far, as well as address the Facebook question du jour, "Where I Should Be Living."

Hong Kong - "Wai" and "Diu!" are probably the first two words that come out of a baby's mouth. (If you don't understand Cantonese, ask somebody you know who does and I guarantee you'll either make a new friend and/or get punched in the face.)

Spain - San Sebastian, home to the only bar I've been to (and that's saying quite a bit, by the way) where I asked for a bottle of water and got a beer in return from a fairly disgusted bartender.

Scotland - The only place where I saw a drunken old lady stumble out of a bar in the middle of the day, most likely kicked out because she, ahem, pissed her pants.

Ireland - There is a Budweiser tap, right next to a Guinness tap INSIDE St. James' Gate Brewery (Guinness HQ). Damn you, Americans.

England - The announcement on the London Underground (Tube) that the Picadilly Line terminates at Cockfosters is always funny. And, despite flying into London 8 times, and hanging with ten million Brits on this trip, I still can't say "bollocks" properly, and probably never will.

Poland - "Lew" means "lion" in Polish... I am Daniel, hear me roaaaaaaaarrrrrrr!

Latvia - One day, when Women Running Down Cobblestoned Streets with 3-inch Heels becomes an Olympic sport, Latvia will surely take gold. Estonia, silver.

Estonia - Home to the best way to say "cheers." They say, "DirVy sex" to which I always mispronounced on purpose, "DirTy sex," much to the chagrin of the locals, but to my neverending amusement.

Finland - Speaking of sports, if Wife Carrying ever becomes an Olympic sport, Finland would clean house. (Estonia, again, would take second.) Is it a coincidence that it was invented in a country with the highest rates of alcohol consumption?

Sweden - If you ever decide to go to Sweden, rent a Volvo, drive yourself to Ikea to eat some Swedish meatballs, and call (or better yet, wake) up your buddies back home in the US with an Ericcson to tell them (in your worst Swedish accent) it really is worth doing, just for laughs.

Norway - A 12-ounce bottle of Coke at a 7-11 costs about $5, chump change!

Denmark - The free-town of Christiania (in Copenhagen) is an added bonus to an already great city.

Holland - The only time I ever had to say to another woman, "If you keep following me, I'm going to kill you!!" (She was trying to scam me and my buddies about $80 for a taxi ride that really should have only costed $5, and literally chased us down for a good two blocks into a parking structure.) Oh yeah, she smelled like onions, too.

Germany - Bumper cars + steins and steins of beers with my best friends + Bavarian women dressed in dirndles = an Oktoberfest I will never forget. Munich 2009, anyone???!!

Greece - The Greeks say that if your earlobes are not attached, you're a true Greek. If they are attached, then that makes you of Turkish descent. So, I guess that makes me Turkish!

France - The French love Barack Obama more than most Americans.

Turkey - Sleeping past sunrise without earplugs is practically impossible anywhere (unless you're Muslim and you happen to be up already for the Islamic call to prayer)

Bulgaria - Nodding up and down means no, shaking your head side to side means yes! (I know, I mentioned that already in a previous post, but I still can't get over it!)

Egypt - Do you like playing Frogger? Play, or rather, cross any busy street in Cairo for the real-life version! Just as fun!!!

Ghana - You thought "Last King of Scotland" was a good movie? Wait till you see "First Chinese-American Chief of Karaga!"

Argentina - Asking for pepper in a restaurant is like asking for ice in Ghana.

Uruguay - If there were direct flights from Los Angeles to Uruguay, I'd buy a 500K beachfront condo there and live like a Miami Vice drug lord-- without the drugs and the flourescent green tshirts, of course.

Chile - Happy hours START at 10pm and END at around midnight!!!

Brasil - Everybody here thinks I look like Jackie Chan. I call bullshit.

As far as "Where I Should Be Living," I think the answer is pretty obvious after visiting 25 countries... It is not so much a matter of where I should be living, but rather, that I AM living.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Random adventures in Natal and Pipa, Brasil

After Carnaval in Salvador, Ben convinced me to head north to Natal and Pipa, about a 20 hour bus ride north of Salvador, to relax and recover on some of the most beautiful beaches of Brasil. His older brother had visited the area a few years before and highly recommended it. We met Itamar, another Israeli at the bus station whom Ben knew from before, and ended up joining us along for the ride. Av-Sharon, Doron and Avi decided to head south, eventually towards Bolivia. I'm sure by now, Doron's probably been arrested, Av-Sharon's got one glass eye, and Avi probably lost his mind, if all goes well.

It's been an interesting and positive experience to have met so many Israelis during my time here in South America. They're all over the place, as South America and India are the top two destinations for the 20-somethings coming out of their 3-year military obligations in Israel. When I asked my friends why that is the case, (as opposed to Europe, or Australia, or even Asia) they all said matter-of-factly, "because it's cheap, and Israelis are cheap!" The guys were extremely keen on hearing what life in America is like, especially college life. When I recounted stories of my experience as a frat boy, Av-Sharon simply stated, "You see, that is why I want to live in America, while you guys drink beer, have parties and hook up with girls, we have to go to the military and risk getting our legs blown off!"

Towards the end of our 20-hour bus ride from Salvador to Natal, our bus stopped in front of an overturned truck with its cargo strewn all over the road. Tons of people were running out from all over the place and I originally thought they were coming out to check out the scene, and maybe help the poor guy lying on the floor. Turns out, they were looting the truck of all its cargo-- not food, not plasma TVs, not anything of value, but rather, plastic rubber booties and random medical supplies that were really of no use to anybody. As we passed the truck, Ben noticed that the fuel tank was leaking gas. I have no idea what happened after we left but I hope the driver is ok. As far as whether or not the truck blew up and hurt anybody looting it, I leave that up to karma and the powers that be.

The next day, we decided to hop on a dune-buggy excursion along the sand dunes of Natal. I think I had about two near-death experiences riding on that death buggy. One of them occurred when the death-buggy took a crazy turn and I was literally hanging on with all the strength I had to keep from falling off. If anything so much as a butterfly landed on me, I would have certainly lost my grip, I kid you not. Here's a clip of a more tranquil part of the ride:

We went to Pipa a couple of days later, a beach paradise most famous for the dolphins that swim, feed, and rest there. I could technically say I swam with dolphins, but they were about 30-50 feet away from me... Supposedly, they will come up to you if you go out deeper and hang out for a bit, but I didn't really want to tread water for that long during the sunset and into the evening when they normally come out. I also didn't want to serve as the inspiration for the next Jaws movie, "Dolphins Gone Wild!"

Unfortunately, just one day before we arrived to Pipa, a 59-year old Swedish tourist was robbed and shot at his hotel. He later died in a hospital. In a small town almost entirel dependennt on tourism, this was big news, and apparently is the first time any tourist has ever been killed in Pipa. I am not sure exactly what really happened but according to those who heard the commotion, they said he may have tried to resist the robbery, a big no-no in Brasil, where thieves will kill you for nothing at the slightest provocation or resistance. Despite the somber news, though, none of us let that deter our mindsets, in terms of how we were going to enjoy the place. You just have to keep on doing what you were planning on doing and let things happen as they should. If anything, Pipa was probably the safest place to be in Brasil after that murder. If I planned my trips to avoid "dangerous" places, I'd end up doing absolutely nothing but watch TV and play Rock Band in my living room in Santa Monica.

One evening, we were approached by a local Brasilian, who spoke perfect English since he lived in Canada for a bit. He ran a day-long boat excursion for tourists like us, and offered to take us out for about $80, including all you can drink and eat. A fairly high sum, we all thought, so we politely declined and told him we'd think about it. He didn't even have a business card so it seemed a bit sketchy. We saw him again the next night, and he asked us if we made up our minds and we told him $80 was a bit out of our budget and that we were thinking more along the lines of $20 per person just to get him off our backs. Not surprisingly, he said that it was feasible-- and that's when we realized this guy was probably going to just take our deposit and leave. Over the next week, however, we saw him everywhere, and he asked us everytime if we were going to do the tour. He would catch up with us on a bike on our way back to the hostel at 3am, he popped up in the club we partied at, he showed up in the bars and restaurants-- you name it, we saw him there, which only confirmed our suspicions that this guy was really just nuts (or a persistent scam artist.) One sunny afternoon, I was swimming in the ocean and I heard someone yell out my name from the beach, waving his hands in the air, trying to get my attention. I looked and saw that it was the same crazy guy, "Daniel, do you still want to do the boat trip!??" Finally, one night at a club, I told him off and said that he was freakin us out. I may have even given him a lecture on sales 101, and that his methods were a bit too stalker-ish. He never harassed us again!

Travelling with a couple of guys whose English was not their primary language was hilarious because many times, something would seriously get lost in translation. Here are a few examples:

"I want to shuffle my face in her butt." Ben, commenting on a beach babe walking by us.

"I am not so straight...." Itamar, when I told him to talk to the girl he was eyeing from afar. To his defense, he did immediately correct himself afterwards, and said that he's not so straightforward. Right.

"I like to splash the water in my face when I am shitting." Ben, trying to explain something that, to this day, I have no idea really, what he was trying to say.

"I don't swim in your toilet so don't piss in my pool." Itamar, using this phrase incorrectly to describe something totally irrelevant to the conversation.

"I was going down on you when you were passed out." Ben, saying something no man should ever say to another man. Apparently he was trying to say something to the effect of coming down the stairs while I was passed out. Either way, I still cry in a fetal position on some nights.

"Like a molk, you know, a molk? You don't know what a molk is?" Ben, attempting to explain this non-existent word by cupping his right hand against his neck. Apparently, he meant leech.

In a nutshell, Pipa is definitely worth a return visit for me, despite the recent murder and crazy day-boat excursion nut. With $2.5 lunches, $130/month rent, friendly locals, and a small beach town vibe, it's a nice contrast to the more expensive and cosmopolitan beach areas of Rio and Salvador. Speaking of Rio, as most of you have figured by now, I can't seem to shake myself out of Brasil-- it is a huge country after all, and definitely plenty to see. I will be going back to Rio for a couple of weeks and decided that I will most likely be skipping the extremely expensive Galapagos Islands and hanging here until my 33rd (gasp!) birthday on March 23rd with my friends here. Besides, I am sure even Darwin would agree that watching giant tortoises in their natural habitat for your birthday is not as interesting as hangin' with thong-clad Brasilian babes on the beach!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Ja Rule in Rio, Carnaval in Salvador

They say that laughter in life allows you to live longer and that boozin' and partying till the break of dawn shortens it. If I add up the experiences I have had over the past three weeks in Brasil, I'd say I came out even, if not a little ahead, as far as my life is concerne, thanks to the crazy Israelis I hung out with in Salvador.

I flew into Rio from Santiago because I found out I could actually make the last practice parade for Carnaval at the world famous Sambadrome. Besides, any longer in Santiago, and I really would have applied for the Websense gig in Chile.

Since I was going to Salvador for Carnaval (about two hours north of Rio via plane) this was my only chance to see the worlds' most famous party for myself. As a sidenote, while I was planning my trip around the world, there were only about three things I really HAD to do-- drink a pint of Guinness in Dublin, Oktoberfest in Munich, and Carnaval in Brasil. I chose to go to Salvador's Carnaval early on because I heard that it was much less expensive to participate in the "bloco," or the street parade, and that you can purchase tickets to join the party the day of, instead of months ahead for the Carnaval in Rio. Given my schedule, it was obvious which one made more sense. Besides, I can't do EVERYTHING on this trip-- gotta save something for later, right?

The practice parade was ok-- but understandably so. The Sambadrome was still packed (it was free, after all) and it was just incredible to see everybody's ability to samba! Little kids, grandmas, old men, you name it-- they got it down. I learned a very simple step but just didn't quite feel right with how my "bunda" (ass) was shakin. A few beers took care of that problem.

After the practice samba that night, I went to the "favela" of Rocinho, infamously known as "South America's biggest slum" with two French Canadadians (Frank and Francois, I know, what are the odds!!??) I met from the hostel to see Ja Rule and Fat Joe perform. Many locals in Rio would never even step foot in these places, but I figured nothing really crazy (like the common gunfights between cops and the drug lords) would happen that night with a couple of famous American rappers in the 'hood. As I have discovered over my trip, whether it be looking for a hotel room in the middle of the night in Cairo, or walking down unlit streets in Bulgaria, -- there really is not THAT much of a reason to be concerned. Either I get robbed of my material possessions, or I don't. Perhaps I'm just really lucky, or just completely stupid. Or both. Either way, my friends and I came out of that concert unscathed, although the teenage boys with pistols in their pants was a strange sight to see at 7am in the morning, when the concert ended. Shouldn't they be watching cartoons during that time????

The following day, I went to see Cristo Redontor (Christ the Redeemer) with my friends, even though I went a few years ago the last time I was in Rio. You can never see Jesus too many times in your life, right? Besides, I had to "redeem" myself because the first time I went, I actually did not realize "He" was Jesus Christ until one of my friends told me after. That story will be served up at a later time, hopefully never...

I flew out to Salvador to meet up with some Israeli friends I met back in Calafate, Argentina. I was having beers with them one night back at the hostel, and realized they were pretty funny dudes, and figured it would be a blast to hang with them over Carnaval. Allow me to introduce the cast of characters, as it will serve to be an interesting backdrop to our 10 day stay in Salvador:

Doron, aka "The Terrorist," (since that is what his mother calls him) He is half Afghani, half Iraqi, born in Israel and convinced he will never get a visa to visit America. I concur. He is the living embodiment of Rodney Dangerfield's famous line, "If it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all." Case in point: He was jailed in Ireland for one week amongst rapists, murderers, and a Palestinian for (get this) overstaying his visa for two days. When I asked him why wasn't the Israeli embassy involved, and he replied, "They did, that's why I stayed a week." Apparently, the Israeli embassy bungled some paperwork and Doron ended up staying longer than necessary.

Ben, half Yemen, half Polish, but more like Danny DeVito, if he were black. One morning, after a heavy night of drinking, he was lying in bed and was moaning something about, "I am going to die.... I can't get up...arggggghhh...." Knowing his Kryptonite, I asked him, "Wanna go eat?" Without skipping a beat, he responded, "Ok." Ben was always one step ahead of everybody with the perfect self-deprecating punchline.

Av-Sharon, aka "Rain Man with Ebola." He had a persistent virus in his eye that he thought he would lose. Over the 10 days I knew him, he applied everything imaginable (besides the meds the doctors prescribed)-- eggs, teabags, cucumbers, salt, you name it. He was obessesed with applying the meds at the exact hour, down to the exact second. Normally that would not bother me except I was the only one in the group who had a watch. I still wake up in cold sweats in the middle of the night with Av-Sharon (and his diseased left eye) asking me what time it is, every hour, down to the exact second!

Avi, probably the most even-keeled guy out of the group (including myself probably), but that's like saying which guy is the the sanest in a mental ward.

On our first night, Doron, with his infinite supply of bad luck, gets detained by the police for suspicion of possessing drugs (he wasn't.) Despite this, the police officer made him put both arms out and was struck by the baton...twice!

During Carnaval, there really isn't anywhere convenient to piss. Most people just urinate in the stairwells leading down to the beach, which is pretty disgusting actually. My first night, I was so traumatized by stepping in pools of piss with my slippers on that I bought a pair of cheap shoes the next day just for Carnaval. On our second night, Doron, with his unending string of bad luck, happened to be so drunk that while walking upstairs, he fell backwards down the staircase head over heels. He's like the bad actor in those B-grade movies who falls forwards when he is shot in the chest twenty times. When I asked him how it felt to fall down a flight of stairs and land in a pool of about 8,394 guys' piss, he told me, "It was amazing. It was like I was flying!"

One night, we got a little tired of the Carnaval in Barra, the main one in Salvador, and decided to go to Pelourinho, about twenty minutes away by car. It was much more low key, and I think Avi, Ben and I were the only ones who weren't locals. My ass got grabbed a couple of times, and a huuuuge woman literally grabbed me like a ragdoll with one arm and kissed me. Well, kiss isn't really the right word, as I really thought she was just going to eat my head off. Luckily for me, she didn't like Chinese food much and spat me back out into the parade.

Many of you, including myself, will be disappointed to see I did not take too many pictures during Carnaval. The crowds in the streets are so packed that sometimes I did not even have to walk on my own. The chances of getting pickpocketed were pretty high, so I decided not to carry my camera. However, for the last night of Carnaval, I bought a disposable one-time use camera, because, well, it was the last night. I got separated from the rest of the group that night, and ended up chatting it up with a nice lovely lady. We had a beer, spoke a bit and then she kissed me! (Man, these Brasilian girls are forward, eh?) Then she wanted $25 for her, ahem, professional services. Turns out, she was a prostitute! I declined, and left to go look for my friends. She chased after me, yelling all kinds of Portuguese poetry, and I decided to sneak into another bloco to hopefully lose her, which didn't work. She started berating me and scratching my chest and right when I realized she was actually hurting me, (adrenalin and booze will do that to you) the police showed up. Remembering Doron's first day, I figured at the very least, my arms were going to get a lashing. This crazy woman could have told the police anything! Four of them were restraining her, and one took me aside to ask me what was going on. I told them in Spanish, in my best, sincerest, "I'm the good guy" look that this crazy woman was chasing after me for no apparent reason except to give her money for services not rendered. (Or maybe she just wanted me to kiss her more???) Thankfully, the cop let me go, and I found my friends back in the safety of our own bloco.

The rest of the night was actually recounted back to me by my friends, as I apparently got Daniel drunk again. Allegedly, some really famous song came out and a dance circle broke out in our bloco. I then proceeded to dance in the middle with my, ahem, signature dance move- the one where you put both of your hands on your knees, and switch them back and forth, something obviously very different than the samba. Apparently, the circle of people around me started chanting, "Jackie Chan!!! Jackie Chan!!!! Jackie Chan!!!!"

I woke up the next morning to realize that I not only sprained my ankle, (did that happen in the dance circle?) but my camera was also missing! So, I got physically and verbally abused by a prostitute, almost got my arms swatted by police, sprained my ankel, got my camera stolen, and got the locals to chant Jackie Chan to my crazy inebriated dance moves. Pretty standard stuff, eh?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

"So....What are you going to do when you get back?"

One of the most common questions I have received over my travels is what I am going to do when I get back to the US. Given that I "only" have about three more months left, I've begun to think more about what it is I really want to do. I've never felt so free in my life during this trip-- to do as I please, whenever I feel like, whatever I want, whereever I prefer, and however I choose, so it will be a difficult transition back to this thing called work. I will need counseling.

Assuming I do get back to the US, of course, there are a few options I have been seriously considering. The first and primary option is to open a hostel in Mammoth. I would get to snowboard and live the rugged mountain life, and who knows, maybe I'll even be able to grow a half-beard (fu man chu, whatever!) I've stayed in enough hostels to know what works and what doesn't. The downside to this is that it would be a huge financial risk, given the current environment. However, almost every successful entrepeneur I've ever read about started their business in the most difficult conditions. As the saying goes, with every crisis, there lies an opportunity.

The second choice would be to move to Denmark for a bit just so I can take advantage of the 6 week vacations there! Yeah, I know, "Haven't you had enough travelling already, Daniel?" The answer is a resounding no. I will never tire of seeing the world.

The third would be to go back to my old career in security software sales back in Los Angeles, or..... in Chile! Just out of curiosity recently, I looked up my old company's website while I was in Santiago and saw that there was an opening for a sales position here. Though Chile wasn't necessarily high on my list of places to live in prior to coming here, my recent visit convinced me that it would be a feasible option. I speak the language, it's close to ski resorts, tons of great wines, and, well, frankly, after travelling around the world, I feel as though I can acclimate to any country for awhile.

After my experience in Ghana, I have also been looking into the idea of working for an NGO somewhere in Africa, (or maybe even starting one myself!) Hunger, starvation and the world's problems will always exist, and I realize that my existence isn't just about me anymore. (For those of you who know me better, I am sure you are just as surprised about this admission as I am!)

Of course, if all else fails, I can always marry Shakira and continue living my jet set life, but she hasn't returned my phone calls and, well, the situation is looking not so good.

Needless to say, there are tons of options, but the great thing is that even when this trip is over, I will still have the option of doing whatever I want, whereever I prefer, and however I choose. Life is great, isn't it?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Chillin' in (Hot) Chile

After about a month of pretty bland food in Argentina, I was really happy to see that my first meal was accompanied by salsa, with CILANTRO!!! Those of you who know my propensity for all things cilantro can understand how excited I was about this. I spent the day walking around the streets of Santiago and I realized that it really reminds me of East Los Angeles in a weird kind of way. Mountains surround the eastern part of the city, and of course, everything is in Spanish, the air is a bit smoggy-- felt just like home!

Over the past month and a half, I´ve realized that being able to speak Spanish has paid dividends over and over again. A free beer here, a free bus ride there, a side dish of something special from the restaurant owner-- it all adds up and I´m just happy that this genorosity and hospitality is mostly due to the fact I am a foreigner who speaks their language. I´ve also come to the conclusion that elderly people are the best people to ask for directions. Some have even offered to walk me to where I need to be, so I suppose that´s something to keep in mind in the future. We have a lot in common I suppose, as neither of us have anywhere really to go right away!

After one quick day in Santiago, I decided to head out to Viña Del Mar, a coastal town about two hours west of Santiago. I saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time in over 9 months, and was somewhat nostalgic about LA, especially after being in Santiago. Sigh... only 3 more months left before I have to head back home. More on that later in a different post....

I met Katie (Texas) and Rachel (Michigan) at the hostel and spent the day hanging out in Valparaiso. Funny thing happened that day. Katie slipped and fell on her butt and subsequently, her left butt cheek shook (quite rapidly actually) uncontrollably for a few hours. "It´s moving by itself, I can´t stop it!!" "I feel like a rap video ho!!!" "Beyonce ain't got nothin on this!" Man, I haven´t laughed that hard in such a long time.... but after a half hour of this, we kind of started to worry. Like, what if it shook forever? Katie and I discussed the pros and cons of this at length and came to the conclusion that she'd make some good money for a few years, but after that would have a hard time getting a real job. We went back to the hostel, she had half a bottle of wine and everything was fine.

We also met a few other people from the hostel, one funny guy named Thomas-- favorite quote from him "I maht be from Louiiiisianah, but I´m nawt stupid." Thomas and Katie exchanged hilarious stories about growing up in the South over dinner and I realized that they had very different experiences than I did in LA. Like, shooting empty cans with shotguns at the age of 12, or, how to skin an armadillo (you hang it upside down on a tree), and the grunting noises they make when the stubborn bastards burrow under your house. Thomas also told me about this restaurant that serves roadkill, and I´m definitely going to make a pit stop there on my way back home.

After three nights in Viña Del Mar, I headed back to Santiago, to hang out with Sonia, a friend I met in Punta Del Este. She invited me over to her place to have "once," which is basically evening tea 8pm! Sonia and her mother had a hard time understanding how Americans can eat dinner at 7. We spent the rest of the evening just talking about all the random things people talk about when you´re from different countries. I learned a few new Chilean phrases, like "pato malo" which directly translates to "bad duck," but really means "criminal." Neither of them had any idea as to why such an innocent bird can be used to describe bad guys. Sonia recommended I go to the Parque Mahuida the following day, and to make sure I take a ride on the Roderbahn.

When I arrived there, I saw this sled on wheels with no seat belt, no safety harness, nothing. The attendant just gave me two instructions, pull back to slow down, and push forward to go, well, as fast as you want to. I recalled the movie, "Cool Runnings" and realized that I felt like I was in a similar situation. Before I took off, I asked the attendant if it was safe to just go straight down without slowing down. He responded, "If you want to, but you might fall off if you´re not careful on the turns." The first ride down, I took it easy but decided to go the second time around full blast.... with my camera on my right hand! I know, probably not the wisest thing to do but I just had to do it because these rides, or, death sleds, just wouldn´t exist in the US. Unfortunately, my last turn was held in check by a father and daughter going much slower than me, but was still a blast!

All in all, good times again! Off to Brasil for CARNIVAL!!!!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Mucho Malbec in Mendoza

Mendoza was full of adrenalin-filled adventures and wine-fueled fun. The city itself has a very different vibe than Buenos Aires. The sidewalks are wider, for one thing, and the people here seem to know how to walk. (ok no more picking on the porteños!) I would even argue that Mendoza is a nicer city, but of course, that's just my opinion.

On our first day in Mendoza, Dana and I wanted to go wine tasting, however, most of the wine tours started at 8am, and neither of us had the energy to get up that early after our respective journeys (Dana took a 12 hour overnight bus from Buenos Aires, whereas I flew 2 hours from Buenos Aires to Santiago, then a 7 hour bus from Santiago to Chile... don't ask) Instead, we did our own little wine tasting within the city, bar hopping at wine o'clock, and ordering as much Malbec as possible.

The great thing about that day was that we had really nothing planned except to drink wine, and to find a place to watch the Super Bowl later in the evening. We found a bar right across from one of the restaurants we were hanging out at, and about 15 minutes into our first glass of wine, we noticed smoke rising out from one of the buildings behind it. A fire truck soon arrived, and an episode of the Keystone Cops ensued. One of the firemen rolled out the fire hose, but lost control of it as it rolled down the street. Once he took posession of said hose, he mosied on up the ladder to begin the firefight. There was no yelling or running around, surprisingly, and it seemed like these guys were not in a hurry at all to put out the fire. About an hour later, a second fire truck rolls in, and Dana noticed one of them was smoking a cigarette! We couldn´t help but laugh at the irony of it.

Later we hung out with a couple of Nurses from New York, Jenny and Kelly, we met from the hostel to catch the Super Bowl. We all had a blast watching it in an Irish bar, (naturally) even though there were only about 10 of us watching/screaming/yelling in the bar amidst 50+ other locals watching the other big game in town (Boca Jr. vs. River Plata.) There was even a German guy who knew more about American football than most of my friends! One of the guys at the bar happened to be a friend of my friend back in San Diego-- small world!

All four of us surprisingly woke up at 8:30 am the following morning (errr..a few hours later) to go trekking and rapelling, completely hungover with maybe 10 hours of sleep between the four of us. Dana hurled, I dry heaved a couple of times, and I am pretty sure the New York Nurses weren't faring any better.

After Dana left, (those Americans with their wonderful 10 day vacations!)I decided to stay a few more days to go white water rafting and of course, to do some more wine tasting. It was my first time going rafting and I was excited that it was a Class 4 river, which meant some pretty hairy parts. Somehow, I ended up being put in the front by our capitan, who sat in the way back. Every once in a while, he would yell forward (or was it backward?) and I would dig deep into the water, only to realize that I was paddling through air since the nose of the raft was perched high over a crest. One split second later, a splash of ice cold water would completely envelope me-- I could hear El Capitan continue to yell something, but I hadn't the faintest clue what he was saying. During the calmer moments he would tell me and the Swedish guy to my right that we were all screwed up and that we weren´t doing anything right. No wonder the Swedish guy took a dive... twice! Funny thing about the Swedish guy, the first time he fell over, I had to pluck him out of the water but had a hard time pulling him out because I was laughing so hard at this huge green booger on his nose. He had this look of near panic, which only made it worse for me because, well, how can I take a guy seriously with a big booger on his nose? I didn't tell him, though, since I figured the next nose dive (ba-dum-dump-ching!) would take care of business. The second time he fell over, I again had to yank him out, and this time I was dying of laughter because the same (?) booger was still on his nose! It must have been firmly anchored in with some cable strength nose hairs. Impressive. Luckily, I never fell off the raft, though I came close a couple of times.

All in all, good times in Mendoza. I rented a bike on my last day and went to about 3 (or was it 4?) different wineries. As a sidenote-- those of you who think Napa's $20-$30 wine tastings are expensive, you should come down here... for $3-$5, they will pour two three FULL glasses of wine. Talk about cheap! Me likey!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Argentina, Uruguay pics, round 2

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Pics from Iguazu and El Calafate (finally!)

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Feliz Año Nuevo Chino, from Buenos Aires and Uruguay (again???!!!)

Buenos Aires has been a good launching pad to places like Uruguay and the rest of Argentina, so I got to know the city quite well since I arrived on December 26th.

A good friend and former colleague of mine, Dana, wanted to meet up with me in Buenos Aires to do some travelling around for a bit. When she had written to me prior to arrival she mentioned she would be checking into the Sheraton Buenos Aires for one night, since she was not keen on the idea of staying in a hostel with ten million other roommates after 18.5 hours of international travel. She asked me if I wanted to stay in her room and I think I spent about negative 10 milliseconds to take her up on the offer!

We spent a couple nights in Buenos Aires, including an evening in Chinatown for Chinese New Years. Dana and I went to a Chinese restaurant and saw that it was run by Chinese people so I figured it was a safe bet. When the Chinese lady approached me, I asked her if she spoke Cantonese (in Cantonese, of course.) She said no (she spoke Mandarin...) and so I asked her if she spoke English (so that Dana could order on her own, perhaps...) She said no, so naturally, we spoke Spanish instead. I thought it was a bit surreal, to be speaking Spanish to an old Chinese lady, in a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown, in Buenos Aires!

I noticed over the past month travelling in and out of Buenos Aires is that there will be random guys just standing around yelling, "Cambio, cambio, cambio.." Which translates to "Change" for those who may need to convert their foreign currency. At first it wasn't really that interesting to notice. But after awhile, I just couldn't help but laugh everytime I heard a guy saying this. I mean, all they do, the entire freakin day, is say, "Cambio, cambio....." over and over and over and OVER again. If you thought your job was boring... I mean, why not just hang a sign over your shirt, or wear a big hat with "cambio" on it??!!

Speaking of money, I honestly think coins in Argentina are practically impossible to find. Getting change back is an act of god, and cashiers all over Argentina are unapologetically ruthless about demanding exact change when paying for anything. On several occasions, I did not have the exact change and they would just round down to the nearest peso! And it´s not just exact change they´re crazy about-- getting change back for a 100 peso note ($29) is also impossible for anything less than 50 pesos. I can't tell you how many times I was practically dying of thirst and was not able to buy a bottle of water at a convenience store. If only the cambio guys would offer not just foreign currency exchange, but also domestic currency exchange. They would make a killing!

We travelled back to Uruguay again given that I really wanted to go back to Cabo Polonio and Punta Del Este. It wasn´t hard to convince Dana, who was looking forward to some beach time. Unfortunately, the weather was absolute crap and we decided to head out to Mendoza to get some Malbec (my favorite wine) into my bloodstream. We did meet some pretty cool people in Punta, including a French girl who had been travelling since she was 18-- she´s now 25!

On the bus ride out of Punta, a Shakira look-alike with tight black pants practically painted on hopped on the bus, but all the seats were taken. Instead of standing in the aisle, as most people do, she decided to stand right in front of me where I was seated. Her butt was right in front of me, just staring at me, mocking me perhaps. I think I even heard her butt talk to me. "Hola, Daniel, ¿cómo estás?" Had I sneezed, I would have probably lost myself (happily) in butt heaven and would never see the light of day again. I whispered to Dana that I wanted to be friends with her two friendly cheeks, but couldn't really come up with the right words. I mean, what do you say to a butt for the first time you meet? Dana suggested I just give her a little slap and say something like..."Atta girl!!" If only I knew how to say "atta" in Spanish...

I flew out to Santiago, Chile to hop on a bus to Mendoza, Argentina. I had to pay 63 pesos ($18) as a departure tax, "Thanks for visiting, jackass! Smack to the face!" and upon arriving into Chile, had to cough up another $113 bucks, "Welcome to Chile! Here's a kick in the nuts for ya!" One quick note to mention, on my flight to Santiago, I sat next to a porteña (woman from Buenos Aires) who confirmed my observations wholeheartedly that the people of BA absolutely do not have a clue how to walk!

Anyway, I know I´m really behind with the pics, but my camera´s memory card recently got infected with a please be patient. And no, fellas, I did not get the chance to take a picture of Shakira´s butt!!