Reinvigoration

It’s been nearly 8 months since I’ve last updated this blog, a long enough to hiatus to cause even the most delinquent of bloggers to blush.  The reason for this gap is simple:  writing about my travels began to feel like a chore.  The travel experience itself has still been fun for these last 8 months, but writing about every place I visit began to feel like unpaid work.  So, in true sabbatical spirit I allowed myself to abdicate this responsibility.

However I feel inspired to write the blog post you’re reading now because it’s not a travelogue, it’s a wrap-up.  After nearly 2 years on the road I’m officially bringing the Chasing Summer adventure to a close.  Why?  Because it’s time.

Since my last blog update I’ve spent most of my days in Southeast Asia, exploring Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and Singapore.  Frankly I use the word “exploring” loosely, since due to travel fatigue I found myself stationary most of the time, often living for a couple of months in just one place and taking brief jaunts from there.

Reflecting on the time I’ve been away, I’ve gone through several stages:

  1. The first I’ll call The Freedom Stage, characterized by a sense of unshackling from the responsibilities of work and home life. This lasted 2 or 3 months.
  2. The second I’ll call The Wanderlust Stage, characterized by a sense of adventure and desire to visit exotic new lands and meet exotic new people.  This one lasted about a year.
  3. The third I’ll call The Settling Stage, where I found myself tired of exploring yet hesitant to return home.  So I kept traveling but very slowly.  This is where I’ve been for the last 8 months or so.
  4. The fourth and final stage I’ll call Reinvigoration, characterized by a sense of purpose, focus, self-knowledge, and desire to do something meaningful.  This is where I am today.

I’m very fortunate that my sabbatical was allowed to run its full course, uninterrupted by financial necessity, health constraints, family obligations, business emergency, or any of the other contingencies I feared.  Most of the other travelers I’ve met along the way had to return home when they ran out of either time or money, invariably sooner than they’d like.  I’m ending my travels because I’ve seen what I wanted to see, done what I wanted to do, and feel ready to begin the next stage of my life.  For this I’m grateful.

Taking this sabbatical was one of the best decisions I ever made. Here’s a short inventory of what’s come out of it:

  • I’ve visited 4 continents and over two dozen countries, some for long enough to immerse in the language and culture
  • I’ve met hundreds of people from every nationality, religion, culture, and socioeconomic background imaginable
  • I’ve learned how to kitesurf, speak Portuguese, catch piranhas, meditate, convert dozens of currencies in my head, and live comfortably out of a carry-on size backpack
  • I’ve watched the sunrise at Macchu Picchu, swam in the Amazon river, sunbathed on Ipanema beach, climbed the Cotopaxi volcano, explored Angkor Wat, kitesurfed in Hawaii, ridden up the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, visited spiritual healers in Bali, sailed in the Thai Andaman sea, and enjoyed far too many other experiences to list
  • I’ve met a girl I adore, whose path I otherwise would have never crossed (our one year anniversary is coming up)
  • I’ve proven that my company, Infosurv, can survive and thrive without me, benefiting everyone involved
  • Heck, I even made the cover of a magazine

All of these things are wonderful, but they only reflect my outward journey.  The inward journey I’ve made is less apparent but far more important.  Though I look about the same as I did 2 years ago, I feel like a new man, with new priorities, new values, and a new life path.

I’m more relaxed now, obviously, but also more self-aware.  I know myself better than ever and have learned to listen, really listen, to my heart.  I’m confident about who I am and who I am not.

I’ve come to value money less and time more;  things less and people more;  recognition less and impact more;  logic less and intuition more;  appearances less and essence more.

I’ve had the time to challenge every assumption I’ve ever made about myself.  Some parts of my identity have been reaffirmed, such as my entrepreneurial drive and love for my family and friends.  Other parts have come into question, such as my religious and political stances.

Ironically, spending nearly 2 years without work has made me value work more.  I’ve learned that work provides much more than financial means, but also a necessary sense of purpose and contribution.  I’m deeply excited to build my next company, which I’ve already begun work on.  My new company will be built around my passions, and it will prioritize social impact over profits (though both are important.)

I’ve come to know many cultures and they’ve each become a small part of me.  I’ve learned to enjoy food like an Italian, to enjoy life like a Brazilian, to love like a Colombian, and to smile like a Thai.  I’ve also built a healthy distrust of the media and how it covertly shapes our impressions of foreign lands.  Believe me, there is a lot more to Colombia than drug cartels and a lot more to Vietnam than a war.  I haven’t yet been to Iraq or Afganistan but am sure the same rule applies.

I’ve also gained a new appreciation for both the strengths and weaknesses for my home country, the United States.  Our sense of innovation, idealism, and optimism is unmatched in the world.  Silicon Valley couldn’t be anywhere else.  On the other hand, our consumerism has gone off the deep end, we’re embarrassingly ignorant about the rest of the world, and our food culture leaves much to be desired.

There are a few aspects of my traveling life which I hope to retain when my travels end:

  1. Minimalism – When I packed up my Atlanta condo, I really thought I would miss all my stuff.  I haven’t.  My big screen TV, Tempur-Pedic mattress, fancy sound system, designer clothes, the art on my walls… haven’t missed them a bit.  I only think about them when I grudgingly pay my Public Storage invoice each month.  I’ve enjoyed a Zen-like calmness knowing that all I need in life can be carried upon my back.  I hope to retain this minimalism as long as I can.
  2. Geographic freedom – One of the rules of my sabbatical was to never plan more than a week in advance.  In practice it was more like 2 days.  I enjoyed knowing that I could stay someplace for a day, a week, a month or year, unconstrained by lease terms or the heavy weight of material possessions.  This isn’t to say that I’ll never again buy furniture or sign a one-year lease, but I’m now more predisposed to renting than owning.
  3. Worldliness – I left on this sabbatical as an American, but I return as a citizen of the world.  I now see the lines we draw on maps as rather arbitrary.  Languages, cultures, religions and political systems differ across nations, but people are people.  Vietnamese Communists want the same things in life as American Capitalists, and Malaysian Muslims want the same things as Thai Buddhists.  Anyone who says otherwise is motivated by either gaining votes or selling newspapers.

So what’s next?

After a few weeks in Scotland to visit my girlfriend’s family, we’ll board a plane to the USA.  After visiting with my family in Atlanta and Denver, we’ll head to San Francisco with the intention of making it home.  Of course, in keeping with #2 above, all geographic options shall remain open.

I’d like to sign out with a few words from the great poet T.S. Eliot:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

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Letter from an Inc. magazine coverboy

For any entrepreneur, it’s a great joy to see his photo on the cover of Inc. magazine. Inc. is a publication that I’ve been reading for many years, as have over 700,000 other entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs.

In July 2010, I left Infosurv to pursue a life-dream and embark upon an around-the-world traveling sabbatical. I allowed an Inc. magazine writer to follow my adventure and that of my company’s executives back in Atlanta with dozens of interviews via telephone, email, and in-person. Finally, after much quiet anticipation, I got to read the final article about our dual adventures in the November 2011 edition of Inc., currently available on newsstands across the US.

I’m glad that Inc. could capture in words and photos this critical transition in the history of Infosurv. When I left the company last July it reached a new level of maturity, moving from founder-driven to professional management-driven, a leap that not all companies navigate successfully. Without my day-to-day involvement, new leaders emerged in the organization and exhibited a level of independence, motivation, and creativity that I consider inspirational. A special thanks and congratulations goes out to Carl Fusco, our Managing Director, and the other 3 members of our talented Leadership Team: John Barrett, Kyle Burnam, and Kevin Wilensky.

Not all companies thrive and drive forward, as Infosurv has, after the exit of its founder. This has only been possible with a gifted executive team who respects the values I instilled in the organization while not being afraid to exert their individual styles and philosophies. Of course there are times when our styles differ, as the Inc. article highlights, but I respect those differences and encourage my executives to lead in the manner that suites them best. Autonomy and accountability go hand-in-hand.

If you left the Inc. article with the impression that a tension exists between me and Infosurv management, I’m sorry to say that the truth is much less exciting. Several out-of-context quotes and personal impressions were inserted to give that impression, but it’s a journalist technique to add drama, not reality.

The primary goals of my sabbatical were to travel, unwind, and reflect upon the next steps in my life and career. The sabbatical was an unequivocal success thanks to my trusted team back in the office, giving me the confidence to “check out” both physically and mentally. This is a luxury that few entrepreneurs can enjoy, and for this great gift I will be forever grateful.

It’s my hope that our story will serve as an inspiration, both to entrepreneurs who feel ready to step away from their companies and to professional managers who feel ready to take their reigns. Unfortunately the Inc. article didn’t included any detail about the dramatic changes made within the company in the years prior to my sabbatical to facilitate its success: creating a strong leadership team, solid culture and values, clear metrics and accountabilities, and a formal strategic planning process. If you have questions about any of these please feel free to ask. If there’s sufficient interest I’m glad to devote future blog posts to these topics or whatever else interests my readers.

Thanks for visiting ChasingSummer.net and best of luck accomplishing your own dreams, whatever they may be.

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South America Roundup

If this blog were a child, any competent authority would take away my custody for gross neglect. I’ve fallen dreadfully behind in the update department with nothing to blame but procrastination. On the bright side, it’s safe to say that the primary objective of my sabbatical, to at least temporarily exchange my hard-pressing entrepreneurial ways for a mellower, more relaxed pace of life, has clearly been achieved.

With many apologies to my readers, in consideration of your time and mine this post will serve only as a high-level summary of the last 4 months of my travel in South America. In those 4 months I visited 5 South American countries, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and Ecuador, and though each certainly deserves it own blog post I can only afford it a section.

Before we dive in, you may notice that the “we” pronoun used in most of the previous Chasing Summer posts has been replaced by “I.” Since the last post about our travels through Argentina, Lauren and I have sadly parted ways. Though the details of our breakup are beyond the scope of this blog, I can say that we still care about each other deeply and remain close friends. She is now living and working in Los Angeles, California.

Chile

Leaving Salta, Argentina, I crossed the border into Chile, arriving in a small, dusty town called San Pedro de Atacama. San Pedro’s claim to fame is the Atacama desert that surrounds it — the driest desert in the world. I only spent a few days in San Pedro and the country of Chile for that matter, as I was using San Pedro mostly as a transit point to Bolivia. There isn’t much to do in San Pedro town — the main attraction is the nearby Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) National Park that resides a few kilometers outside of its limits. I still enjoyed my brief time there and would recommend San Pedro to fellow travelers.

The desert road from San Pedro to Valle de la Luna National Park

Riding a rented bicycle through the Atacama desert

Bolivia

Bolivia is a country that epitomizes South American adventure travel. It’s the least developed country in the region which makes it rougher, less regulated, and dirt cheap. It’s also blessed with several natural wonders to reward adventurous travelers who are willing to forgo first-world comforts for long enough to visit them.

I crossed the border from Chile to Bolivia in a 4×4 Toyota Land Cruiser, one of the few automobiles which can handle the rough terrain of the Bolivian altiplano (“high plain” in Spanish.) I was on a 3 day, 2 night trek to Uyuni, a small Bolivian town which sits on the edge of the famous Bolivian salt flats. The trek was mostly through the Eduardo Avaroa National Park, a surreal landscape of impossible rock formations and lagoons of every color imaginable. It felt like being in a Salvador Dali painting.

Much of the national park is at an altitude of over 15,000 feet, which makes the air thin and ice cold despite the park’s latitude well within the Tropic of Capricorn.

After 3 days in the middle-of-nowhere I finally arrived to Uyuni and visited the world’s largest salt flats, over 4,000 square miles of flat white nothingness. Like most of the tourists there, I couldn’t resist the temptation of taking some “perspective illusion” photos, taking advantage of the disorienting nature of a horizon that goes to infinity.

Words really can’t do justice to the national park and salt flats so I’ll post plenty of photos.

An old Toyota Land Cruiser, my transportation for 3 days

Geysers of boiling hot water, mud, and noxious fumes

Standing in front of the Laguna Colorada (Red Lagoon), which gets it color from a unique species of algae

One of many seemingly impossible rock formations in Eduardo Avaroa National Park

At the Uyuni salt flats, balancing a devil on one shoulder and angel on another (actually just a couple of Aussie girls standing behind me)

After 3 days in the wilderness I was ready for some civilization and high-speed Internet access, so from Uyuni I took a train to La Paz, Bolivia’s capital. I didn’t do much there other than stroll around the city, which suited me just fine. La Paz, situated in the altiplano, is the world’s highest capital city. It’s relatively isolated and retains much indigenous character. What I found to be the most interesting thing there was the Saturday market where you can buy everything from fresh vegetables to coca leaves to dried llama fetuses (to bury in your yard for good luck, of course.)

Traditionally dressed Bolivian woman selling vegetables at market

Peru

Though not quite as rugged as Bolivia, traveling through Peru also defines “adventure travel.” The Incan ruins of Macchu Picchu are Peru’s most famous tourist attraction, but there are many more places to see there and fortunately I had enough time to explore quite a few of them.

I entered Peru overland from Bolivia, arriving in Puno on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, the highest lake in the world. The lake itself is beautiful, much more than I was expecting, but what made my time in Puno special was an overnight stay on the manmade floating reed island of some Los Uros natives-turned-tourist-hosts.

The Uros have an interesting story, told to me in heavily-accented Spanish by my “host dad” (his first language is Aymara) and worth recounting. Their ancestors had been living on Lake Titicaca for thousands of years, long before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores. They lived on reed boats, which allowed them to move around the lake freely to avoid conflicts with other tribes and find food. Their expert navigational skills came in handy when the Spaniards arrived, allowing then to avoid capture and slaughter. Their culture thus remained intact well after the colonialists had either killed or assimilated their native cousins.

Once the worst of colonialization had passed they lived peacefully back on land, until the 1960’s when the Peruvian government started to confiscate their land (they were illegal squatters) for mineral exploration and mining. Again their seafaring skills, which had been passed from generation to generation, came in handy. However this time instead of making reeds boats they made semi-permanent floating reed islands, allowing less mobility but much more space and comfort. They’ve been living on the reed islands ever since, surviving on wild ducks and fish and trading excess duck and fish meat at market for potatoes, vegetables, etc.

In recent years, however, over-fishing and environmental changes have forced them to find other sources of sustenance… like tourists. They don’t eat us but do host us on their islands. Most folks just visit them for a few hours during the day and tend to leave with a bad taste in the mouth as the experience can feel quite staged and unauthentic. Fortunately I was advised by a fellow travel to spend a full day and night on the island of a host family, which gave me a much deeper understanding of their history, culture, and way of life. It was a fantastic experience.

My host dad taking a quick break from teaching me how to cut reeds for island-repair

Keeping warm in traditional Uros attire, much better than my high-tech gringo wear, on an early morning fishing trip

Leaving the Los Uros islands and Puno I bused my way to Arequipa, the second-largest city in Peru. The city has beautiful colonial architecture, tasty food (especially if you like roasted guinea pig) and fun downhill biking at nearby volcanoes, but the highlight of my week there was a few days and nights spent trekking in the remote Colca Canyon.

The Colca Canyon is the deepest in the world, and due to it’s inaccessibility the people who live there have barely changed their way of life in the past hundred years. They only got electricity 3 years ago and the idea of cable TV, landline phones or high-speed Internet there is laughable. The village elders still speak the ancient Incan language of Quechua although the younger generation also speaks excellent Spanish.

There are two villages in the Colca Canyon, and the only way to access either is an exhausting hike or mule ride down the steep canyon rim.  I’m a fit guy and it took me 2 sweaty hours, although my guide said the little kids who live in the villages hike up and down the rim to school every day in around 45 minutes.  Then again maybe he just said that to keep my ego in check.

The scenery in the canyon is beautiful, with colorful layers of soil showing the way to a green river below, but what I found most interesting was conversing with my local guide about how he grew up and the sheer toughness of his fellow canyon dwellers.  His uncles carried dozens of heavy metal electrical posts down the steep canyon rim on their shoulders so that their village could have power.  Gringos don’t come that tough.

Trying to demonstrate the vastness of the Colca Canyon

Next on my Peru itinerary was the ancient Incan capital city of Cuzco and the Macchu Picchu ruins nearby.  Since Cuzco and Macchu Picchu are the most popular tourist attractions in Peru there is plenty of information about them online, so rather than write about their background and history I’ll instead focus on my personal impressions.

Firstly, I considered skipping Macchu Picchu altogether in an effort to keep my travels in Peru more “off the beaten path.”  It would have been a mistake. Although arriving at Macchu Picchu isn’t as difficult as it used to be in years past, a train and bus can take you right to the park entrance, the site itself is as magnificent now as it must have been hundreds of years ago.   I had seen countless photos of Macchu Picchu in my life but none of them prepared me for the awe and of being there in person.  I’m not a very spiritual person, but one can’t help feeling a sense of godliness at this place.

I love my nightly rest but was convinced by fellow travelers to wake up at 3:30AM to wait in line for one of the first buses from Aguas Calientes, the closest town to the ruins, to the Macchu Picchu national park.  This allowed me to be one of the first tourists to enter the park at its 6AM opening, thus seeing the ruins before sunrise while an eery morning fog still covered them, adding immeasurably to their mystery.  Once the sun rose overhead and the fog burnt off they were still magnificent, but I’ll never forget how the site looked and felt before dawn as the cool fog blanketed and moved about through the ruins.

At Macchu Picchu just before sunrise with the last bits of fog blowing over

The same ruins just after sunrise, still beautiful but not as mysterious

Colombia

After an adventurous couple of weeks in Bolivia and Peru I was ready to return to modern urban living for a while.  I therefore flew right over Ecuador (which I would later visit) direct to Medellin, Colombia.

Medellin is quite possibly my favorite city in South America, and if I were to live on that continent it would be a top choice.  It’s a thoroughly developed city with excellent shopping, nightlife, museums and restaurants, but has an undeservedly negative image amongst many Americans.  Unfortunately, whenever we’ve heard the word “Medellin” in the media it has usually followed by “drug cartel.”  Indeed Medellin was a violent place throughout much of the 1970’s and 1980’s under the influence of the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar.  However by the early 1990’s the Colombian government had successfully dismantled the cartel, leaving in its wake a beautiful, safe and modern city.  The drug trade brought countless lost lives and hardship to the paisas (Medellin locals), but ironically it also brought great affluence to the city which is evident in its advanced architecture and infrastructure.

Despite the difficult times that the paisas have endured, they remain very friendly and welcoming even by Colombian standards, which is saying a lot.  It’s also no secret that paisas are amongst the most beautiful people in all of South America.

Posing with Roberto Escobar, brother of the late Pablo Escobar, after a tour of their home

Giving a high-five to a sculpture by Botero, Medellin's most famous artist

If you already live in a fantastic city like Medellin, where do you go on vacation?  The answer for many Colombians is the zona cafetera or coffee-growing region.  If you’ve ever drank Colombian coffee, and you probably have, there is a 50% chance it came from this picturesque region of the country.

Unfortunately much of this agricultural area used to be off-limits to foreign tourists due to the risk of kidnapping by the FARC, Colombia’s most prominent guerilla organization.  However since the presidency of Alvaro Uribe, a very popular hard-line Colombian president who led the country from 2002 – 2010, the zona cafetera has been under government control and perfectly safe.  One still notices Colombian military personnel stationed every few miles along the major roads, but not to worry — they’re only there to remind the FARC who’s in charge these days.

In the zona cafetera I stayed in the town of Salento, one of several in the area and the most beautiful from what I’ve observed.  It’s a favorite amongst the zona cafetera‘s tourists, mostly Colombian, for its location near the Cocora Valley and quant, small-town feel.

The highlight of my time in Salento was a horseback ride through the magnificent Cocora Valley, surrounded by green hills perfectly accented by tall wax palm trees.  I also visited a local coffee plantation and learned nearly enough about the coffee production process to start my own finca one day.

View of the Cocora Valley from atop my horse

Next I visited Cali, another major Colombian city.  Cali isn’t as popular as Medellin or Bogota with tourists, as there isn’t much to do there other than dance salsa (it’s self-proclaimed salsa capital of the world) and visit the Cali Zoo, which is quite impressive by the way.  Cali has warm and friendly locals though, and you haven’t really seen salsa until you’ve seen it danced by a caleño.

The highlight of my time in Cali was actually a few days at Lake Calima, a beautiful lake located some 100km outside of town.  Calima is virtually unknown amongst foreign travelers and even most Colombians haven’t heard of it unless they live in Cali.  If you’re into sailing, windsurfing or kitesurfing, you won’t find a better spot in all of Colombia.

Standing in front of Lake Calima with my hair still wet from windsurfing, kitesurfers behind me

Next on my tour de Colombia was some time in hot and humid Cartagena, a quant and laid-back colonial city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast.  Cartagena is popular amongst local and foreign tourists alike for it’s old Spanish forts, high-end bar and restaurant scene, and beaches.  To be honest I’ve seen better beaches elsewhere, so for me the standout attraction was the “old city” within Cartagena’s well-preserved fortress walls. Walking around the old city feels like stepping back in time, and in fact some of the scenes in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies were filmed there to impart a sense of history.

In Cartagena you can’t help but feel more like a “tourist” than a “traveler” but after 10 months on the road I didn’t mind. It was a perfect place to eat fresh seafood, go out for drinks with friends, visit tourist attractions and sail in the bay.

View of the San Felipe castle, complete with a Colombian flag and modern Cartagena condo buildings in the background

Ecuador

If I had to pick one word to describe Ecuador, it would be “underrated.”   Before going there all I thought the country had to offer is the Galapagos, and boy was I wrong.  I ended up spending about 6 weeks there and never even made to Darwin’s famous isles.

I started my journey in Quito, the capital.  I had heard several bad things about Quito from other travelers and almost skipped it entirely, which would have been a mistake.  The city has a reputation for crime, not entirely undeserved, but this shouldn’t deter someone from visiting it.  With a few common sense precautions (don’t wear flashy jewelry, don’t carry an expensive SLR camera around your neck on the streets, etc.) problems can usually be avoided.  I spent several weeks there in total and never had an incident.

Quito is a beautiful city, chocked full of colorful colonial architecture and nestled high in the Andes. The people there are warm and friendly and there are several fun day and overnight trips in the area, making Quito a perfect base from which to explore the rest of Ecuador.  It’s also quite inexpensive — I ate several delicious lunches there for under $2 USD each.

View of Quito from the balcony of my hostel, located in the Historical Center

One of Quito’s claims-to-fame is its location very near to the equator.  In fact, the word “Quito” means “middle land” in the ancient indigenous language of the region  — they had figured out the approximate location of the equator long before the Europeans arrived. There is a museum just outside of the city called Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World) which is located on the exact location of the equator, allowing all sorts of interesting science experiments.  For example, we saw how water drains out of a tub in one direction a few meters north of the equator, in the opposite direction a few meters south, and straight down on the equator itself.  My favorite experiment was doing a “sobriety walk” right on the equator… the crazy magnetic forces make it almost impossible to walk a straight line, even stone cold sober.  If you walk a couple meters north or south of the line it’s a breeze.

Doing a "sobriety walk" on the equator. Much harder than it looks!

From Quito I made several day and overnight trips to nearby towns.  There was Baños, a cute town in the sugar cane growing region of the country famous for its tasty sugar cane taffy and beautiful waterfalls. There was also Papallacta, popular amongst Ecuadorians for its relaxing natural hot springs. Relaxing Otavalo is best known for its handicrafts market and relative affluence.

My favorite excursion from Quito was one that unfortunately none of my blog readers can experience:  the family farm of my hostel-owner’s wife.  After staying in the same hostel for several weeks I became friends with the owner and his family who lived downstairs in the hundreds-of-years-old converted colonial house.  They served the most delicious hot chocolate with breakfast there, made from fresh roasted cacao seed, and when I asked where it came from they told me about the family farm of Maria, the owner’s wife.  I was eventually invited to visit the farm and shown great hospitality by Maria’s father and siblings, which was a great honor since they don’t normally invite tourists to stay there.

This farm was the real-deal.  It was very remote, a three hour bus ride from Quito along mostly dirt roads followed by a one hour mule ride high into the hills.  The house itself was very basic, constructed with hand saws and basic tools some four decades ago by Maria’s father, now 86 years old and with the health and vitality of someone half his age.

The farm is a case study in sustainable living.  Located so remotely, getting anything in or out of the farm is an all-day affair so the family has learned to live off the land.  They eat mostly fruits and vegetables grown on site, drink milk and make cheese from their own cows, and slaughter their own chickens and pigs for meat.  They live without indoor plumbing, landline telephones or Internet, but did find a way to get electricity a few years ago to power lights at night and charge their cell phone.  It’s a simple way of life, but quite healthy and serene.

At the farm I was taught how to milk a cow, make cheese, and make chocolate from fresh cacao seeds.  I’m sure the family was in awe of my ignorance of the basic tasks of rural living.  Still, they patiently explained things to me and treated me like a son.

Mules brought down to the bus stop by Maria's brother to lug me and my luggage to the farm

Standing in front of the farm house, built by hand by Maria's father

Maria's sister carrying a pail of milk, which I helped relieve from the cow, up to the farm house

The farm house experience would be tough to beat but I saw several other places in Ecuador that gave it a run for the money.  One was visiting the Cotopaxi volcano, the highest active volcano in the world at over 19,000 feet and a symbol of Ecuador.  Hiking part-way up the volcano was an experience in itself, accented by staying several days in the beautiful rural area surrounding it.  Pictures do the experience more justice than words so I’ll be generous with the former and thrifty with the latter.

A volunteer at my rural hostel chopping firewood, with Cotopaxi in the left partially obscured by clouds

Horseback riding with some fellow travelers in the hills around Cotopaxi

Taking a break from my chilly hike up Cotopaxi. I never made it to the snow-covered peak, which requires an overnight expedition with a guide.

Taking a break from my bike ride from the base of the volcano back to my hostel

My travels through off-the-beaten-track Ecuador continued with a few days in the Quilotoa loop, a remote area of the country surrounding Quilotoa crater lake.  This crater lake was created by an exploding volcano thousands of years ago and is a beautiful sight to behold.  Getting there is tricky, requiring a series of bumpy rides on public buses filled with rural Ecuadorians and the occasional farm animal (almost everyone living in the area is a farmer.)  The destination made the journey worthwhile.

As with Cotopaxi, the pictures tell the story so again I’ll emphasize photos more than words.

At the rim of the Quilotoa crater overlooking the lake. I spent the next few hours hiking around the rim and back into my village with a local guide.

A little girl I encountered and shared some candy with on the trail back the village, as she was tending to her sheep. Must be the world's youngest shepherd.

This photo was altered with the Camera+ app on my iPhone but I couldn't resist posting it. The boy is carrying his baby brother on his back while he harvests wheat.

After spending several weeks in the chilly Ecuadorian highlands, I was ready for some beach time.  I had learned to kitesurf in Brazil during the 4 months I spent there and was anxious to back on a board, so I chose a small beach town called Santa Marianita about 20 minutes outside of Manta on the Ecuadorian coast.   With its strong and consistent cross-shore winds, Santa Marianita is said to have the best kitesurfing conditions on the Pacific coast of South America and it didn’t disappoint.

Santa Marianita’s best and worst attribute, depending on your perspective, is that there’s not much to do there other than kitesurf.  There’s one basic hotel on the beach, a few small guest houses, and a half dozen tiny restaurants that all serve the same fish and prawn dishes.  It’s pretty isolated – if you want to buy toilet paper or groceries you have to drive into Manta.

I spent a week in Santa Marianita and kitesurfed almost every day, advancing my skill level from “beginner” to “intermediate.”  My only regret from my time there is that I caught a nasty cold, possibly walking pneumonia, that took me over 2 weeks to kick.  Note to fellow kitesurfers:  no matter how much fun you’re having, when you’re so cold that your teeth are chattering and hands go numb it’s time to head to shore.

A kitesurfer preparing his kite for launch on Santa Marianita beach

Delicious lunch of freshly caught prawns, coconut rice and fried plantains

At last we’ve reached the end of my South American Roundup update.  It was a lot for one blog post and I appreciate my readers’ patience.  I promise not to let as much time lapse between posts going forward.

I’m wrapping up this post from Vietnam, the latest destination of my Chasing Summer adventure.  Since leaving South America I’ve spent about a month between Hawaii, Thailand and Vietnam, but I’ll save them for separate blog posts.  Until next time!

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Tour de Argentina

To survive extended travel one must develop a rhythm and balance.  Moving constantly becomes tiring and staying in one place too long becomes boring, so one finds a balance between the two. Looking back over the last 9 months, we’ve tended to alternate between extended stays in one city (usually 3-4 weeks) and long bursts of “rapid fire” travel where it’s 2 or 3 nights in one destination and then on to the next.  Wanderlust must be balanced with the comfort of home, even if “home” is a comfortable South American apartment rented by the week.

After nearly 4 weeks in Buenos Aires, we started a tour of Argentina that took us all the way from chilly southern Patagonia to the northwest tip of the country, about 4,000 kilometers in total, traversed entirely via bus.  Destinations included El Calafate, El Chalten, Bariloche, Mendoza, and Salta.  As has become the custom after bursts of rapid fire travel, I’ll devote a few paragraphs and photos to each location even though one could easily write a blog post on each.

El Calafate

We arrived there via plane, which was a blissfully easy way to travel compared to the numerous 12+ hour bus rides that took us back north.  El Calafate is located in southern Patagonia, not far from Antarctica, and has the cold climate to prove it.  It’s a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts, and the surrounding mountains offer some of the best hiking, trekking, rock climbing, and ice climbing in the world.  The town is small and the weather is harsh, but the clean Patagonian air and snow-capped mountain vistas make it all worthwhile.

Patagonian lake and mountains close to El Calafate

The main tourist attraction in El Calafate is the Perito Moreno glacier, one of the few glaciers in the world that is not receding.  It’s a breathtaking sight to behold, especially as every few minutes a large chunk of ice breaks off the glacier and into the water with a thunderous roar.  A local tour company even offers ice trekking on the glacier itself, which we did one sunny afternoon.  Hiking on a massive glacier with crampons strapped to our boots was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  The best part of the trek was at the end, when our guides handed us glasses of whiskey poured over freshly chipped glacial ice.

The Perito Moreno glacier

Freezing cold but it was worth it for the view

El Chalten

From El Calafate it was off to El Chalten, a much smaller town (if you can imagine) at the edge of the Patagonian wilderness.  It has one main road, two ATM”s, and no cell phone service. The town is only 20 years old and subsists entirely on tourism, serving as a base camp for day hikes and overnight treks through the Los Glaciares National Park.

We timed our arrival to Chalten poorly, in late March at the very end of the summer tourist season.  We literally checked out of our hostel on the last day before it closed for winter.  There is a good reason that Chalten closes at the end of March — the weather becomes quite harsh.  Even bundled up it was too cold and windy for long treks, but we still managed to fit in a few day hikes to the surrounding snow-capped mountains and waterfalls.  The fresh air and beautiful scenery justified our chilly toes.

Lauren standing in front of her reward for walking an hour though the cold and rain

A postcard-like view of the Patagonian mountains

It was every bit as cold as it looks

Bariloche

Patagonia is roughly divided into two parts, the cold and mountainous southern region and the temperate, lake-covered northern region.  Bariloche is in the latter, an evergreen and scenic resort town with excellent skiing in the winter and equally great biking and hiking in the summer.  It reminded me a lot of Vail, Colorado.

We took advantage of our great weather there to go mountain biking, paragliding, and just strolling through the picturesque town.

A typical view of Bariloche's hills, trees and lakes

Cable car up to the town's highest viewpoint

Lauren coming in for a landing after her first (and only) paragliding flight

Mendoza

Our next stop was Mendoza, which is famous Argentinean wine country.   If you’ve ever tasted an Argentinean malbec it probably came from Mendoza.  If you haven’t tasted an Argentinean malbec then you’re missing out!

Mendoza was a great place to visit, although it pales in comparison to Napa Valley in the US in terms of scenery. The landscape is flat and the city much more industrial than Napa or Sonoma.  That said, the surrounding area is beautiful and offers lots of outdoor adventure sports such as whitewater rafting, mountain biking, and rock climbing.  We enjoyed our few days there and drank lots of delicious and inexpensive malbec.

Some over-sized bottles of malbec in Bodegas López, the largest winery in Argentina

Rock-climbing close to Mendoza

Lauren drinking "mate," the ubiquitous tea-like obsession of Argentina, after her climb

Salta

The final stop on our “Tour de Argentina” was Salta in the rugged northwest of the country.  Salta is situated in the Argentinian equivalent to the American wild west, with lots of horses, cattle and Arizona-like landscapes.  It’s beautiful and untamed country with many natural wonders.

I went horseback riding one day with Enrique and his staff at Sayta Cabalgatas and it was an excellent experience.  We also went on a day-trip to Cafayate, a quant town about 180km from Salta.  Although the town itself was nice, the drive there through Argentina’s magnificent canyon country was half the fun.

The breathtaking canyon country between Salta and Cafayate

First-person perspective from the saddle of my horse, Paisano

Lauren standing in a huge natural rock amphitheater close to Cafayate

Well folks, that concludes our one-month tour of vast Argentina.  I’m writing you today from Medellin, Colombia, after an extended and fast-paced trek through Chile, Bolivia, and Peru.  But that’s for another blog post.  Besos y abrazos!

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Buenos Aires, Argentina

Leaving the warmth of Brazil’s beaches and people was no easy feat, but as they say in theater… the show must go on. Next on the travel itinerary was the vast country of Argentina, beginning in its cosmopolitan capital of Buenos Aires.

Though Argentina and Brazil share a continent, a border, and (somewhat) similar languages, they couldn’t be more different culturally and economically. Brazil has the feel of a country on the rise, with deep social problems yet explosive economic progress and an uninhibited joie de vivre. In Argentina, on the other hand, the dominant vibe is cultural sophistication mixed with a nostalgia for better days. It is a country that has risen, fallen hard, and has cautious optimism to rise again.

The porteños, or people of Buenos Aires, look and act more European than stereotypical South American. Their blood is mostly Spanish, German and Italian, and they speak with a very distinctive Spanish accent as if to elevate themselves above their South American neighbors. They carry themselves with a confidence bordering on arrogance, and often come across as distant and unfriendly until you get to know them. That said, they’re not bad people, they just take a bit longer to open up. If there’s anything I’ve learned from traveling over 40 countries around the world, it’s that cultures and communication styles are different, but at their core all people are equally warm.

Aesthetically, Buenos Aires (or BsAs as it’s commonly abbreviated here) doesn’t look like any other South American city that I’ve seen. It has European-style boulevards, architecture, and cafes that are more reminiscent of Paris than Sao Paulo. In fact, a Parisian friend with whom we recently shared dinner said that it reminds him of home. There is also world-class shopping in BsAs, at least for foreigners with hard currency. The Argentinian peso has been very weak ever since it was unpegged to the US dollar in 2001, which triggered a major economic crisis here. For Americans, Europeans, and even Brazilians these days, it’s a relatively cheap country to travel and shop.

Street corner in Recoleta, a posh BsAs neighborhood

View of the city from our 35th floor apartment

We stayed in Buenos Aires for three full weeks, enjoying the food, the shopping, and all the creature comforts that a big city has to offer. Coming straight from the rugged Amazon, for me it was a very pleasant reprise. We don’t have much to show for it other than some new designer clothes and photos from our graffiti tour (BsAs is famous for its street art) but it was a much-needed rest stop on a long traveling journey. Our days were mostly filled with strolls around town and through the park, soaking up the sun and ubiquitous high-speed wifi access. I finally got caught up with my P90X workouts and ate enough inexpensive and delicious Argentinian steak to disgust most mortals.

Buenos Aires street art

One of my many bites of Argentinian grass-fed beef

We did get some culture in as well, such as a tango show at Cafe Tortoni (Argentina’s oldest and most revered cafe), a visit to the Recoleta cemetery for the obligatory visit to Evita’s grave (and we watched the movie “Evita” to get some historical context), a visit to the Casa Rosada where Evita and her husband Juan Perón addressed adoring fans, a stroll through the famous Caminito in La Boca, and the accidental attendance of a huge parade to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the end of Argentina’s military dictatorship.

Tango singers at Cafe Tortoni

The famous Caminito in the La Boca neighborhood

Political parade near the Casa Rosada to celebrate 35 year of post-dictatorship democracy

We now understand why Buenos Aires is so popular amongst American tourists. It’s cosmopolitan, sophisticated, safe, and even feels a bit like home.

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The best jacket for woman-kind

So some of you may think it’s strange that I want to write a blog post about my jacket, but I believe it’s the best jacket in the entire world.  When you pack for one year of travel in a carry-on size bag, it is very important to choose the best pieces of clothing which are extremely functional.  I have that one jacket!  When I was home for a 2 day layover in November before heading to South America, I went to REI to buy a new jacket.  My requirements were that it had to have a hood and pack down extremely flat.  The sweatshirt I had in Europe was just a bit too bulky.  I knew that it would get cold at night in Peru and I needed an extra layer between my clothes and my shell (rain jacket).  I found the most amazing jacket by Salomon!!! I just recently realized what an incredible piece of clothing it was on my hike today.  The past week, we have been in Patagonia, Argentina where we have been wearing every layer of warm clothes that are in our bags.

Why this jacket rocks….

  1. Thumb holes with extra fabric that covers your knuckles and palms
  2. Fold-out mittens
  3. Little zipper pocket in the front that holds my iPhone and cash/credit cards
  4. Big zipper pocket on the back of the jacket where I keep my journal and a pen when I’m out for the day
  5. Cute purple color
  6. Ventilated arm-pits
  7. And the last reason which I discovered today…a hole in the hood for my ponytail

Built-in mittens!

You girls will understand the problem I have when I put a hood on my head I’m not sure what to do with my hair.  Do I stuff it down in the back?  Do I pull it out to the side?  Well, with this hood, there is a hole in the back to pull my ponytail out!!! I thought it was just for ventilation and it may still be intended for that, but the fact that it’s the perfect height for my ponytail to just fit right out the back is ingenious. I got so excited when I figured this out on my way back from my hike that I decided there needed to be a blog post dedicated to my jacket.

Much needed jacket on the islands of Lake Titicaca in Peru

Thanks for reading ;)

Just to catch you all up, I met Jared in Buenos Aires on March 3rd and we spent 3 weeks exploring the city.  Jared is currently working on a new blog post about BsAs.  From BsAs, we flew south to El Calafate in Patagonia and spent a few days there where we visited the Moreno Glacier.  From El Calafate, we took a 3 hour bus to El Chalten and spent 4 days there.  Currently, we are on a 2 day bus trip heading north to warmer weather and Bariloche, Argentina which is the beautiful lake region.

 

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Tour do Brasil, Parte 2

When all was said and done I spent 4 full months living and traveling in Brazil, covering the country as far south as Florianópolis, as far north as Jericoacoara, as far east as Fernando de Naronha, and as far west as the heart of the Amazon.  I’ve probably seen more of Brazil than 99% of Brazilians!

The final stretch of my “tour do Brasil” included Canoa Quebrada, Fortaleza, Jericoacoara, Manaus, and the Amazon jungle.  As with the last post, in the interest of time I’ll only devote a couple of paragraphs to each even though they all deserve much more. Since the Amazon jungle was a bit more exotic than the rest I’ll give it special treatment.

Canoa Quebrada

This dry and windy beach town in the northeast of the country was a fisherman village turned hippie commune turned tourist mecca.  One can still see traces of each stage of the town’s history.  It’s a popular spot for backpackers due to its relative remoteness and inexpensive prices, though of all the Brazilian beach towns that I’ve seen (and that’s a lot) it was not one of my favorites.  Though certainly picturesque, Canoa has a barren feel in sharp contrast to its more green and lush neighbors.

That said, I don’t regret the 3 days that we spent there and managed to get in a couple of kitesurfing lessons which alone made the trip worthwhile.

Fishing boats on the beach in Canoa Quebrada

Hippie reggae bar on the beach

Fortaleza

Fortaleza is the capital of the state of Ceará and the 5th largest city in Brazil.  Though it has some decent beaches, I found it rather seedy and generic compared to other spots in the Brazilian northeast.  It was a good reminder never to vacation in beach towns with direct international flights!  Though obviously popular amongst package tourists, Fortaleza doesn’t serve much purpose for backpackers other than as a jumping-off point for other spots up and down the northeast coast.

Jericoacoara

“Jeri” as it’s known locally is a backpacker haven, and rightly so.  It’s one of those rare and special places with just the right mix of natural beauty, smart development, and vibe.  To arrive in Jeri you must endure a 7 hour trek from Fortaleza via bus and 4 x 4, which fortunately keeps out the masses.  There are no paved roads to the town nor within it, only sand ones.  The main form of transport around town is Havaianas.

Jeri is located within a protected national park, surrounded by beautiful sand dunes populated mostly by cows, sheep, and donkeys.  By law, every plot of land must remain 40% undeveloped and no buildings may be more than 2 stories high.  Although rustic, Jeri is very clean, comfortable and inexpensive.  With strong, consistent wind and flat freshwater lagoons, it also offers some of the best kitesurfing in all of Brazil so was essentially heaven for us.  Even after 9 days there it was tough to leave.

Kitesurfing in a freshwater lagoon

After a kitesurfing lesson

Nightly capoeira demonstration on the beach

Manaus and the Amazon

Although it was painful to pull myself away from Brazil’s beaches,  I couldn’t leave the country without first seeing the Amazon. There are few places on Earth that conjure more vivid imagery of remoteness, wildlife, and danger.

Like most who visit the Amazon basin I flew into Manaus, a major city located in the heart of the jungle.  It’s hard to imagine given its location, but Manaus is a well-developed metropolis with a population of over 2M.  It’s an industrial town and not particularly beautiful, but still worth spending a couple of days in.  There is a zoo and opera house to visit, but I found the most interesting things about Manaus to be the subtle quirks that characterize an Amazonian city, like how all the fish served in restaurants comes straight from the river and the distances to neighboring towns are described in kilometers up or downstream.

In Manaus, I booked a 4-day stay at a jungle lodge located about 100km south of the city and accessible only by boat.  The digs were extremely basic but the overall experience was unforgettable.  There we spotted tarantulas, sloths, monkeys, and pink river dolphins, hunted and ate piranhas, and caught cayman barehanded.  In the jungle, our guides showed us how to find and eat grubs right out of palm nuts (delicious… they taste like coconut) and pointed out bullet ants, so poisonous that a single bite feels like getting shot by a bullet and multiple bites can kill.  Despite its many poisonous ants, spiders and snakes, the most dangerous bugs in the jungle are actually the mosquitos, or more specifically the dengue fever and malaria that they carry.  I practically bathed myself in DEET.

The ruggedness and danger of the Amazon jungle is justified by its beauty.  Watching the sunset over the glassy smooth river is breathtaking, and there are more colorful exotic birds and plants than have been named by scientists.

I also enjoyed chatting with our native guides, many of whom have lived their entire lives in the jungle.  One of them grew up in a tiny village deep in the jungle, living off manioc root, fruits, and monkey meat. He didn’t see a real city until he was 17, and said he’ll never go back because motor exhaust makes him nauseated.  Another spent 5 years in the Brazilian army, patrolling the border with Colombia to keep paramilitaries out of Brazil.  He explained to me how to prepare acaí berries and hunt jaguars at night, and which jungle animals have the tastiest meat. These guys are the real deal.

Deep into a flooded jungle forest via canoe

Sunset on an Amazon tributary

Leaving the jungle lodge with a guide

I’m writing this post from sophisticated Buenos Aires, Argentina, in a modern high-rise apartment that couldn’t feel farther away from the Amazon basin.  Here the locals prefer beef to piranha meat.  I already feel homesick for Brazil but simultaneously look forward to meeting Argentina and her neighbors in the coming months.  Hasta la próxima…

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