One Year Later

One Year Later

It always starts with a little bit of an awkward silence. After all, the passengers are strangers and as the driver the last thing I want to do is annoy them by talking their ears off. I confirm the destination, lock my phone in place, and adjust the radio. My silver Corolla and I have made over 100 Uber trips now, so I’m very at ease with the role. It’s relaxing – mindless, even.

More often than not, riders will initiate conversation, which I appreciate. We talk about the weather, the Bucks and the Packers, weekend plans, music, etc. It’s small talk, mostly. Although there is one question I field far and away more frequently than any other.

“So how long have you been driving for Uber, then?”

It’s a simple enough question that I could answer directly – I’ve been driving for about two months now – but such a quick response causes conversation to fizzle. I’ve learned to frame my answer in such a way that all but guarantees an interesting exchange with my passengers.

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Milwaukee East Side (Photo)

“Well I’m a teacher in Greendale, so I really just do this on the side. I started two months ago when I moved to Milwaukee after spending a year in Uruguay.”

Where the conversation goes from there is up to the riders; the two simple sentences have sparked all kinds of interesting discussions.

“Oh, you’re a teacher? What do you teach?
I teach Spanish at Highland View Elementary School in Greendale, a suburb just south of Milwaukee. 

“Wow. Spanish in elementary school?”
Yep. I teach Spanish to Kindergarten through 5th grade students, about 375 students in all. Each student has Spanish three per week, at 25 minutes a crack. It’s amazing what they are able to retain at that age.

And I really, really enjoy it. I’m in a top-notch school district, the staff has been very helpful, the families are supportive, and the students are excited about school. And besides memorizing 400+ names, I don’t think I could possibly quantify just how much I have been able to learn in my first two months here.

I don’t envision myself teaching elementary-aged students forever, but the experience has been unquestionably positive. The students stretch my creativity, grill me with questions, test my patience, and provide me with an endless supply of stories that will make you laugh, cry or both. It is motivating and fulfilling – all you can ask for with a first job, really.

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Milwaukee East Side (Photo)

“And what do you think of Milwaukee?”
Milwaukee is great! It’s a fun city that has something to offer everyone. Plus my sister, her husband and their four month-old son, Declan, are in the area. Not to mention the high school and college friends who live close, too. 

I mean who wouldn’t wanna see the little guy as much as possible, right?! My family and friends, here, have really gone above and beyond to make me feel welcome and help ease my transition back to the Midwest. It has been so appreciated!


“Oh and did you say Uruguay? Did you really live there?”

Sometimes I find myself in disbelief, pondering those same questions. Uruguay… I was really there. I lived there for eight months. The memories are as vivid and as real as ever, but it’s still difficult to wrap my head around all that I have experienced in the past year.

March 20, 2018 marks the one year anniversary of my arrival in Montevideo. Likewise, today marks three full months back in the Motherland. I’m tempted to say that my time in Uruguay flew by, or that it feels like forever ago that I was even down there. Nevertheless when I really stop and reflect upon the experience, the moments add up quickly.

There was my first glimpse of the rolling hills from airplane window and the ride into the city that first day – the crashing waves of the Rio de la Plata on my left, the dense Montevidean skyline to my right.

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Montevideo | March 20, 2017

Soon came my first chivito, which I enjoyed in the company of my fellow Fulbrighters. Then I had my first taste of dulce de leche, and my first mate coupled with my first taste of a South American soccer rivalry, a clash between host Uruguay and big bad Brazil, our neighbors to the east.

There was my first trip on a Montevideo city bus, my first time listening to cumbia, my first gulps of Patricia, and my first walk down La Rambla. Not to mention my first six hour trek to the country’s northern border, my first Nuñez family asado, nor my first day teaching in a Uruguayan classroom.

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Rivera, Uruguay | March 27, 2017

The moments add up quick… and that was just my first week. How could anyone possibly expect me to be able to articulate what eight months in Uruguay were like during a seven minute Uber ride across town? It’s impossible.

“So, like what kind of food did you eat down there?”
I could tell you about the different foods I sampled and I could even show you pictures! But I would run out of time before I had the chance to tell you about the times I made homemade empanadas with Daniel, or the pizzas we cooked up for Germán’s birthday, or the churros I picked up from Manuel in Parque Rodó, or the chorripanes I was treated to by the students in Tacuarembó.

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Uruguayan Asado | March 2017

“And you were teaching down there? What are the schools like?”
Hmmm… which of the 900-1000 classroom visits should I reference in my answer? Do I start with High Schools 6, 7 and El Pomoli whose students elevated me to celebrity status in the town of Rivera? What about the village school in Tambores, where the kids and I played football and fútbol after a full day of English classes?

I would be remiss not to mention all the incredible teachers and student teachers who were so influential to my experience. And what about the World Culture Fair in Médanos? The group of senior citizens in Tacuarembó, the pen-pal program at Liceo Providencia in Cerro, the military officers in La Blanqueada, the conference in Salto, and in Rocha, and in Rivera, and…

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Rivera, Uruguay | April 2017

“And were you ever scared or nervous?”
Oh absolutely. I had do a bunch of presentations in front of big crowds. I sweat through a couple of live radio interviews conducted in Spanish. I sang karaoke in front of my host family. I was biting at my fingernails for the duration of an exhilarating Uruguay-Argentina soccer stalemate…

I mean… that’s what you meant by nervous, right? 😉

I guess I also felt nervous when the temperature started getting warmer. When August turned to September, and when September turned to October. When it came time to think about going home I found myself appreciating the bike rides home from school just a little bit more. I savored the poroto, bought more bizcochos, and stayed up talking with Guillermo a bit later.

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Guillermo y Yo | November 2017

Uruguay had become home and I wasn’t sure what would be coming next. It was nerve-wracking to wonder if I had soaked up as much as I possibly could have out of the Fulbright experience. Was I going to have regrets? Did I take advantage of every opportunity? Was I going to miss Uruguay?

“So do you miss Uruguay?”

Of course. There isn’t a day that goes by in which something doesn’t trigger a memory from my South American adventure. I hit shuffle on Spotify and all of a sudden I’m singing along to La Vela Puerca. A rainy afternoon and I’m craving torta frita. A quick swipe through Twitter and I’m glancing over the Peñarol box score.

I take tremendous pride in the fact that I know more about Uruguay than probably 99% of people in the United States. I know street names. I can tell you which buses you need to get from Tres Cruces to Punta Carretas. I know what a kilo of queso colonia should cost at the local Disco. I can name all 19 provinces…

And this seemingly “useless” information doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, because of how meaningful it was to me during those 275 days. And I’m left thinking about all those great memories long after my passengers have slammed the door…

The Cuatro Pesos concert, the basketball practices at Liceo 7, the conversations at Plaza de Deportes, the gorgeous afternoon on the sand dunes in Cabo Polonia, the time I rode a horse through the countryside, all the stunning sunsets on La Rambla

My phone buzzes and a notification flashes across the screen: New rider request… The message brings me back to consciousness, but I know that in just a matter of minutes I’ll get to start telling stories all over again.

A las ordenes.

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Photo courtesy of Red Wing Digital

December 19, 2017
With my head propped aside the window, I felt the subtle vibrations as the plane made its way across the tarmac in preparation for takeoff. Eyes resting, I sensed the plane come to halt. We had reached the runway and I took a deep breath in anticipation.

🎵 Volvé a tu casa cuando quieras,
Siempre te esperan a cenar.
🎵
Return home whenever you want,
They always await you for dinner.

One of my favorite No Te Va Gustar songs came to mind as I prepared for the impending journey. I shuffled through my songs and pressed play, hoping the strumming of the guitar would calm me down a bit.

The hair on my arms stood up when the plane lurched forward, and the emotion hit me all at once when we took flight. A dip of the wing provided me one last glimpse of La Paz. I felt my eyes well up and lip start to twitch as I reflected upon what an amazing adventure I had just completed.

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And although my eyes were fixed on the massive, snow-capped mountains to my left, I wasn’t thinking about all the beautiful sites I had gotten to see, but rather all the incredible people I had gotten to meet along the way.

🎵 Pensé que estaba solo y no era cierto
Si tengo con quien quedarme a festejar
🎵
I thought was on my own but I wasn’t,
For I had many with whom I could celebrate.

It was a moment I’ll cherish for a long time, a subtle despedida to South America and an abrazo de lejos to all the people who had made my nine month adventure so special.

During my days in Brazil I learned that there existed a word in Portuguese to describe the sensation I was feeling; They call it saudade.

The tears in my eyes didn’t form because I was sad to be leaving South America, necessarily. And saudade doesn’t provoke a desire to relive a particular time, either.

If I had to name the feeling I was experiencing I would describe it as an overwhelming sense of gratefulness, of accomplishment, of satisfaction, and of nostalgia. There’s no one word for it in English, but it exists and if you ever made a move across the country l’m guessing you’ve felt it.

I’m guessing it’s similar to what you might feel when you leave from a job you treasured very much. I have to imagine there’s a feeling of overwhelming gratitude, yet while you may have loved your job you probably couldn’t invest another forty years into the career.

Even if you enjoyed every second of work, so much so perhaps that it didn’t even feel like work, I think you get to a point where you recognize that you can’t hang on forever. And as I reflected upon my fondest memories from the last nine months, which were some of the best of my life, that’s how I felt.

It was a unique position to be in, stuck between hasta mañana 🇺🇸 and hasta la próxima 🌎, and while I was more excited than ever to finally be heading home, I can’t say I was in a hurry to end an experience that had been so overwhelmingly spectacular and fruitful.

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🎵 No te preocupes
No vuelvo hasta mañana
🎵
Don’t worry,
Although I won’t be home til tomorrow

Home is waiting for me. That’s the next move. I have a wonderful family and incredible group of friends that I haven’t seen in nine months. I have a nephew to meet and we have Christmas to celebrate. A white Christmas, as a matter of fact.

Plus, I have a classroom and about 500 chiquilines waiting for me, too, at Highland View Elementary School. Yes, that’s right! I accepted a Spanish teaching position in the Milwaukee suburb of Greendale. I start January 2.

Truly, it would be so much more difficult to leave South America if I didn’t have such an amazing place to go home to. When fellow backpackers in La Paz asked me about the next destination on my itinerary, it was with a smile I told them I had reached the end. I was going home.

Now I get to start telling the stories and sharing about all the wonderful people and places I encountered during my 285 days in South America.

The novelty will certainly wear off eventually, but for the the time being I get to have some pretty fun conversations with people. For example, on my final plane ride the woman next to me struck up a conversation that started something like this:

– 👩🏻 So, did you spend the weekend in Philadelphia?
– 👦🏼Actually I spent the weekend in Bolivia.
– 👩🏻 Wow! How long were you down there?
– 👦🏼 Well… actually I spent nine months in South America.
– 👩🏻 …

That’s where the questions begin. Uruguay? Fulbright? Impressive! What made you choose Uruguay? Can you point out Uruguay on the map for me? You must speak Spanish, right? Did you get to travel around South America? Did you feel nervous at all traveling on your own? What kind of foods did you eat? What was the weather like? Is Uruguay a cheap place to live? Did you see many Americans in Uruguay? 

I imagine I’ll have quite a few conversations like this over the next few days and weeks, but I’ll never get tired of telling you how much I loved Uruguay. I will always be happy to tell of my travels through South America, just please don’t ask, “How was your trip?”, because I won’t know where to begin.

Actually, if you really want to hear more about my experience, let me get you a coffee sometime, or better yet, I’ll make you a mate. I can’t wait to have the chance to catch up with all of you whom I haven’t seen in so long.

It’s quite surreal to be so close to home. Months ago when asked how long I’d be staying in South America I vaguely stated November or December. Once my flight was solidified I would say mid-December, which evolved to the nineteenth, and then it was Tuesday, and then all of a sudden it was tomorrow.

Well, now it’s today, and I’m about to take off. Two hours from now, after my fourth and final flight I’ll be in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and within a couple of days the eight of us will be back in the Newman family living room.

There’ll be a fire in the fireplace and Uruguayan wine on the table. We have Wheel of Fortune to watch, Catan to play, and a whole bunch of catching up to do.

A las órdenes

 


Algo bueno: All of you, thanks to each and every one of you for your support, prayers, and kind words the past nine months. You‘ll never know how much it has meant to me.
Algo malo: My return trip itinerary as a result of a delay and missed connection.
– La Paz (1 hour) Santa Cruz
– Santa Cruz (7 hours) Miami
– Overnight in Miami Hotel
– Miami (3 hours) Philadelphia
– Philadelphia (2 hours) Milwaukee
Algo curioso: During my lifetime I have left Uruguay more times (4) as many times as I have left the United States.
Algo sabroso: The Sheperd’s Pie awaiting me tonight in Milwaukee, Grandma Fogarty’s recipe.

Edit – December 24, 2017

Feliz Navidad and Happy Holidays my friends! I have enjoyed having the chance to see friends and family again, and still have many more people to see! Merry Christmas!

– Joel 

La Paz

La Paz

In some ways, the aging skyscrapers and thousands of brick dwellings stacked on top of one another resembled the towering balsa and ficus trees of the forest. The chirping I heard was not that of crickets, but rather of car horns.

From the El Alto neighborhood (altitude 4000 meters or 15,000 feet) the cars down in the valley were like the worker ants. The traffic, weaving it’s way up and down hills and through narrow alleyways, extended for miles. The snowcapped mountain in the distance offered a serenity equal to that of the lush, green hills in Madidi.

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The rolling thunder was replaced by the rumbling of truck motors. The odor of exhaust was stronger than even the most potent of insect repellents, while the aromas from the skewers on the street vendors’ grills were as enticing as the jungle flowers.

The city was equally as dense as the forest, with cars and people cutting through every which way. Having just spent a week in the Amazon, the expression concrete jungle held true with regard to the sprawling metropolis of La Paz, Bolivia.

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Just like in the rainforest, I was lucky to meet a very warm, competent and incredibly generous guide. A friend and former classmate at UW-Eau Claire, Brady, was kind enough to put me in touch with a friend of his from La Paz, Sílvia, who freed up her Saturday to take me all over the city.

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Plaza San Francisco
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Congreso Nacional Boliviano 

We walked up and down hills, in and out of artisan shops, and through more than a handful of parks and plazas. After a rooftop lunch in the city center, we hopped in a microbus and made our way to the Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley), so named due to its’ curious appearance.

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Upon his visit to La Paz in the 1970s, Neil Armstrong remarked that the rock formations resembled those in which he observed on the moon!

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Our next means of transportation was the teleférico amarillo, one of the six chairlifts that lift residents across the city. It’s a strange sensation to be floating above the city, and to have the ability to look right down into homes.

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We traversed the southern end of the city until once again reaching the best views yet. From Mirador Killi Killi we enjoyed an impecable 360º view of La Paz as the sun began to set. The buildings glowed, accentuating the impressive skyline before us, a tremendous finale to cap off the day.

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La Paz is as eccentric a city as I’ve ever visited. It’s the largest city in the poorest country in South America. As a result there’s quite a bit of garbage and homelessness is very abundant. I even routinely saw men relieving themselves on street corners.

Nevertheless La Paz has her charm and the people seemed to go out of their way to insure a great stay in their city. There’s a sense of pride that accompanied the madness of such a high-energy and diverse city.

There is a massive indigenous population, most easily noted by the presence of cholitas, women of Aymaran descent who continue to wear the traditional dress. There is even a culture of witchcraft in Bolivia, and many Bolivians recognize the Pachamama (Mother Earth) as a living being to be honored.

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In El Mercado de las Brujas (Witch Market) you can find anything from to love potions and Aymaran home remedies to alpaca fetuses which are offered as sacrifices to Pachamama.

Despite its’ flaws, La Paz works. You’ll see cholitas running through traffic and hear locals constantly bargaining for the best prices. It’s functional and while I could never live there, I found it to be an energizing and life-giving place to be. Like jungle, you never know what might await you around the corner.

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You can find just about anything at the Sunday morning feria in the El Alto neighborhood, which attracts hundreds of thousands each week.
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Preparing for Christmas in La Paz!
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Incredible Artisans

It was such a treat to explore the city with Sílvia, a lifelong Paceña! She freed up her whole day to show me around the city, which she loves so much, and we saw so much of the city during our “tour” and I was left absolutely content with my experience in La Paz.

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Muchísimas gracias, Sílvia, por la buena onda y un día espectacular en la cuidad maravillosa!

In Spanish, la paz means “the peace” and although the city was anything but peaceful, the name fit my situation as I was absolutely satisfied with my travels and at peace with the fact that I would soon be departing for the US once again.

Well, I was almost satisfied. There was still one adventure left to be had. A bucket list-type item. Another of those things you don’t tell your mom about until after you’ve… survived.
Gotta go out with a bang, right? 😉

While officially named the North Yungas Road, for decades it has been referred to as El Camino de la Muerte: Death Road. While designed for two-way traffic, Death Road is hardly wide enough for one vehicle. It’s 54 kilometers (34 miles) of snaking curves, hair-pin turns, and rollercoaster-like descents.

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Prior to the construction of the modern highway more commonly used today, the route’s narrow stretches, loose gravel and frequent mudslides and pushed thousands of vehicles off the edge into the valley below. Prior to the byway’s opening in 2006, El Camino de la Muerte claimed an estimate 300 lives a year.

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Scary stuff, right? Well, to celebrate my final day in South America I decided to take it on… on a bicycle. Boliviang life to the fullest, one might say!

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I don’t do rollercoasters, I’d never bungee jump, and I’ve whimpered about flying in each of my last two blogs. I’m the friend who tells other friends to slow down when they’re drying too fast. Having said all that, I’m calculated.

I measured the risks and rewards, and reasoned that I had nothing to worry about. There was something about this ride that made me feel confident. For example if the road was wide enough for at least one car, I would certainly have some room for error on a bike.

 

Likewise, it was an almost exclusively downhill ride. In fact, over the nearly 4-5 hour ride we would drop from our initial height of 4700 meters (15,400 feet) to an altitude of 1200 meters (3,200 feet). No pedaling? Sounds like the best kind of ride!

Are you convinced yet? How about if I tell you the first 20 kilometers were on asphalt, and that our top of the line bikes were designed for the exact terrain waiting for us the remaining 34 kilometers?

I chose the oldest, most trusted and reputable agency: Gravity-Assist Down Hill. In nearly twenty years of operation, none of their cyclists have ever died. A guide reassured me, noting that despite it being a huge tourist attraction, less than one biker a year has passed away since 2006.

Another guide chipped in, mentioning that a 74 year-old successfully completed the ride just a couple of weeks ago. Fine, alright, I’ll do it!

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Being a teacher this might not be the most okay thing to say, but there is such as a positive peer pressure, and “encouragement” from friends inspired me to accept the challenge and enjoy one of the greatest thrills of my life.

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Did I feel nervous? I mean sure… it was snowing during our bus ride, which converted into a windy and rainy sleet upon our arrival on the top of the mountain. Clouds kept me from even being able to see more than a few meters over the edge, and the moisture, our guides said, would have an adverse affect on the brakes.

The first few kilometers served as a solid warmup, both figuratively and literally, as we not only got accustomed to our bikes but also dropped several hundred meters in altitude, leaving us below the cloud level.

From there it was smooth sailing and I was ready to rip it. When we reached the gravel portion of the ride – the real Camino de la Muerte – the fun really began. Our full-suspension bikes did all the work, absorbing the pounding of each and every rock in the road.

It honestly felt a bit like I was riding a horse, trying to maintain the balance between cruising at a high velocity and galloping out of my control. My fingers and forearms burned from keeping steady pressure on the breaks.

It may have been the most unbelievable and exhilarating feeling yet. I was barreling down the hill, admiring the amazing, mountain views all around my while keeping an eye on the rocky terrain in front of me.

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What a rush! 

Any unseen pothole would have launched me forward over my handlebars. I was actually more afraid of crashing and hurting myself than I was of flying over the edge and being sucked down hundreds of meters into the valley below.

That’s precisely what happened to one dude in our group of eleven. A hard crash into the rock wall left him in a sling, and he spent the last portion of the ride as a passenger in the van accompanying us.

I made it to the bottom largely unscathed, save a bruise and small cut as a result of a rock flying up and catching my ankle. A battle scar to accompany my tacky I Survived Death Road t-shirt.

Overall Death Road was a tremendous success. I can’t think of a better exclamation point to what has been one hell of a nine month ride in South America. To me, the celebratory beer at the bottom of the hill wasn’t just a token for surviving the ride, but rather an opportunity to toast to nine months of unforgettable memories.

Salud! 🍻

A las órdenes


Algo malo: A delayed flight and missed connection means I’ll be sleeping in Miami tonight. After nine months what’s one more day, right?
Algo bueno: I took advantage of the missed connection and changed my final destination. Next stop: Milwaukee, where I’ll be greeted by Whitney, Nick, and Declan, our family’s newest member.
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Obligatory Baby Photo
Algo curioso: La Paz is home to the world’s most notorious detention center: San Pedro Prison, where convicts are allowed to live within the prison walls. It’s like a city within the city, as at any time there 1,000 inhabitants. The most unnerving is the fact that there no guards on the inside, just 15 security officers keep watch from the outside.
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San Pedro Prison
Algo sabroso: Cafe del Mundo, a coffee and sandwich shop owned by a Swedish woman in downtown La Paz.

Murky Water

Murky Water

Joel, tú quieres conducir?”, Eber asked: “Do you wanna drive?” It took me a few seconds to realize he was being serious because (a) we had only pushed off the coast a few seconds before and (b) there wasn’t really anything to drive.

Under Eber’s guidance we had put together a raft made of balsa wood, which we would ride down the river back to the Eco Lodge. As it was a bit precarious, “drive” was more like “steer”, so Eber was asking if I wanted to navegate. “Bueno, cómo no?”, I responded with a shrug and a smile: “Why not?” I grabbed hold of the long pole, pushed us away from shore, and off we went!

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Dream Team! 🇧🇴🇩🇰🇮🇹🇫🇷🇺🇸

Given the early mornings wake-ups we endured and the amount of hiking we put in during our first three days, a raft ride was a nice change of pace. We floated lazily along the river, soaking in the sun, bobbing up and down as we passed through the rapids.

It wasn’t until Eber cannonballed into the water that I realized it would be ok to dip my legs into the murky water. After a days worth of sweat, a steamy night in the jungle, and a morning hike in the heat, I might have risked it anyways, but it was reassuring to know my toes wouldn’t be bit by anything!

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While the first three days were devoted to exploring the jungle, the second half of our Amazon would take us to Las Pampas, a swampy marshland and nature reserve chalked full of wildlife.

A motorized canoe replaced our raft, and we were no longer allowed to put our feet in the water, but for good reason as the Pampas is home to a healthy population of black caimans.

We saw our fair share of the beasts, which can grow up to 5 meters (16 feet) in length! Bolivia is in the midst of its’ rainy season and as a result the water level was quite high, making it especially unnerving to see the caiman drop their heads below the surface; Who knows how many dozens of crocs could have been swimming right under us at any given time?

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Black caiman basking in the sun

Fortunately the percentage of animal species in the Pampas that would tear us to shreds given the chance was quite small. The vast majority of wildlife we saw were “happy” creatures. I was blown away by how up close and personal we were able to get with some of the animals.

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Turtles!

So much so that it will be difficult to ever visit a zoo again. I mean it’s one thing to see reptiles in a glass case, but quite another to sit in a canoe after sunset and point your flashlight at a pair of sinister, red eyes.

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And in a zoo you can see monkeys hop from branch to branch, but they’ll never reach out and grab you. We had yellow squirrel monkeys jumping into our boat and crawling all over us! Plus, howler monkeys as our alarm clock? Come on!

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SeaWorld might offer good shows, but you can’t swim with pink river dolphins and you certainly aren’t offered the chance to go fishing. On our final evening in the Pampas I caught a pair of piranhas!

Sure, you can take great photographs of animals in some exhibits, but rarely without a fence or piece of glass in the way. In the Pampas I could have reached out and touched the capybara, who happily posed for my selfie!

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Butterfly gardens can be nice, but seeing a flash of bright colors in the forest is irreplaceable. Likewise bird sanctuaries can be enjoyable, but isn’t it far more exciting when a toucan or a pair of macaws swoop down over you?

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And no zoo in the world has a cage big enough to hold the anacondas we were hunting on the final morning. Yes, you read that right. Just a handful of hours before my flight back to La Paz I was standing knee deep in a swamp searching for anacondas.

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It was the hottest day yet (38º C or 97º F) and while the weeds stretched a few feet above my head, they weren’t tall enough to provide any shade. Yet there we were, wading through the murky water, tapping the ground in front of us with a walking stick before taking a courageous step forward.

Eber informed us that not only would the stick offer a clue as to the depth of the water, it could also prevent us from stepping on any unknowing anaconda slithering through the water below.

It was another I can’t believe I’m doing this moment, and one that also fell into the I’ll probably wait and tell mom about this later category.

Regarding the success of the hunt, it depends on who you ask… there were a couple of caiman sightings, but we didn’t see any snakes. I’m not sure if that’s a win or a loss for us! At any rate, the mosquitoes certainly came out on top, eating us alive for a solid two hours.

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Once again, that’s not an experience any zoo will ever be able to offer. Aside from the obvious safety risk, there is one other major reason why this adventure couldn’t be replicated: Zookeepers don’t live in the zoo.

We were right in Eber’s backyard, and it was his uncanny ability to detect animals’ presence, his impeccable knowledge of the forest, and his passion and determination that enabled us enjoy such a unique opportunity.

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While many vehicles simply flew down the dusty roads to get guests to the Pampas as quickly as possible, Eber insisted we take our time, which in turn allowed us to check another animal off our list: sloths. Even when we didn’t expect him to be “on” he was working hard to give us a memorable time. That’s cool.

Being a Spanish speaker gave me the chance to actually talk with him quite a bit, too, and our conversations were fascinating and invaluable. We shared stories and plenty of laughs, and we even met his kids, a pair of sons with aspirations to be just like their old man when they grow up.

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The man, the myth, the legend!

For me, it was easy to think of the jungle as a habitat for animals, but the week in the wilderness served as a reminder that it’s home for many populations of people, too. How cool it was to be welcomed in and offered a glimpse of what everyday life is like in the rainforest.

The Amazon experience was a 10/10, leaving me absolutely content on the final day… that is until it came time to head back to La Paz. I was the first to board the plane and I froze when I popped my head in the cabin.

Eight rows with one, single seat on each side of the aisle, and a row of three against the back wall. I could literally see out the front window of the cockpit from my fourth row seat.

It think it was a bit like taking a ski lift all the way to the top of the mountain, as there was not to be any other way to get home other than to buckle up and suck it up. How’d it go? I’m still here, aren’t I?

A las órdenes


Algo bueno: The pair of wild jungle pigs who live at the Mashaquipe Eco Lodge.

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Algo malo: Climate change and a pair of Chinese-financed construction projects are disrupting the ecosystems of both the jungle and the pampas.
Algo curioso – For breakfast in the jungle we had pancakes!
Algo sabroso – Dunacuabi, a variety of catfish found in the Bolivian Amazon.

 

Welcome to the Jungle

Welcome to the Jungle

If the flight in was to be any indication, I was in for one hell of a wild ride in the Bolivian Amazon.

Yes, The Amazon Rainforest.

The plane was small, the flight was short (24 minutes), the turbulence was severe, the landing was chaotic, and the curse words were plenty, but, man, the views of the jungle were absolutely spectacular.

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The Bolivian Amazon Basin
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How ‘bout that ride in?

Stepping off the plane, the humidity hit me like a brick. It was just 10:30 AM, but it was already 35º C (94º F). I took two steps on the tarmac and paused. The frogs were croaking, the birds were chirping, and there were gnats and flies buzzing all around me.

It was an unforgettable sensation, one that made me think, “Wow. I can’t believe I’m actually here.” Here referred to Rurrenabaque, Bolivia, a small town on the Beni River in the southern corner of the Amazon Basin.

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Rurrenabaque | 🇧🇴

A taxi brought me into town, where I would stay just one night before embarking on a five-day excursion into the jungle. We passed vendors selling fruits and vegetables. There were pineapples the size of my head, massive papayas and melons, and bananas by the thousand. Stepping out of the car, I tripped on a mango. It was unreal.

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With the heat index over 40º C (over 106º F), I spent my one afternoon in Rurrenabaque the only place I could survive!

Thankfully, the Backpacking Gods blessed me, yet again, with a fantastic group of companions!  There would be six others venturing alongside me into the wild:  Jeppe and Alma (🇩🇰), Mattia and Anja (🇮🇹), Lucile (🇫🇷) and our guide: Eber (🇧🇴), who grew up in a jungle community.

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A great group!

Our journey into the forest began via a two-hour ride on a long, wooden canoe. We cruised, teetering back-and-forth, in awe of the lush forest and mountains all around us. We made a quick stop at an indigenous community to learn about daily life in the jungle and to try sugar cane juice.

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Our whip for the week!

With dark clouds moving in quickly, our visit was short lived, and once back on the water we realized it was inevitable: The second half of our journey was going to be rough.

The clouds loomed ominously and we heard the rumble of thunder in the distance. Within minutes of embarking it was down pouring. Rain pelted down and lightning flashed all around us. The clouds were so low we couldn’t see more than a few meters in front of us, yet we continued on, battling both the wind and the strong current of the Beni River.

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The Beni River | 🇧🇴

This was our first taste of Amazonian adventure: a canoe ride on murky water during a raging thunderstorm. While we had only met Eber (our guide) an hour ago, we seemed to already be putting our life in his hands, and this was to be far from our final adventure.

After reaching our site (Mashaquipe Eco Tours) and getting acquainted over the first of several amazing meals, we were right back at it.

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We hiked for almost four hours through dense rainforest, climbing over fallen logs and occasionally ducking under massive spider webs. Eber pointed out all the creatures we encountered and more often than not his explanations included a subtle warning.

Words like muerde (bite), pica (sting), arde (burn), venenoso (venomous), and cuidado (careful) were thrown around on the regular during our many escapades into the jungle.

Spiders and stick-bugs. Mosquitos, millipedes, moths. Beetles, butterflies, bees. Wasps, grasshoppers, frogs, toads, termites… you get it.

 

One of the biggest threats were the ants, particularly the fire ant and bullet ant varieties, whose bites can be (a) extremely painful and (b) deadly, respectively. I was informed that Madidi (the name of the national park in which we were exploring) was a word used by a local tribe to say, “Home of the Ants.” Ahh… good. 😳

It felt like something between the Hunger Games and Jurassic Park. The forest was so dense you couldn’t see more than a few meters in front of you. The smell was a mix of orange juice and aloe vera. The cicadas buzzed like weed-whips, the hum from the bees was constant, and birds chirped and screeched in just about any way imaginable.

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We meandered our way along the path, hoping that each turn of the corner might offer a glimpse at a new animal. It wasn’t until after Eber had told us about his close  encounters with jaguars, pumas and lethally poisonous snakes that he led us “off the beaten path” in an effort to get closer to nature.

Machete in hand, Eber slashed his way through the vines and bushes (yes, some of which were harmful to touch, of course). Every ten meters or so we paused to listen, before tiptoeing onward.

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Monos”, Eber whispered, and before I knew it the chase was on. We sprinted and stumbled through the woods. The weeds made it impossible to see the forest floor. I couldn’t think about what my foot might land on by accident… 🐍

Throwing vines out of my way, jumping over fallen branches, slipping under spider webs; it was equal parts exhilarating and terrifying. I caught up to Eber and was rewarded with a close-up look at a family of howler monkeys.

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Black Howler Monkeys
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Great photo, Jeppe! Thanks for sharing!

We would go on several such chases through the forest, but it never became routine. There was always something new to see, and something new in our way. We spotted coati (raccoon), capybara (world’s largest rodent), toucans, and several species of monkeys as a result of our potentially dangerous, off-the-trail hunts.

A night hike provided even more of a rush. Dinner time for snakes, spiders, scorpions, and a whole bunch of other predators. Armed with just insect repellent and headlamps, we set out into the darkness.

I found myself fighting an internal battle: did I really want my flashlight to cross a pair of big green eyes or a shiny set of scales? Likewise, where do I point my light? Look up and I risk stepping into a pit or tripping over the brush. Look down and I could catch a face full of spider webs.

Eber always seemed to find the most opportune time to mention the fact that at any moment we could come across a snake. Just two weeks ago he encountered an emerald boa that stretched four meters (12+ feet). A month earlier, a bushmaster (the deadliest snake in the Western Hemisphere) had slithered its’ way through his legs.

These stories were met with a lot of nervous laughter and sweating on my part. Fortunately, we made it out of the jungle untouched. Unfortunately we were not done discovering crawly creatures.

As we walked from the main lodge and our cabin, Eber stopped, placed his hand on my shoulder and pointed towards the banana tree just meters in front of us. “Tarántula”, he murmured. I don’t think you need me to translate…

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The second night we actually camped in the jungle. The darker it got, the more amplified the sounds of the forest became. Through my mosquito net I could see fireflies blinking and the silhouette of the trees on the top of the mountain behind us, illuminated by the moon.

I woke up just once during the night to a crack of thunder. Another storm was upon us, but I laid content in my sleeping bag as the tarp above our heads kept us damp – “dry” doesn’t really exist in the rainforest.

When we awoke for the sunrise the rain had all but passed, leaving a thick fog to hike through. After a quick 5:00 am climb we reached the lookout point. With each passing minute the temperature rose and the fog slowly burned off revealing a bit more of the canopy beneath us.

Macaws emerged from the cliffs by the dozen, with their red, blue and yellow feathers shining brilliantly against the tops of the trees. Smaller green parrots soon followed. The view was truly spectacular; a pretty alright way to start the day!

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A sunset
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Awaiting the sunrise
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A pair of papagayos (macaws) at sunrise
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Madidi National Park 🇧🇴

That was the jungle. Serene and relaxing, yet also nerve-wracking and testing. It was an adventure in every sense of the word, one that reminded me that we must do everything we can to keep these environments protected.

Part II is on the way!

A las órdenes 

High and Dry

High and Dry
Written December 9, 2017

While the steep altitude – 2800 meters (9,500 ft.) – kept the temperature in check, the sun beat down on us as we barreled away into the golden nothingness. The lights’ reflection off the sand made sunglasses imperative.

I felt like Stanley Yelnats in Holes, bouncing up and down as our bus sped across the rocky desert, leaving behind a massive cloud of dust. Where the heck was I?

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Atacama Desert | Chile 🇨🇱 

I was in the Atacama, the world’s most arid desert, the driest place on the planet aside from Antartica. My destination was the touristy village of San Pedro (🇨🇱) by way of a flight from Santiago to the city of Calama.

Still in Chile, but it felt more like Mars. The red mountains awaiting us in the distance were blurry, as if to be floating. Out my window my view seemed to stretch out to forever. Imagine looking at the ocean; you see nothing beyond the blue water. This was the same but pure, flat, desert.

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Atacama Desert | Chile 🇨🇱

I spent three days in the Atacama desert region of Chile. Waking up at 4:30 one morning I caught the sun as it rose over the Tatio Geyser Field.

Leaving the hostel I had to pull the shades in the van because the moon was shining so brightly. It was about an hour drive and with each curve the silhouettes of cactus and the outline of the hills became more defined against the glow of the impending sunrise.

Towards the end of the trek the windows frosted up; the temperature was to be about -2º C (29º) upon our arrival. Little by little the landscapes red, yellow and brown colors seemed to come alive. We reached our destination; Elevation: 4,320 meters (14,175 ft.).

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Geysers del Tatio | 🇨🇱
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Elevation: 4,320 m. (14,175 ft.)

The town of San Pedro didn’t offer much to write about, other than roughly 80% of the shops in the “downtown” were tourism agencies. Now a veteran traveler in South America, I had known to take out money in Santiago; there is just one ATM in the village and it frequently runs out of currency.

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View from Hostel Ayni | San Pedro 🇨🇱
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Full moon in the Atacama

Another day I rented a bike and cruises through El Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley), before taking in a top tier sunset over El Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley). Spectacular. I couldn’t help but laugh as I raced towards the colorful mountain landscape in front of me.

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Valle de la Muerte | Death Valley
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Valle de la Luna | Moon Valley
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Valle de la Luna | Moon Valley
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Big sunset guy!

The scenery made for a pretty spectacular couple of days, and the elevation proved to be a great warmup for what was to come next.

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Volcanoes!
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Valle de la Luna | Moon Valley

What came next was a trip across the border into Bolivia! After producing extensive documentation and paying my pricey visa fee I crossed into Bolivia, ready for adventure!

For the record, Bolivia doesn’t care for the US as for nearly 15 years our government has refused to extradite former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, who lives comfortably in his Maryland mansion despite 9 warrants (including grand fraud and genocide) for his arrest back in Bolivia. Not a good look, USA.

Anyways I jumped through the hoops and paid my fee, and bit was it worth it! By a tremendous stroke of luck I ended up traveling with a stellar group of companions. The final destination was Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia, the largest salt flat in the world.

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Bolivian Customs | Atacama

It was a three day journey from San Pedro to Uyuni. The first night we slept at 4,300 m. (14,100 ft.) in a very basic hostel, and the second night we slept in a hostel made almost entirely of salt.

Colorful lagoons, towering snow-capped mountains, stunning rock formations, and even a brief dip in a hot spring. We saw llamas, vicuñas, some emu, pair of Andean foxes and hundreds of flamingos.

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Laguna Blanca | 🇧🇴
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El Altiplano | 🇧🇴
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High Altitude Hot Springs 
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Flamingos! 
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Andean Fox!
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El Altiplano | 🇧🇴
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Hostel de Sal | San Juan 🇧🇴
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Travel Gods we’re looking out for me; I ended up with a great group of travel companions! Gracias por la buena onda! 🇦🇺🇱🇺🇵🇹

As expected the salt flat took the cake. Again, we arose early and drove an hour until we reached the expansive, white landscape for sunrise.

Later in the day we reached Isla Incahuadi, an oasis-like “Island” in the flat’s center home to cactus, shrubs and a fossilized coral reef. It was surreal.

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I overheard a Brazilian man try to explain his impression of the landscape in English to another tourist. The man was at a loss, and despite my English being much more fluent, I was couldn’t seem to find any words, either.

It was just so vast and so white. It pushed out in every direction, making the mountains on the horizon appear much smaller than they actually were. We took advantage of the environment to take a handful of the classic tourist photos that mess with your perception. No shame!

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The 4×4 trucks leaving the island and tearing across the flats seemed to be motionless. There were probably a couple hundred or so visitors, but it was absolutely silent with the exception of the occasional flash of a camera. It was truly awesome.

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Un-Bolivia-ble, one might say…

With that I’m out! I’ve just reached the foothills of the Amazon Rainforest and it’s time for some rumblin’ in the jungle.

A las órdenes…


Algo bueno: Bolivia is unbelievably cheap. A filling dinner is roughly 30 bolivianos, or just over $4.
Algo malo: The small villages in the Altiplano region were among the poorest I have ever seen, without question.
Algo curioso: In some parts of Bolivia, the verb cancelar – typically means “to cancel” – is used where one would expect to see pagar (to pay).
Algo sabroso: Salteñas, which are like Bolivian empanadas filled with butter, soup broth, meat, potatoes and vegetables!

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Just Chilean!

Just Chilean!

I was at least six inches taller and several shades whiter than everyone else. My curly blonde hair sealed the deal.

Gringo! ¿De dónde viene usted? Where are you from, my friend?”

I felt the crowd of 150-200 people turn in my direction at once. Many chuckled playfully at the comedian’s remarks. With a smile, I held my ground and calmly replied, “Yo soy de Estados Unidos, del estado más al norte: Minnesota.

Translation: I’m from the US, from the northernmost state: Minnesota.

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Plaza de Armas | Santiago

Apparently the crowds in the Plaza de Armas in Santiago (🇨🇱) aren’t used to hearing Spanish spoken by people who look like me. The performer was especially taken aback. His partner pressed further, asking me whether I really spoke Spanish.

Por supuesto,” I confirmed with a head nod and a grin. In my best Uruguayan accent I continued, “Yo acabo de vivir en Uruguay por ocho meses. Enseñe inglés allá, aprendí pila y tá… ahora estoy acá de visita nomá.

Translation: Of course! I just wrapped up 8 months in Uruguay. I taught English there and learned a ton! Now I’m just traveling.

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Plaza de Armas | Santiago

Many smiled and nodded their heads in approval. The comedians welcomed me to their country and wished me an enjoyable stay, before giving me one last shot to impress the crowd with my Uruguayan Spanish.

Que bien. Y ahora lleva el acento uruguayo!” Translation: That’s great. And now you even have an Uruguayan accent!

Recognizing this was to be my moment in the sun I replied with a wink and an even more exaggerated accent, “Che bo… sabeeeeelo!” Translation: Dude… you know it!

Call me a crowd-pleaser, but my quip was well-received by those in the Plaza. The ten seconds of fame in Santiago put a much-needed smile on my face as just hours before I had to say goodbye to Mo and Elliot, who returned to the good ole USA following two weeks of adventures in South America.

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Valparaíso, Chile 🇨🇱

It was a helluva run, beginning in Montevideo, where I got to give them a glimpse into my life as an Uruguayo. With stops for choripanes, chivitos and churros, I think it was my best city tour yet, topped off with a vintage sunset on the Rambla.

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Montevideo Intendencia Observatory

Next came Buenos Aires where we crushed la parrilla and made the most of a rainy afternoon in the capital city. Following stay in Patagonia, we ventured up to the third and final city of the tour: Santiago.

More great food, more cool sites, a pair of tremendous city tours, and a beautiful afternoon at the Undurraga vineyard. It’s safe to say Santiago surpassed expectations. For a city of 6 million it was surprisingly easy to navigate and we were able to use the Metro and buses to make our way around!

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Plaza de la Moneda | Santiago
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Museo de la Memoria y Derechos Humanos | Amazing museum dedicated to the assassination of Salvador Allende and the rise of the Pinochet dictatorship (1973 to 1990).
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La Vega | Urban Market
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Undurraga Vineyard

We even managed to take a day trip to the gorgeous and energetic city of Valparaíso. With its’ colorful homes seemingly stacked on top of each other, winding roads, incredible street art, and breathtaking view of the Pacific, Valparaíso was truly a gem.

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Valparaíso

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A boat ride through the Valpo harbor not only brought us sea lions, but also the chance to reflect upon what was a memorable two-week stay for them in South America. It was so satisfying to hear my friends reiterate so many of the same thoughts I have had during my time “down here”.

We were just days removed from visiting the 8th Wonder of the World, yet our conversation revolved around the people we had interacted with, rather than the views we had taken in.

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Valparaíso Harbor

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From Guille’s welcoming two more gringos to his Montevideo apartment, to the friends who stopped by Tres Cruces to see me off, to the bartender in Soho Palermo who gave us a free beer just because, and the warmth of the hostel and restaurant employees along the way, “the people in South America” stood out as most impressionable and the most extraordinary.

All I could do was smile and nod my head. How cool that after just a few days my friends reached the same conclusion that I’ve carried with me for months. All in all it was a successful and memorable trip for the three of us to share together.

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Salúd!

For now the travels continue! We all flew north out of Santiago, but my flight was considerably shorter than theirs. A two hour flight sent me to Calama, Chile, a small city that serves as the main gateway to the most arid place on the planet: the Atacama desert. There will certainly be more stories – and pictures – to come.

A las órdenes


Algo bueno – Elliot found us a killer hotel in Santiago, complete with a stunning 17th floor view and a rooftop pool for a great price.

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Algo malo – This year marked my first Thanksgiving without turkey in as long as I can remember.
Algo curioso – In Spanish, to say someone “set you up” to make a joke, you say he or she te tiró un centro, a reference to a centering pass in soccer that makes for an easy goal.
Algo sabroso – A traditional Chilean dish called Chorrillana, which consists of fries, sautéed onions, chicken, chorizo, steak meat, and cheese.

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