Home Again! …. In England!

Written July 16, 2013 upon arriving in Portsmouth, England via a Ferry from France and on my journey from Portsmouth to Brighton.

I’m back in England!  Six years after my international travels began, I’ve returned to the country that started it all for me.  I’ve been here barely 30 minutes and already almost missed my train (to within 60 seconds, I had to run for it) because I grabbed a pint of England’s finest with a Brit that I met on my way off the ferry who I shared a cab with on the way to the train station.  We had 40 minutes to kill, so naturally, we stopped at the convenient store for a bottle of wine for my train journey to Brighton and then went next door to the nearest bar for a ‘cheeky pint (as the Brits say),’ before my reunion with one of my favorite travel buddies from my trip in Brighton!

I’m having all sorts of crazy culture shock.  This is the first time I’m in an English speaking country in over 250 days.  I even took a picture of a building when I came in on the ferry across the English Channel that had English writing on it.  In foreign countries when I do not speak any of the language, often times, I feel uncomfortable immediately addressing another in English, however on this boat trip, it felt like I was back home again.

It was weird going through passport control and saying “Hello” as opposed to “Hola,” “Buenas,” “Bonjour,” or whatever I was supposed to say in Morocco and Tunisia in Arabic – man is that language impossible!  I learned how to say “Thank you” and “No” in Arabic in three weeks there and that’s about it.

People have gone out of their way to help me in this past hour, the bus driver told us that it was a 3 quid (slang for “Pounds” in England) bus ride and a 6 quid taxi ride so we might as well take the taxi between the two of us and be quicker and that my new friend Fergus, a young/middle aged lawyer from London, would make his train.  We did make it in time, but there wasn’t a train at the station waiting which led us to the pub across the street for a pint.

When I got on the initial shuttle bus, I noticed the bypassing cars were coming from my right and I was so confused.  Next, I hopped into the taxi and the steering wheel was on the wrong side too!  I’ve lived in England in the past and it still was all a major culture shock.  The currency, although familiar, did not immediately ring a bell either.

The taxi driver and Fergus had a good laugh at me when I politely asked if he could “Pop the trunk” as opposed to “Open the boot” for our luggage.  Laughs and smiles all around.  Rather than feeling alienated or self conscious, I just took this laughter in stride while adjusting to yet another new culture.  It’s just another readjustment and I’ve traveled with several Brits though out my time abroad so my British slang is getting up to par and I’ll be hanging out with my ‘mates’ in no time.

All in all, this is just super exciting to be back in England.  I’m planning just over a week here, but I have a feeling if my wallet can withstand London I’m going to be here longer.  This is all just so good, so familiar. 

*** (Side note of what’s happening on my train as I type this) ***
There’s a family sitting in the pod of chairs in front of me on the train, and this is the first ever public transportation conversation I’ve been able to understand in almost 9 months.  The kids are so funny, so many smiles, so much laughter – I’m just waiting this whole time hoping that one of them will say: “Ouch Charlie, Owwwwch.  Charlie bit me, Charlie bit my finger.”  (If some how you do not know what I’m talking about, YouTube “Charlie bit my finger” and you’ll understand.)  ….. If I wait long enough, I’m certain it will happen, but until then I’m just going to enjoy the rest of this ride through England.
*** (Hope you laughed) ***

I can’t wait to meet up with one of my favorite travel buddies of my whole trip in just under an hours time, Cat!  I met her in Mexico as she was finishing up 10 months on the road in Latin America and I was on week two of my own 10 month trip.  Flip the tables, she’s been living in the UK for 8 months now and I’ve been on the road since – cannot wait to catch up, share more stories, and wander Brighton on the south coast of England.  I’m also planning to celebrate my friend Marcus’ birthday tonight in Brighton.  I did a four day jungle trek to Ciudad Perdida six weeks ago in Northern Colombia.  It should be a good night and a great week (or more) in England – I can’t wait!

So happy to be back!

*****

Edited 2 minutes after I finished typing this – I swear on my next cheeky pint in England that the mom of family just said to one of the kids, “….that’s Charlie’s!”   Unfortunately, they got off at the next stop and my dream couldn’t be realized, but I told you it could’ve happened!!  Anything can happen while you’re on the road at any given time – and that’s why I love it so much!

*****

Another British experience side note:  The loudspeaker on the train just said “Please ‘mind the gap’ between the platform and the train” – that just made my day even better still.

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My Trip is Coming to a Close…For Now…

I’m into the final stretch.  It’s been incredible, that’s about all that I can say.  I have just over three weeks left, but there is no way my travels with stop there.  I have loads of trips within the States and Canada (which will actually be a first time there) to see various friends from home, from University, from Chicago, and many that I’ve met around the world.

I’ve considered doing some time on the East coast of the States (never done that before), road trip through bits of Canada, bicycle across the states (although I foresee this one waiting a few years), and exploring the west coast of the States as well.  So many incredible state and national parks throughout California, especially Northern Cali, Oregon and Washington.  I’d love to see British Colombia and visit friends there as well as in Alberta as well.

It’s no secret however that money doesn’t last forever.  That every Euro I continue to spend is absolutely eating away at my budget at a rate about 3x faster than it was in Latin America.  In particular this train ride from Brussels, Belgium to Basel, Switzerland – a 7 hour journey is costing me over 90 Euros, ~$120.  I spent less than $30/day for EVERYTHING in Guatemala and about the same in El Salvador.  To put that into perspective – 96 hours of living, eating, partying, sleeping, and surfing in Central America costs the same as simply 7 hours of transport in Europe.

I’m making the most of the journey though and dividing it into two days.  I’m on my way to Luxembourg City, Luxembourg now.  Who knew I’d ever go there?!  But if I’m passing through anyway, how can I pass it up?  Plus, it breaks up my journey.  That said, one quick look at Google and I’m pretty certain I’m really going to enjoy my time there.

Next, on to Basel, Switzerland where I’m meeting up with a German friend I was traveling with in Nicaragua and Costa Rica.  He and I have been bouncing around the idea of doing Southeast Asia together for a few months now since he headed back to attend pharmacy school.  Southeast Asia is quickly moving up on my to-do list.  As it’s a younger backpacking crowd so the sooner I go, the better.  It’s the cheapest place in the world to travel and the culture is so insanely different from anything else I’ve ever experienced.

Post Basel, I’m really not sure, but ideas are formulating.  Visit Interlaken, Switzerland – I’ve heard of its beauty, but I’ve also heard of it’s unreal price tag that comes along with it.  There are loads of great adventure activities there, but I can also do those around the world elsewhere for a fraction of the price.  Here, I’d meet up with a cousin of a girl I went to grade school with.  I’ve never met her, but her cousin, Emily, linked us together via our respective travels on Facebook.  Regina has spent significant time traveling in Africa and has posted up in Switzerland recently to enjoy the Swiss lifestyle.

Lucerne, Zurich, Bern?  – They’re also in the cards, but I don’t know a thing about any of these places – but that’s a good thing isn’t it – all the more reason to visit.  From there, I’m going to try and minimize travel times to get to my main destination for this leg of my journey – Croatia!  I hope to meet up with an Israeli girl I was traveling with in Guatemala.  I’m looking forward to taking it easy a bit, spend some time on the beautiful beaches and islands of the Adriatic.  My tentative plans would lead me to Zagreb, Split, Hvar, and Dubrovnik.

Post a week of relaxation, I enter the final two weeks of my trip – through the Balkans.  This an area with so much recent history and natural beauty, I’m quite excited to experience it.  I’m not sure why I’m even bothering putting my tentative goal locations in writing, considering I’m unsure what I’m doing two days from now, but it’s always fun to look back at them in retrospect. 

The conclusion of my trip looks to be formulating like this (I just came up with this idea via Google Maps and the help of my cousin who did a similar journey through this area two summers ago):

Mostar, Bosnia
Sarajevo, Bosnia
Belgrade, Serbia
Nis, Serbia
Sofia, Bulgaria
Plovdiv, Bulgaria
Black Sea Coast – Bulgaria
Bucharest, Romania

*****
Does anyone have any advice/suggestions/day trips/hikes?  Or any info on Montengro and Kosovo as they’re just a quick train/bus ride away.  Would love any advice anyone can give me as I know this is a less traveled portion of the world.
*****

All of this, however, depends on my flight home, which I have yet to book, but Bucharest, Romania was looking to be a cheap one.  Hopefully will book that within the next few days in order to be home in Chicago for my best friends from high school’s wedding September 1st.

My future life/travel plans are then completely undecided, but new ideas are constantly brewing in my mind.  I think I have a pretty good idea of where they are going to lead me, but for now, I’ll keep myself and the rest of the world guessing.  It keeps life more exciting and if there’s any thing in the world I’m constantly striving for – it’s the thrill of the unknown.

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Sometimes It’s Just Better to Pay

I’ve been haggling for almost everything I do for almost 8 months now.  I’d like to say I’m getting the hang of it, really cutting prices, and ultimately saving money.  When we’ve been going back and forth for awhile and the seller ultimately says that that is their minimum price and I take out less money than that to give to them – I absolutely feel like I’ve won when they shake their heads, give me a look of disgust, or curse me (politely, of course – “Que una lastima”) and then agree to the price because they realize that this money is still a tiny bit more than they paid and they’re still making money on their sale, although for less than they’re used to exploiting Gringos for. 

There are many different times when locals expect/ask you to give them money for basically absolutely nothing.  Today for example, I was walking to a taxi stand, about 30m in front of me with 3 taxi’s waiting and a man comes sprinting up to me to take me to the taxis, you know, as if I’d have gotten lost in the next 8 seconds myself.  I haggle my price to get to the bus station, hop into the car, and then he asks me for money for helping him.  Thanks dude, but I think I handled that alright myself.

When we arrived in Morocco, that’s a whole other post itself….but, a bunch of kids eventually helped us get to our accommodation.  We were within 30 seconds of it, but it was an absolute maze of streets, we would’ve found it eventually, but they insisted they walk us there and naturally asked for a tip, but we did not oblige as we never asked for any help.

Today, when I arrived at the aforementioned bus station, I was actually quite shocked when no one attempted to escort/hold my hand all the way through the process.  I’m well adept at these things these days, and to be honest, other than the chaos – it’s far easier to get to your location in third world countries than first world countries.  They see a white person, they guess your location (usually correctly) they point you in the right direction and then someone else helps you out immediately until you’re safely to your bus and baggage stowed away….then you just hope for the best of arriving to wherever you’re headed.

After purchasing my ticket, I went outside, my destination was guessed correctly and eventually the bus pulled in and I threw my baggage beneath the bus (I really miss the days of Central America and having someone run off with your bag and heave it on to the top of the old American school buses to someone else who ties it on top – that was always an adventure.)  Anyway, the guy asked me for 10 Durhams, a bit over a dollar, and the three hour bus ride only cost 33 Durhams.  I said, “No.”  In his best broke English, he said ‘for the luggage.’  Naturally, I said No again, as this is a free service/part of the ticket. 

One of the best pieces of advice I can give you when you don’t speak the language is follow in the way of the locals.  I next saw the man ask for 10 Durhams from two other locals, while he muttered to them (my translation:  “Hook me up with 10 Durhams each for the luggage, I’m trying to scam this guy, I’ll hit you back once he walks away.)  They each paid him 10, I still refused.  One other person paid and eventually I obliged knowing that I would not be near my baggage and a $1 risk is not worth him trying to steal my bag which I am not within arms reach of.  I later saw this same man give the third guy money back as I got on the bus, and I gave him a look of disgust with a hand out saying ‘give me back my money too’ – which he just ignored.  I boarded the bus and 10 minutes later, actually saw someone else pay as well and I never saw him refund the first two guys.  Either way though, I may have lost out on a dollar or so, but that’s just part of traveling – very often there is a local price and a tourist price, and that is simply accepted worldwide.  The knowledge of knowing that my luggage was safe(r) and by following the local custom, I may have simply abided by the rules or I may have been scammed, I’ll never know – well at least until I have more experience in this new country and new continent.  For now though, I figured it was better to error on the side of safety at the cost of a dollar, I mean….I am in Africa now after all.

Categories: Morocco | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Stuck Upside Down at an African Carnival

This was horrible, I swear, a day later I still feel like their is an excess of blood in my head, but that was just all part of the ride – literally.

Kat, Amanda, Scott and I after arriving to Africa at 2am the previous night (see previous blog post for that story!) wandered around Tangier, Morocco for the majority of the day.  We wandered the palm tree lined pedestrian walkway along the Moroccan coast, Amanda and I dipped our feet into the Strait of Gibralter with wind whipping sand across the beach, and our newly formed team made our way to the train station where Scott booked his overnight ticket to Marrakech.  I can’t stress enough the joys of traveling with fellow backpackers and establishing such a well knit group so quickly.  After Scott bought his ticket, we saw a carnival.  There was no way we were missing out on this.  However, we’d save this for the evening and explore the city by day.  We trekked across town, going on a mini food crawl consisting of paella, disgusting sandwiches, world class ice cream, and pasteries accompanied by Coke and Pepsi adorned in Arabic labels. 

We passed a mosque or two and eventually entered back into the old town near our hostel.  The narrow corridors, streets, sidewalks, alleys – whatever you choose to call them beckoned us – especially by day – we learned the hard way the night before to avoid the labyrinth maze by night.  Past families on a steep hillside, calling to all their neighbors to look out the windows too at the two blondes and two tank top clad guys walking down the path – the celebrities of the town!  Who were these alien looking people anyway, was it Brad Pitt, Zach Morris, Britney Spears, and (insert another blonde celebrity that I can not think of here)?!  They will never know, but I’m pretty sure they were certain they saw a group of A-Listers walking down their street.

Getting lost along the way, on purpose, we stumbled upon the old town’s market – any thing you could ever wish to buy – even magic carpets! 

Here’s how the sale’s pitch went:
“Helllllo, how are you?  Where are you from?  Do you want to buy my carpet?
(Four friendly smiles in response with a head shake)
“They’re magic carpets.”
We burst out laughing.  Awesome, pure awesomeness.

We stopped in various stores, including knock off sports jerseys from all around the world and wandered by stands selling anything from furry boots that even Shaq couldn’t fit into to live Chickens to souvenir trinkets.  We saw no other tourists all day.

We eventually made our way out of the market maze and stumbled upon a mansion.  I spoke to the guards and they told us this was King Mohammed VI’s house.  I said, “Who?” He looked at me astonished that we American’s and Canadian had never heard of King Mohammed VI – I mean, you know who he is – right?!

It was stunning, no doubt, and later we found a smaller broken down home with guards (read; massive mansion with the windows broken) to which we queried the guards and they informed us this was the former royal home a half century back, which apparently needed to be guarded too. 

Continuing on our way home, we found an amazing look out point and the girls posed with a group of 7 or 8 Moroccan boys, with everyone loving it as much as the next, with an incredible view of the sea and Tangier sitting below in the background.

Our day went drastically better once we’d reentered the old town, but now it was time for Scott to catch his train and us to hit up the carnival!  We dropped Scott off – (another friend to visit in Toronto – I can’t wait!), hoping that we can have a reunion of the four of us in Chicago this fall and entered the carnival.  We were greeted by bright lights, bumper cars without a fence on the exterior and a free for all to participate in the next round, popcorn and cotton candy vendors for a $0.25, and your typical gimmicky games to win prizes and similar rides – just a sketchier version that you would load on to the rides while they were still moving. 

There was one exception, “Super Loops” which was a vertical circular shaped ride, similar to the infamous “Pirate Ship” ride, however, it would complete a full upside down rotation.  The ride hadn’t moved since we got there, probably because the locals realized only a crazy person would do it.  We purchased tickets and got aboard just as two other local hopped on as well.  The girls in the front seat, myself in the second.  Four 2″ screws bolting their seat into the car protruded, unprotected out towards my legs.  I’d have to avoid these, amongst falling to my death, and ride failure for the duration of the ride.  The girls bar locking mechanism continued to malfunction, so it was going to be a ‘hope for the best.’  Fifteen minutes later, the ride filled up and we began.  Rocking forward, backward, higher, faster, screams escalating with each undulation.  We almost reached the peak and I presumed next time we’d make the full circle around!  Not so fast, we just get to the top on the next rotation and plummet back down along the circular track.  Next time we’ll do the full circle.  The ride speeds up into the bottom of the ride creating enough momentum to make the full circle….that is – until we don’t make it all the way around on the way up.  The ride stops – exactly at the top – at doesn’t move.  Gravity rushes all the blood to our head and we’re there for 10, 20, 30 seconds.  I begin to think (silly me) how is the engineer going to get us down.  (In retrospect, that’s just laughable.)  How long will we be here.  45 seconds – this isn’t funny any more.  The ride moves slightly and stops. 

“C’mon – work, work, work!”

The ride moves and we accelerate downward once more, completing the full circle, and multiple times it stops at the top for a ‘this isn’t funny at all amount of time.’  I’ve always wanted to “Make it rain” – and that I did, coins falling out of my pockets everywhere, Kat’s coins hitting me (somehow) on the way down too.  Fortunately, I held my camera the whole time and thus got hysterical photos as well as cringe worthy videos throughout the ride.  I uploaded our instant reaction as we finally returned to Earth here:

So much blood in our head, and actual terror on our minds – and this coming from three roller coaster fanatics!  We had had enough after one ride, and we left the park – but not before we watched the next people board the ride – why in the world they’d ever volunteer themselves to do it – I’m not sure.  I can’t say I regret it, but I never in my life thought I’d be telling a story about how I was stuck upside down on an African carnival ride.

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Don’t Arrive to Africa at 2am

Yep, I did just that.  Brilliant, I know.

Another travel day turned into an epic adventure, and this is why I was missing the chaos of developing countries while in Europe.  Travel is boring in first world countries.  Buses and trains (usually) leave on time, arrive on time and nothing exciting at all happens on the way.  I truly believe this is why people absolutely hate public transportation in the States.

This typical Tuesday started out like any other travel day (days devoted to traveling as it’ll take ages to get from Point A to Point B and likely multiple forms of transportation).  I awoke around 11am after celebrating the Blackhawks Stanley Cup victory by myself at 5:15am in Sevilla, Spain having to explain to those others who were still up that it was the equivalent of my team winning the World Cup.  I checked out a good 45 minutes late to make sure I could sleep in a bit more, risking my 5 Euro key deposit, knowing that thy won’t actually keep the money unless they’re a really crap hostel that has no clue how to keep their guests and do not realize that almost everyone goes to a hostel in their next city based on word of mouth or others recommendations.  As expected with a smile, the worker did not mention my tardiness, happily gave me back my deposit and I walked to the bus station to buy my ticket.  I arrived…and found out I was at the wrong bus station and had to go to the other side of town.  I returned to the hostel, quick searched Moroccan hostels (I had previously booked one the day before, only the 4th hostel I’ve booked in 230+ nights traveling, but I’ve learned that sometimes you need a confirmed booking to entry a new country) and took a screen shot of a map or two and continued onward. 

I lugged my backpacks across town to the bus station, arriving about 1:45, 15 min before departure bought my ticket and boarded seeing only two other travelers get aboard.  About 2.5 hrs later, I arrived in Tarifa on the Southern Coast of Spain, I disembarked, saw the two blonde girls and asked them if they had any clue where they were going (I usually just figure it out whenever I get some where) and tagged along with them.  Amanda had heard that no ferries were running to Morocco that day because of the wind, surprising because the ships are massive and the fact that they do this every day.  We walked towards to the port together and I saw another backpacker heading our way, asked him if he knew anything, and he said they’re not running.  In typical backpacker fashion, we all teamed, grabbed a kebab, and began the journey together – for fun, for safety, and to split the expenses.  Two hours later we got on the next bus to Algeciras at 6:45, 25 minutes away, where rumor had it the ferries were running.  Along the ride, we could see Africa across the Strait of Gibralter – how cool!  Moroccan radio waves reached Spain and Spanish or Arabic channels would mix on many frequencies.

The 9:00 ferry was our goal.  We waited with our tickets, passports stamped out of Spain, and Spanish and their glorious economy promptly boarded us at ~10:00, eventually departing around 10:30 for our “half hour” boat ride.  We were all smiles, playing the song “Africa” over and over as we were all about to go to a new continent!  On the journey, we looked ahead into the darkness without a single light in sight on our second least visited continent. We had a good laugh about this and knew it’d be an adventure.  After a longer than expected ride, celebratory beers, story telling amongst our new friends, and the port being occupied when we arrived ensuring we circled the harbor for a good forty minutes – we disembarked in Africa a little before 1am.  Expecting beauty from Africa, our cameras at the ready to capture our first glimpse of Africa….we were greeted my a massive water treatment plant – buzz kill.  We hopped on a bus to Moroccan customs (we passed immigration on the boat and received our stamp from immigration officials) put our bags on an X-Ray conveyor which had nobody looking at the screen….and entered Morocco! 

Haggling with the cabbies was useless, after 10 minutes of talking to everyone there, they had a set price of 30 Euros for the 50km journey to Tangier (the other port that was too windy arrives right in Tangier, hence why we did not want to take the ferry from Algeciras).  Kat and I passed out intermittently on the ride there and eventually arrived at a hotel parking lot, which my hostels directions had told us to go to before cars can go no further.  I was the only one with a reservation as the girls had cancelled theirs and Scott was along for the ride winging it as he goes.  Armed with zero French and a negative ability to speak Arabic, we entered the Labyrinth of streets (read: dark corridors) of Africa hoping to wind our way to our hostel.  The skinny alleys were dimly lit at best, moonlight doing its best to help us, and we began to pass people – all men – as we are in a Muslim country and it’s well after midnight. 

Onward we wander, uncomfortably, and naturally the four Westerners including two blondes and two guys in singlets stand out more than anything and a crowd follows along.  One Moroccan guy begins to say something to us, then another, next thing you know we have a pack of about eight guys in their late teens semi-leading us through the alleys, as we tried to look for any signs or street signs that we recognized.  I clutched my front pack my valuables close, Amanda clutched Scott’s arm tight, and Kat was between all of us.  This was the first time in all my travels that I felt uneasy.  Where we they taking us?  Can we trust them?  Are they just trying to help for a buck?  Scott’s recent visit to Egypt had informed us to expect something along these lines, but no doubt all four of us were uncomfortable, leaning on each other and making sure we felt (relatively) secure about the direction we were going.  We asked other shopkeepers along the way if we were going the right direction, and eventually one confirmed that the boys were leading us in the right direction and we arrived, everyone saw the sign but myself, and we were all on full alert.  Rang the bell, a window opened above us, and the front door eventually opened.  Luis, the French owner of The Melting Pot hostel greeted us, and invited us in.  We informed him of our situation, that I had a reservation and that was it.  He flips through his books and says he has one bed.  Did he mean one or an additional one?  Terror was in everyone’s eyes and the look of “What are we going to do” was very apparent.  The only thing we knew was that NONE of us were going back out there.  Luis informed us it was an additional bed, I asked everyone if they were comfortable bunking up and I’ve never seen such a sigh of relief/obvious “Yes” look in people’s eyes before. 

Luis was beyond helpful, even making us tea, and treating us to traditional Moroccan snacks as we were all starving.  He told us he came to Morocco years ago, fell in love with Tangier, opened the hostel and never looked back.  He also informed us of how safe the area actually is and that there has never been a problem.  But let me tell you, even for those of us who have been to a lot of sketchy places, showing up to Africa, not knowing a lick of the language at two in the morning will lead a lot of fear into someone’s body.  The tea was delicious as can be and the joys of traveling kicked back in.  Thirteen hours later into what should’ve been a few hour bus to boat to walk travel day and a bit more expensive than we’d hoped, we were smiling again.  Safely there, four brand new friend’s, Moroccan tea in hand, a story to tell, and close enough for two of us to each comfortably share the top of a twin bed bunk bed in separate fully occupied dorm rooms. 

Travel is always an adventure, but stay strong, and know that 99.99% of the time it ALWAYS works out….you just may end up with an epic story – but that’s just part of the fun!  That said, I still wouldn’t recommend you show up to Africa for the first time at 2 in the morning, but if you do – please please share your story with the world!

Categories: Morocco | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Costa Rica is a Dream

Costa Rica is, was, and always will be a dream.  It’s almost everyone’s first trip to Central America, and there is a reason for it.  It’s absolutely stunning, cheap to get to, ‘exotic,’ and unbelievably filled with biodiversity!  The landscape is constantly changing and every town has something new to offer!  If you’ve never been, please please, book yourself a flight ASAP and try and sneak a few extra days off of work to maximize your time.  The country may be small, but transportation still takes a long time to get from point A to points B,C,D,E,F,G – the list goes on! 

I first visited Costa Rica three years ago in May 2010 with my college roommate Tim, and another good friend from college, Mike.  We graduated a year earlier, and this was our first trip abroad.  We planned every second of this trip out, something I will always avoid in the future if possible.  Flexibility, along with price, are my two #1 priorities while traveling.  We did loads of research and booked activities for 4 out of 7 days, with travel days built in.  We whitewater rafted, canyoned, ziplined, and went caving.  We visited Arenal and Manuel Antonio National Park and spent a day on the beach in Manuel Antonio, attempting to surf and playing a game that we invented called “Rock Bocce” – A combination of Bocce Ball and using the Earth’s supplied materials of rocks, the beach, and other rocks.  It was unbelievably hot, to the point, that our time spent on the beach was 98% spent in the Pacific Ocean (the other 2% playing Rock Bocce), and it was still hot, as the ocean water was over 80 (28) degrees!  It was an unforgettable trip, but I’m really glad I returned on this backpacking trip.

Most backpackers skip Costa Rica, not because it doesn’t have a lot to offer (see paragraph 1), but because of the price.  Costa Rica is freaking EXPENSIVE.  It’s basically a few years dated version of America, with almost the exact same prices, sometimes more expensive – especially in the most touristy of destinations.  My journey to Costa Rica began from San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua – Lennart and I had just spent the weekend having a wee-bit too much fun in San Juan del Sur and we were on our way to the magnificent, dual symmetrically coned Isla de Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America, 6th largest in North America following the great lakes, and your second fun fact of the day, the almost site, of the world famous Panama Canal. 

Lennart and I have hiked a lot of volcanoes.  There are only so many you can do on one trip, and other than relaxing a 6+ or a 10+ hour hike awaited us in Ometepe or simply chilling out on the lake.  On our Chicken Bus on the way there, we asked each other, would you rather just go to Costa Rica instead – we both agreed and our journey began.  Seven hours later, a 4th border crossing, and 5th country together – (man did we have an epic trip!) we arrived in Playa del Coco on the Nicoya Peninsula.  R&R was on the docket.  And did we ever.  A relaxed night, a relaxed day til midafternoon, I watched a little March Madness (America’s college basketball tournament) and had Lennart, possibly the first Norwegian ever, fill out a bracket as well.  He got his first taste of last second winning baskets and near misses – what an exciting time!  That night, we both entered into a Texas Hold’em Poker Tournament with both English and Spanish (mostly) spoken at the table, which was a first for me, as Vegas requires the only language spoken at the table to be English.  It was a 30 person tournament, paying the top 6 – we more than held our own.  He cashed in 6th and I finished in 3rd – hell yeah, $200+ more to travel with!

The following day, I went for a beach run on the picturesque Coco Bay, Lennart and I peppered on the beach (bump, set, spike between two people) and eventually found our way into a game with a bunch of locals.  We were initially on separate teams, and eventually united on the same team to the chagrin of the locals, and once we were, we ran the table on them, kindly bowing out as darkness was fast approaching, leaving without any injuries other than sore as hell feet and knees from diving and jumping on the sand that couldn’t be more than 2″ (5cm) deep.

We went out for drinks, we met a girl named Sarah who has been working diving in Playa del Coco for a few months, and her and I shared contact info – as we might be on the same boat from Panama to Colombia in mid May – we’ve been in contact ever since, despite talking for no more than 10 or 15 minutes, and this may actually work out – how I LOVE traveling so so very much!

After a good night’s sleep, a few souvenir purchases for Lennart, we began our 9+ hr trip to Santa Teresa, also on the Nicoya Peninsula, about 100km by way of the crow’s flight, but not for us feeble humans.  We’ll have to go the looooong route…….

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A New Direction

Goooooooooood morrrrrrrrrrning WORLD!!!

And helllllllllllo from PANAMA!! Home to the world famous Panama Canal and I’ll let you know what else after a few weeks here!  For now, I spent last night in Panama’s second city, David, and today I’m making my way to Bocas del Toro – which every other backpacker I’ve met has told me it’s an absolute dream of a location.  The archipelago (if someone wants to Google that for me, that’d be fantastic!) of islands (that may be redundant?, but that ‘archi’ word is just a mouthful to try and say) has appeared gorgeous in all of my travel friends photos! 

Fortunately and unfortunately, one of the guys I’ve been traveling with on and off since Guatemala, Scott, has recently arrived in Colombia and was raving about Panama and especially Bocas, and he wrote me last night saying, no matter how much you love Central America and how great it is – get to Colombia ASAP!!  ….. And this is the exact sentiment that almost every other backpacker ahead of me on the ‘backpacking trail’ has said as well.  Everyone raves about Guatemala in Central America (easily my favorite country) and Colombia – which I’m sure it will live up to its hype!

Last night, after arriving in David, we wandered around the city, found an ATM and stopped into a grocery store.   Grocery shopping is one of the cooler cultural experiences anywhere you go, seeing the prices, the people and the variety of food – especially the produce, of which, half of it I do not even recognize.  The prices were unreal, $2.50 for a large box of cereal, $14 for a handle of Smirnoff, Flor de Cana Rum for $6.50 – the best rum in the entire world.  If you haven’t heard of it yet, go to your local massive liquor store and buy a bottle.  Now! Quit reading and go buy it, it’s incredible! 

Following our grocery store experience, we eventually found the Central Park and popped into a department store just for fun.  We had already fallen in love with Panama within hours, but this confirmed it.  Jeans for $15, dress pants for $12, women’s sandals for $2 to $8, dining room table and chairs for $400, underwear for $2, shirts for $3-$5, and my jaw dropped when I saw multiple pairs of nice men’s dress shoes for $16!!!  They’re $100+ at home for $16.00!!!  If you’re a big Christmas shopper, it’s literally worth your money to buy a flight to Panama with an empty suitcase, explore the country, and shop for all your loved ones at home!  Oh, and glasses frames were $2 instead of $200 at home!  Unreal!

Liraz, the Israeli I’ve been traveling with for a few days now, and I left the department store.  I purchased two street hot dogs (thank god to finally see street food again – I’ve missed it!) for $1 each, fully loaded.  Then we grabbed dinner for $3 and $4 respectively and I was beyond full.  After our hunger was quenched, we walked back to The Purple House, our hostel, in which every.single.thing. – every bit of the hostel is a shade of lavender – my sister would love it!  I caught up with some friends, read a few things online, and eventually made it to bed, but not before a little brain storming and reading a friend’s blog.

This leads me to the point of this post.  This whole time I’ve been using KGG (KyleGoesGlobal) I always had a desire to make it uber informational (still can and will), but I’d rather do it via my experiences.  I’ve been trying to make my posts more informational with advice and the glories of traveling, as opposed to just writing about my experiences, the crazy ones and the more sane ones.  I hope to share more of these in the future, I’ll work on the time that I have and try and get some fun posts up for you more often.  I’m here to entertain, to share my experiences, and this is where I’d like to head with this blog for now. 

The tablet I purchased for my trip is easily the most inefficient thing in the entire world, which massively inhibits making blog posts that are visually stunning while I’m traveling.  Thus, it also makes it a nightmare to load photos into all of my posts, as it randomly will delete them and other times will not load them at all.  I will try to incorporate photos here and there for some highlights, but while traveling it’s hard enough to find time to write, let alone add photos to the posts, and format it.  I hope to write more here and there, and I hope to provide you with a few minutes distraction and laughter on a regular basis. 

As for me now, I’m on my way to Bocas del Toro Archi-something….and a hammock between palm trees, a cocktail, a beach, and a turquoise blue sea are beckoning my name.  Happy travels and reading everyone!

-Kyle

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Ever bought a bicycle in Guatemala? What about two?

San Pedro La Laguna is a criss crossed town of backpackers, locals, and hippies all coinciding together on Lake Atitlan.  It’s definitely a party town and we did our fair share.  On the day of our departure, Lennart and I quickly popped into a bike shop that we’d heard about earlier in the day.  There were not many options, except for one bike, which was on sale for (post haggling) about $90 which we deemed to be to steep – at the time anyway.  In retrospect, it probably would have been our best option, but we wanted to continue shopping around.  After a stunning ride up the winding roads overlooking the absolute most beautiful lake, Lake Atitlan, and through the wild roads of the Western Highlands of Guatemala, we arrived in Antigua later that day. 

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San Pedro

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Antigua Chicken Buses

We began our bike shopping here, but we knew that it would be too expensive to buy in such a Gringo heavy town.  We asked a local cop about any small towns around and he sent us to San Pedro Las Huertas – after a $0.18 Chicken Bus ride we arrived in the town adorned with a beautiful town square and very helpful (minded) people. 

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San Pedro Las Huertas Central Park

Our first shop we popped into was laughable – although being our first stop, I test rode a bike, but no way on earth was this bike going to make it out of the town, let alone across El Salvador. 

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First Shop Stop

We wandered up the street, stopped into some random people’s houses and asked locals on the street if they’d sell their bike or if they had any friends that wanted to sell theirs.  (Guatemalan’s will do anything to earn a buck.  – Never once were we looked at with disgust for asking such a question.)  We stopped at this random man’s house when we saw a bike inside his front door (read:  alleyway into his home with a bike inside). 

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Checking Out Rodrigo's Bike

I believe his name was Rodrigo – he showed us the bike, no luck, and he walked us to his friends place? (Charles) with a bike shop – I say that with a question, because we’re not really sure who he was taking us too.  Rodrigo knocked on the door and said bike shop owner wasn’t home. 

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Knock Knock

Another local stood nearby, with his fly, not just zipper, but also his pants button, completely undone.  To add to his astonishing wardrobe, he lacked a shoelace on one foot, but he also wanted to help us out so we weren’t going to shy away from another local lending us a hand.  So there we went, McFly, Rodrigo, Lennart and I – the fantastic four – we wandered down the worn down street another 1.5 blocks to the town square so Rodrigo and McFly could – get this – use the pay phone to call Charles to see where he was and when he’d return. 

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McFly making a call with Rodrigo deep in thought

Charles was at the beach with his wife for the day, but we were informed that he had “at least 10-15 bikes” and that we should return at 7am the following morning.  We happily flipped the equivalent of $0.12 to Rodrigo and McFly for the phone call, said our peace, thanked them and toll them we’d return the following day. 

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7am is way way too early for us.  Plus, what’s wrong with later?  The next day we returned around lunch time, knocked on the door and asked for Charles, he was happy to see us, and showed us his bikes.  We didn’t purchase any – not even close.  I won’t describe them in detail, but they looked like this:

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I asked him if there were any that would, ya know, ride?  He said, “oh no, just these.”
 
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What Charles, Rodrigo and McFly were thinking, and how on Earth they thought these bicycles, fully loaded with our gear, would get us across a country, I am not sure, but nevertheless, we thanked them for their help and moved on to Guatemala City.  Upon arrival at our hostel after safely navigating the chaotic capital of Guatemala home to 3 million people, we were eventually directed via word of mouth to the tiny town of San Andres Iztapa, about 75 minutes via Chicken Bus outside of Guatemala City and 35 minutes from Antigua. 

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San Andres Iztapa

I gave the phone number a call, the girl on the other end and I attempted to speak Spanish until we both realized we were native English speakers.  She happily gave me directions to shop – once we got off the Chicken Bus, go up the hill from the church towards the cemetery and you can’t miss it. 

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Maya Pedal

She was right and later that day we stumbled upon Maya Pedal – a shop with volunteers from Western Countries working with locals and old donated bikes from the states and Canada to repair and fix bicycles.  This shop was perfect for our needs.

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I really should've bought this clown bike

Remember that the average height for locals is some where around 5’6″ (this is scientific fact – a measurement based on the insight that I am at least a head taller than every single one of them).  Any and all bicycles frames that Maya Pedal has been donated were still available for the 6’2″ Lennart and I to begin custom construction of our bikes out of a numerous variety of bicycle parts straight from the 1980s. 
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First, we each chose a frame, handle bars, seats and the volunteers began to construct our bicycles from scratch for us.  They were unbelievably helpful, kind, and eager to show us what was best for our journey.  In the meantime, we wandered town for awhile, each fulfilled our daily coconut quota, and tried the bikes for the first time. 
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My bike made it ~20 feet (on a downhill) and it was down for the count.  The rear tire was rubbing on the frame and my bicycle wouldn’t budge another inch. 

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Maybe this guy broke my bike? But no, this guy has NOTHING to do with this post - we just saw him every day in San Andres and how could I NOT include him?!

Over the next 1.5 days, my bike began to take form with minor tweaks and adjustments, two days later we returned.  We did several test rides, and each time, either the gears wouldn’t work properly, the pedal(s) were loose, the brakes needed repairs, or the handle bars needed adjustments.  Either way though, each time I gave it a test ride, a finished product began to take shape. 

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Fixing up our bikes

Two days later, we returned via our third day of Chicken Bus rides and our bikes were almost ready.  A few more test rides around town, confirming everything was in shape, that the wheels were trued, the brakes (semi) worked, and the pedals were firmly attached and we purchased our bicycles. 

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Ready to ride!

They cost about $95 with a bike rack and everything else tweaked into place.  We took photos with all of the volunteers and local workers and thanked them immensely for their hard work. 

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Our hard working Maya Pedal team

We left them with a few liters of cold beer for an extra form of appreciation of their work and Lennart and I were off for our first ride.  It wasn’t long before we realized that our shirts would not be necessary in the mid day Guatemalan sun. 

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A close call for Lennart

At this moment, the phrase “HOSO” – “Helmets On, Shirts Off” was formed. 

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First ride to Antigua

After bracing my luggage rack above the bike’s rear tire (a $1.25 purchase of an oversized milk crate which was previously the coconut ladies seat – I told you ANYTHING is for sale in Guatemala for the right price), Santo and Diablo safely delivered Lennart and I all the way to Antigua, 18km later, without any problems or break downs for the first time in their short existences. 

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Our bike shopping was complete, however, we were definitely going to be roughing it for the next month.  I couldn’t be more excited!

Categories: El Danger Zone - Bicycling Central America, Guatemala | Tags: , , , | 7 Comments

Introduction to “El Danger Zone’s” – Our Central America Bicycle Trip

Flash back a year ago – I came up with the idea of bicycling across of El Salvador.  I knew it was a Central American country, I knew it was seemingly feasible, I knew nothing else about the country – and to be honest, today, I know a few sites here and there, but I still have loads to learn and experience.

Flash forward a few months, I book my flight to travel the world, a few months later, I quit my job, and one last flash to just over two months into my travels I arrive at El Gato Negro Hostel in Xela, Guatemala mid afternoon after a three hour Chicken Bus ride.  I was fresh out of a backpacking relationship heartbreak and really looking for a fresh start.  I was going to take Spanish classes, live in a home stay with a Guatemala family and after a few weeks of traveling full time with the aforementioned girl, I was really hoping to meet a really cool guy or two to travel with for awhile.

Enter Lennart, and five other guys the instance I walked into the hostel in Xela.  We all grabbed pizzas and beers that night – I was off to a great start.  That night, I stumbled across a tourism trolley, and the idea to rent it as a “Party Trolley” popped into my mind immediately from my previous experiences in Chicago. 
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The next night, Saturday, we were off on it cruising around Xela, partying and dancing the night away – the 7 of us guys, 4 girls from the hostel, and 3 Guatemalan guys who I invited to join us right off the street.  By the end of the night we’d picked up another group of 3 girls and it was an absolute riot of a night! Xela was off to a great start.

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Parque Central en Xela

Over the course of the weekend, Lennart and I realized we had very similar plans – 2 weeks of Spanish courses, and then making our way through Central America over the next 3+ months and we both shared the desire to bike across a country. His original goal was Costa Rica, having never thought about El Salvador, I mentioned the idea and he jumped on board immediately. We shared the similar feeling of going with the flow and a love for beach volleyball and shortly thereafter, “El Danger Zone” became the coined name for our future trip. 

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El Danger Zone Begins

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Sunrise on Volcan Tajumulco - The highest point in Central America

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Sunrise on Volcan Tajumulco

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Volcan San Pedro in the background - we hiked from this photo to the peak

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Lennart on top of Volcan San Pedro

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On top of Volcan San Pedro

After a few more weeks of traveling Guatemala, stops at Lake Atitlan, kayaking, hiking the highest peak in Central America, Volcan Tajumulco (4,220m and summiting it from 4,000m at sunrise after sleeping in a deep freeze) (another blog about this coming soon!), and the even more difficult Volcan San Pedro – we began our bike shopping….a simple feat in a first world country – not so much in Guatemala….

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Our bicycle adventure was just beginning.  El Danger Zone was going to have loads of challenges and we knew this was only the first hurdle, but no matter what was thrown at us, we had faith we’d succeed.

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Bicycling Across Guatemala – Day 1

Our morning began….slowly.  After a delicious hostel breakfast and packing up, we began to load our bikes.  Lennart filled up his panniers on his back tire (the side bags) and tied down his backpack with a skinny rope over the top – I must say, I was quite impressed with how good his bike looked fully loaded.  Santo was ready for the road!

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After I finished packing my stuff in the dorm, I came downstairs to find Diablo patiently awaiting our journey.  I placed my oversized plastic milk crate (which was previously a lady at the local markets seat) onto my bike rack and haphazardly through my backpack into it.  I barely pushed my pack down into the crate before I placed my day pack with all of my electronics on top of it, and added my dry bag with my shoes on top as well.

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The lovely Guatemalan Coconut Lady who I bought my blue crate from

With some old rubber ‘ropes’, a dilapidated bungee cord, and some precise measurements (read: I just put tied things down with cords that were already ripping) we took our bikes out of the hostel – I had no idea how heavy / difficult it would be to move the bikes with gear on them.

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After a few tearful (exaggerated for your entertainment) good-byes, our amazing group of six parted ways to various places within Guatemala and Lennart and I were on our way!

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…But not so fast, the cobble stone streets are not very conducive to overly packed road bikes, we had to walk our bikes until we were out of the town – on this journey, my bike tipped over once due to its top heavyness and thus, I had to re-scientifically-attach it to my bike rack and then we were finally off!

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The first town we traversed was Ciudad Vieja – I confirmed with a local the name of the town as we biked by, as there was no “Welcome to (this tiny town)” sign anywhere to be found.  Once you’re off the main tourist track, two Gringos are always a site to see for the locals – especially two gringos with fully loaded bicycles….needless to say they were super excited to see us!

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Onward we pedaled and enjoying some long stretches of downhills, we were flying and I mean flying!  I timed us over the course of a kilometer – the fastest I clocked in was 61 seconds – or in other words, almost exactly 60km/hr or 38 MPH for an extended period of time.  Downhills sure are our friends, those uphills though – definitely an enemy – however, luckily we’re heading for the lower lying coast of El Salvador and we’ll be making plenty of friends.

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Everything went without a hitch, we enjoyed the gorgeous sites along the way until about 18km before our final destination of Escuintla.  We hit a bump in the road….literally.

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A speed bump – a speed bump derailed our perfect day.  We came around a blind corner to a section of about 10 speed bumps leading up to a bridge, and although we attempted to slow with our 1980s breaking mechanisms, the bump jarred loose a screw on Lennart’s bike and his rack was only half attached.  We dismounted from our bikes and as I went to help him…my entire bike fell over as well throwing my gear onto the hot Guatemalan pavement.

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After some masterful duct tape engineering combined with the use of some string – Santo, Lennart’s bicycle, which ironically broke down before Diablo was ready for the road again.  However, Santo was still injured and Lennart had to wear his backpack for the rest of our journey.

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Back on the road we began – 18km to the town of Escuintla, which we know absolutely nothing about.

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Unfortunately for you, there were no other significant shenanigans / issues we ran into for the day, but I was treated to a nice surprise of a Chicken Bus with my home state of Illinois License Plate.

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We ventured through the town – without seeing a single place to sleep, so we parked our bikes, Lennart played guard, and I wandered the town until 30 minute later, I finally found the first place to stay – it was pricey, $13 / night, but it had a pool and a hot tub, so we were sold.  Lennart went for a bite to eat and I went for a swim, what a relief after our first day of biking!  An hour later, we went for dinner (Lennart’s second) and my first and a coconut. 

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We accomplished both these tasks, then found or way into a Billiard Hall…with no one playing billiards, but rather a group of 12-15 men gambling on Domino’s and another dice game, which we’re still not sure what it consisted of.  There were ‘No Smoking’ signs posted, but this didn’t stop the owner from loaning her lighter to some of the shirtless locals as they continued to gamble the night away.  Lenny and I played a few rounds of pool, one of the locals joined us for a game of Cutthroat (the billiard game, not the ‘oh my god, you’re in Guatemala Kyle, are you safe?! that sounds dangerous!’ version)  It was quite the experience and quite an end to the first day of our journey, “El Danger Zone.”  All things considered, we really only had one minor hitch and we finished our day with a few recap videos excited for tomorrow’s travels to begin!  It’s looking to be a 61km day, we shall see though!

Good night everyone!

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