Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Untold Story of The Friendly Muggers

With over three months in order to compose my final blog, I still am unable to determine the best way to commence one of the most unforgettable moments of my trip. A moment that has up until this point, remained unshared with almost everyone I know. Unshared and undivulged, as it most likely would have caused unnecessary grief and anguish among those anxiously awaiting my return back home (Mom, GF, Mom). However, now that I am safely returned to the good ole US of A, I feel it is finally time to share “The Story of the Friendly Muggers.”

Prior to my departure for South America, I had already been more than well-informed of the potential dangers that awaited me. Drug-related kidnappings in Colombia, bus muggings in Peru, meal-stealing parasites in Bolivia. All of which I took with a mere grain of salt, because to be perfectly honest, after 3 trips to South Africa in the past 4 years, and not one negative incident during that time, I figured survival in one of the most notoriously-dangerous places in the world (undeservedly so I might add), meant survival anywhere else. Unfortunately, such a notion would soon meet its test, as my adventures arrived to the coast of Panama.

After a day settling into the island town of Bocas Del Toro, Laura and I decided to venture off on our first journey of the trip. Taking the advice of a friendly girl working at our hostel, we hopped on a short boat ride as to visit what was supposedly one of the most beautiful beaches in all of Panama: Red Frog Beach. Not only lacking anything even remotely resembling paradise (unless you consider dirty-white, trash-scattered beaches something to be sought after), Red Frog Beach also lacked any multi-colored amphibians after which it was named. Thus, after several hours attempting to find beauty in what basically resembled a strip of sand in Galveston, we decided to venture off to an aligning beach that promised, what we hoped, anything more: Wizard Beach.

With two routes which to take, we opted to hug the rocky coast instead of venturing inland through the forest. After half an hour of wading through water, clinging onto rock walls, and wondering if this “nearby” beach would ever appear, I heard a scream come from behind me. My immediate thought was that Laura had slipped, so I rushed back around the corner to make sure she was OK. She was not. Joining a wide-eyed Laura were now two local islanders, adorned in black ski masks, each holding onto a large rock in one hand, and a baseball bat-sized piece of wood in the other. My immediate thoughts were as follows:

1. "Oh good, other hikers that can let us know how far away we are."
2. "Oh not good, they are wearing ski masks. I don't think they will be providing directions."
3. "Oh not good at all, I have EVERYTHING in my backpack.”

(NOTE: EVERYTHING = Canon DSLR Camera, 2 lenses, iPod, 2 passports, wallet, a waterproof camera and of course my favorite multi-functional sarong  Estimated Price Is Right Retail Value of $2,718).

With the two muggers focusing their attention on Laura, I instinctively attempted to hide my backpack behind a large boulder while their concentration was drawn away. Unfortunately, my quick toss lodged the backpack directly between the boulder and a wall, thus placing it in perfect sight of our two new “friends.” With literally all my possessions in clear view for the taking, I couldn’t help but sigh at the predicament in which we had found ourselves – only 3 days into the trip, and already to be relieved of everything of any value.

As one of the muggers finally approached me from around the corner, I couldn’t help but notice the cautiousness in his steps, as well as the fact that he seemed to be only 17-18 years of age. I have no idea why, but as he approached, I put my hand up, and told him to wait, as I went to grab my wallet from my backpack. He obliged accordingly, as I removed $30 from my wallet for him to see, handing it over carefully as he raised his rock high in the air in case any sudden movements were made. As he attempted to approach my bag, I found myself begging “no mas por favor, solo dinero” (no more please, only money). To my astonishment, he paused for thought, and then nodded, returning back to the other mugger. Within seconds, they were gone, leaving both Laura and I in a state of mild shock as to what had just happened. Only when Laura and I were back to safety 10 minutes later did I learn of the ridiculous events that transpired on her end:

Mugger: “Camera”
Laura: “Oh no, please… oh please”
Mugger: “Camera.”
Laura: Hands over camera dejectedly, pausing for a moment, before asking the mugger “Could I please at least keep my memory card?”
Mugger: Nods head. Gives camera BACK to Laura so she can remove her memory card.
Laura: “Thank you!” Hurriedly removes memory card, then half-passes the camera back before pulling it back and asking “Oh please, can I actually just keep the camera. Pleeeeease?”
Mugger: Pauses for a moment, nods head. Looks back at Laura’s bag.
Laura: “Here, have my iPod, and $15, please that’s all I have”
Mugger: Takes iPod, looking at it with a sense of accomplishment, then back at Laura and myself, before departing with his other companion.

As we rushed onward along the coast in hopes of reaching the populated sands of Wizard Beach, I couldn’t believe the luck that had come our way. To escape that entire situation with only the loss of $45 and Laura’s iPod was miraculous. I wasn’t sure if it was empathy on the part of the mugger’s that allowed us to leave with all our possessions, or if they were quite possibly the worst criminals in the world. Either way, it seemed as if both parties were moreorless pleased with how the events transpired.

After jumping in the ocean, and letting the adrenaline wash away, we eventually came across a group of 5 other backpackers whom we convinced to walk back with us through the jungle as to return to “civilization.” With no money to afford a ferry ride back, it was even more amazing that our paths soon crossed that of Erik Stringwell and his wife Leah, enjoying a hike of their own during their honeymoon. After reliving our story (which promptly halted their plans to hike to the beach), they were more than kind enough to treat us to some “semi-celebratory” beers before paying our way back to the mainland. (Erik, I still owe you!)

After returning to our hostel in Bocas, we informed the staff (as well as the “horrible-advice-providing girl”) of what had occurred. While appearing quite shocked at the story of which we told, only then did they inform us that the path we took is “notorious” for muggings and should never have been wandered across in the first place (yes, thanks for telling us that NOW). Biting my tongue at the frustration I felt at our hostel’s inability to provide sound advice, we finalized the entire affair with a trip to the local police station. After stumbling my way through a broken Spanish version of the event, we came to the understanding that we were extremely lucky, and if the boys were caught, they would basically be beaten senseless and let on their way. Sounded about right to me.

Over the next 3 months, both Laura and I assumed that it was only a matter of time before a similar incident found its way into our lives. Limited amounts of cash were carried, important documents were spread across numerous bags, valuables were hidden within the depths of our over-packed bags. Listening to story after story of other’s being relieved of their possessions in a similar fashion, it seemed inevitable that the return home would be without the majority of valuables still in-hand. However, despite all our precautions, the remainder of the trip remained “mug-free,” leaving our experience in Panama the only “blemish” along what was an amazing experience. A “blemish” which I eventually convinced Laura to describe appropriately, as her description of “being attacked by two kids with bits of wood” didn’t paint the appropriate picture in the minds of others.

And thus, I leave you with that. With all my stories officially documented, I hope you have all enjoyed my adventures in South America as much as I did. While I look forward to future travels as well as future blogs, I believe my time spent bumming around the world for months on end might finally have come to a conclusion (this whole “life” thing has to start up one of these days). Nevertheless, I still have passport pages to fill, and about 5 weeks of vacation a year to enjoy. Thus, farewell for now and hasta la proxima vez!

Onto the pics:

About two minutes before encountering the "friendly muggers," who I must thank for returning Laura's camera as to provide visual evidence of this memorable day

Wizard Beach - Definitely NOT worth visiting if it entails being mugged (or even w/out the mugging to be honest)

Could have used one of these signs along the beach -- not along a perfectly safe road back in town

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

My Favorite Things About South America: All The Other Stuff

As the time since my departure from South America has gone from days to weeks, and the interest in my blog seems to have been negatively impacted by the common question of "why are you still posting blogs if you are home?", I am forced to put some brevity behind my words. Thus, while I would love to dedicate entire posts to each and every one of these subjects, I instead leave you with a brief summary of all the "other" favorite aspects of life in South America:

Almuerzo/Comida Corriente/Menu Del Dia/El Menu - Making up over 75% of food consumed during my trip, these "set meals" were an amazing deal: A bowl of soup, a main (choice of meat + 2-3 carbs), and depending on the country, either a cup of juice, fruit or even desert. All for $1-3! (Stolen photo courtesy of Ted & Sarah)

Snack Vendors - On almost every corner of every country, these health-promoting vendors provide chips, chocolates and cigarettes to all

Fresh Fruit Juice - For those looking for a healthier option, fruit juice stands offer unlimited options and combinations of the most delicious-tasting fruit in the world (well, at least way better than the offering at HEB in South Austin)

The Coca Leaf - Whether chewed, drank or even sucked upon in the candy form, the Coca Leaf has overtaken the Andes as the cure-all for everything and anything (hunger, thirst, altitude sickness, addiction to coca leaves)

Stray Dogs - They are everywhere, literally, everywhere

Bearded Burros - While their beard typically covers their eyes, these animals are still one of my favorites

Llama Tenders - Profiting on tourists love of photos next to furry llama's, these ladies could easily live for months off the "donations" I sent their way

Llama's - Furry, spitty, sometimes adorned in ribbons - How could these not be one's favorite animal!?

Ladies Hats - In every Andean country, women flaunt semi-fashionable hats of odd and eccentric shapes. The Bolivian Charlie Chaplin look is definitely my fave

Marching Bands - Every city has one, and everyday is a holiday/festival/excuse to let them play

PDA - South American kids love making out in public and apparently statues do too

Cell Phone Vendors - Although typically only found in Colombia, these vendors provide needy users with the opportunity to make cheap calls via an old cell phone, secured by a long-enough-for-no-privacy metal chord

Photocopy Stores - I have no idea what the need is for a photocopy store on literally every corner, yet they somehow have managed to stay in business for years

Political Advertisements - Apparently if you own a house near a main road, that gives political campaigners free reign to paint all over your house

Creepy Statues - Very creepy indeed

Main Plazas - Combining the perfect mix of benches, pigeons and of course the occasionally-functional fountain

'ia' Stores - Papeleria, Panederia, Jugueteria, Joyeria... the list goes on and on

Book Exchanges - All you need is another book, and of course $500

Pan Flutes - If South America had a theme song, the pan flute would no doubt dominate every second of it

The Actual Theme Song of South America - It's pretty catchy

Taxis - $0.10/minute to travel anywhere in the city + a free Spanish lesson on top!

Electric Showers - The only heat these inefficient shower heads generate is via the shock they generate when attempting to turn them off

Cross-Walk Guys - Instead of giving a countdown on their cross-walk lights, Peruvians have instead decided to provide pedestrians with a more "instructional" approach to street crossings: Peruvian Cross-Walk Man

Hammocks - Why sit when you can lie?

WB TV Channel - 24/7 replays of "Two and a Half Men," "The Big Bang Theory" and of course "Friends"... all in English! (+5 points to whoever can translate the subtitle in this scene)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

South America: 3 Months Recapped in 3 Minutes

After several weeks adjusting back to American culture (i.e. less Spanish, more English), as well as a 10-day period of antibiotics to rid myself of "new friends" brought home from abroad, I have finally settled back into life in the States. Girlfriend catch-up time, HBO series catch-up time, and of course sweating my ass off in 105 degree heat catch-up time have all seemed to keep me busy over these past few weeks.

However, with a new job starting in less than 6 days, and thus an impending welcome back to "reality" just around the corner, I have decided to take some time out of my busy couch-frequenting days to put together one of the final blogs from my trip while I still can - A brief number-heavy recap of my adventure in South America. Let the blog begin!

General Trip Stats:

- Total days = 95
- Countries visited = 6
- Cities visited = 37
- Highest altitude reached = 15,928 feet
- Avg altitude during trip = 6,000 feet
- Avg altitude during trip (excluding coastal towns) = 8,316 feet
- Days spent above sea level = 69
- Days spent at least 10,000 ft above sea level = 29
- Photos taken (well, kept that is) = 2,500+
- Waterproof cameras broken due to water damage = 1
- Non-waterproof cameras not broken, despite spilling an entire beer directly on it = 1
- Facebook friends made = 39
- Non-Facebook friends made = 0 (Not sure such people actually exist)
- Weight lost over the course of trip = 14 lbs
- Weight gained back after 2 days in the US = 7 lbs
- Hostel beds slept in = 36
- Avg hostel cost = $9/night (Cheapest = $3.70 - Sucre, Bolivia -- Most Expensive = $19 - Arica, Chile)
- Complete Guinea Pigs consumed = 0.95 (damn that brain)
- Consoling emails sent to GF and Mom = Enough

Transportation Stats:

- Long-Distance Bus Rides = 41
- Night Buses = 15
- Hours spent on long-distance buses = 274 (12% of entire trip)
- Miles traveled = 7,120 (NOTE: Earth Circumference = 25,000 mi)
- Longest bus journey = 20 hrs
- Longest "detour" = 10 hrs
- Avg bus journey length = 6-7 hrs
- Avg bus journey cost = $1.80/hr
- Movies watched lacking any spoken English or subtitles = Too many
- Movies watched actually with spoken English or subtitles = Not enough
- Hours spent walking, hiking or meandering via my two feet = Many
- Internal round-trip flights = 1

Other Stats:

- Item's (L)ost/(S)tolen = 9.5 (Merrell Hiking Shoes (S), Button-Down Dress Shirt (S), South African Beenie (S), Michigan Hat (S), Michigan Long-Sleeved Shirt (S?), Michigan Hoodie (L), Travel Towel (L), Headlamp (S), Soap Travel Container (L), Cell Phone (S*)) - Somewhere there is a person decked out in Michigan gear ready to hike some dimly-lit mountains. I do not like this person.

* Cell Phone disappears, complaint filed with hostel, cell phone mysteriously reappears later that day on my bed.

Top 5 Places Visited:

1. Machu Picchu - As a checklist traveler, this is one well-known "check"
2. Colombia - Friendly people, amazing landscapes, lack of cartel-related crimes
3. La Paz - Altitude-inspired records, death roads and "large-boned" wrestling women
4. Salar de Uyuni - Photos, more photos, and even some more photos
5. The Amazon - Macau's, machete's and of course severe malnutrition

Honorable Mentions: Colca Canyon (it's pretty deep), Cusco (rocks, stones and other objects that fall in between the two), Lake Quilotoa (one high-ass lake), Paramount Pictures Mountain (making every future Paramount movie that much more interesting), Lake Titicaca (mostly for the ability to repeat it's name over and over)

Top 5 Experiences:

1. Inca Trail Hike - Best finish to a hike ever
2. Biking the World's Most Dangerous Road - Not only did I survive, I got a free t-shirt too!
3. Sleeping in Hammock's at Tayrona National Park - Colombian paradise
4. Santa Cruz Trek - One of the most scenic hikes of my life (as well as hilarious - thanks to a ridiculously-prepared Israeli family)
5. Amazon "Bear Grylls" Survival Tour - I never said it had to be an enjoyable experience

Honorable Mentions: Cocora Valley Hike (super tall palm trees + mist = photogenicness), Salar de Uyuni Tour (more photogenicness), Sand Boarding/Dune Buggying (desert-themed roller-coaster), Floating in a Mud Volcano (it's weird), anything to do with Llama's (obviously), eating Cuy (Guinea Pig), Cholita's Wrestling (please youtube it), Pablo Escobar Tour, every Spanish conversation in which my comprehension surpassed 50% of words spoken

Untop 5 Experiences:

1. Leg bite from an angry (and hopefully rabies-free) dog in Ecuador
2. 18 hour Colombian "detour" bus ride - 1/15 of which was spent in reverse
3. Any period of time that involved never-ending pan flute music while stuck in an enclosed area (i.e. bus)
4. Any time my "intestinal friends" decided to pay a visit
5. The Untold Story of the Friendly Muggers (Coming soon!)

Honorable Mentions: Pepe the non-traquillo Alpaca biting my eye (and thus inducing several hours of never-ending watering), 28 hour "involuntary fast" during my Amazon tour, most of Chile

Overall, my 3 months in South America provided me with more amazing experiences than I could have ever envisioned. From watching the sun rise above the horizon, enveloping the undisturbed ruins of Machu Picchu in light, to hiking along never-ending green valley floors, as towering snow-capped mountains loomed above. No matter where life takes me from this moment, I am glad to have had the opportunity to share my adventure with you all. And although no more multi-month journeys will be partaken in my near future (this whole "life" thing has to start sooner-or-later), other, somewhat shorter one's more than likely will. Hasta la proxima vez.

Next Week: The Untold Story of The Friendly Muggers