I put this video together in an attempt to describe the ever-changing beautiful chaos that was tour leading in the greatest continent on Earth. This is All Gone South. Enjoy!
Soccer fever is here again! As I watch the first few matches kick off in Russia on my TV at home, I can’t help but reflect on the lifelong memories from traveling around Brazil during the last World Cup in 2014. From massive beachside watch parties, to intimate apartment buildings, to Amazon River boats, and even attending a few matches in person, the game was all consuming everywhere and to everyone you met. I originally wrote this article three years ago to celebrate what I believed to be the beginning of true soccer passion in the United States. While many of us are still depressed at the fact that the US failed to qualify for this year’s World Cup, I’m republishing this article to take us back to that beautifully gut-wrenching run from four years ago and inspire others to travel to see your nation’s team put it all on the line on the world stage.
(Written in June, 2015. Reedited and published in June of 2018)
It was around this time four years ago that I was part of a moment so unbelievably surreal that I still cannot fathom whether it actually happened or not, and it has changed my life.
It occurred during a soccer match.
I call it soccer as any American would. I guess that is what this story is essentially about: America. Not about trade, tweets, or Trump, rather something far more significant: The World Cup. Every four years, this month long war of nations occurs on a field of grass with a ball and two nets.
Something new has been happening in the US in recent years. Since the end of the 2010 World Cup in which the USMNT (United States Men’s National Team) lost in extra time to Ghana in the first elimination round, we had been left wanting more.
There was just something about Landon Donovan’s goal against Algeria that year that has seemingly lit a spark for America’s love for her national team. It might not have been quite the love for the sport at first, but for the universal idea of never giving up, putting your heart on the line, and quite simply, to believe in something greater than yourself. As Donovan was getting mauled by his teammates in celebration, I recall screaming at the tv and running around the house like an ape. That goal added an unstoppable momentum to a dream that would lead me to a crazy series of events and, four years later, land me in the Arena das Dunas in the northeastern resort town of Natal, Brazil on the 16th of June, watching the United States take on Ghana again in their opening match of the 2014 World Cup. It was in fact another goal during this match that I will remember for the rest of my life.
June 16th, 2014
With the 2014 World Cup already underway in Brazil, the United States national team was facing perhaps the highest expectations to succeed than any other time in their history. The hiring of the German coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, had proven a great success. The team had won more games than any previous coach up to that point. They had qualified for the World Cup with ease and it was finally time to look towards Brazil. But once the drawing raffle placed the US in a group featuring Germany, Portugal, and Ghana, the pressure to make it out of the group was ramped up even more. The schedule was made and the team would play Ghana in Natal for the first game of group play.
It seemed to be stacked against them. The team that knocked them out in both 2006 and 2010 would be the first match against Klinsmann’s revamped American squad. Yet in this group, Ghana were seen as the lesser team compared with European powerhouses Portugal and Germany. For this reason, if the US had any chance to make it out of this group and tell the world that soccer was here to stay, then they must beat Ghana. Klinsmann called it “a final in the first match.”
Not a loss.
Not a draw.
We had to win…
Our plane touched down on the tarmac at 4am in hot and humid Natal. Stoked that we got put on the flight via standby instead of having to sleep on the floor at the airport in São Paulo, my brother and I headed to our hotel and attempted to get some sleep before heading over to the USA pregame party.
We woke up a few hours later, put on our jerseys and American flag bandanas, and hopped in a cab to central Natal. A pizza restaurant near the stadium was the venue chosen by the unofficial fan club of the US national team, the American Outlaws, to be the epicenter of the pregame. Arriving rather early, we were excited to see that about a hundred US supporters were already standing around the restaurant, greeting the new arrivals. In a short time, this crowd would swell into the thousands. The Yanks had arrived by force, and we made our presence known. All forms of alcohol within a mile radius were bought and consumed. Restaurants had lines out the door. The Outlaws had set up a private event for their members inside the pizza place of which us plebs on the outside were denied access. However the better place to be was quickly established as thousands of fans, decked out in the Stars and Stripes, gathered with us outside of the restaurant patio. The cheering began and so did the singing. After a few hours of drinking, flag waving, chanting, and more drinking, a member of the Outlaws stood on top of a table, raised his index finger to the crowd, and twirled it around in a circular fashion: the universal sign that it was “go-time”. It was time to march.
The amount of Americans who showed up in Natal was impressive. Everyone was shocked. The beautiful host residents of Brazil, the other foreigners, even the Americans themselves were surprised that so many of us had turned up. “I can’t believe I’m actually here” was a very common phrase you’d overhear. As the crowd rounded the corner onto Rua Morais Navarro, the Arena das Dunas came into view. At the same time, we had started singing the Star Spangled Banner (again). Flags and scarves were raised into the air, and we shouted. This is when the chronic chills set in for the remainder of the evening. As we neared the stadium entrance, I took a look behind me at the sea of now ten thousand strong US jerseys, flags, and scarves. The invasion was complete. The fans had turned up in record amounts. The support was there, but none of us had to actually play on the field against Ghana. That was for US captain Clint Dempsey and his rag tag group of believers to handle.
Inside the Arena das Dunas (Arena of the Dunes), we were in complete awe at the beauty of this quickly put together stadium. The silver wavy roof looked just like, well, the sand dunes that are prevalent in this region of Brazil. We were seated in the front of the second deck behind one of the goals, giving is a great view of the entire field.
As the on field warm-ups came to a close and the players headed into their respective locker rooms. The nerves started to become nearly uncontrollable. No Superbowl. No Game 7. Nothing. Nothing comes remotely close to the amount of nervous anxiety that is felt before your nation’s World Cup game. The hype had begun not just a few months, but four years ago. The hiring of a new coach. The ups and downs of international friendlies. Qualifying. Getting placed in a Group of Death. The international media downplaying the chances of this revamped team. After all the progress with this team over the last four years, it all comes down to this game.
We must win.
The stadium PA blares the FIFA introduction music, and the pre-match parade begins. American and Ghanaian flags are stretched and presented at midfield, the two teams follow suit and walk onto the pitch. The US in their popsicle pattern red white and blue kits, Ghana in all white. The crowd begins to cheer even louder. We eventually quiet down, and the announcer calls to play each country’s respective national anthem.
I will tell you something about national anthems. We Americans sing ours a lot. Be it a professional ballgame or your three-year-old’s preschool graduation, the country is to be honored and her song is to be sung. Like it or not, that’s what happens. You get a little patriotic, and it’s cool. But singing your country’s national anthem in Brazil during the most famous international sporting event on the planet merits a completely different level of patriotism. It will give you the most spine ratcheting chills, that you will either cry or need to see a chiropractor the next day.
I teared up, just a little bit.
After both anthems were played, it was time for the real deal. It all led to this. A must win for both teams. Revenge and legitimacy on the line for the Americans. Time to kickoff. The 40 thousand fans in attendance are ready. The 8+ million tv viewers from all over the world are ready. The whistle blew and the match was finally underway.
Ghana had the kickoff and possession first, but after a few passes had lost the ball out of bounds 15 seconds into the match. Left back Demarcus Beasley tosses the ball to American captain, Clint Dempsey. After a few passes, Dempsey receives the ball at the 18 yard box, snakes past a Ghanaian defender, and pokes the ball with his left foot towards the far right post. The ball rolls ever closer to the net, the Ghanaian keeper dives, and the Americans hold there breath.
The side of the net ripples and Dempsey sprints towards the corner of the field as his teammates give chase.
Just 30 seconds into the game, it was 1-0 USA. The stadium erupts into ecstasy. The Ghanaian section opposite the field from us is stunned. The replay is shown on the big screen and the image of the scorer, the nation’s captain, appears before the crowd. The stadium announcer, although speaking Portuguese said the name that everyone understood: “CLINT DEMPSEY!”
The Americans in the stadium, to put it simply, lose their collective shit. “1-0 already? Did that really just happen!” Such a high pressure game, and we get a goal within seconds. Confidence soared, U-S-A chants were rampant, and the world was stunned. This then begins the chant that was the theme for the US’ time spent during the World Cup, “I-Believe-That-We-Will-Win!”
Ghana were unable to find much rhythm, and after a few chances later on, it was the US ahead 1-0 at halftime. But several injuries had struck the Americans when they had lost striker Jozy Altidore to a hamstring strain. Clint Dempsey took a shin guard to the face and was playing with a broken nose, and center back Matt Besler also had to be subbed out with a hamstring injury.
Besler was replaced by the half German, half American, 21-year-old John Anthony Brooks.
The early goal had provided a lot of confidence, but the American injuries and Ghana’s chances at the end of the half were more than enough for the gripping anxiety to ensue as we awaited the start of the second half. The players again returned to the field, the whistle blew, the match continued.
And Ghana came out swinging.
The second half was greeted with barrage after barrage from the African team. The US were being simply out played and out run by the faster Ghanaians. Shots rained down at American keeper, Tim Howard, and he followed with save after save. The defense continued to hold, clearing the ball away, but the chances were getting closer to goal and more frequent.
The Americans began to grow desperate as the Ghanaians continued to control the ball. Wide open shots screamed off of posts, headers were placed just inches over the American net. The US responded with a few chances of their own, but none were too promising. Ghana’s continued attack had been winning the neutral Brazilians in attendance over to their side. The crowd ooo-ed and and cheered louder with every African possession. As the Americans on the field passed the ball around in fear, desperate to keep it away from the attacking team, us Americans in the stands grew quieter. Dempsey’s early goal had felt like years ago. Still, all we needed was to to hold on a little longer.
Now into the 83rd minute of the match, the US still clinging to their one goal lead, Ghana was again on the offensive. Midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah darted the ball from the left into the American 18 yard box. The pass was picked up by captain, Asamoah Gyan, who beautifully passed the ball off of his heel with one touch to the sprinting incoming forward, André Ayew. Ayew touches the ball one time and blasts it off of the outside of his left foot, a deceiving shot where the foot went to the right, but the ball rocketed to the left past the diving keeper, Howard. The back of the net rippled.
Ghana had equalized. 1-1.
The stadium went into a craze. Ayew beat his chest almost in anger and screamed at his country’s supporters behind the goal. Watching the replay later that evening, ESPN commentator, Ian Darke, had worded it beautifully,
“It was a superb goal to break American hearts.”
I recall feeling like a standing corpse, numb to what I was seeing and what I was hearing. I stared in shock. It felt like watching my house burn down. Some fans looked the same as me, others had rallied with U-S-A chants, but were quickly drowned out to the roar of the rest of the stadium when the announcer called the goal scorer Ayew’s name. Their best player, wearing their number 10 jersey, had scored an amazing goal and gave his country a chance. It appeared that after all the excitement before this match, the US looked to be walking away from this crucial game with only a one point draw. But by the way Ghana continued to attack after their goal, even this was starting to look doubtful. The pressure seemed to never stop, and it was giving me serious heart problems.
Within seconds, Ghana had recaptured possession and were pressing down the field yet again. An inbound cross was cleared by the United States. Then just two minutes after just tying the game, André Ayew again had the ball inside the US box. The crowd roared with anticipation as he closed in on the goal. My heart sank as he passed the ball towards the middle towards long time Ghanaian midfielder, Michael Essien. This was to be the dagger. I held my breath.
But there was no devastating second goal from Ghana. Dread-locked midfielder, Kyle Beckerman had defended the play beautifully, tying up Essien, and the shot never came. The ball was cleared out of bounds. Ghana again tried to press, but the US regained possession and drove to the other end of the field.
Then the Americans began to advance.
What started as a slow march down the field led to a throw in near the right corner in Ghana’s end of the field. Right Back, Fabian Johnson, threw the ball to Aaron Johaanson, who followed with a return pass back to Johnson as he ran into the opposing 18 yard box. Ever so slowly, the ball rolled towards the back line. Johnson was then bumped off by a Ghanaian defender, who barley tapped the ball with his ankle as it rolled just inches behind the line before stopping. The linesman raised his flag and singled to his right.
It was to be an American corner kick in the 86th minute.
The Ghanaians complained, but the call was accurate, and both teams began to assemble in front of the goal. US substitute Graham Zusi would be the one to take the kick. The corner would be taken on the same side of the field we were watching. Everyone was on their feet. I spun my USA scarf over my head and shouted with a raspy voice that had been long gone before the match had started. An unpromising US possession had led to a Ghanaian mistake. This was the best chance the Americans had to steal a victory.
Sensing this, US coach Jurgen Klinsmann ordered even his Center Backs, Jeff Cameron and John Brooks into the box. As Zusi eyed up the ball and the players pushed and shoved for position in the box, the U-S-A chants were rampant in the Arena das Dunas once more. The American Outlaw section to our right was jumping up and down in nervous anticipation. The whistle blows, Zusi raises and drops his arm to signal the incoming volley, and sends the ball into the crowd of players…
Have you ever had a moment where something so unbelievably surreal happens, that it appears to you in slow motion? As if your brain is having a hard time processing all the information it’s receiving and it seems to lag like a slow computer? For what felt like less than a second, this is what I saw:
The ball crosses into the mixture of red and white shirts.
It then deflects off the head of a leaping red body.
It bounces once.
Ghana’s keeper dives.
The top of the net ripples.
The red body is seen sprinting away from the goal with both arms stretched into the sky.
It was the 21-year-old substitute, John Brooks, with a goal for the USA.
I had witnessed a few amazing events in sports. Walk off home runs. Overtime playoff wins. Buzzer beating shots. I had gotten pretty excited about those. But nothing as unconceivable as this moment. What made John Brooks’ goal against Ghana so surreal was that it seemed so incredibly improbable that not only was the stadium stunned into disbelief, but in that moment, even Brooks himself could no longer perceive between fantasy and reality. One of the team’s youngest players, it was only his 5th national appearance, and he was nearly cut from the squad just weeks before. He would have never even played had starter, Matt Besler, avoided injury in the first half. The unlikeliest of players had just scored the most improbable goal in the closing minutes of the most high pressure match in US Soccer history.
Brooks ran aimlessly with his arms in the air, stares into the sky, touches his face, looks to the ground, and slowly lies face-down in the corner of the field. The rest of the team catches up to congratulate him. Even after they had gone back to take their positions for the kickoff, Brooks was still lying there, shaking his head. It took the referee’s warning to get him back on his feet.
As the reality of what I had just witnessed began to sink in, I found myself three sections away from my seat, running around, beating my chest like a crazy person, and ruthlessly high-fiving every hand I saw. For me, it was everything happening at once: The belief in this nation’s national team, the amount of pregame hype before the game, the terrifying 90+ minute emotional roller coaster of a do-or-die match, the frustration at the Brazilians who seemingly switched support mid-game, the non-stop Ghanaian assault and Ayew’s heartbreaking equalizer, the constant national and international doubt that soccer will ever take off in America. And finally, it was the childhood dream of attending this event in Brazil coming true that all collided simultaneously when Brooks headed the ball into the goal. In that moment, it was all worth it.
For the first time in my life, I had completely lost all physical and emotional control of myself. My voice was hoarse but I would not stop shouting. I clutched the patch of my replica US jersey in my left hand as if I had just found a winning lottery ticket. I flung my scarf around like a rag doll. I eventually ran into my brother somewhere in the madness and we hugged it out. What finally brought me back to my seat was realizing that the game had already started up again. By this point, the Americans in the bleachers had been drowning the stadium out, leaping up and down and singing the melody to Seven Nation Army by the White Stripes over and over again.
As the 90th minute drew to a close, the pure happiness had turned back into torture as the sideline official signaled for five additional minutes of stoppage time. Gone was the ecstasy of stealing the lead with an amazing goal. The USA now needed to hold on. Ghana would yield a few more scoring chances, including a corner kick of their own. Each chance was more gut wrenching than the last, but the US defended well. The five minutes of stoppage time one could compare to five years imprisoned in Guantanamo. Pure, relentless, torture.
But there was no second heart-shattering Ghanaian equalizer. As the US cleared the ball away one last time, the ref’s whistle sounded. Both Americans on and off the field had lost their minds once again, and the revenge was complete. The United States never gave up and had completely stolen a victory in the most dramatic way possible. One goal in the very beginning, another at the very end. Ghana had outrun and out possessed the US, but it was John Brooks who had come off the bench and shocked the world.
Final Score: 2-1 USA.
The victory provided a much needed three points in this Group-of-Death, and it would prove ever more valuable. A devastating draw to Portugal and a close loss to Germany would be just enough for the Americans to make it out of the Group of Death. And even though the team would lose to Belgium in extra time in the first elimination round, the damage had already been done: We were in love with this sport and our team.
A team that plays with so much heart, never gives up, and always provides a dramatic ending, what is there not to love? As I continued to travel around Brazil during the Cup, I received countless praises about the team’s performance from people all over the world. Never in my life did I think I would hear anyone living outside of the US praising our national soccer team. But that is what this moment had done. My country would not convert into some euro-style soccer nation overnight, but watching the reactions to Brooks’ late goal around the world, it was evident that football in America was here to stay.
Err. I meant soccer.
And I will never forget bearing witness to the moment that stole our hearts:
Life as a tour leader is one of constant change. A revolving door might be the closest comparable job. You’re in a new town every other day, sleeping on a different bed in a different hotel, with different wifi speeds and different water pressures (sometimes none). One moment you’re sardined in a beat up school bus, rocketing across the Belizean countryside, the next you find yourself airborne in a tiny motor boat, clinging to life on a Guatemalan lake. Sometimes you’ve got your feet up on the dashboard of a nice air-conditioned van, staring out the window with your headphones in on a hot afternoon in the Yucatan (my personal favorite). Some roads are windy and full of potholes, others are smooth and straight. Sometimes it’s raining, sometimes it’s dry. You are forever packing and unpacking your bags. Some nights are hotter than hell and others you swear you can see your breath as the AC gives its best Antarctica impersonation. Some days you’re sipping rum punch on a sail boat, others you’re watching traditionally dressed Mayan women weaving cotton into beautiful scarves. Sometimes you’re squeezing a lime onto a pile of tacos al pastor, others you’re sprinkling Marie Sharp’s hot sauce onto some Thai style chicken in your favorite restaurant in Belize.
Not only are you constantly on the move, the people in your life are forever changing as well. You meet 18 strangers, lead them across several countries, and have incredible and genuine shared experiences with them. Right as you really get to know people, they leave. You come down to an empty lobby confused as to where everyone went. Then you remember the tour ended yesterday. You are alone. You haven’t had to worry about just yourself in three weeks. “Should I go outside?” “What do people do with time to themselves?” You miss your group. Some have turned into really good friends of yours! You never really have time to contemplate how you’re supposed to feel because before you know it, you’re standing in that same hotel lobby three days later introducing yourself to a new group of excited travelers. Then it starts all over again.
Your emotions too are constantly changing. There are times where you could not be more excited to be alive. You’re standing on top of an actively erupting volcano watching the sunrise over Guatemala and you think to yourself, “If this volcano exploded and I died right here, I don’t think I’d be too upset.” You did it. You’ve reached the pinnacle of joy and adventure. It’s why you travel. You live for these moments. All those cliche Facebook memes with pictures of some faraway place (usually Thailand) with motivational life quotes come true. Your life feels like a 4K GoPro video to the tune of that one M83 song. You can’t help but think of all the life decisions that led to this moment. From choosing to learn Spanish, changing majors, studying abroad, moving to South America, moving back home, getting a desk job, growing social and professional roots, then uprooting all of that in the name of the search for a fulfilling job and life. You feel invincible.
Wow! That sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? I’m getting emotional just writing about it. But it doesn’t end there…
You see, while the highs are waaaaaay high, the lows can go all the way down to the bottom. With this job, you can take that exact overdramatic logic about all your life decisions that led you to that special moment and equally apply it to the not-so-great ones as well. While most people who come on your trips are wonderful, sometimes you get some unruly passengers. You’ll hear complaints about the heat, the cold, lack of food options, too many food options, the prices, the bus, other passengers, waiting, not waiting long enough, leaving early tomorrow. Individual complaints don’t really kill you, but overtime they compound and weigh you down over the course of the trip. Sometimes you just want to shake people and remind them that they belong to that fraction of a percent of the people in human existence that are even able to fly across the world and stand where they are right now. Sometimes you have to take people to the hospital. Sometimes you’re telling police not to arrest someone in your group. Sure, being stuck in a roadblock in an non-airconditioned bus was a fun adventure the first time, but what about the fifth time? Sometimes you get to your hotel and they forgot to reserve a room. And that’s not even the half of it. Sometimes your 4K GoPro life just wants to sit on the couch and watch Netflix.
The thing is that you need to fully embrace the constant physical and mental change, both the good and the bad, otherwise you’ll implode. It’s a roller coaster and it can be difficult to keep your head on straight. When people and places are constantly shuffling past you in search of the new and exciting, insanity becomes the norm, and your mind begins to crave the opposite. This is also why when you cross with another tour leader on the road, you can equate the sensation to that of someone being stranded on a deserted island and seeing a passing boat. These fine people are literally the only ones on the planet who understand what you’re going through. You grab a drink together and use each other to vent like good coworkers do. It’s a job that requires you to be a highly social person, while being alone most of the time. You can finally have a deeper conversation than the surface-level dinner convo’s that run your every day life. These guys are what make it all worthwhile. They might even be the reason you keep doing it.
It’s forever moving you and forever changing you. There’s so many people, places, and experiences being thrown at you that it makes it really hard to compartmentalize everything. It’s a beautiful chaos that you really fall in love with. And while after a long trip you just want to be in one place and be bored, it only takes a few days to get the urge to get back out on another trip. It’s like a less violent version of The Hurt Locker. What makes this experience unlike any other is that you feel alive in every way. At the end of it all, you have to love the good parts with all you have and not let the terrible ones bring you down too far. I guess that probably bodes well for life in general. When you finally do get the time to stop to reflect, you’ll see that while tour leading might not quite be that fairy dust 4K GoPro video everyone thinks it is, it’s more like 1080p. And, you know what, that’s still pretty damn good. You just have to hang on and enjoy the ride.
Written in Caye Caulker, Belize and Antigua, Guatemala
Published from Antigua, Guatemala.
Written and published from Mérida, Mexico
|Tacos al Pastor in Playa del Carmen, MX|
Nothing is more awkward, frightening, and fun at the same time like your first few days in a different country. People usually don’t like to admit this, but it happens to everyone. Sometimes you don’t even have to leave your home country to feel it. Even in the extremely touristy Playa Del Carmen, it happened to me. In spite of all the time I’ve spent living in Latin America, that uncomfortable sense of foreignness still tugs at me whenever I clear customs. It’s a familiar sense of awkwardness that I’ve come to embrace while traveling. Mexico in particular likes to slap you right in the face. It’s walking out of the bus station onto the jam packed pedestrian Quinta Avenida in Playa to be greeted by a welcome party comprised of tour operators, restaurant greeters, oblivious tourists, “massage” ladies, and drug dealers.
It’s loud. Muffler-less cars with tinted windshields blasting “Mi Gente” nearly run you over while you were too busy staring at your feet in attempt to avoid shattering your ankle on the uneven sidewalks while being skinned alive by rusty barbed wire. It smells like a cocktail of car exhaust, cooking meat, and perfumed department stores. Local restaurants and bars also blasting “Mi Gente” from their neon PA speakers really throw you off cause you can hear “Mi Gente” bumping from three different locations simultaneously. And the humidity! Dry aired Colorado never prepares you for going to any humid climate, but coming the skin cracking dryness of winter in Colorado especially makes you feel like you should be breathing through a snorkel when you get here. Your shirt basically turns into a sauna towel in 5 minutes. It rains inside your bus because of the unnatural weather patterns that A/C creates when it’s at 1000% humidity outside. It’s just a four hour flight, but it feels worlds away.
I think what I like about the first few days in a new place is that your brain activity is so jacked up as it perceives unfamiliarity with equal parts caution, fear, and adrenaline. This is indeed a valuable trait and I’m sure it saved a caveman’s life a few times back in the day. It makes you feel like you shouldn’t even go outside. It brought me back to the first 20 minutes I experienced with my host family when I lived in Nicaragua. I circled around my room cause I was afraid to go into the kitchen and get grilled with Nica Spanish that I had understood basically none of. It’s all so unfamiliar, your brain is trying to say “danger, it’s awkward AF out there!”. But you just have to push through that funk to get to the glory land and then the place will open up to you.
I think what else happens is that your brain also tries to rewire itself so that your surroundings, once proven to not be life threatening, become “normal”. Things that catch you off guard at first (like hearing “Mi Gente” at ear shattering decibel levels) start to become part of the place. The blazing sun feels less intense, or maybe you just get used to being sweaty all the time. You start to readjust to using Spanish.
About 48 hours after I’d left Denver, I was squeezing a slice of lime on what already could have been my 100th taco on a muggy morning in Playa in attempt to shake off last night’s tequila hangover courtesy of two awesome Canadians I met in my hostel. It was in that moment, sleep deprived and inhaling tacos as a shop nearby had already begun blasting reggaeton at 8:30am for the world to enjoy. I felt familiar sense of home. I’d compare it how you feel landing in your hometown airport after some time away. Washed away was the awkwardness of the day before. We’ve arrived successfully here in the land of tacos, tequila, beaches, volcanos, cloud forests, cenotes, ruins, bad drivers, annoying street vendors, mosquitos, sweat, pot holes, tinted windshields, street murals, Jesus busses, and genuinely happy people.
“I’m back!” I thought with a visible smirk on my face. I felt at home.
In June of 2013, I was given the most incredible opportunity to become a tour leader with an adventure travel company, running backpacking trips in the southern cone of South America. Part of it was through connections, part of it was performing well in the interview process, but to be completely honest I still feel to this day that it was mostly luck. After having to constantly answer the question “How did you get this job?” (emphasis on the YOU), that’s the best answer I’ve come up with. I don’t blame any travelers from my trips or really anyone for that matter for asking me this. If I took my valuable PTO from my job and flew halfway around the world only to came across my pale skinned, 22-year-old, American self at a hotel in Brazil explaining that I was there to ensure you have a safe and kick-ass time from city to city all the way across a continent, I would not have taken myself seriously upon first sight either.
Flying into the monster sprawl of Buenos Aires for training week and meeting my managers and the other new guides only intimidated me more. My Spanish was pretty good and I thought I was well enough traveled, but these guys/gals were mostly locals, and TRAVELED. All were older and while there were a few other “non-locals” among us (people not from South America), I was the only one without a latino name (I’ll write a piece about the meaning of authenticity in the tourism industry at a later time). To be candid, I felt like I was not supposed to be there, like a mistake was made in the hiring process or something. Needless to say, I questioned my decision to pack up my life in the States and head south pretty much right when I made it.
From the moment I stepped off the plane on a crisp fall morning (in June) in Buenos Aires, I had to prove myself. To the managers who I knew were taking a risk by hiring someone like me, to my fellow trainees and colleagues, to the passengers who were on my trips, to myself. Every single day I had to prove that I belonged to all of it. That I could not only survive the 18 month contract in a place that I had never been, but I would thrive. That instead of falling for societal pressures and jumping into the safety net of an office job or grad school in familiar Colorado, I was taking a calculated risk by jumping into the unknown, and I that would be better for it.
Nearly two years went by, though it felt more like twenty. I had experienced more in life in that short amount of time in South America than in my then 23 years of existence. I hadn’t slept anywhere longer than a few days. I had learned how to speak Portuguese along with my Spanish. The countries that had intimidated and frankly scared the shit out of me had become my home. Passengers from my trips had turned into some of my best friends, and fellow trainees and other coworkers had become family. There were times that I felt like I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror. I had truly changed. Most importantly, I had “proved it” to everyone, including myself. I had learned far more personally and professionally than any business school or entry level job could have taught. I felt victorious.
|Piranha fishing in Brazil|
However, the art of romantically living out of a backpack and pleasing tourists also beats the living hell out of you. That’s why I’ve been residing in Denver for the past few years, trying out the young professional lifestyle like a good domestic millennial should. Gone are the days of border bribing, tango dancing, wine tasting, booze cruising, tourist herding, and sleep lacking. Instead, there’s been a lot of 9-to-5’ing, commuting, conference calling, bar hopping, festival attending, and bill paying. I picked up an office job at SnapEngage, a small and quirky tech company in Boulder, moved into a sweet townhouse in the heart of Denver with two awesome roommates that have turned into best friends, and even took my love for electronic music to the next level by learning how to DJ and showcase the music I love. Overall, life at home has been pretty solid.
But alas, the story has not ended! You might have guessed that since you’re reading this right now. You see, everyone tells you to make big life decisions and go on a huge trip somewhere in the world, but no one tells you what to do with it after you come home. Why would they? Readjusting to life after living abroad is not romantic. Sitting in front of a computer 50+ hours a week and answering emails all day simply does not provide the same fulfillment, no matter how fun you try to make it. Domestic life is great, but I could feel the comforting grip of routine taking ahold…and making me older at a quickening pace. I would also think back to what I was doing in South America and not even believing myself that I had actually done half the things I did.
I often found myself spacing out at my desk, riveted with uncontrollable flashbacks of jungle hikes in Brazil or negotiating fairer cab fares for my groups in Uruguay, and I would think “Is this really what all the fuss was about when I was away?”
It was time for a new adventure.
The not foreseen lasting consequences of deciding to move to South America four years ago has left me even more curious about life, rather than satisfying any “travel bug itch”. To me, traveling runs counterintuitively to what everyone tells you. The more places I go, the less I seem to actually know about the world. Traveling hasn’t made the world smaller, it’s made it bigger.
“Curiosity fuels more curiosity.” – Some famous person I’m too lazy to look up.
I was primed for another move, but what, where and how big a move? I didn’t want to jump to another office job quite yet and I didn’t want to go back to running the same trips in South America. It just wouldn’t have been the same. After a few calls and negotiations, G Adventures has granted me yet another amazing opportunity. The result: coming out of guide-life retirement and flying down to Central America for the upcoming high season! The narrow body of land that sits in between Mexico City and Panama City that’s jam packed with hot jungles, rich in indigenous culture, and still holds the “best sunsets in the world” trophy for me. Having lived in Nicaragua for a semester in college, I cannot help but feel a sense of homecoming to it all. It’s where it all really began for me, and I cannot wait to become a part of it again in an even bigger way!
|Gasping for air in the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia|
With this blog, I’m not going to write too deeply about how travel, especially extended trips abroad, can change you and all the hippie mumbo-jumbo that the endless amount of blogs and Facebook articles can take care of. It’s not that I don’t believe in all that stuff, but I feel like we’ve seen enough “candid” Instagram posts of people looking off into a sunset or standing on top of some amazing mountain that you can’t pronounce to see that everyone is branding themselves while on holiday (myself included). Besides, it’s the unshared misadventures and gritty unexpected moments from travel that tend to stick with you long after you slap on that 48% Ludwig filter to that beach in Thailand with that perfect “live life” caption and posted it to the envy of your friends. I’m not going to preach about how there’s more to life than “paying bills then dying” and tell you to throw your computer out your office window and give your boss the finger. That market is oversaturated. If you want to go somewhere and you have the means to do it, then do it. If you’re able to get paid while abroad, even better. That’s really all there is to it. Travel is what you make it, full stop.
Packing up your life at 26, now more than a few years into a professional life, is a lot different than packing it all up as a 22 college graduate. I know that 36 year old me will find this naive, but you always feel like you are never smarter than you are right now, right? I can’t help but question if I’m making the correct decision….again. Still, I told myself that if I was going to pack it all up again and fly south of the border yet again, that it would not be in vain. Alas, firing up the travel blog, documenting as many experiences as possible, and telling as many stories about what it’s like living and guiding in the most beautiful (and ugly) places this planet can offer. Hopefully I can give you some laughs and good stories along the way.
So for now, in the name of adventure, it’s back to life on the road, if only for a little while.
(writing from Denver, CO and published from Playa Del Carmen, Mexico!)
|FSLN political ad. These are everywhere.|
I wrote this in the fall of 2012 during the US Presidential election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. I thought given the nature of this year’s insane election season it would be a nice repost for perspective! Enjoy:
I’ll sit in my room and read articles and check Facebook to see what’s going on in the States and sometimes I’ll have the tv on CNN watching news when after coming home from work my host dad, Manuel, will come in and ask me, “¿Cómo va la jugada?” How’s the game going? Or the “play” rather. The “play”, referring to the election in the United States, really looks like one when you are outside the country looking in.
Frankly, this couldn’t be a better time to not be in the country, when the tv’s are filled with negative ads that bend truths, and everyone becomes hyper-political all of the sudden. The second part hasn’t entirely been avoided cause people pour their souls out of Facebook about how Obama is a commie or how much Romney hates poor people, or the one’s who talk about how much they don’t care about politics, so much so that they’ll tell everyone that they don’t care. For me, as an American observing the election from outside the country, it’s been really liberating. I watched most of both conventions without distraction, the debates online, got to read articles I want to about issues, and then the best part is I get to explain to the Nicas just what exactly is going on.
What I’ve really taken from watching the election from the outside is that people in America FREAK OUT over the littlest things. You think Obama is a socialist? Cause of what, wanting to tax the rich more? Here in Nicaragua, his political ideologies are equivalent to that of Ronald Reagan. Arch, right-wing conservative. Although, many will tell me that we Americans are slowly making progress with Obama. Here, things like healthcare and education are a constitutional right to the people, like our free speech and right to bear arms. Funny concept, huh? In fact, it is required that 6% of the federal budget goes to the public universities including mine, La UNAN. The cost of tuition? $15….. per semester. And getting into the public universities is still a rigorous process to get accepted, much like ours, with placement exams and specific criteria to meet. They mean it when they say “public university”. The campus is decorated with political murals and many of them you’ll see the number “6%” written on them. Now that’s socialism, and they’re pretty proud of that wacky system, although they call it “El sandinismo” like “Sandino-ism” after their icon Augusto Sandino.
Nicaragua’s political culture is palpable. You see and feel it everywhere. Literally every street light is painted red and black, the colors of the Sandinista revolution. Some is graffiti left over from the 80’s, some is new. Red and black flags painted on street corners, walls, and cars. I remember one time, we were hiking up this mountain in what I thought was the middle of nowhere and lo and behold, there’s a large boulder painted red and black. The paintings were done to not just to inspire people to join the cause, but also to signal to others which parts of a city had been successfully liberated by the rebels. It’s like the “V” in the movie V for Vendetta, but real. Billboards of a cheery President Daniel Ortega smile down at you at every round about. I remember when my host family picked me up for the first time from our program orientation. We talked small-talk for about five minutes, then all of the sudden,
“Christian, we were 18 when the revolution happened. Hey, did you know Samoza (the military dictatorship) was killing people? He killed kids, Christian!”
Stunned, all I could really say was “Oh, wow…” On a weekly basis, we’ll be at the dinner table and they’ll tell me their story.
My host mom, Mercedes, participated in the clandestine movement in Managua during the revolution, when Somoza’s National Guard soldiers were going house to house searching for and killing people harboring Sandinista rebels. Her house was one of these safe houses, and her job was to create make-shift first aid and supply kits for the rebels as they participated in guerrilla warfare in the city. She also said she would go around and collect tires, pile them up then light them on fire. The smoke was used to communicate with the other groups hiding throughout the city. They also created road blocks and damaged the streets so that tanks could not pass through.
Manuel, my host dad, was a captain in the Sandinista army. When the Contra War started in ’83, he was sent to the border of Honduras, where they fought the Contras and waited for what he said they thought was “an inevitable US invasion” at the time. Their stories really put things into perspective for me. I couldn’t imagine hiding out in some house in Denver from my own military as they went house to house killing people. I then can’t imagine standing in the mall in Washington DC, celebrating overthrowing the American government. It must have been some time.
I also got to vote in the US election while I was here. The process wasn’t all too hard thanks to the internet and our program office having a scanner. I filled out a few forms online, printed, signed, scanned, then emailed the ballot and I was good to go. I thought I was gonna have to go to the embassy on election day and figure it out from there, but thanks to existing in the 21st century, the process went smoothly.
We have it pretty good in the States. It was funny for me to see Romney talk about one in six Americans being in poverty while I am living in the second most impoverished country in the Western Hemisphere.
Poverty, huh? You don’t see houses in the States made out of scraps of metal while people burn trash to heat their stove for cooking. Neighborhoods don’t get flooded with everyones discarded trash every time it rains. Parents don’t have to send their kids to school to get just one free meal that day. Don’t get me wrong, we have people who are struggling to get by in the US, but it could be a lot, lot worse. America is fine. And we’ll be alright regardless of whoever is president. Watching our election from such a politically charged country has sincerely been a treat.
Here’s some pics and vids of BA/Rio so far…
(video) Botafogo fans leaving the Maracanã : Chillingly epic!
|Steak and wine. In Buenos Aires, you have no other options.|
|Learning Tango (ladies…)|
|Streets of Buenos Aires|
|Every block in Buenos Aires has one of these. (ladies…)|
|Teatro Colón Buenos Aires|
|Plaza de Mayo (ma-show), Buenos Aires.|
|Boca Juniors’ Stadium, BA|
|Maradona. Often referred to as “God”|
|Barrio La Boca|
Bem-vindo ao Rio de Janeiro! (pronounced hee-oh de ja-nay-roo)
The only word I can use to describe Rio de Janeiro is intoxicating. I feel like that word best fits the tropical seduction that is A Cidade Maravilhosa, the Marvelous City. I’ve been in this city for over a week now, and it has quickly become one of my favorites. From its impossibly steep hills, to the sidewalks and everything in between (mostly the women), Rio makes you want to quit your job as a guide and live here permanently. Arriving to the city for the first time was a dream come true. I had wanted to see Brasil and Rio since watching Ronaldinho play in the 2006 World Cup. And man, it did not disappoint. I have finished my training, where Kris and I followed another CEO from Santa Cruz, Bolivia all the way to Rio with a group of 12 amazing passengers. We took long train, bus, plane, and van rides, fished for piranhas, rode horses through caiman infested waters, snorkeled in a crystal clear river, marveled at Iguassu Falls, went sailing in colonial Paraty, surfed at Ilha Grande, and drank plenty of caipirinhas along the 16 day journey. Then, after arriving in Rio de Janeiro last Sunday, I had over a week free before my first solo trip starts. What to do…what to do.
Rio de Janeiro means January River in Portuguese. This is only because when the Portuguese first arrived here, the captain thought the massive bay around the city was the mouth of a river (it’s not), thus since they had arrived in the month of January, Rio de Janeiro was born. Today, the city is the epicenter-to-be of the world over the next few years, hosting the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. For that, there has been a huge makeover going on in order to prepare for the massive influx of business and tourism the city will see. For example, para-militarized policeman with large machine guns standing around in the touristy areas of Copacobana and Ipanema is all too normal. Many of the slums, or favelas, that sprawl up the hills around the city are currently under the process of “pacification”, in order to combat the organized criminals that run them. Today, you can follow a guide for a once and a lifetime tour through a favela, which is what we got to do our first day in the city.
The Rocihno Faleva is the largest in the city with over 90,000 inhabitants living in compact, brick houses that are stacked one on top of the other. Fire codes are non existant and building restrictions are anything goes. When we arrived near the top of Rocinho, we got out of the van and headed down a narrow “street” on foot. Our guide would tell us when we can and cannot take pictures, to not stray from the path, and to NEVER take pictures of people unless he says it’s ok. Hearing this, I only got more excited to walk into the urban maze that was the Rocinho favela. The stench of piss and dog feces quickly filled my nose as we made our way in. Tiny brick houses quickly consumed any sense of direction. There are no street names. At times, the paths were so narrow, you could touch either side with your elbows. The only space between buildings would be trash and the occasional stairway, steep enough to be more like a ladder, and would lead to a different maze of brick and tin buildings. Scenes from City of God played out in my head. What we found comical was that among all the houses, there would be grocery stores, barbershops, and other commercial offices serving the residents. The lovely cake shop next to the pile of ruble that was once a home was an interesting juxtaposition. Our guide let us into a building where we could view the favela from the roof. The view was eyeopening. We were at the top of the hill, which is where the more “expensive” real estate in the favelas are (less trash from rain and a good lookout for drug lords). Rocinho could be seen in its entirety as a sea of tightly packed buildings with tin roofes. Each one had a blue water tank that could be opened to collect rain water. Kites of various colors flew high in the air, something that used to be how kids would signal to druglords if the police were coming (as in City of God). Today, it’s just for fun. As we continued down the favela, we saw marks of the recent “pacification” that took place between police and the druglords only a year and a half ago. Bullet holes were on the walls of buildings, some in alarming quantity. When we had finally gotten out of the sea of brick and tin, the view opened up to a major city highway. Across the highway were a dozen or so massive high rise apartments that crowded the beach on the western end of the city. If you could describe Rio in one glance, this was it. On one side of the highway was the Rocinho favela reaching up the impossibly slopes around the city. On the other were some of the most expensive apartments Rio had to offer. The favela tour was truly an eye opener…
|Christ Redeemer Statue. You can see it just about anywhere in the city and beyond.|
And then it was back to the tropical seduction that are the beaches of Copacobana and Ipanema. What makes these places so incredible is that if you are not on the beach, you feel like you are in the middle of a city. It is a perfect combination of cosmopolitan city life with chill beach town. High rise apartments and other buildings tower above you. Business men and woman rush to work and suicidal cab drivers yell at you when you clearly have the right of way to cross the street. And then you see a guy in a wet suit and a surf board in his arm walking to the subway station. Walk one block down and the buildings open up to one of the most beautiful beaches in the world surrounded by lush jungle (and beautiful women). On Ipanema beach, you can spend a whole day sitting in a cadeira, rentable chair, and watch surfers (and beautiful women) shred massive waves (apply sunscreen), while drinking cans of Cerveja Brahma, which is what I did on the 4th of July for the entire day. If at any point you are hungry or thirsty, nearly every corner in Rio has a walk up juice bar which provides hamburgers for about $3, coconut water (from a coconut), and my new favorite food, Açaí. Açaí is a berry that can be found in the Amazon that is supposed to be a superfood rich in all that healthy stuff. You order an “açaí na copa” açaí in a cup, and you get a frozen purple açaí pulp with bananas, granola, and honey on top if your feeling awesome. Have a big cup of açaí and a coconut for breakfast and you are instantly recovered from any whacky night A Cidade Maravilosa will provide for you. Nine days free in this place can turn anyone’s world upside down.