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Amazon Rainforest

The following day we said goodbye to Cusco and boarded a plane set for Iquitos, heart of the Peruvian Amazon rainforest. From Iquitos, we traveled another four hours (by moto-taxi, car and boat) to a community-owned eco-lodge, staked just off the bank of the river, but built a couple yards off the ground in anticipation of the heavy rainy season to come.

Rain partially spoiled our first day there, though we saw a few dolphins and got plenty of reading done – it was nice to relax after several long days of trekking. From there on we were blessed with great weather, allowing us to trek through the jungle and explore this rugged area of the world. The Galapagos definitely impacted how I viewed nature, thus I was taken aback by just how raw the Amazon is – our guide ruthlessly hacked away tree limbs, brush and plants, picking up just about any animal that we found (all which would definitely not fly in the Islands).

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Preservation and restoration do exist here though, often in more ways than one. We visited a primate reserve, where monkeys whose families were killed or they themselves were injured, by hunters, are allowed to roam free, and swing through the canopy without worrying about poachers. So to, the lodge is owned and operated by the Libertad community, thus much of its profit goes back into the community to provide healthcare, infrastructure and a better education system.

A local family rescued a sloth family from a group of poachers, and while I am not one for domesticating wild animals, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see one up close – Pablo, the dad of the sloth family, had taken a lunch break from napping in the rafters, thus we got to hold him – these guys look cute on TV, but they are downright adorable in person.

Hanging out with my good friend Pablo

Hanging out with my good friend Pablo

The best of friends

The best of friends

That evening we decided to go looking for something a little fiercer – we sped into the night up a small stream that cut into the bigger river in search of caimans and alligators. While we spotted a couple, but most sunk into the dark, murky water as we approached.

Turns out, a few of the guides returned to that spot later that night and actually caught a small alligator in order to save it from locals who would hunt it during the upcoming rainy season – long story short, I held an alligator.

Alligator We awoke early the next morning to watch the sunrise before paddling through a flooded forest, full of monkeys, iguanas, birds and even a tarantula (which are normally nocturnal). After lunch, amid the scorching sun, we decided to revisit the dolphins, in hope of better luck.

Lucky we were, as we plenty of breaching, pink dolphins, as well as some jumping grey dolphins. Something about these magnificent creatures is instinctively intriguing; the way they effortlessly glide through the water and launch into the air is breathtaking.

Before dinner, we strolled through the tiny town, which basically consisted of a series of houses and one primary school, situated in a rectangular fashion around a soggy soccer field. All of the houses are built on stilts in preparation of the imminent rainy season, however, even then, almost all of the community floods. Many families construct a makeshift upstairs in the rafters of the house, while moving their chickens, ducks, etc. onto the roof for a few months or even building little rafts for them.

Libertad house

I was able to hop in a volleyball game with some locals (the other team jokingly complained about my height and long arms), which was awesome. Even in this tiny village, it is evident that sports play a large role. I found it really interesting, and refreshingly progressive in a society of clear gender roles, that both men and women were playing volleyball together, and the women are hitting the ball just as hard as (if not harder than) the men.

As darkness set in, we decided to take a quick walk behind the town into a series of palm ferns in search of tarantulas. While the ones that hang out on the tree trunks are relatively harmless/passive, there is still something very disconcerting about coming face to face with a huge, furry spider [note: shout out to Michelle who faced her fears and hung out with these monstrous creatures]. I ate piranha, as well as a fruit small worm in the jungle (apparently they are a local delicacy) and held a crocodile, but I would not hold our big, fuzzy new friend.

After tromping back to the lodge, we sat around the dinner table, eating delicious food and conversing with awesome people from all over the world, talking about all of the crazy things we had seen that day, but also much bigger issues. One recurring topic seemed to be what is happening back home in the states right now, all of the protests, calls for justice, scrutiny of the police, etc. While I was sitting at a table with people from Belgium, Thailand, Ireland, France and the U.S., I learned that we all have our problems. Unfortunately, there seems to be no situation, no injustice that is unique to one place.

Libertad boat

I am glad to have visited this unique part of the world and witnessed first hand the harsh reality of the jungle, but I think for the first time on my trip I was excited to move on. I had been eaten by mosquitos and hadn’t stopped sweating since I arrived. That being said, I am very grateful to have reached such a remote place, one most will only see on the discovery channel. While I unfortunately didn’t see any anacondas, I did make it out of the Amazon rainforest alive and well.

Amazon sunset

The Inca Trail

Tucked in between rounded green mountains, the city of Cusco is a lot larger than I imagined, consisting of series of narrow, cobblestone streets, all winding toward the magnificent Plaza de Armas or perhaps zigzagging their way up the surrounding hills.

Over the past couple weeks, plenty of people had told me that if I had not yet booked the Inca Trail, that I would be out of luck as there are only 200 permits issued per day. Most suggested that I “should have booked months ago.”

This was a rather interesting piece of information, as I was supposed to meet Michelle in Cusco to trek the Inca Trail for a few days. Though the majority of this trip is to be spent alone, I was very excited to share such an epic moment with my lovely best friend before she headed home from volunteering in Argentina.

Somehow, I lucked out (again) and there were still plenty of permits available, so we wandered around Cusco for a day, before embarking on our adventure.

We awoke at 4am the next morning, stumbled outside in the dark, cool morning air and hopped in the van, along with the rest of our team and our guide, whose name is also, Wilson (thus he is my “tocayo” – we share the same name). I slumped back to sleep in my seat, awaking several hours later in a small, mountain town called Ollantaytumbo.

The sharp, early morning light cut through the fog to reveal a series of stone terrace ruins, built into the side of a steep peak above town. I was anxious. I didn’t really know what to expect – a group I met in Puno talked about the hike as if it were the end of the world, as the limped, gingerly up a flight of stairs.

Prepared for imminent discomfort, we piled back into the van, before arriving at Kilometer 82 (the start of the trail). As we put on sunscreen and bug spray, our team of porters (aka “The Green Machine”) ran around us, unpacking and setting up with the precision of a NASCAR pit crew. Within minutes they had set up a table and hot tea, and were preparing breakfast.

While I was fascinated by their efficiency, I would later learn a lot more about this group of men and how truly impressive they are.

After a quick, yet hearty, breakfast we packed up our daypacks, grabbed our trekking poles (which I thought were reserved for grandma’s power-walking through Laurelhurst, but are actually pretty awesome) and set off across a wooden bridge and up the dirt trail.

Start of Inca Trail

No more than 30 minutes later, the Green Machine came roaring past us, each carrying roughly 50 lbs. on his back, and would arrive at our campsite several hours before us. While it was not covered in the book, The Sports Gene, which I read in my DNA & Evolution class last spring, I wouldn’t be surprised if something in these people’s DNA helps them to literally run the Inca Trail, while carrying a ton of weight – the record time for this 26-mile trek is 3 hours 34 minutes.

We spent the first day wandering through a colorful valley, eventually turning away from the sacred river, which we would not see again until Day 3. We had an opportunity to meet the Green Machine that night – all eight men are from the same town, and are originally from farming backgrounds, having become porters to make more money and provide a better life for their families. Each man has a different job: Herman, for example, was the chef, Sicilio – the leader, Vidal – in charge of the tents, and so on.

"The Green Machine"

“The Green Machine”

While our group was well outfitted in North Face jackets, it pained me to watch other porters march up the mountain in old t-shirts; a lot of them looked worn down. One older man took a rest and burst into a coughing fit, so Michelle offered him a cough drop. He smiled, thanked her, slung his heavy pack over his shoulder and continued trotting on down the trail.

We awoke at 5am the second day, as this was to be the longest (and hardest) part of the trek. The first half of the day with a steep ascent through ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’ (altitude: 12,300 ft.), down into a valley and then back up through another pass.

Exhausted, I focused intently on each step, staring at the rocky, rugged ground to ensure that I didn’t trip. All of a sudden, I paused, lifted my chin and peered out over a sea of green treetops that dipped far below into a beautiful valley.

I think we forget to look up a lot. We focus so much of our time and energy ensuring that we don’t step on a rock, twist our ankle and fall down. We spend so much time planning our next step that we forget to enjoy the present and appreciate the beauty that is all around us. We duck our heads, as we try to do well in school, so that we can get good internships, which we are told will help us get good jobs. I am not saying that education is not important, in fact it is incredibly important. I am saying that we divert our eyes from the beauty of the present because we are fearful of a potentially unpleasant future.

With the summit in site, I decided to bow my head and push through the final grueling steps, panting a sigh of relief as we reached the top. The view was breathtaking (as were the final steps, literally); each side exhibited a collection of greens, reds, browns, greys and yellows, the clarity of which was dictated by the fog, which seemed to come and go as it pleased. I climbed on top of a giant rock and looked down the valley, where the clouds glided smoothly upward towards us, as if taking a terrestrial escalator.

After a short break and a snack, we started down the other side of the pass, which surprisingly, at times I found to be harder than going up. I had to be much more careful of where I was stepping; parts were insanely steep, or perhaps slippery. Just as it is important to stop and smell the roses, as they say, it is important to never get complacent. When things are easy, when life is good, enjoy the view, but tread lightly and seize opportunity. This is the time to plan that next step in say a different direction, instead of simply planting one foot after another.

We survived Day 2 and were rewarded with a shorter, history-laden Day 3. As we sat amongst some Incan ruins, Wilson began to tell us more about these people. Their engineering abilities were astounding – they made bridges out of grasses and built earthquake proof, stone structures. Their architectural knowledge was impeccable, but personally, I found their sheer intelligence to be most impressive.

Wiñay Wayna ruins

Wiñay Wayna ruins

For example, they had a series of outposts from which runners conducted relays to deliver messages Cusco to outer lying cities. The runners wore a belt that had different colored ropes hanging off of it, each containing a unique, specific series of knots. The knots carried the message, but could only be interpreted by certain people; not even the messengers could read the knots, thus if the belt fell into the wrong hands, the message could not be comprised. Furthermore, when the Spanish arrived, the Incan leader used this message system to tell the others to destroy parts of the Inca Trail, leaving no traces, so that the Spanish would never be ale to find Machu Picchu.

Mandatory llama selfie

Mandatory llama selfie

Just hanging out

Just hanging out

At 3:30am, we awoke to a clear, crisp starry sky before trudging down the dark path to get in line at the checkpoint (which would open 2 hours later).

5:30am finally arrived and we sped off down the trail, racing the sun as it began to rise at our backs. I was exhausted, yet unlike the first three days, I did not rest – today was different. Today we were to see one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.

We reached a series of dangerously steep rock steps, popularly known as the “tourist killer” – at the top sat the legendary Sun Gate. I raced up the stairs ignoring my legs’ pleas for rest, and then all of sudden, I passed under the impressive, stone gate and looked out at Machu Picchu, the religious center of the Incan Empire.

We still had an hour or so to hike down to the “postcard photo” and the actual ruins, but I sat there briefly, letting the moment sink in. I had only dreamt of this place and yet it was real, here, right in front of my eyes.

Machu Picchu w/ Michelle

Our group meandered down the rest of the stone trail and then on into the ruins. They are amazing – the kind of amazing that makes you close your eyes, not just to blink normally, but rather close them for a moment, as if to ponder whether or not what you’re experiencing is reality, hoping that when you open everything will be just as it was.

And when I opened my eyes, there it was: Machu Picchu standing in all its glory elegantly placed below the steep peak of Huayna Picchu. It was quite humbling to walk amongst hundreds of years of history, to walk amongst the Incas.

Machu Picchu Panorama

I peered out the dirty bus window as the sandy Peruvian countryside side fluttered by. I had been on this particular bus for 25 hours now, and had another four or so to go before I reached Lima.

I have become somewhat numb to long bus rides, as well as constantly packing and unpacking my backpack. While I can’t believe that this is my reality, it has finally become somewhat “normal.”

As I sat there, staring out at the desert as it morphed into a beautiful, sparkling beach sloping gently into the Pacific Ocean, Sol’s Eyes Open EP poured out of my headphones, filling my head with thoughts of home, dreams of far away places, and a inexplicable sense of inspiration.

Sol created Eyes Open during/after traveling via Bonderman Fellowship, and while it may not necessarily make sense to those back home, at that very moment on the bus, I felt as though his words almost perfectly described what I have been feeling; thinking; experiencing; doing.

As we approached the outskirts of Lima, we passed by dusty slums, crawling up the hillside, far away from the clean, seaside shopping malls of the Miraflores neighborhood.

Many have decried that Lima is “just another big city,” but I actually found it rather charming – that might partially have had to do with the fact that I saw a bulldog skateboarding. I will be back in the city in a few weeks, thus I would really like to explore it a bit more in order to get a more authentic understanding.

Bulldog skateboarding

From Lima, I boarded yet another bus en route to Huacachina, a small oasis in the middle of the desert, well-known for crazy dune buggy rides and sand boarding; I figured I slid down a volcano, I might as well slide down some huge mountains of sand.

As I buckled my seat belt, the engine of the open-air, off-road buggy roared, and all of a sudden, my shark-swimming courage evaporated. The buggy sped off across the warm sand, quickly up a steep embankment and then sharply back down – I felt as though I was on the fastest, sandiest, most unpredictable roller coaster ride of my life. Finally, we parked atop a particularly steep dune, unloaded the boards, waxed them and one by one, sped headfirst down the peak of sand. After a few runs, we stopped to admire the sun setting behind the windswept dunes.

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I looked around – I had never seen anything like this place before. Stunning hills of sand spread out in all directions, eventually dipping down to form a ridge around a small pond, home to Huacachina. That night I had, what probably was the second most interesting cab ride of my trip, when the driver burst out singing Italian opera; the dude actually had a pretty good voice.

Huacachina

Huacachina

For the first time ever, I spent Thanksgiving away from family; sure I was bummed that instead of eating turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing and pumpkin pie (I’m getting hungry just writing this) with my family, I ate McDonald’s, but it allowed me to recognize how much I am thankful for. I am incredibly grateful for this amazing opportunity, as well as the awesome people around the globe that continue to support me throughout this journey.

While I spent a lot time this Thanksgiving thinking about what I am grateful for, Thanksgiving wouldn’t be itself without a little football, thus fortunately, I was able to watch Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman eat turkey on the 49ers logo (NBC had to have known what it was doing, setting up a post-game feast up at mid-field). Unfortunately, by the time the game was over, and I had packed my bag, it was nearly 2am and I was supposed to be up at 2:45am to go on a two-day hike through Colca Canyon – long story short, I didn’t make it.

While I have been doing my best to stay within my budget, and therefore to not waste money, the finance major in me would declare it a “sunk cost” – all I could do was learn from my mistake and move on.

In fact, I moved onto Puno, a smallish town on the banks of Lake Titicaca, and the hometown of Hugo, a family friend, whom I practiced Spanish with this summer in preparation for my trip. Having gotten to know Hugo, I was very excited to explore his town, which he left many years ago to move to Washington.

I was able to get out to Los Uros, a series of floating islands, built of reeds. I climbed off the boat and stepped onto the squishy, yet dry, tangle of reeds – four families lived in modest, thatched huts on an island about the size of a basketball court. We met the president of the island, who described how the islands are constructed, what daily life is like, etc. Then the man pointed out several solar panels on the roofs of the huts – a tiny society on what essentially is a hand-crafted raft, that has to paddle a canoe made of reeds to school every day and basically lives entirely off the lake, has electricity.

Los Uros

Los Uros

From Los Uros we made our way to Taquile, a natural island, which has fostered a culture similar to that of a giant societal stoplight party. All married men wear a specific hat/belt to indicate their being married; married women too have a specific outfit which consists partly of four, small brightly colored pompoms used to publicly display the woman’s current feelings/mood, as well as to answer questions. While this entire setup may seem very strange to us, it is fascinating to learn how other people live.

Taquile Island

Taquile Island

My last night in Puno, I scored a window table at a delicious Peruvian restaurant overlooking the main square, Plaza de Armas, where a huge parade was underway. As darkness descended upon the town, fireworks lit up the sky above the church – I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end my time in this lovely town.

Parade through Plaza de Armas in Puno

Parade through Plaza de Armas in Puno

While I loved Ecuador, Peru is off to an awesome start. I just arrived in Cusco – going to cross Machu Picchu off the bucket list in a few days. Adios for now.

While I loved Ecuador, Peru is off to an awesome start. I just arrived in Cusco – going to cross Machu Picchu off the bucket list in a few days. Adios for now.

Islas Galápagos

Eight months ago, I was walking briskly down Memorial Way en route to the beginning of my final quarter of college. Eight months ago, I sat down in my last Honors class, titled “DNA & Evolution,” to learn about what a man by the name of Charles Darwin discovered some 180 years ago. Eight months later I found myself following his very footsteps.

Each time I stepped onto a new island, I felt as though I was setting foot on a foreign planet.

Santa Cruz is home to a small, developed town, as well as plenty of giant tortoises (which have been known to cause “turtle traffic jams” on the main road, as no one is allowed to touch them). Some of the islands are blanketed in white, “dormant” trees, which are essentially hibernating until the rains come, thus the land looks as if it has been dusted in a light snow. Others are lush green lowlands, covered in all kinds of animals; while the newest islands are almost entirely cooled lava flows, offering a barren mass of volcanic rock, absent of almost any type of life.

Some islands are tiny, perhaps just a small rock poking out of the ocean, while others are massive – no two islands are the same.

Since their discovery, humans have interfered with the islands and their native species, but for quite sometime now, the native species have been completely protected, therefore they have had no reason to fear humans. Unlike animals back home, they didn’t run in fear when we approached them. Instead, most stood there and stared quizzically at these large, awkward, brightly colored animals sauntering towards them.

I would argue that most animals’ “fear” of humans is justified; for centuries we have been polluting their habitats, destroying their homes, domesticating them and poaching them. Humans on the other hand, sit at the top of the food chain.

For humans, fear is suffering from the improbable.

Fear is standing on the sidelines because you don’t want to make a mistake on the field. Fear is letting others tell you that you can’t.

As we drifted around Devil’s Crown, a dubious rock formation off the coast of Floreana Island, a small white-tip reef shark glided smoothly below me, before disappearing into mysterious oceanic depths.

At first when I saw this animal, I was a bit scared.

Several days later, we came face to face with a huge shark, about as big as me, trolling the shallow coast of Santa Fe for a snack. It was massive, terrifying, fascinating and beautiful, all at the same time. Albeit, our guide later admitted that the experience was “a little scary” because these predators only come into this particular bay when they are hungry, there existed a mutual recognition between human and shark that neither party intended to harm one another.

While I promised myself that I would not try to preemptively quantify my growth throughout this experience, after only two months, I do see a level of confidence that perhaps was simply waiting to bloom. Never before would I had ever thought I would swim with sharks.

In fact, I found myself swimming after sharks to get a closer look, rather than being consumed by Jaws/Discovery Channel-induced fear.

My respect for the power, splendor and reality of nature has grown immensely over the past week – I think it will be hard to ever go to a zoo again. To be honest, I felt like I was living in one of the Animal Planet shows that Sam and I used to watch when we were little.

I paddled gently next to gigantic sea turtles. I watched sea lions playfully gallop around the beach and magnificent frigate birds dance in an attempt to woo potential mates. I snorkeled with sharks and rays of all sizes, more sea lions and dense schools of tropical fish. I watched a pod of dolphins jump energetically out of the water, courting the bow of our boat, as the ocean spray pounded me in the face. I saw blue-footed boobies dive bomb head first into the water in search of fish. I met an awesome group of people, and spent a week sailing around these amazing islands.

They say, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” so with that, here are some memories from one of the most incredible weeks of my life.

Enjoy.

Giant Tortoise IMG_4041 IMG_4033 Marine Iguanas Sea Lion Nazca Boobies Baby Sea Lion

Blue Footed BoobieIMG_4392 Sea Lion Land Iguana IMG_4544 Land Iguana Galápagos Shark IMG_4719 Magnificent Frigate Bird Galápagos Penguin IMG_4929 Galápagos Hawk IMG_5009 IMG_5093 IMG_5119 IMG_5069

The afternoon I published my most recent piece, ‘The Beautiful Game,’ I happened upon a rather disturbing headline: “North Koreans working as ‘state-sponsored slaves’ in Qatar.

For those of you that don’t know, Qatar is currently the host of the 2022 World Cup, a title that it achieved by ‘purchasing’ votes during the selection process (http://www.bbc.com/sport/0/football/27652181).

But never mind the corrupt selection process, the fact that temperatures reach well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the Qatari summer, that thousands of foreign workers have died building infrastructure for the World Cup, or the existing allegations that Qatar is siphoning funds to ISIS (yes, that ISIS) – Thousands of North Koreans have ‘been given the opportunity’ to serve Kim Jong-Un and toil for 18 hours a day in the Qatari desert, constructing stadiums for the 2022 World Cup, while their wages are sent back to the North Korean government.

Per FIFA’s mission statement:

Football is much more than just a game. Its universal appeal means it has a unique power and reach which must be managed carefully. We believe that we have a duty to society that goes beyond football: to improve the lives of young people and their surrounding communities, to reduce the negative impact of our activities and to make the most we can of the positives… This is the third crucial pillar of FIFA’s mission: building a better future for all through football.”

FIFA claims to be “building a better future for all through football,” yet it awards one of the most treasured, and most lucrative (the 2014 World Cup in Brazil cleared over USD$2.1 billion in profit) sporting events of all-time, to pro-terrorist, pro-slavery, homophobic states.

Each year, UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) launches extensive “Say No to Racism” campaigns, yet it awarded the Euro 2012 football championships to Poland and Ukraine, where fans targeted players with bananas and racist slurs.

Rewarding disgusting behavior and backwards thinking does not help to “better the future”; in fact, it is destroying the future.

While FIFA is one of the most powerful institutions on the face of the planet, it is also one of the most corrupt (as evident by its most recent dealings in Qatar), though that doesn’t mean it is forever unwilling to use its power. Nothing in this world is static.

In order to change something for the better, there first needs to exist the desire to do good things. Without such a desire, no ship can be righted. In some cases, this desire is all that is necessary; we see plenty of philanthropists donating money and time to worthy causes.

Though if you have an inherent desire to make change, AND financial incentives align – then you are on to something. Though, money cannot solve all problems; in fact it usually creates them.

Soccer too cannot solve all problems, though unlike currency, it possesses an innate, emotional authority:

The Ivory Coast qualified for their first ever World Cup in 2006, prompting the President to call a truce in the middle of a civil war, as the opposing sides talked for the first time in over three years, and watched soccer in peace. On December 25th, 1914, in the middle of WWI, at a battlefield somewhere in Northern Europe, the Germans and the Brits/Scots decided to call “The Christmas Truce,” prompting a gift exchange. One of the gifts was a soccer ball, sparking a spontaneous game. Less than 24 hours ago, these men were trying to kill each other, and now they were playing soccer together.

FIFA is in a possession of a tool capable of stopping war, so why not use it?

Why not reward a country that not only respects basic human rights, but is actually living out FIFA’s “mission” to some degree? Why not reward a society that is actually trying to advance humanity and improve the quality of life for its people, as well as those abroad?

Why not create a scalable, universal set of guidelines that a country must meet, and preferably exceed, prior to being awarded a world cup (or any other major international competition)? Well because FIFA would have to exercise an unprecedented level of due diligence, which costs money (which FIFA doesn’t like).

All elements of change start with an idea, so I decided to go ahead and think this through. Essentially, one would apply a ‘Triple Bottom Line’ approach to the awarding of large, profitable international football competitions, meaning that countries hosting these events have to account for social, ecological and financial systems (and their interconnectedness).

Such a framework would have to be scalable in order to give smaller and/or less developed countries a chance; progression is not measured by sheer size. In the application process, countries would have to demonstrate sustainable success over a given amount of time (say 10 years), and present a plan on how it will continue to “improve” (which I realize at this stage is a rather ambiguous term).

This does several things:

  1. It eliminates the short-term, illegitimate, beautification process that occurs before almost all major, international events (sports related or not). Just as we run around our houses tidying up before having a couple friends over, I understand that countries want to polish their act before they invite the entire world over for dinner. That being said, the current process is shortsighted, shallow and downright wrong. For example, prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China implemented a ban on coal burning, in an attempt to improve air quality. Fast-forward six years, China is still burning coal, and air quality is still a serious problem, especially in the nation’s capital, so much so, that in anticipation of the upcoming APEC Summit (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation), the government has again ordered a short-term ban, calling for a “40% reduction in the output of contaminants in Beijing.” In preparation for the most recent world cup, more than 250,000 people were evicted from their homes to make way for new stadiums, infrastructure, etc. all in the name of tourism. It would appear that plenty of countries like to dress up for the rest of the world, but have decided that dirty, tattered, hand-me-downs are good enough for its own people and ecosystem.
  1. It incentivizes countries to look at the bigger picture. I realize that host cities for large, international competitions should be attractive and interesting to the spectator, to the consumer (which makes FIFA’s selects of Russia (2018) and Qatar (2022) even more suspect), though it could, for example, prevent an intriguing country, like Brazil, from building a $300 million stadium in the Amazon that would only be used for four games. When preparing its application, a country must sell its aesthetically pleasing, infrastructural efficient, relatively safe self, along with an environmentally conscious, financially sound, humane self.

So, who loses?

While such a program would cost FIFA more money, traditionally, the World Cup is in no shortage of suitors; since 1990, each tournament received an average of 4.5 unofficial bids (if a country withdraws its bid before the formal voting process, it is not considered to be “official,” but that does not mean that the interest simply vanishes).

Therefore, I would argue that the only “losers” are those countries unwilling, or unable, to comply with this type of progressive standard. And frankly, those countries probably should not be hosting World Cups.

I realize that I have only scraped the surface of this issue, and that my outline is rudimentary, but my point is that the play on the field often casts a shadow on the true potential of this Beautiful Game.

[note: I was unplugged in the Galápagos Islands last week, so I apologize for taking so long to write. Stay tuned, as I’m really excited to share some stories from my incredible week.]

Goal in Puerto Viejo

The Beautiful Game

Friday marked my last day of Spanish class. I definitely improved over the past week – it is really nice to be able to communicate down here, as it not only makes life easier, but also more interesting.

Once class was finished, I bid goodbye to the little school (and John Cena’s introduction song) and headed uptown to Mariscal, in search of a last-minute Galapagos deal. I found a few, but didn’t pull the trigger, as I had to hurry off to my salsa class.

I was anxious when I rushed up the stairs to the salsa studio – not because I was about to try to look somewhat graceful while learning new steps, twists and turns, but rather because I had just listened to 12 different sales pitches in the last hour about why I “should book right now.”

Class was really fun – still have a lot to learn, but I am getting better. When I returned to the homestay, I had made up my mind, so I called one of the travel agencies to confirm my booking, only to find out an hour later that the system had not updated and the spot was gone.

Though as it turns out this was a blessing in disguise.

Halloween is not really a thing here in Quito, so I called it a night, hoping for good weather in the morning.

Fortunately, I awoke to a bright, clear sunny day, perfect for taking El Teleférico (gondola) up into the surrounding mountains.

As the doors, hissed shut, the gondola picked up speed and whisked us away from the loud, dirty streets and up into a deep, green valley, about 4200 meters above sea level. The air was thinner, a bit colder and much fresher. As I climbed higher and higher, the view only became more and more spectacular. Though there is another summit you can reach, I turned around after about an hour and rode down the gondola with a nice, Ecuadorian family, who (right on cue) made a reference to ‘Castaway’ as soon as I introduced myself as ‘Wilson.’ I wished them well and jumped in a cab bound for Mariscal, as I was determined to find that elusive Galapagos ticket.

View from El Teleférico

View from El Teleférico

No such luck. Every company was shutting down for the holiday weekend and told me to come back on Tuesday. Though, I did get a haircut at “La Tijera Loca” – “Crazy Scissors,” which did a better job than the name might imply.

Sunday was one of the best days of my trip thus far.

Mladen, Luana (our new friend who works at the hostel) and I took a taxi over to Estadio Olimpico Ahaulpa to watch Universidad Católica v. Deportivo Quito. Being that both were local teams, we figured that such a “derby” would be pretty packed. Turns out that neither team is very good, thus the stands were nearly empty. That didn’t stop us from having fun though.

We got to see one goal, as well as pick up on some of the little quirks that would go unnoticed in a full stadium. For example, there were these “Gatorade guys,” dressed in bright orange, NASCAR-style jumpsuits – besides hoisting a giant, inflatable bottle of Gatorade up in the middle of the field at halftime, they didn’t do much other than carry bottles of Gatorade (and giant bottles of Pepsi) around. During the second half of the security guys on the field hollered up to one of the vendors in the stands and bought an ice cream bar.

Universidad de Católica won 1-0, as the game got pretty physical by the end – I don’t think I’ve ever heard so many Catholics swear so much.

After the game, Mladen and I went on a short run. On our way back to the hostel I noticed some guys playing Ecua-volley (a local version of volleyball), so I inquired if they could teach me how to play. Shortly thereafter I was running all over the dusty, cement court, repeatedly smacking what felt like a harder, heavier soccer ball, over the net. Once the next game was about to resume I thanked my instructor and trotted down a short flight of steps to a basketball court where some kids where playing. Being that I was the oldest, biggest person on the court, I pretty much just dribbled around and let everyone else on my team shoot – Cliff Paul would have been proud.

About 30 minutes later, a new group of boys showed up, all probably within the ages of 11-16, to play some soccer (football). Once I was assigned a team, I slid back to play defense with another kid, named Wilson. What were the odds?

The “field” was straight out of the ever popular, Backyard Sports, computer game series. The basketball court was almost entirely enclosed by a big graffiti-covered wall, thus there was really no out of bounds. There were no corner kicks or throw-ins. Much of the sideline was covered in broken glass. One goal stood below one of the basketball hoops, while the other, in an attempt to elongate the field, sat at the very other end of arena against the fence, behind the other hoop. Everything was in play: walls, telephone poles, the basketball hoop in the middle of the field – everything.

Basketball Court in Quito

Most of the kids were really good, particularly a tall, skinny kid, as well as a small, stout boy, who was probably the youngest kid there, but had some of the best foot skills. Several dads sat on the stairs, drinking beer and coaching up the kids.

As I have mentioned before, I strongly believe that playing sports abroad is one of the most interesting, powerful and unique aspects of travel. Though our team won, the score was entirely unimportant. Whether played on a dirty, makeshift basketball court, or on the perfectly manicured grass of Camp Nou in Barcelona, there is a reason that soccer is known as simply, “The Beautiful Game.”

The next morning I woke up at 4am, grabbed my small backpack and headed downstairs to wait for my new Ecuadorian friends. Once in the car, we tore through the quiet, dark streets of Quito, headed north. About four hours later we had reached “Siete Cascadas” – “Seven Waterfalls,” a spot rarely frequented by tourists. I strapped on some rubber boots and began our decent into the dense jungle. As we got closer to the first waterfall, the roar of the powerful water got louder. The first fall was kind of a natural slide, though as we continued to hike, the falls got taller and taller.

Waterfall hopping

Waterfall hopping

We spent the rest of the afternoon jumping off the waterfalls, enjoying the sunshine and exploring an old railroad track, that has been slowly swallowed up by the jungle for the past 60 years or so. Needless to say, it was an awesome day, with great people.

Tuesday was my last full day in Quito, thus I decided to go see a couple things I had yet to visit. I tried to go to a museum called ‘Capilla del Hombre,’ however, apparently I got on the wrong bus because it basically went in a short circle and dropped me off where I started. I figured it was not meant to be and walked over to a famous church, whose inside is almost entirely plated in gold, as well as the National Bank Museum.

A few hours later, I found myself sitting in a mall, trying to find Wi-Fi to check if any of the Galapagos companies had emailed me back. Sure enough, the one that Lonely Planet specifically recommended had! However, their prices were at least several hundred dollars more than most other offers I had found for the exact same boats/trips.

I thumbed through my stack of business cars and fliers that I had acquired over the past few days, and found one offer that looked intriguing. I called them to find that the price had dropped even further – I had found the itinerary I wanted, on a nice boat, at a good price.

In short, I am going to the Galapagos Islands next Tuesday!!

Still hard to believe that this is real life.

[note: I am in a town called Baños right now. It is awesome. I’ll try to get some content up soon! Thanks for reading.]

The following day I went on a free walking tour, where I met a cool, Swiss guy named Mladen, who quit his job in IT to travel the world. People keep thinking we’re brothers because we’re both tall and have beards – it’s pretty funny.

We walked through the local market and enjoyed delicious local juice. I got mora (which is a kind of like a more flavorful blueberry) and coconut. We moved through several large, open plazas and then into the Plaza Central. In the middle stood a tall obelisk, honoring those that fought for the liberation of Ecuador, which was then surrounded by four buildings, either belonging to the government or the church. One of these buildings just so happens to be the Presidential Palace, so Obi, our guide, spoke briefly with one of the guards and the next thing we knew, we were inside.

The President no longer lives here, as on several occasions Presidents (both current and former) have been killed while leaving the building. That being said he frequently works there, though he now travels by helicopter. We passed by several amazing churches, tasted some Ecuadorian candy, and stopped at a point that looked up onto the hills and El Panecillo (the large aluminum statue that overlooks the central/north end of the city). Below us, what is now a spotless, friendly urban park used to be the city’s black market. We then wandered through La Ronda, a bohemian, artsy district. Prior to stepping into one of the metal art workshops, Mladen and I stopped to play foosball with some kids in the middle of the narrow street.

El Panecillo

El Panecillo

Moments like these are why I travel. They are simple. They are spontaneous. They are beautiful. They are what I will remember years from now.

Foosball in La Ronda

Foosball in La Ronda

The next day we decided to walk over to the Basilica de Voto Nacional, a massive gothic, stone, structure, situated in the middle of town. When we reached what we thought was the top, we found ourselves literally inside the clock tower. This was pretty cool in and of itself, but there was more – we ultimately climbed up several steep ladders to a small outdoor platform atop one of the towers, providing us with a panoramic view of the sprawling metropolis.

Basilíca Voto de Nacional

Basilíca Voto de Nacional

Basilíca del Voto Nacional

Basilíca del Voto Nacional

Oh, and I also bought a sweatshirt with llamas on it. It’s pretty awesome.

The following day, we hopped on a shuttle to the Secret Garden Hostel, near the legendary Cotopaxi volcano. As we neared the remote hostel, the landscape actually resembled that of Eastern Washington (lush, open countryside, tucked in between the sides of a dark rocky valley, lots of farmland), except for the fact that nine active volcanoes surrounded us.

Upon reaching the cozy hostel, we headed out for a hike to some nearby waterfalls, after which I walked around the grounds for a bit admiring the llamas and the stunning scenery. This place is truly one of a kind.

While some of you may know, my brother, Sam, and I grew up watching a particular Warren Miller film called ‘Fifty’ in which they hike up Cotopaxi and ski back down. Therefore, I have known about this mountain for about some ten odd years.

I have always been intrigued by the legendary Cotopaxi, and there I was, about to hike to its glacier the next day.

Four of us climbed into a small, white pickup truck, with our Ecuadorian guide, Henry. After a decently long drive, we passed through the entrance to the National Park and began speeding across a grassy plain, dotted with dark, sizable volcanic boulders. We made our way up the road to the parking lot, grabbed our packs and started up the loose volcanic ash.

At this point, we were at an altitude of about 4500 meters, thus 10 steps felt as though you had just sprinted down a basketball court. We moved slowly up the steep, brown earth, which almost had the consistency of powdery snow.

When we reached the first resting point, I turned around, peered down the sandy trail and out onto the surrounding plains, which looked like they had literally been colored with pastels.

As the air got thinner, we got colder. In fact, about halfway up, thick fog swallowed up the magnificent views, and snow began to fall. By the time we reached the refuge structure (about 4800 meters), the snow was really coming down, blanketing parts of the reddish Earth.

Minutes later we had finally reached the glacier and stood triumphantly 5000 meters tall (more than 15,000 feet). We took a few pictures and stared up at the tranquil, yet powerful mountain.

Cotopaxi glacier

Cotopaxi glacier

Suddenly, a boom of thunder ripped through the quiet air. Our guide told us we had to hurry, as we did not want to get caught in a lightning storm on top of a mountain. We took off nearly running down the mountain. It was still dumping snow, which had mixed into the soft dirt trail, so it looked as though I was dashing down a giant mountain of cookies and cream ice cream.

The adventure wasn’t over, however. Once we cleared the fog, we unloaded mountain bikes from the pickup truck and took off down the rocky road (which unfortunately didn’t resemble ice cream this time). Just as we reached the bottom, the skies parted for just a moment giving us one last glimpse of the fabled mountain.

Cotopaxi National Park

Cotopaxi National Park

View from Cotopaxi

View from Cotopaxi

The rest of the weekend was very relaxing. I rested and met some awesome people before heading back to Quito to start Spanish school.

A bit difficult to find, the school is tucked behind, a small, unmarked wooden door on one of the busiest streets in the Old Town. While my Spanish is pretty decent, I have definitely gotten better over the past week. I have been taking both group and individual classes – the one-on-one lessons have been awesome, as they are more conversational and tailored to my interests, areas of improvement, etc. Therefore, we have spent most of the week talking about business and sports; more specifically about the power of soccer (fútbol), on a cultural, economic and global scale. We also talked a lot about the cultural differences between the U.S. and Ecuador (and South America in general). Perhaps one of the most interesting, things that I learned was that the idea of an “opportunity cost” doesn’t really exist here. People dedicate time to work, and they dedicate time to family; typically, family time is not compromised for work – I don’t either way of life is “more correct” than the other, as it is merely just a different way doing things.

Sure, I am learning a lot, but school is not without its humor. The funniest part of the school is the video store right across the street, which blasts music videos or TV all the time. For some reason, they have been playing the same WWE Smackdown (or whatever its called) John Cena video over and over again, everyday. For those not familiar with John Cena and his obnoxiously awesome entrance song I highly recommend you check out this YouTube video. I’m not kidding – horns blaring and everything, John Cena was introduced by some Spanish announcer to a bustling Quito street every 15 minutes or so.

I have said it once, and I will say it again, I love Quito. It has so much to offer, and is full of wonderful surprises. On our way back to our homestay from class today, Mladen and I happened upon a small crowd circled around a man crouched over what at first glance, looked like a dirty piece of paper. Upon closer inspection, the man was finger-painting some of the most amazing pieces of artwork I have ever seen, with gasoline. Within minutes, he was churning out amazing paintings, which would easily for hundreds of dollars in the US, yet cost a dollar each here on the street. I stood there mesmerized by the quick flicks of his fingers, building thatched roofs and smoothing out the reflection of the moon on the water. Though I am not entirely sure how I will get it home, I bought one of his pieces – this was truly a moment I don’t think I will ever forget.

Today, I channeled my inner-Dance 100 skills and took a salsa class. It was not only entertainingly difficult, it was really fun – I’m actually going to go back tomorrow after my last Spanish class. While I’ve learned a lot, I am excited to see what’s next. I should be in the Galapagos sometime next week. Hopefully going to get to a soccer game this weekend. I’ll be sure to keep you all posted.

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