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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.

Quito y Manzanillo

I hopped on a bike that felt slightly more stable than the one I rode on Ometepe and headed out of Puerto Viejo, a quaint, laid-back Caribbean town on the edge of Costa Rica. It only takes a few minutes to walk across the entire town, thus it didn’t take long to get out via bicycle and onto a small, coastal road.

I came around the first major bend in the road to find a clearing of trees that opened up onto a lovely beach and turquoise, Caribbean water. I stopped briefly, but kept on, as I was en route to Manzanillo (about seven miles down the road). When I pulled into town (which was even smaller than Puerto Viejo), the pothole-ridden road turned into a sandy trail, through arching palm trees.

I started talking to a nice man selling coconuts – I decided to buy one and asked him to watch my bike, which I had locked to a palm tree. He picked up one of the coconuts and began hacking at it with a machete. Once he got it open he threw a straw in the top and pointed me in the right direction. After a short hike through the jungle, I was sipping coconut water, straight from the source, on a sandy beach.

Manzanillo

Manzanillo

I laid peacefully in the shade for a while, listening to the sound of the waves lap against the shore. I hopped back on my gear-less, beach cruiser and peddled back down the bumpy road towards town.

Manzanillo

Manzanillo

For some reason I was craving BBQ so I stopped by an Australian spot, where I met some cool people and enjoyed delicious food. The following morning I headed back to San Jose to plan out the next chapter of my adventure. I met a really cool Canadian on the bus; she is living in Puerto Viejo and volunteering at the animal rescue center. We had an awesome conversation about all kinds of things, but by far the coolest part occurred when we got off the bus. Before we went our separate ways, she told me to hold out my hand, as she placed what looked kind of like a chestnut, in my palm. “It’s a seed,” she said, “from Puerto. It’s supposed to protect you.”

It was a beautiful gesture that I feel sums up the backpackers’ state of mind. I have learned that when you are traveling, you look out for one another. I think many people have a preconceived notion that traveling is inherently dangerous. Yes, you need to be careful, but believe me, not everyone is out to get you.

While I enjoyed Costa Rica, something (apart of from my 10-day visa) was telling me that it was time to move on. I made friends with some hilarious Italians. I hiked through a cloud forest. I pushed my limits and went zip-lining hundreds of feet above the jungle. I biked to picturesque beaches and drank out of coconuts. I met some amazing people and made some new friends. Costa Rica – I’ll be back.

Quito, Ecuador is beautiful. As we began our descent towards the airport we dipped below the frothy clouds, catching glimpses of green, sloping mountains. The city itself is bigger than I imagined (about 2.6 million people), and sits at 9,350 feet above sea level. Altitude sickness is very common among tourists here, but I’m doing just fine so far.

Fortunately I awoke to a sunny day this morning, so I hopped on a local bus headed for Mitad del Mundo (“Middle of the World”). About an hour and $.70 later (the official currency of Ecuador is the U.S. dollar – it’s really strange to be somewhere so foreign, yet use money from back home) I arrived at my destination. Minutes later, my right foot was in the Northern Hemisphere and my left foot in the Southern (or so I thought).

This line was once thought by some French explorers to be the Equator, so they built a fabulous monument to commemorate this sacred place. As it turns out, the French were about 720 feet off, which was pretty good given the instruments they had.

Original French equatorial line

Original French equatorial line

GPS as since pinpointed the location just next door, where a more interactive experience has been built. Though it lacks a massive monument or a touristy village, this site was actually more interesting and educational. They showed us how water does not spiral when flowing through a drain on the equator; it just drops straight down, as well as many of the instruments indigenous people used to tell time, seasons, etc. long before the Europeans arrived. In fact, ‘Qui-’ means “middle” and ‘-to’ means “Earth.”

GPS-located equatorial line

GPS-located equatorial line

On my way back it started to pour, so when I eventually reached my cozy hostel, I decided to stay in for the evening. I may take some Spanish classes next week, and perhaps even live in a homestay. I’m really looking forward to my month here in Ecuador. I love this place already.

For the first time in my entire life I slept through my alarm. I had set it for 5am so that I could be at the bus station by 6, though when I awoke on my own accord, I clicked on my phone – 5:50am was staring me in the face.

I rubbed my eyes, hoping that they had deceived me. No such luck. I scrambled out of bed and tossed my things into my backpack, sprinting through my mental checklist of the most important items.

I hustled out the door of the hostel en route to the Tica Bus terminal. On the map it didn’t look that far, but each block seemed like it would never end. After it was all said and done I tumbled through the terminal doorway at 6:40am, only to find that I could only buy a standby ticket. Fortunately there was space and off I went.

When we arrived at the Costa Rican boarder, I approached the immigration desk with my passport, only to have the immigration officer ask me for my departure ticket from Nicaragua. “I don’t have one, I am going to buy it in Costa Rica,” I told her confidently in Spanish, with a big smile on my face.

She started rattling a whole bunch of information off really quickly (I am finding that Costa Rican Spanish is more difficult to understand than that of Nicaragua) – basically she said I needed to prove when I was leaving the country so that she could issue the proper number of days onto my visa.

Apparently in my research I had missed this important tidbit of information.

She asked me how long I would be in Costa Rica – at this point I wanted to seem as innocent as possible / I also didn’t realize how important my answer was. “Una semana” – “One week,” I replied quickly. Apparently I didn’t look too intimidating because she stamped my passport, scribbled something down and I was on my way. Little did I know, it didn’t matter what I looked like because she had only given me 10 days on my visa. This could have been much worse had I planned on staying here for quite some time, but luckily I originally planned to only be here for a week or so.

Despite the fact that I was only allowed to spend 10 days inside the country, I was determined to make the most of my time. I met an awesome couple at the bus station, Ellie (from Colorado) and Os (from Costa Rica) – they showed me a really cool hostel and then around the main street, which reminded me a lot of a smaller version of La Rambla, in Barcelona. Once the mini-tour was over we stopped into a restaurant to grab a beer and chat about life. Turns out the two are really interested in languages (Os teaches Spanish) and actually take Mandarin classes every Saturday in San Jose, so I told them about my trip to China, etc. [note: Thank you for being awesome hosts!]

Eventually I bid them farewell, headed back to my hostel and started to plan my next move.

The next day I wandered back down the street in search of shoe deodorant, which apparently doesn’t exist in Costa Rica, and then onto the National Museum, which is housed in a really cool, old, bright yellow fort.

Museo Nacional de Costa Rica

Museo Nacional de Costa Rica

I meandered through the various exhibits, each of which pertained to some part of Costa Rican history. One particular exhibit detailed key players on hanging cards, allowing visitors to literally “walk through” history. My favorite exhibit consisted of photographs of iconic moments in recent history – everything from Obama’s first visit to Costa Rica to the construction of the Panama Canal. It was quite fascinating.

IMG_3631

I decided to take a bus to La Fortuna, a quaint town that sits near the base of Arenal, the famous volcano. Unfortunately, when I got to town I was informed that no one is allowed to climb the volcano right now and due to the constant rain, that Cerro Chato (a smaller hike to a crater lagoon) would be dangerous. Apparently I was supposed to take it easy in La Fortuna. Fortunately, I met two hilarious Italian guys and happened upon an awesome hostel.

While I admired the little town, I decided to head out to Monteverde the following day, in search of something new and boy did I find it.

Even smaller than La Fortuna, this misty town is situated on the edge of a cloud forest; I wasn’t going to let the rain stop me this time. I met two cool Americans named Kyle and James, who let me tag along on their hiking adventure for the day. We wandered through the jungle and across wobbly, metal suspension bridges, passing through low-hanging clouds. It was a very peaceful experience.

IMG_3751

IMG_3741

That night we went a “night hike,” in search of Costa Rica’s nocturnal wildlife. We saw a sloth, plenty of birds and lots of bugs, but the coolest thing we saw had to be a big, orange and black tarantula that the guide lured out of its hole with a cricket.

I felt like I was watching Planet Earth in person or something.

While the hikes were interesting and educational, without a doubt, the best part of Monteverde was ziplining. Earlier this morning, I was attempting to figure out which canopy tour to go on when I randomly met a group of people from Tacoma (of all places)! We joined forces and made our way out of town and up a rocky, dirt road to Monteverde Extremo.

The name says it all. This tops any sort of canopy tour I have ever seen.

Ziplining

The course started nice and easy, yet by the third line I found myself flying across a damp, green valley, hundreds of feet above the jungle. Surely I was a little scared, but . That was until we got to the rappel platform, where we were lowered several hundred feet down to a “tarzan swing,” which was essentially a short free fall until the rope tightened and swung you high into the canopy.

I was literally shaking as I approached the edge. The two men strapped my harness to the rope and then without much warning helped me off the ledge.

I screamed. First out of terror and then out of joy.

The last few lines were relatively short, until we got to the final line. While it was 1 kilometer long, a small storm had rolled in and then subsided, so you could only see about 300 meters of the line before it disappeared completely into the mist. To top it all off, I decided to go “superman,” meaning that instead of sitting with my harness strapped in front of me, my harness was strapped behind me, allowing me to lay on my stomach, staring straight down some 450 ft.

The guide got the ok and sent me off. I have never felt so close to flying before. I went shooting down the cable and into the white mist. We were supposed to open our arms when we reached halfway (when I asked where halfway was, the guide replied with a smile, “In the middle”). Just as I did so, I popped out of the cloud and caught a glimpse of the stunning landscape below me.

As many of you know, one of my favorite quotes is “Do one thing a day that scares you” – Eleanor Roosevelt. I think Eleanor would be proud because today I did four or five. Several years ago, I don’t think I would have swung like Tarzan through the trees. Several years ago, I don’t think I would have embarked on an 8-month trip around the Southern Hemisphere. Fortunately, today is now.

I won’t lie – my legs were quivering before I jumped off the tarzan swing platform. I pushed myself today and it feels awesome. I don’t think I’m going to become an adrenaline junkie anytime soon, but I feel alive today. I feel confident. I feel content.

The weather is much cooler here than in Nicaragua, and everything is a lot cleaner. Though, certain parts feel very westernized/touristy – we passed a Denny’s and a Taco Bell on the way into San Jose.

Monteverde was a nice step away from the franchised fast food restaurants, but after 10 long hours of bus rides today I made it to Puerto Viejo (on the Caribbean coast) to escape the rain and enjoy my last couple days in this amazing country.

Superman zipline

Superman zipline

I jumped into the back of a monstrous, bright orange truck, not entirely sure how the next few hours were going to go. Shortly thereafter we traded the narrow, cobblestone streets of León for a windy, bumpy country road.

We approached what looked like a massive mound of black dirt, though this was no ordinary pile of dirt – this was Cerro Negro (literally meaning, “Black Hill”), the most active cinder cone volcano in Central America, and I was about to slide down it on a modified piece of plywood.

Cerro Negro

Cerro Negro

We navigated our way up the loose volcanic rock, which made cool squeaking sounds underneath our shoes. As we walked along in a single file line, the view from the ridge above the crater was amazing. To our right, smoke rose steadily out of a white/reddish sulfuric center; to our left the dark volcanic rock contrasted beautifully against the surrounding light green hills and wispy blue sky.

After a short, hilarious orientation we put on our bulky orange suits – we looked like a bunch of convicts, ready to make some daring escape down a steep volcano. When it was my turn, I strapped up my green-tinted, high school science class-like goggles, switched on my GoPro camera (video coming soon), sat on my board and kicked off.

At first the board was difficult to control; the front slid back and forth as I picked up speed. Finally, I found my balance and zoomed down the mountain. It was unlike anything I have ever done before.

Volcano Boarding

Volcano Boarding

At the summit, the view reminded me a lot of the top of a ski slope – you see the terrain in front of you (which was black gravel, instead of white snow), until it steeply drops off, leaving you with a breathtaking view over the entire surrounding area.

As I picked up speed I could feel my feet getting warmer, due to the friction, as well as the fact that they were touching an active volcano. Amid flying rocks, stiff wind and a unique adrenaline rush, I made it down without a scratch on my body. One girl in our group managed to hit 75 km/hr (about 46 mph), though the record still stands at 95 km/hr (59 mph!).

I finally got to play some soccer on the beach (it has been a lot harder to find people to play sports with than I thought), until it started pouring rain. I then spent the remainder of my time in León wandering around admiring the many churches and politically charged artwork. While Leon may feel like a bigger city, there isn’t a whole lot to do there so I headed back down to Granada as my final stop in Nicaragua. One of my new friends works at a animal rehabilitation center near Liberia, Costa Rica, and being that there is no internet at the tree house, I took a quick taxi up there to determine if I would be accompanying him back to the farm.

Una iglesia de León

Una iglesia de León

I wandered down the familiar streets of Granada looking for a cab, but had no such luck. Two men, one who spoke English, near the Parque Central persistently offered me a taxi, though something in my gut told me not to go with them. I can’t really explain it – the offering of assistance felt insincere, like the makings of a tourist trap.

And then out of nowhere, an older man came whipping around the corner and stopped right in front of me. There were already two women and two kids in the backseat of his taxi, nevertheless, he saw the other men closing in an attempt to strike a deal and immediately undercut their price. This time my gut told me to hop in, so I did.

Minutes later the man asked me where I was from. “Los Estados Unidos,” I replied, which disrupted the calm demeanor of the man and brought about a new energy in him.

“Los Estados Unidos es el mejor país del mundo,” he declared dramatically – “The United States is the best country in the world.” I was pleasantly surprised and honestly taken aback. Most people here have been very friendly and helpful, but not to the point of declaring my country the “greatest on Earth.” He went on to explain that while the U.S. does some bad stuff, all countries have bad people, and the U.S. helps those in need. Plus, they have Major League Baseball (his brother lives in San Francisco, so he is a Giants fan).

We went back and forth talking about politics, baseball, poverty, his favorite U.S. presidents (he really liked Ronald Reagan for some reason), communism, war, etc. About halfway, he was explaining why he feels that democracy is so great; “democracy allows us to be friends,” he said, extending his hand. As I shook it, and told him my name was Wilson, he smiled and exclaimed, “Como la pelota!” – “Like the ball (from Castaway).” As we neared the tree house the road became muddier and rugged; he slowed down and looked gravely at the rough terrain ahead. He then turned to me and said what perhaps might be the only words he knows in English, “I’m sorry, Wilson.”

The sincerity in his voice was heart wrenching. He felt as though he was letting me down – after that single sentence, the conversation switched back to Spanish and I assured him that everything was just fine.

Little did he know that was one of the coolest taxi rides of my life and a moment I’ll never forget.

I bid my new friend farewell and gave him a nice tip. Holding the money in his hands, he looked up, smiled – “Dios bendiga usted y Los Estados Unidos” – “God bless you and the United States.”

And with that he was gone.

It is crazy to think how people can instantaneously enter (and exit) our lives. For example, I decided to eat my last meal in Granada at my favorite restaurant: Garden Café, when I started talking to a group at the table behind me. Turns out they are part of The World Race, a sort of mission adventure (as opposed to a “trip” as they are traveling to 11 countries all over the world in 11 months). I had an awesome conversation with them, all because I offered them some advice on where to go on Ometepe. [note: Good luck you guys!]

I can hardly believe that my time in Nicaragua has finally come to an end, but what an experience it was. Nicaragua was actually a last minute addition to my itinerary – I am so grateful I took a chance on this perfectly imperfect country. Yes, Nicaragua is not without its problems, but it is also home to kind, friendly people, beautiful wildlife and an awesomely eclectic taste in music (I cannot tell you how many times I heard ‘Changes’ by Tupac, right after ‘Stand by Me’ played). I have grown more in the past few weeks than I ever imagined I would and could not have asked for a better start to my adventure.

Nicaragua, you a beautifully real place.

[note: I made it to San Jose, Costa Rica. I will try to get another post up soon!]

Futbol

Ometepe ferry

Ferry to Ometepe

Local sandwich wrapped in a banana leaf

Local sandwich wrapped in a banana leaf

IMG_3891

A House in the Trees

I hopped off the crowded old yellow school bus at a very familiar bus stop, Parada Guanacaste – the same bus stop I sat at by myself the second morning of my trip waiting for my friends.

It’s funny, many of these school buses still have the red stop sign on the driver’s side that extends whenever the bus stops and the door opens – needless to say, “Unlawful to pass when red lights flash” doesn’t carry much weight in Nicaragua.

I hailed down a tuc tuc cab and started up the muddy trail toward Poste Rojo. I had almost reached the top of the steep, rocky trail when, “WILLLLSOOOONNN” rang out through the jungle. I spun around to see Brayan standing on the suspension bridge up in the canopy, doing his best Tom Hanks / Castaway impression.

It was good to be back.

The tree house is truly a special place – when I reached the top of the always-surprisingly strenuous hike, I felt at ease, at peace, and in tune with my surroundings.

It doesn’t matter who you are or what your story is when you’re at the tree house – a cool group of Dutch students who are interning in Managua, an awesome couple from South Africa, a hip Canadian couple that spins fire and hula hoops, and Travis, a gentleman in his own right, all sat under cover, conversing and listening to the steady hum of rain pelting the tin roof.

Though, when I say that stories don’t matter, I do not mean that they are irrelevant, but rather that they are to be told freely. And they are. This is evident by all of the inspirational, and sometimes random, quotes that line the walls, countertops and support beams and by the beautiful art and random keepsakes hanging on the walls. Most importantly, this is evident by every single footprint once stamped onto the ceiling.

If you spend time at the tree house, you are encouraged to “leave your mark,” and being that my footprint is different than every single other “mark” left at Poste Rojo, Brayan wanted to make a distinct plaque for it. We printed my feet onto a wooden board, and then he is going to finish the rest of the design. I often forget that I have 11 toes, yet it has forever served as my icebreaker/’fun fact’, it was the subject of my UW application essay, it fascinated little kids for hours when I lifeguarded, and now it is the mark I will leave on the tree house.

Leave your mark

While I may leave my mark on the tree house, it has certainly left a mark on me, just as Nicaragua as a whole has left a mark on me (and I hope I have left a mark on Nicaragua). I left home almost three weeks ago, and in three short weeks I now have friends from all over the world, friends that have offered their couch up if I am ever in town, and friends that I would gladly do the same for.

I decided to spend the night in Granada before heading up to León. Max (whom I met at the tree house) and I decided that we were going to make dinner so we walked down the street to the supermarket to get all the necessary ingredients, including chocolate milk, which comes in a bag here! We bought some more vegetables from a nice, older couple in the market on the way back and whipped up some delicious burritos.

This morning I wandered around Granada a bit – I ran into the nice couple from Florida that I met on Ometepe. It was fun to hear about the rest of their adventures on the island and see some familiar faces. At this point, I know my way around the town pretty well, so I bid them farewell and ran back to my hostel before leaving for León.

The more time I spend here, the smaller the backpacking world seems, for as I wandered into my hostel after dinner, there were my other friends from Ometepe! All told, I am in a good spot right now and really enjoying my adventure.

Tomorrow I am going volcano boarding. Never thought I would ever say that.

León

León

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