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Botshabelo

I stepped off the plane, collected my backpack and meandered out into the public waiting area. Joseph was there to greet me with a smile and a firm handshake. As we walked to the car he informed that it was “about a two drive to Magliesburg,” where I could buy groceries for the week, and then another 10 minutes to Botshabelo.

Apparently there was some serious miscommunication as I was told that the organization was “near Johannesburg” and had booked a hostel for the week assuming that I was commuting each day, as nothing had been said otherwise. At this point, I am unfazed – this is Africa, after all.

I purchase a SIM card at the grocery store and straighten things out with the hostel as best I can, hanging up just as we pull off the paved highway and onto a long, bumpy dirt road. The group of young boys playing soccer freezes as we pass the lumpy field, instead smiling and waving at our car. The game prompted me to ask Joseph about the World Cup, and its impact on the country. Disappointingly, he confessed that “…it was here, it was great, and now it’s gone.” While most of the money stayed in the big cities, the World Cup did touch Botshabelo for one afternoon – “Danny, one of the players on Portugal’s team came to play soccer with the kids one day ’cause they were training nearby. He stayed the whole day. He had a blast. And it meant a lot to the kids.” Not a single news outlet picked up the story; most of the world will never know of this superstar’s generosity, but Botshabelo will never forget it.

I am shown to my room on the bottom floor of a nice, tidy wooden farmhouse, adjoined by a deck to a smaller, neighboring house. After I unpack my groceries I step out onto the porch to soak up the sun and peer out of the now deserted soccer pitch. Just then a friendly woman emerges from the other house.

Visitors' house

Visitors’ house

Jane is getting her masters degree in social work – interning for a semester at Botshabelo is her final project. I was supposed to have my induction meeting, but was quick to learn that hardly anything here is on time. Jane was kind enough to show me the ropes and took me on a quick tour of the grounds.

The Cloete family purchased this giant farm in 1990, trading their affluent suburban neighborhood for a plot of land that knows no form of discrimination and opening their new home to strangers in need of one.

House in the village

House in the village

Early on the family faced plenty of obstacles, everything from startup costs to being raided by local rifle-wielding farmers who threatened the family’s lives if they continued to help “non-whites”. Today, 25 years later, Botshabelo is home to 200+ children (roughly 2/3 of which have no family left and live here permanently) and another 800+ people in the village, which sits behind the school and main child-care facilities. Anyone in need of a home is welcome at Botshabelo, regardless of race, religion, gender, background, age, sexual orientation; anything. The community offers children education through 9th grade, as well as recreational sports, three meals a day, a bed, clean clothes and a bath once a day.

The Botshabelo School

The Botshabelo School

Marion and her daughter Leigh were planning on coming over for tea that night, but news arrived that one of the grandmothers in the village was sick. We grabbed flashlights and made our way down the path to the village, accompanied by a group of the oldest, biggest young men and Bothsabelo’s pack of dogs (even if you have four legs and a tail you are welcome here), several of which seem to take a real liking to visitors.

On our way there we saw a massive tarantula on the path, which Marion carefully moved into the grass (she really does love everything and everyone). As it turned out the sick elderly woman was non-compliant with her ARVs (antiretroviral drugs, which fight HIV/AIDS) – while I was to have a proper induction tomorrow, my eyes had been propped open; this is reality.

House in village

House in village

The following day marked six months exactly since I had left home. Jane, Leigh, Marion and I sat down in the living room of my house for my induction, only to be interrupted a few minutes in by a man from an NGO offering free circumcisions. The NGO is backed by John Hopkins University and can bring a mobile clinic to Botshabelo to perform the surgery for free.

Marion was ecstatic. Circumcision drastically reduces the risk of disease, though the only good, safe, reliable clinics are expensive. If my eyes had been propped opened last night, they were thrust wide open this morning – sexual abuse runs rampant in the area. Marion and the staff are able to protect those living within the orphanage housing as best they can, but children as young as seven years old are sexually active in the surrounding community.

We resumed our conversation for another 15 minutes or so before a young man appeared on the porch – minutes later he was given a home in the village. Some time after that a little boy limped into the room after scraping his knee. Marion went into “mom mode” – she dropped everything, gave him a hug and told him to run up to the clinic to get cleaned up. I realized why my meeting never happened – the Cloetes are ambassadors, managers, facilitators, guardians and parents. They truly love these kids.

Most of the children from a disturbing background – they may have been starved, raped, abused. Some have birth defects due to drugs/alcohol. Some even have HIV/AIDS. Yet each is special in his/her own way. Each is part of the family at Botshabelo.

I played soccer that afternoon. The field is littered with holes, rocks and a few trees, but that all is just part of the game – more than anything the young boys find pure joy in soccer. Wisdom, one of the math teachers at the school, joined in as we ran around for an hour and a half in the boiling South African sun.

5am hit me like a sack of bricks the following morning, but I dragged myself through the dim, early light to the massive, stale bunkroom. All of the boys were already up and hustling about, getting ready for school. Many, especially the ones I played soccer with, already knew my name and greeted me with a smile.

No matter the time of day, whenever Maza (one of the most adorable little guys I‘ve ever met) saw me, he would come running with a giant smile on his face. I broke up a dozen fights (the amount of energy that kids possess that early in the morning is astounding) and made sure that each boy did his share of chores.

Group of kids

Some of the older boys sat hunched over tiny, bright screens, charging their tablets, phones, etc. At first I was confused – the community barely scrapes by, how do these kids afford this kind of technology? Jane informed me that some of the kids have relatives who buy them presents. I was still baffled at the fact that people who can’t take care of their own children (or nephews or nieces, etc.) would splurge on a smartphone.

After a conversation with Jane, I took a step back – why am I any more deserving of mindless escapism than these kids? If anything, they deserve a break from reality.

Gift, the head teacher/principal of the school dropped by my house around noon to inform me that I would be talking to the 9th grade class about traveling – the “Botshabelo Travel Channel” as Marion had coined it, aimed at showing these kids what else is out there.

I had never properly lectured/taught anything before, but I strolled into the class confidently with a rough plan in my head. I introduced myself and asked if the class wanted to see some photos. “Yes!” they replied eagerly. I sat down and roughly 30 kids piled on top of the desks peering over my shoulder as a photo of the Eiffel Tower stared back.

“Where do you want to go?” I asked.

“China!” – The Great Wall appeared on my screen. “New York!” – I found a photo of the Statue of Liberty.

We cruised through photos of Seattle, Barcelona, etc. Any photo that had to do with soccer was a hit, so I showed them more from Argentina. I stood up, closed the computer, their eyes shifting from the colorful images to me, and told them I wanted to do a writing exercise.

“Where do you want to go, and what would you do there?”

“It doesn’t even have to be a real place, I ensured them, just use your imagination.”

Silence.

Everyone was staring at me, so I drew a rough map of the world.

Nothing. I kept encouraging them to speak up.

Finally a young boy named Benjamin spoke up, “Barcelona – to watch FC Barcelona play against Real Madrid.”

Five more minutes of silence and then another girl in the front row chimed in, “I want to go to America so Rihanna can teach me how to dance.”

“Brazil to play soccer.”

“Botswana to play soccer.”

“China to see pandas.”

While the ideas started flowing, I noticed that most were very similar to each other, either borrowing what a classmate or I said. These kids are smart and independent, but they didn’t grow up being taught to be creative.

“America to work.”

I had assumed one of the kids would say something along these lines, but it hurts so much more to actually hear it. It hurts that our reality, the same reality that so many of us complain about each and everyday, is a dream for these children.

As I walked around, attempting a more individualized check-in I noticed that most either had nothing written down or had just tried to copy my drawing of the world map.

Slightly defeated I thanked them and sat down as their math teacher came in, only to learn that half of the class didn’t turn in their mid-term math exams. There is no family history of education; there was no one to teach these children the value of education – it’s mind-blowing.

After 20 minutes or so I silently exited the classroom, whereupon I ran into Gift.

“Is it always so hard? Teaching?” I asked him.

He chuckled, “Yes, but keep in mind that Easter break starts in one week…It’s a hot afternoon…You had no chance.” I sat down in my living room to digest what had just happened. That was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I wasn’t expecting a 30-minute life-changing classroom sequence, but Hilary Swank did make this kind of thing look way easier.

When Jane returned from town she and I took some of the kids (and a handful of dogs) on a walk up to the cemetery. We passed the tin shacks, the piles of broken glass and continued up into the hills. As we got farther away from the village, it got quieter. The silence was refreshing. We passed through a rock formation/medicine wheel that Con (Marion’s husband) built, and through tall, straw colored grass to the local cemetery.

Walk up to the cemetery

Walk up to the cemetery

One of the boys (who is about 9 years old) took us to his father’s grave, which he and his brother look after. The dirt was swept flat, surrounded by a small, tidy rock wall and had bright yellow flowers in a glass bottle in the middle.

It was beautiful and raw. I have stopped counting how often I feel like crying here.

We reached the edge of the village just as a thunderstorm began rolling in. I listened to the rain pelting the roof as I drifted to sleep that night.

As usual the next morning came too quickly, but fortunately there were less fights today. I’m exhausted – kids are so tiring. I am so impressed by everyone here – I think love helps keep this place running and the desire to do the right thing. I was supposed to have a meeting later, but it never happened so I took a nap and wrote in my journal. I noticed that the heavy metal pole that serves as the cross bar on the soccer goal had come loose and was falling off every time a ball hit it, so I enlisted Harold’s help.

Harold came to Botshabelo two years ago. He was living in Botswana when he was diagnosed with two types of cancer and full-blown AIDS. The doctors said he wasn’t going to make it, as he laid in the hospital, withering away. He successfully completed his chemo treatments so one of his best friends took him out of the hospital and down to Botshabelo. It was nine months before Harold could get out of bed on his own – Marion checked on him everyday, fed him and gave him ARVs to keep the disease at bay.

Over a year since he took his first step out of that bed under his own power and onto the road of recovery, Harold’s T-Cells have stabilized at a healthy level and he takes care of all the maintenance here. He would like to go back to Botswana, but as he put it, “It’s hard to leave the place that literally saved your life.”

By the time we got down to the field the kids had already managed to nail the metal pole into one of the wooden side posts and were attempting to apply a metal bracket to add stability, only using rocks and their hands – these children are so independent. We thanked them for their start as we took over with power tools; the construction leader of the group took a seat in the shade, pulled out a phone and started playing “I’m Different” by 2Chainz.

Playing soccer after fixing the goals

Playing soccer after fixing the goals

The following morning at inspection, Gift came into the bunk room to tell me that I would be teaching English at 7am, as one of the teachers had to go to a meeting in town, so I ran back to my house to throw on my only button-down shirt and a pair of khakis.

When I walked into the 2nd-grade classroom, the teacher handed me two, one-sided worksheets – I am going to need to get creative to fill the entire hour of class I thought silently.

I spent 15 minutes teaching and the other 45+ attempting to restore some type of order to the state of chaos. I broke up a dozen fights. Kids were walking around, both on the floor and on desks. Some would just get up and leave class. No one listened to me unless I yelled, and even that wasn’t a guarantee. It was the most I’ve screamed in a long time, maybe ever.

The 3rd graders were better behaved – we actually got a few things accomplished, which was really rewarding (I taught them how to read a compass on a map!). That said, there was still no shortage of fights and no shortage of shouting.

My respect for teachers grew infinitely that day. To any of my former teachers/professors that may be reading this: my hat is off to you and your profession.

I returned to my house, sweaty and tired, only to find out that while I was teaching someone (one of the kids) had somehow broken into my house and stolen my shampoo out of the bathroom. (Later that night, just as I was about to make dinner I would learn that they also took my dry pasta).

Shampoo is cheap, but it was an eerie feeling knowing that someone had entered my house. I am not sure how they got in, as my doors/windows were locked, but fortunately they didn’t get into my room. As I mentioned before, this is the reality in which I am living – these kids are in survival mode. Take one particular child, for example: his dad is in jail for murder and his 12-year-old brother is a criminal/drug lord/gang member. I would say the deck is stacked against these kids, but that is a severe understatement and injustice to the situation.

The following day could not have come at a better time, as Jane and I were set to spend the day volunteering at the Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve. We entered a ‘staff only’ area, set our bags down and then set out with our new friend Dennis to feed some types of birds and antelope. We hung out with Dennis for a while – he was so excited to show us around.

At point, he had us duck under a preliminary fence and then opened up the owl exhibit so we could see inside better. He also offered to let us hold the python, but couldn’t find the keys. As the day wore on, things got even wilder.

We helped Tajtana, a woman who lives in San Francisco, but volunteers here as much as possible, clean/spruce up a concrete compound area that is currently housing two polar foxes that managed to break the fence of their old enclosure. We scrubbed, swept and put down fresh hay, while the foxes were in the enclosure – they were fairly timid, until we left, at which point they began frolicking through the hay.

Most people come to Africa for the animals/nature, thus most tourists never experience the other side: the people. Dennis is as friendly as anyone I’ve ever met – many Americans assume that we are disliked around the world, but I can tell you the opposite is true here. Everyone seems to love the U.S. and is fascinated by our people, our culture and our history.

The next thing I know, we are entering an enclosure that is home to “Oslo,” an adolescent lion, who seemed rather sleepy on this cloudy afternoon. His belly rose up and down, rapidly with each breath. I approached slowly, and then reached out to stroke his soft fur. He felt like a teddy bear. I was petting a lion. A real, live, lion.

Lion selfie w/ Oslo

Lion selfie w/ Oslo

Growing up, cheetahs were my favorite land animal, so when I kneeled down next to “Eddie,” I was in awe. He purred like a house cat as I stroked from the back of his head to his shoulders.

Chillin with Eddie the cheetah

Chillin with Eddie the cheetah

I told you the day got stranger.

We then helped Tatjana clean an enclosure that belongs to two lynx cubs, something (we later learned) that visitors are usually never allowed to do. The lynx were a bit feistier than the other cats, but one even crawled onto my lap. Keep in mind that the reserve is open; there were guests walking around, taking pictures of the animals and I was casually inside the enclosures, with the animals. It was crazy.

Lynx cub

Lynx cub

Behind the animal crèche is a large grassy area, fit for picnics…and cheetahs. In order to display the animal’s strength and speed, they brought a large winch sort of thing, with a water bottle attached to the end of the coiled rope. With the press of a button, the winch wound up the rope (like many vacuums used to do with their cords) and the cheetah went sprinting after the bottle. It was amazing to watch her run – they are gorgeous animals.

We got to go into the black leopard cub’s enclosure as well, just before the sky opened up and poured rain. The guests vanished, running for the cover of their cars. Just like that we had the place to ourselves, so Dennis took us into one last enclosure to meet “Milo,” an adolescent white tiger. He was beautiful.

Hanging out with Milo the white tiger

Hanging out with Milo the white tiger

As we were going to leave, we could hear Oslo calling for Milo being that the two are good buddies and sleep together when it’s stormy, so Dennis opened the door and let Milo out.

We walked a white tiger, off-lease, to another enclosure so that he could hang out with his best friend, who is a lion. I can’t make this stuff up.

We stopped by the breeding center on the way out to see the big boys (and ladies). Those cats were massive, and they had that ‘wild’ look in their eye. Walking up and down the fence, stalking passersby. It was a little frightening, but all the more intriguing. And to think, the only thing I paid for all day was gas and food.

It rained all night, so the walk to church Sunday morning was a bit mucky, but I wanted to experience it. The small tin room, regardless of the dirt/partially-carpeted floors, regardless of the fact that the pastor could only afford to buy two candles, regardless of the mud, was alive with energy and lots of singing, dancing and drumming. While I didn’t necessarily agree with the style in which the message was delivered, the pastor did make an interesting point, “You can be angry for a minute…even an hour…but do not be angry all day. Forgive.”

Dancing at church

Dancing at church

Taking turns playing the drum at church

Taking turns playing the drum at church

After all that I saw, experienced and lived here at Botshabelo, I am grateful. I am humbled. I am blessed. But one thing that I most certainly am not is angry. I already miss playing soccer in the hot afternoon sun. I miss coloring with kids. I miss their smiles, their jokes and their laughter. As I said goodbye to Marion and the rest of the family, she gave me a hug and I told her I would come back someday. She said I better, as I “now have a home in Africa.”

Thank you for reading!

If you want to learn more about Botshabelo feel free to visit: http://www.botshabelo.org/

You can also watch the documentary made about Botshabelo here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U05_-w76RDs

As the plane swung low over the cape, a dark rectangle shape appeared in the distant haze – Table Mountain though slightly hidden by lingering smoke drifting from neighboring wildfires into the city, was in sight.

I made it. Phase two, of my adventure. I had always dreamed of coming to Africa and here I was, wandering around Cape Town. I took an afternoon to acclimate and then headed straight out to Robben Island – currently it is a museum and place of remembrance, but it once housed a maximum-security prison and plenty of political prisoners.

Exiting the harbor we were treated to a magnificent view of the Cape Town ‘City Bowl,’ the metropolitan area tucked below Table Mountain and Lion’s Head/Signal Hill (I thought people were talking about a bowling alley for the first 48 hours of my time here). The only comparable experience I had was visiting Alcatraz, but as we approached it became evident that this place is much larger. In fact we boarded buses to zoom around the main sights of the island. I sat next to a man named Itu, who is from Johannesburg, but is planning to quit his traditional business job to start a produce farm. Our tour guide seemed like she was having a bad day, plus Itu’s camera wasn’t working, so Itu and I spent most of the tour reflecting on what we were witnessing and I became the tour photographer.

We passed the lime quarry, where the prisoners were forced to toil for 8+ hours a day; where human beings were reduced to numbers. Today, a pile of rocks lies where the entrance once stood, symbolizing the power of the human spirit and its ability to overcome.

Once off the bus we were able to enter the maximum-security prison and meet our guide, Kgotso, who served seven years on the island for his involvement and affiliation with the ANC and anti-apartheid activities. Kgotso was such a nice guy; he spoke with conviction and charisma. He talked about the terrible things that happened on the island, spending time in the tiny, windowless solitary cells, and then with a sly smile, disclosed the prisoners’ sources of information: “…new prisoners,” he chuckled, “and sympathetic guards, whose names will never be revealed for they trusted us and we trusted them.” Kgotso also played in the Robben Island Football (soccer) League, whose governing council served as kind of a trial run, as those incarcerated knew that someday their time would come to lead this nation.

Inside Robben Island

Inside Robben Island

Walls of Robben Island

Walls of Robben Island

We walked through a maze of tall walls and barbed wire fence into a narrow hallway in a smaller compound. One of the cell doors was open, and a thin mat lay in the corner beside a tiny table. The cell once belonged to the late Nelson Mandela, who served 18 years of his 27-year sentence on the island.

Mandela's jail cell

Mandela’s jail cell

As we approached the gorgeous, modern V&A Waterfront, packed with tourists flocking to its fancy shops and restaurants, the whole experience seemed surreal. The last political prisoners were released from the maximum-security prison in 1991, the same year that I was born.

Clock Tower | V&A Waterfront

Clock Tower | V&A Waterfront

The following day I decided to hike up Table Mountain, the iconic backdrop of an iconic city. It was a blistering hot day, but we set up the steep stone steps anyway. Several hours later I was standing atop Cape Town – on one side the urban metropolis crept up the coast, while clouds spilled over the coastal peaks on the other.

View from Table Mountain

View from Table Mountain

Table Mountain from the V&A Waterfront

Table Mountain from the V&A Waterfront

I wandered around the ‘Gardens’ neighborhood, passing through Company’s Gardens, a sort of park, and the Slave Lodge. Today the lodge is a museum dedicated to remembering the tragedies of slavery, and prompting society to fight ongoing slavery around the world, but it once was the very place where slaves were imported, held and sold (it also later housed the supreme court).

Before I headed out of town to relax near the beach for a few days I awoke at 4am and stumbled outside in the dark, hopping into a shuttle fan before I fell asleep for a couple hours until we reached our destination: Gansbaai – the great white shark capital of the world.

We stepped into a neat, tidy building where a movie was playing on TV depicting Mike Routzen swimming freely with great whites. Photos of Brad Pitt, Orlando Bloom, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, etc. adorned the walls. We would not be doing any free diving today, but rather doing so within a small metal cage attached to the side of a boat.

The swell seemed pretty good sized as we rolled up and down on the way out of the harbor. The boats do not feed the sharks, however they do chum the water – while it seems harmless and in the name of science, nature conservation, etc. I feel as though luring a wild animal to mechanical craft is probably not the best idea. That being said, I have always wanted to see a great white shark up close.

I clambered into my thick wet suit, strapped my snorkel mask on and slid into my section of the cage. The water was ice cold. I’ll admit I was nervous. And shivering.

At the word of the guide we were to release our knees and push ourselves underwater to the bottom of the cage.

“Down!” he shouted. I couldn’t see a thing. The visibility was terrible. Unable to hold my breath very long in the frigid water I popped up.

Several meters out in front of me I saw a fin of a two-meter long great white. Unfortunately that is the only thing I saw due to the poor weather conditions, but I saw one nonetheless.

While I was hoping for more, I can’t complain, as I am very lucky to have even had the opportunity to get in that cage. Having since watched the video of the whole ordeal, the shark actually touched the cage; we still just couldn’t see it. Bottom line, I was able to witness one of my favorite animals, wild in the ocean.

I have been very fortunate and met plenty of amazing people along my journey. One such person is Gavin, a member of room 343 on our Antarctica ship, who so graciously allowed me to crash at his place in Cape Town while he was out of town. There I met Jafrey, a kind man from Malawi, who talked to me about soccer and his life.

Prior to heading to the other side of the country I came back into the city where I met Teriann and Lauren, two cool Australian girls. We hiked up Lion’s Head, which frankly was easier and way more fun than the constant stone steps of Table Mountain. When we reached the top, we sat down and enjoyed the amazing view while talking about travel, South Africa, etc.

South African history is still very recent and very raw. The country still has a lot of glaring problems, mainly due to existing racial tension and inequalities. I am by no means disparaging all of the amazing people I have met here – everyone has been so friendly and welcoming. I would also like to acknowledge that the U.S. has plenty of our own problems, many of which similarly are linked to racial tension and inequalities.

South African is beautiful, gorgeous, stunning. Yet it is broken, divided, blemished. Not unlike many parts of our planet

Sunset Beach

Sunset Beach

.

Though, they don’t call this place the Rainbow Nation for nothing – I have met people from Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Israel, Germany, Zambia, as well as plenty of locals. This place and its people are truly beautiful. I have a hard time picking favorites, but without a doubt this is my favorite country I have been to on my adventure thus far.

I love South Africa.

Sunset Beach

Sunset Beach

The lights flashed to the deep, thumping beat, the crowd entranced by the rhythmic blur of sticks, palms and fists pounding furiously away at drums of all shapes and sizes.

La Bomba is a sort of Argentine Blueman Group, with less entertaining gimmicks, and more original art. They started as a small act, charging 5 pesos (about $ .50) admission to a handful of customers. Today they perform weekly for thousands of people, and while the price has risen (80 pesos today), the vibe remains unchanged.

La Bomba

La Bomba

I met up with a group from the ship – though it had only been two days since we left the boat, it was nice to see everyone again. In fact, a few of us had spent the day wandering around San Telmo, checking out the government palace (which is bright pink), as well as various antique markets. The show was really cool and the crowd was full of energy, cheering and clapping excitedly whenever a particularly favorite tune came on; I even saw a guy who looked like a young Brett Favre.

Casa Rosada

Casa Rosada

I love Buenos Aires. Walking down the warm streets, I felt as though I was back in Rome, or Spain. The architecture is pretty and the food is delicious. The city is massive – even moving about the popular neighborhoods takes time. I spent most of my time in San Telmo (a cheaper, youthful neighborhood), Recoleta (upscale, European feel) and Palermo (artsy, what I deemed the “Capitol Hill” of Buenos Aires).

One morning, I strolled over to the cemetery, famous for its exquisite architecture and lavish crypts. While I noticed some similarities, this cemetery was much more intimate than the one in Santiago – the narrow walkways did not allow cars, and although the backdrop consisted of modern apartment buildings and billboards, the copper statues and stone pillars (some hundreds of years old) seemed to transport visitors through history. I walked around, peering at the different plaques and busts, trying to imagine what some of these people were once like. I even happened upon Eva Peron’s tombstone, a prominent figure in the advancement of women’s rights in Argentina.

Cemetery in Buenos Aires

Cemetery in Buenos Aires

On the way back I found a favorite sandwich place in Recoleta – I think I had a half dozen of them by the time I left Argentina.

Being that I was in the same country as one of the “New Seven Natural Wonders of the World,” I decided that I had to travel all the way up to the Brazilian border to see Iguazu Falls. While the falls themselves are immaculate, the whole operation was unfortunately really touristy, and overly crowded. The best part of the day, however, was when I was about to get away from the crowds and head underneath the falls in boat. Everyone got totally soaked, which was awesome, but to be honest my favorite part was after the boat ride, as I simply sat peacefully on a quiet rock, peering out on the spectacular bit of nature in front of me.

Devil's Throat | Iguazu Falls

Devil’s Throat | Iguazu Falls

I was told to be at the bus at 3:45pm, so I started wandering back around 3:00. Shortly thereafter, I took a peek at the map to make sure I was headed in the right direction and took another look at my phone to check the time.

4:15, it read.

I clicked the phone off and back on.

4:16.

I was baffled. I could have sworn it just said 3:00. There’s no way – maybe my phone froze or got water on it? I wasn’t sure what happened, but what I did know was that Apple was telling me that I was 30 minutes late. I hustled back to the entrance. I halfway decided that even if the bus were waiting for me that I would hop in a cab to avoid being yelled at by those who had been waiting for what now was almost an hour.

I passed through the gates. No sign of the bus, so I hopped in a cab. Just as he turned on the engine I asked for the time.

3:40.

I showed him my phone – that is Brazilian time he replied in Spanish. My phone, though always on airplane mode had somehow added an hour, most likely on the boat when we passed within a few yards of the Brazilian riverbank. I apologized, hopped out of the cab and went back to the entrance – turns out I was five minutes early.

When I returned to Buenos Aires I decided to stay the weekend in hopes that I could find a ticket to a soccer game. River Plate is perhaps the most successful Argentine soccer club, having won 36 league titles. They are also the rivals of the most prolific Argentine club, Boca Juniors.

After confirming with a few different sources I determined that the best, safest way to attend a match is to go through a tour agency. The next thing I know I found myself tromping down the streets in a sea of red and white, the impromptu parade slowing, and then jumbling up behind the first of three security checkpoints.

In regard to safety, away fans are currently not allowed to attend games. Furthermore, security blockades are set up in a three-block radius around the stadium where ticket holders are patted down. That being said, I’m not quite sure who set up the zoning permits for the area, for as much precaution the league takes, someone decided it was a good idea to put a firing range literally across the street from the stadium (a place where water is served only in cups as to prevent fans from using the bottles as projectiles). So after being searched, frisked and scanned into the stadium, loud gunshots rang out as we climbed the worn concrete steps to our seats.

We had arrived plenty early, so fortunately we were seated in the shade. I looked into the empty bowl of white and red seats, which were soon filled. Just before kick off the rowdiest group of fans entered to the beat of drums, while, simultaneously, hundreds of banners of all sizes sprung up around the stadium.

Estadio Monumental Antonio Vespucio Liberti

Estadio Monumental Antonio Vespucio Liberti

Quilmes was the significant underdog, however, they came out quick and strong against the bigger, stronger River Plate. Twice River scored, and twice Quilmes answered.

Four goals and plenty of action, I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to Argentine soccer. Though I did hope that I would be able to squeeze in a Boca Juniors game before I left the continent.

At first I was angry, as I watched the grey question mark blink on the otherwise blank screen. Then I was sad, as I may have lost most of my nearly completed Antarctica blog post. Then, I let go.

There was nothing I could do about the computer as I sat on the bus headed to Mendoza, so I laid back and dozed off. I walked into my hostel, sweaty and tired, when I heard a familiar voice, “Sorry, people from Seattle aren’t allowed to check in here.”

I whirled around to find Ed and Kaylen (two of my friends from the ship) sitting at one of the breakfast tables. After my technological difficulties, it was an awesome surprise.

Being that it is too expensive and highly difficult to fix any sort of technology in Argentina, let alone an Apple product, I chose to wait until South Africa to investigate and enjoy the moment.

Mendoza is much bigger than I imagined, yet it still has a small town vibe. I decided to grab a public bus with two awesome people from the hostel to Norton Winery, one of the largest and highest-end ‘bodegas’ in the area. We were greeted by tall, heavy wooden doors and a group of friendly tourists, who were mostly from Texas. While it may come as a surprise to many, after an afternoon at Norton, I think I actually like wine now.

Old machinery at Norton Winery

Old machinery at Norton Winery

The next day we rented bikes and rode around to a few different wineries and a wine bar. While we started out as a small group from the hostel, we met two other groups of backpackers waiting for the bus, so we joined forces and Ed became the official, unofficial tour guide.

I must admit that my favorite thing I did in Mendoza was go bowling, at the recommendation of my good friend Sean. Though it is located on the main street, it is pretty easy to miss as it is underground. The bowling balls are smaller, and without holes, perhaps slightly bigger than a bocce ball. Everything is manual meaning that you keep your own score, there are mirrors above the fault line and real people running back and forth setting up the pins and rolling the balls back down the alley to you. We went twice – it was that awesome.

Ever since I first put Argentina on my itinerary I had hoped to attend a Boca Juniors soccer match, and on my last day on the continent, I got my chance.

Obtaining a ticket in the legendary La Bombonera is notoriously difficult, thus it didn’t come as much of a surprise when the only ticket I could get through an agency was a lower deck seat by itself. All I cared was that I had a way in.

We made our way through the various security checkpoints and into Section L. The seats were even better than I ever imagined. It was as though I was right on top of the field. As kickoff neared and the stands filled in, I was surrounded by a group of awesome families – they all knew one another and had been sitting in the same seats for years; it reminded me of UW football games. They were so friendly as I told them about my trip and as we talked about soccer. I am very pleased how far my Spanish has come in five months.

The rowdiest group of fans entered the stands behind the goal just a couple minutes before the game started, waving dozens of blue and yellow flags, banging on drums, leaning over the edge of the upper deck and leading the entire stadium in a boisterous rendition of the team’s anthem. They asked me if football games were like this back home.

“Yes,” I replied, “but we only raise one flag.”

Every single one of the 40,000 people in attendance knew every word. A bobbing, humming sea of blue and yellow, anxiously waited behind glass walls and barbed wire – the field reminded me more of a high-security hockey rink, rather than a soccer pitch.

Boca just had a game a few days ago against a team from Uruguay, so they came out a bit conservative in an attempt to slow the game down. In hardly no time at all though, they intercepted a pass and countered, played the ball into the middle and scored.

The stadium went bananas.

The bobbing sea of blue and yellow had erupted into monstrous swell, and the hum of anthem grew ever louder. My new Argentine friends tried to teach me all of the cheers and dances, as the entire stadium bounced in unison. Maybe I just caught River on a bad day, but I found the Boca fans to be much more spirited/wild, yet at the same time more respectful. They didn’t contest every single call. Nor did the incessantly badger the ref. Yet their energy level was unmatched. Unlike sports back home, hardly any of the fans left their seats at halftime.

Boca ended up winning 1-0 and frankly I could not have asked for a better experience. It was everything I wanted, and more. I would love to continue writing about soccer – something about the game and its storied culture fascinates me.

Boca Juniors v. Atlético de Rafaela | La Bombonera

Boca Juniors 1 – 0 Atlético de Rafaela | La Bombonera

The next morning I grabbed dinner with Jared and a few other new friends just before heading to the airport. It hadn’t really donned on me that I was about to say goodbye to Central/South America, a place I had called home since September.

As my cab flew down the freeway, the sky was burning in a sunset of pinks, oranges and reds. The driver weaved in and out of traffic, taking full advantage of the narrow shoulder. And the smell of burning tires wafted through the open window. It was fitting, to say the least, as it reminded me very much of the drive into Granada, Nicaragua nearly six months ago.

Park in Mendoza

Park in Mendoza

South Africa requires passengers to present “proof of onward travel,” which for someone such as myself who is backpacking without a definite plan can be slightly tricky. I purchased a cheap bus ticket, so for all intents and purposes I was planning to bus from Johannesburg to Gabarone, Botswana on May 18th.

However, when I reached the Qatar Airways ticket counter I was informed that typically an international airline ticket is required. All of the horror stories I had read about on various travel blogs flashed through my mind. I explained my situation and stated that I had read online that a bus ticket would do.

The next thing I know I was escorted behind the ticket counter into a back office, boarding pass in hand, to print out my bus ticket in order to avoid any sort of complication at the South African border. There is no chance this would ever fly in the states. I thanked them for their hospitality and headed upstairs to security, where I recognized Mike and Rachel from my Norton winery tour.

The next thing I know I was sipping sparkling wine in the VIP lounge area, having entered as their guest [thank you both for your generosity!].

After a brief stop in Sao Palo, Brazil, I met two nice guys from the Philippines who work on cargo ships – among other things they told me stories of being chased in the Red Sea by pirates. I’ve learned that I enjoy speaking up and just asking people how their day is going because I never know whom I will meet. I wished those two a safe flight back home, and then caught my last connection to Cape Town.

As the wheels touched down on the runway, and I peered out on the surrounding landscape, it suddenly hit me: I made it to Africa.

Antarctica.

A little over a year ago I remember sitting in the dark late one night, looking at a map while building the itinerary I was to submit along with my Bonderman Fellowship application. Starting in Central America, my eyes traced downwards into South America – as my glance moved farther and farther South my imagination grew larger. “Perhaps I’ll hike Cotopaxi” I thought silently to myself. “I wonder what the Galapagos Islands are like?” Once the wheels started turning, there was no stopping them. I was dreaming of far away places, that if I were lucky enough, I would get to see with my own two eyes. “Machu Picchu.” “Patagonia.” My eyes couldn’t keep up with my mind as it danced around the globe. And then I got to the bottom of South America. Just a bit further was a large white mass, distorted/elongated by the map: “Antarctica.” The idea almost seemed too crazy. I didn’t even know if it was possible, but the seed had been planted; if granted this amazing opportunity, I was going to find a way to Antarctica. I skimmed madly through old trip advisor posts and scattered travel blogs. All roads pointed to “Ushuaia” which seemed worlds away at the time. After nearly two weeks of waiting for a ship, I could practically lead a tour around Ushuaia. I even have a good running route mapped out along the water. While the city had really grown on me, I was absolutely giddy walking down to port. As I climbed the gangway onto the Sea Spirit, my dream, a year or so in the making, was ever closer to becoming reality. The ship was amazing – I walked down the hallway of the floating hotel, which I would call home for the next 10 days, and found Room 343. Minutes later one my roommates walked in – Dotan, an awesome guy, who is traveling after seven years in the Israeli army. He is also one of the smarter, more interesting people I have ever met – the man built a personal 3D printer and brews his own beer. Just then, the door popped back open and Gavin, the final piece of Room 343, strolled through the door. Being that there were two beds and one couch bed, Dotan and I immediately picked up our things off the beds and offered one of them to Gavin. “No, no,” he reassured us in a suave South African accent, “Please, I’m fine on the couch.” And that was that, Room 343: a 49-year South African bachelor/banker who lives in Shanghai, a 29-year Israeli engineer/Army captain and me, a 23-year-old kid from Seattle.

Room 343 (Gavin, Me & Dotan)

Room 343 (Gavin, Me & Dotan)

Traveling alone definitely has its ups and downs, but by far one of the coolest parts is the opportunity to meet people you otherwise never would have known. Jon (my English buddy from Ushuaia), for example, roomed with Keith, a hilarious 72-year old Australian who works for a hot air balloon company and played cricket all over the world as a Rotarian. As we felt the ship begin to lurch away from the dock, we ran upstairs to the stern deck to bid Ushuaia farewell. We were on our way. Day 2 was spent entirely at sea, as we had to cross the Drake Passage (the traditionally rough stretch of water between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula). Much of the ship wasn’t feeling too hot, including myself, so I spent the day resting and falling asleep in the various lectures offered onboard (which were really interesting, but lost the battle against the seasickness pills and the long rolling waves rocking the ship to and fro). Being that I didn’t pay for internet on the ship, I decided to take a break from technology (almost) entirely, trading the computer keyboard for a pen and paper. I peeled open my leather journal, which hadn’t seen the light of day since Nicaragua. In the front laid bits and pieces from my study abroad trip. There are plenty of notes in here from the summer of 2012 that if read aloud would sound as if they were written last week:

July 9th – “I came across an interesting quote, ‘Human Beings need dreams the way fish need water’ [note: I have no idea where this quote came from, so if it’s yours, please don’t sue me]. This struck me as interesting because technically speaking, humans don’t need dreams and aspirations to survive, but fish need water to do so. That being said that while we don’t need them to survive, humans need dreams to live. Living is different then purely surviving. Living implies excitement, passion, emotion. Dreams are what evoke such things. Dreams give us something to strive for, to chase.” July 12th – “If we learned anything…Melun is not Milan.” July 22nd – “I’m realizing more and more that I want to write things when I am older.”

It’s interesting how relevant most of my thoughts still are, and even more interesting to see how my thought process has changed. The following morning we set foot on land for the first time. It was a comforting feeling, and a nice change from the constant swaying of the ocean and the previously infinite flat blue horizon line. The South Shetland Islands are a ways off the coast from the Antarctic Peninsula, thus we were not yet into the “land of the ice and snow,” but rather on a greenish, rocky bit of earth, home to tons of chinstrap penguins. I absolutely love penguins after this trip – you can’t watch a penguin waddle around on its stumpy webbed feet and not be happy. That being said, they are much dirtier than the commercial world of National Geographic makes them out to be – I would imagine a penguin covered in feces doesn’t sell too many copies. Nevertheless, we tromped around the smelly island and spent some time hanging out with the little guys. The next day we explored Half Moon Island, as we saw plenty of more penguins, as well as the remnants of an old whaling boat on the shore, which serves as a beautiful reminder of a not-so-distant, ugly past.

Old whaling oil drums

Old whaling oil drums | Deception Island

Water boat from the whaling days | Deception Island

Water boat from the whaling days | Deception Island

That afternoon, we sailed into the protective bay of Deception Island, a kind of crescent shaped land formation that is actually an active volcano caldera. As we disembarked on the beach, a thick layer of steam rose off the water – along with the dilapidated whaling station equipment in the distance, the scene was set for a sci-fi blockbuster.

Deception Island

Deception Island

We followed Phil, a highly entertaining plant pathologist / geologist, turned Antarctic ski guide / climber, up the mountain of volcanic ash. As we reached the top of “Neptune’s Nipple,” we were greeted by a view that can only be described as “epic.” The number one piece of advice I would give to anyone going abroad for any reason is to go in without any expectations. In this case, I didn’t necessarily follow my advice, as I envisioned a flat, white, uninhabited continent; yet here I stood several hundred meters above sea level, looking out at turquoise water lapping at beautiful cliffs, massive mountains and an old airplane hanger. [note: For those wondering, the NFC West rivalry is alive and well even in Antarctica, as I received some feedback from a 49ers fan about my Hawks beanie.] The next morning I woke up feeling the best I have felt in about a week, just in time to hop in a zodiac and cruise around huge icebergs for our first look at the actual continent. It felt like we were in a flooded mountain range (which I guess technically we kind of were), as black and white peaks jutted straight out of the water all around us.

Zodiac & an icerberg

Zodiac & an icerberg

After boarding the Sea Spirit we continued on through Wilhelmina Bay, en route to our first step on the seventh continent, when something caught the captain’s eye. A big spray of mist came hissing out of the water, followed by the massive, dark back of a humpback whale. Another cloud of mist and another back. Then a tail. Then three.

Surrounded by Humpback Whales in Wilhelmina Bay

Surrounded by Humpback Whales in Wilhelmina Bay

We were completely surrounded by a dozen or so humpback whales who appeared to have stopped for a mid-afternoon feast. Suddenly, a familiar voice echoed about the ship. “Everyone, get kitted up. We’re getting the boats out,” Shane said excitedly. Everyone ran to their cabins like kids who were just told they were going to the candy store. A trail of large bubbles surrounded the zodiac next to us, and then two giant dark masses emerged at the surface, mere feet away from our raft, close enough to see the rugged barnacles on their faces/backs. One peered at us, took a breath and then with a slow, powerful flick of its tail dove deep below us into the frigid depths.

Surrounded by Humpback Whales in Wilhelmina Bay

Surrounded by Humpback Whales in Wilhelmina Bay

More Humpbacks

More Humpbacks

The water was still like a mirror, thus you could hear the hiss of the whales’ breaths across the entire bay. Then a low, guttural sound, followed by a distant, higher-pitched trumpet; they were talking to each other. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my entire life. I cannot begin to express how much my respect for nature has grown throughout these past five months.

Gentoo penguin colony

Gentoo penguin colony

Later that afternoon I set foot on the continent for the first time, and man was it special just envisioning where we were standing. I attempted to make a snow angel, but the snow was too icy. That being said, we did make a snowman. IMG_7246 Several years ago in one of my Honors classes at UW, I learned about “watermelon snow,” though I never imagined I would ever see said pink snow, as the algae that causes the color only survives in specific environments. On Day 6, as we were zooming around on a zodiac, the guide pointed out the pinkish slopes – all of a sudden my astrobiology class came rushing back and it hit me: I was experiencing something I had only ever seen in textbooks. It was so awesome.

Adelli Penguins in front of "watermelon snow"

Adelli Penguins in front of “watermelon snow”

Though speaking of awesome, that night, Phil challenged me to think of 26 synonyms for “awesome,” one starting with every letter of the alphabet, for he and several others I’ve met along the way think Americans use the word to much. Perhaps equally as awesome, we also learned that he has a pet fungal colony, named Kiki. While aboard, I tried to work out as much as I could, partly to combat the rich food, but also to enjoy some alone time and reflect. With my headphones in, I peddled, staring directly out on the icebergs passing me by, as the stationary bike rocked to and fro with the movement of the ship. Sometimes I was riding slightly uphill, and then downhill and then back up again – I felt like an Antarctic version of Owen Wilson in You, Me & Dupree when he is “chasing” Lance Armstrong on TV on his bike in the living room. After my reflective bike ride we visited Port Lacroy, an English fort that is now a museum and a gift shop. I told myself I wasn’t going to buy anything but then I saw a tie patterned with the Antarctic tartan. I couldn’t not buy a tie in Antarctica, especially later when I learned that Phil actually had a hand in its creation when he worked for the British Antarctic Survey. When I prodded further, his story began, “It was a drunken night in Wales, and there was a bad Scottish band playing in the bar, wearing plaid kilts…” He maintains that he then helped craft an entire tartan pattern, representing all of the elements of Antarctica, as an elaborate, beer-induced joke. Everyone else seemed to think it was actually a good idea and the rest is history. The sun decided to bless us with its presence the next day, just in time for plenty of leopard seals, icebergs and the Antarctic Polar Plunge.

Leopard Seal taking a nap on an iceberg

Leopard Seal taking a nap on an iceberg

The official temperature of the water that day was 1 degree Celsius. As I walked down the gangway, awaiting my self-inflicted fate, several humpbacks surfaced about some 100 yards off the boat. Yes it was really cold. And yes it was worth it. Especially afterwards when we fit 28 people into the hot tub, eclipsing the previous record of 27.

Gentoo penguin colony

Gentoo penguin colony

The next morning was to be our last on the continent, so we awoke early to hike through a gentoo penguin colony and then up a snow-covered hill to a rocky point overlooking a glacier and Neko Harbor, a calm, dark bay.

Neko Harbor

Neko Harbor

I sat up there for awhile, thinking and reflecting, as a soft snow began to fall and dense fog rolled in. As I thought about how I ended up on the bottom of the world, why I had been chosen for this experience, etc. I kept coming back to the idea of “doing” things when I get home, taking action. I also decided that I want to let go of the little things. Later that afternoon, I was talking to Darrell in the lounge about where he had traveled, where he wanted to go, when an announcement interrupted our conversation. We burst outside just in time to see a pink minke whale breaching perhaps no more than 50 yards from the ship. The next day as we headed out to sea, I felt sick and spent most of the day lying in bed. Fortunately, this gave Dotan and I time to work on a submission to the Antarctic Poetry Contest (which we ended up winning!). I eventually did get up to attend the Antarctic Charity Auction. I almost bid on a bow tie version of the one I had purchased, accompanied by a matching hat, though I had figured I was out of my league; turns out I was right, as I later found out that the winning bid belonged to a seasoned auction veteran…who usually buys horses. I got seasick for the first time ever that day, but fortunately felt well enough to attend Rick’s talk the following morning – the man has filmed great whites for shark week, grizzly bears in Alaska, etc. You name it, he’s done it, so I asked him for some career advice. His response: “Do what you love. And if you push hard enough, doors will open.” At the charity auction, Martin had won the opportunity to steer the ship, and being that we were ahead of schedule, he was going to get to do it around Cape Horn (the piece of land that separates the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans). As we approached the jagged cliff, frosted with a thin layer of green, I realized that I wasn’t ready to move on, to round the Cape. I realized that I was content. Everything about the experience was special, though I didn’t realize how special that moment really was until Shane talked about the first time he rounded Cape Horn with his dad, and how much it had meant to his father. He had read about such a moment hundreds of times, but nothing compared to living it. He then asked us to just listen to a song in peace – Good Riddance, by Green Day began to hum around the still room…”I hope you had the time of your life…” A wave of emotion swept over the crowd; a few tears were shed. It sounds silly, that 10 days on a boat can provoke this kind of raw emotion, but traveling is perhaps the most enriching, enlightening force on the planet – not just seeing something new, but living something new. Our last dinner was delicious, but it was not the food that made it so special. Just before dessert, the entire staff lined up around the room. Waiters, bartenders, kitchen prep, dishwashers, laundry – every single person was there and was introduced one by one; each took a step forward and smiled. It was a magical moment, and hands down the loudest the boat had cheered all week. Yet something inside me, deep down, hurt. I noticed that nearly everyone sitting down at the tables was from North America, Europe, Australia, etc. – “The First World.” And everyone standing was from everywhere in between – Central/South America, Asia, etc. Most of those sitting were of a lighter complexion, while most standing were not. In the year 2015, the Third World is still serving the First, and often doing so with grace. Perhaps this example is a bit extreme, as I realize that not everyone will be able to go on a cruise to Antarctica. Furthermore, I am not saying that everyone ‘sitting down’ should feel guilty, but rather simply that inequality still exists, everywhere, and that we have the power to change that. While some would argue that the festivities that night were not productive in terms of solving such world inequality, I would argue the contrary – people from Canada, U.S.A., Qatar, India, Israel, South Africa, UK, Italy, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, and many more, danced, sang, reminisced on one of the most amazing weeks of our lives, but more importantly, solidified our bonds of friendship. As the night drew to a close, Tom came running into the bar barefoot – he had been asleep when he heard a loud splash outside his window. Four dolphins were zooming up and down the side of our boat, leaving trails of white bubbles in the dark ocean. As they playfully leaped into the air, the lights of Ushuaia appeared in the distance – it was if they were guiding us through the Beagle Channel, guiding us home. I gazed up into the night sky, the Milky Way and the Southern Cross, peering back. While I did my best to tell the story of one of the most incredible 10 days of my life, I don’t know if the most eloquent of words can ever do the beauty of the White Continent justice. Thanks for reading. [note: I apologize for the delay. My computer broke in Argentina, so I am a few posts behind, but it is fixed and I’ll be catching up shortly. On a separate note, thank you to everyone that made those 10 days so amazing. You are all incredible people.] IMG_7285

Far along the left side of the horizon I saw a large greyish, snowy capsule protruding from the surrounding greenish mountain range. Normally this area is known for its long dreary cloud-filled days, but yet again, I had lucked out.

As the bus came around a bend in the shallow turquoise river, the little town of El Chalten revealed itself to us. Wedged in between a steep rock face and a jagged range of mountains, the town itself is very charming. Everything is within walking distance – while it is crawling with tourists, it has somehow maintained the vibe of an authentic mountain town. I settled into my hostel, bought some groceries and then set out for a short hike up to several lookout points.

For the first time in about a month it felt like “summer,” as the heat beat down on my back while I climbed the rocky hillside. At the top, I was greeted by magnificent, stark white mountaintops along with the picturesque townscape.

I sat up there alone for quite some time. Thinking. Dreaming, Letting my mind wander, until I myself wandered back down the hillside and into town.

I had found out the day prior that one of my buddies named Ryan, who is a year younger than me at UW, happened to be in town as well, so I grabbed dinner with him and few interesting international characters he met along the way. I also ran into Nic, from my Torres del Paine team; it was an awesome dichotomy among friends I had lived with for a matter of days in a forest and another I lived with for three years in a city.

The following morning we rented a tent and made our way up to Cerro Torre. The hike was absolutely gorgeous – we walked through a lush valley, surrounded by toothed mountaintops and an unprecedented amount of sunshine.

IMG_6395

We arrived at the lake, which was filled with small icebergs and then made camp for the night to catch the sunrise in the morning. We awoke early and crawled out of our warm sleeping bags into the cold, crisp mountain air. Fumbling around for my headlamp, I gathered up my things and walked down the path to the lake.

Surprisingly, we had the place to ourselves. The sun began to creep over the mountains behind us, casting a beam of light on Cerro Torre and its rocky companions. The peaks began to glow red, reflecting perfectly in the calm water below. While we may have missed such an effect at Torres del Paine, this would definitely do; I have been able to see many amazing things on my trip, but this was hands down one of the most remarkable.

Cerro Torre at sunrise

Cerro Torre at sunrise

We sat there in peace until the red glow had dissipated and the mountains were fully soaked in sunshine. I was able to snag a few more hours of sleep before I decided to branch off by myself on a separate connecting trail to a different hike, which leads to Laguna de Los Tres, below Mt. Fitzroy.

Laguna de Los Tres

Laguna de Los Tres

It was a long day (over eight hours of trekking) carrying a heavy backpack, but the views from the lake were worth it.

View from Laguna de Los Tres

I spent a few more days hanging out in El Chalten – the small town has a sort of Lake Chelan vibe to it as it is plenty touristy, yet it is mostly filled with ‘local tourists.’

I have reached a point in my travels at which traveling has become living; almost five months into my adventure, this lifestyle has become somewhat “normal.” Unintentionally, I started listening to almost strictly Seattle hip-hop/rap about two months ago, as no matter where I am in the world, it brings me right back home. Consequently, I have really grown to appreciate how much talent exists in our city; it’s incredibly inspiring and makes me want to chase my own dreams.

For me, music has re-energized my desire to write. I never stopped loving writing, but as I think more about what I want to do when I get home, my mind had wandered away from writing. Coming into this trip, it is described as “solo international travel,” and while that may be so, lately I hardly ever find myself alone. There are just too many awesome, friendly, outgoing people down here in Patagonia to feel totally alone. While I don’t want to ostracize myself, I do want to make writing (outside of my blog) more of a priority moving forward.

St. Christopher, which ran aground in WWII

St. Christopher, which ran aground in WWII

I have been in Ushuaia, Argentina for nearly two weeks now; when people ask me how long I have been here, I typically respond, “too long.” It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed this town (it is surrounded by lovely mountains, forest and water), there’s just not a whole lot to do.

The first morning in my hostel, I sat down at the breakfast table next to a guy and a girl that looked to be either Canadian or American. I asked them how they were doing and where they were from – “Seattle,” they replied in unison. Turns out they are from Auburn, and Bayly dated one of my friends from high school, Olivia, in college. Small world.

I spent the rest of the day trekking through Tierra del Fuego National Park. It was a great day, full of cool people, good conversation and lots of walking.

Just a couple of Hawks hanging out in Tierra del Fuego

Just a couple of Hawks hanging out in Tierra del Fuego

But just when I thought the world couldn’t get any smaller, I received a message from another Bonderman Fellow who is currently in Santiago, Chile because she randomly met the friends I made while crossing the Ecuador-Peru border way in October!

While I have bounced all around the city staying at different hostels, I found a part-time home at Cruz del Sur hostel. At this point, all of the staff knows my name. I play with the big fuzzy dog everyday. I unfortunately watched the Super Bowl here, lying on the floor in despair after the game. I fell into a decent routine of running/working out, which was a nice change of pace from trekking. And I met some awesome people from all over the world. Though because I have been here so long, I have seen almost all of them come and go.

I made some friends in Ushuaia

I made some friends in Ushuaia

There was a German man, whom we nicknamed “National” for he looked like he came straight out of National Geographic or the Indiana Jones movies. [For the record, he fully embraced his nickname.] There were the English guys, who were hilarious. Two awesome Israeli sisters joined in our adventure through the national park. There was Amanda and Jessica, two sisters from England, and Charlotte, from France, whom we made a delicious dinner with and explored the town.

Last night, Jared my new Canadian buddy, and Marco and Rodrigo, two awesome guys from Brazil, decided to throw an unofficial BBQ at the hostel. Marco and Rodrigo prepared an absolute feast – it was seriously one of the best meals on my trip.

Halfway through dinner, Jared encouraged Rodrigo to make an announcement – apparently hours before, Rodrigo had received word that he had passed all his exams and had officially become an attorney. The small crowd cheered, as Rodrigo humbly thanked everyone.

“We are the United Nations,” Marco joked, as our makeshift outdoor dining room must have represented ten or so different countries.

It was a perfect ending to my time here. I came here looking for a last minute deal to Antarctica, but have made many friends along the way.

Looking back on my time here, if someone to ask why I stayed so long, my answer would be, “for moments like that.”

That…and the fact that I managed to find a boat, and tomorrow, I’m living out my dream and going to Antarctica!

My alarm had entered my dream as some sort of sound, that is, until I was tossed back into reality. Scrambling around trying to locate my phone, I switched off the alarm, rolled out of bed and hustled down to the bus station just before 8am. When I asked what time I could catch a return bus the driver replied “4pm.” When we arrived at Perito Moreno glacier around 10am, I thought to myself, “what am I going to do for six hours?”

I met some nice people from the Czech Republic and another from Buenos Aires. I walked around for a bit, slightly bummed that I was going to miss the start of the Seahawks game, staring out at the mass of frozen water which stretched from the waterline all the way up into the snow capped peaks behind it.

Perrito Moreno Glacier

Perito Moreno Glacier

All of a sudden I heard a loud cracking sound and then a thunderous roar. I sprinted up the stairs just in time to watch a massive shelf of ice tear itself from the glacier and stand still, upright, just for a moment before it imploded and came crashing down.

In that instant, I was again brought back to reality, although this time it was not a piece of technology beckoning me back, but rather a beautiful, powerful display of nature.

I had never seen anything like it. Nice, warm sunny weather had brought with it nature’s demolition crew, so I sat down and enjoyed the show.

Perrito Moreno Glacier

More from Perito Moreno Glacier

It was a bit like fishing, only without the fish…and the rod…and the bait…and the quiet serenity of nature. Loud tourists roamed everywhere, however, I sat there patiently, hoping to hear another booming crack, waiting for another colossal hunk of ice to come crashing down; waiting for a “bite.”

Bruno, my new friend from Buenos Aires, and I spent the remainder of the afternoon talking about traveling, Argentina, sports, finance…you name it, while our conversation was periodically interrupted by another loud pop.

Bus ride to Calafate

As the bus pulled into the terminal in Calafate, I said goodbye to Bruno and hustled down the steps to the main street. I entered a rather artisan-looking pub and inquired about the game.

A slightly disturbing image appeared on the screen – the Seahawks were down 6-0. Minutes later, just after I had ordered a sandwich and a beer, Aaron Rodgers struck again. 13-0.

I remained calm, as there was plenty of game left.

The only other person in the bar that seemed kind of interested in the game was a random German guy, who told me that he pays attention to the NFL back home, but doesn’t necessarily pick favorites. When I told him I was from Seattle, he decided to lend me his support for the evening, which as the minutes ticked by, seemed to be evermore necessary.

As the Seahawks lined up for a field goal, I was starting to get a bit antsy; any points on the board were better than none at all. And then, all of a sudden instead of pinning the tip of the ball into the ground, Jon Ryan scooped it up and took off running for his life, effortlessly tossing a floater into the end zone.

I stood up, pumping my fists into the air. There was hope.

And yet, the rest of the bar paid no attention, remaining fully engrossed in conversation. My new German friend was laughing at the absurdity of what we had just witnessed.

After Russell Wilson’s quarterback keeper, the Hawks were down 16-14 and all hope resided in the onside kick. “Come on,” I said under my breath, “come on.”

The bar had the TV muted, thus I squinted at the ensuing pile of chaos as Coldplay blared in the background, searching for any kind of positive visual confirmation. The pointing of an arm was all I needed. An unheralded backup receiver named Chris Matthews had just made the biggest play of his professional career.

I am always an optimistic fan – I have dreamt about this type of ending for years; whether it was the bottom of the 9th at SafeCo or the 4th quarter at Key Arena or Husky Stadium, I am firm believer that there is almost always ‘enough time.’ Don’t believe me, watch this video.

At this point the Seahawks appeared to be in control. Doug Baldwin was on a mission and Marshawn Lynch was in full ‘Beastmode.’ When Marshawn sauntered into the end zone for the go ahead score, I emphatically mimicked his understated celebration and stood up, silently affirming what had just happened.

But when Luke Willson pulled in Russell Wilson’s desperation 2-point conversation to secure a 3-point lead, I jumped up, shouting, turning around to celebrate with the German guy. At this point, several Argentinians looked up from their drinks in an attempt to understand why some American guy was jumping up and down in the middle of a bar.

As the three Seahawks captains walked out for the coin toss, Tarvaris Jackson (backup QB), Steve Haushka (kicker) and Jon Ryan (punter / once-in-a-blue-moon-QB), confronted by a whole gang of Green Bay’s best players, I was overcome by a similar feeling I described in my last post; at that moment it was these three characters, representing an entire city, against the world.

Spielberg couldn’t have scripted a more perfect ending to one of the craziest games of all-time. When Jermaine Kearse caught that ball in the endzone, I about lost it. This small bar in El Calafate, Argentina, whether they knew it or not (they didn’t) had just witnessed one of the craziest games of all-time.

This team has captivated audiences everywhere, and won the hearts of Seahawks fans around the globe. I’ve watched as many games as I could over the past four months. I could be anywhere in the world, yet each time I found myself in front of a TV watching this magical season, I found myself at home.

While I have stated that my trip has been welcomingly consumed by nature, I cannot help but to be captivated by the immense amount of power that sport has in this world and the unrivaled amount of emotion that it provokes.

What a ride it has been. And tonight, we get to watch these boys play one last time. No matter if you’re in a bar in Pioneer Square, at home on the couch, traveling in the Middle East or at a hostel in the southernmost city on Earth, enjoy this moment. Oh and one more thing:

Go Hawks.

I ducked my head down, pulling my hood over my eyes in an attempt to shield my face from the freezing water being blown off the lake. As my team hunkered down waiting for this intense gust to pass through, the wind picked up Nic’s backpack and tossed it 15 or so feet down the rocks, as effortlessly as one would flick a paper tabletop football.

The instant that the wind quit, our group grabbed our things, took one last glance at the Torres and took off down the mountain.

About a week before this moment, I was sitting on a plane with my face pressed up against the window, attempting to take in the majestic surroundings. I was finally in Patagonia, well above it anyway, a place as legendary as any.

The sun had been setting for about an hour; its blend of reds, yellows, blues and oranges illuminated the west side of the plane, while I peered out my window onto the deep navy blue water and the dark Earth that seemed to have morphed into one. Clouds melted into snow-capped peaks, and then jutted outward, creating ranges of their own. I sat next to a man named Francisco, from Punta Arenas – I asked him what it was like living in Patagonia.

“Cold,” he replied with a smile, “but it’s worth it.”

On my bus ride from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales, we passed fields of light, twisted trees, as well as majestic mountains that seemed to appear out of nowhere. The wind is so intense, so unforgiving, down here that it causes trees to grow crooked. Entire forests look as if the wind is blowing the treetops over; you wait for the wind to stop, half expecting the tree to stand upright and regain its “normal” shape, but it just never happens.

Puerto Natales is a small town solely thriving off of tourism from nearby Torres del Paine National Park. After I arrived in town around noon, I ran a few errands before attending the “3pm Talk” at Base Camp (a pub/rental shop started by two brothers from Oregon). As I entered the pub, I peered around looking for a friendly-looking group.

“Grab a chair,” a kind South African accent said. The bearded man stretched out his hand, “I’m Nic. This is Andy and Rebecca,” he added, gesturing to the two others sitting at the table.

“Thank you,” I said, as I graciously took a seat. We made small talk – turns out that none of them knew each other (that they had met at a hostel) and were planning on leaving tomorrow to do a 5-day ‘W’ hike of Torres del Paine, which was exactly what I was hoping to do.

Nic casually mentioned that we would need to figure out supplies, gear, etc. as soon as the talk was over.

“Is that an invitation?” I asked, rather boldly. “Of course!” They answered.

And just like that we were a team.

Nic is an accountant in “real life,” thus he immediately began making lists of everything we needed to rent/buy and taking an inventory of important items that we already had. Shortly thereafter we began rushing around town to get food, boots and other necessities. Once we had all of our gear, I took my share of the weight and headed back to my hostel to pack.

Close to midnight, the hostel owner told me that I would need to clear everything off the table in about 10 minutes, as it was almost curfew. At first I was angry – who was he to tell full-grown adults what time they had to go to bed? And then when my stuff wouldn’t fit in my bag, I broke down.

Once he recognized my slight despair, his attitude totally changed. He offered me a little more time; he spoke in a softer, kinder tone and suggested that I wake up early to finish. I agreed and tried to get some sleep.

I awoke early, reorganized my bag, this time strapping my sleeping back to the outside, grabbed a bite to eat and set off for the bus station. I arrived a little early so my mind was left to wander as I stared out the window on the drizzly landscape. I thought about the possibility that if my team didn’t show up for whatever reason then I would be left without a tent or a stove; fortunately, they did show up and off we went.

Several hours later, as the unrelenting wind and freezing rain whipped me in the face, as we climbed a steep hill en route to the campsite of Refugio Grey, each carrying backpacks weighing somewhere between 30-40 lbs.

“Why the hell am I doing this?” I thought silently to myself. And then, suddenly we reached the top of this particular hill, the rain decided to take a break, and I found myself staring out onto crystal blue water and the face of massive glacier. We stopped for a quick water break, filling our bottles directly from a stream of some of the best, cleanest water in the world.

Apparently my question was rhetorical.

We made camp and then somehow convinced our tired legs to trudge farther up the trail to get a better view of Glacier Grey before dinner. On the way up the rain from earlier had turned into a light snow, yet in that moment, free from our backpacks and full of adrenaline, I think we could have walked through a blizzard.

Glacier Grey

Glacier Grey

In terms of experience, I am a camping amateur. I remember the time my brother and I went camping with the Vanderwalls, and the time my grandpa accidentally toasted the sole of my shoe like a marshmallow, when he was trying to dry them by the fire. [Grandpa you are the man. I love you very much.] Therefore, I even found the whole process of cooking by way of a tiny stove fun. I mostly ate peanut butter sandwiches and trail mix for lunch and breakfast, thus we always looked forward to hot pasta, which we spiced up in different ways, each night for dinner.

Fortunately as darkness began to set in, the sky cleared and the wind died down. Hoping for good weather, we drifted off to sleep.

Day 2 was definitely harder than Day 1 as we had to back track down the mountain, past our starting point and then onward to Campo Italiano (a free campsite at the base of the middle section of the ‘W’). My whole body hurt, but fortunately, the sun had come out!

Under clear blue skies the hike was beautiful. “Just beautiful,” according to my notes.

Months ago, when I was on Ometepe, sure I wanted to summit that volcano, but I wasn’t opposed when the guide advised us to turn back due to weather, lack of proper boots, etc. as I wasn’t very keen on an eight hour hike. We walked 8+ hours this fine day carrying our packs and while it was difficult, we did it. I am realizing things like this are the result of change that I was told would occur, but that is intentionally impossible to recognize and quantify while in process.

TDP trail

Our team is so awesome, which also helps a lot. I could not have asked for a better group to take me in. Everyone is very supportive of each other, and unlike plenty of other makeshift groups we have encountered everyone gets along.

We woke up later than anticipated to more sun and more blue skies, so we decided to get moving. Day 3 brought us through Valle Francia (middle stem of the ‘W’), and up to Campamento Britanico, a beautiful lookout surrounded by mountains and an epic view back down the valley.

Atop Campamento Britanico

View from atop Campamento Britanico

Starting the day without packs helped conserve energy so that by the time we packed up and made our way to Cuernos, my body felt good. We made great time, and on top of everything, I ran into a guy from Ballard, but went to school in Wisconsin who told me that the Packers had won – the stage was set for the NFC Championship.

Though Day 4 was the longest of our days, it was my favorite. In a region that typically experiences “all four seasons in a day,” we had lucked into three straight days of sun. We walked along a ridge that looked out over yet another gorgeous lake that seemed to stretch from one end of the ‘W’ to the other. It was truly one of the most unbelievable views I have ever witnessed.

Lago Nordenskjöld

Lago Nordenskjöld

We made an addition to our “family” that day after running into Ryan from Des Moines, Iowa. He’s a cool guy who, although is only 22 years of age, has trekked, climbed and guided all over the world, making him the ideal person for Rebecca to run into, as she wanted to continue on after the ‘W’ and do a circuit around the park (aka the ‘O,’ again due to its rough shape).

More from Lago Nordenskjöld

More from Lago Nordenskjöld

When we reached the intersection of the ‘W’ trail and that which runs down to the hotel, two very different worlds collided. Here we were about four hours into our hike, carrying our lodging, food and clothing on our backs, having showered once in four days, coming face to face with a very clean woman, done up in a ton of makeup, talking on her cellphone.

Plenty of backpackers complain about these types of tourists, claiming that they take the easy (and expensive) way out, though I have learned that everyone has a different style of traveling. Backpacking and sleeping in tents is not for everyone. Some argue, including Yvonn Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia clothing, says there is no substitute for actually going into the Patagonian wilderness. I would argue that as long as the party is respectful there is something to be learned either way; in fact, I found some of these luxury travelers to be more respectful than plenty of my fellow backpackers.

Thankfully we were not concerned with disrespect, for our team had really come together. We took a break on a pretty riverbank to relax a little bit; we had made record time up to Campamento Torres, our final campsite. It’s funny, at some point each day, some part of me (normally my feet) would protest this absurd amount of exercise, until they realized that they had no choice but to continue. Each and everyday, just before I felt like I couldn’t go on any longer, we reached camp.

Although I was exhausted, we had arrived so early that we trekked up to see the Torres in person. They were stunning. A massive wall of stone borders the far end of the lake, peaking straight up into the sky.

The only notes I have for Day 5 are as follows:

“Long.”

Short, sweet and unfortunately accurate. We got up at 3:30am to make the hour long hike in the dark up a steep mountain, to see the Torres at sunrise. We made it up, settled in and a caught a glimpse of beauty just before a massive, dark cloud smothered the sun. A light rain began to fall, just as I saw a wall of wind pick up on the far side of the lake that began to move steadily towards us.

Torres del Paine at sunrise

Torres del Paine at sunrise

It was at this point I ducked my head as the wind had its way with us, showing no regard for human (or backpack) life.

When we arrived back at camp, the weather settled down, allowing us plenty of time to break down our tents one last time. Just before we were ready to leave, Ryan notified us that he had blueberry pancake mix that he “had been trying to get rid of.”

Without hesitation we unpacked the necessary cooking utensils, and moments later, on top of a mountain in one of the most remote parts of the world, we were eating hot blueberry pancakes.

The walk down to the hotel where Nic, Andy and I would catch the bus back to town was long, hot and at times slightly scary. While the clouds dissipated, the wind blew with such force (upwards of 50 mph) that multiple times I had to sit down on the trail, trying to hide my face from the ensuing sharp cloud of dust.

We eventually made it, and when we did, our team sat down to enjoy a nice cold beer together.

We had walked roughly 50 miles over five days, and we became a family along the way. Although we had only known one another for a matter of days, after accomplishing something like this a bond is formed. I know that I am welcome in Chicago, South Africa and England, just as my new friends know that they are more than welcome in Seattle.

On that last night, I stayed up talking to Andy about all kinds of things, mostly differences between the US and the UK and sports. It was at that moment that Andy, who had always taken an interest in the NFL, decided to begin rooting for the Seahawks.

I excitedly began telling him all about the team, different players, etc. It made me realize how much joy such a simple game brings me, along with the rest of my city.

The Seahawks play with a chip on their shoulder, not only for themselves, but as if for all the times Seattle has been neglected or written off by the rest of the country. For those wondering, I was able to catch the NFC Championship, but I’ll save that story for another day.

The squad (from left to right): Me, Rebecca, Nic & Andy (sorry Andy)

The squad (from left to right): Me, Rebecca, Nic & Andy (sorry Andy)

[note: Shoutout to Team Holysh*t – an endearing phrase that we discovered can be used to describe fear, amazement, joy and confusion. Thank you for taking me in. You guys are awesome. Safe travels!]

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