Culture Shocked!!!

One day I found myself in a small town in northern Ecuador eating lunch for one dollar in a dirty, little local restaurant, trying to decipher what type of meat I was eating.  A couple days later I found myself eating shrimp cocktails and drinking champagne in a morning suit at a wedding in Great Britain.  After spending nearly the last year of my life living on only the most basic necessities of life, living and traveling in Central and South America, I jumped at the chance to attend two family weddings in both Wales and England.  I’ve done a lot of traveling in my life in third and first world countries, but I have never experienced such an outrageous contrast in culture before.  Let me give you some examples….

Clothing

After living out of a backpack for a long period of time things like wrinkles, funny smells and holes in my clothes were an everyday occurrence.  Doing laundry isn’t always easy or possible so what I like to call the ‘Smell Test’ becomes a regular activity.  This is when you simply smell articles of clothing in your backpack to determine their cleanliness.  When everything is dirty you have to determine what appropriate level of smelly is okay for certain activities.  For example, if I am simply going on a hike with my friend I will wear my smelliest shirt because I am bound to sweat and make it bad anyway.  On the other hand if it’s possible I’m going to meet some chicks at a beach or bar I obviously try and pick the least smelly shirt. My parents brought a suitcase full ‘England Appropriate’ attire with nice, ironed dress shirts and adequate underwear for every single day of the week. With enough clothes and a washing machine in the next door room it wouldn’t even make sense for me to wear the same shirt two days in a row. So  you can imagine my embarrassment when without thinking I found myself smelling the armpits of a dress shirt I wore to a party the night before thinking ‘this isn’t so bad, I could wear this again….’

Food

When you order chicken in London you are given a nice clean breast or thigh.  Ordering chicken in a small mountain town in Colombia you might find yourself with a soup containing a clear broth, a heap load of internal organs and some chicken feet.  How you are supposed to eat the talons of a chicken continues to bewilder me, but this is not the point.  The food in general is much more raw in Latin America, it’s not rare to see dead (or alive) animals just lying on a table outside a restaurant, ready to be cut up or slaughtered for your order!  For this reason and the fact that cheese in Latin America tastes like milk flavored rubber, you can imagine my excitement for some good European food.  Eating brie and bacon sandwiches on a regular basis, never have I felt such an appreciation for rich food before!

Money

When I’m looking to go out drinking for a night in Ecuador, I usually just bring $10 with me.  This should usually be MORE than enough for drinks, food and perhaps a late night snack of some sort.  Going out to in London I found myself spending at least $60 per night on drinks and entry fees alone.  It’s difficult to get used to a couple nights out costing more than an entire week of living expenses in your home country. This made me realize even more why so many people from poorer nations will never, ever have the chance to travel, because it’s just such an outrageous gap in prices!

Luxury

When you are used to sleeping in a hostel room with 9 other strangers, taking cold showers and using a bar of soap as shampoo a normal hotel room seems like a castle.  My first night in a hotel I felt like a king.  After embarrassing myself asking my parents if it was safe to drink the tap water, I found myself just standing under the hot water using all the little soap, shampoo and conditioner bottles I could get my hands on.  Everything just felt so clean and my bed with multiple pillows and zero chance of bed bugs gave me the best night sleep I’d had in quite some time.

What did I learn?

Living the lavish life after so much time with just the basic necessities was a very valuable experience.  I realized how much more I appreciated the simple things after having lived without them.  Before my time in the third world, being excited for hot water or being able to drink out of the tap was completely non-existent.  I took so many things that many people would consider luxuries for granted.  When I’m back home in the US I often find myself wishing I had more things.  Like driving my older car wishing I had something newer, it’s easy to desire the plethora of luxuries our country has to offer.  What’s cool about living without them for a while is that now I truly appreciate how awesome it really is to have a car. I’ve spent more hours than any human being ever should on bumpy buses and just any car would be such an amazing improvement.  Appreciate the things you have, no matter what they are!

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Am I Doing What a 26 Year Old Should Be Doing?

Buenos Noches

Today marks the day of my 26th birthday in this beautiful, strange and awesome world.  As I write these words I am watching the sun set behind a volcano over the surreal Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.  If someone told me as a kid that this is where I would be spending the 26th anniversary of my birth, I would have been very confused and wondered how and why this was going to happen.  Funny enough, I am still pondering those same questions, how did I end up here?  What factors in my life influenced me to become infatuated with traveling to strange lands, meeting new people and exposing myself to different things on a daily basis?  Am I doing what I should be for a typical 26 year old American male?

What are some of the things that people consider to be important for someone my age?

  1. Career – Well simply put I don’t have one of these.  In fact I’m currently unemployed besides doing a little travel writing on the web for small amounts of cash.
  2. Relationship – I find it hard to stay in the same city for more than 6 months without craving new adventures, try explaining that to a significant other….
  3. Possessions- Everything I currently own is probably worth less than the computer you are reading this on and if I can’t fit it into my backpack I don’t really need it.
  4. Education- I have a bachelor’s degree in Business, but my last job was teaching foreign kids English in Panama.  However, I can honestly tell you that I’ve learned more from traveling than I did in my 4 years of University.
  5. Experiences- Well I’ve traveled to 43 countries, have friends all over the world and should probably write a book I have so many stories.

So Alex let me get this straight, you’ve got no job, no girlfriend, a backpack full of cheap crap and smelly clothes, you aren’t using your expensive college degree and you justify this because you’ve traveled a bit…  Is it really worth it?

This is WHY I Travel!

I remember an activity I did in elementary school with my class where we had to create a timeline of what we thought our life was going to be like in the future.  My timeline and the majority of my classmates consisted of your typical, college – job – marriage – house – kids – retire.  No one mentioned things such as visit a new continent or learn a new language or climb a mountain.  Why is that?  What would the teacher have done if my timeline had looked something more like this:

College – Boring Office Job – Teach English in Thailand – Travel SE Asia – Bartend in a Brewery – Travel Eastern Europe – Start a Hangover Helping Business – Teach English in Panama – Go to Spanish School in Guatemala – Travel South America – ?????

Mornin’ Lake Atitlan

In all honesty the teacher would have probably handed back the assignment and told the student to be a little more realistic.  This is what frustrates me about the expectations placed on young people in the USA these days.  There’s this unnecessary pressure to jump into a career as quickly as possible before we even really know who we are or what we want to do.  Deciding what we want to do for THE REST OF OUR LIVES is an extremely important decision and not to be taken lightly.  Why not try a variety of things, travel around a bit, see different ways of life and experience the world before taking a decision on what to dedicate life to?

To answer the question of whether this lifestyle is worth it, my simple response is HELL YES it’s worth it.  The single most important reason why is because for this brief period in my life I am truly experiencing ultimate freedom.  While FREEDOM is a frequently used term in our great “Land of the Free, Home of the Brave” take a step back and analyze your life to see how free you actually are.  Ask yourself this question.  If your best friend offered you a one-way ticket to a country half way round the world tomorrow to go live for an indeterminate amount of time with them, could you accept their invitation?  The answer is probably no.  There are a number of factors that would inhibit your ability to just leave this world tomorrow for an adventure.  The most obvious reason is your job.  Even if you have money in the bank, you can’t risk losing your job in an economy like this one.  You probably have an apartment or a house that you need to sell or sublet.  That house is probably full of furniture, a TV, and lots of other things that you don’t really need.  You may have car payments, credit card debt, student loans that need to be paid off.  A spouse or girlfriend wouldn’t be too happy if you just took off one day… Maybe you have a dog, cat or even children that need to be taken care of.  Beyond material things what about expectation from your parents, peers or even yourself?

Steamin’ in a Volcano

Now in no way am I saying that having these things is a negative thing and to be honest, besides the debt, I intend to have all of these things eventually.  Just not right now…  In the brief window where you are old enough to take care of yourself, but young enough not to have a lot of the things mentioned above this is a time when you can experience this ultimate freedom.  Not until you journey across the ocean and cut yourself loose to truly experience what the world has to offer doing absolutely WHATEVER you want free from expectations, judgments and responsibilities can you really get to know who you are as a person.  Slowly the closet full of clothes, TV, car and shoe collection become unimportant and your realize you only need a few bare essentials to survive.  This is a humbling lesson in our materialistic world and one that you will never learn in a book, lecture or movie.  As I reflect on my mere 26 years of life I am astounded where my journey has taken me.  Never in my wildest dreams would I have foreseen the wild adventures, awesome friends and strong lessons I have learned in this crazy life.  Thanks world for a hell of a ride, I’m stoked to be 26, what will this next year bring???

Written by Alex Vere-Nicoll

Lessons in Philosophy and the Importance of Talking with Strangers – A Trip to Nicaragua

Some people spend copious amounts of time planning their vacations.  From things to see, places to eat and activities to do, making a plan for what to do in a foreign country seems like a fairly standard and normal activity.  For better or worse I am not one of these people.  In fact I’ve been living in Panama for the last 6 months of my life entirely based upon the idea that the country looked cool on a map!  Now, Panama only allows foreigners 6 months stay in their country.  After that you must exit the country for at least 3 full days (72 hours) before you return.  Some people find this a hassle, but I think it’s awesome!  It’s basically like a mandatory international vacation!  Can you imagine if your boss in the US forced you to leave the country every 6 months, how cool would that be!?  To maximize my “mandatory vacation” I selected a long weekend and asked for two days off of work to renew my visa.  I had no real plan for the time off, I was just going to take a bus north to Costa Rica and chill on a beach somewhere.  The day before I was about to leave a familiar feeling passed over me and I had an impulsive itch to check out a completely new country.  I researched flights to Honduras and Nicaragua which were both reasonable and the same price.  As I knew absolutely nothing about either country I asked a couple friends which they would choose, but getting conflicting advice I left it up to a coin-flip.

Granada, Nicaragua

Chillin by myself on the plane to Nicaragua with a curious smile on my face I realized that I had absolutely no plan what-so-ever for when I landed.  Not only did I not know how to correctly pronounce the capital city in which I would be landing shortly, but I was also advised to avoid it because it is very dangerous. Also, not knowing the name of a single other city, tourist attraction or hotel in the whole country I had no idea what I was going to tell a taxi or bus that crossed my path on that random Thursday. Thoughts were racing through my head like “Could I really just say ‘take me somewhere cool’ to a cab driver?”  Luckily it didn’t come down to that as good fortune was on my side.  A pretty Nicaraguan girl was placed next to me on the flight so I practiced in my head a couple of times what I would say to her in Spanish then struck up a conversation.  Although I was secretly hoping that she was a Nicaraguan princess fond of blue-eyed gringos and would invite me to her castle atop a volcano for the weekend, when she told me of a cool city by a lake called Granada I was happy all the same.   After short taxi ride to a ghetto bus station in Managua I found myself the lone gringo on an unbelievably hot bus on the way to a city I’d never heard of in my life.  Some friendly young, hungover Nicaraguans started chatting me up on the bus in English, telling me they were from Granada, knew the cheapest places to stay and could take me out for the night.  Amazed by the kindness of these people and at my random good fortune I was given a sweet tour of the city, friends and some pretty girls to chat with over beers for the evening.  Even if I had all the time in the world to plan this Nicaraguan vacation I don’t think it could have turned out as well as it played out!

Peace Nicaragua

There is a lot to be said about this method of travel or this method of living for that matter.  Of course you can’t always just leave life up to chance and fate, but how often in our busy lives do we allow for randomness.  Seriously, how often do you well and truly have absolutely no idea what you are going to do, where you are going to go and who you are going to meet for a given day?  Of course it can be difficult, scary and lonely at times, but there is also a raw, underlying feeling of awesomeness and adventure when you take just go with the flow and see what happens! As the late John Lennon put so eloquently, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”  How true is this piece of advice?  When you reflect back on the better experiences in life how often are they sporadic moments rather than planned ones?  Now I’m not saying you have to take this outlook on life as far as I have, but just open yourself up to it every once in while.   The best way to start is talking to random strangers.  I know that since we were kids we were raised not to do this, but you never know what opportunities could present themselves from just a brief chat.  Who knows, maybe that person will be your significant other one day or maybe they will invite you to a castle on top of a volcano in Nicaragua!!!

Written by Alex Vere-Nicoll

3 Days With NO WATER!??

Although a visitor to Panama City might notice its resemblance to a US City such as Miami with a huge modern skyline, plethora of fast food restaurants and American style Malls, this city is far from it.  Never in all my travels have I experienced the unreal phenomenon that occurs in Panama where the water is just completely shut off to an entire capital city for days in a row.  The reason for this is that a metro is being constructed and apparently there is no way to build this subterranean train system without depriving the 1.5 million people of water for the entirety of their weekends?  The longest of these “dry spells” was last weekend where the water was shut down for a full 3 days and nights, let me share my experience with you….

Perhaps one too many of everything!

The tale starts on a Thursday evening before a David Guetta concert in Panama City.  The anticipation to see the currently #1 DJ on earth was high and my Panamanian concert crew purchased the necessary libations to truly experience this crazy party.  After mixing nearly every type of alcohol known to man like, a 17 year old on Prom night, my crew (-1 who partied a little too hard and fell asleep before the concert even started) cruised over to the Figali Convention Center which more resembles a giant warehouse than a concert venue.  After an incredible night of thumping house music, dancing robots and lasers I stumbled my way to a cheeseburger stand for a 5am snack before I made my way to work educating the children of Panama only an hour later with no sleep and not even having enough time to jump in the shower.  After 8 hours of kids screaming at me and running around while I try to keep my eyes all the way open, one of the hardest days of work I’d ever had finally ended and I collapsed on my horribly uncomfortable mattress in my un-air-conditioned, dirty little apartment.  I woke up briefly for a cereal dinner and although I was warned that there would be no water the next day I was too depleted to care or even take a shower so I laid back down next to my fan and went back to dreamland.  When I woke up the next morning finally feeling like a human being again I placed my head in the sink to rehydrate myself only to hear a slight hiss and not even a drop to cure my desert like tongue.  Kind of wanting to cry a little bit, but knowing it’s not worth it because my body needs the water I realize that I will be unable to have a lengthy “Gentlemans Moment” on my bathroom throne as there is no possibility of flushing the toilet which won’t make the bathroom a great place to hang out for me or the two pretty girls I share it with.  Trumping out into pouring rain thinking about the irony that the outside world has far too much water and the inside has none yet no one has tried to capitalize on this idea I bought some bottled water and used a casino bathroom.  Eventually I realized I must exit this loud, crowded, waterless city so two friends and I jetted off to the nearest beach in hopes of showers, beaches and a little tranquility.  After an hour speeding through the rain we arrived in the late afternoon on a grey gloomy beach, but the cheap hotel room we found had HOT water so it was such a vast upgrade it was utter paradise.

Everybodys going surfing...

The following day we were blessed with a gorgeous sunny day (rare in the Panamanian rainy season) and I decided to try my hand at surfing for the first time in my life.  Determined to pick up the sport as quickly as possible and with a Mohammed Ali like mentality I rented a foam top long board recommended to me by the surf chick and took off into the sea.  Although being warned that a tricky rock break was the only place available to surf in the morning I did my best Baywatch style run into the choppy ocean and pretended like I knew what I was doing.  Now it needs to be noted here that I grew up in the mountains of Colorado and know virtually nothing about waves, surf etiquette or the ocean.  As I paddled my way out to where the other surfers were, trying to look as tubular as possible, I repeatedly embarrassed myself getting tossed around by the waves and onto a jagged rock bottom cutting up my feet.  Eventually I managed to fumble myself onto the board and catch a wave only to ride it way too far in and smash into some rocks, breaking the tail fin and costing me $20 with a look of shame from the other surfers.  Spending a solid 5 hours or so in the ocean, not really improving a whole lot but giving it all I had, I eventually found myself cruising back to the city, horribly sunburned as usual with sand in every orifice of my body.  Whispering silent prayers to myself that the good lord would please provide my apartment with just enough water to wash my body, I finally returned to my apartment.  Mortified to hear that not only is there no water on Sunday, but the following day would also be waterless the only redeeming event that occurred was that all schools in the city were forced to close so I would not have to work the following day.  To top it off a massive plumbing problem in my apartment has rendered my washer useless, so the first weekend I entrusted the entirety of my sheets and clothing to some trusty Chinos to wash for me upon my return from the surfing adventure, turned into an epic failure.  The washing place was closed so I was stuck in the same smelly, sandy clothes for yet another day.  Borrowing some raggedy old sheets from a roommate and attempting to lay in my bed in pain due to sunburns encompassing the entirety of my back and torso combined with a large “surfer’s rash” on my stomach from the surfboard, I laid on the only side that didn’t cause pain and thought to myself “Why the hell am I in Panama again?”

Sometimes you're up sometimes you're down!

To answer this question is to get to the root of my philosophy and reason for why I choose to live a life of adventure rather than comfort.  My intentions abroad are not to simply see as many beautiful places as I can, take a lot of pictures and return to a normal life back in the United States.  I want to experience what life is like for someone living in a different country all the good and all the bad.  Whether that be enduring days without water or spending a weekend on the most gorgeous desert island imaginable I do this just to try something new.  I’m not trying to bring all the comforts of home to a new country and stay in nice hotels, have air-conditioning and regular running water.  I’m going to live just like the average Panamanian guy you see walking down the street for better or for worse.  Only then can you truly understand and appreciate a different way of life and be thankful for how awesome you really have it back home.  I already know that when my time calls to return to the comfortable living of the United States it will take less to make me happy than it did before.  Simple things like a hot shower and comfortable bed will be far better than they were before and never again will I take any of the small luxuries we have in the States for granted.