11 January 2019

What's it Been Like for My First Year of Travel - Part Two

Current Location: Peru
Next Location: Likely, Southern Argentina

“If you’re twenty-two, physically fit, hungry to learn and be better, I urge you to travel – as far and as widely as possible. Sleep on floors if you have to. Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them – wherever you go.” 
– Anthony Bourdain

So yeah... 2018 was trial run. Now its time to get serious. And to do that, I have to learn some things, Spanish being chiefest. I'm getting better. I'd say 20% of the Spanish language is familiar to me. I need to work on deciphering the actual words I hear, my Spanish vocabulary, and how to say things in proper tense. Somehow... I have to get used to Peruvian Spanish. I was horridly amazed that I couldn't understand even the basics of words I know already. I feel like I was given all the wrong study material for the test. Fortunately, I have two months here.

Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

Beyond that, I'd say I still have to learn to budget better. I've got to get better with my money and accounting for expenses. Ironically, in my previous profession, I could track millions of dollars and account for the nearest $10. Variable expenses seem to get me the most, but I need to be better at finding deals as well as reducing a compulsion to fly when I can take a bus for a tenth of the cost.

(Whoa...that reminds me... 
Gotta go do this check-in for tomorrow's flight to Lima real quick...) 

I tend to stay in private rooms with private baths in hotels or hostels, but maybe some AirBnB or homestays can be smarter. I'll be checking into this and using these next two months in Peru to talk to other travels and find out how to be better at doing this. Lima's going to be a good spot. Feb and March are going to be interesting. More on that later. Still planning for Patagonia in late March/April time-frame. Gotta get that figured out quickly, as well. It could be smart to trade out all my camera batteries and SD cards before then... that thought just came to me.

Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

Focus and Discipline would be other objectives for my most immediate concerns. I can do better with my studies and training. This will in turn help me find and see the opportunities around me and thus, I can put myself in more advantageous positions that achieve my goals. Oh yeah...I got things to do when this journey is done.

San Pedro, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

But here are the things I HAVE learned, (though still a work in progress...)

1. Its Cool to Take a Break and Do Nothing.
This was the first thing I had to learn. Up to this point, its been either stay busy or try to stay busy. Having nothing on the table or scheduled events was not anything I'm used to. In the Army we'd have a DONSA... Day Of No Scheduled Activity. On these days we'd get a normal day of duty off and could spend that time doing whatever we wanted. But usually, it was still staying busy, just not at work. If you got a day off, you got busy at home. There was always something to do or fix. When I got to Xela, Guatemala in the apartment I was renting, I got to be alone and really on my own. It took me a while to not feel guilty or wasteful of time to just chill. Its good for the mind.

Punta Gallinas, Colombia

2. Nobody Can Live Your Life For You.
I turned 50 this past August. I wanted to make some resolution to myself and the first of which was that I wanted to care less about what other people thought about me. Let me clarify. I've seen a whole bunch of people getting off social media to get more quality time in their lives. I think that's a uniquely fine notion to adopt. For me, I think more quality to life is added with less time considering what other people are going to think about me if I do something or don't do something. From my perspective, people think about you less often than you think. And those that do, when they do so with judgement, are fickle so they don't matter. Leave'em be. All you can really do is YOU. Do you. Be you. Er'body else can go live their own lives and NOT your's.
The question you can ask yourself is, "Does it really matter what they think?"

Christmas, Mompiche, Ecuador

At this point, the only real people that can hurt me are the ones I let stay close and it does happen. But I keep that door open, anyway instead of closing up and keeping everyone out. I find that its less preferable to be a stone-cold bitch. And as we used to say in the Army... pain is what lets you know that you are still alive. Besides, a little pain every now and again only helps you fine tune your choices of inner circle membership. So, WIN! And no, that doesn't mean you spend your time whittling down your circle. Too many people are too quick to do that.

New Year's, Santo Domingo, Ecuador

3. If You Want to Get to the Right Answers, You May Need to Take a Second Look at the Questions You're Asking.
Sometimes this has to do with specificity, but more often than not, its going to be more about perspective. I'm sure you've seen that one meme that is a paragraph of self-loathing, but when you read the same words in the paragraph it becomes a motto of self-realization and confidence. I've had to step back a few times and re-examine why I kept coming up with the wrong solutions and all it took was a different perspective on the questions I was asking. Ask more specifically or change your perspective a bit. Changing perspectives will change your expectations and you won't be surprised with the conclusions.

This is a bible verse from Leviticus 19th Chapter, Verses 33 and 34:

"When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God."

Everybody you see in these shots did exactly that. I am a foreigner in their lands and I cannot even begin to articulate to you the hospitality I have been shown by them. I have been welcomed in their homes, sat and ate with them, given guidance and counsel, a bed, trusted with their families, and I cannot thank them enough for showing a sojourner how people are to act when you come their country and I am forever grateful.

Indeed, I am a work in progress. And you get to see me develop, experiment, try and fail... all the nasty with all the achievements. I hope you enjoy this ride. I want your questions. I want your input. Most of all, though... I want you with me.

So, come on.

08 January 2019

What's it Been Like for My First Year of Travel - Part One

Art Model, @Kayci.Lee, © 2018 Terrell Neasley

“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” - Gustav Flaubert

On September 7th of last year, I left the US to begin my backpacking trip around the world. That was a year ago, yesterday. Art Model, @Kayci.Lee accompanied me for that first month flying into Nicaragua. We traveled north up into Guatemala and in early Feb, she flew back to the States. Me...well, I found a home for 6 months in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.

@Kayci.Lee and I traveled fast to many places trying to maximize time to shoot throughout the month of January. After she left, I sprouted roots. I rented an apartment and settled down in the cold mountains. My beautiful apartment was just what I needed and people were put in my path that definitely helped me along the way.

When did you ever get horse lessons while naked?
Art Model, @Kayci.Lee, © 2018 Terrell Neasley

In no way has this been all glorious fun filled days, but its definitely been an adventure. I've learned a lot about traveling and even more about myself. I've had fabulous escapades as well as sudden pitfalls, but its hard to complain about any of it. I still hear somebody tell me at least once a month that I am living their dream or that they wish they could live my life. Granted... I know they can't be serious because they don't know my life, but I get what they are trying to say. I just don't take them literally or let any of it go to my head. I don't fool myself, at least not in that regard.

I'm glad I didn't start my trip alone, but rather eased into it. It took some getting used to, I can assure you of that and the process wasn't immediate by any stretch of the imagination. My first lesson was simply trying to relax and not feel like I needed to have something scheduled every day. Along with that, I realized that I didn't have to feel guilty about chilling out or not doing something somebody else expected me to do (or not do). Next has been finding the "OVERALL" purpose and goals for this trip. I've still got to be about my business and that starts now.

Art Model, @Kayci.Lee, © 2018 Terrell Neasley

2018 has been a trial period. And for that reason, I say my 5-year stint starts now. I don't count 2018 as part of that. It was a year for acclamation and, as I call it, just learning to breathe easy. Granted I'm still working on that, but I have a much better mindset about it and a more clearer direction. I'm refining and making adjustments as I go. The plan was initially to zig zag my way down through South America. Now, I think its better to hop down as far south as you can go and make my way up again. Its going to be winter there by June, so I'd rather bounce on down there and head back up before the freeze sets in. After South America, I think I will head to either somewhere in the South Pacific or New Zealand instead of Vietnam. I'll see Vietnam now after I cover the South Pacific and come up through Indonesia.

Then, its just keep heading west as the flow takes me. But here's one thing that I've learned and it continues to be reinforced. People are the same. Families here are just like families stateside. Parents love their children. They want the best for them just like us. In Mompiche, Ecuador  during Christmas, a predominantly black family came by the beach house rolling in about 25 to 30 strong. I sat with them and drank a whiskey mixed with coconut water straight out of the tree. Do I need to specify that only the coconut water came out of a tree...not whiskey? Surely not... I digress. When we ran out of coconuts, somebody got 4 or 5 more of the tree and filled the pitcher back up.

Yep. She's in church.
Art Model, @Kayci.Lee, © 2018 Terrell Neasley

I even saw the same characters just like one of my family reunions. There was my cousin Sheila cracking jokes and laughing the loudest. My Mama was there as well as my uncle Ulice Ray. There was one brother who brought his white wife, who in this case she happened to be Cuban, but looked white. They had a girl that looked just like my daughter...no kidding, with that. And a son, named Jeremy...no kidding there either. The only and I repeat... ONLY difference is that they spoke Spanish. Well, that and they were mixing whiskey with coconut water. But we are all the same. Its been the same with all the Latin families I've come to know. I could still identify the same characters in my family with them.

I'm learning much more about black people. Not just African-AMERICANS, but black people from Colombia, Ecuador, Belize, and all over Central and South America. Its been quite the enlightening experience. I'll be talking more on this in the future, but its helping me learn a little more about myself, as well. But back to my point, Americans are no different than Ecuadorians, or Guatemalans, or Canadians. We just have different cultures and languages. Outside of that, we are the same.

Art Model, @Kayci.Lee, © 2018 Terrell Neasley

In each country I find the poor, as well as the well-off. Same in America. Opportunities are better in some countries than others. But I wish like FUCK crazy that we Americans stop looking down on other countries, particularly countries with people of color. Travel definitely helps one's perspective in this. I'm not talking about a trip to Cancun where you get off a plane, travel THROUGH the country to an enclosed all-inclusive resort. So if you listened to that public address from the White House Tuesday night, about the "dangerous people", I'm really hoping you can... damn people ...you can literally Google the facts yourselves. But if you want to believe the racist con man, I guess that's you. But YOU tell me what decent trustworthy human being has ever had his foundation shut down and then gets barred by the courts (along with his family) from running a charitable organization for the next ten years? That's what a CON-ARTIST literally gets busted for. Preying on charity cases! Same thing happened to his "University" just last year for fraud. Racist people market fear. Its like a standard bullet item for them. Stop friggin' giving life to the lies.

Art Model, @Kayci.Lee, © 2018 Terrell Neasley

As for me, I'm going to try my best to get better at photography. Getting my shots is, like...Goal number 1. Outside of that, its experiencing new people, cultures, and landscapes. And that doesn't always involve a camera, but rather just experiencing and appreciating life. Today is the first full day of my two month Peruvian experience. I pray God continues to bless me with great people along my path.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.” – Mark Twain

13 December 2018

Ecuador, Peru, and ...Patagonia?

Mucho rain in the La Candelaria district of Bogota near Parque de Periodistas (Journalists Park)
First, let me say, Thank you Colombia. You've been impressive, inspirational, and just what I needed when I needed it. I'll likely be back later again before I leave South America. More on that later. I fly to Ecuador in the morning.

Alright. Here's a few things I'll address, since inquires have been made on the matters.

Nope... I haven't been taking any pics lately. Neither of my cameras have been out of the bag since I've returned on my journey. I've tried. I took a city tour and posted some graffiti art from my phone early on and maybe some selfies. But I've realized I've needed to take some time to process everything from this past Oct. Oct was a bitch. The holidays coming up won't be easy either. I'll be on an Ecuadorean beach for Christmas and in a treehouse for New Year's. Perchance, those locations could inspire me to shoot, (if I don't get rained out) but as far as I know, I'm gonna hold tight til I get to see my daughter and son-in-law mid-Jan. I have to make a choice to be fine after that. My brother wouldn't want me weeping or holding up my life over his passing. I know that much about him. He and I are alike in that regard. We both hate being a bother to anybody. So, 2019 will be a little different than this past year. I have to focus more on my money and my business coming up. I have work to do.

Bandeja Paisa, one of my favorite meals.

I think, late March/early April, I'm going to head to Patagonia and see what Fall pics I can get down there before it gets cold. If I stick to my regular course and continued on south through Bolivia, Paraguay, Brazil, and so forth, I wouldn't get down to Patagonia until Jun/July which is when their winter begins. So instead, I think I'll head  there right after I get done with Peru sometime in March. Now here's the real kicker. It would be cool if I had a model to work with down there. Yes...that means it will be cold and you'd be naked. Not all the time. But definitely for 3 main locations and then opportunity shots that present themselves. It will involve multi-day hiking through Tierra del Fuego and Torres del Paine. In addition to that, I have one other location in mind that I'll keep to myself for the moment, but it'll take a bit to get to and could be slightly arduous, but will make for some great shots.

Ajiaco, a hearty soup
I wonder about 3 things down there. One, making reservations. From my initial research, I hear you can't just expect to show up. You must plan well in advance. I have to figure out what that means in more specific detail. Two, I need to refit. I have clothing that I'd wear to the beach and tropical climates right now. Down there, even in the fall, I'm going to need cold weather clothing AND camping gear. Three... CAMERA GEAR! I am fairly certain I have to get some fast glass. The Sony 24mm 1.4 is on my mind right now, due to its lighter weight and more versatility over the Sigma 20mm 1.4. The Sigma is less money, but its heavier and you can't use filters on it. On top of that, I think the Sony 24-105 f/4 would serve me better than my 16-35 f/4. I'm not keeping tow of 4 lenses! (I also have the Sony 55mm 1.8. I'm not going anywhere without THAT!) So, one would have to go. Three is the max. Hell, I'd even consider medium-format if I could swing it. Yo...FUJI!!

Bogota Beer Company! Good eating!

After I'm done with all that down there, I'd make my way up north again through Chile and into Bolivia. Depending on what's going on with the Amazon River, I could re-try to do that again, but ultimately I'm going to make my way back here to Colombia. I very much would like to retrace my steps that I took in Northern Colombia (September) WITH a model. I'd add to it, the 5-day hike to the Lost City since it was closed during all of September. I love Colombia. Bogota is the first capital city that I really came to adore. I have not had the best time in any capital city I've ever been in. I had no expectations for Bogota. I only booked 3 days here at the end of September and realized by day 2 that I had made a mistake in my expectation. This is why I decided to return here in November and spend at least a month here.

Well, that's all for now. More later.

Long walk looking for a Duncan Donut shop one morning. 

29 November 2018

What Exactly is a Hostel?

One of my favorite spots in Leon Nicaragua, Hostel La Tortuga Booluda
on a 3 month Central American trip with my, then girlfriend, Tracie, Spring 2015.
Is there a difference between a hostel and a hotel? Yep. There's a difference. Hostels are one thing and Hotels are another. That being said, you still come across some that are both. They usually start out solely as a hostel, then open more locations, but are able to maintain an "upscale" hotel feel at each new location, but keep a hostel vibe. Selina is a good example of this. I've hit them in Cartagena, Bogota, I'll miss them in Quito, but see them in Lima, Peru and La Paz, Bolivia.

I don't think I have to spend a lot of time telling you what a hotel is. If you've never stayed in a hotel... well, write me off line and we can talk. For the rest of you, you already know what you are getting. Not all are the same, of course. Big difference between a Hilton and a Motel 6, but you know you want something private, safe, clean, and affordable.

Isla Verde, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala 
Here's the thing with Hostels

Hostels are not the backpacker's paradise with noisy dorm room accommodations; not all of them anyway. They do aim to cater to travelers, though and they are often much less expensive than a hotel. They are often a Mom and Pop enterprise who don't really get rich off their business, but they can have a comfortable living to say the least.

Here are the different hostels I've run into during my travels. I've done plenty. When Kristi and I set out during the month she was with me last Jan, I think we did close to 10. In 2015, my girlfriend, Tracie (in all these photos) and I traveled for 3 months. We hit about 20 places throughout 5 countries. I stayed at my first ever hostel in 2012, La Terreza in Antigua, Guatemala. I have been gone almost a year so far I've stayed in plenty, to say the least. Here's what I've run into during my research and travels.

Tracie at Chaltunha Hostel, Flores, Guatemala
Party Hostels
This is one of the top things people know about hostels. Party-time. And they do exist everywhere. You'll likely see a much younger European crowd. I avoid them! Nope, not doing it. They may have "Backpacker" somewhere in their name. There will be loud music. Not for me. I'd be out of place there. I'm old enough that I like my peace and quiet at this point in my life and I've had my fill of drinking games. Nonetheless, these tend to be a bit cheaper with a focus on dorms... $6 to $15 a night.

Boutique Hostels
If I see the term "boutique" in the title, I'm usually going to check it out. It depends on the theme of the place or what exactly they mean by boutique. I find these are a bit more pricey, but if you have a model with you, they can be interesting interiors to shoot in. There will be some attempt at interior design with a focus on an art, modern or antique themes, or some feng shui concept that may be be beneficial to your energy/spirit flow or whatever they call it.

Tracie at Chaltunha Hostel, Flores, Guatemala
For those concerned with the environment, Eco Hostels are they way to go. If they are not implementing solar power of some sort, they I don't think they can call themselves Eco anything. You may see them advertise a low carbon footprint, use organic, locally harvested materials and food, ask you to help with water conservation, etc. These will not usually be a budget place unless they also get you to help in their gardens or to do volunteer work with the locals.

Homestyle Hostels
Simply put, homestyle hostels will be virtually that... a hostel in someone's home. The owners may build on additional rooms or remodel a large house with several rooms into rental spaces. Chances are, they live on the premise. Prices will can range from down right cheap to the upper limits, probably no more than 5 rooms and some will need to share a bathroom down the hall.

Waking up at Paradise Cabins, Tobacco Caye, Belize
These are those that are going to be a little different than anything you'd come to expect and in some cases they may not call themselves hostels. Case in point... Island bungalows made of driftwood and recyclable materials. The term hostel doesn't lend itself to the unique island experience nor the inexpensive connotation that a hostel name may garner. Nonetheless, by definition, they are hostels and can usually charge much more. I've paid upwards of $100 a night and would gladly do it again.

Yeah...these hostels can usually provide a more complete experience with not only accommodations but a bar/restaurant, more private rooms, BETTER private rooms which usually mean larger with a view, and come closer to the hotel experience. Sometimes its just worth it. I've paid maybe $150 a night for the most expensive I've had the pleasure to visit.

If you can remember Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book", okay...or the several films based on his book, then you'll recall the most perfect analogy of the budget hostel. If you can "look for the BARE NECESSITIES, the simple BARE NECESSITIES and forget about your worries and your strife... that's why a bear can rest at ease with the simple bare necessities of life". If you can literally keep that mindset, you'll be fine and pay $100 for a week's stay someplace. I've done about $13 a night for a private room and private bathroom once in Xela, Guatemala.

Tracie, outdoor shower, Farm Peace and Love, Little Corn Island, Nicaragua 2015

So here are a few things you may have to compromise on.

1. Accommodations can be basic. Likely no TV!

2. It might be a bit noisy at times. Walls may be thin or there's a party hostel close by. Couples...keep that in mind! Just saying...

3. You may or may not have hot water...depending! In tropical areas you'll be grateful.

4. You may have to share a bathroom.

5. The wifi may suck.

Hostel Holistica, Antigua, Guatemala 2015
On the PLUS side

1. You're usually going to have a more personable experience. Yes, HOTELS can be experienced in hospitality with managers and staff being educated and trained. But how often do you get invited to the owner's kid's birthday. Or going to dinner at THEIR house and meeting the whole family.

2. You'll likely meet many more travelers from varies countries just like yourself with whom you can swap stories and experiences.

3. Hostels, in my opinion, tend to be more grateful that you chose them and thus will go out of their way to make sure your stay is comfortable, safe, and enjoyable. This has been my experience in particular where the owners are running the show and the staff is family.

4. You're going to save a ton of money that can go towards doing tours and experiences which is the reason for your visit anyway.

5. Personally, I think there are overall more stories, good and bad, that get rolled into your journey. Nobody returns home talking about hotel stays. But I can tell some hostel tales about a busted bed in Belize; bringing back an ineffective itch cream from the pharmacy, til Ismael advised me that it was made for vaginal itch in Guatemala; or being awoken at 6am by Dona Lucia for breakfast in the morning even though she knows you came in from drinking all night at 4am in Nicaragua.

Busted bed, Resort in Hickatee Cottages, near Punta Gorda, Belize.
Oh...never drink shower water no matter now nice the accommodations are!
In more cases than not, it's usually going to be what you make it. I listened to a chick at the front desk in Cartagena complain that there was a blond hair in her shower. She was pissed. Now me, I'm easy. I came across a tarantula in my shared bathroom. Yes, I screamed like my little niece, Courtnee when she sees a tiny spider. I did momentarily jump on the toilet seat. BUT, I took a second to compose myself. Walked up to the front and advised them of the situation. I didn't ask for my money back or demand to see the owner. I did insist they not kill the thing. We took it outside and released it.

Asleep at Chaltunha, Flores Guatemala after a full day
Just do your research. Read the reviews. Check the pics of the rooms. You'll be fine. As I mentioned in the last post, I do most of my research and reservations through Booking.com. I usually find everything I need there and have only had maybe 2 or 3 problems with a booking. To date, I'm just over 50 bookings. Stay as long as you want. I've been here in Bogota at Hostal La Candelaria for a month now and its costing me right at $500. That's just over $16 a night. The owners and I sit and talk every day. They help me with my Spanish. I help them with English. I get advice about the city of Bogota and Colombian culture and cuisine.

So what are your questions about hostels?

Labeha Drum Center Cabins, Excellent place, Hopkins, Belize
Another Big Fave, Hotel Anahuac, (its a hostel!) Juayua, El Salvador

18 November 2018

TWO Types of Backpacking

Interior of a chicken bus... not as crowded, though

When I tell people I'm backpacking around the world, it can sometimes be a bit confusing as to what a picture of that actually looks like. In these confusing situations, the picture most people imagine in their minds is that I am traveling through the wilderness, desert, or some far off wasteland while avoiding bandits, outlaws, or wild animals. So let me paint a more accurate perception of my reality while I am venturing around this planet.

Coach buses are much more comfortable for long trips. As you can see.
Courtesy of Art Model, Kayci.Lee this past January when she accompanied
for a month to Nicaragua and up to Guatemala.
While there may be several different types of BackpackERS, BackpackING is usually divided into two distinct categories. First, there is WILDERNESS backpacking. This is usually associated with, as the name suggests, backpacking in the wild. While day trips can fall into this category, I'd say the norm is going to consist of camping and thus the packing choices will reflect this. Ergo, sleeping bag, and plenty of food. Much will depend on the availability of water, distance and the duration of the trip will dictate the remaining needs to sustain you. It goes without saying that you'll be hiking all this gear around, as opposed to throwing it in your vehicle. Otherwise you're just car camping.
Guatemala Chicken Bus 
This could be a backpacking trip to simply go camping, rock climbing, hunting, or you could be trekking to a specific destination like a log cabin or over the river and through the woods to grandma's house. Regardless, you'll need to be prepared with good hiking boots and weather dependent clothing, and everything you need to protect yourself from environmental concerns, threats from the wildlife, and basic safety. This is not my primary mission.

If I can't take it on my back, it can't come. 
As for me, I do TRAVEL backpacking, which can also be defined as a type of adventure travel. I have the same type of backpack that a wilderness backpacker might have. Getting one that fits properly, allows for great weight distribution, comfortable waist, chest, and shoulder straps, as well having convenient pockets and straps for gear that needs to be secured, but readily available on the outside of your pack. I use a Osprey Aether 70, with and empty Osprey Porter 30 strapped to the back of it. The Porter is my day pack for use when I venture from my hotel. Why do I like Osprey bags? Because of their All Mighty Guarantee! So yeah... no roller luggage here.

Sometimes ya gotta hitch a ride on an old commercial fishing boat when the seas are too rough for anything else.
So I travel with two bags (well, three, but one is kept empty while traveling between destination). I have my backpack(s) and then my camera bag which is a large Thintank Urban Disguise 60. I am usually traveling around via public transportation. Sometimes I take international and regional planes, but mostly I am on a local bus for short trips or a coach/tour bus for longer ones. I pack pretty much everything I need for my daily life. I average maybe 5 change of clothes. I say average because sometimes I may throw away a shirt or buy one from the local thrift stores that in Central America are referred to as PACAs. They are named so because they usually arrive from the US in huge baled bundles. So Paca is spanish for bales, not packages, as I recently learned. I can easily get a shirt for a buck or two and change out my clothes periodically, or dependent on a place I visit. I've been all along the Caribbean coast here in Colombia where T-shirts and flip flops are practical. Next thing you know, I'm in the mountains of Bogota at an elevation of 8000+ feet and temps of mid-40's at night.

I also pack camera accessories and gear that I use to produce videos, clean sensors, and extra things that make photo and video more convenient. Along with that, I have my toiletries and sundries, prescription meds, flashlights, knives, etc that also go in my backpack. I try to keep my weight from my backpack under 35lbs. I was 10 pounds over on my venture back to Bogota. I need to lose some weight!

Caught a horse-drawn wagon to the beach
As for city travel and accommodations, I can take public transpo which is usually pennies in any direction. Chicken buses are popular in Central America. You are not riding with a bunch of chickens. You are just packed into them as if you ARE chickens. That's how they make their money while fares stay cheap. Volume! But they are fun to ride on, just not over great distances or if you are a tall person. Your knees will suffer. They are usually very colorfully decorated re-purposed US school buses that traditionally have religious display art of some sort on them wish flashy lights. You must experience this a few times if you are ever in Central America. Otherwise, I take a cab or even an UBER which are available here in Colombia. Its good to be safe and let your hotel or restaurant hail a cab for you, unless you're told its safe to do so yourself off the street.

Or sometimes just catching a $20,000 Andalusian horse...more easily done nude, I guess
I stay in hostels mainly. Sometimes, I book a hotel. Hostels are much less expensive comparable to the same accommodations in a hotel. Not all hotels are the same, by any stretch of the imagination and that goes for hostels as well. A hostel will usually be much smaller with basic amenities. You may not have a TV for example, and in some places you don't even have hot water. I book through Booking.com for about 90% of my reservations. Just because you are in a hostel does not automatically mean Dorm Room! I only do private rooms. After that, I'm checking whether or not the room has a private bathroom, good wifi, good security, and I compare it to other hostels with respect to location and amenities. Sometimes airport pick-up is important. Other times, it may be policy issues such as do they have a good cancellation policy or whether I an pay on site or do I have to pay in advance. Some make you pay everything at time of booking and other's just secure a deposit equal to the first night's stay. You'll have to decide what's right for yourself. I'll be doing a post on hostel stays soon enough.

Regional flights are sometimes necessary, too. This time within Nicaragua.
A typical visit for me my cost me $30/night, but I often find good places where I am spending $20/night. If I know I'll be in an area for an extended time...such as a month, I'll rent an apartment for $400-$500 when I can. But once I'm there, I'm living out of my backpack and checking out the local scenes. Ordinarily, I'm in a particular city because there is something there I want to shoot nearby or just because I think it will be a good experience. Right now, I'm in Bogota, Colombia. Its the 4th largest city in all of the Americas. I felt this would be a good experience, even though my interests photographically are in more nature environments. I don't shoot as much in metro or urban places. So for me, the experience is worth my stay.

When I leave here, I'll pack up my backpack and camera bag, and choose the best transportation to get to my next location. I have no clue where that will be right now or even when I'll leave Bogota. Possibly by mid-December...who knows? Chances are, I'll hop a bus out of the Bogota to either Ecuador or one more city, likely coastal, in Colombia. It's entirely possible I may stay longer and take a flight to the Colombian-Ecuadorian border and then bus across. Why? Because many of these countries have a thing (or at least the airline does) where you can't board a flight without a ticket going out. Busing in is different. They leave it up to you to not overstay your visa, typically 90 days...30 in others. Sometimes, you need to apply for a Visa in advance of your trip, like Brazil or Paraguay.

Finally reaching those meager but welcome accommodations.
I'll continue to do this throughout all of South America, with the exception of Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana, (all on the East Coast). Venezuela isn't a safe or stable place to travel to at the moment and I don't feel the same calling to the other countries I mentioned. So, I'll be taking a plane, bus, or walking across country borders trying to see where I can get some great shots and life experiences.

07 November 2018

Saving Brazil and the Amazon for Another Time

Me and my brother, Greg last year.

I did not make it to Brazil as planned for October 1st. I had my hotel reservations, two flight tickets (one to Rio and one to Manaus), and my eVisa for Brazil. I even had my boarding pass downloaded to my phone. I was all ready to leave later that day to Rio de Janeiro for a few days and then fly up Manaus to being my Amazon River trip. The only question was whether I wanted to take a boat into Peru and Ecuador, or head back to Bogota, Colombia afterwards. All that changed in the blink of an eye. Looks like I will have to try to do the Amazon River another season.

Why? Well, early that same morning I got a message about my brother who was found unresponsive after somewhere between 24 and 36 hours alone in his apartment. 'Nuff said. The Brazil tickets were now useless to me. I booked a flight to Texas and was on a plane within hours. I got back and my brother, Greg was in ICU, but stable. I thought he was good to go at that point, only to realize my hopes were lost the next afternoon. An aneurysm from complications with high blood pressure took out my brother at 47 years of age. The whole experience seemed unreal. My sister, Camille was on top of things. She's a nurse and her training was definitely indispensable in helping my mother and family understand what was happening. Beyond that, she was hugely helpful in organizing the arrangements for my brother's funeral and cremation. I'd have needed a couple of weeks before even thinking about contacting a funeral home. And if that wasn't enough, my grandfather died two weeks later. Even though it was not that much of a surprise at his age and condition, the reality of it still took a toll on all of us. October was the worst month of my life. But I'm not going to get into a bunch of "Woe is me" rants. Its done.

My Grandfather's burial site, next to that of his beloved wife who proceeded him.

I spent the entire month in Texas and then I flew back to Colombia on November 3rd. I am currently back in Colombia's capital city, Bogota. I decided to come back here and give this city some more time. I have never really appreciated capital cities that much, so I only scheduled 3 days here on my original visit in September. I quickly deduced that I was wrong. My stay at Selina Hotel was excellent. I met 2 or 3 new people that quite frankly, were very impressionable. And then I took a walking tour of the area I stayed in and learned some more about the city's history as well as where it all fit into Colombia's history as a whole. I may just take that tour again. Fernando Botero is from here and his museum is just down the street! And its free. That was something he was insistent on. No charge for exhibiting his work here.

I re-booked the same Selina Hotel as when I was here in September, but I got the upgraded, Rockstar room for my first 3 days. Its was a beautiful room, but I honestly think the last room may have been preferred. Sometimes it works out like that where the best room on the property actually isn't. Possibly, that's just me, though.

Four balconies (one behind the bed)
That is a stairway to the left that leads to the downstairs living room and bathroom

I wanted to stay in the same district area of La Candelaria, which is the oldest  (500 years old) section of the city. So after leaving Selina, I booked a week at La Candelaria Hostel, near Parque de los Periodistas, or Journalist's Park. Its much more of a basic room compared to my room at Selina, but its also more typical of the hostels I stay in to save money. It's also close to Monserrate, which is another thousand feet of elevation that I'll hike for its excellent views of the city. I'm going to stay here in Bogota for at least a month, but I'm not certain exactly when I'll head out or exactly to where. I know I'll go through Ecuador and see the Galapagos Islands, but I don't know how much I'll see of the county in all. I have to be in Lima, Peru in January. That much I know. My daughter and her husband, along with my cousin and her hubby are coming to meet me there.

So the adventure continues. I'm back on the road and continuing with my journey. So when will I do Brazil and the Amazon River? Good question. The rainy season is well under way there now and flooding is soon to follow. I'd much rather not boat up the Amazon on such flooded currents with the banks overflowed. So possibly, I will likely pass through Paraguay and head into Brazil stopping in at Rio de Janeiro, by next March or April...that's a guess. As for boating up the Amazon River, I can't say for sure. The only possibility is maybe after I am coming back UP South America after Argentina and Chile. Its an option and I'll just have to keep exploring them.

30 September 2018

First Month in South America - Colombia

"It's ludicrous that this place exists and everybody doesn't want to live here."
~ Anthony Bourdain speaking about Colombia

Faro Punta Gallinas, the most northern point of South America Very remote and desolate area.
Heading into Cartagena, Colombia from Guatemala, City felt like jumping into a pool of cold water. I knew I was going to do it, but I was highly nervous about it. Colombia represented an entirely unknown for me and while you can research as much as you want, there's nothing like stepping off a plane and feeling that air of a totally different country. What did I notice first? The fact that there were a ton of black Colombians and therefore more people that looked like me. So, like Belize, I wasn't the only black person around. Probably the next thing I noticed was that the only dogs on the street were on leashes being walked by their owners. In several places in Central America, you can expect to see stray dogs in various stages of health.

Ojos de Agua
I was a day late getting to my hotel due to a missed flight. I stayed in Cartagena for two days before heading north to my hotel at Eco Hostel Yuluka near Tayrona National Park. Yuluka is a beautiful property and I had one of their larger and better rooms with an open air shower. It was quite gorgeous. On day two, the weather opened up and so I left for Tayrona just down the street to see what shots I could get. Its definitely wise to bring water as this is about a two-hour hike to get to the main beach at El Cabo. The sun was fierce that day and the return hike was toughest coming back. Its a good thing there are several places to get water as I definitely ran out on the return trip. Awesome hike. Great scenes. Beautiful beaches. Be sure to check out the links because its definitely worth the visit. Consider an over night stay.

Outdoor shower and bath, Guacamaya Room at Eco Hostel Yuluka, Santa Marta, Colombia near Tayrona

I was extremely disappointed that the trek to Ciudid Perdida was closed for the entire month of September. I heard different explanations as to why that was. One was that recent heavy rains destroyed the trails, but I also heard that some of the facilities at the overnight stays were in need of desperate repair. But I got over it. My highlight of Colombia came a week later when I headed further north into La Guajira, and well beyond Uribia.

Tayrona National Park

I took a 2-day 4x4 tour with Alta Guajira Tours up to Punta Gallinas which is the most remote and northern point of South America. My thoughts were to try to do this on my own and I was told by Victor at Yuluka that it was not safe. He was correct. The idea was not only dangerous but also not safe. A single vehicle breaking down out there is not a good position to be in. We passed a broken down tour truck and before long, there were about 4 other trucks there to render aid. Turned out to be nothing serious and we were all back on the road, but imagine 4 tourists stranded out there.

Local native girl of the Jusayan Indians of La Guajira

The first day concluded at Cabo de la Vela which is a small village on the coast were we spent the night in hammocks in an open cabin on the beach. We locked our belonging up in a secure building or left them in the vehicles and then took what we needed to our hammocks. Myself and my other 4 cohorts watched the sun set and called it a night.

Waking up with my cohorts after a night on the beach at Cabo de la Vela

The next day found us continuing our journey with a four hour back-country drive to Punta Gallinas with a few stops to sight-see along the way. These were different beaches and dunes where we were given a few hours to take pictures and enjoy the water. We reached Punta Gallinas right before sundown along with a few other trucks in the convoy that followed. Our lodging for the night was nearby, again in hammocks under a covered pavilion. Out here, though it was dark. The night sky with a new moon was lit up by stars from horizon to horizon. Some saw the Milky Way for the first time in their lives. About 10 of us sat out under the stars and fellowshipped together, represented by countries from Austria, France, Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands. I was the only American.

Night under the stars near Punta Gallinas
We talked about a gamut of subject matters, including the suspicious alcohol content in the mysterious whisky-rum type concoction that we were drinking. We definitely discussed what was going on in America with this administration. You might be highly surprised at the world view of the US lately. There's not a place I go that I'm not confronted at some point about the state of our politics. In a discussion with a Canadian couple, I felt the strong impression to apologize on behalf of my country and to reassure them that all of America does not feel the way this administration does.

The last two weeks have been spent in Cartagena, where I got to do some work for a local restaurant, Medellin, and a few days in the capitol city of Bogota. I got to explore these cities, but only a bit. Much of my time was spent editing photos and getting some organization efforts done. Those first two weeks north of Cartagena was probably the busiest two weeks of my entire trip. On October 1st, I fly to Rio de Janeiro and begin the Amazon River trip that I'm looking forward to. So, stay tuned. What I know for sure is that I will have to return here to Colombia. I want Punta Gallinas with a model, spend more time in Cartagena, do Ciudad Perdida, explore some of the islands out this way, and push further through Colombia past Bogota, like Cali. I could do a full 90 days here exploring this country.

UPDATE: This just crossed my mind. I may indeed do the Amazon River gig and then right at the border where I was thinking of crossing into Iquitos, Peru. Well, possibly scratch that. I'm giving serious consideration to crossing into Leticia, Colombia and returning to Bogota. Its only $100 for a flight back here. Who knows? Find a spot to live for a month. Take some Spanish classes. THEN head to Ecuador, by land...do the Galapagos Islands, and slide on into Peru by Christmas. We'll see.