Monday, September 13, 2010

Colombia, Reflection of 8 Months, and A Change in the Nature of This Blog

So this blog post is meant to indicate a change in the purpose of the entire blog, but first, let’s have a brief catch-up on the transition from Netherlands to Colombia, and the return to the US of A, including the first 2 weeks of university and some assorted updates of that nature.

Anyway: so I left Holland early in the morning on August 16 and the long chain of flight connections went without a hitch. Apart from the rain that accompanied my walking to the bus stop with a huge suitcase. But that's typical Holland, that. It was a struggle being in Miami overnight for like 12 hours, but eh, it’s been done before and I’m sure I’ll spend another night in an airport fairly soon. Upon arrival in Colombia, I took a cab into downtown Bogota to hang out there for like 7-8 hours before Madlien arrived from Monterrey later that evening. Hung out around downtown, went to Plaza de Bolivar (huge square in Bogota which is surrounded by parliament building, mayor’s office, etc.), La Candeleria (rather historic neighborhood with a really cool vibe to it), and some other interesting places. Headed back to El Dorado International Airport in the evening.

Interesting story about the process of getting there: so I decided to be a local and take the bus. With my large backpack on. Not speaking very good Spanish. So I headed to ask some guy where I could catch a bus to the airport. He said “over there” pointing towards a street corner. The street corner was pandemonium, there were like 40 people, and the busses would sort of slow down to about 10 MPH, at which time you’d literally hop onto the bus and pay your 1,400 pesos (about 80 cents). I had no idea which one went to the airport, but I decided to get on the one that said El Dorado something or other, as that was the name of the airport. I asked the driver if this went to “El Dorado”, and he said yes. About 30 minutes or so into the bus ride, I was told by someone that this stop was the airport, so I hopped off, quite grateful for such a friendly local. I got off and found myself on what was basically the side of a busy highway, with a building off in the distance looking airport-ish. Asked around a bit (and mind you, at this point it’s pitch-black out and I’m totally lost), and a friendly local did end up directing me towards the airport. Finally found my way there, but quite the experience. I can honestly say I was thinking I’d be robbed on the side of that highway, given that I was white, 6’ 1”, and with a huge backpack on. Practically a local.

Anyway, took Madlien like 4 hours to get through customs (really about 40 minutes), so we left the airport at like 9:30pm without a hostel (or hostal) or anything of that sort. We found one fairly easily, and decided to explore the neighborhood around the place, which was surprisingly safe. The next day we explored Bogota a fair bit. We got to see the Gold Museum, some parks, a few interesting neighborhoods, etc, and that evening we took a night bus to Medellin. Medellin was nice the next day, it was definitely by far the warmest city that we encountered in Colombia, with daytime temperatures at like 85 or so. It was fairly clean, though to be honest there wasn’t an overwhelming amount to do, so we decided to take a car to a small(ish) town called Manizales, in coffee country. We ended up spending several days there, seeing coffee plantations, climbing Nevado del Ruiz (17,000 feet), and enjoying the young, hip culture of the place. They also had some really nice parks that we walked around a fair bit, many of which offered incredible views of enormous mountains and valleys with farmers growing their assorted crops therein. Really picturesque place overall. So anyway, we took a devastating bus ride back to Bogota after a good few days in Manizales. It was particularly devastating due to how bumpy it was, the fact that the driver was making hairpin turns at 60mph, and the fact that it was just a generally uncomfortable bus. But that was still fine…ish. I spent the night in the airport, as Madlien had a late night flight to head up to Montreal to visit Rachael, and I left the next day for Miami (and another overnight layover… joy). I finally got back to O’Hare the morning of August 25. It was a bit of a surreal experience in Miami that morning, just sort of realizing that I’d finally be heading back to Chicago after 8 months abroad in 13 different countries on 3 continents. So I arrived in Chicago at 9:30am, got through customs quite quickly, and was whisked from the airport by Mom and Grammy. We flew by the house, I took a quick shower, grabbed a change of clothes, then headed to ISU, determined to make my 2:00pm class. Made my 2:00pm class, and had some meetings in the evening. Had some classes the following day, pretty standard.

Also – turns out my Financial Markets professor is Kazakh. Consequently, I went and shot the breeze with him about Kazakhstan, the workforce of Kazakhstan, their political situation, history, etc, all because of the knowledge I gained from my internship at SES WORLD SKIES, so if anyone from WS is reading this, please, please, please give Ludmila a special thank-you for all the knowledge of Kazakhstan that she passed down to me. Seriously, big thanks to Ludmila, for not only talking to me about the Kazakh satellite market, but about their government, history, etc. It allowed me to impress the hell out of a native with a Ph.D. in finance. Good times. So yeah, bit of a rundown of what’s happened during these first few weeks:

1) Student Export Project: despite the fact that applications aren’t accepted until October, I’ve already been accepted for the program as a member of the group going to Africa. It will either be going to Senegal, Ghana, or Kenya. Will be going there from early May until sometime in June.

2) International business club has been good as well. We got 22 new members at our new member meeting Tuesday.

3) Ran into Herr Z. at LZHS the other day when I was home for NIU’s family weekend. He offered me an internship in Nittenau, Bavaria, Germany this coming summer just after the export project, so I may very well do that. I’d be working for a company that makes machines for breweries.

4) I’ve started writing a book about 2010. I don’t want it to be a collection of journal entries, I’d rather it be a legitimate novel with recurring themes, an overall message, etc., so we’ll see how that challenge progresses.

5) Turns out the USA is kind of boring. Kind of struggling with that.
This coming weekend I’ll be riding my bike from ISU to U of I as part of a bet with Dan. It’s about 60 miles and I have a day to do it, should be a decent time, I may try and make a show out of it by perhaps trying to raise money by turning it into a “Ride for Senegal” or something, we’ll see. Certainly I don’t mind attention. Other than that, things have been progressing as per usual, looks like I’ll be hanging around ISU until May then graduating and figuring out what I’ll do from there (after 2 potential internships). Should be fun.

And now, a bit of a summary of this entire 8 month world tour. I guess I’ll go with the 10 most breathtaking, amazing, spectacular sights I’ve seen or things I’ve done, attempting to not do too many repeats from each country, and in no particular order:

Borobodur Temple, Yogyakarta, Indonesia: The world’s largest Buddhist temple, and we saw it at sunrise on the island of Java. We hung out with locals there, and it was one of the most truly amazing, mystical places I’ve ever seen.

World Cup Final, Museumplein, Amsterdam, Netherlands: The world’s biggest sporting event, and I was in the center of the capital of one of the participating countries with 150,000-200,000 Dutch people going mad. Even though NL lost 1-0, it was still the experience of a lifetime.

Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: I’m not one to really be taken away by hugely spectacular buildings, but the Petronas Towers, their unique architecture, and the sheer scale of them was incredible.

Hong Kong Skyline, morning of May 24, 2010: Our last morning in Hong Kong, we hiked to Victoria Peak to see the skyline one last time. It was the clearest, most perfect sunrise of the entire semester, and was absolutely like something out of a movie. The three people I was with will be friends of mine for many years I think, and it was a beautiful and appropriate way to end the semester.

Sugar Beach, Sipalay, The Philippines: The most picturesque beach I have ever been to. Our hut that was about 200 feet away cost us $6 per person per night, and the mix of locals and tourists was perfect. Definitely found a little slice of paradise.

Russ Karaoke Night, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong: Not only was this the night that more or less led to the coupling of Elliott Sandaver and Paris McKey, but it is also a night that is sure to go down in the lore of Hong Kong exchange students, and the lore of the karaoke bar that we demolished.

Nevado del Ruiz, Manizales, Colombia: While there was nothing particularly splendid about the view, the hike, or anything else, it was simply an incredible feeling to be 17,000 feet up, and it was my first experience at that high an altitude, which led to a bit of shortness of breath, etc.

Seoul, South Korea: My favorite city in Asia that wasn’t Hong Kong, Seoul was an absolutely perfect combination of size, cleanliness, outdoor activities, history, chic-ness, etc. Amazing food, amazing people, just an absolutely great place.

Little India, Singapore: One of the most fascinating places I’ve ever been to. The fact is, while the rest of Singapore is grey, rigid, structured, etc., Little India is pandemonium, alive, vibrant, and just completely unlike the rest of Singapore. This contrast made it one of the truly special places I visited.

Lan Kwai Fong, Central District, Hong Kong: The granddaddy of them all. The greatest place on the planet. Lan Kwai Fong was undoubtedly the most wonderful place I went to. Nowhere else in the world can you simply walk down the street with a Tsingtao and run into 25-30 of your friends in a sea of people. The layout of the district made it almost a homey feel, in that it was large but had smaller alcoves and nooks where you could simply hang out with a few friends to avoid the ruckus. Particularly during Rugby Sevens, Lan Kwai Fong was the most electric, energetic, and just plain fun place I’ve ever seen.

These 10 things were life-changing. This 8 months was life-changing. The people I've met, the cultures I've experienced, the things I've seen have all been truly brilliant. As an old teacher of mine told me the other day, "you now have enough coffee table fodder to last a lifetime". I was asked today by a friend of my grandmother's if I'd do it all again, to which I replied an immediate "yes, and I wouldn't change a thing". Going into study abroad, everyone who had previously done it was saying how life-changing it is, how it was the greatest thing they ever did, etc., which I never really bought in to, but I can say without any reservations that it is all true. I miss Hong Kong an incredible amount, and it kills me that many of the people I met there, I'll never see again, but at the same time, it's all in the nature of studying abroad I suppose. And besides, it was one incredible ride, and it's safe to say we enjoyed it while it lasted. My outlook on life is completely changed now (and it turns out, after returning stateside, I really can say in all honesty that I hate America), and I have brought back many saying, mannerisms, and cultural quirks absorbed from the people I've met. Overall, it was the greatest experience of my life, and I want to thank every single person I met on this 8-month journey for simply taking the time and effort to have a conversation and forge a friendship, no matter how brief, as you've all contributed to what was the most monumental thing I've ever done. Hats off to you all, hope to see you all again someday. Also, big thanks to the family for being so supportive of me traveling all over creation in all sorts of dodgy third-world countries. Not that you could've stopped me from traveling to Indonesia from Hong Kong, for example, but your support made it much more fun. Big thanks.

So the question now is, what to do about the blog? I’m done traveling (for now), but I feel like as long as I continue to live a reasonably interesting existence, I’ll keep updating this periodically so as to let people know what I’ve been up to, as I now know people from all over the world that I will never be seeing regularly, so I feel like this is a fine way of keeping them informed (that was a long sentence). Consequently, we'll see a change in the nature of this blog. Having said that, I still acknowledge that this blog has a readership comparable to the memoirs of Steve Buscemi, but I don’t really care. I’m self-absorbed enough to keep on writing about myself, but again, as long as I’m living a moderately interesting existence. If anyone really has a problem with that, email me (, and outline your complaints, maybe I’ll stop writing. So for the time being, expect this blog to contain info on the following, as they develop:

Student Export Project
Nittenau Internship
Book’s progress
Quest to keep off the weight I lost while traveling despite being back in the states (and I will be trying some interesting diets I think, so we’ll see the effectiveness of various ones!)
Other assorted musings

So that’s about it for now. Sorry for the really long post, but eh, I had to summarize the trip and other such things, so yeah. Also, if its choppy, it’s because this was written in 2 parts, about 4 days apart, so yeah. Big thanks if you’ve read this, and please, if anyone from WS did read this, do send a big thank-you Ludmila’s way for the Kazakhstan info. And a general hello to everyone in the office, miss you guys!

More news to come as it develops