Mind Blown by Brazil: Part 3 – CARNAVAL

Remember the craziest party you’ve ever been to? Now times that by at x500 and you can start to get an idea of Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. Watch my video and get an idea, then come back and read this blog.

As soon as the champagne stains the carpet on New Years, anticipation begins for Carnaval. Parties, blocos (block parties) and random acts of crazy happen everywhere that Carnaval happens. Rio de Janeiro and Salvador are undoubtedly the most famous and craziest Carnavals, but the huge party takes place all over the world.

In Bolivia, kids go around throwing water balloons in anticipation of their Carnaval (one of which hit my friend and broke his phone). Block parties like Berbigao do Boca in Florianopolis also happen, but the craziest time is definitely saved for Carnaval.


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On February 8th, Carnaval finally popped off and I found myself with millions of other wild people in Rio de Janeiro. Dream come true!

The first bloco that I went to took place in a magnificent artsy neighbourhood on a mountain above the lapa steps called Santa Teresa, but blocos were happening all the time all over the city.

“The only rule at Carnaval is that you can do what you want,” some distant memory of a Brazilian told me. So incredibly true!

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People dress up in ludicrous costumes including the presence of many men in mini skirts, wedding gowns and tiny dresses. Costumes need not a theme, and no one needs to defend what they are wearing like people do during Halloween back home. If your costume is an Indian/ Vampire/ Batman then all power to you!

For instance, if you are a 10 year old boy, go ahead and wear that massive fake penis!

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One of my favourites was the Spartan warriors stopping traffic who you can see in my video above.

Partying and blocos literally go on all day and all night and they are scheduled to do so – in Rio there were 496 blocos registered during Carnaval and in the weeks before. Sleeping is for the weak. Beer vendors, cocktail bartenders and tequila shooter dudes are open 24 hours a day.

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Tequila shot anyone?

In the bloco on Santa Teresa they sold freezies with vodka in them called sacolé de vodka. Heavenly, especially the mango flavour. That night, we bought a bottle of vodka and took it around making mixed drinks for ourselves. I still can’t get used to the fact that you can ask for a mixed drink on the side of the road and walk around drinking it on the streets. Long live public intoxication!

If you have to pee, people were quite diligent with using the public toilets. When they didn’t kids with water pistols and buckets of water could come up and soak you for watering their city walls!

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Lapa at night

On the first night we went to Lapa – the party area with all the clubs. There, we entered an awesome club with local Forro music and viewed the incredibly co-ordinated dance mating rituals of the locals. Here’s an example:

Lapa is cool with the music and clubs and caiprinhas and street food, but I found my heaven – Ipanema beach.

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All day, thousands embark to Ipanema’s shores to bask in the sun, relax under an umbrella, play volleball or footvolley (use your feet and body instead of hands), eat a delicious acai with granola and banana, paddle surf or simply people watch.

And oh, the people watching… No matter how many days I took the metro from Botafogo down to Ipanema beach, my mind was blown every single time. So much beauty, life, culture and joy!

And then there is the clothing. On the beach in Brazil, men wear tiny speedos and girls wear thong bikinis. While it is up to you what you wear, many English-speakers I spoke to completely condescended the women for wearing these clothes and would never consider wearing a bikini like that. That is because it is engrained in our society that skin = slut. The difference between a thong bikini and a normal bikini (called granny panties by a Brazilian I met) is only a few inches. I saw very obese women wearing tiny bikinis, beautiful girls (I’d say 1/3 girls at Carnaval were gorgeous), and even teens were wearing small bikinis and no one cares! People also go out in cute comfortable clothes with little makeup and look amazing.

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“But Brazilians are just more beautiful,” you say! Possibly, but I think there is something else happening here… Yes, there were insanely gorgeous Brazilians, I probably fell in love every 5 seconds, but maybe is more that they are comfortable in the clothes and the skin that they are in. You can approach them and talk to them with a simple hello. In general, the way that they carry themselves is just more sexy.

I often started the day shy, and then evolved when I realized that any Brazilian I talked to would do their best to have a conversation with me! Regardless if I spoke Portuguese or not! They will ask their cousins, cousin’s dog until they find the right directions for you if you ask. I genuinely tried to speak their language, and I improved a lot, but actually many preferred when I spoke English as they were eager to practice with a real native speaker.

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Met a group of friendly Brazilians on the beach. We were chained in love baha

The amount of joy and warmth absolutely blew my mind. Everyone talked to everyone. They smiled at you, you embraced. Sometimes, you even kissed!

It first started when a Dutch guy I met in the hostel was grabbed and kissed by a Brazilian for a while, but it continued on from there. On the first day of Carnaval I went up to a very cute Brazilian who like 99% of everyone else there only spoke Portuguese. I then said the pickup line “beleza gatinha” (beautiful girl) provided to me by my Brazilian friend Bruno and 10 seconds later I was kissing her. Then, I moved on. All in good fun!

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I am mentioning this because it is alarming for me that people make out with strangers in the middle of the street in the day, but that is because of the culture I come from. It is not nearly as alarming for Brazilians. Brazilians just go for it – guy or girl will aggressively pursue you and make out with you. No violence. No bro-ey showdowns. No slaps in the face. No screaming. It is just a warmer society.

All throughout Carnaval I generally removed myself from the hostel bubble where English and Australians tend to travel in packs and never speak to locals. Instead, I strictly talked to locals! Approaching them on the street, in the metro, in the hostel even. It is so fascinating to talk to someone with a completely different cultural basis, attempt to work out similarities and make a connection through a broken concoction of languages. It’s like a massive puzzle that you don’t have all the pieces for.

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Bruno and I ran into a group of cross dressers and had a hilarious time partying in the street.

Recently, a group of Argentinians asked me how many kisses we give on the cheek in Canada. Haha! Fuck kisses, we don’t even touch each other!

A French friend of mine from Quebec once told me that I was the most open English person he’d ever met – other English people he has met are always more closed. I don’t know for sure, but I just feel that English culture is more closed than Spanish, Portuguse and Italian culture. Perhaps I only know Brazilians on the surface level. There is probably a lot of negative aspects to their culture that I have yet to uncover. I just know my culture, and I know how closed it can be, and it bothers me. I want to live in Rio or somewhere like it.

On the third night of Carnaval I took an Australian out of his bubble and brought him into my world of making friends on the street. He was reluctant the entire time, but he told me that he had one of the best nights of his life! Two of the many many people we talked to on Ipanema beach that night were a couple of girls who were dressed like an angel and a devil. At first, they were apprehensive with me because of my accent, but then they warmed up when they realized I could communicate with them in Portuguese. We danced, laughed and hit it off until one point when they had something to say and I didn’t understand the word. As I would do, and many people who speak another language would do, I would try a different word or explain in a different way, but they didn’t do that. They wouldn’t let this word go and finally we had to depart in frustration because of the language barrier. I wish they could have explained, but its ok – there were tons of other people to talk to.

Ipanema beach is also the gay area of Carnaval. Pride flags mark the territory where gay people can feel comfortable to party alongside straight. It was very inclusive and fun to see gay and straight people partying in a non-segregated way – even if I had to tell every second guy that I’m not gay.

Beach, music, drinks and fun = the perfect life for me and it was all free (except the drinks, of course). I know now that my favourite place to party is on the street talking to strangers. It happened in Halifax when I raged for 5 days at St. Francis Xavier Homecoming, it happened in Montreal on St. Paddy’s day, and it happens on Canada day in Ottawa. I also partied in the street when the Montreal Canadians advanced in the playoffs, when Sydney Crosby scored and Canada won the gold in the 2010 Olympics and even on the streets of the holy city of Jerusalem when I went there a couple years ago. All were fun, but the best time has been in Carnaval. Clubs and bars are often too crowded, aggressive, loud and expensive for my taste. It’s best just to party on the street! Where’s the next street party? I’ll be there! ☺

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Photo by Vincent Twint because I didn’t go. One day…

There was the Sambadrome, but I couldn’t afford it and didn’t wanna take time away from street conversations.

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Carnaval was so awesome I got sad about everything after

Following Carnaval I got pretty depressed. I still have not fully recovered as I have felt very introspective and in my head since Feb 11th. I could not believe what I saw! Millions of people having fun with eachother, with no violence or conflict to be found!

I’ve questioned my priorities, my culture, what I like/dislike and of course my future. I so badly want to find a way to continue exploring, meeting new people, speaking new languages, learning new cultures and partying in the streets when I can. I don’t see the point of going out and blowing over $100 on drinks, cover and cabfare to go out in Ottawa for two hours (bars close at 2am). Might as well save up to go to Carnaval again, or just simply to live in a new place.

I don’t understand why people don’t want to meet others and want to be isolated in the same group of people in the same town. Why not explore and put yourself out there? What are you afraid of? With that, I’ve realized that my curiousity, craving for new things and willingness to move places is why I am a journalist and it is how I want to live my life. But, it is not for everyone. Everyone has their own priorities and things that they want. I am so fortunate that I know what I want to do with my life.

With a lot of soul searching I have decided to drastically limit my drinking. To get fitter, eat healthier, improve my second, third and fourth languages and save up money to move away from Canada to continue meeting new people.

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Getting my ass kicked in football on Ipanema beach by Brazilians made me want to get super fit!

I’ve thought for a long time about making a change and getting back in control of a stricter and fitter lifestyle, but this was finally solidified after a particularly wild night on Ipanema with my friend Niall, and a few other guys. We talked to a thousand people it seemed and had plenty of tequila shots.

20130216-DSCN9413I realized that I didn’t need the shots and can easily just talk to people without it, so I stopped taking them.

Since February 16th, I have only been drunk twice – a vast improvement from this alcohol soaked voyage. Someone who tried to get me to drink said: “why don’t you drink? You are not on vacation!?”

I am NOT on vacation! I am travelling, it is completely different. Travelling is way harder! Look at any one of my blog posts for proof!

In a cloud of introspection I left Rio a week after Carnaval for a beach resort called Ilha Grande – a vacation from my vacation. I was extremely sad to leave Rio and all it had to offer, even after Carnaval. With it’s beautiful sights, nature, beach, good people and large city feel Rio may very well be the city I want to live in longterm. I will always think about how I can move back there.

A la prochaine Rio!

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At Botafogo v. Flamengo

Sunshine, Happiness and Hippies: Home in Argentina

foot sandOh, how things have changed. I’ve stepped into a universe of calm, healthy(ier) living, sun, friendship, relaxation, and comfort. With it, I’ve pretty much lost all inspiration to write – especially freelance stories. Throughout this adventure, my blog has served as a forum for me to vent and right now I don’t feel like venting, rather, bragging about how awesome Argentina is. I am blissful here and have (almost) nothing to complain about. My altitude sickness is gone, my stomach and head feel great, I haven’t been robbed and the bad weather exists only on my Facebook News Feed where people complain about the -40 degree celsius weather in Ottawa and Montreal.

While I greatly appreciated my time in Bolivia and will never forget it, I am so happy to be in a country where my greatest worry is what club to go to at night and if I had a good enough to stay up all night – people don’t go to the club until 2 am and don’t leave till 5 am earliest!

My money is running out, fast, but I’ll deal with that later. While in Bolivia, I could travel 14 hours for 100 Bolivianos ($14) for a semi-cama (reclinable seat with leg rest), in Argentina it costs me about 100 dollars or more! But, and this is a big but, the buses are UNREAL! My semi-cama from Salta to Cordoba featured a free beer, two meals and snacks, TV (all Spanish dubbed, but still), fresh blankets still in their plastic laundry package, extremely comfortable chairs and best of all…A BATHROOM! What a polar opposite this was to the miserable Bolivian buses that had no bathrooms, (probably) flea-ridden blankets (if they had any), seats that felt like there was a metal pole in your ass and blaring music while you tried to sleep.

All is good. Unfortunately, however, I can’t help but think about what I will do when I get back even though there is still almost 2 months left of my trip. I think about it every single day, nearly every hour. It rules my thoughts. It’s terrible. I need a little Eckhart Tolle on my shoulder to tell me to live in the moment and appreciate every second because I may never return here again – not that any moment can ever be the same.

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Presently I’m reading a book called “The Art of Travel” by Alain de Botton and it is helping me seen why I feel the way I do when I travel. The author explains the why by using observations from European artists like Vincent Van Gogh or Edmund Burke to explain how they saw travel, but what about the art of moving cities or countries? I am so positive that I want to leave Ottawa when I get back, but where to next? I constantly find myself asking people that I meet how their city is and if I should move there. I want to work as a journalist, not a freelancer, somewhere, pretty much anywhere. I can see myself in Montreal or Vancouver, but it depends if there are opportunities there. I’m worried.

In “The Art of Travel,” the author explains how before we travel we have an imagined picture in our heads of what the destination that we travel to will be like. We establish this picture in our heads from postcards, guidebooks, photos on the Internet and from stories we hear about the place we visit – kind of like a bird’s eye view. But, when we get there, we realize that the magic can only be viewed through our own eyes; eyes that can experience doubt, negativity, wandering thoughts about the future or past, sickness, and loneliness. These feelings undoubtedly disturb our imagined picture of the destination and for some can be so dispiriting that it discourages them from travel altogether. It’s a shame, really, that we can’t always achieve the ideal we’ve developed in our heads. However, sometimes if you go with the flow, the ideal can sneak up and surprise you.

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In Cordoba, Argentina, I experienced what I figure is the imagined ideal for anyone who travels on vacation to the South. Allow me to explain:

My journey started from the hostel I was staying at, Mate. The hostel was brand new and eager for new guests and good reviews on hostelbookers.com. It was small, kind of like an apartment with five roommates, but it was kept clean and you get free eggs for breakfast :).

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I had planned to CouchSurf in Cordoba, but it didn’t work out because I don’t have a phone – and meeting up without a phone is impossible, so I stayed at Mate for a couple days. I walked around the city a lot, but was generally unimpressed. Barely anyone was around except old and obese people, which was in sharp contrast to the beauties I saw in Salta. This is because Cordoba is a student city, and since all the students were on summer holidays Cordoba lacked most of its population. Also, most people in Argentina spend the hot summer at the beach, by the river or in a small town outside of the city. This is why I hesitated travelling here in the first place – no people equals no fun. But, perhaps if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. So, a Canadian from the hostel and I made a plan to go to a nearby river for the day. We packed light – a towel, bathing suit and sunscreen – and asked the hostel staff for directions to a river. She recommended Cuesta Blanco.

It wasn’t easy to get there. In Argentina, to take a city bus you need an exact amount of coins and they don’t give change. The problem is you barely ever get coins and the only money you can get on your own is 100’s from the bank machine that most vendors don’t like to take. At 5 Argentinian pesos to 1 American dollar, you go through more 100s than you ever want to. To make matters worse, you can only take out 1000 pesos from the bank at a time. For a fee of 20 pesos plus 5$ cash advance on my credit card, taking out just $200 is a rip off!

Anyways, with just enough change we caught the bus we were supposed to get and made it to a bus station outside of the city in a place called Carlos Paz. Carlos Paz looked like I would imagine Costa Rica to look like – a Westernized affluent sun-infused city. There, we caught another bus to Cuesta Blanco. What we thought would be a short trip ended up taking at least 2 hours.

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When we got there, we saw a sign that led to a beach 2km Playa de los Hippies. Needless to say, our plans immediately diverted to this playa. As I walked there I tried to imagine what I would see…a nude beach? Harre Krishnas like in the Isla del Sol? A cloud of weed smoke? John Lennon still alive? After about a half an hour on a dirt road and through a winding trail up a mountain we overlooked one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen. About a hundred people frolicked by a beach in front of crystal clear water surrounded by lush mountains and a baby blue sky.

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Just behind the beach, people had set up tents with the idea of staying days or even weeks by this hippie oasis. There, they would spend the days hiking, playing music, swimming, eating, drinking wine and smoking. Amazingly, after about an hour by the beach a Columbian my Canadian companion had met at Mate Hostel called over to us. He had left the hostel a day earlier with plans to stay at Playa de Los Hippies for a week and, with true South American spirit, he invited us to stay in his tent overnight. We had no long pants or sweaters, but fuck it, this is what travel is all about – spontaneous decisions to sleep on a sandy beach. Am I wrong or is that the fucking ideal!?

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Beautiful Argentinian who came from the north for this magical beach

Overnight we chatted with Argentinians and Brazilians, drank copious amounts of wine and were provided with fresh barbeque pizza that would have been amazing if not for the insane amount of salt added by the drunk cooks. As the only two non-South Americans in our new group of beach friends, we were seen as some of the biggest entertainment. We were different like a pollo negro according to one Argentinian. According to his terrible English translation that means that I am a “fried chicken nigger.” WHAT!? I almost died! He meant no harm and obviously had no idea what he was saying, nor about any fried chicken stereotypes, but somehow the translation came out as such. Talk about communication barriers haha!

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“It is what it is” – our lowly tent at Playa de los Hippies

We slept four to a tiny two-person tent and froze our nuts off, but it wasn’t too too bad – not like those freezing La Paz nights. The next morning, we returned to Cordoba with huge smiles on our faces. One of the best experiences of my trip so far without a doubt!

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That night, I headed to Buenos Aires, the nation’s capital – where I am writing to you right now.

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Buenos Aires observations: it never rains, people are young looking, people are beautiful, people don’t say hello to you on the street, people speak English, if you try and speak English they will switch to Spanish (it’s not only Montreal where this stupid attitude exists);

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Jews immigrated to Argentina following World War 2. So did a bunch of Nazis.

 

there are an infinite amount of awesome parks, graffiti looks incredible, Argentinians care about paint (unlike Juliaca, Peru);

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trains are slow, you can’t transfer buses, getting places takes me 3 hours (four fucking times it took me 3 hours to get somewhere because bus drivers and taxis don’t know where they are going KNOW YOUR FUCKING CITY);

people love to be outdoors, people love exercise, there are palm trees everywhere, it doesn’t get cold (at -5 in the “winter” they stay inside), museums are mostly free, there are pretty much no natives around, it appears to be a patriarchy instead of a matriarchy like in Peru/Bolivia, food is good, street food is better and clubs are shockingly incredible (at least one was…to be explained).

In all, Argentina seems like a great place to live. They provide education to everyone for free, and their universities are highly ranked. Oh ya, and if you want to immigrate here and go to school here you wouldn’t have to pay either (take that out-of-province/international fees Quebec!). They also provide free health care to anyone on their land, so foreigners can travel here, get surgery, then leave. Finally, they subsidize buses, trains and the metro making the prices very low for the wide amount of services they provide.

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My Couch Surfing host Damian and I at an outdoor hipster party

I have had the good fortune to be told all this, been shown all the cool places and to have stayed here for free due to the wonderful community that is Couch Surfing. How? Go online, set up a profile and send off emails to hosts. My host provided me with a room of my own in his spacious condo just outside of downtown, a kitchen to cook in, a tv to watch and daily things to do. We have essentially been roommates for a week and it has gone so well. I am so thankful for this opportunity and definitely plan to host people when I get a place of my own. I mean, if you get jacked you know who did it (Couch Surfing shows references and vouches for you if you are legit). It’s a great way to meet new people and feel like you are travelling even in your own city. Highly recommend it!

Licking salt off the shoulder of an employee before I take a shot of tequila at Club 69 in one of the wildest clubs I've ever been to!
Licking salt off the shoulder of an employee before I take a shot of tequila at Club 69 in one of the wildest clubs I’ve ever been to!

On Thursday night, my host took me to my first Argentinian nightclub experience. As normal in Buenos Aires, we arrive at 2 am and were immediately greeted by ripped dudes in spandex underwear, women in bright spandex bathing suits and a tall lanky man in a yellow spandex zebra suit. Uh oh, had my host taken me to a gay club? Nope, it was just really artsy! As the dj played some of the best electronic music I’d ever heard, these extravagantly dressed spokespeople for the club danced on moving platforms with polls and up on a huge stage in fun choreographed performances. You could even go up to one of the girls sitting on the bar, lick salt off her shoulder and take a free tequila shot. Meanwhile, behind the stage there was a whole other room with an awesome hip-hop/dancehall DJ who played “MC’s Act Like They Don’t Know” by KRS-ONE (one of my faves all time). Also, at this other mini-club other performances occurred like a live rapper and a Michael Jackson impersonator who looked scarily like White Michael’s jean-jacket, curly long hair and large brimmed-hat phase. I had no idea that something this awesome was possible in a club. For performances like this back home we would have to pay top dollar – if they even thought of providing this much stimulation. I generally hate on clubbing, but this was amazing. Oh and by the way, most people (as far as I know) were NOT on drugs! Little lesson for everyone back home who feels like they need drugs to enjoy electronic music – you don’t!

Rollerskates. Hipster.
Rollerskates. Hipster.

Two days ago, Damian, my Couch Surfing host took me to an outdoor free concert/bar under the sun. If you are curious what the definition of hipster is (for some reason), then this is where you’d find it. I saw more ironic moustaches, circular sunglasses and high-wasted jean shorts than you can ever imagine. It was really cool though. Argentina is so trendy and fashionable and they have their own culture and style that isn’t exactly what you see in America. Great place to live if you are young.

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After that, we visited the river in the middle of the city where thousands of Argentinians were running, roller blading (on rollerskates you can rent from vendors in the park), and enjoying the beautiful weather. I always though that in Montreal and Ottawa we had such great summers because thoughout the rest of the year the weather is miserable, but even in a place where the weather is great nearly all of the time they take the time to really enjoy the weather. Brings me back to the question – why does anyone ever live in cold climates – everything is better and everyone is happier in the summer.

My time in Buenos Aires has come to an end. Tomorrow morning I’ll be on a 26 hour bus to Florianopolis, Brazil. I’ve always dreamed of going to Brazil and the time has finally come.

Can’t wait!

Peru: Machu Picchu, Blood Bombs and German Fun

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I left Bolivia, and fuck was I ready to leave. I finished my internship with the Bolivian Express (See final product here this week), and headed to Cusco, Peru to catch up with the gringo trail and see the iconic Machu Picchu (see above).

Merely hours inside Peru I realized that maybe I was a little too harsh on Bolivia. Service, food, danger of theft and disorganization are pretty much the same in Cusco, except things are A LOT more expensive (at least in the touristic areas). At 7 Bolivianos to the Dollar compared with 2.5 Soles to the Dollar, getting screwed not only hurt the spirit, but also the wallet. In fact, I immediately wanted to return to the land of the saltena and stupidly cheap markets.

The major problems I have, I suspect, are common travel problems that most backpackers face. So, when someone tells me they want to travel in the futue I will immediately tell them that they should expect to lose everything and go through daily “ups, downs and crap.” A friend of mine has travelled to 54 countries and not lost or had a single thing stolen. And he spent time in Bolivia and Peru. Freak!

Most of the time I lost stuff it occured when I was rushing or was stressed about something else. I expect that now that I have become a more experienced traveler and am travelling on my own I’ll lose less. I really do feel more confident around the bus stations, restaurants etc, mostly thanks to my vastly improved Spanish skills, but we’ll see.

Another major reason that I didn’t like Bolivia, and I didn’t want to mention it before, is quite frankly because some of the people I was with. When you travel you meet so many people each day. Sometimes you click, sometimes you don’t. No offense, but we didn’t click and I was very glad to move on. ‘Nuff said.

My last hurrah in Bolivia was a trip to Lake Titicaca on the Isla del Sol for the End of the World / End of Capitalism celebration hosted by the Bolivian government. I went through the slow hectic process of getting accredited as a journalist in Bolivia and got a handy press pass for the event. Evidently, I survived the End of the World, but just barely. I spent 12:01 am of December 21st puking my brains out outside of a tent filled with 32 international journalists. Read the story that I pitched to Vice in the next couple days if they decide to take it, if not I’ll post it here or on Forgetthebox.net.

Vice1 Lake IMG_7190I immediately was impressed by the bus in Peru compared to my horrific Bolivian bus experience. Bus employees were courteous and the ride was a comfortable 12 hours overnight to Cusco, Peru. When I arrived I checked in at Loki Hostel, the notoriously dubbed party hoste. There I spent a few days, including Christmas, before I headed to Machu Picchu on Boxing Day.

Loki is a well-oiled gringo-churning machine. There are five Loki hostels and counting… 3 in Peru (Lima, Mancora, Cusco), La Paz (Bolivia), and Salta (Argentina). They all exist as a sort of backpacking cult – when you go to one, most people visit another. I plan to go to the La Paz and Salta Lokis. And they deserve the business in my opinion. Delicious food, clean rooms, lots of clean bathrooms, soap and toilet paper (huge deal and very rare), and a legendary party atmosphere. One of the main attractions is Loki’s own drink the Blood Bomb. Always trying to beat the record for most Blood Bombs at one time, owners and volunteer bartenders working in exchange for discounted food and board line up glasses of Red bull topped with shots of vodka and grenadine. The shots are then lit on fire and toppled over like dominoes into the glasses of Redbull to the chagrin of the Loki-party goers.

20121223-IMG_7516The thing about Loki is that you get trapped there. With all the comforts of the West for such a cheap price many find themselves stuck in the hostel for days on end. Drunk nights turn into hangovers, which turn into hangover food, which turn into sweatpant Skyping, which turn into more Blood Bombs and then another night.

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Sure, judge me because I wasn’t cowering the city for Peruvian contact, but I learned a lot from the people at Loki and for me that’s part of the experience. That being said, I did walk around the city a bunch, got in conversations with taxi drivers, servers and market cooks, tried the local street food that gave me the shits (a common theme for all backpackers in South America). But, I spent far more time with the Europeans, Canadians and Australians I met at Loki. Australians are EVERYWHERE by the way. They are by far the travellers I’ve seen the most of. They are so much like Canadians it’s scary. I’d probably move there if it wasn’t so isolated.

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At Loki I had a delicious Christmas dinner filled with fresh bread and cheeses, turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes before I left the next morning on my Inca Jungle Trek to Machu Picchu.

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The Jungle Trek is basically for people that didn’t have the foresight to book the Inca Trail six months in advance and who don’t feel like doing the 5 day Salkantay trek where you sleep in tents and walk 89 km.

The Jungle trek started with a mountain bike ride down a couple massive mountains, but was not nearly as fun or reliable as my Death Road tour (+1 for Bolivia). Our guide Abraham spoke fluent English and was pretty cool, but no Puma (Pampas Tour) or even Rylan (Death Road). He’d been a guide for 7 years and you get the feeling that he knows what he is doing and it’s all part of the plan. For the four-day trek, answering our bitching complaints and questions, and for making sure everything was on schedule and secure. Apparently Abraham only makes about $100 for the whole thing and that doesn’t go as far as you think in the relatively expensive Peru. What a shame.

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Our group, suitably dubbed the “Gringo Elite,” by one of the Australians was compiled of two Germans, two Dutchies, three Australians, two Canadians, two South Koreans and one Russian. For many of our photos, we did a thumbs up and didn’t smile in honour of “German Fun,” because Germans have no fun :P.

The trek through the mountains and along the historic Inca trail invented by the ancient conquerers to get from Cusco to Machu Picchu was pretty incredible. I especially liked the raging rapids of the Sacred River that run all the way into the Amazon river and into the Atlantic ocean.

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Unlike Salkantay or the Inca Trail we stayed in comfortable beds in either rural homes or in hostels. There, we had an opportunity to eat together, get to know each other and of course drink. I can’t believe that I am saying this, but the highlight of the whole trek (including seeing Machu Picchu), was the night we got absolutely hammered playing Kings on a sidewalk in a small town. The game got pretty out of hand and even our guide got hammered. What ensued was a hilarious gringo experience drinking with local old Peruvian men at a bar then taking over the dance floor of a nearby club. Definitely the Gringo Elite we all know and hate haha.

The next day we went zip lining and had fun, but it wasn’t nearly as good as the zip lining I did in Quebec.

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Finally, after a relatively leisurely three days we arrived in a beautiful town just below Machu Picchu mountain. We rested there that night in our chill hostel rooms with Seinfeld and Greece on TV. At 4 am we woke up and began our mission up the mountain. I was at the front of the pack when the gates opened at 5 am for the hike straight up to Machu Picchu. The rain was coming down and this part of the trek was far from easy. Thousands of rock steps winded up the mountain and with the high altitude you were bound to sweat, a lot.

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Many people chose the more chicken route of taking a bus up, but it costs 9$ and takes away from the experience in my opinion. Walking up kind of felt like the Spartan Race and I was pretty pumped when I got to the top in just about 50 minutes.

However, instead of catching the sun rise, we were met with rain, rain and more rain. Cold, chilled and wet Abraham led our tour of Machu Picchu for two hours, but I honestly couldn’t appreciate it as much due to the fact that I was getting soaked. My trusty Gore-Tex rain jacket couldn’t even hold up and the papers that I thought would be safe in those pockets got wet – including my visa and passport.

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For the entire four day trek I lugged my tripod for the sole purpose of taking an HDR (High Dynamic Range photo where three photos at different exposures are merged on Photoshop) of Machu Picchu, but the clouds blocked my way. Finally, by about 2:30pm, 6.5 hours in the sun stated to break the clouds and I got a chance to get my HDR photo and a couple stupid gringo elite shots as well.

Machu Picchu HDRWe spent the rest of the night in town until our 9:30pm train (delayed to 11pm because a few Americans were sold tickets for a different date and had their seats given away). Along the way the two Germans and one of the Dutchies and I played a card game called Yanif on the table in the train. The Israeli-invented game is actually one of the best card games out there and I quickly became obsessed. While we played, everyone on the bus slept and we didn’t arrive in Cusco until 4am.

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Then, I checked into MilHouse hostel for a change from Loki (I ended up spending my days at Loki as my friends were there and it was an all-round better vibe).

After my 24 hour day, I had a recovery day, which meant uploading and editing my photos and making the switch from iPhoto to Adobe Lightroom. I can’t state any more strongly how much of a revolutionary switch this was. I put everything on my External Harddrive as I cleaned up all the remnants and hard-drive sucking originals of iPhoto. I spent all day and into the night deleting photos and making some fun edits in Lightroom as you can see from my photos

The next day was New Years Eve and I was feeling on top of the world. I made plans to go out for dinner then to party with my Loki friends and Gringo Elite in Loki, then go to the massive New Years Eve celebration in Cusco. I got to talking to a couple cute Argentinian girls in Spanish and they wanted to see my photos, particularly the HDR one, so I pulled out my computer and plugged in my harddrive…and I waited…and nothing. It wouldn’t appear! The harddrive with my entire journalism portfolio of videos, articles and resumes. The hard drive with all my photos including important family photos. The hard drive with movies, audio books and TV shows… WOULD NOT TURN ON! My happiness came crashing down in an instant. I’d rather lose my computer or my camera and get it insured than to lose all my important information. Information is so finite.

I went out that night really pissed off and decided to drink a lot because I was angry., which is really unlike me.

We had dinner and went to Milhouse to play Kings, but even that pissed me off. These people kept “vetoing” the good rules in favour of stupidly judgemental ones and one guy even yelled at me for playing the Sevens rule like it is supposed to be played – with fuck yous and reversals, not Happy New Year and continuing). Obviously, this is super arbitrary and shouldn’t have pissed me off, but these United Kingdom/Australian cocky bros got to me.

I retreated to Loki where the party was raging and had a couple Blood Bombs before departing to the main square. Cusco is a popular New Year destination because thousands of people wearing yellow and throwing yellow confetti circle the main square at midnight to bring a prosperous and successful New Year. It was chaos! Everyone was hammered, drinking beers on the street and shooting fireworks, one of which hit me right in the chin. After one lap around the square the mood changed. Three girls had lost their camera or their phone or both. The tears flowed and I tried to help them search through the rubble, but just like Simba running against the oncoming stampede, there was no hope.

I helped my Canadian friend into a cab home and returned to the street for a weird meat, egg, French fry and lettuce burger. Wasn’t bad actually. Next thing I know I’m back at Loki drinking more and “Thrift Shop” comes on. Macklemore is officially HUGE (42 million+ YouTube views, Ellen, Jimmy Fallon, #1 in Australia, played in Loki Peru etc.)

Partying was fun, but I was still so angry about my hard drive situation and sad for the girls who lost stuff.

The next morning I got up early to try and fix the hard drive. I looked online for options, but everything online was either defeatist or said they’d charge me $100 just for the program to try and save some of the content. I suppose it was the stress that I put on it after transferring so many photos to it. A couple hours of stressful searching then BAM! – the hard drive reappeared and it’s all-good. Suddenly the sun was out and I was happy. Its amazing how u can be so down in the dumps then it works out. I felt so silly for being so upset, but I guess it’s natural.

Now I am back in La Paz in my ‘hood of Sopacachi. I sorted out my Brazil visa after a long process and $65 and am officially hitting up Carnaval 2013!

A couple Loki/Gringo Elite friends will be here in La Paz in a couple days and we will meet up this weekend for a couple birthdays. Monday I’m off to the Salt Flats, then to Argentina for a completely different experience.

Finally a happy post eh! Feelin good!

Happy New Year!

The Art of a Bender: Thoughts From the Maritimes

It hit me yesterday at St. Francis Xavier University Homecoming. I had been partying every day for five days straight. My teeth were sticky, my eyes were reduced to blood-shot slits, my hair was oily, my t-shirt was nasty with sweat from a mini “curls for the girls” workout a couple days before… I was on a bender.

You know you are on a university bender when you realize that the peanut butter you finger-banged at some random afternoon pre-drink was the last time you ate since the three strips of bacon you absolutely needed at breakfast.

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Summer 50% off deal on Porter Ottawa to Halifax cost me $266. Can’t go wrong with that! 

Getting the voyage started off right with some free beer and the healthiest thing I’ll eat all week.

I was inspired to go because so many of my fellow suburban bro(hemian)s have made the pilgrimage out east for the scenery and the fishing so I thought I’d check it out.

Ya right! Who am I kidding? They are there for the booze, parties and to get as far away from Ottawa as they can afford. I wanted to find out for sure…

As a recent university graduate who attended a party university and who has attended the two most famous homecoming weekends in Canada (Queens and St. Francis Xavier University), I wanted to “live the dream” once more and party like I just changed from Poli Sci into Accounting for the money (isn’t everyone in business these days?).

Perhaps when I rushed to hand in my final exam paper at Concordia last May I was hastily skipping out on the best party times I will ever have.

Handing in my final academic paper this past April got me pretty pumped up. I was definitely glad to be done.

Or not… Who cares if I’m still partying with people who are in my age bracket. No one cares if someone is 20 or 22…at least they shouldn’t. Judge me if you want. Since graduating in May I have never felt awkward for partying with university students. The window of opportunity, though, won’t last much longer.

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Sitting in the Halifax airport looking back on a five day bender where I met dozens if not hundreds of people I may never see again, fallen “in love” on at least six occasions (seven if you count my airport soul mate from 30 minutes ago), and, of course, poisoned my body to an extremely inhuman extent, I wonder if there are lessons to take away from it…

At the same time, I insist that drinking and drugs is not necessary, at all. In fact it can take away from the experience. All drinking does is put you into the now. If you can keep your spirits up and enjoy yourself there is absolutely no reason to do it.

Eckhart Tolle wrote The Power of Now. Read it.

And what a NOW experience I had!

St. FX is like an American university that you would expect university to be. Everyone plays sports, drinks copious amounts of alcohol and owns every piece of clothing and paraphernalia from the campus clothing store. Blue X’s are everywhere. X is probably the coolest letter to have in a school name followed closely by Z like at the Zoo in UMass Amherst.

You know I had to get into it too! My favourite white T was smothered in blue and white paint – a sort of rustic looking X. I also painted my face blue and white under my eyes and wore an X bandana. There are photos out there somewhere in Facebook land, but I haven’t been able to locate them just yet.

School spirit at its best.

Each student counts down the days until they get their X-ring. A gold square ring donned by every single one of the university’s alumni. But get this. For a guy with a larger finger, they could spend up to $1100 on a ring! Yikes!

The X-RING for a modest $1100.

As for the town of Antigonish, where St. FX is located, it is extremely small with a local population less than its student population. Its rolling hills and blue skies (when it’s not raining and mucky) really do honour to the stories of the Maritimes I hear and watch in many Heritage moment government-paid-for commercials. I can see why my good friend who I was visiting fell in love with it.

On this particular weekend, Antigonish was howling. Saturday morning started with 8am morning pancake mixers for many. For others that couldn’t peel their face off the carpet floor they found themselves sleeping on, the day started a little later.

Pancake mixer. Green pancakes? Glad I wasn’t there for this guy…

The morning rituals vary on any given day-drink bender… Smoke a bowl of weed, drop a shot of vodka in some OJ, finish the beers on the counter… all allegedly cure the hangover and pull your screaming stiff muscles into a shithole of fuckedupness even when it hasn’t yet recovered, let alone ceased being intoxicated.

DON’T try and remember what happened the night before. That time will come later.

Jellow shots following a pancake mixer. Some of these little blue cups were double shots. Oh by the way, this was at an all-girl household.

Make sure that you try to attend as many house parties as possible. Predrinks and house mixers are definitely the best way to meet cool and fun people. The bar/club/pizza parlour outside the club is never ideal, but you should go to them later anyways.

If you are worried about the music at a predrink/party, step up and plug in your music. Some words of advice for this. First, don’t use Youtube unless you are prepared to be there to change the next song with another tab open to avoid the awkward silence. 8tracks.com will work well enough. Second, don’t cut off songs midway you jerk. Third, acoustic/rock/hip hop is totally fine to listen to at a party. Fourth, don’t play dubstep. Ever.

Like any bender there were songs that come up again and again. One of them was Old Crow Medicine Show “Wagon Wheel,” another was “Ho Hey” by the Lumineers, another was one of my favourites of the summer: “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore. I can’t believe how big this has gotten! I’m so proud of Macklemore. #Sharkfacegang :P.

How places like Antigonish can build up a downtown core with cafes, antiques and poster shops without planning out an affordable grocery store in the area never ceases to amaze me. The same can be said for North Hampton, Massachusetts – the lesbian capital of America neighbouring UMass Amherst – where there are more yoga studios per capita than in all of India (not a fact).

Cool little granola cafe in the Nish.

Now, the same can’t be said for Halifax. It seems, from my short-lived three-day experience there, that the old harbour town was well thought out. They centralize the students in a pure, stereotypical student ghetto as far away as possible from the downtown core. They also have crunched drunk food to one small strip, so anyone with a craving for a sloppy Willy’s poutine or the Halifax classic, donair, with a huge shot of its famous jizz-like sauce substance can get it close by.

Photo by My Sous Chef is a Dog WordPress blog

But, in the end I did not really like Halifax as a city in my short few days there. I found it too much like Ottawa, the place I have experienced most in life, by far.

I had to try all the spots though. At Maxwell’s Plumb you can get a Brewmaster 80oz beer contraption for 23 bucks along with a steak dinner that costs just $6.99! It kind of made me sad cause I will never ever chow down on delicious cow muscle for that cheaply in a restaurant again.

80oz Brewmaster pitcher at Maxwell’s Plumb in Halifax

Similarly, at Ale House you can get a pound of wings (literally the best wings I’ve ever had) and a pitcher for $15! The also have the waitresses dress in cute little Scottish dresses that are oh so wrong, but oh so right! I’d like to make a shout-out to the first love of my life on the trip. The waitress who served us – the rowdy group of 7 brohemians. I will always love…your wildly interesting name!

Group photo at Ale House with our amazing server.

After we left her, we went to Split Crow where you can get 26 pints for $65! What a deal!

A small portion of the tray of beers at Split Crow.

Except before you go running there, the waiter there is an absolute jerk. The guy refused to split the check. Apparently, after 15 years this is the first time anyone has asked for a split check. It’s a button on the waiter screen buddy, its not 1845. I’m a waiter, I know.

A crappy thing about the East Coast is that the obsession with beer does not translate to good prices at the beer store (NSLC). Any American racking up a 30 rack of Keystone for $14.99 or a $10 bottle of Rubinoff vodka would cringe at the sight of the $21 12 packs of the cheapest beer. Regardless, the beer is pretty cheap at the bar, so that’s good.

The best time I had in Halifax though was at the Pogue. The Pogue is the definition of what the Halifax hype is all about. It’s the definition of what university hype is all about. Hundreds of gorgeous (and pretty nice) girls, a live band and cheap beer. If you were there last Thursday, I probably talked to you.

Something to note for any bender is to no matter how drunk you are, do your best to pull your mind away from the initial judging and remember their name. No matter how much everyone hates when they forget a name, everyone still calls you out on it. An easy trick is to associate the name with something you can think of quickly like Diana = Princess Diana or Barbara = Ba-Ba-Ba-Barbara Ann (for the last one remember not to sing that out loud). You will also likely, have a discussion about the name. My sympathies out there for all those with a difficult to pronounce name! But when you get it, those are the easiest ones to remember. The thing with names is that you don’t know if it’s useful to remember them if it’s going to be a one second encounter, so you pass it off until you get remotely interested and its important to remember. Avoid this impulse and just remember it!

Another thing. Don’t fall in love.

No matter how much you both think jellyfish are cool animals, like doing shrooms at the cottage and listening to Bon Iver you cannot invest yourself emotionally into people you see at bars or parties or airports. I’m not saying to be cold, but you have to remember that you probably won’t see these people again and that the strongest validation comes from within, not that random hookup.

Screw it! Fall in love.

Forget what I just said about not falling in love! When that person throws on Gangnam Style and knows the entire dance and you think it’s the coolest thing ever, go tell her! When you see that cute guy/girl, go up and talk to them! If I have learned anything from meeting thousands and thousands of people throughout my life, the most liberating and fun times are when you completely release any inhibitions and be utterly and wholly honest. Talk to them on the bus, in the airport, on the street, in the bar, wherever!

To repeat: Talk to everyone. There is absolutely no reason to be shy especially on vacation. As a friend I got to know on the bus back from Antigonish to Halifax put it: “Its crazy how you meet people that you know you’d be close with or have a chance with if you met under different circumstances. Makes life cool though.”

Indeed :).

For example, at Homecoming I saw this cute, jean jacket-wearing hipster girl and immediately went up to talk to her. We hit it off immediately and went up to her room to look at her hat collection…

“I can’t,” she said.

“Why, do you have a boyfriend?”

“No, a girlfriend.”

Stop the presses!

Whatever though, the girl was awesome and we hit it off immediately. I had found a new partner in crime at Homecoming :P. No harm, no foul. It’s never a waste of time to meet a new person, so go for it!

There is also nothing wrong with adding them on Facebook afterwords either. You may see them later on, who knows. You can always block them if things get weird…

That’s enough random thoughts for now.

I’m about to touch down here in Ottawa. Back to work and a break from benders.

Next stop, South America! Stay tuned :P!