Archive for February, 2009

Good News from Singapore

February 26, 2009

I spontaneously burst into bouts of smiles and shouts all day. I am moving to Pasadena this Fall.

I owe you many blog posts as a result of my tardiness. I will catch you up on El Salvador when I get a chance — and my drug bust bus ride.

I flew home on February 19th for an interview at Caltech. After, I had a couple days to regroup and then I flew to Singapore, via Beijing, on the morning of the 24th. I had a ten hour layover in China, so my total travel time was over 34 hours. My ticket was only $400. However, I definitely recommend flying direct!

Singapore is a city I have been infatuated with for a few years. It is a place I considered living. It seamlessly fuses East and West — Mandarin and English. Truly, Singapore is an incredible city. It is ungodly diverse and there is a palpable energy — these people know they are the future and are cashing in on it. If I weren’t going to get my ass kicked by mathematics and physics, I would start my career here.

I walked over15  miles today — I am on pace for five fulls meals. I am on my way to take advantage of the National Museum of Singapore’s free evening admission policy. After, I will have another tantalizing food court meal.

I am on the road and posting regularly.

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February 17, 2009

I am staying at a friend of a friend’s amazing compound in a suburb of San Salvador. Believe it or not, I had another crazy bus experience getting here. Three guys on my bus had fake passports and were probably drug runners. I will update you all later this evening or tomorrow

Gearing Up for an Adrenaline Crash

February 15, 2009

*No time to proof-read! Don’t judge me for my illiteracy.

I hopped a ride to the Boquete bus station yesterday at 8:35 with Mr. Mullin, on his way to his weekly golf match. I wasn’t exactly sure how to get to San Jose, Costa Rica — but I was confident I would be able to figure it out. I arrived as a bus to David was pulling out of the station, and I threw my mochilla aboard and departed. We made it to David as my next bus was leaving. I had to chase down the tiny minivan that Latin Americans call a cooperativo. We inched our way to La Frontera (the Costa Rican border) and arrived a couple minutes before noon. I stamped-out of Panama, walked a few hundred meters to Costa Rica, and stamped-in. Now I needed to get to San Jose.

I asked around, and everyone informed me that the next bus wouldn’t leave until 15:30. Sitting around in La Frontera didn’t sound appealing, and dozens of cars were heading into CR every minute. I failed terribly in my attempts to hitch a ride with any of the travellers. However, there was a truck stop a few hundred meters ahead, and it looked promising. I questioned the border guard for a couple minutes and he assured me it was safe, and probably the only way I would find a vehicle going directly to San Jose.

I walked over to the truck stop and spoke to a few drivers. One dude who was fresh out of the shower and elegantly clothed in a bath towel offered to give me a lift. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, and I would have saved loads of time by taking the bus. However, that wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.

San Jose is only 350 well-paved kilometers from La Frontera. It shouldn’t take more than five hours to get there. It took us eleven.

My driver, Alex, and myself hit the road around 12:30. After only five minutes, we pulled over into another rest stop to shoot the shit with his buddy, Jose. After 20 minutes of meaningless banter, these amigos decided to caravan to San Jose. I am curious whether or not this is a normal day for Alex. Either way, he was extremely excited to break the monotony of his career with all these compadres. He turned up the regaeton and wailed his super horn at every girl we saw for the next 11 hours — he especially didn’t spare teenage girls. It’s a good thing he was only transporting clothes and shoes.

We made uncountably many stops along our journey, including a 16:30 meal. We hit a cheap roadside joint with authentic Panamanian food. I kept it simple and wanted to continue my authentic truck driving experience so I ordered the same thing as my amigos. This was my first substantial meal of the day, so I feasted on rice, black beans, fried chicken, fried bananas, a vegetable stew, a gross mayonnaise based coleslaw and a pineapple licuado. Like usual with this pair, conversation was light and varied from futbol to unspeakable things about their wives — things I could only half make out and certainly didn’t want to believe. When our check came, they just started walking, signalling that the bill was mine. I had no problems with this and happily shelled out the $4 for their almuerzos. This is all I ended up paying for the whole experience.

The truck driver’s radio channel was starting to come alive when we got back on the road at 17:10. I guess drivers were starting to get tired, so the ‘fellas had a few competitions and guys played ridiculous Hollywood audio clips. There was a mooing competition and the highlight of the audio clips was when someone put on part of the Leroy Jenkins World of Warcraft dungeon raid. We stopped for hot chocolate at 19:30. Café and candy at 20:30. Baño and tortas around 22:00. These guys were ridiculous.

My anxiety kept increasing as these guys drew out our journey into an unfamiliar city and country. I didn’t know where they were going to arrive in San Jose, and I only had a vague idea of some hostel options. I started probing into this at lunch, and they assured me not to worry — they knew just the place.

After arriving at their unloading station at 23:30, they escorted me to a moderately busy street, hailed me a cab, and sent me to their recommended hotel. I got out of my taxi with the driver telling me to go straight to the hotel and that this neighborhood is terribly dangerous. I was obviously feeling excellent when I learned the hotel was full. There was another hotel around the corner, and a shady guy standing outside my original who tried to escort me over there. I didn’t have many options, so I walked over, negotiated and set up booby traps in my room! This was by far the most dangerous place I have ever slept. I have photos to show off when I get home. I left first thing this morning — only paying half my negotiated price. This is the first time I have stiffed anyone, but this guy ripped me off and this place was simply terrible. He should be glad I even gave him $4.

I found a nicer area and hostel to put my backpack in for the day. Walked around for about 8 hours and am going to catch a 3:00 AM bus tonight to San Salvador. I should be greeted with the comfort of a friend of a friend. Thanks Janna and Mario.

Something came up back home, so I had to change my schedule and had time pressures. This is the most at risk I have felt since I have been traveling — I have been on edge for about 34 hours. It was definitely a learning experience.

Itinerary Update

February 14, 2009

Panama City is another stratified Latin American metropolis — but with quite a few more norteamericano retirees. El centro is packed with modern high rises and shopping plazas — whereas, the outskirts are filled with enterprising Colombians and Panamanians who are looking to take advantage of this naive influx of Americans. This city didn’t quite do it for me.

I spent two days in PC before making my way to the Panamanian highlands and the town of Boquete. I am staying with an extremely generous couple, the Mullins, who are family friends from Newport Beach that made emigrated to Panama three years ago. Their community is incredible and defied all of my expectations. The Mullins are pioneers and will be greatly rewarded for their vision.

I went on an epic tour of a coffee plantation this afternoon. It doesn’t take long to become a coffee snob. Sorry mates.

Something came up recently, and I had to push my plans forward a bit, so now I am scrambling to make it to El Salvador. I am jumping on a bus to San Jose, CR in the morning and will spend a day there, and then another day in Nicaragua.

I am coming home for three days on February 20th. I will keep you all updated.

I have so many ideas right now. I can’t contain myself. How can we design an experiment to test whether our three dimensional experiences are embedded in a higher dimensional space? I have no idea and will go crazy thinking about this.

Life as Stereotypes.

February 11, 2009

This is the story of 11 castaways, who braved tortuous seas for the promise of paradise. The crew contains:

The Crazy Capitan — so stereotypical, that he must have spawned the stereotype. Salty and shabby, with legs that barely functioned he still found the strength to down at least 12 beers a day.

First MATE Maria — ‘ol capitan’s flirtatious and fiery 34 year-old mistress. Maria was the designated chef and dance instructor.

Chuck — the insane Vietnam vet. According to Chuck, the United States MUST invade Iran, because Iran is on the verge of obtaining nuclear weapons and WILL use them. They WILL use them because Ahmadinejad and Khomenei are crazy and irrational. Yes, I agree, the best way to deal with crazy and irrational leaders who probably already have nuclear weapons is to send your overstretched and demoralized military into their country. Not to mention, the only mistake the US has made with regards to Iraq was having a state department that didn’t believe in American interests. Chuck never left the boat on our six day adventure. Chuck was fucking crazy.

Johann — an extremely adventurous and upbeat Swede who put even my hunger to shame. That was a first.

Kristoff and Kristina — German siblings who were both super-human. Massive people and both very intelligent. The intriguing aspect was that they are both legitimate socialists, who had the most severely entrenched communist convictions of any one I had ever met. I supremely disagree with the extremity of their beliefs, but was able to restrain myself from challenging them. Interesting people.

Thomas — received a 1st in English from Claire College, Cambridge. Probably the person I could spend the most time with. Thomas is the classic drifter. He grinded it out for a few years in an unsatisfying career as a financial consultant, and is now travelling the wold regaining sanity and self. His dream is to open a delicatessen and wine shop. I hope he follows through with this.

Humberto and Mai-Lynn — I love this couple, or whatever their status is. I asked a few questions, but their relationship, and Mai-Lynn’s background remains very mysterious. Humberto spent five frustrating years in med school, and then followed his passion, by opening a bar in his home-town of Florence, Italy. It sounds like it was the place to go in Florence for about 30 years, and after meeting Humberto, I don’t doubt it. I don’t know much about Mai-Lynn’s background, but she has been drifting for 15 years. Working and travelling on the run for 15 years. She was freakishly athletic and easy-going. She actually reminded me a lot of my mother.

Matthias — this other German lad was pretty introverted and independent. I really don’t know much about him, but enjoyed his company.

 Our two-day voyage from Cartagena to the San Blas was intense. Capitan claimed there were storm swells in excess of 10 meters, and winds above 35 knotts. More than half the crew puked their brains out — including me.

The San Blas were absurdly epic. A 370 island archipelago of tiny, white-sand, palm-tree lined islands with the distant outline of Panama in the background. Some were inhabited by members of the Kuna tribe, and I befriended a couple.

I will attempt to do the setting justice with photos in a few weeks. This internet cafe is closing. Chau.

Sailing and Spanish!

February 4, 2009

Cartagena is inspirational. The colors and architecture. The energy and beauty of the people. The history and diversity. It’s hard to place, but it’s palpable.

Most of the hostels I have stayed at have been excellent and full of colorful and unique characters. Many of whom were outstandingly worldly and educated. This is certainly not the current situation at the North Star Backpacker’s hostel. The hostel itself is fine and the staff are incredible, but this place is filled with a bunch of boobs who want to sit inside all day  drinking beer and watching TV. Anyways, after making the mistake of tagging along for a meal and nauseatingly ignorant conversation last night, it has provided inspiration to get out and do my own thing.

I left my hostel this morning at 8:15 and had a delicious fruit salad for $.50 on the beach. I walked around the hotel district for about an hour before ending up at a bakery which had been recommended to me by my hostel staff for its coffee. I had my first cup of Colombian coffee, accompanied by a cheese-filled pastry! It lived up to the hype.

I was hoping to sail to Panama via the San Blas Islands, so I walked to the club nautico marina and started talking to some captains. I spoke with a bunch of people and couldn’t find anyone leaving this week, until I met Maria and got signed up to disembark with her tomorrow! We are going to spend five days island hopping in the San Blas en-route to Panama! I am going to learn to sail and practice my Spanish! Epic.

After introductions and formalities, they put me straight to work and I helped prep the sail for tomorrow. I sailed a lot with my grandparents as a child, but I didn’t pay enough attention and am nowhere close to self sufficient on a ship. Learning to sail is something I have wanted to do for the last few years, so I am going to absorb as much as I can.

On my way to the marina, I had walked by a small little open-air blue shack that called itself a restaurant. It caught my eye because it didn’t have a menu and was one of the only spots that already had customers at 11:00. I was compelled and stopped there for lunch. The place was packed, and after talking to a few locals, I learned that almost everyone there worked on the ships in the local marinas. The place has a fixed daily multi-course menu that costs $1.70. My first course was a limey soup with yucca, fish parts and some other vegetables. Second course was beef with a green  coconut rice and bean curry. A couple plantains were served on the side. They also served me a drink with a small amount of rum, some juice and water. I disobeyed my grandmother’s strict warnings and couldn’t resist drinking the whole thing. I gradually weened myself onto South American water and have been drinking everything, everywhere for the last two weeks. I think my system has adapted and I haven’t had even a slight problem.

I walked up to a fort that overlooks the city. It was complete with a maze of tunnels and a barrage of cannons. It exceeded expectations. I spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the Spanish Colonial downtown. The whole city is very touristy, but for some reason it doesn’t bother me the same way as in Cusco. The highlight of my afternoon was finding a street vendor who was selling old textbooks from the ’50s to ’70s. I have been craving something mathematical, so I was ecstatic when I found an excellent probability text, and one on space-based communications. Something to keep me occupied en-route to Panama!

I will update you all from Panama in approximately six days.

Cartagena, Colombia

February 3, 2009

I love Lima. The only difference between Miraflores and Santa Monica is that prices have a $/s next to them. Centro is raw and has perfectly preserved buildings — Argentina should follow this example. The food is incredible. Trussels is 100 meters from my hostel. Larcomar is the nicest mall I have ever seen. However, as is fact in all of South America, stratification is extreme. I have never seen worse living conditions than the shanty downs built on coastal sand dunes south of Lima.

Despite my affection for this city, as has become routine on this adventure, I will say goodbye to Lima tomorrow. I am flying to Cartagena, Colombia in the morning. I am going to spend a couple days in this Spanish Colonial World Heritage Site, then try to hitch a ride on a sailboat north, through the San Blas Islands, to Panama. We’ll see what happens.