i could practically see home, the united states, from there in bogota, colombia. i had been traveling for 23 straight months - the last seven completely overland from the bottom of south america - and i was tired. only central america lay between me and the comforts of home.
but then i went to brasil. cripe! thats practically all the way back down to the bottom of the continent, you schtup! i know, but i just couldnt resist.
uhhh, well, carnaval, the worlds biggest party. the (free) rolling stones concert on copacabana beach in rio de janeiro. the U2 concert in sao paulo. nicole facuri, a fantastic brasilian girl i had met in buenos aires...
oh, and because i am addicted to traveling of course.
so anyway, that insane month in brasil is a story reserved for the barstool, but heres a quick summary for you:
- a drunk, sleep-walking dutchman pissed on me while i was sleeping in a dorm bed.
- i partied with two crazy, girl-chasing swedes in sao paulo.
- i screamed and danced in the streets during carnaval.
- i punched two different guys within 45 minutes; one who was trying to mug me, the other who had just jammed his hand up nicoles ass.
- i met up with tommi and his friend derek from the netherlands and we hung out one night at a nightclub filled with prostitutes.
- i saved a kid from drowning while snorkeling near ilha grande (the big island.)
- i attended a rolling stones concert with 1.5 million others on the beach.
- i got wasted out of my mind and had to flee on gimpy legs from a street riot.
- i lost 150 reias ($75) over a period of three days and (wrongly) accused nicole of taking it (she almost walked out on me and our $300+/night hotel room on the beach.)
- i made up with nicole after wrongly accusing her of taking my cash (make-ups are always fun.)
- i attended the U2 concert in sao paulo before which a crowd of brasilians surrounded me and chanted my name.
- while riding on a bus from sao paulo to rio, 15 locals noticed that i was traveling alone so they invited me to sit with them. i ended up playing guitar and singing for the entire bus.
- i sipped capirihnas and ate shrimp on perhaps the two most famous beaches in the world: ipanema and copacabana.
- i stood beneath the famous christ the redeemer statue in rio.
- i watched a guy (trained in capoeira) leap backwards over a stick held seven feet (two meters) high in the air by his friends.
- i visited nicole in her home of brasilia where i got into a spitball fight with her seven year old son at a posh brasilian churrascaria restaurant...
and i somehow made it back alive to bogota.
i hit the ground running in bogota. i was ready to speed across central america and wrap up my grand voyage. i spent only two days in the capital of colombia and then headed north to medellin, purported to have the most beautiful women in all of colombia.
they were mostly disappointing, except for the professional dancers at this club called
mangos. they were incredible and, therefore, untouchable.
instead of a beautiful chica i spent my time with robbie from england, a guy whom i had met a month earlier in bogota. we drank quite a bit in some fashionable clubs. we visited pablo escobars grave, the one-time drug lord of medellin. i also met up with gino from the u.s. at a club one night - you get to know all the backpackers when you travel through colombia because so many people are (ridiculously) scared to travel that safe, friendly country.
after a few days in medellin i headed north to cartagena, colombia, an old colonial town on the carribean coast at the very top of south america. i met ben from england there and spent a couple days walking around the stunning town with him. we met nico from germany and together traveled to the beach town of taganga. we spent a few days there, sitting on the beach in rented chairs and sipping cold beers. we also ate some fresh fish that was caught minutes before we ate it.
one night though we were hassled by rogue cops and another night at a bar a cop walked into the place with his machine gun drawn, waving it around like a water-pistol. but other than that i felt safe in colombia. it really is an amazing country. i highly recommend a visit.
we then returned to cartagena, the jump-off point to central america. however the darien gap lay like a violent sleeping dog between colombia and panama. we needed a plan to get around it since road travel is out of the question. ben told me how he was getting there: sailing for six days across the carribean on a yacht owned by a french guy who was sailing around the world.
how much does it cost? i asked ben.
$250, including everything, he replied.
it was $200 to fly. i headed to the marina and got a spot on the ship. like my trip to brasil, these stories are better told over a few beers, but i will say that it was a highlight of my entire trip. we visited the mythical san blas islands on the way to panama, where we laid anchor for a couple days just off the shores of an island that we had to ourselves. we passed our time diving from the ship, drinking carribean rum, snorkeling amongst the twisting reefs, and eating meals served by our skilled french chef.
the only bad part was having to share the boat with jenny from sweden. she is easily the biggest bitch i have ever met. she lied. she yelled. she threw fits. she sang annoying songs. she stole.
and she was as ugly as shit too.
she was eventually kicked off the boat for being an unbearable cunt. my pictures of her as she sat on the dingy, her skin red with fury, are classic.
anyway, when we got to el porvenir, panama immigration was closed so we flew for $35 each on a little propellor plane to panama city.
welcome to the u.s. mike!
well not quite, but i instantly recognized many things that i hadnt seen since leaving the u.s. over two years earlier. i almost cried as i walked through the grocery store and saw all these products i had been craving...like sour cream, monterrey jack cheese, haribo gummy bears. seems that our boys who had built the panama canal had imported several products from the u.s. and after we pulled out, those things just stuck around.
so in panama city i took a walk through the jungle one day with an older english woman, a former model who had been jimmy pages girlfriend. i also toured the panama canal with her, and then after she went crazy and ditched me, i retreated to the hostel, where i played guitar and drank rum with john from canada.
the call home was growing louder so i kicked it into high gear after that. my plan was to spend only four to five days in each of the tiny central american countries. i stuck to that plan and it went down something like this:
i boarded an overnight bus from panama to the capital, san jose. i ate at a taco bell, the first one i had seen in two years. it was divine. i spent three nights on the carribean coast in a tropical seaside village called cahuita. i hung out at a rastafarian bar called cocos where i met a lot of americans. costa rica is crawling with americans.
i boarded a bus from san jose to granada, nicaragua. i wanted to stay at the reknowned hostel there, the bearded monkey, but it was full, so i stayed at some depressing, yet clean, hostel, by myself, literally the only person staying there. it sucked in that hostel, but i spent all my time at the bearded monkey eating their amazing food and drinking beers with fellow travelers. i befriended lots of folks there and had a fun time in colonial granada, spending one day at a lake in the crater of a volcano. apparently the waters of laguna de apoyo keep you young and have mystical healing powers - ill keep you updated on that.
from granada i headed to leon where i met a great group of people in the via via hostel there. we all went to a beach party one night where some guy in the band cranked out a flawless sweet child of mine on the guitar. i celebrated easter sunday by attending a cock fight that i am sure jesus would not have approved of. you gotta see the photos of that.
i popped into honduras for a night after leaving leon. i ate a triple cheesburger at a wendys.
i took a long, shitty bus ride to the border of el salvador and was shocked at the horrendous lines at customs. i asked some americans about the length of the line and what they were going to do in el salvador.
oh god, we arent going into el salvador! we are just making a visa run, they exclaimed in horror. i was traveling completely alone at the time and was looking for some company but i apparently wasnt going to find anyone going into infrequently visited el salvador.
when i finally made it across the border and was wandering around looking for a ride i experienced the following (as related to my friend karin in an email):
i waited in line at the border for about three hours in the baking sun, half that time to exit honduras and the other half to enter el salvador. the lines were longer than the great wall, and made all the more unbearable by all the people cutting in line.
anyway, i finally get across the border (after getting into several scraps with people regarding their juvenile behavior) and make a mad dash for the nearest stand selling cold drinks (a rare find in these parts.) backpack on my back i pass a bus first and inquire about their destination - it's sorta where i want to go so i make a mental note to catch it when it leaves in 20 minutes (there are no other options anyway.) i then arrive at the stand where i order two blue powerades for $2 (the official currency of el salvador is the u.s. dollar.) as the guy is handing me my drinks and i am reaching into my pocket for the cash, a horn honks behind me. i swivel my head around and see a salvadoran man with a giant smile on his face, indicating the bed of his pickup truck with his thumb. you wanna ride somewhere? he asks with his smiling face. i think about it for a moment because i am definitely a hitchhiker and that bus i am supposed to go on looks like it barely survived a dozen tornados. for some reason though i decide against it and i tell the guy that ive got a ride already, but thanks. he drives off with a scowl on his face as i turn my attention back to the people selling me the drinks. the woman there is staring gravely at me. she tells me, in spanish, that if i had gone with those guys, they would have driven to a deserted road, stole all my belongings, and then - demonstrating with the slash of her hand across her throat - killed me.
welcome to el salvador. i was one "si" away from dying. incredible.
so i got on that dumpy bus instead and made my way to perquin, a town ripped apart by the salvadoran civil war. i walked through bomb craters and fox holes for a couple days, wondering why there were no other backpackers around. during a particularily solitary moment in el salvador i actually felt very proud of myself. i was totally alone in a country where no one speaks my native language and where there are no regular, normal modes of transportation, but i was handling it all like it was a walk on the beach. it was an empowering moment. i dont think like this too often, but it occured to me then that not too many people would have the stones to do just that. people often wrote to me while i was on the road, commending me for my courage, but i had always replied that it was no big deal and really didnt require much courage but at that very moment in el salvador i agreed with them for the first time. it does take courage sometimes and i was glad that i had it.
anyway, after a few lonely, character-building days i headed to honduras on an old american school bus up and down bumpy, dusty, dirt roads through the mountains.
i spent a couple quiet days alone in the charming mountain town of gracias, honduras and then set off (on an old american school bus again) to copan ruinas, site of the mayan ruins of the same name. there were backpackers there! hey! i clung to them like a drowning man to anything that floats. i had been totally alone for eight straight days and was ready for a little socializing. i ended up hanging out with some crazy, drunk american record-producer who sat at the hostel bar every night doing countless shots of tequila. he asked me to write him a few songs.
on my second day there i toured the modest mayan ruins - the first i had seen in my life - and was impressed. i took off to guatemala the next day.
car and truck-wrecks cluttered the roads of guatemala. what in hell is happening here, i thought? around practically every bend of the winding guatemalan roads another carcass of an overturned semi lay rotting. i had seen very few car-wrecks throughout the world, but in guatemala i saw many. i dont know why. i guess they just dont know how to drive.
anyway, i spent two nights in antigua, a magical colonial town surrounded by volcanoes. i ran into daan from the netherlands - a dude i had hung out with in granada, nicaragua - at a bar there and we hung out for a few nights. i went on a volcano tour one day, getting about a foot from the scalding lava flow.
i headed to tikal after that, the most famous mayan ruins in guatemala. i toured them with a group from norway and sweden. the ruins were stunning and are best described by my photos. check em out.
i booked a bus/boat/bus to palenque, mexico after a couple days.
on the bus to mexico i met chris from new zealand who would be my final traveling partner. coincidentally, chris closely resembled my first traveling partner, jamie from australia.
when our bus reached the river that separates guatemala and mexico we climbed aboard a long, skinny, wobbly, wooden boat that whisked us up the slow, brown river. after 20 minutes we reached the opposite shore where another bus was waiting for us. the whole thing had a very illegal feel to it, but we made it through customs without trouble. it was my last foreign country border crossing. i was encountering all these lasts, which can often be sad, but i was very happy. i always take it as it comes, enjoying whatever may be...
chris and i went out that night in sweaty, nasty palenque. i was excited to eat real mexican food, my favorite cuisine on earth. unfortunately my stomach wasnt as excited as i was - the meal i ate that night was the last one i would eat until i got back to the u.s.
the next day chris and i toured the mayan ruins of palenque, which were spectacular, but quite familiar at that point and somewhat unenjoyable because of the crowds and the suffocating heat. i got some nice pictures though.
we took off the next afternoon to san cristobol de las casas, another of the many quaint colonial towns i had been touring. san cristobol was much nicer and cooler (temperature-wise) than palenque. i stayed for three days, not doing much other than walking around taking some pictures, which would be the last of my trip (since my niece deleted all the pictures after san cristobol when i arrived home.)
i was quite anxious to return home at that point so i booked a ticket all the way to mexico city leaving the next day.
mexico city was cool enough, it had some nice architecture and some beautiful parks - not nearly as bad as i had expected.
from there i booked a ticket to nuevo laredo, mexico, right on the border of the u.s.a. i was quite excited to get back.
when my bus was within about 30 miles of the border, we pulled over and an immigration official hopped aboard. he came down the aisle looking everyone over. i was at the back of the bus, expecting exactly what happened.
you, american? he asked, pointing at me.
off the bus, he ordered.
of course i was the only one.
i slipped into a tiny, spartan office at the side of the highway and pulled out all my papers. he pointed at some scribbling at the bottom of my tourist card and asked why i hadnt paid the fee. i played dumb. he then told me to pay $20. i pulled out the only pesos i had left, a 50 peso note, about $5, and told him it was all i had. he pointed to a drawer and told me to throw it in. very shady, as usual, but i did as i was told, grabbed my passport and jumped back on the bus.
at the bus station i was accosted by taxi drivers offering me a ride to the border. i was so ready to get there but i had very little money...only about 15 pesos in change (about $1.50.) i knew that cabs would charge much more than that, so i found the local bus which cost only 5 pesos and was worth just about that. it was fun though knowing that it was the last heap-of-shit bus i would be riding on. we limped through the poor sections of that really poor town and eventually the driver told me to get off. i happily jumped off and looked across the river at a u.s. flag blowing in the wind. i got a lump in my throat.
i snapped the buckles on my backpack, tightened the straps, and practically sprinted to international bridge #1. i joined the crowd walking across to laredo, texas. i felt emotional for a moment, but then all that experience of crossing into a new country took over and i waltzed in like it was any old place - although this was the first time i knelt down and kissed the ground when i arrived.
god damn it was nice to be back.
although i have no home in chicago anymore, it was where i had lived for nine years before i had left on the trip - i flew from chicago to london to begin the journey - so thats where i was headed; its where the virtual finish line was for me.
i spent a few days in texas adjusting to the ways of america before i took the 28 hour amtrak train to chicago. i sent out some emails before departing, arranging lunch with some friends and dinner with others, of course at my favorite chicago pizzeria, pizzeria due.
after a long, enjoyable train ride across the u.s., i spotted the black, slender sears tower - the tallest building in the united states - that reaches boldy and dramatically into the chicago sky. the lump returned to my throat as i advanced the song on my discman to sweet home chicago. i had a giant grin on my face.
we pulled into union station and i leapt from the train and down the platform towards union station. i scampered up the steps where kevin costner shot a man and saved a tumbling baby carriage in the movie the untouchables and out the doors into the crisp, sunny chicago afternoon. as i hurried along towards the bank of america building where my buddy dave was waiting for me a scruffy looking guy looked me over, and, having noticed my backpack, he asked you traveling by train also? where you headed?
i paused for the briefest moment, hardly breaking stride, and a comforting, welcome response flashed into my head.
right here man, i said waving an arm towards downtown chicago. right here.
i spent a few days with my friends, eating pizza, drinking beer, and getting reacquainted with chicago. what an incredible city it is, i thought. so clean, so beautiful.
although i was back where i had started, in a place i love surrounded by people i love, i still was not quite home yet. the people i missed the most, my young nieces, cambell, kennedy, kerigan, and my nephew, conner, were at my brother davids place in the area i was born, just outside detroit, michigan.
after a few days in chicago i bought another amtrak ticket to ann arbor, michigan, where my brother would pick me up.
i traveled the short four hours between chicago and ann arbor, very excited about seeing my nieces and nephew. i called my brother on my new cellphone and he told me that he was waiting at the station. i wondered if my nieces would remember me and how they would react to me...
i stepped down the stairs and looked down the length of the train. i was quite nervous, more so than i had been since, uhhhh, morocco i guess. i walked along the side of the train towards the station and then spotted my brother. i looked down from him and then saw my niece kennedy. she saw me at the same time and broke into a run. i quickly walked towards her and then crouched down to meet her little nine year old frame. she locked onto me, put her blonde head on my shoulder and softly cried into my ear i missed you so much. i love you so much. she hadn't forgetten me. thank god.
that lump came back again and i had to clear my throat before i could tell her the same. at that moment i felt like i had truly come home.
you can never go home again? i feel bad for the guy who said that because he apparently had no home to return to. to me, home is love, and it certainly was right there all along, waiting for me to come back to it.
and it damn sure felt great to be there again.
keep on keepin on,
michael arvid kivisto
the photos for this update are right here