Ponderings While Pedaling to Patagonia

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3 days into Costa Rica was the first time I didn’t want to kill myself

This is actually my third time sleeping next to a truck

This is actually my third time sleeping next to a truck

There would have been a craftier headline for this post if I could think of a synonym for “traffic” that started with the letter H. Costa Rica has plagued me with hills, heat, headwind, and traffic. See how awkward that sounds?

Failed at summiting another volcano. Surprise, surprise!

Failed at summiting another volcano. Surprise, surprise!

Every time I label a day in Costa Rica as the hottest one of my life, the sun rises the next morning with an evil grin on its face. Now, you’ve heard me complaining about the heat before. It’s kind of been my thing since I left the mountains of Mexico, where I always complained about being cold. BUT IT’S SO HOT. My facial features are melting off and I will soon just be an amorphous blob held together by broken dreams and sadness.

Maybe we'll have a rainbow!

Maybe we’ll have a rainbow!

But it’s the traffic that’s the real killer–literally. The one and only road through this part of Costa Rica is the Panamerican Highway. But don’t let “highway” confuse you. It’s a two-lane road with no shoulder that all the shipping and passanger traffic of Central America passes through. You would think the billions of tourist dollars could pay for a nicer road, but no. We need more beachside condos, dammit! In terms of road quality, Costa Rica really dropped the ball, whereas Nicaragua is the surprising all-star.

So there I am in face-melting heat, trucks and buses whizzing inches past me, and then a relentless crosswind kicks up. Honestly, wind is not that big of a deal. You just keep riding. But the real problem was that this was a crosswind. It was blowing me off the road so I was correcting by leaning slightly toward the road. But every time a truck or bus would pass by, it would block the wind and my correcting for it would send me straight into the path of the next vehicle on the road. Talk about scary. The wind picked up around noon so I rode 35 windless miles in 3 hours and then 30 windy miles in 6 HOURS.

IMG_1168Despite all this, and the extortionate prices that all the toursit money brings in, I’m glad Costa Rica exists. All the fancy tourists, the families, and people just looking for a safe time at the beach come here. And that’s A-OK! As a budget adventure traveler, I will gladly give up this one country to have the rest of Mexico and Central America largely to myself at a way affordable price. Just between you and me, dear readers, if you’re planning a trip to Costa Rica, here’s a tip: go to Nicaragua instead. It’s safe, just as beautiful, much less touristed, and leaps and bounds cheaper.

Costa Rica is fun though. This man let me stay in his roadside hut and gave me a machete to protect myself in case anything happens. I wear Burberry glasses and buy individual underwear on hangers. Imagine me wielding a rusty machete.

The rainy season is coming!!

The rainy season is coming!!

In other news, I’m officially further south than the northernmost point of South America. Central America kind of crashes straight into the middle of Colombia so I’ve sort of, not-technically-but-kind-of made it to South America? Maybe? Regardless, I’m just about to leave the central time zone, where I’ve been since mid-December in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Panama is the only country in Central America in the eastern time zone so I’ve officially been to all US time zones on this trip, including Hawaii and Alaska!

I can list off where I've been for every full moon for the last 8 months

I can list off where I’ve been for every full moon for the last 8 months

Other happenings:

-I’ve been unable to buy nail clippers anywhere, but I’ve found a way to saw off excess fingernails with other fingernails. Don’t make that face. I’m desperate. I don’t recommend my way and will probably look back at this in horror.

-Is it possible to develop lactose intolerance? Dairy products have been the staple of my diet and I suddenly find myself unable to stomach yogurt or milk or even cheese! Not cheeeeeeeeese! Please share your struggles with lactose intolerance because I want to be a survivor, not a victim.

-In my hell, there would be no heat or misery. Just hammocks. My God, I hate hammocks. What is everyone’s obsession with having their legs hyperextended?! If I wanted to sleep in a U-shape, I’d sleep inside a lead pipe.

-Lest you think that I just hate everything, I want you to know that I really love traveling by bicycle. The great stuff is just harder to describe. But, if you can’t tell, I’m really burned out after nearly 9 months and definitely need a break.

Love,
Shahmeer

 

My dream is to see this distance from space

 

For comparison, this is around the same number of miles I’ve cycled in North America. Just over 6000.

Being this close to a volcano would definitely lead to a lawsuit in America

Nicaragua from the top of a volcano

Nicaragua from the top of a volcano

Yo, diggity dawgs! In October, I wrote to you about the onslaught of winter and my fear that the cold would destroy me when no road or ride could. I still remember that day I left Salt Lake City after returning from Hawaii. The dead hand of winter slid through all my layers of clothing to rattle my bones. 2012 was simulatenously the coldest and warmest winter of my life. I experienced more days over 100 degrees than I can remember. But, at the same time, those nights in Arizona and northern Mexico when the mercury dipped below 28 are unforgettable. Of all the things I’ve learned on this trip, those nights taught me the most. Tough experiences build character and I’m a better person for those 58 nights I curled into my sleeping bag and waited for the Sun to come back to me.

IMG_1110I say this now because winter is now officially over! Not that it matters much here in Nicaragua where winter doesn’t exist. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I actually miss having some variation in the weather. I don’t think I could live in this Land of Eternal Summer. As John Steinbeck said, “For how can one know color in perpetual green, and what good is warmth without cold to give it sweetness?” This is the first time I’ve interpreted that quote literally, but it’s marvelously applicable.

Conservative Latin American values have gifted me the inhuman ability to wear pants depite the absurd heat. It’s been over 90 degrees for probably the last 50 days of my life. I’ve ridden thousands of miles through the harshest landscape. And all of it in pants. People already treat me like a circus attraction wherever I go so I tried to tone it down by nixing the cycling shorts. It really worked. Now peoples’ eyes don’t hover over my crotch while I talk.

IMG_1118Anyway, hello from Nicaragua! I escaped easily enough from Honduras. At the border, I ran into two girls from New York who thought there would be an ATM so they came without any money. There was an ATM and it was on the Nicaragua side, but they didn’t have enough money to enter the country. It was stupidly hilarous. I loaned them $24 so they could get into the country and get to the ATM. We all had a good laugh, but this is why women should not be allowed out of the house (kidding!).

Nicaragua is da bomb!! It reminds me so much of the American west. The vista are grand, the mountains are big. And the roads! They’re totally first-world-quality. In comparison, riding in Honduras is similar to riding on potatoes.

After failing to summit volcanoes in Hawaii (turned around at 10,034 feet) and Mexico (turned around at 14,200 feet) I finally cheated and just rode my bike to the top of Masaya Volcano. It’s only 2,083 feet tall so you could say I brought the mountain down to my level. But my God, this volcano is legitimately very active and the Nicaraguan government just lets anyone wander up to the crater. When I got up there, everyone (including myself) was in fits of coughing because of all the vog in the air. I could feel the tumors taking hold in my lungs. And yet, all these aging tourists just keep breathing and coughing and peering into the crater that could erupt at any minute. I got out of there really quickly because lung cancer is not on my list of upcoming adventures.

Closest I could get to the crater without dying

Closest I could get to the crater without dying

After that I just rolled into Granada, which is apparently the oldest city in the Americas. I’ve heard that claim from a number of cities though. After some research, I’ve figured out it’s apparently the oldest continuously inhabited European established settlement in Nicaragua. That is definitely way too specific to be worthy of mention.

The cool part of it though is it’s location right on Lake Nicaragua. Although the lake is only kilometers from the Pacific Ocean, it actually drains via the Rio San Juan to the Atlantic Ocean. In the days of old, pirates used to take the river all the way to Granada and sack the city and its glorious wealth. It’s definitely a cool place and the hostel only costs $5 a night, which is my favorite part.

Oh my gosh, Managua. In my endless battle against Central American capital cities, I really thought that I would like Managua. It’s statistically the safest capital in the region, even more so than San Jose, Costa Rica. But tell me how you can build a city of 1.5 million people WITHOUT ANY STREET NAMES. It’s not that they can’t afford street signs. They just choose not to name any of the streets. People apparently give directions based on rotundas around the city, but in my experience, nobody even knows where those are. I was given the run around for 2 hours in Manuga before I could find the city center, of all places. I know that sounds impossible, but you won’t understand until you try to ride a bike in that city. Never again.ย IMG_1108

Other than that, things are going well. I don’t know what the movie is called in America, but I watched Jack El Cazagigantes, Jack the Giant Slayer, in theaters the other day. I also spent 3 hours cutting my hair with office scissors while watching the season finale of The Biggest Loser. I’m now headed to Isla Ometepe, which I’ve been told is the highlight of a trip to Central America. It’s the largest lake island in the world. I’ll get some good shots of it when I get there, but in the mean time, here’s a picture of another lake island I’ve been to: Wizard Island, Crater Lake, Oregon!

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Catch y’all soon.

Bullets and my super sweet attemped robbery

Thug lyfe. People who invited me to crash at their house.

Thug lyfe. People who invited me to crash at their house.

Read this post in two parts. The first was written when Honduras was warm and fuzzy. The second, afterward.

PART ONE

It’s almost a source of pride for Hondurans that they apparently live in the most dangerous country in the world. I don’t know what study they’re quoting, but people love to fill me in that someone might kill me for no reason, steal my bike, or make a dress out of my skin. Normally I exaggerate a bit, but in the course of typing this I was approached by a man who said I need to change my idea of adventure because it’s not safe here. Obviously I am trying to leave as soon as possible.

I have no doubt that there are bad Hondurans out there, but so far I’ve only felt the love. People are so concerned about me that I’ve had an invitation to sleep indoors every night I’ve been here. I was attempting to camp in the forest when a lone Honduran women saw me and brought me back to her house. People who don’t have rooms for me set me up with their friends or family around town. I’m actually really digging Honduras. And the country is small enough that I’ll be safely in Nicaragua by the time you read this, mom and dad, so no reason to worry.IMG_1103

Big news!! I was on TV! There was one night where I camped at the police station in Saba, Honduras and woke up to a reporter knocking on my tent. He wanted to do an interview right there. I looked so dirty and actually did not have contacts in or glasses on so I couldn’t see anything. My Spanish barely slid by, but it was all successful. I’m officially a celebrity in northern Honduras. Unfortunately, it aired while I was making my way through the backroads of the country so I did not have a chance to see mine own visage on TV. Oh well.

Diving in Utila was fabulous! A ten-dive package on the island costs only $265, which is one of the cheapest in the world. That includes gear rental, boat transportation, and accomodation so it’s not a bad deal at all. The reef was beautiful with lots of parrotfish, barracudas, angelfish and even the occasional squid. But my favorite part was turning away from the reef to stare into the blue void of the open ocean. It definitely made me feel microscopic in comparison. Utila is also great because the cheap diving makes it the backpacker mecca of the Caribbean. The guidebook said it best: “It feel like a chill college town centered around a small diving university.”

 

After 11 beautiful sunsets on Utila, I packed up and headed back to the mainland. I was itching to ride through some mountains, having spent so much time in the flat Yucatan, flat Belize, and flat Caribbean islands. Honduras did not disappoint. In fact, it might have been overkill. One of the major roads through the country, marked on any map you could find of Honduras, is actually made of dirt. I did not know this when I started the 120 mile trek from one side to the other. I love mountains and I love dirt roads, but I do not love them together. I actually tried to take a bus after getting my 10,000th warning on how unsafe Honduras is, but the driver would not let me board with a bicycle so I had no choice but to ride out of the country.

Sunset on Utila from the diveshop

Sunset on Utila from the diveshop

Speaking of dangers in Honduras (such an undervisited topic in this post), the mosquitoes here on the north coast carry dengue fever and malaria. Because my tent fly has been broken since north Mexico, you can understand why this would be an issue for me. All was fine when I had bug spray, but I lost it in Utila and did not realize until I was being ravaged by mosquitoes on the mainland. I curled up in my sleeping bag to protect myself, despite it being 98 degrees. I’d rather be sweaty and gross than have malaria so that’s that.

A note to Julia, because I know you’re reading this: I showed a few guys I was staying with pictures of us from Chicago. You now have a group of 5 Honduran admirers who are dying to meet you. Seriously, hours later, they kept asking your name and more details about you. Work it, sexy lady!

PART TWO

Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduas

Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduas

Imagine me on the desolate stretch of dirt road that is the only way south from Utila to Nicaragua. It’s 100 degrees, I’m drenched in sweat, and a cloud of mosquitoes is tailing me like the dog I always wanted. But something shiny catches my eye. There’s lots of trash on the road, but this trash makes my eyes scream. My heart stops, my stomach turns. It’s a bullet. And it’s not the only one.

There’s only so fast you can ride on a bike, but you don’t remember that when you’re fleeing the site of a gun battle. Luckily, I knew that the only bus running that day would be passing me in a few hours. I kept riding, just to have something to do instead of waiting in anxiety. I had originally tried to take that same bus the day before, but they had refused to let me board with the bike. That’s why I was on this bullet-road in the first place. When I hailed the bus down this time I was all up in the driver’s face, telling him that if I died it would be his fault. He let me on, but charged me a separate ticket for bikey.

Don’t leave now, dear reader. We still haven’t even reached the robbery! So this bus is actually an old American school bus (specifically, DeKalb County) that is now intercity transit in Honduras. At highest count, there were 89 people, full grown adults, on board. I had to sit in the back with the luggage to protect my bike. That was all in vain though because all the knocking around rocked a few parts loose. No big deal, I thought. I can reassemble it on the ground in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa.

I get off the bus in chaos. Crowds of people everywhere, moving in all directions, and I’m trying to keep track of my bike frame, two separate wheels, and two bags. For some reason though, the rear tire just won’t fit on to the damn frame. The sun is setting in one of the most dangerous cities in the Americas and I’m immobilized. But a guy around my age comes over to help me out. He holds the frame up for me while I inspect the rear tire to figure out what’s wrong. We almost have it on so he sets the frame down and walks behind me. The bike is on my mind, but then I feel a hand in my jacket pocket.

So many things in my mind at once: my wallet is in there, why is someone else’s hand in there, oh crap, I’m getting robbed. Thankfully, I think fast so in the second it took him to wrap his grubby hand around my wallet, I had my hand around his wrist. I knocked the wallet out of his hand and onto the sidewalk and gave him a hard kick to the shin, something that cycling shoes are great for. He just gave me this stupid look and ran away.

Luckily, I’ve learned a few smart travel skills so losing the wallet would not have been catastrophic. The only money I keep in it was $1 USD, $2 Belize, a few pesos and lempiras. The real money is stashed in several places, my passport is elsewhere, my card somewhere else. The worst loss would have been my driver’s license picture from when I was 16 and the wallet itself, which my sister gave me for my birthday. I would never have bought a trifold wallet, even though I love them, because I knew she would make fun of me. So she bought me one instead. Thanks, Kinza ๐Ÿ™‚

So yes, I’m in Tegucigalpa right now, seeking out a bike shop so I can get the hell out of here. I hate to say it, but this place more than any other reminds me of Karachi, Pakistan, the city I was born in. The last time I was there was when I was 13 so I don’t remember it perfectly, but it definitely felt like this. I’ll be in Nicaragua in no time flat so don’t be too down that I’m not having fun right now. I’ll be okay ๐Ÿ™‚

Forgive me, Travel God, for I have sinned

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Why yes, my glasses are taped together. Sorry Ori ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

Please forgive me, dear reader. I twisted for you a fantastic, months-long tale of bicycle adventures and then fell into oblivion. No, I wasn’t taken by any dark forces. All is still going well. I’m just a little tired of treating my own life like a spectacle. When I write, it’s to a single person whose face is the combination of everyone I know and love. But writing to you just reinforces the dangerous realization that everyone I know and love is not here. I get lonely, weary, and sometimes sad. So pardon me, please. I’m still figuring things out.

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The legs that pedaled me across a continent!

Anyway, since we last chatted I’ve crossed countries (not to be confused with cross country, which I was not nearly as good at in middle school). Mark wasn’t able to make it to hang out in Cancun, which was a huge bummer. But getting dive certified was a real adventure. My instructor, Carlos, adopted me and called himself my “Mexican dad.” The owners of the dive shop had been on bike tours way back in the day so they gave me all sorts of discounts and even hooked me up with a free mask and snorkel! Diving is like skiing in that its atrociously expensive so that money saved really helped.

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Post-vomit

The biggest lesson that I learned is that I get seasick at the drop of a pin. My breakfast met the ocean on the day of dive #1. Unfortunately, it was not on the surface. It happened underwater. The boat ride had really roiled my stomach, but I decided to dive anyway. There I was, under 15 feet of churning ocean, when the horrifying realization that I was about to throw up hit me like a bolt of lightning. Honestly, I might have picked being hit by a bolt of lightning to throwing up underwater.

So imagine the situation: I can only breathe through my mouth, but I can also only throw up through my mouth. I will happily accept a trophy for the level of calm I had during that emergency. I took out my regulator, retched, put the regulator back in so I could breathe, threw up again. The process went on for 20-30 seconds before I felt a lot better. My instructor gave me a pat on the back and said it was the first time he’d ever seen someone throw up underwater. But I’m officially certified now!

So after that little episode, I booked it through Mexico to the Belizian border. There I finally faced the consequences for my negligence at the American border. Three months ago when I was oh-so-young and naive, I didn’t know you needed a tourist card to travel more than 72 hours in Mexico. For playing the arrogant American thinking he can tramp through as he pleases, I had to pay a $50 fine to exit Mexico. I was in the country illegally for 90 days so it was not outrageous on their part to charge so much. Unfortunately, I didn’t have that much in pesos on me and the border town didn’t have an ATM. Luckily, I had hidden $100 in my bicycle seat tube for emergencies only. I’m sure the border agent pocketed most of that money, but I got out of the country so all was well. Or so I thought.

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Suspicious fish

It turns out that Belize is a really awful country. Honestly just a truly terrible place to be. Let me enumerate the reasons:

  1. 1. If you put Saudi Arabia in Australia and then put both inside Hell, it would still not be as hot as Belize. I really think the government makes a conscious effort to remove any shade-providing trees from the side of the road. Heat stroke was a serious concern because the mercury topped 100 degrees every day I was in the country. Imagine riding a bicycle 55 miles in 100 degrees and then having to eat lunch in the sun. That’s the worst part.
  2. 2. Belize is the one place I’ve ever felt unsafe while traveling. Never in the US, never in Mexico, nor in Guatemala or Honduras. But at some point after I crossed the border, the game changed and I was still playing by the old rules. Camping in the countryside made my heart pound from the sheer stupidity of it. Belize City, along with having nothing interesting whatsover, is also riddled with crime. Locals were seriously herding me to the city center because it was the only place with police protection.
  3. 3. Belize seems to think that it can somehow get away with charging Switzerland-level prices for things you can get way cheaper in any of its neighboring countries. Seriously, the culture is better in Mexico. The diving is better in Honduras. The cities are better in Guatemala. And yet, because Belize is an English-speaking country, the onslaught of American tourism means that people will pay these absurd prices. Seriously, $100 a dive? I can get 5 dives with 5 nights accomodation for $100 in Honduras.
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Welcome to the Caribbean!

Here’s the kicker: you have to pay $20 to leave Belize by air, land, or sea. Most countries charge an air departure tax, but I think it’s a really sleazy move to have such an awful country and then demand that people pay to leave. At least Mexico was worth it.

Anyway, after an atrocious 8 days in Belize, I took a boat to Guatemala. Forgive me, Travel God, for I have sinned. Guatemala is a traveler’s paradise, but I mostly skipped it. There was just so much stuff I wanted to see, but it was all on the other side of the country, high in the mountains. I decided to save Guatemala for another adventure in the future and rode on to Honduras.

The first thing I saw upon crossing the Honduran border was a man spinning in circles with a live iguana. I guarantee it was some form of animal abuse, but it was not my iguana so I let it be. I passed through San Pedro Sula which, along with being the HIV capital of Central America, was named the most dangerous place in the world after Cheronobyl. That list was quoted to me by a man who lives in Honduras so I don’t know if it’s actually true, but he strongly urged me to leave. Everything went fine though.

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By the Belize border!

I’m currently on Utila, an island off the coast of Honduras known as the world’s cheap diving mecca. Unfortunately, the weather’s been a little rough lately so I haven’t been able to dive yet. They’re just exiting the rainy season here so hopefully it’ll clear up soon. Whale sharks are supposedly going to arrive in droves sometime this month so fingers crossed for an early arrival.

Other news in one jumbled paragraph: My glasses are currently broken and the contacts I bought in Mexico are really low quality so I’ve been having a lot of vision problems lately. It sucks to be as blind as I am and travel. I haven’t shaved in 2 weeks because I’m trying to see how much of a beard I can grow. What do you think? I’m currently reading Lolita. Is that something that you tell people you’re reading or are you supposed to just read it in secret? Either way, it’s beautifully written and so repulsive, like cancer covered in honey.

I’ll report again once I’m back on the mainland. My mom was possibly going to come visit me in Nicaragua, but she doesn’t love me so that’s not happening :(. Then it’s Costa Rica and Panama and I’ll have made it to the doorstep of South America! Yahooooooo!

Sorry

Sorry about being so bad at updating you guys lately. I’m currently on Utila, an island off the coast of Honduras. I got dive certified in Mexico and I’m getting some serious dive experience here. I will update with pictures and fun stories in another few days. Much love! Shahmeer.

I’m just going to rename this blog “Shahmeer complains about the weather” (pictures not loading again)

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Six months ago I posted a picture from the eastern Washington desert with the headline “It’s 10,000 degrees.” First of all, if you’ve stuck around this long reading my aimless wanderings, thank you. Also, you’re obviously interested in traveling so why are you still in front of the computer?

Anyway, the name of this blog is more relevant to the temperature than my mileage lately. The Yucatan peninsula is HOT. Hotter than sin, hotter than hell. It regularly peaks at over a 100 degrees daily. But I’d so much rather have this than those frigid nights in Arizona back in October. In related news, I made it to the Atlantic Ocean! It’s technically the Gulf of Mexico, but it’s the east coast of North America, so it counts to me. The arrival was actually kind of lackluster, despite the fact that I followed the biggest river in Mexico to it’s mouth. The river ended up being so big that I couldn’t tell where the ocean started. I know that doesn’t make sense, but you had to be there. Anyway, I crossed a continent. Not it’s long axis (yet), but still, I used the power of my own body to cross a CONTINENT.

The peninsula is also flatter than a tortilla. Think Kansas, but covered in jungle. It makes for some fantastically quick rides. I seriously took multiple hour-long breaks in gas stations and still managed to churn out 70 miles yesterday. Which was only 33 miles less than the high temperature!

I’m currently on an island off ย the coast of Cancun, awaiting the arrival of my most wonderful friend in the world, Mark. He took 10 days off of work and we’re going to traipse around the peninsula together and have loads of fun. The last time he visited me was when I was riding through Vancouver last summer. So, after this, we will officially have vacationed on two opposite sides of North America. Neither of us expected Vancouver to be as outrageously expensive as it was though so we’ll make up for it in Cancun, where rooms are about 1/3 the price.

I saw the fantastic Mayan ruins at Palenque. Which reminds me of a hilarious story. The annual Rainbow Gathering was in Palenque this year because of the Dec. 21 doomsday nonsense. It’s basically just every damn hippie on the planet gathered together in one place. Thankfully, I missed the gathering, but the stories are so funny. None of the hippies were prepared for the conditions, or Mexico in general. They came without tents, without insect repellant, or water purification. The jungle chewed them up and spit them out. There was so much disease flying around their camp, including an outbreak of cholera! Cholera! They tried to drink dirty river water and were hospitalized. And I met one guy who had some clearly infected wounds who was treating them with plum juice because it was an “ancient Mayan remedy.” It was mind-bogglingly funny.

I’m getting SCUBA-certified while I wait for Mark to roll into town! I’ve really been looking forward to this for a couple of weeks now. I found the perfect dive shop with a really patient, experienced instructor. And the shop is sooooo chill. They know I can’t really afford to stay on this island so they let me shower there and charge my things and hang out all the time. And the Caribbean waters are truly fantastic. I’ve only snorkeled thus far, but I’ve seen fish as big as my leg flying around me. The SCUBA certification is a 4-day course. Today, I donned all the equipment and learned the basics of breathing underwater and handling various emergencies. I also learned how to cough underwater without drowning, which is as difficult as it sounds. I’m looking forward to this new hobby because it gives me an excuse to go to fancy places like Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and other such places that have more sun than money.

Happy birthday Dad, Mark, Julia, and Matt! Miss you guys!