Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Final Countdown

Let me start out by saying Happy Thanksgiving and Happy Holidays! I know I'm a bit late for Thanksgiving, but the last month has been a blur!

I've been making final preparations and purchases for the trip to the other side of the earth. It is a daunting task, but I do not expect to have everything in order. 2009 is only a week away, which means I only have 7 days before there is no turning back. A few minor victories in my preparations include securing my Brazilian visa in Atlanta, GA and battling my Sony Scamcorder for the still images I had been taking. First, let me explain the camcorder (a.k.a. Scamcorder).

The Sony HDR-HC9 that I invested in for this project records high definition video on Mini DV cassettes. It also captures high definition still images and stores them on a memory stick. I purchased an 8GB Sony Memory Stick Pro Duo from someone on eBay that listed it as NEW. I received it quickly, though without the typical packaging you would expect from a new product. I began taking still photos and it seemed to be working properly as I could review the images on the camcorder perfectly. It wasn't until I tried to transfer them to my computer that I ran into problems. I tried to define these problems to the lovely folks a Sony (a.k.a. Phony) and they told me to send in my camcorder for their techinicians to have a look. I politely told them that their assistance was worthless.

Here is an example of the problems I had with still images. As you can see below, this is an almost stunning image of a rainbow in Asheville, NC. I could not recover any of the images I had taken over the last month. They all turned out like this:

I suspected that my memory stick was to blame rather than the camcorder or computer. After purchasing a NEW memory stick from a local retail store (about an hour ago), the problem was solved.

So, I have no pictures to share from my trek into Charleston last month, my trip to Atlanta two weeks ago to secure my visa, or my visit to Asheville where I received a crash course in video journalism and interviewing skills from some friends that are fanatical about films. I can, however, show you my visa since it is in my passport and my NEW memory stick actually works. Brilliant!

I don't know why, but the Brazilian visa takes up two entire pages of my passport. I'm ok with that, though, because those two pages let me explore all the wonders of the largest country in South America. Big country, big visa.

Why did I have to go to Atlanta to get the visa? Well, the requirements to obtain a Brazilian visa are fairly strict. I could have sent all my materials (including my passport) in the mail, but I did not want to surrender my passport to the US Postal Service so close to my departure date. I also have a 90 day window from the time the visa is issued until I first enter the country. Therefore, I could not have applied for my visa too far in advance because I would not have been able to enter Brazil in time, and my $130 visa would be worthless.

That is another point I want to make. Brazil, along with Chile and Bolivia, have a reciprocity policy, which means they charge U.S. citizens the same amount that the U.S. charges its citizens to obtain a visa. In other words, the U.S. charges a $130 visa application fee to all Brazilians. The reason we have to pay so much just to get into Brazil (and other countries with a policy of reciprocity) is because our government charges such an excessive amount. Thanks Uncle Sam.

For those interested in going to Brazil, my suggestion is to find the requirements on the Embassy's website, get all the necessary materials together, and then schedule an appointment with the consulate or embassy that serves your jurisdiction. The info on the website states that applications can be turned in on Monday and picked up on Friday. This is deceiving. I arrived at the consulate in Atlanta on Monday to drop off my application and was told that I needed an appointment. The next opening was Wednesday, and I envisioned being forced to stay in Atlanta far beyond the original week that I had planned. While I ended up falling in love with Atlanta and the incredible people that hosted me during my stay, I was not prepared for such a delay. I suppose these delays are something I need to get used to since "mañana" ("tomorrow") is the prevailing philosophy throughout most of Latin America.

As it turned out, after a brief (and rather enjoyable) interview on Wednesday morning, I could pick up my visa the following day. In spite of all the red tape, I managed to emerge victorious.

I'll stop here for the sake of blog brevity, but I could write a book on what the last two weeks of traveling taught me. Perhaps I'll get to it in another post. For now, it should suffice to say that Atlanta reminded me of the unforgettable human connections that arise from being an independent traveler, and Asheville reminded me that those human connections endure regardless of distance or time.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Adventure and Humility in the Lowcountry

Walking is certainly the most intimate way to explore a city. It allows you to interact with people, freely indulge your directional whims, and soak in the sights, sounds, and smells of city life in a way that vehicles simply cannot match. One caveat is in order for the potential city trekker: Don't overdo it!

Anxious to get underway and resolute in remaining on foot for the entire adventure, I overlooked the fact that my physical activity over the past few weeks was limited to waiting tables and typing on my computer. Neither activity is sufficient preparation for 10 miles of walking with 60 pounds of gear. Amidst stunning views from the Cooper River Bridge and the charming street life of downtown Charleston with its horse-drawn carriages, historical architecture, lively streets and smiling faces, my left foot developed a pinch, nothing more than a nuisance. Over the course of the next two days, the pinch gave way to an ache, then a throb, and finally produced an unbearable pain that forced me to abandon walking and acquiesce to humility: "Mom, will you pick me up?"

Why did I walk so much? Why not just take a cab? Well, part of the experiment was to get used to my backpack and equipment. It turns out I need to invest in some sturdy hiking boots. Lesson learned.

In the two days that my feet were fully functional, however, I managed to spend a good bit of time working at Crisis Ministries. Located just off the Cooper River Bridge, Crisis Ministries is South Carolina's largest provider of services to homeless people. In their own words: "Crisis Ministries provides social services, primary and mental healthcare and counseling in addition to the basic needs of food and shelter to over 150 homeless men, women and children every night."

What I found most important about Crisis Ministries was their focus on helping guests of the shelter return to self-sufficiency. Far from just being a soup kitchen or homeless shelter, Crisis Ministries provides a Social Worker to every guest to help identify potential barriers to success, create goals and develop a realistic plan to achieving self-sufficiency.

I mainly worked with the Soup Kitchen, which serves over 250 lunches daily to anyone in the area who needs a hot, nutritious meal (you do not need to be an overnight guest of the homeless shelter to have lunch). After serving lunch on the second day, I grabbed a tray, sat down in the dining hall, and chatted with a guy named Mark.

Mark, perhaps in his late 40s, turned out to have a fascinating story, which he relayed to me as we feasted on hearty beef stew, roasted Yukon gold potatoes, and a delicious fruit salad that I had stirred to perfection earlier. Six years ago he had a small business in Pennsylvania, a couple of trucks, and a comfortable living. After an unwarranted lawsuit forced him to "dissolve", or sell off all his assets, and leave the state, he began his life as a tried and true traveler. Now he owns a backpack, some clothes, and does general temp labor when he can find it to afford food.

He was on his way south to St. Petersburg, Florida for the winter. A couple of years ago, he got frostbite on his hands while braving the winter up north and now migrates south to warmer weather. Most of his traveling is done on foot. This year alone he has logged in nearly 1,000 miles, and it is another 450+ miles to St. Petersburg. My 10 miles around Charleston and the resulting foot pain sort of lost all effect.

Once our trays were emptied, Mark looked up and said in his gruff northern accent, "Great to meet ya, James. Good luck." With a warm smile, a grateful nod and the shake of a frostbitten hand, Mark and I parted ways. In honor of Mark's humbling story, I decided to tough out the injured foot and walk the final 2.5 miles to the couch I was crashing on for the night.

It may have been an in-town adventure, one close to the creature comforts of home (and saving grace of mom), but it proved to be more educational and even exciting than I envisioned. Not only did I work out some kinks for the upcoming trip south of the border and meet some extraordinary people, but I learned a few noteworthy life lessons. I think the most important lesson is that adventure is best appreciated with a humble spirit.

Monday, November 17, 2008

From Abstraction to Action

This has been strange year for me. I graduated from college last December and filled the past 11 months with agitating cogitation, humbling odd jobs with mediocre pay, countless hours on the computer, and dreams of what I could do with this project. Taking this far-fetched, abstract idea and making it real has proved more challenging, stressful, frustrating, and ultimately educational than almost anything else I have ever attempted. It has been a year of unknowns, perpetually in waiting mode, guessing at the next step. Unfortunately they don't make a "For Dummies" guide for this sort of thing - I checked.

I am encouraged and excited, though, because if merely planning the adventure is one of my most educational experiences to date, I cannot fathom the education I am about to receive from actually living the adventure. No matter how much I have tried to prepare, I know that I am going to see, hear, do and learn things that are impossible to predict. That is the essence of travel. It forces you into unfamiliar situations and compels you to overcome any adversity and accept life as it comes.

Few places in this world are more dangerous than home. Fear not, therefore, to try the mountain passes. They will kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action. John Muir, The Mountains of California, 1894

December 31st marks the inevitable departure date, but I am already stir crazy. Indeed, I have had the travel itch since first going to Chile in 2004; however, my lack of travel since then and the impending adventure are making this apprehension unbearable. I have loads to do before I head to South America, but why wait to start the project? To satisfy my wanderlust, I'm going to go backpacking in my own town. I know it sounds goofy, but it is a worthwhile experiment. I'm going to strap on my pack and make a trek across the Cooper River Bridge into downtown Charleston for a couple of days - a trial run of sorts.

Any body else up for the challenge? Go backpacking in your own town. Stay in a local hostel, crash on someone's couch or just head to a new part of town and explore the place you call home from a visitor's perspective. Pretend you are from somewhere else and ask the locals about their town. E-mail me (TwentyTwelves@gmail.com) or leave a comment on this post to tell me if you view things differently after the experience.

I will let you know how my mini-excursion goes.

Where I Am and Where I've Been