The long hangover: returning from an around the world adventure

I came back four and a half months ago. These four months have felt longer than any of the year that preceded them. The reason is simple: I’m back to routine. I have a flat, I have a job, I have to go and do the weekly shopping every week. I’m happy and I’m lucky, I have everything one would ever want. At least, I think I have what we’re told we want.

Experience, memory, takes me back to other places. Sometimes I’m sitting in my desk at my home office in Lüneburg, Germany, a place which has been quite an adventure by itself, and I would transport myself to certain places. Mostly, I’d like to be teleported to nature. Even in a small and cute town like Lüneburg, one feels the weight of urban living: a constant lack of time; pressure to attend all you social gatherings; a physiological need to do sport after a day of sitting and screen watching; a need to have all house matters under control; the importance to content your closest acquaintances (and other social common places) at every second; and, of course, an obligation to work as much as possible. It’s quite restricting for our human nature.

I understand better than before the struggle. In the past I didn’t know what kind of freedom comes from breaking with this system. It’s difficult to feel a broader sense of personal welfare than the one you get from travelling around the world. I say travelling, you say sailing, reading, writing, volunteering for an NGO, hiking the tallest of mountains, etc. What I mean is that discovering the liberation behind doing what you really want is a unique and inexplicable feeling. Without taking a leap forward, risking a bit of stability, most people won’t know they’re missing that.

Probably you know it’s there, hidden in the subconscious, something is missing. Something could be better. But you’ll never take the leap and discover it. If you do it, you’ll have the greatest of times but then you’ll have to come back and face reality. This is where I am now. It’s Saturday and I have to work, weekends for journalists have always been an utopia. Could be worse, I always reassure myself. The sun is shining, the spring colours are in full bloom in Fehmarn, Germany’s beautiful northern island, a place I feel at home already. I like being here, but I can’t resist transporting myself to Uyuni, Bolivia.

It was my last stop of my around the world adventure, a marvellous and enticing country, unique as most in South America. I remember walking around the deserts next to El Salar, Bolivia’s main tourist attraction, such a vast land of wonder that –even though it’s the most visited point in the country– still makes you feel intimate with nature. I wish I could just appear there for a few minutes, reassure myself, smile at the wondrous sights. I’d love to touch the floor with my hand and feel the crispy salt flats that extend over 12.000 square km, lick my finger and taste the biggest body of salt on earth. Such a powerful feeling.

Maybe then, after a small respite, I would face routine easier. I’m not alone in this situation. I would say everyone around me is facing similar trouble. And we’re all privileged. I might write this just as part of the grieving process, as another entry of my journal of travelling experiences. I realise I didn’t write for quite a while now. Since I got a 40 hours per week gig back it’s been intense, impossible to balance with all my interests in life. I have even given up on my German course to learn the language and be able to communicate appropriately with Freya’s family: realising this failure leaves you beaten up, even though you try.

I don’t write as often, I don’t learn as often, I don’t go outdoor to take pictures anymore. At least I have time to cook, do sport and a few other things I like. The problem is when you end the day exhausted, mentally fried. I mix languages, put a long face, my friends notice it instantly. It’s a pity, but I keep rowing.

* * *

I haven’t been struggling alone. Freya has been in the same position for more months than I have. I see her bad days and she sees mine. We often find ourselves in the kitchen, savouring some of our tasty evening meals, and fantasizing about our next adventure: van trip, a year living abroad, our little coffee shop in a coastal village in Costa Rica… The possibilities are vast, but in the end we know it’s going to be a long road.

I recently met in Hamburg with an old schoolmate from Barcelona. It was reassuring to share so many doubts with him. Although we didn’t see each other for maybe six or seven years, we felt like we knew so much about each other. That’s because we identified the same adventure spirit in each other. He was cycling around the globe while I was trotting around Asia, Europe and South America. We exchanged memories, ideas, stories, and also we both agreed that it’s difficult to see a clear path forward: Where to settle down? What career to follow? How to transform our plans from dreams to realities…

I can imagine everyone who has taken the big step forward to suddenly find similar struggles on their way back to their old realities. Another friend who lived in a paradise island in the Caribbean is now struggling in a tiny apartment in the French Alps. With reason. I understand him, and they understand me. This is, at least, reassuring.


Singapore Travel Guide: night skyline

Singapore travel guide: budget and tips for 2019

Welcome to our new series of budget travel guides, where we will cover countries we have visited recently aiming to share with you the best tips and insight on alternative activities, freebies and other must see attractions you should look for when visiting your desired holidays destinations. In this posts you’ll also be able to find great accommodation deals and look for the cheapest flight fares in your area.

We will start our travel guide series with an exciting regional hub from Southeast Asia. Here’s our Singapore travel guide. We hope you enjoy it as much as we thrived in the city!

COUNTRY OVERVIEW

Everything you see in Singapore has been built over the last 50 years, with few exceptions to the list. The progression of the city-state since its split from Malaysia in 1965 has been astonishing, and one many didn’t expect. The Malayan parted ways with Singapore just two years after merging in 1963, when the Singapore government expected huge benefits from an alliance to form a bigger country in the region.

By that time, in the sixties, Singapore’s downtown was a large field of grass surrounded by brick houses, peasants and a general state of poverty. The agreement between the parts didn’t work out and a lot of political rifes –bloodshed included– led to the split, which at the time had Singapore’s PM in tears. The Malaysian leading party unanimously voted to expel Singapore from the federation.

At that moment, the island was just another kampung –village– of the area that had gained independence from the British Crown in 1959, which had used its prime location to establish a trading port since the 19th century. How a field of grass turned into a modern metropolis, with state of the art skyscrapers and a world leading business environment in less than 50 years is still considered a miracle.

Lee Kuan Yew, prime minister between 1965 and 1990, was the key political figure of the country. Experts claimed that the incredible evolution of Singapore resides in three key elements: unique placement, openness to trade and investment and a small and honest government. Like anywhere, there are relevant drawbacks to the formula: press control, authoritarian rules, harsh judiciary punishments and restrictions on freedom still take place today.

WHAT YOU MUST SEE

When visiting Singapore, you should prepare to explore a wide potpourri of cultures, something you’ll do best when exploring the incredible variety of neighbourhoods the city has: from Chinatown to Little India, further into Marina Bay, Tiong Baru and Kampong Glam –the hipster and muslim quarter, all in one–; every step you take will reveal new contrasts in the huge metropolis. The city has a very efficient metro (MTR) and bus system, so you should use it if you’re in a rush, but be aware that walking here is never boring.

As a melting pot of cultures, there’s nothing you cannot do or try in Singapore. You’ll also find it’s a place full of expats, so the Asian experience is deeply rooted to its inhabitants Western traditions. The result is a merging of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Arabic influences with European and American living standards, which is ideal to get a first taste of all Southeast Asia has to offer. Take in the varied assortment of temples, the commercial avenues, the green spaces and the street art. Even the airport is an attraction to pay attention at: Changi Airport has been one of the best ranked airports in the world for many years.

ALTERNATIVE THINGS TO DO

National Gallery Singapore

Being a tropical destination, pouring rain can be expected without previous notice. Luckily, Singapore has great museums to offer. Our favourite is the National Gallery, which has great and varied exhibitions on the region and its artists. The building is beautiful and deserves a visit by itself, and the rooftop –bar and restaurant included– offers one of the most clear views on Marina Bay and the skyline.

Architecture tour

One thing that you will notice when landing in Singapore is that skyscrapers and contemporary architecture abound. Remember: the city was built in a rush over the last 50 years. This is, then, a great destination to look up and marvel at the concrete and glass wonders. An architecture tour here would be highly recommended.

Pulau Ubin island

Go further than most people and visit the last kampung in the area, Pulau Ubin, a tiny island opposite of Changi Airport. Few tourists flock there, and nature remains vivid for taking a nice bike ride, which you can conveniently rent after leaving the ferry. This is your best chance to explore the old preindustrial Singapore that quickly perished in hands of capitalism.

DO IT FOR FREE

Light shows in Marina Bay

If the setting is spectacular, the result doesn’t fall short. Singapore markets its urban landscape by promoting two free light shows with music at Marina Bay Sands (Spectra) and Gardens by the Bay (Garden Rhapsody). These are a must and won’t scratch your pocket in a place where budget standards are as high, or even higher, than most Western cities.

Gardens by the Bay

One of the most recent and spectacular additions to the city’s appeal, these gardens are a huge example of the merging of modernity and environment that Singapore aims to execute. A green city, the Gardens by the Bay provide for a unique walk or bike ride to escape the big skyscrapers of Downtown, which might engulf you after a few days. Singapore has some of the greater urban green spaces on the globe, and nobody will charge you a cent for properly enjoying them. The supertrees are a sight to behold, especially at dusk and night, when they light up.

East Coast Park

Same as the Gardens by the Bay, this is one of the last corners where you will feel free from the tall urban landscapes of the city. It’s a 15km beach that only sees crowds of locals during the weekends. Another great place to go for a bike ride, which you could combine with the Gardens since the facilities are connected by bike lanes.

BOOKS TO READ

If We Dream Too Long, Goh Poh Seng

Considered by many the first Singaporean novel, published in 1968 by Goh Poh Seng. If We Dream Too Long explains the life and dilemmas of a 18 year old student that tries to follow his aspirations and adhere to the demands of society and family.

Corridor, Alfian Sa’at

12 short stories conform Corridor, a fiction work from the playwright and poet Alfian Sa’at that portrays life as a member of an ethnic minority in Singapore.

Fistful of Colours, Suchen Christine Lim

Fistful of Colours is an exploration of women’s rights during Singapore’s history, and a realistic account of what still prevails in plain sight: patriarchal society largely prevails and strips women of their fair rights. Suchen Christine Lim won the first ever Singapore Literature Prize in 1992.

Balik Kampung series, edited by Verena Tay

Explore the neighbourhoods of Singapore and its diversity through the eyes of different authors that have lived in them for more than 10 years.

FOOD YOU SHOULD TRY

In Singapore you can find really fancy dining options and rooftop cocktail lounges, but a lot of travellers will prefer to keep their pockets safe. For that, the city has a great food court scene in which you can enjoy dishes from all the surrounding regions. In Maxwell Food Center you’ll find Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice, a renowned hawker stall with really long queues that serves the trademark dish of the city; if you mind the wait, just try any stall you find. They’re really tasty and great value. Leave space in your bellies to try the oyster omelettes.

Nearby, in Chinatown, you could also venture to Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle, the cheapest Michelin star restaurant in the world. When visiting Little India, find a place to enjoy murtabak (savoury stuffed pancakes) and roti prata (dough-flour pancake), ideally in Tekka Center.

Another food court to note down is Telor Ayok Market in Downtown, and you shouldn’t leave the city without tasting one or two laksa dishes (noodle soup), since they’re all different depending on the influences of the cooks at the places you’re eating.

ACCOMODATION

Hostels and budget accomodation abound in Singapore, and there’s actually people living in hostels full time as the rent prices in the country are skyrocketing. Expect nothing fancy but fair prices for a big metropolis: the cheapest prices in Booking.com start at 7€ per night for one person in dorm rooms, which is pretty decent.

We stayed in Rucksack Inn @ Lavender Street, conveniently located close to downtown through bus stations and MTR, although not a short walk to any of the main attractions in the city. Still, one of the best quality/price relations in the whole city, and a reasonable walking distance to Little India and Kampong Glam too.

FLY IN

Singapore is one of the cheapest long-haul flights you can find around, either from Europe or the United States, with best fares rounding the 200-300€ mark. From Australia, you could fly for as little as 80€. Remember that Changi Airport if one of the main Asian hubs, so you’ll find lots of cheap flights to further explore the region in any direction.

United Kingdom  – 246€ (London)
United States – 220€ – 280€ (San Francisco – New York)
Europe – 180€ – 236€ (Berlín – Barcelona)
Australia – 80€ – 107€ (Perth – Sydney)

Hungry for more Singapore travel related stories? Check our RTW blog entry on first connections while backpacking.


Paradise ocean cover photo for top 10 countries to visit in 2019

The other top 10 countries to visit in 2019

So Lonely Planet has already decided which countries you should visit this following year. And their selection is great, it’s not that we don’t love their taste. The problem is: a LP list of the top 10 countries to visit in 2019 is a call to masses, and part of the appeal of travelling, here in Two Decades in the Sun, is to travel to off the beaten path and remote places, to enjoy the purity of untouched territories and marvel through self discovery and exploration.

For all of the reasons cited above, we’ve come up with our own version of the top 10 countries to visit in 2019, a list we’ve ordered according to the number of arrivals in 2018 (top to bottom): South Korea, Sweden, Cambodia, Namibia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guadeloupe, Papua New Guinea, Liechestein and Tuvalu.

1. South Korea

One of the most surprising and marvelous stops of our around the world adventure last year was a sudden change of plans that flew us from 35ºC Bangkok to 0ºC snowy Seoul, in South Korea. It was a quick week adventure in Special City, a 10 million megapolis of weird lettering, immense skyscrapers, old royal palaces, funny fashionable people and unique food.

Now, you might be thinking it all sounds a lot like Japan. But no, South Korea left us feeling like Lost in Translation but 15 years later. Tokyo, which we visited right after, wasn’t such a surprise anymore. Makes sense, since Japan gets almost 29 million visitors a year, and Korea settles with 13M, which is still quite a lot. What this means? Go for it before it’s too late.

Learn more about South Korea in our photo essay.


2. Sweden

Like all things in life, my visit to Sweden was not predicted and thus, it was extraordinarily good. It was my first camper van exploration, and the sense of adventure was as big as the landscapes surrounding us. We had the hottest summer in the last 40 years, and the weather was bright, warm and sunny. We drove for miles and miles, always finding the embrace of nature everywhere we went to.

Because Sweden is so huge, the 7 million visitors are dispersed throughout the country, and the feeling that remains is that you are on your own with nature. Our visit to Sweden didn’t follow any plan, and that was precisely the best plan. With its vast land and natural wonders, the northern country is best visited with a car or a van, because you can also legally sleep anywhere you want!

Read more about Sweden and its awesome ‘freedom to roam’ principle.


3. Cambodia

I have visited 24 countries on my one way RTW experience, and I’m always asked the same question: which one was the best? I don’t think there’s an individual answer, but since everyone kept asking, I made up my mind: Cambodia is absolutely unique, still remains fairly unknown and untouched (except Angkor Wat, of course) and has a rich history behind.

What I love about Cambodia is that you can get a harsh humanity lesson in Phnom Phen, move on to explore the mountains and pepper plantations with a motorcycle and end up in a paradise island like Koh Rong, where you can unplug from mobile data and WiFi hotspots. To cap it all, the temples of Angkor will make you wonder how. How is this place so beautiful? Join quickly the other 5.6 million visitors before the Chinese tourist industry swallows it all.

Read more about Cambodia in our country overview.


4. Ecuador

Ecuador is a place a lot of backpackers leave out the route map. The belief is that it’s not good enough when you compare it to its surrounding neighbours: Perú, Colombia, Brazil. Sure, those are big names, but Ecuador has an advantage with all of them: it’s tiny compared to them, so you can go from the jungle to the beach in less than 12h. In the other countries it’d take you days…

In Ecuador you find all the amazing features of its south american rivals: indigenous comunities, handicrafts, pristine beaches, surfing, rainforest, adventure sports, excellent coffee and chocolate plantations, colonial cities, lush jungle and the mighty Amazonas. With 1.6 million visitors, these hotspots are never crowded. If this is not enough, the wonderful Galápagos Islands are awaiting for those who can afford it. It’s worth the money splash, everyone says.

Read more about Ecuador’s mainland in here.


5. Namibia

Here’s a country I haven’t visited but calls me for numerous reasons. I have two references of the African territory from TV: Kepa Acero’s surfing adventure in the place and a Grand Tour episode that showed stunning landscapes I’ve never seen before. With 1.5 million visitors per year, Namibia promises deserts, safaris*, waves, sea lions and stunning sunsets.

As an individual who has only been introduced to Africa through Morocco, I have the feeling that a visit to Namibia is a great gateway to the continent, since its a country adjacent to South Africa, one of the most developed nations in the area. Namibia is, too, one of the safest places in Africa and another thing I love: it’s best visited through a 4×4 rental. Road trip anyone?

Read more about Namibia’s best attractions here.


6. Bolivia

Oh, Bolivia. My last stop of the around the world experience, a country of pure experience and another one that’s overlooked by too many travellers in the region (1.1M visitors). Let me begin with Salar de Uyuni, a place so unique and remote (despite having other tourist tours around all day) that made me feel a tiny piece of the universe. Navigating through the salt flats and deserts of the area for three days is in the Top 5 of my whole adventure.

And then there’s much more to it: the highest navigable lake in the world, lake Titicaca; the highest metropolis of the world, La Paz; a huge indigenous community, with 70% of the country being native; stunning mountain peaks over 6.000m; pure silver mines; the Amazonas and La Pampa… Before arriving, I had the feeling Bolivia would be my favourite spot in my South American four month advenutre, and my gut was right.

Read more about Bolivia in this 4-week itinerary.


7. Guadeloupe (France)

If you wake up tomorrow and decide to go somewhere, you’ll probably won’t think about Guadeloupe, a tiny tropical island in the Caribbean sea. Maybe you’ll think of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, yet these places are missing a clear advantage: they’re not Europe. Guadeloupe is officially a French province, so you can catch a plane in Paris and land without your passport being double-checked. Only 650.000 visitors stop by, nothing close to the 4M they get in islands cited before.

It has all the beauties of any Caribbean island: crystal clear waters, lush nature, volcanoes and weird animals. It has also Carrefours, good cheese and a good wine culture, and that’s because it’s just another region of France. Because it’s Europe and because it’s France, you can easily connect from Paris to the island for little money. I payed a 400€ return ticket just before summer, and what a place!

Read about the Caribbean coast struggles in our report


8. Papua New Guinea

I have a vague idea of what Papua might be like, but it’s just a country that sounds so nice and compelling. By name, you think of paradise in a far away place. Look it up in Google and it kind of is. Look it up again and, well, it’s really remote and difficult to get to. This is not a place for the faint-hearted, it’s a place to really go off the beaten path.

There are street gangs, venomous snakes, landslides, corruption… a lot of modern-day biblical plagues that affect the country in unfortunate ways. The rewards are, though, quite special: unique tribes, surfing paradise, local markets, huge hospitality, crazy birds, second World War cementeries; mountain, archipelagos and fjords all in one place. It sounds so different and so far away that I can’t really resist. There’s a reason only 150.000 foreigners visit this country in Oceania.

Read about how to make your PNG travel happen.


9. Liechenstein

There’s many curious things to notice once you visit this European country. The first one is that you’re visiting one of the smallest yet richer nations in the world. The second one is that you’re in an absolute fairy-tale place, deeply encapsulated between the mighty Alps and the bordering nations of Switzerland and Austria. The nature in this place is the best European mountain range can offer.

Going to specifics, Liechenstein is a country for outdoors lovers and road trip enthusiats (you can only get there by car). It’s a country to breathe in the mountain air and marvel at stunning castles perching on cliffs, skiing at the wonderful resorts, water your feet in the cold waters of the Rihne and enjoying some culture and architecture in its towns. It’s a tiny Euro-adventure, good for a few days unplugging from reality.

Learn more about this rarely visited country (69k visitors in ’18)


10. Tuvalu

Tuvalu is here because it’s officially the less visited country of the world with only 2.500 visitors in 2018. There’s nothing more exciting than to get there now and feel so far away. Two hours away from Fiji, the closest land by air, Tuvalu consists of nine tiny islands, six of which are actually coral atolls. The airstrip is so small that it has no fences and its a two minute walk from the beach.

In a country so small and so off the beaten path, there’s not even need for travel guides. Just go around and ask. You can visit the biggest island with motorbike, everyone speaks English and there are a dozen of guest-houses to stay. There’s no need for recommending local food, since that’s all you get. Pristine waters, coral reefs, marine reserves and the opportunity to visit a land that might dissappear soon due to rising sea levels.

Read the perspective of one of the few visitors to this country


So this is our alternative list to the big travel companies, magazines, blogs and websites, a list formulated mainly through personal experience and a slight touch of to-dos for us. There’s no single top 10 countries to visit in 2019 post out there that will perfectly align with your preferences, but we hope we have inspired you to discover a new place soon.

Note: If you enjoyed reading us, you can suscribe by filling your data in the footer of this post. We’ll be glad to have you onboard.

*When going on a safari, please mind the environmental and ethical policies of the companies you book with. Thanks.


The statue of Juan Maspalomas and the invisible heroes

The world is full of rocky homages to bankers, politicians, lawyers, soccer players, priests and other public figures. In 451 days of travelling I’ve encountered an immense amount of statues that commemorate these (predefined) heroes of our society. After recently spending four months in South America, I have seen more than fifty versions of Simón Bolivar, the liberator of the continent in the nineteenth century.

Although I’ve seen plenty of Bolivar and other equivalent figures around the world, there is a statue that has petrified in my mind. This is the statue of Juan Maspalomas, whom you probably know nothing about. This sculpture stayed in my mind given its unfortunate exceptionality, its almost unique representation of a gigantic issue. Juan Maspalomas was a working-class man, a neighbour of one of Bogotá’s poorest neighbourhoods, encapsulated in the southern hills of the city’s adjacent mountains, an illegal and constantly developed puddle of brick houses.

* * *

Juan Maspalomas was just another number lost in the ten million metropolis until one day he decided to help a woman in the supermarket next to his house. It was late in the evening, and the store was practically empty. He was filling the basket with the weekly groceries, pasta here, tomato sauce there… he crossed the stands and made a turn towards the dairy stand in the corner. He saw two men and a woman, he also quickly perceived the fear in her face. One man was strongly grabbing her by the arms, she was trying to kick the other one, who was covering her mouth and telling her why she didn’t like some manly appreciation, mamasita. While the second man was slowly stroking the woman’s side, towards her bottom, he shouted at them.

The two men didn’t react, they ignored his presence. He stood still, saw how the man was now touching the woman’s ass. He stirred at the sight of the abuse. He left his basket on the floor and hurried towards the men. Now, the aggressor payed attention. He turned, rage in his face, and barked at him.

– Porque te metes donde no te llaman maricón?

– Deje a la señorita en paz, por favor.

The man moved very fast, and he suddenly felt a train running over his head. The punch landed like if he was teleported to the middle of the ring against Rodrigo Valdéz. He was in the floor still dazed, so he could only hear the rushed steps, the shouting and an aggressive voice in the background.

–… ¡perra te vas a enterar como te vuelva a encontrar por la calle, ¡coya! ¡Buscona de mierda!

– Y tu hijueputa, ¿te gusta ayudar a estas bandidas? ¡Vas a ver ahora pendejo!

The first kick he felt, the pain instantly travelling from his head to his stomach. He coughed blood, breathless and confused. The aggressor didn’t stop there, his eyes out of orbit and filled with rage. The other man was standing with a hand in his face, feeling the strong slap that the escaping victim gave him in the previous moment of confusion. He spoke the last words Juan could understand.

– Para huevón, lo vas a matar. ¡Lo vas a matar culiao!

– ¿Y ahora qué, quieres ser el héroe todavía, eh? 

The two men left running, observing that the cashier was not standing at the entrance desk, leaving Juan’s body on the floor and having only taken on their way out a bag of chips, a beer six-pack and a human life. The policed filled the report after talking to the terrified young woman who was found sobbing under the desk, too afraid of doing anything when she realized what was going on in her store. After a vague investigation, with no promising leads, the case was filed as another unresolved murder in the city of Bogotá. 

As things were, Juan would remain as another statistic, hidden in the 26.8 murder rate (out of every 100.000) that Usme had in 2017. Juan, 42, left no family and no memory.

* * *

* * *

If Juan became an exception between representations of Simón Bolivar and other Colombian national heroes was because the victim survived and started a campaign to remember his anonymous saviour. In a country where women are still hugely relegated under the rule of men, Mariela slowly moved the neighbours in order to present a popular motion in the city hall. First she talked to her female friends in the ten storey building where she lived, then to the parents of the school where her two daughters studied. Patiently, after a couple of months of receiving rather timid supports and threats from certain empty-heads, she gathered 2.500 signatures that backed her unique idea.

Followed by a group of less than 25 neighbours, Mariela stood up in a chair and, shouting with conviction and dignity, read her motion to the curious listeners that were passing by that morning in Parque Principal de Usme, next to the local town hall where she would later deposit the document. Here’s what Mariela shared with her fellow citizens:

Estimado señor alcalde,

Last year, in November, I became another victim of sexual abuse in the supermarket of calle 117b sur, just around the corner of my house. Two men decided that instead of buying their groceries they preferred to molest a defenceless woman. Nothing special, nothing new in our city nor in the times we’re living. They violently grabbed my arms, covered my mouth and proceeded to touch my body. You probably read about the case if you follow the local newspaper – something you probably do, for the sake of our barrio.

If my case is known is because a fellow citizen of ours came to my rescue. Juan Maspalomas stood up against the assaulters and told them to leave me be. As a result, he was brutally murdered and I, in the seconds of confusion, was able to escape the abuser’s grasp and run for my life and integrity.

When I read the news the next day, I realised what had happened back in the store, how that man had saved my life by giving his. I called the police, tried to give an accurate description of the facts, but in the end there was nothing they could do to identify those criminals. I was consumed in anger, tears and helplessness.

I could talk about the million problems that caused an incident like this, but after a month of mulling over the problem, I came with a different solution, a solution I want to present to you now.

I’m not a travelled person, I’ve barely visited more than three cities in our own country. I, as any other neighbour of Bogotá, I’ve been several times to the downtown area. Walking there after the incident, I realised something that had been there in plain sight all the time. If our nation was built and inspired by all those heroes we have standing tall in the middle of our plazas, immortalised in marble and stone for the rest of us to observe and venerate, why have I never seen a woman up in those places?

Let’s even forget about the underrepresentation of women for a moment. Why have I never seen a anonymous hero in those places? Why doesn’t Juan deserve to be there and project his tremendous values to our present and future society? Wouldn’t it be a nice message to send to immortalise the memory of an ordinary man who fought for women’s rights, saw us as equal people and gave his life to save another one?

If my daughters and the kids at their school come to this humble square and see the statue of Juan, learn about his story when reading the statue’s plaque, wouldn’t that send the right message for our future generations?

I don’t understand the point of having so many homages to our founding fathers, politicians and religious figures. It seems that we forgot that the success of us people, of humanity, resides in the smallest acts of any given individual.

I believe we have the responsibility to make a change. Juan saved my life and defended me and, in a broader sense, the rights we have as women. I don’t want to see another statue of Simón Bolívar if I don’t see first a statue risen here, in this modest neighbourhood, paying homage to our great Juan Maspalomas.

Muchas gracias por su tiempo y consideración,

Mariela Fernández

I’ve always thought: ‘Yes, I play basketball, but, what does this contribute to the world?’ The idea is to make this a better place, leave a legacy… People told me ‘you have done so many things in your career’, and I thought ‘but I only score basketballs’. I don’t build houses, don’t bake bread, don’t cure people… I play basketball and on top of that, women’s basketball. If I were at least Pau Gasol and had a global impact…

Laia Palau, Spanish international basketball player.

When I envisioned the statue of Juan Maspalomas I was reading an interview with Laia Palau, a veteran basketball player from Spain. I also had recently known about a case of sexual abuse in my hometown which affected someone I really care for. Being in Colombia, I felt far and unable to help, hurt by how these things happen on a daily basis and in every corner of the planet.

Maybe I was in front of a statue, I’m not sure, but this chain of events brought the figure of this sculpture to my mind, a way to express what I felt about this unfortunate situation. I asked myself, why so many political statues? Why so many Hail Marys to military, religious and sports people? What are these people really teaching us about life and values? I also looked at some astonishing numbers that speak from themselves: there are at least 170 statues of men in Barcelona, only 14 of women. The same happens in a bigger scale: in the UK there are only 158 statues of women out of 925; in the United States, only 394 out of 5.193.

I thought that having statues that represented and guarded the deeds of great women –clearly underrepresented in numbers–, social and human rights activist, feminists, homosexual and other minority collectives, would be a good idea to send a message to future generations. This is why I imagined Juan Maspalomas, a fiction character that I’m sure exists. As far as I know, no one has represented a man who fought for equality like this. Even worse, I’m not very confident in finding a female example either.

We should all be more concerned about sexual abuse and discrimination, and I believe we could improve things by starting to represent its standard bearers. Be it a statue or a park, a street name or a simple plaque, we should start giving voice to the memory of our contemporary heroes.


Lake-69-Unsplash-Peru-Huascaran

A hard lesson from Peru: you only live once

In Peru I’ve experienced a lot, all compressed in one month of insatiable adventure and ever-changing landscapes. When I left the South American country, crossing the border to Bolivia, I thought I just left one of the most critical situations of my trip. In my last stop in the country, I helped rescuing a lost and injured French tourist in Colca Canyon. At that point I didn’t know that I was wrong. By then I was just a month away from my crash test with reality, so I trusted I would leave my adventure unscratched.

When I reached Llahuar, a minuscule town encapsulated deep in the bottom of the highest canyon on Earth, I found myself involved in a critical ongoing situation. Djamila, a French woman, was crying on the corner of the only lodge in town. I learned her husband had gone missing the day before on the afternoon. It was midday and still nobody had news of him. At that point, the police had been called, but they wouldn’t reach the area until it was dark.

My role, from that moment on, was to translate from French/English to Spanish, to help that nerve-wrecked woman to communicate with the hostel owners, the police and anyone who tried to help. Stuck in the middle of nowhere, and not really having an exact clue where her husband might have gone, it was useless to go out and try to find him. There were five different paths he might have taken, some theories and a lot of confusion. They were all discussed by the few guests staying there. When you find yourself in this situation, no one is thinking clearly, no one except professionals.

All the hostel guests, a Brit and a Belgian guy, two French girls and a US couple, collaborated with the task at hand. Throwing questions, ideas, even considering going out to the mountain –the potential risks faced would be the same that made Xavier, Djamila’s husband and a licensed mountain guide, disappear. The end result of day two since he went missing was to wait for the professional rescuers to come. We were fatigued ourselves after walking almost 20km to reach the hostel, a paradise spot close to the river. We went to the hotsprings there to try to relax, still discussing why the French national, an experienced mountaineer, had decided to hike up almost at dusk. It made no sense that a professional like him took that risk. He did, nonetheless, and our heads were trying to get all the pieces together. We were no Sherlock’s, so doubt is all that invaded us at the steaming pool.

The police arrived at night, approximately 36 hours after the French tourist went missing. We proceeded to give key information to the rescue party, me translating both ways with the help of the Belgian guest, who spoke better French than me but not a drop of Spanish. French-English-Spanish, Spanish-English-French. Experiencing this degree of teamwork between complete strangers sticked with me, another lesson of my big trip. We came together to help as best as we could, trying to give hope to the French woman and taking turns to always keep an eye on her.

Finally, a ray of hope came at midnight, when some policemen who already went up the mountain to talk to villagers found a track of Xavier in a river path. They knew were he’d gone.

Being pitch-dark outside, we had to wait overnight until dawn arrived. The police left early in the morning, and being of no use, we bid farewell and wished good luck to Djamila, relatively relaxed and grateful given the critical circumstances. Because we were in a hole in the ground, mobile data went missing for the next day and a half, so everyone who collaborated with the rescuers was left with the nerve-wrecking doubt: did they find him alive?

The answer was waiting a thousand meters up, back in civilization and a day later. When I arrived to Cabanaconde, the base-camp to any Colca adventure, everyone knew what had been going on for the last days. I met the US couple in the bus back to Arequipa and they broke the news to me: they found him, he’s injured but alive and well. Fuck, that was reassuring. My anxiety faded. Without really noticing it, the last few days I had been living with a big knot in my gut. The death of a stranger would’ve hit me very hard.

So, relieved and happy to now calmly reflect on the beauty of the three day landscapes of the Colca Canyon, in a greater sense the beauty of life, I left for Bolivia and bid farewell to Peru, such an amazing country.

Reality punches back home

But life has its way, a hard way. I had already returned home safe and sound, the very lucky traveller me. No big issues on a year and a half adventure. All seemed good, except reality in Barcelona was starting to hit me a bit: back to work (the hunt for it), stress, pollution, noise. My girlfriend was waiting for me in Germany, and I was getting medical check-ups to confirm that my luck was intact with my trip. I was on the train from my town to Barcelona, and saw a tweet about three mountaineers from Spain and their Peruvian mountain guide who had died the day before. I thought it couldn’t be possible… Nah.

I clicked the link. Scrolled down. I saw the initials on the news, and then I was frozen in my seat. A.S, G.B, S.P. had died in an avalanche in Nevado Mateo, a 5.000 peak near Huaraz, Peru. I wasn’t there, I was back home, but Peru was coming back to me. I felt the region’s cool mountain breeze like a daydream. The Ancash region, a stunning place that features the second highest mountain-range in the world –just beaten by the mighty Himalayas. Mighty snowy mountain peaks, a sight to behold.

By then I already knew it, but still had to look for the complete names in another newspaper article to get it through my collapsing brain. These guys went to my school, I shared beers and laughs with them. We were tracking our adventures together through social media, we all knew about each other. We were not best friends, but we shared some good times in the past. I was planning to meet them somewhere in South America if our paths met by chance. I’m sad they didn’t.

These guys were great, I had so much respect for what they were doing. I understood them, they took the same path I did. They were doing what they wanted the most, explored our world and built their own new selves by expanding their knowledge of cultures and people. They took a difficult step in life, which is to leave all you have known so far: the place you grew, studied and worked for a quarter of a century. They discovered there’s so much more outside, all their friends probably following their adventures with a slice of envy but a prevailing feeling of pure admiration. Adrià, Sergi and Gerard were discovering these unknown realities to everyone who cared to pay attention, and that’s no minor thing.

It’s unfortunate they died, but knowing what they were experiencing first hand, I’m certain they were following their hearts, doing what they enjoyed best. That’s the little relief I have left, although this will never fix the tear in the lives of the people they’ve left behind. I hope time will heal that wound and give way to a deeper understanding of life, a perennial smile when the three of them come into their minds.

This tragedy has reaffirmed the true value of where I am now and what I have done in the past. I did what was right for me. And how important this is. There’s this little hole in me, specially when I think about their closest friends and their pain. Life is never fair, it can’t be. We can’t be so sure we’ll be here tomorrow, so we have to value every bit we’re getting from life today. I’m confident Xavier, the French tourist who spent three nights in the wild before being rescued in Colca Canyon, is valuing life in a way he never did before. This makes me smile.

From Adrià, Sergi and Gerard I’ll keep their ultimate resolution: do what your dreams ask you to no matter what. It’s shit they’re not here anymore, like my basketball teammate Miki who died from cancer when he was 22, but their experience is a (recurrent) lesson for us. To remember them and what they’ve done here with us makes me smile too.

Sorry for today’s personal disclosure, but you only live once.


The traveler's footprint: environmental costs of tourism

In the past year and a half I’ve been exploring the world without any limitations. I went where I wanted, when I wanted and how I wanted. What this means is that I’ve transported myself by foot, car, van, bus, train and plane; I’ve eaten in restaurants almost every day; I’ve consumed drinking water from plastic bottles in most destinations; I haven’t recycled (or had the opportunity to do it) for ages…

This got me thinking. How big is the impact of me traveling around the world? A precise answer is virtually impossible to calculate, but the estimates are already shocking. Mainly because of mobility, my traveler’s footprint is 12 times bigger than our planet can take. This means that by January 30th, if everyone lived like me this past year, our planet would be consumed to its core. This is just an estimation, and I figure it could be even worse.

One of my flight's around the world, here I was traveling from Bangkok to Denpasar. Photography by Guille Álvarez

I’m not the only traveler around here, so you could multiply this impact by the thousands. Let’s put an example with my first flight out of Barcelona. I was so happy because I found an offer to fly for 250€ to Singapore, a good start of my Asian part of the project. Only now I realise that flight meant 52% of the annual amount of CO2 I should consume in order to help limit the Global Warming impact to only 2ºC. It’s crazy, and it seems impossible for a backpacker or any other tourist to just project several months of travel without severely impacting our climate.

There is a final paradox to the mobility issue. The least problematic method for traveling is the least used: rail and boat transportation, both at the bottom of the CO2 impact stats, represent less than 20% of all global traveling.

Note: these guys probably did a better job than me in this sense by biking from Spain to China… and they’re still going! Walking or cycling, of course, reduces a 100% your transportation carbon footprint.

The CO2 emissions and its toll on the planet from my flight Barcelona - Singapore.

Exploring the world is great, but the environmental costs are greater

The statistics by scientists and scholars confirm my individual suspicions on the destructive relationship between travel and climate. Tourism’s global carbon footprint accounts for about 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, this study published in Nature affirms. That’s four times the impact previously consensuated by scientists a few years back. If tourism was a country today, it would be the fourth most impactful towards global warming just under the United States, China and the European Union.

There are other indicators, apart from the carbon footprint, that should change our behaviour. “One tourist consumes 3 or 4 times more water per day than a permanent resident”, confirms another study. I can think on the many many bottles of water I’ve bought all around the globe, not only consuming all this extra water in showers, pools, sinks, etc. but also impacting the amount of plastic residues that are consumed on a daily basis.

Plastic products are an epidemic threat for nature, with giant garbage floating islands reported in several parts of our oceans. They also undermine the climate overland. Most countries I’ve visited in Southeast Asia and South America have little care for recycling and littering. It’s been a rare discovery to find natural attractions without plastic bottles, food envelopes or papers appearing in the floor, messing with the landscape and nature. Are we careless and idiotic? YES.

Hundreds of tourist gather for sunrise in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. How couldn't this affect the environment and the heritage site? Photography by Guille Álvarez

The problem with traveling is that, in general, it’s impossible to avoid these irresponsible attitudes. At least it’s not easy and straightforward. Wherever tourism reaches, trash surplus and misuse takes place. It’s there in plain sight, it’s a logical consequence. How can a tiny tropical island cope with the luxurious tourist standards? The only way is through the exploitation of land, which affects the climate, the nature, the fauna and also, let’s not forget, the local inhabitants.

I’m standing at the edge of a cliff in Copacabana, a little town on the edge of lake Titicaca in Bolivia. I savour the amazing sunset, focus on the horizon of this immense lake standing still at 4.000 metres between the Altiplano and the Andes. The breeze chills my bones, the sun burns my skin, but these are the sights you can’t pay for during your trip. I take it all in.

But I inevitably look down the cliff, and the magic is broken. The garbage covers all the cliff’s edge, bottom to top and around me. It’s just the last example of destruction of our environment and climate that I’ve experienced as a world traveler. Without proper education and resources, we’ll never fix this.

I certainly don’t have an answer to the bigger picture, but I know it starts with the actions of every individual.

Lake Titicaca views are ruined by the constant presence of trash in the surroundings. Copacabana, Bolivia. Photography by Guille Álvarez