Got it back!!!

The next time someone asks me if they should travel through South America for four months or more, I will respond with another question: “Are you prepared to lose everything?” Despite bringing along my Macbook Pro, iPod Touch and Canon DSLR Camera, I really felt mentally prepared to lose everything for the sake of world experience. After all, they are just things. I even left my iPhone at home in Canada with the idea that even if they took everything else from me, at least I’d have that. However, despite my preparation, losing stuff sucks!

Below find a tale, not about loss, but about an outstanding couple, a thief, and the power of social media. By the end, it might just restore your faith in humanity, I know it did mine.

First things first: why the hell would I bring all that technology to South America of all places? Well, without this technology I wouldn’t have been able to keep this column on Forget the Box, make a wacky video about Carnaval, take a leading role in the development of the Bolivian Express magazine, write a freelance article about the End of Capitalism in Bolivia, or keep a personal blog as much as I did.

Why the hell would I travel by myself? At least with people you might have more security. Another good question, but I feel that if I wasn’t alone, I wouldn’t have the freedom to meet such incredible people like Damian Martone, the friendly Argentinian graphic designer who allowed me to stay in his apartment for over a week in Buenos Aires through the networking site CouchSurfing or Bruno Beserra, the flight attendant from Brazil who made the video of Carnaval with me and lent me his camera for the rest of my trip.

But all this journalism, travelling and partying can be taxing on the body, so since Carnaval I pledged to limit my drinking and start to run everyday. I kept to my word on the morning of Sunday, March 3rd and hauled myself out of bed at 8 am after a sober Saturday night for my morning run. In my morning drowsiness I accidentally bumped the foot of an Argentinian man sleeping above me in the 10-person dormitory in Salvador, Brazil and woke him up.

“I’m going to Praia do Forte!” he told me confidentially in Spanish as he started to pack his bag. “Cool!” I responded, having been to the nearby beach a few days prior. “There is an amazing, tranquil beach with no people and white sand if you continue walking from the main beach for 10 minutes. You have to go there!” Appearing delighted by the recommendation he agreed to go. I then locked my locker with all my valuables inside of it, took the key and set off on my run.

When I returned 45 minutes later, I saw the Argentinian on the way out, exchanged a friendly “Chow!” and went to unlock my locker. There, I discovered that my MacBook Pro and the Nikon point + shoot digital camera that Bruno had lent me were missing! Fortunately, however, everything else including my passport was there.

Before the embarrassment, disappointment and general bummed out feeling hit, I just felt confused as to how those items were stolen. I always make sure to lock my locker even if it is for a second to go to the bathroom.

Who could have done this!?

Immediately my mind shifted to the friendly Argentinian. He did rush out and he was probably the only person who saw me open my computer on that morning and could have been fast/sneaky enough to nab it, but there was no evidence to prove this. Where’s Dexter when you need justice!?

Justice had a rough start. At the police station nearby, the casually dressed policeman did not speak a word of English. Less than three words into my explanation in Portuguese (slow and choppy, but I know it made sense) the officer wrote “Pelourinho” (the name for the historic centre) on a piece of paper. Apparently in Pelourinho there is a tourist police station where they speak English.

Of course when I got there, both employees did not speak a word of English. One of them spoke broken French. It’ll do.

In the meantime, a beautiful Uruguayan couple living just north of Salvador named Veronica and Nicolas decided to make a surprise visit to the city to visit Nicolas’ sister.

Unprepared for their arrival, Nicolas’ sister was in the process of interviewing an Argentinian named Rodrigo about renting out her apartment. Rodrigo and the couple got to talking… The couple works with computers, Rodrigo has a new MacBook Pro (wonder where he got it…). Que buena suerte (such good luck) he must have thought! They can wipe the computer’s hard drive and it’ll be just like he never stole it! Having never touched a MacBook before, he asked Veronica and Nicolas to show him where the CD eject button was so that he could take out his Bob Marley CD.

Rodrigo went to the beach and left the computer with the couple with hopes that it would be all ready when he came back.

Suspicious of the odd request to wipe my computer’s content, Veronica and Nicolas took a peek online where she found my Facebook signed in with my photos. If that wasn’t proof enough that this computer was freshly stolen, they saw my full name displayed in the top right hand corner of the screen.

So here’s me sitting at the tourist police station awaiting a police report that a snail could have preformed faster, while Veronica is on my Facebook posting a status to contact me because I had been robbed.

When Rodrigo got back, Nicolas would not let the thief back in to get the stolen computer. He asked Rodrigo for the camera too, but the Argentinian wouldn’t give that back, nor the SD card. After about 15 minutes of arguing he finally left, without my computer!

Main Status

It was only by chance that I found out about the status, despite some of my friends’ best efforts to contact me through email or Facebook. I had no access to Internet because it was a Sunday and nothing was open.

I was eager to set off for Lencois, a nearby tourist town, to get rid of the bad energy I was feeling in Salvador, but had to wait for my police report – which would take another two hours because the lady writing it was hungry and wanted lunch! Ahem, wasn’t there a crime to solve!? This no-pressure attitude while handling necessary services is something that Salvador and Brazil’s Bahia province is infamous for.

While I waited upset and with thoughts of my retreat home to Canada out of disappointment, I went to a nearby hostel to visit a Canadian friend. She wasn’t there, but her boyfriend Pedro who works at the hostel was. Reluctantly, I told him the embarrassing news – that I had apparently left my locker and lost my computer and camera.

“Dude!,” the Brazilian told me in his perfect colloquial English accent. “You didn’t see your Facebook status? Someone found it and they want to meet up!”

Huh!? This must be a joke! My first instinct was to laugh.

I went to look and alas, there on Facebook, was my own status updated with all the information I needed to contact Veronica and Nicolas!

Veronica truly went above and beyond to get a hold of me. She messaged Damian, the Argentinian from CouchSurfing and called the hostel to get a hold of me.

Veronica tried diligently to find me

They also took photos and posted them on my own wall to prove that they had the computer.

Proof!

The comments on Facebook were filled with heart warming messages from family and friends from all walks of life. “Good things happen to good people,” said a friend I knew from high school, but hadn’t seen in over five years. “Well today officially became the shitiest day of the year…! At least Joel Balsam’s story still gives me faith in the world!” read a status of a former teammate from the French Jeux de la Communications.

I called Veronica. No answer.

I went to message a close friend of mine on Pedro’s computer to express my shock and suddenly I was typing my own name in chat, but I really wasn’t… Veronica was also logged in to Facebook and was communicating with me through the same message!

See how the conversation immediately changes as a third party enters the conversation
See how the conversation immediately changes as a third party enters the conversation

Didn’t Facebook used to sign you out if you were signed in at two different locations?

Anyway, Veronica messaged me the address and I punched it into Google Maps. Ready to head out the door, Pedro, the guy who worked at the hostel stopped me. “Dude, that’s in the worst and most dangerous part of the city.” Crap! Salvador is already pretty dangerous, so I could only imagine what the locals would do to a white gringo like me. Hopefully, a white gringo with his Macbook.

A closer search on Google Maps found the same street in a completely different part of the city. Relief.

Two hours later by bus and taxi I arrived to Veronica and Nicolas’ huge condominium and rang the doorbell. Finally, I would meet face to face with the saints that found my computer! But… you guessed it… they weren’t there! Crap, I thought as I looked out the window. I was in some strange place and still unsure if this was all real. Seconds later, a happy couple looked up at me from the street and said “hoy!” I knew it was them!

I sat at their kitchen table, still numb from the whole experience as they related the wild story back to me of how they encountered Rodrigo and hustled the computer back for me. Soon, we got to laughing and talking about each others’ lives.

Got it back!!!

If it wasn’t enough that they saved me the grief and expense of buying a new computer, Nicolas offered me an old shirt as a keepsake to take with me on my journeys.

Kickin butt!
Kickin’ butt!

I took Veronica and Nicolas out for pizza dinner and drinks and they offered me a place to stay when I come back from Chapada Diamantina, a nearby national park. And, Veronica wants to teach me to surf! How could I say no?

So, there you have it. There are good, even great people out there! Something I will tell the grandkids.

What would you have done?

All in a day’s travels!

brasil-02-onibus-incendiado-size-598

 

The streets of Brazil are on fire in anticipation of Carnaval – one of the world’s largest and most extravagant festivals. Unfortunately, in Santa Catarina province where I find myself, the streets have literally been set on fire.

After a louco night of partying and dancing in the streets to the hymns of the lively Carnaval music in Florianopolis, the capital of Santa Catarina, I stepped onto the balcony of my hostel to get a whiff of fresh air and to take in the beautiful weather. In what could be something from War of the Worlds, I was surprised to see a spotlight shine down on me from overhead. The thumping noise of the helicopter in the distance signified something was wrong.

santa_catarina_mapFor the third night in Santa Catarina, masked bandits provoked mayhem by setting city buses on fire, attacking military or police bases, and lighting private vehicles ablaze with grenades and Molotov cocktails. 27 attacks, which included the burning of 15 city buses, took place in ten municipalities across the south-eastern Brazilian province.

Afraid to work on Saturday night, bus drivers refused to man their buses and the entire system in Florianopolis was forced to shut down at 10pm.

According to the government in Santa Catarina, the attacks were coordinated by the same group that launched 59 similar incidents in November 2012 in protest of new drug trafficking laws and the transfer of two major drug dealers to different jails. With cell phones inside of jail, going to jail does not really change much for head honcho drug dealers.

The unrest in Santa Catarina comes at a time when Brazil is still recovering from the shocking tragedy that struck South America’s largest country just over a week ago when 233 young people mostly aged between 16 and 20 were killed in a club fire in the south of Brazil. Canadian connection: a group of volunteers from the University of Toronto have arrived in Brazil to assist the rehabilitation of the nightclub victims who suffered from severe smoke inhalation.

Just like any cliché book or movie, rains just started to pour after a full month of dry balmy summer weather in Florianopolis — it’s called pathetic fallacy. What’s more, the forecast calls for rain throughout Carnaval week in Rio de Janeiro – the Mecca of Carnaval celebration for South America.

If there is ever a worse time (obviously there can’t be a good time) for tragedy and criminal activity to take place in a country it’s right now for Brazil. Carnaval-time is undoubtedly the busiest month for Brazilian tourism as thousands of foreigners flock to the gorgeous country to take in its culture, beaches, party lifestyle and caprinhas (local drink made with cachaca, lime and sugar).

Right now, I can’t tell you what will happen next. Hopefully just booze, beauty and samba bums.

Stay tuned to see what else I encounter at Carnaval 2013 (would you rather be freezing your ass off outside in -40 degree weather or swimming in a McGill University ice flood? Didn’t think so!).

IMG_6528

Puma Nava captures a poisonous yellow cobra for us stunned travellers.

Skin of a snake, lungs of a dolphin, and the eyes of an eagle. A man so bad ass you could write a whole list of Chuck Norris facts about him.

Puma Nava, 25, was born of the jungle and knows how to conquer it. His scars, like the two snake bites on his right hand that brought him within five minutes of his death stand as a reminder of the experiences he’s faced and survived.

Puma was my tour guide for the Pampas region along the Beni river in the Amazon basin. He is like no other human being I have ever encountered.

Pampas Region, Bolivia.

Picture a group of gringo tourists floating slowly along the Beni at nightfall, shining their flashlights and dorky headlamps towards the muddy shores for a glimpse of a nocturnal predator. They sit there hopelessly wagging their artificial lights and praying that they are not another group of tourists to get rejected by the mighty stubborn force of jungle wildlife. Then, unexpectedly the 35-foot ancient-looking wooden motorboat edges closer to the shore. Puma, it’s worthy captain, slowly with eyes fixed on the translucent brown muddy water steps out of the boat and into the water. In a smooth, but deadly attack he plunges his bare hands into the water and pulls out a medium-sized alligator by the neck, hauling it into the boat for the stunned tourists to touch and take photos with.

“Classic Puma,” said an English tourist with a cowboy hat.

Captured my first alligator via Puma. Photo by Inge de Graaf

Puma is a member of the primarily traditional hunter/gatherer indigenous tribe called the Tsimané who live in the Beni region of Bolivia. Their tribe has been subject to various anthropological studies over the last decade under the banner of “The Tsimané Health and Life History Project,” which looks into the effects of aging on this traditional population. The Project and the Tsimané made news in 2009 when a study uncovered that Tsimanés are generally exempt from diabetes and hypertension – a worthy discovery in the battle against these two mass killers. Instead, Tsimanés tend to be brought down by the infectious diseases that run rampant in their tropical homeland, which brings their life expectancy to just 42.

Not so for the Nava family, according to Puma. His shaman-healer grandfather allegedly lived to 105 without once attending an infirmary. Natural remedies found in their regional backyard have aided his family over the years.


Lounging on a branch in the Pampas, Puma recounted a story in which his father’s leg was crushed by a large tree. Broken and with the skin around his thigh completely torn off, Puma’s grandfather took bark from a nearby tree and made a skin graft out of it to cover the open wound.

One year later, his father could move his foot just the slightest. Two years later, he could walk. Three years on he was back to leading tours in the Beni region, just like his two sons Puma and Ariel would go on to do as their careers.

Tours are extremely popular in the Beni region. Experience-hungry tourists eager to see the wonders of the Amazon region tend to land in the town of Rurrenabaque and sign up with one of the many tour companies stationed there. Rurrenabaque is also home to Puma’s family.

Despite the influx of tourists from England, the United States and Canada, Puma cannot adequately speak English. “When you come to Bolivia, you speak Spanish,” said Puma in Spanish to a couple of girls from Holland. “If I go to Holland I will speak Dutch.”

“But, you don’t speak Dutch!” giggled the girls.

Puma may not speak Dutch or even English, but he happens to be fluent in one of the world’s newest conversational languages, which is officially spoken in only one tiny country – Hebrew.

After some Israeli-tourists made fun of Puma in Hebrew, Puma decided to become fluent in the Semitic-based language by learning on his own.

“He speaks perfect Hebrew,” said one rambunctious Israeli-tourist. “It’s unbelievable.”

Rurrenabaque and the Beni tours are especially popular among Israelis who tour South America after finishing their military service in the Israeli Defense Force. As a result, many tour guides like Puma and his brother choose to learn Hebrew instead of English in order to communicate with the Israelis.

Learning to communicate with the tourists is an extremely minimal criteria for Beni tour guides. Their greatest worry must be the dauntingly unpredictable rainforest.

Puma feeds a deadly caiman.

For the Pampas tour, Puma is expected to find anacondas, alligators, caimans, river dolphins, monkeys and maybe even a jaguar. The stakes are high for the illustrious recommendation in a blog, travel guide or even a suggestion to some friends interested in taking the trek.

In the morning of the second day of my Pampas tour, we trudged through the swampy Pampas in our knee-high boots staring at the shrubbery for a glimpse of a ferocious anaconda, cobra, or even a poisonous rattlesnake. Many tours don’t get to see snakes and we had no idea what to expect.

Suddenly, we heard a loud grunt and looked over to see Puma swinging a massive poisonous yellow cobra around, taming it with every blow to the ground. The cobra eventually submitted to our Steve Irwin-esque tour guide and was a friendly subject for pictures. Classic Puma.


Later in the trip, Puma whistled down a wild eagle to come eat a fresh pirinha that he caught, teased a deadly caiman with fresh catfish, toyed with troops of tiny monkeys, and introduced us to a number of river dolphins. Just another day at the office for a Beni tour guide.

While the spectacle for us humans is an absolute delight, adventure tours like these are not sustainable for the animal population. Swinging around a rare snake or choking an alligator is not exactly healthy for these animals. Plus, the tourists’ DEET insect repellant covered fingers are poisonous to the animals that they touch.

What the tours bring us is a rattling sense of human capability. No amount of schooling or training could adequately prepare Puma for his daily dangerous bouts with wildlife. It is this feeling that makes us question our sheltered and safe lives in the West and gives us the ever-illustrious culture shock that we crave.

For Puma, a father of two, even if the tourists leave and never come back to visit him, each tour brings adventure and puts a smile on his face.

Classic Puma.

Evo Morales' palace overlooks the massive metropolis that is La Paz.

Downtown Sucre, Bolivia, was like a ghost town during the national census.

The door to my hostel was shut, the streets were empty like the opening scene of 28 Days Later and I had no clean water or food. I would go to a country with a forced curfew.

I happened to be stuck in the Bolivia’s constitutional capital, Sucre, during its first national census in 11 years. If caught outside I could have faced a 1500 Bolivianosfine ($214 CAN) or even jail time.

So obviously I went outside to check it out.

I was caught by this platoon of Bolivian police during the census curfew. Photo by Niall Flynn.

300 Bolivians were detained by police for violating the curfew and 1927 arrests were made against people who were riding in vehicles without a permit. Fortunately for me, I was simply told by the platoon of police to head back to my hostel.

On Wednesday night, the Bolivian government called the census a “success,” despite reports of a lack of ballots, conflicts over boundaries, the disorientation of the canvassers and the forced return of residents to their communities. Some people with holiday homes argued with the government of their inability to be in two residences at once. Most spectacularly, pollsters in the northern province of Beni were kidnapped over boundary disputes.

Nevertheless, the results of the estimated $50 million census will be extremely crucial to Bolivia’s political and economic future. It will help determine the population (estimated at 11 million), what languages are still spoken, living conditions, education, health status, income, and basic/unmet needs; all important statistics for designing public policies.

At the top of the list will be to pull Bolivia out of it’s infamous reputation as South America’s poorest country – something not dissimilar to other resource-rich countries that suffer from what is often dubbed as “the resource curse.”

Unlike in Canada or the United States, Bolivia has no effective postal system to distribute census forms. Instead, 35 000 policemen and 200 000 hired canvassers had to scale the country’s sky-scraping mountains, dense tropical forests and desert-like plains personally asking every one of the estimated 11 million citizens about their language, material possessions, level of education, household details etc. Even tourists and foreigners were asked one-by-one to fill out the questionnaire from their hostel or temporary residence without being asked to present their passports.

Left off the questionnaire was the option to define oneself as a “mestizo” or mixed race. Deciding on one could be particularly difficult for the estimated 40 ethnic groups listed on the census.

“This would be like dividing Bolivia,” said the country’s charismatic indigenous leader Evo Morales.

Evo Morales’ palace overlooks the massive metropolis that is La Paz.

Since coming into power in 2005, Morales has made sweeping changes to the political climate in Bolivia. A self-proclaimed socialist, the former union leader for a coca-growers union has advocated strongly for indigenous rights and political autonomy. He has re-initiated the teaching of indigenous languages in schools and attempted to limit the transition towards English.

When speaking with people around La Paz, the de-facto capital, I have been told that Bolivians are more confident in calling themselves indigenous now that one of their own is in power – especially among those of Aymara and Quechua decent who are Morales’ strongest supporters.

An indigenous woman sells traditional native clothing mostly to tourists outside the indigenous museum in Sucre.

Internationally, Morales is a leader considered to be part of a political leftwards shift in South America over the past decade – akin with the governments in Venezuela, Cuba, Brazil and Peru. He is also quite hostile towards the US “imperialists” and strongly opposed to their anti-narcotics policies.

However, I have also been told that Morales’ support has begun to shift since being re-elected decisively with 64% of the vote in 2009. His unsuccessful bid to cut government fuel subsidies caused protests and forced him to withdraw from the plan in 2010. Also, his eccentric personality and sometimes unfiltered public speaking has gotten the charismatic leader into hot water. At the 2010 World Summit on Climate Change in Cochabamba, Morales made a speech that implied that eating chicken causes men to go gay. And just this year, Morales asked American actor Sean Penn to be his international ambassador on the decriminalization of coca leaves. No lie.

Morales is up for re-election in 2014, but only if he calls a referendum according to the Leader of the Opposition party Juan del Granado – Article 168 stipulates that a leader may only rule for one successful term. However, Morales argues that his first term was incomplete and thus is entitled to one more term. Time will tell. Until then, there still is two years of Morales’ rule, which should be enough to draft new policies due to the results of the census.

south america map

Hey my name is Joel Balsam and welcome to my travel blog!

Who Am I? I’m a 21st century multi-media journalist. Unashamed of my curiosity, I am experiencing to experience and to tell you about it. Who inspires me? Hunter S. Thompson, Jian Ghomeshi, Shane Smith and Tin Tin.

All jokes aside (or inside), I love to produce media.

I recently graduated from Concordia University in Montreal with a Double Major in Journalism and Political Science. While there, I got involved with every media organization I could, including the campus radio station CJLO 1690 AM where I was News Director and co-creator/co-host of a radio show called Currently Concordia (think CBC Radio’s “Q,” but at University), the campus TV station CUTV, created three documentaries and more…

Forget The Box has graciously given me a soapbox to stand on while I partake on a potentially life-changing journey to South America (Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil). I’m packing light.

I’ve always been extremely interested in this particular continent. It is so steaming hot politically that the powder keg is bound to explode in revolution at any time and that is extremely attractive to a news junkie like me! Also, the culture and art scene there is extremely rich.

If you are looking for a travel blog with the hottest resorts, a daily account of where I went, or the best food, you won’t find it here (although there are some really cool blogs out there that you should check out if you are interested such as Legal Nomads What you will find here is real journalism – with interviews, background information and intriguing life stories from my perspective.

Sure, I realize that I am not the first twenty-something white male from the suburbs to travel to poor countries. I’m not going to “save the planet,” or to disrupt the local community (as much as possible). Instead, I am going to experience vastly different cultures and meet new people. Instead of hogging that information to myself, I will use my media skills to create a connection between you and the people I meet with this blog.

Make sure to subscribe to this page on your RSS feed and keep up with my journey.

Hasta Luego!