Tag Archives: cuenca

Finding Sweetness in Sucre

12 May

Sucre architecture

The ride from Uyuni to Sucre was long but nevertheless rewarding. The first 45 minutes to an hour were rough, with bumpy dirt road causing the old bus to sway back and forth. Considering that it was five hours to Potosí, it felt like we were going to have sore bodies by the time we arrived to the world’s highest city. Yet by the one hour mark we turned on to what must have been a main road, any by comparison it was suddenly smooth and enjoyable. From then on we were treated to the stereotypical scene of Bolivia—high mountain peaks, deserts and valleys of intense color and depth.

Originally I had wanted to spent a night or two in Potosí and visit the mines, known the world over for their miserable conditions. Yet talking it over with Alex and Faye made me realize that it was kind of patronizing to come to a miner’s work place and gawk, taking photos as if they were in a zoo. I don’t approve of slum tours either, because in my opinion they demonstrate just how separated we let ourselves feel from people who have to live in poor conditions, rather than trying to help. So I scrubbed the mines from my plans and went with the girls to Sucre. Just as well, because in passing through Potosí I could see that it wasn’t a particularly attractive destination and had an odd feel to it.

View from the hostel

From Potosí it was another three hours to Sucre, this time descending a bit and going through green valleys which, with the right lighting during sunset, somehow reminded us of Tuscany. By nightfall we were in the disputed capital of Bolivia, and adding on a Slovenian girl named Ana to our group, I haggled with a taxi driver who laughed as I bargained him down to slightly above the going rate to the center. Along the way he gave me a good run down of city life in Sucre, explaining the traditional food, local activities and what sureños like to do.

Even though it was night, I could already tell that I liked this city. With colonial influence in the center, it reminded me of Cusco and Cuenca, which are both also located in the south of their respective countries. We walked around looking for a restaurant to please the vegetarian needs of Ana, and once we found an extremely touristy resto-bar, I made a grave mistake. I thought because it was a place for tourists that I could eat anything, and I naively ordered the chilli con carne. This would prove to make me quite sick for the next few days.

Our first day got off to a late start because we really needed some extra time to recuperate, especially after days of waking up before dawn on the Salar tour. Previously I had considered spending the night in Sucre and then in the afternoon heading back to Potosí, but after the long and tiring trip to Sucre (which had always been too far away to visit in my plans), I decided to make the most of it and spent two nights. After all, it was a nice place anyway, so why not enjoy myself? Thus, we leisurely headed to the central plaza by noon, but not before stopping in at Para Tí, one of the most well known chocolate shops in Sucre. An unlikely destination for chocolate, Para Tí actually has an excellent selection, as well as coffee and other caffeinated beverages which run for close to $1.50 or so. There are two locations in the center, and we wound up going to both that day.

Our goal was to visit the Dinopark, which houses fossils and dinosaur tracks lodged into the side of a hill. They used to be flat, but as the Andes Mountains are the youngest mountain chain in the world, they have over time been elevated and now make it appear as though dinosaurs could defy gravity and walk up cliffs.

Dinosaur park

The park itself is nothing special, and the guided tour is 30 minutes long in one small room, though the guide tells you about the fossils and how they were probably formed. The cost of $30 bs is debatably worth it, and the extra $5 bs you have to pay if you want to take pictures is definitely not worthwhile. Especially when you consider that, if you’re a sneaky ninja like Alex, you can simply take out your camera when no one is watching and take a picture. I wasn’t so clever.

Apart from that activity up in the hills, our day was spent walking around the center’s blindingly white architecture and perusing the hundreds of stalls set up with the traditional alpaca sweaters, socks, hats, and millions of knick knacks. I splurged on a necklace and a pair of alpaca socks, anticipating a cold winter back in BA. If I could have winged it, another day in Sucre might have been nice to visit another part of the city, but I was concerned with the timing and left for Potosí the next morning, where I would have to wait around all day with nothing to do and feeling ill. This was the only day on the trip that was “wasted,” even though I’m glad to have seen Potosí. Anyway, the good times had in Sucre made up for a lazy day in the middle of a long adventure.

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Breathing in Bolivia, Even When There’s Hardly Any Oxygen

9 May

Snow capped volcanoes

As we sped past the convoy of other 4x4s on the narrow dirt road, the three girls and I began to look at each other nervously and joke around that we were about to die. To each side of the road was a sharp drop into jagged rocks, and at the speed we were going, no seat belt would ever do any good. I was warned the night earlier at the hostel to be careful with the drivers by two Israelis. Apparently just a couple of weeks before three other Israelis had died when their trucks rolled over on a tour.

“Is it really necessary to pass the other cars?” I yelled to our driver Gonzalo from the back of the Toyota Highlander.

“Yes,” is all he replied, continuing to take hairpin turns with the grace of a rally driver who had grown up in these parts.

Sunset from San Antonio de Lípez

We held our breaths and hoped for the best, but somewhere in the back of my mind I was rested assure that he was too busy chewing coca to be on a suicide mission, and that if he was speeding it was because he generally thought he needed to. Fast forward to the end of the day and we realized that with no refuge reservations, the first trucks into town had dibs on lodging, so in essence, yes, he had to speed up to beat everyone else. Even after taking the lead from dead last out of Tupiza, we pushed on ahead of the group and had to wait around for our wingman truck. You always go out in groups of at least two for safety, because you’ll probably encounter some kind of trouble along the way.

Let’s get cliche for just a moment: I don’t know what was more breathtaking, the scenery or the altitude. The first time we passed a snow capped volcano we stared at it with wonder and admiration. Naively, a couple of us tried to snap photos from the rapidly moving truck, thinking we would have no better opportunity to steal a memory. But we were foolish for thinking that. Soon volcanoes popped up on all sides, and neither the right nor left flanks were clear. Giants lurked with soft and inviting tones. I thought of a number of things, but rarely considered the extreme altitude we faced. It was partly because the numbers I was given were in meters, rather than feet.

Looking back on it, we passed through heights of over 4,200 meters (13,780 feet) above sea level on average. Because I had lived at high altitude in Ecuador and am a young runner, I assumed that I was impervious to the affects of altitude sickness. Yet the places where I lived in Ecuador (Quito, 2,800 meters/9,200 feet; Cuenca, 2,500 meters/8,360 feet) were much lower in comparison, and I was not well acclimated. One of our highest elevations was over 5,000 meters (16,400 feet). On the first night we stayed in a bare bones refuge in San Antonio de Lípez (4,200 meters above sea level). It was there where the effects of high altitude got the worst of me.

4,690 meters (15,387 feet) above sea level

After settling in we had a nice dinner under two dim light bulbs. There was no heating, though we were given three blankets each (and I rented a sleeping bag), and one bathroom for about 15 people to share. As usual in Bolivia, no toilet paper was provided. After our dinner we walked into the frigid night for just a few minutes to catch the millions of stars in the sky. With no light pollution, we could easily see the Milky Way, Southern Cross, Orion, etc. With a 4:30 am wake up time, we were in bed by 8:30 pm. Yet once I lay in the bed resting on a stone frame, I was unable to breath.

I tossed and turned all night, struggling for freedom in the tight North Face sleeping bag. On my side I could feel my heart beating double time, as if I had just been running for a long time. Deep and drawn out breaths brought me nothing, and I felt as if I were drowning. It was a horrible feeling, to reach back as far as I could and still have no air to breath. Throughout the night I could hear the girls in the room also struggling to breath, and a look at the travel alarm clock showed me that it was only 1:30 am. There were moments were if I didn’t mentally think to myself, “breath in, breath out”, then I was suddenly gasping for air as if I had been holding it without noticing.

By the time the alarm went off my mouth was as dry as sand paper. I sat up in bed and felt what must be the sensation during a migraine, because it was the worst headache I’ve ever experienced. While the others ate a breakfast of tea and bread I rocked forward feeling like vomiting, and after finishing my coca tea excused myself. I never came to the point of vomiting, and once I took some ibuprofen I felt better, but the uneasiness stayed until the sun rose. On the second night, staying at even higher altitude, the effects continued, though by this point I had at least gotten somewhat more used to it. And by the third night of the excursion I felt slightly normal.

Red mountains

You see, that’s the thing about Bolivia. It can knock you out and push you around, but still leave you wanting more. You get sick from the altitude, the food, the water, whatever else might be out there trying to kill you, and you selfishly keep coming back for more. Those monster mountains on each side of the truck call to you, and at the end of the day, it’s worth a few deep breaths.

Running Commentary

7 Nov

Quito 15k, June, 2009

Next Saturday is the Nike 10k race in Buenos Aires. The race has already been run in several cities throughout the world, though I think the original idea was to have cities throughout the world running at the exact same time, which is obviously difficult for some cities in night time. I’ve been training for this race for months now, but if you’ve been following along over the years, you know that I picked up the habit of running back in Ecuador, halfway through my year there. Come to think of it now, it’s actually pretty cool to think that I can look back some day and have a running commentary of the training I’ve gone through.

It started as a way to kill some time in my empty days in Ecuador, until I was finally challenged by my host mom to run in a 10k in Cuenca. That was high altitude running–a challenge for any runner, and I was just fresh in the game at that point. It was a slow pace with my friend Jamie, but at the end of the race I felt great and like I could keep running. This gave me ideas. Against my better judgment, my friends convinced me to sign up for a 15k in Quito the following month (June), which was at even higher altitude. The race went off well, and though it was difficult, I finished ahead of many others and held my head high.

Once back in the States I continued to run for the three weeks I was home, and I really noticed the difference from the high altitude training. Of course, that only lasted three weeks, and then I was back to regular lung status. In Buenos Aires my running got off to a rocky start, with trouble finding the time and places to run. But I did participate in the Nike 1ok last year (without signing up) and eventually moved closer to parks where I could graze freely at night. It was important for me to keep going. I ran in a couple more 10ks in March and August, and have improved on my time in every race.

The most amazing thing about this is that I used to be the kind of guy who would do anything to avoid running. Not necessarily anti-run, but not pro-run either. Yet over the course of time I’ve become a runner. At first I didn’t want to think of myself as a runner, but rather a just a guy who runs. I don’t have the short-shorts or tank tops, and I don’t buy new running shoes every few months. I don’t even stretch very well. But now I’m the guy who runs, and will look forward to getting a good run in quickly after waking up on the weekend, regardless of whether or not I’m exhausted from the night before. So looking back over the years, if you look at this as a travel or expat blog, you could also look at it as a running blog as well. It’s a category I never considered.

The Police Protest/Coup in Ecuador

30 Sep

Fuerza Ecuador!

This afternoon I decided to quickly check the Buenos Aires Herald just to see what was going on in the news. I didn’t expect much, so I was totally taken by surprise to see that President Correa of Ecuador was essentially under attack and a full scale protest, possibly even a coup was under way. Immediately I delved into the story, trying to figure out what was going on. It pains me to think of another coup taking place in Ecuador after three presidents were ousted in the last 10 years alone. I think of my friends who are there, both locals and expats, and how this is affecting them. Some stories coming out of the Herald developed throughout the day, but what amazed me was that American news outlets didn’t even seem to be picking up the story until about 3 pm in Buenos Aires.

I was taken aback at first, thinking that perhaps this just went to show that people really don’t care much about Latin America, or that it was simply considered another coup attempt, aka no big news. Or maybe it was political, that South American news would report it being a coup, but American media would say it was merely a protest. Children can protest, after all, but a coup is a very serious situation, threatening democracy and rights. But once the story was up by the New York Times, I figured it was getting its due attention. I also received warnings from the U.S. Embassy in Quito to stay in doors and avoid protests.

Early reports were that the police and parts of the military were angered over the presidents’ democratic attempt to take away benefits from them. Benefits like obligatory promotions and bonuses or medals given with those promotions. As someone who lived there for a year, I feel safe in saying that they are complaining about this while they don’t even do their job. They are setting a horrible example, and the worst part is that right now the country is essentially without a police force, allowing looting and violence to reign free. At least two banks have been robbed already.

President Correa tried to speak to the troops but was attacked with water and tear gas. He was taken to a hospital where he has been under house arrest, and he has said that he feels like he’s been sequestered against his will. I’ve been checking with my friends there. In the afternoon I spoke with my friend in Quito, who told me that the streets were quiet in some parts but a mess in others. She was staying in for good. Other friends in Cuenca and Guayaquil told me that the streets were empty but there didn’t seem to be any trouble. Yet reports were that the airport was closed in Quito and military bases were taken over in Quito, Guayaquil and Cuenca.

As of this night one person is dead and leaders of South American nations in UNASUR are meeting in Buenos Aires to discuss the coup. The U.S. government has condemned the violence and shown its support for President Correa, and for the better part of the night I’ll be tuned into the news for more updates. But for now, it appears as though the biggest mess is in Quito. Streets are filled with people protesting against the police and in favor of the president, who is considering dissolving congress. Correa has said if they military wants to kill him, they can. Hopefully it won’t come to that.

I’ll keep you updated when I hear more about this.

Two Years in South America: A Thinkpiece

31 Aug

Arriving in Quito, 2 Years Ago

I sprawled out on the single bed, more like a cot, in the large hostel room with bright green walls and red trim around the ceiling. It was unbearably hot, a heat wave in Madrid in June. If the Spanish were complaining about the heat, it had to be really hot, and we didn’t need a guide book to tell us it was time for a siesta. I put the new CD into my superslim Panasonic CD player and rest my head on the pillow, expecting to hear some loud rock music. Just an hour before my sister and I wandered into a music store in the center, where I found a band I remembered my friend Goldberg telling me about, Death Cab for Cutie. I couldn’t remember how it sounded, but figured the disc was cheap enough, and after two weeks backpacking Europe, I needed new tunes.

The first song, “Title Track” off of We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes began slowly, so I figured it was just leading up to something. But the music stayed mellow, and I actually really enjoyed it even though it wasn’t what I expected. The two Australian girls of Indian descent in the beds next to ours who had been traveling for six months and were going home the next day had already fallen asleep. I closed my eyes and listened to the new music, drifting away as I sweat through my clothes and the sounds of Madrid slowly fell. I was mid-way through traveling internationally and independently for the first time, and I was loving it and everything about life. I was also 17.

A few years later now, I’ve covered some more miles (though by this point I refer to kilometers), same backpack trusty as ever, and these old baby blues have seen their fair share of amazing and terrible things. The kinds of things that will never make it down to pen and paper, mostly because they are incommunicable. I’ve just recently past two years of life in South America, and year two was entirely different from year one. In reality, it’s like two different worlds, that is, Ecuador from Argentina. The language in principle is the same, and from time to time things like bureaucracy and corruption remind me of where I am, but otherwise, I forget that I’m living in South America. Buenos Aires isn’t exactly like Europe or the United States or the other countries in Latin America. It’s just Buenos Aires, good and bad.

Baños, Ecuador

I try to think of how I felt back in Madrid when I was 17, just out of high school and getting poisoned with the travel bug. Aside from being sick of my sister after three inseparable weeks, I loved every minute of it. Bouncing around from country and culture, meeting new friends in hostels and seeing the history from my books come alive was part of the reason I got into my “career” of internationalism. I thought it would continue like that, but in South America, I’ve found a different path.

There’s also something important about spending a longer period of time in one specific place. While Cuenca was a small city which a traveler could pass through in two days, living there brought me into a different corner of the city. By the time I left I had a solid group of friends and a semi-ritual, including Saturday afternoon cookouts, which gave me incentive to get through the week. In general, Ecuador was a real challenge, mostly because of how insecure I felt after my night bus was hijacked the first week there. That experience alone unequivocally set the tone for the rest of the year and my life. My outlook on travel and how great the world could be was not exactly crushed, but dented significantly.

Eventually throughout the year in Ecuador I became more comfortable and made the most of my experience, even though I know there could have been more out of the time there as a volunteer. I often had to find ways to keep busy with just a 20 hour work week. Now working full time, I wish I had that luxury again. Going home for three weeks in August was nice, but the reverse culture shock definitely hit hard, enough so that I was excited to get back to South America, where things didn’t make sense, but their lack of reason made more sense than the disappointment I found in the United States, where things were supposed to be right.

Buenos Aires

To clarify, some people accuse me of hating home or my family for being gone for so long. It has nothing to do with that. I’m from Boston and I love it there, as well as my friends and family. But there was something else I was looking for which home could not offer. A challenge unique in and of itself, an adventure which would never present itself again, and the opportunity to grow after a life spent in classrooms. So I don’t regret that decision to leave home, because the point of life isn’t merely to get through it, but to live it as well as possible. Sometimes you don’t have a say in it, and other times you can arrange the pieces as you see fit, then play it out.

On arrival in Buenos Aires I was disappointed after years of holding an image in my head. What would this place be like? Obviously it couldn’t hold up to my dreams because dreams tend to be perfect. Those first few months were extremely difficult for multiple reasons that I’ve discussed before (housing, lack of friends, lack of money, adjusting to a new job, adjusting to Argentina after Ecuador, etc). I knew that by the time a year came up and I was packing my bags I would just be settling it, so I chose to give myself two years–a long enough time to make anyone feel homesick more than once. Yet I’m happy with the decision, because the truth is that just now after one year in Buenos Aires, I feel like I understand it better. I don’t totally get it, but I’m working on it.

There’s no doubt in my mind that things will never be the same once I return to the States. It’s not like living in Jersey for a couple of years. The lifestyle, the struggles, the triumphs, all have done something to me which I won’t really understand until the day I land in Logan International Airport in East Boston. It won’t be bad, it won’t be good. It will just be what it will be. This morning I was flicking through my music and decided to put on Death Cab for Cutie, We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes, “Title Track.” It’s been a while since I’ve listened to them, even though they were once my favorite band. The slow tune of the opening song pulled me back to that boiling hostel room and it made me remember why I travel, why I live abroad. The day started off well.

Two at the Same Time: Reflecting on Argentina and Ecuador

16 Aug

With my friend Jhenifer

As I’ve previously written, I have a few Ecuadorian friends visiting this week. They arrived Saturday morning after a long jaunt down South America, and we’ve kept busy in, well, ways–different ways for sure. I’ve never been part of so much consecutive shopping and beautifying that I feel like I’m getting ready for the prom. Today was another unexpected day of shopping, this time down in San Telmo. I thought we were going for a little city tour, but after lunch at Desnivel, I was slowly alerted to the fact that walking around San Telmo meant going in and out of every shop. Still, it got me outdoors on a nice day, when I would otherwise be in the office (today is a national holiday in Argentina) and got me to spend time with my friend from out of town.

A couple of the girls have family and friends here in Buenos Aires, so I’ve also met some of them along the way. It’s been so enjoyable to hear about Cuenca, listen to slang words from Ecuador that I’d long since forgotten, and share time with people who act differently from the porteños of Buenos Aires. I was reminded of how different the cultures are last night when the girls rode a subway for the first time. They looked around at everything with wonder, eyes large as a musician played. Luckily for them it wasn’t rush hour during the week. My friend Jhenifer hadn’t eaten rice in 5 days and was craving it badly, so she made us a simple yet traditional Ecuadorian dish of beef and rice. It was delicious.

Even though this isn’t my city, there was a slight sense of pride when they told me how beautiful everything is and how much better everything seems than their hometown. Even though in retrospect I think of Cuenca highly, I know it wasn’t nearly as developed as Buenos Aires. Yet from time to time I forget just how far ahead Buenos Aires is compared to other parts of Latin America. For other Latinos visiting here, it’s sometimes a shock, aside from the local dialect. The girls have been having an excellent time shopping and taking advantage of the fact that Ecuador uses the dollar, but we’ve talked about other things as well.

Being stupid in the Japanese Gardens

Last night I told Jhenifer that she couldn’t waste any food on her plate and she asked me why. I explained to her some of the things life in Ecuador had taught me, which aren’t necessarily true in the United States or Argentina. Finally we worked our way to talking about things like sharing, for example drinks or food. In Ecuador you buy one drink and one cup, sharing with everyone before buying a new one. It’s partly to take advantage of the drink while it’s still cold and partly to share what you have with others. In the United States it’s every man for himself, with everyone getting their own food or drink. In Argentina sharing goes on, but to a lesser extent, though it’s highly done with mate.

Jhenifer and I talked about the concept of not having much, but when you have something, you share what little you do with others, and when you don’t have something, others will share with you. This way everyone keeps afloat somehow if you can’t get ahead by leaps and bounds. Thinking about these things and how I’ve changed over the last two years is always helpful for me in reassessing why I’m here and what I’m doing. And it makes me sure that it’s all worth while. So even though I can get down on Argentina from time to time, it’s nice to remember that it’s still a great place to live when compared to so many other places in the world. It’s been a while since I’ve had these talks.

A Lonely Expat on July 4th

4 Jul

At this time last year I was barbecuing with my friends at the art studio in Cuenca, Ecuador. It was a mix of American teachers and Ecuadorian artists, and in the back courtyard of the studio we set up the charcoal grill and made far too many hot dogs, cheeseburgers, sausages, french fries, mashed potatoes, salad and more. We drank beer until nightfall and then later in the night met up again to continue festivities. It was a great day. This year I unfortunately can’t say the same. My scenery has changed and I’m in Buenos Aires now, with fewer friends and, sadly, not one American friend to speak of. So it’s a tough day.

Even though the past is always on my mind and I think too much, I don’t often dwell on homesickness or the U.S. I want to make the most of my time here in the now, so I avoid getting sentimental at all costs. I’ll think about the States when I’m back there someday. But days like today are always trump cards. On top of that it’s Sunday, which is the loneliest day in Latin America to be a foreigner. Everyone is with their family and you are alone unless you hook up with some other expats or locals who let you into their circles. And though Buenos Aires is sort of an exception to this rule because of its size, today I find myself alone in a giant city.

It’s winter and even though we’re having spring-like weather this weekend, I miss the summer of July. I miss the 4th of July of my youth, with barbecues, fireworks, friends and family. There are various ways in which traditional holidays can be made better by an abroad experience. For example, a beach vacation for New Years Eve or a special Thanksgiving dinner put on by locals for your benefit. But other times, when you find yourself without that support which keeps you going, it’s just downright depressing. I know that everyone back home is together with their families and friends. Maybe I’ll be mentioned in some sentence like, “Oh yeah, he’s still in South America,” but that’s the only way in which I’ll be present today.

I walked around the new neighborhood today, trying to spot out shops I could use and get a feel for my surroundings. Then I sat down in Plaza Francia for a while watching couples embrace and children run around. No one noticed me, nor passed me a hot dog or Sam Adams. So today I really wish I was home for just a few hours, to reach out and feel my America, my homeland. But I’m here in Argentina instead, working on other things. Independence, personal growth, field experience. Happy Independence Day.

Some Immersion Recommendations

29 May

I’ve lived abroad in three countries and each experience has been totally different, yet oddly similar in many ways. Before studying in Spain I did almost no research on Sevilla, the idea being that I didn’t want to get my hopes up and wanted to see it all fresh for the first time. It worked out well, but it also could have helped to know a thing or two about the city and culture. I remember one night I met a girl in a bar and got her number, even with my basic Spanish. We made plans to meet up at a cafe later in the week to practice Spanish and English together.

Of course I got there early, but not being savvy on the culture, I went in, ordered a coffee, and sat down waiting. I can’t picture it now, but I have to imagine that would have been normal for me in the States. The girl seemed kind of taken aback when she finally realized I was inside, and not surprisingly we never hung out again.

In Ecuador, I did a little bit of research beforehand, mostly because my organization, WorldTeach, mailed me a lot of information on it. My expectations were nothing like what I eventually found. Reading the literature, I thought I would have chickens living in my house and wash my clothes by hand with dirty water in a dark room. There are places like that in the country, but not for me in Cuenca. There was such a difference in being able to say a couple of words about the government or the president that separated me from other foreigners who just popped in for a few weeks. People actually want to talk with you when you know something about their society.

In Argentina it was similar, though even knowing a thing or two didn’t help for quite a while simply because of the culture here. It’s most closed off and more based off of trust. Now that I’ve been here 9 months I know enough about life here to be able to throw some comments in. But not only that, it’s about knowing what has recently happened. Knowing about a strike a few months back makes it much easier to relate to people. That’s why I feel like if you want to truly immerse yourself in a culture, you have to start well before you show up.

Start reading the local newspapers if you can, or at the very least look through sources like the New York Times or BBC for information on the region. This way, when you show up to where you’ll be studying or living, you have an idea about what people are talking about. Not only that, but try to figure out the local phrases, slang, etc. It’s not just the language that you need to overcome, but random buzz words that are actually more useful than complex subjunctive and conditional phrases. People will generally understand what you’re trying to say whether you sound like a professor or not. But they’ll be more likely to keep talking to you if you use the same words they use than try to talk above your level.

Watch movies, pick up a book, or find someone in your area who already knows the place for more background support. And with these things in mind, you’ll hopefully be able to hit the ground running when you land overseas.